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FRIDAY, MARCH 30, 2007

Margaret Mefford, who volunteers at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens, was a little girl during the Allies' post-World War II occupation of Germany. On Saturday, Mefford will share her story with the public as part of the museum's annual Women and the Military celebration.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Margaret Mefford, who volunteers at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens, was a little girl during the Allies' post-World War II occupation of Germany. On Saturday, Mefford will share her story with the public as part of the museum's annual Women and the Military celebration.

Love (and God) amongst the ruins
U.S. occupation of Germany changed life of Capshaw woman

By Holly Hollman · 340-2445

ATHENS — Margaret Hoffman Mefford's childhood memories aren't about hiding in tree houses, feeding ducks at the park and dressing up like a princess.

For her, they're about the blare of sirens, hiding in a cave and seeing her town burn.

So, for a moment, forget Mefford is a 68-year-old great-grandmother who sews and raises flowers at her Capshaw home.

Imagine her as Margaret, a little girl between 5 and 7 years old, living in the bombed city of Kassel, Germany, and fleeing to the countryside in Dingelstadt.

World War II is under way, and Margaret's father and uncle serve in the German Air Force. The Allies shoot down her uncle twice, but he survives. Her father, stationed in Paris, sends home chocolate for Margaret and silk dresses and furs for his wife, along with love poems.

Cave shelter

In 1943, the Allies start bombing the city. Kassel has factories that are vital to the German defense. Warning sirens become a common part of Margaret's life. When she hears them, she immediately runs for the cave shelter. She huddles with other citizens on wooden benches behind a closed iron door at the entrance.

Each time Margaret and her mother exit the cave, they see fires. One bombing by the British burns the oldest part of the city. It looks like a firestorm. The attack leaves 11,000 dead. Young Margaret does not understand. The woman she becomes realizes that, for the British, it is payback.

Her father visits when he can. During one of his visits, bombing erupts, and the family hides in the cave. When the bombing ceases, the family returns home to a building that is five stories and houses many.

Most go to their kitchens after time in the cave because they are hungry or thirsty. Margaret's father is at the kitchen window and sees that the gravel outside is disturbed. He yells for everyone to run.

An explosion shatters the windows, rips the chandelier from the ceiling and catches the rear of the home on fire. Margaret sees blood on her father's face. Her mother is on the floor next to her. The Allies had left a bomb timed to explode hours later.

Afraid of the constant attacks, Margaret's mother takes her east to Dingelstadt, away from the bombing. The location does not keep them from the Allies, however. In 1945, the Americans enter the town. It is Margaret's first time to see an American.

The Americans come to the family's door. Margaret's father is wearing his German uniform. The Americans take him as a prisoner of war to an unknown location. An American officer tells Margaret's mother that the Allies will divide Germany. Dingelstadt will belong to the Russians, and the family should head west.

Terrified of traveling with her daughter through the war-torn land, Margaret's mother leaves her in another's woman's care. Margaret's mother travels with a friend on a bicycle to Kassel.

"You may never see your mother again," the woman tells Margaret.

With both parents gone, Margaret spends most of her days crying.

Margaret's mother, however, makes it the 50 miles to Kassel. The Americans occupying the town require her to register. When the military learns she can speak English and was a secretary, they hire her as an interpreter. The Americans tell her to pick out a home and then send her after Margaret in a Jeep and accompanied by a guard.

The Russians come to Dingelstadt weeks after Margaret reaches Kassel with her mother.

Margaret, her mother and grandmother eat well from American provisions. American citizens send care packages for the poor, and Margaret receives a pair of shoes. An officer gives her a doll, her only toy since hers were destroyed in the bombing.

One day, Margaret returns home from playing outside and sees a man leaning against the window. He is thin, and Margaret is curious.

"Your dad is home," her mother tells her.

Margaret is hesitant. It has been a year since the Americans took him. He has a limp. He does not look like the father she remembers, but when he holds out his arms, she walks to him for a hug.

Life starts to become normal again. Margaret's mother has two sons, and her father gets a job overseeing transportation of coal until his death in 1955.

