Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles about Fred Kehl, of Soldotna, a veteran of World War II. This week, Part One looks at his experience on the front lines of the U.S. push into Germany and the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp. Next week, Part Two will recall Kehl’s life prior to being drafted and what led him to re-enlist into the service, using his German language abilities in the realm of intelligence.
By Jenny Neyman
Fred Kehl’s service on the Main Line of Resistance sweeping through Europe in World War II was a collection of firsts, unimaginables and unforgettables:
The dead German soldier lying alongside the road with his hands clenched in perfect praying position.
The injured soldier with his face so badly swollen his eyes were swallowed by puffy pillows of flesh.
A German platoon drunk to recklessness from a trek through wine country, foolish enough to swagger raucously into a U.S.-occupied town with concealed gunners lining the street down which they stumbled.
The sky alight with tracer fire, the air seemingly choked with more bullets than space between them.
The skeletal prisoners at Dachau concentration camp, some with breath still animating their withered frames, many as still as husks — inhuman, as had been their treatment.
But it’s what he’ll never know that really sticks with Kehl — how did his Jeep pass safely over a land mine while the one behind triggered its deadly blast?
How could a lone, lowly captain survive a curtain of bullets and his plane’s fiery crash, much less get away with berating a ranking officer?
What became of the people whose homes he commandeered to set up command headquarters as the U.S. occupation swept forward?
Who of those he encountered survived the war? The young man with the swollen face? The pilot who survived the crash? His fellows in the Rainbow Division? The one, single, live prisoner pulled out of the heaps of dead bodies piled in boxcars at Dachau?
How could anyone enact the unfathomable atrocities of the Nazi regime?
How is it that his own relatives — Kehl being German, himself — could possibly be a part of any of it?
“Now, ask any man or woman who has seen firsthand the carnage of war, justified or not, and they will tell you the utter insanity of it,” Kehl said.
Before any of those truths or mysteries even entered his consideration, Kehl faced the first vast, unfathomable precipice of his young life. At 18, he was going to war. Now living in Soldotna with his wife, Dorothy, Kehl in 1943 lived in Waukegan, Ill., where his family settled after emigrating from Germany in 1923.
Fresh out of school, and still fresh in the dawning realization that being a teenage troublemaker wasn’t a path on which he wanted to continue, he found himself drafted into the Army.
“I was totally ignorant. I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
Basic training was 13 weeks at Camp Blanding in northern Florida.
“It was heat rash all week long, and if you opened up your footlocker a cockroach would hand you your soap,” he said.
Next was Camp Gruber, Okla., as part of the storied 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division, formed to fill the Army’s ranks in World War I with federalized National Guard Units from all over the country — hence the nickname. Rainbow Division was a workhorse of WWI, taking part in six major operations in France, suffering nearly 50 percent casualties and seeing 264 days of combat, with one stretch lasting 174 days straight.
It might have been the inherited honor of that storied division, or perhaps Kehl’s determination to stay on the straight and narrow, or maybe simply having direction and expectations upon him, but Kehl was determined to be a first-rate soldier.
“I wanted to be good. I wanted to advance, do what they told me. And I did,” he said.
With one slight misstep — completely unintentional, he ensures. Kehl shipped out with three infantry regiments — 222nd, 232nd and 242nd — and a detachment of Headquarters Company of the Rainbow Division as part of the 7th Army, arriving in France on Dec. 9, 1944. They set up a tent city on the outskirts of Marsais.
“The company commander told a few of us we could go into Marsais without an official pass. Well, we couldn’t. I got picked up by the MPs, and did a few hours in the local jail. I got chewed out and they transferred me to Headquarters Company, as punishment, I guess,” he said.
Two weeks later his regiment headed to Strasbourg, France, on the Rhine River.
“We faced the Germans on the other side,” he said.
The town opposite of Strasbourg was Kehl. Thought he doesn’t know how his lineage might be linked, the connection didn’t go unnoticed among his outfit.
“From that time on I was called the Kraut,” he said.
His father had come from Sistine, east of Berlin, and his mother from Königsberg, capital of the province of East Prussia. They had emigrated to the U.S. to escape the ruin Germany had become after World War I, leaving relatives from both sides of the family behind. Kehl had never been to Germany, never met his aunts, uncles and other relatives still there, never identified as anything but American, but could read, write and speak German fluently.
