Ralph Alvin John Grotheer was born Rolf Alwin John Grotheer on September 6, 1928, in Brooklyn, but it was anglicized on his baptism certificate. His parents were from Bremen in northern Germany. His father, born in 1901, was one of five siblings, and worked as a cabinet maker among other jobs. His mother, born in 1902 and one of nine, had two siblings die in WWI and two die of the Spanish Flu. Growing up, Ralph enjoyed playing typical games that children growing up in the city in the 30s played, but he also spent a lot of time babysitting his younger sister. In August 1939, the family returned to Germany to care for Ralph’s paternal grandfather who was suffering with a heart problem and dementia. In September, after World War II broke out, Ralph’s parents were informed that they were unable to return to the United States because, although their children were American citizens, the parents were not. Ralph noticed the mood of the German people being quiet and sad; many remembered World War I. He and his sister entered school and although they initially did not speak or write German, they were easily accepted by the other children. Ralph recalls many questions about American “cowboys and Indians” from the German children. He spent hours riding bicycles, running and marching, picking blueberries, and ice skating. He mentions that the progress of the war was not tracked in school, and he did not feel that party ideology was stressed although the teachers were Nazi party members. His father secured a job making furniture and later building torpedo boats, while his mother stayed home to take care of the children. At the age of 14, Ralph graduated from school and took a job as a clerk with Argo-Reederei, a steamship company, earning 25 marks a month. There he learned bookkeeping and how to write business letters. He also had to track ships that were sunk during the war. He was obligated to join the Hitler Youth, and recalles time spent camping, singing, and running. In 1944, he was trained to assist in the operation of anti-aircraft guns. His family began to experience food shortages and increased bombing. In February 1945 he was trained for the infantry, and in March he began marching towards Berlin. He endured bad food, poor equipment and uniforms, and dysentery. He was concerned about heading towards the Soviets, and saw the SS and police hang deserters along the route. Finally, he was captured by Americans and began a 3-month period as a prisoner in Eutin, where he was very loosely guarded and provided with little food. Finally, in August 1945 he was released and reunited with his sister, four cousins, and his step-grandmother. His parents had died in an ammo depot explosion. He was fortunate to return to work at the same company he had worked for earlier. The winter of 45-46 was tough, and he recalls the women of the country working to clean up the rubble of war. Relatives and friends in America helped Ralph return to the United States. He took a job working in a diner and rented a furnished room in Bergen, New Jersey. He did not talk much about his wartime experiences. In February 1951 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, completed basic training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and trained as a Morse Code Radio Operator. He deployed to the Korean War in August 1951, assigned to D Company, 13th Combat Engineer Battalion, in the 7th Infantry Division. He returned from Korea on June 7, 1952, and was discharged from the Army in 1952. He took a job at the Teaneck, New Jersey, Post Office, and later he and his wife opened a deli, working there until their retirement.
In this interview Ralph talks about his interesting childhood in Brooklyn and in Nazi Germany. He describes attending school and working as a clerk for a shipping company. He recalls his time as a conscript in the Wehrmacht in the final months of WWII, and reflects on his service in the American Army during the Korean War. Finally, he shares what the United States means to him.