A Veteran's Journey From Hitler Youth To U.S. Army

Hank Welzel at age 84 i i

hide captionVeteran Hank Welzel, now 84, was drafted into the German army at age 16 during World War II. He later served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Whit Richardson for NPR
Hank Welzel at age 84

Veteran Hank Welzel, now 84, was drafted into the German army at age 16 during World War II. He later served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

Whit Richardson for NPR

Every veteran has a story, but Hank Welzel's is an unusual one: Years before he joined the U.S. Army and served in Korea, Welzel, an American citizen, served in the German army during World War II.

When Welzel was 2 years old, his father got a job that took the family from Ohio back to Germany, where they had emigrated from before the war.

Young Hank Welzel became young Heinrich. He grew up under the Nazi regime, complete with a requisite membership in the Hitler Youth.

He was 13 when World War II began, and at age 16, he was drafted into the German army. Welzel was trained as a medic and sent to the Italian front to face the U.S. and British armies.

Identity Crisis

Though his grandfather always told him to be proud he was an American, he never dared tell any of his fellow German soldiers where he was born.

Hank Welzel at age 12

hide captionGrowing up under the Nazi regime, Welzel was required to join the Hitler Youth. An American citizen by birth, he moved to Germany with his family when he was 2.

Courtesy of Hank Welzel

"You had to consider yourself a German if you wanted to stay alive. ... You had to play the game," Welzel says.

On Oct. 10, 1944, just shy of his 18th birthday, Welzel was captured on a hill north of Florence, Italy. Soon afterward, an American officer who spoke perfect German began to interrogate him.

"Should I tell him I was born in the United States or shouldn't I?" Welzel thought to himself.

"The next guy was like sittin' 10 feet over — the next German soldier, waiting for his turn and, you didn't know who to trust," Welzel recalls. "I never told anybody that I was an American citizen by birth. That was my secret. It was my highest secret, so I didn't dare tell him."

Welzel spent the rest of the war at a prisoner of war camp in Alabama, keeping that secret. It was not until after the war — when he was in France helping rebuild that country's economy and visited the U.S. Embassy in Paris — that he told his story.

Back To America

He was 23 in 1949, when he arrived in the United States with nothing but his German accent and a suitcase of dirty laundry.

"I figured the first thing I wanted to do [after arriving in the U.S.] is my military service, so they couldn't say, 'OK, you were in the German army, but how about your own country?'" Welzel says.

Hank Welzel in Korea

hide captionWelzel (left) stands in front of bunkers with a fellow soldier in Korea, where he served as a medic in the U.S. Army. Welzel earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.

Courtesy of Hank Welzel

Welzel did not want anyone to have an excuse to call him a traitor. But the U.S. Marines would not take him after he revealed his last address was in East Germany.

So he settled down in Connecticut where he had relatives. He got a job in a mill and met his future wife, Gloria. He bought a car. He tried to build a new life and regain his American identity.

"As far as I was concerned, the German thing was behind me, lost, forgotten, past," Welzel says.

Scarred From War

A year after Welzel tried to join the Marines, the U.S. Army drafted him for the Korean War. He served as a medic on the front lines, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Starl. But he returned to the United States scarred from the war.

"I was a basket case. I would wake up screaming, dreaming," he says. Welzel never sought help and suffered the nightmares for 45 years, with his wife at his side to shake him awake. He still occasionally has them to this day.

He never talked about the war to his wife or children. Gloria Welzel says they kept his service in the German army a secret until the kids were in high school, when, the Welzels hoped, their children would be old enough to understand.

"The one thing that we stressed was the fact that you were born in this country," Gloria Welzel says, "and that you were a medic in a war that went by the Geneva treaty, so he couldn't be called a traitor."

Opening Up

Welzel finally sought help in the early 1990s for what was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He has not fully come to terms with his war experiences yet, but after a life spent keeping his past a secret, he has found the best therapy is to open up and discuss what he has been through.

Today, Welzel and his wife live in Freeport, Maine, in a house he built. He helps his son with a lilac nursery business and keeps himself busy building benches from reclaimed lumber and selling them at farmers markets. At 84, he says his goal is to get to 100.

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