Abt '48 during his World War II service
Profile: Karl Abt '48
alum offers a link to 'Greatest Generation' with chronicle
of his military service
inducted into service during World War II in 1943, Karl
W. Abt '48 soon found his German-language skills earned
him a place in the Military Intelligence Service.
small teams of servicemen interrogated German captives during
World War II, gathered information from conversations with
German civilians and interpreted military documents left behind
during the German army's retreat. Abt writes about this experience
in his newly published book, A
Few Who Made A Difference (Vantage Press, 2004). The
text contains details of Abt's tour of duty in enemy terrain
and includes many compelling photographs.
Kellogg World had the chance to talk
with Abt, who also serves as representative for the Kellogg
School's Class of 1948.
World: What was your motivation for writing A Few Who Made A Difference?
Karl Abt: I wrote this
book in 2002 and began looking for a publisher when it was
finished. Last year there was a lot in the newspapers about
the Intelligence Service and how it was being used and abused
[at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison]. When I was in the service,
we didn't conduct any abusive behavior like that. We followed
the Geneva Convention code. I talk about that in the book.
That's important for people to know. Another big motivation
for writing was that the fellows on my team thought I ought
to do it. One by one they are all leaving us.
How were you chosen for the Military Intelligence Service?
It was a choice offered to me and I took it. The Army tried
to enhance the skills you already had and work with them.
I was born in Germany and my parents spoke German, English
and French when I was growing up. In 1927, when I was 4 and
my brother was 2, my father lost his business, a furniture
factory. He had some contacts in the States and was offered
a job as a furniture designer in Grand Rapids, Mich. My brother
and I were so fortunate that we never experienced Hitler's
Besides the obvious language skills, what characteristics
did you need to be successful in this role as interrogator?
You had to be a mature person to be successful; you had to
be someone who even a high-ranking German solider would not
look down upon. And you had to be a little emotionless and
never express surprise at what you'd hear. For example, in
our training we were told that you never said "aha!"
when you heard a key piece of information. You never wrote
anything down. If a prisoner sees you scribbling furiously,
then he knows he's told you something important.
What type of information did you glean from these interrogations
and how did it help the war effort?
We'd learn all sorts of things about the enemy force facing
the regiment. We could find out whether or not the enemy unit
was at full strength, what sort of weapons it had and how
morale was holding up. In the weeks before the Battle of the
Bulge, we got news of a German build-up that we passed along,
but [higher-ranking officers] didn't believe us. I guess they
thought the Germans couldn't scrape together 1,000 tanks.
What things about your time in the service do you remember
I think we were pretty darn thrilled when May 8, 1945, came
and the war was over. We had expected it a couple months earlier.
One of the things about being in the service for a long time
is that you don't know when it will end. The uncertainty of
that final date is always in front of you. One of the other
things I remember that surprised me is how nice the German
folks were to us. I don't know if it was the fact that we
spoke German, but they were surprisingly kind. Some became
lifelong friends of me and my family.