Documentary explores life in postwar Germany for African-American servicemembers

Irmgard Achatz from Kollbach, Germany, center, and one of her friends listen as her future husband, James W. Tanner of Philadelphia, sings while accompanied on piano by a fellow soldier. The life of black soldiers in Germany during and after World War II is the subject of a new book, 'A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany.'


By VERONICA M. CRUZ | The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson | Published: March 1, 2014

TUCSON, Ariz. — Six days after Harold Linton arrived in Berlin with the U.S. Air Force in August 1960, he met Ingrid and knew there was something special about her.

The two were introduced at a club, and their mutual attraction was instantaneous even though they came from different backgrounds. He was a 21-year-old African-American from Philadelphia. She was a 26-year-old Berlin native living in postwar Germany.

“People think I made this up, but I really believe I had dreamed about her,” said Harold, now 73. He said he was “mesmerized” by Ingrid’s beauty.

On their first date they talked for hours, skipping the small talk and focusing on their future.

“On a paper napkin, we wrote down the names of all of our children,” Ingrid said. “He wanted six and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be quiet. When he has one or two he will change his mind.’ ”

Though interracial marriage was still banned in some states at the time, the couple were undeterred. They would eventually marry and spend a career in the military.

“We were unconsciously aware of the fact we were falling in love and that we were an interracial couple,” said Harold from the couple’s home in Oro Valley. “It was an outside issue that we knew we were going to have to deal with, but we were comfortable in our own skin because we knew it wasn’t an issue for us.”

The Lintons’ story is featured in a recently released Smithsonian Channel documentary, “Breath of Freedom.”

A German film crew, looking for sources and learning of their story, reached out to the Lintons after contacting their daughter, who works in public affairs at Fort Huachuca.

The film, inspired by the book “A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany” written by Marie Höhn and Martin Klimke, takes its title from a quote in Colin Powell’s autobiography in which he describes postwar Germany as a “breath of freedom” for black military personnel stationed there.

The men could enter any establishment and were not segregated or discriminated against. They could socialize with and have relationships with white women and were respected by most Germans.

Still, the Lintons faced some challenges in their relationship.

Ingrid’s father, who was a Nazi, disapproved of the relationship, and even Harold’s closest Air Force colleagues warned the relationship was doomed.

Harold, too, was cautious but for much different reasons.

As a linguist who was part of the intelligence service, or, as Ingrid refers to it, the “hush-hush service,” Harold had been trained to beware of spies.

“I was getting all these briefings every day. … ‘Don’t trust anybody; you’re in intelligence. Anybody who is too kind to you, there’s gotta be a reason. And if they’re too kind to you and they’re pretty, there’s got to be a special reason,’ ” he said.

About a year after Harold arrived in Germany, work started on the Berlin Wall, which brought other issues for the young couple.

One night, they were at a party when they looked out and saw construction on the wall starting. After that Harold was restricted to the base.

“He couldn’t come out and see me, so I went to him and saw him through the fence,” Ingrid said. “It was like he was a prisoner and I was visiting him.”

And Harold feared a war would break out between the Russians and Americans.

“The tensions were really high, and you’re 110 miles inside of East Germany even though you’re in this ‘free city,’ Berlin,” Harold said. “I meet my dream girl and these guys are going to build a wall and I’m gonna die here.”

On Dec. 28, 1962, after spending many months and a lot of money filing the proper paperwork, Harold and Ingrid were married in Darmstadt, where he was stationed.

Since he worked in the intelligence service and had married a German citizen, Harold said his superiors transferred him to another assignment.

Harold became a manager of a base gym in Darmstadt. And Ingrid was always by his side.

They were transferred to England shortly after, where they lived for about three years. That’s where their two children, Tanja and Stephen, were born.

They returned to the states in 1966 when Harold was assigned to a base in Michigan. And for the first time, Ingrid met his family in Philadelphia.

“My father thought that all Germans drink beer. He drove halfway across town to find a German beer,” Harold said.

“And I don’t even drink beer,” Ingrid added.

His mother thought Ingrid married him to come to the U.S., and cousins asked if she even spoke English.

But family members realized their love was genuine. Eventually even Ingrid’s father became more accepting.

Harold’s military career spanned 35 years. He spent 10 years as an enlisted man and 25 as an officer. He retired as a colonel.

The couple credit their life in the military and its tight community with keeping them mostly insulated from the discrimination and negativity experienced by other interracial couples.

“I would say for the most part, and Ingrid probably agrees with me, for every one person we thought was ugly, which was probably really rare, we can think of more people who were really kind to us,” Harold said.