PF: “I was drafted in the German army in November of ’41. I was in the Battle of the Bulge. I was a prisoner of war for eight months, and then I came home from the war in February of 1946.”

What is your birth year?

1922. You have lived through a lot of history. That’s right. 96 years- well, the first four I can’t remember. I have 92 years to remember. I was drafted in the German army in November of ’41. I was in the Battle of the Bulge. I was a prisoner of war for eight months, and then I came home from the war in February of 1946. 

Where were you born?

In Vienna.

Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood?

Yeah. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the European school system- everybody goes to four years of grade school. Then, after that, it gets kind of spilt up. There’s another mandatory four years, which is kind of an extended higher level grade school. If the parents want you to get a better education, then they usually get to sit for an entrance exam to go to a special school. The gymnasium, they call it. That’s eight years. When you graduate from that school, you go right to graduate school, to university. There’s nothing between. For my finals, I had algebra, calculus, seven years of Latin, five years of English. You have a good education, so you don’t go to college. The advantage is that if you go to school, you have a good education. The disadvantage is that you had to have parents, at the age of ten, who were willing and interested enough that you go to that better school. If you didn’t, it didn’t matter how smart you were, you didn’t go. 

What was the technology available during your upbringing- did you have cars, telephones, etc?

No. My parents had a bakery, and they had a store, so we were in an apartment that was four floors. We and one other couple, teachers, were the only ones with a telephone. If somebody had an emergency, any of our tenants in that house, and had to call somebody, they had to come down to us and ask if they could use our telephone. You were well-off, then. Yeah. I was fortunate; my parents, they owned the house, the bakery, the store- we had a telephone. The three of us could go to that special school; my father wasn’t interested, really, but my mother insisted, so she got us to sit for the exam and we ended up in [school] for eight years. 

How did WW1 affect your family?

My father served in WWI. He was in the infantry in WWI. Actually, my mother was married before during WWI, and her first husband died after the war was over. Then, she got remarried. There was one son she had from the first marriage, then she got remarried, and there was my twin brother and I, and then four years later was a sister, a girl. That was it. 

It sounds like you had a good, happy childhood.

I don’t know if it was happy. We were better off than most, but it was a depression, and it affected even- hell, I know there was one Christmas, it was the biggest deal for the bakery. In the early war, my mother closed the store, and came for Christmas dinner, and all the special breads they had made for sale- nothing had sold. It was all left; they had to throw it away, they couldn’t sell it. There were some bad times. 

When did you first hear of Hitler and the Third Reich? What did you know of them?

The German army marched into Austria in March of 1938. At that point, Austria became part of Germany. Austria was part of a big monarchy during WWI, which consisted of Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and part of Czechoslovakia. It was the Austrian-Hungary monarchy. That fell apart after WWI, so now they divided up; Hungary became a separate state, Czechoslovakia, Germany, then Austria. Hitler took over in 1934, in Germany. The German army marched in Austria in ’38; at that point, we became part of Germany. Of course, the community conditions were pretty bad at that point; Hitler solved the unemployment problem. Roosevelt solved the unemployment plan here similar to Hitler; he established the draft. If you take two years of young men out of the workforce and put them in the army, you don’t have an unemployment problem anymore! {Laughs} I got drafted in the army in November of ’41. 

You lived in occupied country. What was that like?

Eh, ‘occupied’. I know there was no unemployment in Germany after Hitler took over, because he got the draft. Austria was still in pretty bad shape until ’38; there was high unemployment, bad conditions. When Hitler sent the German army into Austria in ’38, we didn’t object. They blame the Austrians of being Nazis, but [Germany] helped. You see, in Austria, in the ’30s, you had graduates from college that couldn’t get a job. If they joined the illegal [group], and fled to Germany, they had a well-paying job. 

What did you know of the Americans during this time? 

Nothing. One thing is, of course, I suspect that in our education system- I went to the one that was eight years- we probably learned more about the geography about the United States than the students in the United States did. I’m not kidding. When I came here, I was surprised that someone on the West Coast and went to school doesn’t know [what] the mountains on the East are called.

