The prisoners, newly freed, weren’t supposed to wander.
They’d spent months in a prison camp in Bavaria, liberated at last by Gen. George Patton. One of the prisoners was Charles Woehrle, an American bombardier captured by German soldiers who’d seen him parachute from a burning plane.
After two years in captivity, Woehrle didn’t pay much attention to Patton’s warning of sniper fire in the nearby village. He made his way there and came across a man with a camera and a stash of unused film. Long interested in photography, Woehrle offered to buy it. He didn’t have any money on hand, so he drew up a check for his bank at home in Pine City, Minn., and returned to photograph the camp.
“Some of what happened to him, he didn’t share,” said his daughter, Betsy Kelly. “But it was a real experience with camaraderie. I think really his two years in prison camp became the defining part of his life, with which he most identified.”
Known for his sharp artistic eye and talent for storytelling, Charles Boyd Woehrle died March 25 in St. Paul. He was 98.
Woehrle was born in Nashua, Iowa, to German parents and grew up in Pine City, Minn. He attended the University of Minnesota, holding on-campus jobs during the school year and working at Glacier National Park during the summer. He eventually ran out of tuition money, though, and had to leave school just a few credits short of a degree.
He met his wife, Elizabeth, at the U. Most of their courtship unfolded in letters sent across the Atlantic Ocean, including many that were first read by prison guards. On his way back to Minnesota after the war, Woehrle stopped in New York City’s Diamond District and bought a ring.
At home, he started a film company with a former co-worker from the Great Northern Railway. They named their company Empire Photosound — after the Empire Builder train — and produced movies for industry and TV ads for clients that included General Mills and the Minnesota Milk Co.
Woehrle eventually sold his share of the company to his partner and became a freelancer. One summer, he spent three months in Israel making a film for the Israeli tourism board.
A devout Christian, he was fascinated by the Holy Land. At one point, he was given the rare opportunity to photograph the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Outside of work, he taught Bible study and played both the piano and the organ. Late in life, he lived in assisted living and played for church services and Friday afternoon singalongs.
And there were always stories. One, in particular, became lore.
As a prisoner of war, Woehrle found a brochure for the Swiss watch company Patek Philippe. He mailed in an attached coupon, asking the company to send a watch in exchange for payment when the war was over.
Months passed. And then, one day, it arrived: stainless steel with a hand-stitched alligator strap. The other prisoners lined up to see it.
It was stolen in a burglary years later but replaced after niece Louise Woehrle shared her uncle’s story with the company.
The new watch — which Patek Philippe’s president gave to Woehrle himself — had the same black strap and a thin, delicate rim.
“It was absolutely stunning,” Louise Woehrle said.
Charles Woehrle was preceded in death by his wife. He is survived by his daughter, two grandsons and one great-grandson. A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Coventry Chapel, Episcopal Homes of Minnesota, 1840 W. University Av., St. Paul.