Of all the food the Allies dropped on the Nazi-occupied Netherlands at the end of World War II, Eva Gentile recalls only chocolate. Three years old at a time the Dutch were boiling tulip bulbs to make broth, Gentile remembers the roar of the planes passing low overhead and that tiny something sweet ending two years of famine.
Over a cup of coffee last week at Clayton’s Jones Cafe, Gentile met one of the men who helped her and thousands of other Dutch survive the war. Sam Robertson, 99, might be the most recognizable and beloved man in Clayton. In 1945, he flew two food-drop missions over the Netherlands as part of his B-17 crew, one plane in an American, Canadian and British operation dropping tons of food into starving war zones.
Robertson had 18 bombing runs over France and Germany, and he was once cut out of his ball turret with a blow torch after German flack had sealed him in. But Robertson said the two food drops were his proudest moments of the war.
“It seemed like that made me feel better than just about anything else I did in the war,” he said. “Of course, the other had to be done too, you know. It was very rewarding, knowing we were helping somebody live with the food.”
In the early days of May 1945, the war was still technically going on, Gentile said, but the Germans had given up the fight and let the food planes pass without harassment.
War doesn’t really end when the bullets and the bombs go silent, she added, because after the treaties are signed and the tanks pull out, there’s still the chewed-up earth and the lives to put back together. The food drops were that tiny step forward, because what good is liberation without a loaf of bread?
“When you come from the Netherlands and you get occupied for five years, it doesn’t end when the war is over, it continues,” Gentile said. “It’s not over when it’s over.”
Sitting in a booth at Jones, Robertson and Gentile looked through a photo album her family kept; in it were pictures of the planes from the view down below.
Gentile’s family moved to the United States when she was a teenager, and she moved to Raleigh in the 1980s. She said Robertson was the second American airman who dropped food that she’s met; Robertson said Gentile’s the first he’s met from the other side of those missions.
“It’s wonderful for him to be able to meet someone who received the food,” Gentile said. “People who had not eaten for so long, some got sick because their stomachs couldn’t take it. It got them over the fact, or they would have died.”
The meeting came about after Clayton Rotary Club member Melissa Oliver watched a documentary on Robertson at his iconic mule company building in downtown Clayton. The program mentioned his war service and the food drops, and Oliver said the stories stuck with her and compelled her to tell co-worker John Vance at the Raleigh YMCA.
“She was almost in tears telling me about this man,” Vance said. “And I told her, you’re never going to believe this, but my next-door neighbor is from the Netherlands, and I’ve heard her talk about the food drops. Living next door to Eva, I’ve heard a lot of these stories too. I just thought this was a little fortuitous.”
“We just couldn’t believe it and decided we needed to get these two together,” Oliver said.
Robertson holds court wherever he goes, drawing friends and admirers in close to hear whatever story from decades ago that some word or question has made him think of. “Let me tell you this one,” he’ll say. Or, “You’ll want to hear this one.” And you do. In his office at the mule company building, every photo has an anecdote, and every scrap of paper and piece of memorabilia has a rich history.
To hear Robertson talk about his military service is to hear the story about how he didn’t know his middle name was “Earl” until, in his 20s, he had to fetch his birth certificate from Raleigh before joining the Air Force. At 99, Robertson has carried these stories around longer than most, but that doesn’t mean they’ve gotten any simpler or grown any less vivid, both the good ones and the bad.
“You think of those things all the time,” Robertson said of the people he helped in the war. “They don’t leave your mind, just like cutting it off. It stays there. I have a good feeling about wanting to see something, that maybe we had saved some of her people’s lives by dropping the food. I just had a good feeling about it.”
Seven months shy of the century mark and on Main Street in his hometown, Robertson got to look in the eyes of one of those beneficiaries from long ago, now in her 70s herself, and hear “Thank you.”
“I’ve got one word: wonderful,” Robertson said.