Collecting coins as a senior sergeant in Cold War Germany was very much different from the World War II experiences I outlined in the May 26 Numismatic News. For starters, I knew what was out there because catalogs had begun to appear and the Germans themselves had formed coin clubs so it was possible to build cultural camaraderie with America’s former enemies.
Why is this being written? The May 26 article elicited so much response, mainly via e-mail, that editor Dave Harper asked me to do a sort of sequel. Seems that a good many veterans and their families read this newspaper and the writing struck a nostalgic chord.
My uniformed service didn’t end in 1947. I re-enlisted in the Army, serving 1944-1950 then switched to the Air Force in spring 1950, just in time for the Korean War.
I’d always envied the air crews who came up with their planes and then came down with them. Besides, one can tire of being just another airborne ground-pounder. As an airman with war experience, I received rapid promotions, at first to staff sergeant and technical sergeant.
Another term of overseas service was in the cards, so I spent the years 1958-1959 in West Germany, luckily in a dream assignment with Headquarters, USAFE (United States Air Forces Europe) at Lindsey Air Station in Wiesbaden.
During my tour, I was NCOIC (non-commissioned officer in charge) of the Message branch, Deputy Chief of Staff/Intelligence.
The duties of the Message branch were to route by the most expeditious means incoming intelligence about Soviet activities gathered by aerial reconnaissance, attache dispatches and electronic means, to the proper agency.
A “dream assignment?” It was. Wiesbaden had been declared an open city during World War II and was never bombed. The city was beautiful, the German girls pretty and friendly and Lindsey Station had one of the finest NCO clubs in Europe.
Just across the Main River was the city of Mainz, then nothing much more than rubble from Allied air attacks. It gave real perspective to the meaning of an “open city.”
Mainz, however, had a coin club, all German because American clubs were yet to come.
Though not yet having learned to speak German, I joined the Mainz club and was the only GI to do so in 1958. It gave me a carte d’entrée to some social functions and to meet German coin dealers.
German collectors preferred their own coinage, not just historic pieces, but recent issues such as the President Hindenburg silvers by date and mintmark. The great boom in German coin collecting was to begin a decade later, when even pfennig pieces were collected in date-mintmark variations – in a later visit there in 1972 I witnessed this.
Prompted by the works of John Davenport on crowns and talers, large German States silver pieces rapidly became my ardor in 1958. Two of my suppliers were in Frankfurt/Main, Dr. Busso Peus and Max “Cat” Katz. Germany, an ally since 1955, was still poor and some of the purchases were in the $5-$8 range (unthinkable by 2009 standards).
Dr. Peus especially became a numismatic mentor who spoke excellent English and caused me to learn enough German to get by in what was called soldaten Deutsch (soldier’s German).
Being in West Germany also introduced me to Notgeld (emergency money) in both metal and paper form. The colorful notes, issued 1914-1923, reflected at first the World War I need for small change and later (1919-1923) the hyperinflation that ended only with American help in November 1923. After returning to the United States dealers such as Stack’s Inc., Lauren Benson and others helped to expand my Notgeld holdings to several thousand notes which I sold to Ted Uhl in 1974.
Incidentally, Ted was another trooper, having served with the 82nd Airborne in Europe in World War II.
Some years later, in 1966, as editor of World Coins magazine, I revisited West Germany and found that American and American/German coin clubs were on almost every base visited – such as Ramstein, Giessen, Frankfurt, Munich. In Giessen I met the eminent numismatist, Courtney L. Coffing, who was soon hired to become my associate editor for both World Coins and Numismatic Scrapbook.
“Court” had been a Marine on Iwo Jima in February 1945 and an authority on all things numismatic.
Stationed in southern Germany, it was an easy drive while on leave to visit Switzerland, Italy, Monaco and France. On a three-day pass visits to the Rhine River castles and the Moselle wine-making areas were fun; sipping Blue Nun wine long before it became a best-seller in the U.S. and seeing the Rhine’s famed Mauseturm (Mouse Tower) proved gratifying.
Working in intelligence, even on a low level, meant I was forbidden to approach nearer than 10 kilometers to the East German border, which meant no visits to Germany’s coin capital, West Berlin. One two-week leave paper mentioned this restriction; for passes it was an honor situation. Looking back on it now, NATO was concerned then primarily with a Soviet tank assault through the Fulda Gap in Thuringia, but we didn’t realize how tremendously effective our weaponry would have been against such attack. Ironic!
Germany for centuries numbered among its coin collectors some of the world’s best and brightest. It’s humbling to learn that advanced coin research was going on in that land before our forefathers were fighting the Revolutionary War.
A few comments about a German people problem. The Soviets had expelled all ethnic Germans from the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, even though some of them – the Balts, Sudetenlanders and Siebenburgers – had resided there for centuries. These expellees complained continuously about their fate and in 1958 were a destabilizing factor in West Germany. Time, though, took care of the realities.
Some “oestlichmaenner“ (easterners) carried coins with them. The Soviets expelled them with only what they could carry, so they abandoned homes, farms, etc., but carried clothing, bank notes, coinage and jewelry.
Servicemen were paid in dollar amounts, freely exchangeable with the new D-mark currency of the Bundesrepublik. There was no intense black market as had occurred in occupied Japan in 1945-1947. Of course, by this time it was 13 years after the war had ended. Cigarettes still commanded a premium, though, and some newer items (nylons, Zippo lighters and gasoline) were traded, against all Armed Forces regulations.
We could buy PX rationed gasoline at 15 cents per gallon while civilians needed several dollars per gallon. The difficulty was gas rationing; as best I can recall ration coupons traded among airmen. Unlike myself, some never traveled at all.
Perhaps this reads more like a travelogue than a serious numismatic article. If so, apologies in advance are offered. Criticisms and bouquets are both welcomed.
Comments may be directed to Russ Rulau, P.O. Box 153, Iola, Wis. 54945; E-mail: email@example.com.