Did you know many Jewish people before the war?

Yeah. But then of course, when Hitler took over Austria, they fled. The poor ones stayed back, and they ended up in the Holocaust. [My friend] had money in New York, and had enough money stashed away that they got rich again after WWII. 

How were you drafted? How did you feel?

That was the deal. ‘How did you feel?’- you got drafted. That was it. There was nothing you could do. If you had refused, you would’ve been court-marshaled, and hanged. 

How old were you when you were drafted?

19. 

Was your twin brother drafted as well?

I had a half brother, who was nine years older. He had to go when Hitler came; he had to go for three months training. At the time his three months were over, it was September of ’39, and Hitler started his German troops into Poland. He didn’t get home after the three months basic training; he was put right in the army. He came home after I did; luckily didn’t get killed. He was in the army from ’39 until ’46. My twin brother and I, we got drafted in November of ’41. 

Did you receive any physical training?

You got basic training, just like here. The US army originally was trained by Prussian officers, so we had the same training! 

Did you have any expectations of what would happen?

No. You don’t have expectations in a war; you just try to survive. 

Where did you go during the war?

I was also in Finland for ten months. I [went to] officer’s school and became a Second Lieutenant, and ended up in the Battle of the Bulge. When the American troops landed in Saint- Lô, I ended up getting held back until we surrendered in April of ’46. Then was ten months of prisoner of war. 

What was the weather like?

During WWII, we had very cold winters, every year. It’s pretty strange. When I was in Finland, it snowed on October 15th, and it never stopped. When I came up in April, all the ponds were still frozen. We had terribly cold winters during WWII.

What was your job or assignment there? Were you in infantry?

{Laughs} I started out in some speciality unit for the artillery of German army. Tank school- by the time I got through with that training, they didn’t have enough tanks, so they resent me to infantry school. Then, Battle of the Bulge, I was already in the infantry. 

Tell me more about the Battle of the Bulge. 

The thing is, somebody in the German army decided to march into Luxembourg, and it started. They just gave us marching orders, and you got the deal- the deal was that when we started out with the attack, each one got a loaf of bread. We don’t know how close we will ever come, so don’t eat it all at once. We don’t know when the next bread is coming. When we started the attack, we were surrounded Bastogne. Then on the 23rd [of December], I was wounded, and they wanted to bandage me up and send me to a hospital. I refused to go, because I had a pretty nice position in that infantry. I figured that if I go to the hospital, I would never come back to that unit. The interesting thing was, I read a book called ‘The German Wars’- they had a story about someone who was in the same unit. He was wounded the same day as I was; he did go to the hospital, was in the hospital for a week, then they let him go home for a few days for recovery, and he never came back to this unit. He was sent to some other unit in Russia, and he was killed there. I made the right decision not to go to the hospital. 

I was bandaged up, sitting on the wall of the city on Christmas Eve. When we realized there was no chance, on the 25th night, we heard airplanes coming. We thought, “My God, they are going to bomb us on Christmas day.” They didn’t. They dropped off Christmas dinners in parachutes to the people inside the city, not just the soldiers. They dropped off enough so that the civilians could get their dinner. We said, “How the hell can we win this war.” And we didn’t. 

How were you injured?

I was in the armored personnel carrier, driving down. I was the Second Lieutenant, and it was the staff of the battalion, and there was a colonel. I had to get some troop up to some attack position, which I did. We ended up with the machine gun shooting down on us, and hit me. Sounds very lucky. Yeah, I was very lucky. Like I said, head injuries- they bandaged me up, and they wanted to send me to the hospital, and I was in a position where I could refuse. My battalion commander was happy that I refused, because he liked me. 

Did you ever see, or interact with, the Allied soldiers?

Yeah. I got shot! {Laughs} I was there on the English Channel when the American troops landed at Saint-Lô. I was right there in the combat. 

Did you speak any English at the time?

