AN ERRANT ODYSSEY
Billie Cook always suspected she had brothers. She had photos from a friend of her father that showed his first wife and the two boys they had sired. When the boys were mid-teens the mother had taken them for a visit to their native land of German to meet their Grandmother and other relatives in 1939. For all she knew they had never returned.
Growing up in the Livengood and Fairbanks areas of Alaska, Billie had thought that within her field of vision she had all the family she ever knew. She raised her children from two marriages and kept in touch with her immediate family as they spread throughout the U.S.. It wasn't until after her father died that the friend explained that the boys in the strange photo were really her siblings.
With no means of finding what happened to them, Billie would often question German visitors to her hostel on Mack Blvd. in Fairbanks if they had ever heard of a German family called Dern. A frequent traveler named Axel Kubler took it upon himself to do some checking around when he got home. Back in Germany he searched through phone books and called a number of people with that last name until he struck paydirt with someone named Dern in Schwalbach in the province of Hessen. On New Years Eve Billie got a phone call from someone speaking only German. Thinking it was a customer wanting to book a bed, she asked one of her German speaking guests to translate for her. It was a shock and a surprise to find out that Erhard Dern on the other end was letting her know that he was her nephew. Erhard immediately called his uncle Richard who had emigrated to Florida many years earlier. Making sure that the elderly man was sitting down, Erhard informed him that a Billie Cook from Fairbanks, Alaska was seeking him and his brother Walter. She was his half sister he had never seen.
Richard Dern, at the age of 72, had had many shocks in his life, but nothing like this.The news "exploded our quiet retirement life in Florida". No one had ever mentioned that he had any siblings other than Walter, much less that they would be in as remote a place as Fairbanks, Alaska. Something about it did ring a bell, however. His father at one time had worked as a miner and mechanic in Fairbanks.
Richard wrote back to Mrs. Cook and was thus reunited with the kin he never knew existed. Thereby too, he would reveal the reason why they had never met, a reason strange enough that an imaginative writer could make a good adventure novel out of it.
A SLOW DESCENT INTO A MAN MADE HELL
The Derns had left Germany due to the awful inflation that ran rampant there in the economic slag pool left behind by World War I. It was so bad that workers were paid daily and would run to the stores after work to spend their money as the next day it would be worth less. Often they would arrive in a shop to find that their wages could only purchase a box of matches or a shoelace. A friend's uncle had beckoned them to come to Buffalo, N.Y. where things were more stable and they could make a decent life for themselves. Now, so many years after the boys had arrived as infants, they would return to visit the land of their birth as young teens while their father would leave to explore the wilds of Alaska. Richard often later speculated that his mother perhaps had no real intention of returning.
On July 7, 1939 Mrs. Dern booked passage on a ship called the 'New York' for herself and her two boys to Hamburg. Once arrived they journeyed down by train to stay with an uncle near Schwalbach. There she reunited with all the relatives she had not seen since she and her husband had left so many years before. It was to have been a six or seven week vacation. It turned into something much more.
Within months after their arrival in the Old World there came the events that would not only transform their lives but that of virtually the whole world as well. Hitler invaded Poland. Wartime controls over the populace were put into German law and the three were not allowed to leave the country even though the boys were U.S. citizens. Yet despite the fact they were all originally German born Richard and Walter were not given ration cards or any other of the social supports that ordinary citizens received. They made the most of their bad situation, helping their uncle out on the farm and eventually becoming apprentices at a factory in the nearby city of Wetzler. Most of their neighbors believed the war would not last long. They, and the whole world, were in for a rude surprise.
In 1941 Richard was inducted into the 'Arbeitsdienst', a service for mid-teenaged boys to start learning military skills. By this time the young brothers had been in Germany for two years and were now legal German citizens again and could finally get the privilege of ration cards and other amenities they had been denied. Richard was eventually sent to a base near the sands of Marseilles. The boys were given basic training and had to work hard, but they also had the pleasures of swimming in the Meditereanean and basking in the sun in the gorgeous French countryside.
After three months of training he was put in the 'Luftwaffe', the German Air Force, in an area near Brussels. The change was a cold slap in the face. The new trainers were experienced fighters who had already seen action in Russia, Poland and France. Many were wounded, some were missing limbs. The boys had already gotten a taste of hardship at Marseilles; now they would receive instruction from men who had seen the real hell of war. One Master Sergeant in particular impressed him. He had an artificial leg and other severe wounds, yet his positive attitude instilled pride and duty in everyone there. What was frightening to the young men came when the trainers informed them they would have to squeeze six months of training into three.
It was grueling. After three days the recruits were so weary and bruised that they were ready to murder their instructors. The harassment they dealt out was strong, so bad that two boys in his section killed themselves. They were called cowards by the commanders and derogatory letters were sent to their parents.
