By Joel Hall
In 1943, Heinz Gaertner was a 16-year-old postal worker in Germany, who was reluctantly conscripted into Adolf Hitler's Army to fight the Allied Forces in World War II.
On June 23, 1944, during the Invasion of Normandy, Gaertner, an anti-aircraft gunman, was shot through the face by an Allied sniper's bullet, shattering his jaw. The wounded soldier was taken to a German hospital in Cherbourg, France for treatment, only three days later to have the hospital surrender to an American general.
Gaertner was transferred to an American hospital in Reading, England, where American doctors saved his face and nursed him back to health, under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Still a prisoner, however, Gaertner was shipped to the American South as a German PW (prisoner of war) to aid in the war-time labor shortage.
Until the end of the war, Gaertner worked throughout Arizona, California, Tennessee, and finally, in Fort Benning and Blakely, Ga., as a prison-camp laborer. For several months, he worked in Georgia, picking cotton, harvesting peanuts, and interacting with sharecroppers and local farmers whose young men had been sent to war.
Gaertner was later re-educated by American forces and sent back to his hometown of Lage, Lippe Provence, Germany, where he retired as the city's postmaster in 1985. At 82-years old, Gaertner had not spoken in English or shared his story with another American until two years ago, when he contacted Dr. Susan Copeland, an assistant professor of English at Clayton State University.
"The reason Herr Gaertner contacted me was [because] I had done an article for The New Georgia Encyclopedia," said Copeland. She said around Gaertner's 80th birthday, he received a computer as a present and through the Internet, stumbled upon an article she did several years ago on "Foreign Prisoners of War."
"He said that I want to tell you my story, and I said 'yes,'" said Copeland.
Copeland recently got a chance to share some of Gaertner's exploits in the latest edition of The Georgia Historical Quarterly, one of the state's premiere historical journals. Copeland said Gaertner's story is not only interesting, but an important part of American history unknown to many.
"It's part of the history of the South that many people have forgotten," said Copeland. "By the end of W.W.II, there were over 425,000 PWs in the U.S., all over the country. That's breathtaking."
In Copeland's article, she says that toward the end of W.W.II, "some ten thousand [prisoners of war] could be found in Georgia installations, including Fort Oglethorpe, Fort Benning, Fort Gordon, Camp Stewart (later Fort Stewart), and Camp Wheeler, near Macon." She adds, "By mid-1944 the shirts emblazoned with the large letters 'PW' were a common sight in Georgia."
"They were critical" to the South, said Copeland. "The farmer was desperate. They were taking the place of the men who were fighting in the war."
Copeland said German PWs, despite being under constant guard, "generally got along well with the farmers" and that most of the tension between PWs and guards came from "the lack of cigarettes."
In Copeland's account, Gaertner recalls being the youngest prisoner in a camp full of hardened members of German commander Erwin Rommel's "Afrika Korps," who participated in desert warfare throughout North Africa. He was also the only prisoner among his group who could write and speak in English.
Gaertner served as a translator between the PWs and the American soldiers, and was often able to secure comfort items for the prisoners, such as cigarettes. Among his adventures, Gaertner recalls convincing American soldiers to give the prisoners the equipment to distill schnapps from grapefruit, and serving as an advisor to a prisoner who desperately sought to learn English to impress a pretty Georgia farm girl.
Copeland is still in contact with Gaertner and hopes to, one day, turn his life's story into a book.
Gene Hatfield, former head of the Department of Social Sciences at Clayton State University and president of the Georgia Association of Historians, said Copeland's research reveals an important, but largely untold story of life on the home front during W.W.II.
"I think that it is another sign that there was virtually total mobilization on the home front," during W.W.II, said Hatfield. "The great majority of all young men were enlisted in the war effort. It's quite a contrast to the situation that we see today.
"I think there is a lot more about German PWs and the home front during W.W.II that would be worthwhile knowing," he said.