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True Tales:


The Escape Route

 

 

 



by Frank Thomas Smith (left)

 

Look lieutenant, we’re part of the intelligence cadre of this operation. We briefed you guys day before yesterday. Weren’t you there? I mean you can’t interrogate us. Well, you could, but what’s the point? Besides, it’s late.

The young officer looked at Ted Jung and me with tired eyes. It was late. And what was the point? he must have been thinking.

Okay, he said. I’m putting in the log that we captured two members of the local underground who confessed after a relatively short but hard interrogation; they also gave the names of other collaborators. How’s that sound?

He was in uniform, combat fatigues, with a colt 45 on his belt. Ted and I were in civvies, me covered by a Bogart trench coat and Ted a green German loden overcoat. Two grunts who could barely keep their eyes open were sitting on chairs on either side of the room with M1 rifles between their legs.

Sounds good, I said.

Good. What are their names? And what are your names?

We don’t not know nutting, Ted said.

The lieutenant shot a killing glance at Ted and the grunts woke up.

He’s kidding, sir, I said. Don’t pay any attention. Er…my name’s Arnold Schiklegruber and he’s Hans Henkel. The chief of the underground is Eric Marie Remarck and his concubine is Eva Braun. You got a beer or something? We’re dying of thirst.

Address? he asked, ignoring our thirst.

Hauptstrasse 7, Bad Kreuznach.

Is that Remarck’s address or yours?

We all live together, I said. Ted snickered.

The Lt. was filling out a form. He turned the page. Now tell me what happened.

What happened? You mean as though we were really the underground?

Of course. I have to write up what you confessed. And hurry up, it’s late.

Can we at least sit down? Ted said.

Sit.

Where?

Bring in a couple of chairs, he told one of the grunts. Not too comfortable.

The grunt looked mortally offended, handed his M1 to the other one and slouched toward the door.

And bring a couple of beers while you’re at it, I told him.

He stopped, glared at me, then at the lieutenant.

Make it five, the Lt. said. Here. He held out a five dollar bill, which meant PX beer.

We’d really prefer German beer, sir, Ted said.

I don’t care what you’d prefer, so shut up. No … talk, it’s late.

 

I better explain what Ted and I were doing in that room in the 2nd Armored Division headquarters building at midnight being interrogated and very willing to confess all even without torture. For me it began a few months earlier (in the 1950s during the Korean War) when I was transferred from the Berlin Military Intelligence Unit to a service company for the 2nd Armored Division in Bad Kreuznach, West Germany. Actually I was purged. There are various reasons for purging…you could be a security risk, or a fuck up, or insubordinate. In hindsight I must admit that I was all three – a security risk for insisting on being John Frigero’s friend. John’s the guy who taught us to sing the Internationale in basic training; he wasn’t a communist though, just a history professor with a sense of humor. He was purged as soon as we got to Germany when the security officer didn’t understand his humor. He got himself transferred to the Public Information Office..smart guy. I was labeled a fuck up when Master Sergeant Callahan sent me to the Frankfurt airport to pick up two spies coming from Berlin for debriefing. I went there in civvies and an unmarked car and met the Pan American flight at 9 p.m., but they weren’t on it, so I waited for the 10 p.m. flight and they weren’t on it either. So I called Callahan and reported.

They’re already here, asshole, he said, they took a taxi. I found out later that there are two sides to the Frankfurt airport: civilian and U.S. military. Our spies had, naturally, arrived on the military shuttle on the military side. But they’d never told me about that so how was I supposed to know?

They sent me to Berlin to join the rest of the fuck ups. The best job there was recruiting spies. You hung out in bars and cabarets meeting people and recruiting the ones who were dumb enough to go to East Germany and spy for us. Or smart enough to rip us off. The Master Sergeant asked me if I spoke German. I said sure, but I spoke Russian better. Actually, I only spoke the little German I had been able to pick up in the three months I had been in Germany, but spoke fluent Russian because I had learned it at the Army Language School in Monterey, California.

Fuck, he said, another Russian. Okay, go recruit some Russians, well knowing that there were no Russians to recruit.

