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I saw two awards signed by A. Hitler

December 28, 2016

Sigrid Walter Bonnett, youngest child of German engineer Helmuth Walter

I easily found Sigrid and Fred Bonnett’s house just below the rimrocks in Billings, Montana.  Sigrid met me on the porch, gracious, friendly.  The first thing I noticed entering their house was a bunch of Kodak film on a shelf across the sitting room.  I remarked on it and, on closer examination, I saw an old plastic developing tank, a can of Kodak D-ll developer and several cameras, including a Rolleiflex, much like mine, not quite as old.  Turns out Fred was a professional photographer, and now an ardent amateur.  She said Fred was right upstairs, so I said, “Hi, Fred,” and he came downstairs and we shook hands.  Fred nearly derailed my effort to interview his wife because we shared such an interest in photography.

My mother’s little brother died in WWII when his troopship was torpedoed and sunk Christmas Eve, 1944.

Soon Sig had us at their dining room table drinking tea (Constant Comment) and eating cold cuts of meats, cheese and breads.  She and her husband were sociable and engaging.

Moments before I explained briefly about how my uncle died in WW II when a U-boat torpedo sunk his troopship, the SS Leopoldville, and how I had been engaged in studying history and writing a book.  I was obsessed with his story.  German U-boats were important to the story, I explained.  Sig said she was happy to speak with someone who cared about the subject of her father, Helmuth Walter.  He designed and built submarines.

At one point I mentioned how my grandmother blamed Franklin Roosevelt for her son’s death.  Sigrid’s mother hated Roosevelt also, she said.  Fred said his father did also.

Here’s a bit more of why Sigrid is important to my story about my Uncle Carl Bonde.  Sigrid’s father was an important engineer in Hitler’s navy.  In fact, she showed me several documents, adorned with swastikas, signed by Hitler himself, awarding Helmuth Walter an honorary professorship and another award that I forgot to write the name of.

(Sig said she never heard her father mention the Nazi awards he had received.  She said she believed he felt they were nothing to be proud of.)

Professor Walter invented a fast U-boat that could run on hydrogen peroxide; also some rockets that used the same fuel and he patented many other inventions.  He was friends with the famous Wernher von Braun, rocket scientist.

Sig said Walter sometimes referred to von Braun as a “showboat.”

Walter refined the design of the snorkel on U-boats, that allowed the U-486, the U-boat that killed my uncle, to stay underwater for an extended period.

In fact, U-486 had been built in the port of Keil, Germany, toward the end of WWII.  Sig showed me a photograph on her kitchen wall of the house where she had been born, that was about half-mile from her father’s factory.  A tunnel connected the house with the factory, she learned the last time she visited.  I wasn’t clear whether her father’s factory was the site of submarine assembly.

In 1947, her family was transported to Great Britain when Sig was just 6 weeks old.  She was the youngest of five.  Her brother Ingol was the oldest.  The family was allowed to take furniture and other belongings, she said, including a vase.  Sig showed me a massive foot-tall blue vase of cut glass that she said was made by a machine her father had invented.

Sig’s uncle in her mother’s family died on the German side of World War II when he was being airlifted by a hospital plane that got shot down.  Her uncle had been in the German navy.  I remarked that our histories were oddly symmetrical.

Helmuth had bad teeth, but he didn’t go to the dentist because he said he thought his troubles were trivial, compared to those of his countrymen who were dying in the war.  When he finally did visit a dentist he was leaving the building when an allied bomb exploded the dental office and killed his dentist.  The port of Keil was bombed frequently.

Helmuth employed about 300 Russian P.O.W.s in his engineering factory, building weapons.  During allied bombing attacks they were supposed to head down near the big canal to stay in bomb shelters, but some of them escaped into the woods, instead, where they were killed.  Again, the slave labor was something Sig said she was ashamed of.  The P.O.W.s sometimes tried to hurt her father, but they never tried to hurt her family, she said.

Sig did have some memories of England where she and her family were held as prisoners of war, along with other families.  Her dad was on house arrest, but he could travel within a 10-mile radius of their place at Barrow Inferness. (Sp?)

They lived in a house with six other families.  She said her mother had to hurry to get milk or else the other women would arrive first to the supply and take all of the cream.  She said her mother had been shocked at the behavior of women when things got rough.

Fred and Sig were friends in the 1960s in high school, although they were from different parts of Montclair, New Jersey.  She was from upper Montclair.  They both went to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  She was married at age 18 and they recently celebrated 50 years of marriage in Germany, floating the canal in Keil.  Both of them are relatively slim and fit looking.  They have lived in their house in Billings since 2005.

Sig said she and her family returned to Germany in 1956 and the kids played in bombed out buildings near her family home.

When she was elementary school age, well, six years old, her family came to the United States on the S.S. America.  They arrived on her birthday.  She remembered because she got a red, white, and blue ball as a gift.

Her family settled in Montclair, New Jersey, and Helmuth Walter took a job with the Worthington Pump Company.  Her parents spoke German at home, but Sigrid learned English.  She said she faced only sporadic harassment for being German, particularly in England, soon after the war ended.  She said her mother didn’t like the English and they didn’t like her.  She said the Irish and Germans got along fine.

Because WWII took a huge toll on her aunts and uncles she grew up with lots of cousins in Germany, and Helmuth had to act as father to many in his family.

Someone asked Helmuth if he would consider working as an engineer for NASA, but he declined, Sig said, saying that he never wanted to work for a government again.

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