Eric Woerner was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1918 and immigrated with his family to New Jersey 11 years later. (Fifty some years after that, his daughter would marry a widower with 4 teenage kids—one of whom would grow up to be my husband.) Grandpa Woerner grew up playing stick ball with a group of boys—including little Frankie Sinatra—until he eventually went to work as a machinist for the American Can Company. A skilled craftsman, he did plumbing and wiring jobs after hours to help support his family, or donated his skills to other immigrant families in need.
(Grandpa was one of those people who takes things apart and puts them back together “better.” After his eyesight started going, he “bettered” my father-in-law’s house such that, when you opened the automatic garage door, the back bathroom fan whirred to life. He fixed it immediately.)
Grandpa Woerner was proud of his German roots, but he loved his new country with fierce loyalty. When America entered War World II, Grandpa Woerner felt doubly compelled to work with American troops to rescue his homeland from the grip of a sadistic dictator. If he could just return to Germany and tap into the vast network of friends and family he’d left behind, he was certain he could do his part to turn the tide against the Fuhrer. With this in mind, the twenty-five-year-old made his way to the nearest Army recruitment office and volunteered his services as a translator. German was his first language, and still the language of his parents and family abroad. He was fluent. His country needed him. And here he was—ready, willing, and able.
He failed the American version of the Standardized German Language Proficiency test.
Later, when confronted with the results, Grandpa Woerner explained that he wouldn’t use the stilted and outdated language of the test. His mother tongue was more nuanced. He spoke urban Stuttgart. He spoke like an insider.
“Sorry, young man,” replied Uncle Sam. “We need translators who speak proper German.”
Sure enough, within six months, Grandpa’s phone rang. Turns out those German civilians didn’t sprechen ze textbook, either.
For the next two years, Grandpa Woerner served with Army Intelligence. He read intercepted communications and interviewed civilian informants as well as prisoners within Hitler’s regime. After V.E. Day, this G. I. Johannes walked the neighborhoods of Southern Germany, knocking on doors and making certain the German people knew the war was over. Grandpa once told me he felt like an encyclopedia salesman, “except instead of selling books, I was giving away freedom. It was like Christmas.”
After an honorable discharge in 1946, Grandpa returned to the American Can Company and assumed the post of VFW Commander for the Edward McDowell Post in North Bergen, NJ. (I could insert a joke here about him becoming Grand Poobah of Bingo, but I have too much respect for camaraderie and support that can take place at these institutions.) After retirement, Grandpa moved his family to Tampa Bay where, every Friday, he volunteered at the local V.A. Hospital’s machine shop. By the time of his death, he had logged over 5,000 volunteer hours there, helping rehabilitate American veterans from the Vietnam War through the first Gulf War.
This week, as our family honors Eric Woerner and other veterans among our number, I marvel at the dedication of our men and women in uniform. Whether they were born into the land of apple pie, or whether they sought these shores from the lands of streusel or churros or beyond, I thank each and every one of them for their sacrifice and compassion.
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Angela Dove is an award-winning humor columnist and author of the true crime book, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin, 2009). For bio and book info visit www.AngelaDove.com.