We now begin the first segment of our two-part Target Three Special Report -- called "Journey of Hope."
It's a Wichita Falls man's World War II story ... but one that began in Nazi Germany.
Chief photographer Rick Scruggs and Katie Crosbie teamed up for this story ...
It was 1933 and Germany had a new leader ... a leader who never won a majority of the votes, but now had complete control over just about every aspect of people's lives.
"I was then 11 years old. So ... I didn't vote for Hitler. I never voted for Hitler once."
And yet, Walter Hohfeld would spend much of his life tangled in a web of circumstances spun by the dictator.
At 14, Hohfeld was sent to compulsory training camp ... where he was required to wear a "Hitler Youth" uniform.
"We worked most of the time at farms, but while we were in these camps, they tried to make Hitler's followers out of us, I'm sure. But they overdid."
Hohfeld says the propaganda was nonstop and overwhelming..
"Too much of it just couldn't stick. It was unreal. And then, my mom was not for this stuff. I remember my mother telling my oldest brother that if Daddy be alive, he wouldn't go for this stuff. That means he'd probably be in a concentration camp too. Because he would not ... he would not be forced into something he don't believe in."
In September of 1941, Hohfeld was drafted into the Armed Forces and sent to anti- aircraft artillery training. Then he was in France ... Belgium ... Germany ... & Italy, trying to shoot down the Allied war planes coming in ever increasing numbers.
"I must say, in all this time, we have shot at American & English airplanes. Way up there in the dark. And I might have shot at somebody here, his daddy or his uncle or grandpapa flyin' up there. And I hope he's not gonna hold it against me. I'm always afraid doing something wrong."
Hohfeld was stationed near the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland until early 1945, when Russian troops approached. Hohfeld and his men fled to Czechloslovakia. And then, one day ...
"Everyone was on his own. We knew the war ended. Nobody cared anymore. We dropped our weapons, & my friend Moore & I walked at night, north/northwest."
Hohfeld and a friend headed toward the American lines.
"It was still dark, & cold. We came to a small creek. We thought about walking through -- it would have been the right thing to do -- but then we decided we'd walk down the river a little bit -- maybe there's a better way to get across. Yes. There was a bridge. But there also was a man with an automatic weapon. And when he said, 'Handeho, hands up' -- our hands were flying up. Because we knew our life was not worth five cents."
Hohfeld says armed Russians rounded up about two thousand German soldiers & made them march.
"There was no food. And then, we came to a little creek - not little, it was maybe 80, 100 feet wide, just the water was as clear as it could be. You see those flat rocks all shiny. And by that time, they knew they couldn't march us much longer. We hadn't had a drop of water in days. So, they let us -- turned us loose. And that thing was just -- they had many people with rifles ... So, as everybody got in there, I knelt right on the side of the river, put my cap - you know that funny cap -- & put my glasses in there, & then you don't have no water in days, you go like this, everybody was -- & I heard somebody step into those glasses - those big horn glasses ...
"I cursed at that guy! I can no longer repeat because I don't know! And as I was doing that, a uniformed arm reached down, & said, 'Here, take this. I got an extra pair.' I never saw him. I was stunned! Those glasses - I was thinking, 'What can I do without glasses? I don't know what I'm doing, I lose my eyesight.'
"Still today, I ask myself, 'Was that just luck?' You have to consider - I wore glasses since I was four years old. In my neighborhood, nobody wore glasses. No child. At that time, people didn't wear a whole lot of glasses."
Hohfeld says that one act of kindness renewed his faith and hope that he would somehow survive.
"When I was a prisoner, I prayed every evening & every morning." "What did you pray for?" "To get home again. And for the Lord to help my people at home. And all those poor, poor guys around me."
But Hohfeld would not get home again for a very long time. And when he did get home ... What he found would make him wonder if a better life could be found in the land of his former enemy.
****To watch Part Two, click here.
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