History Snoopin': Return of a free man
Blasted from the sky and parachuting to earth over North Africa April 20, 1943, World War II was over for Heinz Guenter Bertram. British forces captured the 21-year-old Luftwaffe flight engineer 18 days later. He would be a POW for the remainder of the war.
Heinz was born near the Elbe River in Magdeburg, Germany, a city that after the war would become part of East Germany, lying within the Soviet Zone of Occupation.
In 1938, when he was just 17, Heinz had joined Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Although not a Nazi party member, he was a patriotic German who could care less about the politics of the day.
“Those guys didn’t excite me,” he said, “not even Adolf Hitler.”
After his capture, Heinz began an extended journey he never could have imagined. It was a journey that would take him all the way to Oregon.
The British sent him to a POW camp in France. He remained there for about two weeks before being sent on to Liverpool, England. A couple of months later, he was sailing on a ship crossing the Atlantic on its return voyage to New York City. There, in August 1943, he and other prisoners boarded a train headed for a POW camp located on the Amarillo Army Air Field.
Next stop was New Mexico, where prisoners picked cotton. Brief stops in Arizona and Washington State finally led him, in 1944, to Camp White in Jackson County.
Until early 1946, Heinz lived in the POW camp located roughly where the Rogue Community College White City Campus stands today. Guarded, and surrounded by two separate barbed-wire fences, Heinz worked for one beer and 80 cents each day on the military grounds and sometimes in nearby orchards. He soon fell in love with the land and its surrounding mountains.
On May 8, 1946, exactly three years after his capture, Heinz received his discharge in Munich, Germany. Already he was planning his return to America; however, his home in Magdeburg was now under Communist control. To prove that he was a good citizen of the new society, government officials forced him to work six months in a uranium mine.
He married Edith, a woman he had known in Magdeburg. The couple decided they would sneak into West Germany and apply for a visa to the United States. It would take another two years as they waited to take their place on the U.S. immigration list. Meanwhile, Edith briefly returned home to Magdeburg to sell their house and household goods.
Leaving Rotterdam in the spring of 1954 with three suitcases and three boxes of all their possessions, they docked in New York Harbor April 4. After a brief stay in the East, they boarded a train bound for Medford, arriving just a few weeks later.
During all of his time as a prisoner at Camp White, Heinz had never actually been in the city. Now, he and Edith wandered the streets, amazed at how different America was from his war-torn homeland.
“In Germany,” he said, “only the very rich have such things as cars, refrigerators and deep freezes.”
The couple set up an upholstery business and, as they worked toward U.S. citizenship, taught classes in the trade.
Heinz passed in December 1996 after nearly 50 years in Medford. Edith followed in July 2010.
“It was wonderful to see the Statue of Liberty again,” he said, “and to return to America as a free man.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.