The German POW Who Escaped a U.S. Camp So He Wouldn’t Be Sent Home



When Georg Gaertner slipped under the wire of a POW camp in Deming, New Mexico, and dashed to freedom across the desert, he faced a serious challenge. He could try to make it back to Germany, which would involve getting through an enemy nation looking for him, cross an ocean, and get past French, English, American and Russian armies, or he could change his name and live the rest of his life as an American. He chose the latter, hopping a freight train out of New Mexico. Changing his name to Dennis Whiles, he managed to obtain a Social Security card and get a job as a ski instructor in Norden, California. There, he met and married Jean Clarke, adopting her two children and moving to Colorado, then Hawaii. By the 1960s, Gaertner was the only remaining German fugitive in the U.S., and after 20 years of marriage, he finally told her his story. She encouraged him to turn himself in, threatening to leave him if he didn't. Oddly enough, his surrender wasn’t made at a police station or military base, but on the Today show. His confession 40 years on left the United States in a bizarre legal bind. He wasn't an illegal immigrant because he was brought to America by the government. He also was arguably not a POW because Germany had surrendered before his escape. In the end, the government took no action. Gaertner was invited to apply for citizenship, finally becoming an American in 2009 at the age of 87. He died in 2013 at the age of 92.