The first and only spy I recruited was, not surprisingly, a Marlene Dietrich look-alike I picked up in a cabaret. I won’t go into the recruiting process here because we weren’t supposed to have personal relationships with our spies, especially not sexual ones. She went into East Germany – she said, and came back with a lot of information, even photos. We gave our spies cigarette lighter-sized Minox cameras, but the smart ones refused to take them to the East. What if they were searched by the Russians? It turned out, though, that Marlene (names have been changed to protect the guilty) had already worked for Air Force and Naval intelligence, as well as the French and the British, not to mention the CIA, and had been deemed not only untrustworthy but probably a double agent. (I wouldn’t have been surprised if most if not all our spies were double or triple.)

They put me in the Shit Squad where, according to Captain Olszevskii, I should have been all along.

The Shit Squad analyzed Russian language documents covered in dried shit. Russian soldiers didn’t have toilet paper, you see, so they used any paper available, which they considered superior to the leaves they used at home. After use they threw the paper into the trash and our spies claimed they surreptitiously stole the trash at night. Actually, they bought it for a few pfennnigs from the Russian soldiers, who didn’t have money either. The spies carried back what they could in briefcases (all Germans, East and West, carried briefcases, nothing suspicious about that), where it was dumped on us for analysis. Although occasionally military documents were included – menus, propaganda, etc – ninety percent were personal letters from home in atrocious Russian. “My Dear Ilyosha, How is the borsch in the Army?…keep warm…”

After a month of this I went to Captain Olszevskii and told him my German was greatly improved (it was) and requested transfer back to recruiting. He refused, saying that he didn’t need any more Mata Haris, so I said I wasn’t going to read any more Russian shit.

Why Not? he demanded.

It’s not hygienic, I said. Besides, I’m allergic to other people’s shit.

He said he was giving me Company Punishment for insubordination and the punishment was a week confined to quarters. This was essentially meaningless because our quarters were in civilian apartments and we came and went as we pleased. If he really wanted to screw me, however, he could get some fink to check on me and catch me outside quarters at night. I doubted he’d go to that extreme, but for me it was a matter of principle. I demanded a court-martial with a defense lawyer, judge, the works. 

He realized that he’d look like more of an ass than he really was if he convened a court-martial involving classified information for such a minor offence, so he dismissed me furiously, swearing to put my ass in a sling somehow.

 

That’s how I was transferred out of Military Intelligence and into the service company in the boondocks of Rheinland-Westphalen, namely Bad Kreuznach. It was a strange company, with more officers than enlisted men, and most of the latter sergeants. In other words, a dumping ground for fuck ups. We were billeted in a beautiful German Kaserne (barracks), two, at most four to a room, with indirect lighting and central heat. The Company Commander was an alcoholic WWII hero with a battlefield commission and the First Sergeant was a 20% (per month) loan shark.

I arrived one fine day at the Bad Kreuznach railroad station and was surprised to find an army car with a German driver waiting for me. I mean corporals aren’t used to that kind of service. The driver, Karl, saluted and asked me if I was Corporal Schmidt. Smith, I corrected him. Ja, Ja, that’s what I said. On the way to the Kasern he told me that he had been in the army on the Russian front and had always been a fervent anti-Nazi. Ja, Ja, I said, I already know the story, and he laughed. I asked him if he always picked new people up at the station. Only officers, he said. “So you must be very important.”

It took a while, but I eventually realized that my importance lay in the fact that my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) was still “intelligence analyst”, and they were all suspicious that I had come to analyze them – not because they were intelligent, but because they were fuck ups, loan sharks, drunks, pimps and, in a few cases, retards. The First Sergeant even refused to lend me money at any percentage.   

We were bussed every morning to the outskirts where our duty lay: a huge laundry operation for the 2nd Armored Division and a motor pool, all manned by Polish refugees under American officers and noncoms. The Poles were in so-called “service units” and were given blue uniforms, free food and lodging and pocket money. Actually it was a good idea (the only good idea I ever saw during my military experience) because Germany was awash with Eastern European refugees before the Wall was built and there still wasn’t enough work for them – so we put them in quasi-military units and let them work for us.

Next door was the Command Post. Commanding Officer a full colonel, then there were three Lt. Colonels, four or five captains, a warrant officer, a bunch of sergeants and one corporal: me. Because of my MOS as Intelligence Analyst I was assigned to Lt. Col. Moultry Hanks, S3 officer. Now, as most of you will know, S3 is Operations and S2 is Intelligence. But 2 is close to 3, so…get it? Col. Hanks was enthusiastic at my arrival, because it enabled him to create an S2 section with him as officer-in-charge and me as noncom-in-charge. He had me promoted to sergeant of course, because who ever heard of a corporal in charge of anything.

