Enlisted in the Army - at 17 years old (1944)
Served in Europe in a Combat Unit
Met him at a Local Starbucks 7/19/2011
In he comes, the man with a cane and pushing a shopping cart, which he parks outside the entrance to the local Starbucks. Hobbling over to the barrista, he orders up a venti vanilla latte, and then proceeds to shuffle over and sit down in the overstuffed chair next to me. I took a look at him and figured that he was about my moms age (85), and because of that I wondered if he had ever served in World War II.
Now, for those know me, also know that I am not shy about striking up a conversation with total strangers. In this instance, however, I hesitated. I was not sure why. Perhaps it was because many of the older people that I try and talk to, seem to have lost it, or are hiding it, perhaps figuring that all the young people like me (55) simply have to learn about the world on our own. Or perhaps they think that we would not be interested.
After a while, however, the old man begins to talk to me. Speaking as clearly as any 30 year old, he tells me that he is 83 and that he came in to get a coffee for his wife and was taking a rest before crossing the street back to his house. Somewhere in the conversation he mentioned that when he was in the Army (my ears perking up now) they drank coffee all the time, but did not have anything like Starbucks. He also said that he used to drink a lot of beer too - but that was when he was young.
Alerting on his introduction of the Army into the discussion, I took my shot and asked him where he was stationed. Whereupon he told me his story.
“Oh yeah, I was in the army, I was a runner for General Patton in Germany during World War II. I enlisted when I was 17, and was shipped over there real soon. I was in the infantry, and was supposed to be in a foxhole, but somehow the Army found out that I was a long distance runner and that I had been doing that since I was a little kid.
They also discovered that I had a good memory, and after that, they assigned me as a runner ( and I mean that literally) to carry messages back and forth between General Patton and the other combat units during the fighting in Germany.
It wasn’t like it is nowadays, where you have radios and all that stuff. It was a situation where actual messages from one commander to another several miles away had to be read, committed to memory, and then delivered in person by a guy like me - a runner. Not only that, we had to memorize three messages - exactly. One of them was the real message, and the other two were fake messages so that if we got captured by the Germans we could give them a fake message.
To deliver a message meant we had to head out cross country in the direction of the other unit, and actually navigate through the combat zone during the fighting. Because a fighting line is not something straight, we had to travel behind enemy lines in order to reach our units on the other side. Because of this, we traveled in peasant clothes so as to not draw enemy attention. We also had to travel across our own units who were fighting with the Germans and so we never knew when we were going to be shot by Germans, or our own soldiers.
During one of those message runs, our squad came under attack by a German unit and we were pinned down pretty good. There was no way it looked like we could hold out, and so, our new 90-day Lieutenant, fresh from the States, told us that it was no use and that we had to surrender. We did not want to surrender as we were afraid of what the Germans would do to us, but the Lt. insisted. It was at this point we told him to go on ahead for himself if he wanted to be the first to try out his idea.
So then, up out of our position he went to surrender, where he was immediately shot dead by the Germans. After that we (all 12 of us) were captured by the Germans. After our capture, they stood us in a line, with me standing at the end, and proceeded to shoot us dead, one-by-one, right down the line. Now, we had one of our guys who was some sort of Indian, and he did not speak very well, but he was kind of a big fella, and when they shot the man next to him, he fell down as if he had been shot, and in doing so the knocked me to the ground. My helmet came off, and the German officer in charge, after having his men get the Indian back up and shoot him dead along with the other 11 of my squad, saw my blond hair and blue eyes and asked “Sind Sie Dutsch?”, to which I replied in my bad German that indeed I was German. Hell, if he had asked if I was Japanese, I would have agreed to that too.
And so it was, that out of all 12 of us, plus our Lieutenant, I was the only one that lived. I was sent to a POW camp, and about 4 months later, when the Germans had to retreat, I was liberated from the POW camp.”
At this point, I asked, just to make sure I heard him right, if me meant that all of his buddies were stood up and shot dead right in front of him like ducks in a row.
“Sure, we were shot dead just like that. It was a war, and that was the way things were done. We did the same things on our side, and the Germans were just doing what you do in war. You can’t have a bunch of captured soldiers bogging you down in a combat zone with bullets flying all around, and everybody on each side knew that.”
After a reflective pause, he continues .....
“Yeah, after that, I was sent down to Dachau. You know Dachau don’t you? The camp had been liberated by that time, but all the prisoners were still there because there was noplace else to put them, and it was just a horrible situation.”
Another reflective pause ......
“And you know, many years later, that German Officer wrote me a letter telling me that his daughter was getting married and inviting me to the wedding. He sent me a plane ticket and money for all my costs to come.”You mean, the same guy who had all your fellow soldiers killed, invited you to the wedding, and that you had kept in touch with him.??
“Sure - he and his soldiers were simply following their orders, and that was just the way it was in war. It is not all sweetness and nice in a war.”
So you went to the wedding?
“Sure I went.” “ Now I think also he wanted to hook me up with his sister, but that never happened.”
And thereafter our conversation turned to other things.