- Historic Sites
“The So-called Charge Was Murder”
A young GI making the journey from war to peace, and from enmity to friendship, finds amid the most tremendous change smoldering embers of an old tyranny
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
In the spring of 1952, I, like many college graduates that year, received an official government letter whose contents we knew before the envelope was opened. Army basic training followed, with daily, almost hourly, assurances that in a matter of months we would be holding Korean hilltop positions, where Old Joe Chink, as the Army then liked to term the enemy, was momentarily expected.
There followed, in my case, some advanced training, during which time the Korean armistice was signed. Old Joe Chink vanished from all our minds, and I got orders for Bremerhaven, Germany. The troopship came in at night, and I remember my shock at noting that along the pier were lights indistinguishable from those at home. A moronic reaction, of course, but I, like all the other draftees, had been brought up in an atmosphere dominated by certain concepts about this place. Our childhoods had been lived with Germany always in the background, on the radio, in the movie newsreels, in the newspapers, Life magazine, Look magazine, Collier’s, Liberty , comic books. We had gone to grammar school and high school during the war, collected tin cans and scrap paper, seen our mothers shop with ration stamps, gotten war bonds for our birthdays, seen service stars in windows and uniforms everywhere, known a thousand war movies, remembered V-E Day and pictures of wrecked cities. Germany was a sinister, menacing place. It had severely wounded the boy my older sister would marry, killed one of her high school classmates, killed millions of others. Germany was Hitler, the Nuremberg trials. I had never heard of one single thing that seemed normal about the place. Hence my reaction to the lights.
We disembarked, were taken to a replacement depot, and then put on a train wending its way through the American zone toward Augsburg, Bavaria, and the 5th Infantry Division. All along the right of way there were bombed-out buildings or walls with no houses behind them. When we were distributed to our new units, I saw a familiar face from basic and advanced training. We hadn’t run into each other on the ship or in the train. George was from Chicago, a Northwestern graduate.
George, a fine physical specimen, big and a terrific athlete, had been raised a Christian Scientist. He told me that in some manner his mother had gotten a list of every Christian Science establishment in Germany and had made him promise that at the first opportunity he would go to church. Would I accompany him when our first passes were issued, that Sunday? Afterward we could look around Augsburg together.
With the aid of a map we fumbled our way to the church. The service had begun. We found two seats midway down the aisle. We didn’t understand a word of the service. When everybody rose and started putting on coats, we made for the door. George, a dutiful boy, had made good on his promise to Mom.
We were out in the street and walking away when a member of the congregation came hurrying after us to say in pretty good English that he welcomed us and wanted to introduce two other church members. They were interested in improving their English, he said, and wished to invite us to their home for tea the following Sunday. He produced a man and wife and three children, two little girls who curtsied to us and a little boy of eight, the eldest. The mother was a stand-in for Briinnhilde: tall, blonde, blue-eyed. The husband was an inch or so shorter than she, with a broadish face more Slavic-looking than German, wearing glasses. Her English was better than his.
There was quite some to-do about their explaining which trolley we took to get to their house. They showed us on our map. We parted, agreeing to come at four the next Sunday.
The rest of the day we walked around Augsburg, and on the following Saturday night we went back and ate dinner at a restaurant. By the end of that evening we had an impression of Germany. It appeared to be a supernaturally polite place. Wherever we went, people got out of our way, and many touched their hats as we passed. The very few private cars in the streets were little Volkswagen Beetles. There were thousands of people on bicycles and many trolleys. Often men asked for, or offered to buy, cigarettes. Whenever we purchased anything, postcards or a guidebook, we were thanked several times for our patronage and had the door held open for us when we left. We did not see a single girl who appealed to us in the slightest. The clothing people wore was unattractive in the extreme, bulky and illfitting. The women’s hats—and every woman wore one— were simply frightful. We saw almost no other soldiers.
Our hostess smiled her pretty smile in a nervous way and said, “Are you"—reaching for a dictionary—"broad-minded?”
Both of us had been brought up not to go empty-handed to people’s houses, so I asked a fellow in my section who’d been in Germany for about a year what we should take to our Sunday rendezvous. He told me pleasantly that there was hardly a girl in Augsburg who wouldn’t give you a piece of tail for a pound of American coffee. With our PX cards entitling us each to a monthly pound of coffee, we bought two and presented ourselves at the home of the church couple.