Military Memoirs by F. Eugene
In September 1938, I
went to Lincoln, Nebraska where I enrolled at the University of Nebraska
in the College of Agriculture. Participation in the Reserve Officer
Training Corps (ROTC) program was one of the required subjects in all
the Land Grant Colleges in the U.S. for the first two years of college.
At the end of this period we had the option of signing up for the next
two years of advanced training. This would lead to a Reserve Commission
as a second lieutenant in the US Army.
At the College of Agriculture campus in Lincoln, we had a field
artillery unit, so that is what I was trained for.
On the city campus there were infantry and engineering units. In
June of 1941 we were required to attend six weeks of artillery training
at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri. Here we got our first experience of being in the
Army—living in a barracks with others and all the various rules and
regulations other soldiers in the Army live by.
In June 1942, after my senior year of college and four years of
ROTC, I received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Reserves. My
Army serial number was O-465104. Because
I had had to work my entire way through college with out any financial
help, I still lacked a few hours of graduating, so they gave me a
deferment for one more semester to complete the requirements to
graduate. Immediately upon graduation in January 1943, I was called to
active duty and went to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
There I was assigned to
a training battery to help train new enlisted recruits while I waited to
attend an officer’s class at the Artillery School. After some time, I
attended a four months long Battery Officer’s Course (BOC) which
included about the same technical training as did Officers Candidate
School (OCS), which commissioned officers from the ranks. The big
difference was that we did not have all the BS that the OCS candidates
were subjected to.
After graduating from
BOC, my classmates and I got orders to military assignments all over the
US. Most of us got
two-weeks leave so we could go home, or wherever, before reporting to
our new duty station. Of course I headed back to Lincoln, Nebraska,
where I had left the girl I had hoped and planned to marry - Enid (Skeets)
Mundhenke. She was in nurses training.
My parents, Jim and Estella Liggett, my sister, Freda, who was
still in school, and my brother, Harold and his wife, Leona, with their
small daughter, Janice, all lived in Shelton, Nebraska. My other
brother, Bob, was in the USMC. It was hard to tell all of them goodbye
when I had to leave to go to Camp Shelby, near Hattiesberg, MS.
Infantry Division was being formed and there was a lot of competition
among the officers for various positions and jobs.
A good friend of mine, Merritt Plantz was also from Nebraska and
had been with me in many classes at the Agriculture College since 1938.
We were commissioned at the same time in 1942, and were both deferred to
finish college. We were called to active duty at Ft. Sill at the same
time. We were not in
the same class but upon graduation, both of us were sent to Camp Shelby
to be in the 65th Division. We were both assigned to the same
artillery battalion, but to different batteries.
I didn’t particularly like the outfit and as a means of getting
out, I applied for Liaison Pilot Training. Liaison pilots flew the small
Piper Cub planes used for observation and to adjust artillery fire.
I had passed the physical exam and was waiting to be called to go
to school, when the Battalion got orders to send a certain number of
officers to North Africa and Italy as replacements. I was one of those
with orders to report to Ft. Meade, MD to ship out.
I didn’t have time to
go home for another visit, but I did stop in Birmingham, Alabama to see
my cousin, Esther (O’Neill) and Red Roberts and their small son. From
there I went to Atlanta to visit Elsie (Van Winkle) Moye, another
cousin. At Ft. Meade we had nothing to do but wait, so I went to NYC a
couple times to visit Dwight Cherry, my former college roommate at NU.
He was a medical student at Columbia Uni. and later became a doctor and
surgeon. Also I got to go to Washington, DC and Baltimore several times.
On a November night I
got on a train with several hundred other replacements and went to
Newport News, Virginia where we boarded the ship, the HMS
Empress of Scotland. It was
formerly an English passenger ship and was now used as a troop transport
ship. There were about
6,000 of us on it, with the officers having staterooms, and the enlisted
men bunking down in the holds.
