ALLY, GERMANY, JULY 1945
In the morning’s heat, few prisoners moved around outside in the camp. Captain Ross stood at the window watching a group spread a tarp out for shade. The engineers scrounged these tarps and sometimes lumber so the inmates could build meager shelters in the barbed wire enclosure. The prisoners constructed some shacks, but still, after almost two months, many lived in the open exposed to the elements. Without sufficient food or medicine, many feared they created a death camp.
But Ross’s job involved screening them for discharge, not feeding them, so he turned away from the window to study the latest directive. With a grimace, he held the sheet out at arm’s length. “Have you seen these?”
Sergeant Harrison spun his desk chair around and took the sheet. He scowled as he studied the sheet. “So now we discharge SS.”
“It’s a nightmare out there. We gotta do something with all of `em. Winter comes, they might all die.”
Harrison tossed the sheet on the desk. “First, it was keeping all the Nazis here till they found out that included damn near everybody. Then they allowed us to discharge all enlisted and Hitler youth. Now, this?”
“Yep, everybody, unless they were SS officers.”
“But the enlisted were as brutal as the officers. Hell, some worse.”
Ross sighed. “The guys are puttin’ in long hours. The brass wants us to up our rate to a hundred discharges a day.”
A buzzer interrupted their conversation. Harrison rose. “Let me find out what that’s about.” He paused at the door. “We’ll get `em outta here. Let God sort `em out.”
Before Ross could sit back at his desk, Harrison rushed back in. “Sir, I think you need to come down to room three.”
Ross followed Harrison down the hall. A dozen closed doors on each side, each numbered. His staff worked from first light until well in the evening, reviewing records in these rooms and interviewing candidates for discharge. Outside door number three, Harrison stopped. Ross peered through the door’s peephole. The gaunt man inside’s bald head glistened with perspiration while his fingers drummed rhythmically on the desk. His Wehrmacht private’s uniform appeared too large, but with the near-starvation that prevailed in the camp, that seemed typical. “He looks familiar, but I’m not sure why.”
A grin crept over Harrison’s face. “Isn’t that the lady we rescued from the hanging party in Mauthausen?”
Ross looked in again. “Shit, it’s that Commandant! Mundt, right?”
“What the fuck’s he up to?”
“My guess he figures that Private’s uniform might get him discharged.”
“How did you spot him?”
“Lansky needed to leave the room to use the head, so he buzzed me. While I waited outside, I glanced in to see who might be in there and spotted him.”
“Did he recognize you?”
“No, I looked in through the peephole to check him out. You know I still can’t stand bein’ around these creeps. I just cover them by standing outside the door. How about we bust this up?”
“Not now. Just clue Lansky into who the guy is, so he doesn’t recommend discharge right away. We might use him to spot others slidin’ by. When you’re done, come on back to the office. I might have a plan.”
After returning to his office, Ross called the camp guard office to arrange for one of the covert guards to come to his office. The prisoners had their own doctors and cooks. The armed guards now came from the inmates. These former German Military Police kept order in the camp and prevented escape. Most carried weapons. Some served as undercover informants to assist the Americans identify conspiring groups that might cause mischief in the stockade. Dangerous work, several had been murdered when discovered by their fellow inmates. To protect them, the Americans regularly arrested them with other troublemakers in the camp, so they could report their information with some safety.
As Harrison walked through the door, a blond man, wearing a Wehrmacht uniform knocked at the door before entering. “You wanted me, Captain?”
“Yeah, go down to interview room three. Check out the guy in there getting interviewed. I want you to keep an eye on him.”
After the German left, Harrison turned to Ross. “I take it we are just going to let him run around the camp instead of shipping him off to Nuremberg with the other SS brass?”
“Well, if he has wandered around in here without getting caught for two months, how many more of those clowns might be out there hiding too? If he flushes out a few more, it’ll make our job a hell of a lot easier.”
The German returned, and once again knocked on the open doorway.
“Come in, Willi.” He nodded to Ross as he beckoned the German to a vacant chair. “You know the Sergeant here?”
“The man in there’s hardcore SS. A former work camp commander. Were you aware?”
