I had graduated from San Diego State College and taught elementary school for four years (in California and New York), when I signed with the US Army in 1948 to teach the children of dependents in Germany. I was 24 years old.
It all started with an article in the New York Times. I filled out an application, was interviewed, took a physical and was hired. My salary was $4, 659 a year, which was more than I was making teaching in Great Neck. The Army said there would be 200 American teachers in Germany in 1948. Everyone was hired for just one year.
We sailed in the rain August 3, 1948 from the Brooklyn Naval Yard in an old hospital ship, USAT Zebulon B. Vance. We were told the ship had its bottom filled with cement so it would be steady when it carried wounded soldiers. And it was steady … steady and SLOW. New York to Bremerhaven, Germany, took us 15 days. The Queen Mary passed us three times! Going, coming and going again. But of course, we were in no hurry, having a wonderful time aboard ship and enjoying every day. Our accommodations were bunk beds, maybe three tiers high, in an enormous room. We had one big communal bathroom with a long row of showers.
From an August 4 letter: I’M ON C DECK IN A DORMITORY. THERE ARE BUNK BEDS AND PROBABLY 30 GIRLS IN THE ROOM. PRIVACY IS OUT OF THE QUESTION, BUT THE BEDS ARE GOOD AND THERE IS PLENTY OF SPACE TO HANG CLOTHES.
There were movies every night, BINGO, a good library and lots of activities planned. German classes were held and general orientation about the German country and people. But for most part, the passengers just enjoyed each other and the trip.
I have no recollection of the meals, but there was a printed menu for Sunday dinner, August 8, 1948, and it was impressive. From an August 4 letter THERE SEEMS TO BE HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ON BOARD. WE EAT IN THREE SHIFTS AND THE FOOD IS ANYTHING BUT GLAMOROUS, BUT QUITE ADEQUATE AND TASTY. I’M ON THE LAST SHIFT WHICH MEANS I GET TO SLEEP IN LATE.
Only about half the women on board were teachers. Some were dormitory matrons, office workers or nurses. Several had been in Japan working for the Army. Some were former WACS.
I wrote for the ship’s newspaper, which was several mimeographed pages of very little importance. But it was nice to have a job to do. I remember getting permission to explore the ships’ galley and write about how the food was stored and prepared.
I had another job as Troop Officer Representative, which made me the middleman between the Army and the 43 teachers in both my room and the next. Checking the roster each day was the main task. From the same letter WE HAVE INSPECTION EVERY DAY. FROM 9 TO 11 WE HAVE TO BE OUT OF THE WAY AND LET THE STEWARD CLEAN. THEN THE ARMY COMES IN TO INSPECT EVERYTHING. SO FAR, NO PROBLEMS.
There was a chapel on the ship, and a chaplain who held Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services.
We explored our first PX, marveled at the beauty of the ocean, had a lifeboat drill, and watched a school of porpoise jump around the ship. We got up before dawn one morning to see the sun come up over the White Cliffs of Dover. The ship picked up a pilot at Dover to take us through the English Channel. We counted eight sunken ships (no doubt remnants of D Day) and then had a little excitement. The letter says: THE LITTLE BOAT THAT BROUGHT THE PILOT OUT ALSO BROUGHT TWO YOUNG GERMANS WHO HAD STOWED AWAY ON ANOTHER ARMY SHIP HEADED FOR THE UNITED STATES. THEY WERE CAUGHT AND PUT OFF AT DOVER. SINCE OUR SHIP WAS THE FIRST ONE TO COME BY SINCE THEN, WE WERE TAKING THEM BACK TO GERMANY. THEY DIDN’T LOOK TOO HAPPY ABOUT GOING BACK. JUST YOUNG FELLOWS, GAUNT AND PROBABLY NOT MORE THAN 16. THEY ARE NOW IN OUR BRIG.
One letter tells of a community sing on deck at 8:00 P.M. the night before we reached Bremerhaven. There was a little pump organ and a violin. It was broad daylight. While we were singing the ship stopped for the German harbor pilot to come aboard and take us in. We were to reach the harbor about midnight and dock first thing on the morning of August 18th. An August 17th letter says: THERE HAS BEEN SOME REAL EXCITEMENT ON BOARD. QUITE A BIT OF MONEY HAS BEEN STOLEN FROM THE MEN’S QUARTERS. THIS EVENING THEY SEARCHED ALL THE CREW’S LOCKERS AND BELONGINGS. A REAL MYSTERY AND AN UNHAPPY ONE.
We left the boat about 4:00 PM in the afternoon on August 18th and boarded a special train waiting for us right on the dock. No passengers were on the train except the 120 teachers off the ship. We traveled all night and all the next day from Bremerhaven to Bremen to Frankfurt to Heidelberg to Stuttgart to Munich, and about 30 miles south of Munich to the mountain resort of Bad Weisse.
