Heading Home


When I was 15 years old my school class was drafted into the German army, and our teacher went with us. It was World War II, and we were assigned to an antiaircraft battery.

My family was very much against the war, but I had no choice about joining. If I had refused to go I would have been taken by force. So I reluctantly left my parents and sister and the small farming village of Heuerssen, which lies at the foot of the Heisterberg Forest, where I had grown up.

From the beginning of the war, I constantly prayed for guidance. I told the Lord that I would do anything I could to be in the right place, but if my foresight was not adequate for the situation I would beg him to help me. I told him I would accept the guiding thoughts he would plant in my heart without questioning.

My classmates and I were stationed near Hanover. Every month or so our unit of about 300 people would get together. Usually there was a unit party, and everyone would be drinking and smoking—except me. I didn’t know it at first, but our commander-in-chief watched me during these parties.

One day he asked me why I didn’t smoke or drink. I was a little shy, and I told him that I just didn’t believe in it. I think I was the only one who didn’t smoke or drink in the whole group, and I was the only Latter-day Saint.

“There must be a specific reason why you don’t do that,” he continued questioning me. I told him it was better for the body to abstain from those things, and I tried to evade the question a little bit. When you’re 15, it’s not so easy when people laugh at you and say you’re not a man if you don’t smoke and drink. My fellow soldiers had made fun of me quite often, and my commander had heard that.

“You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that?” he asked.

“I’m not that outgoing. I’m a little shy,” I explained. “You’ve seen what kind of reaction the others have.”

“Well, that might change if you just tell them,” he replied.

One night we were all sitting at a big table at a party, and everyone was drinking, except me. I think I had a soft drink that I had bought downtown. My commanding officer was watching me again.

He stood and said, “Rahde, get up.” Then he said to the whole group, “I would like to inform you that Rahde is a Mormon. He doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t smoke. And I would like you to respect that. If I see anybody making fun of him because of that, I will put you in jail.”

I was shocked. I turned red because everyone was looking at me. Then he said, “From now on, Rahde, it is your job to take care of these men and see that when they go downtown and have too much to drink they find their way home.”

From that minute on, I had a lot of groups that wanted me to go with them every night. They took me with them to the bars, and as soon as we went in they said, “No drinks for Heinz. He has to take us home. He doesn’t drink, and don’t you bother him.”

I didn’t have to mention anything anymore. I had more friends that way than I would have had any other way. Nothing could have done more good for me than this frankness, as my wise commanding officer had sensed. It was a testimony to me that the others trusted me so much that whenever something came up, they always asked me to go with them, and they protected me. No one dared offer me anything again.

About six months before the end of the war, I was assigned to an unit where the new incoming young people were trained on radar equipment. We were stationed in Seesen in the Harz Mountains, and I was about 17. One day we had to write a composition about Germany, and mine was judged the best one. The officer had me stand in front of the whole unit, and he said: “Congratulations for writing the best composition. I expect you to volunteer now to become an officer for the German Reich. We need people with your potential, and I expect your written application tonight.”

“I don’t have to wait until tonight,” I said. “I refuse.”

He got really furious and wanted to punish me. He said, “Tomorrow, I will ask you again, and the next day again.”

“Well, I’m not going,” I told him. I was not in tune with the spirit of national socialism. My father was a friend of the Jewish people, and we had always prayed for them in our home. The officer asked me what I wanted to do. “I want to go with the rest of the group,” I said. He told me if I didn’t want to volunteer I was ordered to stay behind and train the young people. There was no other choice.

Although I was forced to stay in that group where I didn’t want to stay, once that officer said I had to stay I felt very secure about it, like that was where I was supposed to be. All my friends were sent to Russia. Only one came back—all the others were killed. The Lord guided me to be in the right place at the right time for my life to be spared.

During the war, I often had the feeling of being taken care of—of being moved into the right place at the right time. I was blessed with an inner peace despite the turmoil that surrounded me.

When the war was almost over, the four other trainers and I received orders to go to Berlin. Hitler was there at that time, and it was the last phase of the war. The Russians were advancing, and the British and Americans were already very close to where I was.

We said we would go to Berlin, but I had prayed about it already, and I had the feeling that I should go home. We knew there was no use in going to Berlin because the war was lost. “Günther,” I said to my best friend, “I am not going. I am going home.”

“I’ll join you,” he decided. I asked him about his hasty decision and he said, “I have watched you all the time. I have noticed that you are quite religious, and I have admired you. I trust in your decisions because I think they are made with some guidance from above.”

The other three trainers decided to go with us, and the five of us left, supposedly for Berlin. As soon as we got out of sight, we hurried into the forest and changed into the civilian clothes we had with us.

The Americans had already arrived and were on the main roads next to the forest. We stayed way up on the peak of the mountain because there we were still quite safe. Our trip home would take us two to three weeks. We slept in the forest—five of us under one blanket—and had to rotate positions every hour because the two on the ends would get so cold. The food we took with us lasted three days. The rest of the time we ate berries we picked in the forest, and once in a while German families gave us food.

