How the Afrika Korps Met the Enemy in Shangri-la
German POWs make a lasting Impression an the residents of White Sulphur Springs.
The final flag lowering ceremony at Ashford, June 30th, 1946
Greenbrier Hotel - that days: converted to Ashort General Hospital
Zehn Minuten Pause, Ja?" I did not understand this question asked by a German prisoner-of-war, whom I was guarding. Nor could I possibly have foreseen that it would, in a way, determine my career and perhaps even save my life. When I responded positively, the German turned around and yelled "Zehn Minuten Pause!" to his buddies working in a field. With a cheer, they put down their shovels, while I, flabbergasted, yelled, "Wait a minnte - what's going on here?" They explained to me that I had just okayed a ten-minute break! So began my education in German.
Over the next nine months, through listening and speaking and singing, I learned more German, as well as much more about our World War II enemies as ordinary people. It was a remarkable experience.
The place was White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, home of the famous Greenbrier Hotel, which had been requisitioned by the government in September of 1942 and transformed into the 2000-bed Ashford General Hospital. Because of the idyllic beauty of the Greenbrier's setting and the opulence of the hotel, Parade Magazine dubbed the new military hospital "The 'Shangrila' for the Wounded Soldier." The Ashford Prisoner-of-War Camp was just down the road. In 1943, some 1000 German prisoners were shipped to White Sulphur Springs to work in the hospital and an the farms in the vicinity. I was a member of the 486th Military Police Escort, the unit assigned to guard these prisoners.
The prisoners had all been part of Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. While they were tough, battle- hardened soldiers, most of us American guards were untested teen-agers, recent graduates of basic training. When the Germans arrived at the tiny picture-postcard railroad station in White Sulphur Springs in the summer of 1943, most of my unit had been in the Army for fewer than three months. So it was with some apprehension that we awaited the prisoners. Two trains pulled in and off swung the Germans in their sharp uniforms complete with medals - some Iron Crosses and other decorations. In our wrinkled suntans, we felt inferior, even though we were the ones holding carbines and Thompson sub-machine guns.
The German officers gave commands. The prisoners formed ranks, and at the command "Achtung!" two thousand steel-rimmed heels crashed together with an explosive sound that completely unnerved us. Then, while a large crowd of ambulatory Gl's from the hospital and residents of the town watched, we marched the prisoners the two miles to the camp. Once at the camp, the prisoners were required to exchange their Army uniforms for dungarees stamped with "PW." As I held out a bag for one of the prisoners to deposit his uniform, I noticed his belt buckle with the inscription "Gott mit uns." "What does that mean?" I asked. "God be with us," came the answer. "You don't believe in God," I said, sure of my ground. "No, it's you who don't believe in God," piped up another prisoner. A propaganda clash!
Before long, routine was established in the camp. Each morning, except Sunday, groups of prisoners marched out of their compound, were assigned to work details and either marched off or were taken in trucks to their work sites. On the first day that three other guards and I were sent off with about 30 prisoners to do some roadwork near the camp, something astonishing happened. As we were marching along the road, the German Feldwebel [Corporal] in charge called out "Heidemarie." He then counted cadence, "Links, zwo, drei, vier," and the prisoners began to sing lustily in three-part harmony. I nearly dropped my gun! A prisoner later told me that any soldier who did not sing had to crawl along behind his company.
Word of the singing prisoners spread quickly. Before long, it was not unusual to See a dozen cars parked by the road with Americans waiting to see the prisoners and, especially, to hear them sing. Just before Christmas of 1943, I was guarding a group of prisoners who were scrubbing the marble floor in the main entrance of the hotel. Soldiers, nurses, and civilians were hurrying by. Suddenly, the prisoners began to sing while they worked, "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht." It was as if some high-ranking officer had suddenly shouted, "Halt." Everyone stopped and crowded around to listen. Many eyes filled with tears. Clearly, every one of us, prisoners and non-prisoners alike, was thinking about
View of Prisoner Barracks at Ashford Prisoner-of-War Camp looking east.
