Coming to America They Saw the Statue of Liberty — Her Plaque Reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Between 1940 and 1959 Cornelius and Maria van Beurden raised nine children. Sixty years ago, they sailed to America penniless yet optimistic, eager to begin again in Fresno and San Luis Obispo County. Approximately 70 van Beurdens — three generations — will celebrate this week at the Dutchman in Morro Bay.
“We’re immigrants,” said Bill about their arrival at Hoboken, NJ in 1957. “Americans born here have no idea what a big deal that was.” With humility and humor, pride and passion, he recounted their story.
“With no work in the Netherlands, our father lived in Indonesia. In 1940 Uncle Harry stood as proxy before Mother took a steamboat to join her husband. Cle was born first.” Bill explained. In 1917 Dutch law conscripted male residents living in Indonesia to serve the KNIL, the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Force, created in 1830 to expand Dutch colonial rule. Until World War II, the KNIL was rarely challenged to protect the Dutch East Indies against foreign invasion.
“The year after I was born (1942) the Dutch were all but wiped out by the Japanese. They’d rotate us from one internment camp to the next — walking up to 50 miles. Father was taken from us to Sumatra to work on the railroad. We’d sleep on cots. There was no medicine, little food — soup, and open trenches for bathrooms. We were guarded by the Indonesians and Koreans who hated us. Mother’s work detail was taking care of the dead. The kids had to march by their caskets to honor them. Mother would sew jewelry into her hem, which she’d trade for food. She was caught a couple times and beat up.
“In August 1945 the war end, but I’m alive today because the smaller islands didn’t get the message. Orders were to kill all the POWs. The Japanese gave their guns to the Indonesians. They’d invade camps, kidnap and cut up the Dutch and float body parts down the river. One night our British-Indian Gupta guards heard the Indonesians were coming and woke us up and took us to a beach in a truck. I still have nightmares getting in a boat with sides and taken to another camp.
“By 1946 Mother didn’t know if her husband was alive, but they reunited and six weeks later we were transported on a refugee freighter back in Holland. I remember stuffing food in my pockets until the captain assured us we’d receive three meals a day while aboard. Uncle Harry greeted us in Rotterdam. He took us to a warehouse where the Salvation Army gave us clothes and shoes. I still donate back to them.
“At first Father was sick. Father had background in accounting so got a school job. The Americans were recruiting – showed us movies of California and palm trees. Even back then the vetting process was tough and long. The whole family had to be in perfect health. We were held up when they thought Cle had a spot on his lung. The X-ray was wrong. I was told I needed to make good grades or we couldn’t go so I studied hard. We sailed January 21, 1957, on the Southern Cross, a troop transporter, for nine days.
“Catholic Charities sponsored us. I still donate to them. We took a train to Fresno. Father had no money so we ate peanut butter sandwiches. Cle and I kept watching for Indians like we saw in the movies. Our first impression of California was the orange trees in Sacramento. In Fresno, it was the antennas and telephone poles like a place still under construction.
“Father was quickly hired and fired in real estate because he didn’t know English. Dropped off at school Cle and I didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know English, but quickly learned to smile and say yes.
“Father was so happy to be In America he took history, English and piano at Fresno City College. He created the choir where he worked at Our Lady of Victory Church. As soon as five years was up he applied for citizenship.
“In 1959 the whole family worked restaurants in Yosemite. It was hard work, but by 1968 we bought the Frasier Motel in Morro Bay for $115,000. Mother lived until 1989 and Father until 1999.”
Eventually the van Beurdens owned seven restaurants in San Luis Obispo County, including Friar Tucks in SLO and Dutchman and Hofbrau of Morro Bay. Bill developed a nationwide insurance company, Van Beurden Insurance Services and Leon developed Bay Osos Brokers. All the siblings and many of the children and great grandchildren have worked for their companies.