By Thom Casey
In 1942, U.S. Army Lt. Noel Mason was stationed outside of Beek, Holland (now the Netherlands). He stayed with a family by the last name of van Kan, a family that included two daughters. One of them, Mien, was the same age as Mason’s nephew, Travis.
“He would help them out,” Athens resident Travis Mason, 76, said about his uncle. “He would give them some of his personal rations, because they were hungry. They were so grateful. Even after he got back to the states, he still sent them supplies.”
The two became pen-pals through Lt. Mason. Travis’s brother, Huey Wayne, also wrote to Mien. Travis and Mien only kept in touch for about four years, but lost touch after that.
Sixty-four years after their first correspondence, the two finally met in April, when the Masons were there for 12 days visiting family.
The plan was masterminded by Travis’s wife, Tommie. Her niece, Winnette Warren, lives in the Netherlands with her husband, Jimmy, who is a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, and their two sons. The couple is stationed at AFNorth NATO Base in Beek. “Travis still had a letter from her,” she said.
“When we were going to the Netherlands to visit my niece and nephew, we didn’t know where the letter came from, or anything. He wondered if we could find the town, and as a surprise to him, I got to thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find the people?”
With the help of her niece, Tommie Mason was able to give her husband the surprise of a lifetime. “He had no idea we were planning all of this,” Tommie said.
“We didn’t tell him until we got there.”
On April 10, the Limburgs Dagblad, a Dutch newspaper, ran a request Winnette Warren had submitted, requesting information on Mien van Kan and her family.
“When my niece started inquiring, she found out the town was just a few miles from where she lived,” Tommie said.
“Then, the newspaper said they received a reply. Mien’s great-niece saw it and called her uncle, and said “I think they’re looking for Aunt Mien.”
The newspaper also received a phone call from Mien’s son, Ger Bovens. Bovens also sent the Warrens an e-mail with some pictures of his mother and grandparents, hoping that Travis would recognize them.
Travis originally thought there was no chance of ever meeting Mien. “The only thing that I knew was that we were going to try to look her up,” he said.
“I thought, ‘She wouldn’t be alive in the first place. She’d have to be 76 years old, too.’ When she told me she had done all this, I said, ‘Oh, baloney.’”
The Masons landed in the Netherlands on April 12. As soon as they arrived at the airport, Winnette Warren had a surprise for them. “She said, “You’re not going to believe what we got last night,” Tommie said.
“That’s when they started they getting the e-mails and this last one came after we were there.”
On April 15, Travis Mason finally met the woman who was the girl who sent those letters all those years ago. The meeting was arranged at a teahouse in Beek. Mien recognized Travis almost immediately.
“They were sitting at a table when we walked in, and she raised up and started for me,” he said.
“The first question she asked us was, ‘Is it still a tradition in the U.S. that you still spank someone on their birthday?’ It was something my uncle had told her while he was staying with her family, and she remembered it after all this time.”
Albert Dols, the Warrens’ neighbor, helped with translation during the meeting, which lasted a little over an hour.
“Mien’s son spoke English very well,” Tommie said.
“Her daughter-in-law spoke no English and Mien speaks broken English. We could converse with her, and she is able to read English. She was able to understand us.”
Travis said he and Mien talked about “just about everything under the sun. We talked about the families, and she asked about Noel and his family.”
“All her brothers and sisters, her parents, they’re all dead,” he said. “It’s just a miracle that she’s still alive.”
The visit led to Travis writing her again. “He wrote her another letter,” Tommie said. “And my niece and nephew have also made contact.”
The Masons visit to the Netherlands didn’t end with meeting Mien and her son. They also soaked up some history. Along with Winnette and her two sons, and Tommie’s great-nephew, the Masons visited the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margaraten, Hoensbroek Castle in Hoensbroek, The Market in Geleen, the Keukenhof Gardens outside of Amsterdam, the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the windmills in Kinderdyke and the Velvet Caves at Valkenburg. They said they hope to visit the Netherlands again next year.
Besides the visit with Mien, the cemetery visit meant the most to Travis.
“Holland was the only country that deeded the U.S. 65 acres for a cemetery,” he said. “Nobody is buried there but Americans. And they take care of it. If you’ve ever been in the service, it really touches you to know that.”
The cemetery has 8,301 graves, and a wall with 1,722 missing names and ranks on it. “It’s unreal what it looks like,” Tommie said.
“Each grave there was adopted by a Dutch family, and has been handed down through generations. They have a waiting list of people who want to adopt a grave that a family doesn’t want anymore. The cemetery itself went on forever. It was a beautiful area.”
The Masons also said that the older generations of Dutch appreciate what America did for their country. “Anywhere you went over there, and they found out you were American, the ones that lived through the war, treated you like a queen,” she said.
“They were so thankful that our nation was there and my niece and nephew run into that all the time. You hear so much about all these other countries hating us, and Winnette said it’s remarkable when they find out Jimmy is in the service, they come up to him and say, ‘Thank you.’”
For Travis, the trip confirmed everything he had previously heard about the Netherlands.
“I didn’t know Holland was that way except by letters and what my uncle had told me once he got back,” he said.
“I was just a kid, so it went in one ear and out the other. But after I got in the service, it started meaning more and more to me. I’ve pulled this letter out and re-read it so many times. When we went over there, and it was just marvelous to hear them about how they appreciated the American soldiers. I just wished I had asked my uncle more questions.”
For Tommie Mason, the highlight of the trip remains the visit with Mien.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” Tommie said. “I think it was a blessing that the Lord had planned out.”