Chapter 5: Going to War
Several of us GIs, standing shoulder to shoulder, managed to hide our fears; none of us was free of them. As for me, not only did I share the anxieties of the soldiers all around me, I had a few special ones of my own, too. Naturally I painted a bleak picture of my future if the Germans were to capture me, a German-born Jew. Also, ever since boyhood, I was unreasonably squeamish. A cut finger chased me out of a room, and I refused to listen to records of songs or fairy tales with tragic episodes. How would I fare ashore with its predictable remnants of carnage?
The landing craft dumped us close to shore; our water-proofed jeep covered the remaining distance. I looked around. Yes, there were the expected vestiges of warfare. Corpses were lining the beaches. And surprise upon surprise: the me who shied away from a cut finger was utterly unfazed by the grosser sights. Even to this day I can't explain my childhood idiosyncrasy nor my recovery from it during the Invasion. One psychologist said that I must have had an unfortunate experience in childhood and that I banished it from my subconscious during the Invasion. But he failed to explain why it returned when I was a civilian again.
There was no time to absorb the French landscape. From somewhere in the distance, my teammate, Kurt Jasen, already two days on French soil, was hollering at me: "Get the hell over here, Stern! We've got too many f-ing prisoners."
Five minutes later I was confronting a tough-looking German noncom from an artillery unit. Abandoned crates had to do as interrogation chairs and tables. Like the makeshift furniture, I too must have looked improvisational. At any rate, my first prisoner responded to none of my questions. He'd obviously been thoroughly briefed on his rights. "I'm only obliged to reveal my name, rank, and serial number," he replied to one of my first questions. He repeatedly invoked the same agreement during subsequent questions. I felt utterly inadequate, stripped of all my Camp Ritchie skills. My subconscious hammered me with the words "failure" and "loser." Then a German shell came over; we both ducked. But I rapidly got up before him. Perhaps my opponent attributed that random act to a spirit of death defiance rather than my inexperience. He, of course, knew that artillery weapons were usually fired in successive spurts. I regained all my Ritchie resoluteness. My questions became more menacing. He answered, dammit and hallelujah, he answered – and in detail. I had won my first battle and felt that I towered over my prisoner, who in reality was a good bit taller than I.
Team 41 was together again. Two other IPW (Interrogators of Prisoners of War) teams joined us and pitched their tents IN the same bivouac area. The next morning, our commanding officer, Captain Rust, who had learned German in Brownsville, Texas, gave out assignments. "Sergeant Stern, by all reports, you are supposed to be good at sorting out people. You'll be one of our screeners. Go pick out POWs who appear knowledgeable and who seem to be ready to spill the beans. We've gotta work fast!" His implied compliment assuaged my disappointment of being merely a screener rather than an interrogator. I followed orders and did my best during the first month in Normandy. Judging by the reports of the interrogators who had to question my selectees, I did pick some live POWs, though there were occasional complaints as well, pointing out that I had also hit on some real duds. My telltale mark was the readiness of the POWs to answer some revealing questions at greater length and their use of a more sophisticated German.
After about three months, the work became repetitive. Of course I knew better than to ask for a change of assignment. Chance encounters once more came to the fore. They took the form of three veterans of the Spanish Civil War, captured by the Germans and put to work for the Nazi cause. They were Spanish engineers who had fought for the Spanish Republic, escaped to France after Franco's victory, had been captured there after the German invasion of France, and were finally shipped to the Channel Islands to help fortify them against an Allied attempt to retake them.
Captain Rust briefed me: "They seem to know a lot about the fortifications of Jersey and Guernsey. They don't speak German or English, but then you are touted as our Spanish speaker. Go, interrogate them!" It was the easiest interrogation I ever had before or after. They were delighted with my college Spanish and only asked for large notepaper, pen, pencil, and eraser. I brought them food and drink as well. They were off sitting at a makeshift table and were drawing for hours. I occasionally watched; there was no gun emplacement nor underwater obstacle they left unrecorded. Finally, they turned several legal-size sheets over to me. Waving them in triumph, I rushed over to Captain Rust. He was awestruck. "Quite an interrogation, Sergeant Stern!" he commented in his slow Texas drawl. I did not disabuse him. His face became pensive. "I think I can make better use of you as an interrogator. I have something specific in mind. We are getting all these questionnaires from higher and lower headquarters. I'll show you."
Indeed, there was no shortage of them. Challenging questions were being showered on us: How did the Germans manage to repair bombed-out railroad tracks and rolling stock in record time? Were any infectious diseases rampant among the Germans that could, upon contact, also afflict us Americans? How did we estimate the morale of German line troops? What were our most and least effective propaganda leaflets? "I need a survey section," Rust concluded. "I will reassign some of our interrogators to report to you. And you'll be in charge, Sergeant Stern, of preparing reports in answer to those questionnaires."
I rushed back to my three Spaniards to share the captain's praise and asked them one final question: how had they managed to escape? But on that one they balked. One careless word and they would endanger the islanders who had obviously helped them. I sent them on their way, loaded with C-rations, to a camp for liberated allies. "If we are ordered to retake those islands," commented Captain Rust, "we are damn well ready, Stern."
I gloried in my new assignment. This was something I felt sure I could do. As a high school and college student, I had loved writing term papers, semester reports and reviews, pulling information together from multiple sources.
