Love of a life | October 3, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - October 3, 2008

Love of a life

Paula Boswell documents the story of a Dutch girl and an American Marine

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Paula van Dalsum wasn't looking for romance when she stepped out onto that tennis court a few miles outside Lisbon on May 25, 1950. But playing on the next court was a tall handsome American who would change her life.

"Paula, I'd like you to meet my good friend, John Boswell," she remembers her friend saying.

"I looked up at a tall, broad-shouldered hunk of a man with twinkling blue eyes," she recalled in her book, "No Ordinary Life: The True Story of a Dutch Girl and an American Marine." "We shook hands. Great smile, I thought."

She was working for the Dutch government and John was on Marine Security Guard duty at the U.S. Embassy in Portugal.

But before the romance, the book unfolds the childhood and wartime stories of the two main characters.

John was born in 1920 and raised on a poor farm in Bonifay, Fla. Despite their hard existence and lack of amenities - including indoor plumbing - his family was loving. He always remembered his mother's southern cooking and his father's integrity. At age 17, John hitchhiked to Savannah, Ga., to enlist in the Marine Corps.

He was on assignment in Shanghai when war broke out and his regiment was sent to Corregidor in the Philippines. After five months of fighting, the U.S. Armed Forces surrendered and, on his 22nd birthday, John because a prisoner of the Japanese. The book quotes from John's later writings where he described his months in captivity, detailing the cruelty of the captors and the deaths from tropical diseases and beatings and beheadings, as well as starvation.

Five chapters relate his fight for survival as he was moved from work camp to work camp. In September 1944, he was transported from Manila to Japan on a "Hell Ship," a 39-day trip on a rusty freighter where the 700 prisoners were jammed in a hold, standing shoulder to shoulder, chests to backs. Water and a small ration of rice were lowered down to the men each day, and buckets were used to remove human waste.

"Each morning, bodies of the men who had died during the night were hoisted up and tossed into the sea," John wrote. More than 5,000 POWs died in hell ships struck by the Americans, and John's was one of only three that wasn't torpedoed or bombed. By January, he was doing slave labor in the lead and zinc mines until the Japanese surrender in August. By that time, he'd gone from 220 to 110 pounds.

"It's hard to describe, after 40 months of living in filth and deprivation, how it felt taking that first hot shower, eating a real meal and slipping into clean clothes," John wrote. "To my regret I was declared unfit for flying home - too many open sores and overall weakness." He became a bed patient on a hospital ship.

Back in the States, he clammed up about his painful war experiences, which were beyond others' comprehension. Paula wrote: "One elderly lady said to him, 'You were so lucky not to be in the States during these war years; we had all this rationing and shortages.'"

Paula, meanwhile, was with her family in the Netherlands, eking out an existence during the Nazi occupation. She'd been born in a small town on the North Sea and recalls her childhood escapades. Her first encounter with the English language was when she became a huge fan of Shirley Temple and learned to sing, "On the Good Ship Lollypop."

She and her mother and siblings were vacationing with her aunt in a small town in Germany in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and the Dutch government ordered all its citizens home. Her family joined the throngs at the train station heading west.

Now the German radio station that had aired her mother's beloved operettas only carried the screaming voice of Hitler and the ardent responses: "Sieg heil, sieg heil." The news became worse and worse, and Hitler's troops invaded Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg and France in the early morning hours of May 10, 1940.

"We were completely under Nazi control," Paula wrote. "Germans and pro-German Dutchmen, whom we considered traitors, replaced most Dutch personnel in leading government positions. Newspapers abruptly stopped printing international news. All you read about was Hitler's advances and successes.

"Soon German tanks started to roll into town. Everywhere you looked you saw Nazi uniforms and heard German spoken."

Paula, who was 15, saw her Jewish classmates disappear and had no idea what was happening to them. When all the people who lived within a certain number of miles from the beach were ordered to move, her family went first to Rotterdam where air raids were frequent. Once British bombers mistakenly wiped out an entire neighborhood.

Although they heard about the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Paula's father doubted liberation would come soon and moved the family to a farmhouse in the rural village of Putten.

That September the Dutch underground attacked a car of Nazi officials,and the Nazis ordered everyone in the village to the marketplace to get a lecture. Paula's father was suspicious and hid in a dry creek bed. They herded the women and children into a church while the men stayed outside. Paula remembers her fear as she recalled stories of Germans blowing up churches in Poland filled with women and children. When they were dismissed a few hours later, the square was empty.

"Where were the men?" she wrote. "Soon we discovered the devastating news that all five hundred, regardless of age, had been loaded into railroad cars and transported to work camps in Germany." The Nazis also burned down a couple hundred homes to punish the villagers.

Meanwhile to keep from starving, Paula and her family became excellent at trading - giving cloth for flour, old jewelry for oatmeal. Family members rode their bicycles scouring the countryside looking for food. They cut wood in state-owned forests to trade for food or salt.

