Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | Of Pecan Harvests & POW’s
I don’t remember the exact year. It could have been 1943 or 1944. My half brother, Don, and I often went on day long bicycle tours of Moore County, NC.
On this particular Fall day we were on our way from Manly to Niagra, a few miles through sparsely settled rural country. West of the Skyline private airport was Judge Bailey’s pecan grove. The road ran through the middle of the grove, with 5’ fences on either side. There was a group of men in there harvesting the nuts. We stopped to watch.
Those harvesting parties were usually chain gangs consisting of mostly dark skinned people shepherded by a shotgun guard. This one was different; the men were all young and fair skinned and the guard was an MP who seemed indifferent to any risk of escape. He even exchanged light conversation with a few of the workers in broken English and a language we didn’t understand. Each of the working party had on a gray shirt with the letters POW on the back.
They were German prisoners of war! Well, this was a great adventure! We stood at the fence to watch these evil monsters. We knew they were evil monsters because that is what all the papers and magazines and radio shows said about them.
Actually, they didn’t look much like evil monsters. They were tall, smiling young men; mostly blonde, as were Don and I. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.
One of the POWs walked over toward the fence. He was the most beautiful young man we had ever seen. He must have been about 6’4” and I thought he must have been the model for Hitler’s propaganda about the master race. His blonde hair was like wheat, his eyes almost shined with the blue of the sky and his smile was worthy of a movie star. The MP strolled over with him. He came to the fence and said, with a strong accent, “Hello, American boys. Ich bin . . . um . . . I am Heinz, Heinz Walter.”
That really startled Don. His surname is Walter. I backed up. This couldn’t be the bloodthirsty, baby killing fiend that I had been so thoroughly taught all Nazis were, but I was still alert for any threat.
Don was totally disarmed. He stuck his hand through the fence and said, “My name is Donald Walter. Are you a Nazi?”
Heinz’ smile faded. “No, I am German soldier. Nazi is politics. I do not do politics.”
I advanced to the fence. “You are a prisoner of war, far, far from home. Why do you seem so happy?”
“Ach! Kleine kinder . . . Oh! Small American boys talk like big American men. Why am I happy? I am in the United States of America! I will live through this war. I love America and Americans. I will come back here some day as a free man and become an American.”
Heinz then exchanged a few words of German with the MP guard. Then he turned back. “Donald Walter, American boy, will you be my friend? I can give you some nuts to take home to your mutti . . . er . . . mother.” He smiled at me, “Are you named Walter, also? You look English to me. I like Englishmen, but Americans have treated me best.”
“No, I am John Cornwell. Don and I have the same mother. We are both Americans.”
With some help from the MP guard we learned about Heinz Walter and he about us.
Heinz was 18 years old. He had joined the Army when he was 16, after his brothers had both been captured by the Russians, and been sent to Africa with a tank crew. He was captured at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass within weeks of his arrival.
He did not know if any of his family was alive. It was widely believed that if the Russians captured you, you were dead. His father had been killed early in the war by French partisans and he knew nothing of his mother’s fate.
We neither saw nor heard anything of Heinz after that day. The pecan harvest ended and life went on. I have often wondered if the beautiful, smiling young man achieved his dream of becoming an American.
I do remember the almost painful lesson I learned that day, though. What adults say is so, is not necessarily so. Hate and envy create terrible images of ordinary human beings. Believing what adults . . . or any authority figure . . . tells you, just because of their authority, is a bad error.
(JB Cornwell writes from "The Hideout" in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the iboats.com Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)