We even had some top secret documents and I still had my security clearance. I’ll tell you now about those documents, but please keep it under your hats, because I don’t know if the Freedom of Information Act applies to them yet. They were plans for the evacuation of dependents in case the Russkies invaded. They specified that all dependents had to keep the gas tanks of their private cars at least half full and to have three days of non-perishable food on hand at all times. I didn’t see how that part could be very secret because we necessarily had to advise all the dependents so they could comply. But the routes they were to take through Germany and France to French ports where transport ships were waiting 24/7 – yeah, that was Top Secret. We also had a top secret code book which, now that he had someone who understood it, Col. Hanks used to send practice messages to the other units in the sub-area. The Top Secret messages, send by short wave radio, invariably read: “Testing 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 -10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. If you left the second 10 out, the message was automatically rejected and had to be re-sent. It was all to Col. Hanks’ credit.

All that stuff, including me, was locked in a Top Secret vault … no, I won’t exaggerate; it was a room with a barred door like in a prison. I had one key and Col. Hanks the other. I could leave whenever I wanted. I also had a Colt 45 in case … actually I didn’t know why. Col. Hanks appointed himself Intelligence Inspector General for the Sub-Area, which meant he sent me monthly with my trusty Colt 45 to the only two Sub-Sub-Areas we had – Worms (of Martin Luther fame) and Mainz, to inspect security features. He appointed fuck up captains as S2 officers in those stations. I appointed fuck up privates (after they had been promoted to corporals) as S2 noncoms. We (my corporals and I) generally spent the evenings after my inspections with Fräuleins of their acquaintance in local Gasthäuser.

 

So much for background, now back to the big maneuver. The Commanding General of the 2nd Armored Division decided to play war games with his men. You know, divided into Red and Blue armies and may the best army win. Officers took such things seriously (maybe they still do) because it looks good in their progress reports if they commanded something in the winning army. We fuck ups were left out…originally, until Col. Hanks had his brainstorm. He asked me how we could contribute to the game. I am convinced that officers hate the draft. It was a draft army then, which meant that many enlisted men were smarter than most officers. So Col. Hanks’ brainstorm consisted of asking me for a brainstorm. I soon came up with an operational plan. According to the war game, a couple of 2nd Armored Division companies were to be dumped in a wooded area in the northern sector of the Sub-Area, as though they were escaped American prisoners of war – the Blues. The rest of the Division (Reds) were to hunt and capture them before they could reach Bad Kreuznach. Those who did reach B.K. without being captured would receive a three-day pass and honorable mention in their records.

My plan was that we (me and Pfc soon to be corporal Ted Jung - yes, I had an assistant by then, with whom I spent endless duty hours playing chess) would play the part of the underground. We would assist the escapees by bringing them back to B.K. in a vehicle – if they were able to contact us. If they had to walk all the way it would take two days and they only had k-rations and weren’t allowed to have money on them.

Ted and I got a map of the area, followed the road north with a pencil to about a quarter of the way from the escapees’ drop off point, measured three kilometers into the woods and marked an X. We copied the coordinates and decided it would take us about a half hour to walk to X from the road where we would leave the van which we would get from the motor pool. We calculated the time it would take the escapees to walk there – a few hours, by which time we would be there waiting for them.

Col. Hanks was delighted. He showed the plan to the Commanding General who, although he may not have been delighted, decided he had nothing to lose and approved it. We briefed the escapees the night before their drop off, telling them if they could get to X (we gave them the coordinates and landmarks from the map) their troubles were over. We would transport them in comfort to freedom – army style.

The next morning Ted and I slept in late; we didn’t have to be at the rendezvous (X) for a couple of hours – according to our calculations. I dressed in my Bogart getup, fedora hat and all, and was quite pleased with myself. Ted looked much more a German than I, but we laughed at each other.

Major Bunnyson said to tell youse guys to bring the van back dent-free, the motor pool duty sergeant told us.

Tell the major not to worry, I said. His rattletrap couldn’t be in better hands. I slipped a sleeve down over my right hand. See? I got one and Ted’s got one. Yeah, Ted added, and please tell him to kiss my ass while you’re at it. We blew kisses and I gunned the van out onto the road.

