A GI’s Story: Pfc Willard H. Keeber’s Military Service – Part 7

           On April 22, 1945, the journey from France back to Germany was complete. G Co. arrived in Heidesheim, Germany. According to Floyd, they arrived to find a scene of chaos with uncounted numbers of German soldiers milling around in a field surrounded by US Army trucks parked surrounding them with engines running and headlights illuminating the field while the 424th patrolled around the perimeter to keep the Germans contained.

Standing Guard at the Temporary Enclosure

The Allies had been overwhelmed by the numbers of surrendering and captured German soldiers. German soldiers preferred to be in the hands of the Americans rather than the Russians as they feared the treatment they’d receive in Russian captivity. They simply expected the Allies to treat them better than their long-time enemies, the Russians. Since the Germans and Russians had brutalized one another during the War, their concerns were correct. The better treatment by the Allies may only have been a matter of degrees, however, at least initially.  

The Germans were denied classification as POWs because they were soldiers for a State that no longer existed (Germany). Instead, the Allies classified them as “disarmed combatants”. This meant that the Germans in the Camps in the Rhine Valley were not entitled to Geneva Convention regulations for the care and feeding of POW.

The Allies were expecting harsh conditions for the defeated country and starvation for the German citizens and former German military alike. The Allies (supposedly) did a cost/benefit analysis and decided if they classified the Soldiers as POW’s under the Geneva Conventions, they’d be forced by the Geneva Conventions to give them all the food the Allies could come up with and the civilians would get insufficient food to keep them from suffering and starving. The Allies decided to spread the food around to both former soldiers and civilians alike. As a result, at the beginning, when the Allies were coping with the influx of literally hundreds of thousands of hungry, sick, tired, demoralized German soldiers, conditions in the camps were appalling.

Starting the day after the 424th arrived for this new assignment, Army Engineers constructed a barbed wire fence that stretched 7 miles enclosing a fruit tree orchard. Into this area, German soldiers numbering in the hundreds of thousands were herded. They had only whatever they could carry to sustain them at the beginning; which most often was the clothes on their backs and nothing more. The Allies were not prepared in advance to care for so many prisoners, which included some women, the very young Hitler Youth, and the elderly men drafted to the front in the final months of the War. At first, there was no shelter, sanitation facilities, food, or medical care. The conditions suffered by the internees in the encampments at the beginning were as bad, or perhaps worse than those suffered by the Jews and Gypsies in the Extermination Camps. They were not facing forced labor or gas chambers, but they were without food, shelter, toilets, water, or care just the same.

The Springtime weather had turned suddenly cold and conditions inside the fence worsened. The internees quickly cut down the trees in the orchard and used up all the wood for fires for warmth. They used grass and leaves to cook a “soup” to eat until there were no more of those left either. Internees were reportedly eating dirt. Both Dad and Floyd recalled a truck going inside the gates to pick up the bodies of those German soldiers that had died overnight of illness, starvation, and cold. Eventually, the Allies got a better handle on the situation and supply lines were created to provide food, sanitation trenches, tents, and medical care for the prisoners. Floyd recalls that the men of G Co. sacrificed their lunchtime meal so the prisoners would have something to eat until rations came for the German soldiers.

Despite their recent harsh battle experience, M1 and the other soldiers of the 424th were still very young men with an average age of about 21. Some had just been added to their ranks from the replacement depots and had no prior battle experience before being added to the ranks of the 424th. The replacements were no older than the experienced boys. The 424th witnessed all the initial chaos, suffering, and death on the other side of the barbed wire fence. It had to be traumatic. One of the many recollections of these boys guarding the German soldiers was the smell that came from the camps. It’s no wonder that the 424th took to drinking for the escape from their circumstances it provided.

Despite a standing “No Fraternizing” order the boys traded cigarettes and Spam for German Marks and pooled their resources to purchase plenty of alcohol from the local civilians. They were, after all in the middle of Germany’s wine country. Bill recalled drinking while on duty to make the time spent patrolling the fence line, witness to the suffering inside, bearable.

The camp in Heidesheim, which eventually contained nearly 100,000 German soldiers, was not the only one. There were 19 camps spread across the entire Rhine River Valley guarded by other Army Companies and Regiments, which processed over a million Wehrmacht soldiers. German civilians were prevented from doing anything to make conditions inside the fence any better. There are reports from one of the other camps that a local woman was shot and killed on the fence line for passing food to a soldier in the camp.

Map or Rhine Valley Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures

However, for all that the initial conditions were abysmal, and shelter never was provided for the Wehrmacht soldiers, most were only held for a few months before release. The camps were created to prevent an insurgency of guerilla soldiers who would fight on. The internal operations of the camps were left to the prisoners. So, the Wehrmacht within the camps established order and provided from among their number their own doctors, cooks, and workforces. Some were even provided with weapons and helped the Allies as Military Police in exchange for extra rations.