Because there was a
significant threat from German U-boats, most ships crossing the Atlantic
traveled in convoys, with navy escorts. However, as the Empress
could steam at 35 knots, we went across as a lone ship. We went south to
near the coast of Brazil, and then eastward along the Equator, and up
the coast of Africa to Casablanca. However, out in the middle of the
Atlantic we ran into nine German submarines. Our ship dropped a lot of
depth charges. When these exploded, it sounded like someone on the
outside of the ship’s hull, hitting us with a big sledgehammer. At the
same time our ship changed to a zigzag course, changing direction every
seven minutes. As a result, the big ship rolled to one side and then to
the other, causing a lot of people, including myself, to get seasick.
This was my first ship ride.
I felt pretty lucky to
be an officer, as we had a steward to wait on us in our staterooms- even
to “draw my bath” as there was a big bathtub in my cabin. On the
ship we had a big early Thanksgiving turkey dinner in the officers’
dining room. I had never seen so much silverware as was spread out on
each side of our plates, or as many fancy dishes and glasses as graced
the tables. Naturally, the food matched the surroundings, so it was one
dinner I will always remember - quite a contrast to the next
Thanksgiving dinner I was to have in prison camp. I felt sorry for the
way the enlisted men were
fed and were crowded into the holds below deck with such poor
ventilation provided. Nobody could go out on deck at night as everything
was “blacked out”.
Finally, we pulled into
the harbor at Casablanca. Here too, I had a new experience, as I watched
men unloading coal on a ship next to us. The stevedores were like a
steady stream of ants, carrying fiber baskets full of coal on their
heads from the ship to wherever they dumped it
We were taken outside of
Casablanca to a “tent camp” surrounded with barbed wire fences.
Guards continually patrolled to keep the Arabs from stealing stuff from
us. They often shot several
each night. The Arabs and kids were continually trying to beg, or steal
whatever they could. It appeared that their most sought after clothing
consisted of a blue GI barracks bag with two holes cut in the bottom for
their legs and the drawstring or rope around their waist. Usually there
was a GI’s name and serial number across his rear end. Another
favorite, especially for the women, was a navy mattress cover with a
hole cut in for their head and holes for each arm, with the mattress
cover being worn as a dress.
One night I went into
town to the Automobile Club, which was the Officers Club. Navy and Army
personnel from all over the world were there drinking and gambling.
MP’s were stationed at about every gambling table, as the stakes were
often quite high. I had learned my lesson and had not gambled any since
first going to Ft. Sill. This lesson has lasted me a lifetime too.
That night I got friendly with a Navy officer from Scotland. He
was singing a song for what seemed like hours, with the last line of
each verse ending with “there will always be an England for Scotland
From our camp outside of
Casablanca we could watch the camel caravans coming in from the desert
to the East of us. Here we had another Thanksgiving dinner with the
cooks and help being Italian POW’s. We all got a good case of
dysentery as a “bonus”.
Finally, we boarded a
train and headed toward Oran. There were numerous delays as some parts
of rail line used electric trains and parts used old steam engines. At
each stop, either day or night, the native Arabs came with all kinds of
knives and swords, which they tried to sell or trade. It was sort of
scary the way they flashed them around at us to get our attention. Oran
was another interesting place with all the underground tunnels etc. Most
of these were “off limits”, but down along the water (the
Mediterranean) were the centuries-old places where slaves had been tied
to iron rings fastened into walls of open caves in the rocks. Several of
us went into a Muslim Mosque one day. We had to take off our shoes
before going in. The women
were on one side of the room and the men on the other side - all facing
east and kneeling down praising Allah.
By this time the war had
ended in North Africa, the Allies had taken Sicily, and the fighting had
moved to Italy. The rugged nature of the terrain north of Naples, the
poor quality and lack of roads, and the adverse weather conditions
created enormous problems for the combat soldiers. The few roads that
existed in the mountains became muddy quagmires in the constant rain and
snow. In many places it was impossible to use motor vehicles to
transport men and supplies to the front lines, or to evacuate the
wounded. Supplies had to be carried on the backs of soldiers or mules,
and the wounded had to endure lengthy and painful movement on unsteady,
bouncing litters. Word that men were being worn to exhaustion by the
awful environment even before they got into combat filtered back to the
replacement centers in North Africa, and it was wisely decided that we
should be in better physical shape before being sent up to Italy.
