Jean Clarke met Dennis Whiles at an YMCA dance in 1964. She was a divorcée with two children; he was in his mid-forties and had never been married. Dennis was intelligent, athletic, a ski instructor and a tennis pro, whose friends included actors Lloyd Bridges and Robert Stack. He’d served in the war, but never told anyone – it was a secret he kept absolutely to himself. Within a year or two they married and lived happily together, for the most part. He wouldn’t talk about his distant past, which bothered Jean, but Dennis loved her and her kids, whom he had adopted, so she let it slide.
Nearly twenty years later, in 1984, Jean really wanted to travel abroad but Dennis steadfastly refused. He also refused to explain why. Suspecting it had something to do with his past, Jean desperately tried to get him to tell her what it was, but Dennis would not relent. Perhaps deciding a marriage without trust was not worth continuing, she packed her bags and called a cab. Realizing that she wasn’t bluffing and that he was about to lose what mattered most to him, Dennis agreed to tell her everything.
He couldn’t leave the country because he had no birth certificate and couldn’t get a passport. Dennis Whiles wasn’t his real name, although he had successfully obtained a social security number under that alias. Jean had to have been astonished when he told her the full story.
His real name was Georg Gärtner, although the spelling was often anglicized to Gaertner – such as on FBI wanted posters. He was born December 18, 1920, in Schweidnitz, Prussia, then part of Germany (and the hometown of Baron von Richthofen, but now renamed Świdnica, in Poland). He had been a champion skier and tennis player in his youth. In school, English was a subject he excelled in but never mastered until he came to America.
In 1940 Georg enlisted in the German Army, and was assigned to teach troops to ski in preparation for winter combat. Being a smart young man, he knew he’d eventually be sent to the Eastern Front, especially because of his cross-country skiing abilities. The war against the Soviets was brutal and by late 1942 it was clear the tide was turning against the Germans. Casualties were high, and more men were needed at the front. So Georg did the rational thing and volunteered for the Afrika Korps, which had a reputation of invincibility.
Arriving in the Spring of 1943, Georg was shocked to learn Germany was losing on that front as well. From the time he arrived, the Afrika Korps was constantly in retreat and fighting for its life. By May, they were cornered in Tunis and when it fell he and thousands of others were captured by the British Army. Turned over to American troops, he was put aboard a ship and sent to a Prisoner Of War camp in the United States.
In the US, Georg was fingerprinted, photographed, and issued a prisoner’s uniform. He was moved a few times until he wound up at the POW camp outside of Deming in southwest New Mexico, a few tens of miles north of the Mexican border. Life in an POW camp in America was pretty good for German prisoners. They were well-fed, had access to books, educational courses, sports and athletics. Georg’s only concern was to avoid the fanatical Nazis among the prisoners. He had no desire to escape, as some did.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the food the POWs received began to decline in quantity and quality. News of the Nazi concentration camps and atrocities committed by them was out, and American guards began to treat the German prisoners poorly. The revelations came as a surprise to most of the prisoners, but that only made the Americans angrier with them. Still, Georg had no intention of escaping.
Within months, the POWs were informed that they would eventually by repatriated to their home towns. Georg was desperate to avoid going home to Schweidnitz, which was in the Soviet zone of occupation: as a Wehrmacht veteran, he would be treated very, very badly by the Russians. He made a plan to escape, brilliant in its simplicity. A railroad lay close to the camp. All Georg had to do was observe the time the freight trains went by. Once he knew their schedule, he waited for movie night when the other prisoners would be occupied. On September 22, 1945, he crawled under two gates when the guards weren’t looking, and hopped aboard a slow moving train like a hobo. He could keep a secret: none of the other prisoners knew that he’d escaped or how he got away.
The train took him west to California. When the US Army discovered he was missing, they assumed he’d be found nearby within 24 hours, as nearly every other escapee had been. When that plan didn’t pan out, the Army contacted the FBI. The FBI had more important things to do and told the Army that Georg was their problem – they didn’t take the case until 1947, when they issued the first wanted poster for Georg Gaertner.
Meanwhile, Georg easily found work in California as a migrant farm laborer picking produce. All throughout the war years there had been a labor shortage in every industry and occupation, so he was hired no questions asked. He still had an accent, so passed himself off as a scandanavian immigrant named Peter Petersen. Among the other migrant laborers was a family by the name of Whiles he was friendly with, whose surname he later adopted as his own.
Georg went on to other jobs; dishwasher, lumberjack, construction worker (before the war he had wanted to become an architect). At some point he was a salesman. All the while, he worked to eliminate his accent and learned to sound, look, and act like an American. He picked up American mannerisms and behaviors. By the time the FBI printed his wanted posters, he was unrecognizable as Georg Gaertner. He had become Dennis Whiles.
Dennis had established himself as a ski instructor and a respected member of the local ski patrol when in January 1952 the passenger train City of San Francisco became trapped by an avalanche in the Sierra Nevada mountains, approximately twenty miles west of the infamous Donner Pass. He and his ski patrol team were the first to reach the train. Life magazine took a photograph of Dennis and the ski team, which was published nationally. No one recognized Georg, even though his picture was in every post office and he was on the FBI’s most wanted list.
Once Jean had heard all of Dennis’/Georg’s story, she hired an attorney to represent him and contacted Arnold Krammer, professor of history, author, and expert on German POWs in America. Krammer had written Nazi Prisoners of War in America (New York: Stein & Day, 1979) which mentioned that Georg was the last escaped POW in America who was still unaccounted for. Jean wanted Krammer to help her husband tell his story. Together, they co-wrote Hitler’s Last Soldier in America (New York: Stein & Day, 1985).
With his lawyer and his wife by his side, Georg turned himself in on September 11, 1985, forty years after his escape. The government chose not to press charges or deport him, as they couldn’t really determine what laws he had broken. He hadn’t entered the country illegally. The war was over when he escaped, so technically he was no longer considered a POW at that time. The FBI had even stopped looking for him in 1963 (when his name came off the wanted list, he may have finally felt comfortable enough to settle down and get married a couple of years after). His publisher, however, knew how to handle the situation. Stein & Day arranged to have Georg formally surrender to Bryant Gumble on the Today Show, just as the new book hit bookstore shelves.
A German filmmaker produced a documentary in 1986, entitled Ich, Georg Gärtner.
After years of beaucratic delays, Georg was finally granted US citizenship in a naturalization ceremony in November 2009.
Georg passed away on January 30, 2013, age 92, and was laid to rest in Longmont, Colorado, where he had been a resident for many years.
Question of the night: What would you become if you could start over and remake yourself?