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Visiting German Student Interviews W W I
(The following is an interview
conducted by Henry Förster who was a German foreign exchange student
living with us in the winter of 1995. Henry
was 18 and was from the former East Berlin…actually a small suburb called
Karow in the NE section of town. This was a project for Henry’s grade 12 Social
Class. He interviewed my father
Willard Reitmeier who was 80 at the time.
The interview took place in the winter of 1995.)
What is your most vivid memory of the
The worst time that I remember…the most nerve wracking was the V-1 and V-2 rockets. When they were coming in…you never knew when they were coming. When I first got there, there was lots of night bombing. People here didn’t know that there was a war going on, as far as danger went. But over there, the bombs were quite scary when they came down. I guess that the worst scare that I got was one night when I woke up and I was hanging onto the ceiling. The bomb lifted me up and I was up on the ceiling and then fell back down to the bed. That bomb was close! That was an ordinary bomb. I was scared one time too when the fighter planes came over and fired into our mess hall when we were having breakfast. It was early in the morning, just before daylight. The bullets were coming through the roof of the kitchen while we were eating. That was the worst.
But the V-1 and V-2 rockets were really scary! And they were very vicious. They had 1 ton – 2000 pounds of dynamite in the nose and they had a little engine that ran on alcohol. They would put in enough fuel to go as many miles as they wanted and then they would drop. They were not real accurate but they were quite close. Especially London, they hit London awfully hard. But out in the fields near London where our airbase was we would have them go over. One night I slept right down on the line next to the airplanes. One night, one came over and it was so low that I could see the rivets on its belly. The flame coming out of the tail was throwing a light and I could see the rivets on the bottom, just like the bottom of an airplane. It was probably only 25 or 30 feet high but he was still under power. He got past my shack just a little bit and I heard the engine stop. It had run out of gas. I thought that he was going to drop into our field but he glided on several miles. Whenever they went off in the open country they would break windows for about 5 miles in all directions.
But down in the big cities it was contained in the buildings and didn’t go so far. They dropped one on the hotel. The hotel over there was about 5 or 6 stories high and when it hit, it took the top two floors off slick and clean. The hotel was full of American officers. When they went to London they stayed in this ritzy hotel. I was down there in London a few times when the raids were on and the sirens leave a mark on you. You hear those warning sirens going and you would duck. But they had the underground railway there and that’s where you would go down to. It was the only place that you could hide. The bombs wouldn’t go down that far. The tunnels were down pretty deep. One came down through it but it didn’t explode. That was the only way that they would get down there. If they didn’t explode they would poke a hole through the concrete and everything on the way down. They found it later on and detonated it. No harm done. It was a mess. One section of London called Coventry, on the south end, a big town about 20 miles long. It was gone…I went out there and there was nothing there.
I guess it was turn-about because I saw pictures that came, see all the airplanes had cameras on the bottom and they would take a picture of what they shot at. We would look at them when they came back. There was a lot of damage. Frankfort was practically blown off the world. Nothing left at all. And it was a sad deal on both sides. A lot of foolishness. I was in no immediate danger from rifle fire, I was not in the Infantry and never carried a rifle, and our job was to service the aircraft. For a while they had guns issued to us, but they finally picked them up because we didn’t need them.
A funny thing happened on our field. They have guards out al the time and one morning, just breaking day, and somebody came down to guard the flight line and they heard an airplane trying to start. It was one of our ships. They got on the radio and called the guards out and there was four German prisoners that had escaped and they had gotten in this airplane and they were going to fly out of there. But they couldn’t figure out the switches. They found the starter but they didn’t find the switch for the master mag (magneto) and so no matter what they did the engine wouldn’t start. When they saw the guards coming they jumped for the woods. The guards easily captured them and no one was hurt. That was about the only time that we had contact with the Germans and they were prisoners so they weren’t armed.