About 50 - 75 of us
officers were sent out in the desert somewhere near Sidea-Bela-Bes,
which was the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion. Here I learned
a lot of the tactics used by the Infantry. We used live ammunition,
which caused an occasional “unsafe” condition for the Arabs and
their sheep or goats when we encountered them in our maneuvers. At night
we slept in tents that we had erected. The training included a very
difficult obstacle course, tougher than I had seen anywhere else. With a
full pack and rifle, we crawled under barbed wire entanglements with
live machine gun fire only inches above us, over walls and through
various other obstacles, and crossed a river on a
with dynamite charges being set off in the water just below us.
It was good experience though, and I am sure we were in much better
physical condition when we finished this two-week course.
Back in Oran in Dec. 1943 I had my picture taken at some little
studio by a French lady. One pose - one shot, and that was all. I paid
her and gave her the address to send one to the folks and one to Skeets.
Later I was surprised to find out that she did, indeed send the pictures
home instead of just pocketing the money. I now have the original
picture she sent my parents.
On New Years eve,
1943-44, several of us who had been together since we were at Ft. Meade,
got some Pink Champagne, and I think that was the last time I ever got
drunk. Shortly after that we got on a Liberty ship bound for Naples.
Because so many ships were being sunk by German submarines, we were in a
big convoy and sailed east along the African coast to Bizerte, and then
past Malta and over to Sicily where we stopped shortly before going on
to Naples. At about this time, Mt. Etna in Sicily was erupting and
sending up a lot of black smoke and ash.
Going through the Straits of Messina (between Sicily and Italy)
the water was the roughest I ever saw. Our old Liberty Ship rolled from
side to side and end to end. The screw (propeller) came up out of the
water and it shook the whole ship. At the same time the bow went under
water—then the reverse, with the bow up out of the water and the stern
under. All the time it was rolling side to side. For some reason I did
not get seasick though. Nobody could stand up or even walk around. We
crawled, if need be, to get some C-rations to eat. All of us were glad
to get off the ship. It had taken us 21 days to cross the Mediterranean
from Oran to Naples.
In Italy we went to a
Replacement Depot north of Naples. From here we got to watch all the
planes going to and coming from the bombing of the Monastery. We saw
some of some of the B-17’s or B-24’s being shot down and also got to
see several good dogfights between US and German fighter planes.
A short time later
several of us got orders to go up to Anzio as replacement officers for
those who had been killed or wounded. The four of us who had been close
friends since we first met at Ft. Meade were included in this group of
replacements. Lt. Olsen and
I went to the 45th Infantry Division. Lt. Hoffman went to the
36th Division and Lt. Hood went to the 3rd
Division. Later Hood and Hoffman were killed, Olsen was badly wounded
and I was captured. This was typical of most all of the 60 or 70
officers who had come over together.
We were taken down to
the docks at the Naples harbor to load up on assigned Liberty Ships to
go to Anzio. I was walking along the dock when I met Warren Pavlat, a
close acquaintance from the Agriculture College in Lincoln, Nebraska. He
was now a naval officer on one of the Liberty Ships. He asked me to ride
up to Anzio with him, so I went back and got permission to get off the
ship I had been assigned to and to ride up with Pavlat on his ship. We
sat up all night talking and renewing our friendship. The next morning,
as we sat at anchor in the Anzio harbor, the Germans came over and
bombed us. The ship that I had originally been on got a direct hit and,
having been loaded mainly with gasoline and ammunition, it blew
sky-high! This was the
first of many lucky events that enabled me to come home later.
Lt. George Olsen and I
were taken to the headquarters of the 158th Field Artillery
Battalion of the 45th Infantry Division where we reported for
duty. As we walked into the command post (CP) we could hear a desperate
report coming in over the radio from one of the FOs (forward observers)
up with an infantry company. He was in a building and we could hear the
Germans breaking into the house and shooting him! There were several
lieutenants in the CP, along with Captain Beverly Finkle and Lieutenant
Colonel Dwight Funk, the battalion commander. These lieutenants
immediately started dividing up some of the valuables that had been
collected by the officer who had just been shot. Then they looked at
what Olsen and I had brought with us, and started dividing up the things
we had---what a nice welcome!
