Getting Home as a Stowaway

Benjamin B. Ferencz

When I returned to the War Crimes Section from Alt Aussee, I found that Colonel Joseph, who had handed me my Sergeant stripes, had been shipped home. I reported to his replacement, a new Lt. Col. He seemed a nice enough fellow until he informed me that, as his last act, Col. Joseph had left strict orders to have me busted back to Private. I guess that my old Colonel never forgave me for having dropped my new Sgt. stripes into his waste paper basket. “On what grounds, Sir?” I inquired. “You’ll be charged with being AWOL.” “Sir,” I replied. “I admit that I have been Absent Without Leave many times, but during the week in question, I was on assignment in the field and then I had to take care of my vehicle, my laundry, and other approved responsibilities. And I can prove it.” “Very well,” said the new Lt. Col. “I guess I’ll have to make it an Administrative Reduction.” I noted that he couldn’t do that without a hearing before a Board of Officers. He was very accommodating. He summoned two Majors sitting in the next room, informed them that I was being reduced to Private and asked if they agreed. In the army you don’t disagree with an officer of higher rank.

The wrath of Ferencz was upon him. “That may pass for an Administrative Hearing here,” I said, “but it will never stand up on appeal. I will show that this war crimes section is staffed by officers who are totally incompetent to do the duties required of them. I was given a free hand to investigate war crimes and the officers simply put their names to my reports. I don’t care about rank but I am prepared to fight for truth and justice.” The Lt. Col. looked disturbed. Slowly, he put the papers back in his desk drawer and said he would look into it.

Then a very strange thing happened. The finger of Fate that had repeatedly been pointed in my direction started to act again. It reminded me of the days when the draft board held my file until I finished law school, and again when I was ordered to wait on the British shore while my artillery outfit was landing in Normandy. Now I received a personal letter addressed to Sergeant Ferencz, and signed by General Betts, the Commanding Officer in charge of all war crimes matters. He said he knew of my work and would arrange for my transfer to higher HQ if I wished. Army regulations prescribe that all official communications must go through channels in the chain of command. Being a very law abiding soldier, I promptly arranged to have the missive placed in the mailbox of the new Lt. Col.

I was soon summoned to appear before the Lt. Col. He handed the letter to me. I opened it casually and read it quietly. “Well,” he asked,” “what are you going to do?” I answered his question with a question. “What about that Administrative Reduction?” “Oh, that,” he said, “forget it!” He took the papers from his drawer and tore them up. “Well, Sir,” I said, “the truth is that I am no more eager to do higher HQ’s work than I am to do yours. It is now December: the war ended half a year ago. I have earned enough combat points to be discharged. All I want now is a few days leave and I want to go home.” He thought for a while then replied, “Put in for your leave.” I refused the offer to be made a commissioned officer. (My pal, Corporal Nowitz, accepted a similar offer, and two years passed before he got out as a Captain. We remained friends nevertheless.) Before my leave papers could come through, I was transferred to a staging area near Paris where soldiers were being assembled for shipment home.

There was no telling how long it would take to deactivate millions of soldiers. Crowded tents were loaded with impatient GIs lying around in a massive field outside of Paris waiting and waiting. The only recreation was to listen to loudspeakers blaring Bing Crosby singing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays!” It was a real provocation. The final blow to my morale came when it was announced that officers who had not taken their leave would be paid for it. Enlisted men would get nothing. “T.S.” was the abbreviation for the unmentionable army expression confirming that it was a Tough Situation. I remembered my constitutional right to fight for equality and the pursuit of happiness—I decided to take my leave and then go home.

I devised a foolproof plan. Acting on the implied authority of my Lt. Col., who told me to put in for my leave, and with the help of my personal official stamp, I presented the required document. I figured that if I should be accused of being AWOL, I could show that all of my absent time was covered by official orders. Being a cautious person, I had a fallback position. Officers who would have to testify against me would be discouraged by my making plain to them that their own departures might be indefinitely delayed. I was confident that justice would prevail, even if the army might take a different view. What could go wrong? I soon found out!

My vacation in Switzerland was great. Having filled my enormous raincoat pockets with bags of U.S. army sugar that was thoughtfully placed on our mess tables for use by the GIs, I was able to barter the scarce commodity for Swiss francs. I was 25 years old and had never visited Europe outside of my army experience that, as far as I could tell, was never intended to be a tourist vacation. I hitchhiked around Switzerland, slept in the overhead luggage rack of a train heading for Italy with a gang of smugglers, sent picture postcards home, and generally did things designed to help me forget the war before I returned to what I hoped would be a happier life. After 10 days, I headed back to the camp outside of Paris to await my transfer home. When I got there, I discovered only warm coals in the stove of what had been my tent. The unit to which I had been attached for demobilization was gone.

My army experience had taught me that under such circumstances, all unclaimed equipment would have to be turned in to the Quartermaster. I found the officer in charge and told him, with my usual truthfulness, that I had been on leave and my unit had left unexpectedly. “Is your name Ferencz?” he asked. With some hesitation, I replied “Yes, Sir.” “Some GIs who shipped out yesterday brought in a duffle bag filled with stuff and said you’d probably be back. It’s there in the corner.” I thanked him and asked if he could provide me with a jeep so that I could catch up with the missing unit. He said he couldn’t do that but he knew that the outfit was scheduled to sail out of Cherbourg on the Queen Mary. I grabbed my recovered bag and hit the road. As I was hitchhiking my way toward the French port I learned that the Queen Mary had sailed. That’s the army for you —they didn’t even wait for me! On further reflection, it occurred to me that it might not be such a good idea for me to proceed to Cherbourg. Someone might have left word to have me arrested on sight, since I happened to be AWOL.

