The Year Was 1945
By David Wagner
The year was 1945. My grandfather was barely sixteen years old, and had been pressed into service for the Wermacht fighting against the Allies on the western front. With just three weeks of training, he was issued a standard rifle and some ammo, and shipped to the front lines. This is his account, from his perspective, of a life-altering event that happened to him at that time, as if being shoved into battle at sixteen wasn’t life-altering enough…
It seemed that Germany had been at war for my whole life. Almost as far back as I could remember, the face of Adolf Hitler was a prominent one in my family. I remember as a child of 10 looking at his portrait hanging on the wall in our living room in Frankfurt, and again in the school house, wondering really what all the fuss was about. I mean, sure, he single-handedly brought our country back from ruin, or so I was taught, but even at 10, I doubted whether he was really deserving of his exalted status, which seemed to border on deity.
At 10, all I could understand was he was building roads and building up our military, thumbing his nose at France and the rest of the world. He had taken back the Rhineland and was apparently using not-so-veiled threats with the king of Austria, that spineless man. In any case, the next few years, as you know, saw a tremendous German expansion followed by a vicious German implosion. It was toward the tail end of our implosion, in January of 1945, that I was called on to serve in the military. By this time, my family had moved to our country cottage outside Frankfurt due to the persistent allied bombings in the major cities.
I was sent away for a brief three-weeks of training and sent west toward the Rhine River to defend its bridges from the allies. A certain fiery zeal and patriotism was running through our ranks – now we were defending our country from invasion – a bit of our own medicine, I suppose. The zeal was somewhat forced and shallow, though. Forced in that Hitler had decreed that anyone who surrendered would be cut off from all forms of government support, and his family also. But it was also a shallow zeal, for we all knew that the war was rapidly drawing to an end, and that we were simply delaying the inevitable, at the cost of our lives.
I was glad that I was sent to the western front rather than eastward, where the hated Russians were rolling toward Berlin. If I were to be captured, I would much rather it be by the Americans than by those communist animals. Our superiors, battle-hardened and fanatical, made it clear in no uncertain terms, that anyone caught trying to desert, or surrender, would be killed immediately.
Was I afraid? Of course. My older brother, Victor, had gone off to fight shortly after Poland, to swarm over western Europe in the blitzkrieg. He was wounded on two separate occasions, but was patched up and sent back into battle each time. His last assignment was support for Barbarosa, in the battle for Stalingrad. He was never heard from again, and is presumed captured or killed. My mother was devastated, and wished an end to the war before I was old enough to be sent as well.
I kept thinking of Victor, and my mother, as I manned my post by a bridge in Ludendorff, outside Cologne. The allies were making tremendous progress eastward, in spite of our best efforts to stop them. We knew they would arrive soon, and the waiting was the most frightening part. We ran drills, studied different strategies and responses, and basically fooled ourselves into thinking that we could keep the allies from touching German soil. But I knew better.
I began to devise a plan of escape. This at once brought encouragement and shame. I could see my brother Victor fighting to his last breath for the glory of his Germany. Here I was, worried about my own skin. I hadn’t even seen a battle yet, or the carnage that I knew came with it, but one thing I did know – I didn’t want to be just another body on the side of the road as allied tanks swept toward Berlin.
I decided that when the action started, I would find a time when my superiors were distracted, slip away into one of the nearby buildings, and curl up somewhere, waiting for the allied push through our position. By that time, my unit will have been killed, captured, or pulled back. I could then surrender and hope for the best. Perhaps I would see my mother again.
Surrender. I would gladly have fought if I felt there was at least a chance at winning and some semblance of a reason to fight. What should we have expected? We tried to conquer the world. Of course there would be a strong response to such aspirations. People don’t like to be conquered. Hitler had stretched our country too thin in too many directions, and now the enemy was crushing us from both sides like a vice, the Americans in the west, and the Russians in the east. For all his brilliance in some areas, ultimately Hitler was a fool.
