By Mark Frost
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Grafenwöhr, Bavaria, Germany
NOVEMBER 3, 1944
Bernie Oster arrived in Nuremberg after traveling through the night alone on a passenger train. He carried classified, stamped orders handed to him the previous day by his commanding officer in Berlin. He had been told to pack nothing and change into civilian clothes before soldiers escorted him directly from that meeting to the train. After showing his papers to the SS officers at Nuremberg Station, he was led into an empty holding area and left there without explanation. At noon, after a dozen other men had joined him in isolation, they were loaded into the back of a blacked-out transport truck.
They were ordered to keep silent. The men exchanged only wary looks and nods. None of his fellow passengers wore uniforms either, but Bernie surmised from their appearance and manner that they were all soldiers or sailors. Sitting alone in a corner, he chain-smoked cigarettes, wondering where the other men had come from, what they all had in common. His CO had given him no details during his briefing, only that Bernie had “volunteered”—without being offered the choice—for a special assignment that required immediate transfer. Fifteen hours and hundreds of kilometers later, he found himself in a part of Germany he’d never seen before.
Soon after they started driving, the most agitated passenger blurted the questions they were all thinking: “What are we doing here?...What do they want with us?”
Bernie didn’t answer. The risk that any of these other men could be an SS plant, placed among them to monitor their conversations—or provoke them by asking those same questions—was too great. He already had reason enough to fear for his life. Perhaps these other men did as well; none of them answered.
Peeking through a seam in the canvas, Bernie saw they were on a highway moving through stark gray countryside—bare trees, fallow fields, barren wilderness. Halfway through their second hour, they turned onto a remote road threading through a dark wood. Half a mile on, they approached the entrance to an elaborate compound, surrounded by steel-framed gates and barbed-wire fences that stretched into the trees as far as the eye could see.
It looked like a prison camp. Guards in unfamiliar uniforms patrolled the parapets and block houses above the walls. Machine guns had been placed on the towers, their barrels pointed to the interior. His stomach turned over.
So that’s it. I’ve been found out.
The truck braked to a stop just short of the gates. The back canvas parted and two armed guards waved the passengers out at the point of a bayonet, their eyes flinching at daylight after the long, dark ride. An SS officer waited to escort them through the open gates. Bernie noticed that the guards on the walls and towers all had broad Slavic features. He heard an exchange between two of them in some unfamiliar, guttural language. The gates clanged shut behind them. Bernie wondered if these walls had been put up to keep others out or to keep them in.
The compound appeared to have been built for military purposes. He could see deep tank tracks in the mud, an artillery range in the distance. The guards led them into a low, empty barracks built from freshly cut logs, where sandwiches and bottles of beer had been set out for them. They sat on crude wooden beds and ate in silence as the guards watched. After a brief rest, they were led, one by one, to another cabin that Bernie could see through a window across the compound. None of them returned. Bernie was one of the last men summoned.
Two SS officers, a lieutenant and a captain, waited behind a desk in the building’s only room, facing a single empty chair. Black-jacketed SS grenadiers stood sentry at the door, holding MP40 submachine guns.
The lieutenant ordered Bernie to empty his pockets on the table, including his military identity card, traveling papers.
“Your paybook, as well,” said the lieutenant.
He collected the items in an envelope and put the envelope in a desk drawer. Without them, Bernie knew that as far as the army was concerned, he no longer existed. His heart thumped in his chest, and he was sure that the fear he’d been struggling to suppress showed on his face. He’d been dreading a moment like this for months: discovery, torture, execution.
The captain didn’t look up at him once from his notes while the lieutenant ordered him to sit and began asking questions, in German, reading from a dossier.
“Private First Class Bernard Oster.”
“What is your unit?”
“The 42nd Volksgrenadier Division, sir. Mechanized Brigade.”
“Your duties there?”
“I’m a mechanic in the motor pool, sir. Attached to central command headquarters in Berlin. I take care of the officers’ cars.”
“Is that your only responsibility?”
Here it comes, thought Bernie.
“No, sir. For the last month I’ve worked in the radio room. As a translator.”
The lieutenant showed something on the dossier to the captain. He looked up at Bernie for the first time. A slender man in his early thirties, with slicked black hair and steel-gray eyes that stared through Bernie like an X-ray. He gestured to his lieutenant: I’ll take it from here.
“You were born in the United States,” said the captain, in crisp English.
“Yes, sir,” said Bernie, trying not to look surprised.
“Your parents emigrated there in the early 1920s, after the last war. Why?”
“As I understand, there was little or no work in Germany then,” said Bernie. “Economic hardship.”
“Your father is an industrial chemist. He worked for Pfizer, on Long Island.”
“And you were raised and educated in New York.”
“Brooklyn. Yes I was, sir.”
“When did your family return to Germany?”
“In 1938. I was fourteen.”
Bernie hesitated. “For the same reason we left in the first place. My father lost his job in the Depression. He had no way to support his family. As a scientist and a German citizen, he got an offer from the new government to go home and work here.”
The captain betrayed no reactions. Judging from the man’s shrewd manner, he knew the answer to every question he was asking. His steady, unblinking gaze sent waves of fear through Bernie. When the SS took an interest in someone, he had a way of disappearing, even if he had nothing to hide. Bernie felt sweat dripping down under his arms.
“Your father works for IG Farben, in Frankfurt,” said the captain.
“Has he ever discussed his work with you?”
Is that what this is about? My father? Not what happened in Berlin?
“No, sir. I believe it is classified.”
“You began military service sixteen months ago,” said the captain. “When you turned eighteen. You made no attempt to enlist prior to that.”
“I was still in school, sir—”
“Nor were you ever a member of the Hitlerjugend.”
The captain’s eyes bored into him. Bernie felt rattled to his core, certain the man could read the thoughts he tried to keep from his mind. Did he know that within months of returning to Nazi Germany, his father had been warned by his bosses at IG Farben that if he ever tried to leave, his family would be killed? Or that Bernie’s own hatred of the Nazis had only grown greater after he was drafted? He’d come to Germany against his will, with an American teenager’s skepticism intact, immune to the Nazis’ nationalist fantasia. With their fixation on pomp and ritual, he’d thought them coarse and buffoonish. Then he and his family had watched in horror as they brought Europe to its knees.
Bernie’s mind raced to the one question that mattered: Did this man know that when they learned about his language skills and moved him to the radio room, Bernie had twice altered his translation of intercepted American intelligence reports about troop movements, trying to mislead his superiors about their intent? Fighting his own private resistance, probably ineffectual, certainly reckless. He’d waited a month before trying again, sure they were watching him. His second attempt had come just a week ago.
Had they only been waiting for him to stick his neck out again? Why else would they have brought him here?
“I was older than the compulsory age when we returned from America,” said Bernie. “My father wanted me to finish my education.”
The captain stood up and walked around the table. “Why has your father never joined the National Socialist Party?”
“I’m afraid you’d have to ask him, sir—”
“Is he a patriotic man?”
“He’s always thought of himself as a German first. That’s why he came home when he had the chance—”
The captain pulled his pistol and held it firmly to Bernie’s forehead.
“And how do you think of yourself, Private?”
Bernie swallowed before answering. “As my father’s son.”
“You are an American citizen.”
“I have dual citizenship, German and American.”
“And if you had to choose?”
“I’ve never been given a choice—”
“I’m giving you one now.”
Bernie never took his eyes away from the captain’s, convinced that the slightest slip would make him pull the trigger. “Speak with my commanding officers if you think my allegiance is in question.”
The captain kept staring at him. Bernie remained at attention, eyes forward, trembling.
“We have spoken with them. Isn’t there anything else you wish to tell me?”
Bernie looked right at him. “No, sir.”
Another moment, then the captain lowered the pistol and holstered it. Bernie had passed the test. His knees nearly buckled.
“You’ve volunteered to become part of a new brigade. English is a requirement. Yours is excellent, for obvious reasons. Is it safe to say you also have knowledge of American culture? Movie stars. Baseball. Current events.”
“I’ve been away for six years, sir.”
“You read newspapers, don’t you? America is still of interest to you. You can answer the question honestly, son; it’s only natural. It was your home for fourteen years.”
Bernie saw the trap beneath the question, and asked neutrally, “Why, sir?”
“Your experience can be of value during our training. We may call upon your expertise in this area.”
“I’ll help any way I can, sir.”
“I am Captain Stielau. You will report directly to me. You look relieved.”
“Do I? I suppose I am, sir.”
Stielau seemed amused by Bernie’s reaction, then turned to his lieutenant: “Category One.”
