At 17, the war his native Germany started was 3 years old.
Helmut Deussen was in high school in 1942 in Moenchengladbach in West Germany. He’d hoped World War II would be over by the time he graduated.
But Hitler’s Nazi government didn’t let him finish. Instead, it pulled him out, put him in a German Army uniform and assigned him to the signal corps.
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“My parents were very apolitical,” said Deussen of Charlotte, now 89. “My father was not a member of the (Nazi) party – nor was I. But when they told you to go, you had to do it. There were no excuses.”
He would see occupation duty in Paris, then Budapest, Hungary, before the Panzer division his signal corps unit was attached to, was ordered into southern France in the spring of 1944.
By the time Deussen arrived in Normandy, two weeks after D-Day, he could see the German cause was going badly.
He and his signal corps buddies became part of the slow retreat back to Germany. At the Belgian border they were captured. Deussen would spend two years as a POW in an American camp near Paris.
He never fired a shot against an American – “or anyone else.”
Deussen returned home to a badly damaged city in late 1946. Eight years later, as a young engineer, he was sent by the textile machinery company he worked for, Schlafhorst Inc., to North Carolina to demonstrate a prototype of a piece of textile equipment the company had developed.
It was supposed to be a six-month job. But he stayed and helped build Schlafhorst’s business in America.
He married an American, Elizabeth Grayson, in 1957, and was naturalized as an American citizen six years later. They live in The Cypress of Charlotte retirement community.
Now, wherever he goes, he typically wears an American flag lapel pin – grateful for the nation that embraced him.
In his own words / as told to staff writer David Perlmutt
I was born in 1925. My father was a banker, a veteran of World War I who was wounded in the trenches of Verdun (France). When I was 7, my parents took me on a cruise down the Rhine River. At one of the towns we passed, we saw Hitler making a speech to a crowd. That was in 1932, before he came to power.
If you live in a state that is run by a dictator, it affects every aspect of life. It was almost compulsory that schoolchildren be enrolled in what they called Hitler Youth. You couldn’t possibly refuse it. The Nazis pushed different kinds of sports and were always training us and holding competitions.
I was 14 in 1939, when the war broke out. Naturally that affected everybody. I was more concerned about my father – he was still draft age.
As time went on things got progressively worse. Life became a lot more insecure with nightly bombings by the Allies that more or less dominated our lives and arranged our daily schedules. That started in 1942. We essentially lived in our basement at nights because it was too dangerous above ground. My city was bombed and our house was heavily damaged. The surrounding houses were flattened.
We were a straight shot east from England, so the Allied bombing raids came over our city every night even if they were bombing the inner provinces of Germany. My city was very badly damaged.
I was drafted in 1942 when I was 17. If you were able-bodied there were no excuses. It was obligatory that before you were drafted into the German Army, Air Force or Navy that you had to absorb what they called labor service.
We performed emergency service somewhere in Germany. One night, the British torpedoed a hydroelectric dam on the other side of the Rhine. A wall of water about 50 feet high rushed through the valley and took everything with it. We were sent to help with the clean-up, or whatever you could clean up.
I was sent to Cologne to train and learn Morse code. After six months of training, my signal corps unit (of four) was attached to a Panzer division. It had mostly tanks and other armored vehicles.
Our job was to establish communications between the front and rear lines.
We were first shipped by rail to Paris. We had to walk in pairs or crowds in Paris with our weapons because it was too dangerous to walk alone. Shortly after we arrived, we were put on trains in late 1943 and sent to Budapest for the invasion of Hungary. But a few weeks after we arrived, they turned us around and sent us to southern France near Toulouse. It was not the whole division, they split us up.
It was the spring of 1944.
Then on June 6, 1944, we were quickly ordered to pack up and move north to Normandy. Hitler and his leaders knew an invasion was coming, but they didn’t know when or where. It was on.