An Airman Collector in Post-War Germany

He found more than just “cool relics!”
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by Harold Ratzburg

 Some of the miscellaneous albums and photos I removed from the villa during my “midnight requisition.”

Some of the miscellaneous albums and photos I removed from the villa during my “midnight requisition.”

Once upon a long, long time ago — 89 years ago to be exact —a baby (that was me) was born on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. I grew up on that farm. It was a good place to be a kid. Even back then I was a collector and collected stuff like arrowheads, stamps, etc. As I got older, I had to participate more and more in the farm work and eventually I got tired of milking those damned cows twice a day, every day, 365 days a year. So, after high school graduation, I took off for the big city of Milwaukee where I took on a job where I only had to work forty hours a week in an automobile body factory. That left much more time for collecting, especially collecting girlfriends.

 Leaving the villa that was my “barracks” in Ulm, West Germany,

Leaving the villa that was my “barracks” in Ulm, West Germany,

Along came the Korean War, (aka the “Korean Police Action”), and Uncle Sam’s draft started breathing down my neck. Being a live coward” type instead of the dead hero kind, I enlisted in the US Air Force to avoid the trenches of Korea. I also figured that, just maybe, the Air Force might train me in some more useful skill that I could use as a civilian rather than to be trained as a machine gunner.

After Basic Training and ten months of training to be a Radar Mechanic, the Air Force, in its infinite wisdom, put me on a troop ship headed to Europe instead of Korea. It was the beginning of a very lucky streak in my life. After a nine-day voyage, I arrived in Germany in September 1951. Processing through a Reple-Depot I found that the Air Force had no openings for Radar Mechanics in Europe or the Near East. After several weeks of sweating out possible assignments to OJT (on the job training) as a cook or baker, a Military Policeman, or a clerk typist, or whatever, I found myself assigned to a USAF Intelligence Wing and was posted to the 7055 Air Intelligence Service Squadron (7055 AISS) in Ulm, Germany, as a Supply Clerk.

The 7055th consisted of 14 enlisted men and 5 officers with about 25 German civilians working as secretaries and interviewers who would interview any displaced person (known to us as a “Source”) who had been held somewhere in the Russian Zone. The idea was to get any little bit of information the interviewers could get from the Sources that might be of value to the Air Force in case hostilities broke out between the Soviet Union and the USA. Remember, in the 1950s, the Cold War was a very real thing.

The German interviewers would write up the reports in English, our GIs would edit them, German secretaries would type up the reports and stamp them as “SECRET” before forwarding them to Wing HQ. It was kind of funny that once the “Secret Classification” was put on the reports, no German civilian was allowed to see them again.

 Me in full gear — ready to face the Soviets!

Me in full gear — ready to face the Soviets!

The “Sources” were people who had been prisoners of war or confined in forced labor camps all over Europe in the Russian Zone. So, as to not alarm them with more military or other oppressive surroundings, the 7055th had its offices, interviewer rooms, and quarters for enlisted men in three large German villas overlooking the Danube River. The villas were previously owned by high-level Nazis who were displaced into less comfortable quarters until they were de-Nazified.

There were no other American units or facilities in Ulm, so we were on “separate rations” and had our own kitchen, cook, and dining room in one of the villas. We enlisted men chipped in $3.00 per month and hired a maid to take care of our quarters. Since we were the only American military unit in town, the Air Force felt that since there were no recreational facilities for us, they would ship a movie to the unit by rail every day and show it in one of the villas.

Since we had to entertain ourselves, the Air Force allowed each enlisted man to have an Officer’s liquor ration of four bottles of fine booze from the US Army Class Six store in a neighboring town every month. Boy, did we ever entertain ourselves. We had to dream up reasons to have a party. I remember that one of our parties was to celebrate the promotion of Steve Canyon (a comic strip character) to full Bird Colonel.

Our supply section had responsibility for maintenance of the 7055ths vehicles, that consisted of two WWII Jeeps, one CCKW truck, and two Opel staff cars. I had always been a Jeep nut ever since I saw them in the newsreels of WWII, so as a future collector/owner of a WWII Jeep, this was right up my ally. The two Jeeps that we drove had been modified with weather tight, sheet metal tops, swinging doors which were nice in the winter, but prevented me from putting the top and windshield down and tooling around town with the wind in my face.

The CCKW was a long wheelbase model with a soft top that was far from weather tight. On those long trips to the supply depot in the middle of the winter, I would have appreciated a solid cab with a heater.

Bottom line, that meant that as an old geezer now, I was able to drive collectible vehicles in my youth which I could own and appreciate in my later years.

Do you see now what I meant about my lucky streak? As they say, it was a lousy job, but somebody had to do it.

