Armstrong, Julia: 1950 – 1952

Upon graduating from high school in 1938, I neither had the money nor the dedication to go to college. But after three years of being at home and just helping on the farm or doing odd volunteer work, such as leading a children’s choir, leading a 4H club, or working as a temporary helper in a nurse’s office, I decided that I was cut out to be an elementary teacher and applied at a teacher’s college for admittance.

At that time, after completing a two-year curriculum, one was able to get a teacher’s certificate. But after teaching three years in a one room school and three years in a small village school, I deemed it expedient to go back and get my degree-which I did at the University of Illinois. I had never heard of the Dependent Schools of Germany until I went to the placement bureau at that school. Since I now had my degree and also had experience in all the elementary grades and rural schools, I was deemed a qualified applicant for overseas teaching. In Chicago, at the Fifth Army Headquarters, I was interviewed by Mr. Miller (who was the civilian in charge of the EUCOM Schools at that time) and eventually was notified that I had been accepted.

So–in August 1950 at the age of thirty and having never been more than two states away from home, I left for New York and Fort Hamilton where we were given an orientation for the ship, Goethals” and Germany. Upon arriving at New York’s Pennsylvania Station and calling the Fort for directions, I was told to take the subway from the station, make a change somewhere along the line and go to Fort Hamilton. I couldn’t seem to find the station entrance and the New Yorkers I tried to ask for directions completely ignored me having no tolerance for a green gal from the Mid-West. However, I finally found the subway entrance and ultimately Fort Hamilton.

Because of my experience in a one-room rural school, I was given the rating of G8 (teaching principal) and allotted a bunk with three others on “C” Deck of the “Goethals”. The trip was enjoyable. I made many friends and my fear of seasickness was quickly quieted. We landed at Bremerhaven after a ten-day trip and the train ride down to Frankfurt A/Main was glorious. The gardens coming into view as we neared a town, the red tile roofs, the mattresses hanging out of windows to air, the architecture of the buildings, the flower boxes under windows-all together was so enticing to me that I probably had a flat nose from keeping it glued to the window.

From Frankfurt we were bussed to Bad Homburg for more orientation. Coming from the Mid-West and a farming background. I was awed by the German efforts to use every bit of land to its utmost as was illustrated by the lawn cuttings being raked into piles and used for feed.

At Bad Homburg we were assigned to our posts and given orders for travel to our destination. I was assigned to Coburg which is in upper Bavaria and was told that I must change trains at Bamberg. Traveling with two heavy suitcases (all I would have to sustain me for the better part of two months), I boarded the train for Bamberg along with a few others that I recognized as having been with me on the ship. At Bamberg, I had no idea where to find the Coburg train, and, speaking practically no German, I sought the help of a GI. But he was so interested in a fraulein he wouldn’t help a stray American. Finally, I realized that the conductor was saying “Track four”, (in German) so I lugged my suitcases downstairs and up to track four to a third class train. I boosted my cases up on the train and heaved a big sigh as I looked up at the luggage racks over my head. A German man carne and helped me put them up and I did know enough to say, “Danke Schoen”. Since I had heard that Coburg was near the border with East Germany (the reason for troops in that area was for border patrol), I glued my face to the window again to be sure I would not be taken beyond. When we reached Coburg, I looked up at my bags, wondering how I would get them down. Then I heard the young man say in perfect English, “May I help you with your bags?” The Excelsior Hotel, which was the BOQ for the Post, was across the street from the “Bahnhof.” I was at my home away from home.

My actual quarters were on the third floor of the hotel annex. Also billeted there was an American from HICOG, and three Special Service girls, and my school was on the ground level. My German Assistant, Brigette Kellner, was a jewel and so much help. As I remember we had about 12 students in grades I through 6, three rooms which we divided into primary, intermediate, and library. I herded the kids to the BOQ dining room in the hotel for lunch, using the opportunity to teach a few table manners, etc. Miss Kellner took the children outdoors for the rest of the noon hour while I took a breather.

