HOW I SURVIVED WORLD WAR II
Activated March 15, 1943
590th Field Artillary Battalion
106th Infantry Division
THREE WEEKS FROM ENGLAND TO POW
After about fifteen days we loaded up all of our gear in our own vehicles and drove across England to Weymouth on the English Channel. There the field artillery battalions boarded L. S. T.’s for the trip across the channel to France. We hit a storm while crossing the channel and our L.S.T. lost its stern anchor. Since the L.S.T. can’t beach without it, we had to return to England to get another one put on. I don’t know what the delay was, but by the time the new anchor was installed and we returned to France and went up the Seine River to the landing area, we had spent ten days on that boat. We passed the time by playing cards, eating and sleeping in our vehicles.
Once all of our vehicles were on land we joined a convoy driving through France and Belgium and up into our places in the Ardennes Forest. We were six miles into the Siegfried Line in an area called the Shenee Eifel, meaning Snow Mountains. It was very cold and the snow was quite deep, and there was daylight only between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm.
Our job was to replace the 2nd Division which had pushed ahead of the rest of the front. The 2nd Division was moved to our left to bring the front there up to where we were. The departing soldiers said, “it was a quiet sector, a little artillery and mortar fire for practice, and occasional patrol, but really a piece of cake”. “Lucky guys! You’re coming into a rest camp.
I was one of two machine gunners, one on the left flank of the howitzer positions and one on the right flank. I was on the left flank and inherited a neat hut with a roof and windows on all four sides about two feet above ground. Underneath was dug out about four feet deep so we could stand straight up and look out of the windows. At the same below ground level right outside was my 50 caliber machine gun on a four foot tripod so it was usable for either anti-aircraft or ground fire. We were able to maintain a lookout while keeping warmer and staying out of the bitter cold and strong winds.
It was December 12th 1944 when we got in our positions. The rush to get us there was so short and rapid that we arrived with very minimal supplies. That translates into a week’s supply of food, fifty rounds of machine gun ammunition per gun and six howitzer shells per howitzer, and one clip of bullets for our carbines. A good gun crew could get six shells off in three minutes. The next day all battalion supply trucks along with those from the other battalions were sent back for supplies and ammunition. They never made it back to us being cut off by German troops on Skyline drive.
Three things that I know of happened to tell the Germans there was a change of troops in that area and mark our front as one place to begin the Battle of the Bulge.
The second Division was from Oklahoma and had many Native Americans in it. Being skilled experienced soldiers they would allow German Patrols to penetrate their area, but not see any American Soldiers and not find out any information. When the 106th Division, fresh off the boats and with several thousand green, inexperienced replacement soldiers replaced them, it was quickly noticed. These new guys at the front fired their few rounds of ammunition at anything that moved or made a noise.
The second thing involved our other machine gunner, Lew Kai Ming. Remember him? Well the second day he scared the shit out of us when he fired his machine gun at a buzz bomb that had taken off about fifty miles in front of us headed for England. Fortunately for us it was out of range by the time he loaded his machine gun and started firing. Had he hit it while it was overhead it would have wiped us all out. The 2nd Division soldiers would never have done that.
The third thing that pushed the button to start the German’s last ditch effort to push the allies back out of Europe was the weather. In the Schnee Eifel in winter the temperature didn’t rise above freezing, and there were always about a foot of snow on the ground, frequently causing snow fog. Unless you were used to it, it was difficult to move much less fight.
The starting date was early on the morning of December 16th. Just before dawn German shells began exploding in front of us, behind us and on our flanks. Later that morning our position was hit hard again by German 88’s. During this second shelling our Battery Commander, Captain Luzzi, became our first casualty.
We only stayed in those positions until the morning of December 18th when the order to fall back was received. The fog was so bad that even with our field glasses it was difficult to tell if the shadowy figures we saw were our soldiers retreating or German soldiers advancing.
