CHAPTER 03 “OFF-TO-WAR” 1943-1946

SUMMARY

In the early 40s, across the Atlantic the Brits were skirting defeat, financially and militarily (e.g. the Dunkirk evacuation epic). Few in US understood how dire was the threat (to all democracies) of their possible defeat. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) managed to keep US out of war until it was prepared to get into war. But, after Pearl Harbor) everyone felt involved and united in that great mobilization. There were few bystanders. Being drafted was regarded as much an honor as a hardship. Against that backdrop I entered military service. I was fortunate to be selected for some college studies in US and fortunate, once overseas, to be spared involvement in front-line combat. Otherwise, my experience was fairly representative of the average GI experience then. My time overseas (in the ETO for European Theater of Operations) provided many learning experiences in history, geography and sociology. My single most important experience then related to the opening of Flossenberg Concentration Camp and the revelation of its part in the Nazi Holocaust.

The following NOTES provide details.

Recounting RS’ time in the military. ASTP at Michigan U., Fort Jackson, Camp Shanks, troop ship across the Atlantic, UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Flossenburg, Switzerland and finally repatriation to US.

NOTES

  1. Military in US
  2. Military overseas
  3. Repatriation
ELS & RS 1943

1. Military in US

The onset of WWII was a matter of great interest at Westervelts since so many of us were from British Empire spheres. In Sept. 1939 on my way to join Westervelts I had, between ships traversed Southampton for a day or two. It was just a few weeks before war started. People were carrying gas masks and air raid ditches were being dug in the public parks. But I do not recall any overt sense of public panic or emotional stress. I was still at Westervelts when Pearl Harbor was attacked (1941). This of course galvanized everyone in a new way. I recalled my Dad’s stories of service as a “doughboy” in France in WWI. Twenty-seven years later I, as a ”GI”, walked in his footsteps along the Meuse River in Belgium! “Deja vu”. Somewhere in those lands are many dozens of graves of US doughboys who my Dad, as Chaplain’s Assistant helped bury. I have his typed lists with details on each. They are chillingly similar to the nightly TV news roll-call of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During 1942-43 I had been able to participate in the College ROTC program. I also enjoyed membership in the Wheaton community rifle club. This experience stood me in good stead when having marksmanship training in the Army.

Basic Training, Camp Grant, IL.

Finally, sometime in July 1943 I went off for basic training at Camp Grant, Il. It was only a few miles from Wheaton geographically, but another world psychologically. Westervelt Home and Wheaton had not been very representative of US. So, Camp Gant was my first Introduction to real American male culture.

We were billeted in six-man conical tents of WWI vintage. The training was strict, and sometimes the purpose seemed to be to erase one’s ego! One distraught trainee got some blood and faked emergency gastro-intestinal bleeding. I don’t know if he succeeded in getting himself discharged – or just thrown in the brig.

Then I went to Camp McCoy, Wis. Then to U. of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for screening for ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program). This was a crash college program in war-related topics such as engineering, language, medicine etc. From U. of I. we were put on a train to U. of Wisconsin. But we never got off the train there and instead were re-directed to U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor! This epitomized the Army expression “SNAFU” for Situation Normal All Fouled Up”.

ASTP (Army Specialized Training) Program at U. of Michigan 1943-44

At the University of Michigan, I was in the ASTP engineering program. My unit (of about twenty students) was billeted in a Dental Fraternity house. I guess the Army had requisitioned it, for we were the sole occupants. We were bossed by a tough career Top Sergeant whom we seldom saw. We were marched down the main avenue to meals at the Union cafeteria. Otherwise our life was rather ordinarily academic, studying engineering. We had free attendance at the football games where the famous half-back “Crazy Legs” Elroy Hirsch was dancing through the opposition. Meals were at the Student Union. On some weekends I would go into Detroit to hang out at the USO. Detroiters were very hospitable and there were some home visits.

A hint of medicine?

