- Associated Press - Saturday, November 19, 2016

AUSTIN, Minn. (AP) - The scene took place almost 80 years ago, but Nelly Croes can still see it today with startling clarity.

May 15, 1940, was “a beautiful, sunny day in May,” she wrote in an account entitled, “Nelly’s Journey,” housed in the Mower County Historical Society, the Austin Daily Herald (https://bit.ly/2f3XnZz ) reported.

” . the sky is peppered with German planes bombing the military airfield on the edge of town,” her account continues. “The mayor has just given the order for the residents to evacuate the town within one hour. My cousin Mimi and I climb in one of the wagons, not knowing if we will ever see our parents again. We take off under strafing of German planes.”

Today, Croes, 90, is safe in Austin, a place she has called home for decades. She came here when she married her GI sweetheart, Victor Croes, a chef for the Jay C. and Germaine Hormel family.

But in 1940, she was just a 14-year-old French girl, often struggling with horrific scenes played out in her home country, occupied by a vicious enemy.

Croes is a different kind of veteran. Her fight during World War II came in finding ways to survive with a fierce dedication to her family, her friends and her countrymen.

“You never knew if you were going to die the next day,” she mused, as she sat in her home earlier this week, a pile of photographs nearby. She agreed to speak about those awful times.

“And when you made a friend then, you made them for life, because you were all in the same boat.”

In later years, she was urged by friends to write down her story and she did, drawing back on memories over 75 years gone.

“Jay Hormel used to say, ‘I’m going to pull out a tape recorder,’” Croes said.

This is her story.

It is a story of survival, both physical and emotional.

She was born in the city of Juvincourt, in the Picardy region of northern France. Her town was less than 200 miles from its border with Germany and Belgium. Nearby there was a French airfield that would play prominently in her life.

On that aforementioned day in May, she watched hundreds of Belgium refugees come through the town, fleeing from the advancing Nazi troops. In two short weeks, her townspeople would follow.

After the mayor ordered the townspeople to leave, her family began a journey to Paris to find lodging with an uncle. Only her father stayed behind.

“When German planes appeared in the sky, everyone took to the ditches or under trees, as they were shooting at the refugees,” she wrote. “My mother told me that some people were shot and tended to by other refugees. Some died and were buried on the spot.”

The evacuation brought “complete chaos,” she recalled. Most of the family journeyed to her uncle’s Paris apartment in hopes of escaping the Nazis.

At first, “we just waited in the apartment, hoping God would save us,” she wrote.

But France was fully occupied by June 1940. And there the Germans would stay until 1944. And their cruelty was stunning.

She soon found that those who were Jewish or unfriendly to Germans were regularly shot without pause. She recalled a Jewish family who lived a few houses away. When the family saw a truck filled with German soldiers pull up in front of their apartment building, they knew they were about to be taken to concentration camps.

Instead of the humiliation and certain death, they jumped from their top floor apartment windows.

“They had no way of escaping and they died together. We didn’t even know their names,” she wrote.

She recalled running home from a movie one night - being able to see movies was one of the few pleasures allowed by the Germans, who edited the films first - terrified that she would not make it before curfew began. Citizens on the streets after curfew would also be shot as spies, she said.

Her own father was almost shot when confronted by Germans in her hometown. He refused to leave when the evacuation took place. But since her father was a chef, he was retained to cook for German officers - until he escaped, and made his way back to his family in Paris. His longtime friend, his dog, was not so lucky. When the dog moved to protect his owner when the Germans approached, the Germans shot him.

Rationing of food and clothing was soon a way of life.

Her mother would stand in lines for hours attempting to buy food, only to find what she needed was gone by the time she got to the front of the line.

“And it would all start over the next day,” Croes said. Her mother lost 90 pounds in the first year of the occupation. Hunger was a way of life. Later, her parents would raise rabbits in cages for food.

One of her sisters, still nursing a child and living with her in-laws in a rural area, was able to grow vegetables and send them to the family.

Another sister, ill in a sanitarium with tuberculosis, gave the care of her child to a nanny. She was widowed after her husband died of the same disease and could not care for the child while she was institutionalized.

Croes’ father, wanting to see his grandson, was shocked to find the young boy undernourished. His nanny had been selling his ration tickets - needed to buy food - on the black market and starving the children under her care. Her father took the boy back to be raised with the rest of the family until the end of the war.

Croes worked hard in her Paris school, learning both English and German. Her studies helped her land a job with an attorney. Then, the family moved to the town of Guignicourt, southeast of Juvincourt, where her mother had found an empty home in which to live. The family could not return to Juvincourt, since it was in the “forbidden” zone - or rather, towns taken over by the Germans who needed the homes for soldiers. Both were near the airfield, where German planes regularly took off and landed. Croes recalled dogfights overhead between the Allies and Germans as the Allies continually tried to bomb the airfield.

When one American plane crashed, a group of women who had been trained in first aid went to the airfield to see if they could provide some help, but were turned away by the Germans.

“It was very sad,” Croes said. “We couldn’t do much, but thought we could so something.”

A French resistance soon sprang up after the Germans invaded the country. The group of underground fighters did what they could to sabotage the German effort by blowing up bridges or railroad trains carrying munitions. Often, if Allied soldiers had to parachute, the resistance could get to them before the Germans.

Her Uncle Albert, as well as a sweetheart, Raymond, were both executed by the Germans for their involvement with the resistance fighters.

Another uncle, Marius, lived near the Swiss border and regularly helped French citizens cross into the nearby Alps.

