'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

Manfred Gellersen, 90, at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Manfred Gellersen was a soldier once, and young. He is neither now, and like many old soldiers, he has his memories and stories. A feisty, outspoken man of 90 years, Gellersen tells his tales in a rush of words with no chronology or other detectable order. They are like bubbles that rise to the surface as he reaches back through the years, and he tells them as they arrive.

The things this tiny man has seen and done. He drove a Jeep through enemy soldiers, crashing under a hail of bullets. He built a raft and floated into the sea to escape the Russians. He saved an American captive from angry farmers. He survived the mud and snow of the Russian Front, not to mention the Russians themselves. He escaped his captors on two occasions. In quieter times, he attended church with Nazis meeting upstairs.

Manfred Gellersen was a soldier in World War II — for the other side. A German soldier. A Mormon German soldier. When the war was over he went home — and then left for America, landing nearly penniless in New York and eventually Salt Lake City, where he has lived ever since.

"We lost the war, and I joined the winner," he says with a smile.

He shows his guest the many photos displayed around the house of his late wife, his four children and 11 grandchildren. He offers information about many of them and mentions that five of his grandchildren are doctors. "That's America," he says.

He frequently punctuates his narrative with that phrase — That's America. Every time he mentions the realized opportunities of his life — his job, his house, his car, the raising of his family, the good water and food — it's the same thing.

That's America.

Under Nazi rule

Sitting at the kitchen table in his small home, the old man glances at his wristwatch. He's got somewhere he has to be in an hour, he says. Where does a 90-year-old have to go? Gellersen still works several days a week. He performs volunteer work — feeding the homeless at the Catholic mission downtown and laboring at the LDS Church's Welfare Square, among other things. A former mechanic by profession, he still repairs cars almost daily for friends, relatives and former customers.

"I feel obligated," he says. "I made money on them for years. They got old. I like to help them."

How is he able to do so much at his age, he is asked?

"Because," he says, smiling mischievously, "vee are za master race!" At this, he laughs out loud at his joke.

The war was the defining moment of his life, rerouting the path he would follow. In his kitchen, Gellersen thumbs through a book about the German war effort and points to photos of his old commanders, men he served for years. They are handsome, clean-cut men who look more like CEOs or senators than Hitler's soldiers and the evil incarnate that is portrayed in movies.

"What a waste," he says. "Hitler was straight from the devil."

But of course it was only later that Gellersen and his countrymen realized it, and then too late. Gellersen recalls being required to walk to the city square to listen to Hitler speak on the radio for hours at a time. The dictator found an eager audience, given the economic problems of the time.

"Hitler said he'd straighten it out; he promised jobs and food," says Gellersen. "That's all a worker wants. They voted him in. I was 11. We had it good under him."

Gellersen's father, Louis, was not fooled. When young Gellersen showed up at home excited about his new Hitler youth uniform, his father ordered him to return it. "You're not joining the Hitler youth," he said.

Louis and Helene Gellersen owned a gas station/bike shop in Stade, a town in the north of Germany near Hamburg. During the Depression, they joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "When times are bad, you listen," says Gellersen. The Stade branch of the LDS Church met for a time in the back room of a bar for their Sunday meetings. Gellersen has vivid memories of walking past the glaring bartender for church services. Later, Sunday meetings were held on the main floor of a city building while the Nazis used the upstairs as their local headquarters.

In Roger Minert's "Under the Gun" — a book that chronicles the history of West German and Austrian Mormons during the war — Gellersen's sister Inge, now an 84-year-old Bountiful resident, notes that on one wall there was a photo of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith next to one of Hitler. Inge recalls that one Sunday, government officials sat in on a church meeting. "The first person to get up was Brother (Christian) Tiedemann, and he bore a strong testimony and even said something nice about the Nazis — how well they treated us Mormons. Before they left, they clicked their heels and said, 'Heil Hitler!' They told us to be careful what we said and did, but after that meeting they left us alone."