Within a couple of weeks, a priority order was established for processing the internees out of the camps. First released were the young members of the Hitler Youth and the women. Next, skilled laborers and farmers were released to help with their countries’ reconstruction. As camps were emptied, the populations and guards were moved around to consolidate numbers to close the camps. This caused a record-keeping nightmare that, to this day prevents an accurate count of the deaths. It took a German government commission in 1972 to count the “official” number of deaths at 4,537. They also determined the 6 camps with the most deaths. Heidesheim was included at #4. However sad these mortality statistics may be, the fact is that mortality rates under the Allied management of the camps were among the lowest for the surrendered combatants during and after the War.

While working as guards, the boys of G Co. were given showers, entertainment, travel opportunities for sightseeing, and were housed in a “castle” with windows even if there was no heat. The walk to the camp for duty was about ½ mile and no hardship in the springtime conditions. Chow was conveniently located and consequently served hot. If the duty was unpleasant, at least the circumstances in which they performed the job were an improvement over the past Winter.

Shortly following their April 22 arrival at Heidesheim, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945. His successor, Grand Admiral Donitz authorized the surrender on May 7, 1945, with the terms signed in Reims. The final Terms of Surrender were modified and re-executed the next day on May 8, 1945. Pockets of German forces had begun to surrender even before Hitler’s suicide (on April 29, 1945, in Italy; on May 4, 1945, in Netherlands, Denmark, and Holstein and NW Germany; on May 5, in Bavaria and Southern Germany) so that the representatives of the Soviet military could sign off as well as they were not included in the Riems ceremony. The news of the surrender was under embargo by Allied High Command (SCHAEF) but AP broke the embargo and the news was reported in the West on May 8, 1945, which was declared Victory in Europe (VE) Day. The Soviets, however, celebrate VE Day annually on May 9 because they do not recognize the May 8 Surrender because they were signatory to those terms.

GIs reading the news of Hitler’s death

The boys of G Co. got notice of the German surrender but we do not know if it was on May 7th or 8th. Dad remembered a soldier returning from R&R in France with a few cases of champagne loaded in the back of his Jeep roaring into Heidesheim and coming to a screeching halt in front of the castle honking his horn and shouting out the news. He remembered the joy he felt, shouting and leaping around, drinking champagne and celebrating with his friends. Guns were fired into the air in exuberance.

But reality likely quickly intruded. The boys surely realized that once the internees in the camps were processed and released, a task that had already begun, there would still be an enemy left to be defeated on the other side of the world. The next logical step for the US would be to throw all available manpower into the fight to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific.

On June 7th, the Heidesheim camp was nearly emptied. G Co was moved by truck 12 miles to Deitersheim and Heidesheim camp officially closed on June 9, 1945. The duties at Deitersheim were similar to guard shifts and plenty of free time between them for additional training, rest, and the opportunity for organized sightseeing trips for the GIs. Conditions for them were as comfortable as was likely for a soldier and conditions within the camps were significantly improved for the internees even if shelter was never provided and rations were light in calories.

On June 25, 1945, the boys were moved again from Dietersheim to duty at yet another camp at Budesheim am Rhine about 28 miles away. Floyd recalled they lived in a Tent City off of Stromberger Strasse with a pontoon bridge crossing a Rhine tributary river. He also recalled running across a very drunk GI trying to cross the pontoon bridge one night. Floyd tried to help him across but the drunk was so belligerent that Floyd abandoned the attempt. The soldier didn’t recall the incident the next day when he awoke hungover.

German internees were continuing to be released from all the camps daily. Dad recalled they’d just open a gate and let a bunch out to find their way home on foot, to a home they were uncertain was still there and family they were uncertain were still alive. No additional supplies were provided for the trip. Meanwhile, on the other side of the camp, more were arriving to be processed in, held for a while, and released. It seemed pointless to him. If he ever understood the reason for the process of detaining the Germans Dad didn’t remember it in his later years. At the time he felt little compassion for the soldiers walking away from the camp with nothing to sustain them on their journey. They’d been chasing one another around Germany, shooting and killing each other, and now he was guarding them while they were behind fences knowing that one day very soon, the gate would open and let them go. It seemed pointless.

German Soldier returns home to Frankfort am Main from POW camp to find home destroyed and family gone.

Floyd, however, recalled quite clearly the purpose of his duties at the camps. He understood the German soldiers were detained to disarm them, identify and hold the Nazi faithful to prevent a guerrilla war, and release the needed skilled laborers to go home to rebuild their country. Floyd seemed to have enjoyed his time in the Rhine Valley. He had friendly contacts with the locals including a July 4th luncheon with a family and enjoyable time spent hiking the local terrain and enjoying the views from the Niederwald Denkmal just across the Rhine from Bingen am Rhine.