Both George and I were
assigned as Forward Observers to C Battery, which normally fired in
support of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 157th
Infantry Regiment. As FOs, we would usually work with the three “line
companies” (Companies I, K, or L)
of the 3rd Battalion.
Our mission was to call for and direct artillery fire on targets ahead
of them. Along with our assignments, we received the news that the life
expectancy of a forward observer was about six weeks. It seemed that our
destiny for the future was to be killed, wounded, or captured, or any
combination of these. What a future with my first real job after
graduation from college!!
Olsen and I were each
given a jeep and driver, a “710” radio, a radio operator and two men
to carry the radio and batteries when we dismounted from the jeep. Our
men were also replacements, but had been there for some time and were
already settled in with other jobs in and with C Battery. Now, when not
up with the infantry as part of our FO party, they would continue living
with the firing battery. Due to the small size of the Anzio beachhead,
Olsen and I would billet ourselves with Service Battery instead of with
C Battery to help relieve some of the congestion around the firing
battery while we were on the Anzio beachhead.
The first job that Olsen
and I had was to dig a hole to stay in and to get situated. Everybody
lived in dug out holes, which were covered with earth for protection
against the German butterfly bombs, with which the German Air Force
repeatedly attacked the beachhead. These bombs, each weighing 4.4 lb.
were packed inside canisters, which opened after being dropped,
scattering the bombs over wide areas. When the bombs were ejected from
the canister, small wings deployed, which stabilized and slowed the bomb
and also set the fuse. The bombs could be set to explode on contact with
the ground or as an airburst. Over time, the fragments from the
thousands of butterfly bombs dropped at Anzio damaged or destroyed just
about everything above ground.
We dug a hole about
eight feet square and about 6 feet deep with a dog leg entrance. We went
into Anzio (town) and got doors and other timbers etc. to cover our
hole, making sure the cover was strong enough to support at least two
feet of dirt on top of it. We had a bulldozer from Service Battery dig
holes for our jeeps so the tires wouldn’t get hit by the steel bomb
fragments. Then we ran a wire from a jeep over to our hole and hooked up
a light in our hole. All the comforts of home! The toilet was out in an
open area where there was a shovel with a roll of toilet paper so each
person could dig and cover up his daily contribution to build up the
fertility of Mussolini’s soil.
Then it was about time
for us to get to work doing what we came to do. My FO party consisted of
Dick Borthwick as my radio operator, Charles Smith could also operated
the radio, but his and Herman Rodriguez’ main jobs were to carry the
“710” radio and batteries. Carter was my driver for the jeep. Olsen
had a similar crew. To begin with, Sgt. Walt Schumaker, who was an original
“Thunderbird”, having been in the Oklahoma National Guard when the
Division was called to Federal Service. He had been through Sicily and
Italy before Anzio and had been out with a number of other Forward
Observers and was well acquainted with how things were done in combat. He helped me get acquainted with their method of calling for
and adjusting the artillery fire. Needless to say this was a lot
different procedure than they taught us at Ft. Sill. It was much more
practical and easier. After a couple times up with Walt’s help, I was
on my own from then on.
At Anzio I had a lot of
interesting events that happened and will try to relate a few of them to
help the reader better understand what life was like in what had been
described as Germany’s largest concentration camp—the Anzio
One night I went up to
relieve another FO at an outpost. Before he departed, he showed me a
piece of shrapnel that had landed by his feet. It had his initials on
it! (German ordnance and other military items were marked with a
three-letter code, such as ”cda” or “fzo” to identify the
manufacturer. Apparently the shell fragment that had landed at his feet
had a manufacturer’s code that was the same as his initials.)
Right in front of us was a barbed wire entanglement between us
and the German’s front line. I was told that we had received an
intelligence report that the Germans were expected to drop paratroopers
that night. Naturally we all were extra alert.
