On October 3, 2017, Günter Gräwe (b. 1926), a prisoner of war during World War II, returns to his former Fort Lewis prison camp, now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), in Pierce County. It is Gräwe's first time returning to the camp since his repatriation in 1947. Colonel William Percival, deputy garrison commander of JBLM, is on hand to welcome Gräwe as he rides up to the former prisoner-of-war camp on his electric bicycle. Gräwe revisits a wartime barracks, instantly recognizing the building. Glancing at the floor, now covered with tile, he recalls scrubbing the underlying wood floor clean with bleach. Following lunch in a modern army dining facility, Gräwe visits the Fort Lewis Cemetery, where he pays his respects to the three German prisoners of war buried there.
A German Youth
Günter Gräwe was born in Germany on March 14, 1926, the elder of two children. At the age of 10, Gräwe joined the group German Young People, from which he transitioned into Hitler Youth, a group that Gräwe had considered comparable to the American Boy Scouts.
Shortly after the start of World War II, Gräwe's father, a plumber, was drafted into the German Army and died only a year later, in 1940. Full of youthful idealism and the desire to fight for his fatherland, Gräwe voluntarily joined the army when he was called prior to his 18th birthday. His training began in Latvia, likely in preparation for fighting against the Russian army on the Eastern Front. However, with the invasion of France by Allied troops, reinforcements were needed to the west.
Gräwe, along with many soldiers who had trained in Latvia, was transferred to Normandy, France. But Gräwe's stay at the front in France was short-lived; soon after his transfer, while serving in a tank unit, he received a small wound to his foot that sent him to a field hospital.
While Gräwe was recovering, soldiers of the U.S. Army overtook the field hospital, taking the occupants prisoner. Gräwe's prisoner-of-war experience began then. Injured prisoners were taken by ambulance and ship to Southampton, England, and then by troopship (the RMS Queen Mary) to the United States. While aboard the Queen Mary, prisoners received meals and lodging of considerably better quality than they had experienced on the front lines.
The prisoners arrived on the East Coast in August 1944 and then traveled by train to Fort Lewis, where army barracks previously occupied by U.S. soldiers were repurposed as quarters for more than 3,000 prisoners. After a short time at the Fort Lewis prisoner-of-war camp, Gräwe and several hundred others were sent on trucks to harvest crops of apples, potatoes, and sugar beets in Eastern Washington, addressing the labor deficit that resulted from many local workers serving in the U.S. war effort. Most German prisoners were paid 80 cents per day for their work and could spend their earnings as they chose at the commissary; however, prisoners who had been identified as Nazi Party members were paid only 10 cents per day and were segregated from other German prisoners.
Many German soldiers, including Gräwe, learned of the Nazi atrocities for the first time while in the prisoner-of-war camps. Some prisoners thought the allegations were American propaganda and did not believe what had happened until they received confirmation from their families in Germany.
An evaluation by International Red Cross inspectors determined that the treatment received by Fort Lewis prisoners of war was strict but fair. Gräwe, along with others, felt that the treatment was not just fair, but good, with some prisoners even labeling their camp the "golden cage." The food and living conditions were generally better than the German Army had provided, and few prisoners attempted escape.
Home at Last
Gräwe was repatriated in 1947, two years after the war's end. After returning to Germany, Gräwe found an apprenticeship, having been unable to complete one before joining the army. In 1950, Gräwe married his wife, Chrestel, who died in 2016. By 1970, Gräwe had established his own importing company, Günter Gräwe GmbH, putting to use languages -- English, French, and Spanish -- he had learned during his imprisonment. Gräwe and his wife had two sons, Ulrich and Mathias, who took over the company's operations as Gräwe aged.
On July 17, 2016, just weeks after his wife's death, Gräwe went to his computer and used Google to search for information about the former prisoner-of-war camp at Fort Lewis. His search found HistoryLink (this website), which had an article on the Fort Lewis prisoner-of-war camps. Gräwe wrote to HistoryLink, relating his story and desire to come to America to revisit the places he had been held as a prisoner of war. He said:
"There are events or moments in your life you won't forget, even when you are in advanced years and your memory is not one of the best any more. It was in August or September 1944 when I stood in front of a shop in the POW Camp Fort Lewis considering what to buy first: An Ice Cream or a bottle of Coca Cola? The last Ice Cream I had been able to buy in Germany was years ago. But Coca Cola? Never before. So I decided to take both. I suddenly realized how extremely lucky I had been to be captured by the American Army and not by the Russian one" (Gräwe to HistoryLink).
Gräwe had decided he would travel to America to express his love and thanks; however, his actual trip would not take place until the next year, 2017.
A Visitor in Seattle
After Gräwe arrived in Seattle and contacted HistoryLink on September 29, 2017, HistoryLink Executive Director Marie McCaffrey (b. 1951) took over arrangements to get Gräwe to the former prisoner-of-war camp site at JBLM.
The 91-year-old Gräwe came to Seattle with an electric bike he had brought by train from California. Signs on each side of the bike's rear wheel thanked America and its people. They read in part:
"USA, the country and its people, you are my first and final love!
It was in August 1944 when I came here for the first time as a Prisoner of War.
We always were treated with fairness, got sufficient food and 80 cents a day that gave us the chance to buy cigarettes, chocolate, ice cream and Coca-Cola, things my mother and sister in Germany could only dream of.
That's why I have come here 73 years later to say: 'Thank you, America, I will never forget it and I'm looking forward with gratitude staying with your people for a while in a beautiful country'" (McCaffrey).
Fort Lewis, Finally
On October 3, 2017, Gräwe visited the site of his former prisoner-of-war camp at JBLM. He fondly recalled his time as a prisoner, describing the day of his capture as "his luckiest day" (Bernton). Gräwe had traveled to the United States from Germany to thank America for its humane treatment, saying that he was well-treated and never once insulted or abused by American guards.
Gräwe started his JBLM visit at the historic Liberty Gate, constructed during World War I at the entrance to what was then Camp Lewis. There he mounted his bike, proudly displaying its signs of affection. For the one-mile bike ride Gräwe was accompanied by Joe Kubistek of the JBLM public-affairs office. Together with a military police escort, they rode to the site of Fort Lewis's prisoner-of-war camp. Arriving at the site Gräwe was welcomed by Colonel William Percival, commander of the 627th Air Base and deputy garrison commander of JBLM.
Gräwe, looking around the former camp site, noted that the guard towers and barbed-wire fences were gone, but a few of the World War II wood barracks survived. At the time of Gräwe's visit, 14 of the 160 buildings of the prisoner camp were still standing, rehabilitated as office spaces. Gräwe commented on the large fir trees in the area, remembering a barren camp site 73 years earlier.
While touring one of the vacant former prisoner barracks, Colonel Percival presented Gräwe with a special commemorative medallion featuring Mount Rainier as the background to a soldier and plane. After seeing Gräwe's enthusiasm for the place he had been held captive, Percival said to Gräwe that "You remind us that ... how you treat somebody defines who we are. There are times, even today, when we may want to forget that. And you let us know that's a lesson not to be forgotten" (Bernton).
Memorials and Moving On
Following his tour of the former camp and lunch in a modern army dining facility, Gräwe visited the Fort Lewis Cemetery, where he paid his respects at the graves of three German soldiers who never left the camp. Visiting the graves moved Gräwe, who expressed a desire to have wreaths placed there on his behalf.
In addition to his JBLM visit, Gräwe planned to bicycle from California to Arizona to thank the people of Arizona, where he had been held after Fort Lewis. While imprisoned in Arizona, Gräwe had picked cotton and worked as a clerk at an army dispensary.