At fifty-two degrees below zero it takes but a moment for human flesh to freeze to metal. Unless withdrawn immediately, the only way to separate oneself from the icy point of contact is to tear the skin loose. At that temperature bleeding isn’t a problem, at least until later when the affected area starts to thaw. Not that it really matters, for frostbite kills the frozen skin anyway, leaving a blackened spot that turns to gangrene unless the offending area is amputated. I was lucky – I lost the skin and toenails on just six of my toes, instead of amputating the whole toes, as did many of my buddies. The reason I fared so well is that I had harvested a magnificent pair of felt lined boots from off the body of a dead Russian soldier. He wouldn’t miss them, and I desperately needed their protection from the cold Russian winter of 1941. Before the war, who would even think about stealing boots from a dead man? No honorable German would. Now it was a necessity. The sub-zero cold taught us many lessons. Your rifle, for example, could be counted on for just one shot – then it would jam. I saw the deadly consequence of that problem after returning from a bitterly cold patrol, one night. One of the fellows with whom I shared the Russian house we Germans had commandeered came in from the cold and placed his machine gun on the oven above the fireplace. He then turned his back towards the fire to warm himself, with the muzzle pointed directly at his back. Someone in our group asked if that was wise, to which he confidently replied that the weapon was unloaded. Indeed, he had unloaded the clip himself just before placing the gun on the stove. What he forgot is that he had tried to shoot a second round earlier in the evening, which had jammed in the breech. So, even though he’d unloaded the clip of bullets, the one unremembered bullet still remained in the chamber. This soldier would never know the end of the story or recognize his mistake, for thirty seconds later the explosion of a single shell shattered the serenity of the room. The bullet ripped through this poor fellow’s back, exiting out his front, only to be deflected into the leg of one of our comrades. One German dead and one German wounded; casualties of the Russian winter. It seems that cold affects more than just inanimate objects like a machine gun; even the mind loses its abilities and judgments in such conditions. These are just two instances out of hundreds that come to my mind as I recall those grueling days in Russia. In the quiet moments of that winter, I contemplated how I had come to be in this place so far away from home. As just one insignificant foot soldier amid the four million Germans who slogged through the endless Russian landscape in support of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, I suffered with all the others. Still, despite the adverse conditions, German morale was generally positive. Although stopped short of entering Moscow, we still held vast swaths of Russian territory and our Spartan German upbringing prepared us to endure even the vicissitudes of this foul weather. We fully expected that with the return of spring our offensive would renew and victory would be ours. That cheered most of my comrades who fought out of patriotic duty. But it depressed me, for I had felt from the beginning that Germany was doomed to failure in this war, and I ached to think of the unnecessary suffering it would cause for my fellow citizens as well as those with whom we waged war. I had but two hopes of personal survival; my faith in God and a secret promise I made with him before I ever picked up a weapon1.
Herbert Ludwig: A German Soldier Who Never Killed the Enemy
These introductory paragraphs are excerpted from a 1995 manuscript by Herbert Kurt Ludwig and the author. Ludwig was an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who served in the German infantry in World War II. His journey through World War II took him from the freezing steppes of Russia to the burning sands of North Africa, where he served as a motorcycle messenger in the headquarters of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Along with a 136,000 other Germans, he was abandoned by his country in North Africa, facing new dangers, opportunities, and challenges throughout the rest of the war.
Through it all, Ludwig believed his life was preserved in miraculous ways. For example, in 1942 when his military group was transferred from the Russian Front to France, the men who exited the railroad cars were called to stand at attention. Then, in succession, each army group was commanded to step forward to identify themselves; Regiment, Battalion, Company. When Ludwig’s unit numbers were called he was the only one to step forward. All others with whom he started the war had been wounded or killed. He was the lone survivor out of more than 1,000 who started the campaign.
