Friday, March 20, 2009


Occupation duty began with a bang when, in different days of the week, we would sally forth before dawn from the Kaserne in Amberg, with loaded weapons, riding in 6 by’s. It was always chilly. We drove to small villages in the countryside which we surrounded. Some of us were on guard on the perimeter, some searching every house and barn and shed, looking for hidden weapons and soldiers, primarily SS. The job of searching was preferred because that was an opportunity to look for loot; Leica’s and Luger’s and anything else we considered valuable. Occasionally picture books of the Nazi regime, its leaders and its works would surface. I remember one that had blank spaces beside the text where the German civilians could glue in photos they purchased to aid the war effort. Never anything about concentration camps. Never anything about the disaster in the east.

The people in the homes we invaded were mainly resigned, stoic. A few were frightened but never crying. Not a word was ever said by any of them. Always, wherever we searched, in small farmhouses or larger blocks of homes, every place had lots of stuff that German troops sent back from all over Europe: things like ashtrays from Norway, fur-lined gloves from Russia, tableware from France. What goes around comes around.

On one occasion we came to a tiny hamlet, not even as large as a shtetle, seven or eight little cottages. The place was deserted. Every one of those cottages was crammed with unopened packages of food from America to GI prisoners of war in German camps. We had no idea how all those gifts to GI’s came to be there, but we called our trucks to come up from headquarters to take the boxes away. We were outraged and vengeful. We had seen Dachau and Flossenburg , but this was in our face, this was very personal. We burned very house to the ground. That’s something we never did deliberately during the war; you don’t destroy potential cover.

The rotation of guarding and searching was handled fairly evenly. I had my share of doing both. On this morning, I was guarding on the outskirts of town. There was a small sawmill close by and some piles of lumber next to it. The red glow of the rising sun made the world look pretty but not yet warmer. I saw a man slip out of a nearby house, furtively making his way from one pile of lumber to another, moving away from the town. He didn’t see me, he was facing the other way. He had a large green rucksack on his back. His clothes were typical of the time: ill-fitting army pants and jacket and the grey forage cap that all the men of every age wore.

As I wondered what he was up to, a feeling of lassitude invaded me. I knew he could be a war criminal trying to escape. My M1 was heavy in my hands. I wondered why I didn’t stop him; that was my duty. It was as though I was watching a movie, not having a part in it. I wondered if doing nothing was a protest against all the insanity and degradation that was involving me.

Finally, when he was about 80 yards away, still well within my rifle’s range, I moved into a position that gave me an unobstructed field of fire whichever way he might move. In the chilly stillness I yelled, “Halt, Hande hoch!” He stopped, put his hands up and turned towards me. Almost immediately, some of my brother GI’s came running, weapons ready. Harold Thane, who we called “Heavy” had the BAR but with very little ammo, and all were relieved that there was not going to be a fire fight. The German, who was about my age, was Landswehr, not SS, trying to make his way home from the front. He had no papers, of course, hardly anyone did then. The war had ended only two weeks before and there was no system set up yet to deal with returning German soldiers and all the DP’s.

He was frightened and sullen. I’m sure he was afraid that we, the victorious army in his native land, would throw him in jail. He started to relax when he realized that we were not going to beat him. His rucksack contained some bread and cheese, ragged clothing, an extra pair of worn boots, and a lot of letters and mementoes from his dead comrades that he wanted to bring to their families. This was something we could relate to, this was something we would want a buddy to do for us. We gave him a few packs of cigarettes that came with our C rations – I think there were three butts in each pack – and some matches. He had no weapons, not even a breadknife or a spoon, and no watch. Watches were commonly traded then for food and clothing.

He was placed in the Captain’s jeep with the Sergeant to guard him. I never saw him again, though I knew he would be taken back to rear echelon to be interrogated and eventually released, perhaps given a job assisting HQ in some way. There were hordes of Displaced Persons all over Europe then, all of them needing food, shelter, clothing, doctors, translators. Many Germans and other Europeans were employed in this work, and almost everyone was involved in the Black Market as well; it was a necessary fact of life then, for survival.

I still have no understanding of what came over me before I stopped that man. Something tried to keep me from doing that, though stopping him was the right thing to do. I never told anyone that I almost let him go. I knew that I would have been shunned forever. Why did I hesitate?