German POW Returns To Oklahoma Ranch Where He Was Held During WWII
OKMULGEE COUNTY, Oklahoma - It's not often we get a chance to go back in life. Which is why Charlie Koenig couldn't pass up a chance to return to Okmulgee County for a look around.
In the winter of one's life, reflection comes in fits and starts. Time's ticking past, fleeting moments become more precious. Expectations are tempered, contentment becomes a treasure to those who know where to find it, in the winter of one's life.
Martha Watson Griffin's father, Fred Watson, was a doctor, oilman and rancher, who set up the family spread down near Pumpkin Center.
During the Second World War, with all the hired hands in the service of Uncle Sam, keeping the Watson Ranch going was near impossible. Until salvation fell into Doc Watson's lap--in the form of the enemy.
"I liked the people here, I liked the way they lived, you know, they were open-minded and friendly," said Karl Friedrich Koenig.
Koenig, who calls himself "Charlie," joined the German army when he was 18 years old. He spent six weeks as a tank gunner in Rommels Afrika Corps before its surrender to the British in May 1943.
And so began four years of captivity for Charlie, through a series of POW camps in Africa; then to Camp Chaffee, Arkansas; on to Alva, Oklahoma, with a short side trip to Okmulgee; on to Fort Polk, Louisiana, by the end of the war; then to Belgium; on to England, before finally being allowed to return home to Germany in 1947.
It was that two-and-a-half week side trip to Okmulgee that brought Charlie to the Watson ranch. Doc Watson was able to bring German POW's to his place to do the work of the missing American boys. He just had to provide accommodations for them, and for two guards.
"I caught this one guard with a lasso from behind, you know, and pulled it tight and he laughed, of course, we all laughed," Charlie said.
There wasn't much laughter in the world then--certainly not for a captive German teenager, whose country would soon lie in ruin.
Which is why the few days Charlie spent on the Watson Ranch was so special, and why, one year shy of 90, he's come back to remember it.
"These are the wide open spaces. That is just the opposite of being fenced-in like a POW," Charlie said.
When Charlie's work as a ranch hand and translator was done for the day, kindly Doc Watson would let him borrow a Palomino and roam the spread.
Charlie called the mare "Silver." And Silver would carry Charlie to a place where there was no war, where the grass was green and the sky was blue and the people, kind.
"I would ride Silver and feel free and get off the horse and lie down between the legs and look into the sky, and said 'I'm free,' and it was so unusual, this feeling, it was overwhelming. I was after all, I was only 19 or 20," Charlie said.
Those fleeting, long-ago days of lying in the grass and imagining freedom is what keeps Charley tall-in-the-saddle today.
In a relentless, driving rain and ankle-deep mud, buffeted by a bitter cold wind, he's come half-way 'round the world to ride a white horse, and remember.
"Do they still sing the song, 'Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam?' They do? Can you sing it?" Charlie said, singing, "'Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.' I love that, you know?"
And that's all this story is about--just an old man, riding a white horse. Because when he was here last to ride a white horse, it saved his sanity. It brought him joy in a grinding existence.
On this rainy day, he never found the spot where 70 years ago he'd lie in the prairie grass. He never found the pond where he'd swim in the afternoon, but he didn't need to find those places. They've never left his heart, you see. And when something never leaves your heart, you've never lost it in the first place.
"To be a POW and to ride off into the open spaces, you know, nobody stopping you, I mean, that's unheard of so-to-speak. It's incredible for me," Charlie said.
And incredible is something to savor, in the winter of one's life.
Charlie never got to live his dream of moving to the United States to own a ranch, but he became a successful businessman in Germany and has always owned horses, which he still rides every day.