Finding the Right Army
IT WAS 1944, during the second world war. As a German held prisoner by the Allies, my desire to escape grew until it became an obsession. Nothing else mattered. That is why 13 fellow prisoners and I leapt from a speeding train near the border of Spanish Morocco.
Amazingly, apart from severe bruising, we all survived. However, our freedom was short lived. Four days later we were captured by mounted Arabian desert police. But the desire for freedom still burned strong. It would take more than a bruised body, the humiliation of recapture, and harsh punishment to quench it.
Months passed, and we were prisoners in Casablanca. Another escape plan. This time we painstakingly dug a 65-foot (20 m) tunnel. It took three months of backbreaking toil, but finally the night for escape arrived. Again, we all made it!
There was another tantalizingly brief period of freedom, but we were captured a few days later. This time our punishment was isolation in a special prison with increased hard labor for one month. Afterward we were released to the regular prison camp.
I was only 19, and those experiences left a lasting impression. At the time I was sure I was in the right army, which made all the efforts seem worth while.
I was born in September 1925, near Bremen, northern Germany. My father was an expert soccer player, swimmer, and ice skater, so I grew up with a keen interest in sports. But I also loved reading. My parents went to church only at Christmas, to attend a funeral, or on some other special occasion. When I did go to church, I was surprised to see how many people slept through much of the pastor’s sermon.
As I grew older, I read adventure stories and was fascinated to learn about other countries. I remember reading a book about the Torres Strait—a large stretch of sea between Papua New Guinea and Australia. This distant, intriguing part of the earth fascinated me, and I had vague hopes that one day I might visit this remote area.
We had an encyclopedia, and in this I read about the world’s many religions and all their different gods. I wondered at times whether among all of these there was really a true God. Through the mail, Father regularly received a paper called Der Stürmer. I was intrigued by the unusual name Jehovah used frequently in its quotations from the Bible. Father explained that this was the name of the God of the Jews. I had read of many ancient gods, like Odin, Thor, and Frigga, as well as the Hindu gods Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma, but I had not come across the name Jehovah before.
First Taste of Army Life
Growing up under Nazi rule, I became a part of the Hitler Youth movement. By 1939 World War II had begun, and although I was only 14, I was trained for warfare. In time, air raids became a way of life. Once, I was suddenly awakened when a firebomb crashed through our roof, landing next to my bed. I extinguished it with sandbags and that way saved our house.
In 1943 I joined the paratroopers and was sent to France for training. After basic training I was sent to the front lines at Nettuno and Anzio in Italy. My leg was pierced by a bullet, and I was hospitalized for six weeks at Bologna. I returned to active service and not long afterward was taken prisoner near Siena, Italy.
It was while being taken by train to French Morocco that my 13 companions and I made our first escape bid. After recapture we were taken to a prisoner-of-war camp in the High Atlas mountains near the Sahara Desert. There I learned how to make bricks from clay and straw mixed with water. Later we were transferred to a Casablanca prison. It was from there that we made our second escape bid by digging the tunnel.
The French Foreign Legion
Although the war ended in 1945, we were kept as prisoners in Morocco. In 1947 we were taken to France, where I remained a prisoner until 1948. My first work after release was to cut timber in the Pyrenees. But then, in 1950, I joined the French Foreign Legion to fight against communism. First I was sent to Sidi-bel-Abbès in Algeria and later to Philippeville to be a paratrooper in the French army.
Next I was sent to fight in Indochina. There I was wounded in an ambush from which only two of us escaped alive. This time I was hospitalized in Hanoi for six weeks. After recovering, I was again sent back to fight in the jungle and the rice fields. Altogether, I notched 20 jumps as a paratrooper.
Eventually I became so sick with jaundice that the army medicos despaired of my life. I recovered but was pronounced unfit for active duty. Yet I could not get an honorable discharge. Fortunately, I was due for a lengthy furlough, so I requested a return to North Africa.
While there, I planned for another escape but this time alone. I realized that for about every 100 who escaped, 99 were caught again. So my planning was meticulous. I managed to get to Port Lyautey and board a German passenger liner. Once on the high seas and headed for Germany, I was safe.
Back in Germany, I was happily united with my family after being away for ten years. An old school friend arranged for me to join the German unit of the British army, making it the third army I had been in. I earned good money but was growing increasingly tired of army life.
A New Life in a New Land
The opportunity to migrate to Canada or Australia came my way. I chose Australia, and in June 1955 I arrived in Sydney, the capital city of New South Wales. I learned that employment was available on a large hydroelectric irrigation scheme in the Snowy Mountains, about 300 miles (480 km) southwest of Sydney. I knew this would be rugged work, but the pay was good, and I heard there were many Germans and other European migrants working on the project.
