Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Long Winding Road



POW cemetery, Fort Reno, August 2008, Pat Browning photo.

"Jammin'" with the locals,Tangier, mid-1970s

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Two things stand out in my mind when I think of Tangier.

One, is the first time I set foot in that little bit of North Africa just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. I checked into the hotel, unpacked, put on my caftan and strolled into the bar. The piano player looked up, smiled, and began to play “As Time Goes By.” I was flattered, and flustered, and I fell in love with Morocco. As I wrote in a travel article, “If Morocco had not existed, Hollywood would have invented it.”

The second thing that sticks in my mind came a couple of years later, when I was one of three American tourists on the boat from Spain. We were surrounded by a group of boisterous German tourists. I said to my friends – loudly, to be heard over the noise – “I wonder what Rommel and Patton would think.”

Sudden silence, with everyone staring at me. I don’t know how much English the Germans understood, but the name “Rommel” struck a chord with them. That was in the late 1970s, when World War II was within living memory of most people. I’m tempted to say that today’s Germans wouldn’t turn a hair at the mention of Rommel and Patton.

Then again … Rommel is a legendary figure, the “Desert Fox” whose Afrika Korps drove the British out of Libya, the dissident who was allowed to commit suicide and save his family from the shame of a trial for treason. Or did he commit suicide? There’s one story that the choice given him was not suicide or a trial, but a bullet in the head or a trial, and he chose the bullet. Just a story. We will never know for sure. Everyone involved is dead.

But the result was the same. It was announced that he had died of a brain seizure. He was given a hero’s funeral, and his family name was untarnished. His son, Manfred, grew up to become a popular political figure, serving as mayor of Stuttgart from 1976 to 1994.

In a strange twist to the story, Gen. George S. Patton IV became commanding officer of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, a unit his father had commanded in North Africa against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The 2nd Armored Division at the time of Patton's command was billeted near the city of Stuttgart. Manfred Rommel and George S.Patton IV, the sons of the two former adversaries, became friends.

Now, long after the battle for North Africa, and long after my trip through the Strait of Gibraltar with a boatload of Germans, I’m living within 20 miles of Fort Reno, last resting place of 70 POWS from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The graves are lined up neatly in a stone-walled enclosure at the back of the post cemetery.

Fort Reno has been an agricultural research station since 1947, but in its heyday, during the Indian Wars and two World Wars, it was a thriving community of horses, mules, military men, Buffalo Soldiers, Indians, and prisoners of war.
In 1943, with World War II in full swing, 1,000 German prisoners captured in North Africa arrived at the Fort Reno POW camp. The camp was almost like a country club, with prisoners enjoying considerable freedom. After all, escape was useless. They were in the middle of nowhere, on the rolling Oklahoma plains, and if they managed to walk away, there was no place to go. Their stay at Fort Reno is an interesting story, but too long to tell here.

For more than 50 years, the POW graves have been in a quiet, peaceful place. I think, if they weren’t so far from home, the German soldiers would like it there.

4 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Great story, Pat. There was also a German prisoner of war camp here in central Wyoming. Many of the prisoners became American citizens after World War II, and their families are still in residence.

Beth Terrell said...

Rommel was certainly a complex individual. I wonder if his son thought of him with pride or shame. Probably a mixture of both. I'd have liked to hear some of the conversations between the two sons.

Thanks for another great post, Pat.

Chester Campbell said...

Your story reminds me of my stay at Moody Field (now called Moody Air Force Base) in Valdosta, GA. It was the winter of 1944. There was a contingent of German POWs on the base, and I would see them marching in the street, looking happy, or going through the chow line wearing their distinctive caps. I was an Aviation Cadet, but at the time we were in a holding period and they assigned us to menial jobs. One was wielding a shovel to help build a firing range. We resented the prisoners because they didn't have to do that kind of work. It would have been "helping the war effort."

Enjoyed your story.

Ben Small said...

Pat,

I've taken that ferry, too. Great ride! And Germans understand English very well, at least those under seventy. It's required study in German schools.