As Closure Draws Near, Former Darmstadt Members Reminisce
January 18, 2008
DARMSTADT, Germany - Gustav Rupietta, a former German prisoner of war, is still fond of the Americans he encountered more than 60 years ago.
And for good reason, since he had been fighting against them months earlier. "They were nice, friendly people," he recalls, "and because of them, we first got something good to eat."
In April 1945, Rupietta was serving as a private in the Germany army when captured by U.S. forces. The 20 year old was taken to Belgium and then France, where he volunteered to work for the Allies. But as Charles DeGaulle assumed leadership of France, said Rupietta, every German national was ordered to leave, including POWs.
Rupietta clearly remembers leaving France in 1946 not knowing that his destination would be here in the state of Hessen. In fact, "We didn't know where we were going," he said.
All Rupietta and his fellow 164 prisoners knew was that they were headed to somewhere in Germany.
A young Army captain named Runkel promised the group if they did not try to escape, they would be freed shortly after returning to their country. By April 1946, Rupietta had reached Babenhausen, where he was freed and began working at the Ober-Ramstadt Ordnance Tire Rebuild Depot in Ober-Ramstadt.
Of the original group of POWs who arrived from France, 126 young men, primarily from eastern Germany, remained in Ober-Ramstadt to work at the depot, which was part of the Darmstadt U.S. military community.
"We were young and single, and there were at least 3 women for every man," he said, "and we didn't have anything else ... so we stayed."
Initially, the former POWs lived in Nieder-Ramstadt housing, but poor weather conditions made it difficult for the Army to arrange daily transportation. Eventually, the workers moved into shared lodging with the local population until they could find housing of their own.
They took meals at a facility on Friedhofstrasse, where they pooled their food ration stamps to support a local kitchen.
Rupietta's favorite memories are of the Schuetzenhof, a local hotel and restaurant, where he and other workers would meet with locals for entertaining evenings. "The place was always full then, and it is still in business today."
Rupietta met his wife there in 1946, as the two married in 1952 and settled in Ober-Ramstadt.
Rupietta retired from the engineering office at Darmstadt's Nathan Hale Depot in 1986, completing 40 years of service for the U.S. military in Europe.
Looking back, he believes he "absolutely" made the right decision to stay and work at the tire depot, saying: "I'm happy, it was a good job, it paid good money, and now I have a good pension," along with making lifelong friends, as he and the other living members of the original POW community still meet monthly in Ober-Ramstadt, reminiscing and sharing a meal.
Known as the "POW Kameraden Stammtisch," the group, led by Rupietta, last met Jan. 4, passing around old photo albums of their early days and from past reunions, including when they first gathered for the 25th anniversary of their arrival in Ober-Ramstadt.
During the January get-together, Julius Wagner recounted his experience as a POW, which differed from others of the group. Captured by American troops in Africa, he spent three years as a POW in the United States before being sent to Ober-Ramstadt.
In fact, he was recognized in 1955 for an idea that improved the production and repair of Army tires.
Both Wagner and Rupietta recall that more than seven million tires scheduled for rebuild were crammed into facilities throughout Ober-Ramstadt, Babenhausen, and Darmstadt. Over the years, the tire depot became a contract firm employed by the Army, with the number of employees shrinking as new machines reduced manpower requirements until the tire depot closed in 1995.
As the Darmstadt military community presses on with closure plans this year, the Kameraden Stammtisch, as part of the U.S. Army community in Europe for six decades, wishes to share an important lesson with those moving, said Rupietta.
"As long as the people live," he noted, "there will be some type of remembrance."
(Editor's note: This is the first of a series of articles being written by the U.S. Army Garrison Darmstadt public affairs office as the installation prepares to close this year after 62 years of existence.)