But that’s only one part of the story. Not only did Herbert Ludwig survive, but he did so without ever having killed another person; not a single enemy. It’s impossible to tell how many others like him go into war without believing that their country is in the right, but so it was for Ludwig. From the first moment he discerned that Germany was likely to start a second world war, he was convinced that they were on the wrong side of history and that God would humble the German people for their hubris. As an active member of the Church, he felt it was wrong to kill or injure the Allies who were fighting for freedom. Here is what he wrote about the night he received his draft notice:
But then one night my ordinary life as a farmer changed; the noise at the gate, the two men with a letter for Herbert Ludwig; the notification of the draft for me. It stated time, place, day and hour when I would have the great honor to join the ‘mighty and victorious army of the Fuehrer,’ and how proud I could be to put my life in the service of my Fatherland. Now, I guess under normal conditions in peace time, or at a time where for some reason the land needed to be defended, the feeling would have been different. How did I feel? I can’t describe it, being torn between being anxious to see the world and knowing that all was wrong and had to end in disaster… How can you describe the feelings? There was a fire burning and I was called to put more fuel on it, not to extinguish it. You knew within yourself it was all wrong, you should not support the government, but the German government was not a democracy. You could not object. So, off I went, with one last look and waving of hands for goodbye2.
A German, but Not a Nazi
Just how did this young German man conclude that his country was in error and that God would ultimately punish them—particularly since Adolf Hitler was so highly revered for rebuilding the German economy and putting people back to work? After defeat in World War I, most Germans felt it was time for Germany to rise again to a leading role in world affairs. They enthusiastically supported the great new “Millennium of Germany,” where the Third Reich would dominate Europe for a thousand years. Yet, Ludwig felt differently. His sense of doom was born out of childhood experiences that recognized the cruelty and dehumanization of the Nazis, as well as from his church membership, which brought him many contacts with Americans. Unlike his neighbors, who viewed the world strictly through the lens of Nazi party propaganda, Ludwig and his family had a broader perspective. He loved Germany, but wanted nothing to do with the Nazis. But to refuse to serve was treason and would bring down wrath not just on him, but on his family and even on the other members of his church. That was a risk he was not willing to take, so he marched off to war, conflicted as he went.
In the end, Herbert Ludwig trained well and served in a way that was consistent with his beliefs. A star student in school, he was a quick learner in the military, which served him well in all the theaters of war in which he served. These included Russia, the French Riviera, and North Africa. But, in all the situations he encountered, he was somehow able to keep his promise to God and to himself, which was this:
In all my activities, frustrations and suffering by the hands of the enemy, I will say this: never had I the desire to kill for revenge or punish the opposing one; and whenever a direct confrontation or situation arose, the Lord showed forth his hand and I did not have to squeeze the trigger, Him of course knowing the desire of my heart and seeing the hesitation of my trigger finger. Yes, the Lord lives even in atrocities and the slaughter and horror of war3.
In other words, Herbert Ludwig promised that he would not kill another person in war. Now that is a difficult thing to do, for if any other soldier or officer suspected him, he would be charged with dereliction of duty, subject to court-martial and potential execution. The stakes could not be higher.
Chance or Divine Intervention?
Here are three instances where Ludwig felt he received divine help to keep his promise:
As we pushed forward, day after day, we of course sustained losses in tanks and equipment, but what hurt most was the loss of men—our friends and buddies. We lost five out of our original twelve; two died and three were wounded. That wasn’t enough to call the war off, however, and replacements soon took their place. One day, as the new men were trying to figure things out, we were sent into a town that had been captured the day before. There was still resistance in some areas, so we went in for ‘cleanup.’ This was the most terrifying of all duties, for snipers or guerillas could hide in any one of a thousand places. You had no idea who to trust, for the little child that seemed harmless could be drawing you into a trap. On this occasion, I was moving down the street by myself when I came upon a bunker. Somehow, I sensed that there were people inside, so I moved forward even more cautiously than usual. Not cautiously, enough, apparently, for suddenly I heard the shouted Russian words, ‘Hands Up – Hands Out!” But before I could do anything, I saw the flash of a muzzle and felt the particles of burning gunpowder hit my face. I’d been shot at from point blank range, but somehow the bullet missed! I was whole, even though it was totally impossible. My poor guardian angel drew extra duty that day. Falling to a crouching position, I slowly loosened my two hand grenades, hating what I felt I must now do. Just then two of my buddies came up to me and, hearing my warning, quickly lobbed their grenades inside the bunker. I watched the grenades roll into the building, then felt the sickening rumble of multiple explosions. Dust flew as the ancient building collapsed in on its inhabitants. There wasn’t even a human sound to haunt my ears, no moaning or crying. The silence tormented me, for I knew the fate that had befallen those men who moments before had crouched in anxious darkness. Yet, it was not my hand that destroyed them. Had the Lord sustained me by staying my hand? I believed so at the time. Not that the results were any different, or that my buddies were any less worthy than I. It’s just that I had made a promise not to shed innocent blood, if at all possible, and this seemed to indicate that the Lord would sustain me in that promise. I left the scene heartbroken that I had to be part of such a thing, yet grateful for life and for my escape from completing such an awful deed.4
