It’s a piece of American history that few Americans under the age of 60 know much, if anything, about. Stories of German prisoners of war (PWs in military-speak) working for farmers in the United States before being “re-educated” for their eventual return to the Fatherland.
It’s a saga that Dr. Susan Copeland, assistant professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences at Clayton State University, knows well, since she’s helped one of those former PWs, Heinz Gaertner, tell his story in a recent edition of Georgia Historical Quarterly.
A German PW in Arizona, California, Tennessee, and Georgia from June 1944 to December 1945, Gaertner had gone to a German prisoner of war site on the Web and found a blog mentioning an article that Copeland did for the New Georgia Encyclopedia (NGE) Online, “Foreign Prisoners of War in Georgia.” (Copeland also edited the military articles in the Government and Politics section of the NGE.) Gaertner then contacted Copeland to help him tell in English a remarkable story he’d already told in Germany… a story of being wounded by sniper fire at Normandy at the age of 17, being taken prisoner when the German hospital he was in surrendered to the Americans, and coming to the U.S. and working in four states before being re-educated at Fort Benning.
“He wanted his story remembered in the U.S. Some parts of his narrative are humorous, and some are quite tense,” says Copeland. “He was the youngest in all the camps and the only one who spoke and wrote in English.
“When he was asked by the Americans at his first camp to translate, he was frightened that the Rommel’s Afrika Korps PW’s would not see this function in positive light, to put it mildly. But they came very quickly to call him their `little one’ and protected him, so he survived and translated.”
Now a resident of Henry County, Copeland’s interest in Germans in Georgia goes back to her childhood in South Georgia.
“When I was growing up in South Georgia my mother told stories of her WWII childhood, when huge floodlights in her dad's fields scanned the night sky for invading German and Japanese aircraft and PW's worked the fields in place of American men who were fighting in the war,” she recalls. “This seemed like an important aspect of Georgia history. PW's in general were surprised by the positive experiences they had in Georgia. They were surprised by being able to sleep in new barracks with clean sheets and having good food, and they appreciated southern hospitality among the farming folks for whom they worked.”
In other words, Gaertner’s trip to the internet put him in touch with the right person. A worker for the combined German telephone and postal service before being forced into the war at 16, Gaertner went back to work for the telephone/postal service, returning to Germany after his re-education and eventually becoming postmaster of his hometown, Lagge Lippe. Now 82 years old, he retired in the 1980's and still lives there.
“When the decision was made to start returning PW's, the farmers, the railroad workers, and the government utility/service employees were given priority because of the importance of rebuilding West Germany in the light of the rise of the Soviet Union as a threat to the West,” explains Copeland. “The `re-education’ process was a requirement before those selected to return to rebuild Germany were allowed to return.
“They were taught American history and democratic rule by American GI's. Herr Gaertner enjoyed the course but pointed out to the GI's the hypocrisy of having racism, as he had witnessed it in the south, in a democracy.”
Copeland’s present article in Georgia Historical Quarterly focuses specifically on Gaertner’s time in Tennessee and Georgia.
“I edited his words, consulted with him over confusing spots, and added footnotes of explanation where necessary,” she says. “I submitted the article at the suggestion of Gene Hatfield [chair of the Clayton State Social Sciences Department], who also asked me to present on Herr Gaertner's experiences at the annual conference of the Georgia Association of Historians in February. I look forward to publishing the entire narrative as a book sometime in the near future.”
A unit of the University System of Georgia, Clayton State University is an outstanding comprehensive metropolitan university located 15 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta.
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