Hitler’s Last Soldier: How a German POW hid from the FBI and lived in the U.S. undetected for four decades
After the end of World War II, there were many individuals of the Axis powers who held out, from Japanese Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda -who didn’t come out of hiding until 1974- to the German SS officers who allegedly fled to South America.
There is one curious case of a Prisoner of War who fled an American camp back in the 1940s and remained on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for some time by hiding in plain sight until he finally gave up four decades later.
Born in modern-day Poland in 1920, Georg Gartner was an athletic young man who aspired to become an officer in the German Wehrmacht, enlisting in 1940. He entered a cadet program that made him a non-commissioned officer until he had enough combat experience to enter the officer ranks, Gartner soon found himself at a crossroads: despite wanting to be a good soldier, he was also a skilled skier and winter sportsman which doomed him to the Eastern Front.
Seeing an opportunity to see combat while avoiding freezing to death and being crushed by Soviet tanks, Gartner joined the Afrika Korps. He saw a considerable amount of combat with the Korps that earned him a right to go back to Germany for officer training. Unfortunately for Gartner, he was quickly captured in Tunis, and in 1943, was sent to the United States to a prisoner of war camp in New Mexico.
Able to speak English and far from the horrors of war, Gartner rather enjoyed being a prisoner of war in America. He noted that his treatment was fair and his food better than anything the German military ever served him. As the war drew to a close and evidence of the Holocaust became public knowledge, his captors soon changed their demeanor towards the German POWs, despite many POWs being disgusted by what Germany had done.
Learning he would be sent back to his now Soviet-occupied hometown, Gartner had no desire to be repatriated with what might have been certain death and made a critical decision: he was going to make a run for it and attempt to live among the Americans.
Memorizing the schedule of a nearby freight train, Gartner -who told no one of his plans- crawled under two fences during a “movie night” and managed to hop aboard a passing freight train, riding the rails westward as a hobo did at the time.
Despite the military looking for him in the surrounding areas, Gartner made his way to California, where he attempted to blend in, telling no one of his true identity.
Taking on the identity of Dennis F. Whiles, Gartner quickly adapted to his new life. He took odd jobs until he got a Social Security card and driver license. Eventually, he managed to secure employment as a tennis and ski instructor and even became friends with celebrities like actors Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges.
In January of 1952, when a passenger train was buried by an avalanche in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Gartner spearheaded the rescue as head of the local ski patrol and was first to find the stranded train.
Now a hero, Gartner’s photo was posted in local newspapers at the same time his POW photos remained on FBI wanted posters. Nobody seemed to put two and two together and he continued to avoid capture.
By 1964, Gartner was the last unaccounted-for German POW remaining on the FBI’s list, and the Bureau had run out of leads in their efforts to find him. In the same year, he married a divorcee and adopted her two children as his own.
For four decades, Gartner remained on the Most Wanted list. During that time, he worked as a construction estimator and architectural consultant. Approaching retirement, he was confronted by his wife, who became upset that he would never talk about the past.
In 1984, under threat of divorce, he told her the truth- he was a German citizen who escaped a POW camp during World War II.
Oddly enough, it was the quick thinking of his wife that led them to history professor Arnold Krammer who helped him publish a tell-all account in 1985. The book was titled Hitler’s Last Soldier In America. He formally surrendered to Bryant Gumbel on the Today Show, making him the last World War II German POW in America.
After Gartner revealed all, the U.S. government wasn’t quite sure what to do with the old man. Since he had been brought to the United States against his will, he wasn’t an illegal immigrant and he hadn’t really “escaped” because he was slated to be sent back to a Soviet-occupied territory. Furthermore, the war had effectively ended after he made a run for it, so he wasn’t a POW either. In addition, he was married to a U.S. citizen. With no interest in deporting or punishing him, Gartner was free to live out his life in the United States.
Despite serious bureaucratic delays, Gartner did eventually become a U.S. citizen in 2009, living in Colorado.
Unfortunately for Gartner, his wife -who had convinced him to come clean in the first place- was overwhelmed by the decades of secrets, and filed for a divorce while he was visiting long-lost relatives in Germany. He remained very close with her children and kept in touch with him until his passing in 2013.
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