Anecdotes From My Early Life
The following was written in full by Heinz Altmann. “These anecdotes are true as I remember them after all these many years. The names of my friends Fritz, Kurt, Jupp, Willi, and Charles have been changed, but they are real people and are still living.” This memoir is copyright 1998 by Heinz C. Altmann. All rights are reserved, including but not limited to any commercial use or exploitation of the contents. These anecdotes are solely for the private and personal use of the reader on this site.
I am Heinz Altmann. As I write this in 1999 I am seventy-three years old and I have been retired for sixteen years. I live with my wife of 46years on our own two hundred acres of forest in Upstate New York. Life is good. But that wasn’t always so.
I was born 1926 in Ulm, a city of some 70,000 people on the bank of the Danube River in southern Germany. I am the oldest of four children. My father owned a retail business and we were solidly middle class.
My father had been working in New York City before the First World War. When that war started, he tried to get back to Germany on an Italian ship and was caught by the British at Gibraltar. He spent the entire war as their prisoner on the Isle of Man. Imprisonment left lasting scars on his personality. He was morose, brooding, rarely happy. He somehow felt that he had not done his duty to the Fatherland. When he returned home from prison, there was the intermittent civil war between the leftist Communists, the Social Democrats, and the rightist parties. His sympathy was with the right.
I started primary school in the spring of 1933. In 1936, I passed the entrance examinations to the Realschule, a secondary school that emphasized sciences and mathematics and transferred to that school. English was compulsory, and I took the language from age ten until I became a soldier. I never imagined that one day English would displace German as my language.
One day father brought home a dinner guest. He was an Englishman. We children ate our dinner in the kitchen that night. After dinner, the two sat in the parlor for cigars and brandy. I was called in, introduced and asked to show off my English. I froze. The presence of a foreigner in our home had overwhelmed me.
We had a Jewish boy in our class. He sat two rows behind me. I sympathized with him, because he, like I, was a weakling. Because it was the fashion to dislike Jews, he often had to suffer indignities from his classmates. The teachers never helped him. One day he was gone. His family apparently had left Germany.
I joined the Hitler Youth when I was ten, and I didn’t like much of it. It emphasized drill and physical, paramilitary play, and I was a weak, straggly, uncoordinated asthmatic. I was tolerated by the others but always chosen last when teams were picked. The marching drills and political lectures were boring. But I did enjoy the hikes and outdoor play, such as capture-the-flag and compass-and map exercises.
There were riots on the night of November 9, 1938, later to be called the Kristallnacht. The synagogue, not far from our home, burned. The next day, I chased and collected heat-singed papers across the square in front of the burned-out building. They were printed with strange letters. It was Hebrew. An acquaintance of my father came to the house later that day. He had been in the riot, and the police had arrested him. Father calmed him and told him he would help him. He did.
Our family hiked just about every Sunday. One Sunday in late August 1939, we stopped for lunch in a forest clearing. We children started to play noisily as usual, but mother warned us to be quiet, as father was very worried and should not be disturbed. The war started a few days later, on 1 September 1939, a date I shall never forget.
The Hitler Youth was called out to deliver the induction orders to the homes of the reservists. This task made us feel very important. I made my deliveries on a bicycle. One day, I was caught in a downpour that soaked my papers. I was afraid I would be punished for neglect of duty.
My father’s business failed in 1940, and the family moved to Stuttgart, the provincial capital, where father got a job as a government bureaucrat. He had joined the Party in 1933. In Ulm, he was what in New York City would have been called a ward heeler. In Stuttgart, he also became an air raid warden. Alarms occurred at night, and he always took me along on his patrols.
One night, the flak began to shoot, and shrapnel started to rain down and bounce on the pavement. We took cover in a doorway. After the shooting stopped, I went to pick up apiece of shrapnel as a souvenir and burned my fingers on it. Father said that would not qualify me for a war injury medal, and I was disappointed. I would eventually get such a medal.
Then came Stalingrad, late in 1942. The German army lost more than 200,000 men there(5,000 eventually returned home). Other disasters loomed: The Allies landed in Africa, and Rommel was defeated at El Alamein. American bombers joined the British in attacking our cities. More fighting men were needed, and sixteen-year-old boys were none too young. My entire class (the eleventh grade) was called into anti-aircraft auxiliary service on 15February 1943. We now were soldiers.
About fifty boys from our school manned an 88mm anti-aircraft battery in the outskirts of Stuttgart. I was assigned to the radar. Some hundred feet from the radar was the battery fire control. There were three of us students and five soldiers, plus a sergeant, at the radar. We three radar students shared a small hut with five others that worked at fire control. We slept on double-decker bunks. Fritz, who had sat next to me in class at school and was my best friend, slept above me. He is a Canadian now.
I had trouble waking up when there was an alarm at night. One time, I failed to show up at my station. The sergeant asked where I was, and nobody had seen me. They thought I had gotten lost, tripped and hurt myself, and they went looking for me. They found me, snoring in my bed with all my gear on. The sergeant was livid. But I was not punished.
One night, a rain of magnesium incendiaries dropped on our battery. The little stick bombs all got stuck upright in the soft soil and cast an eerie, very bright but pale light. No damage was done. We didn’t do much damage, either. While I was there, the battery was credited with half a plane, a British bomber that had come down near Paris on its trip home to England.
We were discharged in February 1944. Five months later, a large bomb buried itself between the radar and fire control, exploded and killed eight students and ten soldiers, including the battery commander. Among them was the entire radar crew. It could have been us!
A three-weeks leave followed. I went hiking with my friend Fritz for a few days, cross-country. Those late-spring days were gorgeous, and to be free to do as we pleased was just wonderful. Often, we saw the contrails of American planes on their way to bomb somebody. One early afternoon, we entered a village. Several farmers took us “captive,” brandishing pitchforks. They were sure we were downed American airmen and locked us up in their goose pen, with the geese. After about an hour there, we were let go with apologies.
After that leave, I reported to the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD, the compulsory national labor service, similar to the American CCC), a paramilitary organization of the Party. I ended up in Czechoslovakia, near Budowice. My friend Fritz went somewhere else. Most of our time was spent in military drill, which was a complete waste of time. The first two weeks we shoveled snow from our camp to the railroad station, so supplies could be carted to camp. My boots leaked and were too small, and I froze both of my big toes, a very painful infliction. Later, we dug holes for the poles of a power line that was to serve the nearest village.
Our sergeant told us stories during breaks. He had been in Russia with a group of soldiers whose job was it was to round up Jews. That seemed a perfectly natural thing to have to do. Years of indoctrination had dulled our senses. Today, I shudder in loathing; there but for the grace of God could I have gone!
We would get passes on Saturdays to go to the nearest village, but we had to go in groups, because the natives were hostile, and some soldiers had disappeared without a trace.
My stay in Czechoslovakia ended late in May, after 76 days. A special train took us back home. At Linz in Austria, the wagons were uncoupled for a change of engine and temporarily parked on a siding, right next to what I later learned was the Mauthausen concentration camp. We could see the barbed wire fences, the huts, and some inmates shuffling around. I still wonder if that stop was done deliberately, to show us what would happen to us if we disobeyed.
After another leave, during which the Allies landed in Normandy, I reported to a basic training company stationed near Stuttgart. This time, the training was for real: I was now in the army and was to become a combat infantryman. We were housed in a large stone building, twelve men to a room, with double bunks. All but one of the twelve in our room had been flak auxiliaries and knew all about the drill; thus our sergeant spared us much of the customary hassles, at least so long as we always passed inspection. Our twelfth man, who never could get anything right, was “helped” by the other eleven.
Training with live ammunition was included. The principal source of firepower of the infantry squad was the Light Machine Gun (Mg) 42, which fired some twenty rounds every second. I did not weigh enough to be a machine gunner: The recoil pushed me back bodily. However, I had grown in height and was among the tallest in the company, a definite disadvantage to an infantryman when digging and hiding in foxholes. We dug many a hole with our little folding spades; then a captured Russian T-34 tank would roll over us. We threw live grenades, and I got to fire a Panzerfaust, a disposable hollow-charge antitank weapon, hitting the boilerplate target dead center and burning a neat hole through it. I wasn’t much good as a rifleman: I could focus either on the sights of the rifle, or on the target, but not on both at the same time.
