For 40 years, Dennis Whiles had lived a lie, always watching, always wondering whether the secret he guarded so carefully would suddenly unravel.
His brushes with fame as a successful tennis pro were as racking as the possibility that the stranger sitting next to him in a coffee shop would recognize him as who he really was.
But the secret, the lie, the assumed identity of Dennis Whiles came to an end Wednesday morning when he finally shared his secret: He is in reality Georg Gaertner, the last of 2,222 German soldier prisoners of war who escaped custody in America. He had lived in the United States undetected ever since he slipped away from a New Mexico POW camp shortly after the end of World War II.
Gaertner's surrender in San Pedro brought to a close a chapter of American history so obscure and forgotten that even the authorities had quit looking for him.
His fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Harold Ezell, regional commissioner for the INS, said that Gaertner is considered a deportable alien but that because of his lengthy marriage to a U.S. citizen, his prospects of 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.
In an emotion-charged press conference, Gaertner spoke of his escape, his four decades as a fugitive and his desire to "stay and live in the United States legally with my wife."
He 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, California--my first destination as a free man," he said.
To Escape Repatriation
A native of Schweidnitz, Silesia, which was occupied by the Soviet army at the close of World War II and is now 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 following 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, near Lake Tahoe, where he became a ski instructor during the winters and worked at construction and sales jobs during the summer months.
Despite fear of discovery, Gaertner helped in the rescue of 226 passengers from a Southern Pacific passenger train trapped in the Donner Pass by an avalanche in 1952. His photograph was published but he was not recognized as an escaped POW.
FBI Alert in the '60s
Gaertner, who was often frightened of discovery, said he learned recently that when he was living in Palo Alto in the 1960s, the FBI issued an alert that he was believed to be in that general area. That apparently was the closest he ever came to being apprehended.
Gaertner said he met his wife, the former Jean Clarke, at a YMCA dance in Palo Alto. They were married in 1964, and have two children by her previous marriage.
"It was kind of love at first sight," he said. "Why I didn't tell her is that when you find something precious, you don't want to do anything dumb and lose it."
In 1971, Gaertner and his wife opened a tennis club in Aptos. On several occasions he participated in tennis tournaments but, when it appeared he might win, intentionally lost before reaching the finals. "I was afraid my picture would get in the paper," he said.
They moved to Hawaii in 1974, where he worked as a construction estimator.
Wife 'Frightened, Confused'
In 1983, Gaertner's secret began drawing to a close. His refusal of job offers that would have subjected him to unwanted scrutiny by requiring work on military bases or overseas prompted his wife to become "so frightened and confused by my unwillingness to discuss my past that she threatened to leave," he said Wednesday, tears moistening his cheeks.
"Her bags were packed, and a taxi was waiting," he recalled. "Faced with that, I confessed the truth to her and felt a portion of a tremendous burden being lifted from my shoulders."
In November, 1983, Gaertner went to a phone booth and telephoned Arnold Krammer, a Texas A&M; University historian who had mentioned him in a book about German prisoners of war in America.
"He wanted government documents and research material, if I knew of any, that would substantiate his good behavior as a prisoner if he should approach the immigration people," Krammer said in a telephone interview from Houston on Wednesday.
Krammer and Gaertner, who now is a construction consultant in Boulder, Colo., later collaborated on a book, "Hitler's Last Soldier in America," officially released Wednesday by publisher Stein & Day.
Coincident With Book Release
Gaertner sees the book as "insurance" that he will not be quickly and quietly deported, "which was why it was important for him to surrender on the day the book came out," Krammer said.
The publishing house has confirmed that Gaertner's surrender was timed to coincide with release of the book.
Gaertner was one of 425,000 German prisoners of war once held in 511 camps in the United States, Krammer said. Many of the prisoners were sent out from the camps to work in fields and factories, replacing laborers who had gone to war. Exactly 2,222 escaped, he said.
Most were free for less than a day. Few were at large for more than a few weeks.
The Army reported that all but 12 had been recaptured by the time the last repatriation ships carried the prisoners back to their home countries, Krammer said.
Those dozen men gradually surrendered or were captured in the years after the war, until on March 10, 1959, Kurt Rossmeisl--an officer in Rommel's 10th Panzer Division who had lived in Chicago for almost 14 years under the name Frank Ellis--presented himself to the FBI in Cincinnati.
Gaertner was the last one left.