Perched on the edge of his chair, Willi shook his head. “He associated with a group of SS who were moved on for processing. Since they left, he appears to be on his own, but I have not watched him that close.”
“I figure there’s others out there hiding. We might miss `em in our screening. Could you tail him?”
Ross’ face flushed, “I’m sorry. That’s American police slang, for follow him.”
“Oh. No problem.” Willi arched his eyebrow, grinned. “Shall I just come here when I get arrested next week?”
“That should be soon enough, but if you think you need to talk or come in sooner, let’s set up a signal. Once we spot it, we can arrest you sooner.”
Harrison nodded. “How about leaving a chalk mark somewhere? I can have a guy working discharge, check the area maybe twice a day. If we see the signal, I’ll have ya arrested.”
Ross retrieved a short white chalk stick from his desk he handed to Willi.
Willi nodded toward the window as he pocketed the chalk. “I will draw a short line on the fence post outside your office. I can probably make the mark on the inside so you can see it from here.”
Ross turned his chair to look out the window. The post would be easily seen from here without even standing. “Sounds like a plan.”
After Willi left the office, Ross turned to Harrison. “How in the hell did the Commandant get this discharge interview?”.
“Lansky said the man had a complete set of identity papers. Showed he was a Wehrmacht Private. Would have discharged him today if we hadn’t given him the heads up.”
“Where in the hell did he get those?”
“Must produce `em here.”
“Most SS have tattoos, right?”
“Yeah, their blood group under the left arm. Up by the pit.”
“Spread the word. Effective immediately, strip search all men being discharged. If they find a tattoo, I must approve their discharge.”
“Yes sir, but we have orders to discharge SS enlisted men.”
“Well, for now, if I see they have a tattoo and papers that say they were SS enlisted men, then I’ll discharge them. If not, I think that is grounds to hold them until it’s sorted out.”
Harrison grinned. “Makes sense to me, but it might not fit in with the Army way.” He stood and stretched. “If that’s it, I’ll go spread the word.”
“Tell our men in private, though, and tell them to keep it to themselves.”
Puzzled, Harrison turned back. “Sir, you have the authority. The Brass won’t be a problem.”
“I don’t want the Krauts to know. If they know we’re on to `em, they might switch tactics.”
“Roger, I will spread the word quietly, sir.”
Once Mundt emerged from the headquarters building, Willi slipped in behind him as he marched through the camp. The blazing sun baked everything beneath it. The air thick, unruffled by even the slightest breeze. Flies buzzed around the open latrines, while the odor from these filth pits and the many unwashed bodies filled the air.
As Mundt approached a hut, a man leaning against the wall pushed away from it before nodding to Mundt. The man’s eyes now shifted away from Mundt, scanning the area as if searching for threats. As his quarry entered the hut, Willi strolled past, not wishing to draw this apparent sentry’s attention.
As he circled back around several tarp tents, he kept his eyes on the hut. The sentry again now leaned against the wall; his eyes downcast as if napping. As Willi maintained his vigil from a distance, he wondered what might go on inside that building.
The men who built it from the materials delivered by the Americans never used it. Those who did had the unmistakable bearing of men from the officer’s class. While none wore badges of rank, Willi claimed his years of service had taught him to spot them by their smell.
As the sun reached its zenith, he scanned for an unoccupied tent where he could find shelter from the heat while maintaining his vigil. Ahead, one appeared empty. After a quick glance around to make sure no one else approached the tent, he slipped inside.
As he lay there watching, he wondered whose shelter this might be. Surely, they would return. How would they react to Willi using their abode? Many fights occurred in the camp over these tents. Perhaps the owner died or been discharged. Time passed. Still, no one interrupted his vigil.
At least three men entered the hut since he watched. All dressed in enlisted men’s uniforms but had that aura of the officer class. The man at the door did not salute. Instead, he gave them a casual glance or a nod before resuming his vigil.
As the heat built inside the tent, Willi’s eyelids drooped. Soon, he drifted off. He awoke startled after dark. Not sure what aroused him, he heard no sounds. No one moved nearby.
