Saving My Enemy: How Two WWII Soldiers Fought Against Each Other and Later Forged a Friendship That Saved Their Lives by Bob Welch is a true "Band of Brothers" story. It tells a story not often told when one chronicles war--that of friendship and forgiveness.
Back in 2007 Bob Welch met and interviewed a WWII Band of Brothers hero, Don Malarkey, a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne's 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, E Company. Together Welch and Marlarky wrote the World War II memoir, Easy Company Soldier. During more than a dozen interviews that Welch conducted to get material for the book, Marlarkey mentioned befriending a German soldier after the war. Welch, more concerned with a looming deadline, didn't think much about it and went on to publish the book in 2008 without exploring the comment further.
Malarkey was an outstanding soldier. He served more consecutive time on the front lines--177 days--than any other member of Easy Company. He and the other members of the company gained notoriety when their unit was featured in Steven Ambrose's 1992 book The Band of Brothers and later in a Spielberg/Hanks-produced HBO series in 2001. Before Malarkey died at age ninety-six in 2017 he had been the oldest living member of Easy Company.
Several months after Malarkey's death his youngest daughter, Marianne McNally, contacted Welch to find out if he would like to write a second book about her father. This one about his friendship with a German soldier. This book is the result of that request. It is about "Don and Fritz's true-life adventure: the rare war story with a happy ending. All because a couple of former enemies who made the most of their own second chance" (Author's note).
Saving My Enemy is divided into five parts. The first is titled 'Youth' and compares the upbringing and lifestyle of Don Malarkey and Fritz Englebert. The first chapter, hilariously titled "Hitler Youth and Huckleberry Finn", sums up the differences. Fritz was only eight-years-old when Hitler came to power and he, along with most of his classmates, enthusiastically joined the Hitler Youth movement. By the time he was seventeen Fritz was completely indoctrinated by Hitler and wanted to join the SS but his father refused to sign the required papers. Instead he joined the German Army at age eighteen when he could do so without parental signatures. Don, on the other hand, grew up in Astoria, Oregon on the Columbia River where he hunted, fished, and made merry. He worked hard when it was required of him, but he was known for his high-jinx and 'Halloween tricks' as well. Don entered college in the fall of 1941, where ROTC training was required for all male students, and three months later USA entered the war. By the end of Christmas break that year Don knew he was going to war.
'War' is the title of the second part of Saving My Enemy. Both Fritz and Don were stationed in various locations around Europe but eventually both men ended up in Belgium, fighting on either side of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Each became very disturbed by the deaths they witnessed. Don was distressed by the death of a German he shot. As he went through the identification papers he discovered the person was only sixteen-years-old, just a child. Fritz discovered a dead and frozen American GI in the forest and was haunted by the look on the face of a dead Belgian teenage girl, a casualty of war.
By this point in the narrative I am thinking that this book doesn't seem too different than many WWII memoirs and novels I've read before. One big difference, however, was seeing war through the eyes of a German soldier. Fritz the gung-ho, Hitler-enthused soldier became less and less enamored as the war drug on and the cold winter of 1944 set in. The accelerant for the shift in his thinking occurred as he witnessed the death of so many of his fellow soldiers and the cowardice of some of his commanding officers. If the book had stopped when the war was over, I don't think I'd recommend you read it. But there were three more parts and a lot more story to tell.
Part III follows Don and Fritz 'Home' and recounts the lives they made for themselves after the war. Both men struggled to gain purchase and balance as they attempted to assimilate back into their previous lives. They both married and started families. Don drank to anesthetize his feelings which caused a host of additional problems including financial worries. Fritz worked and worked, routinely putting in over 55 hours per week at his job. Both men were haunted by their memories of the war, often waking from nightmares. Neither man was warm and loving toward his children--Fritz had two boys and Don had a son and three daughters. Though they were willing to hide their feelings in drink and work, neither Don nor Fritz ever sought out counseling for what we would now call their PTSD symptoms. Whereas Don felt pride in his military service, Fritz felt shame for his. He felt like "a fool; a lackey; an accomplice; an evildoer; an imbecile; a hired hand of the devil himself, the perfect example of Hitler's insistence that 'people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one'" (172). The more Fritz learned about Hitler the worse he felt about himself. He'd been duped by the biggest con artist who ever lived. He'd been an extension of Hitler's evil plans including the holocaust, though he didn't know about it until after he returned from his time as a POW. His shame grew and grew. Why hadn't he seen the truth in the late 1930s? "Your Hitler Youth leaders would not allow you to look up, to look beyond them and the Fuhrer", his father told him (183). Fritz's conscience felt deeply wounded.
The Band of Brothers book and the HBO series that followed helped Don start to make sense of his life. There were many reunions of the men in Easy Company and a modicum of fame. He also started to talk about his war experiences, especially with others who had experienced war first-hand. Slowly the ice began to crack for Fritz, too, as he started to read books which would have been banned under Hitler. He read books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Wolfang Borchert, men who were opposed to Hitler and wrote about their opposition. Don and Fritz could not shrug off their internal wounds but both started to take a few baby steps in the right direction. Books and fame couldn't do it. What both men needed was forgiveness. "And not just from anyone, but from the enemy" (241).
