IN THE SERVICE OF THE US ARMY
It was nearly dark before I reached the junction of the local highway and the North-South autobahn. I stopped by the roadside and ate the few sandwiches the housekeeper had given me. It was the end of May and good weather but still a little too cold for sleeping under the open sky so, for lack of a better idea, I resumed my trek in a southerly direction towards Frankfurt (am Main) in the American Zone, the town to which our boys from Berlin were flown after the hunger strike. I hoped to get a job there with one of the Labor Companies attached to the US Army in Europe. Penniless as I was, I would have to somehow travel five hundred kilometers to get there.
There was a steady flow of high speed traffic on the autobahn but I did not attempt to hitch a ride; in those days, hitchhiking was not an accepted mode of travel and no driver would offer a lift on an autobahn, especially at night. It was a very lonely march and rarely have I felt so alone in the world than when walking under that starry sky.
The sun was way up when I stopped at a roadside service station. There was a rest room for travelers where I washed and shaved, and a meadow behind the station where I caught a few hours of sleep in the grass under the warm sun. Refreshed but hungry I returned to the service station area hoping to hitch a ride with one of the truck drivers stopping for fuel. There were already a few others with similar ideas waiting for a lift: one or two men shabbily clothed like myself, and a young couple seated by themselves in the grass nearby. To pass the time and perhaps in need of human contact I joined the couple and started a conversation. They were newly wed, traveling to find some family in the South of the country, and just as penniless and hungry as I. I had my little bundle of clothes from the American charity, so I told the young man to take it to the nearby town and trade it for something to eat. He left his wife at the station and departed almost at a run. He returned after more than an hour with some fresh rolls and sausages. We had a real feast. One could see that it was a while since they had eaten.
Well after midday I managed to hitch a ride in the rear of an empty truck and it was already dark when my benefactors took a turn to wherever they were going, leaving me at an exit from the autobahn. Grateful for the ride I resumed my hike. Luckily my strong Polish-made shoes lasted well.
Night was well advanced when I reached the exit for Cologne (Koeln) home of one of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture, the Cologne Cathedral. Even though I was not a keen tourist it occurred to me that it might be my only chance in life to see it, if only externally and by dark, but then such opportunities did not occur every day, or night for that matter. So I decided to take the exit and walk a few extra kilometers to Cologne. The church clocks were striking midnight when I reached the cathedral. It was well worth it; the view of that wonder of architecture seen in the silvery moonlight was breathtaking, the play of light and shadows over slender spires, unearthly. Somewhat humbled I stood there alone in the sleeping city entranced by the view.
Not far from the cathedral shone a huge neon sign advertising the renowned "4711" cologne originating in this town. On my way back to the autobahn I recalled my high school years when our German teacher told us the legend connected to the origins of that "Koelnishe Wasser".
It was early dawn and I was dragging my feet on the shoulder of the autobahn when an old shabby looking truck passed and came to a stop with a squeal of brakes. Somewhat surprised, for I had not tried to solicit a ride, I ran towards it and the driver opened the door and with a gesture invited me in. He was an older man, perhaps a craftsman or a small entrepreneur obviously on his way to work. We drove for a while in silence. Then the man reached for a bag on the seat beside him, pulled out some sandwiches wrapped in paper, divided the bundle in two parts and pushing one half toward me said: "essen Sie bitte" *. That gesture was so natural and friendly and so unexpected that even today I remember it with deep humility; to mind come the words: "Worry not what shall you eat..." Again I refreshed myself and got some sleep at the service station and about noon two young men on their way to Munich stopped for fuel and let me hitch a ride on the back of their pick-up truck.
It was close to sunset when the pick-up came to a stop by the Frankfurt am Main exit and I was almost there. For the last few kilometers to town I had to force my tired feet into a marching rhythm or I would never have made it . It was the end of my third day on the road. Before dark I managed to locate the barracks of the Labor Company stationed in Frankfurt and was admitted. Zuzuggenehmigung was not required.