Whilst attending U. of Michigan in the ASTP we were given a test for medical aptitude. I enjoyed the test and on one question, about the mechanics of childbirth, I felt quite stimulated as though a light bulb had turned on in my brain. A number of my buddies were thereafter selected for medical school. Not having straight A’s I did not make that cut, but I think I did show some aptitude on the test. That experience stuck in the back of my mind and influenced my decision ten years later to try for medical school. After ASTP I had been sent to a medical company and there received brief, minimal training as a first-aider. But that training had little influence on my life-long interests.

Kalamazoo

On a few occasions there was enough leave time to hitch-hike back to Wheaton. On one such occasion I was stuck for a ride for several hours in Kalamazoo, Michigan. At that time one of the “hit” songs was “A-B-C–D-E-F-G-H-I got a Gal, in Kal-a-ma-zoo”. This song was playing loudly and endlessly from a nearby juke box. By the time I got a ride the tune was drummed deep into my brain circuits.

Camp McCoy, Wis.

I was there for a short time, so have few memories. But the most memorable was the burning down of the Camp PX (social and shopping center). It was said that the arsonist was a homosexual who was deeply traumatized by the homophobic treatment he had been subjected to.

 Camp Forrest, Tennessee

Here we were engaged in field training. So, much time was spent out in the “bush”. Also in training at the same camp was the 17th Airborne Division. They were a verytough bunch. Woe betide any ordinary GI who crossed with them in the PX. On occasional weekends I was able to get into Chattanooga where I visited some Civil War sites and also Lookout Mountain. In later years our son in law John Armes was to attend Covenant College there on that mountain top.

Oak Ridge

While at Camp Forrest I got a three day pass. I wanted to visit Betty’s Sister Eva and her husband Howard VanBuren at Oak Ridge, Tenn. I was not aware that Oak Ridge was the site of an extremely secret war project. So when I got to the gate I was firmly rebuffed. But I persisted and after a call to Howard (a chemist researcher) I was allowed in. I had a pleasant two days with the Vans and their little toddler Annie (later flower-girl at our wedding). But I left there totally clueless as to the nature of that project and its connection to “the bomb”.

Fort Jackson, S.C.

This was my last posting in US prior to going overseas. While I was there Betty and her Mom came down from Wheaton for a visit. One morning just Betty and I walked around the State Capitol grounds. There (under a Confederate flag) I put an engagement ring on her finger. Thus began a wonderful “twosome”.

  1. Military overseas

Camp Shanks and Nyack, NY

From Fort Jackson my unit was railed to Camp Shanks, a “transit depot” from where troops were loaded onto troop ships headed for Europe (ETO). It was located a few miles northwest of New York City. It happened that by this time Betty was enrolled at Nyack Missionary Training College overlooking the Hudson River, just over the hill from Camp Shanks. During the few, highly uncertain weeks awaiting embarkation I was able to get to Betty a number of times. Nyack was of course a very conservative school and as a GI I was under special surveillance. But the visits were pleasant in a variety of ways. I recall sitting in one class with Betty taught by that grand old man of Islamic outreach, Samuel Zwemer.

Aunt Laura

On another occasion we went down to New York City for dinner with Betty’s august and lively (great) “Aunt Laura” Isham in her apartment on Lexington Avenue. I often wondered what she thought of this rather un-American character from Africa. In later years we, as family enjoyed visits to Aunt Laura’s estate “Ormsby Hill” in Manchester, VT. That place is now a rather up-market B&B known as “The Inn at Ormsby Hill”. The Isham’s close friends and neighbors there were the Robert Lincolns. Robert was the son of President Abraham Lincoln. Their place is now a Heritage museum known as “Hildeen”. Betty’s cousin Marie, together with her husband Bob Schmid were part of a team which preserved the estate and re-established it for posterity.

 Shipping out across the Atlantic

The relatively happy lull in life at Camp Shanks was broken by our entrainment to the docks and embarkation on a Liberty ship. Our sleeping quarters were several decks below, reached by narrow, steep steel stairs. The perfusion of diesel fumes made those stairs always slippery. Our bunks were stacked three or four deep. They were not much firmer than hammocks, so they sagged and one was always in close proximity to the torso of the person in the bunk above.