At Nuremburg Richard and his battery were given a further three months of flak training. There the discipline was more relaxed. An instructor there was surprised to see them doing everything at double time pacing. He told them to relax and do everything at a normal rate. That did not mean their new environment was a circus, however. When Richard got his gloved hand caught in a cannon losing some meat off a digit, he was ordered to do fifty pushups for damaging a new leather glove and had to endure the laughter of thewhole battery.
The three months was almost up when they were ordered to trade their uniforms in for tropical ones, a sure sign that they were being sent to Africa or Italy. Three days later they exchanged them back for felt boots and heavy parkas. They now feared they were headed to the dreaded Russian Front. When their train went as far as Hanover in the north, they breathed a sigh of relief. That meant they were being taken to Norway, a nation already defanged by their military.
The train deposited them at Tromso well above the Arctic Circle to guard a fjord hiding German naval boats. Arriving in late spring they got a taste of the on hanging arctic winter. Except for an early spring aerial attack by British torpedo planes, life soon settled down to a quiet, cold, dull routine.
Local 'Norske' (Norwegians) and Laplanders would come by to trade fish for flour, vegetables and cigarettes. Richard and a couple soldiers followed one man to his house and were shocked to see that he lived in a hovel made of ramshackle materials housing his wife, six children and a miniature cow. They slept on the floor and had all their teeth missing from malnutrition. The soldiers were so disturbed by their poverty that they gave them money and food to ease their plight.
With summer there came onslaughts from British fighter planes attempting to sink the ships in the harbor. The German's cannon fire matched any fire power the English threw at them. With time Richard engaged in fifteen attacks and was awarded corporal stripes.
A year went by and they were relieved by fresh troops and shipped south. The cannons were mounted behind half-tracks with their barrels chained down. At one point on a steep downhill grade during a snow storm the barrel chain broke loose while Richard was the brakeman. Letting loose of the brakes he grabbed it with his arms, holding onto his seat with his legs. Screaming for help with all his lung power, the snow storm kept anyone from hearing him. If the cannon shifted too far out over the side of the train it would send them all over the edge of the ocean cliff. Miraculously one of the cannoniers finally saw his plight and helped him.
Upon reaching Narvik, Norway, they boarded a freighter that took them to Estonia and a new enemy- the Russians. They were now involved in what was to become the bloodiest and grimmest of the conflicts of World War II, the Russian Front.
The targets of their cannons changed from enemy aircraft to Soviet T-34 tanks. Richard's battery worked their way towards Leningrad, a city that by the end of the campaign would have survived 300 days of German bombardment. The T-34 tanks were enough to deal with, but in the middle of one battle a new monster appeared- the 'Joseph Stalin' tank that weighed 45 tons and had a cannon twice the size of the German's. One advanced on Richard's position running over its own dead and wounded. The Stalin got off the first shot, knocking a large tree onto Richard's cannon. Thinking they had destroyed the enemy cannoniers, the Stalin turned on another German cannon nearby. Richard and his colleagues managed to climb out from under the tree, clear it off and hit the tank in its weakest spot destroying it before it fired on the other gun.
The war in the east was one of the most miserable campaigns ever fought. More Germans died of frostbite in the winters of 1941 to 1942 than war wounds. Not only was the often -50 degree Fahrenhiet weather horrendous but there was the constant threat of partisans who would attack at night knowing the German were not yet used to the rigors of Russian winters. In the summer the misery of moving though vast marshes and muddy conditions was amplified by hordes of mosquitoes and the ever present lice that infested their clothing.
As the German army weakened from the never ending onslaught of armed Soviet might and the elements, the Russians built up their forces from the endless masses of manpower they had and from the war machines their factories tucked safely back in the mountains ceaselessly built. The Germans were finally pushed back to the port of Libau in Lithuania, a town which became their Dunkirk. While trying to hurriedly load every ship possible with wounded and soldiers they would be constantly strafed by Russian planes. At one time two Soviet gunships snuck in and started blasting their positions. Richard and his comrades sunk one with his cannon while the other ship was crippled by a comrade's. The marksmen were awarded the Iron Cross for their valor, but Richard also spent two days in the hospital with splinters in his leg as a memento of the event.
On May 7, 1945 the terrible war came to an end. Bealeagured Berlin surrendered and the news flashed around the world. The next day 25,000 men on seven ships left Libau for home, not knowing what awaited them there. Of the original 150 men in Richard's battery, only seven were left alive. Yet the Reaper still wasn't finished with his harvest. Despite the fact the peace treaty had beensigned the day before, three Russian planes strafed and bombed the boats, taking another 35 men's lives with them.
They got as far as the Danish coast when their ship ran out of fuel. Richard and some others decided the best way to get home was to hike 150 miles south through Denmark to a ferry. It meant a long walk with no food. On the way down they were lucky to work for a farmer killing giant rats that had infested his farm. He rewarded them with hams and breads.
