Life is a Game


Adventures of a World War II Interrogator and U.S. Soccer Pioneer

by Dr. G.K. “Joe” Guennel and Flint Whitlock



Soldier, scientist, artist, author, and the Johnny Appleseed of American soccer: His was truly a “life in full.” German-born Gottfried K. “Joe” Guennel moved to the U.S. as a young teen. During World War II, he became one of the U.S. Army’s famed “Ritchie Boys”—a highly trained interrogator of German prisoners of war. Also an accomplished artist and photographer, he drew and photographed scenes of a war-ravaged Europe as he traveled from assignment to assignment.

At war’s end, he remained in Germany to interrogate suspected war criminals in advance of the Nuremberg War-Crimes Tribunal. He grilled arrogant generals and haughty industrialists and even the mistresses of Nazi bigwigs. Of Hedwig Potthast, Heinrich Himmler’s mistress, Joe said, “I found her unremarkable in every way.”

After the war, he returned to the U.S. and earned his doctorate at Indiana University in the field of Palynology—the study of ancient plants—that earned him a career with an oil company in Colorado to help it find places in the western United States where oil deposits were likely to be. But it was his love of soccer—the game he played as a young boy in Germany—that was his true passion. Starting the first soccer team at Indiana University, Joe went on to create soccer programs everywhere he went, especially in his new home state of Colorado.

Immersing himself in every facet of the game—from player to coach to referee to publicist to administrator—Joe helped the once-foreign sport grow into an all-American one that became one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. As a result of his untiring efforts to turn soccer into a mainstream American game, Joe was inducted into the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1980. His 50-year-long friendship with Flint Whitlock, also an acknowledged “soccer nut,” resulted in the collaboration that produced this book.

Our job was to interrogate prisoners, not fight with them, and we had lots of prisoners, thousands of them. Prisoners would be searched after they were captured, and any documents they had on them would be given to prisoner-interrogation teams like ours to see if they contained any important military information. Then we would sit down with the prisoners, one on one. We’d offer them coffee or chocolate or cigarettes, try to get buddy-buddy with them in order to gain their trust, just as we were taught at Camp Ritchie. If they were wet and cold, we’d sit them next to a fireplace or stove and give them a blanket to wrap around themselves.

We’d start out by asking about their home life—where they were from, if they were married or had a girlfriend, what they did before the war, whether they had been drafted or had enlisted—things like that. Of course, we knew most of the answers because every German soldier was required to carry his Soldbuch with him at all times, and we had studied it.

If a captured soldier were hurt or wounded, our medical personnel took care of them, just as they would a wounded American or Allied soldier. It was one of the crazy rules of warfare—you go out and try to kill the enemy, but if you capture a wounded enemy soldier, you are required to treat him kindly, make sure he that receives medical attention, and that he’s well fed and clothed. The Germans were supposed to do this, too, when they had a wounded Allied soldier on their hands. For the most part they did. It was all covered by the Geneva Convention.

Many of the Germans we captured would express relief that they had been taken prisoner; it meant that for them that they were out of the war, and the fear of being killed was over. Tens of thousands of them were shipped to the United Kingdom and United States, where they spent the rest of the war in relative comfort in POW camps; most of them were very happy that they had not been captured on the Eastern Front by the Russians, who were notorious in their treatment of German prisoners. Once the war was over, they would be repatriated to their home countries.

In 1949, while attending Indiana University University at Bloomington, I decided to start another soccer team, just as I had done during my stint at the University of Missouri during ASTP in 1943. But now, with my bum knee, my playing time was limited—but I could coach. Thus, in the fall of 1949, the first Indiana University soccer team was born. It wasn’t an officially school-sanctioned, varsity sport—just a club team, but it was a start.

That first team was quite an international bunch. John Lynge, an import from Denmark, was the team captain. He had also served in the British Commandos during World War II, so I knew he was tough. Kok Joon Tan was a player from Singapore, and Peter Danielson had played in Norway. We also had three Iranians—the brothers Teimoor and “Fred” Vaziri, along with fellow countryman Michael Bit-Alkhas. Most of the rest of the team were Americans, including Len Kenworthy, from New Jersey; he had served in Patton’s Third Army during the war. We also recruited a Scotsman, Walter Hutchinson, to referee our home games.

