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Remembering Belgium's "secret army"

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

Among them are some of the line’s leaders. Frederic de Jongh, executed in March 1944, was the father of the Comet Line’s founder, Andree “Dedee” de Jongh. At just 24, Dedee organized the network of safe houses, guides and routes that would become Comet, working with her father, her friends and confidantes and making 118 trips with troops herself. Dedee and her father were arrested in 1943 and sent to concentration camps; only Dedee would make it back alive.

As the founder of the escape line, Dedee de Jongh received the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the British “George Medal,” and recognition by the French Legion of Honor along with several Belgian honors. She continued in public service after the war, caring for lepers, and died in Brussels in 2007. A plaque honoring her contributions was placed on her family home in 2008.

Nadine Dumon’s story is similar to de Jongh’s. She, too, was arrested along with her parents. Her father died in a concentration camp.

John Clinch’s grandmother Marceline Deloge met a similar fate. Two of Deloge’s three daughters — the third, Clinch’s mother, was living in the U.K. with his father — convinced their mother to hide Scottish troops in the family home. The sisters were later arrested and sent to prison and their mother met the same fate when she asked the Germans about them.

There are no records of Deloge’s fate after her arrival at Auschwitz. Clinch said the loss of his grandmother caused huge rifts in his family for years, as his mother believed her sisters had unfairly and unnecessarily involved their mother in dangerous exploits. Clinch says he’s not angry with his aunts.

“What happened to her was out of all proportion to what she did,” he said, “a terrible fate in a terrible place.” He has been attending the Comet Line reunions for about 10 years. “I never knew her so this was as close to her and to Belgium as I can get,” Clinch said.

Clinch has spent an enormous amount of time and effort maintaining his own website with information about the Comet Line.

Mary Burns Surdy came to Belgium for the first time for this year’s Comet reunion after years of exchanging emails and information with Eduoard Reniere. Her father, Joseph Burns, a gunner with the 401st Bombardment Group made it to the Spanish border with Comet assistance but was arrested there and accused of spying due to the false papers he was carrying. Burns endured beatings, interrogations and forced marches between German camps before being liberated by British troops at the end of the war.

Surdy and her family were able to meet her father’s helpers, including Belgian Frans Storms, in what she called a “very emotional weekend” and she says she is “in awe of what they have done.”

“I am very grateful and unbelievably humbled,” Surdy said, especially with “these
90-year-old women and what they did — how they fought!”

One of those intrepid souls, 85-year-old Janine De Greef, was just 17 when she ferried airmen including Bob Frost from Belgium to France under the noses of the Nazis. Her parents were also extraordinarily active and daring and became Comet legends. De Greef just shrugs when asked how she managed to have such presence of mind at such a young age.

“You had to live — and not worry,” she said, because seeming nervous would be a tip-off.

Frost tells a story about De Greef’s steely nerves. One disguised airman traveling in his group on the train was American and when an older lady got on, the American jumped up and offered his seat — in English. Frost said he looked in fear at their guide. De Greef, he said, didn’t bat an eyelash.

There’s evidence the younger generation is tuning in to such tales of heroism. Last week the Belgian Royal Military Academy held an event for its students focusing on the World War II resistance and Dedee de Jongh. Going beyond topics covered by their military history books, 22-year-old cadet Arnaud Wouters chose the subject for his class after becoming inspired by de Jongh’s bravery. Nadine Dumon was the keynote speaker.

Is this a strange subject for students of the military? After all, Comet’s motto is “Pugna Quin Percutias” or “Fight Without Blows.” Not at all, Wouters said.

“There are certain values in the things they have survived,” he said, “values that we should carry within ourselves also. It could make us a better leader; we could possibly make better decisions.”

Asked by the students if she would change anything about her life if she could do it over again, the 88-year-old Dumon said, cheerfully, “no.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct references to Bob Frost and Bob Barckley, as well as the spelling of Janine De Greef's name.