The Charlotte Observer, Sunday, May 30, 1999
The GI and the German Bride
©1999 Valerie Kreutzer
When Ralph Howard is asked about his World War II experiences, he usually says that he was very lucky to meet a wonderful family in Germany.
Members of this family will tell you that his friendship saved them from the brink of starvation, and his gift of a wedding dress taught them a lesson in generosity.
I know about it and can tell the story because I was the youngest member of the family Ralph befriended in Berlin in 1945.
As he recalls, he was drafted in October of 1944. He was 28, married to June, and the father of two children. He was working for the federal milk market administrator in Chicago.
After three months of training in Arkansas, he shipped out to Liverpool, fought with the 17th and 101st airborne divisions in France, and then joined the legendary ‘All American’ 82nd division under General James M. Gavin.
The 82nd airborne arrived in Berlin in July of 1945, about six weeks after the Russians had fought, ransacked and raped their way to the city’s center. In his book On to Berlin, Gavin writes: “Our first task was to clean up the city, remove and bury the bodies, and feed and care for the living.”
Over 3,000 bodies alone had to be retrieved from the subway stations which Hitler had flooded at the last minute to delay the Russians for a few more hours. To care for the living, a rationing system provided the population with “barely a starvation diet,” Gavin writes.
Ralph remembers that his guard duty didn’t quite fill his days. “A fellow and I were in a Bible study course,” he says, “and we thought it would be good if we could meet some Berliners.” They contacted some clergy and were directed to my father, a Methodists minister, who spoke English.
I was eight and answered the door the evening Ralph and two other GIs appeared unannounced and in uniforms. The sight of the soldiers was a little frightening but my parents quickly welcomed them into our living room. We had no food to offer, but we had stories to tell: How we had barely escaped the Russians while fleeing from Pommerania, now part of Poland; how we had lost everything, but were grateful to have survived as a family of six.
Ralph and his friends shared pictures of their families and a Hershey bar—my first taste of chocolate. We played some parlor games and sang a song for them. They brought their army hymnals on their next visit, and by the time they left in December, we knew how to belt out “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and a few other catchy tunes.
Ralph and the 82nd sailed home on the Queen Mary. In January of ’46, the “All Americans” marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue with a combat record unsurpassed in the U.S. Army.
Upon his return, Ralph mobilized his church and friends to send us food and clothing. We soon had proper shoes to wear and enough food to eat. But most importantly, we kept in touch.
When my sister Heidi became engaged to Hans Sommer, a dentist and the son of our family dentist, the Howards wrote that they would like to provide the wedding gown. Heidi should draw or send a picture of what she would like.
“I had the nerve to clip a lace gown from some fancy fashion magazine,” Heidi recalls with chagrin. “I guess we thought they were rich. They lived in a house and owned a car—things we could only dream of.”
June wrote back saying that she had looked for that lacy gown all over Dubuque, Iowa, but had not been able to find it. Her search had also been complicated by not knowing the bride’s size. She had asked Ralph and he had said vaguely: “Well, when I put my arm around her, it sort of fits around her waist.”
With that helpful hint June had bought a lovely gown that made Heidi the prettiest bride in all of Berlin at the end of May in 1948.
Over the next 50 years, our families’ friendship was reinforced through letters and visits. Margie, the Howards’ youngest was born. I won a scholarship for graduate study at Duke University and got to know the whole Howard family, by then living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
When June and Ralph finally came to visit in 1983 in the context of a Kiwanis convention in Vienna, Austria, they stayed in the guest quarters of the Sommers’ new house in the Black Forest. Set on a ridge, the house commands a stunning view of several mountain ranges and the Rhein valley. The Howards marveled at the Sommers’ rags-to-riches story that included their hair-raising escape from communism in East Germany in 1952.
To highlight a dinner party given in Ralph and June’s honor, Heidi modeled the wedding gown, now dark blue, because it had been dyed for some previous family celebration. It still fit perfectly!
Perhaps it was the love woven into the gift of the gown that made the marriage last, because last year Hans and Heidi celebrated their golden anniversary. The Howards were invited but could not attend. However, our family saw to it that they were there in spirit.
The gown that had lingered in a discarded box of dress-up clothes once used by the grand children, was rescued from oblivion. It was bleached and mended, starched and ironed, and finally put on a dummy that hovered over the reception and dinner.
Heidi gasped when she recognized the bride of yesteryear thus resurrected. My sister Claudia read her poem about the American soldier who had come in enemy uniform and had left a compassionate friend.
“With your gift fifty years ago you set for us an example of generosity which we will never forget,” we wrote to the Howards in a letter the next day.
“As we look back,” the 83-year-old Howard recently wrote, “it was a time when we could try to provide some enjoyment to others who were struggling. There was undoubtedly a lot of trust that God still was in command and had unlimited love to share.”