In 1945, the German occupation had Holland on its knees. The Dutch were starving, because the Germans were not supplying them with food. Adelderd Davids of Nijmegen, Holland, six years old at the time, lived in Rotterdam. “It was awful,” he recalls. “We ate tulip bulbs. Some people ate rats, because there was absolutely nothing. We had two or three potatoes for 10 people. Our mother would ask after dinner, ‘Who is still hungry? You can eat the peelings.’ On a feast day they made a torte out of the bulbs.”
England’s Royal Air Force and the United States 8th Air Force joined together to drop food to the starving Dutch in a humanitarian mission called “Operation Chow Hound.” Lt. Robert Miller, now of Pullman, was a B-17 pilot with the 8th Air Force 493rd Bomb Group stationed in Debach, England. He and his crew were assigned to fly the food drops over Haarlem and Amsterdam in May 1945.
The Red Cross orchestrated the food drops, says Miller, and had arranged with the occupying Germans not to fire on the Allies. Wrapped in burlap bags, the food was loaded in the bomb bay at the plane’s center of gravity. “The bomb bay had a plywood rack installed for a floor, so that when the bombardier released the bomb trigger that would normally have released bombs, the plywood floor just opened up, and the food dropped to the ground. It was as simple as that.”
In addition to the Army rations, Davids remembers, bread and cookies came from Sweden. Since there was a lake and woods in Rotterdam, the crews sometimes dropped cans of food on the roof tops. The residents had to climb up to retrieve them.
Miller recalls flying on clear spring days at about 200 feet, which enabled him to look down and see the faces of the grateful Dutch people. “They would wave at us. There were signs on the ground that said, ‘Many thanks, Yanks.’ There were things spelled out in flowers and the Dutch flag waving, though the war was not officially over yet. One would think they were taking a chance.”
Shortly after Miller and his crew returned from the food drops, war in the European theater came to an end. Miller completed his last flight returning home from England to the States. He was certain he’d be called to train to fly B-29s in the war against Japan in the South Pacific. But on the last day of his leave at home in Aberdeen, Washington, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, and the war was soon over.
Miller returned to Washington State College to complete his B.A. in music in 1948. He earned an M.A. from University of Washington in 1957 and joined WSU’s music faculty later that year. His career at WSU spanned 30 years. For two and one half of those years he served as department chair.
One day in his Music Appreciation class, Professor Miller remarked that Mendelssohn Street in Holland, named for a Jewish composer, had been renamed by the Nazis. An older student raised her hand. Miller was fascinated to learn that she’d been a little girl in Holland and had experienced both the invasion and the food drop.
As a 22 year-old pilot who flew 21 combat missions, Miller saw the food drops as a chance to do something positive. “The feeling of sheer joy produced a lump in my throat and a feeling that ‘at last we’re doing something good by dropping food to people instead of dropping bombs.'”