John P. Althuizen
Frontline Interpreter – United States Army
World War 2 (1944-1946)
John Althuizen, born and raised a Dutch citizen, quickly made a name for himself as a prominent volunteer and translator for the American army during World War 2 through countless acts of bravery, an open-mind, and willingness to sacrifice for a country that soon welcomed him with open arms.
Born in Deurne in the Netherlands on December 17, 1924 Althuizen grew up there until he was 14. From there, he spent about three years in a gymnasium, which he described as, “Higher up than a high school you know. It’s a little bit longer than high school.” It was in the gymnasium where he harnessed his true knack for language, mastering French, German, English, Greek, and Latin. Althuizen’s father worked as a paint contractor and artist. Many of his paintings are still proudly displayed throughout Althuizen’s house today.
Shortly before joining the American Army, Althuizen’s memories of the Netherlands reflected the tension of the period. The Netherlands were invaded by the Germans in 1940. Living under German occupation, Althuizen was brought up with a strong moral compass, and spent much time in underground organizations against the Nazi party. Living in the East, closer to Germany, Althuizen did not face the food shortages that many cities further from Germany did. His wife recalls shortages of food, clothing, and everyday necessities to life in her own childhood in the Netherlands. Althuizen completed two years of college before many universities shut down due to the extreme destruction and danger of war.
Though his parents did not initially agree with his decision to join the American Army as a volunteer, Althuizen explained his decision to them, “Pretty soon I have to go in the Dutch Army, see? And now, I have food and everything like that. You don’t have to worry about me, and I might send you some money.” Growing up, Althuizen had been wearing hand-me-down clothing and shoes from his older brother, which were then passed on to his younger siblings. He believes his family had it much harder than he did, because the army gave him accessible food and clothes. When asked about joining the American Army rather than the Dutch Army, Althuizen said, “I was excited. They gave me plenty of food and chocolate, all that good stuff which I didn’t have for a long time.”
Althuizen joined the 7th Armored Division, armored infantry, with no training. He joined the army with no documentation or tags as a volunteer. He chose to join this division because he had met soldiers in the underground and it was the only opportunity he had to join an American unit. As his wife Jeanne Althuizen described him, John was a survivor. Despite receiving no training, he was put in a foxhole on the first night. Though he had a rifle, the other soldiers had to clean it and helped him operate it that first night because he had never used one before.
Utilizing his knack for language, Althuizen quickly became a frontline interpreter. “When we had to attack a town, well I had to go with them and fight like the others. But I had to tell them, ‘Put your hands up, and everything, and surrender.’ But a lot of times, they didn’t do it. Then we had to shoot,” he explained. Althuizen also helped interrogate some of the prisoners his unit captured.
Althuizen slept in a tent with other soldiers while in the 7th Armored Division. For entertainment on days off, he and other soldiers would visit Maastricht in Holland or Paris between fighting. He also enjoyed watching movies. The 7th Armored Division was often gaining new members, which Althuizen consistently noted. High losses frequently resulted in lots of new soldiers. This was one reason Althuizen was able to adapt quickly and fit in despite a unique background.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Althuizen’s military career was his attendance at one of the key battles of World War 2, Battle of the Bulge. Despite fairly good morale in his unit, Althuizen recalled that especially during the Battle of the Bulge he was frightened, along with many fellow soldiers. Unlike his other experiences with the army, the Battle of the Bulge was the only time when supplies such as ammunition and gasoline ran short.
It was Althuizen’s birthday, December 17th when the 7th Armored Division was traveling from Holland to Paris for a rest. Halfway there, the whole division was called to the battle. Roughly 10 different parts that made of the 7th Armored Division all came to convene in Belgium, causing confusion amongst them. Althuizen’s most vivid memory of the battle stems from the freezing temperatures that blazed on throughout the fighting. Althuizen recalled waiting six or seven hours on the road in the cold to get through. Immediately upon his arrival, he was put on a railroad train. They had to start digging foxholes in the gravel. The unit moved daily, fighting through the day and night.
It was there that Althuizen experienced frostbite in his feet. He was sent to a field hospital in Liége, Belgium. He was lucky to be treated for his injuries, many other Dutch volunteers and members of the Army were sent home without treatment if the hospital believed they were fighting for the Germans, since many of them lacked the paperwork necessary to prove their service. “When I joined the Battle of the Bulge it was because Americans were coming down in German uniforms. I, at this time was in a hospital in Liége, so they could not send me home, see? I went back to the outfit and they said, ‘Well we actually can’t keep you, but just keep quiet and we will.’”
