Bill Rueter and Ned Handy were both World War II POWs, but on different continents. Ned was imprisoned in Germany’s most famous POW camp while Bill was in a POW camp in Texas that few knew existed.
Ned’s POW story is among the best known in the war. He was at Stalag 17 and quarterbacked the tunneling team that led to the only successful escape from the infamous Nazi POW camp. Ned’s 2004 book, “The Flame Keepers” and the 1953 movie, “Stalag 17” were both well received. Rueter’s story is much more underground, but no less dramatic. He was an American spy inserted in a POW camp for German prisoners in Texas.
Welcome to Amerika
Nearly 500,000 captured German soldiers were shipped from Europe’s battlefields to the U.S. on the empty troop transport ships that delivered GIs to Europe. Many Americans didn’t want these prisoners on U.S. soil preferring they be executed, but Uncle Sam lived up to its commitment to the Geneva Convention. Over 100 POW camps in the warm West and Southern states were created. The POW camps were used to brain wash the prisoners and denazify them. By exposing them to life in the USA it was hoped they would see the world differently and be less war like towards America and Europe. The prisoners also filled a U.S. worker shortage especially in the agricultural fields. They were often allowed to go into nearby towns for meals and to meet local girls. Their acceptance in restaurants where blacks were discriminated against was ironically noted by African-American prison guards.The Office of Secret Services was formed in 1942 and had another agenda for the German POWs. They were seen as sources for strategic intelligence that could be used in the battle zone. It established a training program for spies who would enter the camps posing as German prisoners to glean intel the allies could use in Europe. The young spies had a dangerous assignment. If exposed it could mean death and it was not uncommon for prison guards to find spies with crushed skulls on their morning rounds. The Gestapo purposely had men captured so they could be sent to America and keep German POWs in the Third Reich fold. Bill Rueter, just 18 years-old, was assigned to go undercover and find out who those Gestapo prisoners were.
German to the Core
At 17, Bill Rueter was Ivy League college material. His wealthy parents had set him on a course for Harvard where he was enrolled in July 1943. He went into the Army’s specialized training program and was at Louisiana State University studying engineering when army intelligence found out he could speak fluent German. His fair looks and unaccented German made him a candidate to go under cover. Rueter’s German-American lineage traced to 1848 when his grandfather established a Boston brewery. The family prospered and when Bill came along he had a German governess who spoke German with him. At six he traveled to Northern Germany to see the family’s homestead and learn more about his roots. He toured a toy factory near Munich that would later become pivotal in his spy effort.
To be an effective German POW, Rueter was indoctrinated in German army lore. “In training for his role he learned battle calls, regimental insignias and the major battles his regimen had fought going back to the 14th century. It was important for him to be able to sing songs with his fellow POWs,” said John Rueter one of Bill’s three sons. He could recite the names of all the German commanders of his German regimen going back to the 1400s.
He was dressed in a German uniform and melded with a troop of German soldiers in St. Louis who were sent to a POW camp in Texas. “The prisoners were a happy group who missed their families and were happy to be out of the war. The government gave them bread, butter, a radio and other things they didn’t have at home. Many wrote home saying the war was lost, stating that the U.S. had everything and asking their families to go the country (USA). This is of course what we wanted,” Bill wrote after the war for a Harvard paper on his war experiences.
Bill couldn’t know everything about his fellow POWs and had to make quick adjustments. When the prisoners would toast they had a secret Heil Hitler salute by pointing their index finger upward. He quickly adapted. “His life was predicated on being a very good actor,” adds son Chip.
Yale Meets Harvard
Sally Rueter, Bill’s widow, tells two poignant stories about her husband’s undercover days. When Bill told a fellow POW with a Munich accent that he once visited a toy factory there his fellow prisoner told Bill that the toy train factory was now a major munitions factory. Soon after gaining that intelligence, Bill passed it on to his superiors. Bombers took out the factory the next day.
Bill came dangerously close to blowing his cover one day in casual conversation with a new POW from the Afrika Corps who took a bunk near him. “He started saying that when the war was over he would show us where to go to eat in New York. I finally asked him in my best colloquial German how he knew so much about the U.S. ‘I used to go to a school called Yale University.’ It was all I could do not to say ‘I’m a Harvard man myself.’ The next morning I requested a transfer fearing I might get myself in severe trouble. I had no intention in being a hero,” Bill wrote.
