Fort Collins Coloradoan — The moon surprised him, its fullness casting an unexpected gleam over the rows of barracks and barbed wire fences bordering the prison camp.

Ducked down, he looked for the sweeping glow of the watchtower's spotlight.

Just beyond its reach was the wild vastness of the New Mexico desert — if he wasn't shot, maybe even freedom.

Railroad tracks were definitely past the gates, an estimated four- or five-mile trek. He hadn't noticed them until recently, until after the newspapers started to write about the war's end in more imminent terms.

The slender young soldier, described later in the wanted posters as almost 6 feet tall and 171 pounds — "eyes, blue; hair, brown; nationality, German" — clawed himself under the first fence, then the second.

As the other prisoners reveled inside the camp mess hall, throwing spirited jeers at an American Western movie, 24-year-old Georg Gaertner sprinted into the boundless desert that surrounded their small satellite prisoner-of-war camp.

Just as he'd planned, a Southern Pacific freight train roared past within the hour, right as he reached the tracks.

Running alongside it, he hurled himself inside an open car.

The scene was eerily similar to an event a few years earlier, during Officer Preparatory School for the Nazi Army.

After being taught how to evade the Allies if caught behind enemy lines, hundreds of officer candidates were set loose on the edge of a German town called Heidelberg. Their mission was to make it to the other side of town without being noticed by the instructors.

Some of the soldiers tried jumping from rooftop to rooftop, others slogged underground in the town's sewers. A few disguised themselves as women.

Gaertner was the only one who casually hopped onto a streetcar and rode it through town.

It was as daring as it was simple — blending into the monotonous humdrum of everyday life.

It worked.

He won the challenge that day. And — in a way — he won it again that night years later, as the freight train delivered him across the moonlit expanses of the American Southwest in September 1945.

Daring simplicity would carry Gaertner through his next 40 years as a wanted fugitive — from the migrant farm labor camps of Northern California and the logger-filled forests of Southern Oregon to lush Hawaiian islands and burgeoning Colorado cities.

It would lead him into jobs in sales and on ski resorts. And it would bring him to Jean, who still speaks fondly of him from her Northern Colorado home — about the night a tall, handsome stranger tapped her shoulder at that YMCA singles dance in San Mateo, California.

It was Gaertner's ability to boldly slip out of his prisoner-of-war camp, and into American life, that led him to become the last escaped German POW hunted by U.S. authorities.

Or, as he'd put it in his book 40 years later, "Hitler's Last Soldier in America."

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