Hitler's last soldier in America, a World War II prisoner of war who lived in the United States for 40 years after escaping a POW camp in New Mexico, surrendered in San Pedro this morning.
Tears moistened Georg Gaertner's cheeks as he told how he kept his past secret even from his U.S.-born wife of 21 years until early last year, when she became so frightened by his unwillingness to discuss his past that she threatened to leave him.
"Her bags were packed and a taxi was waiting," Gaertner, 64, recalled. He said he turned himself in at her urging, bringing to a close an obscure and forgotten chapter in America's World War II history.
Gaertner was the last remaining escaped German prisoner of war in the United States.
His fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Harold Ezell, regional commissioner for the INS, said Gaertner is considered a deportable alien, but because he has been married to a U.S. citizen for more than 20 years, his prospects of eventually gaining legal residence and U.S. citizenship are excellent. Gaertner, his wife, Jean, and Ezell spoke with reporters in the commissioner's office on Terminal Island.
Gaertner recalled that he joined the German army in 1940 at the age of 19, was sent to the North African front under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and was soon captured, to face eventual imprisonment at Ft. Deming, N.M., where he served as camp translator.
He escaped from Ft. Deming on Sept. 21, 1945, "by creeping under fences and wires, evading sentries and hopping an open Southern Pacific boxcar which brought me here to San Pedro, Calif.--my first destination as a free man," he said.
A native of Schweidnitz, Silesia, which was occupied by the Soviet Army at the close of World War II and is today part of Poland, Gaertner said he sought to escape from the camp to avoid repatriation to his hometown.
"What for many was a moment of celebration, was for me a time of horror as I visualized the brutality which awaited me at the hands of the Russians," Gaertner said. "I concluded that only by escaping from the camp could I remain free and safe in the United States."
A biography released by Gaertner's attorneys said he spent the next year "fleeing from real and imaginary pursuers from one West Coast town to the next, working frequently as a dishwasher, lumberjack or migrant worker."
While working as a laborer, Gaertner perfected his English and obtained a Social Security card under the name of Dennis Whiles. He later moved to Norden, Calif., near Lake Tahoe, and became a ski instructor during the winters. He worked construction and sales jobs during the summer months.
He met his wife, the former Jean Clarke, at a YMCA dance in Palo Alto, he said. They were married in 1964 and have two children by her previous marriage.
In recent years, Gaertner said, he worked as a tennis pro and a skiing instructor. He lives in Boulder, Colo., where he said he is a "construction estimator and architectural consultant."
Gaertner has chronicled his exploits in the book "Hitler's Last Soldier in America," which he said will be published this month by Stein & Day. His surrender was timed to coincide with release of the book, the publishing house acknowledged.