The day quickly arrived when the runners returned to say the allies had entered Cologne and were reducing the city to rubble. Funny that they should take out their anger on buildings, but, I suppose again that they were simply doing to our civilians what we did to theirs first. The date was March 1st. We waited on edge for word to blow the bridge and retreat, but word never came. Instead, the allies arrived, and a mad rush to seize the bridge began. This would be my opportunity.
We blew the bridge, but it only ended up damaging it, making it impossible for tanks to cross the center, but enough was still intact for footmen, and smaller equipment to cross. A fierce gun battle began, and the American tanks began lobbing white phosphorous shells across the bridge to drive us back. This chemical would burn right through clothing and skin. I saw several fellow soldiers perish this way.
The order was given to press into the bridge to plant more explosives. I was instructed to go with two others to retrieve the explosives and return, and we obeyed. I was careful to be third in line as we ran back toward the bridge with our explosives, since then, I supposed, it would be easy to duck away unnoticed to find a hiding place.
I did duck away back through an alleyway, and doubled back down a side street, crouching and hugging a wall as I ran. There was a two story building on a corner that I ducked into. It was a business of some sort on the first floor, with living quarters upstairs. As I darted into the front door, I heard a shout of “halt” from up the block. Caught! I risked a quick glance out of the front window, or rather what remained of it, and saw a half-dozen German soldiers heading toward the battle. One was lagging behind, arguing with the rest, pointing at the building I was in. Surely, I had been seen, and when they found me, I was as good as gone.
As I headed for the stairs, seeking a place to hide, I realized that I was still clutching the explosives that I had been sent to retrieve, perhaps two dozen sticks of dynamite. As I ducked into an empty upstairs room, I told myself that if worse came to worse, I could detonate the explosives. Although, thinking back on it, that would have made no sense. But at the time, with my adrenaline pumping so fiercely, and my heart about to beat out of my chest, it seemed strangely logical.
I crawled into a small closet space and held my breath. After a few moments I heard a voice in German screaming from downstairs, “Coward! Whoever you are, when I find you, I will kill you slowly! Traitor! Get out here and fight!”
I thought I would die right then and there. I heard him begin to trash the place downstairs, turning the few things that remained upside down, swearing and cursing. Then another voice entered the building, and engaged the first man in a heated conversation. I hoped against hope that the new voice would convince the first to leave, and help with the battle for the bridge, but instead, they both headed for the stairs.
I was done for. In desperation, I prayed to God, for probably the first time my whole life. As the two men began searching rooms, I prayed, “O God! God in Heaven. I don’t know if you can hear me or not, but if you do exist, I beg of you, please save me from this! Please! I don’t want to die. Not here!”
There was a sound of movement from within the closet that startled me terribly. A panel next to me had shifted. There wasn’t much light coming in from the bedroom, but in that soft light, I saw a pair of eyes looking at me through the opening in the panel that had moved. The panel slid open another foot, and, much to my utter shock, there was a man on the other side of what should have been a wall of this closet. He beckoned for me to climb through to his side. Even though he was all of two feet away from me, I still could not believe what I was seeing.
He beckoned me a second time, more quickly, to come through. Without thinking, I crawled through. The man softly slid the panel back in place, and then I was in pitch dark. Again, I held my breath. The two voices entered the bedroom and stormed around, again, trashing the furniture that was left in the room. One of them threw open the closet door, looked briefly in it, then cursed, and left, saying “He’s not here. He must have leaped from a window or something.”
With that, they left. I heard them leave the building. I sat, unbelieving, in the pitch black, for what seemed like an eternity before a match was struck, and a candle lit. It’s amazing how bright a match can seem when you’re in pitch darkness. My first instinct was to blow it out, thinking that for sure the German Army could all see it. Of course, this was ludicrous, but I was young, and petrified.
