My Life As an AFN Radio Announcer after World War II
I am a retired magazine editor, a journalist for about 60 years and served in both World War II and Korea, the latter as a Combat Correspondent with the 3rd Infantry Division. I came home with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
-- Alan Herbert, Belle Fourche, SD
There were seven of us in my graduating class. One percent of the town's 700 population. There were four girls and three boys. Needless to say, I was not the Valedictorian. Mother was sitting in the front row while the seven of us sat on the raised stage. As the ceremonies began she held up an envelope. Even at that distance I recognized it as my Selective Service draft papers. By coincidence graduation was on the 13th of June, 1944, my 18th birthday.
Air Force recruiters had been in the area. I wore glasses because of a 20/600 left eye brought on by my incessant reading. I would check out three or four books from the library on Friday and have them all read by Monday.
The recruiting sergeant took one look at my glasses and told me I had little chance to become a pilot. I told him I wanted to take the test anyway as long as I was there. The allotted time was two hours but I breezed through in just under an hour. After checking my answers he shook his head. He wanted badly to sign me up, because I had scored the third highest mark in the state, but he had his orders. When I got drafted I went to the Army.
On the 28th of September 1944 I arrived at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was sworn in, issued a uniform, assigned to a barracks and shown how to make an Army bed. By the time I was finished I had a severe case of shingles, all over my stomach and back. The wool uniforms and the hot day aggravated the itching so I was a basket case by the time the drill sergeant decided I needed medical attention. I got my first ride in a jeep to the infirmary where the doctor gave mean ointment to apply and kept me on active duty status. The next day basic training started.
The 28th of September has other memories attached. My first wife, Lisa, (Liselotte Schellenberger) died on the 28th of September in 1992. My second wife, Josie, died in September of 2001.
When I went in the army my training company was composed partly of big city residents, most of whom had never seen a rifle close up, let alone having shot one, so I had a big advantage, even though I was never much of a marksman. The rest of the training company was a group of men from eastern North Carolina, to whom a house was a huse and all shoes were referred to as slippers.
I wasn't really homesick, except on Christmas Eve, 1944. We had a huge thunderstorm and I stood and watched the rain fill the three foot ditches that lined every path in the training area. I was so used to snow on Christmas that it seemed bizarre for thunder and lightning to fill the skies.
Our training company finished basic just as the Battle of the Bulge began. The company next to us and a week ahead of our training was shipped immediately and several other companies that were close to finishing were rushed out.
I didn't get to go right then. I had applied for Officer Candidate School, based on my 148 IQ on the Army's test. They held me off orders for close to a month, then turned me down because of my eyes and shipped me off to Europe. The coincidence here was that the day they held me off orders they stopped shipping men to Europe and instead sent them to the Pacific Theater. On the day they put me back on orders they resumed shipping to Europe.
If I had gone to the Pacific Theater I would never have met Lisa or enjoyed 44 years of married life with her and I very probably would never have started a career in radio. This is because of oft-repeated forks in the road that completely changed my life.
The trip across the Atlantic in one of the General Class troopships was uneventful, but that's not to say we weren't nervous. My bunk was about 20 feet below the water line and all of us had a mental picture of our chances of getting out if we were torpedoed. Once we entered the English channel it got much worse because our escort vessels depth charged every wreck their sonar spotted. The charges made the side plates of our ship ring, even when they were some distance away.
We landed in Le Havre, France. Our first experience with the French railway system was a 24 hour trip in box cars - the real "40 men or eight horses" cars of World War I fame. We arrived in Dolheim, Belgium, in the dark and were billeted in a large loft. When morning came we could see an arc of wrecked tanks, half tracks, artillery, trucks and assorted wreckage that stretched eastward out of sight. We quickly learned that we were at the spot where the very tip of the German penetration in the Bulge occurred and the junk marked the end of the German push.
That day our 200-man replacement company was split down the middle. Half were sent to the Infantry. My half was assigned to the Field Artillery as auxiliary guards. The Germans had been dropping paratroopers into the gun emplacements so they wanted to beef up security.
Months later I ran into a couple of the survivors of the half that went to the Infantry. Almost every man in that group had been killed or wounded in the push across southern Germany. I counted my blessings.
The next ride was in the back of a "deuce and a half,” otherwise known as a 2 ˝ ton truck. There was no cover over the back end and we sat, fully exposed, eating dust and wondering what to do if we were attacked. We rode through the German city of Aachen. This was the first mass destruction I had seen other than in newsreels. As far as you could see there were solid mounds of rubble from six to ten feet high. Nothing stood taller than that. A narrow, almost one lane street had been cleared right through the heart of the rubble and it seemed like hours before we saw the last bombed out building and reached the further city limits.
One thing that made a permanent impression on me was the phone lines. Literally hundreds of wires lay alongside the street, looking as if every soldier who came through was dragging a phone line behind him. I could imagine the problem a signalcorp lineman would have trying to find any given line out of all this chaos.
