World War II

A visit to the Rhineland

 ... Old memories and new experiences

by Irving Smolens

At one of our recent Silver Stringer weekly meetings it was suggested that a good story topic might be recounting memories of enjoyed vacations past. As Edith, my wife, and I were about to embark on a visit to Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg I decided to postpone writing about previous vacations preferring instead to write about the trip that was about to take place. We have been retired for more than ten years so in a sense we are on a permanent vacation. We do, however, remain active and involved in civic and political organizations.

We left Boston on a United Airlines flight operated by the German Lufthansa Airline on the morning of July 9 and arrived at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany at 5:45 AM on July 10. Two American friends were there to meet us and help with luggage retrieval and getting us through customs with no delays. Bill McCarthy, the brother of our very close friend Bob McCarthy was there. Bill is the Chief of Maintenance for Boeing for much of Western Europe and occupies an office in the Frankfurt air terminal. Mo Shields, our host, for the entire two weeks of our visit was also there. Mo and Ann, his wife, are the parents of Abby Shields who is beginning her second year as a West Point cadet. I had first made contact with Abby on the Internet. She has been to Boston several times and now considers us to be her adopted grandparents.

Mo and Ann have been after us for several years to come to stay with them at their home in Germany. As an inducement for us to make the Germany trip they had promised to make it easy for me to visit battlefields where I had fought in WW II as a combat artilleryman. They have friends in Belgium and Luxembourg who have devoted their lives and finances to create their own incredible museums in their respective countries. The museums are dedicated to the American soldiers who had liberated their countries in the late summer of 1944 and then prevented the Germans from reoccupying and once again enslaving their countries in the ensuing winter months during what is popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Mo Shields and Bill McCarthy had never met and did not even have pictures of each other. However, Mo instantly recognized that Bill was American and when he approached him. Bill confirmed that he was indeed the brother of our friend Bob. They had some time to get acquainted before our actual arrival and then escorted us to Mo's car. Once Bill was assured that we were in good hands he left and we began our trip to the Shields home about two hours away. That was our first experience at driving 100 miles an hour on a series of Autobahns with impatient German pseudo Grand Prix drivers passing us.

Ann is a civilian nurse who works on contract with the military at a US hospital near the Ramstein Air Base a short distance from the Shields home. Unfortunately she was on night duty on the days on which she was scheduled to work. So she would arrive home at 8:00 AM and after about a half hour she would go to bed and sleep until after noon and then stay awake for a few hours before leaving for work again at 3:00 PM. Mo is retired

Our first morning in Germany was spent just sitting around and relaxing trying to recover from jet lag and the fitful hours of sleep that we experienced on our flight. During that period we planned our itinerary and activities for the remainder of our visit. That afternoon Mo drove us to the air base so that we could shop at the commissary. In order to gain access to the base, we first had to obtain passes that were of two-weeks duration. We had to show our passports, answer some questions, and have our pictures taken. All this was done by English speaking Germans, dressed in American army field uniforms, who work on contract for the US military. Actual admittance to the base is allowed only after the picture ID passes are carefully examined by American Army personnel

In the early evening before dinner Mo took us to the site of an old ruined castle. The German government sells such castles for one Euro to anybody who promises to restore them. Many of the castles have indeed been restored and are currently used as youth hostels, bed and breakfast facilities and restaurants. When I asked Mo how the castles had been destroyed, he told me that Napoleon had destroyed them because the German noblemen who had occupied the castles had fought against him.

The next day we embarked on a Rhine River Cruise. It was a truly memorable excursion. The Rhine River Valley is one of the most scenic places in Europe. The beautifully manicured fields of wheat and barley and corn contrasted with steeply terraced vineyards. Interspersed among the fields and vineyards were a multitude of restored castles, one of which Mo told us is the most expensive hotel in all of Germany. We also cruised by the rock where legend has it that Lorelei lured unsuspecting sailors to their death.

We disembarked before noon at St. Goar, a picturesque town whose principal activity was catering to the passengers on the many cruise ships. We spent time exploring the many diverse, picturesque shops that had a fantastic array of beer steins and other beautiful art objects and jewelry. Also in the mix of shops were food stores, pastry, and ice cream vendors and many restaurants and bistros. We had a delicious lunch al fresco at a Portuguese owned restaurant. Many Portuguese people have settled in that area along the river. The only things we purchased other than lunch were postcards and ice cream cones.

We boarded the ship for our return trip at 2:30 PM and shortly after we had gotten under way an American man about my own age approached me. He had seen my Fourth Infantry Division cap. He was a veteran of the war in the Pacific and he was with a group of WW II veterans from Wisconsin. Their tour guide was a high school history teacher from a community near Madison. Edith had attended the University of Wisconsin where she had received her undergraduate degree. A woman from the group came up to Edith and told her that she wanted her to meet the wife of the man with whom I had been talking. We all then formed somewhat of a circle and began exchanging stories and experiences. They told us where they had already been and where they were still going to go (Berlin and Dachau) before returning home.

The return trip was not as crowded. There was a gentle breeze blowing, the weather was near perfect and the ship cruised at a much slower speed than on our down river tour. The return took about an hour longer than our earlier trip and it was just delightful. The Wisconsin group disembarked two stops before our scheduled stop and when they got onto the dock we returned their waves and we all blew kisses at each other. That encounter and the exchanges with enjoyable, friendly people was an unexpected bonus that we shall always treasure.

Mo's German neighbors who wanted to meet us dropped in for a short, friendly visit as did a young American member of the air force and his wife who had just moved into a nearby house. We had a light supper at home and contemplated our forthcoming trips to Heidelberg and Metz before retiring for the night.

The story will continue.

September 6, 2002

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