“There I was, standing on the ground in enemy-occupied Holland… My face was smeared with mud and blood. And I was just four days away from my 21st birthday.”
So begins one of the most amazing World War II accounts I have ever read. “War is hell” is one of those clichés that nobody but those who were actually there can ever understand. If I did not grasp that concept before, I sure do after reading Two Gold Coins and a Prayer. It is the recollection of Lt. Col. James H. Keeffe Jr., USAF (Ret.), as told to his son James H. Keefe III. A little math reveals that Mr. Keeffe is now 89 years young - yet he seems to remember those awful events as if they happened yesterday.
Disaster struck on March 8, 1944, when Lieutenant James Keefe was forced to bail out of his B-24 bomber over Papendrecht, Holland. With the help of some truly remarkable individuals involved in the Dutch Resistance, James was able to survive undetected for five months in the occupied land. This was a most unusual feat, as one of the top priorities for the Nazis was to capture pilots who had been forced to bail out. Part of this was to break up the Resistance, and part of it was simply the glory of catching these “fly-boys” who were responsible for so much damage from the air.
This 475-page book is so full of details that it would be an overwhelming task to try and tell the Lieutenant’s story in a mere review, but there are some elements which are too incredible not to mention. There are the two gold coins mentioned in the title, for example. Initially, Lieutenant Keefe was being smuggled between various safe houses, and getting falsified papers together - towards the eventual goal of getting him to England. One of the keys to blending in was to not have any unusual items on one’s person.
One of the most dangerous things Lieutenant Keefe had in his possession were English pound notes. These would have given him away immediately had they been discovered, so a kindly member of the Resistance by the name of J.J. van Dongen traded him the notes for two Dutch gold coins, of approximately the same value. Unbelievably, Mr. Keefe still has those coins, and a picture of them is reproduced in the book.
Throughout his ordeal, which involved eventually being captured and imprisoned as a POW, (and much more) James was able to somehow hide these two coins and eventually bring them all the way back home to Seattle, WA.
That feat alone is hard to believe. After a traitor set him up, and he was taken into custody, the Nazis strip-searched him numerous times. Yet he still managed to somehow hang on to those coins throughout the entire ordeal.
The term “ordeal” does not even do justice to the conditions he describes having lived through as a prisoner of war. It was not just that the camp was horrible, (although it definitely was), but there were so many other indignities. Disease, lack of food, forced marches for untold kilometers in the snow - just about the worst of everything one can imagine.
What makes Two Gold Coins And A Prayer so remarkable, besides the story itself, is just how much detail it contains. Not only in the nearly day by day accounts of what went on, but in so many of the documents James was able to somehow acquire and keep for all these years. There is even a reproduction of the official paperwork (with photograph) of the original identification sheet that the Nazis drafted when he first arrived at the POW camp.
The story Two Gold Coins And A Prayer tells reveals every aspect of humanity in a deeply personal way. Not to diminish the experiences of any of the thousands of POW’s who have suffered similar (if not even worse) fates, but there is something unforgettable about this book. It is available through numerous sources, including the publishers themselves, Appell.