Couple decorates German POW graves at Fort Custer

Thirty-one years ago on Memorial Day, Phil Rolffs decorated his father’s grave at Fort Custer National Cemetery and noticed the barren resting places of 26 German prisoners of war.

“The (cemetery) was very festive looking, every grave had a flag, and many had floral arrangements,” Rolffs told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “Then we noticed the German graves, they were very forlorn looking, no decorations, no nothing.”

“That bothered us.”

The following year, Rolffs and his wife, Gladys, returned to decorate the German prisoners’ graves, leaving one potted geranium near each tombstone. The act would become a Memorial Day tradition that lasted 30 years and ended in May.

“(The Germans) had the misfortune of being captured and shipped across the world,” Rolffs said. “It was just really sad to see; no one was there to honor them.”

“He didn’t want (the Germans) to be left out,” said Marge Breitbach, a 30-plus year member of the German American Club of Kalamazoo. “There has to be a lot of forgiveness in a person’s soul to remember and treat these people like the men they were, rather than an enemy.

“They were soldiers who should be remembered,” Breitbach added. “They were human beings.”

The United States shipped 5,000 German prisoners of war to Fort Custer during World War II, according to John Anderson, secretary of the Fort Custer Historical Society.

“We had farmers here (in Michigan) who had no one to take care of the fields,” Anderson said. “Someone had the idea of bringing the prisoners back to work on farms, and that’s exactly what happened.”

The Germans stayed at Fort Custer for roughly three years working area farms and living comparatively comfortable lives, Anderson said.

“(Life) was pretty good, according to them,” said Anderson. “It was better than being in the military,” he added, noting the soldiers were fighting a losing war and “being fed scraps,” at the time of their capture.

Most were sent back to Germany in 1946 and ordered to rebuild devastated allied countries in Europe, but 26 of the German prisoners would never leave Fort Custer.

Sixteen of the prisoners died in a train-truck accident in 1945, while another was killed by a telephone wire that snapped during a storm. The others, Anderson said, died of natural causes.

“They were here, they were POWs, they died and were treated accordingly,” Anderson said, noting base officials held military funerals to honor the fallen Germans in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

The funeral processions were attended by American officers as well as enlisted men and German prisoners, who were allowed to adorn the caskets with swastikas and other national symbols.

Though the Germans lived relatively well and have been honored throughout the years by German American Heritage clubs on Volkstrauertag, a German holiday commemorating those killed in armed conflicts, the separation of the men and their families weighed on both Phil and Gladys Rolffs.

“These were kids, you know, most of them were serving as kids,” Gladys Rolffs said. “To think of the families who can’t see them (in America). That’s kind of sad.”

“They were conscripts doing their duty like our guys,” Phil Rolfs added. “They had it pretty good here, we treated them decent, but you were still a prisoner, you were held against your will thousands of miles (away) from home.

“Just imagine the families, you know, your child being sent off to a foreign country … think of the anguish that would have caused,” Rolffs added, recalling the sight of the prisoner’s graves — no one there to honor their service on Memorial Day in 1984.

“We asked ourselves (then): What would my dad have done?

“He would have decorated the graves.”

When Phil Rolffs decorates the German graves at Fort Custer, he doesn’t think of America’s old enemies, Nazi war crimes or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He remembers being drafted into the military himself, and what his father used to tell him.

“He used to say, number one: Get used to the idea cause you can’t get out of it,” said Rolffs, who was drafted during the Vietnam war at 22 years old. Rolffs was honorably discharged from the Army in February, 1964.

“He wasn’t going to kid me, but just (said to) keep your nose clean, do what they tell you, don’t cause trouble and you’ll be just fine,” he added.

“You won’t find it so bad.”

As a career Navy man, Rolffs’ father was in a position to give advice. He served during World War II and the Korean War, fighting on multiple ships in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well the Mediterranean Sea.

In the later parts of World War II, he served aboard a troop transport ship in the south Pacific.

While marines boarded assault boats, heading to invade Japanese islands, Edward Rolffs donated blood offshore — as much as he could — knowing many of the men would die or be wounded in battle.

“He gave more than he was asked,” Phil Rolffs recalled. “He was a healthy, robust, strong, well-built man, but ruined his health (by donating so often).

“He would just go above and beyond,” Rolffs added. “(The military) was so desperate (for blood); they went ahead and took it. He was just very service minded (and) did things for people all the time; that was just kind of his mindset.”

Rolffs said his father’s empathy extended beyond his friends and allies, as he often expressed concern for enemies following his discharge.

“He would tell noncombat stories, but he never told of the carnage, or the things he saw,” Rolffs recalled. “Sometimes (the enemy) kind of came up, and (he thought), what the hell, they were just doing their duty.

“He was very patriotic, very giving, he didn’t hold grudges against the ex-enemy and he would put it all behind him,” Rolffs added. “That’s what happens in war.”

Compelled to decorate the German graves for 30 years believing it’s what his father would have wanted, Phil and Gladys Rolffs have been recognized and honored at Volkstrauertag services held by German American clubs from Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.

To show their appreciation one year, the clubs planted a German flag at Rolff’s father’s grave, where it waved among a sea of stars and stripes.

“He’d be proud of the German flag at his grave,” Rolffs said. “How old enemies are now made up. That’s how he’d like to see things go.”

“I (too) felt very honored,” Rolffs recalled.

The Rolffs said they will no longer be decorating the graves on Memorial Day, saying years and fatigue have caught up to them.

“We would like to find someone willing to pick up the torch and carry on,” Phil Rolffs said, adding he’s been in contact with clubs and various grower’s associations, but cannot find an organization willing to decorate.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Gladys Rolffs added, reflecting on the past 30 years. “I just think we’ve done a good thing.”

That sentiment was echoed by Marge Breitbach of the German American Club of Kalamazoo, who praised the Rolffs for honoring all soldiers who have fought and died over the years.

“The German American community appreciates their effort,” Breitbach said. “Many people don’t recognize that these men were only doing what their country said they must do,” she added.

“For somebody to look at that, and think they were just like me, but they were only fighting for a different flag, it shows a healing,” Breitbach said. “It’s something to bridge that gap.”

“(The Rolffs) are honoring all soldiers, wherever they are, and whatever their nationality.”  AP)

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