The lieutenant wrote Bernie’s name on a roster with four columns. Bernie saw that his was the first name in the first column.
“May I ask the purpose of our new brigade, sir?”
“Yes,” said Stielau.
Bernie hesitated. “What is the purpose of our new brigade, sir?”
“I said you could ask. I didn’t say I would tell you. You’re dismissed, Private Oster.”
Bernie tried to bury his fear by losing himself in the camp’s routine. Over two thousand men from every corner of the Reich arrived during the following week. Bernie helped conduct their initial interviews, asking questions to determine their level of competence in English, both speaking and comprehension. They were then classified into four categories. One: fluency in English and working knowledge of American slang. Two: fluency without knowl edge of specific American idioms. Three: general comprehension and the ability to conduct limited conversations. Four: restricted comprehension, men who had studied English in school without real-world application.
Bernie quickly realized that most of the “volunteers” had vastly overstated their abilities. By the end of the week, as the last men arrived, he had picked fewer than twenty to join him in Category One. Fifty went into Category Two. The third category had about one hundred men in it, and the fourth another two hundred. As for the rest, over two-thirds of the men who had been summoned to Grafenwöhr, their English was limited to single-word responses. Bernie barracked with the rest of the Ones and Twos; Threes and Fours occupied separate quarters across the yard, and the rest stayed on the far side of the compound.
The men were issued neutral olive-green uniforms without insignia. All previous ranks were erased, and officers received no preferential treatment. They dined together in the same large mess hall, eating meals that far surpassed normal army fare. Contact with friends or family was forbidden. Every man signed an oath of silence, and letters home had to pass a censor’s strict review. Medicine and prescription drugs were dispensed freely to prevent illness, since no one was allowed out of camp to see a doctor. This taut atmosphere fueled rumors and speculation about their brigade’s reason for being, which flew through the camp, mutating on a daily basis. Their true purpose remained a mystery.
They heard their first explanation when Bernie and the rest of the brigade were called one day at dawn to a general assembly in the compound. Captain Stielau addressed them. They were now part of the 150th Panzer Brigade, he said, operating under the command of Colonel Otto Skorzeny. The mention of his name sent a ripple through the yard; he was without rival the most notorious figure in the German armed forces. Stielau told them their mission was called “Operation Greif,” and they were being trained to defend Cologne when the Allies attacked across the Rhine. It sounded plausible, but Bernie found it impossible to reconcile with what they were being taught.
Their training began each morning with English lessons, focusing on American slang, and tutoring to eliminate native accents. Bernie helped craft a crash course on American culture, using newspapers, magazines, sports sections, and comic strips. Tests were given each day to drill this information into long-term memory. The men were ordered to use only English; anyone heard speaking German was disciplined with solitary confinement.
Each afternoon they were put through Skorzeny’s commando training: demolition, communications, reconnaissance, special weapons, light artillery, night fighting in both urban and forest environments, hand-to-hand combat. They were schooled in map reading, the basics of movement under combat conditions, camouflage techniques, and communications. They were taught how to drive and service captured American jeeps, scout cars, half-tracks, and tanks. Each man in Categories One and Two was issued an M1 rifle. Ammunition was too scarce for target practice, but they learned to carry, field strip, and maintain their rifles as rigorously as any GI.
After dinner they gathered in the mess hall to listen to U.S. Armed Forces Radio. Beer was served and they were encouraged to sing along with the popular songs of American recording artists. On some nights they watched American films, in English, with orders to observe and mimic the actors’ mannerisms. Seeing these familiar faces again, the first Hollywood stars he’d seen in years, made Bernie desperately homesick. His dread about what Skorzeny was really preparing them for grew with each passing day; only exhaustion kept it from overwhelming his mind.
At the end of the second week, the fluent English speakers, about eighty men, were placed directly under the command of Captain Stielau. Except for meals, they now spent their days apart from the others, and their language training intensified. Whenever shipments of new Allied material arrived—uniforms, boots, weapons—Stielau’s men received it first. Bernie believed that the future objectives of the two groups, what ever they might be, had begun to diverge.