Croes began to work as a secretary for the mayor of the town, who was also in the insurance business. She recalled biking to the rural homes near the town, collecting insurance payments, when bombs would begin to fall and she would take shelter in ditches.

“One time, I was pressed against a tree, I was so scared, I could not speak,” she recalled. “A German soldier passing by, nicer than most, asked if I was OK. . I just shook my head.”

The townspeople’s proximity to the airfield endangered their homes under the almost constant bombings by the Allies. Germans had turned the airfield into one of the largest Luftwaffe fields in France. Allied forces were constantly bombing the area, trying to disable German planes.

“It was a daily routine of fear and hope of being liberated,” she wrote.

For all the fear, she recalled one time when she was able to get back some of her own.

Her boss, the mayor, often had to fulfill German requests for use of vehicles, equipment and manpower when asked. To deny the requests would have certainly meant death.

When one German officer came to the mayor’s office asking for some items, she pretended she could not understand him and asked him to draw pictures of what he was requesting.

Although angry, the soldier drew her pictures of what he was seeking and she finally helped him. When the mayor, who had watched the exchange, asked her why she had done that - he knew she spoke German - “I told him I would never converse with a German soldier. It was a sweet revenge.”

The tide of the war in Europe changed in favor of the Allies in 1944 and townspeople saw German soldiers packing up and leaving town. Some of the Nazis stayed behind to light fires in warehouses and other storage areas to destroy munitions. Townspeople stood shoulder to shoulder to carry water to the blazes.

U.S. soldiers soon flooded the town.

“People were laughing, crying, clapping, rushing to tanks to embrace the American soldiers,” she recalled.

The soldiers began to distribute chewing gum, chocolate and cigarettes to the townspeople who went without for the past several years.

The soldiers apologized for their dirty appearance.

“They looked beautiful, handsome, to all of us,” she said. She found out later that those same soldiers died as they met German forces soon after they left to liberate other areas.

She soon met Victor Croes, an American GI born in Nice, France, at a celebration dance in her town. He was part of a group that was stationed at the airfield, now controlled by the Allies.

“Supposedly, I was the one he had been looking for all his life,” she wrote with some humor. “Victor was a charmer.”

But she cooled a blossoming relationship when she heard he was flirting with a friend of hers. By the time she found out her friend was lying, the pair had gone their separate ways.

She began to work at the nearby camp in the criminal investigation division, where her interpretative skills came in handy. She even met Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during her time there. Ironically, her studies in Paris gave her the edge on jobs - studies she never would have had in her smaller hometown. In that one instance, the war came to her advantage.

“I was making good money. . I had my own driver. They (Americans) treated me like a queen. I loved every minute of it,” she said with a laugh.

She met another soldier and fell in love, only to find out he was married with a young child. Throughout it all - for three years - she received letters from Victor and their romance began to build again. By this time, Croes had returned to his duties with the Hormel’s in Austin. Even Germaine Hormel, herself a World War I French war bride, wrote her, giving Victor a glowing recommendation.

In 1947, she finally decided to marry him. She flew to the U.S. and they were married and settled in the Hormel household in Austin.

Victor, a native of France, descended from a long line of bakers and chefs, had been working for the Hormel’s for some years before he was drafted into the U.S. forces, since he had become a citizen. A mutual friend knew that Germaine Hormel was born in France and recommended him to the Hormel’s, knowing Germaine would approve.

And so she did. She also approved of Victor’s new bride.

“Mrs. Hormel treated me like the daughter she never had,” Croes said.

The new bride was taken by the Austin friendliness shown to “the French girl surviving a war where so many of their relatives were killed liberating us.”

The Hormel’s scooped up the newlyweds and took them with the family to Beverly Hills, where the Hormel’s had a winter home. She recalled meeting many movie stars, including Shirley Temple, her childhood idol.

“It was a highlight of my life,” she said.

She also had chances to meet Cyd Charisse, Bob and Delores Hope and columnist Hedda Hopper. She even wore a gown to an event that was worn by Claudette Colbert in a movie role.

Life settled in Austin and eventually, she and Victor had children, moved into their own home, and Nelly began to work as a secretary at Hormel, a position she kept for 42 years. Victor died in 1989, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She kept him at home until his death.

Croes is 90 but looks far younger.

“I feel good,” she said, and is proud she is able to live on her own, in the same home she and Victor shared for many years. Her son lives in Minnetonka and her daughter in Singapore.

She recalled when her children, just youngsters, would listen to their mother speak of the war and seem unimpressed - until a day many years ago when the Croes family returned to France, to visit the spot where her Uncle Albert had died fighting for France.

Albert had been captured with other resistance fighters. After being beaten and tortured, he and his fellow Frenchmen were given shovels to create a trench alongside a rural garage. When they were done, they were all shot and buried in the trench.

“They had dug their own graves,” Croes said.

Today, there is a plaque marking the spot, with the names of the men. When the Croes family visited, an old woman came out of her nearby house to speak with them.

“She asked, ‘Did you know one of these men?’ ” Croes recalled.

Croes told her one of the heroes was her uncle. The woman told her the entire story, since “she had seen it all happen” all those years ago.

Her daughter, listening to the woman and her mother’s conversation, was stunned.

“My daughter said, ‘Those stories you told us were really true? We thought they were just stories,’” Croes said.

Croes full account of those years can be found at the Mower County Historical Society.

___

Information from: Austin Daily Herald, https://www.austindailyherald.com

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