On the road back a German ME109 suddenly appeared out of the fog and strafed us. We dove into ditches on the side of the road. I have no idea how many of our guys were killed or wounded by the strafing. Right on his tail was an American P51 and shortly after they had passed us there was an explosion up ahead as the P51 shot down the German plane.
The German advance was so swift and met such little resistance due to the lack of fire power and experience that it was already too late. We were bivouacked in a valley on the night of December 18th when word came around that we were surrounded. We were told to dispose of all gun firing pins and all vehicle rotors because we were going to surrender the next morning, December 19th.
When daylight came so did the Germans. They came down the side of one hill and in from both ends of the valley and most units surrendered. However, ten of us lead by a lieutenant from our battery ran up the hill on the other side and made it to the woods. We ran through the woods until we came to a clearing and there we stopped to catch our breath. The clearing was several hundred yards wide to more woods and looked perfectly safe. We decided we better keep going and ran across the clearing as fast as we could to the next wooded area.
We stopped abruptly as we heard in English, “halt” and a number of American soldiers stood up with guns pointed at us. We quickly identified ourselves and were welcomed into their wooded “sanctuary”. They told us we had just run through a mine field when we crossed the clearing. Luckily we didn’t set one land mine off. The “sanctuary” wasn’t a large area but the troops seemed to be well organized with guards on all four sides. They too had very limited supplies and ammunition and only one bazooka, useful against tanks.
That afternoon German tanks came into view on one side, not the side where the bazooka was, and fired at us point blank with their 88’s. Shrapnel it some of the soldiers and tree branches fell all around us. We had no defense because by the time a soldier crawled over to that side with the bazooka the tanks had unloaded and were gone. The next morning the tanks appeared on another side and repeated their assault with a few more shrapnel casualties. In the afternoon this scenario was repeated on another side with a few more casualties.
On the morning of December 21st a German command car appeared with the tanks. A Red Cross representative got out waving a white flag and asked in English to come in to check on the wounded and make plans to remove the most serious ones. He was given permission to come in and in the process of walking around to check on the injured Americans he got a good view of our “sanctuary.” He went back to the German commanding officer without any Americans being removed. He must have told him about how many men were there and what we had in the way of supplies and weapons.
After about an hour the Red Cross worker, maybe a German Soldier dressed like a Red cross person, came back, this time with a note from the German commanding officer; “surrender now or we’ll kill you all”. It didn’t take long for the American officer in charge of our group to agree to surrender.
THE FIRST TWO WEEKS AS A POW
The German soldiers marched us out of the wooded area, single file with our arms raised over our heads. Each one of us was briefly searched for any hidden weapons. The wounded soldiers were taken away, leaving about one hundred of us. Then we were moved back a few miles, and some other German soldiers were brought up to be our guards.
We were in for a real surprise. The nights of December 19th and 20th the Royal Air Force had bombed the railroad that had carried our comrades to a prisoner of war camp, so now on December 21st we had to march who knows how far to the nearest usable railroad. It was very cold and snowy.
One day lead to another, and another, and another. On Christmas Eve we walked through a small village and there was one church there. The Christmas Eve service was going on and as we walked by they were singing silent Night. The words were strange but the tune was unmistakable. The village residents were celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in their traditional manner, completely unaware that about one hundred of the enemies were marching under guard right through their village.
Several more days passed, nine in all. We found out we had walked about 100 kilometers in those nine days. During that period we had minimal food and snow gave us water as it melted in our mouth. We slept on the ground, huddled together by the guards for our body warmth and their ease to guard us. Most of us suffered frost bite and some other illnesses or injuries. A few of the soldiers had carried a blanket with them which they shared the best they could.
The guards took turns sleeping. Occasionally one of us would say we just can’t go on. But not for long! The prodding of a gun barrel by a guard soon gave you enough strength and courage to get up and move on. They were not leaving any of us behind, at least not alive.
