Author recounts father’s World War II odyssey in book, ‘Two Gold Coins and a Prayer’

October 11, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Meet local author, discuss book at Costco

Jim Keeffe (left) and his father, James Keeffe Jr., collaborated for the younger Keeffe’s book, ‘Two Gold Coins and a Prayer.’ Contributed

Lt. James Keeffe Jr., a United States Army Air Forces pilot, plummeted to earth as conflict tore Europe apart.

Nazis shot down Keeffe’s bomber March 8, 1944, months before D-Day and the start of a massive Allied assault to loosen occupied Europe from Hitler’s grasp.

More than six decades later, Jim Keeffe transformed the tale into “Two Gold Coins and a Prayer” — a book about his father’s experiences as a World War II bomber pilot and Nazi prisoner of war. The author is due to inscribe books and discuss the story Oct. 15 at Costco.

“There I was standing on the ground in enemy-occupied Holland,” the elder Keeffe recounts in the book. “I had just bailed out of my crippled heavy bomber and had no idea what had happened to my crew. I was hungry. I’d had only two hours of sleep in the past 36 hours. My face was smeared with mud and blood. And I was just four days away from my 21st birthday.”

The lifelong aviation enthusiast, now 88 and a Bellevue resident, joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in August 1942 as World War II raged. Then, after intense training, arrived in England on Thanksgiving 1943 to start flying B-24 bomber missions.

“Since he never put it down on paper, as I was getting older and more and more interested in it, back in 2001 is when I took the bull by the horns and decided to take it upon my own self to do it,” Jim Keeffe said of telling his father’s story.

Dutch Resistance shelters pilot

The downed pilot evaded capture, even as German police conducted a door-to-door search near Papendrecht, a small town in the Netherlands. Dutch Resistance members hid Keeffe from German soldiers for several months.

If you go

‘Two Gold Coins and a Prayer’ book signing

  • 1-3 p.m. Oct. 15
  • Costco
  • 1801 10th Ave. N.W.

The resistance even created false papers identifying Keeffe as a basket maker unable to hear or speak. The cover meant he could walk the streets in wartime Rotterdam, so long as he did not speak.

“I didn’t know hardly anything about the Dutch Resistance part of the story,” Jim Keeffe said. “When I started uncovering all of the details of that, and how people living under occupation still were brave enough to take care of people like my dad — with the possibility of getting shot at any moment — that’s what opened my eyes to the whole thing.”

But the Germans eventually captured Keeffe and incarcerated him in Stalag Luft III, a camp in modern-day Poland.

“He got choked up at times when he would talk about sensitive parts,” Jim Keeffe said. “When a German guard helped him one time to keep civilians from attacking him once he got caught. He’d choke up during the human condition things. He never choked up because things were hard or tough. He’s got a soft heart, so when people did extraordinary things, he’d get emotional about it.”

Keeffe traveled to Europe to conduct research, and joined other former POWs’ children at the Stalag Luft III site in Poland.

In 1945, the Germans evacuated the camp as Soviet forces approached from the east. The column of prisoners — 12,000 strong — stretched for miles along the 60-mile route into Germany. The elder Keeffe recalled refugees carting belongings to escape the advancing Soviets and people growing too weak to walk and collapsing into the snow.

On the research trip, author Keeffe and the other children of former prisoners traversed the route on foot. The group departed at the same time on a winter’s night as prisoners had done decades before.

“We walked down the same cobblestone country roads that our dads had and went through the same little villages,” he said. “It was just a trip back in time.”

For book’s subject, another chapter

The story did not end after Jim Keeffe, a Fall City resident, published the book.

Holocaust survivor Helen Cohen-Berman emailed Jim Keeffe after reading a portion of “Two Gold Coins and a Prayer” on Google Books.

Cohen-Berman, then 8, remembered James Keeffe from the war. The girl’s family and Keeffe hid from the Nazis together. Soldiers eventually discovered sent Cohen-Berman’s family to the Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands. The family survived the experience, and Cohen-Berman settled in Israel in 1978.

Through the Google Books connection, Cohen-Berman traveled to Bellevue in September to meet James Keeffe.

(The story received a post on The Official Google Blog, due to the Google Books connection.)

In addition to retracing his father’s steps in Europe, Jim Keeffe traveled to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., to conduct research.

“Two Gold Coins and a Prayer” originated from a series of audio interviews. As Jim Keeffe collected the memories from his father, he decided to compile the stories into a book. Because the elder Keeffe remembered addresses, dates and names, the book has enough details to rival a World War II epic film.

The creative process inspired Jim Keeffe, a first-time author.

“I just doodled all through school and, in fact, if I’m given an assignment to write something, I just go blank,” he said.

The writer’s block resurfaced as he put together “Two Gold Coins and a Prayer.” The process lasted almost a decade.

“There always seemed to be a door that opened up when I didn’t know what to do next,” Jim Keeffe said.

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