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Days of courage: Fall City man tells father's saga of World War II survival

Lt. James Keeffe Jr., right, and fellow prisoner Lt. Andy Anderson outside their shelter in Stalag VII A prison camp, 1945. Keeffe
Lt. James Keeffe Jr., right, and fellow prisoner Lt. Andy Anderson outside their shelter in Stalag VII A prison camp, 1945. Keeffe's World War II experience as a bomber pilot, downed flier, flight with the Dutch resistance and survival as a prisoner of war are recounted in his son's book, 'Two Gold Coins and a Prayer.'
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

“Two Gold Coins and a Prayer” is the first, last and only book that James Keeffe, III, of Fall City will ever write.

The true-life story of his father James Keeffe, Jr., experiences as a Army Air Corps bomber pilot and prisoner of war in World War II Europe, “Two Gold Coins” was a nine-year labor of love that consumed the younger Keeffe’s life. But the fruits of his efforts are evident in the richly detailed book, which goes far beyond his father’s life to connect with the descendants of the Europeans who helped him and the aftermath of the war’s titanic struggle.

The book tells the story of the elder Keeffe’s military career, including his bailout of a bomber over Holland, life among the Dutch Resistance and time as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III, site of the “Great Escape.”

The account was published in 2010 by Keeffe’s own company, Appell Publishing. “Appell” is the German term for roll call, used in wartime prison camps. James Keeffe, Jr., lives in Bellevue.

Just before Veteran’s Day, Keeffe visited the Valley Record office to answer questions about his book.

Was it hard to get your father to talk about his experiences?

“No, his mind was phenomenal. He went back to Europe when we were growing up, retraced his steps, went through the whole route of his escape. He checked up on all the people he met during the war, years later. He remembered everything, all the street corners, the names.”

What was the biggest surprise for you in your father’s story?

“The whole Dutch underground part. I didn’t know anything about that. I started looking into all the characters he met and the hell they had gone through, four years of Nazi occupation. Killings were happening all the time, yet they took care of him, with instant death being automatic if you were caught with an Allied airman. Some of them were killed for helping my dad.... There are so many photos in the book. We found out what happened to every one of the people. You get to see what it was like, with all of the courts, the traitors, the retribution.”

What was the biggest challenge in writing this story

“I am not a writer. That was initially going to be a manuscript for the family. I had 40 hours of taped interviews that I had transcribed. The toughest part was taking that conversation and turning it into a story. I met with my dad for many hours on (the sequence) on all the things: Did this happen before or after this? I had to stop and do a spreadsheet. My dad would go over all of it.... If I knew what it was going to take, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It was nine years from the interview to the printed book. The last three years, it was every night, four or five hours a night. He demanded, ‘Don’t embellish my story. Tell the truth. I don’t need to be made to look like a hero. Don’t say there were excruciating circumstances when there weren’t.’ But there were enough of them that I didn’t have to... I took every incident and researched it. Each question opened up a whole new world, that might take six months to figure out.”

What does the title of your book mean?

“The two gold coins are two Dutch guilders. He got paid before his last mission, and had a wallet full of English pounds. He showed one of the Dutch men his pounds, and was told, ‘You can’t be caught with pounds here.’ He traded them to him for the equivalent of two gold coins, and hung onto them through multiple strip searches and the prison camp, and still has them. When he was getting ready to bail out (of his stricken bomber), he kneeled over the camera hatch in the waist. He said ‘Every fibre in me was screaming to get out. As I kneeled down, this quiet voice said, “You’ve got time for a prayer.” It’s an unusual title for a war book, but I’ve gotten more comments on that than I ever imagined I would.”

Who might be interested in your book?

“Women are, because the Dutch underground was full of mothers, daughters and sisters. Some of them met painful deaths. The human factor appeals to women. Also, anyone interested in World War II, the air war and POWs. The kids and grandkids of veterans are becoming real curious about what their dads and grandfathers did.

It’s not full of blood and guts... but nothing more than what you see on TV. There is truth on how vicious and evil the Nazis were in their reprisal killings. You probably want to know what World War II was about. But we weave history in and out (of the book).”

Did this book change the way you look at your father?

“Because I never went to war, I wondered how I would act. We talked about courage and how important training is. I really got to learn a lot about why my dad is the way he is. I understand him, I understand why he’s a pack rat.”

What advice do you have for families who want to record histories?

"I've talked to many people my age who say their dads and grandfathers never talk about it... I've heard from many children whose father is gone now. The family doesn't ever get to know what dad did. What a loss for the family... Now, while he is still alive, you have the opportunity. If you say, 'Dad, you write it down,' he won't do it. Get a little recorder, set it down and start asking questions. You'll get something, and that will spark a memory. If he gets to where he can't talk about it, pull away and ask something else. Let him know how important it is for the family to know."

• Learn more: Visit the book’s Web site at www.AppellPublishing.com

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