From War Opponents to Friends

I recently wrote an article for the local newspaper about two veterans, Joseph Leo and Dieter Birkholz, who served on opposite sides during WWII. Here's the article. Enjoy!

Joseph Leo (left) and Dieter Birkholz share memories of their service World War II recently at the Eldred (Pa.) World War II Museum.

Dieter Birkholz and Joseph Leo were young men fighting on opposite sides during World War II. Birkholz was a German Luftwaffe anti-aircraft crewman, while Leo flew 15 missions as a U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 waist-gunner over Nazi-occupied Europe. Now friends for over 35 years, they recently sat side-by-side at the Eldred (Pa.)WWII Museum to share their stories.

Birkholz was born in Szczecin, Germany and was only 6 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933. He remembers having a good childhood with his young widowed mother and younger brother. At 10 years old he joined the Jungvolk and, at 14, the Hitler Youth.

“We didn’t think so much about the politics,” recalls Birkholz. “So much wasn’t known about it anyway. We weren’t really aware of what was really going on.”

At 14 and 13 years old, respectively, the Birkholz brothers entered military school in Vilshofen along the Danube river in Bavaria. “It was in a monastery and the SS had cleared out all the monks," Birkholz said. "It was like a regular military school and was run by the SS.”

Dieter Birkholz
 In 1944, Dieter was sent to Plzeƈ to become a Luftwaffe flak helper. Here he helped protect Skoda Works, one of the largest European industrial conglomerates. “We served all year there protecting Skoda Works. I was in fire control. Each battery had six guns. There were two batteries next to each other so we were firing twelve. Fire control is just the sights—you’re aiming. The aim data goes electronically to each gun and you have the elevation, the bearing and the distance.”

By the end of the year, Birkholz was sent to Barth, Germany for the RAD—Reich Labor Service—which required young German men and women to work six months for the government. Since it was so late in the war, the RAD had changed from manual labor to military training.

 “It was a little marching, a little organizing, rifle training, shooting, things like that," he said. "It wasn’t the true RAD anymore.”

When the Russians were advancing the following spring, Birkholz’s unit was called up to fight. Not being properly armed, they were transported farther south.

“The next three days we spent marching to exhaustion. We wound up in Schwerin, Mecklenburg. That’s when I met the first American soldier. We threw our weapons down and they were standing there with a .50-caliber machine gun mounted and were chewing gum. I’d never seen anyone chew gum before in my life. He said something to me in English and I was so embarrassed because I couldn’t understand him. He said to me, ‘How old are you?’ I was seventeen. He probably wasn’t more than nineteen.”

Birkholz remembers feeling utterly betrayed when the end of the war was announced. “I felt betrayed by my leaders. I was standing there with nothing. Everything was always portrayed as ‘we can win this.’  I was only seventeen. I knew nothing.”

While Birkholz was training to be a flak helper, Leo was manning a waist-gun thousands of feet above.

In 1944, Leo, having grown up in Oneida, was drafted at 18 and sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey for induction. His aptitude test showed he was a good typist, and they were going to keep him at Fort Dix during the war.

 “I said, ‘Sir, what am I going to tell my grandchildren? I fought the war in Fort Dix?’ Wrong thing to say. The officer looked at me and I can still feel his eyes boring right through me. He said, ‘Soldier, you're in this army to do what you’re told.’ ‘Yes, sir,’  I said, ‘but I’d prefer to fly.’”

A few nights later, Leo was marched to the train station. “We were almost to Texas before I knew where we were going—the Air Force. I think that officer did it. He saw my enthusiasm. And I ended up in the Air Force,” says Leo.

Leo was then sent to Las Vegas, Nevada for gunnery school. “That was the school to teach you how to shoot machine guns and the turrets on a plane. You had to know every position on a plane and be able to use it.”

Joseph Leo
From there Leo was sent to Florida where he was assigned to a 10-man crew, then on to Savannah, Ga., where they picked up a brand new B-17. “From Savannah we flew to Maine, refueled, and then went to Newfoundland," he said.

His crew was stationed in Eye, England from which they flew 15 missions.

“Trucks were scurrying around, pumping the last bits of gas in your tanks. Then all of a sudden the whole base comes deathly quiet. The trucks stop, everything stops and the pilot says, ‘Ok, let’s go fellas.’ So, we get in the plane. We wait. Then a green flare goes off. There’s four engines on a plane and there’s thirty-six planes all warming up at once … try and put yourself in that sound. Boy, you couldn't hear yourself think. You see everybody lined up at the tower to watch us take off. At the end of the long runway was a stone wall and a farm. When you take off you're supposed to be in the radio room with your feet braced against the wall in case it crashed on takeoff. But most of us kinda sneaked back and peeked out over.”

Leo recalls a hazardous bomb run in overcast weather. On that mission they were flying what they called, “tail-end Charlie”. When extra planes were available, they would send another plane up which flew nearly outside the formation.

“One of the other planes aborted the mission. He had to go back, engine problem or something. We took his place but we had to get all the way across the formation. So we worked our way through the planes … overcast got higher and higher and the planes got more buried in the fog. Two planes collided in front of us. Of course it happened so fast that I didn’t see it. I was looking out the side window. Well, our pilot pulled the plane up and he could have hit another plane himself. Our navigator set a course south, hoping to get down into France so that we could land there. We came out over Frankfurt, Germany and the sun was shining. They didn’t shoot at us. That meant that they probably were going to send some fighters up to get us. But they didn’t, and I don’t know why because we were dead ducks all by ourselves over Frankfurt. So, we got over into France and found a field but we didn’t have to land. They sent us back to England. They already had us reported as one of the planes that collided.”

Toward the end of the war, the Americans made a truce with Germany in which they were allowed to drop food behind German lines.

“They would let us do it but they couldn’t guarantee us that all the troops had got the message, because communications were very bad with the Germans,” says Leo. “We had to fly with our bomb bay doors open and wheels down. They told us to fly between 50 and 100 feet, and don’t try to hold a formation. They filled our bomb bay with food, and we dropped it behind the lines.”

Birkholz came to Buffalo in the 1950s, later meeting Joseph Leo when he moved to the Portville area.

“He lived around the corner,” recalls Birkholz. “My wife took our two poodles for a walk up the street and their dog came running out. So, we were introduced."

It didn’t take long for them to figure out they were former enemies. When asked if there was any tension between them, Birkholz and Leo both said no.

“Young men on both sides did what they had to do."




  1. This was SO interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Wow. That was truly amazing to read. Just wow.

  3. Hi Emily! I just stumbled across your blog and I absolutely LOVE its title and the quote behind it; I've never heard that quote before, and it feels so very true for me also!! I also see lots of WWII stuff here, and I LOVE WWII, so I can't wait to poke around some more. :)


  4. Wow! This is an incredible post! It's amazing that despite every single opposing odd, these two men ended up friends. It's such an inspiring story, thanks for sharing! <3

    1. Isn't that amazing?! I'm so thankful that they shared their stories!