CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Reinhardt J. Kieffer (also going by his initials RJ) grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Immediately before he entered the service, he worked at an ordnance depot in Savanna, Illinois. On December 7, 1941, Kieffer was listening to the radio while practicing stenography, when he heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was shocked and expected to be drafted for the military. The ordnance depot wanted to keep Kieffer as an employee; they deferred his draft twice; yet, in October of 1942, Kieffer was finally slated for conscription.
Leaving home was no problem for the newly drafted Kieffer, as he was 28 years old and had lived at a seminary for some time. He was initially sent to Camp Grant, Illinois, where he took an army IQ test and earned an exceptionally high score of 131. After ten days, a train took him to Camp Barkeley, Texas (now Dyess Air Force Base), where Kieffer was assigned to the 90th Motorized Division, later reorganized as the 90th Infantry Division. Following four weeks of training, he was assigned to the G-4 staff in the division headquarters, which oversaw the unit’s logistics.
An announcement was posted on the bulletin board asking for volunteers to join the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) to become German interpreters. Kieffer, who had studied German in school and was relatively fluent, took the opportunity. He passed the preliminary German test and was sent to the University of Missouri, where he studied German language, politics, geography and culture for six months.
In April of 1944, the ASTP was dissolved, as the program’s members were needed to fight in Europe in preparation for the upcoming invasion of Normandy. Kieffer was sent to Fort Robinson, Arkansas, and then Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he trained with the 66th Infantry Division as a crewman on the M1 57 mm anti-tank gun. He noted that the conditions were extremely tough, especially at Fort Rucker, where several people committed suicide because they lacked the mental capacity to continue training. Much of the training had to be conducted at night, due to the sweltering heat and humidity. Kieffer attributed his ability to get through training to his dedication and proactive attitude.
In October of 1944, Kieffer was placed in a 200-man “packet” of soldiers organized as a replacement group for men who had left their units due to illness, wounds, death, or other reasons. He journeyed across the Atlantic on the SS Nieuw Amsterdam. The voyage took thirteen days, as the lone vessel zigzagged to avoid possible torpedoes fired by U-boats. Some men suffered from seasickness, but Kieffer ate only dry food and escaped any trouble.
Kieffer landed in Glasgow, Scotland, and traveled by train to a camp in England, where he remained for ten days. He then took a landing boat across the English Channel and landed in France. Travelling to Belgium, Kieffer was assigned to the 104th Division. Initially, he was ordered to maintain statistics on the status of the unit’s men from the daily morning reports usually submitted by company first sergeants. The statistics detailed who was present, who was absent, who had been wounded or killed, who was sick, etc. Kieffer, however, had not been sent overseas to just do desk work. He was soon tested on his German language skills, as well as underwent a background check; Kieffer was assigned to the 104th’s Counterintelligence Detachment.
As Kieffer’s unit moved into a captured village, tables would be set up in the center of town. Every male resident in the town was required to register at the tables, where they would be questioned by Kieffer and his associates. The counterintelligence men were most concerned with finding and interrogating Nazi representatives in the towns. If enough allegations were collected against a Nazi, then an arrest might be conducted, but Kieffer’s unit was not responsible for conducting any investigation beyond preliminary interviews. Upon leaving the town, the information they gathered would be passed onto other units, who would continue the investigations.
Kieffer continued this work until the end of the war, when his unit had just entered Holland. At that point, he was approached by a woman seeking help. Her father had been murdered, along with two French informants. Kieffer and his associates investigated and, through photo identification, found the perpetrator to be a Ukrainian man. They visited eight or ten refugee camps searching for him, with no luck, only to discover that he had been living with other refugees in a house right next to Kieffer’s base camp! The culprit was apprehended and turned over to Dutch police.
As part of a second line unit detachment, Kieffer never came into direct contact with German forces. One time, while based in a boarding school in Belgium, a V-1 flying bomb flew overhead. Its engine stopped just above the school, and Kieffer saw it impact about a mile away in a field. His unit was involved in the liberation of the Nordhausen concentration camp, and he remembered it as the “most disgusting site” he ever saw, climbing over dead bodies on the stairs and smelling the odor of burned ashes near the crematorium.
Following the end of the war, Kieffer was appalled at what he had seen. He decided that it was his duty to remain in the service and help with Europe’s recovery. The army kept him in Europe for several years; and, in 1947, Kieffer attended the army’s Russian language school. While on leave in Italy, he met his future wife. Kieffer remained in the army and rose through the ranks to captain in 1954. After leaving the army, he got a degree in Sociology from North Carolina State University. In 1968, Kieffer moved to Philadelphia and worked for the Army Electronics Command for five years.
Kieffer was involved with several veterans’ organizations in the postwar era, as well as visited schools to share his experiences. When asked if he would go back in time and “do it over”, Kieffer confidently said that he didn’t “regret a moment” of his service. At the time of his interview, he was living in Cape May, New Jersey. Reinhardt J. Kieffer lived to the age of 98, when he passed away peacefully at home on November 8, 2012.