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'From Hitler Youth to American Soldier'

Inwood man tells of journey from Germany to America

Inwood man tells of journey from Germany to America

October 30, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Memories can be both sweet and bitter.

It is no different for Herb Flemming, 76, of Inwood, W.Va., as he recounts his life with a mixture of hearty laughs and salty tears.

Flemming will talk about his life and his autobiography at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3, at Shepherd University's Scarborough Library.

In "A Prisoner of Hope: From Hitler Youth to American Soldier," a book he co-wrote with Timothy King, Flemming chronicles his idyllic childhood growing up during the 1930s in Rothenen, East Prussia, a part of German state on the northern border of Poland. World War II followed and led to their ultimate arrival in the United States.

His childhood

Flemming lived with his parents and seven brothers and sisters just a five-minute walk from the Baltic Sea. His father, Otto, was a master blacksmith for the farming and fishing community, as well as a lay preacher for the Evangelical Free Church.

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But in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Flemming was 6 years old.

"My dad and two of his customers were standing in the blacksmith yard and I was playing nearby while they were talking," Flemming said in a German accent. "I knew something terrible had happened."

By the time he was 10, like must young boys in the community, Flemming had joined the Hitler Youth. He said, being young, he never noticed any teachings of hate.

"I would almost compare it to the Boy Scouts at that age," Flemming said.

The boys were taught gun safety and how to shoot a BB gun. They also played capture the flag.

"At that time, what I experienced, I was not ashamed of," he said.

The escape

By 1944, Russia was advancing closer to Germany. In order to get there, troops marched through Rothenen.

The Soviet army met the German army in Rothenen. Flemming said he saw the fighting from the triangle window in the attic. The Soviets were advancing and his father was assigned to the German Navy artillery in the Baltic Sea.

Flemming and the children slept on top of potato bins in the basement. His mother, Maria, and oldest sister slept upstairs while his father was on post.

Flemming said his father was told by two German soldiers to get his family out of the area.

It was February 1945 and Flemming was just shy of his 12th birthday.

For food, their mother packed a smoked ham and a loaf of bread, one in each knapsack he and a brother wore. They limited what they took with them and dressed as warmly as they could.

"I was dressed in two of my dad's best suits," Flemming recalled.

It was in the wee morning hours when they left their home. And as they climbed the long hill in a milk wagon, Flemming said he saw that the Soviet cannons were lining up.

"You could see soldier's silhouettes in the sky," he said.

They were so close that they could hear the cannons being loaded and soldiers shouting to each other.

Rothenen is now a part of Russia, but when Flemming returned in 1999 he found that not a single street or building remained.

Life as refugees

The Flemmings were trying to get onto the General Von Steuben, a converted ocean liner that was taking families out of the area. The family was 15 miles away from the port city of Pillau and Flemming said his dad had let another man lead them on a short cut.

When they arrived, the town was overrun. "Normally there were 10,000 people, but I understand there was 100,000," he said.

As they waited in line, a man called down and said the ship was filled. Flemming's family wasn't allowed onboard.

It turned out to be a blessing.

The Von Steuben was fired upon by a Soviet submarine and sank in the icy Baltic Sea. Of its 3,000 passengers, only 300 people survived.

They boarded the next available ship, the Lothringen. Their father stayed behind, and when they got on board, their mother, who was pregnant with her ninth child, fainted. One of the officers gave up his cabin for her and the children.

Flemming said they were to be on the Baltic Sea for four days. On the second day they were attacked by Allied planes.

"I saw four specks in the sky and (the crew) sounded the alarm that everyone needed to go below deck," he said.

The shooting had started. "It sounded like someone beating a drum," he said.

As Flemming recounts those moments huddled in the cabin, his eyes fill with tears.

"I was just 12 and I was so scared," he said.

As the bullets rained down on the ship, his oldest brother, Karl, asked his mother to pray with them.

"As soon as Mom said Amen, I believe God answered and the guns stopped," he said. "I knew that God answered our prayers."

The months and years that followed were hard for the family. They were relocated to Hamburg, Germany. Flemming's father had been captured by the Soviets and was a POW outside of Kiev.

"My father loved God and family," he said. "He was my idol."

He wouldn't see his father for five years, until Christmas Eve 1949. As Flemming talks about being reunited with his father that night, his tears flow.

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