Trying to evade capture by the Germans during World War II, Robert Doolan found himself hiding out in a variety of places. One of those places was a farmhouse where, despite the extreme risk of being killed for helping, Albertus van Ass and his wife hid Doolan and gave him civilian clothes to help disguise him.
The morning of Aug. 12, 1943, the B-17 that Doolan and his crew flew on started its mission like any other bombing run. They took off from Great Yarmouth, heading to their target, but this time, the anti-aircraft fire proved too much.
“All hell broke loose," Doolan read from his diary entry. "We lost number four engines to anti-aircraft."
The entries describe the mere minutes between the initial explosions and the eventual crash landing near Venlo, Netherlands.
“I just wanted to get as far away from that airplane as possible, and then maybe hook up with the underground, the resistance,” explained Doolan.
He said the establishment of the underground network to aid stranded Allies was just getting underway. He knew if he and his remaining crew were to have a chance, they would have to carefully find those specific people while evading capture.
“We hiked all day, and about dusk we’re resting in a grove of trees, and a man comes up pushing a bicycle and he gives the traditional peace sign. He said, 'I can help you.' We walked about a quarter of a mile to his home. We slept there, on his floor.”
That person was Albertus van Ass, a farmer.
“I think it was very amazing that he was able to stay and be aided by the family,” said Lennie van Dooren, great-granddaughter of Albertus van Ass.
She had heard stories of her great-grandfather’s actions during the war: hiding allies and Jewish families, providing safe passage.
“The fact that you would hide people in your own home, knowing also the risk that that would have for yourself, but also for your family, for all people involved. It felt like a very daring and big step to take,” reflected van Dooren.
Her research into her great-grandfather ultimately led her to come across a couple of documents from the U.S. Army. One of them is a letter acknowledging his efforts to shelter at least 60 Allied pilots and crew. On that list is Robert Doolan’s name.
Her great-grandfather received the Medal of Freedom and a letter of gratitude and appreciation from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, chief of staff of the Army at the time.
As her research continued, she searched Robert Doolan’s name online and found an article from WCPO.com, which led her to Doolan's location and the fact he was still alive.
“I think it's through work like you're doing that I was able to find Mr. Doolan and to have this amazing opportunity," said van Dooren.
The two eventually made contact and were able to do a FaceTime call.
“The excitement of having this amazing opportunity to be in contact with somebody that was really there. And that was really in contact with them at that, at that time,” van Dooren said. “I must admit that still, for me, our encounter has been very special. It's something that I will never forget.”
“I couldn’t believe it. She found me because she saw a broadcast,” said Doolan.
He knows the sacrifice the family made to keep so many safe.
While Doolan was eventually captured and sent off to Stalag Luft III, Albertus van Ass was also discovered to be helping Allied service members.
“He was arrested. He was sentenced to death,” van Dooren said. “He was sent to several camps in Germany, but miraculously survived the war, although he came back very injured, both physically and mentally.”
In many eyes, people like van Ass were heroes of the war effort. However, van Dooren said those who were part of the effort see things a little differently.
“They don't really see themselves as any heroes. They actually see the people that came to aid them as the real heroes,” she said. “They were the ones that dared their lives to save us from the Germans. So I think this, this story has two sides.”
Doolan just celebrated his 104th birthday on Sunday and was surprised with a COVID-safe birthday drive-by parade at Western Hills Nursing & Rehab Center and Retirement Village.
Read more about Robert Doolan and his service by watching a previous Homefront story by clicking here.
This story was originally published by Craig McKee at WCPO.