STORY OF INTERNMENT, EXCHANGE AND ALLEGIANCE
Wes Wesselhoeft’s life is a testament to the resilience of the American spirit. His parents taught him pride in his country, and even when separated from American soil, he found his way back home and dedicated his life to protecting the place he holds dear.
ARTICLE BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE and PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
VIETNAM VETERAN Adolf “Wes” Wesselhoeft’s story began in America, though circumstances beyond his control provided Wes an intimate view of his country and the world. Born in 1936 Chicago to German immigrants, Adolf Wesselhoeft and Anna Charlotta Radtke, Wes was defined by his typical American neighborhood. An only child, Wes explored his surroundings on tricycles and bicycles and stayed closely acquainted with the other residents in the apartment building his parents managed. His father Adolf was originally a seaman from Hamburg, Germany. Curious about life in America, Adolf boarded one of the merchant ships for the States, originally landing in the Gulf region before making his way to New York. Adolf had heard many Germans settling in the Chicago area, and to make a home in this unfamiliar place, he gravitated to The Windy City in search of familiar faces. There Adolf met Anna Charlotta, originally from the area of Pommern, Germany along the Baltic Sea. She had come to America after her family was awarded visas. Along with managing the apartment building on Kenmore Avenue, Adolf served as a nightwatchman for the fancy jewelry shops in town. Wes doesn’t remember how much his father slept, but considering his daytime and nighttime commitments, it couldn’t have been much. Wes fondly remembers the neighborhood near the beach. He describes his childhood before first grade as pleasant and safe. He realized the promise of American life early and couldn’t fathom the imminent complications because of his parents’ heritage and immigration status.
Wes began first grade in Chicago. He remembers walking to school, never fearing for his safety as the residents looked after one another, the village mentality in action. Fascinated by airplanes, Wes even drew one next to his name in the school yearbook. He stood every morning in school and recited the Pledge of Allegiance with his class. In the afternoons, he frequented the corner drug store. Fond memories of Christmas displays in department stores resonate with Wes, along with zoo trips and train rides in the park. The family bought groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly, and Wes idolized Popeye the Sailor Man, no doubt a nod to his father’s nautical history. His mom Anna loved dancing and American music. She would often copy lyrics to American songs in a notebook, perhaps a means of practicing the language. She kept a map of America on the wall and made sure Wes knew all the states in the union. Wes’s parents never spoke their native German tongue in the home; they had become Americans and were raising an American son. Committed to manifesting the American dream, Wes and his parents dove into Americanized activities, hosting birthday celebrations and holiday festivities. Though it was the Depression era, Wes remembers life being full of happy times, a simple yet fulfilling existence.
That winter, when Wes was only six years old, his father was suddenly absent. Wes found out much later that his father had been interned at a prisoner of war camp in Wisconsin where he leveled forest for meager wages. That spring when his father returned, he brought huge packing trunks and insisted Wes and Anna pack what they wanted to keep. A few weeks prior during Adolf’s absence some very official looking men ransacked the Wesselhoeft’s apartment. They dumped the contents of the drawers on the floor and searched through the closets. Anna was disturbed by the incident. Wes doesn’t really know how much his mother knew, but he could sense she was troubled during that time. After his return, his father stayed down the street in a beautiful house that to an outsider looked ideal and welcoming, but where the Germans were forced to remain away from their families. Later, along with armed guards, Adolf, Anna, and Wes were rounded up at night, put on a train with other German immigrants headed for Crystal City, Texas, 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. As the train traversed the track, Wes remembers the scenery started looking scarce, and the armed guards watched the German immigrants’ every move. Wes wasn’t afraid of men with guns because his father carried one as a night patroler. In his innocence, Wes thought the guards were there to protect them but did not know from what. He didn’t even know America was at war. He sensed these men and this situation was different. It was daylight when the train finally stopped in Crystal City.
Surrounded by an 8-foot barbed wire fence, the compound was littered with guard towers and more men with guns. Forced off the train, the travelers were loaded on flatbed trucks. Bungalows populated the area, and Wes and Anna stayed with another family while Adolf went in search of lodging for the family. Their new residence, like all the others, was only about 200 total square feet and had two beds, a wardrobe, an icebox, a table, and a couple of chairs. A bottle of milk was delivered every morning. The Wesselhoefts remained on the compound for a year, and Adolf worked alongside the volunteer fire department. Being from Chicago, Wes was unaccustomed to the scorpions, snakes, and large spiders in South Texas. Every month or so, Wes remembers his father moving out all the furniture and water-blasting the residence to rid the living space of critters. After the compound filled up with Germans, the Japanese began to arrive. They were segregated in the encampment with the Germans having their own school separate from the Japanese school. Teachers were interned residents, and Wes, who finished the first grade in Chicago, was forced to repeat the grade again for the purpose of learning German. From March of 1943 to February of 1944, this compound was home to the Wesselhoefts, until again under the cover of night, the armed guards came to remove them.
