Eventually we stopped cruising around and went into a port. I don’t know which city it was, but I was glad to get out of the danger zone. I was afraid of getting sunk again. When we arrived in the harbour, they transferred me from my bathroom bunk to a little cabin in the bow of the destroyer, with a small porthole, through which I could see some land and a few masts. They housed me there so that I couldn’t see where we were going. To them, I was a dangerous man. Well, maybe so.
The destroyer was anchored and half an hour later someone came to pick me up from my small cabin. I was taken on deck where they indicated to me to climb down the rope ladder into a small boat. Suddenly someone shouted something and before I could climb down they blindfolded me. It was a black blindfold; I’ll never forget that.
Now I was supposed to go down the rope ladder blindfolded. As I got onto the ladder, someone held me by the scruff of the neck and when I got to the bottom, someone pulled me into the boat. On the way down I could see a little by peering straight down, but I couldn’t have found the boat by myself.
Even though I couldn’t see, I could hear the hammering and other noises of a shipyard. Within a few minutes we were at the pier. In the meantime, I sneaked the blindfold up a bit in order to see a little ahead of where I was going.
Then, as we walked off the pier, I could hear some ladies approaching and as we got closer I could see them. As we passed them, they stopped and stared at me; I could feel it. Then they started to giggle. This embarrassed me because I knew how I must look to them. On the destroyer they had given me clothes from the Red Cross. I was wearing a pair of blue pants which were several sizes too large for me, an oversize pair of socks and huge slippers, plus an extra-large grey pullover which almost came down to my knees. Since I wasn’t given a comb on the destroyer, I was unable to comb my hair.
My hair and beard were full of salt and grease. I didn’t care of what the guys thought of me, but I was very embarrassed when these girls saw me looking so unkempt.
We walked about fifty meters to a small building. They led me up some stairs and into a room, where they took off my blindfold and told me to sit down. As I sat there watching people come and go with papers and documents, I thought that this was just like a German harbour.
After a while two British soldiers arrived, gesturing that I should come with them. Again I was blindfolded, but this time with a white blindfold, which I immediately pushed up on my face as far as I dared to in order to see what was going on. They may have noticed this, but didn’t react to it.
They put me into an English military vehicle. Since the seat was quite high, they pushed me up to sit beside the driver. Behind me sat four English soldiers with machine guns. As we drove through the city I was wondering why they had blindfolded me. What was there for me to see and what could I do if I saw anything? At one point we stopped in a busy street and within a short time at least a hundred people stopped to stare at me, when the driver said: “German U-boat”.
As we were driving through the city I could smell smoke. Then we drove through an area that was on fire, I could hear wood crackling and smell the smoke. Once outside the city, they stopped and took off my blindfold. They stood there and talked to each other for a while. Finally they told me to get out of the vehicle. About a hundred meters away stood another vehicle, an American Jeep.
The British soldiers didn’t talk to the Americans. They just put some papers into my hand and pointed over to the Americans. One of them gave me an order, but since I didn’t understand as to what he was saying, I just stared at him. Finally I understood, that I was supposed to walk over to the Americans. I walked over to the Jeep and when the British soldiers saw that I was there, they just waved and left, never talking to the Americans.
The driver of the Jeep seemed unsure of his directions. As we were driving along, we came to an intersection, where the driver slowed down, but drove past it. Realizing his error, he stopped, backed up and turned down the road we had passed. This happened several times and I was wondering whether he was trying to confuse me. I couldn’t see the point, since I knew where I had come from. Finally we arrived at a camp. They took me into a tent that was completely empty; I was the first person there. There was a bed which I assumed would be mine and I sat down on it. The guard sat down right beside me. They didn’t give me a comb or let me wash or anything like that. So I just sat there. I thought they would bring me something to eat, but that didn’t happen either.
When I got up and went outside the tent, the guard came with me. He had a rifle with fixed bayonet. This was not normal, of course, but he must have had orders to do this. When I indicated that I had to relieve myself, he showed me where the latrine was and came right along with me. What a strange feeling that was. There was no privacy for me.
A little later, still sitting outside the tent, because it was a nice day, another soldier came up to the fence to talk to my guard. The guard went over to him and called for me to come over too. To my surprise I found out that it was an American officer who spoke to me in broken German.
He told me that he enjoyed German folk songs and would appreciate it if I could write some down for him, so that he could learn them. I agreed to do this, but told him that I didn’t have pencil or paper. He said that he would bring the writing material, which he did immediately.
So, I went into the tent and thought I could simply write down some folk songs of the many I knew. However, when I started to write them down, I had forgotten them all!! Everything went blank. I couldn’t remember anything. I didn’t even know my name any more! I couldn’t write. When I put the pencil to the paper, I just made a line that started at the top and went down to the bottom.
The guard just stared at me. He must have wondered what was going on with this guy. I finally managed to write something down, but after half a page I was ashamed of myself because I knew that it didn’t make any sense. I was only drawing lines on the sheet of paper.