"We were in the same building as the Nazis, but there was no problem," says Gellersen. "We were singing. Nobody kicked in our door. They didn't like religion, but they never bothered us."

Louis, the father of three sons and a daughter, would serve as the branch president for 35 years, overseeing a wartime flock that ranged from 10 to 18 people. Helene served many roles for the branch, including the cleaning of the "church." One day she was scrubbing floors in the meetinghouse when a Nazi general stopped by and asked her if she wanted a job doing the same thing in his office. She told him, "This is my church and I do this for nothing." He apologized and left.

The war

Swept up by nationalism and the excitement of early German conquests, Gellersen wanted to volunteer for the army. His father, who had seen the horrors of World War I, told him to wait until he was drafted. His three sons would be scattered throughout Europe during the war. Manfred was drafted at 18, shortly after completing a 31/2-year apprenticeship as an auto mechanic. He was assigned to a tank division as a mechanic on the Eastern front in Russia. His brothers were sent to France and Finland.

"I liked it at first," Gellersen says, "because I was 18 years old and we had all new tanks." His enthusiasm quickly waned in the sub-zero temperatures. The Germans moved to within 30 miles of Moscow, but that was as close as they got. The tanks got stuck in the mud and froze, their oil turning into a thick sludge, and then the gas ran out. Forced to abandon their tanks, the Germans destroyed them rather than leave them for the enemy.

"We would have won the war against the Russians," says Gellersen, "but the Lord interferes with guys like Hitler." It was the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front. Gellersen entered the war at Smolensk, about 200 miles west of Moscow, in 1942. The German army moved south to the Black Sea, where they ran out of gas again, then to the high mountains near the Turkish border in that summer.

After a year as a mechanic, Gellersen was given a new assignment, indirectly because of his religious beliefs. As a Mormon, Gellersen was the only man out of the 150 in his company who abstained from drinking alcohol. One night a general needed a driver and woke up Manfred because he was the only one who was sober. It became his assignment for the remainder of the war.

Gellersen's unit was shipped back toward Stalingrad to aid German forces, which were being overrun by the Russians. They painted their tanks white and went into battle for days, but, badly outnumbered, they were driven back to Romania and Hungary and eventually Germany. After being given two weeks off, they took a train to Lithuania for more battle, but by then the German cause was lost.

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."

Coming to America

His brother-in-law, who had emigrated to the U.S. and Salt Lake City, wrote a letter saying that he owned a car, a washing machine and a refrigerator. "I had nothing in Germany," says Gellersen. "I told my wife, 'If he got all that, I can have two cars, two refrigerators and two washers." Gellersen and his family — by then, a wife and two children — took a ship to New York in 1952 and then a bus to Utah.

"I couldn't speak English and I didn't have a penny," he says. "I got off the bus in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and I thought, what have I done? I thought I was back in Russia. There was nothing in Cheyenne in the wintertime. I got back on the bus and we came to Ogden Canyon and that looked pretty good with all the trees."

They moved in with his wife's sister, and Gellersen found work at Cream O' Weber stacking milk. Only weeks earlier he couldn't find a quart of milk, and now it was so plentiful that he grew to hate the stuff. In an only-in-America moment, he became dock foreman within two years. He paid off his house in nine years. He bought two other houses and gave them away to family members.

"That's America," he says.

He worked 25 years for Cream O' Weber, missing only four days of work in all that time, and then he started his own business, repairing cars.

"I never regretted coming to America, not once," says Gellersen.

Manfred and Christa were married for 59 years before she passed away in 2006. Now Gellersen lives alone. After nine decades, he still walks a couple of blocks to and from church each Sunday and recently renewed his driver's license. His family lives near him and recently gathered to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Gellersen glances again at his watch. It's time to drive to Welfare Square, where he performs odd jobs that ultimately assist those in need.

"I've been on both sides," he says. "It's better to have a little extra and be on the giving end, than to be wanting and be on the receiving end. I have extra to give. I got too much. That's America."

Email:drob@desnews.com

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