While in basic training, Stuttgart suffered a number of heavy air attacks, all at night. We were ordered to help with rescue. One time, we dug into a cellar to rescue a mother and her little daughter. When we got to them, the girl was just barely alive, the mother dead. And all the time, an unexploded bomb hung perilously above us in the wreckage. I also remember being in the center of the city in a firestorm so fierce that we had to hang on to each other, or we would be swept into the flames. Not a hundred feet away, it was so hot that the asphalt paving of the street was burning.
Toward the end of basic training, I was among those who were about to be ordered to officers’ training school. I had other ideas. I did not want to go through yet another set of basic training indignities. There was only one way to avoid it: Volunteer for combat duty. Much against my parents’ wishes, I did just that. Had I stayed with the prescribed routine, I would have died in the East. As it was, I was immediately posted to a unit that was forming up for front-line duty in the West.
This was early in September 1944. The Allied thrust had come to a halt for lack of supplies, especially gasoline. The right flank of the US Third Army (General Patton) was exposed, and three new armored brigades were formed to attack that flank. I would be with one of these three.
I was assigned to a Panzergrenadier company in the infantry regiment of the 112th Panzer Brigade. Our squad of twelve was led by a sergeant who had had extensive battle experience in the East. There was a corporal, but the remaining ten were all privates, like I. Not only that, they were Polish. Yes, the sergeant, the corporal and I were the only Germans in our squad. The others did understand German, but could hardly speak it. Our squad armament, apart from personal weapons such as rifles or handguns, consisted of two MG 42. Because I was no good with a rifle, I was assigned second machine gunner to one of them. My machine gunner was one of the Poles; we could communicate only with difficulty.
Each squad had a truck, and when all was ready, our trucks took us to the railroad station for loading, the trucks on flatbeds, the men in passenger wagons. We set off on the evening of
8 September and crossed the Rhine at night. Sometime in the morning, the train stopped in a forest, because there were enemy aircraft nearby. We were ordered out of the wagons and took cover among the trees near the tracks. The train itself was well camouflaged, but that did not help. The engine built up too much steam, the safety valve let go, and a tall plume of steam betrayed us. Two planes came in firing, and it was interesting to me to see the bullets hit twigs and leaves nearby or cause tiny fountains of dust when hitting the soil. It was my baptism of fire, and I was elated that I felt no fear. It was like watching an exciting movie.
The planes had caused little damage, and the train moved on. The day after, on 10September, we unloaded near the city of Epinal in France and moved off into the meatgrinder that, only eleven days later, spit me out hurt but alive.
And now followed almost two weeks of turmoil and confusion. This is how I remembered those days when I wrote my Memoirs for my children in 1984, thirteen years ago:
It began with many long rides on the truck. We sat on benches along the sides of the truck bed, our gear and weapons between the benches. Most of the time we were in convoy and moved at a crawl. There never seemed to be a stop. We sat for hours without relief. My bowels would hurt to be emptied. Finally, a stop.
I jump off the back and into the road ditch. But no sooner are my pants down, with the business far from finished, and the convoy begins to move again. In the rush, my underwear gets dirtied. It will be days before I get a chance to wash it. But I am not alone with this problem. The enemy must have smelled us coming!
We got orders to find the Americans: A reconnaissance. It probably was early in the afternoon of 11 September. Our platoon, in three trucks, was ordered to follow and protect a Panzerspaehwagen of type Puma, an eight-wheeled, turreted armored car carrying a 50-mmgun. It had two drivers, one in each direction of travel.
Our little convoy drove off, the armored car in the lead. It was a beautiful autumn day. We followed a dirt road through a deep forest, protected by the dense canopy from aerial detection and possible attack. The armored car reached the edge of the woods and stopped briefly, then ventured beyond and stopped again. We jumped off our trucks and fanned out on both sides of it, keeping mainly in the road ditches. So far, none of us knew what was happening. Then the hatch of the armored car opened, and the commander stuck his head out. He raised his binoculars to his eyes and looked at something off to our right. There they were! On a parallel road, perhaps a mile away, some vehicles were on the move. They were American. We were still undetected. The armored car backed into the woods, and its commander went on the radio. Then he left the woods again, trained his gun and fired. Two of the enemy vehicles, probably trucks, were hit in quick succession.
Then he quickly backed into the woods again, and we followed. The trucks now had to turn around on the narrow road, and there was no time to lose. In the hurry, the other two trucks bumped each other, but no disabling damage resulted. Our driver stayed well clear of the others. Then we high-tailed it back home. It had been an exciting experience. Our first contact with the enemy was a victory for us! But it was to be our only victory.
The next day, 12 September, was also exciting. It was our first day with tanks, Panthers at that. The only tank I had seen close-up before was the Russian T-34 that had provided realism to our basic training. These Panther monsters were huge, their 75-mm guns the size of telephone poles. Two dozen of them drove up, and we climbed aboard. Then we started off in a whirlwind of dust. Our squad was on the second tank. The tank commander was standing in his turret. He wore no insignia of rank, but from the conversations he had over the radio, it appeared that he commanded the entire column. The rattling and screeching made it almost impossible to understand what he was saying, and I leaned well toward him to catch some of the words. He saw my interest, smiled and winked at me.
There were no enemy planes around all afternoon, and we reached our destination without interference. It was a shallow valley near a village. The tanks went into bivouac in the valley under the cover of orchard trees. We dug in on the hillside about a half-mile away ahead of them. The night was peaceful. The next day was not.
The nearby village was Dompaire. After the war, I learned that French civilians had sent word to a nearby unit of the 2nd French Armored Division of our presence. Wisely not risking his Sherman tanks against our Panthers, the French commander called in air strikes. They began about 10 a.m., just as we were ready to move out. The unit was 406Tactical Air Group, stationed in Rennes.
The strafing planes slaughtered our tanks, attacking with machine guns and rockets. I shall never forget the sight of the flaming tanks, of burning crew members spilling out of hatches to slide down the sides, only to lie on the ground like flickering heaps of ashes, quite still and smoldering. I remembered a Latin phrase: Sic transit gloria mundi (Thus goes the world’s glory). Had yesterday’s tank commander also died?
The following night, a few remaining tanks and we grenadiers slunk back. We were much chastened, even though none of us grenadiers had been hurt.
The next few days are a kaleidoscope of confusion. We moved all over the countryside, at first truck-borne, then on foot. When I looked at maps after the war, many of the place names were still familiar: Epinal, Remiremont, Gerardmer, St. Die, Rambervillers, Baccarat, Domptail, Gerbeviller.
I recall episodes like these:
We travel on our trucks, apparently without destination or goal, moving for the sake of moving. We stop, perhaps to rest, perhaps to dig in and stay a while. One afternoon, we rest at a roadside. Down a side trail stumbles what turns out to be an American Thunderbolt pilot, hands folded over his head, escorted by a grenadier with his rifle pointed at his back. The pilot looks terrified, and he is shaking all over. His eyes are those of a child expecting a beating. They plead. Our sergeant talks to the grenadier, who says he has just flushed the pilot out from under some shrubs. The sergeant says something to the captive, but he shrugs his shoulders. He does not understand German. I offer to help and start asking questions for the sergeant. The pilot shakes so much he can barely talk. It appears he expects to be massacred. No doubt he has been told that would be his fate. I offer him a cigarette instead. He accepts it with a thin smile and lowers his raised arms. I give him a light and smile back. He looks at me with a great surprise first, then with obvious gratitude. But we learn nothing from him, and the grenadier leads him away.
We are to have a day of rest and get a chance to clean up. The squad is quartered in one of the farmhouses of a village. The inhabitants have all fled. There is a fenced-in rabbit warren outside, penning some two dozen big meat hares. We haven’t had a decent meal in several days and catch three of the hares for dinner. But no sooner is the water boiling on the stove, we are ordered to mount up again. No rabbit stew tonight! We find a bucket and salt the rabbit meat away for later. We never get to eat it.