Then, when the officer came back, the guard told me to go and give him the paper. I just shook my head and said:”I can’t remember, I can’t remember.” The officer looked at me, then at the paper, then at me again, shaking his head. I couldn’t explain what had happened to me. I didn’t know at the time that I had suffered a mental breakdown. I felt really sorry, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was ashamed that I had not been able to write out a simple folk song for the officer.
At ten o’clock I was still sitting on my bed with the guard sitting right beside me. If he hadn’t been sitting there, I would have gone to sleep; but he didn’t budge.
Soon an officer came into the tent, spoke to the guard and sent him out. He sat down beside me and spoke to me in fluent German. He was a young doctor from Berlin, who was German, but had grown up in New York. He had two practices, one in Berlin and one in New York. When the war started he was in New York and joined the United States army as a medical doctor.
He checked me over and said that I was alright. Then I told him what had happened when I had tried to write down the folk songs for the American officer. He knew about my breakdown on the ship and said he would explain to the officer what had happened.
We talked for about two hours. Our conversation touched on many subjects, except the war. Then he asked me if I’d had anything to eat. I told him that my last meal had been the night before. “What?” he said, “you didn’t get anything to eat?” I replied “No”. He ordered the guard to get me some food right away. The guard was back within ten minutes and reported that no food was available. The doctor gave me a piece of chocolate and left. I ate the chocolate
and went to sleep, with the guard sitting on a stool keeping watch over me all the time. I don’t know if he slept that night, but I sure did.
In the morning, the guard woke me up and I thought it must be time for breakfast, but I was wrong. Soon a big, hefty sergeant came along in a jeep, singing and obviously pleased with the world. He motioned for me to come along with him. As soon as I got into the Jeep, we were off. I thought he was taking me to the kitchen where I would get something to eat, but no such luck.
After a ten minute drive, we arrived in a small town with a train station. The train station had three tracks and three platforms. Two of the platforms were crowded with people waiting for their trains. It was a beautiful day and the people, mostly women, were probably going to the beach.
The sergeant took me to a small office to purchase a ticket and then he started back to the platforms. At first it looked as though we might be heading for the sparsely occupied platform, but soon I saw that was not to be. We went for the platform that was the most crowded.
I still had not washed or combed my hair and was still wearing the oversized clothes that had been given to me on the ship. This was really embarassing to me. The sergent told me to stay in a certain place while he went to talk to some other American soldiers.
Soon I was the center of attention for the young girls who were waiting for the train. They looked at me and laughed, parading up and down in a group that kept on growing. They would stop and stare at me and laugh. The soldiers told them that I was from a German submarine and they had their fun, but I didn’t.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, a train arrived and the sergeant and I boarded it. The conductor didn’t seem to want me, but the sergeant insisted, heading for a compartment at the back of the train.
When we entered the compartment, two elderly ladies sitting there already, instantaneously started to scream when they saw me.
The sergeant took me by the scruff and pulled me out again. Thereafter, he explained to the ladies what was going on. In the meantime the conductor found us another compartment. By that time I was really hungry and when the sergeant took out a chocolate bar and started eating without offering me anything, I got really upset. But it didn’t help.
We travelled for several hours until we came to another small town. While the guard left me standing on the platform to take care of something, I stood there reading the information board showing the trains’ routes and timetables. On the next track some women were washing the train cars. Suddenly, someone tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around, there was this little old gentleman with a neatly trimmed beard, wearing a hat and carrying a cane. This man asked me some questions. I could understand “London” and ”time” but that was about all I could make out. Even though I shrugged my shoulders, he kept on asking, getting real close to me, with his nose almost touching mine. He asked again, I kept on shrugging my shoulders. Finally, the sergeant noticed what was happening and came rushing over the tracks to to say to this gentleman: ”German U-Boat”. At this the little man’s mouth dropped, his eyes opened wide, he turned and took off as though the devil was after him. The American sergeant clapped his hands and laughed, as did the girls who had been making fun of me. Even I had to laugh, in spite of my extreme embarrassment.
When our train came, the sergeant and I boarded it and everything went smoothly. We travelled for several more hours and my guard kept on eating his chocolates without offering me a morsel.
When the train stopped, I was picked up by a Jeep and taken to a camp. As we approached the camp, I saw German soldiers drilling in a field. When we arrived at the camp, I saw more German soldiers marching. I wondered what was going on; there was something suspicious about this scene.
When I arrived an officer took a look at me and said:”You need a
bath.” He was right, but I needed a comb too, but he didn’t give me one. We arrived at the shower stalls and he indicated that I should take a shower, and he stood aside waiting for me. After the shower, we went into a nice office. It was late in the day. I was clean but my hair was still a little messy and I was still wearing the same oversized outfit. There was a high-ranking officer sitting at a desk. He got up, shook my hand and said to me in German:”How are you?” I replied “Fine”.
