Ida Schouten was only 11 when her home village of Nijmegen, Holland, was liberated by American paratroopers who dropped from the sky bringing a promise of the end of World War II and a brighter future. The date was Sept. 17, 1944.
Little did she know that 67 years later she would meet one of the paratroopers who changed her life so dramatically. And in Mattituck, of all places.
Like Ms. Schouten, John Giordano, 90, who served as a member of the 101st Airborne Division that joined the 82nd Airborne to liberate Nijmegen, is a regular at the Southold Human Resources Center in Mattituck. It’s a place where seniors come for a hot meal and some socializing. Their shared memories came to light this summer when friends learned Ms. Schouten hails from Holland. They happened to mention that Mr. Giordano was a paratrooper there during the war.
The two were introduced and began swapping war stories that quickly revealed their connection through history.
“If you hadn’t done this, maybe I wouldn’t be here,” Ms. Schouten told Mr. Giordano during a recent lunch.
“If I’d stayed in your area, we might have married,” the ever-flirtatous Mr. Giordano responded.
Ms. Schouten, who lives in Eastport with her husband, Chris, comes to the center twice a week so that her husband, who has suffered several strokes that have robbed him of some of his memories, can participate in activities at the town’s Katinka House adult day care center across the parking lot. Mr. Giordano and his wife, Vivianna, visit the center several times a week to meet friends and share meals.
Talking about their lives after the war, Ms. Schouten and Mr. Giordano learned that they lived not far from one another in the Bronx many years ago.
The Schoutens came to the United States 12 years after the war ended and moved to Eastport five years ago. Mr. Giordano was a longtime Bronx resident who began spending summers in Mattituck in the late 1970s. When he retired, he became a full-timer.
“It’s like yesterday,” Ms. Schouten said of the day her village was liberated. Her father had been active in the underground resistance movement and, while she was only 11, she understood much about the war and its dangers. Many in the underground had been shot in the streets right in front of their families, she said.
Because her family had a hidden radio and received BBC reports daily, they knew about the D-Day invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944. They imagined that gradually, allied troops would make their way across Europe. But living just 15 kilometers from the German border and knowing that Nazi troops were occupying a village just across a bridge from theirs, they worried rescue might not come soon enough.
“It was a very, very scary, hectic time,” Ms. Schouten said. She recalled rockets shooting over Holland and being warned that as long as she could hear the sounds, it was safe. If the sounds stopped, she knew to take cover.
She remembers sleeping on a hard bench in a shelter on many a night seeking safety from the bombings.
The man she married when she was 24, just before they immigrated to the United States, was just a year older than she when he walked home from school instead of boarding a tram that was bombed, killing many of his classmates, Ms. Schouten said.
“As kids, we were taught Germans were bad,” Ms. Schouten said. But she came to realize that German troops, like allied troops, were just following orders. It was the Nazis she had to fear.
Mr. Giordano had a painful introduction to Nijmegen, landing hard on a windmill. He freed himself by grabbing one of the spinning blades, which lifted him up.
He wasn’t a paratrooper when joined the service, but after several run-ins with a lieutenant who had taken a dislike to him, he began to explore opportunities with the Army Air Corps, which after the war became the Air Force. Seeing no opportunities to train a pilot or become a gunner, he followed a friend’s suggestion that he join the paratroopers.
“I should have been killed 100 times,” Mr. Giordano said. He made 177 jumps, including landing at Normandy the day before D-Day and several behind enemy lines.
One jump into the Hürtgen Forest in Germany landed him in a tree 60 feet off the ground. A Nazi trooper was on the ground below, looking all around, but not up, Mr. Giordano said. He planned to cut himself free, jump down and hit the soldier with his boot to break his neck. But the trooper moved and Mr. Giordano landed on his shoulder. The two men battled and Mr. Giordano was struck by a bayonet that “tore my stomach,” he said. But the fight continued and Mr. Giordano finally stabbed and killed the trooper.
“I got sick afterwards thinking about it,” he said.
“You have to do these things during war,” Ms. Schouten said.