Our uniforms were similar to the American ones except that ours were black. We were also armed with similar semi-automatic rifles. My company was comfortably housed in a former school building. The overall command was American but for the everyday operations there were Polish officers in charge; a captain and two lieutenants, all veterans of the 1939 campaign and former inmates of officers' POW camp. Over five years spent in a camp had left scars on all three of them. The captain had sustained less damage probably by filling the years of inaction with learning English and working out tactics for massed artillery operations. English proved to be useful now; the artillery tactics were outdated but working on them might have saved him from serious psychological damage. The older of the lieutenants normalized his life to some degree by marrying a local woman. The third one was a very unpleasant type. He seemed to be trying to extinguish the inner fires burning him by bullying his charges in boot camp tradition.
The ranks consisted of Poles (no other nationalities were accepted) who were brought to Germany as slave laborers and either were still waiting to be processed for emigration or were not eligible for it, often for very minor, reasons. Many married local women and started families. The labor companies more aptly called guard companies, provided good employment at better than average wages. However life there was an intellectual desert. If it had not been for a young Polish dentist, residing there (for housing and payroll purpose only) I would have had no one with whom I could talk. A POW after the Warsaw Uprising, he had managed to graduate from a German university and worked as a dentist in the American Army hospital. Whenever possible I spent time in his company. On one occasion, at a single sitting he and his friend extracted from my mouth twenty two broken and irreparably damaged teeth resulting from years of neglect. It certainly saved my health if not my life. Social life in the company consisted of playing poker and discussing what one could buy in the PX store for the scrip dollars which formed part of our salary. One of the veterans of this kind of life who had served in a number of companies including a stint in France would tell me ad nauseam about his exploits in the various flesh joints of Paris but when I asked if he had been to Notre Dame cathedral or to the Louvre museum I drew a blank. This young fellow, who had the privileged position of being a driver of the American company commander, was so "motorized" that he even used his jeep to cross the space between our two buildings - a distance of roughly twenty meters.
The service itself was not strenuous: two four-hour sentry duties every twenty four hours. Our job was to protect military installations, munitions dumps etc. The boredom of long hours of walking the assigned perimeter back and forth was hard to take. But the Americans did not pay us for doing nothing. As a matter of fact they must have been saving millions having Poles do those auxiliary duties instead of using their own, much more expensive, soldiers. At least we were not receiving charity and, for what it was worth, we were trusted and very much needed. The Korean war just started, the American Forces were on an increased alert and communist sabotage was expected. It was the first time since leaving my country that I had an address, an Army Post Office (APO) number. This prompted me to mail a letter home supplemented with a pair of nylon stockings that I could buy in the PX, an article much sought behind the Iron Curtain. I mailed it to Grazyna who in years to come would be my only contact with home. For the return address I borrowed the name of one of my colleagues to avoid having the letter confiscated by censors in Poland.
In the middle of summer there was an announcement of the formation of a unit that would be serving in France and volunteers with no family attachments in Germany were sought. Since I filled the bill and still did not have emigration rights I promptly enlisted. At least France was a normal country, not an occupied one like Germany with its stench of defeat and struggle just to survive. The sight of defeated people is depressing even if they were yesterday's enemies. Anyway, the move to France would possibly open some new perspectives for me and as a Pole I felt some emotional attachment to that country so often in the past connected to my own.
Our first stopover was near the south-western German town of Kaiserslautern. There, behind a high barbed wire fence was a huge self-contained American munitions depot. In the beautiful pine forest, barely covered by camouflage canvasses, were neatly stacked piles of bombs, artillery shells, and other deadly materials. There were also rows of heavy trucks loaded with supplies and canisters of fuel, all ready to move at a moments notice. All this was guarded by a few companies of Poles armed with automatic weapons and accompanied on duty by attack dogs on a leash. American personnel consisted almost exclusively of technicians and army stores staff. To leave the depot one needed a valid reason and a special pass. However, the camp was equipped with everything necessary for a relatively comfortable life in field conditions, including free movies shown around the clock and hot shavers. There was as well a chapel and a catholic priest, a Pole also wearing a black uniform. All personnel were housed in insulated tents.