Even though Kassel is under American occupation, Margaret's teenage years bring dating and flirting. She and her friends ride their bicycles past American soldiers who wave and say, "Hello, fraulein." If they are cute, Margaret and her friends, who learned English in school, talk to the soldiers. If they are not cute, Margaret and her friends pretend not to understand.

That's how Margaret meets Bobby Mefford, who is in the Army. He is cute, so she "understands" when he talks to her. Their first date is at a flower show, and she brings along her brothers. Bobby buys them ice cream and asks for another date.

"He really must like me," she thinks.

They go to the American movies. Her first is "The Three Stooges." On these dates she drinks her first Coca-Cola with ice and eats her first hamburger and bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

In 1957, they marry, move to Huntsville, her husband's hometown, and raise a family.

And Margaret Mefford realizes her purpose in life.

"God was looking out for me because I was not a Christian when I was in Germany," Mefford said, after relating her story. "Living in Germany, it's different. People are not as outspoken about their beliefs in God. In America, someone shared with me God's salvation plan."

Today, Mefford is a content housewife. Her husband is retired, and they live in Capshaw. She sews clothes, bakes and grows flowers. She shares photographs of her four children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Three of her grandsons are in the military.

Veterans museum

Mefford also watches World War II movies — her favorite is "Patton" — and reads World War II books. She volunteers at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens, where she has mementos from her childhood on display.

On Saturday, Mefford will join other women to share her story with the public as part of the museum's annual Women and the Military celebration.

"The event shows that it's not only men who go and fight or are patriotic," Mefford said. "Women also support the effort, whether they're at home raising the children or working in factories."

Mefford said, to her, the museum is like home.

"I've been around military all my life, and coming here makes me feel like I'm coming home," she said Thursday while she readied the museum for Saturday's event. "My father and uncle were military. I was fortunate to find a handsome and kind American soldier to marry. My family is involved in the military. It's who I am."

After she mentioned her husband, Bobby Mefford walked in and handed her a bottle of water. She had forgotten to bring one to work.

"That'll keep your tongue flapping," he said and walked away.

"He's quiet, but he's humorous and so thoughtful," she said. "See? I didn't even have to ask him to do that. He just did."

The Americans took her father prisoner and helped bomb her hometown. How did she embrace marrying an American soldier, becoming an American and raising her family to be proud of this country?

'Never taught hate'

"My mother never taught hate," she said. "The Americans had a job to do, just as my father felt he had a job to do. It was war, and my father was their enemy.

"The Americans were nice to us. They saved my life and got me out of the East where the Russians were coming. And always, to us, America was the dreamland. America was the greatest country in the world. Now I am here, and I know, America is the greatest country."

Fighting females

The event: Women and the Military annual celebration

Where: Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives, 100 W. Pryor St., Athens

When: Saturday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.

What to see: Re-enactors, six new female Marine recruits, civilians who worked at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Redstone Arsenal building bombs and other weapons, and a woman who was a child during the U.S. Army’s occupation of Germany following World War II.

American women at war

Women have been caring for soldiers and fighting in wars since our country’s beginning.

During the Revolutionary War, Margaret Corbin, dubbed “Captain Molly,” was wounded at Fort Washington. She took over operation of a cannon for her husband after his death in combat. The Continental Congress granted her money equal to one-half pay drawn by a soldier, making her the first American woman to receive a military pension.

During the Mexican War, Elizabeth Newcom enlisted in a Missouri volunteer infantry company as Bill Newcom. She marched 600 miles to Colorado before the company realized she was a woman and discharged her.

Fast-forward to 2005, when Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the Kentucky Army National Guard became the first woman in history to receive the Silver Star for combat action.

The number of women who have served in some capacity during our nation’s conflicts:

Spanish-American War 1,500

World War I 35,000

World War II era 400,000

Korea (in theater) 1,000

Vietnam (in theater) 7,500

Grenada (deployed) 170

Panama (deployed) 770

Desert Storm (in theater) 41,000

On active duty as of 2006 202,248

- sources: women in military service for america memorial foundation, department of defense

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