In 1949 we played only two games, losing by a combined score of 14-0. But we stuck with it and trained together and got better, winning our first game in 1950 against Purdue, 5-3, in front of 300 fans on the IU football team’s practice field.

I produced five All-Americans during my IU coaching stint—Tom Morrell, John Hicks, Ghassan Omary, Joey Singer, and Ian Rothmuller. Well, let’s say they produced themselves; I was just the coach. But I’m proud to say that the school named its Most Valuable Soccer Player Award after me—the Joe Guennel Award.


Flint Whitlock pieced together his late, longtime friend’s autobiography

Interview by Kevin Simpson, Colorado Springs Sun

Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book June 11, 2023

Historian Flint Whitlock helped close friend Joe Guennel tell his story that began in Nazi Germany, spanned work as a U.S. interrogator in World War II, and led to pioneering soccer in Colorado.

SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate? 

Flint Whitlock: Because of my interest and involvement in soccer (I played in college and in West Germany when I was stationed there with the U.S. Army in the 1960s), I met German-born Dr. G.K. “Joe” Guennel, the “father of Colorado soccer,” when I moved to Colorado Springs in the early 1970s.  We subsequently became good friends after I moved to Denver to become the public relations director for the Denver Dynamos, Colorado’s first professional soccer team.

Near the end of his life, Joe gave me his writings, artwork, and photographs in hopes that I could complete his autobiography during his lifetime. Sadly, that did not happen as he died in 2013 and the book, “Life Is A Game,” was not published until 2022.

The excerpt I have chosen was written by Joe after he had been drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and was stationed at the University of Missouri as a member of the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP).

SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

Whitlock: The book has four main parts. The first is about Joe’s life growing up in Germany (he was born in 1920) and then living through the first three years of the Nazi regime, when life became more and more precarious.

The second part is about Joe coming to the U.S. and becoming “Americanized” to the point that he gave up his love for soccer and became a baseball standout in high school.  He was drafted into the U.S. Army and, because German was his native language, was assigned to a prisoner-of-war interrogation team.

The third part is about his experiences in World War II—traveling with infantry units and interrogating POWs. After the war, he was called upon to interrogate high-ranking generals and Nazi officials prior to their going on trial for war crimes.

The fourth covers his post-war life and his intense drive to introduce soccer to as many people as possible—starting out with the boys and girls of Colorado.

SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? 

Whitlock: I saw my role as confidant and editor of Joe’s original manuscript. Because of our 50-year-long friendship, mutual love of soccer, and deep interest in World War II, I wanted to do his work justice. Oftentimes his memoirs, which were written over a period of many years, would have incomplete or contradictory information, so I would need to do research and, as much as possible, try to determine which of the conflicting versions were the most accurate. Since he was no longer alive to consult with, this became quite a challenge.

SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?  

Whitlock: This was my 15th book; each one presents new and different challenges. In many ways, this book was one of the easiest, because I was basically just editing what someone else had written.  It was also difficult because, as I mentioned, Joe was no longer around to help me interpret what he had written or get further clarification and detail.

It was also my task to fill in gaps for readers not familiar with the history of World War II; hence the several timelines included in the book that give context to what was going on during the war during the time period covered by the book—the “big picture,” so to speak. But I love these sorts of challenges!

SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?

Whitlock:  I think it would be how driven Joe was to succeed at whatever he set out to do — whether it was to be a student, an athlete, a scholar, an artist, an interrogator of POWs, a paleobotanist, or his life’s calling—to become the “Johnny Appleseed of soccer” and spread his love of the game (still in its infancy in the U.S. by the time he began his journey) far and wide.

SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?

Whitlock: The current politicized environment is very frightening. I’m sure that if Joe were still alive, he would look back on his early life in Nazi Germany and equate the book banning that is currently going on in parts of the U.S. as being frighteningly similar to the book burning that went on in the 1930s. I would agree.

SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?

