Editor’s note: This is the second column in a three-part series.
We were finally allowed to cross the former German border at the beginning of September 1945. We entered a country that only a few months earlier had been our bloodthirsty enemy, responsible for the deaths of millions of people, including thousands of American soldiers.
Our slow-moving troop train entered Western Germany through the Saar region, a mining and industrial area that had been the heart of Germany’s economy. We steamed slowly through a number of woods and grasslands where there were no lights. It was dark and spooky.
We had been told before we left liberated France that there was no longer a country called Germany. Now there was the American Zone of Central and Western Germany. The British Zone was north of us, all the way to the North Sea. The French Zone was near the French border. The Russian Zone comprised most of Eastern Germany.
“You can go anywhere you like in the rest of Germany, but stay out of the Russian Zone. They’ll shoot you any time they see you,” the border guards told us.
We traveled for many hours through dark woods and quiet open fields.
Our steam locomotive was going as fast as 30 miles an hour but slowed down when we approached towns and settlements. We steamed slowly through the towns and stopped a number of times. We were approaching the Rhine, Germany’s western river. Many of the settlements we approached had extensive bomb damage that had been inflicted during the fighting.
We were in the French Zone of occupied Germany. We also saw many German men and women civilians when our troop train stopped at the stations. At one railroad station, a man boarded our train and asked us in halting English if he and his wife and two children could ride with us across the Rhine into the American Zone. No one objected and the family of four got into our boxcar.
We were happy to have visitors, especially children, and the family found a comfortable spot near the wall of the boxcar. We had no chairs. We gave them some boxes of Army K-Rations and several bottles of water.
A Polish guy from Chicago named Zeph who traveled with us began to question the German family. Zeph spoke fluent German and carried on a conversation in German and English, which the father of the family understood.
Zeph wanted to know all about the family and got a lot of information from them. He really startled me and the other guys when he suddenly asked them about the Jews. I am Jewish and so were several other GIs on our troop train.
“What happened to the Jews in Germany? Did you murder all of them?” he asked in English.
The German father did not know how to answer. “I don’t know. The Nazis wouldn’t tell us anything,” he said.
Zeph told him about the Holocaust and the millions of Jews who were murdered.
“I really don’t know. We heard something about this during the war. It’s awful what happened.”
The German family rode with us after our train crossed the Rhine and steamed toward central Germany. I don’t remember how long they rode on our train because I and the soldiers riding with me got off the train at Schweinfurt, Bavaria. Our long train ride was over because we were scheduled to go to Northern Bavaria to perform our occupation duties.
We arrived at the Schweinfurt base after 1 a.m. Most of us were very tired and we all wanted to find a place to sleep. Surprisingly, the Army staff at the U.S. base allowed us to go into the base offices to find a place to sleep. I and some other guys found the commanding officer’s office. I found the CO’s desk, which had nothing on it except a big mat which covered the entire desk.
I lay down on the mat and used my Army jacket as a pillow. I soon fell asleep and sometime later I woke up and saw the CO opening one of the desk drawers. I got up quickly and I said: “I’m sorry, sir. I was so tired and I just had to find a place to sleep.”
To my surprise, this officer, an Army captain, said: “Go back to sleep, son. You need your sleep. I won’t disturb you.”
I did what I was told.
Despite all the movies and plays depicting officers and non-coms as mean, nasty guys, in reality many, but not all, could be really nice and kind.
We spent several days at the Schweinfurt base and then all the men who traveled from England with me packed up their belongings and traveled by truck to Bad Kissingen, the headquarters of the U.S. Ninth Air Force German occupation troops.
Our American troops were now in charge of this former German resort.
The former resort hotel rooms now housed American GIs. I got a nice double bed to sleep in. We were told we had to wait a few days in Bad Kissingen before we would go to our permanent assignment, the radio relay station called Hobnail Receivers in the mountains above Bad Kissingen.
We had to wait almost a week before we made the trip to our new assignment. Meanwhile, we tried to enjoy our time in Bad Kissingen. We were very comfortable in our hotel rooms; the food was good and we didn’t have any Army duties. It was our first real vacation in the Army.
I was one of four guys who would staff Hobnail Receivers. Herman Morris, who came from Anniston, Ala., was the commander of the station. The other two were Albert Fiske, a very intellectual man who could explain any technical problem. There also was Helmut Giese, a German American. He was an ardent anti-Nazi and all of us liked him.
An Army truck drove us halfway up the mountain in back of Bad Kissingen. We each got a barracks bag for our clothes which we had to carry on our trip up the mountain. It took us several hours to walk to the former tavern, which was now a radio relay station. It was dark for many hours when we arrived there.
Morris was there when we arrived. But he wasn’t alone. A young German woman was also there. Her name was Anna. She still wore a German Luftwaffe uniform. The Nazi swastika had been ripped off her uniform, but you could still see its imprint on the woolen material.
Herman explained that Anna would help us by cooking food and doing the housework. At first, some of us complained about Anna, but we realized we were now in Germany and why not get some help, especially from a good-looking young woman.
To Be Continued Next Week