During the Christmas season of 1974, The Commercial Appeal newspaper received an unusual letter in the mail.
Postmarked Dortmund, West Germany, the correspondence was from a former resident of Memphis named Edwin Pelz who fondly remembered his time in the Bluff City. As a result of his letter, Pelz renewed his relationship with the city and brought its people a sense of pride they had recently lost.
In the summer of 1944, German Army soldier Edwin Pelz was stationed in Cherbourg when Allied armies invaded France. Captured on June 24, Pelz was shocked by the humane treatment he and his fellow prisoners received from American GI’s.
Transferred to the United States on the Queen Mary, Pelz was sent to a POW camp located within the Memphis Army Service Forces Depot where he fell deeply in love with Memphis.
“It was as if I’d lived in Memphis in some pre-life. That is how I felt about it from the first.”
It constantly amazed him that Americans were so kind to an enemy. For example, when the Army cut prisoners rations, two black forklift drivers brought extra sandwiches for them.
When the war ended, Pelz returned home to Germany where he went to work for a hotel. However, Memphis was never far from his mind. In his 1974 letter, Pelz wrote, “Many thanks for all the acts of kindness, friendship and goodwill your people showed me…. As long as I am alive, I will remember this.”
Editors at The Commercial Appeal not only published Pelz’s letter, they assigned writer William Thomas to do a series of articles on the former prisoner of war. Pelz’s letter, and his comments, which appeared in Thomas’s stories, struck a profound cord in many Memphians who, since the 1968 murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., felt that no one had a nice thing to say about Memphis.
When Dr. William G. Jennings read Thomas’s stories, he established a fund to pay for Pelz and his wife to visit Memphis. which raised $1,600 to finance the trip.
“Oh dear me, I’m so happy,” exclaimed Pelz when he learned of the fund.
The former POW and his wife Elizabet arrived in Memphis on June 4, 1975, where they were greeted by Jennings and a large crowd of well-wishers. The following day he visited the offices of Mayor Wyeth Chandler who presented Pelz with a key to the city and made him an honorary citizen of Memphis.
For the next three weeks Pelz and his wife visited the depot where he was imprisoned and attended many luncheons and parties in his honor. During a Civitan Club luncheon he surprised the crowd by donating money to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Pelz and Elizabet also spent several afternoons driving around the city in a car loaned by the John Ellis Chevrolet Company.
“Memphis has changed, but the people haven’t. The city is bigger, the traffic is heavier, but the people still treat me as they did back in those days. They are so warm and friendly,” Pelz gushed.
Many Memphians felt the same. The Pelz’s visit was like a ray of sunshine breaking through a cloud of despair that seemed always to hang over Memphis during the 1970s. As The Commercial Appeal editorialized, “Their abundance of gratitude for the smallest of kindnesses has made a lot of Memphians feel good about themselves.”
That feeling lingered long after Edwin and Elizabet Pelz returned home to Germany.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.