Let me give you a little background. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela, back in 1924. I just had my birthday. I'm 89 years old. I came to the United States in 1943, as an immigrant. My brother, 10 years my senior, Oscar, had been in the U.S. since 1931. My mother brought him here when he was 17 years old. At that time, my mother was a widow, he was not behaving, and so she put him into San Rafael Military Academy and then went back to Venezuela.
My mother remarried, and in 1935, we left Venezuela for Lithuania. My stepfather was Polish and he had a property in Lithuania, which turned out to be a huge castle, a very large place. We remained there for a couple years, and during those years, I learned how to speak and write Polish. In 1937, we left Lithuania and took a train to Hamburg, Germany. At that time, Germany had Hamburg-America lines traveling from Hamburg to Buenos Aires, Argentina. So we returned to Caracas for several years.
When I came to the United States at my brother's invitation, I knew I had a very good possibility of going into the Army. So as soon as I arrived, I volunteered for the Navy. They refused me because I was not a citizen, but the Army had no problem with that. I arrived in April 1943, and in August, I was actually in the Army at the Presidio of Monterey.
I had difficulties with the language, but I put myself through a program: I had to learn 20 new words a day, not only the meaning, but how to spell it. I went around the Presidio holding an English-Spanish, Spanish-English dictionary. At a certain point, I had to take an IQ test. This was something that was going to take three-and- a-half hours. I told the sergeant that I couldn't do it. My language wasn't good enough. He told me to try. So I went through the effort, leaving the essay questions blank. In 20 minutes, I was through. Everyone there thought I was a genius. Eventually, this came back to haunt me.
After a while, I was transferred to a place up on the hill at the Presidio, where they had all the illiterates, the Oakies. I was one of them. I remember the sergeant discussing this with the captain. I remember him saying, "He's doing OK. He's doing all right.'' They were talking about discharging me because of my lack of English. And I'm glad they didn't. I didn't want to be discharged. I came to the United States with a lot of hopes, because I admired the country. The only country in the world that had an organization like the Red Cross, appearing everyplace in the world. So I wanted to become a citizen of the U.S. Later on, when I was transferred to Camp Roberts for my basic training, they asked me if I wanted to become a citizen, and I said yes. They took me to the courthouse in San Luis Obispo, and I became a citizen subject to honorable discharge from the service.
New door opens
In the course of my time at Camp Roberts, we used to do K.P. That began at 4 in the morning, and ended at 10 at night. During one of the times I was on K.P., the sergeant came over, and with him was a captain, who was also a chaplain. And the chaplain started talking to me. Later on, the sergeant said, "Follow the chaplain to his office.''
The chaplain handed me a book in Spanish, and said, "Will you read this aloud?'' So I read it. After two or three pages, he said, "You do speak well. Will you teach me to speak Spanish?'' I said, "Chaplain, I'd be delighted.''
In the course of this, we developed a pretty good friendship. One time, I told the chaplain that one of the things I didn't want was to wind up in the infantry, and the second thing I abhorred was the idea that I'd wind up in one of those islands in the Pacific. I'm familiar with jungles. I was in the jungles of Venezuela and they're no different than those islands in the Pacific. Lo and behold, when my 17 weeks of basic was over, and almost everyone else was ordered to Fort Ord, I was assigned to Fort Meade, Maryland, clear across the country.
Leaving for Europe
In March of 1944, we left New York. When we came out of the embarkation camp to the docks, I had not been issued an M-1 rifle. Everyone else had one. I'm marching along, and it was spotted. A lieutenant comes up and says, "Soldier, where is your weapon?'' I said, "I was not issued one, sir.'' He hollered, "This man was not issued a weapon. Go get him one!''
There were 8,900 of us on the passenger ship that took us to England. If you think that each of us carried an average of $100 with us, there was nearly a million dollars on that ship. And gambling went on everywhere -- craps, poker, blackjack, you name it. There were some guys who made a lot of money on that voyage. And there were some big winners who did not survive. They were conked on the head and tossed overboard. Some 20-odd soldiers who got on the ship never got off. The Army listed them as "missing at sea.''
I was actually on a bivouac in Wales when D-Day started. I was a member of Company E of the second battalion of the 331st regiment of the 83rd division of the Army. We were put on trucks to Southampton, where there was a ship waiting for us, with engines running. The ship pulled out, and 10 or 20 minutes later, it stopped. I heard the anchor, and the ship began to rock.