Soldiers drinking

Floyd remembers July 4, 1945, as an enjoyable day. Early in the morning he read the notices on the Company Bulletin Board and found there a prominent posting that read, “Anyone caught sober by 10:00 hours today will automatically be put on KP Duty”. By the time Floyd read the notice the Officers were already well on their way to the state necessary to avoid KP. He decided that leaving camp for the day to avoid being caught sober was better than getting and staying drunk all day. He ran into a young boy he’d been friendly with on past hikes and to whom he’d given some soap (a valuable commodity). The boy invited him home to his parents and he was served luncheon including a dessert of Champagne and Peaches in gratitude for the earlier gift of the soap.   

M1’s lack of understanding of the purpose of his duties, the story about drinking on guard duty, and having no stories to tell about sightseeing trips or any enjoyable time other than VE Day leads me to believe he was suffering from PTSD from the Battle of the Bulge and his time MIA before his hospital stay for trench foot.

On July 14, 1945, the boys were moved again, this time to a camp at Brunwinkle, 80 miles South. This was the final stop for the 424th and G Co. From Brunwinkle the G Co, and the rest of the 106th, was gutted. The men were sent to different units bound for the Pacific Theatre and the fight with the Japanese. On August 6, 1945, M1 was transferred to 393rd Engineers, Co E, 2nd Battalion in Arles, France. This is the same day the crew of the Enola Gay dropped the Little Boy Atomic Bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The city was flattened in the firestorm caused by the atomic blast and countless citizens were poisoned by radiation. Since Japan is 7 hours ahead of France, the atomic horror had already been unleashed in Hiroshima by the time M1 arrived at Arles.

On August 11, 1945, Nagasaki, Japan was bombed with the Fat Man Atomic bomb. Like Hiroshima, the city was destroyed and the population was irradiated.  On August 14 the defeated Japanese Emperor surrendered and Victory in Japan Day was declared. War was finally over! Bill never told a story of the celebration of that momentous event. We have no idea when Bill learned of the surrender of the Japanese or how he responded to the news. Bill’s recollection mentions he spent his time with the 393rd in France playing pinochle while the ships were loaded with the docks and breakwaters that had been used for D-Day by the 393rd which were expected to be needed for the invasion of Japan.

393rd Engineers Co. E was sent to Marseilles on August 18, 1945, loaded onto (likely) the troop transport ship Exchange and sailed without an escort in the now conflict-free waters of the Atlantic bound for NY, NY. The Exchange arrived in NY harbor on August 25, 1945. Dad remembered the trip was beautiful. As there were no official duties to perform on the trip, the men played poker and listened to a record of Sentimental Journey over and over. The weather was fine and as the money concentrated in the hands of the card sharks more time was spent lazing around enjoying thoughts of home, family, and peacetime pursuits. When the Exchange passed the Statue of Liberty in the harbor it was a sign Bill was nearly home.

On September 1, 1945 everyone in the unit was given one month of furlough. Bill recalled that Grandpa William Keeber had a stroke and his leave was extended for compassionate reasons. However, Company records for Co E of the 393rd don’t pick up again until October 25, 1945 in Camp Claiborne, LA, when everyone returned from Temporary Duty Travel (TDY). This was only 3 days after his 20th birthday. Perhaps everyone’s leave was extended and Grandpa Keeber happened to have his stroke at the same time.

Bill was discharged from Ft. Dix in NJ on November 22, 1945, on Thanksgiving Day. He was in such a rush to get home (hopefully in time for dinner), he didn’t wait on line to get the medals he’d earned for his service (he later applied for them from the VA in September 2000). Bill hopped on the first bus he could with his travel allotment and set off for the 6-hour trip. Did he get out early enough to make it home for Thanksgiving dinner? Or did he get back in the dark of night, or the next day? He never said. I can only imagine the joy his mother and father (still recovering from a major stroke) must have felt when their only child was finally home and safe.

Norman Rockwell Home for Thanksgiving
Bill’s parent’s home

Bill enrolled in college at University of Buffalo in January 1946 taking advantage of the GI Bill. He chose Chemistry as his major because a family friend worked at a local lab and made a good living. It turned out he enjoyed the course of study but had to work hard to get in the swing of school again. He met his wife, Bea, at UB on Valentine’s Day a month and a half later. They dated, he worked part time, and went to school full time. Bea dropped out of college to help support their goals before they married on June 6, 1948. Their first child, my sister, Gail, was born in September, 1949, 3 months after Dad got his Bachelors of Science in Chemistry.

Bill recalled that Bea often asked him about is feelings about his time in the Army. In his recollections, said he didn’t think he “had any feelings except cold and fear and hunger. They put (him) there and in order to stay alive (he) had to shoot faster and try to be a little smarter than the other guy. That’s all there was to it.”

