7/6/2005 - AFS Ambulance Driver Revisits Bergen-Belsen
Melvin Waters, an AFS WWII driver and one of the liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany revisited a chapter of his past history when he participated in the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation on April 17, 2005.
Shortly after the British Liberation armies arrived at Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, a contingent of AFS ambulance drivers was called in to assist in what became a 7-week mission offering aid and hope to the survivors of the Nazi camp. Among those who did not survive their internment at Bergen-Belsen were Anne Frank and her sister Margot.
Melvin Waters was 19 years old when he joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver, early in the summer of 1944. Melvin served at Bergen-Belsen as a member of the “D” Platoon of 567 COY, an AFS section attached to 21st Army Group. This past April, Melvin and his family, accompanied by Jürgen Blankenburg, the Chair AFS Foundation and former AFS International Trustee, Susanne Orth, Director of fundraising and public relations at the AFS Partner office in Germany and Bärbel Helmers, the former National Director of AFS Germany made the journey to the site of the camp for the memorial ceremonies.
Some time after the commemoration of the event, Melvin spoke on the phone with Eleanora Golobic, the Archivist at AFS International: “The day before going to Bergen-Belsen, I met members of the AFS German office in Hamburg. At this meeting, I realized how little is known about the drivers and the history of the American Field Service. Some, if not all the former participants in AFS exchange programs that I met there thought that the AFS drivers were in the American army. I explained to them that the American Field Service began during the First World War when a group of American college students studying in Paris formed this service organization to help transport French soldiers wounded on the battlefields to hospitals. The AFS was never part of the American army.” After the meeting Melvin attended a dinner with the Board Members of AFS Germany and Francisco “Tachi” Cazal, who has since become the President of AFS International.
Melvin reminisced about the decision to go to the memorial service and about the conditions he found at the camp upon his arrival in 1944: “When I first thought about going to the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, I had mixed emotions. My first reaction was to call Cynthia, my eldest daughter, and discuss it with her. Her response was ‘Dad, you have to go and I will go with you and Mom.’ Two of my daughters, a son-in-law and my wife Jo, all accompanied me to Hamburg, Germany and later to Bergen-Belsen.” The moral support provided by his family was undoubtedly important as Melvin thought back to the nightmarish conditions he witnessed when he first arrived at the camp in 1944. “When we entered the camp, we walked among rows and rows of dead bodies, the living were mixed in with the dead. Some were delirious, not being able to grasp that they were now free. We did not know where to begin our work, the task was so overwhelming, but we were soon ordered to begin the evacuation of the camp’s survivors.
“Coming back to this place was a little disorienting,” continued Melvin, “When the memorial ceremony was over, I looked for the place where I remembered the main gate to the camp had been located, but I could not find it. I finally asked Jürgen Blankenburg, and he said that I was standing right on the spot where the gate used to be. ‘How could this be?’, I asked him, since I remembered the main gate had looked out to the east onto an open field, but now, Bergen-Belsen was just a small clearing deep in a forest. Where had all the trees come from? My wife reminded me that a lot of trees can grow in sixty years, and then I was reminded that the horror of this camp did not happen yesterday, it had happened 60 years ago.”
After a few more days in Germany and in Belgium, where he visited the AFS Flemish and French Partner offices, the town of Brugges and the memorial to the Battle of the Bulge, Melvin and his family boarded the plane for the trip back home to the United States: “As I flew home, I thought of how gracious and friendly all the people of the Hamburg AFS office and AFS Belgium had been to my family and to me. I was overwhelmed at the dedication and enthusiasm of the staff members, volunteers and AFS program alumni whom I met during my stay in Germany and Belgium. All of the AFS alumni that I spoke with told me that their year abroad in the exchange program was the most memorable time of their lives. It made me think of how much the months I spent in the AFS meant to me and how they affected my life.”
Following the end of the war in Europe, Melvin was sent to the United Kingdom and transferred to India in July of 1945. After the termination of hostilities with Japan, he returned to the United States in 1945. He has worked as a CPA for many years at his firm in Dallas, Texas. Melvin is now busy writing his forthcoming memoirs which will be titled “My Story” based on his experiences in the war.