He said some of the people who knew him thought he was crazy:
“People asked me, ‘How do you ever think you’re going to make it?’”
It was 1959 and George Bruggeman and his wife Jans were packing up their five children and leaving Rotterdam, Holland for America.
George knew just a little English and his wife and the kids knew none. They had $85 in their pockets and just the name of a cousin of Jans’ who lived in Dayton.
“People said, ‘It’s going to be rough. You’re going to have a hell of a time trying to make it,’” George – who died last Wednesday and will be buried today – recounted to me a few years ago. “People kept saying, ‘How are you going to do it?’”
But whatever challenges this new life brought, he knew he’d faced far worse in the past.
He knew what “a hell of a time” really was.
When he was 18 back in his native East Dutch Indies — now known as Indonesia — Netherlands declared war on Japan on Dec. 8, 1941. The day before the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and prior to that they had been targeting oil supplies on his island nation.
He said all young men were told to report for service and month later Japan invaded: “We fought them with nothing. They had machine guns….On the fourth day my uncle was killed. A mortar shell split his head open.
“My job was to go by motorbike from one command post to the next. The sound of the motor was so loud I couldn’t hear the planes overhead. Then one day I saw a captain raising his gun to the sky and when I looked up, a Japanese Zero was diving down, firing on me. The ground was flying up all over.
“When I jumped off the motorbike I remember crying out, ‘God, help me!’ I landed in a ditch and didn’t get a scratch.”
But the worst was to come. The Japanese surrounded their camp and gave them an ultimatum: Surrender or we’ll go kill your families.
George would spend the next 3 ¾ years as a Japanese prisoner of war. He was confined seven months in a camp near Makassar, his hometown, and in October of 1942 was transported with 1,000 other prisoners to an island off Nagasaki, Japan to build war ships.
“A lot of us had come from a tropical climate and when that first winter came we struggled,” he said. “We had only light clothes….If I’d find a piece of paper or cardboard on the ground, I’d hide it from the guards and then put it under my shirt like underwear to try to stay warm.”
He said they worked sun-up to sundown and were fed soup that was like “dishwater,” and rice:
“We were all bags of bones.”
He said his cousin died of pneumonia: “A lot of guys died. They just gave up.”
He did not.
And that brings us back to that “How will you make it?” question he got when he left Holland.
If you read his obituary, you’ll get some of the answers.
Today would have been George’s 96th birthday. He and Jans were married a few weeks shy of 72 years. They have six kids, 18 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren and five great, great grandkids with one more on the way.
Their youngest son — Dwight Douglas, who was named for Dwight Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur – was born here in Dayton and now is a pastor at the Huber Heights Church of God (6900 Brandt Pike.)
After today’s 10 a.m.-to-noon visitation there, he’ll officiate his dad’s funeral service.
While you’ll hear some of his father’s story in his eulogy, you also can get plenty of it from other people in town.
One is Jerry Butcher who’s known as the Father of Soccer in the Miami Valley. But as he’ll readily admit, that makes George Bruggeman the grandfather of the sport.
George was a player-coach on team he and others started here in the early ‘60s and for decades he coached youth soccer.
Butcher told me he first learned the sport from George and his kids when they played pick-up games in the alley of the Lower Riverdale neighborhood where they both lived then.
Butcher went on to play soccer a Wright State, coach at Central State and the University of Dayton, run a soccer supply business, own the Dayton Dynamo and operate the Englewood Indoor Soccer Complex for 35 years.
“I blame everything on George Bruggeman,” a grinning Butcher once explained. “He got me started, got me to love soccer and I became fanatical. It’s all due to him.”
Mark LaForce, who married George and Jans’ daughter, Linda, spoke passionately on Saturday about his father-in-law, whom he calls Pop:
“He was a man’s man. You get that from the way he survived the war. Most of all, he was genuine. There’s no person on the face of this earth who doesn’t love him.”
Finding love after war
George, who had Dutch and Indonesian roots, was raised on a coconut plantation on Celebes Island.
Jans, who’s seven years younger, grew up on the island of Java. She was detained for a few months during the war, as well, and sent to Thailand before returning home.
George’s release came after the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug 9, 1945.
He said he was working on a war ship off the coast of Nagasaki, saw a flash and felt a heat wave:
“Then came the ‘BOOM!’ We saw the mushroom cloud, but didn’t know what was happening until the ferry came back from Nagasaki and we saw all the people who had been burned.”
Nearly 74,000 people were killed and 75,000 more were injured.
Three days later George was told the war was over and he was rescued by a PT boat.
Once back home, he joined a band, played guitar and said he was “the crooner.”
During one gig he said he spotted a “good looking girl” on the dance floor. He saw Jans again a few months later on New Year’s Eve, put down his guitar and danced with her.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna kiss you!’” he told me with eyes twinkling in delight. “And then I did, right there in the middle of the dance floor.”
“Pop!!!” Jans said with faux disdain and then a schoolgirl giggle.
Then she looked at me and in smiling admonishment said: “Don’t print that!’
George just grinned and nodded a “go ahead.”
A new home in Dayton
In 1959, the family, which had left Indonesia two years earlier, came through Ellis Island and then took a train to Dayton.
Onboard, they met a man from Philadelphia who played with the kids and seemed sincerely moved by the family’s immigrant story.
He asked the address where they were moving to in Dayton and soon after they got to Alden Street, a box of toys arrived from him.
After that he regularly sent gifts and Jans kept up correspondence with him and his wife for many years until they died.
Back in Indonesia, George had met another man from Texas – they hunted together and became “like brothers,” – and he and Jan named their son, Arlis, after him.
The embrace by their new country continued when parishioners from St. Anthony Catholic Church on Bowen St. initially paid their first month’s rent and provided groceries.
Life was still a struggle though. George started out washing dishes at Rike’s and said they’d get meat scraps no one wanted from the butcher to supply their dinner table.
Eventually, George got better jobs, they bought a home on Kenilworth Ave. and owned the Frontier House restaurant at the Forest Park Shopping Center.
In his spare time, George was an avid hunter and fisherman.
“It’s been a good life,” George told me the last time we spoke.
At hospice, even without feeding and breathing tubes, he showed strength and will LaForce said:
“The people there couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘He’s pretty amazing.’”
Right to the end, George Bruggeman was answering those old questions.
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