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Retired Middletown police officer works to honor U.S. soldiers buried in Netherlands — and he could use your help

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 11/6/19

Dale G. Rider was born in Mechanicsburg and served in the 314th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division.

William E. Zorger was from Landisville, Perry County, and served in the 335th …

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Retired Middletown police officer works to honor U.S. soldiers buried in Netherlands — and he could use your help

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Dale G. Rider was born in Mechanicsburg and served in the 314th Infantry Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division.

William E. Zorger was from Landisville, Perry County, and served in the 335th Infantry Regiment of the 84th Infantry Division.

Rider and Zorger are among several World War II veterans from this region who are buried in The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, The Netherlands.

Bob Schortemeyer, a 63-year-old retired Middletown police officer, is on a mission to track down any family members or anyone else who knows anything about Rider and Zorger.

It’s part of a huge project being undertaken by the people of Margraten — to match a photo to every one of the nearly 8,300 graves of American soldiers buried in the cemetery. Besides those buried, the names of another 1,722 missing soldiers are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at the cemetery.

So far, volunteers have found photos to match more than 6,500 of the Americans buried or otherwise memorialized at the cemetery, according to The Faces of Margraten website.

That still leaves many more to be found, including the photos of Rider and Zorger and others known to be from this area.

The goal is to match a photo to each and every American GI who is memorialized at Margraten, in time for a ceremony to be held at the cemetery in May 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

Schortemeyer is most certainly a military history enthusiast, but for him, this is no abstract exercise.

To Schortemeyer, whose father and mother were Dutch and who lived in The Netherlands during the war, Rider, Zorger and all the other American soldiers who served and died in Holland and are buried at Margraten are heroes.

“I have a dedication to these guys that gave their lives, because of my parents. If it wasn’t for the Americans, who knows if I would be here? Because the Germans were taking over everything,” Schortemeyer told the Press & Journal. “If the Americans and the Canadians and the British didn’t get together, who knows. Everybody could be speaking German. That’s where my drive comes from, to try and find the people that they are trying to find.”

The spark was lit when Schortemeyer and his older brother John, who lives near Fairfax County in Virginia, made some startling discoveries after their father. John Schortemeyer died in 2005, at age 80.

Schortemeyer knew that his father had been taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp in The Netherlands in 1944, called Camp Amersfoort.

That’s about all the brothers knew growing up, because their father didn’t like to talk about it.

“That was a time in his life he basically wanted to forget,” Schortemeyer said.

But as the brothers went through the boxes of documents that their father had kept, an amazing story began to unfold.

Schortemeyer’s father was in a boarding school at age 19, about to get on a train to visit his parents in Rotterdam when he was stopped by the Gestapo. The Gestapo demanded his father show his identification papers.

He did, but the documents didn’t satisfy the Gestapo. He wasn’t even Jewish, but Catholic.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong papers,” so the Gestapo sent him to Amersfoort, Schortemeyer said.

Schortemeyer does not know the exact date this happened in 1944, but says that his father spent about the next three months in Amersfoort.

The Germans used Amersfoort as a transit stop. They would send prisoners there and use them for labor, until shipping them somewhere else where they were needed to support the massive Nazi war effort, said Schortemeyer, who has visited the camp several times since his father died.

A statue called “The Stone Man” still sits in the rifle range of the camp, where prisoners would be taken out and shot.

Schortemeyer has a copy of an old black-and-white photo of Amersfoort during the war, showing a fenced-in area called “The Rose Garden.”

The camp commandant — who Schortemeyer described as “terrible, nasty and mean” — would sit in his office and watch the prisoners, who were not allowed to sleep or sit down. They had to just stand there.

Schortemeyer said his father would never eat raw onions. After his father’s death he learned that this was because raw onions were all they fed him in Amersfoort. Schortemeyer said they were actually tulip bulbs, which if boiled peel apart just like an onion.

At Amersfoort they took the prisoners’ shoes away and made them wear wooden shoes, so they couldn’t run.

Some time after Schortemeyer was taken prisoner, his grandfather in The Netherlands and the headmaster of the boarding school came up with a plan.

The headmaster knew a German officer. Schortemeyer’s grandfather bribed the officer in order to get his grandson released from Amersfoort.

That spared Schortemeyer’s father from what almost for sure would have been certain death.

Through their searching, Schortemeyer and his brother found documents showing that the Nazis were about to ship Schortemeyer to Soest, a town in northwest Germany just east of the Netherlands, and home to one of the largest rail hubs that the Nazis relied upon during the war.

“Most people that went to Soest never came back alive” because the British were bombing Soest by day, and the Americans by night, Schortemeyer said.