Eventually, Althuizen was led to Germany to fight in war bunkers near the end of the war. “In April, the Germans were surrendering. We took towns right up and down like mad. I mean you could take four, five towns, because all white flags were hanging out.”
However, shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, Althuizen was sitting in the back of a tank with a few other men and was wounded, leading him to nearly two months in the hospital. About four or five other men he was with were killed when their tank was shot at. Althuizen was shot off the tank and feel unconscious. He was brought to the hospital via plane. An inspection from the Colonel caused minor issues for Althuizen, who lacked proper documentation. After recovering, he was sent back to the Dutch army, who turned him away. “The Dutch didn’t want me because I should’ve joined the Dutch Army, not the American Army. They sent me to the French hospital. They didn’t want me either.” Finally, the French agreed to treat Althuizen when his wounds began to hurt again.
When he was nearly recovered, in a miraculous chance encounter, on one of his first visits around Paris after about one and half months in a French hospital, Althuizen saw a member of the 7th Armored Division walking through Paris. He reunited with them, and followed them to Heidelberg, Germany where he was taken care of by a new medic. When the 7th Armored Division was eventually disbanded to smaller squadrons and divisions, Althuizen joined the 12th Constabulary. His job was to protect the border between the American and Russian zones, which were divided at the time.
In 1946 Althuizen traveled to the United States. He was looking to get as far away from the turmoil and evidence of war as possible. In exchange for fighting in the Army, he was allowed passage to America. Althuizen arrived in America on Christmas Eve with plans to go to San Francisco. He landed in San Francisco with 25 cents on New Year’s Eve. With no clothing but his army uniform, Althuizen went to the St. Francis Hotel where he finessed a job as a busboy. As a busboy he carried dirty dishes and poured water. Althuizen was shocked that people would give him 50 cents for each job he did. Compared to the measly 25 cents he had arrived with, and the general lack of wealth war brought along with it, Althuizen had good reason.
After only two weeks, an engineer from Mobil Oil encountered Althuizen and offered him a job, which he kept for five years. After that, he went back to school for landscape design and bookkeeping at University of California Berkeley. While working at Mobil Oil, on the weekends Althuizen also worked for a few different nurseries while he studied landscaping.
Althuizen passed his exam to earn a license as a contractor and designer from the State of California and began a business of his own which he has successfully run for 52 years and counting. He is grateful that he was able to come to America after the war.
In his opinion, the most difficult part of his service was conquering towns and cities at night. “The town was burning, and we had to go from house to house and everything. Walking over dead bodies, burned bodies. I was very scared. I went up a hill with a French guy who was an American, but born in France, and we went together. We heard a group of Germans wanted to surrender so us two went up this hill, and suddenly they start firing and they shot through the top of my shoe. They hit my buddy right next to me. Then I cried.”
Throughout his time in the military, the relationships and friends that Althuizen developed were key to keeping him motivated. Though there are few men left from the 7th Armored Division, reunions used to be held yearly throughout the United States. Only about ten men remain. Mr. and Mrs. Althuizen have attended about 40 reunions together. Althuizen also earned himself a Purple Heart award for his time in the army.
He believes that people today can take away the kindness of Americans from his experiences. Althuizen emphasized the generosity and kindness of many American soldiers he met and became friends with. He lightheartedly added that he believes it’s helpful to have some training before joining serving. A quick learner like himself was able to adapt, though being thrown straight into the experience of war can be nerve racking.
Althuizen’s final wisdom to pass on to future generations reflected the down-to-earth and humble attitude he possessed throughout his time with the military, career, and still today: “My dad used to say, ‘Keep your nose clean, mind your business, do you should do, and be positive not negative.’ Things like that are good advice, things that some people seem to have trouble accepting.”
John Althuizen serves as a wonderful inspiration to young men and women, as well as adults everywhere. By making rational and mature decisions despite his young age, Althuizen was able to take a path overlooked by many with his background and join the American Army. Though he was faced with challenges, a greater understanding of humanity and mortality kept Althuizen quick-witted, willing and able to adapt, and strong through his experiences. Despite leaving the Netherlands, Althuizen maintains genuine respect for his home country and pays tribute to his culture daily. His sincerity reflects presently, whether it be in his melancholy eyes as he thumbed through photos of his service, or the lighthearted laughter that came along with the offer of a Dutch cookie.
Interview conducted by Emily Sweet on January 15, 2017.