On another occasion, Ludwig came under suspicion for not taking easy shots against fleeing Russian civilians and military. In his mind, the course of action he took, and the consequence that quickly followed were the most powerful evidence yet that he was sustained in his promise:
One day we were in progress of over-running a village. From the point where I was, I could see lots of people fleeing from us; their lower extremities were obscured by a fence, but their upper torso, shoulders and heads were clearly in view and in range. Most of my unit was standing there taking aim with their rifles and let go. I was also standing there, the gun at my side, watching the incredible; they were actually aiming at human beings as if they were stray dogs! While lost in these thoughts I was startled by my corporal shouting and cursing at me because I was not shooting. So, I raised my rifle and aimed very carefully two feet over the Russian’s heads, and then let go; . . . Did I ever receive an answer to prayer with a lesson that day! After we had taken the village, there were still some big Russian guns sitting in the distance, ready to blast us. My buddy and I were standing on the corner of a barn with a thatched straw roof, our heads almost touching the roof when it happened. We must have been looking straight into the muzzle of the large gun when it fired. Flash! A shadow for less than a split second and a swoosh just two feet above us through the roof. Two feet! No time to act; but at the same moment an impression, or you could say a voice which let me know for the rest of my life, “Just as you had aimed!” Nothing more, nothing less; what a lesson. “Thank you, Lord!” If this shell had hit a piece of lumber while going through the roof, our lives would have ended there and I would have found my rest. How can I forget such a lesson? All the days of my life it rings, “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” To this day, even if I feel justified to act, I always ask myself, “would you want them to do it to you?”
For the rest of his life, Ludwig spoke of aiming two feet high and the shell that intended to kill him passing two feet above him as his personal miracle. The two were indelibly paired in his mind.
Later that month Ludwig had another close encounter while doing cleanup to roust out any Russian soldiers hiding in a town the Germans had recently occupied:
Later that day the order came to divide our group in half so we could make a split counter-attack that night. If a battle during daylight is a bad experience, one at night is incredible: it was impossible to tell which houses were still ours; to see the enemy; to even knew if we were going in the right direction. Amid all the shooting, shouting, and yelling for help, two of us entered a darkened house. Inside there was not sound, yet intuitively I sensed that someone hiding inside. While my buddy was covering the door against the surprise of hand grenades, I moved into a second room. Even though I entered it as quietly as possible, I couldn’t help but make some shuffling noise. At the same moment, the enemy soldier who was hiding in there also made a noise, which startled me. Instinctively I jumped up, right into his body, as it turned out. Rifles were useless at that close range, so I let go with my fist, launching a strong uppercut that caught him somewhere on his neck or his head. It was enough to knock him off balance, which gave me time to race for the front door. I heard him moving in the opposite direction towards the door from which he must have entered. He had plenty of time to escape before we threw in the hand grenades. Why he failed to shoot when I first entered the room, I’ll never know. He clearly had the drop on me and could have killed me. But once again, I escaped with both my life and my promise.
In a chilling to the aftermath to this story, Ludwig adds that at this point in the war the German High Command issued new orders for nighttime fighting. Torches were applied to the Russian farmhouses, sending them up in flames, solely for the purpose of providing light by which the Germans could advance. About the brutality Ludwig witnessed during the war, he said, "I prayed to God that I might keep my humanity. While others lusted for destruction, I secretly wept for our lost innocence. ‘Please, I prayed, ‘help us hold onto that which gives life value!'"
For an in-depth look at more of Herbert Ludwig's experiences during WWII and his memories of being a prisoner of war, go to the second page of this article.
Images from Wikimedia Commons. Lead image of German troops parading through Warsaw, Poland. Other image of German troops crossing the Soviet border during Operation Barbarossa.
Invisible Heroes of World War II, documents ten fascinating true stories of a diverse group of soldiers and noncombatants from all over the world, including African Americans, women, and Native Americans who worked and fought to keep the world safe from tyranny and oppression. Some were frontline soldiers and spies, while others were engineers, industry workers, or war correspondents and photographers. Without much fanfare, these heroes made noteworthy contributions to the war effort. Some even gave their lives for freedom and liberty. All served with valor and distinction, and their names should never be forgotten.
