‘’Dennis Egan: The man who got things done’’
Photo: Dennis when he was visiting us (2007) during the commemoration of WW2 with the Airgunners in Dronten
In this article I honour this remarkable man. It is an honour to have met him and listened to his stories with "red ears".
Thanks to NAIL for this interview
In the last NAIL Newsletter, we promiseda special article on Dennis Egan, an American and longtime NAIL member who played a very unique role during the liberation of the Netherlands sixty years ago. He has been honored by both the U.S. and Dutch government, as well as the French government, and in 1982 received the Verzets herkenkingkruis for his work helping the dutch resistance. Just recently, he was back in Washington DC as a special guest of the CIA and OSS to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Europe and to attend the dedication of the U.S. World War II memorial.
Who was Dennis Egan and what did he do that was so special? I asked him this in an interview that we conducted by phone recently. For the answer, I encourage you to read on and judge for yourself.
Dennis Egan joined the U.S. Army in June 1943. He was twenty years old, one of five boys that his mother and father had raised in the state of Louisiana. Two older brothers had already been sent to fight in the Far East. Dennis’s decision to join up was a natural decision in a community that was living the war daily because of the number of young men who were already fighting overseas. Dennis’s mother and father supported his decision, relieved that at least he wouldn’t be a paratrooper – something he had told them he was going to do after drinking a bottle of wine one day.
Dennis was sent to Camp Abbot, Oregon for his basic training. He was headed for the Far East when he came down with pneumonia. That illness would end up changing his life since, once he was well again, he was sent not to the Far East but rather put on a ship for England.
Dennis recalls his two weeks on the ship as a time of dealing with regular U boat alarms. One of the convoy boars was even attacked. But Dennis’ strongest recollection of his time on the ship is that he was one of the few people on board who was not seasick. Although he lived on only one meal a day for the first two days on the ship, by day 3 he was able to get as much food as he wanted because everyone else was sick. But not Dennis. His ‘’luck’’ and perhaps more importantly his ‘’can-do’’ attitude was already becoming appararent.
When he arrived in Liverpool in March 1944, he was told to report immediately to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services- the precursor to the CIA) Headquarters in London. OSS? Up until this moment , Dennis had thought he was part of the U.S army. But because of his French language capabilities (Cajun French to be exact) and his evident high IQ, he was pulled out of his ranks and told to get busy. He received no training from the OSS. Rather he was told, as his first assignment, to support French agents who were about to be dropped behind enemy lines. He was to give them everything they needed – food, cigarettes, gear. Dennis went to work, and despite his lack of experience and training, and despite operating in a new environment , he quickly demonstrated that he was indeed the right man for the job. Training wasn’t necessary; Dennis was smart on his feet.
In another decision that would change his life, Dennis was assigned to the Dutch desk in London which was organizing a field unit to move into the Netherlands as soon as possible. The mission was for the team to be in the Netherlands on the day of the liberation. Included in the Dutch team were three of the Dutch secret intelligence office as well as an officer of the British M16. Each member was issued a ‘’Blue Pass,’’ signed by General Eisenhower, permitting the bearer to proceed anywhere in the War Zone without specific orders or to requisition supplies when needed. Dennis’s first action upon joining the team: to buy a ‘’Teach Yourself Dutch’’ book.
Dennis arrived in Normandy with the rest of the invasion force. Under attack by the German Air Force and warned that if he retreated to the boat he would be shot by U.S. forces, Dennis struggled to the beach along with thousands of other young men. While he surved, his all-important vehicle disappeared in a bomb crater. Again demonstrating the ‘’can-do’’ street savvy that him his assignment, Dennis managed to get a truck to pull his car out, all the while that hell was breaking out around him. The next day, he found the rest of his team who were very relieved to find him, since he had all the supplies!
