Military Service: The War Years

We created this special section describing this astounding creative period that coincided with a time when the fate of so many was decided by a few.
On April 11, 1940, 28 year old Leo was drafted to serve in Hitler's Army [Reichsarmee].   However, World War II did not stop Leo from creating some significant master pieces that are coming to light some 60 - 70 years later.

(Watercolor on right:  The future Mrs. Laverne Van Dyke, painted from a photo provided at the POW Camp.)

Leo was sent to the 3rd Company Vehicle Reserve Division 46 in Deggendorf and, after being trained on trucks, chain vehicles (Krad) and small division tanks (Haubitze), he proceeded to become a trainer, himself.


Leo was deployed to Tunisia to serve in the Afrikakorps in January of 1943.  His Company leader happened to be from the Franconian city of Roth and had Leo paint his portrait in full uniform.  Meanwhile, the situation was becoming utmost critical for the Germans with the impending blockade and the rollout of Operation Torch [invasion of the Allieds into North Africa at the coastline through the Mediterranean].  As the company leader was prohibited from taken leave himself, he ordered Leo instead to take the portrait to the company leader's family in Germany.  According to wife Helene's narration, Leo left on one of the last transports from to Sicily and arrived in Nürnberg on May 1, 1943.

The activities of the family business were a non-issue.  Life had come to a standstill.  Leo's father Fritz  was assigned to the Heimatfront and served in the City of Nürnberg to recover the bodies after the nightly bombings.

Leo was reassigned to the Grenadier Reserve Batallion in Erlangen and Regensburg, then  deployed to the reserves of Panzer Division 25 in the Ardennes at the Siegfried Line, where he was taken prisoner by American forces on September 10, 1944 and confined to the POW Camp in Reims, France.
Photo on left taken in 1945 was sent to Leoto the POW camp, after Helene had just found out that her husband Leo was still alive.Leo sent back this portrait of his son from Reims with instructions to "break open the frame."  In the frame, he had hid money and valuables to assist his family with their struggle to survive the post-war years.
At POW Camp in Reims, Leo caught the attention of several American officers, including one of the three prison camp commanders, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Russell.  Russell's granddaughter Mary Ann Jacobson, formerly of Dryden, New York, now:  Georgia, got in touch with us back in 2000, sharing that her grandfather had asked Leo to paint several works on canvas that are listed in our War Years gallery.  Mary Ann also owns the sketches that Leo did of fellow inmate Reusch and himself.

In POW Camp, Leo was under the supervision of an American officer by the name of Laverne Van Dyke. In 2014, we received a notice from Van Dyke's niece Barbara Weiskopf of Indiana. She shared with us an audio tape of an interview that was conducted with Laverne 'Vern' Van Dyke, recanting his experiences during World War II that included his meeting with a "genius" by the name of Leo Birkmann.

Van Dyke's interaction with Leo initially involved making ice cream "for the Major" and he describes Leo as an artist whose creations were "out of this world."  The officer gave Leo a black and white wallet picture of his bride Nancy, described her complexion and her hair color and Leo came up with a portrait that was "exactly like her."

He reported that the 'Major' went back to the States with numerous art pieces painted by Leo.
Laverne Van Dyke Nancy Ellen Steiner
Following an outbreak of typhus at the POW Camp, Leo was transferred to a hospital near Munich, Germany with suspicion of infection. After being released from POW Camp in 1946, Leo seems happy on this family photo with wife and son Thilo, but his features reflect the years of hardship he endured.

Leo took some time to recover and, in 1948, entered his decades-long period of creativity and commissioned works.