It was one serendipitous, off-camera moment in the nine years Deephaven filmmaker Louise Woehrle devoted to a new documentary about her uncle.
Lt. Charles Boyd Woehrle, her father’s identical twin, went from Pine City, Minn., to a Nazi prison camp 75 years ago. Intent on preserving his story, Louise tagged along as her uncle trekked to a World War II veterans’ reunion in Ohio a few years ago. That’s where she asked another veteran, hooked up to an oxygen tank, why he wore a broken Rolex wristwatch. He said he’s had it since his days as a prisoner of war.
“I was so moved that I asked my uncle, on the airplane home, if he ever wore a watch,” she recalled. “He looked at me with his blue eyes and said: ‘Let me tell you a story about a watch.’ ”
Lt. Woehrle endured 22 months as a prisoner of war after a harrowing leap from a burning plane with a faulty parachute. Ten months in, he found a beat-up advertisement for a Swiss wristwatch, complete with a coupon.
“Just for something to do,” he filled out the coupon, adding a note, saying: “If you think there is a watch that I could afford, I would pay for it after the war.”
Months later in 1944, after he’d forgotten about it, a box containing a stainless-steel Patek Philippe watch arrived at the prison camp from Geneva. After assuring the commandant he wouldn’t use the watch to bribe guards, Woehrle fastened its hand-stitched alligator strap. For three days, fellow prisoners came by to gawk at his watch.
“It was so exciting to them because of the impossibility of what happened,” Woehrle says in his niece’s new movie: “Stalag Luft III — One Man’s Story.”
The film premieres this month at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival with the first of three screenings on Tuesday, April 9, at 7 p.m. at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis.
Government statistics show 372 World War II veterans die every day, most taking their stories with them to the grave. Charles Woehrle died in 2015 at 98. But thanks to his niece, Lt. Woehrle’s skillful storytelling has been captured on film.
His watch story takes only about five of film’s 105 minutes — culled from 13 hours of interviews Louise recorded when her uncle was 93 but still razor sharp.
Born in Nashua, Iowa, in 1916, twins Charles and Richard were the youngest of six children of German-born grocer Jacob Woehrle and his Iowa bride, Anna. They moved to Pine City before the twins turned 1, buying three farms and opening a store. Most of that went belly-up in the 1930s during the Depression.
Charles worked summers as a bellhop at Glacier National Park in Montana, while attending the University of Minnesota. He volunteered for flight school to avoid being drafted into the infantry. From there, he became a bombardier in the nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress.
On May 29, 1943, Nazi fighter pilots strafed his plane, killing four crewmates and forcing a parachute jump over the Bay of Biscay. He broke his jaw and dislocated his shoulder when the chute opened late. A fishing boat plucked him from the sea, but soon Nazis arrived and sent him to Poland and Stalag Luft III — later immortalized in the 1963 movie, “The Great Escape.”
As Nazi camps went, Stalag Luft III was better than most; it locked up only aviators and was run by the fellow fliers from the Nazi Luftwaffe, who cut prisoners more slack.
“It’s the endlessness that is so hard to cope with,” Woehrle says in the movie. “There is really not much to look forward to.”
So when the Swiss wristwatch arrived, it was hope delivered in an improbable package to an inhospitable place. “Coming home soon, it seemed to be within touch,” he says. “Just to have something like that come into the camp …”
As the war ground to an end, Woehrle and his fellow prisoners were forced to march more than 50 miles through the cold before jam-packed train boxcars took them — flea-bitten and hungry — to a harsher camp near Moosburg, Germany.
He checked his watch and jotted down the time when the Swastika flag was lowered, the American flag went up and Gen. George Patton rode in to liberate the camp — his ivory-handled pistols strapped in their holsters.
Back in Minnesota, Woehrle paid $300 for the watch, married his college sweetheart, Elizabeth, raised a daughter, opened an early Twin Cities film company and created an audiovisual department at 3M.
In the mid-1970s, a burglar stole Woerhle’s Swiss wristwatch from his St. Paul home. Louise, his niece, reached out to the company, which tracked down a similar model, flew them to New York in 2011 and presented him with the replacement — a story he shared with Lester Holt on NBC’s “Today” show. The watch was hand-engraved with the words: “For your enduring loyalty.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.