Constable: Suburban boys oversaw German POWs during World War II
As a 12-year-old boy in 1944, Ronald Rengel had plenty of experience driving his grandpa's John Deere tractor around the suburbs. He wasn't strong enough to turn the manual flywheel that started the engine, but once the tractor roared to life, the boy could operate the hand clutch and maneuver his way through chores at the family's farm and at Rengel's fruit and vegetable stand in Wilmette.
"One day, my grandpa says, 'Ronnie, get the John Deere and go to Harms Woods and pick up the farmhands,'" remembers Rengel, now 85 and a longtime Mundelein resident. Rengel and his 10-year-old brother, Kenneth, drove to Glenview, where an "old man in charge" made sure two dozen men hopped onto the lowboy trailer pulled by the tractor.
"Each man had a khaki shirt with a big PW silk-screened on the back," says Rengel, who quickly figured out that stood for prisoner of war. "My little brother and I, one of our chores in the morning was to pick up a bunch of German prisoners."
The men, German soldiers captured during World War II, were among more than 400,000 Axis prisoners shipped to the United States and kept in camps where they often were allowed out to work on farms and in factories, replacing Americans off fighting the war. It couldn't have been a better arrangement, Rengel says.
"Almost everyone spoke German at that time on the farm," Rengel says.
His mother, Eva Kizman, came to the United States in 1922 as an 18-year-old single woman from Hungary. His father, Joseph, was a first-generation American born to immigrants Joseph and Katherine Rengel, who came to New Trier Township in the suburbs after leaving their home in the German city of Trier in the Moselle wine region, near the Luxembourg border.
Rengel and his little brother knew enough German to communicate with the POWs.
"Kenny would sit out there and chatter with them," Rengel says. "They'd talk about their families and life before they went into the military."
The boys would drop the prisoners at their grandpa's farm and at another Wilmette farm owned by Michael Loutsch.
"I don't think they ever worried about me and the prisoners," says Rengel. "Most of the German prisoners didn't want to escape. Why should they?"
He remembers his mom making sandwiches for the men, as she once did for customers at the Rengels' family-owned tavern in Morton Grove, where a 7-year-old Rengel used to fetch buckets of beer.
The German POWs were well-behaved, and Rengel figured their lives as POWs were more comfortable than their lives as soldiers on the battlefield.
It would have been easy for the prisoners to overpower the two brothers and flee into the suburbs.
"The only weapon I had, and I was so proud of that weapon, was a little 2-inch pocketknife that I slipped into a pocket in my boots," Rengel says.
The German prisoners didn't fit the Nazi stereotype.
"They were not SS troops, and they did not like Hitler," Rengel remembers. "In the couple years we were doing that, we never had any problems with them."
The prisoners, and the brothers, did more than work. "Saturday night, they had German movies at the Wilmette Theater," says Rengel, who remembers watching alongside the prisoners. "Life was good for farm boys during World War II."
But the war had an impact.
"When the war started, I lived in Glenview," Rengel says, noting his father had sold the tavern and found work as a tool-and-die maker. They rented a house from Our Lady of Perpetual Help until the war.
"They raffled our house off. I think it was for war bonds," Rengel says, explaining how his family moved to Wilmette with his grandparents.
He also remembers an older neighbor boy, Buddy, who played the guitar and let the Rengel boys sing with him.
He joined the Navy and was killed "when his ship went down," Rengel says. "I knew what happened in war."
Rengel, a 1951 graduate of New Trier High School, enlisted in the Army and spent two years, one month and 19 days on the island of Okinawa at the end of the Korean War. He and his wife, Evelyn, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in January and raised sons Jerry and Lance and daughter Robin in the Mundelein house where they have lived since 1957.
He's long retired from his career with AT&T, for which he mostly did installations and repairs.
A licensed private pilot, Rengel has logged 4,813 hours in the air, often flying to his place on Washington Island, off the northern tip of Door County, Wisconsin, in the single-engine Cessna Skyhawk he dubbed "Ron's Mistress."
He also has ridden 186,000 miles on his 1972 Moto Guzzi motorcycle.
He credits his childhood working and his time spent in charge of those German POWs for his success in life.
"We had tons of responsibility. In the evening I'd take them back and drop them off," Rengel says, noting one man would handle the transfer of prisoners. "There was no guard, no roll call. If the same amount came back as we took out, that's all he worried about. The responsibility we had, that's what made us. I was really proud of what we did."