In the 1950s, the City of Ulm was a scene of desolation. It had suffered several small bombing raids over the time since June 1940, but the big attack came on the night of December 17, 1944, starting at 7:23 PM, when 250 British bombers of Britain’s Air Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris, dropped 96,646 bombs in a raid lasting 27 minutes. The bombs contained 704 tons of incendiaries and 590 tons of high explosive. The explosions were so powerful that twenty pound pavement blocks hit the top of the Ulm Cathedral bell tower which is 360 feet high. That is 36 stories high!

It has always been a wonder to me how the bombers were able to actually miss the cathedral. Reconnaissance Pathfinder planes had dropped flares around the church to mark it before the raid, but only one bomb actually hit the cathedral and went through a wall. It was a dud — it did not explode. All of the 600 people who had run to the cathedral for cover survived the raid. All buildings around the cathedral were blown up or burned out. That is pretty good bombing accuracy when you consider they were dropping the bombs from at least 4 miles above the city.

Conveniently, or maybe on purpose, the bombs took out most of the town where the average people lived. The area where the big shot Nazis lived in the big villas seemed to have been saved, perhaps to give the future occupying powers (like this little old farm boy from Wisconsin) a nice place to live when the winners took over the country. Or maybe it was dumb luck, we will never know for sure.

By now you may be asking yourselves, “Hey, what has this story got to do with collecting in postwar Germany and the Military Trader article? The answer is, probably not much, but it does kind of explain how I got to Germany and what I found when I got there.

FINDING THE GOOD STUFF

The Supply Officer, the Supply Sergeant, and two Supply Clerks ( including me, of course) had the responsibility of keeping track of all the Air Force stuff in the villas. This meant that I had access to every key for every attic, cellar, and room in the villas. The villas had been previously occupied by ex-Nazi owners and also by the US Army Intelligence people before the Air Force took them over, so there was probably both German and American stuff to be found — I hoped!

 The knuckle knife that I rescued from the dusty attic above the garage.

The knuckle knife that I rescued from the dusty attic above the garage.

My first foray into finding collectibles and “liberating” them, was when (on duty) I climbed into the attic of the garage. There in the dust was a really nice US M3 fighting knife and scabbard and a knuckle knife with an ugly looking blade which led me to believe that some German solider from WWIhad brought home a US trench knife and tried to reproduce it for WWII. The shape of the blade was so ugly that I took it to a knife smith in town and had him grind it down and reshape it into a more pointed, nasty dagger shape. About forty years later, I found that the knife had been made that way on purpose, so my grinding changeover certainly affected the collector value of it. But, I still have it, and I still like the altered wicked look of the blade and iron knucks.

That villa also gave up a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, an early issue MP billy club, lots of GI ammunition, and other assorted goodies, all from the previous American occupiers.

One of the other villas was much more interesting. There was a lot of German militaria stuff down in the wine cellar, but being new and just feeling my way in the outfit, I did not know just how far I could go with liberating the stuff and hauling it over to my quarters. I finally figured that the best course of action was to make a “midnight requisition” since, of course, I had access to the keys. I figured of course, that I had better get to the stuff before some other “collector” in the outfit got the same idea.

 This is a cap similar to the one I found in the villa’s basement — only to be tossed out by our maid!

This is a cap similar to the one I found in the villa’s basement — only to be tossed out by our maid!

My plan was complicated by the fact that one of the German civilians, a lady known to us GIs as “Red” who worked as a housekeeper, also stayed there overnight. It was her responsibility to make sure that the building was locked and nobody was to come in after office hours. Being new, I did not know Red that well, so I did not feel that I could involve her in my plan.

So, taking my chances, around 9 PM, I let myself into the cellar and started going through the piles of stuff on the shelves. (I can say that perhaps it was the very first estate sale in my life, except that it was not exactly legal like the ones I go to as often as I can these days)

Then, wouldn’t you know it, about that time, Red decided to come down into the cellar for something. I heard her coming, and quickly figured that the best thing to do was to meet her half way instead of hiding out in a dark corner.

BIG mistake — you never heard such screaming from a woman who thought she was alone in this big dark villa and suddenly saw this big hulk coming toward her up the circular stone stairs from a dark cellar. You can’t blame her for the noise she made in her panic!

It took more than a little while to calm her down, but I managed somehow, and she did not call the Polizei or tell the Air Force authorities about my looting expedition. I was shook up enough that I don’t really remember if I left with my loot that night or came back at a later date, but you gotta admit, that was a close one!