Our time in Coburg was not to last. By the first of November, we began to hear rumors of movement. By the last of November the troops and all of the dependents were gone, leaving me with two students, children of State Department employees. This lasted through December and as I took my Christmas leave, I knew that I would be moved-but WHERE? The new year brought many changes. My school equipment was packed up and shipped to LaRochelle, France. I spent a week at Karlsruhe (the Dependent School Headquarters) and then was sent on to Paris to meet with the schools’ officer there. (She took me out and gave me my first experience of eating ESCARGOT-snails to midwesterners.) When I went to the station to book my train ride to LaRochelle, I asked for a sleeping accommodation since we were leaving at midnight and would not arrive till 6 A.M. They told me that they did not have a sleeper but did have a cochette and explained that a cochette was like reclining chairs. Picturing USA train seats that would lay back, I booked one. Upon arriving at the station that night and looking for my car and seat, I found two GIs and they told me that I was in the compartment with them, and also a Frenchman who was in pajamas laying down. It seems that a cochette is a compartment with upper and lower facing benches so one could stretch out the GI’s spent most of our travel time telling me that LaRochelle was an awful place and that I wouldn’t like it … until the Frenchman complained and asked us to shut up.

Living in LaRochelle, France, was completely different from living in Germany where our army was well established. Everything was in the French economy and, by and large, the French took advantage of every way they could get anything out of the Americans. The Headquarters was in an old complex that had been a mental institution. They had set up the school on the second floor of a separate building in the middle of the area. Supplies that we had had in Coburg were brought in. Shelves were built and walls were whitewashed and if you leaned up against them white would come off on your clothes. Some of the children came from families living right in the city, while others were brought in by GI driven jeeps. Our noon meal was brought in from the GI Mess and we had drinking water from lister bags. YUK! !

Soon it was decided that the school would have to be remodeled, so we were moved into a room of the main building and a French national was found to assist me in clerical work. I had set up her desk close to the door of the room and because she was a pretty girl we discovered a lot of GI’s often found a reason to walk by our door. By this time I was alert to the posturing of many soldiers who were far from home and hungry for a little recognition from any willing female. Then one day, Giselle, my secretary, came to me and asked, “Do you know about pick-ups?” I gritted my teeth and said to myself, “What have these boys done now?” You can imagine my surprise when she said, “My uncle has just bought a pick-up baler from the States and all of the instructions are in English. I wondered if you would be able to translate any of them.” Although I had enrolled in a French class, I didn’t feel able to do any technical translations and referred her to a Colonel in the Engineer Corp. she had been dating.

La Rochelle, on the Bay of Biscay, was supposed to be in Southern France. At least, my friends in Germany were envying me for getting out of the German winter. But I don’t think I was ever so cold as I was early in the year of 1951. The French turned off any heat as of March first, and, although it never got below freezing, it was murder to crawl between sheets that never seemed to dry out. I longed for the double blankets I had used at home in the dead of winter. When I first arrived at La Rochelle, I was billeted in a hotel close to headquarters. My room had a lavatory, but one had to go down the hall for toilet and bath facilities which were shared by all those on that floor. I soon moved to another hotel where I could have a private bath. But when two Special Service girls arrived, we found a third floor apartment near the Bay. The cost, as I remember, was 30,000 Francs (about $100.00) a month. We were able to hire a maid to come in daily to do our cleaning, laundry, and ironing and get our evening meal for about $30.00 a month.

I have mentioned the Special Service girls before. These were women who provided planned entertainment for the soldiers. They planned Bingo nights, tours to historical places, picnics on the beach and any other recreation to help the service men in their off times to adjust to the country in which they were serving. In Coburg, besides the fun and games provided by the Special Service girls, the University of Maryland provided correspondence courses for the men. I helped out there in tutoring some of the men.

I’ve always heard that misery loves company. My experience in France certainly verifies that. We had only minimal commissary privileges, no PX, what soft drinks we might get from the commissary would be drunk from the bottle with out benefit of refrigeration or ice. But there was an air of camaraderie among our people that exceeded anything I have ever seen. After more than forty years, I still am in touch with many friends that I made there that spring.