Serving of meals was complicated by the pitching and rocking of the ship. On the long narrow tables one’s mess kit was always lurching away from you and spillage was inevitable. So the mess-hall lived up to its name. The food served was spartan and unappetizing. That together with the ubiquitous reek of diesel made seasickness unavoidable. We spent as much of time as possible up on deck for the fresh air. But even there the reek of diesel fumes was unavoidable. Our slow, smelly Liberty Ship was part of a convoy, with Navy destroyers shepherding the convoy. We were of course very mindful of Nazi subs lurking below. The passage was boring. There was nothing to see horizon to horizon except the other ships in the convoy. I do not recall ever hearing depth charges going off or the ship taking evasive action. One dark night I observed at the prow of the ship a black merchant seaman standing watch. When I got closer I realized he was crooning a song. The song? “Precious Lord, Take My Hand, through the storm, through the night  . . . . “

British billets

We landed at Liverpool, England in the middle of the night. Next day we were trucked to Ulverston in the north of Lancashire. We were billeted in the town hall right on the central town square. Being the first “Yanks” there we were the object of much curiosity – and a variety of other feelings positive or negative! The people of Ulverston, at all levels were very hospitable. I enjoyed tea times in the humble home of the verger (custodian) of the Anglican church. At a community night course, learning French language I enjoyed the company of some folks whose accent seemed to put them in a higher class.

Bugler

In high school I had started (briefly) to learn to play the trumpet. In Ulverston one day I found a bugle in the company supply room and began to play with it. The company commander heard me and promptly appointed me “Company Bugler”. This meant having the dastardly responsibility of blowing reveille at 6AM! I developed a special appreciation for Irving Berlin’s World War I hit song “Oh How I hate to get up in the morning” with the line “Someday I’m going to murder the bugler!”.

 Hubris

The Brits had of course already survived four or more years of slaughter and deprivation. So they tended to view American military hubris with a little reservation. The older generation were rather scornful over the ease with which Yanks could earn medals.

Bombs

A couple of times I got a pass to go to London. On one of those visits I got to hear a “buzz-bomb” (V-1) coming overhead. We had gone to shelter before it landed and went off. One very poignant scene was the “tube” (subway) stations serving as bomb-shelter and night-time dormitories for thousands. The first time down there I was horrified, thinking there had been a massive disaster. I saw hundreds of still bodies lined up side by side along the platform. But these were not corpses, they were simply people getting a peaceful night’s sleep in the safety of the underground. It was packed but orderly, in that distinctly British way.

Black-out discipline on the streets was very strictly enforced. The enforcers (wardens) often seemed to be older men who might have served at the same time as my dad in France in “World War I”. One had only to study the architectural scars from Nazi bombing raids to appreciate the purpose of the black-out discipline.

Uncle Wendell’s fiancee Lou

On one of my visits to London I met Lou, the fiancee of my Uncle Wendell Thiers. Wendell was at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces under General Eisenhower). Lou was very kind and made me feel quite comfortable. Wendell was later assigned to the staff of General Douglas McArthur in Japan. Wendell and Lou when married came to enjoy personal acquaintance with the McArthurs. In later years Lou received recognition from the US military for her many years of civilian supportive ministry to generations of military people transiting the DC area. Wendell and Lou are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

 Keswick and the Lake District

Ulverston was near the scenic Lake District. It was close enough for me to get there in a few hours by bicycle (borrowed from the verger’s daughter). I enjoyed the quiet variety of the settings. I regretted that in High School I had not absorbed more appreciation of the great English authors whose homes I passed there. One day I spotted a famous-name hotel and headed there hoping for a cup of tea. I walked into the giant front door but was quickly rebuffed by a stern matron. For the duration of the war the hotel had been turned into an elite girl’s boarding school. In later years Betty and I enjoyed the area a couple of times. Once, with Betty’s folks we attended the Keswick Convention, an annual gathering of evangelicals for spiritual inspiration.

Manchester

Another get-away from Ulverston was to Manchester for a concert of the Halle Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli. The evening was made more poignant by the fact that a V-2 bomb had hit the center of town recently. West of Ulverston was the town of Barrow-In-Furness. Here there was some important war production plant. So the place was subject to frequent German bombing raids. On a visit to friends there I was given a piece of shrapnel, i.e. hard steel shred from anti-aircraft shells fallen back to earth.