We are in another village, quartered for the night. I am on guard duty and it is very dark. Behind me is a high masonry wall. I am very scared and alert. We heard stories that French partisans will sneak up behind a sentry and slit his throat or slip a garrote over his head. But nothing happens that night.
One of our Poles – I’ll call him Lover Boy – likes the French girls, and they him. He is often gone away somewhere, and that drives the sergeant crazy. Lover Boy gets chewed out, but that means nothing. He just shrugs his shoulders as if to say that he doesn’t understand a word the sergeant says.
Again I am on night guard duty, this time on the periphery of a village. I hear the drone of a heavy engine on the other side of a low, bare hill in front of me. Could be a tank, I think, though I don’t hear the usual clanking and screeching of treads. Perhaps it is just standing there, warming up, getting ready to pounce. I wake up the sergeant, who sends a patrol to investigate. They are back in a few minutes: A farmer is plowing with his tractor.
We are riding through a burning village at night, on the rear deck of a Panther tank. The driver seems to enjoy hitting the farmers’ carts parked by the side of the road. The tank commander tells him to stop it, but that has no effect. The driver probably pleads poor visibility.
A rainstorm drenches us while we are riding on a tank. I find a warm spot near the engine exhaust, huddle there and fall asleep. When I wake up, it is morning, and I am dry and very thirsty.
We are on a hill among shrubs in a semi-open pasture, just sitting there, smoking and waiting for orders. All is at peace. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, bees are busy among the flowers. Then a bunch of trucks drives up, men jump off and unhook Nebelwerfer rocket launchers, pull them into firing position on the road, load, aim and fire, all within a few minutes. The rockets whoosh away, screaming, leaving behind a big pall of smoke. No more birds or bees. They quickly hitch up again and are gone. We are left behind and know what will happen. The Americans do not like the Screaming Meamies and will do everything possible to put them out of action. In this case, they answer with a barrage of 105mm artillery. But it is too late. It is us they hit, not the rocket guys. The earth around me explodes. The ground heaves and shakes. Big clods fly skyward. And Ihave to empty my bowels again and right now! Aside from my underwear, nothing got damaged.
We are told that our trucks have been hit. No more riding in comfort. From here on we walk. We are now just simple infantry. That means lugging my ammunition boxes and spare barrels through the heat of the afternoons. I am streaming sweat. I am so parched I can’t talk. My throat hurts. I can just barely keep up with the others. We cross an open pasture. The cows look at me and appear to tell me how dumb I am. They tell me to be smart, like a cow, to stay a while and chomp some grass with them.
We stop at a farmhouse. Like all others, it is deserted. Just outside the front door stands a wooden tub, filled with a bubbling mass of little yellow prunes, the making of Mirabelle, the local prune brandy. And – wonders never cease – there is a big pile of watermelons in the hallway. I am very hungry and thirsty and wolf down some. That stills my hunger and thirst but gives me instant diarrhea. To this day, I don’t like watermelons.
I am exhausted, tired without limit, deadbeat, yet I have guard duty at night near the bank of a river or canal. There is no cover nearby, and the sentry has to lie down. That is my undoing. I fall asleep, to be shaken awake by my sergeant. He scolds me, justifiably, accuses me of neglect of duty and threatens court-martial. But he does not report me.
Fatigue rules our lives. Ernie Pyle, the American war correspondent and hero of footsloggers, described it thus: “Exhaustion, lack of sleep, tension for too long, weariness that is too great, fear beyond fear, misery to the point of numbness, a surprising indifference…” That was the burden of infantrymen on both sides. I have never before, nor since, been so dog tired and drained.
Then came two days that changed my life.
Our company entered Luneville from the south in the morning of 20 September and advanced to the railroad station, which we had been ordered to occupy and defend. Americans had entered the city the previous day. I learned after the war that they were from the 4th Armored Division and the 79th Infantry Division.
The railroad station consisted of several buildings aligned along a number of parallel tracks that were separated from each other by raised concrete platforms. Beyond the buildings was a large square, bordered by more buildings on the other side. Between those buildings, an alley entered at an angle. Our squad went in reserve in a nearby cellar, which was occupied by civilians and nuns hiding from the fighting.
Another squad of the company occupied the station. Their sergeant hid behind abuilding. When he peeked around the corner of it, a sniper bullet caught him in the cheek, wounding him severely. Our squad was called to relieve his men. I was to take the post where he had been, behind that building. When I got there, he was lying on the ground, groaning feebly. The bullet had torn away his entire jaw and part of the nose. One eye was dangling from its socket. The other eye was open, staring wildly and terrified, yet somehow knowing, at nothing. There was hardly any blood. His men carried him back to the cellar.
A bit later, a GI came out of the alley and stepped into the square. He stopped in the middle of it. Others appeared at the mouth of the alley. I could not shoot, because the sniper knew I was there. So I motioned to Lover Boy, who was behind another building, to toss a grenade. The GI came closer. A few more steps, and he could fire on us. Again I motioned to Lover Boy. Again no action. He seemed frozen in fear. Luckily for him, and us, the GI turned around and disappeared back into the alley with the others.
That night, we were ordered to abandon the railroad station and retreat. The sergeant had died. We left his body in the care of the nuns who offered to bury him.
We ended up in a village just south and east of Luneville, called Moncel. A large farmhouse was assigned to us. We posted a guard and went to sleep. There was a fox kitten chained in the kitchen, and it smelled up the place terribly. Now, why would anyone have such a pet? The farmer probably put it there to discourage intruders. It did not keep us from sleeping.
Morning came, and we dug in. There was a railroad track running on an embankment past our farmhouse. We dug our machine gun nest between the tracks. The first houses of Luneville were less than a mile away, and there was nothing but flat fields between us and them. That gave us a beautiful field of fire. The riflemen dug in on either side of the embankment.
I had guard duty in mid-morning, when an artillery spotter plane appeared. Those things were dangerous. They would call in artillery even on a single soldier. He didn’t see anything moving, got bored and disappeared. But a half-hour later, artillery began to fire smoke shells to blanket our field of fire with fog, and we could hear tank engines. Tanks crawled out from between the houses along the road toward us, and ghostly figures appeared among the fog swaths. We began to fire. The bullet belt rattled from the ammo box, guided by my hands. The barrel got hot, and I changed it. I do not remember being scared, just very busy and excited.
A guy in one of the foxholes fired a Panzerfaust against a tank, but missed. The tank made for him, straddled the hole with one track, then slowly pivoted, burying the inhabitant alive. My gunner got hit in the shoulder and left for the rear. I took over the machine gun. The firing got heavier. My heart was pounding, I was sweating, but this time my bowels were ok. Then the call came to retreat.
I grabbed the gun and slid down the embankment toward the farmhouse. Everybody else had already left, and I was alone. I went toward the road, thinking that my buddies had gone that way. I turned the corner of the farmhouse, and there was that Sherman tank, not fifty feet from me, all buttoned up, as high and as wide as a house, menacing as a bull elephant. Fear gripped me the instant I saw it. I ran back around the farmhouse, ran through backyards and gardens, over fences and through ditches, ran, ran, ran.
I was still lugging my machine gun but had no ammunition. Where were the others? Was the enemy already in front of me? Would I end up a prisoner? If I tripped, would I have time to get to my feet? How close behind me were they?
I came to another ditch. There were two soldiers in the ditch, Germans. One had been wounded in the chest, the other had taken the tunic off and was getting ready to bandage him. It was a long shot, no exit hole. Hardly any bleeding, just some pink froth. Very labored breathing. He had to be carried back to the aid station, wherever that was. I now had to choose: Do I help carry the guy, or do I keep my machine gun? I drew the bolt and the barrel, threw both as far as I could, and left the useless gun right there. I could have been court-martialed for that, had the gun been signed out to me.
Eventually, we reached the edge of a forest. Others had already arrived there. A defensive line was being organized. I was handed a rifle. A Sturmgeschuetz (self-propelled antitank gun) drove up and hid at the forest edge. It was none too soon. Some tanks appeared on the road. The Sturmgeschuetz shot twice, and two tanks were hit. One burned. The Sturmgeschuetz backed up, knowing what was about to happen. It didn’t take long, and artillery rained down on us, probably 105mm shells.
The shells burst in the treetops. I took cover behind a big oak, lying on my belly wit hmy head against the trunk. There was no place to hide, no hole to crawl into. Something stung the tip of my right middle finger. It was a sudden, hard, intense, stabbing pain. I did not dare look at first. Then I sneaked a peek because the finger hurt with a burn. A sense of relief overcame me: Now that I was wounded I could, just possibly could, get a few days rest in some nice hospital.
The bombardment ceased. All of a sudden, no noise. I tried to rise but could not. My left leg refused. I called to a nearby buddy, who came over and examined the leg. I had been hit through the boot top, and there was blood in the boot. He helped me get up and hobble to the Sturmgeschuetz nearby. Other wounded were sitting or lying on it. I joined them. The next stop was the battalion aid station. I was put on the ground alongside quite a few others. Surprisingly, the leg did not hurt, just the finger. Then I passed out.
I remember waking up once that night, lying in an open-top ambulance truck that was racing cross-country trying to escape artillery fire.
My leg was set and encased in a plaster cast at a hospital in Phalsbourg. When I woke up from the anesthesia, a medic asked me how I felt. I told him that I was hungry. He laughed out loud: Nobody is hungry while still in an ether fog. But I wolfed down three jelly sandwiches. A day later, I was moved to a hospital in Haguenau, where I was for several days. As my right hand was bandaged, and I could not hold a pen, a nurse wrote a postcard to my folks for me.
A surgeon came and explained my injuries. My finger was not hurt badly. A pinhead-sized piece of shrapnel had partly destroyed the nail bed, had buried itself under the nail and then burned part way through the nail from underneath. That had caused the intense pain. There should be no lasting effects, and the bandage would come off in about a week. However, the leg injury was serious. The shrapnel had entered the back of the leg three inches above the ankle. The exit hole was the size of a silver dollar, located on the outside of the leg. Two inches of the fibula had been shattered. He had removed as many of the bone fragments as he could find and then inserted a rubber tube to drain the wound. A little lower, and I would have lost my foot. He thought it likely that the foot might yet have to go. The war was over for me, he said.
The next move was by train. The rail trip was in a closed freight car that I shared with some twenty others, none of us being able to get up, all lying in semi-darkness on blanket-covered straw. We had not been provided with food or water, nor could we relieve ourselves with dignity.
We arrived at Ravensburg, a small city in southern Germany. Luxury was waiting for us there: A regular hospital train. The cars had double bunks, and I drew a lower bunk, just inches above the floor. We were fed and watered. I tried to get up to go to the toilet but collapsed in the aisle. The nurses had a job getting me loaded back into my bunk.
After three days, moving only at night, we arrived at Coburg. The hospital was in a former school building. I shared a room with about ten others, all amputees. Our nurse was a tiny girl who had a hard time with our jokes.
The surgeon came on rounds every morning. The nurse would first remove the bandages, then rinse the wound with hydrogen peroxide. The surgeon seemed to get a kick out of wiggling the drain tube, causing me considerable pain. About two weeks into my stay, there was a surprise. My wound had been itching a lot for days, and I complained to the nurse. She discovered a nest of maggots hiding under the drain tube. How they had survived the daily disinfectant bath was a puzzle. The surgeon pronounced them helpful: They would eat any dead tissue, thereby promoting healing. But the nurse killed them the next day; the itching was driving me crazy.
The days passed in boredom. I read a lot, even tried to study the lessons I had missed at high school. I did not sleep well because I could only lie on my back. After a while, my heel began to hurt. A medic cut a hole in the cast and discovered a big blood blister there, caused by a fold in the lining of the cast.
A rumor arose that those who could walk could ask to be ordered to their home hospitals in time for Christmas. I had not been on my feet for some six weeks, but I was determined to try. With help from a friend, I sat sideways in my bed and let my legs dangle down. My wound throbbed badly. But it went better with each try. He got me a pair of crutches, the kind that end below the elbow. I learned to use them. The rumor proved to be true. I asked the surgeon for orders to go home, and he laughed at me. When I told them what I had done, he stopped laughing and started to scold me. But he relented: If I could make it to the dining hall and back, I would get orders. The dining hall was in another building, and a flight of steps had to be negotiated. The weather was lousy. I made it.
My home in Stuttgart was only about a mile from the railroad station. I arrived at the station in the morning of Friday, 24 November, during an air raid. The all-clear sounded, and I made my way home, including a long flight of steps. It was quite exhausting. Was that a reunion! My family had no idea I was coming. There had been no time to notify them.
I spent the weekend with them. There were three alarms the first night. Their shelter was a tunnel, some thousand uphill feet from the house. I made the round trip twice, but then stayed at the shelter. My dad stayed with me. The exertion had made my wound bleed again.
I hobbled the downhill mile to the hospital on Monday morning. The sergeant was very angry with me. I had been away without leaving the entire weekend! It had never occurred tome that this was punishable. But he relented and signed me in as of Saturday.
I shared a room with amputees. We had a good time together, playing cards a lot. After my cast was removed and I was more mobile, some of us would go to movies in town.
My beloved city of Ulm was bombed by the British in the night of 17 December 1944. My maternal grandparents lost their home and life savings. The house where I was born, and where the family had lived, owned by my father and his siblings went up in flames. Two neighborhood girls and their mother lost their lives when they suffocated in their shelter. Their father and husband survived three years of war in the East.
Christmas was depressing. I spent it at home with my parents and the older of my two sisters. The other sister and my kid brother had long ago been sent to safer areas. We could hear the distant thunder of artillery in the west. None of us said so, but we all doubted we would win the war. Goebbels had promised miracle weapons, and we wanted to believe, but doubts were strong.
My wound would not close; a fistula had developed. The surgeon tried every trick to get it to close, so he could order me into service again. When it finally closed, March had arrived.
I was discharged from the hospital on 9 March 1945 and ordered to report to a battlegroup that was being formed to take part in the defense of Stuttgart. In beautiful spring weather, we dug fortification ditches. I was still using a cane but was appointed company message runner. In place of a rifle, I carried a handgun. This was not an elite unit!
French troops encircled the city on 20 April. Our company retreated to the banks of the Neckar River that flows past Stuttgart. Early the next morning, the bridges across the river were blown in a serious of tremendous explosions. Only a rickety footbridge remained standing. We retreated across it in the afternoon. The other side was being occupied by American troops, and we dodged Sherman tanks on our way through the suburb of Bad Cannstatt. The evening saw us in a forest that I knew well. It had been a favorite hiking area for our family in peaceful times. We were quartered at an inn, and I had guard duty during the night.
We retreated into the forest during the morning, then we were told to wait. Tired, I laid down in the undergrowth. When I woke up, I was alone. My first reaction was to try and follow them, but by then all energy had left me. I made my way through vineyards toward the nearby village of Uhlbach and knocked on the door of a farmhouse.
A woman opened. I asked her help. My wound was bleeding again. She let me come in and fed me. I was told to undress, so she and her daughter could wash my clothes. I crawled into bed and immediately fell asleep.
She shook me awake early the next morning. The Americans had been in the village and put up posters: Anyone harboring a German soldier would be shot. I put on my partially dried uniform, dismantled and threw away my handgun, thanked them for their care, forgot to take my cane with me and proceeded down the highway toward the river. In my pocket was a sandwich the woman had given me.
It is not possible today, from the base of comfort and happiness in which I have been allowed to live for so many years now, to reconstruct the frame of mind, the deep depression, which had seized me then. All that I had believed in had dissolved into disaster. Germany was beaten. There would be no future. Morgenthau would see to it that there would be no German generation after mine, if mine was allowed to survive. Hitler had deserted us. He had promised us greatness but had failed us. He was the deserter, not I. The whole German nation had deserted me. I was alone, all alone, a little, miserable speck, a worm to be crushed under some boot. And I did not care anymore.
Two Americans in a jeep drove toward me. I threw up my hands. They stopped. I was motioned to sit on the hood of the jeep, hands behind my neck, a mere hood ornament. They turned around and triumphantly drove into the next town, Esslingen.
The spring sun was still shining and the birds singing as if nothing had happened.
A dark dungeon of a cellar swallowed me. There were many other people. I ate the sandwich. The clock on the city hall tower outside struck the hours that crept by. In the afternoon, a truck took some of us away.
The next stop was a barn near Winnenden. On the way there, I observed the heavy traffic of army vehicles. Nobody was walking. Military police in white helmets supervised busy intersections. There was a strange and unfamiliar odor in the air. I eventually recognized it as engine exhaust fumes. How could we win a war against all this engine power?
We spent the night locked in the barn. The next morning, 24 April, saw us off, again on trucks, toward the camp at Heilbronn-Boeckingen. I have no recollection of this camp that has become rather infamous, except that there was little, if any, food, and that I got very thirsty in the warm sunshine.
My little sister had made me a small pocket calendar as a Christmas present, and I used it to keep track. I still have the calendar.
The next day we loaded into a huge tractor-trailer with an open top. There was little room to spare. A GI sat on the roof of the cab, chewed gum and played with his carbine. We started off. Some women threw bread to us but were shooed away by the guard. He even shot once. We crossed the Rhine on a temporary bridge and arrived at Rheingoenheim, a suburb of Ludwigshafen. A city of stockades had been erected there, each stockade a square about five hundred feet on a side, surrounded by high barbed wire fences, machine gun towers at each corner. Alleyways separated the stockades; the guards patrolled them. I do not knowhow many prisoners were in each stockade, but I estimate it must have been at least two thousand.
We were the first group to occupy our stockade. The ground was a plowed, raked field. It would soon be a bed of dust. The spring of 1945 was quite warm and had lots of rain, even a hailstorm. The rain turned the dust into a quagmire of mud. There was no shelter. Heavily chlorinated drinking water was supplied from a few Lister bags that hung from tripods. There were not enough of them, and we all got terribly thirsty. Eventually, a single water faucet was installed. Initially, there was no latrine. Eventually, a few shovels were issued and a trench dug and equipped with a log beam to sit on. To get out of the sun, guys would dig holes to sit in. When the rain came, some sides caved in and buried the inhabitants alive.
I was lucky to have a greatcoat, woolen, the kind the teamsters wore in the German army. It was so long as to almost reach my ankles. That coat kept me warm and dry.
We were plagued by lice and fleas. It was impossible to keep clean; there was no water for washing. There was far from enough to eat: Nothing at all for a couple of days, then a quart of watery soup once a day. Ravenous hunger and thirst developed. Some went mad and climbed the fence at night, only to be shot down by the guards.
But in the midst of this misery, good fortune smiled on me. One day I was hunting lice while sitting on my greatcoat when someone tapped me on the head. It was my good friend Fritz from school and flak days! I joined his group and now had someone to spend the endless hours with, to share memories with and to hope with. I needed Fritz badly. He was much more pragmatic than I was and was always optimistic. Without him by my side, I may not have survived.
Word got around that Hitler was dead, and later that the war had ended. Rumors began to fly that we would all be discharged soon. Another rumor had it that we could volunteer to serve in the Pacific. Neither proved to be true.
On the morning of 18 May, our group and others were ordered to line up at the gate. Tables had been set up there; behind them sat Americans who turned out to be mainly refugees from Hitler Germany. They let us know that we were not their friends. Each German soldier had a Soldbuch (soldier’s passport) which listed, among other items, the unit he belonged to. That let the examiners weed out any SS-men. Then we had to scratch out the swastika on the cover page. One of us had a letter with a German flag on it. The examiner made him eat the letter while he jeered: “Jetzt kannst Fahnerl scheissen” (Now you can shit flags) in flawless Bavarian dialect. We each were assigned a prisoner number and told to memorize it. Then we were deloused with cloudy puffs of DDT up our sleeves, down our pant legs and into our hair. We looked like millers.
We were allowed to sit on a pile of telephone poles. I still remember that Fritz and I talked about what the future might bring. We still feared the Morgenthau Plan: We had been told that it envisioned a rural Germany, shorn of industry, peopled by castrated men and childless women. But we had found that the few Americans we had had contact with, mainly the guards, were normal human beings, not gross monsters, and that was encouraging. They were much more interested in trading our jewelry, watches, and decorations for cigarettes than in doing us harm. Fear of the future had not yet been banished, but there was a flicker of hope. We could dream. What would I choose in life, if I could choose? My wishes were modest: Enough to eat without constant hunger, enough income to support a wife and a few children, a roof over our heads, perhaps even a little house of our own. And peace to enjoy it all. Life would bring all of that in blessed abundance not all that many years down the road, but it was a forlorn hope then.
Shortly after that, the doors of a railroad freight car closed behind us and were locked. We were cattle, to be hauled somewhere.
It was quite dark inside; the only light came from four small openings high up in each corner. There were about forty of us, and it was crowded. In the center were a couple of boxes of what turned out to be ten-in-one US army rations and some five-gallon cans with water. Ravenous as we were, the food was immediately portioned out and wolfed down. Disastrous diarrhea followed, with no sanitary facilities except the few empty cans. The floor of the car became treacherously slick. The stench was sickening. When the train stopped at Epinal the next day, 19 May, we were all sick. Fritz had to support me on the march to camp. I remember very little. He tells me that our guards had to fend off Frenchwomen who attacked our column and bombarded us with filth.
I was at Epinal for five days, most of which I spent sitting on the latrine. I became exceedingly thirsty, as not even water would stay down. Fritz nursed me along. Without him, I would have perished of dysentery.
While in Epinal, we were given pre-printed postcards to send home. They said: I am in American hands and am well. This would be the first word to my family. They received the card on
9 November, some six months later.
The dysentery gradually got better: I had nothing left to void. It left me badly weakened. When we were told to get on yet another tractor-trailer, I could not climb up without assistance and had trouble standing without support. On the road, we frequently were bombarded with rotten eggs or fruit, but that was a minor problem. The fresh air felt great. Somebody began singing an old army song, and we all joined in. They couldn’t kill our spirit, no matter how they tried!
The convoy of tractor-trailers stopped at a meadow, next to a large barbed-wire cage. We unloaded and formed ranks. We had to undress completely. French women and children stood on the road, leered at us and made vile gestures. We were issued used American fatigue uniforms with the letters PW stenciled prominently on them, also underwear, socks, boots, blankets, jackets and other items. Our discarded German uniforms were carted off to be burned.
We were divided up into groups of about fifty. I never left Fritz’s side. One group at a time, we were marched into the stockade that was to be my home for fifteen months.
This camp housed PW labor for a depot of the US Army Engineers, named E-511B, that was located near the village of Domgermain about a mile away. Another part of the depot and its headquarters was in Toul, some five miles down the road. More about the depot later.
The stockade was a square about a thousand feet on each side, with machine-gun towers at each corner. Inside were twenty large shacks that turned out to be pole barns made out of two-by-fours. The sides were enclosed with chicken wire covered with tarpaper. The floor was dirt. There was no furniture. These were the barracks for the men. There were other buildings: The German camp office near the gate, next to it a few smaller huts for German officers, a kitchen and a sick bay.
Housing improved with time. The first luxury was the corrugated cardboard in which rations had been shipped. It was used as ground cover to sit and sleep on. When fall brought chilly weather, we insulated the walls with it. A few weeks after arrival, lumber was made available for furniture construction. Double-bunk beds were made, with chicken wire stretched between the frames to serve as mattresses. Small tables, one for each of six men (later four), were hammered together. A couple of wood stoves provided heat. Our transport filled up all those barracks; there were then over a thousand prisoners there.
Each row of five barracks had a latrine and a washroom. A washroom was about thirty feet square and had a hot-water boiler fashioned from 50-gallon drums. Water was heated only once a week, for showers. During the week, we washed at wash racks with cold water. Washing up in the winter with cold water was not pleasant.
The latrines were screened, roofed enclosures with a urinal trough along the wall and a “throne” in the center with twelve holes. At the beginning, there was no disinfectant, and the liquid in the pit writhed with maggots.
Fritz and I shared a double-bunk and a table with two others: Kurt and Jupp. Kurt was the oldest of the four of us and was a sergeant. He was quick, wiry and nervous, spoke both English and French and was a wheeler-dealer. Jupp, younger than even Fritz and I, was quiet but witty. The four of us soon became close friends and are to this day.
When we arrived at the camp, we were all starved, but even though now we received regular rations, we still were always hungry. One problem was that the rations did not contain sufficient calories. I believe they were less than 1800 a day in the beginning. But there was another problem: Our stomachs were used to a lot of fiber, and the rich American foods ladled out in small dibs and dabs, never filled us up. I was always hungry, no matter how much I ate.
None of us had had any news from home. Fritz had a letter before Christmas, but not I. We could write home but had no assurance that the letters arrived. Christmas 1945 was pretty dismal. We had a little tree in our barracks, decorated with lathe turnings from the depot machine shop, but no candles. Fritz shared a cigar with me that was a present from his sergeant. There was some singing, but our hearts were not in it. They were with our loved ones at home.
Every day, except Sunday, the whistle blew at 6 a.m. After ablutions, we ate breakfast at our tables. Then everybody had to line up outside to be counted. After that, off to work at the depot. Lunch was trucked to us there; it always was a one-pot meal. Back at camp in the evening, we were counted again. After dinner, also eaten in the barracks, the time was our own, and there was no set bedtime.
Aside from normal housekeeping, like mending or washing clothing, darning socks, improving the barracks furnishings and cutting each other’s hair, we played cards and read a lot. The Americans were very generous in donating used paperback books, and soon the camp had a decent library. I became acquainted with America by reading Hemmingway, Dreisser, Dos Pasos, Faulkner, Zane Grey and other popular novelists of the time. We also had acquired some radios, probably via the black market, and liked to listen to the jazz and swing music on American Forces Network.
The first few months were very difficult. We were always hungry, were weak yet had to work hard, were crowded in our quarters and were handled none too gently by our guards, who were at first Americans, then Russians and, finally, Polish. But things gradually got better, in part because of the Black Market: The guards realized that, with the help of the prisoners, they could steal from the depot and sell to the French. Everybody benefited, even some Americans.
Starting in June 1945, a few prisoners at a time were sent home. They were the very young and old, the handicapped, railroad people and miners. This gave us more room in the barracks. As the work at the depot gradually was accomplished, fewer laborers were needed and left. By the spring of 1946, only about five hundred prisoners remained. The camp closed on October 19 that year.
Now again a few snapshots:
June 1945: One of the guys in our barracks claims to be an American. He says he was born there of German immigrants, who returned to Germany in the Thirties. He never knew that he was an American citizen until one of the GIs, hearing his story, enlightened him. But how could he prove it? Somehow, he managed it, and was gone by summer.
June 1945: Another of the guys, a young, blond, handsome soldier, was in the Waffen-SS and is deathly afraid he might be found by the Americans. One day, they come after him and escort him out the gate and behind their barracks. A couple of shots are heard. Did they execute him? Did they just scare him for fun? He never did return to camp.
Early summer 1945: There is a farm nearby, and we learn that a German is imprisoned there. He is forced to live with the pigs and eats their food. It is not difficult (with the guards’ knowledge) to crawl out from under the camp fence, and the man gets weekly visits from our kitchen.
Summer 1945: Our officers offer evening school courses, one of them in calculus. I signup. After two sessions, the course is discontinued: There is no paper for note taking or practicing.
Summer 1945: One of the guys in our barracks is a tall, strongly built bruiser. He was a stevedore in the port of Hamburg and brags that he used to carry six hundred-pound sacks of wheat at a time. He gets a good income, in cigarettes, from our Americans, who like to exhibit him to visitors and place bets on him. His skill? Biting off the neck of beer bottles.
Mid-summer 1945: Our American jailers and the guards have been relieved. The new people want to do everything by the book. They take our books away and smash our radios. We take revenge: As usual, we line up five deep for counting. But now, a few holes are left in the ranks, and there are only four instead of five. That results in overcounts. How can this be? After more than an hour and several recounts, which always come up with the same result, they give up.
Early 1946: Mail begins to arrive regularly, and we can write home once a week. The letters from home are very depressing. My father is in prison because he was in the Nazi party. That leaves my family without a breadwinner. Mother and my older sister go to work as tailors. They have gone through a winter of hunger and cold. I feel very guilty because I am not able to help them.
March 1946: Fritz develops appendicitis and is taken to the hospital in Toul. His appendix bursts, and he is there for sixteen weeks. I miss him and fake a toothache. That gets me to the same hospital and, with the help of my guard, I visit Fritz, much to his surprise.
Spring 1946: The camp has never had a well, but its water is hauled by prisoners in a tank truck from Toul. Somehow, they get a welder to subdivide the interior of the tank. Water consumption in camp suddenly rises and, instead of two trips a day, three are now necessary – because the truck has become a most important route of supply to the black market. Two French prostitutes are imported into camp. Their price is one blanket per visit. Each of the prisoners has been issued two blankets, but in the summer they are superfluous. Business is brisk.
Summer 1946: Willi was a telephone operator at the depot, as was I. One day, he was called out of the office and taken away back to camp. They told us there that someone had come to take him away.
(September 1989: Visiting with Willi and his wife at their home, he told me what had happened: His father owned a seed store in the city of Buende, which was the headquarters of the British army of occupation. Field Marshal Montgomery apparently was a bird fancier. One day he ran out of birdseed. A colonel was sent into town to buy some. A woman suggested to him that he try the seed store. The colonel told Willi’s father about his mission and asked if he could help. Willi’s father said: “Yes, probably, but you have to help me.” He wanted his son to come home. The colonel got his bird seed, and the father got his son. Willi was home within a few days. An American lieutenant had driven up to our camp in a jeep, and after a few minutes in the office took off for the depot. When he and Willi came back to camp, the lieutenant accompanied Willi to his quarters, helped Willi pack, carried his bags to the jeep and took off with him.)
May 1946: On a Sunday, I sit in front of the barracks, taking a sunbath. Next to me is Fritz. We talk about the hikes we used to take together, and suddenly I feel like a chained animal. I so much want to jump that barbed wire, walk down the road, hike up the escarpment behind Domgermain and take the view from there, be free to go where I want.
(September 1991: Some of us former prisoners, including Fritz, Kurt and Jupp, visit Domgermain depot, now an installation of the French army. I had made prior arrangements from America, and the French officers welcomed us very cordially. I tell one of them the story about my longing to see the view from the escarpment. In his little Citroen, he leads our convoy of three big rental cars through Domgermain up the hill. The women doing laundry in the street gawk. Some of them may have been among the “welcome committee” in 1945. I finally get to see the view from the escarpment!)
June 1946: Alcohol was not hard to get via the black market, and one day a former tank commander got drunk, had to go to the latrine and fell through the hole. They lowered a rope to him and pulled him up. There he was, his arms propped on the sides of the hole, ready to climb out when someone dropped a lid with a bang. Thinking he was in his tank turret and was being shot at, the drunk promptly dropped out of sight, pulling the lid closed above him. He was a mess when they finally got him out.
(June 1961: Kurt, Jupp, I and our wives visit the campsite. It is now a cow pasture. The grass is clipped short, but there are large clumps of shrubs, all in a row. We investigate: They are growing out of the old latrine pits.)
July 1946: An entire row of barracks now stands empty. We are ordered to tear the buildings down, on our own time in the evenings. We never get to do that, because that same night, all of the empty buildings burn to the ground. An American sergeant tries to put the fire out with a garden house and gets jeered and hissed out of camp.
