|The destroyer USS Butler (DD-636)|
The American War Orphans Network is a wonderful group, and has helped many Americans deal with the loss of a parent in World War II. I often wondered if there were a similar organization in Germany. Quite a few years ago I asked a German veteran if such a group existed, and the answer was no.
I recently called Felix Podolak, a "Tin Can Sailor" who served on the USS Butler, to ask his permission to use his 1994 interview in my forthcoming book "Conversations With D-Day Veterans." In the interview, Felix mentioned that he had a buddy on the ship, Gus Siebert, who made two copies of a history of the Butler, one for Gus, the other for Felix.
The book contained a translation of a letter from a German wife to her husband. There is no indication whether the husband lived or died, or even who he was, as the letter was found in a gun emplacement on one of the invasion beaches, and the soldier's name, as well as the last few lines of the letter, were too smudged by water damage to be legible.
Here's an excerpt from that conversation:
Felix Podolak: I had a chance to meet my captain through the Tin Can Sailors. I met him over a drink, and he was gonna be the guest speaker. So I said, “Do you remember that time we had to go chase that British cruiser that was off the Azores?” And there was another incident when we were in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I came off leave from Garfield to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and when I got there, the fellow came down from the yard gang, he wanted to know if he could pump out the No. 2 magazine, in the forward part of the ship. They felt somebody sabotaged the ship, flooded the forward part of the magazine because we were supposed to leave the next day.
When we got to Algiers the captain called me into his quarters, and he had a tape recorder. He recorded everything. He got down to maybe there was some sabotage. After the questioning, he said, “Podolak, maybe the FBI will pick you up to question you, but as far as I know now, you didn’t have nothing to do with it, you came off liberty.” So during the speech he said, “Podolak can sleep a lot better now, he won’t have to worry about the FBI picking him up.” That was about 30 or 40 years later, but he made a joke out of it. He was a terrific captain.
Gus made this book for him and me, there’s only two like it, it’s a history of the ship. Gus was on the forward repair party with me.
The captain went ashore. In one of the pillboxes he found a letter, this fellow out of the pillbox was supposed to write to his wife but it was wet and dirty, and Gus speaks German. He interpreted everything, and this is what the guy was writing to his wife in Germany. This is what we picked up, it’s in here somewhere, this is the communique. Gus being of German descent, he spoke very fluent. In Palermo they were bombing us, and Gus had a chance to be the interpreter for a German pilot that we picked out of the water, in Sicily.
Aaron Elson: Is this the letter here? (Reading): “When Captain Matthews came back from his trip to Cherbourg, he called me to his cabin and showed me a letter he’d found in one of the German gun emplacements there. He asked what it was. It was a letter from a German wife to her soldier husband. He asked if I could translate it for him. The envelope had a return address but water had blurred the ink, making it impossible to read, and the letter had the last few lines and the signature also blurred. ‘My dear Ewald and my dear father. ...
"‘My dear good Ewald, it is Friday morning, half past eight. Want to hurry and write you a nice letter. I received your dear letter yesterday and was very happy to hear from you my love, and to have heard what you did Easter Day. But now I know that you have seen the great lovers on the screen and yet you didn’t mention a bit about love in your letter. What do you do in your visits to the movies? Do you sleep while the picture is on? With whom do you usually go out, or do you go out alone.
'Dear Ewald, when you write, please don’t complain about your food openly. Just because your officers receive better food than you do, remember, you’re the dumb one when you start to get hotheaded. Therefore, my sweetheart, don’t write about these matters openly.
'Yesterday afternoon I went to the health clinic. A fitter from Ludenscheid was there, and he took my measurements for a health belt. I had to go to the welfare office and get a certificate for it. Then I went back to the clinic and had it stamped, and yesterday afternoon went to the clinic to try it on. The fitter was yet a young man about 30 years old, and I sure felt embarrassed and ashamed to be in my undergarments while he took the measurements. There were 12 other expectant mothers there. The clinic is going to pay 70 percent of the cost of it, and I will have to pay only the 30 percent. I don’t know how I’m going to get something to hold my stockings up with, because you have to have a good reason whenever you want to buy things like that.
'I came home on the train at 3:30. Then I drank some coffee and rode out to the farm. It was almost 8 o’clock and I was just getting ready to plant some vegetables when all of a sudden it began to rain. We had to run, but we got wet just the same. Our daughter came at 5 o’clock and asked for a piece of butter bread and some coffee. She always wants to be where I am. She was out to the farm with me and picked flowers in Forsters’ meadow. Then she sat down by the side of the road and tied the flowers into small bundles. Then she noticed the Russians, which the people are hiring to dig their gardens, and she got frightened and started to cry and came running to me, and then said “Momma, on account of the Russians, I lost all my pretty flowers.” I had to laugh and told her “You little goat, don’t be so scared.” When it stopped raining I wanted to send her home, but she wouldn’t go alone.
'This evening I have cramps in my hands. That’s why I can’t write so plain. My fingers hurt a lot and have blisters on them. In the morning I have to take our daughter to the dentist because I made an appointment for the 14th of April. Yesterday I met Mrs. Sonnerkin, who is a midwife, and think I will have her when our baby arrives. She suggested I have the baby at home instead of in a hospital, because she could be closer that way, and also the hospital would cost 150 marks, while at home the clinic would pay for everything, even 35 marks for a nurse. Lena is going to nurse me, and in case an operation is necessary, Dr. Dimkle will see that I get to a hospital. Then I wouldn’t have to pay anything. I’ll have it home, I think. What is your opinion?
'Dear Ewald, I have to close now because it is 10:30 and we have to leave. Our daughter has to be back at school at 2:30. Last night the Tommies were overhead again, and they didn’t leave until after 12. Until then, we couldn’t go to bed. It was very bad. Now my super sweetheart, a thousand kisses from your faithful wife and daughter.'”
"As I mentioned in the beginning, this letter contained a few more lines and also was signed. As a thought, as of this writing, if their baby was born in 1944, he or she would be now 45 years old. Twice as old as many of us were at that time.”
Felix Podolak: You notice, she wrote something in there, that she was tired and that her hands were, she must have had to work or something, but she wouldn’t say that she was working hard if you notice. Even on our ship, our mail was censored by the officers.
There’s an article in there about us chasing around, and we finally found that cruiser that was torpedoed by the Germans. It was torpedoed in the bow. Every time it would go down you’d see a big gust of water like a whale. It was only making a couple of knots, and we were sent out to pick it up. While we were sent out to pick it up we didn’t know where, because you’re riding what we call radio silence. We got as far as the Azores, and the next morning we woke up, the fog lifted, and the cruiser was right in front of us. He said it had to be divine intervention, because we traveled more than a thousand miles in three days, and there it was right in front of us. And we brought it back to Bermuda."
As of this writing, Felix Podolak is 91 years old and still living in Garfield. God bless him.