BY ZACHARY HUBBARD
A long chapter in U.S. history is closing. The once behemoth U.S. military forces in Germany are slowly withdrawing. In April, the last Army tanks were shipped home, marking the first time in almost
70 years there were no American tanks on German soil. While most Americans would consider this a political development, for some of us, it’s quite personal.
Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied powers on May 7, 1945, ending the World War II fighting in Europe. Japan followed suit on Sept. 2, ending the war. Following the surrenders, the United States stationed thousands of occupation troops across large portions of Germany and Japan.
America managed the occupation of these countries extremely differently. The handling of Japan was relatively callous and strict in the beginning. This was prompted by animosity over the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s harsh treatment of American prisoners of war.
In contrast, the occupation of Germany was handled more generously and soon evolved into friendly relations.
Before the war, people of Japanese heritage were distributed mainly along America’s Pacific coast. Those of German descent, however, were widely spread across the country and in much larger numbers than the Japanese, especially along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Midwest. Ethnic Germans had relatively few cultural and religious differences with other Americans, so they were easily assimilated.
The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded in 1949. America’s occupation officially ended in 1955. The FRG was admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the same year. However, U.S. forces remained in Germany to counter the Soviet threat.
America’s presence in Germany has had profound effects on both cultures. Soon after the war’s end, American GIs began fraternizing with local German ladies. Romances blossomed and soon GIs were returning to America with German brides. Blended German-American families became common in the Army and Air Force, the services comprising the bulk of U.S. forces in Germany.
From 1950-2000, more than 10 million U.S. troops served in Germany. This does not include family members who accompanied them.
Most postwar Germans were impoverished while American GIs were, in comparison, rolling in money. Americans spent freely in German stores and restaurants. Even the enlisted ranks could afford to hire German domestic servants – maids, cooks and nannies.
Americans wanted the comforts of home and brought many with them. This included cars. Service members’ cars were shipped to the port of Bremerhaven and then driven by the owner to his or her duty station. A shiny Cadillac or Oldsmobile parked on a busy German street could quickly draw a crowd of gawkers.
It didn’t take the Germans long to embrace American hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, peanut butter, American-style ice cream and drinks like Coke and Pepsi.
We also brought our music. During his stint in the Army, Elvis was stationed at Ray Barracks in the town of Friedberg, the same place I lived during my junior and senior years in high school.
There were dozens of American schools in Germany. High school mascot names like the Augsburg Apaches, Heidelberg Lions and Munich Mustangs still resonate with the military brats who attended the schools. Facebook has many large alumni groups from these schools today.
There was even an American university in Germany. The University of Maryland had a two-year campus in Munich, which my wife and I attended.
Many GIs brought their families to Germany. Most American families enjoyed life in Germany and many came back for second and even third tours of duty, as did I.
We built large American housing areas with banks, libraries, movie theaters, liquor stores, department stores called exchanges and commissaries stocked with everyone’s favorite foods from back home. We built American TV and radio stations. We had ration cards to purchase liquor and cigarettes and discount coupons to purchase gas for our cars.
In Germany’s southernmost state of Bavaria, we even built recreation centers where Americans skied in the Alps, sailed on Lake Chiemsee and visited fairyland castles.
It wasn’t all about bringing America to Germany, however. Many Americans em-braced German culture. German-American social clubs became popular and enduring friendships blossomed.
Americans donned German folk attire and danced the waltz and polka as bands played at local festivals and Oktoberfest celebrations.
We liked the convenience of riding on the strassenbahn (streetcar) and enjoyed paved bicycle trails next to many
We also loved the cuisine – schnitzels, sauerbraten and bratwursts, pommes frites (French fries) and condiments in squeeze tubes like toothpaste. If you see someone putting mayonnaise on their French fries, you can bet they used to live in Germany. Of course, there was the beer and wine. Many of my fondest memories of Germany center on food and drink.
It was an especially grand lifestyle for military brats, we kids who had few responsibilities. For many, including me, discussion of returning to “the world” as we sometimes called America, was unwelcome. Life in Germany was simply too much fun.
As America closes the chapter on U.S. military forces in Germany, it also closes a chapter in the lives of many Americans who once lived there. For us, it was a magical place. For a short time, Germany was our home.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.