Late August 1946: There are only some fifty prisoners left in camp, all of us either office clerks or equipment operators. We are supplied by the American kitchen in Toul and live like kings: steaks, pork chops, chicken … No more marching to the depot: Trucks take us there. We move into the officers’ cabins, where it is much cozier. We have everything we want: food, radios, books, but not freedom or girls. We were normal young males, and most of us have not seen a female in sixteen months. It drove us crazy. My sister had written me that returning prisoners were impossible: All they wanted was sex. I understood. A little puppy had wandered into camp and attached itself to me. We slept together, but I would much rather have had a girl.
The engineers’ depot E-511B at Domgermain was where we worked. What was the place like?
The depot was located in a triangle of railroad tracks that enclosed about 200 acres. The main rail spur, running north-and-south, had several parallel branches with concrete platforms between them. These had been built to serve the forts of the Maginot line that lined the crest of the escarpment. The small village of Domgermain is nestled in a wide ravine emerging from those bluffs.
A barbed wire fence enclosed the entire area, including the railroad tracks. The only road entrance was by the loading platforms. Next to it were two plywood buildings, the Main Office. A periphery road followed the inside of the tracks. Within this periphery road was a criss-cross web of service roads. The stores were stacked on the plots enclosed by the service roads.
Administratively, the depot was divided into “areas,” each with its own small office shack. There was one for bridging, one for tactical materials (sandbags, barbed wire etc.), one with a sawmill and stacks of lumber, one for POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants), one for pipeline equipment, and others. We had a lot of heavy equipment, like cranes, bulldozers, trucks, trailers, graders to maintain the dirt roads, and a motor pool to serve them.
All of the labor, both physical and clerical, was done by PWs. Our guards at the depot were Russian or Polish displaced persons (DPs) that had been hired by the US Army Engineers for the job. From the time of our arrival until the work slacked off early in 1946, one American first lieutenant or another was in charge. He reported to battalion headquarters in Toul. The number of GIs was reduced gradually after that, and by August1946 we had only three Americans at the depot. With this frequent turnover in American personnel, a new batch had hardly enough time to familiarize themselves with the depot business before they were transferred again. The consequence was that the PW clerks in the various offices effectively became the depot administration.
My first day at the depot was typical of the following days. After count at the camp, we trotted to the depot, driven along by the guards. (After a couple of weeks, we were allowed to march rather than run). Arriving at the Main Office, we were divided up into work details, with a guard assigned to each detail. There was a break for lunch, which consisted of a watery soup. Then more slavery in the afternoon, followed by the slow runback to camp.
For some time I worked at the bridging area. I was in a crew of eight, assigned to carry and stack Bailey bridge beams, each weighing some six hundred pounds. The first few days were terrible. I was still weak and dehydrated from the dysentery and very hungry. Our Russian guard had no mercy. He did allow us a break now and then, to get a drink of terribly tasting water from nearby Lister bag, or to use the latrine. We all became very tired and would collapse, only for the guard to prod us with his rifle butt with shouts of “davai, davai!” (give, give!). The lunch break brought watery soup and a brief rest. We had discovered tins of “dubbing,” a mink grease for boot waterproofing. Starved for fats, a dab added to the soup tasted heavenly.
We had long ago lost our watches, and the day dragged on. After a couple of weeks, a tall tower was erected at the middle of the depot that carried huge clock faces. A prisoner was assigned to move the clock hands once a minute.
Once when we set down a beam, it pinched my wounded finger. The scar burst open. It hurt badly and bled, but not enough for the guard to let me go to the first-aid station.
The sawmill caused our first casualty. A prisoner, standing on the platform, passed out from weakness, fell forward across the moving log and was cut in half by the circular sawblade. It shocked everyone.
I got so I didn’t care anymore if I died right there and then. What was there to live for? Years of cruel toil like this? Goebbels had been right: Morgenthau would make sure we would be slave laborers all of our lives.
Then came a ray of sunshine. Fritz had a buddy who was fluent in English and had already gotten Fritz the interpreter’s job at the motor pool. I was next in line toget a job, that of interpreter and clerk at one of the unloading platforms.
My sergeant’s name was Decker. He had been in combat and was rotated home a few weeks later. His replacement was Sgt. Rose, a New York City Jew. Completely unexpectedly, and despite the then existing non-fraternization orders, he became my mentor and friend. He spent hours coaching me in English. He found an English-German dictionary for me. Having returned from lunch in Toul, he sometimes put a package on the desk, tell me that he had business outside and for me to “get rid of the package.” In the package were lunch leftovers: a Turkey leg, a hamburger and French fries, a pork chop …
I was transferred to the main office to be one of three telephone operators. The other two were Willi and Red, both prisoners. Red’s specialty was donuts. Every morning, a Red-Cross truck served coffee and donuts to the GIs at the various area offices. On its way back out, Red would shanghai the leftover donuts. He would share them with us. There were days when I ate six of them, all at one sitting.
I especially liked the night shift. A GI and I would be the only people in the depot. I had time and leisure to read and to write letters. The night telephone operator in Toul was a girl; her name was Marie. I came to love her voice. She would sing to me: Sentimental Journey, My Bunny Lies Over The Ocean … She was the only female contact I had in those sixteen months.
It soon became apparent that the depot had to be better organized. I proposed we do an inventory, and the lieutenant told me to go ahead. With the help of the PW clerks at the various areas, I assembled a file of 5×7 cards over a foot deep. Knowledge is power: Only I knew where everything was located, and I now was boss of the depot.
A frequent visitor was a huge black sergeant, the driver of a tractor-trailer filled with empty jerry cans. I always processed his requisition that called for the cans to be filled. While that was getting done, we talked. It turned out that he was stationed in Stuttgart, where my folks lived. I had not heard from them, and they probably not from me. He offered to take a letter for me, and he delivered it in person! It was the first news my folks had from me.
Weeks later, he offered to hide me among the cans in the trailer and take me home. I declined, because I would have been a burden to my family as an illegal resident without ration cards or a job. I was better off where I was.
It began to dawn on me that there were good people in this world after all. Here were two Americans, Rose the Jew and the black sergeant, who treated me not as a despicable German, but as a human being. My love affair with Americans began with these two. Their transparent personalities, their uninhibited individuality, their refreshing contempt of authority, their openness and friendliness, their willingness to judge me as an individual, even their apparent lack of sophistication appealed to me. I have been blessed to live among Americans for these past fifty years and become one myself.
Being a clerk had its risks. At first, the laboring prisoners envied our privileges, until they realized that we made their lot easier by being buffers between their captors and themselves. We always had one foot in jail, as we had to cover up misdeeds on both sides. The black market was rife. Our Polish guards and some of the GIs were full participants.
The biggest caper was the theft of our biggest low-boy trailer, which a truck pulled through the gate one noon when the GIs were away at lunch. The lieutenant was in big trouble! A few days later, MPs found the trailer, less its sixteen tires, in the woods above Domgermain. The tires were replaced from the stocks at the depot, the trailer was retrieved, and that closed the case.
After we had both returned home, Fritz told me this anecdote: Fritz was then the clerk at the motor pool. One sunny summer afternoon, his sergeant told him to get in the jeep with him and drove him through Domgermain into the woods. He stopped at a clearing. A nude, young women came running out of the bushes and popped into Fritz’s lap. The sergeant told Fritz that she had been paid already and to have a go at it. Fritz had lofty principles and refused. The sergeant helped himself instead. Then they returned to the depot.
By spring 1946, Sgt. Melvin replaced the lieutenant, and he soon was the only GI left in the Main Office. He had a girl in Luxembourg, about a hundred miles to the north. He took off about three o’clock in the afternoon, not to return until ten the next morning. The daily morning report had to be in Toul by nine every morning, but that caused Melvin no problems. I wrote the report anyway, so why shouldn’t I sign his name to it? After some practice on my part, he was satisfied that my forgery looked authentic.
