Close encounter with former enemy
May 13, 1995
You have all heard the fateful statement. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time”—or probably its more hopeful counterpoint. President Clinton’s visit to Russia, where he lauded them for their sacrifices in the “Great Patriotic War” (their term), reminded me of an encounter with a retired American G.I. who fought with the Nazi army against the Russians.
No, I’m not making this up, as Dave Barry would say— this is a true story. Following is an account of how I got acquainted with him.
My late wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to attend a potluck supper at her cousin’s place in the country one Sunday evening. The occasion was brought about by having another cousin visiting here with her husband from Saint Louis. Since my wife had very few close relatives, this was an event she didn’t want to miss.
While the women, who knew each other well, were discussing various topics of a womanly interest, the men were closely gathered together talking about the progress of the fruit industry. I noticed the cousin’s husband was sitting off by himself, looking quite bored with the proceedings. So I moved over to try to engage him in conversation since the growing of fruit is not my area of expertise.
He seemed grateful for my attention, and we established an immediate rapport. I asked him how he had met his wife, Evelyn’s cousin. He told me they had both been employed at a U.S.Army base in Alaska,she as a clerk-typist while he was an enlisted man. He had recently retired, after 20-some years of service, and they had moved back to the lower 48 where he had been offered a position with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
I told him that I, too, had served with theArmed Forces, inAir Corps communications, and had spent most of my overseas time in England. Then he nearly stunned me by saying he had also served during World War II, but with the German Army! With his complete lack of a German accent, I found this almost unbelievable. I pressed him for an explanation.
He went into a quite lengthy discourse on how this unfortunate turn of circumstance had come about. It seems his father was completely American, from Pennsylvania, and had met his German mother while working in Germany during the Thirties. They had moved back to Pennsylvania before Hitler began invading Europe. Later on his mother and father had divorced, and she had moved back to Germany, taking him with her. He attended school there into his late teens, when he was conscripted into the German Army.
Although still very young and surely not a hardened soldier, he was sent to the Russian Front in the Nazi army’s desperate need for “cannon fodder” (my term!) in that sector.
He went on to tell some spellbinding stories of how they had fought desperately in that bitter struggle against the fanatically-motivated Russian troops. His battalion was nearly wiped out in one fierce battle, where he survived and was taken prisoner. In the Russian prison camp they nearly starved to death, he said, and were quite brutally treated by the guards. He considered himself very fortunate to be among the few who lived.
At war’s end,the Russians, aware of his American connection, allowed him to be released and repatriated to America. When he got back here, he said he felt the Allies were inevitably fated to fight the Russians in the near future. With his bitter hatred for his erstwhile enemy and the Communist system, he felt compelled to enlist in the American army to hold the line. He thus became one of our “Cold War” warriors.
The former Wehrmacht member had held me spellbound for an hour or so. Meanwhile, I noticed that I had been his only listener. He and his wife, the cousin, were staying with our host, who had been a glider pilot in the European Theater of Operations (ETO),with some close calls of his own. But I doubt he had discussed the war with his guest. The following Sunday at church I told him I had been fascinated by his cousin’s husband’s stories about his German army experiences. He looked at me quizzically, and expressed his complete surprise at this!