Just outside of Ulverston was the country home of the founder of the Quaker Society. I regret I did not pursue that line of interest more given that my maternal grandparents Frank and Mertie Thiers had been on the staff of Friends (Quaker) University in Kansas.

Letters

During my time overseas, our only form of communication was by postal (paper) mail. To conserve space on planes the original paper letters were microfilmed and shipped across the Atlantic as film. At the destination, they were printed out as 3X5 inch paper photocopies, called “V-Mail”. Of course, my letters were censored as evidenced by black mark-overs of restricted information.

France

We entrained for the south of England where we spent several days parked in the streets of some small village. It was from these same streets that the invasion had been launched on D-Day. The villagers were very tolerant of such invasion of their tranquility. The kids of course had mastered the art of hustling the GIs i.e. “gimme gum-chum”. And among young adults a popular ditty was “Roll me over, in the clover. . . .”. Yes, the song was rather risque. But, given the dark outlook of the times the ditty’s acceptability was understandable.

Francaise”

We landed near LeHavre at a dock, not the beach, and drove inland to camp in an apple orchard. One day I was bargaining in high school French with a woman for some laundry work. The company commander heard me and promptly appointed me company translator. Shows how hard up was the Army for linguists! Somewhere inland from LeHavre we drove below a very impressive cathedral with large stained glass window. Can’t remember which.

Belgium

We moved north to the Meuse River area, where I was following my father’s footsteps from WW-I. Dylan well wrote “When will they ever learn?” We were billeted in a tiny town called Gesponsart. The volume of the central church edifice was equivalent to the volume of half the houses in the town put together. On the outside of a church wall was a sign in French translated to “No pissing”.

 The Resistance

We were invited in to a home and given the inside-story of the occupation by the Boche (Nazis). They recounted resistance exploits and from the back of the oven produced a tiny radio from which they had listened, religiously, nightly at 9:00 PM. for the musical notes of Beethoven’s “da-da-da –daaaa” (Morse for V) followed by “The BBC News from London”. Their recounting of this news broadcast made it for me a most memorable historical phenomenon. Often now when watching BBC News on television my mind goes back to those listeners in Gesponsart. Scattered on the hillside above Gesponsart I first encountered the streams of shredded aluminum foil dispersed by US bombers to foil German radar. We had been totally unaware of these technical things connected with the new science of radar.

Germany

From Belgium we moved up through the Maginot Line to the city of Aachen which by then looked like it had been atom-bombed. Charlemagne would have squirmed in his grave could he have seen his capitol then. Not far from Aachen we passed through Bonn which I knew to be a historic academic center. But I did not get to see the university environs. Bonn of course later became the capital of West Germany.

 Remagen bridge

One day, still west of the Rhine River we were surprised to encounter boats, yes, boats! Unknown to us a few days previously US troops had crossed the Rhine at Remagen and were now consolidating that bridgehead. We soon crossed the river just below the damaged bridge. We crossed on a large engineer pontoon bridge. The river was narrow here, so the current was very swift and rough, and the pontoons bobbed a lot, making the crossing very scary. We were then bivouacked in very bucolic stream-side surroundings near a large German air base east of the Rhine. In a nearby town was a historic brewery. Our cook was a connoisseur of beer and he went there for a very satisfying visit. On return he regaled us with his description of fulfilling the dream of a lifetime i.e. actually swimming in this brand of beer!

V2 Rockets lanced at England by the Germans

V2 bomb

During this period, we stopped for a while at Nordhausen. On one side of the city was a hill whose salt-mine innards had been excavated to make a factory for the production of the V-2 bombs which wreaked havoc on England. In the railroad sidings near the mouth of the tunnel we came across a tank car of methyl alchohol with its tap still dripping. We heard that the previous day some Poles, just released from a nearby slave labor camp, had come upon this tanker and in celebration of their freedom had drunk themselves to death on that toxic drip.

Patton, Bradley, Montgomery

VIPs

One day while posted at an airfield the word went around that “Ike is coming”. Sure enough several C-47s landed and there gathered from them a crowd of “brass” in which we could recognize, not only Ike Eisenhower but also Generals Bradley, Patton and Montgomery. They were only a football field away from us but I don’t recall any particular security presence.

