The Ballou: yet another connection, and a different view

This photo was kindly submitted by Leo Wagner, who was on the voyage with his wife Ann and daughter Heidi.

Two days ago I was contacted by Heidi Wagner, a fellow passenger who crossed the Atlantic on the same ship with me and my family!

It was a joy to talk to her. We shared our respective histories, immigrant experiences, and love for our adopted country. She is doing research for her 92 year old father in hopes of locating the family of a dear friend of his with whom he had lost contact after arriving in the USA in 1952.

All immigrant refugee families on the ship received a post card with the picture of the USS General Ballou (also referred to as MS General Ballou) on it. I remember our postcard, unfortunately in the ensuing 65 years it was lost. Heidi just sent me a picture of the postcard her dad still had.

Heidi and her father are both looking forward to reading Why Can’t Somebody Just Die Around Here? Writing the book is a gift that keeps on giving!

POW Connections

Gustav, Gerhard’s father in his early 20s.

I met an 81-year-old Saxon lady (possibly a relative) at a recent breakfast, and she has a story similar to mine.

She obviously remembers her homeland quite well. Her father, being Saxon, was forced into the Waffen-SS. He fought in the war and became a POW, as did my father.

Gustav, a few years later and about two years after being released from POW camp.

After her father was released and returned home our stories diverge. Having perpetrated the crime of being Saxon, he was arrested by the communists and schlepped off to Siberia as a slave-laborer. He died there at the age of 37. The lack of food, clothing, adequate shelter, and extreme cold was difficult for the healthy to survive. For those in poor health, such as former POWs, it meant certain death.

Gerhard’s father’s certificate of release from the Prisoner of War camp.

When my father was released from Russian captivity (Focșani, Romania POW camp) he returned home in extremely poor health. In the early years of WWII, before Dad went to the front to fight the Russians, he surreptitiously went against the regime to help his Jewish friend Mr. Massler. His friend, now the communist police commissioner of Bistrita, Romania (Bistritz in German) protected him from arrest. He returned kindness with kindness. My dad survived.

To add to the poignancy of the Saxon lady’s story about her father was that she once met a former Transylvanian Saxon slave laborer who had survived. In hopes of gaining some knowledge about her father’s death she asked him what they did with the bodies of those who died. He responded, “We stripped them of their clothes and dug a shallow grave wherever they had collapsed and died.” As she told me this she began to cry.

The USNS General CC Ballou, Part 3: Fellow Passengers

Sixty-five years ago my family crossed the stormy North Atlantic on the USNS General C. C. Ballou as displaced persons. In the early morning on April 10, 1952, while anchored in New York harbor, I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time.

In the past several months I have been contacted by two fellow passengers and the granddaughter of a third. One of them, while reading my book, realized we were on the same voyage and bunked near each other. Although she was only four at the time, she remembered the burial at sea described in the book.

Another refugee who crossed the Atlantic on the USNS General C. C. Ballou several months earlier learned about my book while doing internet research on the ship. He was struck with how uncannily similar our stories are. He contacted me and we’ve become friends. Writing the book is a gift that just keeps on giving!

By the way, the book is now available for Kindle readers!

Two Men, Four armies, Four Countries

IMG_6045

The picture is of me in my advanced ROTC uniform with Dad just before I was to get an ROTC award. Dad, who had fought in three Axis armies, was very proud of me.

And now a retired US Army Colonel has read the story that spans the experiences of those men, from WWII to Vietnam, and loves the book!

Thank you, thank you, thank you. The book…it is a shame that we have so abused great adjectives i.e. awesome, outstanding, and terrific so (so is “so”)…in the United States Army lingo I will say “a job well done”.

Gerhard, your ability to tell your family’s story was and is a true gift; I understand “labors of love.” You made me laugh and cry and thank God for his mercy to you and your family especially where their lives were at great risk. It is a wonderful story of survival, heartbreak, determination, and love. Your research and capture of such historically valuable documentation was stunning.

Your family’s life story would make a great movie!!!!

-Dick Smith, US Army Colonel (Ret), former faculty member of both the Command & General Staff College and the US Army War College

The USNS General CC Ballou, Part 1

uss_general_ballou

When we came to the States in April, 1952, nearly all traffic across the Atlantic was by ship. Our ship, loaded with cargo and immigrants, was the USNS General C. C. Ballou. This picture was taken in Bremerhaven, Germany, sometime in 1952.

ballou_manifest

We departed Bremerhaven for the United States, together with over 1000 other refugees. Most were heading to America; for some the final destination was Canada. Seeing our names on the inbound (to NY) passenger manifest is quite exciting.

Because I can speak German, lived in Germany, and taught German in my second career, most people who know me think I was German. The manifest shows we weren’t German citizens, instead we were “Roumanian” displaced persons. Our names are listed on lines 7, 8, 9, and 10.

We sailed for America on March 31, 1952.

Certificate of Release

certificate_of_releaseDad was sick and starving, had a full beard, was very weak, and looked like a walking skeleton. He weighed 95 lbs. He was 27 at the time, but appeared much older. Because of his weakened condition he was released from Focsani, Romania, on August 28, 1945. It was an emotional moment for me when I found the original Certificate of Release document in the records my parents had saved.

On the Certificate of Release, written in blue ink toward the top in Cyrillic script is “Maroscher Gustav”. His birth year “1917” is two lines below. One can also read that he was prisoner number 17223. Above his prisoner number is his release date.

Father’s time in the Army

GOBD 5 001_retouched

Before World War II Dad was drafted into the Romanian army. Dad is shown on his horse while serving. Dad was in a Romanian mountain troop battalion. In spring, summer, and fall he rode his horse. In the winter cross country skis were used.

father_uniform_photoThe Romanian military was the first of three armies Dad served in during WWII. In August, 1940, the northern part of our Transylvanian homeland was annexed to Hungary.

Dad was drafted into the Hungarian army not long thereafter, and fought on the Russian Front. The contrast between how Americans fought in WWII and how our dad fought is amazing. His unit in the Hungarian army had horse drawn wagons, and dad told me his allotment of mortar shells was two per mortar per week. Americans and Russians, supplied by American industry, had considerably more ammunition and mobility. Dad had to carefully husband his ammunition.

    Dad is shown with some of the soldiers in his platoon. Dad is sitting on the left, eating something. The soldier in the rear left is resting a mortar round on Dad’s leg.

Dad is shown with some of the soldiers in his platoon. Dad is sitting on the left, eating something. The soldier in the rear left is resting a mortar round on Dad’s leg.

Just before the total breakdown of Axis resistance Dad was drafted into the German army.