Surrendering to the British upon entering Germany they were happy to get a shower and to have their uniforms 'baked' to get rid of the lice that had been their constant companions. When they got back their uniforms they were unhappy to see that the British had stripped off all their service medals.
The first five days they had nothing to eat in the POW camp. They were living in tents and had to eat bark from trees. The camp was lightly guarded, so some would steal into a farmer's yard and slaughter a chicken or even a whole pig.
After several weeks Richard was released and put on a train. For the first time he and his companions were able to see the price Germany had paid in the war. Unimaginable destruction was everywhere to be seen. In some of the large cities 80% of the area had been destroyed. Two days later in the American zone the train halted at Giessen, a town 25 miles from Richard's home. No one had been let off the train so far, so it was believed that they were being taken to France to help with reconstruction. He and a friend ran off into the bushes during a toilet break and hid until the train rumbled on.
Walking into Schwalbach he was relieved to see it virtually unscathed. A neighbor recognized him and called his mother. She came running out in joy and relief that he was still alive and kissed him fervently. His dog jumped all over him in joy while the neighbors came out to see and greet him.
Fortunately Schwalbach had been too small and unimportant to bomb. His farmhouse had only suffered a few bullet holes from a strafing when a German plane had seen American soldiers below. The same soldiers had gone through the house and stolen 'souvenirs' from them. His mother informed him that his brother Walter was a POW in Africa held by the British. He was working as an interpreter and driver for a high ranking officer, so he was fortunate to be alive and taken care of. A wicked bit of irony they learned of later was that their father in America had been drafted and, had circumstances been different, could have been in battle against his own sons.
Eventually Richard went back to the factory where he used to apprentice. There he was arrested by an American sergeant when he couldn't produce his release papers. Surprised at hearing him utter a couple words in English, the sergeant was outraged when he found out he had been an American citizen. "How could you do such a thing as go into the Luftwaffe?!!" he demanded. Richard tried to explain to him that he would have gotten shot had he not, but the officer drew his pistol and had him put in jail.
As unfortunate as it was to be in jail, it actually turned into a blessing. A captain in need of an interpreter to help with ration distribution foundhim there and hired him. It was Richard's ticket to food and clothing for his mother and him and greater privileges than most Germans could have at that time.
His stint as an interpreter was actually one of the few actually enjoyable experiences he had during the war. He was still a prisoner, yet he feasted and enjoyed a certain amount of freedom within the perimeters of his work, though every night he had to return to his cell. It was during this period that he met his future wife Helga. Once released from his confinement he was able to take her out on dates, a luxury few Germans at that time could afford. In September of 1947 Walter was released from the African POW camp and returned to be with them. It was a rare occurrence in devastated Germany for a family to be able to piece itself together after the grueling war.
Slowly, healings took place for all of them. Richard's mother was able to return to the U.S. in 1947 because she was still legally married to an American. Richard married his love Helga the same year. On July 11, 1951, almost 12 years to the day he began his odyssey, Richard and his wife received permission to return to the U.S.
In 1997, nearly 60 years after his fateful 'vacation' to Germany, Richard first contacted his long lost half sister by mail. Billie responded enthusiastically. She flew down to Florida to finally meet her missing brother from the photo. Richard and Helga waited anxiously at the airport for her flight, the last of the day. The plane disembarked, but they did not see Billie. Helga thought she had maybe gone by and searched back behind them. Finally a woman slowly came to the exit. Richard knew instinctively it was Billie and waved with both his hands. They had a tearful embrace. Brother and sister were re-united at last!
The 40 minute drive home was filled with questions and answers as they began to figure out the puzzles of their lives. Richard and her had a lifetime of adventurous tales to swap; his of his wartime ordeals and she of growing up in the wilds of the Alaskan frontier. Richard had photos of Schwalbach including one of their grandmother dressed in the traditional clothing of the area. Billie told of "being born in the frontier mining town of Livengood and having the miners bet on whether her mother would give birth to a girl or a boy". The day of her birth her mother had to drive around a mountain side so narrow that only one car could pass on it at a time and so icy that it was safer to have one person walk along the car as a spotter so that it didn't plummet over the side. Helga gave Billie her valued mink coat, something Helga didn't need in humid Florida, but that Billie definitely could use in frigid Alaska. Meeting her brother was "one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life". Unfortunately Walter had by this time passed away.
Richard and Billie now keep in touch by daily phone calls and e-mails, making up for the years lost to them. Billie flew down a second time with her children to visit him. One of her sons, Art, is a history teacher and talked for hours with Richard over the war. Unfortunately Richard's health prevents him from seeing his father's adopted land of Alaska, the birthplace of his long lost sister.
Copyright R. Freed 2007