- Pat Patton: Abandoned at Bataan
- Nancy Wake: The White Mouse of the French Resistance
- Joseph Hyalmar Anderson: Missing in Action
- Joseph Medicine Crow: The Last War Chief
- Dickey Chapelle: American Journalist
- Navajo Code Talkers: Heroes of the Pacific War
- The Purple Heart Battalion: Rescuing the Texas 1st
- Combat Engineers: Builders and Soldiers
- African Americans at War: Heroes Despite Prejudice
- Rosie the Riveter: Women in the War Industries
Grinding to a Halt–Fleeing in Panic
As the Germans waited outside Moscow in the dead of winter, the Muscovites did their very best to remain quiet. All lights in the city were darkened at nighttime, and stealth was the order of the day. The last thing Stalin wanted was to provide an obvious target for German artillery. For the Germans, it was an almost eerie experience to be on the edge of a great city where four million hearts beat, yet to be surrounded by total darkness and absolute silence. The only way the city came into view at nighttime was in silhouette when bombs lit up the sky behind the buildings. Ludwig’s days in Russia were numbered. He describes what happened when the Russian’s mounted a massive counterattack against the encamped Germans:
I remember the night before the Russian attack very well, for I spent it next to one of my friends who spent most of the night gazing at a picture of his family. He told me over and over again that he would never see them again. Nothing I could do or say would comfort him. It seemed impossible, for we were so close to victory. Yet, he was a prophet, for on the morning of the next day, December 6th, shortly after we began to advance towards the city we heard a roaring sound—but unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It wasn’t the sound of aircraft or guns that created such a dreadful feeling; it was the sound of Russian voices, shouting in an ever-increasing frenzy. Soon the German soldiers in front of us started running back towards us shouting, “Go back, Go back!” The Russians had launched their counter-attack, and it would be fatal for my unfortunate friend. As I started to run with my comrades all thoughts of victory left my mind. Panic ruled the scene. While dashing through an open field I came upon a German officer who was crying like a baby. We Germans didn’t know how to retreat, it seems, for we’d never had that experience. I grabbed the young officer and brought him to his feet, hoping he’d start running again. I didn’t have time to drag him, though, so let go and kept on running as fast as I could. With lungs crying out for air, I’d gained enough distance to pause by another young German soldier who’d been shot in the head. A few of his friends had stopped to help him. His last words, were, ‘You guys are some buddies.” All I could think is that I didn’t want to die here in Russia. Behind me I again heard the swelling noise of thousands of Russian voices. The intensity of their fury flooded my body with adrenaline, and I raced ahead faster than ever before.5
France and North Africa
Transferred to France, Ludwig discovered that there were some openings for motorcycle drivers. He recognized this as the perfect opportunity to continue his military service, but in a non-infantry role. Motorcycle messengers had two jobs; take orders that were too sensitive to broadcast over radio directly to the field commanders and to give rides to officers in the sidecar of the motorcycle. He applied for the position and passed all the tests, but still had trouble receiving approval. The problem was that at this point he was the most experienced machine gunner in the group, and his leaders didn’t want to release him. If only they knew how intentionally ineffective he was in using his machine gun. Fortunately, a senior officer liked his style and intervened to get him transferred as a messenger to the officer’s unit.
That was such a blessing for me, for they replaced it with what became my beloved BMW motorcycle. What a machine it was! Four forward gears, drive-on-side-car, and three extra gears for rough going – plus one reverse gear. What a beauty! Even so, the rain prevailed and shortly after getting my new motorcycle I once again got stuck in a puddle. I hailed a passing Arab with two mules. He was willing to help, but not the mules, even his big stick did not convince them. Who invented mules, anyway? After a short time, a German halftrack came by and pulled me out6.
During the rainy season, German cargo ships were successful in crossing the Mediterranean to resupply the troops and tank companies. The weather grounded Allied planes. It was so bad that there was also little combat activity on the ground. But once the rains stopped, the battle was back on. The Germans immediately launched an assault on the American tank positions and quickly overran them by twenty miles. “The Americans did not have much experience.” Capturing American equipment was awe-inspiring for the Germans; “With all the equipment we inherited from that attack we could have repulsed a full division!” 7 But the best discovery was a trove of American K-rations and C-rations. The American canned food was a luxury for the Germans. The best discovery of all was that the American 105-millimeter guns could not penetrate the new German Tiger Tanks. That’s what enabled them to so easily overrun the American position. Ludwig was impressed by how well the Germans treated the American prisoners – far better than how they treated the Russians. “At least some degree of sanity here.”