Of the 800 or so Germans on site, more than half were rounded up with the Wesselhoefts, put on another train and eventually loaded onto a neutral Swedish ship headed for Lisbon, Portugal. Wes figured out his transport had to do with the war as he watched the destroyers circling the ship on the journey. Though it has never been confirmed in his studies of his experience, Wes believes he and the other Germans were traded for wounded American soldiers. The refugees immediately purchased warm clothes in preparation for German winters that were unnecessary in South Texas. After a few days in Portugal, the Wesselhoefts were put back on a train and deposited into North Germany, a town called Saarbrucken. Adolf’s parents, Wes’ grandparents, lived on a farm in a Hamburg suburb, a retirement community of seafaring people. The area was covered in orchards with blossoming cherry, plum, pear, and apple trees. Wes grandparent’s home was only built for one couple, so it was tight living quarters during the war. The Germans did not recognize Wes’ completion of first grade on the compound and he was required to start over in Germany, making this his third time to attend first grade. The local store shelves were empty, as Hitler confiscated everything for the war effort. The Wesselhoefts bartered their fruit and beans from the garden. Though bartering was technically illegal, everyone was forced to break the law to survive. Wes would take the beans to the local bike shop for canning; then the goods were traded for other necessities.
Hamburg was consistently bombed on frequent raids throughout the war years. Wes heard planes flying overhead and witnessed men ejected from planes. In the daytime, the Americans bombers came, and at night, the planes were British. The constant bombardment of nearby Hamburg was just the way it was for the people in the suburbs. Wes would collect the chaff from American planes; he learned how to be resourceful with what he found. The Wesselhoefts stayed on the outskirts of Hamburg until 1950, then relocated to Konstanz, a Swiss border town on the Rhine River untouched by the bombing raids. The German school system diverges when kids reach age 12. Exceptionally gifted students move onto Gymnasium, a curriculum dedicated to future doctors and lawyers and various other professions for the most intellectual learners. Wes remembers one other boy from his grammar school testing into Gymnasium with him. Wes chose to study modern languages and the sciences and was sent to the corresponding school. While Wes resided in Germany, he was still an American citizen, and the care packages that arrived from the States kept that reality at the forefront of his mind. The American Consulate told Wes when he finished school that as an American citizen, he could return to the States. So even with his elite education, Wes took a job digging ditches and carrying bricks to make quick money for passage back to America.
Wes landed in New York in 1958 with a small suitcase, his guitar, and $20. He stayed in a New York City hotel and was left with only $10. The room had one American radio, and Wes’s eyes lit up at the sight. Back in Germany, radio access was regulated, and Wes had mastered connecting and disconnecting his radio to listen to Elvis Presley, a comfort in the post-war years. The next day Wes walked into the military recruiting station in Times Square. His fascination with planes had Wes’ heart set on joining the Air Force, but he was told the USAF wasn’t currently hiring. He filled out paperwork to join the Army and was sent to another station to deliver the papers. After a confusing subway ride, and a lucky exit on the right street, Wes arrived at the new recruiting station, jumped in the Air Force line and quickly signed on for four years, crumbling the prior Army papers. He wanted to become a pilot and he wanted to go to Florida. He thought the service was his best chance to do both.
Ironically, Wes was sent to San Antonio for basic training, only a hundred miles from Crystal City. He was then transferred to Kodak photography school in Denver. He wasn’t yet a pilot, but he was developing the pictures the pilots took in flight. Wes was then stationed in Japan working as a reconnaissance specialist at Yokota Air Force base. He developed pictures and made maps of China from the mission photographs. He joined the Flying Club in Japan and trained on Cessna airplanes, models 120 and 140. After two years, Wes still insisted he wanted to become a pilot, but was told the Air Force needed navigators. It seemed a step in the right direction and so Wes headed back to Texas, this time landing at Harlingen Air Force base. In Japan, Wes purchased a motorcycle and spent his leisure time soaking up the Japanese culture. It wasn’t completely foreign to him, having spent time with the Japanese back in Crystal City. At Harlingen, Wes was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. He applied again for pilot training but was told they needed people to work in electronic warfare. He was sent to Sacramento, California for training and finished as a distinguished graduate.