Whitlock: When I’m involved in a writing project—whether it be a book, an article, or editing my magazine (“WWII Quarterly,” published in Virginia), I generally go down to my writing suite in the lower level of my house in the morning and put in several solid hours of uninterrupted (if possible) work. I also have a large home library with a thousand or more books, mostly on World War II, that I use for research (in addition to the internet, an incredibly valuable tool).

I’ve often had two books going at the same time; if I get bogged down on one, then I shift to the other.

SunLit: Why is military history so interesting to you?

Whitlock: It has everything that good literature should have – heroes, villains, bravery, cowardice, action, tragedy, suspense, exotic locations, and sometimes even romance.

SunLit: Tell us about your next project.  

Whitlock: My next project is already underway — a history of Colorado’s contributions to victory in World War II.

SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?  

Whitlock: Never a chore as long as the words are flowing. I like the research part (especially actually visiting the places where the story took place) as much as the writing.

SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of? 

Whitlock: I wrote a poem in 7th or 8th grade titled “Ode to a Bedstead” – it was so good that my teacher thought I had plagiarized it!

SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?

Whitlock: I sometimes re-read some of my books and surprise myself with how good they are – like reading someone else’s work.  (“Did I actually write this?”)  Sorry to brag.

SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why? 

Whitlock: Wow, good question.  I think I would like to sit down with Joseph Heller, William Manchester, and Philip Roth (and maybe a fourth — Tom Wolfe) and just listen to them talk. I just admire their work greatly and have learned so much about writing from reading their works.

SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?

Whitlock: I don’t recall who said it, but probably my favorite is: “The secret to good writing is re-writing. After you’ve written what you think is the greatest sentence or paragraph ever written, put it away for a week or two then re-read it. You’ll change your opinion. More importantly, you’ll see what’s wrong and will be able to fix it.”

SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?

Whitlock: That I’m nuts about military history.

SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write? 

Whitlock: I always have classical music (but not opera) on in the background. Can’t stand silence.

SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?

Whitlock:  I couldn’t decide whether to be an artist or a writer, so I became both.  Haven’t painted since the 1980s, though; writing is less physically taxing and you don’t get paint on your clothes.

SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear? 

Whitlock: That someone will say that I got some fact wrong.

SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction? 

Whitlock: Awards and recognition are nice, but I most like receiving letters or emails from people who say that my writing touched them in some way. I once had a reader who thanked me for “giving us our father back.” The story is too long to go into here, but if you want to chat about it…

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“Life is a Game is the fascinating story of an extraordinary man who gave his all in WWII and also left behind a considerable sporting legacy.”

–Alex Kershaw
Author of The Bedford Boys and The Liberator

“Flint Whitlock scores again—this time with a fast-paced narrative of an incredible life! Joe Guennel was a Renaissance man who interrogated top Nazis for the U.S. Army in WWII, was an outstanding artist and scientist, authored books, and dedicated his life to the growth of competitive soccer in the U.S. Well worth the read!”

–Michael E. Haskew
Editor, WWII History magazine

“Joe Guennel is truly a pioneer in the development of American soccer to where it is today a mainstream sport. Joe’s life was exceptional as an accomplished WWII veteran to being responsible for fathering numerous youth soccer programs. He was truly a giant of our game.”

–Dr. Robert Contiguglia
Former President, U.S. Soccer Federation

“Wow! Once I started reading, I couldn’t lay it down. The great story of a man who not only served his country but served the communities wherever he landed. The most intriguing was the history of the war from firsthand experience—information only Joe could tell. This book also tells of the making of soccer in Colorado and the U.S. since its inception—and the many pioneers like Joe who made it happen.”

–Nate Shotts
CEO, Colorado State Soccer Association
Colorado Soccer Hall of Fame—Class of 2021

“We are fortunate for all the contributions Joe made to IU to help us reach championship success.”

— Todd Yeagley, Indiana University Men’s Head Soccer Coach

“An interesting look at the work of interrogators in Europe during the war. The subject’s accomplishments in soccer make the work of interest to fans of the sport as well.”

— WWII History magazine

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