CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. — On his first night in his assisted-living home, Gunter Buhrdorf ate dinner with another World War II soldier.
He was, for the second time in his life, a stranger in a new land. The assisted-living facility staff gave him the open seat at George Williams’s four-person table. They hoped the men, veterans only several years apart in age, would get along.
But Buhrdorf, now 90, was reluctant to share wartime stories with his new dining companion.
Yes, the men were both veterans. But they had fought on opposite sides.
Buhrdorf imagined it would be awkward to explain to Williams, who had been a bomb-dropping Allied pilot in Germany, that he had manned antiaircraft guns for the Nazis.
So he decided, at first, to say nothing.
Then one evening in spring 2013, several weeks after Buhrdorf’s arrival, a few of the men were sitting in the lobby at Commonwealth Assisted Living Facility at Christiansburg swapping stories, as they tended to do many evenings. Williams began reminiscing about the war and flying under heavy German flak fire.
Buhrdorf hesitated. Did he tell his new friends about his own role in the war fighting for Hitler’s army? Would they still treat him the same?
“I was a little bit nervous . . . maybe they don’t know this, and if I open up, then maybe they’ll change their tune,” Buhrdorf said, his German accent faded but still distinct.
But the veteran’s desire to tell his story overcame his trepidation. He spoke for almost 45 minutes, divulging details of his wartime experience.
He was only 14 years old when he joined the German army in 1939, he began. His father was a Republican in local government, and they hadn’t supported Adolf Hitler’s rise. Fighting for Germany was for love of country, not its leader, he said.
During the war, the Germans didn’t advertise what was happening to the Jewish people and others in the concentration camps. Buhrdorf remembers the moment, in August 1945 after the war ended, when he first read a newspaper account of the horror that had unfolded. “Why? Why do that?” he recalled thinking then of Hitler. “You turned the whole world against us.”
As a teenager, Buhrdorf manned 20 millimeter antiaircraft guns, but life still felt relatively calm until the United States arrived.
“When America got into the war, that’s when things changed. The bombings changed, the size of the attacking force was increased from 50 to 500,” Buhrdorf said.
Bremen, the northwestern town where his family lived, was leveled.
At 18, Buhrdorf was put in charge of a crew of foreign laborers tasked with building Hitler’s ambitious submarine fleet. They were prisoners, but they were also his men, and Buhrdorf said he saw to it that they were fed.
“Hitler wouldn’t have liked that,” he said. “That was not to be advertised during the war.”
He also knew that the men were privately organizing in their own native tongues to build the submarines poorly in an attempt to sabotage the German mission. There was little he could do about it.
When the raid alarms would sound, Buhrdorf said, they’d sometimes sleep in the torpedo tubes.
In April 1945, the British captured Bremen. Buhrdorf was at that point fighting with the infantry against Russian attacks.
He suffered one injury on his retreat back west: A three-inch-long piece of shrapnel, from a mortar shell, clipped him about two inches below his shoulder on his back when he was dodging enemy fire. It’s his only physical battle scar.
Buhrdorf was taken to a British internment camp on a small island off the coast of England. His clothes were covered with lice, and the food he was given consisted of watered-down cabbage soup. He found dandelions, sea gull eggs and frog legs to eat instead.
There wasn’t much left of Germany after the war, so Buhrdorf joined his brothers, who were already living in America. On his flight over in 1949, he sat in the back of the DC-6 airliner drinking Canadian Club whisky with a group of Norwegians. They dared him to ask a pretty girl sitting up front to dance with him. So he did, and they slow-waltzed on the plane to music playing over the speakers.
When they deplaned, photographers were waiting by the gate. He waved at them, thinking they were there to greet the foreign visitors. But his brother laughed at him. They were there to capture Hollywood starlet Gloria DeHaven, who was returning from a USO show overseas.
Dancing with the actress was his first introduction to America.
He was promised accelerated citizenship if he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Less than two years later, not yet a citizen, he was sent to Korea to fight on behalf of the country that less than a decade before he’d fought against.
“I came to America after seeing all the misery, all the ruins. It was such a calamity that there was absolutely no hope of being happy, as you might say,” he said. “There was nothing.”
In the years after the war, millions of Germans left the country, both forcibly and voluntarily. Tens of thousands of them, like Buhrdorf, came to America.
Thomas Childers, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written several books about World War II, said Germans were by and large welcomed warmly. Most Americans didn’t know much about the Holocaust yet, nor did many Germans, and Americans’ residual wartime vitriol was directed at the Japanese because of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some of the new immigrants, served in Korea, like Buhrdorf, to gain their U.S. citizenship.
Those who work with the elderly and veterans said they had never heard of two wartime enemies connecting as seniors living in the same facility.
“It’s inspiring to see that two men are able to put aside any past conflicts from their youth to bond and form a friendship that may not have occurred anywhere else,’’ said Greg Crist, senior vice president public affairs at the National Center for Assisted Living. “It is unique.”
As Buhrdorf told the men his story in 2013, Williams nodded empathetically. “You’ve seen a lot. You have experienced a lot,” he said to Buhrdorf.
When Buhrdorf finished, Williams extended his hand.
Buhrdorf took it.
“Let bygones be bygones,” Buhrdorf recalls saying.
It helped that Williams had quickly deduced that he had flown his American B-24 Liberator well above the range of Buhrdorf’s antiaircraft guns.
“Over there, the thing was, we were bombing from 25,000 feet, and what I was interested in was how high his artillery pieces would reach,” Williams, now 96, said. “And the ones he was shooting would go to 10,000 feet. He couldn’t reach me. As soon as I found out how high he could reach, I knew he wasn’t the one trying to hit us. But anything we dropped could have hit him.”
By October 1944, all-able bodied German soldiers were shifted to the infantry to fight, and Buhrdorf was stationed on the eastern front defending against Russian attacks. So it was unlikely — although not impossible — that he would have come under fire from Williams in those final, bloody battles.
Just before Christmas, Williams and Buhrdorf met in the home’s library one afternoon.
Williams came in with his girlfriend, whom he’d met in an elevator a few years ago. He scooted his wheelchair closer to Buhrdorf’s seat. “Come to me, my love,” Buhrdorf sang teasingly.
“Ok, that’s close enough,” he said as Williams tapped Buhrdorf affectionately on his inner arm.
If they had crossed paths during the war, “he would have lost,” Buhrdorf chided.
Williams missed the joke. He is deaf in one ear, likely the result of the explosions during the war, his doctors have told him. He flew 25 missions with a crew of 10 men, he said, and they all survived. When the war ended, he flew them home safely in the same plane they flew over in, which was rare. It’s a fact Williams repeats several times.
“I went in after he did, but the thing with me is I didn’t get a scratch,” Williams said. “And I got everything I wanted. I got to fly the plane I wanted, I got to become a pilot. Everything worked for me, and nothing seemed to work for him, because he was really banged up.”
Just outside the library and down a hallway, the assisted-living home features a “Wall of Valor,” adorned with photos of the veterans there in their wartime uniforms.
The black-and-white head shots of Williams and Buhrdorf hang beside each other.
“I had a wonderful life,” Buhrdorf said. “Now I sit here by the fireplace and exchange what could have happened.”