"At the end of each week the person who had brought in the most food got a special treat," recalled Paula. "We called it the 'Nobel sandwich.'"

After the war, life slowly returned to normal, and Paula heard that Dutch embassies and legations in foreign countries had openings for secretaries. She applied in September 1949 and was interviewed for a job in Lisbon starting in 10 weeks. Could she learn shorthand in Dutch, French and English by then?

"Of course," she stammered, and got the job on that condition; she learned later that her predecessor was a grouchy older woman and the State Department had requested "somebody young and cheerful."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The book continues with chapters intriguingly headed: "Culture Shock" - when she visits John's hometown of Bonifay, "The Ups and Downs of a Marine Wife," and "The Worst Place on Earth" (Beaufort, N.C.). A chapter called "Paula's Gift Shop" tells of the boutique she opened in her home, still in Beaufort, which gives a hint of the future successful Boswell's Discount Party Supplies, now a fixture in Danville and other East Bay locations.

When John was assigned to the headquarters of the Department of the Pacific in San Francisco, the Boswells discovered Contra Costa County, living first in Pleasant Hill, then Concord. Retired from the Marines, John completed his college education and earned a teaching credential; for five years he taught the fourth grade at El Monte Elementary School in Concord and then because a resource teacher for another 10.

"After John's death … more than 40 years after he started teaching, my family and I received very touching condolences from grateful former students," Paula wrote in her book. One recalled his teaching in 1967: "I do remember that Mr. Boswell always treated his students with respect and helped to build our self-confidence. He set high standards and challenged us to do our best work."

Paula went into education, too, and taught languages at Ygnacio Valley High School. She also became a Realtor so when she saw a one-acre lot with a view on Kuss Road in Danville for sale, she pursued it.

"I literally flew from Concord to Danville," she wrote. Once on the property she climbed to the flat part then turned to look at the view. "I literally gasped," she recalled. "Mount Diablo, in all its glory, lay before my eyes. … I immediately knew: I have to have this land."

Soon they found themselves living on the winding road, which leads to the Tao House, and building the house while living in it with their two children, Luke and Joyce - another adventure, which she covers in a chapter titled, "A Family of Squatters."

John began to attend POW reunions in the mid-'70s, at first attending with mixed emotions, and found it was a comfort to be with others who shared an understanding of the horrors he'd endured. He also began to write down his remembrances so he could speak about them, and he built up a World War II library in his home.

As his fellow POWs began to die, John started to go to the veterans' informal gatherings from 10-11 a.m. each weekday morning in Danville. As they shared their memories of being in the wars, Paula recalled, John came up with a plan to tell their stories to high school and college history classes. John died in 2003, and the following year the veterans installed a large photograph of him in the Veterans Memorial Building on Hartz Avenue.

After his death, Paula began to sort through the volumes of correspondence she'd saved over the years as well as a diary she kept during the "hunger winter" of 1945.

"I wish we'd looked through everything together, to remember," she says now. "Only we never had time - we were so busy."

She organized the materials into folders, and began to write.

"I worked on it for years and years," she said in a recent interview. "I started it just for family."

She translated the Dutch letters that she thought most important, and soon had hundreds of pages. She also had John's writings about the war.

"I had to mingle it together," she explained.

Family members read the first drafts and made suggestions. A granddaughter majoring in creative writing in college made notes for her and suggestions on organizing the chapters.

"I re-read and re-wrote," Paula recalled.

Then she checked out every self publisher she could find and chose Wasteland Press because the owner dealt with her in person, even giving her his cell phone number. She had hardback editions printed for family members. The paperback edition is for sale at Rakestraw Books and other stores for $14.95.

Paula Boswell wove the personal stories of her family in her book: The death of her brother waiting to board a train to return to their home in Rotterdam; her stern father who never accepted John because he took her away from him; the startup of the successful party supply store; the fact that Paula never could learn to share John's love of watermelons.

"No Ordinary Life" is a biography, a tale of war, a history lesson, a family saga - and the story of a love that began 58 years ago, on a tennis court in Portugal.

Meet the author

What: Book signing by Paula Boswell, author of "No Ordinary Life: The True Story of a Dutch Girl and an American Marine"

Who: Sponsored by Danville-Alamo Branch of AAUW

When: 3-5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 7

Where: Shadow Hills Cabana, 1001 El Capitan Drive, Danville.

Other: Public is invited. Call Tena at 837-0826.


Like this comment
Posted by Don Copland
a resident of Alamo
on Oct 6, 2008 at 5:03 pm

It is great to read about a friends father and how he kept such great notes about the war. Too many of our veterans have not written down their history for the war, and many are lost forever. I studied World War II in college, it is always great to hear the different stories. I have a client that just recently told me how his father worked in the Philipines when the war broke out, and was placed in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Wouldn't it be interesting if they were in the camps together. I will have to get a copy of the book. Thank you Paula, it sounds like a great story.