Buchenwald

We passed near to a concentration camp where the commandant’s wife collected lampshades of human skin. But we did not go in. We were as yet totally unaware of the holocaust. We reached Nurenburg and saw the Olympic stadium. I collected a souvenir Nazi banner there.

Victory

It was while headed southeast from Nurenburg towards Munich that we got word of the German capitulation. We came upon a group of US tanks on which were chalked slogans of victory. They were stopped in a small village. I seem to recall that the frauleins there were magnanimous in defeat i.e. they facilitated the young GI’s celebration. But soon thereafter military edicts made such “fraternization” a serious offence.

Flossenberg concentration camp
Prisoners at Flossenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flossenburg Concentration Camp

We ended up near the hamlet of Flossenburg near the Czech border. The name comes from an ancient castle whose ruins sit above the hamlet. In the hills east of the hamlet sits Flossenburg Concentration Camp. This camp resembled what you saw in the movie Schindler’s List and other movies. Barbed wire, utter orderliness and skeletonic inmates moving like automatons.

Flossenberg crematorium

Mass Cremation

At the back right hand corner there was the “final solution”. Here was a large “bath” room perhaps 50’ square and lined with green glazed tile. Overhead was a plumbing set-up resembling water sprinklers for fire. Of course instead of water they carried toxic gas. At the back end was a chute 20’ down to the mouth of a pair of giant ovens. A system of tracks enabled bodies to be gurneyed to the furnace and dumped. Below the furnaces were many pits containing piles of ash. These supposedly were human ashes but how they got there from the furnace I did not get to know. There were also numerous small clay pots which we guessed were urns for carrying ashes to a few survivors. No one seemed to know.

One of our jobs was to de-louse people and blunt the epidemic of typhus then raging there. In the case of ladies it was an indelicate operation as we pumped DDT down their bodices and up their skirts. Of course after years of degradation by the Nazis they had little ego strength left. The death rate from starvation/work was high. Every day the local German population were required to conduct a parade of ox-drawn wagons carrying the dead inmates to the cemetery.

Repatriation of inmates

In contrast to the deaths was the daily departure of lorry-loads of survivors being repatriated to their countries as they got sorted out. Some, particularly those from the east were reluctant to go. My company was not involved in the repatriation sorting exercise itself. The inmates had had to work in a granite quarry a short distance from the camp. In the center of the quarry area was a wooden platform with a cross-beam resembling a hanging frame. Many years later I came to know that on that platform Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been hanged a few weeks before we got there. He was hanged for repudiating Hitler and extolling Christian love.

Very many years later we were camping at a retreat center in New Mexico called Ghost Ranch. One evening we happened on to a group discussing the writing of an opera. The topic of the opera? Dietrich Bonhoeffer! It was nice to be able to add a little personal touch – gruesome as that touch was. I have never heard more of the proposed opera.

Many more years later, in 2017 in Albuquerque, N.M. we attended a ballet/play titled “Shoe Room”. The theme was the room full of the shoes left behind by those executed by the Nazis. The main character in the play was Bonhoeffer. Before the opening the writer/producer of the play called attention to my presence and my having been at Flossenburg where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been hanged.

Flossenburg Camp living quarters deck. (Formerly for Nazi officers)

Nice billets

Our billet at Flossenburg was the former officers’ quarters. These were beautiful chalets on a hillside facing away from the camp and overlooking the plains of the Danube basin. Our light cooking was taken over by some German nurses who were quartered nearby. They were delighted to have access to such “luxuries” as fine flour, olive oil, sugar and canned meat. Early in that time one of us had a birthday and the nurses obliged us with a celebratory cake. Thereafter there was a strangely high incidence of “birthdays” among us! In my bedroom was a floor lamp on whose brass base was inscribed “To Major ___,   with respect from A. Hitler”. It did not occur to me to keep it as a souvenir. It would have been an embarrassment.