As the season continued, the German lines were constantly harassed by the British. On more than one occasion British aircraft did their best to chase down the motorcycle riders, knowing that they carried important intelligence to aid the German cause.
It was about this time that a young German officer took a liking to Ludwig. He got himself assigned as a permanent passenger in Ludwig’s sidecar, except when engaged in battle when the officer had to be at the front lines. Ludwig was impressed with his knowledge and suspected that there was more to him than just another under-officer. Sure enough, six weeks later the officer was transferred to Erwin Rommel’s headquarters as a specialist. Ludwig was sad to see him go, but the fellow promised that he would be back for him.
A few weeks later, Ludwig observed a German ruse that trapped the Americans. Rommel moved forty to fifty tanks out into the open in the middle of a large valley. After a time of inactivity, the tanks rolled forward, turned, completed a loop, and moved back to the original position. The Americans took the bait and moved in to capture this small group of arrogant Germans. But Rommel had positioned his Tiger tanks and artillery in the mountains that flanked the valley, well out of the Americans line of sight, and at just the right moment they opened fire. The Americans were trapped in the crossfire. By nightfall the Germans had destroyed some 240 tanks and taken thousands of prisoners of war. It was a great battle won, “but still we lost the war!” At the time, Ludwig was glad for the victory, for he thought it was awful of the Americans to attack on Sunday. His father cautioned him not to let his anger at the enemy get the best of him. Good advice, considering what was to come.
The next thing to happen to Ludwig was to be transferred to the field headquarters of Field Marshal Rommel. His young officer-friend kept his word. This was an exciting and interesting period in his military service. Once each day he and the other messengers had to take secret orders by mouth only (so that paper copies could never fall into enemy hands) out to the Division Headquarters, and bring reports back. He records that sometimes he was dispatched in the early morning hours with instructions to have a military unit change position, and then watched at 2:00 a.m. as the men in the unit scrambled to comply. Men were almost always tired in war because of disturbed sleep.
Captured by the British
As brilliant a general as Erwin Rommel was, he was simply outnumbered, both by men and equipment. Plus, he was essentially surrounded. To the north was the Mediterranean Sea. To the East were the British and to the West the Americans. Nothing but desert to the south. Thus, it was that one day in early spring Rommel was transferred to France. That left the remaining Germans to continue the fight without their brilliant commander. It took time to wear them down, but on May 11th they were called together and told the truth that on the next day the Germans would surrender. Ludwig was one of the 136,000 Germans taken prisoner. Before that happened, he first buried his officer’s diary in the desert sand in a place where it would never be found, and then he rode his motorcycle to join his old unit.
When the British learned of the intended German surrender, they cautioned the Germans not to destroy their trucks, since that is the only transport they would have. Otherwise, they would walk. The last night before captivity, most of the men got drunk. For them, the war was about to end. At noon the next day, some British officers arrived to take command. Every German vehicle had to fly a white flag of surrender, including Ludwig’s BMW motorcycle. One British soldier tried to knock Ludwig from his machine to steal it, but he gunned it at just the right moment and left the Brit sitting in the dirt cursing him. But his use of the motorcycle didn’t last. Just as soon as they arrived at the prisoner-of-war camp, his beloved BMW was confiscated. Still, Ludwig felt that the British treated the Germans with great respect, not even conducting a personal body search. Even while being transported across a huge tract of desert the British allowed the Germans to stand guard at night, with British weapons in hand. Said a British guard, “If anyone wants to run away, let them. Just give us the courtesy of leaving the rifle here.” The chance of escape or insurrection was nil – for there was 1,500 miles of desert between them and the nearest Spanish colony. Plus, the area was also home to French bounty hunters who would love to collect the reward for an escaping German soldier.
As disturbing as it was to be a prisoner, Ludwig recognized that at long last there was no chance that he would have to break his promise.
More with a Tin Can Than…
When they finally reached the makeshift prison camp, boredom reigned supreme. The most interesting and important thing to happen each day was the arrival of the water and food trucks at 5 a.m. in the morning. Two spoons full of rice and beans, perhaps some condensed milk, or a spoon full of corned beef or other items left the prisoners hungry. Plus, there were no facilities with which to cook. But the ingenious Germans quickly found solutions. Ludwig records, “Take an old gallon tin can, fill the bottom with sand, pour in some gasoline and light it. Two or three men could then heat their food to make it more palatable.” In no time, the Germans started making all sorts of interesting things out of their tin cans, prompting one British officer to declare, “You German soldiers can do more with a tin can than an Italian with a tank."8 That pleased Ludwig.