It took us two hours to reach the spot where we were to leave the van, almost an hour more than planned. How did we know it wouldn’t go more than 60 kms. per hour? What we plunged into was more like a jungle than woods, overgrown with bushes and trees and hard going. We had a compass which we hoped would lead us directly to the spot where we were supposed to wait for the Yanks who had so cleverly escaped from the krauts. Actually Krauts weren’t the enemy any more, but it was hard to imagine another one in a German jungle. We were hampered by hills and dales, rocks, shrubs and detours, but by sheer will and luck we finally reached the meeting point (X) – although it took us three hours instead of thirty minutes. Four guys were lounging on a slope.

Jeez, one said, it took you guys long enough.

What happened to the rest, Ted asked. Captured?

Nah, they got tired of waiting and went south. You guys are four hours late.

Yeah, well, the krauts came to our village looking for you guys and we had to hide in a cellar till they left, I said.

What krauts? I thought they were supposed to be Russkies, a runt with ears like Dumbo said.

Whatever.

Oh, I get it. All part of the war game – right?

Right, Ted said. You guys gotta learn patience. We’re glad you four got patience, so we’ll give you a special mention.

Fuck the mention, a wise guy said. Let’s get outa here. I’m freezing my ass off.

Ted and I were drenched in sweat. Wait a couple of minutes, I said. We have to rest.

How far’s the vee-hicle?

About two kilometers.

But not as the crow flies, Ted added.

What crow? Dumbo asked

We kept up the conversation a few minutes more in order to rest, but finally had to get started, and not only because our escapees were anxious to move. We had no idea how long it would take us to get back to the road and our van, and the day was waning.

Hey, something’s wrong with the compass, Ted said after we’d only gone a few steps.

What now? I groaned.

The needle doesn’t move.

Lemme see that, Dumbo said. He flicked it hard with his thumb as though he were playing marbles. He shook it a bit and said, It was stuck, that’s all. Which way we goin’?

West-north-west, Ted told him.

That’s all? Nothin’ more exact than that?

Well no, we came east-south-east, so we gotta go back the opposite.

Yeah, you could find Paris that way. What are we lookin’ for?

Never mind, I interrupted, let’s just go or we won’t get anywhere. I figured we’d have to at least hit the road – even if not exactly where the van was – which was better than the jungle.

It got dark much quicker than we expected and our situation looked dark as well. The escapees were equipped to spend the night outdoors, but Ted and I definitely weren’t.

It was almost pitch black, no moon, when we spotted a light ahead. The others stopped complaining and one of them said, “Are we there?”

We didn’t answer him, just stumbled towards the light.

It turned out to be a Gasthaus on the other side of a road. As we crossed it Ted said, Hey Frank, this is a pretty skimpy road. The one we parked the van on was much wider.

I had noticed that, but didn’t want to think about it. Maybe it narrows down farther up north than we got, I said – and hoped.

Inside the Gasthaus it was warm and gemütlich. Five or six German men were seated around a Stammtisch drinking beer and playing cards. They were laughing and smoking and joking around, obviously not paying much attention to the game. We must have looked like men from Mars to them. They shut up and stared at us open-mouthed. A young beauteous Fräulein was behind the bar leaning over with her chin on her hand. She wore a dirndl cut low pushing up her breasts. Ted and I approached her.

Is this the road to Bad Kreuznach?

She smiled. No, it’s the road to the road to Bad Kreuznach.

Oh, I said, puzzled. And how far is it from the road to the road to Bad Kreuznach to the road to Bad Kreuznach?

The Germans were all listening of course, and they burst out laughing.

Bier für die Amis! One of them shouted. Both Ted and I had accents and our charges were in uniform, so we were obviously Amis. The girl moved to the middle of the bar and began pouring steins of tap beer. The grunts didn’t speak German, but they understood Bier and Amis, so they rushed to the bar. We were all thirsty. We turned to our benefactors, raised our glasses and said, Prost! They returned the toast with deafening shouts.

It’s about ten kilometers to that main road, the barmaid said.

Ten kilometers!

Yes, it’s only about two through the woods, but no one would go through the woods at night.

We downed our beer and I said to Ted, We should buy them one back. I have ten marks, how about you? Ted was a thrifty person, I knew, and foreseeing. In other words, he always had money on him.

No problem, he said.

Beer for our friends, I told the girl, who looked familiar. What’s your name?

Heidi.

Really?

Yes, it’s a ridiculous name. I’m going to change it as soon as I get out of here. I’m going to the university soon.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, I tried to say in German, hoping that it didn’t get skewed. I guess it didn’t for she smiled as sweetly as a rose.