Along in the night we heard a big commotion in the barbed wire in
front of us. I directed
some artillery fire in and behind the barbed wire and the Infantry shot
it up good with their machine guns and other weapons. Then all was quiet
again. In the morning we saw a dead cow that had got tangled up in the
barbed wire out in front, instead of what we thought were German
Being in a defensive
position, we had telephone wires to the various units instead of
depending entirely on radios. However, the Germans soon found our
telephone wires and tapped into them and we tapped into theirs. Over the
telephone we enjoyed listening to “George and Sally” on the German
radio propaganda programs that were designed to make the Americans and
British homesick by playing all the current popular songs. Either we had
to check our wires quite often or use radio for official calls. The
Germans also dropped the propaganda leaflets to help destroy our morale.
At least that was their intended purpose, but we found them quite
On March 4th
I had a close call. I was
back at the firing battery (Battery C) and they were getting a lot of
counter battery fire, i.e., the German artillery shooting at our
artillery positions. I had gone from the Command Post (CP) to the
kitchen truck to get a can of C rations for lunch and was on my way back
to the CP when a German artillery shell just missed my head and landed
about six feet on the left side of me. I was lucky that most of the
fragments went out away from me and all I got was a few small pieces of
iron and lot of sand etc. embedded in my skin—along with a bleeding
and broken left eardrum. Back at the CP it took a couple of people with
tweezers, two or three hours to pick all the stuff out of me. Lady Luck
had smiled on me again.
The British were on our
left flank and back at Service Battery we were fairly close to some of
them. After getting acquainted, we visited back and forth. We didn’t
get a liquor ration and they did, so one evening they invited Olsen and
me over to drink and visit. Their hole lived up to their motto - “As
long as you have to go, you just as well go first class”. They had dug
a hole about 10 feet deep and had about four feet of dirt over the top
of it. . Also electric lights like we had, powered from a near by
vehicle. While sitting down there, we heard a loud thud up above and
dirt started shaking down on us. We went outside to see what happened.
On top of the hole lay a
huge projectile from the big (280mm)
railroad gun that the Germans had up near Rome - the “Anzio
Annie”, as we called it. It had apparently hit a tree that deflected
its trajectory so it landed on its side without hitting the fuse on the
end of it, which would have caused it to explode. Had it exploded, it
would have made a hole big enough to bury a truck in. Lady luck smiled
on me again!
There had been quite a
few trees around the Service Battery area so when a German ME109 fighter
plane was shot down close by some of the enterprising soldiers took the
machine guns out and mounted them on about a four-foot stump of a tree
they had cut off. By late spring there were at least six or eight of
these mounted and used every time a German plane came near. I don’t
know whether they ever shot down a plane, but they had fun trying.
One evening the Germans
hit a large ammo dump about a mile from Service Battery. The resulting
explosions would put all the 4th of July fireworks displays
I’ve seen to shame. For about an hour and a half it literally rained
red-hot pieces of steel all over the area.
Lt. Colonel Funk had
Service Battery build a still to take the alcohol out of the Italian
cognac and Vino that the GI’s liberated. Otherwise it was about like
drinking gasoline and very likely could have been detrimental to the
health of the men. They had the kitchen order lots of orange juice,
pineapple juice, etc. to mix with it. This was then distributed to the
men in the firing batteries. This was just another example of Colonel
Funk’s dedication to the welfare of the men in his Battalion.
On Easter Sunday I was
up with the Infantry in their trenches next to no-man’s land. The
Germans were on the other side of it, about 300 feet away.
A rather unusual thing happened. The Germans were not shooting at
us, and they were acting a little strange in that they were crawling
back and forth to men in other trenches or holes. Before we knew what
they were doing, we shot several of them with rifles. After capturing
one or two, they told us what was happening and we quit shooting them.
Because it was Easter Sunday, they were given a liquor ration and orders
not to shoot at us. The men closest to us were mostly Polish or other
nationalities the Germans had taken as prisoners and forced to fight us.
In fact some of them still had on their original uniforms instead of the
German uniform. Behind these frontline men were the German non-coms,
whom the front line men were more afraid of than they were of us. If
they retreated from us they would be shot by the non-coms. Behind the
non-coms were the German officers, so the non-coms didn’t dare retreat
either. After that we aimed
for the ones behind the front lines. To punish these front line men, the
Germans had sometimes sat in their holes and gave the men close order
drill, hoping we would shoot them.