Yeah, I had Latin and English in high school. I didn’t speak very well, but I could read better than speak. If you went to a school like I did, you spoke it. There was Latin, Greek, English, and French. Depending on what kind of school you were, you had one or two of the languages. Some schools, you took French only. There was a school that was Greek- I had a cousin, he had seven years of Greek and five years of French. I had seven years of Latin and five years of English. The American people don’t realize- somebody, after the war, developed a system called ‘Basic English’. You can actually basically learn 1,000 words- some verbs, some nous, some subjects- it was easy to learn, and with that, you could communicate. The strange thing is, if you want to speak English well, it’s not an easy thing. It’s not as difficult as German; German is all rules. You have to learn the exceptions to the rules, and the exceptions to the exceptions to the rules. If you make one mistake, nobody knows what you said! Basic English is easy to learn, to communicate, but to speak it well, it’s a difficult language. 

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.

No, not really. I know that when the time was over, the time we surrendered, all units- that day, I remember, was April 18th. The reason I remember that- it was a big deal that Hitler had a birthday on April 20th. There was big celebration for Hitler’s birthday, and that was two days before that. Of course, he didn’t celebrate his birthday anymore, because he had surrendered. That’s kind of the one day that sticks in my mind. The rest is kind of a hazy deal.

What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?

In a system, even like here during the war, as a man, you get drafted. Whether you like it or don’t. Nobody ask you. You get some basic training, and then you end up in combat. All you do, if you’re in combat, is try to survive. 

What were the best memories of service?

No. Sure, you’re making jokes. I had advantage, in some respect, that I never smoked. I still don’t smoke. As a soldier, we did get some cigarettes. During the war, you could get anything for your cigarettes. You could get Cognac, you could get sex, you could get anything with cigarettes! 

I know the German army was underfed. What were your rations like?

Yeah. It all depended. I was at some training camp for some months, some training deal, and on Saturdays, we got our one week ration of margarine and sugar. Everybody, like me, took our margarine and our sugar, put it on a plate, took a spoon, mixed it up, and ate it. There was no point saving it. When you were in the back, you got as low as 1300 calories a day. If the German army could manage, if you were in combat, up to 3000 calories. Did you experience the famine that swept Europe towards the end of the war? To put it in perspective, if you take Oregon on the west side between the Cascades and the ocean, you tilt it 90°, that’s exactly the size of Austria. The Cascades are the Alps between Austria and Italy. The Northern part is the same shape; Portland sits where Vienna sits. Of course, that changes the climate, because you had the warm humid climate from the Mediterranean, but if you had an east wind, North of the Alps, it was cold wind from Siberia. During that time, we had very cold winters. I don’t know why; it’s warming, there’s no question. 

What was your uniform? Did you wear combat fatigues?

Almost always. At officer’s school, we wore that other one, but- I was drafted in November ’41. They gave me two shirts, two long underwears, a pair of socks, a uniform, and a box to put my civilian clothes in. When I came home in February of ’46, I still had those two shirts, two long underwear- I had replaced the socks, because they had too many holes. I still wore the two shirts I got in ’41. At that time, in combat, you wore one shirt, and had the clean one in the pack. When you had a chance to wash, you put the clean one on. Sometimes it was dry when you had to move on, sometimes it was still wet. If it was still wet, you tied it on your pack. You wore it until you had a chance to wash. I came home with two shirts. I wore the same two shirts for six years! At home, my mother smelled me; she turned on the bathtub, put some hot water, put some newspaper in front of it. She said, “Drop your clothes on the newspaper and take a bath.” She rolled [my clothes] all up, and took it to the bakery, and shoved it into the oven and burned it. She wouldn’t touch it. When you wear it for eight months as prisoner of war, you washed one and you wore one. When I surrendered, I hadn’t washed for at least a month. There was no water to wash in the American prisoner of war camp in France, because the water you got you needed to drink. If anybody had ever tried to use any water for washing, he would’ve been thrown out. 

How were you taken to the prisoner of war camp? Did your unit surrender individually?

No, our unit surrendered. What was that like? There was no chance of winning that war, you know, so you tried, from December of ’44 on, try to survive. So in April, we surrendered to the American troops.