The next morning, we were in the staging area of the channel. Then came the landing craft, and the next day, we were at Utah Beach. The beachhead was secured. We relieved the 101st Airborne, which had been there the night before D-Day. I remember seeing 50 or 60 German prisoners of war on the beach, and thinking, "These guys don't look that tough.''
So there we were, in Normandy. Normandy was protected by what Hitler called the Atlantic Wall. The Germans had been there for four years. So they had lines and lines of fortification. They had fields full of mines. And they had their artillery aimed at the roads. When we got to a crossroad, the artillery was deadly. They had the advantage of being in the defense. They were able to use camouflage. We didn't have camouflage. So the campaign in Normandy was vicious, and the casualties were outrageous. At the end of June, we reached a point where we were not gaining any territory. They were holding, even though we had total air control.
In the Army, we use the buddy system: I run forward, and my buddy watches for me. Then I get down, and he runs past me. We use this to advance. The first time we were in actual combat, I remember talking to my sergeant, and I said, "This M-1, I have never zeroed in.'' So this sergeant took me to a barn, and put some empty C-ration cans on a fence. My first shot hit the dirt at the bottom of the fence. I brought my sight up, and I was on target. I decided to give him a little show -- I went boom, boom, boom, and all the cans fell. "Jesus Christ, you're a shot,'' the sergeant said. From then on, whenever we had a reconnaissance patrol, he would say, "I want Braun,'' and the two of us would take off.
Now when you went on a combat patrol, the briefing said that under no circumstances were you to take a prisoner. If a German surrenders to you, you kill him. Otherwise, you put the mission in jeopardy, because he is the enemy, and if he has a chance, he'll shoot you. In one of those combat patrols, we heard voices. Behind a barn were a German soldier and a woman. His pants were down, and his gun, a Mauser, was leaning against the wall. They were having sex.
She jumped up and started running. The sergeant immediately aimed at her. I said, "No, no, don't!'' So he didn't. Meanwhile, the German was glancing over toward where his gun was, 10 feet away. So the sergeant said, "Shoot him, goddammit, shoot him!'' The guy gets on his knees and says, "Nicht schiessen! Nicht schiessen!'' The sergeant shouted, "Goddamit! Shoot him!'' So I shot him, I emptied a clip, eight shots. I'll never forget. I felt like an assassin, killing in cold blood. In combat, you don't see that.
From the end of June to July 4, we pounded them with artillery, day and night, to soften them up. I never saw a German aircraft. Our mission was to capture ground beyond a swamp, and we were to do this during the night, to surprise the Germans. Starting at 3 a.m., the sky lit up with hundreds and hundreds of German flares, and then machine-gun fire. It was no surprise to them. They were anticipating our attack.
By the time we hit the opposite edge of the swamp, we were in a ditch. Our casualties were enormous. All we could hear was "Medic, medic, medic.'' The Germans pinned us down in the ditch. We were right next to their high ground, where they had fortifications. They were able to throw hand grenades on our backs. They were within 20 feet of our lines.
Call to surrender
Suddenly, the fire stopped, and a voice on the loudspeaker said, "Surrender or die.'' They said that three times, and they opened up fire again. The next time they stopped firing, and the voice said again, "Surrender or die.'' Our lieutenant said, "Guys, we don't stand a prayer. We're pinned down. We cannot go back. We cannot go forward. I'm surrendering.'' So he tied a handkerchief to his bayonet, and waved it.
Immediately, the Germans were right on top of us. I noticed they looked different. The difference was they had little short helmets. They were paratroopers that the army had put into infantry because their air force was no longer functioning. One of them had lived in New York for years, and came to Germany because his mother was quite ill. When his mother died, he wanted to come back to the U.S. They would not give him a visa, and they put him in the Army. I remember him saying, "You guys are lucky , because for you, the war has ended. You're going to a prisoner of war camp in Germany, but you don't have to fight anymore. We do. From that standpoint, you guys are lucky.'' I found out later on that the outfit that captured us was one of the elite outfits of the German army. They treated us with respect. One moment, we were killing each other. The next moment we were trading cigarettes. It was weird. When I looked back at the swamp, all I could see were bodies, all face down, covered with mud.
On the day I was captured, I was wounded. I think it was that day, because I don't know for a fact. The adrenaline was pumping like crazy. I was a prisoner for about 10 days, and I finally had the opportunity of washing myself. I tried to take my legging off, and I couldn't. I saw blood. I had a flesh wound behind the knee. It didn't touch the bone, and I didn't get an infection. And it just went away. I have a little scar there, but no consequences. I received a Purple Heart.
