I was in a school play in Detroit before the war. I was 16. My girlfriend and I got on a bus one day. I was holding my costume, and the bus lurched. There was a young man sitting there, and the skirt hit him in the face and he said: “Look out there, redhead.”
My friend and I went to the back of the bus and sat down, and she said: “Well, he was sassy.” That’s how I met my husband, Bob. In December 1941, I was living with my parents and working at Bell Telephone in Detroit as an operator. I was at the switchboard. It was a Sunday morning. Somebody said: “Pearl Harbor was bombed.”
In February 1943, Bob and I were married. Bob had been inducted into the Army. I made my dress, and Bob cleaned my dad’s shoes and his dad’s shoes and his dad’s car. The jeweler asked: “Child bride?” And I said arrogantly: “No, I’m 19.”
When Bob went to Texas. He had to go into the hospital and was there when his unit shipped out. The Army didn’t know what to do with this one leftover man, so they said: “Well, let’s put him in a prisoner of war camp.” He was sent to Camp Swift near Austin and put in charge of 3,000 German prisoners.
“Welcome to America,” Bob would say when new prisoners arrived. “You did not start this war, and neither did I. We are victims of war and we have some big decisions to make.”
I could hear the buzz of voices, and then Bob said: “I can swear at you. I can yell at you. Or I could treat you with respect if you agree to treat me with respect and obey my orders. If you agree, we can make this camp clean and peaceful. Everybody will be well fed. We might even enjoy some of our time. What do you think?”
In unison, those kids would raise their left arms in the air and holler, “Ja.”
One day, on a routine bed check, Bob found two young fellows with their beds turned upside down. One kid had made a paintbrush, and then he had taken some toothpaste, colored some of it with beet juice and some of it yellow, and some he made green by using weeds. The kid was making a painting on the bottom of his Army cot.
The other kid was hiding something, and Bob said: “Show me what you’ve got.” He had stolen a dull knife from the kitchen, and he had a stick and was carving a dog. The next day, Bob sent me out on an Army Jeep, which was against the law — civilians were not supposed to ride on Army vehicles — into Austin. I bought paint, brushes, canvas, stretchers and a carving set. Those kids were so thrilled to have something to do to hone their skills.
They treated me like their big sister. I made shirts, blouses, aprons, pillowcases and clothes for their babies, so that they could send them back to their families back in Germany.