When we stopped to rest sometimes we were able to find and dig up frozen turnips and kohlrabis. We then would peal some skin off with our teeth and bite pieces off to chew. It wasn’t great tasting, but it did provide some nourishment. And I haven’t eaten either since the War.
On the night before New Year’s Eve we finally reached the railroad where a string of box cars were waiting for us. We were herded in quite tightly. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was warmer and dryer than outside.
The next morning, New Year’s Eve Day, the train started moving, presumably back to a prisoner of war camp. After several hours it stopped. We sat for a while wondering what was going on when we suddenly heard the unmistakable drone of airplanes. An instant later we heard gun fire and realized that the airplanes were strafing our train. Then a crash sounded as at least on bullet came crashing right through the wall of our box car. Where did it land? Did it hit anyone? The answer came quickly when the soldier standing next to me handed me his blanket as he slumped to the floor with a bullet hole in his head.
We all screamed for the guards to let us out. It seemed like an eternity as we waited for the door of our box car to slide open. Then we all jumped out and ran through the foot deep snow out into a field and, almost as if it had been rehearsed, we formed the letters U S P W in the white virgin snow. The American P-47’s came back over a hill to strafe our train again. But they held their fire as they saw us all out in the snow identifying ourselves. As they flew over they flapped their wings and went on to another target not knowing how many of their own countrymen they had killed or wounded.
I don’t know how many Americans on the train were killed or wounded besides the one soldier in our car. I’m sure there were others, but we were herded back into the box cars without delay and without any information on casualties. It was a tense and frightening experience to be shot at by our own planes.
On New Year’s Day we arrived at our temporary destination, a prisoner of war camp known as Stalag IV. We were taken to a large building where officers were separated from privates. The Germans recognized and honored the rank of officer, including non-commissioned officers. All of us went into small rooms one by one to be interrogated.
Our instruction, if captured, was to give only your name, rank and serial number. I did that and the interrogator laughed at me. I was a private first class and he told me my division and battalion, were I lived in the states, the high school from which I graduated and the military bases where I had been stationed. I can’t imagine what they knew about non-comms and the officers. We were dispersed into barracks with British prisoners of war who had been there for a long time.
In addition to the German food served to us, we each received a Red Cross package from which the British confiscated the tea. They shared the finished product with us, but they were adamant that Americans did not know how to brew tea.
LEIPZIG WAS OUR NEW HOME
After a few days about a hundred of us American privates were taken out and transported by train to Leipzig. We arrived at the railroad station, a massive building not unlike many large city railroad stations in the United States at that time. We left the train and walked down the platform and through the huge lobby to the front of the station. There a tandem trolley was waiting for us and we all crowded into it. It was about a thirty minute ride to the end of the line. From there we walked several blocks to a medium sized building which would become our new “home”.
Our new “home” had been a night club before the war, but it had been converted for our use. The main floor where couples danced had triple bunk beds with straw mattresses. The balcony, a three step rise from the dance floor, had picnic style tables and benches. The kitchen and offices were in tack and there were a couple of rooms were the guards stayed.
Our menu was pretty much the same every day, barley soup, blood sausage and dry brown bread. Most of us had soup and bread for breakfast and again for dinner and a blood sausage sandwich for lunch. Red Cross packages never reached us.
Our days and weeks were pretty much the same. We arose early each day, and got dressed. Most of us slept in our underwear to give our clothes and bodies a break. After “breakfast” we walked to the trolley line, boarded a waiting trolley and road to the railroad station. We walked through the main lobby and down the platform to waiting flat cars loaded with railroad ties and rails. When we were all seated on the flat cars the train eased out of the station and went as close as possible to a section of railroad that had been bombed the night before by the Royal Air Force. Our theme song was “I been working on the railroad all the live long day”.