Then he sat down and looked at the papers on his desk. After a while he said, “we have a few formalities to go through, you understand. We will be finished in a few minutes. After that you will get a good meal. By the way, when did you last eat?” I said “Yesterday morning”. He pretended that he was surprised at this, and said “well, in a few minutes you will get a good meal.” He sat there with paper and pencil and started to ask questions. “Your boat number?” I replied “I don’t know”. “You don’t know?” he asked. “No” I replied. “Your home port?” he asked. My answer “I don’t remember”. He just shrugged and continued questioning me. “When were you born?”
I answered him, but I don’t know if what I said was accurate because my mind had gone blank earlier. Then he asked about my parents and what they did and so forth. He seemed to know quite a bit about Germany and I answered everything I thought I was allowed to answer. This went on for about fifteen minutes.
Then he said, “quickly answer a few more questions and you can go. Until the war is over, no matter who wins, you will have a wonderful life: music, girls, good food – that’s life as a prisoner of war with the Americans”.
He continued his questioning. “Home port?” “No” I said. By this time I was getting stubborn and decided not to play the game any more. Then he leaned over to me and said, “Do you know that you are very stubborn and that I have never met an English man as stubborn as you?” “No” I replied. He continued “do you know that I have power over you?” “Yes” I answered. “Tell me the number of your boat.” I kept on answering “No”. “Port of origin?” “No” “How did you get around England?” “I don’t know”
Finally he got angry. He began to shout at me and make all kinds of accusations against the German military forces. He accused the Germans of atrocities in Norway, Denmark and Holland, i.e. raping and killing women, chopping children to pieces and killing old people. I was so disgusted that I interrupted him with a question: “Where did England get the fast ships, which can load troops and supplies to reach Narwick in Norway in two to three hours to intercept shipments of iron ore from Sweden to Germany?” That question made him furious and he told me that I was there to answer his questions and not vice-versa and besides that it was none of my business. But then, after he had shouted for a while, he changed his tactics again. “Look outside” he said “beautiful weather. As a prisoner of war with the Americans you will have a nice life. Why are you so stubborn? Tell me the number of your boat.”
“No” I replied
“Your home port?” he asked
“No” I replied
Then he tried a different tack by asking me “What do you think of your comrades training to go back to fight Germany on our side, how about you?” I told him, that I wouldn’t be so dumb after surviving once; that I wouldn’t go back fighting the war, especially on their side.
This made him extremely angry. He called me every bad thing he could think of and again made all kinds of accusations against everything German. I argued with him and this made him lose his temper even more. I couldn’t say another word because of his stream of profanity and shouting. Then he said “How can a young man be to stubborn?” I replied “I’m proud of it”.
Then he foamed at the mouth and shouted some more. Finally, he leaned over close to me and said, “you know what you deserve? A slow death in Siberia. You know how the Russians treat their prisoners?” “Yes” I said. “They will torture you and make you work hard in the freezing cold. You won’t get much to eat and they’ll beat you half to death every day. That’s what a German pig like you deserves.”
Then he tried the soft touch once more, but I just sat there without saying a word. Then he made his final threat to send me to Siberia. “That’s where you belong,” he shouted.
At that point I was finished. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t focus my thoughts. My mind was in complete turmoil. Then the officer called someone in. They had made a sign reading “Murmansk”. After they tied it around my neck, the officer rang an bell and two soldiers took me out to a barrack about two hundred meters away and shoved me inside. Since nobody was in there, I walked around in the barrack with the “Murmansk” sign around my neck wondering what was going to happen to me. My thoughts were very disturbed, but there was nothing I could do. Either way, I was finished. Had I answered his questions, I would be a traitor; and now I was facing the prospect of being sent to Murmansk because I didn’t answer.
After what seemed like a long time, a man came in, looked at me, and shoved me into a small closet in the corner of the room. He gave me two blankets, but the closet was too narrow to sit or lie down. When he locked the door, I thought that this was going to be a long night. I don’t know how long I was in there. The blankets didn’t do me any good and I was getting very sore and exhausted when someone came in and unlocked the door. I stepped out to lie down on the floor with my blankets and slept through the night. When I awoke, I wondered what the day would bring. Soon thereafter, I heard a vehicle stop in front of my door. The door opened and a soldier came in and asked me to come outside. At this time I finally got a small plate of food. I found out that two soldiers had been guarding my door.
While outside, I saw a German officer walking into another barrack. He saw me too, but my guards immediately pushed me back into my barrack.
A few hours later they came back for me. They led me to a British truck with three German soldiers sitting in the back under the canopy. The guards pushed me up into the vacant seat beside the German officer I had seen earlier. There were eight or nine English soldiers in the back with their fingers on the trigger of their weapons. They kept saying “Don’t talk, don’t talk”.
The German officer sitting next to me saw how I was shaking and knew what was going on. Quietly he asked, “are you an airman?” I answered “No”. The guards immediately motioned with their rifles and said, “don’t talk, don’t talk”. This was really scary because they pointed their rifles right at our noses. After the guards had calmed down a bit he asked again, “are you a submariner?” and I answered “Yes”. The guards got all excited again. The officer had seen the sign “Murmansk” on me and he saw how I looked and he spoke once more and said, “don’t worry”.
Copyright © 2006/2007 Walter Schmietenknop. All rights reserved.