Günter Gräwe spent three years as a German prisoner of war in Western Washington, a World War II incarceration he recalls not with rancor but gratitude for the chance to “live and learn in America.”
Gräwe always thought about returning to the state to say thank you.
Last week, the rail-thin veteran, now 91, did just that during a brief visit to what is now called Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where guard towers and barbed-wire fences are long gone but some of the two-story wooden barracks that once housed German prisoners still stand.
He declared his capture by the Americans at the age of 18 “his luckiest day” and reminisced about camp life that included English, French and Spanish classes organized by other POWs and a commissary stocked with chocolate, ice cream and Coca-Cola.
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“I never had anything to complain about,” Gräwe said. “No guard called us nasty names. I had a better life as a prisoner than my mother and sister back home in Germany.”
In a global conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 million people — including 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims — Gräwe was indeed fortunate to live to an old age denied so many others. Gräwe was filled with patriotism as he went to serve in the German army but now denounces Adolf Hitler as “one arrogant, hypocritical dammed liar” who led his nation into disaster and shame.
Gräwe’s trip to Joint Base Lewis-McChord was arranged with the help of HistoryLink. org., a Seattle-based online encyclopedia that chronicles the state’s past. He also was vetted by JBLM, which had a historian look through records to verify that he was indeed a prisoner, and not one of the POWs who were fervent Nazis and staged a sit-down protest on Hitler’s birthday.
“We have a list of those who were pro-Nazi, and he was not on it,” said Duane Denfield, a historian who works as a JBLM contractor.
Ample meals, farm work
Gräwe’s military career started in Latvia, where he went through training for what appeared to be an assignment to the Eastern Front to fight a resurgent Russian army. If Josef Stalin’s forces had captured him, he likely would have been sent to a labor camp, where harsh conditions killed many.
But then Allied forces invaded France, and the Germans scrambled to try to slow their advance toward Paris with fresh reinforcements.
Gräwe was transferred to Normandy, where he served in a tank unit that was quickly overwhelmed by the U.S. and British armies in clashes he said killed most of the young soldiers he arrived with from Latvia.
“It was a terrible fight in Normandy — it wasn’t what we expected, and we were young and inexperienced,” Gräwe said.
A grenade hit his tank, and Gräwe scrambled out amid volleys of gunfire.
He suffered only a small wound to his foot, and several days later became an American prisoner as U.S. soldiers overran the hospital tent camp where he was recuperating.
Gräwe said he realized how well things had turned out as he was put on the ocean liner Queen Mary for the voyage to America. He had comfortable quarters and most important — ample meals — served on metal trays.
Next, he took a train ride across America to what was then Fort Lewis. At the Army post south of Tacoma, barracks vacated by U.S. troops were turned into prison quarters for some 4,000 German POWs at five locations.
Fort Lewis was part of a much broader POW prison-camp network of some 500 sites across the country that held 400,000 Germans. Overall, historians say these prisoners were treated well. Some Germans even referred to their camp as a “golden cage,” according to Michael Farquhar, who wrote a 1997 article about the POWs for The Washington Post.
The POWs’ relative comfort angered some wartime Americans who had lost their loved ones to German troops. But they did have to work, providing labor at a time when the massive troop mobilization made it hard to find enough people to bring in the nation’s crops.
Gräwe traveled by truck from Fort Lewis to help in apple, sugar-beet and potato harvests. Later, he was transferred to Arizona to bring in cotton. He recalled his farm labor as a real adventure that earned him an 80-cents-a-day salary to buy things at the commissary.
Crisis of faith
Through his years as a prisoner, Gräwe says he came to love America.
But his first loyalties were to Germany. As a boy, he participated in Hitler Youth. He joined the army as what he calls a “young idealistic soldier” who thought it “right to fight for an honest and upright fatherland” just like his father, a plumber turned soldier who died in the war in 1940.
Gräwe says he first learned of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps while a prisoner in America. He initially brushed off the news as propaganda because it was conveyed by a U.S. officer. When he wrote home to his mother and sister, they replied it was true.
In 1947, two years after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Gräwe was released.
In a crisis of faith, he left his church, where he says the pastors prayed for their own people rather than trying to stop the Nazis.
In the postwar era, as the German economy surged, Gräwe prospered.
He got married, had two sons and opened a successful import business bringing in merchandise from Asia. Through the decades, he returned to the U.S. several times to vacation. But only after his wife died in 2016 did he make up his mind to return to Washington state.
Searching online, Gräwe found an article on the camp on HistoryLink.org. In July of last year, he wrote a letter to propose a visit that finally unfolded this fall with stops in California and then Washington.
Gräwe, a passionate cyclist, had planned to ride his electric bike all the way up the West Coast to Seattle. But when he sought the advice of California police, they counseled against it.
So he put his bike on a northbound train, and once he arrived in Seattle reached out to HistoryLink staff for help.
“We weren’t expecting him just then,” Marie McCaffrey, HistoryLink’s executive director, whose staff reached out the base to help arrange the visit. “But we’re a public information utility, and if there is something we can do to help, we try to do it.”
A hug and a casserole
On Oct. 3, a brilliant fall day, Gräwe arrived at JBLM. He brought his electric bike, determined to ride the final distance — a little over a mile — to the old camp site. On each side of his bike’s rear wheel hung a sign: “USA, the country and its people, you are my first and final love!”
At the blacktop by the barracks, he looked around somewhat uncertainly. He recalled a barren site. This place was full of fir trees that had grown up in the seven decades since the prisoners had gone home.
He was greeted by the base’s deputy joint commander, Col. William Percival, who offered a handshake, and later a hug inside a building now empty and bare of furniture.
“You remind us that … how you treat somebody defines who we are,” Percival said. “There are times, even today, when we may want to forget that. And you let us know that’s a lesson not to be forgotten.”
Gräwe then went for lunch at a base dining hall.
He piled his plate full of a noodle casserole, and sat down to eat one more ample meal served up by the U.S. Army. This time, as a free man.