A week later after augmenting our ranks and taking necessary supplies, our company moved on. Our destination was not France as expected but the French Zone of Germany. We set up camp among rolling hills and due to the relatively high elevation, despite summer, the nights were cold, especially the first one when we bivouacked in personal tents. Each of us had carried half a tent in a knapsack. It was late by the time the tents were erected and we had a field ration supper.
The next day we set the large tents and field beds, the kitchen started functioning, washing and toilet facilities became available as well as electricity from a portable generator. In the next few days a detachment of Army Engineers arrived and first surrounded the large forested area with barbed wire, then built bunkhouses and other necessary buildings to house our company and a small detachment of Americans who were in charge of the new depot. In a matter of days it was filled with stacks of bombs and artillery shells. And the long hours of boring sentry duty resumed, the only difference being that there was no need to truck us all over the large city as everything was within walking distance.
It was looking less and less probable that our company would move to France, and I was saved from near desperation by the problems caused by our personnel on leave in the nearby town. It was a small town of about ten thousand inhabitants. On its outskirts was stationed a French garrison consisting of mostly Moroccan soldiers with French officers. The discipline in the French garrison was much tighter than among our boys who had incomparably more money to spend than poorly paid Moroccan draftees, probably more than some French officers. The local German population was familiar with the garrison and the soldiers, mostly Moslems, neither drank nor smoked even if they could have afforded it. Arrival of our black - uniformed troops caused near panic in that quiet community - possibly because of some sad memory of crack SS troops who also had worn black uniforms. To make matters worse our boys on a town pass were getting drunk and wreaking havoc, well aware that the local police detachment had no right to intervene. This could have been done by the French military police, however the French garrison commander had made clear to our American and Polish commanders during their formal call on him that he forbade his gendarmes to interfere with our personnel. Instead he requested that we provide our own patrol of Military Police to supervise our troops. We were also given a list of the town's restaurants and bars that were cleared for allied use. As a further gesture of good will we were invited to use some facilities of the French garrison such as free movies and, an institution specific to their armed forces, a brothel. One afternoon per week was reserved for the boys from our company.
I was put in charge of the new M.P. detachment. This did not happen right away. At first one of our NCO's ** was given the job but, after he himself became as drunk as his buddies, he was fired. The sergeant, who was a veteran of the French Foreign Legion and acting commander of the company (he himself did not drink because of frequent bouts of malaria acquired in Indochina) appointed me to command the patrol. I had under my command the three strongest men in the outfit selected by the sergeant himself. Our regular uniforms were supplemented by white helmets with the letters M.P in front, white gloves (for formal use only) and white spats at the ankles. As well, each of us was equipped in the finest American tradition with long hickory bats to be used in case all other means of persuasion failed. I was ordered to wear a colt 45 automatic after an incident when with the help of my men, I had saved one of our officers from a possible lynching by his enraged charges. We were already on the parking lot, about to leave for the nearby town to begin patrol duty, when an unusual noise attracted our attention. Luckily for the officer and his attackers we were in time. The whole incident ended with some work for our medic who had to attend to the cuts and bruises caused by our hickory truncheons. After that incident I and my men moved to headquarters bunkhouse.
My new assignment was not very intellectually absorbing but definitely much less monotonous than sentry duty. My work day started at 17.00 hrs. when an Army truck would drive all those with passes and money to spend to town. My patrol kept cruising about town till midnight, checking all drinking holes and other places like the garrison movie house and the brothel on the appointed days, stopping any trouble if possible before it started. The troublemakers and drunks were unceremoniously thrown on our Dodge half-truck and brought back to camp to sober up. The rest were collected before midnight by the regular troop carrier truck.
