SEATTLE -- Gunter Grawe spent three years as a German prisoner of war in western Washington, a World War II incarceration he recalls not with rancor but gratitude for the chance to "live and learn in America."
Grawe always thought about returning to the states to say thank you.
In early October, the rail-thin veteran, now 91, did just that during a brief visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where guard towers and barbed-wire fences are long gone but some of the two-story wooden barracks that once housed German prisoners still stand.
He declared his capture by the Americans at the age of 18 "his luckiest day," and reminisced about camp life that included English, French and Spanish classes organized by other POWs and a commissary stocked with chocolate, ice cream and Coca-Cola.
"I never had anything to complain about," Grawe said. "No guard called us nasty names. I had a better life as a prisoner than my mother and sister back home in Germany."
In a global conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 60 million people -- including 6 million Jewish Holocaust victims -- Grawe was indeed fortunate to live to an old age denied to so many others. Grawe was filled with patriotism as he went to serve in the German army but now denounces Adolf Hitler as "one arrogant, hypocritical damned liar" who led his nation into disaster and shame.
Grawe's trip to the base was arranged with the help of HistoryLink.org, a Seattle-based online encyclopedia that chronicles the state's past. He also was vetted by JBLM, which had a historian look through records to verify that he was indeed a prisoner.
Ample Meals, Farm Work
During the June 1944 invasion of Normandy, Grawe suffered a small wound to his foot, and was recuperating several days later in a hospital tent camp when it was overrun by U.S. troops.
Grawe was taken prisoner and put on the ocean liner Queen Mary for the voyage to America. He had comfortable quarters and ample meals served on metal trays.
Next, he took a train ride across America to what was then Fort Lewis. At the Army post south of Tacoma, barracks vacated by U.S. troops were turned into prison quarters for some 4,000 German POWs at five locations.
Fort Lewis (now part of the joint base) was part of a much broader POW prison-camp network of some 500 sites across the country that held 400,000 Germans. Overall, historians say these prisoners were treated well. Some Germans even referred to their camp as a "golden cage," according to Michael Farquhar, who wrote a 1997 article about the POWs for The Washington Post.
The POWs' relative comfort angered some wartime Americans who had lost their loved ones to German troops. But they did have to work, providing labor at a time when the massive troop mobilization made it hard to find enough people to bring in the nation's crops.
Grawe traveled by truck from Fort Lewis to help in apple, sugar-beet and potato harvests. Later, he was transferred to Arizona to bring in cotton. He recalled his farm labor as a real adventure that earned him an 80-cents-a-day salary to buy things at the commissary.
A Hug and a Casserole
On Oct. 3, Grawe arrived at JBLM. At the blacktop by the barracks, he looked around somewhat uncertainly. He recalled a barren site. This place was full of fir trees that had grown up in the seven decades since the prisoners had gone home.
He was greeted by the base's deputy joint commander, Col. William Percival, who offered a handshake, and later a hug inside a building now empty and bare of furniture.
"You remind us that how you treat somebody defines who we are," Percival said. "There are times, even today, when we may want to forget that. And you let us know that's a lesson not to be forgotten."
Grawe then went for lunch at a base dining hall. He piled his plate with noodle casserole, and sat down to eat one more ample meal served up by the U.S. Army -- this time, as a free man.