WWII German POW returns to say Thanks – Intermission Story (27)

In an Oct. 3, 2017 photo, Günter Gräwe, a German POW held in Washington during World War II, bids farewell as he finishes touring a former barracks with Deputy Joint Base Commander Col. William Percival at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times via AP)

By HAL BERNTON, Seattle Times

SEATTLE (AP) — Gunter Grawe spent three years as a German prisoner of war in western Washington, a World War II incarceration he recalls not with rancor, but gratitude for the chance to “live and learn in America.”  Grawe always thought about returning to the state to say thank you.

In early October, the rail-thin veteran, now 91, did just that during a brief visit to this base, where guard towers and barbed-wire fences are long gone but some of the two-story wooden barracks that once housed German prisoners still stand.

He declared his capture by the Americans at the age of 18 “his luckiest day,” and reminisced about camp life that included English, French and Spanish classes organized by other POWs and a commissary stocked with chocolate, ice cream and Coca-Cola.

“I never had anything to complain about,” Grawe said. “No guard called us nasty names. I had a better life as a prisoner than my mother and sister back home in Germany.”

In a global conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 60?million people — including 6?million Jewish Holocaust victims — Grawe was indeed fortunate to live to an old age denied so many others. Grawe was filled with patriotism as he went to serve in the German army but now denounces Adolf Hitler as “one arrogant, hypocritical dammed liar” who led his nation into disaster and shame.

Grawe’s trip to Joint Base Lewis-McChord was arranged with the help of HistoryLink.org, a Seattle-based online encyclopedia that chronicles the state’s past.   “We have a list of those who were pro-Nazi, and he was not on it,” said Duane Denfield, a historian who works as a JBLM contractor.

Grawe’s military career started in Latvia, where he went through training for what appeared to be an assignment to the Eastern Front to fight a resurgent Russian army. If Josef Stalin’s forces had captured him, he likely would have been sent to a labor camp, where harsh conditions killed many.

But then Allied forces invaded France, and the Germans scrambled to try to slow their advance toward Paris with fresh reinforcements.  Grawe was transferred to Normandy, where he served in a tank unit that was quickly overwhelmed by the U.S. and British armies.

“It was a terrible fight in Normandy — it wasn’t what we expected, and we were young and inexperienced,” Grawe said.

Grawe said he realized how well things had turned out as he was put on the ocean liner Queen Mary for the voyage to America. He had comfortable quarters and most important — ample meals — served on metal trays.  Next, he took a train ride across America to what was then Fort Lewis.  At the Army post south of Tacoma, barracks vacated by U.S. troops were turned into prison quarters for some 4,000 German POWs at five locations.

Fort Lewis (now part of the joint base) was part of a much broader POW prison-camp network of some 500 sites across the country that held 400,000 Germans. Overall, historians say these prisoners were treated well. Some Germans even referred to their camp as a “golden cage,” according to Michael Farquhar, who wrote a 1997 article about the POWs for The Washington Post.

German POW’s work on a farm.

 The POWs’ relative comfort angered some wartime Americans who had lost their loved ones to German troops. But they did have to work, providing labor at a time when the massive troop mobilization made it hard to find enough people to bring in the nation’s crops.

Grawe traveled by truck from Fort Lewis to help in apple, sugar-beet and potato harvests.  Later, he was transferred to Arizona to bring in cotton.  He recalled his farm labor as a real adventure that earned him an 80-cents-a-day salary to buy things at the commissary.

Through his years as a prisoner, Grawe says he came to love America.

But his first loyalties were to Germany. As a boy, he participated in Hitler Youth.  He joined the army as what he calls a “young idealistic soldier” who thought it “right to fight for an honest and upright fatherland” just like his father, a plumber turned soldier who died in the war in 1940.

Grawe says he first learned of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps while a prisoner in America. He initially brushed off the news as propaganda because it was conveyed by a U.S. officer. When he wrote home to his mother and sister, they replied it was true.

In 1947, two years after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Grawe was released.  In the postwar era, as the German economy surged, Grawe prospered.  Through the decades, he returned to the U.S. several times to vacation. But only after his wife died in 2016 did he make up his mind to return to Washington state.

On Oct. 3, a brilliant fall day, Grawe arrived at JBLM. He brought his electric bike, determined to ride the final distance — a little over a mile — to the old camp site. On each side of his bike’s rear wheel hung a sign: “USA, the country and its people, you are my first and final love!”

At the blacktop by the barracks, he looked around somewhat uncertainly. He recalled a barren site. This place was full of fir trees that had grown up in the seven decades since the prisoners had gone home.

Gunter Grawe

He was greeted by the base’s deputy joint commander, Col. William Percival, who offered a handshake, and later a hug inside a building now empty and bare of furniture.

 “You remind us that . how you treat somebody defines who we are,” Percival said. “There are times, even today, when we may want to forget that.  And you let us know that’s a lesson not to be forgotten.”  Grawe then went for lunch at a base dining hall.

He piled his plate full of a noodle casserole, and sat down to eat one more ample meal served up by the U.S. Army. This time, as a free man.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Military Humor – by: Bill Mauldin 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

Michael Aiello – St. Louis, MO; US Army, WWII, SSgt., KIA

Robert Blakeley – Jacksonville, FL; USMC

Vincent Burns – Athol, MA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO

Richard Cavazos – San Antonio, TX; US Army, Vietnam, BGeneral

Walter Hackenberg – Middleburg, PA; US Army, Korea, POW, KIA

Duane Hackney – Flint, MI; US Air Force, Vietnam, (most decorated airman in U.S. history)

Charlie Laine – Broad Channel, NY; US Navy, WWII

David McElroy – Brookline, MA; US Coast Guard, WWII, Yeoman

William Parham – Bedford, IN; US Navy, WWII, PTO

Jacob Sims – OK & Juneau, AK; US Army, Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer, KIA

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on November 6, 2017, in Current News, Home Front, Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 162 Comments.

  1. Amazing story. During WWI, my grandfather was captured by the Germans. He said it saved his life

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting to hear this perspective. And I always love the comics you manage to find!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Magnificent story gp, age gets to all soldiers sooner or later, and it’s great to see their reminiscences of long bygone days of turmoil in their War memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post, GP – it shows us again that most of the “common” soldiers in any army aren’t so different from our own … the problems originated with fanatical “leaders” such as Hitler or the Japanese military general staff …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That was a beautiful story of Grawe. I am fascinated by the kind of emotions and stories that would roll out of such veterans. Happy Veterans’ Day!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a stark contrast between the way German prisoners of war were treated here and the treatment accorded Allied prisoners of war in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific. Unbelievable!

    Like

  7. We had a prisoner of war camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec. My mother was one of the persons who entertained them. She was a singer. They were happy safe here. The irony is precious. Best.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was wondering is your would be interested in submitting another story to Volume II of Soldiers’ Stories: A Collection of WWII Memoirs? Many people don’t know the POW side of the war… this is a great one! Or, any others of your choice! I have collected over 130 so far, my limit is 150. Thanks for your blog… I love it!

    Myra Miller

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a great story, GP! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you very much for linking this post on your list.

    Like

  1. Pingback: The Weekly Headlines – My Daily Musing

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