It was dusk when we pulled up to a windmill. Yes, a windmill, way out in the middle of some farm land. We got a quick glimpse of the 155 mm "Long Tom" cannon before we were sent to bed to rest up. The first floor of the windmill was a large circular room about 25 feet across. Our group of about 15 men rolled out our sleeping bags on the floor, and I hung my M-1 rifle by the sling on a big wooden peg on the wall.
The big guns fired all night--I was told--but all I heard was the first salvo. I slept through all the noise. When morning came I awoke to find my rifle lying on the floor, along with a loose cartridge. The vibration from the firing had rocked the rifle off the peg. It had dropped butt first, slamming into the floor between the man next to me and my sleeping bag, hard enough to drive the bolt back and eject the round from the chamber. I don’t think he heard it either as we were all dog tired after four days on the road.
A couple of days later I came under fire for the first time. A rag tag crew of Hitler Youth had manhandled an 88 mm cannon into position on a trail through the woods, to fire at us. They managed to get off three rounds before one of our gun crews bore sighted their big gun and destroyed the gun and the youths with one shell.
We were firing into Duisburg, Germany. One of the gun crewmen told me that when they had set up they first fired what is called a ranging round. By pure chance it landed in a fuel and ammunition depot which burned for three days. Our unit, the 272nd Field Artillery had the unique designation as Army Artillery for the "ghost" 15th Army. We were on loan to various units because the 15th Army was strictly a paper army, set up in England to deceive the Germans as to our strength. However after moving to fire into Dusseldorf, Germany, the 15th was activated and moved to the Continent and we got to wear the 15th Army patch, a bright five-sided red and white patch with a red and white "A" superimposed on it. It’s probably one of the rarer World War II shoulder patches.
The night the war ended I was part of a small group assigned to guard our airstrip and the Forward Observer’s spotter plane. Just before dark our lieutenant drove up in his Jeep and brought us a wooden case with assorted bottles for the celebration. We could identify a couple by the labels but naturally we had to taste test the other bottles to see if we could figure out what it was.
One bottle stood out. It was slightly bluish, filled with a clear liquid. The vote was unanimous that it was some sort of torpedo fuel, but I noticed that the level kept dropping.
It didn't take much testing to get all of us pretty well looped. I had a two hour guard shift in the middle of the night. I spent the entire time leaning against a brick wall. When my relief came I hit the cot, only to have it start winding up like an airplane propeller. About three revolutions and I was headed for the door, puking my guts into a nearby bush. I didn't care. The war was over as far as we were concerned, although we had to keep on guarding against possible saboteurs.
The unit started packing almost immediately. We helped clean the big guns, packed everything that moved and greased up everything that might rust. The orders came down for the unit to be shipped to the Pacific for the final assault on Japan.
All the units and individuals were being sent home on a point system. Roughly the longer you had served in Europe the quicker you got to go home. We replacements didn't have enough points to leave town, let alone go home. As a result I was transferred through two more artillery units, each time helping them pack, first an eight-inch howitzer (547th FA ?) unit, then a 12-inch. By the time they got to the States the eights were sent to California and the 12s were demobilized, because by the time they got to the States the war was over in Japan.
In our spare time we were guarding Displaced Persons (DP) camps. In one of them we had more than 4,000 Russians, Estonians, Latvians and a few miscellaneous nationalities. The Russians were the hardest to handle because they were scheduled for a firing squad the moment they reached Russian soil. Many of them had been conscripted by the German Army and forced to fight but that wouldn't stop the bullet with their name on it from their Russian officers.
A couple of my friends and I had "liberated" a small Tromp Jr. race car. Amazingly it was in running condition once we filled it with fresh gas and oil. We used it to patrol the many country roads, because the Russians would get over the wall and steal and rape anything in sight.
One day, as we came around a corner we saw several men walking. When they heard the car one quickly hid something under his overcoat. We aimed our rifles as we pulled up to them and I got out and searched under the overcoat, coming out with a sawed off German army rifle. Not only had the barrel been sawed, but the stock had been cut off as well making it into an overgrown pistol.
About that time an army truck patrol rolled up. We turned the prisoners over to them to take back to our jail and then started off again. The man with me looked the rifle over and then held it over the side and pulled the trigger. The explosion deafened us and the poor man's hand had a blister in the palm the size of a cigarette pack. He took quite a ribbing while we dismantled the rifle and threw parts randomly into the brush.
I pulled jail guard several times. It was interesting, if a bit scary, because all we had was a shed with a barbed wire enclosure around it. The prisoners did nothing but pace back and forth looking for a possible hole they could escape through.
We fed the prisoners a heavy, sour bread. I didn't want to know what was in it, but whenever we got the chance we would divide up a loaf and eat it as a welcome change from our army food. That gives you an idea of the quality of the Army food rations at that time.
At one point we were billeted in civilian homes. We lived upstairs and the owners of the house were relegated to the basement. We were under strict orders not to fraternize with the Germans but compassion won out over regulations and we quickly made friends with the family. I found some fishing tackle and caught several eels. I shared them with the family and was invited to my first fried eel dinner.