But we got along good with the prisoners there, they worked, as prisoners of war we used them in the mess hall. They didn’t do the cooking but they did the serving, and did the dishes. They were also barbers. My Father had prisoners of war working back here in Minnesota, working on our sugar beet farm. There were a lot of prisoners shipped over here and they were all good people. I think that they were glad to get out of the war. They were good barbers, if you gave them fifteen cents they would cut your hair, or you could give them a can of tobacco. There is a lot of other things that I could say about my time there and what I saw from pictures of what our airplanes did…it was a horrible mess!! (long pause) That’s about it.
The time that I spent in Germany was after the war, during the occupation. We were out in the countryside, not in the big towns and those were very friendly people. They didn’t want the war either. I used to trade soap and sugar for washing clothes with the country women. We got to one place and it so happened that they were celebrating a birthday for their daughter. One of the guys with me could speak some German and they invited us in for cake…and coffee and some wine. We weren’t really supposed to go into the houses because we didn’t know yet who were the enemies and there was a chance that they were still mad. But these folks turned out to be friendly people and this guy’s daughter had a little baby and her husband was a German flyer who was killed in the war, which was a sticky situation. But they accepted what had happened and so we got along good.
As far as the common people there, they were just like our neighbors here I found. But the SS crew, I didn’t want nothing to do with. And Hitler’s main gang too, I didn’t want nothing to do with them. How do your folks feel about Hitler? (A question directed back to Henry.) Yes, pretty bad…they didn’t like it? Yes, that’s how I found it in Germany too. The people that I met there, and we did meet quite a few German people, and some I felt bad for. They had them in fences like you would keep a dog. A high fence, and they were really ragged. Mostly women and children. They wouldn’t give them cigarettes, some the women were really craving smoke, and really dirty. I didn’t like that at all. It was not right were we were stationed, but we went over there to see it. I didn’t like that at all, it didn’t suit me. I know that those people there were the same as folks here, but they had to do it because they were told to do it…but even so, it was the young people that I found that favored Hitler.
When we got stationed up in the mountains we were at a big retreat. We had a bunch of young women working there in the Alps of Bavaria. Those young women, when they would pass you-would go "Heil Hitler," even though the war was over and they were working for us. They weren’t prisoners-they were just hired civilians.
I flew over quite a bit of Germany and the country itself was really beautiful. I was amazed at some of the things that they had in preparation for the war. They must have been working a long time getting ready. The ammunition was kept out in the woods. You could see the trails from the air…just a little bit if you knew where they were. At the end of the trails were large stacks of ammunition and cannons. But their electric generating stations were hidden in the trees. They had houses with decks on them and they planted trees. From the air you couldn’t see them at all and from the ground they were hard to find. We needed some electrical motors that we knew were somewhere in the area. I went with a guy in a jeep once and we followed the little trail and it ended up at this factory where they had all these motors hidden. Those trees had to be 10 or 12 years old. They had grown up and covered the buildings. That war had to have been planned a LONG time before it happened!
As far as us getting involved in the war (America), we didn’t want it. People here didn’t want the war except the ammunition people. Gun makers, they wanted the war, but the American people, they didn’t want the war. But they couldn’t stand by and let Hitler take all of Europe. If he hadn’t run out of fuel when he did he would have had England licked before we got there. He was real close to England and he ran out of fuel for the planes and the trucks. Couldn’t get enough gas. We were blowing up their oil fields in Italy and down that way. And those fields were bombed all the time trying to stop their oil supply. When they surrendered there was a whole battalion of tanks that had run out of fuel.
There was some talk of Hitler being up in the same camp that we were at, but we never found any proof of that. I don’t think that he was up there at all. But they said that he had been there. It was a rich place. It was the place where all the diamond and jewel merchants would go once a year from all the countries in the world. It was a nice fancy hotel place and we had the use of it for the summer to go there and get some rest. Each man could go for three days per month. At that time we weren’t doing anything that was real time critical since it was now the occupation. But we ran into all kinds of people, some people went there with hatred in their hearts and some didn’t.
