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  Karl Abt '48 during his World War II service

Alumni Profile: Karl Abt '48

Kellogg alum offers a link to 'Greatest Generation' with chronicle of his military service 

by Kari Richardson

When 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.

These 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.

Recently Kellogg World had the chance to talk with Abt, who also serves as representative for the Kellogg School's Class of 1948.

Kellogg 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.

KW: How were you chosen for the Military Intelligence Service?

Abt: 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 Germany.

KW: Besides the obvious language skills, what characteristics did you need to be successful in this role as interrogator?

Abt: 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.

KW: What type of information did you glean from these interrogations and how did it help the war effort?

Abt: 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. 

KW: What things about your time in the service do you remember most today?

Abt: 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.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University