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How an American-born Dutch Youth Survived Nazi Horrors, Became a U.S. Aviator

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Any number of times, Hank Gillebaard’s boyhood in Holland could have been cut short.

There was the time he was incarcerated by German occupation forces, accused by classmates at school of being Jewish. Gillebaard, then 15, was rescued before he could be shipped off to a detention camp by a friend of his father who spotted him and pretended Gillebaard was wanted for a crime and needed by local authorities.

Around the same time period, Gillebaard risked his life to relay notes tossed over a fence for his former teacher, only learning later what they were for. The notes, back and forth, enabled his former teacher’s children to be rescued from the newly fenced-off Jewish quarter.

There were Gillebaard’s adventures as a 16-year-old, slipping from place to place around Holland for two years in hiding, living in barns, forced one night to submerge himself in a frigid canal, nearly freezing to death to avoid being detected by a Nazi search boat.

The truth was, he was not Jewish. He born in America to Dutch parents, having moved to Holland at age 2 to grow up Dutch, speaking no English.

But that was only the beginning of a stream of highly unlikely events in the adventuresome life of high school dropout turned aviator Hendrik “Hank” Gillebaard, who died March 31 at his home at San Clemente Villas at age 90.

Melissa Guzzetta, a family friend, recounts his stories in vivid detail in a 2015 book titled “Private Lucky: One Man’s Unconventional Journey from the Horrors of Nazi Occupation to the Fulfillment of a High-Flying American Dream.”

“This started out as a video for his family,” she said. “When we started hearing the details of his story … we thought, this is a story that needed to be told.”

The most frequent reaction to the book has been “this should be a movie,” Guzzetta said.

Yet most people in Laguna Beach, where Hank and Lola Gillebaard lived for 36 years, where he was once had a downtown business and was once president of the Rotary Club, would have had little way of knowing what a rollicking previous life he led.

Forced into hiding before he turned 16, the age when Dutch boys in World War II had to enter German service, Gillebaard survived a threadbare existence through the underground but returned safely to his family as the war was ending.

At his father’s behest, he joined the U.S. Army in Holland and was sent to Germany where no one believed he was American because he spoke no English.

Once denied boarding onto a U.S. Army train, he jumped onto the moving train to hang on precariously between two coaches, filthy but alive on arrival and having to explain himself.

It was the first in a series of U.S. Army misadventures. He used his multi-lingual skills (Dutch, German, Flemish and, eventually, English), a fake high school diploma written in Dutch and an inventive imagination to become an aircraft mechanic who persuaded pilots to take him aloft and show him how planes were flown to fuel his boyhood dream of becoming a pilot. Gillebaard arrived in New York City nearly broke and moved in with an old Army pal and his family.

Gillebaard thrived in New York City, purchased a used airplane and embarked on a series of unlicensed adventures in it, including a near-deadly crash in Pennsylvania where, as luck would have it, Amish farmers who spoke German took him in.

In Texas, there was another crash on takeoff that damaged the airplane. Unable to afford to fix it, Gillebaard tried to hitchhike back to New York and ended up scoring a ride to California instead. After misadventures in Hollywood, Gillebaard found out he could use the G.I. Bill to get a pilot’s license and fly legally.

As the book relates, Gillebaard worked as a crop-dusting pilot in Texas, survived a crash there and applied for a job as a multi-lingual pilot instructor for the Air Force, to train Europeans to become NATO pilots.

He lacked the necessary skills but talked his way in. He managed to dubiously pass test after test, inventively putting his sometimes intentionally poor English skills to his advantage while honing his flying skills.

Some called him “The Crazy Dutchman,” he said in the book.

In the course of his trainer career at Kinston, N.C., he joined a community theater group and met Lola. They co-starred in a play that cemented their relationship.

“We had eight weeks of courting with no obligations, no money spent, just a good time,” said Lola Gillebaard. “And you found out everything about a person, how they react to good times, bad times, middle times. We knew for sure we wanted to get married when the play was over.”

The death of Gillebaard’s father in Texas led Hank and his brother Bob to take over his father’s business making hardboard for furniture manufacturing, which flourished across several states. Hank continued to fly and used the plane to access and impress business clients.

He and Lola, parents of four boys, settled in Newport Beach in 1974, two years later in Corona del Mar and in Laguna Beach in 1978.

“We had a lot of laughter in the house,” Lola said. Through the years, Hank still had a penchant at times for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and getting away with it, or even working it to his advantage.

“If I did like ‘that’ with my elbow, that meant ‘not the right time, not the right place,’ “ Lola said. “He was real good about paying attention to that. In 63 years, I’ve never seen him show fear. We lost twin boys before we had four sons. That’s the first time I saw him cry. And that does so much for a relationship. It was so good for me to see him cry over that.”

The couple prevailed through good times and bad times, “laughter whenever you could,” she said. Living in Laguna Beach, she enrolled in a stand-up comedy class, began giving shows and in 2011 won the Funniest Female in California competition.

Hank didn’t do stand-up comedy. “But he could say some of the funniest things of your life,” Lola said. “And he did great impressions.”

On the day Gillebaard died, Lola had been scheduled to do stand-up comedy at “Got Talent,” a San Clemente Sunrise Rotary competition at Casino San Clemente.

“I was lucky to be born in the United States,” Gillebaard said in the book. “It led to more opportunities for me and my family. As someone who grew up outside of the U.S., I recognized the opportunities in America, things that an American raised here may not always see, recognize or appreciate.

“I feel fortunate to have known from a very young age that I wanted to fly, and that early drive evolved into a natural talent. Luck was with me when I enlisted in the American Army after the war was over. When my career as a pilot trainer came to an end, Bob and I were lucky to have Father’s business to start with.”

His short-term memory affected by Alzheimer’s in recent years, Gillebaard retained his sense of humor and sharp memories of events long ago.

“The book brought all of this together,” Lola said. “I don’t know if he realized that or not. I think he did. I would catch him looking through the book and I’d say, ‘Tell me about that again.’ He loved to talk. He was special. He had to be, to go through all that he went through and come out with a positive attitude.”

A life remembrance is set for 3 p.m. May 7 at San Clemente Villas. “Always love, and forever laughter,” Lola said in the announcement.

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