Which university is that?

Mainz, she replied.

That’s not so far.

Not far enough, she said.

Then it hit me. Do you know who you look like?

Who?

Ingrid Bergman.

Oh? Who’s that?

 

I’m starving, one of the grunts said.

He had his knapsack full of k-rations and he was starving? No … but I was.

What do you say we get something to eat, I asked Ted. I’ll pay you back my half on payday. These guys don’t have any money.

Well, Ted said, we’re the underground so I guess we can do whatever we want.

Damn right. Heidi, do you have anything to eat?

We only have Wiener Schnitzel mit Kartoffelsalat, she said. It’s very good.

My mouth watered. Great. Sechs Schnitzels mit Kartoffelsalat.

Papa, she cried into the kitchen, and repeated the order.

One thing led to another and we were soon fraternizing with our new friends, our bellies full and half drunk on real German beer, which is not the piss you get in the States with German labels.

When Ted asked the Germans if they wanted to join the underground I knew it was time to go. I had spent much of the time at the bar shooting the breeze with Heidi – falling in love in fact. I got her phone number and directions to the Gasthaus. She was eighteen, but what the hell, I was only twenty. I invited her to see a great movie with the beautiful actress whom she resembled. She wanted to know when and where.

I’ll find out, I promised. Maybe in Mainz.

She called a taxi for us, we drove the roundabout ten kilometers to the main road and eventually found the van. We loaded our drunken living cargo into it and somehow made it back to the Kaserne without incident.

 

As we drove to the second rendezvous (X2) the next day Ted said, What if the Reds captured some of those Blue guys yesterday and they squealed under interrogation?

Squealed what?

Where the second day meeting point is.

Nah, they only have to give their names, rank and serial numbers. Geneva Convention.

I guess you’re right, Ted said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

I wasn’t right.

The meeting point was the square of a village not very far from Kreuznach. We had never been there and weren’t even sure it had a square. But with a name like Waldorf we figured there was no reason for it to be an exception. All German villages have a central square with a statue of Goethe or Schiller – or if it had had Adolf, an empty pedestal. We parked the van on the side of the road in front of a curve in order to walk the rest of the way into town like two casual German citizens.

You don’t look very German in that getup, Frank, Ted remarked as we strolled towards the curve.

Play it again, Sam, I rejoined and whistled As Time Goes By. It was a beautiful sunny spring day and I was feeling good for the first time since being transferred to Bad Kreuznach. You should understand that compared to Berlin Bad Kreuznach is God’s Little Acre. It had only one mechanical traffic light that was wound up like a clock. Although Americans were still gladly tolerated (there were more 2nd Armored Division troops than German inhabitants), we weren’t loved like in Berlin, surrounded as it was by the Soviet army. And for a girl to be seen going out in Bad Kreuznach with an American soldier was not good for her reputation. They figured we had only on thing on our minds...and they were right. Now, however, I was quasi-in-love with a lovely German version of Ingrid Bergman who would soon be living in the city of Mainz, where no one would care who she was going with.

We strolled into the sharp curve and found ourselves being stared at by a squad of Red soldiers lounging around the Schiller statue. We froze. Then - keep walking, I said, act natural. They waited until we tried to casually pass them by, then the sergeant stood up and rudely said, Where do you guys think you’re going?

Nix sprechen der English, Ted said, and the whole squad roared with laughter; one even fell down and rolled from side to side holding his belly.

They made us get into the back of a truck and we all proceeded back to headquarters, and that brings us up to date being interrogated by the lieutenant with PX beer.    

        

Besides, Lt., I said, we gotta pick up the van.

What van?

The van we got from the motor pool, government property. It’s still parked outside Waldorf.

Why didn’t you bring it back when you were there?

We tried to tell that asshole sergeant but he was laughing so hard he…

The Lt. was shaking his head. Okay, get the fuck outa here.

We didn’t go back to Waldorf that night, of course. The PX beer had only made us thirsty for real German beer, so we went to the only bar in town to relax after a successful mission during which not a shot was fired. We returned to Waldorf the next morning in my VW and Ted drove the van back to Kreuznach. I went on to Heidi’s Gasthouse for a lunch of Wiener Schnitzel mit Kartoffelsalat, to reinforce the local contact. I even went to the University of Mainz on the G.I Bill when I got out of the army. Heidi and I studied together, so to speak.      



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