Abandoned weapons and ammunition lay about almost everywhere. There were hundreds of the German "potato masher" hand grenades, so named because they looked like their namesake. I found a bunker stacked to the roof with ammunition of every conceivable type, size and shape. I tried out some of the shells in rifles we picked up but managed to jam several of them with cartridges that were the wrong size. The problem was that there were many different shaped cartridges, the difference often so slight as to require a micrometer to detect it.
While we patrolled the area we came across a boathouse on a small stream. There were several racing shells in the building, but every one had a hole or two from rifle bullets. I found a couple of American hand grenades and went "fishing" in the stream with them, but without success. We were trained not to handle the German grenades and "panzer faust" rockets. The name translates to "tank fist," similar to our bazooka rounds used against tanks. A lot of the military equipment had been booby trapped so we left them for the ordinance guys to cleanup.
Walking along a street near our camp, I came across a couple of huge smokestacks. Ready for target practice, I took aim at the topmost bricks. A man came out of the building at the foot of the stack and in good English asked us not to shoot as they were working to get the plant back in operation. When everything was packed and shipped, I would be out of a job. The last artillery convoy rolled out of the ex-German barracks near Stuttgart and I was transferred to the Military Government detachment that was running Stuttgart. This turned out to be the second best job in Germany. There were 275 enlisted men and 270 officers, or as I put it, "One man for each officer and five left over for inspections."
I made a lot of points when I told them I was able to operate a movie projector. They had been looking for someone to handle the theater three nights a week. A further discussion determined that I would be glad to become the Special Serviceperson for the unit. They asked me what I wanted, offering a choice of a second stripe or payment. I picked the obvious and within a couple of days I was a corporal. If I had held out I probably could have gotten a sergeant's stripes.
With the rank came the work. Besides the movie theater I progressed to running the Enlisted Men's Club, a bowling alley, a riding stable, a tennis court and the ultimate, a ski lodge about 50 miles south of Stuttgart. The latter was already established as a shack-up palace where the men took their German girlfriends for the weekend.
I made friends with the Motor Pool sergeant and before long I had a souped up Jeep that would do 75 on the autobahn. This speed demon got me in trouble one day. A civilian car pulled up beside me and the uniformed driver motioned me over. I got out to find out what was going on and got a royal ass-chewing from a bird Colonel. He promised to notify my commanding officer, the MPs and everyone else he could think of, all because I was speeding. I was to be charged with speeding, reckless driving, misuse of government equipment and just about everything else he could sputter at me.
I sweated for about two weeks but never heard another word about the incident. He may have contacted my Colonel but I suspect that the charges were buried because they didn't have anyone else to be the Special Service Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO).
In the intervening years I have picked up only two speeding tickets, despite a heavy foot. The first one was in Fayetteville, NC when I was hurrying to work my first day at WFAY Radio and the second was north of Belle Fourche when I met a Highway Patrolman just as I completed a pass at better than 80.
For a time in Stuttgart I was issued a three quarter ton truck, while my jeep was being worked on. One Sunday I was at the ski lodge and decided to go exploring.
I found a nearby ridge that only had a footpath running to the top. I started up the back of the ridge, curious to see if I could make it all the way. For a hundred yards or so I straddled a "V" shaped ravine but after that it was relatively easy going. Much to the astonishment of the hikers relaxing in the beer garden at the top, I rolled up in my Army truck. Some of the people there told me that nobody had ever gotten any vehicle to the top before.
One of the perks of running the EM club was that I got to goon the beer runs. We would drive to the Dinkelaker brewery and get a truck load of beer kegs. The brewery had been bombed so there was no roof over the loading dock. Very much in order was a beer tap on the wall with a shelf full of empty glasses waiting to be filled.
I'm not much of a drinker, but I was able to handle two or three half-liter glasses of beer in an evening. Dinkelaker was high potency stuff, supposedly at 14 percent alcohol, but it rarely affected me.
One evening the Sgt. Major invited me to go with him to the PX club. The boys running the Post Exchange had commandeered a bar and had fully stocked it, right down to American beer. A high stakes poker game was going on. The sergeant got into the game but it was much too rich for my blood so I watched from the sidelines. The waitress brought over cans of American beer.
I was still 18, and I had never drunk any American beer. My first exposure had been to the German product, so this was a new experience. I don't remember the brand, but the cans had a cone top with a bottle cap closure. I drank one can and was instantly staggering drunk. Looking back I suspect someone spiked the can as a joke, but at the time my main concern was to not fall flat on my face. I made it back to the barracks, but I swore never to drink another American beer.
In April of 1946 I got a "triple-R," a 45-day furlough back in the States for rest, relaxation and recuperation. This meant another boat ride, except this time it would be a round trip, or so I thought.
I got home to find that I had been "Dear John-ed": My high school sweetheart had given up waiting for me and married someone else. It hurt at the time, but it would have changed my life substantially if she had waited. Another fork in the road.