I found myself in a small hidden compartment, barely big enough for one person, let alone two. It was roughly three feet wide, perhaps six feet long, but reached ceiling height. I got my first good look at the man who had invited me in. He looked about five foot, maybe just over, with dark hair. That’s all I could definitely discern in the candle light.
We sat cramped together in this little space, silently, looking at each other. He spoke first, softly. “Do you have food?” he asked, in broken German. I didn’t respond. I was still so stunned, my mind couldn’t process the question. I sat, puzzled, wrestling with the question, until finally it sunk in what he had said. I set down the dynamite that I had been clutching since I picked it up, and from my pocket I pulled a can of fruit cocktail, and from a small hip pack, I produced my canteen, and a small block of cheese.
The man’s eyes lit up fiercely, and he pointed at the cheese and fruit, asking with his eyes. I handed it to him, and watched him devour it voraciously. The man blew the candle out, and again, we sat in darkness, the only sounds being our breath, and the sounds of battle a few blocks away. It was all so surreal, I felt like I would pass out. Perhaps I did. I don’t know how much time passed before the man slid the panel open and softly exited into the closet, and out into the room. I was hesitant to move, but ultimately I crawled out into the closet, and followed the man out into the room.
It was night. I crawled over to the window and poked my head up to get a look. The street below was dark. I could hear distant rumblings, not from the direction of the bridge, but further eastward. I hoped that that meant the Allies had indeed broken through somehow, and had pushed the battle into Germany. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my country, and still do. Deep down inside, I wanted the war over, and the killing that went with it. A military vehicle of some sort drove quickly by, I could not tell its affiliation.
I turned to ask my new friend something, but the room was empty. I crawled back over to the closet, but it, and the crawl space were empty as well. Apparently he had places to go. I decided I would not venture outside, or even out of the room, until morning. I lay down on the floor of the closet and tried to go to sleep. Of course, I couldn’t sleep. My eyes were continually drawn to that panel, and the hiding place on the other side.
Several times through the night, I heard gunfire nearby, and twice I heard loud explosions. I sat up after the second one, and was reminded of the dynamite. I felt around in the hiding space, but it was gone. My new friend apparently had thought of a use for it. So be it. What did I need it for anyway?
By morning, he still hadn’t returned. I watched out the upstairs window until a vehicle drove by, then a large group of American foot soldiers marched up the street toward the building, peeling off into smaller groups and entering the buildings they passed. I was at once relieved and frightened again. I had every intention of surrendering, but how was I to do it, in a non-threatening way, so as not to be shot? I hadn’t even thought about that yet.
Suddenly, there were American voices downstairs, then footsteps on the stairs. I froze. If I could have made my feet move, I would have dove back into the secret place, but I stood like a statue in the middle of the room, watching the doorway, waiting for a gun to appear. At the last possible moment, I put my hands up in the air, over my head. A soldier poked his head around the corner, saw me, shouted something and pulled his head back around. I think he was as startled to see me as I was him. In a moment three American soldiers rushed in, pointing their weapons. One pushed me to the ground, and checked my pockets, confiscating my knife, and a small box of ammunition for the rifle that I had long since abandoned.
I was marched out of the building, and up the street toward a large group of American soldiers, and, to my horror, a group of German prisoners. I hadn’t considered this either. I was about to face those that I had abandoned in battle. Without time to even contemplate a response, I was shoved into their midst. To my surprise, nobody said a word to me. In fact, hardly any of them would even lift their heads to look around. It looked as though they too were praying, although I realize they were simply ashamed and humiliated, a defeated foe.
Funny, I felt no shame.
I was interned for the duration of the war, and turned loose at its end. Eventually I ended up coming to America with my mother and sisters. We never found out the fate of my older brother, Victor, and as for the mystery man that helped me, I never saw him again. I probably wouldn’t know him even if he came up and talked to me. But, wherever he is, I hope he is well. Perhaps after this life is done, I can find him and thank him. I would very much like to do that.
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