Five years — five years is enough time for governments to change, families to bloom and long enough for a life to completely change.
Five years is exactly how long Ralph Prins, 95, spent serving in the army during the Second World War.
He recently received a certificate of recognition from the Government of Canada for his five years of service with the Dutch Army.
Prins returned from his service in the Caribbean on Jan. 22nd, 1946, exactly five years to the day from when he left Lacombe.
“It was right up to the hour,” said Prins. “The same train that came from the west, that’s when I left and when I came back.”
Prins was born in Holland. At 19 years of age, he fled the country in 1939, in anticipation of the German invasion as threats of war in Europe became heightened. He came to Canada and landed in Lacombe, not to avoid conscription, but to avoid the war itself.
By the time Prins actually arrived in Lacombe, the Second World War had begun. The Dutch Army was actively recruiting some of the young men who had come to Canada as immigrants into the army.
Prins was quick to enlist and was soon on a train heading to Stratford, Ontario for basic training. He left Lacombe on Jan. 22nd, 1941.
With around 300 recruits, Prins completed his basic training and was quickly deployed as part of the Princess Irene Brigade.
Some recruits ended up being stationed in England or in South America. Prins was deployed to Curaçao, an island in the southern Caribbean Sea, just north of the Venezuelan coast, to defend the oil refineries in the area.
Curaçao and the neighbouring island of Aruba were thought to be strategic targets for the Germans, as oil refined in the area was supplying the Allied efforts in Europe.
British troops were also stationed on the small island. Eventually the Americans joined the Dutch and British after the attack on Pearl Harbor in the end of 1941. Before that, the outlook was grim.
“Everybody thought, now we can see the end,” he said after the Americans joined the Allied forces. “There were lots of people then. It changed everything.”
Prins served as a sergeant, a mechanic in charge of vehicles, tanks, jeeps and trucks that were in the garage. He also took his turn doing guard duty for the island, keeping watch for enemy submarines.
Such was the case for Prins, who was on guard duty on Feb. 17th, 1943, when a German submarine did creep up to the island in an attempt to damage the oil refineries.
“That night I spotted a submarine,” said Prins. “You could see it in the search lights. So we phoned them up. We said that we spotted a submarine, just off the coast.
“He said ‘Oh, yeah and how many chimneys did it have?’ And I said, ‘There were no chimneys on the boat,’ He asked a couple of stupid questions like that you know and then hung up.”
Prins and his fellow guard were told to stop playing around and get back to work, as the area hadn’t seen any action, let alone a German submarine, for years.
Prins called three times about the submarine sitting just off shore, but his superiors still thought he was joking. After a while, his guard shift concluded and he headed to bed.
“I was sleeping, and at three o’clock, that’s when they got shot at,” he said. “Then they believed. Before they thought it was baloney, but it was true.
“They got shot at. Not only Curaçao but at Aruba as well. Aruba was also attacked. You could see on the horizon, several flashes from the guns.”
The raid to destroy the oil facilities on the islands failed and the German submarine was successfully taken down by the Dutch shore guns before escaping.
During the war, mainly during furlough, his time off, Prins managed to travel and see many parts of the world. “It was very interesting,” said Prins of his experience. “I was a single boy so I took it with a smile.”
Prins managed to travel extensively through the Caribbean and the United States, mainly by hitching rides with the U.S. Army and Air Force.
“It was kind of interesting,” said Prins. “We made many miles on the ocean.”
As with many with the young men who joined up with the Canadian Army or British Army, each soldier had a different experience, depending where they were deployed. After the war ended, Prins returned to Holland to be discharged. It was there that he met his soon-to-be wife.
Prins returned to Lacombe in 1946 and close to a year later, his bride followed, traveling on the very first ship of war brides coming from Europe to Canada.
“It was a freighter all right,” said Prins of the ship his bride traveled on. “It was a pretty good sized boat but still quite small.”
Eight war brides were on the ship, embarking on a journey to Canada to meet up with their new husbands.
Prins married his bride on April 30th, 1947 and they lived on a farm just outside of Lacombe. They were married for 60 years and raised seven kids, four boys and three girls.
Eventually Prins retired from farming and now lives in a senior facility, still calling Lacombe, the area he first set eyes on 75-years-ago, home.