He rolled back to his side to resume his vigil. Light seeped through the structure’s cracks. Inside, someone must have a candle or a lantern as the compound had no electricity. The only lights came from the guard towers or through the office windows just outside the wire.
Suddenly, the light went out in the hut. The door creaked as it opened. Two figures emerged. In the illumination from the office windows, Willi recognized one as the guard, but the other he’d not seen before. The stranger shuffled beside the guard, trailing him like a dog at heel. At this distance, he couldn’t make out their conversation, but as they drew near, the words became more apparent.
Just outside the tent, the guard leaned close to the little man he escorted. “You continue to serve well. We have just three more to finish, then you will be free to go. Get some rest. I will come for you again in the morning.”
The little man clutched the guard’s sleeve. “But I have had nothing to eat all day.”
“I will bring you food in the morning. You are fortunate I let you have this wonderful tarp to sleep under.”
As the guard walked away, the second man stooped to crawl into the shelter. Spying Willi in the dark the man gasped, Willi grabbed the man’s collar, dragged him inside the tent, while covering the man’s mouth stifling any cry.
Willi placed his mouth close to the man’s ear. “If you make a sound, I will break your neck. I have some questions for you. Tell the truth without a fuss, and I will let you live. Also, I have some bread in my pocket. You are welcome to it if you cooperate.”
The man relaxed.
“You accept my offer? You will not cry out?”
The man nodded. Willi removed his hand from the man’s mouth while releasing his grasp on the man’s collar. In the faint light, the man appeared old in his 60s. Much older than most soldiers would be. Also, thinner than the other inmates. He wore a private’s uniform, but they had rolled its sleeves and pants cuff up as if tailored for a much taller man. No longer fighting or struggling to escape the old man regarded Willi with wide eyes, while his hands trembled.
Determined to give the man his most fierce look, Willi’s eyes narrowed, “Who are you?”
“I am inmate 1650089.”
“What is your name?”
“That is my name, sir. I must forget my criminal past, including my name.”
Willi frowned. “You were a criminal?”
“What was your crime?”
“I I loved other men.”
Willi drew back. “You mean?”
The man nodded. “Yes, a homosexual.
“Where were you before you came here?”
“How did you get here?”
“First, I marched with the other prisoners. When they learned of the surrender, they killed the others, gave me this uniform, and then had me walk with them as a comrade.”
Willi shook his head. “When the American’s captured you, why didn’t you tell them you were not a soldier?”
“They promise they will let me do that after I am done. If I refuse, they say they will kill me. This is my only hope to survive.”
“What is it you do for them?”
“I make identity papers.”
Willi’s jaw dropped. “You can do this?”
“Sir, before the Nazi’s took me away from my criminal life, I was an artist. In the camp, I worked as a printer. I made papers for spies, counterfeit money, almost anything paper you could want I could make.”
Willi reached into his pocket for the lump of bread he had saved for later. Even though thinking of it made his stomach ache with hunger, he handed it across to the old man.
As the man gobbled down the bread, Willi resumed his questioning. “They say when you finish, they will allow you to confess to the Americans?”
The man nodded, still chewing. Once he swallowed, he put his hand on Willi’s. “What choice do I have?”
Willi sighed. Once the old man completed his task, they would kill him. These men could not afford for anyone outside of their little group to know their secret. Among the camp’s one hundred thousand prisoners, the meager rations, inadequate shelter caused frequent deaths. The Camp Police tried to maintain order, but fights occurred regularly. Often, they ended in death. When that happened, the surviving combatant, if caught, might have his rations diminished as punishment. No one investigated deaths here. The death of one more would go unnoticed.
After finishing the bread, he took Willi’s hand. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir? Would you like me to pleasure you? I am excellent with my mouth. Or perhaps you would like to take me from behind?”
Willi drew away, “No, I am not that way.”
“Well, if you are finished, could you please leave? Johan will come soon. He loves me and will be angry if someone else is here. He promised to bring some meat tonight, and he is very jealous.”
Before slipping out from the tent, Willi scanned the surroundings for watchers. Since no one watched, he slipped into the shadows to find his own sleeping place. The last thing Willi needed tonight would be a fight with the man’s jealous lover. He needed to be more careful now. No one had challenged his entry into this shelter, because the man had other suitors. Those in the nearby shelters probably considered him just another person waiting for the man’s services.