All in all, he felt the British were very fair in their treatment of the German prisoners. That did not carry over to the treatment they received when transferred to the Americans. Instead of courtesy, the Americans badgered. They loaded their prisoners 45 to a railway car, which left no room to sit or to use the bathroom. While the British had allowed them to travel through the hot desert air with the railcar side doors open, the Americans closed and bolted all the doors and locked the ventilation portals at the top. “Here we found the winds of hate and war still blowing! But, we Germans figured out ways to survive. We pried open planks in the bottom of the cars to use as a lavatory and figured out how to stand on one another’s shoulders until the ventilation portals were opened. When the train started to slow we quickly closed them so the American guards wouldn’t nail them shut.”9 On the last night on the train before reaching Casablanca, some men escaped. Ludwig had no desire to join them since he did not want to go back to fight a war that he did not believe in.
America – Birds in the Golden Cage
After a rolling, unpleasant sea voyage from Africa to Norfolk, Virginia, Ludwig’s group was transferred by train to Ellis, Illinois. This train journey was a very different experience; instead of 45 men crowded into standing room only, two men were given three seats to share on an American passenger train, and delicious food to eat. It was a real luxury. Then, after arriving at Camp Ellis, they experienced an even bigger shock:
At last we were marched off to the mess hall. Here we received a tray with a cup, fork, spoon, and knife and then our tray was loaded up with food. Coming to the table we found cans of grapefruit juice, tomato juice, milk, sugar, ketchup and other luxuries. Was all that for us? It was! We cleaned up every bit, not knowing if we’d ever see that much food again. To our surprise, the American’s told us there were seconds to be had, so we cleaned out the kitchen cupboards, even every crumb of bread. As far as we were concerned this was “paradise” for us; and when we were afterward shown to the barracks, which were in a double-fenced compound with guard towers, double gates, and search lights, we did not care at all because we had found something like a home. Indeed, we were the birds in the golden cage! For me, it was far better than the mud, the cold, and endless suffering in Russia, or the hot sand in Africa, facing death 24 hours a day! The Americans, realizing of course that idleness is the Devil’s workshop, soon put us into work details. At first it was pulling weeds around the barracks, but slowly we got other, more interesting details. Our compound was a camp within a camp, the larger area being used as a training ground for American G.I.’s preparing to go to war. So, soon enough, we had warehouses to work in, railroad cars to unload, wood to chop and a hundred other chores. Soon the guards loosened up and started talking with us, and we of course were all trying to learn to speak English. Saturday and Sunday, we had mostly off, enjoying soccer and other ball games, playing cards and chess. Food was so plentiful, we could not eat it all. What a contrast to Europe – where civilian and soldier both nearly starved. Every hour we worked we were paid 10 cents, plus $3.00 from the German government per month for toiletries, cigarettes, and even some beer. Of course, you could save you money too, which I mostly did. If it sounds fantastic to you, so it was to us.10
In time, Ludwig was transferred to Rockford, Wisconsin, fifteen miles north of Milwaukee. This was a small camp where prisoners worked for a vegetable canning factory and for area farmers. Security was lax, because the prisoners were trusted now. Lots of people in this area spoke German, and soon the prisoners were considered friends. Another surprise was when Ludwig was interrogated by an American official, who asked detailed questions about where he was from, did he have relatives in the United States, and where they were living? After an hour of this, the man was satisfied and handed Ludwig a care package from his Aunt Francis in Salt Lake City. She had taken the initiative to write to Washington D.C. about German P.O.W.s living in America and they had given her his location. Later he was visited by his Uncle Herbert and Uncle Willi. The world in the United States was a happier place for Herbert Ludwig.
Victory in Europe – New Trials for Herbert
When Germany capitulated on May 8, 1945, there were mixed feelings among the prisoners of war. Some were excited about the chance to go home. Others dreaded it, knowing that their loved ones had been killed in their absence. Many liked their lives in America. Almost all were frightened by rumors that they would not be sent home to Germany, but rather to France to work as prison labor helping rebuild towns and countries damaged by the war. The agitation became so great that a US Army Colonel came and spoke to the group, assuring them that everyone would be sent back to Frankfurt to then be released to go home.