My new task was essentially no different, except I would now gather data not from printed sources of reference but from unwary or willing enemy soldiers. Oh, yes, we did it: over the following months my comrades and I would answer all those queries essential to the war effort. Railroad specialists told us that the Germans' rapid repairs rested on the manufacture of prefab tracks and other railroad parts. Medical personnel, from lowly medics to a one-star general, assured us that the German troops harbored no epidemic diseases. German line officers, with a bit of pressure, told us that the morale of German troops could undergo sudden shifts, depending on such vagaries as supplies, casualties in their ranks, and the availability of good leadership (that only they themselves were able to supply).
And the interrogated German "Landsers" (privates) admitted that they held on to a safe-passage leaflet signed by General Eisenhower. They displayed their typically German faith in printed assurances. However, they immediately discarded several of those flyers because they didn't understand them. We in the survey section suspected that these latter ones had been composed by some of the most rarified brains of academics serving now as composers of propaganda leaflets.
Three months into our war, the activities of the survey section spread out in new directions. The arrival of a replacement set off fireworks. Fred Howard, born in Silesia, raised in Berlin, known at birth as Fritz Ehrlich, arrived in our midst with a barracks bag full of ideas. Most of them, with a bit of toning down, were radically and erratically useful. On the day of his arrival I was writing a response to yet another questionnaire about the routing of German supplies, such as fuel, ammunition, and food, from the homefront to the front lines.
The information was solid: what it lacked were graphics to make the complicated routes, interchanges, and rest stops more quickly comprehensible. As we broke for lunch, I asked Fred whether he could draw worth a damn. "Well, in civilian life I was a designer," he replied to my light. With his illustrations added, I could reduce my expository remarks. The old bromide that a picture was worth a thousand words was validated. For example, when German equipment had to be transferred from one train station to another, the process was complex and hard to explain in words; Fred's detailed drawings made things crystal clear.
We soon found out that we complemented each other: Fred wildly creative, I more disciplined: Fred with an overabundance of chutzpah (gall), I a little bit better under control. Fred failed his driving test the first time because he didn't stay within the prescribed routine, but rather showed off with a spectacular maneuver, unappreciated by his driving examiner. With rare exceptions we could come up with outrageous ideas and actions while steering clear of reprimands. Later in this chapter, I will tell how Fred would abduct the famous movie star Marlene Dietrich from a USO performance to our prisoner of war enclosure about twenty-five miles away. For him the fact that we had no authority to either transport her in our jeep or bring her to an army enclosure, classified as restricted, only added to his zest for adventure.
We talked shop during meals. As the last arrival, Fred had drawn the most onerous task. He was to satisfy the constantly increasing requests by our air force for important targets. Captain Rust decided to initiate a second special section, labeled simply but accurately "Targets." Determined to lay waste to German supplies, the leaders of our flying boys wanted us to pinpoint exact locations.
Their questionnaires were straightforward. "Supply us with the coordinates of the ball-bearing factory, the one near Schweinfurt! What are significant landmarks leading us to that target? Is the factory rail connected to the main railroad system?" Another: "We hit the Juncker works in February. Aerial photography does not show the extent of the damage. Can you find out?" Or another: "The optical factory in Remscheid has apparently relocated. The new coordinates, please!" And yet another: "A new plant opened in Wanne-Eickel. What's the product?"
Of course Fred, as well as anyone, had learned subtle interrogation methods at Ritchie. But how could you disguise a question dealing with the landmarks pointing to that Schweinfurt factory? The moment you asked even the dumbest, densest, or most deranged German soldier a question like that, he would know that we planned to bomb the hell out of that plant. And for good reason, he would clam up or invoke the Geneva Conventions, which obliged him only to reveal his name, rank, and serial number. The reasons for security-mindedness differed from one POW to the other, but all were compelling: A POW's parents or his sweetheart might be working at a potential target. Or he himself had been a peacetime employee there.
From that vantage point, he might know that Germany, bleeding already from loss of equipment, would lose the war for want of vital war machinery. One POW had an even better reason: the factory we were inquiring about belonged to his father.
"How do you break such a prisoner?" Fred started to lament after a frustrating, futile interrogation. I recited the well-rehearsed Ritchie categories. Fred greeted each but the last one with an expletive borrowed from animal husbandry, "OK, fear," he repeated after me. "What scares those SOBs most, in your experience?"
"That's easy," I answered. "Sieg oder Sibirien' [victory or Siberia], as innumerable placards warned them. "They are scared shitless of the Russians. To be taken prisoner by the Soviets and to be sent to one of their prison camps, perhaps one located in Siberia – they think is a fate worse than death." "OK," Fred perked up, "then let's import a Ruskie!" As usual I dampened Fred's off-the-wall suggestion. "But how about one of us turning into one?" I ventured. In that heady, charged moment, Kommissar Krukow was conceived.
First thing the next morning, we went to see Captain Edgar Kann, the second-ranking officer of our unit. He was put in charge when Captain Rust was given a new assignment at G-2, First Army Headquarters. Younger than Rust and a storm-tossed refugee like us, he was a bit more adventurous than his predecessor. "Hell, why not try it?" he enthused.
Fred and I worked out the details. Kommissar Krukow's gestation took just one week. Going against typecasting, I was to become the irascible Russian. I had learned to fake a Russian accent in my native German pronunciation. My model? While I was at the home of my aunt and uncle in St. Louis, we all clustered around the radio each Sunday evening when Eddie Cantor's comedy show went on the air. One of the recurring minor roles was that of the "mad Russian." I could imitate his stereotypical impersonations of demented Russian. I just needed a credible uniform.
We went to some recently liberated Russian prisoners and traded our worn-out fatigues for parts of their uniforms. Then we asked our MPs who regularly searched our POW to "confiscate" their trophies, whole assemblages of Russian medals, looted by the Germans from Russian captives...
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