Almost 100, World War II veteran holds fast to the mission

By: Alex Szwarc | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published November 11, 2021

 World War II veteran Guy Stern is seen at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. In part, he said the reason he fought during the war was for the good cause of freeing Europe of dictatorships, driving them out and restoring democracy.

World War II veteran Guy Stern is seen at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. In part, he said the reason he fought during the war was for the good cause of freeing Europe of dictatorships, driving them out and restoring democracy.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

Advertisement

WEST BLOOMFIELD — He’s seen the best and worst of humanity throughout the last nearly 100 years.

From growing up in Nazi Germany to serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, only to return to his native country as part of a special intelligence unit, Guy Stern said he was fighting for the sake of freedom and the possibility of rescuing his family.

Stern, of West Bloomfield, turns 100 in January. He was born in Hildesheim, Germany, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1937.

In an interview from the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Stern said that during the war, his family in Germany — mom, dad, a younger brother and a sister — were killed in the Holocaust.

“The seriousness of the situation really burst out in 1933 with Hitler’s ascension to power,” Stern said.

Stern was drafted into the Army in 1943 and received his basic training at Camp Barkeley in Texas.    

In 1942, a year before he became a U.S. citizen, Stern interviewed with the Naval intelligence office, where he was told he had the right qualifications, like “absolute native fluency of our enemy’s language, which they recruit for Italian, Japanese and German,” and an understanding of psychology.

Since he wasn’t native-born American, Stern was passed over to serve in the Navy.

At the end of his time at Camp Barkeley, as a private, he was called to company headquarters.

“They said I am being transferred, and I asked, ‘Where to?’” Stern said. “They said ‘Can’t tell you, military secrets.’”

While on a train, he opened up his orders.

“We found ourselves in front of an Army installation called military intelligence training center, or MITC,” he said. “We interpreted that as military institution of total confusion.”

The installation was Camp Ritchie, in Maryland, where Stern spent three months training. He was instructed in examining maps, intercepting messages and interrogation skills.

“There I had the most intensive training I ever had,” he said. “That includes preparing for my Ph.D. exams at Columbia.”

The Ritchie Boys, as Stern’s unit became known, was under the command of Army four-star Gen. Courtney Hodges.

In 1944 and 1945, Stern spent time interrogating German prisoners of war. He arrived in France three days after D-Day on Omaha Beach, in June 1944.

Stern shared that one interrogation method was to put the fear of God into the POWs.

“We learned what they feared most was captivity by the Russians,” he said.

With that in mind, Stern came up with a Russian alias, going by the name Commissar Krukov.

Sometimes he was in uniform. Other times, he teamed up with a buddy when they dealt with prisoners who they sensed had vital information.

“Fred would start off as the soft-hearted American, overflowing with goodwill and humanity,” Stern said. “The prisoner wouldn’t bite, and Fred said he had orders that prisoners not cooperating will be turned over to the Russians.”

Disguised as Krukov, who the prisoner was told was a Russian liaison officer, Stern said he would have a fit of rage.

“I would go off my rocker and say, ‘Look at that specimen you bring me. He wouldn’t even survive the transport.’ Or, ‘That kid looks so stupid, I don’t know whether I want him,’” he said.

When asked what he was fighting for in World War II, Stern noted that his attitude toward being from Germany was utterly irrelevant.

“You’re a soldier in the American Army and you follow the orders that are given for a good cause of freeing Europe of dictatorships that had taken over a good part of Europe, and drive them out, restoring democracy,” he said.

In response to what he makes of the term “the Greatest Generation,” a moniker given to those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, Stern said the Americans he served in the military with had firm convictions.

“When we said the oath of allegiance, ‘one nation, indivisible,’ we meant it, and I hope we can attain that again,” he said.

For his service, Stern received a Bronze Star and Legion of Honor recognition. Last month, he was honored by the Michigan WWII Legacy Memorial with the Victory Award at its Victory Gala.

Stern is married to the German author Susanna Piontek. He had a career in education, teaching at Columbia University, Denison University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Maryland and Wayne State University. Stern was a visiting scholar at the German universities of Freiburg im Breisgau, Frankfurt am Main,  Leipzig,  Potsdam and Munich. After retiring, he accepted various positions at the Holocaust Memorial Center. His most recent book, “Invisible Ink,” was released last year.

Advertisement