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POW never forgets kindness of enemy


Fort Worth TX Star-Telegram

A prisoner-of-war camp doesn't seem a likely place to get decent treatment from enemy civilians, but that is what happened to James Brooks Speer of Idalou in early 1945.

Speer, a corporal at the time, was in the 99th Infantry Division's 393rd Infantry Regiment. He was captured near Elsenborn, Belgium, during the division's attack to cross the Mosel River and breach the Siegfried Line into Germany in late January 1945, at the end of the Battle of the Bulge.

He was taken to a temporary POW camp just across the Mosel in Germany and there he was befriended by a 17-year-old German youth named Josef Weiser and Weiser's neighbors Josef and Gerta Hartung, and began a lifelong friendship with them.

"One day, Weiser was outside the camp wire and he gestured to me," Speer recalled. "I walked over and he grinned at me and handed me a salami sandwich. His neighbors, the Hartungs, had applied for POWs to help harvest their apple orchard, and a buddy and me were assigned to them.

"It was pretty apparent they didn't have any work for us, they just wanted to get us out of the camp and feed us. Gerta Hartung said it was their hearts' prayer that if they fed and showed kindness to enemy POWs, maybe some mother would do the same for their three sons in the German Army."

One Hartung son was killed in action, a second was captured by the Russians, and a third is still missing, Speer said.

Speer was liberated April 8, 1945, and made his way home to the Lubbock (TX) area. But not before meeting the late Amon Carter, former publisher of the Star-Telegram, at the LeHarve Port of Embarkation in France.

"He was there to see if he could find his son, Amon Jr., who had been a POW," Speer recalled. Carter found his son and brought him home.

Speer married Beulah Elizabeth Raper, his wife of 56 years, and began raising his own family. He did not forget the Hartungs or Weiser.

The Speer family sent the struggling Hartungs regular CARE packages of food, warm clothing, and money and exchanged letters with them all through the tough postwar years.

In 1957, Speer sent them money to pay for the elder Hartung's treatment by a heart specialist.

"The physician told him there be little chance for a better health," Gerta Hartung wrote. "I hope I can write one day that my husband is on the way to recovery . . . Here in Western Germany we live in anxiety that it will be possible to preserve peace in the world. We hope your country doesn't leave us in the lurch."

Both Hartungs died about 20 years ago, Speer said.

Weiser moved to Australia, but the Speer family still keeps in touch with him. Weiser visited them in 1973, and as they greeted him at the airport, he put his hand into his overcoat pocket and pulled out a salami sandwich, Speer recalled.

"He said, 'The first time I met you in Germany I gave you a salami sandwich because I wanted to be your friend, and today, in the USA, I want to give you a salami sandwich from Germany because I will always be your friend,'" Speer said.

Then he pulled out three apples and gave one to each of the Speers' three children and said, "These apples came from the orchard in Germany where your daddy worked when he was a German prisoner and I've come a long way to tell each one of you what a fine man your daddy is."

Those days were much in Speer's thoughts last month, when he was presented the Combat Infantryman's Badge, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, POW Medal, and other decorations he earned but never got during World War II. An awards ceremony was held for Speer at a Lubbock National Guard Armory.

The Speers and the Weisers and Hartungs prove that there are no limits to the human generosity of spirit, even in an all-out war.