That skill made him of particular use to his commanders, as a harbinger. He would advance with his company along the Main Line of Resistance — the U.S. front line — in the U.S. push through Germany following the Battle of the Bulge. Once new territory was secured, Kehl’s job was to drop back from the front into whatever town or village had been overtaken, choose a few of the finer, strategically placed homes in which to set up headquarters for the commanders coming up from the rear, and explain to the owners that they were being evicted.
It was done with all the requisite military protocol and formalities — explaining that residents were to evacuate, allowed to take some clothing and personal items but not much else. That they could move back once the Amy no longer had need of their home, and that, upon re-occupancy, if they found anything missing or damaged they could file a claim to the Army. All very official and officious, yet still an odd experience for an 18-year-old coming from a Midwest, keep-to-yourself, Depression-era family of modest means to be throwing older, wealthier, established adults out onto the street.
Once headquarters were secured he’d rejoin the advancing front, his reprieve from the grinding violence of combat brief. The Rainbow Brigade was sent to reinforce the U.S. forces holding out against what would be the German Army’s last major offensive along the Western Front, Operation North Wind, attempting to break through the U.S. and French lines near Strasbourg, already weakened from sending reinforcements to the U.S. forces involved in the Battle of the Bulge.
It began at 6 a.m., Kehl recalls, with a four-hour artillery barrage. The U.S. held out and was able to cross the Rhine and advance upon the Germans in retreat.
Rumbling along in the back of a 2.5-ton truck, Kehl witnessed the efficiency of the front’s advance — munitions craters pockmarking the pulverized landscape amid smoldering rubble, dead soldiers, dead horses and dead civilians.
“We passed this German soldier, dead. He was lying on his back and he had his hands folded. I didn’t know if he was praying or what, but that’s what I saw. And I can still see that guy lying there. That was the first German soldier that I saw that was dead, and it stayed with me all these years,” Kehl said.
It was far from the last of the dead or dying that he would witness, in the war or after it. The Rainbow Division pressed northeast into the Heatz Mountains and he was sent into a small village facing a tree-covered mountainside. There were about a dozen German soldiers, badly wounded, one with his head so swollen “it looked like a basketball,” Kehl said.
A German captain came out, “And he had this Sour and Son pistol on his side, and I relieved him of that,” Kehl said.
His German fluency at times ran him smack against situations probably beyond his rank, requiring decisions along with translations. While in that village three German soldiers came out of the woods and handed in their rifles to surrender. Kehl accepted.
“They said, ‘Well, we have some buddies up in the mountains that are afraid to come down. That’s why they sent us.’ And I said, ‘Well, tell them to get their asses down here,’” Kehl said, expecting another handful or so to emerge as the surrendered soldiers waved a white flag back toward the woods.
“All of a sudden the mountain moved. There must have been about 2- or 3,000 guys up there that were ready to surrender but were scared to come down. A lot of them just kids. They’d reached the point where Hitler was drafting 15-, 16-year-old kids. I was only 18 at the time,” he said.
His regiment bypassed Frankfurt and turned southeast, facing fierce battles advancing on Wurzburg, Schweinfurt and Furth.
In one town, with headquarters set up, he was assigned a night shift of guard duty, stationed behind a pillar out of sight of the road. Around 2 a.m. he heard activity coming from the surrounding vineyards. It was German soldiers heading into town, apparently oblivious that it was now under U.S. control.
“I started hearing a bunch of guys yelling, screaming, laughing. They must have been at least a company, but you couldn’t see much. They must have been tanked up on wine because they were acting like it — yelling, screaming, making themselves known,” Kehl said.
He dropped to his knees behind the pillar, raising his M3 “grease gun” to firing position, waiting for them to come down his street. They never did, passing first within range of the regiment troops.
“Man, I tell you, tracer buildings were flying all over the place,” he said. “They never did get to me.”
They bypassed Schweinfurt, with its ball-bearing factories bombed flat, and headed toward Nuremberg, the birthplace of the Nazi party. A friend “liberated” some German propaganda books, where Kehl saw the imagery of the rabid Adolf Hitler era, filled with charged exhortations of German supremacy, Aryan purity and allegiance to the Nazis.
