Dear Minnesota – Ghislain Devlaminck
Ghislain Devlaminck shares the story of his family’s generations of military service and how they arrived in Minnesota after escaping Belgium during World War II.
In June 1948, Smoking Joe Stalin imposed the Berlin Blockade. My parents had already lived through two wars. They were small children in WW1 and adults in WW2. They thought there would be another war and they didn't want their infant son who was born in April of 1948 at the Heilig Hart Ziekenhuis (Sacred Heart Hospita) in Krotrijk, Belgium to experience war.
My grandfather Adolf Devlaminck was called back into the Belgian Army when it mobilized for WW1. On October 10, 1914 the fortified city of Antwerp fell to the Germans. Approximately 40,000 Belgian military refugees fled to the neutral Netherlands to escape the possibility of becoming prisoners of war. To protect their neutrality the Netherlands interred the soldiers in a camp until December 1918. My grandpa was literate, one of his duties at the camp was to write and read letters for those who were illiterate. His name was misspelled on his discharge papers and he did not want to correct because he was worried he could lose his special pension for being in the war.
When my dad was in his early twenties he served his compulsory military service in the Belgian army. He was in the inactive reserve in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and he was called back in during the mobilization. He was home on leave when the Nazis suddenly, without warning invaded Belgium on Mary 10, 1940. Things were very chaotic. Roads were clogged with people trying to escape the advancing German army. They had no idea where they were going. They just wanted to get away. Due to the congested roads my dad was unable to reconnect his army unit. He went back home to his parents. In an interview for an article titled "The Many Faces of Immigration, How immigrants have changed the face of Southwest Minnesota" he said, "I felt no place free. It was the hardest life you can get, sleeping in haystacks during the day and moving at night." In January of 1949 my dad wrote to his Uncle Cyriel Devlaeminck in Minneota, Minnesota. Uncle Cyriel agreed to sponsor us to America.
On September 18, 1949 at seventeen months old, I boarded a ferry with my parents at Ostende, Belgium to cross the channel to Dover, England. From Dover we took a train to Liverpool, England where we boarded the SS Empress of Canada. The ship embarked on September 20, 1949 for Montreal, Quebec. From Montreal we took a train to Detroit, Chicago, St. Paul and Tracy, Minnesota. From Tracy we rode the in the train caboose to Minneota, Minnesota. My mom always said, "After leaving the ship the travel accommodations got worse on each leg of the journey."
My parents farmed the uncle's farm from 1950 to 1955. In 1956 we moved to a farm south of Ghent, Minnesota. I switched schools from St. Edward's to St. Eloi in Ghent. That same year my parents became U.S. Citizens. Mom and dad's last crop on the farm was 1974 when they retired. A few months after the auction they moved to a house they owned in Ghent, MN, and then took a six-week vacation to Belgium to spend time with their siblings. At the end of the Many Faces of Immigration article dad said, "I was never sorry that I came. Any country's good as long as you can work. We had plenty of work here. Good land." I served in the US Navy from 1968 to 1972. I'm a Vietnam veteran. I got my electrical engineering degree on the GI Bill which got me a career as a defense contractor. I'm now retired. I'm married with two adult kids that have professional careers. I'm grateful my parents, who are now resting in peace in the St. Eloi Cemetery in Ghent, Minnesota made the decision to come to America, this land of opportunity and freedom