The Flossenburg flag at Albuquerque Holocaust and Intolerance Museum

Stars n Stripes at Flossenburg

The inmates at Flossenburg must have had some intimation of the approach of US troops. In secret they fashion three flags, one each for US, UK and Russia. Then when the German guards left (whether by flight or by fight I never found out) the flags were draped on the barbed wire perimeter fence to welcome the liberators. The flags were made mainly of red Nazi banners (minus the swastika) with white and blue colors superimposed in appropriate pattern. In those days at Flossenburg everything was in turmoil, so I cannot recall how the US flag fell into my possession. But I donated it to the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque, NM where it is in prominent display.

In 2016, for a Holocaust Memorial event, I was invited by Kirkland Air Force base to give a talk about my experiences there. My notes and video of my talk follow:

TALK AT KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE in 2016 (Notes)

John and Gini Armes, Roy and Betty, Dan Shaffer at Kirtland Air Force Base Holocaust Talk

Link to my 11 minute talk given at Holocaust Remembrance event. Video by Dan Shaffer

In 2016, I was invited by the Kirtland Air Force base to be the Keynote Speaker at their annual Holocaust Remembrance event. The following are my notes from that talk.

Not scholar. Just a witness to what I saw as a 19 year old GI.

  1. A few memories “On the road to Flossenberg”.

Atlantic troop ship convoy    Sardines, sickness, fear. No “Viking River Cruise”

Ulverston town hall               Exchange novelties: 1066 etc.

France and combat zone         Repeating the “War to end all Wars”

Remagen                                  Pontoons into Germany, as scary as artillery.

Nordhousen                           V2s for devastating London , cf. WIPP

Aachen                                    1,200 years ago Charlemagne’s glory

  1. At Flossenberg

Appearance of prisoners        Emaciated by starvation

Camp facilities                        Warehoused like vegetables.

Hygiene room                         Tile & plumbing as in “Shindler’s List”

Furnace                                   Like cab of locomotive. Cremation.

Quarry                                       Platform and Bonhoeffer

Repatriation resistance         Ambassador Lane dipl. sparr. vs Soviets. Lane’s Book

Flag                                         Welcome. Fabrication. Debris to be rescued/liberated

  1. Perspectives Post-Flossenberg

That crude Flossenburg flag stood then as the moral opposite of the holocaust. But now, 70 years later the world is seeing recurrent “mini -holocausts”. And we see John Kerry, like my uncle back in 1945, in diplomatic sparring with Soviet and other governments’ duplicity. It’s Roy Campanella’s “déjà vu all over again”. So, what is needed? The US political scene needs a lot of moral rehabilitation.But what it does NOT need is a Caesar or a human self-anointed Messiah.

What IS needed is for we Americans as individuals to do three things:

Look backward (today’s ceremony. Visit the Abq. museum)

Look forward (Ponder our nation’s current moral/political trajectory)

Look inward (heart, head, habits) Answer this question “What is my influence on the US position? How is my personal life helping ensure that the Stars and Stripes remains the opposite of holocaustism. That it remains the  emblem of hope for victims of modern day holocausts, just as it was when it hung on the barbed wire at Flossenburg.The Stars and Stripes flew over Fort Sumpter and over Mount Suribachi and over the barbed wire of Flossenburg. “Long may it wave” on behalf of the freedom of people everywhere.

“Oh Say,  Can     You       See?!” (5 words sung)

Thank you for your patience.

Kirtland Air Force base published the following biography:

Dr. Roy Shaffer was born in 1925 and grew up in rural Kenya where his parents were missionaries with the Maasai.

He returned to the US for High School. In 1943 he was drafted into the US Army and served in the ETO (European Theater of Operations) with the 350th Medical Collecting Company. When Germany surrendered in 1945 he was posted to Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Bavaria. While there Shaffer acquired a US flag secretly hand-made by prisoners. This had been hung on the barbed wire fencing to welcome the liberators. Years later When the New Mexico Holocaust & Intolerance Museum opened in Albuquerque, Shaffer contributed that Flossenburg flag.

In 1946 after discharge Shaffer married Elizabeth Lane and in 1949 graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois with a BS in Pre-Med. The two then went to Kenya to teach in a High School and start raising a family (1950-55). They then returned to US to Albany Medical College (NY) where Shaffer received his MD in 1959. Thereafter the couple lived mostly in East Africa where Dr. Shaffer was promoting Community-Based Health Care through various organizations (Nairobi Medical School, AMREF and MAP). In 1992 they retired to Albuquerque, NM.