The Germans took us around different places in France. Eventually, we were taken to a city called Chartres. They had a prisoner of war camp where all the prisoners were black. I couldn't figure out where and how. When Germany invaded Morocco, they were captured there, and they were now in occupied France, according to the Geneva agreement. In fact, we brought thousands of Germans to the U.S., and we were being taken to Germany.
About three days after I was captured, we were in an apple orchard. Unfortunately, the apples were green, but we were eating them anyway. They did damage to our system. This SS captain, with a jet-black uniform, came to interrogate us. He took me to the side on the grassy field. He said to me, after I gave my name, rank and serial number, "Your English is quite poor. You're not really an American. You don't speak English well enough. Where did you learn? I detect a Spanish accent.''
He said, "I'm going to ask you some questions. I know the answers. If you lie to me, I'm going to declare you a Spanish saboteur impersonating an American soldier, and you're going to a concentration camp, rather than a military prisoner of war camp. You are the 83rd infantry division,'' he says. "I want to know, which regiment?''
I said to him, "I have been given instructions, that in the event that I was to be captured by you people, that I was to tell you my name, rank and serial number, and nothing else.'' He looked at me. Then I said, "Suppose it was the other way around, and I would ask you questions that you had been told not to answer. What would you say?'' Again, he looked at me, and he reached for a knapsack, and I said to myself, "Oh damn, that's it.'' He pulled out a roughed-up sandwich and gave me half of it and walked away. It was cheese -- it tasted like a stinky Limburg.
When we got to the railroad station, we saw a line of box cars. On top of each box car was a German soldier with a rifle. They began to load us into these boxcars. Each car had "40 men'' written in French on the side. Between 80 and 100 of us were squeezed into each car. They had straw on the floor, and two garbage cans. And they packed us in. It was total darkness except for little cracks letting in some daylight. It was a very warm day, July of 1944. We got hotter and hotter, from body heat, and heat from the outside. We were shoulder to shoulder. When I got into the box car, I got into a corner before anybody else. I just wanted a corner. We bundled down. We were in that box car for three days and three nights without water or food before we got to Heidelberg. I remember telling a friend, "These bastards, they're not going to get us.''
When we got to Heidelberg, the tracks were down low, and people were way up high. And that whole area was full of German civilians. When they opened the box cars, a stench came out. There was a process where they were looking at us. I saw a German officer -- the very-high ranking officers are the only ones who can have red in their uniform -- and he was intensely looking at us just to see what we looked like. We were filthy, stinky, horrible. They gave us water but no food. Then they cleaned the cars, put empty cans in there, more straw, and then we were packed back into the box cars. Two more days without food or water before we came out. If I had not been 19 years old, I would never have made it.
When we got to Moosburg, Germany, there was a huge men's POW camp. I met British soldiers who were captured at Dunkirk. They had the run of the camp. They had a PX, they had big boards where every item was listed, including Hershey chocolate bars. The price was in cigarettes, because that was the currency.
We were processed there, and they gave us German dog tags. Mine was 81-817. I saw my picture, and I would give anything to have a copy of it. I couldn't believe it was me. We were in Moosburg for about a week, and then they transported us by train to Dresden. This time they were using regular civilian transportation. I remember that trip through the countryside. I saw cows, white fences, and green grass. I said to myself, "Is there a war going on?'''
When we got to Dresden, we had quite a walk through town. I had never seen such a beautiful city in my life. It was September 1944. The Elbe River separated parts of the city. They had bridges that started back with the Romans, and the cathedral was magnificent. There were fruit trees all over the streets -- apples, pears. It was clean, immaculate, not a match on the sidewalk. We were put in this basement of this place, and our bedding -- I've never seen anything like it. They put us in these shelf-like containers, four or five men at once. There were approximately 50 of us from different places. I'm a little claustrophobic, and it was like a tomb.
Then we were taken to the outskirts of Dresden, where they were constructing a building for POWs. Each of us had a bunk bed, a burlap mattress full of straw, and a pillow. We had a couple of pot-bellied stoves, which we used in winter for our heat. We had to work six days a week about 10 hours a day in construction. We did everything, from digging trenches, to pouring the concrete for the foundation, and installing concrete blocks for the walls.
