Saturday, October 6, 2012

An escaped German P.O.W. ... finding a new life in America

Relatively few of the hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war held in the U.S. during World War II escaped from their prison camps. Most of them were easily captured when they couldn’t blend into American society very well. By the end of the war, when those prisoners were sent back to Germany, only 12 remained at large. And by the 1960s, all but one – a man named Georg Gaertner – hadn’t been accounted for.

Georg Gaertner, also known
as Dennis Whiles, in 2009

As the war neared its end, Gaertner learned that his home town in Germany had been taken by the Russian army. Russian revenge against the German population in such towns was brutal, and most are now part of Poland. To avoid being sent back there and face Russian wrath, Gaertner decided to try to remain in America. On September 21, 1945, he escaped from a prison camp in New Mexico and hopped onto a freight train that took him to California.

Gaertner could speak English and had served as a prison translator, and that skill would serve him well. He took a series of odd jobs, working as a dishwasher and farm laborer and keeping a low profile as he moved from town to town to avoid attention. As he improved his English-language skills, he also learned how to fit into American life. He carried a Social Security card under the name of Dennis Whiles, married an American woman with two kids in the 1960s, and took on higher-paying jobs in construction and sales, and even as a ski instructor and tennis instructor. In the early 1980s, Gaertner’s wife – whom knew nothing of his past – became suspicious when he refused good job opportunities that would have required background checks. When she threatened to leave him, he told her the truth and decided to come clean.

Gaertner knew that he had been mentioned in a book titled Nazi Prisoners of War in America, so in November 1983 he called the author – Texas A&M University professor Arnold Krammer.

"The caller identified himself as Dennis Whiles and commented that he had enjoyed reading my book," Krammer was quoted in a 1985 Houston Chronicle article. "He also said that it was very accurate, admitting that he had once been a German prisoner of war." The men spoke for a long time, and eventually Gaertner told Krammer who he really is.
Krammer and Gaertner collaborated to write another book, titled Hitler's Last Soldier in America, published in 1985. Gaertner reportedly obtained U.S. citizenship in 1989 and lives today in Colorado.


Katie Anne said...

Awesome to see people interested in his story. Dennis Whiles was my step Grandfather (he passed Jan 2013). We were very close, he had quite the amazing life.

Ray Grasshoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ray Grasshoff said...

Thanks for your comments, Katie. Sad to hear about his death, but thanks for letting us know. In fact, when I was a student at Texas A&M back in the 1970s, one of my professors was Arnold Krammer, whom your step-grandfather contacted about his former life.

Christine Mathieu said...

Dear Katie Anne,

I'm so sorry that your grandfather died.
After I had purchased his book in a German translation (which only has a fraction of the photos that the US copy offers), I read it many many times and was always wondering how he was doing after 1984/1985.

My husband found on Youtube a German documentary from MDR (a former East German channel)on Georg Gaertner/Dennis Whiles and I watched it with the greatest interest.

I also posted a review of his book and a few comments to other reviews (I got so furious when I read the dumb remark of a female reviewer claiming that Georg Gaertner lead a wonderful life in the US instead of going back to the eastern part of Germany which was in Russian hands at the time, before it belonged to Poland.

I don't think at all that his life was so happy. He tried to make the best out of his situation, but always worried that somebody might recognize him.

What I found particularly sad is the fact that he did fly to Germany only a few month or a year after his parents died. But at least he met his sister in Hamburg.

From what I understand your grandfather lived at last in Bolder, CO, right?

I immigrated to the US 11 years ago and have the US citizenship for several years. So I can understand the cultural difference between the US and Germany. It must have been much mo9re severe in WW II when there was still no German TV and most Germans did not know much about the American way of life.
Hitler did not allow after 1939 that American movies were shown at German movie theaters, for instance "Gone with the Wind" (1939) was not in German movie theaters before 1947/1948.

Thank you for your comment on this blog.

Have a great weekend,