Our tank company was camping in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia after VE Day. We were all keeping busy by turning in our ammo. It didn't make a lot of sense since we had orders to keep a sharp lookout for little werewolves who were still trying to save the fatherland.
We discovered shortly after that, that our unit was being broken up and the personnel reassigned to different divisions. Some of the luckier guys were being sent back to the world; other less fortunate folks were to become part of an amphibious tank outfit. Then there were those reassigned to the 26th Infantry Division — that famous Yankee Division — and the 83rd Infantry, the Ohio Division. As it turned out it was my good fortune to be sent to Austria with the 83rd.
Our post was in Ebensee, Austria, high in the snow-capped Alps. We were billeted in the Hotel Steinkoglera, a former resort hotel near the infamous Ebensee Concentration Camp. When we arrived, the converted concentration camp was home to over 50,000 German SS prisoners of war.
My job was to drive a 2 ½ ton "Jimmy" to the camp each day to pick up a work crew of about 25 German SS prisoners and bring them back to the hotel. They fired the boilers, ran the generators, cleaned rooms and scrubbed floors. Among these prisoners I found excellent cooks and a world-class pastry chef from Vienna. Being of Danish ancestry, I have a fondness for desserts. Since some of these guys were among the best chefs in the world, I figured I had finally found "great duty."
The "no fraternization" order was cancelled, and I met some of the civilian population. One young man in particular, a shoemaker by trade and about my age — a worldly 22 years, spoke excellent English, and we became fast friends. He told me how his grandfather was the game keeper at Emperor Franz Joseph's hunting lodge that was located in the mountains a short distance from Ebensee. He arranged for Corporal Preston "Rawley" Rawlins from Wellston, Ohio and me to spend the weekend with him and his family at the lodge.
Having been a stamp collector as a youngster, I loved learning about the geography of the place from which a stamp was issued, such as Austria. I also was interested in all those austere faces that the different stamps from around the world featured so prominently. Oddly enough, I had some Austrian stamps, and I knew that the old bearded guy on those stamps was Emperor Franz Joseph, the King of Austria. We were escorted to the bedrooms. Rawley was down the hall. My friend opened the door to the room that I would be staying in; it was the Emperor's bedroom suite. I must confess that lying in the King's huge, over-stuffed, duck-down bed made falling asleep very difficult. I envisioned all sorts of scenarios, ones that included beautiful, blue-blooded ladies and voluptuous courtesans. If only that bed could have talked.
Later that weekend we sampled one of the finest wine cellars in Europe and sipped Cognac from the Royal Family's crystal. I remained in Austria until February of 1946; then crossed Europe in a boxcar with only straw for comfort and a case of three star Hennessy. In two days I reached Bremerhaven with only a bottle of Cognac left. We were ready to board the good ship, “Waterbury Victory,” and head HOME!
In 1998, during a visit to Europe, I found the shoemaker from Ebensee. He was the CEO and owner of a large, very successful shoe factory. He remembered the weekend so long ago at the lodge and was happy to look at the photos I had brought with me. We sat and reminisced over a few of the more pleasant memories of the war.
I will more than likely never sleep in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House (I can't afford it!), but once a long time ago I did sleep in the Austrian emperor’s bed — a REAL king's bed!