The German uniform tormented him like a sin for which he could not receive absolution. Even with all of the insignia torn off, it was still a symbol of the Wermacht. Working in the salt water — building the obstacles that were supposed to keep the Allied landing craft from hitting the beaches — caused his clothes to fall apart and all the guards had on hand were these old uniforms. They had belonged to some unfortunate fellows who were killed by the concussion of a 2,000-pound bomb that turned them into jelly, but did not harm the Fatherland’s wool. He could not get past the feeling that this uniform he had worn for almost a month personified the death which surrounded him.
Wilhelm Von Franzel lay awake on the pallet that was his makeshift bed and tried to remember what it had been like as a young seminarian in Regensberg before the war started and he was arrested and sent to a work camp. But his memories of happier times were always overshadowed by this life after his arrest. He remembered every detail of the day that sentenced him to this unfathomable hell.
He had been walking with three of his fellow novices through the town to visit one of their classmates in the hospital. Even though they were banned from wearing their cassocks he still felt his faith could be a shield against the Nazis. He was a German after all, and from a much-respected family.
They came upon SS troops arresting a group of Jews. An old man stood with his hands on his head, a soldier was screaming at him, cursing him for being a Jew. The soldier hit the man in the stomach with the butt of his rifle and was about to hit him again when Wilhelm took one fateful step forward to intervene without thinking and said "Nein, bitte…" (No please.)
That one step and a heartfelt plea first took him to Dachau and then to various work camps where he survived for two years before being shipped to the Normandy coast to build defenses against the coming Allied invasion. In those two years his faith had been tested to the point where he was unsure if he could ever again believe in God. He knew the will to help others was gone since it took all that he could to exist day to day, having to stand by helplessly and watch evil grow and thrive in the camps.
Normandy was a welcome change, even as a prisoner. The work was better than anything he had endured in the camps. The rush to build the defenses meant they were treated better than before and there was thankfully more food to be scrounged from the French. He could feel his body becoming stronger. He began to hope again. But the most amazing gift was that he was allowed to go to Sunday Mass with some of the other prisoners, Poles mostly, their strength of faith in the face of the Nazis inspired Wilhelm. He introduced himself to the French priest as a seminarian and told him the story of his arrest. The Father let him be the altar server and gave him a rosary which he prayed twice a day.
Sleep was never a welcome visitor even though he was always exhausted. Sleep for Wilhelm started as dreams of simplicity before the war and always transformed into nightmares of all the killing he had witnessed.
This night he was dreaming that he was back at a sub-camp of Dachau and an SS guard had lined up dozens of prisoners and was shooting them one by one in the head. The guard was yelling at Wilhelm to do something to stop him, but Wilhelm was frozen.
"Will you help this one?" the guard shouted at Wilhelm to see if moved to do anything before shooting the next person.
He could feel each body hitting the ground.
The guard finally turned the gun on him. The end of the barrel, searing with murder, burned into his forehead. He saw the guard slowly pulling the trigger. The blast of the bullet woke him out of his sleep. He felt his head for a wound, furiously trying to see in the dim moonlight if the wetness on his face was sweat or blood.
In the confusion between his dreams and waking reality the explosions did not stop. He saw flashes of light and the ground shook under him. A sergeant ran into the barn where they slept, screaming, "Invasion, Invasion."
His work crew was rousted and rushed to a train station to load wagons with ammunition. During the march Wilhelm saw the sky filled with tracers and heard the constant drone of the Allied planes. They formed a line to load the heavy boxes but before they could finish the first wagon, they came under fire by American paratroopers. The prisoners scattered. Wilhelm ran off by himself, into a field, trying to get away from the gun fire.
He did not have a weapon but he was wearing a German uniform which made him feel sure that he would be shot at any moment by the Americans, who would not know of his innocence. If he took off the uniform the Germans might shoot him as a deserter. Two terrible choices with equal results. He decided his only option was to find the Americans and try to surrender. Surely, he thought, being a prisoner of the Americans would be better than anything his fellow Germans had done to him.
But instead of Americans he stumbled in the dark onto a German platoon that was setting up an ambush along a hedgerow. They asked him where his weapon was and his gear. He had to tell them he was a forced laborer and that his work crew had been attacked at the train station.
The sergeant in charge said, "I think we have a good use for this laborer in the ambush. He can be our bait."
They gave Wilhelm an unloaded weapon, slapped a helmet on his head and told him to stand in the field. When the Americans approached he was supposed to pretend to surrender. Once the Americans let down their guard to capture him, they would begin the ambush.
Wilhelm walked into the middle of the field and stood like he was scouting the hedgerow. He slowly reached into his pocket and retrieved his rosary and began to pray the decades over and over, praying that the Americans would not come. As the sun began to faintly greet the horizon, he hoped that the daylight might change the sergeant’s plan for an ambush. He looked back and saw the sergeant, who smiled and aimed his rifle, putting Wilhelm into his sights.
Wilhelm closed his eyes and began to pray again.
His prayers were stopped suddenly when he heard the snap of a branch in the hedgerow to his front and saw a slight movement on the other side. An American slowly crested the mound and raised his weapon.
"Nicht Scheissen!" (Don’t shoot), Wilhelm yelled. He threw down his rifle and raised his hands, the rosary wrapped around the fingers of his right hand. "Bitte, bitte", he kept repeating as the cautious American stayed safely behind the hedgerow. He could hear the American talking and he saw another helmet come into view.
The first American began to move forward and said something to him that he didn’t understand. "Bitte," he pleaded.
The American moved with practiced efficiency and kicked the rifle away from Wilhelm and began to check him for other weapons. Wilhelm whispered to him that it was a trap and that he should leave right away. The American said something again which Wilhelm did not understand. He was surprised by the near-kindness in the American’s voice.
The American turned slightly and waved the other soldiers forward. A dozen or more materialized out of the trees and formed a defensive circle around Wilhelm. Some were kneeling, others scanned the hedgerows that enclosed the field. He saw them set up a machine gun in the trees.
Wilhelm’s mind raced, trying to think of a way to warn the Americans. Should he scream at them, do something crazy that would send them scrambling back over the hedgerow? He was petrified in fear of the bullet he knew was aimed at his back if did anything sudden.
The American finished going through Wilhelm’s pockets and pointed at the rosary in Wilhelm’s trembling hand. He then pointed to himself and said the first English word that Wilhelm understood, "Catholic."
Wilhelm knew the ambush would start at any second and that they would all die because he did not have the courage or the means to make the Americans realize they had walked into a trap. He could only think of one thing to do.
"Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,"he prayed in Latin. The American smiled and joined Wilhelm,
"Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui Iesus."
As they started the next line of the Hail Mary a grenade flew into their circle and landed in front of Wilhelm. He flung himself on the grenade and waited for the explosion. The Americans began shooting in the direction that the grenade had come from and began throwing their own grenades into the hedgerow.
Explosions numbed his body and all sound was enveloped and silenced by the ringing in his ears.
Wilhelm was afraid to open his eyes because he did not know if he was dead. He could not feel his body and he could not hear anything.
"Please God, if you are there…"
Before he could finish his prayer he felt a hand on his shoulder roll him over. He opened his eyes and saw the Americans. They were laughing and patting him on the helmet. He looked on the ground and saw the grenade — it had been a dud. One of the Americans picked it up and threw it back to the hedgerow where it came from, that was now littered with dead Germans.
"Et in hora mortis nostrae," the American said, helping Wilhelm to his feet.
Yes, in the hour of our death, Wilhelm thought. He put his hand on the American’s shoulder and nodded in agreement.
"Ja…Amen, Amen," he said, knowing his war was over.