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Monday, July 20, 2009

An Unwelcome Visitor in 1945

Posted By on Mon, Jul 20, 2009 at 2:27 PM

My good friend Robert Lanier recently sent me an Associated Press clipping from a Washington, D.C., newspaper, which I filed away in the cobwebby recesses of my once-great mind, under the general category of “Can’t Possibly Be True.” But lately I’m discovering that quite a few things readers uncover — and share with me — turn out to be not only true, but even stranger than I expected.

Here is what Mr. Lanier’s AP story said. The headline was “NAZI IN FULL UNIFORM ARRESTED IN MEMPHIS” and it was dated August 14, 1945:

“A German paratrooper, wearing his military uniform complete with the swastika and German eagle, was arrested on Main Street yesterday. The prisoner gave his name as Sergeant Heintz Heimann and said he escaped from the prison-of-war camp at Crawfordsville, Arkansas. He said he wanted to see the city, but was afraid to discard his army clothes for fear he would be shot as a spy.”

Did such a thing really happen, or was this some kind of misguided prank or stunt? Well, here’s the full story from the August 14, 1945, Commercial Appeal, headlined “P.O.W. TAKES STROLL ON MAIN, WEARING SWASTIKA AND WINGS”:

“The Memphis sightseeing tour of a German paratrooper ended with his return to the Crawfordsville, Arkansas, P.O.W. camp yesterday. Sgt. Heintz Heimann, who told Shore Patrolmen he was attracted to Memphis by his view of its skyline from West Memphis, was arrested by patrolman W.M. Williamson after he strolled leisurely down Main Street.

“The paratrooper was dressed in his green fatigue uniform without P.O.W. markings on it. He still wore his wings emblazoned with a German eagle and swastika. The German soldier said he walked away from the cotton compress at West Memphis where he had been working. He served with Field Marshall Rommel’s forces in North Africa.

“He attempted to buy some beer, but was unsuccessful as he had no money, only tokens issued to prisoners, he said. He spoke fluent English. He told members of the Shore Patrol ‘he just wanted to see Memphis.’ He explained he did not remove his insignia for fear of being shot as a spy when caught. Shore Patrol officials said the German told them he did not want to escape, as he was satisfied at the P.O.W. camp. He said he merely wanted to see the city.

“The German’s home is a city on the Rhine with a population of about one-quarter million. Members of the Patrol, however, were unable to interpret the town’s name.”

Well. This odd tale certainly raises a lot of questions.

First of all, you have to wonder what kind of security they had at that West Memphis cotton plant, where prisoners-of-war could just walk away when they felt like it. And here’s something else that puzzles me: In 1945, could you really see our city’s skyline from West Memphis? And even if he could see the buildings, that was one heckuva walk, first trudging all the way to the river, then making his way across either the Harahan or Frisco Bridges (the only ones standing at the time), then wandering along block after block to get to Main Street — all in all, about a six-mile journey. And good grief, what was the reaction of the downtown saloon owner or storekeeper when this Sgt. Heimann strolled in and tried to buy beer with P.O.W. tokens? Is that what led — finally! — to someone notifying the authorities? And why was the Shore Patrol unable to “interpret” the name of the man’s native city? What’s to interpret? He was giving them the German name.

Now keep in mind that the German forces had surrendered on May 7, 1945, so by August the war in Europe was essentially over. Maybe — just maybe — that’s why people here weren’t unduly concerned. And just two days after “our” German’s visit, the Japanese surrendered — on August 15, 1945 — finally bringing an end to the global horror that was World War II.

It would be interesting to know what happened to Sgt. Heintz Heimann. It’s definitely a strange story from our city’s past. Many thanks, Mr. Lanier, for sharing it.

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