Wes hadn’t given up on pilot school or Florida, but in 1963, he was back to San Antonio for navigation and electronic warfare work. He flew all over the world for nuclear maintenance. In 1968, Wes was sent to Vietnam. His exposure to Agent Orange, used by the Americans to clear the dense vegetation in the area, resulted in three bouts with cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and more recently bladder cancer. He lost his vision completely in his right eye and is legally blind. For the past fifteen years, Wes has had the benefit of a seeing-eye dog. Blazer was his companion for seven years, and he now relies on Nealy, both black Labradors, and the breed suitable for Wes’s personality. The Agent Orange caused his spinal pressure to be four times the normal rate, and Wes has a control valve embedded in his skull. In 1969, Wes enrolled at the University of Missouri and completed a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in two years, graduating cum laude. He transferred to Wurtsmith Air Force base in Michigan and handled electronic warfare for B-52 bombers. During the Cold War, Wes and his fellow comrades helped keep the Russians in line, living in alert quarters, always near an airplane. In 1972, he was sent back to Vietnam for six months as a member of the 8th Air Force, the same unit that had bombed Hamburg years ago when he was a boy. Wes retired from the military in 1980, and after the required one year off, immediately enrolled for civil service as an engineer, a position he held until 1991. He worked for the Department of Energy in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
His position as an engineer meant constantly moving up and down the Gulf Coast. He reconnected with his now-wife Shirley in 2002. The two had met previously at Harlingen Air Force base when they were both married to other people. Shirley and her then husband had given Wes a ride to church, and the two couples stayed in contact over the years. Shirley and her husband were stationed in Yokota, Japan after Wes had moved on. She found his name in a Yokota church directory and reached out to the Wesselhoefts. Wes was divorced by then, and Shirley was also single. Wes began calling Shirley regularly, and the more frequent phone calls turned into visits. Shirley and Wes married soon after.
In 2018, to mark the 75th anniversary of Wes’ internment at Crystal City, the couple set off to retrace his steps from decades before. They began with a Memorial Day celebration in Washington DC, then traveled to New York. They walked along Whitehall Street where Wes first enlisted in the Air Force, visited Governor’s Island, where his ship docked, and took a bus through Times Square. They visited the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio and wound their way toward Chicago. They walked along Kenmore Avenue where his parents managed the apartment building and where Wes biked as a child. They walked along the beach where Wes played and visited the house where his father was detained on Ellis Avenue. In May of 2019, the couple flew into Hamburg. They visited his grandparent’s old home and happened upon an apple festival, a nod to the orchards that nourished Wes as a child during the war. Within a few days of their return to the States, the Wesselhoefts were informed that Congressman Ralph Abraham would be telling Wes’s story on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. They had met the Congressman at a Chennault Museum event and shared Wes’s story. Wes and Shirley were seated on the House floor and listened intently to Dr. Abraham’s oration. The moving words and acknowledgment by Congressman Abraham in such a sacred space is one of tremendous pride and appreciation for the Wesselhoefts.
Wes Wesselhoeft’s life is a testament to the resilience of the American spirit. His parents taught him pride in his country, and even when separated from American soil, he found his way back home and dedicated his life to protecting the place he holds dear. The Wesselhoefts can be found most Saturday mornings at the Ruston Farmers Market where they sell the book Shirley wrote with Wes about his life. The book is called Wesselhoeft: Traded to the Enemy and provides more detail than this article will allow. Since his retirement, Wes has served as Grand Marshall of the Veteran’s Day Parade in Ruston. He was recognized by the 8th Air Force Command for his unique contributions to the unit. He attended a reunion of the 8th Air Force and met many of the men who flew over Hamburg years ago. In his 70s, Wes participated in tandem bicycle racing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He was sponsored by the US Association of Blind Athletes, a division of the Olympic Committee. Wes has been featured at several speaking engagements, and he looks forward to continuing to tell his story. Veterans are the heartbeat of America, and sharing their stories reminds us all of the sacrifices made daily for our freedom.
For readers interested in purchasing Wesselhoeft: Traded to the Enemy or to book Wes for speaking engagements, Wes and Shirley can be contacted via the following:
Book Title: Wesselhoeft: Traded to the Enemy
Facebook: Wesselhoeft Traded to the Enemy