Friday, October 30, 1998, El Reno, Oklahoma -
"Nazis are evil. They are the Germans. They kill people. They want to kill all people. They want to kill the world." As an American child during World War II, this is what you are told. Things are pretty clear; America is good, Germany is bad, very bad.
Dolores Williams, nee Dolores Dolezal, grew up in El Reno, Oklahoma during the Big War and, since her grandmother, Ruzena, was Czechoslovakian, and Germany had recently destroyed the Czech town of Lidice, things were a little different. To her, Germans practically wore horns and ate little children for lunch.
When the allies drove Rommel and his Afrika Korps out of Africa, we had a problem, namely about a quarter million German soldier prisoners of war. We could not imprison them in Africa, nor anywhere in Europe, as Hitler would see to their escape, so we shipped them over to the United States - out west. We had thirty prisoner of war camps in Texas, twenty in Oklahoma and one or two in Arizona and New Mexico.
The camp in El Reno, Oklahoma held up to 1,300 Germans and Italians in the years 1943 through 1945. We apparently took very good care of these men, even paying them (reports say about fifteen cents per day) to be prisoners. Treating them well not only dissuaded them from escaping, but helped them grow to like America, so that after the war, they would buy our cars, blue jeans and hula hoops.
With most of our men in the service, there was a shortage of labor in America, and German POWs were hired by farmers and businesses. William Dolezal was one such farmer. "The first day we were pretty nervous," says Dolores Williams, who was eight years old when the camp was opened. "We knew that those people were prisoners and they fought the war against us and they might be terrible. But after a week or so, we got so we looked forward to them being there."
Dolores, Bill, Helen, Rose and Rosemary Dolezal the year after the end of World War II
Rosemary Dolezal Eaklor credits her parents, both now deceased, for raising her and her sisters with values of friendship and goodwill. "I had heard that the German men were horrible people, and my parents were so nice to them," she says. "That taught me a lesson. Our parents always taught us to love and respect others."
Bill Dolezal would request the same prisoners each day, as they grew to learn the skills he required and he grew to know and trust them. The relationship between the American family and the German soldiers took time to grow, for communication was difficult, as only one of the prisoners, Hans Lay, could speak English.
It must have been a difficult relationship. The Dolezals knew that these men at one time fought bloody battles against Americans and that they had friends who were still killing Americans. And the Germans, especially Hans, had been raised to hate America.
"Hans Lay was the die-hard Nazi," says Williams. "He was the younger man, who still believed in the party. I think the older men had realized it was over for Hitler. Hans was very nice to us, but we could tell he was still very dedicated to the Nazi party."
Comrades in peace: Guard and Bill Dolezal flank four of the five German POWs, who worked daily on the Dolezal farm: Warner Lunau, Andreas Lorenz, Heinz Leiss and Hans Lay, (Not shown: Warner Heese)
Each day, Bill Dolezal drove to the Prisoner of War camp, past the concrete guard tower to the front gate, and picked up five prisoners. They piled in the bed of his truck and an armed guard rode in front as they rode back to the Dolezal farm on the outskirts of town, just off Route 66.
"When my Dad first brought them to the farm, they brought their lunches," says Williams. "Dad took one of the bologna sandwiches from them and threw it to the pigs. The prisoners were dumbfounded. He said; 'No man working for me will have to eat that. We'll feed you.'
"My mother was pretty surprised, too, but she did as Daddy said." So Rose Dolezal and her three daughters prepared lunch for the men. This became a daily chore, making lunch, desert and an afternoon snack for almost a dozen people. "If we had been boys, we might have had more contact with the prisoners," says Williams. "But we were in the kitchen most of the time."
The Army had rules, and the guard that always accompanied the prisoners would not let them near the family's home. "I'd rather they eat in the house," Rose said. But the guards would not allow that. The prisoners would eat on a card table in the side yard. This didn't last long, though, as Rose ("Aunt Rose" the Germans called her) tired of lugging food out to the yard, and the guard soon realized he just couldn't outgun the woman. The men were soon treated to meals on the back porch of the Dolezal home.
The first highlight of each day for the Dolezal girls was when the prisoners arrived in the back of their father's pickup truck and the girls would run out to greet them. Then, as the men worked, the girls prepared lunch - and lunch time was special. After work, if the prisoners had time, they would play ball with the girls. "right over by the fence, there," Williams says. Then Bill Dolezal would load them into his truck and have them back at the camp by 5:30 sharp.
No doubt the highlights of the prisoners' days were much the same. "They were always telling us how the other prisoners were envious of them for the delicious food they got here," Williams says. None of the Dolezals spoke German, but Rose could clearly speak their language; Food.
The same German men worked on the farm for nearly two years, harvesting cotton, wheat and hay. "Their hands were soft when they arrived," says Williams. "I think they were mostly officers or clerks in the war, because they weren't used to this kind of work." But they learned quickly and their hands hardened. During the years 1944 and 1945 they would also build a barn and an enclosed cistern for the Dolezals.
Dolores Williams in front of the barn that Germans built. "When they finished the framework, they put a sapling on top, to suck the strength of the sapling up through the framework and give the structure its strength - it was an old German tradition."