But everyone hated Hitler. He was a very mean person and he got the youngest kids and had them trained like veterans. They taught them right in school, they were supposed to be studying but they were learning war. And then of course, they didn’t believe in Church. You could see by the way that he was carrying on that there was no room in his mind, in his heart for Church, but then some of the Russians there were about the same caliber. The Russians were meaner; they were the same as Hitler. They really made a mess in Poland too. That was bad for Poland; I imagine you heard all about that. It was the Jews that they wanted out of there. So they really treated them mean.
So when did you get drafted?
Well it was 1941 maybe, (we found in Willard’s separation papers that it was in 1942, but then he told the story about how he was just married and was deferred so he had some time before he had to show up to be inducted.) I didn’t go until I had to go, and I didn’t want to go then either. And so I went. But I was fortunate. I had taken tests for mechanic skills and I got really good scores so they sent me to mechanics school in Nebraska, Indianapolis, and then to Washington State. So I was in the states until 1943, September and then I spent 28 months over there. 2 years and 4 months. 2 of those years were in England and then the rest in Germany.
I got home in November and the war was over in Europe in May. I had to go over to Germany and then I got home in Thanksgiving time in November of 1945. Do you know what the first thing that I had when I got home? A malted milk! We didn’t have any ice cream over there. They did make some for the kids one time in England. They put the ice cream mix in the belly tank of an aircraft. Then they went up to a real high altitude and rolled back and forth in the cold till the ice cream was frozen. Then they flew down and gave it to the kids. I never got any of it. Good food was hard to find. Army chow, well you know all the stories about how bad that is. But if you could get into a town you could only get what they had, rabbit, or horse meat. Usually it was ground up and mixed with sawdust and made into hash like, you couldn’t buy good food, except fish, fish and chips, that was good. We had a lot of fun with that.
Were you the only one in your family that went to war?
No, I had three brothers (out of 7) besides me who served in the military…but they weren’t all in World War II. My brother Lloyd was in WWII at the end of the war, then Ernie and Mike (Erwin), but by the time that Mike got there it was 1955 or so. So I was the only one that was over in the combat zone.
When did you first hear the word Holocaust? Was that a word that was used back then?
Yes that was a word that was used when they were taking the Jews out. When they were killing the Jews…that was the Holocaust. (Grace Reitmeier injected a comment about the newspapers of the time) Oh, yes we had newspapers, and we had radio, we had a German girl who sang to us every day on the radio when we were in England and the war was on. Every day the same, “Come on over, we’ll show you a good time!” (Remembered laughter) (Mrs. Reitmeier commented that her name was Marlene) Willard laughed and said, yes, we had a lot of names for her. And then during the same time during the JAP wars was Tokyo Rose who was inviting the girls over (to be with their men). Then we had dirty girls. There was one that was up in the apple tree and guys would come walking along the road and she was up in the apple tree and she would offer the soldier apples. If they would “bite” she would lure them off the road and into a snipers view and that was the end of them. She was bait for getting the GI’s in there. That happened. But overall they were pretty good. I never had any fear going around in Germany. Of course this was after the war, you couldn’t go there during the war. You couldn’t leave your barracks; you had to stay with your troop. After the war though you could go downtown-in the beer taverns they had good entertainment, and never ran into any problems with any of those people. I suppose that there would be some somewhere, but we never saw them…Of course all my people are German, they all came from Germany. I didn’t know anybody there. There were only 2 of my fathers uncles who stayed there, when my Grand Father migrated here, two of them stayed there. And we never knew what happened to them ever.
Did you ever have a difficult time being a German and going to fight Germans?