I remember the first time I encountered the Americans. We came through a dense pine forest, and we had to go across the street. We pushed aside the tree branches and all of a sudden a huge tank was right in front, and the gun was aimed at us.

I was scared. I had never seen an American tank or an American. The top of the tank opened, and an American came out. Russian prisoners who had been freed by the Americans were sitting on top. They saw that we were shaking. The American asked me where we came from and where we wanted to go. I told him we wanted to go home. “No way,” he said. “You just jump on here, and we’ll take you along. At the next stop we’ll put you on a truck that will take you to a camp.”

The Russian soldiers seated on the tank made me think of a possible solution to our dilemma. During the war the feeling of love I had learned all my life in church was in my heart. I didn’t hate anyone. I thought about being my brother’s keeper.

The Russian soldiers imprisoned in our camp weren’t treated well. They went without much to eat and we had plenty, so we asked them to clean our mess kits, and they consented. We left food in them all the time just to feed them.

My commanding officer noticed, and he called me in. “What do you do with your mess kits?”

“The Russians clean them for us,” I replied.

“I checked and there was food in them.”

“We cannot eat it all. That’s why we leave it in there.”

“You know that’s strictly forbidden. I could report you and you would be in trouble. Don’t do it again,” he said, and patted me on the shoulder.

One of the Russians to whom we had given the food wrote me a note. He told me that whenever I needed help from the Russians to show them this note.

I had put it in my pocket, and at the moment that we were faced with that tank I remembered it. I pulled it out and gave it to the Russians. They read it and then all of a sudden said, “Friend! Friend!” in German and talked to the American, telling him that I had given food to the Russians. He said, “I hear you have been good to the Russians. Instead of us taking you along, just go ahead.”

We continued our march through the forest, day after day getting closer to home. From the mountain path, we could look down and see the American tanks passing by. Just a few days after our first encounter with the Americans, we were making our way along a hillside through the forest when suddenly I had a funny feeling. I told my friends I had to go down—right down there where the tanks were. “You’re crazy!” they said. “Can’t you see the tanks down there? They’ll shoot you down right away.” I told them that didn’t matter. I had to go down.

“Heinz, did you pray about that?” Günther asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

“Then I’ll go with you.”

Just like that. He didn’t think twice.

The other three stayed behind. “We’re not going with you because you’re crazy!” they said. “You’ll walk right into their arms.”

We marched down the hill as fast as we could. Günther, who was quite a bit larger than I, would put his arm under mine and nearly drag me along. After awhile, the other three came running behind us. They didn’t know why, they said, but they wanted to come with us. We continued down the mountain and came out of the forest.

Off to the left was a little farmhouse. As we came through the trees, the door of the house opened and a man came out and said, “Come in fast.” We ran inside, and he slammed the door shut behind us. Then he put us in the cow stable under the straw because it was forbidden, by severe punishment from the Americans, to hide German soldiers.

We had hardly crawled under the straw when the Americans came rolling through with tanks and trucks and went up into the mountains. It was the first time they had gone up there. Hours later they came back, their trucks filled with German soldiers who were taken to camps.

Once again the Lord guided me to be in the right place at the right time. When the Americans had cleared the mountain and were gone, we left the house and marched on again toward home. A few days later, we were stopped once more by the Americans. At first I didn’t speak. I wanted to act like I didn’t know English. I heard them say, “Well, we’ll just let them sit here, and we’ll put them on the next truck that comes to transport them to a camp.” Trucks had been going by every two to three minutes.

We sat there waiting for a truck to come by any second. We waited and waited, for an hour or longer, but no truck came. I finally went up to one of the military policemen.

I told him who we were, and he said, “Oh, all of a sudden you speak English.”

“Yes, I speak English. I learned it in school. I was just scared.”

“How old are you?” he asked me. I told him I was 17-and-a-half years old.

“Where have you been?”

I explained the whole thing—what we had done, why we had civilian clothes on, where we wanted to go—home. He called up on the phone and checked the outfits where we had been to see if the information I had given him was correct. Then he looked at me for a long time and said, “I have a boy about your age, and if he would say to someone, ‘I’d like to go home to Mother,’ I hope they’d give him the chance. If you take this road, there is an American headquarters; but if you take that road, they can’t see you. Good luck.”

Finally we were almost home. Everything was shut down. There was no train, no car, no bus, no telephone—nothing. So we continued crawling through the forest, following the creek. I knew that area well. We reached my neighborhood, and I just wanted to go through the gate of our neighbor’s backyard. I left the others and opened the gate. A little gun that had been put there to shoot the gophers went off. It scared the wits out of me and the neighbors, who quickly came running. But they were glad to see that I was home safely. I sent my sister back to the forest with some food for my friends before they continued on to their homes.

We all made it because the Lord guided us to the right places at the right times.

Prayer had been my strength. At times it was all I had. I prayed for guidance all the time and received a very peaceful feeling that everything would be all right, and it proved to be true. I don’t think a day passed by that I didn’t tell the Lord I loved him. During the war I had feelings of love in my heart. I didn’t have feelings of hate. I think for that reason the Lord spared my life. I stayed in tune with him. I knew that if I kept his commandments and was worthy to receive his guidance he would protect me. And he did.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann