First Lt. Gerhard G. Hennes, a communications specialist in Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, had heard rumors of Jews and Gypsies being herded into concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
He could not bring himself to believe them.
World War II, the young German officer was shown proof of the extent to which Adolf Hitler pursued his policy of genocide.
In May 1945, after the war had ended in Europe, Hennes and the 1,300 other German POWs were forced to watch a documentary on concentration camp atrocities.
They saw -- Hennes says for the first time -- mass graves, naked bodies stacked near crematoriums, and the empty stares of emaciated survivors of places such as Dachau and Auschwitz.
In a darkened movie house at the Crossville POW camp, Hennes came face-to-face with his allegiance to the Fuhrer and the Fatherland.
"I have never totally recovered from the shock in that dark, suddenly uncomfortably hot, theater where from the flickering shaft of light such horrible scenes would appear and curse us all," said Hennes, holder of two Iron Crosses for heroism in combat. "That day, when spring was at its most beautiful, was the day I turned from being a hero to being a villain."
Hennes, now 82 and retired in Whitehall Township, recounted his experience in a memoir of his life as a POW more than 60 years ago.
"The Barbed Wire: POW in the USA" is a story of transformation, redemption and atonement.
In the 114-page softcover book, part of a larger memoir-in- progress "Under the Crooked Cross," Hennes traces his nearly three- year saga from Rommel's surrender to the British in Tunisia to his release and return to Germany in 1946.
Hennes went into the German army believing Hitler could restore dignity to the Fatherland, emasculated by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. He returned to Germany after the war, disillusioned and vowing to make up for his own, as well as the German people's, inaction in the face of Hitler's abuses.
"To redeem myself and my people, if that were possible at all, would be the principal motivation of my life and work," Hennes writes.
Hennes would spend 18 years providing disaster relief to people in 80 countries through Church World Service, a U.S.-based relief, development, and refugee assistance ministry. He also served as vice president for administration at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey.
He has been an American citizen since 1958.
In a recent interview, Hennes insisted he shares some measure of responsibility for not opposing Hitler's rise to power.
"I was old enough to know better," he said. "I have a share of the guilt, certainly, with regard to Germany going wrong and becoming evil."
Nationalism, not national socialism
Though he proudly fought for his country, Hennes was not a Nazi Party member. Most German soldiers weren't, he says.
Like practically all German boys ages 10 to 14, though, he was a member of the pre-Hitler Youth, or Jungvolk. Cast as a recreation program, it subtly instilled a sense of German nationalism a la "Mein Kampf."