A week after Sept. 11, 2001, my wife and I are on a train traveling through central Germany. After a stop, a well-dressed Dutchman, 71 years old, entered our compartment and took a seat. Upon learning we were Americans, he excused himself and left the compartment.
He returned in 10 minutes and handed us two cold Cokes and an English-language newspaper he purchased in the dining car. He sat down and explained he was 11 when the Nazis invaded Holland. For five years, his family was forced to live a harsh life and nearly starved before being liberated in 1945 by paratroopers from the U.S. 101st Airborne. After forcing the Nazis out of Holland, the Americans left and Canadian soldiers followed, providing food and medical care until the end of the war.
The man told us that any time he sees an American or Canadian, he tries to repay the debt he and his family owe to the solders by offering something as a gesture of thanks.
American and Canadian soldiers had such an impact on this man that 56 years later, he was in some small way trying to repay Americans for his freedom.
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Another time on a fall vacation in Europe, my wife and I found ourselves in Basel, Switzerland. It was 8:30 on a rainy night and we were trying to read a map to find a restaurant near a river. We were fooling with the map under a streetlight in front of a row of 400-year-old buildings.
A woman in a sleek Mercedes pulled to the curb and asked if she could help us. The elegant woman with a heavy French accent was in her early 60s. After finding out we were Americans, she told us to wait where we were. She drove down a narrow alley next to a building. Five minutes later, she invited us into the building where we were standing.
We walked into an amazing house built in 1590, furnished with what would be considered museum pieces here. Our hostess told us the restaurant we were searching for wasn’t very good; it wouldn’t do. She insisted on another, phoned and made a reservation, then gave us directions. We thanked her, but she stopped us and said she was still thanking Americans for freeing France.
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Finally, there is Duk Lee. In 1998, while living outside Washington, DC, I had several jobs. One was as a sportswriter covering college sports and minor league baseball. I covered one college baseball team where Duk Lee was a pitching coach. Players and coaches all called him “Duck.” One day, I asked about his unusual uniform number of 63. It was his age. He sat and explained why he put his age on his uniform: To remind him of a vow he made as a teenager.
Duck was born in Manchuria, China, in a Korean colony later occupied by Japanese troops. At the end of the war, his family escaped China by traveling at night on a frozen river, eventually reaching Seoul. His father prospered as a government official and Duck dreamed of playing American baseball in high school. Before his freshman year in high school, North Korean soldiers had overrun Seoul and Duck’s family went into hiding.
After U.S. troops retook Seoul, Duck started hanging around a Marine rifle company. For several months, using his two years of grammar-school English, he acted as an unofficial interrupter for the Marines. He never got to play high school baseball.
“War to many Americans means something that happened far away from America. To me, war means something that swept through my town, my school and my home.” Lee said. “It killed all sports, not just baseball.”
Lee eventually came to the United States for college, attending Shippensberg University in Pennsylvania. He tried out for the baseball team, but did not make the varsity squad until his senior year as a relief pitcher. He stayed in the United States and retired from Bell Atlantic in 1995.
After his retirement, Duck coached baseball and stayed in contact with some of the Marines who had befriended him during the Korean War.
“I vowed I would not allow the Communists to steal baseball from me,” Lee said. “And I thank the American soldiers and Marines who allowed me to eventually play and now coach.”
Editor's Note: This column originally appeared on in May 2011.