From an Aug. 20 letter: ALL THE TEACHERS WHO WERE HERE LAST YEAR MET THE TRAIN, AND WE WERE TAKEN IN BUSES TO FIVE DIFFERENT HOTELS. I’M IN A DOUBLE ROOM IN A LOVELY HOTEL WITH ANOTHER NEW TEACHER. IT IS LARGE AND CLEAN. NO EVIDENCE OF WAR OR DESTRUCTION. WE EAT HERE AT THE HOTEL AND HAVE DELICIOUS FOOD IN A CHARMING LITTLE DINING ROOM THAT OPENS OUT ON A LOVELY PATIO AND GARDEN.
THE MONEY SYSTEM IS VERY ODD. WE HAVE CHANGED OUR MONEY FOR MILITARY SCRIP. THIS SCRIP IS TO BE USED ONLY BY MILITARY PERSONNEL AND NEVER GIVEN TO THE GERMANS BECAUSE THEY CAN BLACK MARKET IT. WE CAN CHANGE SCRIP INTO GERMAN MARKS AT ARMY BASES, AND WITH MARKS BUY THINGS FROM THE GERMANS. HOWEVER, SO FAR WE HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO GET ANY MONEY CHANGED SO WE ARE PAYING EVERYONE WITH CIGARETTES. TO THE GERMAN MEN WHO HANDLED OUR TRUNKS AND LUGGAGE, THE TIP WAS A PACKAGE OF CIGARETTES. WE TIP TWO CIGARETTES AFTER EACH MEAL. IT’S ALL VERY ODD. WE’LL PAY OUR HOTEL BILL WITH THE SCRIP BECAUSE THE ARMY NOW RUNS THIS HOTEL. GERMAN PEOPLE WORK HERE, BUT IT IS UNDER ARMY CONTROL. YOU’LL BE AMAZED AT OUR BILL. IT WILL COST US 25 CENTS A DAY FOR THE FIRST TWO DAYS AND 10 CENTS A DAY AFTER THAT! OUR MEALS ARE ANYWHERE FROM 40 CENTS TO 80 CENTS. FANTASTIC.
In Bad Weisse we were given our assignments and were told school would start September 7th. I was assigned to the Rhein Main Air Base outside Frankfurt and would be located at a new school in a community called Buchschlag.
On Saturday the Army took us by bus to Salzburg, Austria, where the famous International Music Festival was in progress. Since we had no obligations until Monday, four of us decided to let the buses return without us and spend the night in Salzburg to attend the opera.
We found an Austrian girl who could speak English. She got the tickets for us and went as our guest to dinner and the opera. The opera house was perfectly beautiful, and THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO was splendid. We even heard the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
We spent the night in the Army hotel for 50 cents a piece and started back early Sunday. We rode for seven hours on four different trains. It took every German word we knew and some wild sign language to get back to Bad Weisse. The Army was very put out with us because we could have gotten in some real trouble crossing the border without passports. But we didn’t, and tempers soon cooled.
Aug. 29 letter: WE LEFT BAD WEISSE ABOUT NOON THURSDAY AND SPENT THE AFTERNOON AND EVENING EXPLORING MUNICH, WHICH WAS A SAD AND DESPERATE SIGHT, AND THEN LEFT ON A 10:00 PM TRAIN FOR FRANKFURT.
WE WAITED MOST OF SATURDAY IN THE FRANKFURT HOTEL FOR SOMEONE FROM THE AIR BASE TO COME AND PICK US UP. THEY FINALLY ARRIVED IN A BIG BUS, AND WE GOT TO BUCHSCHLAG SATURDAY AFTERNOON LATE.
The Rhein Main Air Base was departure point for all the supplies going into Berlin. Since the Russians had closed the highway to Berlin, all supplies were being airlifted, and the air base was one busy place. Personnel had been increased greatly, and that was why a new elementary school was being established. Last year the children in the area went by bus into Frankfurt to school.
Buchschlag was about 15 minutes from the Air Base. Our school was to be in an old hotel. It was an attractive, solid-looking gray stone building. There were three teachers (Gerry Hansen -2nd grade, Margaret LaPray -1st grade, and myself-3rd and 4th grades) and a principal (Dorothy Reed) who also taught 5th and 6th grades.
We shared a large and lovely, three-story, five-bedroom house about two blocks from the school. A German family and all their belongings were put out of the house. It was completely painted inside and furnished with Army issue furniture. The Army charged us each $15 a month for the house. That covered the maid’s salary too.
The first problem was that they didn’t plan on issuing us a stove. They expected us to eat all our meals at the Officers’ Club just three blocks away. We used a hot plate for a while, but in about two months got a real stove installed.
Another crisis” was no ironing board. Four women without an ironing board? Impossible. The Army drew a complete blank at the suggestion of supplying such an item, so we had a local carpenter make one. A handcrafted ironing board cost five packages of cigarettes.