Christmas, wishing we could be at home. It was magical - the beautiful strains of this quintessential Christmas song echoing through the hotel. How was it possible that these Nazis, these dreaded enemies, could so move us?
One Sunday our commander, Colonel Hunter, decided that American soldiers could sing "just as damn good" as any Germans. He ordered us to form ranks a few yards from the prison fence. As it was Sunday, the prisoners were relaxing and soon began to show interest in what was going on. "Men," said the Colonel, "I'm tired of hearing about what wonderful singers these Germans are. So we're going to show them that we can sing too." This was pure folly, of course. We had no tradition of singing while we marched. Our unit had occasionally tried to sing "I've got Sixpence," but it was very sporadic and no one knew all the words. Nonetheless, the Colonel had heard our feeble attempts and now he wanted to show those Germans! So he gave the command to march and sing. The prisoners watched and listened in disbelief - and then just howled.
Life for the prisoners was reasonably pleasant. During the time I was at the camp, no one ever attempted to escape. Indeed, once when the prisoners had been taken to fight a forest fire nearby, it was discovered that three had not returned to the camp. Consternation! A few hours later, they came walking up to the camp gate. They had simply been left behind. The prisoners had their own cooks, a PX - sometimes, even beer. With their earnings, they ordered musical instruments. We were dumbfounded the day a truck drove up and unloaded a tuba for a prisoner! Soon they had an orchestra. They saw films, were visited by local clergymen, and sometimes had very special guests.
The Duke of Windsor at Ashford Prisoner-of-War Camp in October, 1943.
When the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were touring the United States in 1943, they stopped in White Sulphur Springs and asked to visit the camp. The Duke, a descendant of the royal family of Hannover, spoke German as well as, if not better than, English. In their own kitchen, the prisoners prepared and served a sixcourse dinner in honor of the royalty. We Americans were much less sophisticated. When the corporal an guard at the main gate learned that the approaching limousine carried the former king of England, he fainted.
Many of the prisoners spoke excellent English. One day while I was guarding a group of prisoners near the hospital, an attractive young lady walked by. A young prisoner turned and said to me: "There goes a lassie with a classy chassis." I nearly dropped my gun - again! The fact that they spoke English was part of my motivation to learn German that and the fact that they were willing to help me and it seemed to come easily (at least I was unaware of my mistakes). I began to recognize some of the songs the prisoners sang, "Westerwald," "Wenn wir marschieren," and so forth, and to sing along with them.
One day our first sergeant heard me say something in German to a prisoner. "You speak German, Brown?" he asked. "Well, a little," I replied. "O.K. You're going to be my interpreter," he said. For the next few weeks, I rode around with him in his Jeep as he visited work details. Whenever we came upon a work crew sweating away at some job, he would say, "Brown, ask them if they'd like a bottle of beer" (the sergeant's idea of a joke). In my fractured German, I would ask if they would like a "beer bottle." The prisoners laughed at my German, but the Sergeant thought I was "right on."
In June of 1944, I was transferred to the 180th General Hospital in Abilene, Texas, and trained as a medic. We landed in Normandy in October of 1944 and set up a field hospital near the town of Carentan. Colonel Tritt, our commander, announced that he needed someone who spoke German to deal with the German prisoners coming from the front. One of the guys who had been with me in West Virginia yelled, "Brown speaks German." So with a very limited vocabulary and even less knowledge of German grammar, I became the official interpreter. When the Battle of the Bulge developed around Bastogne, calls went out to all units behind the lines for every non-essential man to be sent to the front. My name was an the list. When they came to get me, my boss, Captain Alonzo H. B. Drake, said: "You can't have Brown, he's my interpreter." I did not go. Others who went from my unit did not come back.
Returning to the States in 1946, I learned that the G.I. Bill would pay for my college education. I enrolled at Western Michigan College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and told my advisor that I wanted to major in German. I went an for additional degrees in German at Indiana University and the University of Kansas and spent some 25 years teaching German language and literature.
So when I hear someone say, "Give me a break," I
still think of the break that German prisoner gave me when he said, "Zehn
Minuten Pause, Ja?"