Bill was next sent to the East Coast to deploy for France and fight in the final push towards Germany. Days before he was to ship out he developed a cough that turned out to be asthma. “He was not allowed to embark and it was a good thing. Of the 30 men in his platoon only one returned and it was the guy who owed dad $10 from a poker game,” his son Chip recalls. The men were killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
Bill finished the war learning Japanese at the Naval School of Oriental Languages in Colorado and translating Japanese military documents in Washington, D.C.
After the war Bill ran a medical billing company and was a consultant. He befriended Ned Handy and at Bill’s 2007 funeral Ned delivered a stirring eulogy. He told those gathered that Bill’s efforts required more bravery than the men at Stalag 17. John recalled, “Ned said he didn’t know how Bill could have lived in constant fear 24 hours a day and his service was quite important,” John said.
Ned describes Bill as self-effacing who could frequently laugh at himself. He told the story of the night when Bill’s cover was blown. “He told me the time he got into trouble and he started a fight so the guards would come. It was a last ditch effort.”
Ned said Bill could never let his guard up, even in his sleep. “If he would talk English in his sleep he would have been caught. “
Inside and Under Stalag 17
Unlike a lot of vets who can’t talk about their war experiences, Ned is a ready raconteur with razor sharp memories. Now 91 and living in Cambridge, Mass., he first met Bill in 1951, but didn’t become good friends until the 1980s. They often compared their experiences in the camps one as prisoner, one as spy.
Ned is convinced that the Germans did not send spies among the POWS in Stalag 17 which was located in Austria. It was built as a concentration camp to house 240 not the 4,300 who were imprisoned. “We are certain that if they had spies among us they would have been found out. It wasn’t a spy that turned us in for tunneling, but it was our own mistakes. We had three crews tunneling 24 hours a day and it was one of the guards who turned us in,” Ned recalls. The diggers used discarded milk cans but Ned never escaped from the camp. He was instrumental in helping Frank Grey get out. Grey, a Floridian, is the only prisoner to make it out alive of the camp during the war.
Life at Stalag 17 was brutal in the unheated lice and rat ridden compounds that were overseen by a tyrannical commander. Ned was the formerly privileged son of a Massachusetts importer who lost nearly everything in the depression. On April 11, 1944 Ned was the flight engineer of a B-24 bomber on its way to soften up Germany’s war factories in advance of the D-Day invasion. Half the bomber crews were shot down by the Luftwaffe and lost.
Ned’s bomber was hit and he parachuted down into a field near the Belgium border. Peasant men were working the fields that day. “They were tilling the fields under the direction of Wehrmacht army guards and there were six men and six women. They saw the leaflets in our pockets about religion and various aspects of what we were doing and could read English. They got worked up and the men had stones and sticks and started attacking us. The guards just stood back and watched and would have let them kill us, but the women started to scream at the men and that saved us.”
Ned served over a year at Stalag 17 where there was a strange dynamic. The former Luftwaffe pilots who had been injured and who were serving as guards some with wooden legs, treated Ned and his flyer buddies with respect and dignity. The blue suited Luftwaffe was Germany’s military elite and considered our flyers as equals. However, the prison had supplemental guards from the Wehrmacht, green uniformed kick ass men who hated the Americans. “I got pistol whipped and smashed over the head knocking me unconscious. He just walked off and left my buddies to take care of me,” Ned recalls. The Stalag 17 experience was a test that required nothing less than everything, Ned wrote in his book. It taught him how to cultivate and nurture his imagination because that is all he had in such a small living space. “Manhood comes with responsibility and the composure one develops in the face of chaos.”
Stalag 17 was abandoned when the Allies liberated Austria and weeks later Ned and his brethren were freed by American forces inside Germany.Recently Ned contacted the German consulate in Boston. He got contact information for the mayor of the feudal town where he was shot down, Hameln. “Some of those people who helped us that day may still be living. There was a woman with a small baby who may have been told the story of the day the American flyers were shot down.”
Ned wants to thank the descendants of those women peasants who saved his life 60 years ago.
Ned paid thanks to Bill Rueter in his 2007 eulogy when he spoke about the POW experience. He said Bill’s volunteering to go undercover in a German POW camp was overwhelmingly dangerous because one slip and he was dead. “He took on this assignment he could easily have avoided. The key information he brought out saved countless American and other lives. How he lived through that 24/7 danger with such bravery and success none of us will really every know — but can never forget.”
For Ned and Bill passing through the gates of Stalag 17 and the German POW camps in Texas, taught them the hard but somehow beautiful lessons that served them throughout their lives. As much as the Nazis, fear was their daily foe and they defeated both.