A Veteran's Journey From Hitler Youth To U.S. Army Hank Welzel has served in two wars, under two different flags. At 16, he was drafted into the German army during World War II. Captured by the Americans, he spent the rest of the war at a POW camp in the U.S. -- the country of his birth. Five years later, he was sent to the front lines of Korea by the U.S. Army.

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

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

Producer Whit Richardson spoke with Hank about his experiences serving in two wars under two different flags.

WHIT RICHARDSON: Hank Welzel is at his small kitchen table, flipping through a stack of old black and white photographs. Most are of him and his Army buddies standing in front of bunkers in Korea. But he stops when he comes across a photo showing a young boy who looks like a Boy Scout and another of a young man in a foreign uniform.

Mr. HANK WELZEL (Veteran, United States Army): This is the Hitler Youth when I was about 12. Okay, and this is my first week in the German army. I'm probably 16 and a half or so. This is my sister.

RICHARDSON: When Hank 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 First World War. Young Hank became young Heinrich. He grew up under the Nazi regime, complete with a requisite membership in the Hitler Youth.

He was 13 when the war began; 16 when the German army drafted him. He was trained as a medic and sent to the Italian front to face the U.S. and British armies. 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.

Mr. WELZEL: You had to consider yourself a German if you wanted to stay alive. You know what I mean? You know, you had to play the game, you know?

RICHARDSON: On October 10, 1944, just shy of his 18th birthday, Hank was captured on a hill north of Florence. Soon afterwards, an American officer who spoke perfect German began to interrogate him. And at this point, Hank's thinking to himself...

Mr. WELZEL: Should I tell him I was born in the United States or shouldn't I? You know? And because, see, the next guy was like sitting 10 feet over - the next German soldier waiting for his turn. And, you know, you didn't know who to trust. I mean, I never told anybody that I was an American citizen by birth. That was my secret. You know, it was my highest secret. So anyway, I didn't dare tell him.

RICHARDSON: Hank spent the rest of the war at a prisoner of war camp in Alabama, keeping that secret. It wasn't until after the war, when he was in France helping rebuild that country's economy as part of the Marshall Plan that he visited the U.S. embassy in Paris and told his story.

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

Mr. WELZEL: And I figured, the first thing I wanted to do is do my military service. You know, so they couldn't say okay, you were in the German army, but how about your own country?

RICHARDSON: Hank didn't want anyone to have an excuse to call him a traitor. But the Marines wouldn't 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. He met his future wife, Gloria. He bought a car. He tried to build a new life and regain his U.S. identity.

Mr. WELZEL: As far as I was concerned, the German thing was behind me, lost, forgotten, past.

RICHARDSON: And then the Korean War began. A year after Hank tried to join the Marines, the U.S. Army drafted him. He served as a medic on the front lines, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. But he returned to the United States scarred from the war.

Mr. WELZEL: I was a basket case. I mean, you know, I would wake up screaming, dreaming.

RICHARDSON: Hank never sought help and suffered the nightmares for 45 years, his wife there to shake him awake. He still occasionally has them to this day. He never talked about the war to his wife or children.

Gloria, his wife, says they kept Hank's service in the German army a secret until the kids were in high school and hopefully old enough to understand.

Ms. GLORIA WELZEL: The one thing that we stressed was the fact that you were born in this country and that you were a medic in a war that went by the Geneva treaty.

Mr. WELZEL: Yeah.

Ms. WELZEL: So he couldn't be called a traitor.

RICHARDSON: Today, Hank and Gloria 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. He's 84 years old.

Mr. WELZEL: My goal is to get to a hundred.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RICHARDSON: Hank Welzel finally sought help in the early 1990s for what was diagnosed as posttraumatic stress disorder. He hasn't fully come to terms with his war experiences yet. But after a life spent keeping his past a secret, he's found the best therapy is to open up and discuss what he's been through.

For NPR News, I'm Whit Richardson.

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