On experience as POW:

They put us in a little camp along the Rhine; it rained, so everything I wore was all wet. Luckily, it was raining, because we had something to drink, [because] otherwise we wouldn’t. Then, after a week, I noticed that there was some train going out from the prisoner of war camp. So I got my few belongings I had, and jumped on the train to get out of the camp. I don’t really know where the prisoner of war camp was; I have no idea. We were in army tents, in April, and when it started getting cold, we had no blankets, we were sleeping on the floor. Luckily, they did put us in some little town; when it started getting cool in October, they put us in some school somewhere in Northern France, on the Belgian border. We had a roof over our heads, and we did get some warm food at that point. The interesting thing was- my older brother was drafted much earlier than I was. He was captured by the American troops in North Africa, and he was sent over to the US; there was a camp, in Kansas. I was still in this school in December, and on Christmas Eve, somebody said that there was some German prisoners coming from the US. I thought, “Hmm, I’d better take a look.” Sure enough, there was my older brother. So, we met there. The thing was, of course, that Vienna was in the Russian front. They had twice tried to send prisoners back, and they came back the next day, because they didn’t dare to let them go with the Russians. So I told him, I said, “Don’t tell them that you live in Vienna. You’ll never get out of here.” He had some girlfriend in Oberösterreich, in northern Austria. I said, “You have her address?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You say that’s your address.” Sure enough, he got out, and I was still sitting there for another month. 

Did you do labor work in the camps?

No. You just sat around. We formed study groups. I took math studies; there were some professors in that camp. There were some English teachers. I was a Second Lieutenant, so we were in a separate camp from the rest of the army. In our camp, there were only officers from a rank of Captain down to Second Lieutenant. That was it. The result was, of course, you had mostly well-educated people in the camp. They had English classes, math classes- you could study anything you wanted. You had a little notebook, and a pencil, and you could take some notes. That was for eight months. 

How did you get home?

The Americans transported us home. They had a train, all cattle cars, and we slept on the floors. It took several days. We would stop someplace for several hours, and then we kept on going. One opened the door and looked out and said, “We must be in Germany.” He said, “Look out at the houses. They are not French.” The thing is, the French- the French had won the war, and those houses looked dirty, the yard wasn’t kept up. You went over, and there were the Germans with flower deals in their windows, clean, windows washed- you could tell the difference, just by looking out the window.

Had you been to Germany before the start of the war?

I was in Berlin with the Germany army, in Cologne with the German army. What was Berlin like, during the war? It’s a big city, of course, and I wasn’t really in Berlin. I was south. They have a very good mass transit, with over 40 miles south of Berlin. There was a high speed train, and Saturdays when we got off we would buy tickets and walk down to the train station; there was a train going every ten minutes, and in a half hour you were in Berlin. 

What were your friends and family’s reaction to your service? Did they support the cause?

You don’t have any feelings. You get drafted, and you do the best you can. On top of it, my mother had lost her first husband in WWI, so now she had three sons, and they were all in the army. The funny thing was, when my twin brother and I got drafted, they ask when we are signing up, “Oh, you are twins, do you want to serve in the same unit?” And we said, “Absolutely not.” We were at the same school, had the same clothes. He became a professor of history, and I became an accountant! Can you think of the difference? When we had a chance to get our separate ways, we couldn’t wait anymore. 

Did you keep in touch with any of these people? If so, for how long?

No. The thing was, I had a good position there. In Saint- Lô, when I tried to report, I asked around for my company commander. I got him, and he was missing two platoons, had no idea where they were. I told him, “I know where they are. Use the motorcycle to find your two platoons.” I got them connected to the company commander, and the result was that he put me on his staff. He never put me in charge of any battle unit, which is basically why I survived. The other thing was, I always loved maps. When we got to France, I had a street map getting me from the English Channel in my pack. My company commander didn’t have maps, I did. That kept me alive. 

What year did you come to the United States?

1955. 

Why did you decide to move?