From there it was south to the Danube River, where engineers worked frantically to resurrect a pontoon bridge swallowed by floodwaters. An entire battalion stacked up along the shore, and set up their machine guns to secure their position.
Though the Germans had airpower their planes were mostly grounded at that point in the war from a shortage of fuel. But there were occasional spy flights. Two or three times a German reconnaissance plane would appear overhead, dodging the Americans’ anti-aircraft fire, checking on the U.S.’s location and activity to report back to the Germans.
At dusk, a plane was spotted about 1,000 feet up.
“This whole battalion of Triple A (anti-aircraft artillery) opened up. I’m standing there with my mouth hanging open and the sky just lit up with tracer bullets. I’d never seen anything like it. A fly couldn’t have made it through that haze of bullets,” Kehl said.
Except it wasn’t German, it was a lone Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, one of the mainstay fighters of the U.S. Air Force.
“I don’t know where he came from or what his mission was,” Kehl said. “The plane hit a hill and broke into flames. And here comes this pilot in his parachute. And you could hear him yelling (in English), ‘You god-d—, grumble, grumble, so-and-sos. What the hell are you doing? Where’s the commander of this outfit?’ And here’s an Army Air Force captain chewing out a lieutenant colonel. ‘Well, sorry. We didn’t know,’ the colonel said.”
Still heading south, toward Munich, they ran into resistance. Kehl’s Jeep unknowingly passed over a ratchet Teller mine — set to withstand a certain number of vehicles before exploding. The very next vehicle behind Kehl’s hit the unlucky number.
“There was a flash and puff of smoke and three guys went flying through the air. Well, we had just run over that damn thing, and here comes this Jeep and they were the ones that got it. I’ll never forget that one,” Kehl said. “Those were three guys that —fortunately, I think — were dead before they hit the ground.”
On the northern outskirts of Munich is Dachau, and Kehl was among some of the first forces to reach the camp, immediately after the front line of the Rainbow Division troops had passed through, liberating the concentration camp on April 29, 1945. Dachau, opened in March 1933, was the Nazi’s first concentration camp, operating in a munitions factory north of Munich. It was estimated to hold 5,000 people, but by 1942 had over 12,000 detainees. Actual numbers can’t be verified, but it is believed that over 200,000 prisoners were interred at concentration under the Nazi regime, and likely more than 31,000 died there and in its subcamps.
“That was a pretty awful place,” he said.
The guards — S.S. troops — had dressed like prisoners to avoid detection, but the prisoners denounced their captors. The Americans meted out retribution, killing the guards rather than taking them hostage, as payback for the S.S. executing about 150 captured U.S. prisoners on the outskirts of Normandy, Kehl said.
“They (the S.S.) lined Americans up and machine-gunned them to death. They should never have done that because it pissed us off. No mercy from here out for the S.S — the hell with the Geneva Convention — and they were executed on the spot. They were bad people anyway, and we were better off without them,” he said.
Gruesome though that was, it was little compared to the atrocities Kehl witnessed in the camp.
“I saw some who were able to stand, and the ones who couldn’t stand were lying on the ground. Some of them might have been 10, 15 minutes away from death. Every one of them looked like skeletons,” he said.
They investigated a railroad track lined with railroad boxcars, and found each half full of the bodies of dead prisoners.
“There was one guy when we opened the doors who was still alive. We pulled him out of there alive. I don’t know whether he stayed alive or not,” Kehl said.
His regiment’s push through Germany ended in Poing, Germany, east of Munich on the Czech border, with the troops wondering if they’d be sent on to Japan or back into Germany to help with the
occupation. But soon after, word came that the war was over, ended in two flashes of atomic power and destruction.
“We defeated the Nazis and Nazism, but we didn’t kill it. It still exists today,” Kehl said, referencing white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads. “And we have to be ever vigilant.”
Now living in small-town Soldotna, about as far away in distance, experience and time as one could get from the German front of World War II, Kehl still holds the memories of his time in the front. After his discharge, it drew him to re-enlist in the service, headed back to Germany. And much later, as a member of Rotary International, it drew him back to Dachau to visit the camp.
“As soon as I got to where the barbed-wire fences were, I tell you I’d never had anything like that happen to me before. The air, it just got thick, and you could feel it. All I can say is it must have been the spirits of all those people that they killed there. They’re still there,” he said.
And they’re still in Kehl.