Sixty years ago, they were the children of the victors getting an education among the vanquished.
Currently taking place at a Mesa hotel is a unique reunion. It’s a gathering of American soldiers’ children, now elderly, who are sharing memories of learning in the ruins of post-World War II Germany.
These are the students of Frankfurt Post High School, one of more than 40 institutions the U.S. Army established during its German occupation. The idea was to give American children the most Americanlike education possible during their fathers’ duty away from home.
The Army brought in teachers from the United States, and the first classes were held in 1946. But a member of the Class of 1947 recalled that extracurricular activities were up to the students.
“You didn’t have anything to go on, so you started from scratch,” said Dave Klinger, 78, of Leavenworth, Wash., at the Windemere Hotel and Conference Center, where about 60 of the reunion-goers were attending the event that ends Sunday.
Added Sheila Burkhart Mounsey: “We started the sports teams, the cheerleaders, the newspaper — all the things we remembered from schools in the United States. It was exciting; we had no one to tell us no.”
So the students created American high schools, down to football games and proms. During the school week they lived in dormitories, and on Fridays they took a train back to their families’ homes throughout Germany.
But details from yearbooks and interviews with the former students show these teenagers were, still, strangers in a strange land.
Jim Skaggs, 74, a Mesa retiree, spoke of playing football at Nuremberg’s Soldiers Field, a former parade ground and the site of the Nazi Party’s infamous rallies. His 1952 prom was held at centuries-old Kronberg Castle in Frankfurt, an event detailed in Life magazine.
Dick Thornber, 78, of Kerrville, Texas, remembered that during his senior year a fellow German student revealed his war duty of being an anti-aircraft gunner.
Also, there were the delicate relations between the occupied nation and the children of the occupiers.
“There were rules,” Klinger said. “You don’t see it now, but we wore a coat and tie when we went out. We made sure that we didn’t cause any incidents.”
One source of tension was simply being a citizen of a nation that emerged from the greatest conflict in human history not only untouched but more prosperous than ever.
By contrast, the Germans were rich in little but bombed-out buildings.
The streetcar lines in the middle of the streets were cleared first among the ruins, Thornber said, forming a two-story-deep canyon of debris. But he also saw a steady stream of trucks taking rubble from downtown Frankfurt to a crushing plant outside of town. There, the rubble was turned into concrete blocks used to rebuild the city.
Still, to the victor go the spoils. Jo Helmers once took a Rhine River cruise on Hitler’s yacht.
“Where we lived, they acquired all the houses of the people affiliated with the Nazi Party,” Skaggs said. “The one we lived in belonged to a doctor, I think, and it was a beautiful six-, seven-room house with a lot of cherry trees.”
Also, there were abundant opportunities to travel through Europe.
“We saw places that we only saw in history books,” Burkhart Mounsey, 77, said.
The former students credit the experience with changing their lives.
Thornber and Burkhart Mounsey were high school sweethearts; by the time they saw each other at the 50th reunion, their spouses had died so they decided to become partners.
The experiences of Klinger, a retired Army colonel, came in handy when applying for college.
“I can remember telling the dean, ‘Well, I haven’t read too many books lately — but I’ve been doing what other people are reading about,’” Klinger recalled.