The collectibles that came from that cellar were as follows: German officer’s visor cap, German gas mask in the canister, a miniature SS Dagger, a starter pistol, and a whole lot of photos and photo albums of German soldiers training and on maneuvers. Not a bad haul for a young collector! A sad part of the story however is that when I got the stuff back to my quarters, I hid the cap and gas mask and some photo albums in a clean-out hole by the chimney. The maid found them, and thinking that this forbidden German material was stashed there by the previous German owner, she threw them out in the rubbish. I never saw that loot again. Damn!

Anything with a swastika on it was — and still is — forbidden in Germany. If you go to a militaria show in Germany today, any itemmust have the swastika covered by a dot or paper attached over it. It is simply illegal to show a swastika or to ship an article with a swastika into Germany and several other countries in Europe.

As time went on, people in the outfit — even the German civilian employees — learned that Ratzburg was a “collector” and willing to buy or trade for militaria items. Trading for things was made easier for us GIs in that there was a thriving black market going on in the ruins of the country. Cigarettes were the main items of exchange. All GIs got a ration of one carton of cigarettes per week, and that cost the GI a whole dollar. Sold on the black market, that carton would bring in about $4.50, which today doesn’t seem like much, but back then, a lowly Private First Class made about $65 per month, so an extra $14.00 a month helped like heck. That PFC made about as much money as a foreman in a German factory, so we rich Americans had it pretty well-made, with our room and board supplied free by the Air Force.

One of the cleaning women asked me if I was interested in trading for a swastika that she had. She had previously worked for the German Air Force, and when the Luftwaffe base where she had worked was bombed, she had liberated the swastika from where it used to stand in front of the German mess hall. Of course, I was interested! For a carton of cigarettes I got a beautiful, nine-inch-tall, chrome-plated, metal swastika on a chrome-plated base.

Another lady offered a Luftwaffe dress dagger. Her family had kept it buried in the garden behind the house. She dug it up and brought it to me. It was a little damaged by being buried, but easily worth the carton of cigarettes that she wanted for it.

About a year after I got to Ulm, the US Army returned in force and occupied all the old German installations that had previously been used by the German Army. This opened up the possibility of trading military stuff with other supply people when you had an overage or shortage of items that you were responsible for in your own unit’s paperwork. Judicious trading turned up carbine and M1 bayonets, helmets, and other assorted collectibles that appealed to me. The troops — like myself — who came later to occupy Germany missed out on a lot of goodies that earlier collectors had been able to find. Of course, we later occupiers were not being shot at either.

Just imagine the choices that earlier collectors had when they were able to pick through piles of contraband that the Germans dropped or turned in!

The lady called Red, (the one I had scared when I encountered her on the dark stairway) told me how it was when the US Army came into a town with their rifles and tanks:

“The ‘Amies’ (as the Americans were called by the Germans) put up notices that all Germans were to turn in all weapons upon fear of death. If they got caught with a weapon, they could be shot. That really got their attention!

Red’s father, who was a Master Sergeant in the German Army, had left a Luger P-08 pistol and his non-commissioned officer’s sword at his home in Ulm when he was shipped to Norway. When the family fled to the shelters during the many air raids, her mother carried the sword and pistol with her every time the sirens sounded. But when the Amies notice about weapons came to the attention of her mother, she insisted that her daughter Red and brother Kurt get rid of the forbidden articles. Since they did not live very far from the Danube River, that is where the gun and sword were dumped, late at night, along with many other forbidden things that other German civilians had to get rid of. Not being much of a swimmer or diver, I never went after that stuff. I had always thought about going fishing with a big magnet, but I never got around to it.

RED: MORE THAN A ‘FOOTNOTE’

 While I gathered all sorts of memorabilia while stationed in occupied Germany, my one real treasure that I discovered is Red -- my wife of 65 years. Here, we were photographed while visiting the home of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel — not far from her home in Ulm. Red says she attended dances with Rommel’s son, Manfred, who, according to her, “always stepped on her feet!”

While I gathered all sorts of memorabilia while stationed in occupied Germany, my one real treasure that I discovered is Red -- my wife of 65 years. Here, we were photographed while visiting the home of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel — not far from her home in Ulm. Red says she attended dances with Rommel’s son, Manfred, who, according to her, “always stepped on her feet!”

Some of you will, by now, have figured out that “Red” was more to me than a passing acquaintance. You are right. About two years after our encounter in the cellar, we were married. Thisyear marks 65 years of wedded bliss. Anneliese (Lisa) is my partner at our military shows and handles the selling part of the stuff I buy at estate sales and flea markets.

She lived through the bombing hell that was Ulm, and on December 17, 1944, her home was destroyed. She was 14 when the war ended. If you would like to hear some war stories of the German civilian side of the war, ask Lisa. She was there and is not afraid to talk about it. Why she did not come out of the war with this “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” that you hear so much about these days, I will never know.

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