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Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema was born in Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), the son of a coffee plantation manager. The family later returned to the Netherlands.

He was a law student at the University of Leiden in 1940 when Nazi Germany invaded his country in World War II. He made his way to London, where he volunteered for the Dutch Armed Forces and was seconded to the Dutch section of MI6, the British intelligence service. He was soon assigned to assist in supplying the Dutch Resistance. He led 15 missions to deliver radio equipment and guns in small boats to the Dutch coast. In 1942, he became a pilot in the Royal Air Force and flew 72 sorties in the light De Havilland Mosquito plane over Germany to help British bombers identify their targets. After the war, he served for time as an aide-de-camp to Queen Wilhelmina before deciding to emigrate to the USA. He had previously toured the country and written a book about his travels, Rendezvous in San Francisco (1939). He became a writer for the NBC Today Show and Tonight Show, and later wrote for and served as director of Radio Free Europe. He garnered international recognition with his autobiography, Soldier of Orange, published in 1971, a worldwide bestseller. The book was adapted into the acclaimed 1977 film of the same name. In 1973, he moved to Hawaii and continued to write for Dutch newspapers. He published his second volume of autobiography, In Pursuit of Life, in 2000. He the recipient of the highest military honor in the Netherlands, the Militaire Willemsorde (Military Order of William), given by Queen Wilhelmina in 1942.
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