William Schwarzer

William W. Schwarzer
Second Lieutenant – U.S. Army Military Intelligence, Military Police,
Mobile Field Intelligence Unit 4, Supreme Headquarters Allied
Expeditionary Force; U.S. Army Reserves, Military Intelligence
World War II (1943-1946)

Few surviving WWII veterans describe their time in the service as a “great adventure.” But it was William Schwarzer’s great adventure that instilled in him a sense of service and an appreciation for education, both of which would propel him into an accomplished legal career. While Schwarzer was not a typical soldier, he was undoubtedly instrumental in the United States’ success in WWII. 

Schwarzer was born on April 30, 1925 in Berlin Germany. When he was thirteen his family moved to Los Angeles. When asked why the family immigrated to the US, Schwarzer commented that “conditions were inhospitable.” While in Los Angeles, Schwarzer attended Los Angeles High School and worked numerous odd jobs, many of which related to newspapers. In 1943 he graduated from high school and moved on to UCLA, where he studied meteorology. He had been at UCLA for just one semester when he received his draft card. Although the draft is often viewed in a negative light, Schwarzer recalls looking forward to serving in the military. He described it as “a patriotic thing to do.” 

In early November, 1943, Schwarzer was sent to Fort Custer, Michigan, where he would attend basic training for six weeks. It was there that he learned “military discipline, handling weapons, military drill, duties that military policemen perform, marches, being out in the open.” He also recalls considerable physical conditioning. While Schwarzer did think the basic training was effective, he was also aided by his background in the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts had taught him many skills that would later help him in the Army, including physical activity, camping, marching, and other outdoor activities. In fact, Schwarzer attributes his ability to cope with basic training with his work with the Boy Scouts. 

Because of his fluency in German, Schwarzer was then sent to Military Intelligence School at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, in June 1944. There he learned how to interrogate prisoners and identify military information. Schwarzer’s good record while at Camp Ritchie would later contribute to his being chosen to participate in a mission involving interrogating war prisoners of the Battle of the Bulge. 

Following a brief leave, Schwarzer was next sent to Chalfont Latimer, England in November 1944. Schwarzer remembers his journey to England being one of the most stressful experiences of his service. He described it as “a miserable experience. And because of the submarines there was always some fear of danger. [There was] nothing you could do. You just waited. It probably wasn’t as high risk as it might appear, but the risk was always there. It was a very uncomfortable situation because hundreds of people were crammed into the ship. It was pretty miserable.” 

While in England, Schwarzer’s unit obtained custody of German officers who had been captured by the Allies. Schwarzer and his unit bugged the country house in which the German officers lived and would later listen to their conversations. The purpose of this mission was to obtain information regarding German technical developments. The German officers being held at the country house were mostly bomber pilots and U-Board captains, those who would be most likely to know of technological advancements. Schwarzer recalls that there was no risk involved in this mission and called it “an exciting experience.” 

While in England Schwarzer’s unit lived in Nissen huts with other British officers and men. Nissen huts, also known as Quonset huts, were made out of large sheets of metal. These sheets would be bent into half-cylinders and planted into the ground horizontally. Nissen huts were especially popular in WWII because they were portable and economical. Schwarzer recalls each hut housing about twenty men. He described the food as “ordinary wartime food” and mentioned that his unit could “go to London, go to shows, go to USO parties” for entertainment. Communication with one’s family was possible through V-mail. V-mail, or Victory mail, entailed photographing letters and sending home the negatives of those photographs rather than the actual letters. This communication method saved space and was very popular during WWII. Schwarzer’s unit was, however, under security restrictions, and their mail was always censored. These comfortable living conditions contributed to a high morale in Schwarzer’s unit. Schwarzer himself remembers having no trouble coping with his experience in England. He enjoyed it. 

In October 1944, Schwarzer was sent to France, where he would spend a month preparing for his next mission. For this next mission, Schwarzer and his unit would be going to the rear sector of the Battle of the Bulge, where they would be interrogating and gathering information from the thousands of prisoners captured during the conflict. Schwarzer understood that this would be an important mission and was chosen to partake in it because of his fluency in German, good record while at Camp Ritchie, good grades, and IQ level. He commented, “It was thought this would be an important operation focusing on more important prisoners rather than just run-of-the-mill soldiers, but people who might have more information that’s useful.” While in France, Schwarzer’s unit had to prepare the Mobile Field Interrogation Units, which they would later use at the Battle of the Bulge. The MFIU’s were large vans or small buses which were equipped with chairs, desks, and recording equipment. Schwarzer commented, “This was a new idea that a unit of officers and men… could move to where they were needed to interrogate prisoners. Be there promptly at the time they’re taken… We never really, as I recall, spent a lot of time using them for purposes for which they were designed. But we drove them around and had them available.” 

