In April 1945, the Nazis were losing; the Russians were advancing toward Berlin. German soldiers were desperate to surrender to the Americans hoping for better treatment than could be expected from the Russians. The Americans, French and British were overwhelmed with the sheer quantity of surrendering German soldiers. There had been no plan made to deal with this eventuality. Herded into Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures (nothing more than fenced fields sprinkled across the Rhine Valley) the 424th was assigned the job of guarding the Nazi Army soldiers they’d recently faced across battlefield starting April 22, 1945.
There were no tents or other shelter, no medical treatment, only trenches for sanitary needs, and precious little food for the prisoners. In desperation, the German soldiers stripped the leaves off the trees and the blades of grass from the ground to eat. Civilians were prevented from helping their countrymen. It took several weeks for the conditions in the camps to improve. However during the 3 months of US management; at least thousands of German soldiers died in the camps of starvation, exposure, or disease (the numbers of dead are widely contested and will never be confirmed; the reasons a subject to fill books). Many of the 424th boys recall little about those camps beyond the misery of the men behind the fences and the smell. Dad remembered that a truck would drive into the camp each morning to collect dead. His friend, Floyd Ragsdale remembered Company G gave up lunch daily to give to the prisoners.
In the end, the final collapse happened fast. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, as the Russians advanced on Berlin only 8 days after the 424th arrived to guard the Germans. A week after that, on May 7, 1945, Hitler’s successor, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz surrendered to the Allies. The final conditions of surrender were officially implemented the next day, May 8, 1945 – only 15 days after the 424th arrived at the Rhine River valley to guard the hundreds of thousands of German soldiers that had surrendered to the Allies or been captured.
Dad recalled being “billeted in a castle” at Heidesheim am Rhein – location of the first camp he was assigned to guard. When visiting the site in 2018, the reality didn’t align with what I’d conceived in my imagination. While it may be a Berg (translation: Castle), it was little more than a large house built around an older tower. It’s been restored in the years since the War, but at the time it was a cold, unheated hulk with no indoor toilets. It was a chilly spring, but at least they were under a real roof after months sleeping rough in the open, or at best in a tent. They even had hot food regularly. It was a short walk from the Berg to the enclosure for guard shifts. When not on duty, the men had plenty of free time without much to fill it.
I don’t know if Dad’s VE Day celebration took place on the 7th after the initial surrender or on the 8th after the official documents were signed. Dad was hanging around the Berg waiting for his next guard shift when a Jeep loaded with crates of French Champagne came speeding up the road. The driver was honking the horn and shouting the news that the Germans had surrendered: the war was over! Men came spilling out of the Berg and surrounded the Jeep. As the good news was repeated, they started shouting, jumping around, and cheering. The Champagne was opened and other contraband alcohol (purchased from the German civilians with Spam and cigarettes) was passed around. Loosened up by the alcohol, filled with jubilation, they began shooting their firearms into the air. It seems a lot of ammo was spent before someone recalled the adage, “What goes up must come down”. The men trooped inside the Burg to get their helmets and then continued the celebration.
On May 7th and 8th – 75 years later – I tried to imagine what that moment must have been like for Dad. In the 6 months since he’d arrived in England, Dad had seen, done, lost, and been through so much. Was he thinking about the boys that didn’t live to see this victory? Did he think the victory was worth their sacrifice? Both his parents were born in Germany; was he thinking about them? Did he think he’d get to go home? Did he think about how the German people would have to rebuild their country again and all the pain and suffering to come for them? Did he think about the German soldiers in the field down the street? Was he angry? Relieved? Was he proud he’d fought and survived to see this victory? Did he think about the Japanese? Did he fear he’d be sent to the Pacific Theatre now that the war with Germany was over? Did he think of any of this? Or was he already locking it all up, already not thinking or talking about it?
Maybe he just wanted some Champagne, to feel joyous and to celebrate. Maybe he was just happy to shout, laugh, and celebrate with the others, passing the bottles from hand to hand; happy in that moment without complications.
The rest of the world had come out into the streets to celebrate, too. The streets of major cities across the Allied countries were filled with happy, smiling, laughing, drinking, hugging, dancing, kissing people.
He was, after all, only 19 ½ year old young man.
Thank you Anne..
Love John ________________________________