The construction site was next to a brick factory. We had a civilian, named Otto Krueger, who was in charge of the whole thing. He was a high-tempered individual, a big burly guy. Occasionally, we had to bring bricks in, there was a line formed. He always saw that the bricks were recently baked, and they were hot. If you dropped a brick, he would come in, take his Luger out, cock it, put it to your forehead, and say, "If you drop another brick, I shoot your head off.''
I heard more about Krueger later. After the war, I was married with my first child in San Francisco. I came home from work one day and my wife said, "There were two men looking for you. They said they'd come back.'' They came back and identified themselves as CIA, or whatever. They asked me about Otto Krueger. I said, yes, I knew him. They said, "Tell us about him,'' and so I told them. They had Otto Krueger in Nuremberg, and they wanted to know if I would testify. I told them I just had a baby, and I could not leave my wife. So they excused me. I couldn't imagine going back.
We were got to the so-called Arbeits-Kommando in September 1944, they asked us if we could speak German. None of us could. None of them could speak English. So they went around and asked, "Polish?'' and I raised my hand. One of the guards who came from the German-Polish border was bilingual. So I became the spokesman. I was interviewed In December 1944, by the people in the Red Cross. They took my name, so on and so forth. All this time, my family knew only that I was missing in action. But the Red Cross item said, "Private Alejandro Braun, Dresden,'' so my family knew I was a POW.
Now we were fed once a day. It was a bowl of soup, with a little flour, a few little vegetables, and one slice of bread with margarine. That was it. No other food. At the time I was captured, my weight was 145 pounds. At the end, I weighed 89 pounds.'' When I found the Americans again in Leipzig, I can remember a sergeant saying, "Jesus Christ, you look like a goddamn skeleton.''
I'll tell you what I know about the Dresden bombing. In February of 1945, the lights went on in our barracks about 10 p.m. one night. The Germans took us into an air-raid shelter that we had built ourselves, essentially a big tunnel. The raids always began with a siren, back and forth. The sound was like a wind -- shuuuh and then explosions. But it was not normal explosions, it was a different sound.
We didn't know what it was until about 3 in the morning, when there was a lull. When we came out, I couldn't believe my eyes. Everywhere you looked, there were horrendous flames, three or four or five stories tall. The whole city was on fire. The casualties were horrendous. Later, we dug out dead bodies in the downtown area. We put them into wagons, pulled by horses, and took them to a cemetery, where they had common graves.
At a nunnery
We went to a Catholic nunnery, where the air-raid shelter had received a direct hit. The door to the shelter was jammed from the inside. There was no way to open it. We crawled into the ventilating system, into the shelter, and went to work opening the door. Afterward, the nuns asked the guards, and they agreed, to give us soup. We had places in their dining room, where they served us. The soup had little pieces of meat, they were red, and we had just seen portions of bodies that looked like that. I remember saying to myself, "Don't be stupid, you need the food, eat it, it's good.'' I did. I ate it all. Walking out of the place, I threw up. I couldn't handle it.
In April in Dresden, when Roosevelt died, the Germans turned the lights on. They were jumping up and down, up and down, saying "We won the war.'' We said "Why?" They said, "Roosevelt is dead, Roosevelt is dead.'' They couldn't understand why we were not sorry. We kept asking questions. Who's the vice president? Eventually, someone came up and said Truman. And one guy says, "Who the hell is Truman?''
On the 30th of April, we got news that the Russians had broken through at Breslau. There was a mass moving of prisoners out of Dresden. We headed south to a little town called Hellendorf. In Hellendorf, the Germans came to us to make a deal. If we would cooperate with them, they will take us to the American lines. They knew Patton's army was coming in from Czechoslovakia to the north. Of course, we agreed. What was there not to agree to? Russian strafing
In those days, the roads were filled with hundreds of refugees, some going one way, some another. The Russian airplanes strafed them for the fun of it. The first time it happened, it happened so fast, I remember falling down and holding on to a weed until they passed. When they came back, I remember running to the side, and this old woman passed me. She was running faster than I was. From then on, I stayed on the side, I wouldn't go back to the road.
A German on a motorcycle kept coming back to give us a report. Eventually, he said, there's no way, the Russians are everywhere, and they brought us back to Hellendorf and put us into this barn.
The next day, in the morning, we found out there was no lock on the doors, and there were no guards. The word was out that the Russians were coming. So we set up on the side of the road, with a military formation and an American flag and British flag made out of paper. Then the Russians began to come -- their equipment all American, with only a red star. They shouted at us, "Amerikanski, Amerikanski, tovarisch,'' So we shouted back, "Russki!''
