'That's America': Former German soldier builds new life in U.S. after World War II

Published: Monday, Dec. 31 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Gellersen, who was wounded twice by shrapnel — once in the face and once in his scalp — narrowly escaped death on a couple of occasions. Near the end of the war he was sent back to a village to obtain more ammunition. As he rounded a curve in the road, he was stunned to find that he had driven right into an ambush of more than a dozen Russian soldiers. He yanked the steering wheel hard to the right and crashed into a fence. Under heavy fire, he leaped out of the Jeep and ran around a house only to run into another Russian soldier. They were both so surprised that they ran away in opposite directions.

"I ran the fastest mile ever back to my outfit," Gellersen says.

On another occasion he took an American prisoner at gunpoint and fended off angry farmers who wanted to kill the American after watching bombs fall on their fields. "'I told them, 'You leave him alone; the war is over for him,'" says Gellersen. "I took him to a POW camp. If I had spoken English, we would have had a nice conversation."

Late in the war, Gellersen's unit was pushed back to the Baltic Sea by the advancing Russians. "We saw rockets and we knew it was time to run," he says. Gellersen and five other soldiers built a raft out of empty gas cans and rowed into the open sea as soon as the sun set, wearing blisters into their hands. They were rescued by a German naval ship, which eventually passed them to an ocean liner. After spending several days living on deck, they were kicked off on shore in what is now Poland They were supposed to return to Berlin and rejoin the fight. Instead, Gellersen began a long journey to his home.

"We knew it was over," says Gellersen. "The day I heard that Hitler killed himself, I threw my pistol away."

Escape for home

Capture by the Allies meant prison, and capture by the Germans meant hanging for abandoning the war. He walked in ditches to stay out of sight, sometimes managing to catch a ride on a train or truck. Despite the precautions, he was captured by the British and loaded on a truck, but as it neared the prison camp he jumped off and escaped, resuming his homeward trek. He was only a few miles from Stade when he was captured again by the British. Placed in a long line of prisoners for a march to a prison camp near the North Sea, Gellersen faked a leg injury and pretended he was unable to walk. When presented an opportunity, he dashed into a field of willows and hid until dark. He arrived at his home in Stade at 2 in the morning, but hid for an hour to check for enemy soldiers who were hunting for German soldiers. He climbed onto the roof of his house and sneaked inside through a window.

"I lit a match and there was a basket with a new baby – my brother's baby," he says. "Peace on Earth. My two brothers were there, too. All of us together again. The neighbor to our left had died; the neighbor to our right had died; the neighbor across the street had died. Five of my cousins and a brother-in-law had died. Four million Germans had died. Twenty-seven million Russians had died. It was quite a disaster. War is crazy."

He slept on the sofa, and in the morning his father and mother discovered him. "We were so happy," he says.

The reunion didn't last long. The British were rounding up German soldiers and shipping them to various countries to help clean up after the war. Gellersen found work and shelter on a farm for a year to hide from authorities. When a local official finally discovered him, Gellersen was informed that farmers, miners and mechanics were allowed to go home. He spent one day in a prison camp answering questions before returning to his old life, or what was left of it.

Gellersen had collected $7,000 in the bank from his army wages. He got married, but almost as soon as his wife Christa bore their first child, the German currency was declared no good. He was 23 years old and had no job and no money. Commodities were being rationed — coupons were required just to get milk, sugar and gas. Jobs were scarce, the economy was tanking, tanks were on the streets, and Gellersen couldn't feed his family. He hired himself out to a farmer, asking only for milk to give to his infant daughter. The farmer refused. Gellersen went to another farmer who agreed to give him milk if he repaired the wheel of his tractor. Gellersen was riding his motorcycle home, with the milk, when he ran into a road block. Knowing the black-market milk would be confiscated and he would be jailed, he gunned the motorcycle through the roadblock. Soldiers pursued him, but he escaped.

"We were so poor," he says. "We had nothing to eat. I got a little help from the church, but I couldn't buy a quart of milk. I thought I had to have a better life."

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