The damaged rails and ties would be removed and the craters were filled in by hand with dirt and stones called ballast. Then we laid new ties and rails. The ties were heavy, four inches by six inches, creosote soaked wood and difficult for two of us to maneuver into place. But we managed to lay them straight. Six of us would then carry a forty foot section of rail using three two-handled thongs and set each in place. After the rails were measured for the proper width between rails and were leveled, other prisoners would hammer the spikes in with sledge hammers. If the rails were not level, we would use a special pic to pound in more ballast under low ties until the track was level.
At the end of the day we returned to the railroad station and the waiting trolley for the trip back “home”. On the type and quantity of food rations we had it was a pretty tough day, but it could and would get worse.
Upon arriving “home” we would wash up and eat “dinner”. We usually retired early as we were tired and there wasn’t anything to do but sit and commiserate with each other. Besides; most nights our sleep was interrupted by sirens and the sound of bombs in the distance. When the sirens woke us we frequently would get up and look out the windows. We could see the flashes from the bombs in the darkness. This would tell us in what direction and about how far we would be going to work the next day.
The guards were not too numerous and worked shifts with only one guard on duty at night because all of the doors and windows had bars and locks. One night a number of us discovered the guard on duty that night not only spoke fluent English, but was quite friendly and very funny. It turned out that he had been a comedian before the war and he asked us about Bob Hope whom he had met before the war. He told us some jokes and we had some laughs together. Unbeknown to us, the officer in charge was watching. The next day this guard was sent to the Russian front, the worst punishment they could inflict.
The Germans were sticklers about short hair and insisted on all of us having short hair. This is how it was accomplished. One among us had been a barber in his pre-war life and somehow he managed to keep a manual hair clipper. The guards asked him to stay in one day each week and cut the hair of the clean-up crew. Yes, one day each week about a dozen of us took turns at K P and janitor. He refused saying they couldn’t make him perform his trade free. So the guards took the clippers from him and asked for a volunteer. My hand shot up fast as cutting hair sounded much better than working on the railroad, and it was one day every week instead of one day in house every six weeks for K P.
These were the only humorous incidents in Leipzig. The days rolled on, the next one like the one before it for about six weeks. On the night of February 21st it was strangely quiet. There were no sirens and no bombs, just unusual quiet. So on February 22nd we worked in the city on trolley tracks that needed repairs or replacement because there were no railroad repairs to be done.
Air raid sirens were common in Leipzig. They blared almost every day and night as enemy planes came within the designated range, frequently on their way to and from Dresden. Many of the citizens had become blaze and didn’t pay much attention to them. Leipzig was an educational and cultural center and had been spared heavy bombing throughout the war so far.
Shortly before noontime on February 22nd the sirens blared and they sounded louder and lasted longer than usual. And then it happened! U. S. planes appeared high in the sky, out of reach of the puffs of smoke from German anti-aircraft guns on the outskirts of the city. A mix of thousand pound block busters and incendiary bombs rained on the city for several hours. Wave after wave of B-17’s passed over the city. We could see the bombs coming down, but they came at an angle so from the ground it was hard to tell where they would land. People ran from all directions to shelters, sometimes throwing themselves hysterically on top of one another just to get in. We were not allowed in the shelters being kept out by the guards and the frantic citizens.
So we stood there and watched as the bombs exploded and fires started in every direction. Some bombs hit a couple of tall buildings up the street from us about half way up. The building toppled toward us and debris landed at our feet. The bombs were landing all around us. There was no place to go and nothing to do but to watch and to pray. Luckily we lost only six of our group.
When the bombing ended we could see the devastation all around us. We helped to move debris from usable streets until dusk. As nightfall began to settle over the city there was a mix of desolate darkness and the glow of fires. A partial indication of the magnitude of the damage was the fact that it took weeks to extinguish all the fires. I never did hear the number of casualties, but it had to be in the thousands. Probably fifty thousand homes and businesses were demolished or damaged and without power and water for weeks, maybe longer in some areas. Many places of employment were lost completely. And we were without our trolley.