Bernie met one other American-born man in Category One, a U.S. Army deserter named William Sharper. He had served in the American Army until after the invasion of Normandy. Sharper took a lead role during training, teaching the men specific GI behaviors; the way they slouched, chewed gum, how to rip open a pack of cigarettes with a thumbnail, and the fine art of swearing. Bernie stayed clear of him, disturbed by the violence he saw in the man’s eyes. A handful of others were former members of the German diplomatic corps who had learned English serving in foreign embassies. The rest came from the merchant marine, itinerant seamen who at some point had worked on American or English ships. One was a former porter on the Queen Mary. Their isolation, intense physical training, and the airtight atmosphere of secrecy brought them quickly and closely together as a unit.
At the start of the third week, each man in Bernie’s unit was assigned an American name. American dog tags were issued bearing these names, along with a new rank, and they were ordered to refer to one another only by these new names and ranks. They were told to create and memorize a fictional American history: place of birth, family members, education, hometown history, favorite pets, girlfriends left behind, baseball teams, local geography. Bernie decided the only way to create a life story he could remember under pressure was to keep it as close as possible to his own. A New Yorker from Brooklyn, the son of immigrant parents, he became Private James Tenella.
That Tuesday Bernie was summoned to the interview cabin. A new arrival sat joking with Stielau’s lieutenant, waiting to go through the evaluation process. Unlike the hundreds who’d preceded him, he still wore his German uniform: the crisp black tunic of a Waffen-SS lieutenant. He was in his mid to late twenties, wiry, compact, with close-cropped blond hair and a ready, dazzling smile.
Stielau’s lieutenant waved Bernie into the room: “Private Tenella, meet our latest arrival, SS Unterstürmführer Erich Von Leinsdorf.”
Von Leinsdorf stood up to shake his hand, and looked him in the eye. “A pleasure. They tell me you may be able to iron the starch out of my plummy Mid-Atlantic tones.”
Von Leinsdorf spoke perfect English, with a crisp upper-class British accent.
“What ever it takes, sir,” said Bernie.
Stielau’s lieutenant handed Bernie the clipboard and left the room. Von Leinsdorf perched on the edge of the table and opened a sterling silver cigarette case engraved with his initials.
“I suppose I’ll have to start smoking Lucky Strikes,” he said. “No more English Players for me.”
Von Leinsdorf torched his cigarette with a matching silver lighter and smiled again. He smoked like a movie star, or someone who had studied movie stars smoking. Despite his easygoing charm, Bernie felt a visceral wariness of the man. He seemed to take up more space than he physically occupied. The superior airs seemed characteristic for someone from his class, but Bernie was reacting to something starker than the aristocratic “Von” in his name. He pulled back the chair Von Leinsdorf had been using and sat down facing him.
“How was your trip?” asked Bernie.
“Appalling,” he said with a smile, making no effort to keep the conversation going.
“Where’d you come in from, Lieutenant?”
“Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking? Your English is astonishing.”
“I’m from New York. Brooklyn.”
“Is that a fact? How fascinating. Born and bred?”
“That’s right. How about you?”
“Munich, but as you may have gathered, I spent my formative years in England. Father was in the diplomatic corps, stationed to the embassy in London. We went over in twenty-eight. I was ten at the time. Father enrolled me at Westminster, public school. All those incestuous aristocratic family trees, it’s a breeding ground for degenerate half-wits. So in I waltzed from the hinterlands, armed only with my meager schoolboy English. Bit of a wonder I survived.”
“Hope the education was worth it.”
“Oh, I got an education, all right. Where were you at ten, Brooklyn?”
“Fifth grade. PS 109.”
“Of course you were. How charming.”
“So you spoke only English in school?”
“Not just in school, old boy. At home, in the park, in the bath with my proper English nanny. Even family dinners. Father didn’t want any guttural German consonants ruffling the feathers of our hosts.”
“When did you come back to Germany?”
“Once the unpleasantness broke out, the tea bags ushered us straight to the door. Imagine my father’s disappointment. He’d spent the better part of his life trying to penetrate this ironclad veil of courtesy. He never realized that’s the reason for their obsession with manners: a coat of paint covering a hatred of all things foreign. And they seem so polite until you get to know them.” Von Leinsdorf flashed a smile, stood up, and walked to the window. “So we both came back to Germany at the same age. Strange, feeling the outsider in your own country, isn’t it?”
You don’t know the half of it, thought Bernie.
“Where the devil are we, by the way? I was hoping I might be headed to Berlin. Has anyone told you what this is about?”
“Not a word,” said Bernie.
“Very hush-hush all this, isn’t it? Have they tipped their hand about what we’re doing here, Brooklyn?”
