June 6, 1950, was D-Day.
That was the day the Damer family entered the United States, having left their war-torn homeland of Germany.
"I always called it Damer Day," chuckles 80-year-old Guido Damer as he recounts the story of his parents fleeing eastern Germany in the middle of the night just two hours before the Russian army crossed the border.
Just how he ended up in Prineville from a small farm in Guhren, Steinau County, Germany, is quite a tale to hear.
Guido's father, Wilhelm Damer, was born in the spring of 1900 and was raised in Coesfeld in northwestern Germany. In 1924, he moved to the United States, settling near Chicago, Illinois. He worked as a lumber faller for a few years until he got word that his father had died. He returned to Germany in 1929 to settle things on the family farm.
Wilhelm married Theresia Wigger, who was raised in Holthausen in northwestern Germany, and in 1935, they acquired a farm in Guhren on the eastern side of Germany not far from the Poland border. Their six children were born there: Fred, Aloys, Guido, Lewis, Joseph and Mary.
Guido, who was born in December of 1938, has fond memories of his first six years on the family farm.
"When my little sister was born, I remember they sent us to the neighbor's, who babysat us, and when we got home, we had a little sister," Guido said with a tear in his eye. "My sister, she was the youngest. We called her the rose between the thorns."
The family had a good living there on the farm until the war came along, causing many hardships.
The Damer family did not like the Nazi regime that was ruling Germany.
Wilhelm could understand a little bit of English, having lived in the U.S.
"The German broadcasts during the war, that was just propaganda, but he had a radio, and he listened to English broadcasts," Guido says of his father. "Before he'd ever turn that radio on, he'd walk around the house and make sure nobody would catch him doing that."
Wilhelm had an idea what was going on, and he didn't like it.
"The mayor of Guhren, his name was Stark, was a staunch Nazi. Dad and that Nazi had a lot of difficult conversations," Guido says.
In early 1945, Guido's father took a priest and his young son Aloys with him to confront the mayor about the family's safety. The Russian army that was advancing on Germany in the closing months of the fighting in Europe was lobbing shells across the German border in the vicinity.
"The reason he took Al, he said, is because he knew he was going to get into an argument, and he didn't think he'd get shot or something with a little child with him," Guido says. "Al said that when they were arguing, this mayor's wife came out of the house, and in her skirt, she had a 9mm gun, and the priest saw it at the same time, and that priest, he said, 'Damer let's go. We've gotta get out of here.' They left, and they never fired a shot or nothing, but that's how close it'd come."
The farmers came together for a meeting, realizing they would have to evacuate the whole town in 48 hours. The Damers loaded the freight wagon and coach with provisions and necessities.
Guido remembers that his dad got word that the wagons were going to be inspected.
"I remember him loading that wagon. He had a rifle down there. He took that rifle, walked down to the creek and dropped it in the creek because he wasn't allowed to have any," Guido said. "They never did inspect the wagon. He could have gotten away with it."
It was bitter cold when they left in the middle of the night, heading west to Theresia's family home. Two horses pulled each wagon.
"Ilse was Flora's colt, and she had never had a harness on, so he just harnessed her up next to Flora, and then she pulled them wagons," Guido said.
They left the livestock, the machinery, the buildings and the home.
"My brother Aloys, my second brother, he rode in the wagon with dad when he pulled out of there, and he said he could see the tears freezing on his face," Guido said through his own tears. "When the Russian army came across the Oder River, they was about two hours behind us."
Guido was 6 years old when they fled their home.
"To us kids, it didn't mean nothing," he said. "It was just another trip down the road."
Wilhelm had instructed his hired men, a Polish and a Russian, to say behind and feed the livestock.
"We found out later, after a couple days on the road, that they beat it the minute we left," Guido said.
He remembers that while on their journey west, airplanes would fly over and drop long strips of material that looked like tin foil. He and his brothers would pick them up and wrap them around their fingers and play with them. They didn't know what they were, but it was just something to do. They found out later that they were dropped from planes to mess up radar signals being sent out.
It took a month or more for the family to travel more than 400 miles across Germany to the family home in Holthausen.
"I figured he traveled 10 to 15 miles a day in a wagon and a coach," Guido said. "People helped us. They gave us food. But Dad, every night, he'd have to unharness the horses. That's the reason he only made about 15 miles a day."
The oldest son, Fred, remembered going through Dresden.
"We went through Dresden and were staying in Paderborn, with an acquaintance of Dad, and he said that was unforgettable because the city was under bomb attack the night we stayed there," Guido said.