Before heading to his sleeping area, Willi placed a chalk mark on the post. With luck, the Captain would notice it in the morning. As he slipped back into the shadows, he rushed in the dark to his own sleeping shelter. Behind him, the guard for the hut slipped through the shadows, tracking Willi to his destination. Satisfied he could find Willi later, the man walked back to the post. After picking up a handful of dirt, rubbed out the chalk mark. Finished he set out to inform the others of this threat.
Willi awoke with the dawn, his stomach growling. Still too early for the early morning ration distribution, a stroll around the camp would distract him from the pangs while he waited. Perhaps Captain Ross had already seen the chalk mark. When they took him in, they might feed him then. A walk around near the Camp Police might then speed his arrest.
He crawled out of his tarp shelter. As he walked, he brushed the dirt from his pants. He moved towards the showers. Even though today would not be his turn, drinking water from a faucet there might quiet his growling stomach. If lucky, such a brash act might get him arrested.
He hoped the old man enjoyed Willi’s crust of bread. Seemed such a harmless old soul. He rounded a collection of shelters to turn on the lane that led to the showers. Outside the door stood the man who guarded the shack he watched the day before. As Willi approached the man gave a shrill whistle, before stepping aside to allow him inside. Inside the shower building, men talked as the water inside splashed their bodies. Willi turned on a faucet on the wall. As he bent down to drink, someone grabbed his arms.
“You filthy spy!” a short man stepped before him and shouted as men on both sides pinned his arms. With a sickening crunch, his head seemed to explode as the man rammed his fist into Willi’s face. He gasped as a second punch rammed into his solar plexus. As he teetered on the brink of consciousness, a foot slammed into his groin.
Harrison enjoyed arriving early. Before the activity of the day, he could organize things for the Captain. As he sorted papers on the table by Ross’s desk, he wondered if the Roman Legion had Sergeants. Men like himself who took care of the details, so the officers could concentrate on the overall plan. Experienced soldiers who guided the novice commander in times of crisis, preventing serious blunders as the man gained experience.
He had served with Ross since they came ashore in Normandy two days after D-Day. Then the man had been just another ninety-day wonder who could not find his ass with a map. But Ross matured under Harrison’s guidance. Became a leader, Harrison followed with pride.
Harrison could retire in five years, so he volunteered to stay with Ross as he accepted this challenging command. Why not end his service with a man he could respect and even like? Most NCOs would kill for such an assignment.
As he set a stack of reports on the Captain’s desk, he glanced out the window. Someone smeared the post outside with mud. After obliterating the mark, they would do the same to their spy. He rushed to the report room, where the camp guards gathered before going on duty. Three men sat there talking as they awaited their shift.
As the three leaped to their feet at his entrance, they turned to him. “I need the camp searched immediately. Notify all the guards on duty. I want Wilhelm Kneldson detained immediately and brought to Captain Ross.”
The three bolted from the room, and Harrison followed, hoping his added eyes might expedite the search. Willi must have stumbled onto something big which might get him killed.
As he jogged down one dusty lane that separated the shelters, he spied the shower building. By this time in the morning, a long line of men usually waited outside for their turn at the facility. The area now looked deserted except for one man standing before the door. Suspicious, Harrison headed that way.
As he approached the man standing outside the door tracked his approach. When he neared, the man rapped on the shower house door. As he turned back to Harrison, he dropped into a stance resembling a hockey goalie preparing for the puck’s delivery. As Harrison increased his pace, he lowered his shoulder like a running back heading for the hole. The door shattered as Harrison drove the man through it. After landing with both knees on the man’s chest, Harrison drove his fist into the man’s face to make sure the man stayed down. As he leaped to his feet, he drew his pistol from the holster at his waist.
The three men standing over Willi’s body all turned to face him. With the gun barrel, he waved them aside. As they backed away, they raised their hands. Harrison glanced back to make sure the man he had struck remained down, then discharged the weapon once into the ceiling. All three flinched at the gunshot as they placed their hands on their heads.