Dennis and his team made their way through France and found themselves in Brussels on the day of liberation. From here, they were assigned to Operation Market Garden with British forces and a short time later, Dennis found himself for the first time in the city of Eindhoven where he would spend his next eight months. His very first day there was filled with the sort of quick-paced activity that would mark OSS Operations during this period: The people in Nijmegen needed new radio equipment; Dennis was the one sent to get it to them. Maneuvering around German forces in the area, going through scenes of pitched battles, Dennis made his way to Nijmegen and back. The next day was a new urgent assignment. And so it went on. Dennis remarks that he was lucky that he wasn’t killed himself,. But sometimes ‘’lucky’’ people are those who make their own luck.
In Eindhoven, the OSS took over a beautiful house in the center, next to the hospital. The Gestapo had been the previous occupant. There were 3 Officers Dennis plus one other enlisted person. The team quickly began feeding information supplied by the Dutch Officers to the OSS at SHAEF Headquarters, first by direct telephone contacts and later augmented by radio dispatches and agents crossing the river lines. By October 1944, the volume of information had increased to the point that the radio operation was expanded to be headed by the officers and four operators who coded, transmitted, and decoded on a 24-hour basis. At the end of the war, the Dutch Intelligence was assessed by U.S. officials as ‘’the most expert, reliable, and dense coverage of a specific enemy-occupied area than any other intelligence service’’.
It was during this period, that Dennis really distinguished himself as a man who could get things done. Dennis recalls that the British forces were that fond of Americans but that the British Commanding Officer in Eindhoven took a strong liking to Dennis and give the order ‘’Anything he wants, give it to him’’. Dennis also got along very with the Canadians. As a result, the OSS office had as much food as they needed, courtesy of the British forces, and as much gas as they needed, courtesy of the Canadians.
I asked Dennis why he was so popular. He said that he personally had a lot of respect for the Britisch forces which had to operate with much less than their American counterparts. Dennis was also easy to work with. For example, early on, the British Commander saw a number of wrecked U.S. gliders and asked if the British could use the wreckage for their vehicles. Dennis didn’t go back up the chain of command looking for an answer. He simply said yes. Later the Colonel Van Der Gracht, of the OSS office, was desperately looking for a jeep which wasn’t available. Never one to give up,, Dennis got the Canadian back loading unit to put a jeep together from parts. When Prince Bernhard insisted that he came back into the Netherlands in a jeep, Dennis got the Canadians to do the same thing again since there were still no jeeps available. For those of you familiar with the U.S. show ‘’MASH,’’ Dennis seemed to have the special skills exhibited in that show by Radar.
Thus, as the war was coming to a close, Dennis was in a good position: well-liked, well-connected, and clearly successful. The next step for the OSS was to move into a huge villa in Wassenaar. They would stay there until after Hiroshima,, when, basically, ‘’everybody left,’’ according to Dennis. There was no reason to stay and the U.S. military made it its policy not to discharge in Europe, so everyone emptied out – except Dennis and one Officer.
At that point, the U.S. military attaché at the embassy in the Hague asked the remaining OSS Officers to recommend the ‘’best man we could have.’’ Not surprisingly , Dennis was recommended for the position at the U.S. Embassy. He was then given a letter to take to Paris to request a discharge there. On January 8, 1946, Dennis was formally discharged with the rank of Sergeant at the Seine Section of the U.S Army. As a result, Dennis was able to stay in the Netherlands. He married and, after he left the U.S. Embassy, established himself as an insurance salesman and real estate agent in the Wassenaar area.
Today Dennis continues to live in Wassenaar and considers it a great privilege to be able to live among the Dutch people. He had four children through his first marriage, all of whom were educated in the Netherlands, married ‘’Dutch,’’ and continues to live here. Dennis has been married to Toos for more than 25 years. Dennis would go back to the U.S. every few years but always returned, his great love for the Dutch people pulling him back.
Dennis and Toos became NAIL members many years ago when he saw that NAIL remained very active when all of the other U.S-Dutch Friendship groups faded away. He is very proud to be a member of NAIL and, although he is not able to come to many NAIL functions, he sends his good wishes and respect to all of the NAIL members. One final note: Dennis was the Master of Ceremonies at the official dedication of the Margraten Memorial Cemetery following the end of WWII. His special connection with Margraten continues to this day.