In college, most of the others men had been in the Service, so Bill said, “there was nothing to talk about. We all had more or less the same experiences.” Bea recalled that in those early days when UB campus was flooded with Veterans, any loud noise, a car backfiring, or a dropped book would result in all the men dropping to the floor instinctively; an indication that many suffered (unknowingly?) from PTSD, including Bill who continued his denial of any feelings about his time in the War.

When work that fit into his school schedule was impossible to find one summer, his mother hired him to paint the house he grew up in, which she ran as a boarding house. That supported Bill, Bea and their growing family with supplements from the GI Bill. Bill applied for and received a NY Veteran’s Scholarship to go on to Grad School when the GI Bill benefit was used up.  When the scholarship money was exhausted, Bill began to work for DuPont, while continuing work towards his PhD (having skipped a Masters Degree to save time). DuPont transferred some operations, including Bill’s job, to Columbus Ohio. But Bill learned that his credits would not transfer to University of Ohio he quit DuPont and got jobs where he could while working to complete his PhD.

Bill and Bea both wanted a large family. They were both only children and knew that without any cousins, their children would be bereft of an extended family. So they resolved to make their own extended family by having 5 children. Once the children started to arrive, Bea quit work. She gardened and put up canned food with the local neighbor women pooling effort and produce from their gardens. She sewed clothing and walked to 2 stores to buy groceries with 2 children in tow and a radio flyer wagon to cart the food and children back home. Bill rode public transport to get to work. Money was constantly tight, but I don’t recall ever hearing either of them ever say anything negative about that time; they were in love, they were building their family.

In 1951, Bill and Bea found out someone in their church was selling a house in the neighborhood. The housing market was tight with so many GIs starting families like they were, so they jumped at the opportunity. They bought the house for $300 down payment (in the form of a new roof put on the house by Bea’s Uncle Dave) and a total of $2,900.00. So Bill was working, going to school, working on his Thesis, raising kids, and dealing with a move to a house that was constantly in need of maintenance and repair.

Eventually Bill got an offer from Esso (later Exxon) and moved with the family in October, 1955 to New Jersey (where I was born in 1964). His PhD Thesis was published in 1967. So he’d worked for Esso for over 12 years before completing his education.

Perhaps all this busy-ness was Bill’s way to keep any thoughts of the War at bay. If he didn’t actually succeed in keeping his memories locked up, he never mentioned it to either his wife or his children. Like so many of the Greatest Generation, Bill accepted the job his Nation asked him to do. He’d been well trained, well provisioned (most of the time), and the cause was just. He did his job and prevailed against an enemy of not just the United States, but of the world. He came home alive, determined to live.

I never gave my fathers’ Service much thought growing up. He had the funny story about getting drunk on the train in France, but other than one brief sentence uttered when I was in high school, he never let on that there was anything more to discuss. But after going to Germany and Belgium to get a first hand view of where he was, and 3 years of research, I now understand how terrible it all must have been for a boy of just 19 who’d never been away from home and parents. I understand how frightened he must have been, and how incredibly lucky he was to have survived without any visible scars.

But “no visible scars” does not mean I think for one minute that my father didn’t live with ghosts for the rest of his life: he just hid it well. I know he did and saw things he didn’t want to think about after it was all over. I know he was conflicted about his German heritage and the possibility he faced relatives across a battlefield. I know he suffered from flashbacks and nightmares at the end of his life, and I believe he probably did before then, too.

I also know he was a humble, funny, and kind man. He cherished his family, and time he spent with them around a table and on annual camping trips. Also precious was the time spent in nature or fishing on some lake. He enjoyed the world travel required for his work with Exxon. He lived a relatively simple life for a successful middle-class executive; meals were at home every night with family, weekends spent on his honey-do list. It was a good and full life. He was a great father even if the chaos of a house full of 5 children and their friends was a lot to take sometimes. He loved his wife and children and doted on his grandchildren. 

I believe my father felt that living a full life was a duty he owed to the many boys who didn’t get to come home, including Donald Schultz.  He fulfilled that obligation joyfully until his death.

I think that was the bravest thing he ever did.

“I had experienced the joy of many hours over the course of my life, and it was not lost on me that this was a privilege that many others, perhaps more deserving than I, did not receive. I once felt that invisible strings bound me irrevocably to the guys with whom I served, the living as well as the dead. These were strings that only I could see, but I took them and tied them to my fingers and wore them for a lifetime as a reminder of all the blessings I received that so many others did not.  

My good fortune created a sense of obligation that I carried always. I tried to be a good man, a loyal husband, an attentive father, an involved citizen. …Not to have done so would have been an affront to the memory of all the guys I left behind.”

John Davis, from his book, “Up Close; a Scout’s Story – From the Battle of the Bulge to the Siegfried Line.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rheinwiesenlager

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