A German soldier who fought for Adolf Hitler crawled out of a POW camp in New Mexico and was almost never seen again.
“He just changed his name, got married and lived here for 40 years acting as an American,” said Macia Rosenstein, a historian at the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque.
After watching, waiting and planning, German soldier Georg Gaertner slid out of the fence at Camp Deming and hopped onto a moving train, heading anywhere but back to Germany.
“There was a train track nearby and he paid attention to when the train came, he cut through the wire, got on the train and then, he was gone,” said Rosenstein.
Gaertner’s escape launched a 40-year, cross-country manhunt. He escaped Camp Deming very close to the end of World War II. At that time, there were 12 German soldiers who were fugitives expected to be hiding in the US. Over the years, all of them were caught except for Gaertner.
His story wasn’t widely known, even after he came forward in the ’80s. Now, Rosenstein is one of many people learning about his story and POW camps in New Mexico through a podcast called ‘Hitler’s Last Soldier’ by The Way It Was.
Gaertner was captured in Africa. Soldiers brought him to Camp Deming, which was one of two POW camps in New Mexico. The other was in Albuquerque.
“They were given jobs working on farms and small factories,” said Rosenstein.
Rosenstein says the Axis soldiers were treated well in New Mexico, so well that most didn’t want to go home even at the end of the war.
“Some said it was better than what they had at home,” said Rosenstein.
Fearing a return to then Soviet-occupied East Germany, Gaertner escaped, changed his name to Dennis Whiles and met a Colorado woman named Jean.
“Within six months, we were engaged,” said Jean Whiles in the Hitler’s Last Soldier podcast.
Gaertner lied to his wife about who he was for 25 years until finally coming clean in the ’80s to her and the FBI.
“The fact that he kept it a secret for 40 years is what’s amazing,” said Rosenstein.
When Gaertner did come forward, he was never charged with any crime. Since he escaped after the war was over and was set to be sent home, the FBI couldn’t figure out what to charge him with.