From time to time I corresponded with Janek whose address I had obtained from his cousin. Janek served in a company attached to an American medical battalion and was very satisfied with his assignment. He kept urging me to join him and, once I was sure that our company would not ever leave for France, I asked for and was given an honorable discharge and left for Boeblingen near Stuttgart where Janek's company was stationed. I arrived at Stuttgart late in the evening and it did not make much sense to try to locate Boeblingen, a distant suburb. I would not be admitted inside an American garrison at night anyway and the prospect of spending the early autumn night in the open did not appeal to me. I knew that there was a large DP camp at Stuttgart and decided to ask if they could put me up for the night. There was no problem finding the camp, but the Labor Company guards at the gate informed me outright that there was not a single bed available. One of the guards jokingly said that the only place still not filled was the guardhouse jail. "Would you let me sleep in your jail then?" I asked the man in charge. He hesitated at first but seeing that I was serious led me to a small and tidy cell and left the door open. Next morning I reached Boeblingen without any trouble.
It was a huge military complex, once occupied by a German army panzer division. Surrounded by an iron fence, it now housed several American battalions one of which, the 51st Armored Medical Battalion, US Constabulary, was where Janek's unit served. At the gate were several American guards but one of them spoke Polish. He enlightened me that in the unit only the official uniform of Labor Company members was black; the everyday fatigues were regular US Army issue. I soon found out that, thanks mostly to the friendly attitude of the battalion commander Col. Taylor, not only did we share the same uniforms and barracks but we were also entitled to wear the battalion badge with its motto: “Always With You". Originally Poles had shared dormitories with GI's but this was changed at the request of both parties who each had their separate reasons. The better paid Americans were prone to get themselves talked into a bedtime poker game and were usually cleaned out of their money by more experienced Poles. On the other hand Poles cultivated the luxury of the beautiful oak parquet floors in the dormitories - for most of them those were the first parquet floors they had ever seen - and every morning after making their beds in the best military fashion they would pass the electric polisher from one to another and give their floors a mirror shine. The Americans did not appreciate that.
A platoon of Poles was attached to each medical company of our battalion to serve as drivers of ambulances and other service vehicles. The duty company which changed each week took care of guard duty, deliveries, mail conveyance, the laundry, maintenance of order and such. The personnel of the remaining two companies, after the morning reveille and breakfast, would go out to the parking lot where they would play cards all day inside the ambulances, taking a break for lunch and resuming play until supper, after which everyone was off duty. Each floor of our building was occupied by a different company. Since we were an integral part of the battalion we were also under direct American command. The Polish officers were there only to fill the organizational structure of Labor Companies; without any defined function and, comfortably housed, they tried to stay out of sight. One of them, a young reserve officer and a chemical engineer in civilian life, was an English language teacher. The real if not official authority was in the hands of career sergeants who ran all the administration, supply and training in the army. Two of those in our battalion were of Polish origin and could still speak the language. Sgt. Mierzejewski, a name even he could not pronounce and known in the battalion as Murphy, was in charge of equipment stores and my friend Janek was his assistant and right hand. Stores have an unpleasant tendency to suffer unaccountable shortage; it seems to be almost a law of nature, like gravity, Not so in the American Army though; they always appeared to have some unaccountable surplus. So whenever an inspection was expected, and battalion was always notified about it ahead of time, one of the ambulances would be loaded with the surplus material to cruise the streets of Stuttgart for hours until the inspectors left.
Every time inspection was expected each company vied to display the best shine but nobody could beat the commander of our 3rd Company who always, a few days before inspection, ordered the terra cotta tiled floors in the shower rooms to be painted bright red. Since there were sufficient supplies of paint in store the soldiers doing the job simplified the task by just pouring it on the tiled floor in a thick uniform layer. This always took a few days to dry during which our company had to use the shower-room facilities of companies 1 and 2 while they tried to keep their bathrooms extra clean. The inspectors liked the red floors at least as much as our captain, and the paint would slowly wear out exposing unsightly areas. In our dormitories everyone had a metal wardrobe where his full set of clothes and other equipment was always ready for inspection and never used. The clothes to be used were stored in a duffel bag which was never subject to inspection.
