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Money to burn

Money to burn

Money to burn


99th president, 1953-54, ©1999

     We were members of an infantry squad during World War II trudging through the forests of Germany shortly following the historic Battle of the Bulge.

     This was to be a "mop up" of the defeated German troops, prior to a new large-scale offensive across the Roer River Dams and the Cologne Plain.

     Enemy artillery fire still scattered road crossings and the steady racket of machine guns reverberated through the woods as small groups of isolated German "die hards" held out. Generally, the enemy was now in full retreat as a result of losing Hitler's last great gamble.

     This mission, therefore, was to round up the stray enemy while making rapid advance to the newly established forward line.

     Progressing methodically through former enemy strongholds, we were careful of booby traps, undetonated mines and shells, all the while picking up an occasional "Jerry" or two along the way.

     The wind during that 1945 March was quite vigorous, and while a good deal of the winter snow vanished under the gradually thawing forest floor, there was still an Arctic chill in the air fully permeated by the smell of gunpowder. The trees around us were broken, burned, and scarred.

     About one full day into this advance, a German officer vigorously waving a white handkerchief from a long twig presented himself from within the treeline. "Ich ergebin sich!" (I surrender) he said, handing me his pistol, then raising his right arm skyward while tenaciously clutching an expensive looking attache case in his left.

     "Gimme that!" I retorted, grabbing at the case. "Nein, nein, bitte!" (No, no, please) he replied clutching the handle firmly, "Mein brot! Mein brot!" (My bread, my bread.) With obvious disregard for his anxieties I wrenched it free. "Now let's see what the hell's so valuable about this friggin case!"

     We quickly opened it and discovered it was chock full of crisp new 20-mark bank notes, wrapped in neat 1,000-mark wrappers . . . a whole attache case full - perhaps several hundred thousand marks - and a loaf of brick hard black bread. Again our captive pleaded, "Nein, nein, bitte" grasping desperately, not for the money but for the bread. "Bitte, bitte, mein brot." (Please, please, my bread.)

     "Here's your damned old hard bread! Who in the hell wants it?" I said. The German was grateful, a smile pierced his face, "Danka, danka schoen!" He stuffed the bread under his jacket, clicked his heels, and smartly saluted us.

     We searched him for hidden weapons, grenades, or whatever, and found him clean. Next, doing the interrogation in the best Deutsch I could muster, I asked him for his name, rank, and unit. "Ich Major Hoffman," he replied. He told us he was from a volksgrenadier regiment and that he was the regimental paymaster. His headquarters had been overrun two days prior by one of our armored divisions and he escaped with as much of the regiment's pay (and his precious loaf of bread) as he could carry.

     He impressed us with that fact because he felt if he were ever reunited with his troops they would need this money in as much as they had not received any pay for three months. We told him to forget it! "Alles ist Kaput!" (All is finished.) We dispatched him to custody of the MP battalion in charge of corralling prisoners.

     "Wow, we're rich!" I shouted. "Here boys, divide it up. Stuff your pockets!" We did this gleefully. All of our giant pockets bulged to capacity. "Do you think it's any good?" Mike asked. "Hell no!" I replied, "Alles ist Kaput! But if it is, we'd be richer than hell!"

     Our advance along the treeline continued and as the first shades of darkness approached, we came upon a triangular stand of three U.S. Army tanks. As was often practiced among the armored divisions, when there existed no enemy action, three tanks would frequently park in the shape of a triangle, the center area of which was then used as a sort of small enclave within which the men could shave, wash, eat, or just relax.

     As our squad passed this little fortress, we noticed the tankers had a fire going in the center and were dangling cans of C-rations from bayonets held over the fire, merrily simmering from the heat and enhancing the otherwise drab flavors. In the immediate background was a heavy safe, door ajar, lettered with the insignia of the volksgrenadier regiment of our recent captive and in it - stacks and stacks of the same crisp 20-mark notes we had previously "liberated!" The tankers systematically reached into the safe for a new supply of marks to throw on the fire and speed up the heating process of their meager rations.

     "Well fellows," I chirped, "there's your answer about the dough! It's worthless as the canceled million mark bills after WWI!" To further prove my point, I momentarily stepped out of the line of march and deposited my share of the dough into the brightly lit fire. All but one member of the squadron followed suit. It was obvious now that these were the GIs who overran our paymaster's headquarters, "liberated" the safe, and finding nothing more valuable than the "worthless German marks," were now content to settle for the benefits of warm rations.

     Our current objective was reached in the course of two days. Many weeks followed as our division took hundreds of additional objectives including over 100 towns and villages, over 400,000 prisoners, and several principal German cities. The division distinguished itself and at the conclusion of the hostilities in Europe, had been cited for its outstanding combat record. Units received the Presidential Unit Citation, Belgian Fourragueres, Distinguished Unit Badge, and individuals received the Medal of Honor.

     At the war's conclusion, we were reassigned to occupation duty and ultimately watched the rubble get cleaned up, the military government take over the administration of the defeated nation, and eventually, the rehabilitation of German homes and businesses.

     It was during this period of transition from war to peace in Germany, on a pleasant September afternoon, in 1945, when the local town courier in the small city of Neustadt Aisch, which we were occupying, posted a bulletin in the town square that attracted our attention - along with most of the town's populace. In German it read, essentially as follows:

     ATTENTION: Be it known that effective 1 October 1945, all state banks will reopen for regular banking business as existed in pre-occupation days by the United States Military government and the following serialized German Reichsbank notes will be redeemed at face value in the form of U.S. Military occupation legal tender . . . Marks of years 1939 through 1944 number xxxxxxx through xxxxxxx. Please redeem all such currency as may be in your possession as soon as possible in order to stimulate the buying power of German populace and the country's economy!

     The lone member of our squad who decided to keep his share of the worthless dough, Marvin Goldblatt*, was immediately summoned to compare dates and serial numbers - and it all matched! Our buddy now owned a sweet little nest egg of quite a few thousand equivalent American dollars which helped finance him through nine years of higher education and a very successful professional career back in the good ol' United States. The rest of us had plenty of time to contemplate the literally meaning of the phrase "money to burn."

     *After graduating from medical school, Goldblatt became a dermatologist in Skokie IL, and married a German woman, Erika, he met during the war.