L-R, CMSgt Ron Tate USAF (Ret), SCPO Robin Wallace USN (Ret), MCPO Kea Brigham USN (Ret), CDR Lawson Burgfeld USN (Ret). Photo Credit: “Old Salts”
After six airplane flights, four train trips, two boat trips, three rental cars, numerous bus trips and walking five to seven miles each day, we traveled to six countries in a mere 20 days from 15 April – 5 May, 2016. Our travels spanned Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, England and France.
We departed Memphis, TN by way of the Tennessee Air National Guard 164th Airlift Wing on a Boeing C-17A, landing a little over two hours later at McGuire Air Force Base, NJ. In the first hour, because of available flights, it became clear we were going to be stuck at McGuire AFB for the next few days. After two days, as prospects for a flight appeared very dim, we chose to rent a car to drive to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. There, we were able to catch the Patriot Flight (also known as the Rotator) to Ramstein AB, near the city of Kaiserslautern, Germany. The Patriot flight is a military chartered, commercial Boeing 777 or 747 contracted to transport military families to and from their European and Middle Eastern bases.
Our first stop on this trek was Cologne, (spelled “Koln” in German) the fourth largest city in Germany. It is an ancient city built by the Ubii, Cisrhenian Germanic tribe, around 50 A.D. In the Roman period it was named “Colonia” and it was the northernmost outpost of the empire established by Julius Caesar.
Polished brass cobblestones “Stolperstein” memorializing victims of the Third Reich. Photo by “Old Salts.”
When we think of Cologne, we often think of the unisex citrus-based fragrances named for the city of its origin. Cologne fragrances originated around 1799 with the most famous being 4711 Eau de Cologne by Maurer & Wirtz. The 4711 denotes the actual address of the compan’s origin, which was from Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation in 1794 when he declared that all buildings in Cologne needed to have a number address facing the street. The most impressive thing I found in Cologne was the history of the city during the years before and just after World War II. We had a tour guide the first day and as we were approaching the Cologne Cathedral, he pointed out several polished brass cobblestones in the sidewalk. These brass stones, measuring around 3” x 3”, were designed to memorialize the names and dates of the Jews or political enemies of the Third Reich. The stones are located in front of the last residence of these doomed individuals. The polished brass memorial cobblestones are called: “Stolperstein” which translates directly to: “stumbling stone”.
We also found these stones in Amsterdam. After our tour, the guide told us about a secret Gestapo prison “EL-DE Haus” that was located in the heart of Cologne. It was officially known as the Cologne National Socialism Documentation Center. The building was leased to the Nazi Gestapo from a local German merchant in 1934. The Nazis turned this five-story nondescript brownstone building into a so-called local “police station” for public service, but the 2+ basements were turned into a torture chamber and prison with a place for “silent” executions in the courtyard. The five above-ground floors were living quarters and offices resembling what you would expect of public service departments. The ruse was of a police force participating in finding lost children and arresting local thieves, but that was not their mission.
On the surface, they were there to document the citizens by race and religion, but capturing Jews, dissidents and other enemies of the Third Reich was their main mission. To remain a secret, they had to kidnap their victims late at night or other times when and where there were no witnesses. Once you were in their prison you were never tried, convicted or released. You were either executed in the courtyard or shipped off to a Nazi concentration camp with execution orders. By March 1945 as the Allies were approaching Cologne and forced the Gestapo troops to flee, they left everything behind locked doors.
In 1979 the people of Cologne, who knew the real story, entered the building and decided to clear out and organize the stacks of papers and artifacts in preparation for a museum on the site. They finally publicly acknowledged the ugly truth they couldn’t or wouldn’t face under Nazi rule. Among the many displays were documents covering the daily events at the prison including a document describing rumors in the city that people had heard screams coming from the building. The Gestapo responded by stopping torture during the hours between 0600 and 2400. Other documents on display were copies of the scratchings and etchings by prisoners on their cell walls. One noteworthy etching detailed their torture and how the prisoner couldn’t understand how the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, did not know about these outlaw police officers. Another stated their continued love and dedication to their Fuhrer. They just couldn’t face the fact that Adolf Hitler was responsible for their fate.
“A Bridge Too Far” Over the Rhine River. Arnhem, Netherlands. Photo by “Old Salts”
We witnessed several groups of high school students taking tours through this museum. They were very respectful and they were taking copious notes. One of the first things we wanted to see after Cologne were the three vital bridges along the World War II Western Front. The Allies had to cross the Rhine River in late 1944 to penetrate Nazi Germany. This plan by British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, known as “Market Garden”, was intended to put an early end to the war. The most impressive bridge was at Arnhem, Netherlands. This is the bridge the Allies failed to capture which was vividly depicted in the 1977 film “A Bridge Too Far”. Before the end of the war, this bridge was finally destroyed by U.S. Army Air Forces but in later years the bridge was rebuilt to the exact specifications of the original bridge. The people of Arnhem renamed the bridge over the Rhine River to honor John Frost, the British paratroop commander during this operation.
Our next stop was to visit the city of Amsterdam and to verify the infamous modern history of this “city of sin”. In my opinion it reminded me of a medieval version of Las Vegas with open prostitution, sex shops and drug cafés. It is true that the Amsterdam prostitutes sit on stools in front of large picture windows. They pose while wearing a sheer negligee or very small bikini while trying to seduce young minds full of mush to indulge. This is not on a single “red light” street, but street after street. It reminded me of one of those sleazy carnivals from the early 1950s. In my opinion, all of this overshadows the rich, proud history of this city.
“The Dining Room” Christian Hostel “Shelter City” Amsterdam, Netherlands. Photo by “Old Salts”
We stayed in the Christian “Shelter City Hostel” located in the heart of this immoral entertainment center of the city. On the second day in Amsterdam, we caught a train northward to the area known as Zaanse Schans, Holland, where they have several working windmills built in the 18th and 19th centuries. These windmills are kept in immaculate shape and they still grind grain and power sawmills. For about four Euros you can go inside one of the working mills and see the restored gears and other working machines in the mill. Note: Even the gears are made of oak and other hardwoods, they still have the original, working, grinding stones that weigh tons.
In addition to the windmills, you will see the early Dutch wooden architecture. There are tulip gardens and wooden shoe shops where 19th century machines produce these shoes using pantograph samples. They can produce a pair of shoes every 30 minutes. This doesn’t sound very efficient, but in 1910 it was very impressive for that time. You can visit cheese making shops and other crafts. This area reminded me of the restored working villages in Williamsburg, VA.
Left: A working 19th century windmill, Zaanse, Holland. Right: Freshly made wooden shoes. Photos by “Old Salts”
After a couple more days in Amsterdam, we finished our local trek with a canal boat trip before we caught an AirBus KLM A-320 to Copenhagen, Denmark where there are 1.8 bicycles per resident. Unlike the U.S.A., the people are charged a 180% tax on everything (for example, if you buy a bicycle for 100 Euros, you actually pay 280 Euros for that bicycle). This tax is to provide for all the bicycle lanes and other amenities in Copenhagen. The people on bicycles must obey all traffic rules, even hand turn signals, or face stiff fines. They have designated stop lights for bicycles and very large public parking areas for bicycles; some charge a parking fee for your bicycle.