Well I didn’t like it but there was nothing you could do about it. Nobody liked it, I didn’t like to go there-I didn’t like killing anyway. You never know, you might be killing your relatives you know, but we didn’t have to shoot anybody, I’m glad of that. But you know when you’re sending airplanes over you’re helping but I didn’t have to pull any triggers. It would bother me. In fact I could have almost got out of going once I got to England. When it was time for our troop to go to Germany they came and asked because they knew that I was a German. They asked if I had relatives over there and I said No, not that I know of. Those who had relatives over there didn’t have to go after the war. But if there were any GI’s that could speak German they were needed as interpreters. They were pretty careful about that. They didn’t want to have members of a family going over there. You had to go into the service but not to your homeland. In our group we didn’t have any problems with that. There was only one other guy that was right from Germany and they used him as an interpreter. They used him to interview the prisoners. I thought that we were a little bit hard on the prisoners until they got to England. When they were in transport on the roads it was pretty rough.
Did you lose somebody that you knew in the war?
Oh yes, I had some distant relatives that were lost, and some neighbors that were killed in their 20’s. A Capistran nephew who lived just east of where you live, (he’s referring to the old farmstead) and quite a few people that I knew. I didn’t have to many of my relatives that I knew in the war, but there were many from Crookston that were lost. I went in with my cousin Bill Reitmeier but he got in the signal corps and I didn’t see him the whole time I was overseas. But the people that I mostly knew who were killed were the people that I had worked with in the military. Some of the pilots that we lost. Airplanes that we lost and that was kind of sad. You know when you’re standing there waiting for your airplane to come in and it don’t come and you know that something is wrong. We had to meet our planes when they returned. And that happened to me a few times…the airplane never came home. So you got another one, get another pilot and go again. But after a while you kind of accepted it you know. You had to do it, so you do it. No matter what you felt like you didn’t say nothing either, just go and do it. And I suppose that that was the same way in Germany. They felt they had to go…so they went and a lot of them didn’t come back. So many of them lost, and the trouble of it is with the bombs is that there is so many of the civilians hurt, just like this bomb over in Oklahoma. (The federal building bombing had recently happened) All of them kids, when you drop bombs on a city you’re taking out a lot of kids, women, that’s what I didn’t like. The men, they had an equal chance.
If they were a good pilot and they had a good ship, they would probably come out of it. We had some poor pilots who weren’t so top notch; they didn’t make it you know. The same as everything else. But there were a lot of them that came back. We didn’t have any deaths in my whole squadron. We had 300 men in my squadron and we didn’t lose any of those enlisted men. Not a one! (They were ground support for the airplanes and pilots) We have sure lost a lot of them now though. There were only about 30 of them last year at the reunion…maybe 35. There ain’t to many left now. They have a convention every 2 years. I didn’t go to a lot of them. I went to one a number of years ago, we had a big crowd then. Last summer was here in Minnesota and there was just 35 or so there. 70 total including wives and family. Next year we go out to Oregon. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but we plan on it anyway. There is getting to be so few left that you have to go. Ain’t many left…
How did you communicate with your family when you were over there?
We had these V-mails, airmail pamphlets that you could send home. Of course they were heavily censored. You couldn’t say nothing in them, not much. We sent home a lot of them. We would get our mail after we got located. The mail came fairly regular. But when we were moving around it was tied up for some time. But we got our mail from home. Twice a year, I think it was Christmas time and one other time you could call. You could call home. But you had to stand in line to get to a phone. That was the trouble. We kept up pretty good. They sent clippings from the papers so we knew what was going on at home. We couldn’t tell them anything about what we were doing or where we were. All they could tell when they got a letter was that you were still alive then you know. That was about all it amounted to. Letters came over pretty fast, a little over a week, after we got an established address, but packages were slow, they were at least a month…for a package.