At the end of my furlough I reported to Fort Meade, Maryland, for shipment back to Germany. The Sergeant Major of the shipping company told me, "You've been red-lined on the shipping order, because they don't want any more draftees in the European Theater. We will hold you until we can ship you to Camp Devens, Mass. for discharge."
I pulled out all the stops, telling him about being jilted and that I had a very responsible job waiting for me in Stuttgart. He didn’t promise anything. He did tell me, "Fall out, every time there’s a roll call." Several days went by, with roll calls three times a day. My name was never called. The day to board ship came. I had my bags packed, just in case. My name was called! It was checked off again at the foot of the gangplank and I marched aboard. I stayed out of sight until the ship sailed to ensure against a last minute discovery of the mistake.
A couple of days out I was called to the troop commander’s office. The Colonel said bluntly, "You're not supposed to be on this ship."
I responded, "Sir, they called my name at roll call and again at the gangplank." He looked at me and at some papers in front of him which apparently confirmed my story, then muttered something I couldn't hear, under his breath. He told me, "You’ll have to stay at the replacement depot right by the docks in Bremerhaven and you'll probably go back with this ship."
I told him my complete story, stressing that I had a job waiting for me. He grudgingly agreed, on condition that I get the Sergeant Major to put in a request for me. Was I in for surprise!
When I got off the ship I immediately called Military Government in Stuttgart. When I got the sergeant he informed me that he was the only military person left. The government unit had been replaced by U.S. civilians and I was no longer needed.
Once more I explained my problem and finally talked him into requesting me. I was able to use this verbal confirmation to sidetrack the effort to return me to the States, where I definitely didn't want to go.
When I got to Stuttgart he explained all over again that I wasn’t needed. However he had been looking around and discovered that the Station Compliment Unit for the 7th Cavalry, located in Stuttgart, needed a company clerk. Since I could type, the job was mine. The sergeant unwittingly opened the door to a full scale career for me.
We were located in a small compound, which also contained an Army coffee roaster and bakery. The smells would reach a point where we'd go down and get some fresh coffee, a loaf of bread and a pound of butter and have a feast in the office. The loaves were round, as big as a wheelbarrow wheel with a half-inch thick crust. My mouth waters every time I think of that bread, but it was only good when it was still hot.
In my spare time I started going to the Red Cross facility. They had taken over the Stuttgart Opera house and made it a recreation center for the GIs. One night the Red Cross girls needed someone to be the Master of Ceremonies for the show they were putting on. I volunteered, and although I didn't know it at the time, it would be the start of a 27 year career in radio and TV. I've had a guardian angel looking over my shoulder all my life.
I had made friends with one of the Red Cross girls and she kept on using me to announce the shows and one evening I even became the drummer in a small band that played for dancing. She remarked several times on my voice, saying I ought to be on the radio. After a few weeks of this I decided to see what could be done. My tour of duty was nearly over and I knew if I wanted to stay in Germany that I would have to find something better.
To the rest of the world it's the Army's Armed Forces Radio Service. Uniquely in Germany is was called the American Forces Network. The AFN stations broadcast to their local areas, operating much like a radio network in the States.
Alan, AFN Bremen, 1946
One evening I hopped on a German train and rode to Munich, arriving in fog that limited vision to about 10 feet. I somehow found the AFN studios and announced myself.
The station manager gave me an audition. After listening to me read some news copy he came back and told me that he would like very much to have me on his staff, but that the AFN Headquarters in Frankfort would have to make the decision and request the transfer.
They drove me back to the train station and I promptly fulfilled a childhood dream. With a pack of cigarettes I bribed the engineer to allow me to ride in the cab of the locomotive. I had to stay out of the fireman's way as he shoveled coal and tended the boiler, but I was in seventh heaven. I had always had a love for trains, impressed by the thrill of watching that Boston and Maine steam engine chug into the station in Littleton, New Hampshire when I was a young boy.
When I got back to Stuttgart it was about 1:30 a.m. I managed to get the Motor Pool Sergeant half awake and he grunted approval when I asked for a vehicle. I got three-quarter ton truck full of gas and headed for Frankfurt.
As I got to the outskirts of the city, as dawn was breaking, the clutch went out. The pedal would go clear to the floor without activating the clutch, I managed to shift gears by getting the motor speed just right. Fortunately there was little traffic and the traffic lights were all on yellow.
The AFN studios are in the Frankfurt suburb of Hoechst, in an old castle. I found my way there and parked the truck and went up to the program director's office. There was a big comfortable couch that I crashed on, trying to catch up on my sleep. The program director came into his office about 8:30 and woke me, wanting to know what I was doing on his couch. I spent a few minutes explaining and then he took me down to have breakfast.
After some much needed coffee I was ready to audition. I sailed through the news and a pronunciation list of foreign composers. When I was through he told me that I would have a job if they could get my transfer worked out in time. In the meantime the Motor Pool had repaired my truck. The problem had been caused by a missing cotter pin, which allowed the clutch pedal to slip off the pivot. I was jubilant to say the least as I headed back to Stuttgart. We had quite a celebration at the Red Cross. The girls dug out some champaign and toasted my new job.
