Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Fred Kehl, of Soldotna, displays a Sauer 38H semi-automatic pistol, made in Nazi Germany from 1938 until just after the end of World War II by J. P. Sauer and Sohn. He relieved it from a German soldier while accepting his surrender.
By Jenny Neyman
World War II was over, Hitler was dead, the Nazi party broken, the concentration camps liberated and the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division was standing down from its six months of combat as part of the Allied push that swept through Germany. Though Staff Sgt. Fred Kehl, of Soldotna, was no longer facing enemy fire, he was under the gun on another front.
Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Kehl was reassigned from his 232 Regiment of the 42nd Rainbow Division to the Counter Intelligence Corps stationed in Berlin.
“Our job was to seek out high-ranking Nazi officials, both civilian officials that were members of the Nazi party and military high-ranking officials,” Kehl said.
They had the German police to use for information, and the Nazi party records that had been seized in Berlin. Kehl could read, write and speak German fluently, which made him a natural asset as a CIC investigator. Adding to that was his role as a harbinger in the war — a go-between, of sorts, carrying out the officers’ orders with Germans that his division encountered. He’d interview captured and surrendered soldiers, and explain to German families that they were being removed from their homes so they could be used as headquarters for occupying Allied forces.
“I had German ability on my record, and they used me quite a bit,” Kehl said.
But the reason for his fluency presented Kehl with an awkward situation. Though he was born and raised in Waukegan, Ill., his parents and older brother were German immigrants, fleeing the chaos and destitution of their homeland for the security and opportunity of the U.S. in 1923.
“In Germany after World War I you could take a bushel basket full of 1 million mark notes to go to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread. Inflation was absolutely at its peak. The Versailles treaty was pretty unfair. They punished Germany for that war. They took away a lot of land and other things, and Germany went to hell in a hand basket,” Kehl said.
Kehl had never been to Germany before being sent overseas with the 42nd Division in December 1944, and his identity and allegiance was thoroughly American. But he couldn’t deny that there were ties. When his division staged in Strasbourg, France, it faced across the Rhine River the German town of Kehl — same spelling, though he doesn’t know the familial connection — earning him the nickname of “Kraut.” And his family still had relatives in Germany. His father’s family was from Sistine, east of Berlin, and his mother’s from Königsberg, capital of the province of East Prussia.
“I knew I had aunts and uncles and cousins still there and they were probably in the German army, I had no idea where they were. So, from time to time I thought about it, maybe they were taking pot shots at me and me and them?” Kehl said.
The possibility of bullets coming from or heading toward his relatives didn’t bother him, Kehl said, as he had no personal ties to them. It was war, and he was determined to excel in the service.
“I was a very good soldier, I didn’t want to screw up, I wanted to be good, I wanted to advance, I wanted to do what they told me, and I did. My record was clean as a whistle,” he said.
That made his mother’s request even more difficult. First, that his job in the CID was to help find and arrest Nazis, and second, that he didn’t want to do anything out of line with his service.
“Mom put pressure on me, ‘Go see my sisters in Potsdam,’ which is about 20 miles outside of Berlin. I said, ‘Mom, I can’t just do that, I don’t know if they’re Nazis or not.’ If I’m sitting in the outskirts of Berlin in an open-air coffee shop talking with a bunch of Nazis, I would be obligated to put them under arrest,” he said.
But just as he didn’t want to disobey his military mission, neither did he want to disobey his mother. She lived up to her lineage of being from the Polish Corridor.
“They had a reputation of being thickheads, very stubborn people, and boy did my mother fit the bill. Man, I’m telling you, she would give you the shirt off of her back but if you crossed her, look out — you were in deep, deep trouble,” Kehl said.