Being a flexible person, and not wanting to inconvenience the officers in Cherbourg, I immediately shifted course and headed in another direction. The nearest port that I thought might be more accommodating was Antwerp, in Belgium. I hitchhiked there without too much trouble. Being a law abiding soldier, I promptly reported to the commanding officer. I explained, in my usual forthright and honest way, that I had been on leave in Switzerland when my unit departed unexpectedly and they had sailed off on the Queen Mary without me. Could he help me rejoin my outfit? “No problem,” said the officer, a man after my own heart, “just get on board.” So I mounted the gangplank of a battered Liberty Ship called the Fitzhugh Lee as it embarked for the good old U.S. of A.

The embarkation officer who had authorized me to board the Fitzhugh Lee even put my name on the passenger list. I therefore would not qualify as a genuine stowaway. Sneaking aboard an army troop transport would be illegal, and I certainly would not want to do anything unlawful. Since no one on the “Liberty Ship” knew my identity, the sea voyage back to America offered a rare opportunity for me to exercise the liberty I had been denied since I set foot in the American Army. I found a quiet and comfortable bunk near an unused stairwell and settled down to recover from my three years of travail in the service of my country. Every 20 minutes there was an announcement on the ship’s loudspeaker: “Sergeant Ferencz please report to the orderly room.” I didn’t feel any compelling need to respond. No one would doubt that my duties in the artillery impaired my hearing. But I am not a slacker, so I procured a broom that I could swing into action in case any officer came along to disturb my tranquility. If I saw anyone coming, I swept the floor furiously. Fortunately, that was not very frequent. Not wanting to wear out the paint, I settled down to study Leo Tolstoy’s famous tome War and Peace. I felt I owed it to my country and the world.

Others on board occupied themselves with such educational pursuits as playing craps and cards, or betting on which player would win. I learned in Hell’s Kitchen never to gamble. Yet, infected by my entrepreneurial spirit, I took some time out to earn some money to supplement the generous army pay that kept me impoverished. In my youth, I had taken up magic as a hobby. When I practiced my legerdemain on my mother, she was very impressed. Her invariable retort was, “You should make money with such tricks.” A boy should always listen to his mother. The time had come.

One of my sleight of hand feats was to shuffle a deck of cards and then tell the viewer to tell me when to stop. Looking only at the back of the deck, I would immediately identify which of the 52 cards it was. Being a professorial type, I offered to teach other soldiers how to do this trick if they would swear never to reveal the secret. I noted that the performer would then be able to bet with suckers that he could call the card. He could get rich. No previous experience was required. Even idiots could learn how to perform this miracle of magic. In fact, idiots were preferred. My charge, for revealing this priceless feat and giving the necessary instruction, was a modest $50 cash. I sold the trick to as many idiots as I could find. There was no shortage in the army. (If you want to know how this trick was done, please send a certified check to my home address.) By the time we approached New York, most of the soldiers on board were broke. A few were rich. I didn’t do too badly.

I knew we were approaching port when new uniforms were distributed to all. The old ones were piled up neatly and dumped overboard. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone caught a shark wearing a U.S. Army jacket.

The New York Times regularly reported the arrival of troop transports with the names of all soldiers on board. When the Queen Mary, on which I had originally been scheduled to sail, came into New York harbor, all members of my unit were listed—but no Benny. It was not unreasonable to fear that I was dead. Fortunately, a day earlier, my sweetie (to whom I have been married for over six decades so far) received my postcard saying that if she didn’t hear from me for 10 days not to worry since I was on leave in Switzerland. If she didn’t hear from me for 10 years, not to worry since it meant I was in jail. What was she to think through her tears of anguish, but the worst? But it seemed that Santa Claus was coming to town—a few days before Christmas 1945, the Fitzhugh Lee landed. I had sent a cable announcing my arrival. My mother, stepfather, and sweetheart were waiting to greet me in joyful reunion at the pier.

The men from my troop transport were assembled in Fort Dix, New Jersey. They were arranged in packets of 100 to be processed for their discharges. We were told that there would be no work on the Christmas holiday and that my packet would get out on December 26th. Reinforced by my faithful “official” stamp and pass book, I promptly took off for home. I didn’t want to bother the army with burdensome formalities. We had a very joyful reunion at home. December 26, the day after Christmas, I returned to Fort Dix to be released as promised. I learned that the packet to which I had been assigned had been discharged on Christmas Day. The army is sometimes not very reliable. I persuaded the authorities to process me as a “Packet of 1”—something previously unheard of. After checking my tonsils and other parts, I was declared physically fit to leave. There was one little problem. None of my personal files were on hand. They probably were waiting for me in Cherbourg.

I managed to explain to the army officers in charge that I was obviously an American soldier. They cross-examined me and I guess they concluded that it would be in the interest of the United States Army to get rid of me. The main discrepancy regarded my Good Conduct medal. They refused to believe the truth that I was the only one in my battalion who was stricken from the list. They insisted on showing it as an award. I received an Honorable Discharge as a Sergeant of Infantry. The certificate bore the disclaimer, “Soldier discharged on his own affidavit. No records available.” The paper listed the battles I participated in, from the beaches of Normandy, though the Maginot and Siegfried Lines, across the Rhine at the Remagen Bridge, and the final “Battle of the Bulge” at Bastogne. I was awarded five battle stars pinned on a ribbon. A letter signed by the President of the United States was part of the farewell package. The facsimile signature of Harry Truman assured me that “a grateful nation” appreciated my service to my country. I was glad that I had been able to do my share. I was never able to accept commands I knew were unreasonable or to allow my mind or spirit to be broken by blind obedience. The truth is that the three years I spent in the U.S. Army in World War Two was the most miserable experience of my life. Never again did I want to witness such horrors. My determination to try to prevent war became inexorably embedded in my psyche.