History

Risking life for freedom

Mona Parsons was a most unlikely Second World War hero in Holland

ANDRIA HILL April 1 2002
History

Risking life for freedom

Mona Parsons was a most unlikely Second World War hero in Holland

ANDRIA HILL April 1 2002

Risking life for freedom

History

Mona Parsons was a most unlikely Second World War hero in Holland

ANDRIA HILL

Sitting atop a hill in a Wolfville, N.S., cemetery is a six-foot-high, white granite monument that marks the grave of a little-known Canadian war hero. Mona Louise Parsons, 1901-1976, is remembered on her tombstone as “wife of” her second husband, a Canadian major-general. Some of his Second World War awards and citations are listed on her headstone—even though he is buried with his first wife in Kentville, 15 km away. But of her citations for bravery from Allied Supreme Commander U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Britain’s Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the stone reveals nothing.

Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Parsons showed considerable talent as a dancer and actor from an early age and enjoyed a brief stint in New York City as a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl in the late 1920s before becoming a nurse. In 1937, she met Dutch millionaire Willem Leonhardt whom she married six months later. The couple built a large home, called Ingleside, on extensive grounds near Amsterdam, from which they led a glittering pre-war social life.

When Holland fell to the Nazis in May, 1940, they joined the Resistance and used their business and social connections to provide false identity papers and ration cards, clothing, safe houses and escape routes for downed Allied airmen. Ingleside became a stopping point where airmen waited, usually a few hours and sometimes overnight, before connecting to the next leg of their escape.

Parsons and Leonhardt operated under the Nazi invaders’ watch without raising suspicions for nearly a year and a half, helping more than 50 people escape to England. But by September, 1941, German crackdowns on the Resistance made it increasingly difficult to transfer airmen to rendezvous points with British submarines off the Dutch coast. The last people they tried to help were two British airmen, Richard Pape and William (Jock)

Moir, who waited at Ingleside for an unprecedented six days for a safe opportunity to leave. When at last it became possible to transfer them to Leiden for a scheduled submarine rendezvous, their departure from Ingleside did not pass unnoticed.

In an official statement made after the war, Moir recalled that the vehicle in which he and Pape were driving on the highway to Amsterdam overtook a German patrol car travelling at slow speed. The Germans “looked us over as we passed,” and when they reached the Re-

sistance rendezvous in Amsterdam, they were directed to the next link in the escape chain. The plan was to keep the two men moving to prevent detection, but one link in the chain was a home controlled by Nazi agents posing as a Dutch couple. In the middle of the night, the Germans arrested the airmen and found Parsons’ calling card in Pape’s pocket.

Parsons and Leonhardt did not know the fliers had been intercepted, but they soon learned that other members of their cell had been arrested. Willem failed to

persuade Mona to join him in hiding, and she remained at home prepared to tell any official German visitors that her husband was merely on a fishing trip. Not even a member of her cell who warned her that the Gestapo were on their way could persuade her to leave Ingleside.

The Gestapo arrested her three days after the fliers were apprehended and sent her to prison, where the authorities no doubt expected the wealthy socialite would collapse easily and betray others, once subjected to interrogation, humiliation and sleep deprivation. They could not have been more wrong.

Held without charge, Parsons stood trial on Dec. 22, 1941, for crimes against the Third Reich. She was found guilty before lunch and sentenced to death. “Her case was taken very seriously by the Germans,” says Hans de Vries, archivist with the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. “Hardly any women had been convicted before a military court, and certainly not before 1941.” Greeting her sentence with extreme calm—she later told a reporter, “I was determined not to humble myself before any of them”—Parsons so impressed the German military judge that he arranged for an appeal, and the sentence subsequendy was commuted to life.

The Nazis sent Parsons to first one and then another German labour camp and, in January, 1945, to a prison in Vechta from which she escaped with a friend after a massive Allied bombardment. To hide her heavily accented German, she used her acting talents to pose as a mentally deranged woman with a cleft palate. “We had to pretend she was a little gaga, a little addled,” recalls her fellow escapee, Wendelien van Boetzelaer, now 79 and living near The Hague. “She was fantastic. Even I began to think she was not quite right in the head.” They worked their way 200 km across Germany, performing farm chores in exchange for food and shelter, and after four weeks Parsons reached Allied-liberated Holland.

She went to a clearing station staffed by Canadians who, on the alert for an underground movement of women loyal to the Third Reich, regarded the ill and emaciated Parsons with suspicion. Her claim that she was Canadian further fuelled their doubts until one soldier asked where she was from. Her reply—“A litde town in Nova Scotia called Wolfville”—stunned him. He was

Clarence Leonard of Halifax, and she had just encountered the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. If there was any doubt about her story, Capt. Kelly McLean, the doctor who treated her, and Capts. Vincent White, Ralph Shaw and Robbins Elliott and Maj.-Gen. Harry Foster wiped them away. The first three had shared the stage with her at Acadia University, the fourth remembered her because his father had been her family physician, and Foster had been a childhood friend.

Soon after the war ended, Parsons happily learned that her husband was alive— U.S. troops had liberated the concentration camp where hed been held. Learning of her heroic deeds in the Resistance, Gen. Eisenhower sent Parsons a letter in appreciation “for gallant service in assisting the escape of Allied soldiers.” Tedders certificate cited her help in allowing downed airmen to “evade capture by the enemy.”

But less pleasant events awaited Parsons. On Leonhardts death in April, 1956, she learned he had left one-quarter of his estate

to his mistress, and a long-lost son from a previous marriage, whom Parsons thought dead, turned up to claim the remaining three-quarters. She lost the ensuing legal battles and, dispirited and in failing health, moved back to Nova Scotia the next year.

In Halifax, Parsons became reacquainted with Harry Foster and the two married in June, 1959. Cancer claimed Foster in 1964 and Parsons suffered yet another setback: Veterans Affairs denied her a widows pension because her marriage had occurred after Foster s retirement.

Parsons returned to Wolfville in 1969. Weakened by emphysema, a heart attack and several strokes, she refused to feel embittered by the wartime experiences that had contributed to her ill health. Confined to a Wolfville hospital in 1976 and drugged to ease her pain, Parsons would sometimes awaken in the middle of the night, believing herself to be in a Nazi prison. Finally, on Nov. 28 of that year, Mona Parsons, 75, succumbed—probably for the first time in her life. ESI