Since the war I had not thought much about religion. From what I had seen during the war, I was disillusioned with it. I had never heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but a workmate who said he was a Witness often spoke to me about a remedy for world conditions, and what he said made a lot of sense. However, soon afterward he returned to Sydney, and I lost contact with him.
About this time I met and married Christa. I told my wife about things the Witness had told me, and she, too, liked what she heard. So on a visit to Sydney, I contacted him again. Although he also was German, he could read and speak English fluently and gave us a book in English, From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained. As both Christa and I were still learning English, we could not understand all that the book said, though we understood a lot from the pictures.
When the Witness told us that the book was also available in German, one rainy weekend we hurried out to the Watch Tower Society’s Australia branch office at Strathfield. There we obtained the book in German, and I read it through in one night. We went back to attend a meeting at the Strathfield Kingdom Hall. Everybody was so friendly, and it seemed to us a true friendliness, not a made-up one. We left that meeting loaded down with a stack of Watchtower and Awake! magazines as well as some other books in the German language.
I Proceed With Caution
Although what we were learning sounded wonderful, I was cautious about committing myself in any way. This was partly because of my mother’s experience with organized religion. In 1936 she resigned from the Lutheran Church because she was disappointed with things she had heard and seen being practiced. Yet she did not lose her faith in God and would sometimes talk to me about it.
Then when I joined the army in 1943, we all had to go to church and listen to a priest give a talk. He assured us that if we were killed in battle, we would go to heaven immediately to be united with all the heroes of times past. Later, in the trenches and foxholes, I noted that many soldiers wore crosses for protection. My companion was wearing one when he was hit and killed right next to me. After recovering from horror, my first thought was: ‘What did the cross do for him?’
I was astonished when I saw English prisoners of war also wearing crosses. I thought: ‘If this is Christianity, then no Christian religion for me.’ Why, men professing to be Christians were on both sides—killing one another!
The next time I saw the priest, I asked him about this. He said that when a war is on, you must fight for your country, but when the war is over, all should go back to their own churches. This was enough for me! ‘There is something terribly wrong,’ I reasoned. I could now understand why Mother resigned from the church.
So I was understandably cautious. Yet I soon became convinced that the Bible’s message of truth was different. The hypocrisy of organized religion was not what the Bible taught. Now I could see why there was such confusion and turmoil on the earth. And I was delighted to learn at last who Jehovah is. He is the true God of all, not of the Jews only as my father had said.
Also, I learned where Christ Jesus fitted in. He is Jehovah’s dear Son, and Jehovah sent him to earth to show us what to do and to provide a ransom so that we can gain everlasting life. I found out that God’s Kingdom will make the earth a paradise and, what is more, that it will last forever.
The Right Army at Last!
We soon realized that to attend Christian meetings regularly, our weekend camping trips would have to stop, or at least be curtailed. Another problem I had was heavy smoking. For 16 years I had smoked 40 to 60 cigarettes a day, as well as an occasional cigar and a pipe. When it was pointed out to me that such defilement of the human body displeases God, I gave up the filthy habit in one day.
In February 1963 Christa and I symbolized by water baptism our dedication to Jehovah. Soon afterward we began the full-time ministry as pioneers, and in January 1965 we were appointed special pioneers. Now I was a soldier in Jehovah’s Christian “army.”
In 1967 we went to Papua New Guinea, serving first in Port Moresby and later at Poppendetta. We returned to Australia for a short time and then in 1970 went back to Papua New Guinea, where we served until September 1981. In one of our assignments, we helped build two Kingdom Halls and assisted many to learn Bible truths. We traveled by canoe to most places—using outboard motors. In three and a half years, 29 persons that we helped were baptized.
Both of us contracted cerebral malaria. I was unconscious for 48 hours and was not expected to live. Finally, in 1981, we decided to return to Australia, where we continued as special pioneers in Brisbane and later in Cairns, northern Queensland. Our present assignment is on Thursday Island, in the Torres Strait, just off the northernmost tip of mainland Australia. It is that faraway place I had read about when just a lad, not really believing that I would ever get there.
Looking back over our 23 years of pioneering, we have no regrets about enlisting in this “army.” Our hearts rejoice that we have been able to help about 60 people dedicate their lives to Jehovah God. We find much happiness in our full-time preaching service and always encourage others to take up this blessed work.
I constantly thank Jehovah that, after serving in three national armies, with plenty of disappointments and several near-deaths, I was able to enlist in his victorious army as a soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:3) Yes, I finally found the right army and pray that I may continue serving as a faithful warrior forever.—As told by Siegmar Soostmeyer.
[Blurb on page 12]
I was suddenly awakened when a firebomb crashed through our roof
[Blurb on page 13]
Men professing to be Christians were on both sides—killing one another!
[Picture on page 11]
When I served in the French Foreign Legion