I had to sweat it out for a month. Staying in Germany was a real problem as the Army was clearing out all the draftees and sending them home, leaving the occupation to the regular army members. My shipment orders came down for me to report to Bremerhaven to be put on a ship for home. One day before I had to leave my transfer was approved and I reported the next day to AFN headquarters.
My troubles weren't over. The AFN Personnel Officer made no bones about it. "You will have 30 days to make up your mind whether you want to stay. I can't hold you after that." He went on to explain that the Army had just announced a one year enlistment plan for draftees who wanted to become regular army. Apparently there were a lot of draftees that wanted to stay in Europe, so this was one of the very few times that the Army did anything to please its soldiers.
I told him that I would undoubtedly take advantage of the offer. He looked at me rather strangely but didn't comment, other than to offer to handle the paperwork if I decided to enlist.
Somewhere in the conversation at Frankfurt headquarters I mentioned that I had auditioned at Munich and that they wanted me down there. The program director nodded, but that was the last time Munich was mentioned. I would learn that there was a certain amount of rivalry between the stations.
There were two other trainees. We started immediately in what was billed as an announcer's school. Most of the training was informal. We were each assigned an experienced announcer and worked with them, practicing various vocal chores before we were allowed on the air. We spent hours in the record library, both to familiarize ourselves with the music available and to learn how to choose music for a particular show.
It took about 10 days for me to decide that I liked the work and the perks and give the go ahead for my enlistment. Just before Christmas 1946 I changed my dog tags to read RA for regular army. My serial number - 31377138 - didn't change. I still remember the number today, thanks to the multi-thousands of times that I wrote it or said it in response to a question.
This went on for six busy, but relaxed months. I had now found the best job in the Army. The studios and the billets for both the officers and enlisted men were all in the castle. We had a recreation room with a bar and lots of scrip to use to buy drinks. It was as close to a civilian job as you could get in the Army.
In June 1947 I was sent to AFN Bremen as the Morning Man, opening the station at 6 a.m. This was obviously the job they were grooming me for, explaining why I didn't get to go to Munich.
In Bremen we were housed in a mansion that had been requisitioned by the Army. We had private rooms on the second floor and the studios and offices were on the main floor. By coincidence it was only a couple of blocks from where Lisa and her parents had lived.
It was here that I saw my first tape recorders. We were using wire recorders until the Germans invented the tape recorder. Two of the monsters--almost as big as a refrigerator--graced our master control room.
The staff was something else. One of the announcers was a mortician. Another could have given Hugh Heffner lessons. The Sgt. Major was a completely bald, permanently drunk man who carried a live parrot on his shoulder wherever he went. The program director was a civilian and we had one other civilian as an announcer. The Commanding Officer of the station was a Captain.
We had several Germans working for us. The chief engineer, the cleaning staff and the switchboard operators were all Germans. One of the switchboard girls caught my eye. Well actually she caught my ear because of her deep voice on the phone. In any event, after she moved to a job as the Captain's secretary I began courting her and on the 8th of October 1948 I married Liselotte Schellenberger.
Lisa, Alan, and her mother Rosie on wedding day
This was perhaps a throwback to my roots. My original family name had been Masslich on my father's side and mother’s maiden name was Semelroth, two good German names.
Getting married was no small task. By the time we said our vows we had a stack of paperwork about four inches thick. The Army was not at all thrilled with the idea of our troops marrying German girls and put every possible obstacle in our path. At first we had been forbidden to fraternize with the Germans, especially the girls, but the authorities finally relented to a limited degree, since the decree was virtually impossible to enforce.
In the course of dotting all the I’ s and crossing all the T's we were confronted by a Chaplain, a Catholic Priest, who told Lisa bluntly that she should turn away from me (raised a Baptist) and find someone of her own faith to marry.
I was upset, fearing that he might actually throw a monkey wrench into the process and prevent us from marrying. Lisa was downright mad, angry if you will. She was only intermittently a practicing Catholic although her mother was a devout churchgoer. Lisa stormed out of the Chaplain's office and to the best of my knowledge, never set foot in a Catholic Church again. Over the years I would have two more experiences with church authority that had a direct influence on my life.
Lisa and I were married in the Bremen Marriage Bureau in city hall. Besides all the Army papers we had a double handful of German documents covering Lisa's past history, army service and work records.
For our honeymoon we went to a small rented apartment in Bad Pyrmont, a lovely health resort that Lisa had visited many times before the War and where I had gone with her several times. We returned to Bremen to find that we were not married! At least not in the Army's eyes. Dutifully we went through a second marriage by an Army Chaplain (Thankfully not the Catholic Priest) to make it official.
Lisa had quite a history, as I learned over the years as she told me of her adventures. For some time she had been going by the name of Monica but I got used to using her real first name, calling her Lisa. She had been an interpreter in the German court system in France, spending most of her time in Paris. Later, she was a Lieutenant in the aircraft spotting service in Wilhelmshaven, on the German North Sea coast, west of Bremen.