Our maid’s name was Frieda and her two English words were “Welcome” and “Ho-kay”. She was cheerful and a real worker. One problem was that she wanted to earn extra (soap, coffee and chocolate) by washing our clothes for us, but just about scrubbed the life out of everything she washed. She finally agreed to do the dishes and floors and let us wash our own clothes. Frieda was at the house seven days a week, her choice. She was anxious to have any of the food we had left and even took the used grounds out of the coffee pot. From what we understood, she would dry them out, re-roast them and end up with better coffee than she could buy on the German market.
An August 29th letter mentions all the sullen German faces and unfriendly stares, and then reports: MAJOR MERKLE WAS SO PROUD OF THE NEWLY-BUILT, OUTSIDE STAIRCASE AT THE SCHOOL. IT WAS WOODEN AND YET TO BE PAINTED, BUT HE WAS PLEASED AT GETTING IT DONE SO QUICKLY AND DETERMINED TO HAVE IT READY FOR THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL. OVERNIGHT IT WAS COMPLETELY KNOCKED DOWN. THERE ARE SOME TIRE TRACKS NEAR BY THAT LOOK LIKE SOMEONE RAN A CAR INTO IT TO DELIBERATELY DESTROY IT. NOT A HAPPY THOUGHT.
School started on schedule. I had 17 in my class at first, but it grew quickly. The Army was moving all the dependents out of Berlin, and the population of Buchlschag was growing.
Each class was assigned a German teacher to teach the children one class of German each day and assist in other ways. My assistant was Herr Dietrich, who became a real friend. I met his wife and children, was in their home, and they took me exploring around the area
A house across the street from the school became the kindergarten. Bea Tempske, wife of Colonel Tempske, was employed to run the busy kindergarten. She became a great friend and entertained us often in her home.
About the airlift: THIS BUSINESS OF FLYING SUPPLIES TO BERLIN IS TRULY SOMETHING TO SEE. FROM THIS BASE AND ANOTHER NEAR HERE PLANES LEAVE EVERY FOUR MINUTES, JUST LIKE CLOCKWORK. WHEN YOU THINK THAT ALL THOSE PLANES HAVE TO BE LOADED, KEPT IN MECHANICAL CONDITION AND MANNED, YOU CAN GET SOME IDEA OF THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE AND THE AMOUNT OF PLANNING IT MUST TAKE.
In September Gerry Hansen and I bought a car, actually a very used Jeep with a station wagon built on the frame. We each paid $325, which covered that cost of the car, insurance and registration. We had to get European drivers’ licenses. This was the first car I ever owned (even half of), and it was a great success. We had the body painted green and learned to always carry extra gas with us.
From an October letter: MARGARET AND I HAD A SUNDAY OUTING WITH HERR DIETRICH. WE PILED HIS WIFE AND CHILDREN IN THE STATION WAGON AND DROVE ABOUT 50 MILES OUT IN THE COUNTRY, WAY UP ON SOME MOUNTAIN ABOVE THE RHINE. WE EXPLORED THE REMAINS OF AN OLD CASTLE (SUPPOSEDLY OF THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) THAT WAS BUILT ABOUT 1250 AND DESTROYED BY THE PEASANTS IN 1500 BECAUSE THE GRAND DUKE WAS MEAN TO THEM. THE CASTLE WAS SMALL AND VERY RUINED, BUT THE VIEW FROM THAT HIGH POINT WAS BREATHTAKING.
FRAU DIETRICH HAD BROUGHT REFRESHMENTS FOR US, A BEAUTIFUL THREE-LAYER CAKE. WE ORDERED COFFEE IN A SMALL RESTAURANT AND FRAU DIETRICH BROUGHT OUT HER CAKE.
THE CHILDREN (TWO BOYS, SEVEN AND TEN, AND ONE GIRL WHO WAS TWELVE AND SPOKE SOME ENGLISH) JUST ABOUT FELL OUT OF THEIR CHAIRS WAITING FOR THEIR MOTHER TO SERVE THE CAKE. IT WAS OBVIOUSLY A GREAT
OCCASION AND A GREAT TREAT. THEY TOLD US THIS WAS A FAVORITE GERMAN RECIPE THAT THEY HADN’T HAD FOR A LONG TIME BECAUSE THE INGREDIENTS WERE NOT AVAILABLE UNTIL JUST RECENTLY. IT WAS CALLED A ‘FIVE CUP CAKE’ AND AS NEAR AS WE COULD UNDERSTAND WAS MADE FROM ONE CUP OF BARLEY, ONE CUP OF FLOUR, ONE CUP OF GRITS, ONE CUP OF WATER AND ONE CUP OF SOMETHING ELSE (THAT COULD HAVE BEEN PASTE). NO MILK, NO SHORTENING, NO SUGAR. WE DIDN’T ASK FOR THE RECIPE!
Heir Dietrich came to the house one afternoon a week to tutor me in German, for which I paid him. However, we did have a very successful barter as well. He would bring me delicious brown pumpernickel bread from the German bakery to swap for old soft white Wonder Bread from the PX. We each thought we were getting far the best deal!