Things got pretty casual around the farm after a while. Usually the U.S. soldier who was guarding the prisoners would sit and read, practically ignoring them. Bill Dolezal, who by now had no fear of, and actually a strong bond with, the five men, preferred it this way. He felt they worked better on their own, and he undoubtedly didn't like the disrespect an armed guard presented a man. One ambitious guard regularly caught the trolley going into Oklahoma City for the day and returned just in time to head back to camp.
Sometimes an Army Captain would ride out to the farm to check on the guard. Fortunately, someone would usually see his jeep coming down the long driveway. "Once, we didn't know where the guard was," says Williams. "Daddy sent the prisoners to find him and sent us girls to delay the Captain." Bill Dolezal liked the soldier and didn't want him to get in trouble - sort of a Colonel Hogan / Shultz thing. The prisoners found the guard sleeping in the barn and roused him (by firing his rifle, perhaps?) in time to meet the Captain.
At least one guard went strictly by the book, however, hovering over the prisoners all day, rifle cocked. One of the Germans cut his finger and the guard escorted him to the house, gun barrel at his back, marching him to the door. When they entered the home, Rose Dolezal promptly scolded the soldier. "'Don't you point that gun like that in this house!" she said. "Put that down right now!" And so the soldier did, because, well, what could he do?
These two groups of people, who were born so many miles apart, and bred with diametrically different philosophies and impassioned distaste for each other, and who were crushed together by hatred and greed, had become one group of friends so close they were as a family.
Rose Dolezal finally got her wish, when on Thanksgiving Day, 1945, she was allowed to serve her German guests dinner in her own home. She was proud to host the men for this American Tradition. The following month she served them a Christmas dinner.
The men so enjoyed "Aunt Rose's" hospitality that they saved their money and bought her a present. Warner Lunau, Andreas Lorenz, Heinz Leiss, Hans Lay, and Werner Heene bought a gold wristwatch, and gave it to Rose Dolezal. The gift nearly brought her to tears.
"She treasured the fact that they saved their money to buy it for her," Williams says. Rose treasured that watch for over a decade until it was lost. She treasured its memory until her death in 1990.
The men gave the Dolezal family a pendulum clock they bought from a prisoner who made it out of wood, string and cast metal. They also gave them a small, hand carved, wooden statue of a man shoveling dirt, with the letters "P" and "W" painted on his trouser legs.
Dolores Williams remembers a time when bitter enemies couldn't help but see the humanity in each other's soul.
News about the war arrived daily on the Dolezal farm. The reaction by the Germans to the Allies' successes was mild disbelief. Even on May 8, 1945, V-E day, when news of the German surrender arrived, there was still hope that the Japanese could turn things around. At least for Hans Lay, there was hope.
The summer came and went, with the Allies making headway against Japan. When V-J day arrived, it crushed the spirits of even the hard-core Nazi. "Hans was sitting on the hay baler when we heard the news," Williams says. "I remember, it was like it finally hit him, and he started to cry." No doubt, as the translator for the other Germans, Hans Lay's tears told the whole story.
Any hopes of returning to the Germany they remembered were dashed by the arrival of the girls' uncle, who had served in Europe. The uncle was able to tour Germany for weeks before he left and he took many photographs. Sitting on the back porch, he showed the photos to the men, passing them from hand to hardened hand. There and then they saw in black and white the destruction, the utter and complete ruin of their cities; Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Bonn, Berlin and many more. The German men sat quietly, watching their past become merely a dream.
This was a very exciting time for America and also for the Dolezals, but it must have also been a sad time for everyone on the farm, as the friendships they had built and enjoyed for years were about to be torn apart. The Germans were not allowed to stay in America and would be shipped back to Germany as soon as possible.
"I have wonderful memories of that time," says Rosemary Dolezal-Eaklor. "I have memories of them walking between the barns, memories of them on the tractor, of them shocking the wheat - I can walk around the farm and still see them."
On the day each of their friends was to leave, the Dolezal girls dressed up and the family drove to the camp and they said good-bye to someone they had never wanted to meet and did not want to see leave. Each farewell was a struggle "Hans said that he loved us and he told us how good the time he spent with us was," says Williams. The others spoke clearly, in hugs and kisses and hearty handshakes.
Andreas Lorenz returns from Germany in 1994 to visit the Dolezal family and his former prisoner of war camp. He stands near the water and guard tower, the only remaining structure from the camp.
The friends would correspond for years, with Andreas Lorenz returning from Germany five decades later to visit the family, as it seemed Bill Dolezal, who was now bedridden, might not be around much longer. Lorenz gave each of the Dolezals a gold watch as a token of their friendship and a gesture of thanks. More important, he had something he wanted to say to his former employer.
The elder German sat beside the bed which held the American farmer, on the same farm which was once a shelter for him in the horrible storm of a world war, and he looked into the eyes of the man who had brought him peace - the American who saw humanity through the clouds of war - and he tried to bridge the gap of two nations, of two languages and of fifty years.
Rosemary Dolezal-Eaklor recalls that day; "I remember Andreas sitting next to my father, stroking his arm, saying; 'You are a good man, Bill Dolezal. You are a very good man.'"