A living tribute to fallen WWII soldier
Two men, a half-world apart, piece together life of paratrooper
Until recently, the good fortune enjoyed by Gerald Goolkasian seemed to cast a withering shadow over the lives of his fallen World War II buddies - guys like Glenn E. Hamlin, a 20-year-old paratrooper who died months before Goolkasian was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
Equals in boot camp and on the battlefield, the two soldiers reaped vastly different rewards.
After the war, Goolkasian married and had seven children, settling in Newtonville. People hailed his wartime service.
With each passing year, Hamlin’s life, frozen in time, fell deeper and deeper into obscurity.
“He was so young. The only thing he got to do was get killed in a combat action,’’ said Goolkasian, 88. “He never got to have kids or a family.’’
Halfway around the world, a 26-year-old Dutch truck driver wrestled with similar thoughts.
Tim Sloots had been carrying around a battered World War II combat helmet for more than a decade, all the time searching for the story behind its original owner: an American paratrooper named Glenn E. Hamlin.
“It was really like a member of the family, that helmet,’’ said Sloots, an amateur World War II historian and collector. “I bought it from a military junk shop when I was 16, and I always wanted to know who it belonged to. I talked about it all the time. My friends and my family, they knew I was always looking. Who was Glenn E. Hamlin?’’
This spring, his search led Sloots to Goolkasian, and the three stories converged. Sloots got some answers, Goolkasian some comfort. And Hamlin got something the war had denied him: a namesake.
Glenn Harm René Sloots was born Nov. 10. Chubby. Smiling. “And a very easy boy,’’ said Sloots.
Naming his firstborn child after a long-dead American soldier was not a snap decision, Sloots said.
He and the baby’s mother, Yolanda Sempel, discussed their choices extensively in the months preceding the birth. Glenn was a beautiful name, they agreed, and it flowed well with the surname. But in the end, it was an almost familial connection that Sloots felt for Hamlin that made the difference. There could be no other name for this child.
“My grandparents were in the Resistance, and they told me many stories about the American soldiers who came to liberate our country,’’ Sloots said.
“If it weren’t for that liberation, I would be speaking German right now.’’
For months, the two men traded e-mails to patch together the details of Hamlin’s short life. Unfortunately, there was little to be told. Goolkasian turned up a photograph, which now hangs in Sloots’ living room. And he told Sloots that Hamlin was from New Jersey.
“I felt bad because there was a lot I couldn’t tell him,’’ Goolkasian said. “We were always so busy in boot camp that once we were done each day, we were done. Not a lot of time for talk, but we had some times.’’
In separate interviews, Sloots and Goolkasian each laughed about an impromptu swimming lesson that Hamlin had given his buddy during that boot camp more than 65 years ago.
It was as though all three of them had experienced it:
“Glenn and another guy, Bill McGonagle, decided they were going to teach me to swim during boot camp, so they took me to a river and threw me in,’’ said Goolkasian. “I got across the first two times OK, but on the third or fourth cross, they had to jump in and get me.’’
Everyone who knows Goolkasian was touched when Glenn Harm René Sloots was born - particularly when the new father sent photos of the little guy nestled in his namesake’s helmet.
Within days, Goolkasian’s adult daughter, Barbara Keane, began stitching together a special baby quilt, using fabric that had photographic images of both the newborn and Hamlin.
“I put the date on the quilt,’’ said Keane, a nurse. “I thought it was great because he was born the day before Veterans Day.’’
Though Goolkasian and Sloots have never met, and have only spoken by phone once, they sound like old buddies on the subject of Glenn Hamlin.
“I jumped circles in the air when Mr. Goolkasian told me about Glenn. It gives me goose bumps to hear the stories, and to see the picture that he sent,’’ Sloots said in a phone interview.
“He told me Glenn was a very nice, a warm person. A good friend when a man has to be a good friend.’’
Goolkasian echoes Sloots in discussing their relationship.
“In his letter to me, Tim said something like, ‘It was wonderful that a mother and father would send their son here and he gave his life to free our country.’ That touched me.’’
Goolkasian does not like to talk about his own sacrifices, but they were hardly minor.
A strapping young man when he was drafted, he lost one of his fingers, the use of his left arm, and all of the feeling in his right foot when he was ambushed in the Belgian village of Noville on Dec. 20, 1944. He spent the next 33 months learning how to walk again.
He’s been pulling shrapnel out of his body for decades.
“What can I say? I survived. I came back,’’ said Goolkasian, who launched a successful career as an insurance salesman. “I’ve had a good life. A lot of guys didn’t live long enough to get a driver’s license. They’re the heroes.’’
Goolkasian takes comfort in knowing that Sloots has pulled together a dossier on one of those heroes. Previously, he had known that Hamlin died in Holland, “sometime after D-Day.’’ Through Sloots he discovered that Hamlin’s final battle was Operation Market Garden, on Oct. 7, 1944. Hamlin was one of just 26 soldiers in the C Company, First Battalion, 506th PIR who were sent against a German stronghold in the woods of Opheusden, Holland.
Hamlin was buried in a temporary cemetery near Nijmegen. Later he was moved to Margraten, an American military cemetery.
“It made him come alive for me again, and it gave me closure,’’ said Goolkasian.
“After boot camp, we didn’t see each other. He was a paratrooper. I was a tank driver. I had one letter from him after his first jump - paratroopers had to do five jumps to get certified - and he said he liked it. That was the last I heard from him.
“Now, I can die knowing when poor Glenn got killed.’’
Gerald Goolkasian is working on his wartime memoirs.