Books 

Boy Soldier

Boy Soldier: A German Teenager at the Nazi Twilight

Author: Gerhardt B. Thamm

Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, and London; May 2000, ISBN 0-7864-0660-7.

“As a 15-year-old boy I fought briefly in a war. My fight was neither noble nor heroic. I saw the horrors that no 15-year-old boy should ever see. I came into war purely by happenstance, and survived it purely by luck.”

Although born in Detroit, Gerhardt Thamm grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Lower Silesia in the hinterlands of Germany. In early 1945 this land, which bordered Czechoslovakia and Poland, became a battleground as the Red Army moved westward toward Berlin. Thamm, like many of his classmates, was conscripted to fight on the Eastern Front, defending his town and family against the Russian invaders, experiencing the fearsome barbarity and atrocity of war firsthand. This compelling narrative, told from the perspective of a 15-year old boy, details his experiences and memories from 1945, the final days of World War II.

From Dr. Richard Latham: A review of Boy Soldier

I took my time getting through Gerhardt Thamm’s “Boy Soldier, A German Teenager at the Nazi Twilight”, because I enjoy the way he uses words and very much enjoyed his descriptions of life in his home town before the war.  What I found intriguing, too, was the subtle currents and moods that played with their minds regarding patriotism and declining respect for political leaders and parties.  It is not unlike the sentiments I have these days about our foreign policies and the broad-historical implications for our country.  How does one deal with the respect one has for those who are called to serve and make very large sacrifices and a waning respect for the politicians and “emergency men” who make literally stupid decisions about foreign and security policy?

Gerhardt touched on the German pride in their technology and warrior prowess, which in the end failed them.  Is there not a lesson for us?  How well did both fare in Korea, Vietnam and now the Middle East?  It is not that we were unworthy warriors or that we had flawed technology.  Rather, the emergency men took us into conflicts for which we had dim objectives and primitive understanding of the people in those countries and what was important to them.  Do we read anywhere that someone claims we won in Korea or Vietnam?  And will anyone claim we won in the Middle East?  The problem is not the quality of our fighting.  The problem is the political emergency men and women who craft flawed foreign policies.

I certainly enjoyed Gerhardt’s memoir.  I could almost smell the farm as you described your life at that time.  You did a fine job of describing the subtle tensions that were increasing among German civilians.  Perhaps they were so subtle that it took nearly a whole lifetime to capture them in words.  One of the other ironic twists of war, history and time, is that the reader (probably an American) unconsciously finds himself pulling for the Germans as they contended with the Russians.  There is a similar shift in sentiments regarding Vietnam today.  Those who work there or are aware of current Asian affairs find themselves sympathizing with the Vietnamese who contend with China.  Will there ever be such a shift in sentiments in the Middle East?

I sadly see similarities with what Gerhardt and his people were experiencing and thinking as the costs for Germany took on a hard edge.  Well, anyway, Gerhardt’s small history certainly provoked my thoughts.  —Richard Latham

 

The Making of a Spy

The Making of a Spy: Memoir of a German Boy Soldier Turned American Army Intelligence Agent

Author: Gerhardt B. Thamm

Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, and London; May 2010; ISBN 978-0-7864-4854-8.

Leaving the chaos of postwar Germany for an uncertain future, 17-year-old Gerhardt Thamm arrived in America in 1948 with little more than his American birth certificate. With minimal command of English and little formal education, he enlisted in the Army and quickly found himself assigned to operations where his German language abilities were put to use. With the Soviet Union’s emergence as a potential adversary, Thamm was recruited into the Army’s clandestine services, where he operated as a secret agent in Germany, under multiple identities. This richly detailed personal narrative tells Thamm’s incredible story with more than two dozen photos and sketches.

 

I am indebted to Millard E. Moon, EdD., Colonel (ret), U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, for his book review, which I share with you here:

The Making of a Spy provides a first person account of a remarkable period in history. The author served in the German Army for a few months as a fifteen-year-old “boy soldier.” Thamm’s account of his service gives an interesting glimpse into the final days of the Third Reich and some of the attitudes of the German people who lived where he made his home. After Thamm enlisted in the U.S. Army during the period between the end of World War II and the outbreak of the Korean War, he began a fascinating career in the intelligence world, which spanned several decades. Although he served until he retired from the U.S. Army, Thamm later had a civilian career with the Naval Intelligence Service and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The major portion of this current work is a recounting of his exploits as a Military Special Agent during the Cold War period when he served in a divided Berlin.  Thamm also had a specific account of his wartime service published by McFarland in 2000, with a paperback edition released in 2007. This work is titled Boy Soldier: A German Teenager at the Nazi Twilight. After over thirty-eight years in the field of intelligence and security-related operations, Thamm has written for the Armed Forces Journal International, Periscope, Golden Sphinx, and The Voice of Intelligence, and Naval Proceedings.  In 1994, Thamm was honored by the Central Intelligence Agency for a report, which was recently declassified and published in Naval Intelligence Professional Quarterly.  The author’s writing style provides glimpses of his sense of humor as he details some of his journey through his professional life. Interestingly, although Thamm is a native-born American citizen, he was raised in Germany from the age of approximately two years old. His parents came to America before the Great Depression and his father developed a deep affection for America and all it represents. The father worked for Ford Motor Company until he lost his job in the economic chaos of the great Depression. Gerhardt had been born in the United States, but without close family to provide assistance, he and his parents had to return to Germany.  The Thamms relocated to the farming estate of Gerhardt’s grandfather in Jane, Lower Silesia, in Eastern Germany. The Poles and Russians confiscated the grandfather’s farm at the end of World War II and the Thamm family was placed in a condition of forced servitude by the victors.  This experience helped to shape young Gerhardt’s view of Communists and influenced his attitude toward his work in later life. 

When the author relates his return to the United States and his subsequent enlistment in the U.S. Army, it is difficult to fully appreciate the hurdles he faced with a limited command of the English language at that time. His former military experience in combat and his obvious command of the German language were definite assets however, and Thamm describes how a perceptive personnel colonel recognized his value. The assignment in which he dealt with a massive number of captured Nazi documents, containing high value intelligence reports on our former Russian allies, gives today’s reader a better understanding of the importance of organization and methodology in approaching the analytical aspect of intelligence work.  When Thamm was later selected for training as a field agent, he was involved in the interrogation of defectors to the West. He also met another interrogator, a star by all accounts, whom he would encounter in a strange way much later in life. His description of his early agent training for the clandestine field work of a spy will seem familiar to many who have had much more recent courses in the same type of work. Apparently, the old statement about some things never changing has more than a grain of truth.  Thamm does an amazing job of painting his sometimes dangerous, but never dull work as a field agent in Cold War Berlin. Of course, he never touches on any classified information; however, the moving way in which he details some of his field work and the effect of his often dangerous activities on his family highlights the sacrifices made by all who are closely associated with this profession. One of the most interesting memories Thamm offers is the story of the attempt to kidnap and “sell” him to authorities in East Berlin. Many people in today’s world may not realize just how dangerous and uncertain the Cold War was for the actual participants in the world of spies. 

In his recollections of his early training, Thamm mentions the great emphasis placed on targeting potential sources by determining how badly the targets needed money. He goes on to explain that he believes money to be the greatest motivator in persuading individuals to work against the national interest of their native country. Unfortunately, this has proven to be true far too often in the clandestine activities of traitors to the United States. Obviously, the environment of post-WWII Europe, and specifically in divided Germany, provided a fertile ground for recruiting sources that Journal of Strategic Security had almost nothing left to provide for themselves and their families. However, as Thamm would learn later in his career, not all traitors need money for survival. Some, like those identified in United States history, simply are so greedy that any betrayal becomes acceptable.  This book paints a great historical picture of several important areas.  Thamm does an excellent job of describing his military service during the end of World War II as well as in the U.S. Army as our nation began to adjust to the post-war demands of a different kind of warfare. His descriptions of his early training are vivid and interesting. In describing the stress on his family, particularly his first wife, Thamm could be describing a problem from this week instead of from years ago. Any individual who follows the Intelligence/Counterintelligence profession will identify closely with the description of the costs to personal relationships. No one who reads this book will fail to come away with a better understanding of the Cold War operations in Berlin unless, like the author, that reader actually lived the story. In summary, this book describes the early period in the life of a successful spy and leaves the reader curious to know more details about this remarkable man.

Room 526004Room 526: Espionage, Intrigue and Clandestine Brotherhood

Author:  Gerhardt B. Thamm

Publisher:  The Saltmarsh Press, P.O. 21232, St. Simons Island, GA 31522; 2015; ISBN 978-0-9965235-1-6.  Price:  $16.95.

Room 526 is a Cold War novel with two story lines.  One, how the Soviets were duped into believing the U.S. was itself building titanium submarines, causing the Soviets to spend themselves into near bankruptcy trying to match the supposed U.S. effort.  Two, how the principal character, U.S. Special Agent Hans Reiter, came to break a cardinal rule of all clandestine intelligence services:  Never become friends with your asset.  In this case, the asset was a Soviet intelligence agent recruited by Reiter to spy for the United States.  While Room 526 is fiction, it is as close to fact as security rules permit.