Whitcomb, Donilda: 1950 – 1952

Before I returned home after two years of teaching in Wiesbaden, Germany, 1950 – 1952, I wrote to a friend: Soon I will be returning to the U.S.; I am so appreciative of the opportunity I have had to live in Europe for the past two years. The places I have seen, the people I have met, the customs I have observed – all made me realize how fortunate I have been to teach American Dependent Schools overseas.”

I was teaching in Laguna Beach, California, when I applied for teaching in American Overseas Schools. When I was notified that I was accepted, I asked for a leave of absence for a year, and this was granted. The excitement of getting ready to leave and getting papers in order kept me busy until it was time to catch the train for New York. At Union Station in Los Angeles, I met others who were looking forward to teaching in Europe, and we wondered how it would be to teach American dependent children away from the United States.

On August 7,1950, this eager group of teachers left Los Angeles for Fort Hamilton, New York. Two of the teachers I met that day, Vera Benstead and Heidi Krogsrud, became dear friends. In fact, we still meet for lunch often since we are living in Hemet, La Habra and Orange, California. Vera is Vera Benstead Turner, Heidi is now Heidi Krogsrud Choate, and I am Donilda Dollard Whitcomb.

We arrived in Grand Central Station, New York City on August 10, 1950, where an Army bus met us, taking our group to Fort Hamilton for a briefing. There they took our papers, and gave us more papers – – orders, suggestions, forms, briefings on Europe, etc. In the next few days we met at Fort Hamilton for more instructions, and then had time for sightseeing until we boarded the U.S.S. George Goethals on August 14th for Bremerhaven, Germany!

We had busy days on the Goethals; instructions, German language classes, exercising on the decks, movies, dances, and talking to teachers from all over the U.S. before we reached Brernerhaven on August 24th. We boarded a U.S. Army train on the 25th, our destination Frankfurt. We had our first view of German countryside and from our train windows, it looked green and beautiful! We saw wooded areas, streams, our first castle and windmill. We also saw the result of Allied bombing as we passed through Bremen, an industrial city. It was very sad.

In Frankfurt we left the train and took buses to a resort town, Bad Homburg, with military escorts. We were housed in Hotel Park Sanitorium where King Edward VII of England stayed in 1902, when it was a well-known spa. Homburg hats were fashioned in the quaint town. The next morning we met the VIPS in American Schools – – the military officers and civilian educators who were in charge. We were in meetings all day and given our assignments. I was fortunate to be sent to Wiesbaden, a beautiful city that had not been bombed since it was a cultural center, known for opera, casinos and spas. (Wiesbaden means “bathing in the fields.”) There are 27 natural hot springs in this city and thousands of visitors take the baths every year.

I was given my Wiesbaden schedule – – 7th grade advisor, 7th and 8th grade Arithmetic and Art, and 7th grade English. Also, I had a high school Art class. This turned out to be my favorite group, as the students were talented, and never complained about lack of supplies!

Before classes began at Wiesbaden Landstrasse School and General H.H. Arnold High School (housed in one large building) we had a chance to travel to Oberammergau to see the famous Passion Play! This was exciting, and all of the new teachers felt thrilled to see new countryside on the train to the Bavarian village that presents the Passion Play every ten years. A plague had swept through Oberammergau in the early 1600s, and many died before the elders of the local church made a vow to give a play about the Old Testament in relation to the life of Christ if the deaths stopped. Since then, the Passion Play has been performed every ten years with the villagers taking all the parts. The play started at 8:30 AM, and broke at noon for lunch. Thank goodness we’d dressed warmly, for after lunch the play resumed – – in the rain – – until 5:30 PM! It rained hard but the play went on in the partially covered amphitheater. Seeing the Passion Play was a highlight of my first year in Germany!

September was full of changes in school schedules but children and teachers adjusted well. Our PTA had a General for President, and parents who were anxious for “things to be as American as possible”!

The dependent schools tried to do events for every season. We had football and basketball games, clubs, plays, programs and field trips. We met German teachers for conferences, visited museums and did tours of the famous landmarks in our area. We published a school annual, Erinnerungen (“Memories”), in 1951, of American High Schools in Germany – – Bremerhaven, Berlin, Frankfurt, N├╝rnberg, Heidelberg, Wiesbaden and Munich. Our Wiesbaden student council was active, making suggestions regarding the school, and we had cheerleaders for our games, dances, a school newspaper and Glee Club. We had to scrounge for supplies, but somehow we usually got what we wanted.

Being from California, I was surprised at all the rain, and was cold most of the time. As a new teacher, I had to take “beginner’s housing” – – I was billeted in a room the size of a closet at Hotel Palast, but kept moving to larger rooms as WACs left for home, until I finally got a room with a view and balcony!

Weekends were spent in travel. I rode to Bremerhaven with the Gym teacher when her car came in from the United States, and saw so much of the countryside as we drove winding roads to return to Wiesbaden. We went to Switzerland often, to Paris for Thanksgiving and spent Christmas in Rome!

I soon decided that one year in Wiesbaden was not enough, I wanted to stay for a second year. I sent long letters to Laguna that were read to my former schoolchildren, and I was known as “Our Teacher n Europe.” When I asked for a second year’s leave of absence, it was granted – – in part, because of the letters that told of my experiences. In 1950, people did not travel to Europe unless they were wealthy, so it was considered remarkable to be able to secure this teaching position and be sent overseas. By the tine I left for the United States in 1952,1 had traveled to most of the countries in Europe that were open to American passports!

John J. McCloy, the United States High Commissioner, wrote in part in our 1951 Annual, Erinnerungen: “The opportunity to attend American Schools in occupied Germany represents a real challenge to all students. For you are living in an area where one of the greatest transitions in history is taking place. You cannot afford to neglect this responsibility which comes with this opportunity. Your conduct and attainments here in Germany can be a living symbol of our democratic way of life.”

I felt we did our best as teachers and students in trying to live up to our responsibilities and opportunities as Americans in Germany.

When I returned to California and resumed teaching in Laguna Beach, I found I was in demand as a speaker, explaining my two years of overseas experiences. I spoke before the PTA, the Girl Scouts, church organizations, county school groups – – my schedule was filled for several months. I enjoyed reliving my two years in Europe, and felt that teaching for American Dependent Schools was interesting, eventful and rewarding. Even today, I regard being an overseas teacher as one of the best experiences of my teaching career.

Copyright 2004 American Overseas Schools Historical Society

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