“On your knees, assholes!”
Puzzled, the two on each side, glanced at the smaller man in the middle. When this man dropped as ordered, the others followed his example.
Two camp guards rushed through the door.
“Get this man to the hospital now!” Harrison pointed to Willi’s crumpled form, while, keeping the three covered with his pistol. As the two lifted Willi to carry him out, three more guards arrived.
Harrison pointed to the man he had beaten. “Pick up this sack of shit and take him to the interrogation area,” Two of the guards lifted the dazed man and dragged him between them out the door.
“You three, come with me!” Harrison again ordered, motioning towards the door with his drawn gun.
As they exited the building, five more camp guards approached. Harrison pointed to his prisoners. “I want them in the interrogation area. If they try to run, shoot `em in the kneecaps. If they bleed, tie `em off. They can see the Doc after I’m done with `em!”
Finished, he jogged to the hospital, hoping Willi could tell him what nearly cost him his life.
When he arrived at the hospital, Willi remained unconscious. A man with a stethoscope around his neck stood at his bedside. “The man has a concussion, but his vital signs are good. His nose is badly broken.” The physician shook his head. “Since we don’t have anesthesia, I’ll fix that now while he is out.”
“I need to speak with him as soon as I can, so let me know as soon as he comes to.”
After shoving through the swinging doors at the ward’s exit, he jogged back to his office building.
Ross turned from the window as Harrison burst through the office door. “Sir, Willi was attacked this morning. I just left him at the hospital.”
“What? What happened?”
“He’s unconscious, so I don’t know if he discovered something that got him attacked or they suspected him of spying.”
Harrison continued describing the morning events as they strode down the hall to the interrogation rooms. One of the four guards posted outside the door saluted. “As you instructed. On my initiative, I placed each in separate rooms.”
Grim, Harrison acknowledged the man’s salute with a nod. “Thanks, Michael.” Harrison turned to Ross. “Want to talk with `em, sir?”
Ross peered through one room’s peephole. “No, I doubt they’ll tell us much. Let’s go check on Willi. He might have come around by now. After they stew for a while, one of these goons might spill his guts.”
“True, they’ve probably done a bit of interrogation themselves. Probably figure we use the same techniques.”
Inside the hospital building, a small man wearing a Wehrmacht Private’s uniform stood beside Willi’s bed. The man clutched his forage hat in his hand, gazing down at the unconscious man.
Harrison quickened his pace, “Damn, I should have put a guard on him! Probably gonna finish the job.”
With Ross jogging at this side, Harrison grabbed the man and shoved him against the wall. As Harrison pressed against the small man’s chest, the man’s eyes behind his spectacles opened wide in fear as he muttered in German. Alerted by the noise, the physician left another patient and rushed over. He placed a hand on Harrison’s shoulder. “The man claimed to be a friend of the patient. From what I heard this man say, I thought they might be lovers. He did no harm.”
Harrison scowled down at the little man. “Who are you?”
After translating, the doctor listened before turning to Harrison. “He says he is Inmate 1650089. Said the patient had been kind to him.”
Ross stepped forward. “What’s his name?”
Once again, the doctor interrogated the small man in German. Finished, he shook his head. He says he is to forget his criminal past, including his name before they sent him to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The men who attacked the patient were guards from the camp and brought him here.”
“Tell him you will take care of his friend, and he is to come with us.” Ross turned to Harrison. ”Let’s take this guy down to interrogation. We’ll get a translator there. Maybe he can shed light on what went on here.”
“The man wants to know if you will feed him. He has not eaten, and your Sergeant took the man who promised to feed him away this morning.”
“Tell him we will make sure he is well-fed and safe. We’ll find him better quarters in a hut where the soldiers live. His imprisonment is over.”
As the doctor translated, the man’s eyes sparkled as tears formed. He took Ross’s hand and chattered in German.
“Tell him he is welcome.” Ross turned to Harrison. “I’ll bet this guy’s seen enough Hell already.”
As Harrison led the little man away, Ross turned to the doctor. “I’ll send an American MP to guard this man. Until then, no one but you are to come within arm’s reach of this man.”