“All they told us is that this guy Colonel Skorzeny’s running the show.”
Von Leinsdorf spun around. “Skorzeny? Otto Skorzeny?”
“That’s what they said.”
“Have you seen him? Has he been here?”
“I tried to transfer into his commando unit last year—”
“Where you been stationed?”
“Dachau,” he said casually, flicking his cigarette.
Bernie had heard about the Munich suburb the SS used as a training center. Lurid stories about their concentration camp had been circulating through Berlin, but he knew better than to ask. He’d learned never to ask an SS man anything.
“I’m going to write up this report that your English is first rate,” said Bernie. “They’ll probably put you in Category Two.”
Von Leinsdorf leaned over to glance at Bernie’s notes. “That sounds suspiciously like a demotion. Why not Category One?”
“That’s only for guys who come in knowing a lot of American slang.”
“But you could teach me, couldn’t you?”
“If that’s what they want—”
“It’s what I want,” said Von Leinsdorf, sharply. He softened his tone and turned the charm back on. “Just between us, old boy, I hate thinking I’m not good enough for the top category. Sheer vanity, really.”
“It’s not up to me.”
“I’m not asking for much. Wouldn’t want the officers to think you’re reluctant to help a fellow soldier. All this cloak and dagger, they must be watching you more closely than the rest of us. I’m sure they’d take a dim view of wobbly loyalties.”
Bernie smiled, trying not to let him see that he’d even heard the threat. “I’ll try to help you out, sure, what the fuck.”
“What the fuck?”
“Most popular word in the GI language. Fuck this, fucking that. Fucking camp—”
“Now you’re cooking with gas.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“Means you’re on the money, on the beam, moving down the right track.”
“Right. So, Category One, then. I’ll make it up to you, Brooklyn, see that you’re assigned to my squad. We should fucking stick together, don’t you think?”
“Sure, what the fuck.”
Both men laughed. Bernie couldn’t help liking the man, in spite of his initial reservations.
“What took you so long getting here?” asked Bernie. “They brought the rest of us in two weeks ago, you don’t mind my asking.”
“Haven’t a clue. I assume it was some bureaucratic foul-up.”
“It’s a whatchamacallit, a word you make from initials, an acro nym? Situation Normal: All Fucked Up.”
“Yes, brilliant. Snafu, indeed. The thing is, Brooklyn, I only heard about this two days ago. We were near the end of a major project, so they couldn’t bear to part with me.”
“That’s right,” said Von Leinsdorf, smiling as he lit another cigarette.
“So did you finish it? Your project?”
“A ways to go yet. Afraid they’ll have to carry on without me.”
Von Leinsdorf motioned with his head for Bernie to follow, and they walked into the darkening evening, back toward the dining hall. Von Leinsdorf tossed away his half-smoked cigarette and asked Bernie for one of his Lucky Strikes.
“Do you mind?” he asked. “I should get used to these.”
Von Leinsdorf pulled the cigarette from the pack with his lips and torched it. “What do we call these? Smokes?”
“Smokes, nails,” said Bernie.
“Coffin nails. Sticks, butts.”
Von Leinsdorf nodded, then lit and studied his cigarette. “So what are they training us for, Brooklyn? I get a different answer from everyone.”
“They say we’re going to defend Cologne when the Allies invade—”
“Come on, that’s pure codswallop. All this trouble just to have us dig and wait for Patton to cross the Rhine? This is a Skorzeny mission. Hitler’s commando. Start with the name: Operation Greif—the griffin. You remember what it looks like? Half German eagle, half Allied lion. Our purpose is in that image. We’re going to cross the line disguised as an American brigade, a surprise attack. Something to shock the world.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Bernie, trying to sound casual as he heard his worst fear realized.
“I’m sure of it. And I’ve got a good idea what our target might be.”
Bernie’s eye caught a metallic flash of light above them in the darkness, from a guard tower directly above the courtyard.
“Somebody’s up there,” he said.
Von Leinsdorf turned to look. A tall, sturdy officer in uniform leaned forward, lighting a cigar, his face visible in the flame of the lighter a soldier held for him.
“It’s him,” said Von Leinsdorf.
NOVEMBER 20, 1944
The entire 150th Panzer Brigade was called into the commons at six-thirty A.M.
- On Sale
- May 6, 2008
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books