WWII vet learned that duty can outweigh orders
By MADDY HAYDEN | Albuquerque Journal | Published: January 7, 2018
(Tribune News Service) — More than 70 years ago, U.S. Army Pvt. Henry Bretton disobeyed orders while serving in Germany during World War II. His decision earned him a Bronze Star.
Born Hans-Heinz Bismark in 1916 in Berlin, Albuquerque resident Bretton emigrated to the United States in 1938.
Before he left Germany, he was in danger of being sent to a "re-education camp" since he had traveled abroad to more than five countries without government permission, which was prohibited in Nazi Germany, he said.
In 1943, he ended up back in his home country, this time to fight against it.
"Think of the American Civil War," he said at his residence at Montebello Retirement Home in Albuquerque. "Then you know how I felt."
Bretton, now 101, was a valuable member of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), because he spoke fluent German and was familiar with the culture. MIS was comprised mostly of Americans of German, Austrian and Japanese descent who were trained and used in interrogations, and to interpret and translate.
Bretton said that, after Hitler declared that all former German citizens caught serving in American uniform were to be shot on the spot, he decided to change his name.
In March 1945, Bretton found himself near Hilden, Germany, where he was attached to an armored division.
He was ordered to investigate the killing of three American soldiers who had been shot after surrendering after their tank was disabled.
He examined the three bodies on the side of the road, each with a bullet wound to the temple.
After searching for evidence and interviewing German civilians nearby, he determined the likely culprit, who he had learned was called "Lt. Bubi," had been shot in the heel and taken to a hospital.
It was then that Bretton broke protocol.
He should have reported back to his superiors, procured assistance and asked the commanding officer for permission to pursue the suspect.
"I had decided to go after him because he was only shot in the heel," Bretton said. "I figured if I don't go immediately after him, he may be fixed up and released and we will never find him."
Bretton eventually located the Catholic hospital where the German officer was being cared for and used a cover story to gain entry.
"I regret lying to the Mother Superior who was in charge at the hospital," he said. "I had a fake story, and I managed to persuade him to come back with me."
Again breaking protocol, Bretton took the prisoner directly to headquarters instead of first to his immediate commanding officer.
After being recommended for the Bronze Star, a superior officer refused to sign the citation due to Bretton's breaches of protocol.
Instead, he ordered the award to go to Bretton's immediate commanding officer, who refused unless Bretton also received the award.
"Private Bretton's high devotion to duty is in keeping with the finest traditions of the Armed Forces," his citation reads.
The German officer, Bretton learned after the war, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murders.
'Sent to hell'
Bretton would break the rules one more time before his service was finished.
In May, with the war in Europe all but won, Bretton was moved to Simbach, a town near the Austrian border.
As he was heading to the town hall to assist in negotiating the town's surrender, a German civilian stopped him. She said a German officer was waiting just around the corner in a tank that was inoperable but still had functioning guns.
"He said the first Americans coming around the corner will be sent to hell," Bretton said. "And we were the first Americans in town."
Grateful for the woman's warning, Bretton located her a few days later at the apartment she lived in near her professional photography shop.
He embraced the woman, whom he knew only as "Frau (Mrs.) Gruber," and gave her kiss on the cheek, a violation of the military's anti-fraternization rules at the time.
"She then looked at me, tipped my helmet a little and said, 'I would like to take your photograph,' " Bretton said.
The resulting photo hangs in Bretton's room.
Both were married and did not keep in touch after the war.
Bretton recently published an autobiography, "A Dream, Shadows and Fulfillment," which details his life from being the child of a single mother in Germany, serving in the war, attending Yale University and eventually becoming a distinguished professor at the State University of New York.
Bretton retired to Albuquerque, where his daughter lives, in 1988.
(c)2018 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.