Thank evening when we were assembled we had to walk about twelve miles to get to our “home” which was not touched by the bombing. We walked past screaming and crying civilians who felt the devastation of war at home for the first time. Some had lost relatives, friends or neighbors in the war but this was total destruction of their homes and their belongings. They know we were Americans and, although we had nothing to do with the bombing we were there in front of them. That night and every day afterwards as we walked to and from the railroad station we suffered the indignities of being cursed, being spat at, having things thrown at us and sometimes being injured. I understood their hurt and anger, but it didn’t make it any easier to accept this treatment.
With our very limited nutrition, the extra walking, the increased work load and the longer day took its toll. Many of us suffered variously from malnutrition, dysentery and other illnesses or injuries. I ended up in a British infirmary with dysentery and malnutrition and was cared for by British doctors and medics captured much earlier in the war. When reasonably recovered, after a couple of weeks, some of us were transferred to a farm where we joined almost a thousand other American prisoners of war.
We slept with the animals, mostly sheep. Have you ever cuddled up with sheep? Despite an odor they give off a lot of heat and it was the only heat we had in the barn. A limited number of guards moved us every couple of days from farm to farm as water and food ran out. The guards were careful to keep us closer to the American front than to the Russian front. When the war was over, and they knew it wouldn’t be too long, they wanted to be captured by the Americans, not the Russians.
THE GREAT ‘ESCAPE’ AND HOMEWARD BOUND
On April 22nd another soldier by the name of Art Jaynes and I were told to take a large milk can to the farm across the street for water. When we got to the pump at the rear of the farm house we took a drink of the cool, clear well water. Then we noticed that we were out of sight of the guards and made a quick decision. Let’s go for it! So we left the can by the pump and headed out back across the farmland toward a clump of trees and in the direction of the American front. By the time a guard came to investigate why we hadn’t returned with the water, we were nowhere in sight.
After walking down a road for several hours we saw some dust up ahead. We decided to play it safe and hide well off the road. It certainly was a smart move because the dust was caused by a German halftrack with tree S S troopers in it. Luckily they never saw us because we would not have lived through an encounter with them. When they were well out of sight we resumed our walking toward the American lines. When darkness came we found an empty farm shed where we slept until sun up.
The next morning we resumed our walking and after several hours we came to a fork in the road with a farm house in the middle. On the porch was a German soldier embracing a fraulein, completely unaware of our presence. We took a chance and called “which way to the Americans”. Fortunately, he was more concerned with what he was doing than what we were doing and just pointed to the right fork.
As the sun sank lower in the sky we saw dust up ahead again and decided we better hide off the road again. When the vehicle got close to us we could see that it was an American jeep with two soldiers in it. We stood up and yelled to them. The driver, a Sargent, stopped the jeep. He and a Captain jumped out and ran to us and embraced us.
We were very thirsty and they both had canteens of water. We both quenched our thirst. Then the Captain asked about other American prisoners as reconnaissance had lead them to believe there was a large group. We told them we had walked for a day and a half and that is how far back the large group was. We also told them there were about a thousand American prisoners in our group. Then the four of us climbed into the jeep and drove back to their outpost near Furth, a small town on a canal. The Captain said they would send a convoy for the other prisoners the next morning.
It was just about sunset as the jeep rolled into the outpost. As the jeep came to a stop by the canal, the Captain and Sargent quickly jumped out. They had two passengers that they picked up some ten miles to the East. They wore dirty O D’s and they both had many days growth of beard, but they were definitely Americans. A crowd appeared around the jeep as the Captain helped us out. Questions were shouted from all directions: “where’d you find them?” “Are there anymore?” “How’d you get there?” “What outfit are you from?”
Art Jaynes, the first to alight, had dark hair, a ruddy complexion and a mature look beyond his 23 years. I was much lighter and looked much younger than my 21 years. Both of us were thin and drawn and very tired. The air was tense with excitement as the two young soldiers sat down on the ground to rest.