For the first few weeks I loafed around like the others until a situation developed where they needed someone to run the canteen. The man who had been in charge of the canteen had had difficulty keeping the books and was to be replaced. Thanks to Janek's friendship with his sergeant and also because no one else had any experience in bookkeeping and other related skills, I got the job. This canteen was, like our whole outfit, a curious example of how even strict military regulations could be bent. Just as there might not be any foreigners in the American Army but Labor Companies were used to perform military duty, in a similar manner the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages were forbidden within the limits of the US Army garrison but those restrictions did not apply to the Labor Company which was officially a non-military organization. Therefore there existed within our Labor Company a canteen run by our personnel which Americans were permitted to attend in off duty hours. The job carried certain privileges: my two assistants and I did not have to get up in the morning with the others since our work lasted until midnight which was "lights out " time for everyone else. We were also freed from any other duties. The canteen was organized as a cooperative in which every member of the Labor Company had a share. After the existing organizational mess was straightened everything functioned smoothly. My two helpers took care of sales while I looked after bookkeeping, finances and ordering of supplies. The main attraction on our menu was the local beer which the GI's drank in fantastic quantities. There were two reasons for the success of our canteen apart from beer. The first was that it was right in the midst of the garrison so there was no need for a pass to town and, besides, if a soldier got too drunk either his buddies or the garrison patrol would deliver him to his dormitory without robbing him of his wallet, which was often the case in town. The other good reason was that most soldiers hardly had a penny a few days after payday: either they had blown it all on the local girl-friends who were always waiting on paydays at the garrison gates, or they had been cleaned out at a card game. However in our canteen they could buy their beer on credit and the collection of debts was aided by one of the sergeants who was unofficially appointed by the command to oversee canteen activities. In general the Americans cared more about the canteen than our men did and whenever anything at all was needed like a jeep to go to town, a truck for supplies or a crew for clean-up I only had to ask one of the sergeants to have it done. Of course those favors had their price; the sergeant responsible for the canteen had the key to the beer store and if he wanted to have a few beers with his sergeant friends at any time he did not have to account for that to anyone as long as it was not in public view. The sale of beer was not permitted before 17.00 hrs. and no one was permitted to drink it outside the canteen. Financially it was quite a profitable establishment since men from all the units of the garrison spent many of their evenings there. Every evening about midnight I would carry the proceeds to the battalion headquarters where the sergeant on duty would keep it safe overnight.
Apart from the work in the canteen which absorbed most of my evenings very little was happening in my life. >From time to time I would get a letter from home with a few carefully constructed sentences which one had to read repeatedly in order to discern the true meaning behind outwardly meaningless words. I did not play cards - it was not a matter of principle; I never could find any attraction in the game - there was nothing to read and I could not afford to go to downtown Stuttgart even if I was so inclined. Once in a while when our free time coincided I would visit Kamil, the Polish lieutenant who taught English in the company, and we would spend a few hours talking or listening to some classical music; he had a fine collection of good records and a state of the art record player on loan from the garrison cultural supplies. Kamil also could prepare a good "krupnik" which was an alcoholic drink cooked with honey and spices, very aromatic and smooth when drunk hot from tea cups. Once a few of us including Janek invited Sgt. Toporowski, an American of Polish origin to Kamil's room for an evening with friends. We introduced him to the drink of his ancestors and he enlightened us about America. It was a very pleasant soiree but we had to help Toporowski to his quarters and it was not an easy task for he was well over six feet and after many cups of krupnik, his legs refused to support him.
Some time in the middle of December, roughly a year since Janek and I had left Poland, there was news that the date qualifying a refugee for emigration at the expense and under the auspices of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) had been extended five years to include those who were on German territory by the end of 1950. The United Nations had started facing the realities of the Iron Curtain. This change would include Janek and I. At the same time there were rumors that the size of the Polish contingent in our battalion would be greatly reduced before Christmas. We had to decide what to do with our cooperative canteen. I organized a general meeting of the shareholders where it was agreed that the establishment would be dissolved and the capital divided among the shareholders. Since the cooperative existed under the authority of the battalion commander there were no legal formalities involved and the remaining men could start it again if they so wished.
A few days before Christmas 1950, discharged
because of the reduction in ranks and equipped with military tickets, Janek
and I moved to Ludwigsburg, an old German University town and the location
of the IRO's emigration central processing unit for the American Zone of