'Absolution' (Part IV) came from a round-about route. The end result was a group of Easy Company men coming to Germany on the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Bulge for a reunion of sorts. German soldiers would be invited to the reunion, too. After much deliberation and prodding from his sons, Matthias and Volker, Fritz decided he would attend the event. As it turned out, he was the only German soldier to attend that night. During the dinner one of the GIs sitting near Fritz started giving him a bad time. Instead of joining in, Don rose and gave Fritz a toast welcoming him to the Band of Brothers! From that moment on a bond was formed between these two men, men who were once enemies. The next day they stayed together as the group toured old battle sites and visited military cemeteries. In the evening, with the beer flowing, Fritz started opening up about his shame. "Fritz, you had no choice. You were forced into Hitler Youth. You were given a weapon and sent to war...It's not your fault, Fritz. Let it go. Nobody's holding that against you. You've done well. You're a good man. You've raised good sons" (272-3). The floodgate of tears which had been held back since 1945 let go and Fritz cried and cried. Later, as Don shared his shame and what haunted him about the war, Fritz was able to give Don the same absolution he'd received earlier. This time the tears belonged to Don.
Fritz and Don left behind an incredible 'Legacy' (Part V). The men only met together two more times after their initial and chance meeting in 2004 but their lives were changed forever. When they met again, family members joined the men and deep friendships were formed. Fritz died first in 2015. In 2017 Marianne, Don's daughter, invited Fritz's family to join them in Portland, Oregon for another Easy Company reunion. During the event this German family of Fritz Engelbert were welcomed into the Band of Brothers. Don, whose health was rapidly failing, joined in the festivities chatting happily with his German friends. He died five weeks later. A deep and abiding friendship developed between the two families of Don and Fritz. Later, during a Band of Brothers re-enactment event in Switzerland in 2018, the families were encouraged to write a book about their fathers. The Saving My Enemy project was born with both families contributing greatly so that there was fair and equal treatment of both men.
Bob Welch did an incredible job weaving together the story of these two men who fought and were damaged in the same war. Though I had previously read several books about Hitler Youth, I was struck anew by the similarity of the strategies used in Germany in the 1930s to what is happening today with Trump and his followers, and QAnon conspiracy theories..."Don't believe what you hear, believe me only. The media are bad. Don't listen to them. Burn books that don't say nice things about me. Turn against family members if they disagree with you/me." Welch didn't say these words. I was reading between the lines. But what I saw frightened me again with the thought of how easily millions of people can be duped by con artists the likes of Hitler and Trump.
At the end of the source notes Welch asks three very important questions which we should all ponder: What can war teach us about peace? Why do nations devote so much time, money, and energy preparing soldiers for war and so little to help them heal when they return from it? And when will we begin to respect the power of forgiveness?
Just as I was finishing the book and pondering those questions, my husband, also named Don, asked me to join him in the hot tub for a soak. I posed those three questions of him as I climbed into the hot water. Don, a veteran of the Iraq War, had a lot to say about the poor mental health services that soldiers receive after they return home, though they are better than what the WWII vets received. As a long time member of a National Guard Brigade, he had the instant support and camaraderie of the men and women he served with in Iraq beginning the first month they drilled together once they returned home, and each month after that. The soldiers in WWII came home from Europe or the Pacific, separated from their units and dispersed across the country. They didn't have a built-in support system awaiting them during the next unit training assembly. Don also talked about how his relationship with other combat vets changed beginning during his deployment and continuing after he returned home. My uncle Gordon, two old WWII vets in our church, a Vietnam veteran co-worker, and even his father, a Korean War vet, all suddenly had a lot to talk to Don about. He said that his war experiences bonded him to these men. I was most moved by his altered relationship with my Uncle Gordon, who was probably a lot like Don Malarkey, a kind man but one who had trouble coping with his demons from the time he served in the South Pacific during WWII. Drinking and gruffness covered up his feelings and anesthetized his pain. Then my Don came back from Iraq and Gordon had someone to talk to about the horrors of war and the heavy burden of carrying memories of those who did not get to come home. What a relief.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to read this book. It is so inspiring and vital. We've heard the war stories before. We know our failures to care for the mental health impacts of war. Here we learn about a way out. A way that will hopefully lead to less war and more peace in the future: Forgiveness.
For further reading on this and related topics, I recommend:
- Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose
- We Will Not Be Silent: the White Rose Student Resistance Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler by Russell Freedman.
- Hitler Youth: growing up in Hitler's shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. [A fascinating and disturbing look at the way Hitler brainwashed a generation of Germans.]
- Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels, America's First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone.
- Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.
- The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.
- The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler by John Hendix
Book Beginnings quote (pg. 1 of Prologue):
It was three days before Christmas 1944, though most soldiers were too weary to notice the approaching holiday. World War II in Europe, now in its sixth year, clanked relentlessly on with the resolve of a German Panzer, grinding through whatever got in its way: Soldiers. Civilians. Christmas. Whatever it took to feed the beast.
Friday56 quote (from page 56, Chapter 3, "Off to War"):
Fritz Jr. now had justification for the militaristic bent of the Hitler Youth: We are at war. Shouldn't we support our own country? After the invasion, Fritz was champing at the bit to serve Hitler and his country. At seventeen, the minimum age, he aspired to be part of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the Nazi Party's SS organization. But his father refused to give his consent.