They sent a package of cookies and such and they were pretty old when they got there, but they still tasted good. And they of course, England put out a morning flyer each morning where we could follow the progress of the war. Ernie Pyle was one of them that wrote in. Remember him? He was a war correspondent that finally died. He got sick and died. He had gotten shot but that was not what killed him. He was always right in the front writing about what was going on. Ya, we had some radio, some so we could get some news, but the pilots were pretty good, if you stayed on good terms with your pilots they would tell you what was going on quite a bit. They got briefed but only a short time before any event happened. They didn’t tell them in advance. Everyone was pretty well under the control of the government. Didn’t have much choice, we had to do what they said.
(Mrs. Reitmeier interjected that Willard should tell the story about how he almost got shot through the mirror) That had nothing to do with the Germans. We were staying at that exclusive place, that big fancy hotel high up in the mountains. We had two connecting rooms. Two of my friends were in the other room and I had a room all to myself. We were getting ready to go into the town and I was standing at the mirror shaving. Like most hotel rooms the next room was a mirror image of the room I was in and so there was also a mirror on the wall just on the other side of where my mirror was.
As I’m shaving and looking in the mirror, one of my buddies was doing the same. The other one was playing around with a 45 automatic pistol and he thought that he would scare the man shaving by shooting over his shoulder and breaking the mirror. We I was on the opposite side of the wall facing a mirror shaving also. The bullet shattered the mirror in the first room, and just slowed down enough as it went through the wall to break the mirror in front of my face. If it would have been a more direct shot, or with less insulation in the wall, I would have been a “casualty of war.” However as it turned out it became more comical than scary. Then we realized that we were in big trouble so we started trying to find a similar set of mirrors from an empty room to replace ours. We checked every open door in the hotel but we couldn’t find one that would fit. The next morning the cleaning lady walked in the room and looked at the broken mirror and pointed her finger at us and said, “You’ve been bad boys! Bad Boys!” But she must have never reported it because we never got in trouble for it.
I did have a lot of scares in London one night when I stayed in town. There must have been about 50 bombs that were dropped in our neighborhood. V Rockets that night. My curtain was floating in the window-it was a warm night. And every time a bomb went off it would throw the curtain across the room and it would go across my face. The comical thing was that in the morning I walked around the block and there, one street over there was nothing left. It had all been destroyed except for a sidewall of a building and the bars on what would have been the front face of a store. It was a liquor store and there was a sign in the “window.” The sign said, “open for business.” Here was a man standing at his till who had most of his store blown up, probably his upstairs apartment above the store, but he has some bottles of liquor that had not been destroyed and so he was “open for business!” It was so ironic.
Did you make any friends during the war?
You mean foreign? I was friends to everyone. I had no enemies. In the whole outfit it was mostly kids your age. (Henry was 18 at the time) I was 27 when I went in. They always had problems. Homesick, girl troubles and they would come to me, “What should I do, What should I do?” But you didn’t really make any friends overseas. I mean you knew them, but it was just sort of like it is here. You might go into the bar, and know the bartender, but he wasn’t your friend too much. But like I say, see our air fields in England were on the farm you might say. People were living right around us. Farmers, and they were friendly people, I used to go over and watch them thrash grain, pick potatoes, stuff like that. They were working right along side of our airfield you know. I got the biggest kick out of one Englishman. They had thatched roofs, and they were fixing one of their old roofs. There was this one fellow and he labored up the ladders with a big bale of straw over his shoulder. He was just about to the top when they called, “Tea time, Tea time.” Well he brought it all the way back down again. It was time to go get tea. I got quite a charge out of that! That’s one thing with the English back then. When it was Tea time, everything stopped. After tea, he had to lug that straw all the way up there again.