They made it safely to Holthausen and lived with Theresia's mother for five years, all the while, preparing to immigrate to the United States.
"One night, we heard all this rumbling and a bunch of tanks came up," Guido recalls. Some English soldiers spent the night on the farm, sleeping in some straw near the barn. "The next morning, they started up their tanks and left again. In the meantime, my godfather put a white sheet on the roof that meant no resistance."
He remembers seeing English soldiers travel along the road, and the children would often trade fresh eggs for the soldiers' crackers.
"They'd never seen any eggs for a long time. We couldn't speak English, but somehow we got the deals made," Guido says.
The time finally came for the Damer family to leave Germany.
The day before they left for America, their school teacher, who was a Nazi and had been a prisoner of war, used maps to show the whole class where they were going.
"It was a day just for us kids, kind of a farewell deal," Guido recalls.
They were taken by car to a train station and traveled through Belgium and France.
"In Paris, France, it was really busy. The folks, they made us carry our own suitcases, and I was gawking around, gawking, around, I was following the folks. Pretty soon, I found out that wasn't my folks in front of me. I'd somehow got off someplace," Guido recalls. "Mom went all over Paris trying to find me, and hollering my name. Pretty soon, this cop, he just grabbed me by the arm, never said a thing, grabbed me by the arm and took me back to my folks."
In La Havre, France, the Damers boarded the Ile de France, a huge French liner ship, and spent six days at sea, heading to the United States.
Guido was 11 years old, and he remembers exploring the entire ship with his brothers.
"There were two kids, I think they were from Norway, they couldn't speak a word of English. We couldn't speak their language either. We got along," Guido recalls. "We played shuffle board, we played ping pong and stuff like that. It was a big adventure."
They arrived in New York on June 6, 1950, and took a three-day train trip to New Underwood, South Dakota, where their sponsor, Bernard Lutum, provided them a farm.
The children attended school there and eventually became fluent in English with the help of one of their classmates, who would buy comic books.
"When he got done with them, he'd give them to us kids, and that's kinda the way we learned how to speak English," Guido chuckled.
Those early years were tough — the farm did not do so well, and they struggled to keep food on the table. But, they had good neighbors who often helped.
"Mom and Dad — it was really tough for them, but it was good for us kids," Guido said.
The Damers lived in New Underwood for about six years, and then Lutum passed away, and they got kicked off the farm. They then were able to buy a farm in Elrosa, Minnesota.
"It was kinda tough for Mom," Guido said of their South Dakota days. "She couldn't speak English. The countryside was so much different — just prairie, no trees. It was tough on her. So, when they bought that farm in Minnesota, it was a German community, and she got along pretty good then."
When Guido was 14 or 15 years old, he started working for a rancher, Sam Wedmore, in Hermosa, South Dakota, during the summer.
"He and his wife, they took me in just like a son, almost. They were just like second parents to me," Guido said. "The Wedmores had a hired man. He was kind of a rodeo guy."
Guido, who says he was always horse crazy, befriended John Aasness and his little family. Aasness decided to head back home to Washington, but he kept in touch with Guido.
"He wrote to me and told me he came down from Bremerton, Washington, and went down into that John Day valley," Guido recalls. "He said, 'This is good cow country. You come up here and see me.' So, I went to see him, and that's when I stayed in Oregon."
Guido got a job on Clyde Holliday's ranch in the John Day area and soon met and fell in love with the rancher's daughter, Carlene.
They married just before he began his service with the Marine Corps in the summer of 1961. He served for three years during peacetime and was an aircraft electrician. A son and a daughter were born while he was in the service. He became a U.S. citizen on July 15, 1964, just before he got discharged from the Marines.
He returned to John Day, where he worked on his in-laws' ranch for several years. He moved to Prineville in the mid-1970s and worked for various ranches over the years.
But in 1995, Guido had the opportunity to travel back to Germany for a cousin's wedding. Guido and Carlene went with two brothers as well as his sister and her husband.
It had been 50 years since they left their farm in Guhren. The border lines had been redrawn, and their farm was now part of Poland.
"By that time, Germany was reunited, so we drove to east Germany, and we crossed the Polish border, which is Poland now, and went to that place," Guido said.
A Polish lady lived in their childhood home and let them explore.
"The lady was cooking on Mom's old wooden stove," Guido said, adding that some of their dad's old equipment was still there, just where he'd left it all those year ago when he fled with his family in the middle of the night.
"We stood in the same room that we was born in," Guido said tearfully. "It's just like 50 years' time stood still — nothing had changed — the buildings, everything was the same."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.