An Enemy Alien
Frederick Mayer was born in 1921 in the city of Freiberg, Germany. He embarked on his military training at an early age as his father inundated him with stories of the horrors that occurred in the French fortress town of Verdun, where one million souls lost their lives. Mayer’s father, a lieutenant in the Kaiser’s army, had been decorated with the coveted Iron Cross Second Class for gallantry at Verdun. He had been a war hero and often regaled his son with tales of his wartime exploits, making quite an impression on the boy. Mayer later recalled, “This was my military training.” A businessman after the war, Mayer’s father provided for his family in the postwar chaos of the hyperinﬂated Weimar Republic.
Bull-like, with a stocky frame, Mayer was a great athlete. Until Hitler gained power, he had been a member of the ski and athletic clubs in high school. Known for his inquisitive mind and his ability to tear things apart, then reassemble them, Mayer soon sought an apprenticeship as a diesel mechanic with the Ford Motor Company. Charismatic, with an everpresent smile revealing his inner conﬁdence, Frederick Mayer’s view of life was to “do your best at everything everyday, control what you can, and what you can’t, don’t worry about.” His optimism expressed a joie de vivre, and he had few enemies—until the rise of the Nazi Party.
The Mayers were Jewish. During the early 1930s, a wave of virulent anti-Semitism accompanied the Nazis’ rise to power. Despite his father’s heroic service to his country during World War I, Mayer’s family was not immune to the anti-Jewish sentiment. Fred remembers ﬁrsthand being called a “Jew bastard.” Yet he always stood up for himself and promptly ﬂattened the perpetrator, knocking him to the ground. The Nazis soon turned anti-Semitism into a state religion. Mayer’s father was a patriot and believed, like many other patriotic Jewish veterans, that their service would trump the radical racial views of the Nazi Party. In 1938, Mayer’s father still clung to the false hope that his service in the Kaiser’s army would insulate the family from harm. He took the view that as he had been “a German officer, nothing [would] happen to [him and his family].” Mayer’s mother was more pragmatic, stating bluntly, “We are Jews, and we are leaving.”
After a two-year struggle with bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic, the Mayers ﬁnally obtained a visa through contacts in the United States. Arriving with only the clothes on their backs, the family immigrated to New York, where Mayer’s father and the entire family sought work in Brooklyn. A jack-of-all-trades, young Mayer held more than twenty different jobs. While he was working in one of these positions, he recalled, his boss made an anti-Semitic remark, and as he had done in Germany several times, he took matters into his own hands and laid out his boss, quitting on the spot.
Hitler’s December 8, 1941, declaration of war against the United States following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was a call to arms—and Mayer answered the call. That morning, he promptly showed up at his local recruiting center in Brooklyn. Mayer felt that “the United States [had] provided [his family] a haven. I felt a need to give something back.” The morning Mayer reported to the draft board, he was summarily dismissed for being an “enemy alien.”
Discouraged, yet undaunted, Mayer’s opportunity to serve his adopted country came unexpectedly, weeks later, when his brother was summoned before the draft board. His brother was a college student at the time, and Mayer wanted him to ﬁnish, so he went before the draft board in his brother’s place and volunteered his own services. Seeing Mayer’s determination, the board acquiesced.
The twenty-year-old Jew was then shipped to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he received several months of basic training. Graduating boot camp, Private Mayer received orders to report to the Eighty-ﬁrst Division. For the most part, Mayer kept his nose clean, except for an AWOL incident while on maneuvers in Tennessee, after which he found himself digging ditches into red Tennessee clay. After the Tennessee maneuvers, Fred’s division was shipped to Camp Horn in Gila Bend, Arizona, for desert training. Ironically, the training would prove almost useless when the division was shipped off to the Paciﬁc. It was while en route to the California port town of San Luis Obispo for amphibious warfare training that Mayer received the letter that would change his life.
© Patrick K. O’Donnell