Former German prisoner of war Günter Gräwe was 18 years old in August of 1944 during what he calls the luckiest time of his life.
That was shortly after he, as a new recruit in the German Army, was injured in the foot by a grenade in Normandy, France, and captured in a field hospital.
Gräwe was transported on the Queen Mary to Dover, Maine. He was then transported by train to a prisoner of war camp near what’s now the Washington National Guard Readiness Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Now 91 years old, Gräwe returned to JBLM Tuesday to ride his bicycle from the Liberty Gate on Lewis Main to the site of that former prisoner of war camp. He was escorted by JBLM military police members.
For Gräwe, the visit to JBLM was an opportunity to say “thank you” for the treatment he received as a prisoner and see once again the place that holds positive memories, despite the troubling times of his youth. The buildings, now a handful of brown one- and- two-story structures, are all that remains of what was 60 barracks, a soccer field, fences and guard towers.
He toured the inside of one of the surviving structures with Col. William Percival, deputy garrison commander of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and commander of the 627th Air Base Group.
“My bed was over there,” Gräwe said, as he pointed to a corner in the building similar to the one in which he’d lived. “It was (a bunk bed). The (building) must have been improved later; it wasn’t as nice as this.”
Gräwe doesn’t have any complaints about his treatment as a prisoner. In fact, he had only good things to say about his time in America.
“All we cared about was the food,” he said of prison life.
Gräwe said he appreciated the meat and vegetables served but also loved that he could use his 80 cents a day — payment for work performed picking apples or harvesting potatoes in eastern Washington or picking cotton in Arizona — to purchase items he would not have been able to buy in Germany.
In a 2016 letter to Marie McCaffrey, co-founder and executive director of History Link, who accompanied Gräwe on his visit to JBLM, he wrote: “It was in August or September 1944 when I stood in front of a shop in the POW Camp (at) Fort Lewis considering what to buy first: an ice cream or a bottle of Coca-Cola. The last ice cream I had been able to buy in Germany was years ago. But Coca-Cola? Never before. So I decided to take both. I suddenly realized how extremely lucky I had been to be captured by the American Army and not the Russian one.”
Food was rationed in Germany during World War II, and Gräwe’s family wasn’t able to buy such niceties. Gräwe grew up the oldest of two children in Lüdensheid, a small west German town. He had a sister, Erika, who was three years younger than him. She died in 2015.
Gräwe joined Deutsches Jungvolk — a German group for young people — when he was 10 years old and transitioned into the Hitler Youth program at the age of 14. At the time, Gräwe had no knowledge of the German leader’s horrific plans for his country. Gräwe said he thought of the youth groups as similar to American Boy Scout programs.
“We had fun and went places, camping and games, things we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” he said.
His father was drafted into the German Army and died a year later, when Gräwe was a just a youth. Before his 18th birthday, Gräwe was called into the German Army. He joined voluntarily, he said.
According to Gräwe, the German Army and Hitler’s Nazis were two completely different groups. Prison camps in America, including the one at JBLM, also differentiated between the two, giving 10 cents a day in pay for work to Nazi prisoners and 80 cents a day to German Soldiers, such as Gräwe, according to Duane Denfield, JBLM architectural historian.
Gräwe said he and other prisoners couldn’t believe it when an American military officer told of atrocities performed by Nazis, such as Jews being murdered in concentration camps. A few years after the war, Gräwe returned to Germany. He married his wife, Chrestel, in 1950. She died two years ago, shortly before he decided to make the trip to JBLM.
“She’d have said I was crazy,” he said, when asked if his wife would have approved his pilgrimage.
The couple has two sons, Ulrich and Mathias, who now run the family import business in Germany, along with his grandson, Holm, and his wife, Swetlana.
Gräwe said he was glad to have seen JBLM and met current military leaders, and he is grateful for the way Americans help other countries — such as the Marshall Plan, after World War II, which helped rebuild Germany. He said he decided to make this bike trip now because he wanted to thank America for treatment he’d not have received at the hands of other captors.
“With all the trouble in the Middle East, there are so many things happening,” he said. “I think of the prisoners of ISIS; they won’t get ice cream or Coca-Cola. My stay here was the best (treatment) I’ve had.”