Harvey Mudd College engineering professor Carl Baumgaertner remembers crawling in a foxhole with his buddies in 1945, hearing a German artillery shell land 50 feet away, and seeing one soldier get a nasty piece of shrapnel through the arm.
“I’m outta here,” he remembers the man saying. “See ya!”
After that, when he would hear another shell coming, Baumgaertner would extend an arm, a leg, or both out into the open, wondering whether it would help him and his companions find a way out of the war.
Baumgaertner has many such war stories to tell and was recently invited to talk about these experiences on public radio. Dick Gordon of American Public Media’s “The Story” chatted with Baumaertner, his son Jim, and his grandson John, all three of whom had pieces of the story to contribute.
Baumgaertner attended high school at Minnesota’s St. Thomas Academy, where he received ROTC training before fighting his way through France during World War II. Until 1995, he had shared few of those stories with his friends and family.
“People never talked about wartime experiences,” Baumgaertner said. “Once the war was over, you put that part of your life behind you.”
When Jim and John became interested in revisiting their family’s roots by retracing Baumgaertner’s steps in Europe, they started inquiring through email about Lieutenant Baumgaertner’s time serving in France and Germany. Soon, they had accumulated a series of question-and-answer messages that are now compiled in a memoir entitled Letters to Jim.
“You can’t help but think, ‘How would I feel in that situation?’ He was just a kid, and he was leading 187 men,” Jim Baumgaertner said on air when asked how it felt to finally hear his father answer his questions about the war.
After the family had discovered what life was like for Baumgaertner during the war, John contacted Gordon. Then, in early November, Baumgaertner appeared on “The Story” in a segment entitled “Crossing the Saar—Twice.”
The feature’s title refers to the Baumgaertner family’s cross-generational appearances at Germany’s Saar River. Carl crossed it with his men in 1945 as the lead company in the final push into Germany, and his son Jim later floated a lantern at the very same spot on the water to remember the men who served and died in the crossing.
Lieutenant Baumgaertner earned a Silver Star for his service but didn’t realize how momentous the honor was until after the war was over. The Silver Star is the third most prestigious military decoration given in the United States.
“I didn’t realize it was such a unique award,” he said. “I thought everybody was getting these tokens of appreciation. There’s no award ceremony—you’re in combat at the time. [It’s] just a piece of paper.”
A similar humility tempers all of Baumgaertner’s comments about his service, even regarding his radio appearance.
“I was totally unprepared, but Dick Gordon is a real pro and you don’t think he’s 300 miles across the country,” Baumgaertner said of his studio interview in Pasadena. “It was just like we were sitting around a coffee table having a conversation.”
Baumgaertner retold several anecdotes from the war, including the difficulty he had in choosing between five and seven men each night to run a patrol across the river to confuse the enemy, becoming “ducks in a barrel” to the armed Germans on the opposite bank. Whether or not the men survived the German machine gun fire, they were nearly guaranteed to be killed once on the other side.
“It bothered me that as company commander, I would not go,” Baumgaertner said on the broadcast.
Jim and John spoke about their visit to the Saar. They found it so meaningful, they were desperate to dig up some war artifact remaining in the German hillside. All they found was a sign warning against climbing the bank, but said the poignancy of the moment was no less remarkable for them.
As commander, Baumgaertner was the only survivor of his company of 107 men.
Baumgaertner’s stories are now offered online on the American Public Media website.
“This would not have happened without email,” said Jim, who thought such weighty questions about how it felt to fight in the war would have been too much to face in person, especially after so many years of silence.
Much like the fog that saved Baumgaertner’s life while crossing into Germany, keeping him from being picked off by waiting Germans, the former lieutenant considers his turn to speak on “The Story” to be a great stroke of luck.
“So many others did the same thing and didn’t get publication,” Baumgaertner said. “There’s a lot of truth there. That all happened, but not by any skill on my part. It’s very strange for me to listen to this and realize that I’m the author.”