A story of war and circumstance
By Gregory Flannery
The year 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II. In the early 1990s I interviewed the late Frank Leonhartsberger, who was born a U.S. citizen but fought for Nazi Germany during the war. That was not his choice.
Leonhartsberger was born in Allentown, Pa. When his father died, his mother – an Austrian immigrant – took the 1-year-old boy with her and returned to her homeland. A few years later, Nazi Germany annexed Austria. In 1945, when Leonhartsberger was 16 years old, he was drafted.
In 1949 Leonhartsberger returned to the United States. In the 1950s his cousin, Franz Pfingstl, gave him a collection of 90 snapshots of Hitler and top Nazi leaders. Leonhartsberger did not know who shot the photographs and could not identify their setting. He said he only knew that the photos were supposed to have been taken on Hitler’s birthday. One of the photographs is reproduced on this page.
Leonhartsberger gave me his collection of photos, most of which have never been published. I used to believe the photos were the most interesting part of his story. I spent a lot of time trying to identify them and eventually succeeded. The photos were, in fact, taken on the occasion of Hitler’s 52nd birthday, which he spent in the Austrian town of Monichkirchen. Arriving April 11, 1941, and leaving two weeks later, Hitler met with Count Ciano of Italy and Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria. He congratulated the officers who had nearly finished conquering Greece and Yugoslavia, and he reviewed plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union.
I was wrong. The most compelling thing about Frank Leonhartsberger’s experience was not the photos, but his personal story. He likely was not the only U.S. citizen who found himself in Hitler’s army. But his account – given me over the course of four hours in his dimly lit apartment in Ormond Beach, Fla., abetted by the consumption of lots of Scotch whiskey – is an eloquent testament about the horrors of war and racism. What follows are his words verbatim; I have added only the sub-headings.
The testament of Frank Leonhartsberger
If you had a cigarette, you went off somewhere by yourself, or else all of a sudden you had five friends. We had no cigarettes during the war. God, that was rough.
When I was born, they made a mistake in the name. They recorded it as Franz Leon Hans Berger. When I was getting ready to go to school in the ’30s, it became a problem. Austria is full of bureaucracy. Everything has to be just so, a little bit like the English when it comes to documents. It took forever to get this thing straightened out. I remember my mother saying, “Well, they got the name right, but they got the doggoned date wrong.” I was supposed to have been born in 1929, but on that paper, on that birth certificate, it was 1927.
My father died 25 March 1930. My mother took me back to my grandparents in Austria. She had brothers and sisters over there. One of them took care of the saloon, one took care of the grocery store. We had a gasthaus and a little grocery store. We were considered rather rich. We had a big house in Rudersdorf Berg. We lived up in the hills. We had no electricity. Every week we had to shine the kerosene lamps. It was a wonderful childhood, all the kids growing up together.
I had a cousin who had polio. She was two years older than me. She couldn’t get around. I gave her my tricycle, and she lived on that tricycle ’til the day she died. She died when she was 30.
My mother remarried and we moved to Ubersbach. We opened up a grocery store, a soup-to-nuts grocery store. We had bread, we had booze, we had farm implements, we had fabric. It was quite a nice life, really.
Every town has a drunk. Our drunk was the finest accordion player in town. It was a button accordion — not keys. He taught me to play. Music was a very important part of my life after the war, because I sang for many of my meals.
When Hitler took over in 1938, we would march up and down the street yelling because Hitler had liberated us. What he had liberated us from, I don’t know.
The people in the city were very Nazified, but the poor farmers didn’t understand any of it. Every little town had a Nazi or two. Put the attitude was, “Let’s get stoned tonight and see if the morning may be a little brighter.” Ambition was never the Austrian strong point
‘I didn’t see any glory’
I was in the Hitler Youth. If you’re a kid and someone gives you a uniform, whoopee! We marched around and sang and got indoctrinated. It was not a bad thing, really. You learned a little discipline, no doubt about it. I got pushed around a few times because I didn’t march right.
I went into the army when I was 16. The fact was, I was not 16 years old; but according to my papers, I was. After the Hitler Youth, everyone went into the Arbeits Dienst, a mandatory work crew that got you ready for the army. Our weapon was a highly polished spade.
All of a sudden, the whole squadron became a part of anti-aircraft. We got our battery, and by now the war was going pretty bad, so we kept the same uniforms. 1 worked radar.
I remember the first kill we had was one of ours.
