Thursday, June 18, 2009

Memories of Germany Inspired by Lili Marlene

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

A couple of weeks ago National Public Radio did a short segment on Lili Marlene, the most popular song of World War II, and it served to remind me of the few short weeks that I spent in Germany in the fall of 1971. I was there as a part of Operation Reforger III, the third in a series of annual military (NATO) field exercises that went on for many years. We left an airfield in Topeka, Kansas, in military cargo planes, flew to McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, for refueling (of the planes and the soldiers), and then over the Arctic Circle to Frankfurt, Germany.

Our military vehicles accompanied us on the cargo planes. Thousands of army jeeps and trucks were organized in immense staging areas prior to our convoy and war games across southern Germany. The convoy was actually organized at Grafenwoehr near the Czechoslovakian border - which at that time was a dangerous, communist country. Being that close to the actual Iron Curtain added an element of excitement to the whole venture - as if just being in Europe wasn't exciting enough to a twenty-three-year-old from the Ozarks! The installation at Grafenwoehr is still in operation - I know that because an Air Force civilian friend of mine just transferred there to work in the Army's sexual assault program.

From Grafenwoehr we convoyed through the beautifully cold German countryside, bivouacking near little postcard communities. The days in the jeep were bitterly cold. I had to make observations (of what I don't remember) from a moving jeep, and did most of that task peering out of a sleeping bag. My driver, a kid from Utah named Calvin, was not so fortunate because he had to have his feet and hands free to handle the jeep.

We would camp in the early afternoons and set up large GP medium tents that would each accommodate twenty or so men on cots. As soon as we arrived at the campsite, young German kids would descend on us on their bicycles and take orders for beer. They would then peddle into town and return dragging their wares in wagons behind their bikes. We had the Army C-Rations for meals, but a traveling food coach would normally follow us to camp. I remember the wonderful German mustard that came with our hard roll sandwiches. I have never been able to find the same product again, although I am certain that I will recognize it if I do. Perhaps another trip to Germany is in order!

As another much appreciated treat, the Army would often arrange for small German bands to come to the camp sites and entertain us in the evenings - Oompa bands composed of guys playing tubas and accordions and wearing lederhosen.

Our convoying took us to Munich were my buddies and I spent a night riding the trolleys and visiting several bars, including the famous Hofbrau House. We had at least a weekend off there, and my friends and I caught a train at the Munchen Banhoff (Munich train station) and rode down to the picturesque town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Some of my memories of those long convoys include seeing the massive Christian crosses on top of impossibly high German Alps, and the cleanliness of the roads and towns. There were no billboards, mobile homes, old cars, or even litter along the roads. Everything was clean and modern. I also remember coming upon one wreck on the Autobahn, Germany's major highway system that is best known for having no speed limit. The car that crashed had been going so fast that wreckage and blood stains on the pavement stretched for the better part of a mile.

One of the things that I remember best about Germany was the wonderful music. The Hofbrau House had its own song, which became easier to sing with the more beer that was consumed. But it was Lili Marlene that I found to be the most memorable and pleasing. Not speaking much German ("Ein bier, Rosa" was the first and longest-lasting phrase that I learned!), I found the instrumental version of Lili Marlene to be quite beautiful and hard to get out of my head. Some of the old timers told me that it was the most famous of German songs.

It was years later before I took the time to learn more about Lili Marlene, and it was, in fact, the NPR piece a few weeks ago that really filled in the gaps in my knowledge about the song's unique history and place in the Second World War.

Lili Marlene was written as a poem by a German soldier in 1915, a tale of a girl that he left behind when he went off to war. It was put to music in the late 1930's, and was popular on Nazi radio stations during WWII. American soldiers heard it being played on German radio, and even though the song was in German, they developed a fondness for the haunting tune. Radio Belgrade played it at the same time every night, and many American soldiers would tune in to listen to the increasingly familiar musical piece. The Nazi government at one time tried to pull the popular song from the airwaves because of the large influence that it was having on the troops, but German soldiers complained in such high numbers that the government reversed its position. After the war the song jumped the Atlantic and became popular in America where it was recorded by several artists.

Here, for the record, are the lyrics to Lili Marlene:

Underneath the lantern,
By the barrack gate
Darling I remember
The way you used to wait
T'was there that you whispered tenderly,
That you loved me,
You'd always be,
My Lili of the Lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene

Time would come for roll call,
Time for us to part,
Darling I'd caress you
And press you to my heart,
And there 'neath that far-off lantern light,
I'd hold you tight ,
We'd kiss good night,
My Lili of the Lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene

Orders came for sailing,
Somewhere over there
All confined to barracks
was more than I could bear
I knew you were waiting in the street
I heard your feet,
But could not meet,
My Lili of the Lamplight,
my own Lili Marlene

Resting in our billets,
Just behind the lines
Even tho' we're parted,
Your lips are close to mine
You wait where that lantern softly gleams,
Your sweet face seems
To haunt my dreams
My Lili of the Lamplight,
My own Lili Marlene.

Today lonely hearts still wait in the lamplight for war to end. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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