Lisa in 1947
She told of a wild night when she was hitchhiking home from Wilhelmshaven. A truck driver saw her uniform and stopped for her. As soon as she got in the truck he told her that if they were attacked she should run as far away as possible.” Why" was the natural question. "I'm carrying a load of torpedoes!" She stuck with the truck, there was no attack and she got safely to Bremen, but with one or two grey hairs to show for her ride.
As the war neared an end, Lisa, like thousands of other German army personnel, deserted her post in Wilhelmshaven and went back to Bremen. She and her mother spent a week in a bunker as the war raged around them, the Canadians finally taking Bremen.
Half starved, they discovered that some foragers had found a nearby bunker reserved for the Nazi bigwigs. It was piled to the ceiling with ham, butter, sausage and other goodies that they hadn’t seen since the beginning of the war. They were able to get enough food to live on for several weeks.
Lisa's father was a prominent architect who designed many of the big buildings in Bremen and was noted for designing one of the large airplane manufacturing plants there. Early in the war he was denounced as a Jew, in a full page ad in the Bremen paper. Despite ample proof that he was not a Jew, the stigma stuck and the uproar shattered an already weakened heart. He died of a heart attack in 1942.
Mother Rose had always led a sheltered life, but she was tough and took on the job of keeping the family home intact. Tragically, because of the constant threat of bombing she had the entire household goods shipped to Munich for storage. A month later the Munich warehouse was destroyed in a bombing raid and they lost everything. Later they lost the palatial home (not far from the AFN studios) and she and Lisa had to make do with a tiny apartment.
Lisa had no brothers, but she did have a sister, Gertrude, who was 10 years younger. Neither Lisa nor her mother spoke much about Gertrude, who moved to England with her lesbian lover before the war. Gertrude died in the 1980s, an event which we only found out about several months later.
Lisa's relatives were--in a word--money hungry. She had one rich aunt who was her favorite, who had traveled extensively. An uncle and his family lived in Bremen, barely surviving on a meager pension. The branch of the family in Leer in western Germany owned the ferry line to the island of Borkum off the north coast, a highly lucrative business as the island was both a tourist Mecca and a health resort.
One of the family was a lawyer, who used his knowledge to take over the rich aunt's estate, rather than it going to Lisa as intended. While we were in Germany Lisa broke with most of the family members and never contacted them again. I have never had any contact with them even when Lisa died.
Prior to working at AFN, Lisa had spent several months in a German hospital after breast reduction surgery. Without medicines the surgery became infected and it seemed impossible to stop. She survived, after several months in the hospital, with massive scarring that she bore for the rest of her life.
Prior to that she had worked for the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division, again as an interpreter. She spoke both fluent French and fluent English, besides her native "High” German.
High German is spoken only in two small areas, including Bremen and the Hanover district. Lisa's language came into question many years later when we were in Bavaria. We went to a government office and the clerk asked us our business in one of the strongest Bavarian accents I've ever heard. The U.S. South had nothing on this!
Lisa told her what we needed. The clerk, who apparently had never traveled out of her native village, looked at her and remarked, (In Bayerish) "What a comical accent!" Lisa was irate but held her tongue as we badly needed papers from this office. She let loose when we got outside, but I'll draw a veil over her unladylike comments about the clerk, her ancestry and Bavarians in general.
German is a poor language to swear in. There are only a small handful of words that fit the anger. Calling someone a "dummkoff" (dumb head) is about as strong as it gets. Insulting is much easier--just use ‘du' to a stranger rather than the accepted ‘sie' and be ready to run.
One of the other AFN Bremen announcers got to interview Bob Hope when he gave a performance nearby. Later Bob did come to the station and shook hands all around, so I got to meet him for 10 seconds.
My very first interview was with General Omar Bradley. I don’t remember what we talked about but I was scared silly that I would ask the wrong question, say the wrong thing or in someway bring down the wrath of a five star General on my head. I didn’t get fired so I guess I did all right.
The same can't be said for an incident that happened while I was at AFN Bremen. The main studio at Frankfurt had a master control room where an engineer gave the announcer cues and controlled the microphones, the two looking at each other through a triple glass soundproof window which stopped most noise. As in all broadcast studios there was a big red light that was on when the microphones were on.
The engineers had been working on the main studio installing different equipment. While they were working they temporarily disconnected the red warning light. The announcer, just coming on duty noticed the light was out and addressed a zinging flurry of expletives at the control engineer. The engineer replied in kind, suggesting the announcer get his head out of his XXXXX and do some work. The problem was that the announcer’s microphone was "hot" and the engineer's comments coming on the talk back circuit along with the words of the announcer all went on the air.
This wouldn't have been quite as serious a problem if the Frankfurt studios were the only source airing the conversation. The bad news was that they were hooked to the entire AFN network in Europe, going out from transmitters in Bremen, Munich, Berlin and Beyruth (Short Wave).
In a matter of minutes Program Directors and Station Managers at all of the branch stations were being bombarded by calls from two- and three-star generals. Each one thought the profanity came from the local station and each General was looking for blood. When it was all straightened out, the focus was on Frankfurt. The announcer was taken off the air and the engineer was fired and sent to the Infantry. I learned some time later that the announcer was quietly reinstated, but the engineer never got his job back.