They had a different way of doing things over there. They worked hard but I guess that it’s the same over there as it is anyplace. You’d go into the pubs at night and you’d hear them complaining about the government. Taxes and stuff, same as everywhere else. The only time that I ran into a problem, I was in Scotland. I was visiting on a week’s furlough. I was alone. You only get a furlough like that once in a lifetime. I went into this tavern to have a beer. The place was full of Scotsmen. They seemed friendly enough, all but one, a little bugger, he was less than 5 feet tall, and was he ever mad. He didn’t like the Americans; he didn’t like them at all. I thought to myself, I may have gotten into trouble here…but all the rest of them, they were all Scottish GI’s too you know, they all picked him up by the neck and took him out, and then they were all friendly after that. Of course we couldn’t visit too much, we didn’t have that much in common, but they were friendly. It would be the same as a foreign soldier walking into a bar here, they would look him over pretty carefully, but they were glad that they got help from us. The Scots fought with the English.
In fact, I landed in Scotland when I went over. It was on a boat that we went, we landed in Scotland and we were shipped down to England in trucks. That was a really sad trip going over. We went over on an old Italian prisoner ship, 7,500 men on there and of course they had to sleep below the water line. Five decks below and I don’t know how many above. Anyway, I was three decks below the waterline. We had a 70 ship fleet in that movement and lots of Navy escort. We had no lights on and I could hear them dropping the ash cans, depth charges. You could hear and feel them go off cause I was under the water line. That was scary. The boat was terrible, because we were on there ten days and some of the guys got so sick. One fellow disappeared the first day and they never found him till they cleaned the boat out when we got over there. He was so sick you know that we thought he died. He hadn’t eaten the whole trip you know and he wouldn’t come out. He was under a bunk somewhere. A friend that I had from Iowa got sick half way over and he spent five days looking as yellow as a warning sign along the highway. It got to be a pretty smelly ride before we got through. There was no chance to get a bath, but the boat was strong enough and there were no enemy submarines. They were there of course, but they couldn’t get in because of the guards.
What is your best memory?
The best memory? The day they told me that I could come home. I enjoyed thinking about the hunting trips. I got to go goat hunting up the mountain in Germany. I had done a lot of hunting here at home so I was interested in that. I never got one, but I got to shoot at one anyway. Otherwise there couldn’t be to many pleasant memories when you didn’t want to be somewhere. I was glad of course, it was a memorable day when it was announced that the war was over. It was a big celebration, but of course the war didn’t get over then till the Japs quite. That was a good feeling too. There was to much to remember. We had good times over there, as far as you could go over there. We drank a lot of beer. You couldn’t get much of anything else, everything else was rationed. I had a pretty good living. It was two miles to the airplanes from where I slept. There were busses that ran most of the day, but we had to be constantly ready to get down to the aircraft so they issued us bicycles so we could go at any moment. We could take them off the base at night and drive them around but it was tough riding because we couldn’t use any lights. It was dark. And you had to be in by 10pm-everything was locked up then.
It was a real sad time when the President died. Roosevelt was a good friend of Churchill and he was the one who agreed to take the troops over. We felt that we had to protect England, and France too. France was overrun and so we had to take that back. The French were good to the American people; there was a good underground in France. I don’t know how our prisoners were treated over there, the same as here I imagine. You don’t hear to many complaints from the prisoners that were there, not like Japan. The prisoners that were in Japan were treated utterly like dogs. Be they had Germans over here, England too and they were treated pretty well, and most of them were glad to be here, to get away from the war. There was a certain gang that was going to be mean no matter where they were, that was the SS troops. But they were special trained and they were rough and tough. It’s kind of too bad in a way that Hitler disappeared. You knew he was gone. I’m not sure that they know yet what happened to him. They claimed that he was in the bunker and that was the last that they saw him, and then there were others claiming that it was not him that was there so you hear all kinds of stories and you don’t know exactly just what is true. I know that he had a lot of power over there, he really had them believing in his way of doing things.
This was an interview between Henry Förster, an 18 year old East Berlin Foreign Exchange Student, and Willard Reitmeier, who had recently turned 80 years old in the winter of 1995. More info? john (at) reitmeier.com
Entire text copyright 1995-2007! As of July 2007, Willard is available for interviews.