That isn’t what happened. Rather, some of their guards were replaced by American G.I.’s who had been prisoners-of-war in Germany. They were mean to the Germans because they had nearly starved in Germany. So, they cut rations to Ludwig and his group in retaliation. It was only later when the guards started talking with the Germans, that the Americans came to realize that they had received the same amount of food that German civilians and military received. In other words, the whole country was on the verge of starvation and American prisoners-of-war were treated the same as everyone else.
The next unpleasant surprise came when their ship docked in Europe. Not in Germany, as promised, but in France. Ludwig was placed into what was very near to the equivalent of slave labor, working in a coal mine. Here, many of the guards were former Nazi officers, who treated the German P.O.W.s sent to America with contempt. Conditions were terrible, with nothing but 300 grams of bread with a sliver of margarine, and cabbage soup for six weeks. The only thing that saved Ludwig is that he got sick, and was transferred out of the mines.
Still, it looked like his term of service would last at least two years at this hard labor and Ludwig felt it was unfair. Eventually, he and a friend worked out an idea of how they could escape. While working above ground in a lumber yard, the two waited until they were close to an unguarded spot near the woods, and then sprinted for the tree line. After running as long as their strength held out, they found a shell crater from the war and slipped in. Hours later they heard a hunting party but managed to escape detection. After three long nights on the run, they reached the Saarland on the border of Germany and France. Of course, all of Germany was under Allied control, so that was no help. But at least the local people spoke German, which meant that some might help them. Nearing total exhaustion, they decided to travel during the day. Eventually, they ran across a road crew which immediately recognized them as escaped German soldiers. The foreman took them in, helped them clean up and shave in his shack. Another shared a sandwich with them. Then, they pointed them in the right direction with ideas on how to get past the guards.
Along the way, many people helped them. A farmer’s wife gave them bread. A railroad signalman allowed them to sleep in the warmth of his shack for a whole night and then gave them train tickets with a warning as to how to spot French police on the train. Finally, almost on the verge of being discovered by a French guard, they jumped from the train and walked into the British zone of occupation. The French no longer had claim on them. Fortunately, there were no guards—they crossed the line and found a woman who welcomed them home:
Safe? I can’t hold back my tears; can it be true? Oh, great Lord, it must be!! The woman who greeted us takes us into the village where we get fed, lodging, a breakfast, and a packed lunch, and then we are put on a milk truck to take us to the city. We cannot believe that it is real; again, and again I ask the question, is it real? I ask myself if I am sane—am I awake or am I dreaming? For the first time in seven years I need not fear; I am among my people, no one is after me, no one is hunting me, or trying to shoot me or humiliate me. I can move around as a free man. There are no words to describe the feelings—what a load off my shoulders! I will make it home. ‘Thank you, Lord! Thank you’… Finally, after more days walking it’s getting dark. I turn on a lane and a small white wooden fence comes up; it had not been there when I left. White crosses also. I count 42 crosses, casualties of the war in our village. Now I can see our kitchen window with light in it. Oh, my Lord, I see more. I see father, mother, and sister; my head swirls, can I make it without being seen? Down the road, into the yard, up the outside flight of stairs, into the hall. I rap at the door, can’t stand the tension. “Come in,” is the call from father. I can’t move. The door burst open, my sister looks out, her mouth drops wide open. Finally, the silence breaks. “Oh, no, it’s Herbert!!!” she cries out, we embrace. Father and mother join in the embrace; do we need words? Happiness as never more true.11
Herbert was home, his life spared, his promise kept.
After three and a half years helping members of his church in many of the towns and villages in what would become both East and West Germany, Herbert married Inge Benicke. In June 1953, they emigrated to America. Eventually, Herbert’s parents and Inge’s mother joined them in America.
Herbert Ludwig was an invisible soldier only in the sense that he was one of millions in a great conflict. While convinced that his country was in the wrong, he did his duty as best he could while keeping a unique promise that few others have made. He never took a life in war or peace.
- Ludwig, Herbert K. Personal Memoir. Unpublished. 1983.
- Ludwig, Herbert and Borrowman, Jerry. The Enemy Was Me. Unpublished manuscript, 1995.
About the Author
Jerry Borrowman is an award-winning author of 18 books of historical biography, fiction, and creative non-fiction. To learn more, please visit www.jerryborrowman.com.