The only chance we had to shoot somebody was when some poor guy got half-crippled up there. He couldn’t steer, he couldn’t maneuver
You Americans have no idea what war is. You’ve never seen war. Look at it through a young fellow’s eyes. I saw kids thrown around in the street after a bombing raid. You can’t imagine it. And after the war, there’s thousands of people walking the street, dazed, no idea where you’re getting your next meal, or any meal. I remember one time I was so hungry I stole some bread — and that was during the war. If anybody ever thinks there’s glory in it, there’s nothing but misery. That’s all there is.
There are a lot of people fascinated by war, and some people think there’s honor in war. “All for the Fuhrer and the Fatherland!’ That’s a crock of shit. I didn’t see any glory. There’s no cover. I was scared to death. Day and night, bombing.
We shot down a lieutenant from New York. He came down with no chute or a bad chute. When he hit the ground, he nearly buried himself. On his plane he had a pair of baby shoes. Maybe it was a good luck charm. He had the names of different missions written on them — Berlin, Dusseldorf, Vienna. I carried those shoes around with me for the rest of the war. I thought maybe I could give them to his family, but after the war I lost everything.
When we got a hit, we would send groups down to pick them up, because sometimes the people would try to kill them. It was impossible not to hate the Americans. They just bombed your city and killed your family.
‘I have nightmares’
On the last day of the war, we were high on a hill. We could see the Russians coming and hear the tanks rumbling. There were only a dozen left. All the officers and staff were gone.
We were blowing up the 88s and blowing up the barracks and everything. We didn’t want the Russians to get it. We thought it was very heroic, but we were nitwits. We should have gotten the hell out of there. It was raining, and the Russians were bombing.
My good friend placed a hand grenade on a machine gun nest, then fell in. When I hear this SS crap, don’t get me wrong. At the end of the war it was 15-year-old kids who had no other uniform left but the SS uniforms.
They had no more than a few weeks training. They weren’t SS troopers, they were poor Hitler Youth marching to the front to be slaughtered, half of them too young to shave.
Years after the war they would drift home from Russia. People had given up on them long ago.
A few weeks before the war ended they issued us these anti-tank weapons. They were like stovepipes. You had to get as close as the front door. I had no intention of using them.
They dropped firebombs on Graz. They would drop them by the thousands. Just to show you that you remember the funny stuff, there was a beautiful neighborhood there called Puntigam. I remember going home, hopping over these picket fences. If they would have timed us, we would have made the Olympics. The picket fences were burning. They were bombing. It was sheer fright making us streak like that. It was a sight to behold.
We used to eat noodles and ground horsemeat and acorn coffee.
One time after we were bombed, I was digging out. I kept trying to lift this typewriter out. It was all mangled, but I kept pulling and trying to get it out. 1 pulled that typewriter out, and there was my friend, my best friend. That sobers you up in a hurry.
You couldn’t dive until your commanding officer told you to. You stood there. You stood there and fired till the last minute, till the last second, till he got scared enough to dive.
I was only in an air raid shelter one time. 1 was in Vienna. It was the day the Sudbahnhof was leveled. I went up to pick up a particular piece of radar. There was a big park; and outside the railway station, underneath the park, was an air-raid shelter. They leveled that railway station to the ground, completely. There was nothing standing. It was the most horrible hour I ever spent in my life.
When I came out of that, I saw two children and a woman blown to hell. 1 think that was the day I gave up on a lot of things. I could take a lot of things, my friends getting blown apart, but this was more than I could take. I can still see those three lying there. I have nightmares about it.
I was a young kid, scared to death, going through this misery.
‘Blood all over’
People don’t believe this, but we didn’t know about the Jews being killed. But I remember they had to wear these yellow stars. It was a very disgraceful thing, degrading, as if they had been branded.
My first railroad ride was a trip to my uncle’s house in Bierbaum. At the railway station there was a cattle car with people in it like sardines, haggard-looking people. I didn’t know they were Jews, I was only 10. I only knew they were the enemy. I don’t even think I thought anything at the time. It was no big thing. It never occurred to me it was wrong, because it was drilled into us that the Germans were the only people that really mattered. When you’re a kid, you believe a lot of things.
I was mad as a wet cat that we lost the war. Even when I came to this country, I had a chip on my shoulder a mile wide, because the Americans helped the Russians make us lose the war.
