The best stories are the stories with heart.
May 7, 2014
Mel Stevens was a detective with the Fort Worth Police Department when I worked the Cop Shop for the Star-Telegram. He learned early in life that the heart of any good story is the heart that beats inside those who lived the story.
It was Friday the thirteenth.
The 220 soldiers crammed into the stalls of a stone German barn in Lindhelm had been listening to the low rumble now for more than an hour.
As the sun climbed across the eastern sky, the rumble became louder, growling like angry thunder.
The year was 1945.
Throughout the night, the soldiers – prisoners of war for seven months – had watched their Nazi guards whispering frantically just outside the main gate.
Their eyes were wide.
The chatter bordered on panic.
Someone overheard a wild rumor shouted in German haste: American tanks were on their way.
When daylight crept across the barnyard, only four guards remained to patrol the grounds. The others had vanished in the darkness.
No one inside the barn spoke.
Stevens was yellowed with jaundice and almost eight pounds underweight. His fight was just about over – not the battle with Germans – but the fight to survive.
One man lay dying.
He would never know that help was only a few miles away.
It was too late for anyone to tell him.
It was too late for him to ask.
Hollowed eyes searched the hills.
When the first tank lumbered across the rise in the forest, they would be free men.
Stevens saw Peter standing alone beside the gate.
Peter had stayed behind.
He had never wanted to be a soldier. He was a simple tailor in Coblenz, but his nation had drafted him to go to war, so he did, and he fought.
He and Peter were kindred spirits.
He had first met his gaurd in a snow-blanketed prison barn near Waren, Germany. The day before the prisoners had crouched in a small shelter and heard Russian guns bombard the town. Allied planes banking out of a low-hanging cloud had straffed the countryside.
It was a day the earth trembled.
That night, Stevens lay crumpled on the cold ground, watching Allied flares light up a ruined city. A Garman guard smiled briefly, and with a nasal voice, said softly, “Pardon.”
It was Peter.
Days later, as the prisoners were still being pushed forward in an attempt to outrun the Allied Army, a burly hausfrau bustled into the courtyard of a small German village yelling that someone had stolen her jar of jam.
Peter lined up the prisoners and hastily felt each man’s pack.
His report was quick and to the point. “All are empty,” he said.
That night, Peter whispered for Stevens to meet him behind the barn, and in the shadows, the slightly built guard handed him the jam and a half a loaf of bread.
“This is for you and your comrades,” he said.
Throughout the grueling 1,300-mile march, Peter kept stealing food and smuggling it to the starving American prisoners. It wasn’t much. It was enough.
“Many died to hunger,” Stevens told me. “But more would be dead if Peter had not been there.”
During one of the blackest of nights, the guard overheard Stevens and three companions plotting to escape from their Nazi captors. Peter did not report them. He told them, “It will be better if you have someone with you who can speak German. If you go, I will go.”
Now thirteen days after they had crossed the Elbe River, almost all of their guards had deserted them.
Stevens jammed his face against a small window to watch for the tanks.
He weighed barely a hundred pounds.
It seemed a long time since his glider plane had crash-landed in Holland. His capture, after crawling for days through muddy ditches, was only a veil of fog in his memory. But, in his mind, he could still see the stray shell rolling within four inches of his head and exploding, chipping off part of his right ear.
For seven months, Stevens had been only Number 160379 in Stalag 11-A. But when the nineteen tanks rumbled to a stop before the barn, he was Mel Stevens again.
With six other soldiers, he wrote a letter of recommendation and handed it to Peter, now a U. S. prisoner of war.
It read in part: “Peter’s conduct throughout the march was not only sympathetic, but on several occasions he went out of his way to help us. If he is ever taken by Allied authorities, consideration should be given the kindness he showed us. We do not regard him as a Nazi.”
When the four Germans were led away, three were marching with their hands held above their heads.
Only Peter was driven away in a jeep.
Before he departed, however, the German guard gave Stevens an antique pocket watch that had belonged to his grandfather.
“I want you to have it,” he told Stevens in broken English, “I am afraid it would be stolen from me. You will take care of it.”
In 1946, Mel Stevens re-enlisted and returned to Germany with the occupation troops. A year later, acting on a hunch, he drove to Coblenz and found a tailor working in a small shop.
Walking inside, Stevens said quietly, “Hello, Peter.”
The German turned and looked at him for a moment.
Then he smiled.
“I’ve come to return your watch,” Stevens said.