During the summer of 1951, I came back to the States on furlough and when I returned I was re-assigned to the Hoechst American School near Frankfurt, Germany. I was still a teaching principal but had 5 other American teachers, 2 German teachers, an office secretary (German) and janitorial service to oversee. We started out the year with kindergarten through sixth grade, but soon our enrollment determined that the sixth grade would be bussed into Frankfurt. One thing, and one thing only was sure in the Army—and that was that nothing was sure at all. We would just get used to students, get there records straight, and placed where they would benefit the most and, lo and behold, something would change and we would begin rearranging the program all over again. And the red tape!! The inventories!! My experience with the Dependent Schools of Germany and France was invaluable for the things I learned both in teaching and travel. But I would not do it again.

In Germany we lived in apartments close to the school that the Army had requisitioned. We had charcoal burning stoves in each of our bedrooms and many mornings during the cold weather a little man would come into our rooms and tend to the stoves whether we were up or not. We ate our meals on Rosenthal china (also requisitioned) and a maid got our breakfast and lunch. Most of the time we went out for our evening meal. Being near Frankfurt was definitely a bonus for social evenings and travel weekends. Overnight we could be (by train) in Paris, Switzerland, Munich, Berlin, Brussels, or Amsterdam. In 18 hours we could be in Vienna, London, or Copenhagen.

Working with dependent children was always a challenge, not knowing when one or more students would not be able to follow through with plans for the next few days. It was especially true in Coburg when the HICOG representative and I planned a two nation program between our school and the schools of the town. But we managed with our TWO students miming `The Night Before Christmas” and the German contingent participating in choruses and orchestras about the nativity. Students were not the only ones who were moved around. Two of our teachers in Hoechst, after the New Year, were declared redundant and were transferred to the Air Force Schools in Britain. One new teacher came to us-and it was re-arrange our schedule again. In Hoechst for the Christmas program of 1951 our whole school moved its Christmas program to the local Service Men’s Club. Each grade did a special number. The fourth grade put on “Hansel and Gretel” while the fifth grade sang the songs. Many of the people working with the service club helped in the production—especially in staging and scenery.

Army Brass sometimes posed a problem. In Coburg when the General in charge of all the EUCOM schools came to visit, he asked to visit the Hummel factory that was near by. Our German Assistant tried to set up a tour but we only got to see the show room. Miss Kellner said that we would not be allowed into the factory itself because they employed slave labor. In Hoechst, a Captain became livid when his daughter was not allowed to ride her bike to school instead of coming on the bus that the Army provided for the safety of the pupils. Our school and playground was fenced in for the same reason. When I told the little girl, a second grader, she could not bring her bike and she continued to do so, I confiscated the bike to let the parents know that we did not deem it safe for her to continue such a practice. Her father brought it up at the next PTA meeting and I was very relieved to hear a Lieutenant Colonel say, “I move that we support our principal in this matter.” Nothing more was said. Some of the children, used to Army protocol would try to lord it over those of lesser rank, but on the whole we got along very well–the second grade girl who found a dead rat on the school grounds and chased others with it notwithstanding.

Because the troops and dependents were moved around so much, it was difficult to keep track of each student’s abilities and needs. Necessarily, it was thought to have each grade over the EUCOM be in more or less the same place in studies and the same time. Then if a child was moved in the middle of the year, be would be familiar with the work of the next class entered. That is why my background of a one-room rural school was deemed invaluable. All in all, I believe that most children received a well rounded education to say nothing of their opportunities of living in another country and absorbing other ways of life.

Every school was required to have German Assistants for the teaching of German to the children. Wilhemine Roehrig and Kathe Betzel were trained German teachers who were tremendous in their willingness and zeal in Hoechst. Gertrud Kolossa kept the office running smoothly and dealt with any German related problems. I am not sure how I, or any of the other American teachers, would have survived without them. American teachers, like all other professionals, were a mixed bag. Some were fantastic and expert in their ways of doing things, while others were chronic complainers, doing just enough to get by and demanding that the Army do everything for them. My time spent with all of these people broadened my horizon and, hopefully, made me, not only a better teacher, but a more well rounded individual. I thank the United States Army for the opportunity to serve my country in some small way.

I spent the last part of June 1952 in Frankfurt waiting for an airlift home after clearing out of my apartment and the school at Hoechst. The trip took twenty-four hours altogether because we stopped over for fueling in Iceland and Gander, Newfoundland. We landed in New York and I was able to get a train to Chicago and home, where I arrived before my letter telling of my arrival came. It was a glorious homecoming for all of us.

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