At Kirkland Holocaust Remembrance talk with Betty

1945 in Europe continued:

RS on his jeep named “Betty”
Famously ancient Regensburg Bridge origin about 1,000 AD

Regensburg (1945)

After Flossenburg we were sent to Regensburg, an ancient city on the Danube River. There I supervised about a dozen German secretaries typing records of military staff for re-employment in nation re-building. My role was really meaningless, but I had interesting discussions with some. Their German male supervisor had been a high-level executive in AEG (cf. GE) whose building we occupied. He was elderly and of statesmanlike personality. He helped me to understand the bitterness of the average German after the WW I defeat and their susceptibility to Hitler’s charisma. This man spent much time coaching a German teen on basic electric motor physics. I presume this was in anticipation of the re-start of technology colleges. With the help of the US Marshall Plan the Germans made a magnificent recovery and are now (2012) looked upon to save Europe from economic disaster. One of the secretaries I supervised was wife of a pre-war shipping tycoon and wartime Naval officer. His story reminded me of the father figure in the movie “Sound of Music”. The wife obviously had lived a very elite life. She still did not know then if her husband was alive.

“Domspatz” Cathedral Sparrows

I enjoyed exploring the ancient streets of Regensburg with many covered arched sidewalks. The Regensburg Cathedral is famous for its boys’ choir named “Domespatz” (cathedral sparrows). I observed Christmas Eve mass there once I was able to re-visit Regensburg many years later with Betty and our daughter Gini and son in law John who was stationed in Germany with the Air Force. Again, in 2010 Betty and I visited Regensburg while on a Danube cruise boat trip.

The bridge over the Danube reeked of history as did some of the palaces near it along the river. Just on the edge of the city was a bombed-out factory which was said to have produced the prototype jet fighters. We of course knew nothing about this at the time. A pleasure boat took one downstream to Valhalla, the shrine of German history. This was a parthenonic structure full of statues. It sat on a bank high over the Danube, somewhat like Mount Vernon.

Leave in Switzerland

While stationed at Regensburg I took a chance for a two weeks trip to Switzerland at give-away subsidized rates. I was able to make contact with a few of Betty’s acquaintances of her childhood days there. As there was almost no other tourism at the time we got to stay in the best hotels. Some of my fellow-GIs were from very poor, rural US and felt uncomfortable in such surroundings. I think some of the hotel staff reciprocated the feeling! Our trip took us to Lucerne, Interlaken, Berne etc. Watches were dirt cheap. Some entrepreneurs bought many and took them back to sell to Russian peasant GIs at scandalous mark-ups.

Hummel figurines

While stationed at Regensburg I drove north to visit the factory where Hummel figurines had been made. Production had stopped because of the war, but I was able to purchase about twenty originals. I regret I did not buy 100 for they are rather highly valued now days.

  1. Repatriation

Finally, in early 1946 I had accumulated enough time overseas “points” to qualify for return to US and discharge. We were railed across Germany to Bremerhaven and sailed to New York. The return troop ship was still offensive in environment, but it felt like a cruise ship because it was “home-bound”. Discharge procedures took place at Fort Dix , NJ. It was very fast, very impersonal and devoid of ceremony. I think I would have voted against ceremony. I laughed years later at the contrast of our son in law’s retirement from the US Air Force where honor and ceremony were in full fling.

I look back on my military service with pride and satisfaction It was a time of heroic, articulate, charismatic leadership from men like Winston Churchill and FDR (and finally, Harry Truman). Churchill’s call for “blood, sweat and tears” did not evoke cynicism. We as a nation were much more “one-in-spirit” than we are today. Everyone felt involved in the war effort. So there was less felt compunction to say to GIs   “thank you for your service”. The flag was less of a fetish. I got a lot of good out of military service in many ways. I learned a lot about geography, politics, language, history, psychology, organization, leadership and followership i.e. esprit-de-corps. To top these all off came the GI Bill.

Link to Photos for this chapter (03: Off to War)

Link to next chapter (04: Wheaton College 1943-46)

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