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Remembering Belgium's "secret army"

Belgians who spirited Allies through enemy territory sometimes made the ultimate sacrifice.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Today, Americans will gather at the massive World War II monument on the National Mall to pay tribute to the more than 16 million Americans who helped end the Nazi nightmare in Europe.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, one of the bitterest battlefields of that war, Brigitte d’Oultremont wishes there were a memorial for her father, Georges, commemorating his many daring escapades fighting the Germans. If there were one, John Clinch would surely stop by often, coming from England to honor his Belgian grandmother, who disappeared without a trace at Auschwitz. On special days, with luck, you would find a spry Nadine Dumon as a guest of honor, recounting her arrests, interrogations and survival at three Nazi concentration camps — all before she turned 21.

But for these veterans, there are no granite walls, majestic statues or national days set aside to honor their sacrifices as volunteers in Belgium’s “secret army.” Not yet.

Thousands of Allied troops were saved by fearless volunteers working in the European countries occupied by or fighting Germany. If caught, these helpers suffered the same fate as combat soldiers (summary executions by gunfire) or Holocaust victims (gassed, beaten or worked to death).

Despite a modest cadre of websites and books by relatives, admirers, beneficiaries and historians, many of the volunteers’ stories and even their identities remain secret. In post-war Belgium, most were just grateful their country was free again and simply slipped back into whatever lives they could put together, without looking for any recognition.

But their children and grandchildren, many of whom never even got to hear the stories first hand, are now saying these veterans deserve more.

D’Oultremont is determined to reinvigorate a society of descendants and admirers of The Comet Line, one of the most successful escape routes of the war. It helped an estimated 800 allied servicemen evade the Germans as they traveled from occupied Belgium and France to neutral Spain, where they sailed back to the United Kingdom from British-controlled Gibraltar.

World War II researcher Eduoard Reniere believes that more than 400 escapees who passed through Comet were American.

D’Oultremont took over leadership of the group Comet Kinship in 2005, and has made it her mission to “make a serious list of all the people who have helped, all the names I can find, even if I don’t have a lot of information about them, so they can be recognized.”

Since the war the downed aviators have gotten most of the attention, she said, because tales of their escapes are “more fun, more imaginative” than the more mundane tasks of the helpers. But three veterans of Britain’s Royal Air Force, attending the Comet group’s annual reunion in October, made clear where they think credit is due.

“We can never say ‘thank you’ enough,” said British tailgunner Bob Frost, choking up. Frost was shot down over France in 1942, hidden by Comet and safely returned to Britain. “I have to thank Comet not only for my life but for the life that has been led ever since,” he said.

Frail of stature but strong of voice, navigator Gordon Mellor added, “Many of them gave their lives so now, in some small way, in the rest of our lives which they helped save, we should maintain contact and express our gratitude. Truly, many of us would not have made the whole trip back home from wherever we were shot down without their assistance.”

“They are our number-one concern,” chimed in pilot Bob Barckley, “because without them quite a lot of us would be dead … and I’m afraid quite a lot of them are dead because of us.”

Frost was guided through the Pyrenees by Georges D’Oultremont after bailing out in Belgium. Later, D’Oultremont himself was forced to escape with the Gestapo on his trail.

So Brigitte D’Oultremont is one of the lucky members of the Kinship. Her father lived to tell about his risky journeys as a guide, his escape to Britain and then his repeated returns to Belgium during which he helped expand the rescue network. After these adventures, Georges went on to marry and have a family, but it’s clear from Brigitte that he had loved his work in the secret army. She laughs, “He had a great life!”

Many others were not as lucky. A list of some 200 Comet members who are known to have died for their efforts during the war, taken from a book by Cecile Jouan, makes for grim reading.

“Renee Beauvais/died in Ravensbruck (concentration camp for women)/age 32 … Gaston Bidoul/shot in Brussels at the Tir National (shooting range)/age 61 … Antoine d'Ursel/drowned crossing the Bidassoa river/age 47… William Reynolds/executed in Brandenburg/age 53.”