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.
So he contacted his aunts and arranged to meet them. They would take a train to Berlin, and he would meet them and chat. But before he went, he checked them out in the Nazi party records and found no mention of them, setting his mind at ease that he wouldn’t have to end the visit by arresting them.
“We visited over coffee. They were very nice and pleasant, and that’s as far as it went,” he said.
Kehl was discharged in June 1946 and returned to the Midwest. He got a job at the Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill., helping sailors coming out of the war with their discharge papers. After the excitement of the war, and particularly the intellectual rigors of intelligence work, the desk job didn’t suit him.
“I got sick of doing that. I missed what I was doing in Berlin before I discharged,” he said.
After merely a year of being a civilian, Kehl re-enlisted in 1947 and headed back to Berlin, this time as part of the Military Intelligence Division.
“That was very exciting because I had my own spy network, spying on the Russians this time,” he said.
His job was recruitment, bringing in German nationals who lived in the Russian zone.
“We put out the word for them to come in and be interviewed, and we investigated them,” Kehl said.
The recruits didn’t know it, but they were put through a test first before they were trusted to deliver any credible information. They’d be sent to an area where the MID already had good intelligence and an overall lay of the political land.
“We would tell them to spy and then come back and report to us, and then we would check what they did from what we already knew and we would know they were on the up and up,” Kehl said.
Most proved their spy potential, but one particularly memorable case did not.
“I had one guy that I had to get rid of that came in. He was a plant. He was sent to an area and came back with phony information. I started throwing potatoes at him in my office — you should have seen the surprised look on his face. I told him to get the hell back where he belongs,” Kehl said.
“The next thing you know I saw an article in the East German Berlin newspaper about me, where they listed me as a spy. They even had my code name, which was Mr. Chance, printed on there,” he said.
So much for that base of operations. It was time to pull up stakes and find a new location. The MID operated out of private homes, Kehl said, to avoid detection, but still had to move every three or four months.
“They had this organ grinder with a monkey going around looking for us and it took him about three months to find us. He’d stand out there with the organ grinder and the monkey jumping around. Inside the organ was a nice little camera taking pictures of our home so we knew it was time to pull up stakes and find a new home,” Kehl said.
Half of his three-year hitch was spent in Berlin with the MID, and the other half in Frankfurt with the Criminal Investigation Division. This time his job was to investigate American personnel allegedly involved in criminal behavior, arrest them if cause was found, and turn them over to Army court for prosecution.
His last case was his proudest, where he cleared five GIs accused of raping a local woman. Her story didn’t hold up as he interviewed her, and she admitted to fabricating the charges.
“That was my last report, that it was a phony report. I was happy about that because I could have turned in a crappy report, had them court marshaled, and what for? It wouldn’t have been the truth and I’d have had to live with that. And I’m not that way,” Kehl said.
He discharged again, for good this time, in 1950, to begin the process of finding new outlets for his time, sense of duty and intellectual curiosity. It wasn’t long before he developed a way to be of service again, in a career that stretched from the Midwest to Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula.
Though his time in the Army only numbered five years, a miniscule fraction of his eight decades, it looms large in his memory and sense of identity. And every once in a while, it figures into the recognition of others, as well.
He and his wife, Dorothy, were loading shopping bags into their vehicle at a grocery store in Soldotna recently, when a little girl walking by with her father noticed his veteran license plate.
“She came up and said, ‘I want to thank you for what you did for our country,” Kehl said. “I was so surprised. She asked, ‘Can I hug you?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And I asked her dad, ‘Can I kiss her on her head?’ And he said, ‘Of course.’ She was just a little thing but somebody must have taught her what veterans mean.”