By the end of September, only a skeleton staff of GIs and prisoners were left at the depot. Our sergeant at the time was a southern Red Neck whose drawl was hard to understand. He told me one day that Hitler had made a big mistake: He should have come to Alabama and do to the n—-rs what he had done to the Jews. I was flabbergasted.
The day to close the depot arrived. In the morning of 19 October 1946, an American colonel drove up in a jeep, accompanied by our commanding officer from the Toul office. Following behind was a big Mercedes containing a French general and his staff. The depot was to be sold to the French army, and the contract called for the French commission to inspect the depot and be allowed to ask to see some ten specific items they could pick from a list. Red Neck loaded us clerks into the covered back of a three-quarter ton truck, well out of sight of the French, and the convoys drove off into the depot. The French general would pick an item from the list, tell the American colonel, he our commanding officer, he our sergeant, and Red Neck would get in the front of our truck and tell us. I would look up the item in the card file and tell him where it was stored. Off we’d drive, and Red Neck always found the item sought. Even the tenth item, which was a single special bolt. All finished, the French general apparently asked our commander who had done such a marvelous job of organization, and that he would like to meet the genius. Red Neck told us to get out of the truck. The four of us did and came to attention. Then, bless his soul, our commander said in French: “Here they are, mon general, the geniuses. “The general stiffened, whispered “le boche!” turned around, got in his car with his staff and left. Everybody else had a good laugh. That same evening, a jeep drove into camp and delivered a few bottles of whiskey to the “geniuses,” courtesy of the colonel.
A truck took us, some thirty prisoners, to the transit camp at Mourmelon-le-Grande. My puppy had to stay behind. We were on the way home!
But the PW cadre at Mourmelon wanted to go home also. They were looking for people like us to take their places. We played dumb and escaped detection. After three days there, on23 October, the trip continued to Attichy, halfway between Compiegne and Soissons. This was the major camp, named CCPWE #15. Fritz escaped the net there, but not I. They fished me from the transit camp and assigned me to the motor pool on 4 November. What a disappointment!
The motor pool was separate from the transient camp. The prisoner mechanics were housed in a comfortable wooden building. The double bunks had regular mattresses! My work was no challenge. I kept the labor logs and the records of the many vehicles, which ranged from jeeps to tractor-trailers, altogether probably about fifty.
Christmas, our second in captivity, was approaching. It was to be a very melancholy one for all of us. My clerk colleague and I decided to print a Christmas newspaper, and that was a success. The tree was small but nice, decorated with the usual lathe shavings and surgical cotton. Again, no candles.
New Years Eve was quite different. One of the guys had traded blankets for bottles of Mirabelle, the French prune brandy known also as White Lightning. We all got roaring drunk. I passed out. When I regained consciousness the next morning, I was lying on the floor amidst splintered furniture. The tables had lost their legs, mattresses had been ripped apart, the place was a disaster. But that was not all: Every single vehicle was found to have sugar in the gas tank. Some had been driven before the discovery was made and burned out their engines. The sergeant in charge was in big trouble, but what could they do to us?
They sent us home! On 10 January, I was on board the last train out of France that carried American-held German prisoners.
PWE #26 was our next camp; it was the former concentration camp at Dachau. Considering the flimsy barracks of Domgermain, the much worse tents of Mourmelon and of the Attichy transit camp, even considering the relatively plush hut at Attichy motor pool, the accommodations were luxurious. These were substantial, well-heated stone buildings with ceilings high enough to house triple-decker bunks. For the first time in my captivity, the showers were indoors and had plenty of hot water. These were the same buildings that had housed Hitler’s political enemies. It is ironic that these were the best quarters I had in the sixteen months of my captivity.
Again, I feared being detained for their cadre, and indeed I got enmeshed again. But this time I feigned disability due to my leg injury and was judged “unfit for duty” by the camp physician.
In the morning of Saturday, 18 January, I found myself standing in line to be processed for discharge. I could hardly believe that the blessed day had finally come. Considering that I had anticipated it with such eagerness, it turned out to be quite anticlimactic. I had dreamed of this day all these many nights, yet I felt no excitement. I had been disappointed too many times. They could still pull me out of the line and stick me behind a desk.
I received new clothes: GI fatigues dyed black without PW stencils. I was paid at the rate of 75 cents per day worked, for 572 days, a total of $479, a princely sum in those days. In 1997 dollars, that would be at least $5000. But the check was written in Reichsmark. I put the money in the bank when I got home. The currency reform of 1948 devalued it to one-tenth its value. When I emigrated, in 1949, I bought a nice sports jacket with it.
I was handed a free railroad ticket to Stuttgart, two weeks worth of ration tickets, some pocket money and – finally – my discharge certificate. Minutes later, I walked out of the gate, without a guard this time – a free man!
The future at home looked grim, and the elation over my discharge quickly turned into a disappointing and sobering reality. Father had only recently been released from prison, where he had been kept as a former Nazi and was allowed only to work as a laborer. All savings had been spent, including the money father had saved for me to go to college. My former classmates, including Fritz, had gone back to finish high school and get their diploma. There was no way I could join them: I had to earn a living.
I signed a contract to be an apprentice at the firm where my father worked as a laborer. In a year I would be a licensed concrete mason. It was hard physical work, especially with the skimpy food rations, but I made it.
Trying not to let my English get rusty, I became a regular Saturday customer at the American public library near our home. The director, an American, took an interest in me. Among the occupation army were people who were interested in the local history, and I was asked to give a couple of talks. Further encouraged by the director, I entered a pen pal correspondence with Charles, an American who was a student at the University of Rochester. He had been a member of the First Division (the Big Red One) and, in 1948, wanted to revisit Germany. Germany then was still closed to visitors, but he attended the music festival in Salzburg, then simply got on the train to Stuttgart. Not having any ration coupons, he lived with us and shared ours. On the day before he left, we went for a walk.
I had written to him about my frustrations as a mason apprentice, and he knew that I had wanted to study at university. A few steps into our walk, he made me a marvelous offer: He would ask his father, a prominent and prosperous attorney, to sponsor my immigration as a student, and he, Charles, would try and get me a scholarship at his university. I enthusiastically agreed and asked him to go ahead.
It all worked out. I had not even finished high school, but letters of recommendation from my former teachers and from American acquaintances overcame that handicap. One, in particular, probably was decisive. It was from the superintendent of the American dependents’ schools in Stuttgart, who had attended my two lectures at the library.
I said goodbye to my loved ones on 11 August 1949, never to see my father again. Two days later, I was aboard a ship out of LeHavre, headed for New York.
Charles welcomed me there and took me home to Rochester. I did some mason work for a neighbor and made a few dollars, but not enough. School started on 19 September. Charles shared his dormitory room and his GI Bill stipend with me that first year. Then he graduated. The summer of 1950, I worked in construction and earned enough to carry me through my sophomore year, the second summer in a machine shop, and the third one as an engineering intern at Kodak.
I had decided on mechanical engineering for my field of study, and I did very well, graduating in 1953 with high honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key.
The Eastman Kodak Company hired me after graduation, and I served them as an engineer for thirty years until I retired early in 1983.
On 13 July 1956, I was sworn in as a US citizen. I was an American now!
A fourteen-year stint in the Boy Scouts as a volunteer scoutmaster and council committeeman between 1957 and 1971 gave me the opportunity to repay, in a small way, what others had done to help me. I was awarded the Silver Beaver, the highest award an adult scouter can earn.
I had met my future wife at a student club. We got married in 1951, in the summer after my sophomore year. Our life together has been a blessing for both of us. We have four very successful children – an engineer, an insurance agent, an airplane mechanic, and a full-time mother – who have given us eight grandchildren.
I retired early, in 1983, and we moved from Rochester and built our retirement home on land that we had purchased in 1968. That is where I am typing these lines, surrounded by acres and acres of my beloved trees, spoiled by my sweetheart of forty-eight years, and I am deeply grateful for my life, hard times and all. I am especially grateful that the hard times came early in my life. They thus served to make me the person I am today, an American.