Christmas 1973

My military sponsor forgot to tell the U.S. Army postal system that I had arrived in Germany.  So all of the Christmas presents Judy and I had wrapped and mailed to my unit—to put under the Christmas tree for our first Christmas in Germany—were returned to Enid, Oklahoma, after she and the girls had already left to join me.  He also forgot to register me for on-post housing so I had to look in the local German towns for a place to live.  One of my officers had heard about a house for rent in the small German town of Beuern located nine kilometers north of Giessen—so he drove me up to look at it.  The house sat next to a forest, on the edge of a plowed field at the top of a long, steep, winding road named Am Ziegelberg.

Driving up the road it appeared to both of us that on either a rainy or snowy day Am Ziegelberg would be difficult getting up—or down—without spinning around or sliding into one of the ditches on either side of the road.

The house had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.  From the front window you could look down upon the small municipality of Beuern—highlighted by the tall steeple of the old Lutheran Church located in the center of town. 

Next to the house was a four-foot wide “dog-leg” open ditch leading to a round hole cut into the side of the hill.  Stones lined the sides of the dugout and some shrubbery was scattered inside along the walls.  None of the shrubbery looked more than a decade or two old.  Looking over the rest of the farmland adjacent to the house, I spotted several more trenches just like it and upon further inspection I realized they were created for artillery pieces or anti-aircraft guns. 

In the artillery, they would have been staggered some fifty meters apart placed in what was referred to as a “lazy W.”  This formation prevented an enemy aircraft from strafing all of the positions in a single pass. The dog-leg entrance was designed to make it easier to defend the gun position by preventing an enemy soldier from firing directly into the gun emplacement from the entrance. Next to the open gun emplacement—up the side of the steep curving dirt road was a narrow gauge railroad track evidently used to supply ammunition up the steep hill to the guns.

It would take more than a year before I could get any of the local residents to finally admit the anti-aircraft guns were placed there to fire at the allied airplanes that came over Beuern on their way to bomb Giessen and points further east.  I heard a story from “Harry”—a Scotsman who worked at the Army Depot in Giessen but who also lived in Beuren—that there was a story being told at the Depot by a former British pilot about “Saving One for Giessen.”

The story was that a British bomber had been shot down and crashed in a farm field outside Giessen.  Several crew members had parachuted to safety in the adjoining farm field only to be beaten to death by some of the local Germans. 

From that day on to the end of the war, every British bomber attacking a target in Europe allegedly saved one rack of bombs after striking their target and on their way back to the UK, dropped that rack of bombs on Giessen.  That may account for why more than 75% of the city of Giessen was destroyed during WWII.

So there I was—less than a week before Christmas with Judy and the girls arriving Christmas Eve day. 

I had no gifts for Judy or the two girls, no Christmas tree, and no furniture for them to sit or sleep on when they arrived because the only three-bedroom house available—that I had just rented—was unfurnished.

When I went to the U.S. Army furniture warehouse on the Giessen Depot and asked about furniture for my family who were accompanying me on military orders—entitling me to the furniture—the German civilian at the warehouse said to me they were all out of furniture.  As he spoke those discouraging words, I looked over his shoulder at literally hundreds of sofas, chairs, beds, mattresses, tables, lamps, and what the Germans called “Kleider-Schränkes” or “clothes cabinets,” sitting all over the huge warehouse floor immediately behind him.

The German government taxed homeowners by the number of rooms in the house—regardless of their size—and a clothes closet was considered by the government to be a separate room—and therefore taxable.

However, the house I rented had no clothes closets, which required that each room have a “Kleider-Schränke” (a clothes cabinet) or we would have nowhere to hang our clothes.

I left the warehouse determined to get furniture for my family.  I told the young lieutenant who was driving me around to take me to one of the armor battalions we were providing personnel support to.  Now, back then, every armor battalion had at least one 5-ton truck, so I went to see several battalion commanders—explaining to them that I could pick up some furniture that day if I had a vehicle and added that I would be more than happy to refill the gas tank when I returned the vehicle. 

My two lieutenants and I arrived just before the Depot warehouse closed—when everyone would be busy with their required paperwork preparing to pack up and head home. We had two empty 5-ton vehicles and a dozen of my enlisted soldiers. I had gotten dressed in my class “A” green uniform with all my medals and decorations on. 

I was prepared to face down any German civilian who stood between me and the furnishings my family needed.  I was going home with some furniture one way or another.

I had the two trucks back up to the loading docks of the warehouse while the two lieutenants and I—each with a separate list of furniture to load onto the trucks—took the three teams of enlisted men through the open doors of the warehouse docks to acquire the specific pieces of furniture on each of their individual lists.

We had successfully loaded the first truck—and sent it on its way to Beuern—before anyone came out of the warehouse to question what was going on. 

The second truck was almost ready to leave when I was approached by the German civilian who earlier that day had told me there was no furniture available.  In a heavy German accent in broken English he said I could not take that furniture as it was all reserved for General Grade officers.  I smiled and told him there was no problem as we were just moving some of the furniture to the warehouse in Beuern.

“But we do not have a warehouse in Beuern,” he said.

“You do now,” I replied as I waved off the driver of the second truck and handed him a signed copy listing all of the furniture I had taken to the Beuern warehouse.

In a matter of several hours, we unloaded the furniture at the house on Am Ziegelberg and put together the clothes closets and the beds.  There I was—almost ready for Judy and the kids.  All I needed was a Christmas tree and some gifts. One of the young lieutenants said he would make a tape of Christmas music for me to play when the family arrived.

The lieutenants and the enlisted crew with the two 5-ton trucks had not been gone more than twenty minutes when the doorbell rang. I opened the front door and was welcomed to Beuern by my new German neighbors—Lisa and Wolfgang Weerth. 

They told me they were pleased to see a Major in the United States Army living in their town.  I was told by Lisa that I was the first active duty American officer to be living in the town of Beuern since the war had ended. 

When I told them my mother was German—that both her parents were born in Möhringen before WWI—she got excited and started speaking rapid-fire German to me. 

I had to remind her that my German was not that good—she would have to continue speaking English.  I asked them where I could get a Christmas tree this close to Christmas, and Wolfgang laughed and then told me that—while Opa (Grandpa) Stein had sold the land the house was on, Opa felt he still owned the Christmas trees and the plum trees that grew on the land he had sold. Wolfgang was certain that Opa Stein would let me cut down one of his Christmas trees for my family.

Well, Christmas Eve day arrived and there was Opa’s Christmas tree all lit up with gifts under the tree I had purchased from the local merchants.

As I drove away from the house—down the steep road and headed for the airport in Frankfurt to pick up Judy and the girls—I thought about how they would react to spending Christmas in a foreign land and living in a small German village of only a couple thousand residents—more than 5000 miles from their home in Oklahoma.