Gus Schuettler: A Stripes icon's journey from Germany to America ... and back
By JOE GROMELSKI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 16, 2017
Photographer Guenter "Gus" Schuettler liked to tell a story that neatly summarized his feelings about working at Stars and Stripes.
Schuettler and reporter Wally Beene, in Spain to cover Valencia's Festival of Fire, picked up a couple of American hitchhikers. One of them asked whether the two were working or vacationing.
"At that moment," Schuettler recalled, "Wally took his big cigar out of his mouth and leaned into the back seat and said, 'well, that's the beauty about this whole thing. We're never quite sure.'"
Schuettler's Stars and Stripes career did often veer into areas that most people would have given anything to experience. He spent a day at artist Salvador Dali's home, and photographed Elvis Presley during the rock icon's final Army days. He was there when President John F. Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna.
But there was danger, too, and heartbreak. His photos of Berlin during and after the construction of the Berlin Wall convey the tension that was in the air and the sadness of the people whose city was suddenly divided. One of his final assignments before retiring was to tell the story of the plight of Kurdish refugees after the Gulf War.
Born in Germany in 1933, Schuettler was a six-year-old living in Kassel when World War II broke out. "It started to get bad in 1942," he recalled in an interview in 2009, three years before his death at age 79. "As a 10-year-old boy, you don't see the seriousness of war. My mother was the one that was worried. Every night we went down into the basement with our wet cloth in front of our eyes, and the building was shaking from the bombs."
Although he was too young for the Hitler Youth, Schuettler wasn't spared heavy doses of ideology.
"I was in the lower section, the (under-13) jungvolk. We had a uniform — a brown shirt, shoulder strap, black slacks. They trained us to be following in the Nazis' footsteps, to be good soldiers," he said. "On Hitler's birthday, we had to stand next to the Nazi flag, at attention for two hours.
"When you undermine the families, when the son is afraid that Dad might've said something against the government, and the son says 'hey, I think my dad is not a good citizen' ... nobody talked any more. To me it is still an unbelievable thing how this guy could fascinate 90 million Germans into this whole disaster. That there was no rebellion."
When American troops arrived, their decency toward the family impressed young Schuettler. "My love for the United States kept on growing."
In the mid-1950s in Frankfurt, Schuettler befriended an American servicemember, Roy Weisenfeld, whose father Henry lived in Reno, Nevada. The elder Weisenfeld offered to sponsor Schuettler's move to the U.S.
"In November, 1956, I had $6 in my pocket and a little immigration-type suitcase."
Arriving in Reno, Schuettler got a job wrapping Christmas packages. He saved up about $120 and decided "I've got to see Vegas" — where he ended up losing almost all his money at the dice tables. He then got a job hawking the Las Vegas Sun, but carrying two large sacks of newspapers up and down the Vegas Strip every morning wasn't what he had hoped for. That was followed by a carpentry job at Joe Brown's Horseshoe Club, which wasn't the answer, either.
So he asked Henry Weisenfeld, "what do you think if I join the U.S. Army?"
"That might not be such a bad idea," Weisenfeld replied, adding that it would be a quicker path to citizenship. Schuettler joined the Army in Las Vegas, and was told that by volunteering instead of waiting to be drafted he could be stationed back in Germany.
After basic training, "I was assigned to the (Babenhausen) Casern in Germany where I had worked before" as a photo darkroom instructor in the service club.
"My German ex-colleagues said 'look, there he is — Schuettler in a U.S. uniform. He's back!"
Schuettler became the Babenhausen post photographer, and on Mondays he delivered photos to the Stars and Stripes office in nearby Griesheim. "They became a little bit aware that I was a pretty good military photographer. They said 'Gus, do you think that maybe you would like to transfer to S\tars and Stripes?' And I knew it was wonderful job for the future for me."
The only problem was, the colonel in Babenhausen had to sign off on the transfer. Schuettler was a star on the base soccer team, which was playing for the V Corps championship. The deal was, Stripes had to agree that Schuettler would be able to play soccer every Wednesday.
"It was embarrassing to me to say every Wednesday morning, 'Mr. (Red) Grandy, I have to go to Babenhausen to play soccer.'"
The Elvis assignment was a highlight of those years. "Wally (Beene) said to (Presley), 'you've been a very good soldier. You made sergeant, you were a tank commander,' and Elvis said 'yeah, there were some stories going around when I first came here that I would drive the colonel during duty hours and the colonel would drive me at night.' But Elvis was a wonderful young man at that time."
Stripes did take some heat from the Army brass, Schuettler recalled, because of the length of the soon-to-be-civilian Presley's hair in the photos.
Schuettler became a U.S. citizen in 1961 in Baltimore, where he worked for the Associated Press for a while, and came back to Stripes in April, 1961. His first big assignment was the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit, and the Berlin Wall went up two months later. He remained at Stripes for most of the next 30 years, except for a short stint as a photographer with the Miami Herald, and retired to Flagler Beach, Fla.
Cadaques, Spain, September, 1962: Artist Salvador Dali poses for a photo at his home in the coastal fishing village of Cadaques, near the French border. Dali was wearing a shirt with a drawing of Brahms on it because he said, it was a nice day; in story weather, he said, Beethoven would be in order.
GUS SCHUETTLER/STARS AND STRIPES