On Wednesday, September 23 at 7pm, Friendswood author Paul Hoesl will share information from his new book Amazing Journey: One Man's Adventure from Nazi Germany to America. Walter Zehl's story provides a rare, firsthand glimpse into a German soldier's life during World War II. This autobiographical narrative is much more than a war story. It describes Walter's early life in pre-war Germany and tells of his daring escape over the border to West Germany, immigration to America and his struggles in pursuit of the American Dream---from the book cover. Walter Zehl, subject of the book and a Friendswood resident, will be on hand to share his story and answer questions.
The excerpt below is from Paul Hoesl’s book AMAZING JOURNEY: One Man’s Adventure from Nazi Germany to America.
WOUNDED IN BATTLE
Several others from Walter’s unit were also killed in the exchange. In the midst of the chaos, one young German soldier stood up in the live fire waving a white handkerchief in an attempt to surrender. Instead of ceasing their fire, the British soldiers just kept on shooting back and forth from one target to the next across the battlefield. When the firing focused back on Walter, a bullet hit him with a thud. It felt as though he had been hit with a hammer blow. Pow! The fifty-caliber round was so powerful that it had gone completely through both thighs and exited his body. Soon after Walter was hit, the firing stopped, as the British had emptied all their rounds.
Walter was scared that he was going to die. Thoughts of never seeing his parents or sister again overwhelmed him. He just put his nose deep in the dirt and prayed to come out of this nightmare alive. After the shooting stopped, one of the Tommies said, “Let’s go. You want to go to Berlin? (an obvious jab at the defeated German captives).
When Walter got up to walk, mostly fueled by adrenaline, he made it about ten feet toward the British soldiers before his legs gave way and he collapsed. His legs were bleeding profusely from the four open wounds. He had left everything behind, including his machine gun and helmet. A truck soon arrived and two soldiers picked him up and laid him down near two Tommies drinking tea. One felt sorry for Walter because he looked so young. He gave him some tea from his cup. He held it down for him to take a drink. Walter took a few sips of tea, smiled, and said, “Danke” (thank you) since he did not speak English at the time.
It was a surreal experience for Walter to be in the throes of a firefight one minute and to be having a civilized cup of tea the next. The unit that captured Walter was part of the British Fiftieth (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. The two Ts in their insignia represented the boundaries of its recruitment area between the northern England rivers Tyne and Tees. The Fiftieth was a war-hardened division who fought in North African campaign, Operation Overlord, and Operation Market Garden, sustaining twenty-one thousand casualties during the war.
The Fiftieth Infantry Division employed a fleet of armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) equipped with water cooled Vickers fifty-caliber machine guns mounted on their roofs. The Vickers machine gun typically required a six- to eight-man team to operate and was well-known for its reliability. By combining the mobility and carrying capacity of the armored vehicle with the devastating firepower of the gun, the British created an extremely effective fighting platform. In stark contrast to the trench warfare of World War I, World War II was a war of mobility and required innovative uses of available technology to be successful. The British would locate new targets during the day and then reposition their vehicles under the cover of darkness to surprise, confuse, and overwhelm their enemy. The British worked this method of operation to perfection in destroying Walter’s unit.
Walter was hoisted onto the top of an armored carrier and laid out flat. He was driven back about a mile to a farmhouse that served as an improvised first aid station. Some Tommies lifted him off the truck, carried him into the farmhouse, and laid him on an empty stretcher. Several British medics were busy attending to wounded soldiers. They were uniformed officers wearing white coats equipped with cardboard boxes filled with medicine and all kinds of medical supplies, syringes, and bandages.
Passing the Test
One medic searched Walter’s pockets and got out his soldier log book (Soldbuch) and began to inspect it. Simultaneously, he took his pistol out, cocked it, and held it a foot away from Walter’s head. Walter said to himself, “What is going on? Don’t shoot me now. I have gone through so much.” Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, the medic gave Walter his book back and said something in English to the other medic before finally reholstering his pistol. Walter was incredibly relieved that his life was spared, but he had no idea why the medic had done this.
Walter did not realize it, but the medic was looking to see if Walter was a member of the Waffen SS, a feared unit of the German army who had taken an oath to Hitler and served as the armed wing of the Nazi Party. The SS were trained killers who made it a point never to take prisoners. If Walter was found to be part of the SS, the policy was to execute him on the spot. The irony of the situation was that at the time, Walter was not even aware that SS units existed. You can only imagine the confusion he had over why he was nearly executed by the medic who was supposed to be rendering aid.
Walter does not have much memory of what happened after that, but the medics must have given him anesthesia so they could operate on his legs and stitch up his four wounds. Although Walter was wounded badly, he actually turned out to be quite lucky. The bullet passed straight through the upper thigh muscle of both legs and exited the other side. It hit no bones or major arteries, and since the bullet had left his body, it required no extraction.
He had lost a lot of blood, but would not sustain any permanent loss of mobility. The half-inch-diameter bullet could just as easily have severed one of his vital arteries and he would have bled to death, or he could have been fatally shot somewhere else. Considering the size of the fifty-caliber bullet and the amount of damage it could cause, Walter had been delivered from the clutches of death once more, and was grateful to God that his life had been spared.
To this day, Walter can show you two large indentations on each of his legs where the bullet entered and exited. His wounds affected his quality of life in later years, giving him pain and stiffness, especially when the weather changes.
On the Road to Recovery
From the farmhouse, the medics put him in an ambulance and drove him to Brussels, Belgium, to a large hospital. Walter recalls seeing some men with horrific battle wounds. One soldier lay dying with an open chest cavity, all his bones visible. Walter could not fathom how he could still be alive.
The hospital staff freshened his bandages and put him in another ambulance that drove him to Diep in northern France. His interim destination was a Canadian tent hospital staffed mostly by Canadian nurses. They rebandaged him again and put him on an American hospital ship for the trip across the English Channel to dock at the port city of Southampton.
The normal procedure for processing prisoners of war (POWs) included sending them to one of nine command “cages.” The POWs would be held in a cage to be interrogated prior to being sent to one of the POW camps spread across England. The point was to extract any useful information from the prisoners and to assess their loyalty to the Nazi regime. They were graded by a colored patch that would be worn on their uniform. The white patch signified that the prisoner had little Nazi loyalty, and the black patch was reserved for the most hard-core Nazis, SS paratroopers, and U-boat crews, who would be sent to more remote POW camps. Surviving members of Luftwaffe flight crews were given special attention as they had a higher probability of possessing useful intelligence. It can be assumed that Walter skipped this step because of his wounded status. His destination was a hospital for recuperation. Under different circumstances, Walter’s POW experience would have been very different.
The British took him directly off the ship and put him onto an ambulance train with many other wounded German POWs. There was a mixture of patients, including some wounded American soldiers. One American soldier walked through the aisles calling for souvenirs in trade for cigarettes. Evidently there was a healthy market for war mementos.
Nobody had any cigarettes, and Walter was hard up for a smoke as well. He didn’t have any war items, but he managed to trade a comb for a few cigarettes. He cut the cigarettes in pieces and smoked them a little at a time for comfort. It was a very long train ride to Manchester. He had been through much and was glad to be alive, but he was worried about what was in store for him now that he was a prisoner of war.
In Manchester the wounded were loaded into ambulances. A heavy fog set in, the likes of which Walter had never seen. He could barely see his hand in front of his face. Even the local ambulance driver was disoriented and had to frequently stop to ask which direction the hospital was in. After a tense drive through the fog, they finally made it to the hospital, which had a big section reserved for German POWs. This section held about twenty wounded prisoners, ten to each side of the ward…