When the bombing runs came, the guards loaded all the prisoners into the railcars and locked them inside. As these people were getting blown up day after day by Allied bombs, the Nazis kept funneling a steady stream of people from the camps in The Netherlands to replace them.

Schortemeyer’s father was scheduled to be transferred to Soest on May 3, 1944 — just six days after he was released due to the efforts of his grandfather and the school headmaster.

When Bob Schortemeyer showed copies of these documents to an official during a visit to Amersfoort, the official was startled.

“Where did you get this?” he asked. Had the Gestapo found Schortemeyer’s father with these after the date he was to be transferred to Soest, he could have been “shot on sight,” the man told Bob Schortemeyer.

His father had quietly kept the papers all these years. The originals are now kept in a display case in Bob’s older brother’s basement in Virginia, which Bob said could pass for a World War II museum.

On Sept. 13, 1944, the U.S. 30th Infantry Division liberated Margraten. Schortemeyer has a picture of the tank that rolled in to free the prisoners at Amersfoort. It wasn’t until May 5, 1945 that all of The Netherlands was liberated, when the Germans surrendered.

Schortemeyer’s father and his mother, Paula, dated in The Netherlands but did not marry until years later, after both had emigrated with their families to the United States.

Schortemeyer’s father spelled his first name Jean while in Holland, but changed it to John after coming to America.

They at first lived with their families in Brooklyn, in a house a block away from Ebbets Field, the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

John, Bob’s older brother, was born in New York City. Bob’s father became a civil engineer. After moving to Tallahassee, Florida, the family ended up in Harrisburg, after Schortemeyer’s father got a job with an engineering firm on Pine Street. Bob was born in Harrisburg.

His father left private civil engineering when the economy slowed down and found work with the state, where he was employed for 20-some years before retiring.

Bob Schortemeyer after retiring from Middletown police got a job with a Delta Airlines subsidiary that allowed him then — and now — to fly for free.

That has enabled Schortemeyer to make frequent trips overseas, not just to The Netherlands but to other places that are special to him for their historical military significance during World War II, such as Normandy, Bastogne and Luxembourg.

As he got older and his own interest in what happened to his parents during World War II grew, Bob Schortemeyer tried to get his father to go back with him to Camp Amersfoort. The camp is now being restored for historical purposes, after being used as a police academy after the war.

“I said, ‘C’mon dad, let’s go so you can show me.’ He refused. He said ‘I’m not going,’” Schortemeyer said.

It was only after his father died that Schortemeyer discovered another of his secrets — he found a photo of John and Paula Schortemeyer at Amersfoort. They had gone there together, the year after Schortemeyer said his father had refused to go with him.

He doesn’t know what led his father to change his mind and go back to the camp. Paula is still living at a retirement community in Harrisburg at age 92, but she has Alzheimer’s disease.

Schortemeyer pulls up a map on his smartphone that marks with a blue balloon all the places in the United States where The Faces of Margraten project is still looking for photos to mark the graves of Americans at the cemetery.

Little blue balloons are all over the country, including a cluster in south central Pennsylvania.

Besides Rider in Mechanicsburg and Zorger in Landisburg, there’s George H. Brown, a private with the 99th Infantry Division who was from Adams County, and John H. Bennett, a private first class from York County who died in The Netherlands serving with the 407th Infantry Regiment.

Bob Schortemeyer is looking for a little piece of all of them.

He posted on Facebook about what he is doing to help with The Faces of Margraten effort. But so far, Schortemeyer said he knows of no one else in the United States who is looking for the photos of these people. He’d be happy for the help.

“I’m not asking for any recognition. This is just personal. I owe it to the Americans. I was born here but these guys, they deserve the recognition,” he said.

Schortemeyer recently tracked down a photo of Frederick M. Nye, a soldier from Hummelstown buried in Margraten, with the help of Drew Weidman, a reporter with The Sun in Hummelstown.

Weidman’s research led him to Nye’s remaining family, who had moved to Kalispell, Montana. They provided Weidman with a photo, which Weidman uploaded to the Margraten cemetery website.

Schortemeyer’s own research includes going to fieldofhonor.org, a website with information about veterans who died serving their country.

He also plans to reach out to VFW and American Legion posts in the areas where the soldiers buried in Margraten are from. His time to do this is still somewhat limited. Schortemeyer is two weeks shy of 64, but has not retired yet.

If you can help find photos of any of the soldiers who are buried in Margraten, Schortemeyer asks that you reach out to The Faces of Margraten directly, by going to https://europeremembers.com/experience/the-faces-of-margraten/.

You can also reach out to Dan Miller at the Press & Journal, if you have information that may be of value in this search.