Are You Soldier Whitehead?

allied tank

Tuesday, June 6, 1944, the combined Allied armed forces invaded the shores of Normandy, France in a final attempt to end World War II. Great losses occurred when they finally were able to secure the beaches and begin to push the opposing armies back towards Germany.

Among the Allied forces many soldiers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the Church, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Articles of Faith 1:12). For member soldiers, “military service shows dedication to this principle … If Latter-day Saints must go to war, they should go in a spirit of truth and righteousness, with a desire to do good. They should go with love in their hearts for all God’s children, including those on the opposing side” (Gospel Topics, “War”).

Buddy Whitehead Re-assigned to Build Bridges

On July 6, 1944 Buddy Whitehead, a Canadian infantry soldier with the Calgary Highlanders landed on the beaches near Caen, France. After a few months of severe action and due to war injuries, Buddy was re-assigned to the Royal Canadian Engineers bridge division.

Soldier Whitehead

His squadron was stationed in the Netherlands (Holland). Their task was to move eastward, removing land mines and building and repairing bridges for troop and equipment transportation to follow. They would move into a town, stay a few days, and then move on to the next battle site. 

When the local citizens realized they were liberated, they were ecstatic and would come out in force to greet the soldiers. The Dutch citizens, however, had suffered terribly during this war. There was great starvation and deprivation in every town. The children would beg the soldiers for anything to eat.  

In the town of Zwolle, Holland, Buddy noted a small boy standing quietly off by himself.

The child Jan of Zwolle, Holland

He was not begging like the other children. This boy looked thin and emaciated from starvation and appeared years younger than he was. Buddy hand-motioned for the boy to come closer as he did not know any Dutch words. He split his rations and gave half to the boy. Unlike the other children, this boy did not instantly consume the food but quietly slipped away. This same scene was repeated with the boy for several days until the soldiers moved on to the next town. 

Fast Forward 58 Years

In 2003, Brother Wayne Pedersen, an amateur Canadian short-wave (“ham”) radio operator in Claresholm, Alberta received a phone call from Gus, another local radio operator from Coalhurst, Alberta. Gus had previously opened a radio conversation with a man from Holland. After exchanging pleasantries, the man from Holland asked, “You are Canadian. Do you know soldier Whitehead?” 

“No, I don’t”, Gus replied. Canada was a big place, but he would ask around.  

The man in Holland said, “I must talk to soldier Whitehead. For over 50 years I have been asking anyone I meet from Canada if they know soldier Whitehead.” 

Gus called Wayne Pedersen and repeated this vague question. Wayne said he did know a man named Whitehead and that he had been a soldier. Other than that, Wayne didn’t know if this was the soldier the man was looking for.

Wayne asked Brother Buddy Whitehead if he knew anyone in Holland. Puzzled, Buddy couldn’t remember anyone. As he couldn’t communicate with the citizens and because of short stays in each locale, he didn’t make any acquaintances. Wayne arranged a radio communication between Buddy and the man in Holland a few days later.

When Buddy Whitehead took the radio, the man asked him, “Are you soldier Whitehead?” 

“Yes, I was a soldier and my name is Whitehead. I was a soldier in the Second World War,” replied Buddy. He still couldn’t think of anyone that he knew in Holland. 

“Soldier Whitehead, did you come with the Canadian army to the town of Zwolle?” asked the man.   

“Yes, I did.” Buddy replied.

“Soldier Whitehead, I am from Zwolle. I am the boy that you shared your army food with. I have been looking for you for 58 years. I cannot die without thanking you for your generosity and compassion. The food you gave me fed me and my whole family.” 

The boy’s name was Jan Derksen. He was 13 years old when soldier Whitehead first met him. Buddy thought then he could be no older than eight years by looking at him. Although they couldn’t communicate during the war, Jan had remembered Buddy’s name his whole life and inquired after soldier Whitehead every time he talked to someone with a connection to Canada. Jan had little understanding of the size of Canada, having lived in a much smaller country. Buddy and Jan never met again in person, but they became fast friends exchanging gifts and letters. Jan died suddenly in early 2005.

Jan Derksen

After the war, Buddy returned to Canada, married, had children, and a career as a painter and carpenter. He was a bishop of the Claresholm ward. He was a humble man who never tooted his own horn. Like many war veterans, he was reluctant to tell his war stories for fear it would stir up frightful memories. Buddy could not have known that simply sharing his food would result in such a remarkably positive memory of a dark time in the world’s history.

Buddy Whitehead

Keeping Christ’s Second Commandment

Sometimes, small acts of kindness have potential to change lives and allow much good to happen. Buddy has always been my hero because he never let the inhumanity of war rob him of his dignity and love of others. He had lived through dark and dangerous times but did not let them darken his soul.

Buddy Whitehead’s sharing his rations with a starving Dutch boy exemplifies how to be righteous Latter-day Saints. As Jesus taught: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in: Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:34-40).

refugee camp

As President Russell M. Nelson taught at the October 2019 general conference: “Giving help to others—making a conscientious effort to care about others as much as or more than we care about ourselves—is our joy. Especially, I might add, when it is not convenient and when it takes us out of our comfort zone. Living that second great commandment is the key to becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ” (“The Second Great Commandment,” Ensign, Nov. 2019, 46).