A much more humorous event involved one of the trainees. We had an afternoon program of classical music fed to the network from Munich. It was officially titled "Outpost Concert.” Around the Frankfurt studio we privately called it "Outhouse Concert." One afternoon the line from Munich went out. Well trained; the trainee filled with a standby classical album. When service to the network stations was restored he gave the standard” Due to technical difficulties our program was interrupted. Service having been restored, we now return you to OUTHOUSE POSTER!"
When I moved to Bremen I took over the slot as Morning Man, opening the station at 6 a.m. and playing records. My unofficial theme song was Rex Morgan's "So Tired." I played it a couple of times and the requests poured in for it, so for a number of months it got played just about every morning. Apparently the soldiers going back to the States kept on requesting it because it went through a revival there as well.
The Bremen Enclave was a small island of U.S. controlled territory in the midst of the British Zone. The Enclave included Bremerhaven, the seaport where all our supplies came in and troops shipped back to the States.
I quickly gained a large audience among the Americans and it wasn't long before I started getting a lot of mail from the British Zone as well. Their soldiers seemed to like much the same music, so I was able to satisfy both factions quite easily. I played a mix of swing, jazz and country. We had a fantastic record library with over 100,000 selections.
The Army started a program allowing soldiers on occupation duty to have personal cars. There were few cars available in Europe so they used empty cargo ship space to ship cars from the States. The folks had gotten a car, so I had them ship their 1932 Chevrolet pickup to me. They drove it down from New Hampshire to New York where it was loaded on a ship.
When it arrived, I needed Army plates and registration. That posed a problem as nowhere in the regulations did it mention trucks. I finally registered it as a Chevrolet "car."
I got several letters inviting me to come and visit the British units. One semi-official invitation came from the Sergeant's Mess in Oldenburg, about 40 miles from Bremen. I took Lisa along and we drove to Oldenburg.
When we arrived at the Sergeant's Mess, it was just after supper and the place was full. We sat at a monster of a table, a huge oval that seated 14 comfortably. Before the evening was over every man at the table ordered a round of drinks. I asked for two beers and Lisa and I nursed them through the evening.
The Brits were drinking a mix called a "twitch." It was composed of a double shot of peach brandy and a double shot of British issue rum, which is 180 proof. They told me that the drink was named because of the twitches the drinker suffered the next day. The after effects certainly didn't stop them from drinking one, or more usually, several.
In the course of the conversation I learned that I was in the midst of a British ordinance depot where all of their vehicles were being brought in from all over Europe and processed, making any necessary repairs and then returning the refurbished trucks to their occupation units.
I was telling them about my problems trying to upgrade my Chevy truck. I had replaced the cab with one from a 10 ton Dodge wrecker I found in a German junkyard. I was in the process of getting a camper box made for the rear. One of the senior sergeants spoke up and said, "Bring it down some morning and we'll add a few parts."
By the time we ended the evening I was drunk, even though I had stuck to beer for the entire time. I remember leaving Oldenburg and arriving in Bremen, but nothing of the trip in-between. It scared me enough so that I resolved never to drive when I had been drinking, an edict that I have stuck to ever since.
A couple of weeks later the opportunity arose and I headed for Oldenburg again. The British had taken over the entire airfield and they had thousands upon thousands of trucks in neat rows.
They took my truck and disappeared with it. I learned later that they stripped off the front fenders, bumper, and the grille. In a matter of a couple of hours they installed a complete front end, assembled from several Dodge trucks, even welding together a hood to march the cab I already had. As the final touch they had spray painted everything, so it looked like a new truck. When I drove home I had a Dodge truck on the outside and a Chevrolet pickup underneath. With so many trucks they had a lot that were not repairable so there were plenty of parts to cannibalize.
By the time I got finished fixing the truck up I had two gas tanks, a steel-sided camper box and a trumpet horn on the cab roof that you could hear for a mile. My unofficial count indicated that I had parts from at least 15 different vehicles and three or four airplanes. I got a lot of the wiring from a crashed B-17 that I ran across.
The completed truck was ready and Toby, a fellow announcer, and I took a furlough and headed across Europe. He was not a smoker and he had saved his ration for this trip, so we started out with 33 cartons of cigarettes, eight pounds of coffee and some miscellaneous tobacco and other items.
The camper was big enough to put two Army cots in, with a foot locker under each one, and a narrow aisle down the middle.. We hid the smokes in the door panels and above the roof lining.
We started from northern Germany into Holland. We blew a rear tire on the outskirts of Amsterdam and traded cigarettes for two brand new heavy duty truck tires. We had to cut the wheel wells out to handle the big tires, but once we got them mounted we didn't have to worry about the dead weight of the camper. The camper, although made of thin sheet steel, was a serious weight factor.