There was no permanent place to rest in the outpost, an area badly battered by the war. However: across the canal stood Nurnburg, a university town before the war. For some reason Nurnburg was not as badly damaged and most of the buildings were still standing. The university facilities were used as headquarters and a field hospital.
The Germans had destroyed the bridge over the canal as a defensive phase of their retreat. There were two ways to cross over the canal, by pontoon boat or by walking across a dam.
While the two young American ex-prisoners of war rested, a good hearted Sargent realized they needed a lift. He offered to share his last bottle of schnaps with them. Art was the first to lift the bottle and take a long swig. Then I followed suit. It felt good going down. It was smooth and it went down easily.
Alcohol has a funny way of reacting sometimes, especially on an empty stomach. Art and I had not eaten anything for two days and not a lot for many days before that. Our heads spun like a top and everything looked bleary. The crowd that had gathered seemed to double in size and they were moving back and forth.
The Captain interrupted the merriment and laughter with an order. “Get these two across the canal and to the hospital before it is completely dark. They don’t look very steady Sargent; you better have four of the men help them across the dam.” With enthusiasm and zeal four volunteers stepped forward. Two put Art’s arms around their necks and steadied him, while the other two did the same for me. Slowly they inched their way to the edge of the dam.
The dam was made of concrete, sticking up about two feet above the water on the right side. On the left side it was about a twelve foot drop to the water fellow. The top of the dam was about four feet wide, and under normal circumstances not a difficult feat to walk across the canal. Guiding two weak and wobbly men across, however, could not be considered normal circumstances. The two soldiers supporting me eased their way onto the top of the dam. The impending darkness necessitated the use of flashlights, dimmed by blue cellophane, a wartime security measure. Slowly they inched their way across. In between occasional steps that I took, the two soldiers dragged me. The difference in the height to the water made it clear that if leaning was unavoidable, it must be to the right.
The soldier on the right side slipped and went down to one knee and I leaned precariously over his shoulder. The soldier on the left side pulled as hard as he dared and slowly his partner regained his footing. They were only half way across and I seemed to get heavier by the minute. My Occasional steps became less steady and more infrequent. This was a break though, because the two soldiers were able to maintain their balance more easily when they were dragging me. A few more feet and they would have me off the dam and safely on dry land. Minutes later and in complete darkness the task was completed. Ar and I were on our way in a jeep to the field hospital for a quick health check, food, a shower and some much needed sleep.
The next day a truck convoy went out and picked up the other prisoners. In a couple of days troop planes arrived to take our entire group to Camp Lucky Strike outside the French city of Le Havre. We were there for thirty days of rehabilitation before returning to the States. We had nothing to do there but eat, sleep and recreate. We had breakfast at 8:00 am, an eggnog at 10:00 am, lunch at noontime, and eggnog at 3:00 pm, dinner at 6:00 pm and another eggnog at 9:00 pm with lights out at 11:00 pm. In between we had exercises, played ball and in the evenings we had movies and a game room with a pool table and a table tennis table.
When I left to go overseas November 10th 1944 I weighed 175 pounds; when I got to the field hospital in Nurnburg April 24th 1945 I weighed 125 pounds. Due to that “diet” however, when I left Camp Lucky Strike to go home I Weighed 153 pounds and I looked like I was six months pregnant. After four weeks plus of rehabilitation we sailed from Le Havre aboard a victory ship bound for New York City.
My mother received a telegram from the War Department saying I was missing in action one week before the “big escape”. She received a letter saying I was a prisoner of war in Stalag 4B in Germany after I arrived at Camp Lucky Strike and only a couple of days before my first letter to her arrived.
Hitler’s Germany ignored the Geneva Convention Treaty and made a mockery of most human dignities. One good example was making U S prisoners of war do civilian hard labor without decent food or human necessities, much less any compensation.