Times were pretty miserable in Austria. ’55- Vienna was still occupied by the Russians, the English, the French, the Americans, and there was one guy who was Jewish, and he had to leave in ’38. His father had owned the equivalent of Meier & Frank in Vienna. He ended up in the American army- he never heard a shot, because they used him as a trench lighter. When the war was over, he was in Vienna, and he and his sister were making deals. Someone had the crazy idea of heading back and was introduced to Fred Meyer, personally. Fred Meyer gave him a good offer, “We’ve started a department store, and I wouldn’t mind having some Viennese bakeries here.” So he went back, and put an ad in the paper, in Vienna, looking for someone who could come to the United States to start a Viennese bakery. Now, my parents having a bakery, and having a degree from a university in business- I got the job. Maria had just had [our] second child, who was four months old when I told her; in January, we are going to the US. 

Did you have a family after the war? 

I got married. We met in 1947. How did you meet? {Laughs} I like to hike and climb, and the Austrian Alpine Club have a basic climbing school. After the war, when I came home from prisoner of war, I went on some hike, and got on some trails. I realized that I shouldn’t be alone, and that I needed more skills. I signed up for more, and Maria signed up for the same, for a different reason. The thing is, after WWII, when we came home, there were about 4 women for 3 men. She signed up- her girlfriends must’ve told her, “There are so few men around. If you want to find one, you’d better go to some activity where there are more men than women.” And she did! 

My twin brother is already dead; I outlived him. We were not identical twins. I had a sister; we were visiting Vienna and we ran into some woman who was working with her in the library. She greeted my sister, and turned to me and said, “Oh, you must be [her] brother”. [My sister] said, “Yes, you guessed right.” [The woman] pointed to my brother and said, “Who is he?” She had heard they were twins; my sister was single then, and [the woman] thought that she had a boyfriend that she’d never heard about! I said, “No, that’s my twin brother!” {Laughs} 

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

Yeah. I think the thing is, of course, there will always be more, there always has been. The United States finally realized that you don’t really make any money from leading wars. They had the draft, and had more soldiers than they needed, so they discontinued the draft. There are enough young men who will sign up. Now, I don’t know- the US now has 10 or 15 bases with 60,000 troops in each. The US hasn’t got much choice, but I hope to never get in another war. In the end, everybody loses. Even the winner loses.

Do you think the world has any misinterpretations about Germans during WWII?

I don’t know. That generation of mine, we were all drafted. You were into some combat positions, and if you are in that, all you can think of is how to survive. There is no difference between American soldiers and German soldiers, except that America still has troops all over the world. The US is upset, because Germany is not going to have an army. I don’t think they ever will. We are talking in history about the 30 year old. I think maybe 150 years from how, historians will not talk about WWI and WWII- they will talk about the German war, as one. WWI ended in 1918, and WWII started in September of 1939. You only have 18 years between. The problem here with the educational system is that high school students don’t have any idea of what Germany, or Europe, is like. They broke up and took the west side of the Rhine, which was German speaking, and gave it to France because they didn’t know any better. The coal you need to make the steel on the other side is on the other side. The coal was in Germany and the steel was in France, so they couldn’t do anything. The conflict started radically with the end of WWI and laid the groundwork for WWII. 

How did your service affect your life?

I lost four years when I could’ve done something better. When I was drafted, I was a few weeks from my 18th birthday. When I came home, it was after my 24th birthday. 

Author’s Note: PF was not able to provide any personal photographs from his service in the Wehrmacht (WWII- era German Army). Photos below are provided for the reader’s reference, but do not describe PF’s exact experience or his surroundings. Images are cited to their respective owners. 

3be56dd326e56ea7da381545752dd5d3.jpg
Wehrmacht victory parade in Berlin, circa 1940. Retrieved from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/774126623419686488/
140828132531-01-world-war-ii-0828-story-top.jpg
German troops marching through occupied Warsaw during World War Two, Poland, circa 1939. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)
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Young SS troops being briefed, circa 14940-1945. Retrieved from hasshe.com/young-german-soldier-ww2-5b7bc5ee2756dd6f6c86bf70/.

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

 

One thought on “PF: “I was drafted in the German army in November of ’41. I was in the Battle of the Bulge. I was a prisoner of war for eight months, and then I came home from the war in February of 1946.”

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