By Don KramerMay 8, 2009
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - An old Soldier last week delivered the thank-you speech he practiced for 64 years.
From spring 1940, when he was rounded up by Nazis and forced into Kamp Westerbork in the northeastern Dutch province of Drente, Mike Fried lived from day to day. For five years, weekly shuttles took Jews, gypsies and political prisoners from Holland to be exterminated at Eastern European death camps. He survived while more than 100,000 from Westerbork did not.
When the Nazis targeted Mike and his mother for deportation to Auschwitz, she begged a stranger to marry her to get her and her son off the death list.
"After the war, we'll split up," she told the man named Fried who agreed to the ultimate wedding of convenience. His last name resulted from that concentration-camp wedding and allowed him to continue his daily struggle to survive. As a married woman, the Nazis permitted his mother to stay. She began taking care of Kamp Westerbork's children and later in the states, she became a pediatric nurse.
On April 12, 1945, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, a tank flattened a section of fence near the gate and entered the camp. The armored vehicle and the Canadian forces behind it liberated Westerbork's prisoners, among them 12-year-old Mike, his mother Lonny, sister Gaby and stepfather.
The sight of Canadian soldiers riding through the camp, throwing gum and candy to the children, inspired him, Fried said. He began a 42-year career in 1955 as an Army linguist, one that took him from private to chief warrant officer 5 and the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
But from that day near the end of World War II, he never got the chance to thank a Canadian soldier for his liberation - until Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, the deputy commanding general of I Corps, arrived at 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade headquarters April 23 for a briefing on the MI brigade's preparations for deployment.
"Mike has been anxious to meet you," Col. Robert Whalen, commander of 201st BfSB, said to Tremblay. "He has a special relationship with Canadian Forces."
During his "two-minute spiel," Fried repeated a severely abridged version of the most painful episode of his life.
"Sir, I was born in 1934 in Germany," Fried began. "In 1939 my dad decided it was not safe for Jews to be in Germany any more. We got out, went to Holland because we wanted to go to Argentina. We were already rounded up by Nazi sympathizers and put in a camp but we were freed."
Choking back his emotions, Fried continued with Tremblay listening intently.
"My father went to Rotterdam (to pick up his family's passports) on the 10th of May, 1940, the day Hitler invaded Holland, bombed Rotterdam. Dad died in the bombing. Then it became a concentration camp. I spent till 12 April, 1945, at the camp. That's the day we were liberated by the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
"When I saw the tanks come through and they threw candy and chocolates at us, it was great," Fried said. "I think that's what inspired me to become a Soldier. Here I am, Sir, and I'd like to thank you and the Canadian Forces for liberating us."
His father's sacrifice, his mother's desperate request, his stepfather's generosity, his family's five-year demonstration of strength and faith, led directly to his life of service and a family that thrived in America, first in Buffalo, N.Y., later in Florida.
He served in interrogation units with the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airmobile divisions, at forts Meade, Bragg, Rucker and Bliss. He spent 29 years in Germany, debriefing Eastern Bloc defectors while assigned to the 66th MI Brigade in Munich immediately after the Cold War.
Typical of career military intelligence Soldiers, many of his accomplishments can never be shared. Enough remained, however, to earn his place in the MI Hall of Fame in 1997.
The director of the U.S. Army Intelligence School at the time, Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, called Fried "a genuine patriot, an American hero, a mentor, a soldier's soldier, a professional military intelligence officer, a loyal friend, a community volunteer, a dedicated husband and father."
Fried ironically met his wife at a souvenir shop in Amsterdam. He and Rita have been together ever since. Their daughter in Puyallup and son in Bonney Lake have given them three grandchildren. He traveled this week to Boca Raton to attend his mother's 98th birthday party.
Assigned to Fort Lewis twice in his career, he stayed upon his retirement in 1996 to volunteer with the 201st, the brigade to which he was assigned twice in his career.
"I came here back to the brigade. I was an assistant S-1 at the time," Fried said. "I asked the brigade commander if I could volunteer here. He took me in his arms and said, 'You've got it.' He gave me my old office back and I've been here ever since. This is something I love doing, I'm good at doing, serving Soldiers."
Whalen took the occasion to offer thanks of his own, to Fried for his service.
"Mike volunteers eight hours a day as our assistant adjutant and has done so longer than many of our Soldiers have been alive," the 201st BfSB commander said. "He's an expert in all things related to Fort Lewis, knows everybody. To have somebody like this, especially when we're developing into something completely new, it's continuity (like this) that makes all things possible. We're really fortunate that he's here and that he works as hard as he does. I can imagine it keeps one feeling young to be surrounded by people a third of your age. It's terrific that he's here, and even better that he's able to meet you (Brig. Gen. Tremblay) today."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.