In this People's History, HistoryLink Executive Director Marie McCaffrey recalls her role in the October 3, 2017, return visit by Günter Gräwe, a German prisoner of war during World War II, to the former POW camp at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) in Pierce County, where he was held 73 years earlier.
A Letter to HistoryLink
In July of 2016 a letter was delivered to HistoryLink bearing a German postmark. It was from Günter Gräwe to HistoryLink. It started out this way:
"Dear Sir or Madam,
Today is a brilliant day in Germany. I went into my study and asked Google to find out if there is a connection to the former POW Camp Fort Lewis/Washington. They gave me your address. I was happy!"
The letter continued with Günter's story about how, as a teenager, he was drafted to fight in World War II, and at the age of 18 was captured in a field hospital in Normandy, France, and transported via the Queen Mary to the U.S., and eventually taken to Fort Lewis, where he was kept as a prisoner of war from 1944 to 1947.
He was 90 years old when he wrote the letter, and he had a dream to visit the Fort Lewis POW camp and share his gratitude with the American people, and Fort Lewis, for the kind treatment he received as a POW. The recent death of his wife triggered his resolve to make this dream a reality.
In addition to visiting Fort Lewis, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), Günter planned to ride his bike from Washington to Arizona on a further quest to find the Army Dispensary where he spent his final months before his release.
It is not that unusual for HistoryLink be mistaken for various other organizations, such as the Seattle Banjo Club, the manufacturer of Mapleine flavoring, or even the former POW camp at Fort Lewis. This is because we have essays on these subjects, and they are often among one of the first results people see when googling a subject. Google had sent him to us.
However, Google was right to send him to us, since it turned out that we knew someone who could help. Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D., who contributes articles to HistoryLink, is a historian at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and I was able to connect him with Günter.
Then, I heard nothing.
An Unexpected Visitor
On the last Friday of September 2017, more than a year later, the phone rang in the office. Alex Cail (an editor at HistoryLink) answered it and, much to my surprise, it was Günter. He had arrived in Seattle and was ready to go visit the POW camp. He appeared in our office a couple of hours later with his bike, which was festooned with two placards reading:
"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.
I was 18 and had been captured by your army in a field hospital in Normandy/ France.
I and a few thousand other prisoners were taken by the ship 'Queen Mary' to the east coast of US and then by railway to Fort Lewis/ State of Washington.
We were sent to various states to harvest apples, potatoes, sugar beets and finally cotton in Arizona.
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.'
58540 Meinerzhagen-Valbert/ Germany"
Alex, who is a master at finding out things, managed to track down Duane, who miraculously set up all the clearances for Günter the following Tuesday. This is no easy task at an active military base, especially for a German national and on such short notice.
Günter was still planning to ride his bike to JBLM, so Alex and I volunteered to drive him there.
Return to the POW Camp
At 8:45 a.m. on October 3, Alex, Günter, and I set off for the base in a truck borrowed from Alex's father, with Günter's bike securely tied down in the back. It was one of those spectacular fall days in the Northwest when the sun is shining and the air is turning crisp.
An entourage of press and military personnel joined us at the gate where we signed in and got our credentials. The group included Duane Denfeld, HistoryLink contributor and JBLM historian; Gary Dangerfield, chief of external communications for JBLM; Donna Dahlstrom, cemetery responsible official for JBLM; Joe Kubistek, media relations at JBLM, astride his own bike; and several reporters. We were all elated as Günter, accompanied by Joe, rode through the gates of Lewis-McChord to visit the place where he had lived as a POW while World War II raged on.
As we pulled up to the former POW barracks, Günter was greeted by Colonel William Percival with an energetic handshake. Then we all gathered outside the perfectly preserved POW camp buildings as Günter regaled us with his story. His relief that it was Americans -- and not Russians -- that captured him, the unexpected and strangely luxurious trip across the ocean on the Queen Mary, the long train ride across the United States, the good food and good treatment he was given at Fort Lewis. How he picked apples in Eastern Washington and learned English, French, and Spanish in the camp, learning that would later became important to his career as an importer in Germany.
After a very filling lunch in the mess hall, surrounded by soldiers whose parents were probably not yet alive in WW II, we proceeded to the military cemetery. Donna had waited patiently throughout the day, and now it was her chance to show Günter around. She took him to see the three graves of German POWs that had died at the camp, men who she thought he might have known. She talked about the care the cemetery takes with the POW graves, and how some members of the German families had recently visited.
It was a beautiful and poignant moment, and the perfect end to the day.
Message of Thanks
Now, what to do with Günter.
He had told us that his plan was to ride his bike to an Amtrak station and catch a train down to California. We asked around to see if there was a train leaving from anywhere near JBLM and the answer was a definite no.
It was becoming clear that Günter had not fully planned what would happen next. We asked if we should take him back to his hotel, but he had already checked out, so we loaded his bike into the back of the truck and drove him to King Street Station where we tried to buy a ticket for California.
It turned out that there was no train from Seattle to California until 9:30 the next morning. We were not about to leave a 91-year-old German with a bike in a train station overnight. Alex contacted her parents, who generously offered to put Günter up for the night.
And so, the next morning, Alex took Günter to King Street Station, and got him and his bike safely on a train.
Günter charmed us all with his mixture of good humor, geniality, and trust in the kindness of strangers, but it was his message of thanks that got us all on board to make his dream come true.
Many countries are now ashamed of their treatment of POWs in WW II. It is important to remember that how a country treats its enemies in war defines the values of that country.
The fact that a 91-year-old man traveled to the United States from Germany, 73 years later, to thank Fort Lewis for his treatment as a prisoner of war says it all.