They came in that day, that night, the next day. It never ended. As they came, they occupied the area. At night, women were screaming all over the place. In the morning, you'd see bodies of men with their pockets inside out. The Russians could do anything they wanted. I remember thinking, "These are not the allies that we're looking for.'' I talked to the guys and said, "I don't like this. And I don't want to end up in Siberia. I understand our lines are in Leipzig, and I'm leaving in the morning. One other guy went with me.
We went back through Dresden, and the Russian soldiers pulled us out and took us to headquarters. At headquarters was an individual who was Stalin's man, a member of the party, educated, with perfect English. Where in the U.S. are you from?'' he asked. I said, "San Francisco.'' "Oh, San Francisco,'' he responded, "The city of the Golden Gate.''
He asked me where I was going, and I said, "Leipzig. I understand the American lines are there.'' He said, "That's correct. But I want to warn you. There are isolated pockets of SS that have not surrendered. If they capture you, they will kill you. So why don't you accept our hospitality? We will take you by rail to Odessa on the Black Sea, and we'll put you on a ship to take you into the Mediterranean. Have a vacation on the Soviet Union.''
Very politely, I said, "Thank you, thank you for a very nice offer. But I'm desperate to go home and the quickest possible way is to go to Leipzig. I don't want any more war. I just want to go home.''
At night, I would knock on the door of a German farm house and say, "Amerikanischer Kriegsgefangener! I need food, Essen.'' And they were delighted to have me as a guest. Why? We were releasing Russian prisoners, and they were raising hell. To the Germans, we were welcome.
A day or two before I reached Leipzig, a German family welcomed me. On the back porch, they set up a table -- a farmer, his wife, a couple of kids. Then three Russians arrived, and they went into the chicken corral. Each came out with a chicken. They demanded that the farmer cook it. So he got up and prepared the chickens in a big washbasin. They put it in the ground, reaching over to eat with their hands. One of them kept looking at the porch, saying "kultura, kultura,'' because we were eating with forks and knives. He meant "culture,'' because of the way we were eating.
I haven't gotten over the cruelty of the Nazi party. What I saw, what they did to the Jews, was unbelievable, unbelievable. I saw incredible things in Germany. Once we were on the railroad yard, unloading sugar beets, and next to our place was a train with boxcars. We saw a line of women and children extend for a block. About mid-morning, 10 or so, they opened the doors of the boxcars, and they begin to distribute clothing. We were right there. They had shoes of kids, with scuffs, but they were cleaned and sized. You knew that these things came from another kid. A woman would know that, but they were accepting them. They had no other choice. They were forced to accept it. If it was discovered they had been listening to a broadcast, like BBC, the Nazis would put them into a jail. Sometimes the kids would turn in the parents.
I saw a place, a small working place in Dresden, where they worked over people to death. These workers could not move anymore. But their eyes, they were still seeing. They were actually dead, but they had not expired yet. They starved them to death. I can't believe the cruelty.
When we got to Leipzig, the MPs picked me up and took us to MP headquarters. That night, they showed me a bed. I saw a bathroom with a bathtub. It was past chow time, but the MP brought me bread and butter and cheese and ham and salami. It was a feast. Then he says, "Soldier, what can I do for you?'' I said, "I want to take a bath.'' He said, "No problem.'' He had a liberated Polish worker bring in buckets of hot water and filled the tub. I had real soap, and you have no idea what that means in comparison to the Germans' soap.
They flew me from Leipzig to Rheims, in France. There was a hospital there. I was seen by doctors and nurses, and to me, they were angels. I've never seen such a beautiful sight as these young nurses. I was full of lice. They deloused me, they gave me showers, they shampooed my head. I was issued all new clothes, everything. I had a haircut, a shave, and a manicure. Then a hospital train took me to Le Havre. There was a camp there called Camp Lucky Strike, where they housed RAMPS, or recovered alive military personnel.
Eisenhower came to see us there, and said "We would like you to be our guest in London or Paris, your choice, at one of the best hotels. Everything is on the house.'' I didn't do it. I wanted to go home. There was a ship there, and I took it. It left exactly on D-Day plus a year, the 6th day of June 1945. We didn't get to Virginia until the 18th. Twelve days in the ocean. Why? The boilers of the ship kept screwing up. It was a broken down ship, but we got there.
-- Mercury News