We high-tailed it, and we hitched a ride with some outfit of military police. Everybody was going west. I had not the slightest intention of shooting one of those bazookas. I remember a woman screaming at us, “You cowards! You have a uniform on and a helmet on!” Why shouldn’t we stay there and do something? There were three of us running from ditch to ditch. When it happened, I thought, all I want to do is get out of here. We dropped those bazookas and ran like hell. She called us all kinds of names, filthy names, and kept saying that we had helmets.
We finally hit the American lines, somewhere in the center of Austria, near the Alps going up to Salzburg. They waved us through: “Just go, somebody’s going to pick you up.” They never did. We went up to the mountains. It was beautiful, serene. They didn’t even know there was a war going on.
After three months we went back to Graz. Before we left, this girl’s mother gave me a little briefcase. And she said, “Frank, this is for taking my daughter with you.” Little did she know I was taking her daughter, period. She was a jeweler’s daughter. The briefcase was filled with watches and rings. Her mother said, “Hang onto this. Maybe it will help you get a start in life.”
The first leg was with some American soldiers. We finally made it back to Graz. My friend and me stole some bicycles. There were people going everywhere. It was complete chaos. One of us jumped on a train, a flatcar. We didn’t want to let the bicycles go, because the bridges were out and the trains couldn’t get across. I handed one of the bicycles up and handed the briefcase to a stranger to hold for me. I lost it.
When I returned home, my stepfather was gone. He had been inducted near the end of the war. Our house was like a slaughterhouse, blood all over the place.
I heard stories that are unrepeatable. The Russians had occupied Ubersbach and they really enjoyed their victory to the hilt. They would line girls up and screw them on a daily routine. There were girls hiding in the haystacks for months.
For the first year after the war there was a numbness. People didn’t care. The new wine was just ripe. I think that really helped us. Austria became drunk. We stayed drunk, at least in my neighborhood. Then my (step)father came home and we started a grocery store again. We had a little wool.
Saved by cow dung
After a couple of years my stepfather decided to marry our maid. She was 18 years old and she was like a sister to me. My father made it clear it was time for me to go on.
I was a man without a country for three years. 1 could get no food stamps. I couldn’t get to the Americans because they were in Vienna, and Vienna was surrounded by the Russians. I sang for my meals and slept my way through town.
My father had buried some papers showing I was an American in a pile of cow dung.
At the time, Austria was divided into four zones by the Allies. I was staying in the British zone.
During the Christmas season in 1948 I got a pass from the British to go to the American consul in Vienna. I took a bus to the Russian line, but they wouldn’t let me through. As I walked back, there was a little villa. The lady was sweeping the snow off the walkway. She said a lot of people got turned away. She said a lot of them would go up the hill and sort of walk their way through the woods. There’s a little town there. “Just get on a train and go into Vienna.”
I tried this and I was captured by a Russian soldier. He also got a Greek professor, but he was trying to get out of Vienna. He waltzed us in there. They were real friendly at the beginning. But they started to get mad because I told them I hadn’t been in the army. They found these pictures of me in my back pocket, pictures of me with the 88s.
They kicked me around and they threw me down a staircase. We were locked in a cupboard in this farmhouse. It had one chair. It was very drafty. We spent Christmas in there. They interrogated us every chance they’d get. They didn’t feed us well. I think the Greek had TB. That poor guy almost died. I let him sit on the chair all the time.
There was a guy there, a Russian soldier, who was learning to play the accordion. We started to be friendly. He brought some medication in one time, some cough medicine. If it weren’t for this guy, I don’t think we would have made it. One night he chased us out of there. He let the Greek go over to the English side, but he wouldn’t let me into the Russian side.
They had some shirts hanging. I stole some Russian uniforms — clothing was so scarce. The clothes’ were frozen stiff, of course, but it was partly just the idea of getting even with them.
I corresponded with the U.S. consul in Vienna. They suggested I go to Salzburg and meet some U.S. people and take a U.S. military train into Vienna. That never came to be.
Finally my uncle went to Vienna to find somebody. I got in in a wine barrel in my uncle’s truck.
They checked the ship I had come over on. On the day I left, they gave me a $200 loan and my passport. They shipped me out on a military train to Paris. I was on this train with all these American GIs. I’m the only one that didn’t speak English.
I came over on the SS Washington. You hear this stuff about Ellis Island, but here I was in New York City. I was an American citizen, so I was supposed to know where to go. I didn’t know nothing. My godmother met me, thank God. I hadn’t seen her since I was 2.
This interview was originally published in the Mount Washington Press.