During this time, Schwarzer was a part of MFIU 4, or Mobile Field Intelligence Unit 4. This unit was briefly attached to the 12th Army Group commanded by General Bradley and later assigned to SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. SHAEF was the headquarters of the Commander of Allied forces from 1943 to 1945 and was commanded by US General Dwight D. Eisenhower throughout its existence. 

After a month of preparation, the MFIU 4 moved into Belgium, where they would be obtaining information from the war prisoners of the Battle of the Bulge. At the time, Schwarzer’s unit was stationed in Namur, where they waited for orders to move forward. They wouldn’t do so until the battle was over. Schwarzer recalls living in an occupied school with uncomfortable conditions. He commented, “My main memory is of washing my mess kit in dirty water in garbage cans. That I remember.” Fortunately, Schwarzer was working with “very able people” of whom he had high opinions. 

Once Schwarzer’s unit moved into the rear sector of the Battle of the Bulge, they were expected to interrogate mass amounts of prisoners in a short amount of time. He recalled: “When we were dealing with this large group of people we were… a production line. We moved them rapidly. We would look at their papers, look at them, see what kind of an appearance they made, ask them a few questions like what unit they belonged to and how old they were. Things like that. And moved on to the next one. So you get a mass picture of this large volume of prisoners that were taken at the end of the war.” These interrogations would take place in fields, usually in barbed wire enclosures. 

After completing his mission in Belgium, Schwarzer moved into Germany in 1945, shortly after V-E Day. Schwarzer’s unit was stationed in Oberursel, outside of Frankfurt. Schwarzer remembers feeling relieved that the war was over and excited for his upcoming mission in Germany. There, his unit would be investigating possible underground resistance to the Allied occupation among Germans. While the MFIU 4 experienced few difficulties in Germany, they did later discover that a woman in their custody was a Russian spy. They have no follow-up information on the spy’s activities, but do know that this was the beginning of what would later become the Cold War. 

While in Germany, Schwarzer’s unit lived in varying living quarters, ranging from a castle to barracks. He recalls the food being adequate and the entertainment being rare. The morale was high but, as the war had ended, people were anxious and excited to get home. 

Schwarzer was sent back to the United States in April 1946 and discharged at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. At the time he was excited to be returning to civilian life. Upon his arrival home, Schwarzer finished college at the University of Southern California. He graduated in 1948 with a Bachelor’s in Political Science and Pre-Law. Next, Schwarzer attended Harvard Law School, graduating with honors in May 1951. 

While he attended law school, Schwarzer also participated in the Army Reserves. His time in the reserves was fairly uneventful, comprised mainly of biweekly meetings in which his unit would play basketball. It was during this time that Schwarzer received the rank of Second Lieutenant, his highest rank in active duty being Master Sergeant. Schwarzer decided to resign from the reserves in 1951 upon his graduation from law school and the advent of the Korean War. 

Schwarzer then went on to serve as a teaching fellow at Harvard Law School for one year before beginning his 24-year law career. After Harvard, Schwarzer began working as an associate at the  McCutchen, Doyle, Brown, & Enerson law firm in San Francisco. He became a partner at the firm in 1960 and continued until he was appointed to the federal bench in 1976. Schwarzer served on the US District Court for the Northern District of California until his retirement in 2004.  It was in that year that Schwarzer received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award.  The panel awarding him the honor said, “Judge Schwarzer has been a brilliant, distinguished, compassionate servant of the law and has served as a federal judge for nearly three decades. Members of the bench and the bar nationwide are indebted to Judge Schwarzer for his example and his service, and for his remarkable contributions to the judiciary.” Schwarzer currently resides in San Rafael. 

When asked to reflect on his toughest experience in the Army Schwarzer commented, “I can’t say I considered anything to be tough in an adverse sense. I thought that it was a great adventure. I never suffered. I thought I benefited more than the country.” His service also instilled in him a great appreciation for education. He recalled, “I was surrounded by a lot of highly educated, competent, and highly motivated people. It impressed me into getting a good education. I was anxious to get started and to get the best education I could, which was not something that I felt strongly about before I went into the service.” Additionally, Schwarzer’s time in the Military gave him a sense of service that he hopes will be passed down to others. Schwarzer closed by saying that, “Some form of service really ought to be the part of everybody’s life. It would be wonderful if we had a structured program in which all young people would be called on to serve in some capacity for the good of the country. I won’t say that everybody should serve in the military, but I think there are ways of serving the country and the community other than the military that are important. And some sense of service should be instilled in everybody.” Certainly this sense of service has been a driving force in Schwarzer’s life, compelling him to success not only in the Military, but also in the field of law and justice. 

Interview by Valerie Cherbero on July 1, 2012.

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