We got to Paris and parked in front of the Eiffel tower for a picture, then headed south. Before we got out of Paris a big truck slammed into the passenger door. Fortunately the damage was minor, but we had to move the cigarettes out of the door. About 100 miles south of Paris there was a loud bang and we stopped moving. One of the rear axles had broken.
We were in a small town, but the local garage was willing to work on the truck. They contacted the General Motors parts depot in Paris and found they had one axle left that would fit the truck. It took three days to get it to the garage and get the truck fixed. We were bored stiff. Nobody seemed to speak English and it wasn't until the last day that we discovered a newsstand with a copy of the European Edition of Time Magazine in English.
We got to southern France in the dark. We hit a detour and then missed one of the detour signs and ended up on a railroad trestle. The first part was planked over, but half way across the planks ended and we dropped between the ties, stuck fast.
We worked for more than two hours to get the truck loose, hauling planks to fill the gap and get us back on the solid footing. The whole time we were stuck we kept one eye on the track, expecting a train at any minute, even though there was a train strike at the time.
Once we were back on solid deck, we backed off the trestle and then slowly retraced our route, finally finding the tiny sign that sent us through a wall of brush, a barnyard, and back on the highway. We kept driving until I started seeing two diverging roads and then pulled off on the edge of a large city.
When morning came I woke up to find we were surrounded by curious people. Since we had one of the first campers of the time, most had never seen a rig like this.
We drove on into northern Italy. We drove to Rome and then turned around and headed for Bremen. Both tanks were nearly dry so we bought some gas from a local and started on our way. As it turned out the gas was black market 100 octane aviation fuel, which ruined the valves and slowed our progress quite a bit.
Back in Germany we rolled through the Black Forest only to have the other rear axle break. We had tanked up with normal gas and the truck ran somewhat better so this seemed like the crowning touch to our trip. We found a garage where the mechanic agreed to make us an axle. Toby took a train back to Bremen and I stayed with the truck. A five gallon can of gas, two GI blankets and two cartons of cigarettes paid for making and installing the new axle.
When I drove into Bremen, I parked the truck in the station parking lot and didn't go near it for a month. Then I took it in and had new valves installed and it ran just fine.
Another of my purchases was a 16 foot inboard motor boat, which cost me eight pounds of coffee. We had a place to keep it on the banks of the Weser river, which runs through Bremen. When I got ready to go back to the States I sold it, but I don't recall what I got for it.
Back to the States
Our marriage set a deadline. Up until a couple of months before we were married the Army required any soldier marrying a German girl to be out of the country in 30 days. By the time we married it had been raised to 60 days and a couple of months after we left the ban was dropped entirely.
If we had stayed I would have had a good chance at a civilian job, working for the Army, doing exactly what I had been doing while in uniform, and getting paid $500 a month to boot. We could have lived on half that or less and still lived a life of luxury. Again I passed a milestone in my life, taking one fork at the crossroads, never knowing if I had picked the right one.
Lisa's mother gave us three diamonds that were some of the few things she had saved. We had two of them made into rings by an upscale jeweler in Bremen. She also gave us Lisa's father's watch and we used the gold in the inner cover to make our wedding rings. Lisa's diamond ring later went to my stepdaughter Leona and my ring will go to stepson Larry.
I got another ride on a General Class troop ship, again deep below decks. The German war brides got to live in Officer's Country, above the main deck, in nice cabins. We husbands were forbidden to visit their quarters. However neither they nor we got to enjoy the voyage. We hit a storm one day out of Bremerhaven and we were in it almost until the lights of New York could be seen.
Neither Lisa nor I got sea sick, although we had close calls. I stayed on deck as much as possible, but on one evening the motion got to me and I went below to the latrine to throw up. When I entered the room the stench was so terrible that I turned on my heel and went back up on deck. The fresh air calmed my stomach and from then on I had no problem. I had been offered $800 for the truck, but stubbornly I decided to take it back to the States, at the Army's expense. New vehicles were almost impossible to get after the war and used ones were selling at a high premium. They dropped it while they were unloading it from the ship at New York, wrecking it, so I never received a cent for it.
Two things of importance happened to me in New York, I wound up as a contestant on a radio program called "Name that Tune,” or something similar.
Still in uniform, I named the song the studio orchestra played as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." The MC said I was wrong and I returned to my seat in confusion. A few minutes later he made the announcement that the song actually had two titles and the judges said my answer was correct! My prize was a monster Philco console radio.
The second was the chance to audition for an official of the NBC Radio Network. They didn't offer me a job, but they did put me on their preferred list of announcers. I came that close to a job in New York.
Alan and Lisa arriving in New York (above two Xs) on a General Class troop ship on December 7, 1948
I received one offer as a result, from a station in Cincinnati. I made a recording on a vinyl disk, but my heart wasn't in it because I really didn't care for big city life. They turned me down so I got my wish.
These stories "are excerpts from an autobiography, 'From Private to Governor.' A play on words, as I am currently on the Board of Governors of the American Numismatic Association, which has 32,000 members. My pastor, who has heard a lot of my stories, agrees with me that I had a guardian angel on my shoulder through Korea."