German 88 Artillery Fuse
In April it was warm and
sunny-absolutely beautiful weather—but we didn’t get to enjoy it
much, as the fighting went on without let up. One night when the moon
was not shining, I went up with the Infantry where I relieved another
FO. I only took two men of my FO party with me-Dick Borthwick and a new
man, Homer Smith, who had been an infantryman in the 180th
regiment and had gone AWOL to come over and join our artillery outfit.
We, and some of the
infantry men, occupied a house that was nearly surrounded by the
Germans; it was sort of like being out on the small end of a piece of
pie jutting into the German lines. The enemy was all around us, and even
occupied a neighboring house next to us. We could only get to or out of
our house in the black of night or there was a high risk of getting
shot. Even after we got into the house safely, it proved to be a
dangerous place, as the Germans shot at us from the neighboring house
every time we moved by a window
Just outside one of the
windows were two dead Germans that had probably been there for two
weeks. With the warm weather they swelled up and really stunk! In
addition, there were about 40 head of cows close by that had been killed
by artillery fire a couple weeks before and they, too, were really
As if we didn’t
already have enough to worry about, one day one of the infantry soldiers
went nuts. He was subdued only when a GI put a hammerlock on him. We had
to take turns holding the man in that way all day and part of the night
before he could be safely evacuated.
One day I was directing
the fire of one artillery gun around the house next to us. One shell
landed out about 30 feet north of this house and I saw the legs and arms
of a man fly up when the shell hit what was apparently the hole that one
of their observers was in to watch us. From there he could relay the
information to those in the house. Anyway I was glad to get him.
The replacement for the
soldier, who had gone nuts and had been evacuated, came up during one of
the nighttime re-supply patrols. He had been wounded and had just
returned from the hospital. He had a big stack of letters that had
accumulated while he was gone, and at daylight he got up to start
reading them. That’s when
the Germans decided to make another effort to destroy our house. One of
the first shells the Germans shot at us made a direct hit on this man
and killed him as he was sitting in a doorway where he could get more
light to read.
The house we were in was
a big square house made with thick stonewalls and stone interior
partitions. As the Germans
continued shooting at our house with either a big mortar or 88, or both,
Dick Homer, and I knocked a hole in the concrete floor and dug back
under the big stone stove that was in the interior corner of the room.
We finally got a big enough hole under it for the three of us to get in
to protect us from the explosions and fragments of the incoming shells,
the falling masonry, and the collapsing roof. I counted the shells as
they exploded, and there were about 160 shells fired at our house that
day, one at a time, rather than in salvos. Over 80 of them direct hits on our house. After the roof was
knocked in, the shells landed and exploded in the room with us. The
concussion was terrible as were the fumes and smoke from the shells.
When it got dark, the
Germans stopped shooting at us. Fortunately, there was no moon so we
were able to get out of the house early that night, and made our way
back to our lines. The week we had spent in the stone house had been a
very draining experience. I had gone seven days and six nights without
any sleep. We didn’t dare go to sleep as the Germans could have come
and killed us all before we knew what was happening. The shelling on the
last day, however had been the roughest on us. Although Homer had been
in the middle when we huddled under the stove, he suffered the worst
effects of the shelling. The
concussion had torn all his insides loose, and he died from it. Dick and
I survived, but with very sore lungs for a week or two. Later I
attributed my two episodes
pneumonia to the damage that the exploding shells had caused to my
Sometimes the Germans
were using wooden bullets in their rifles. These were not very accurate
but if they hit a man, they would penetrate and splinter up. As they
couldn’t be detected by x-rays, they started an infection and the
person would die, but with a very painful death. Therefore we inspected
the rifles of all captured German soldiers and killed them if they were
using wooden bullets.
On May 22 I had my first
airplane ride. They took me
up in a Piper Cub liaison plane to look over the area we would be
attacking the next day. Ordinarily the Germans didn’t shoot at these
planes, as the pilot could see where the shooting came from, and would
direct our artillery fire on them if they did. He could see where the
shooting came from. However, on this occasion we must have gotten too
close, as they started shooting at us before we could turn and get away.
It was a very helpless feeling, being up there in an unarmed and
unarmored, slow moving light airplane while the Germans shot at us. It
seemed like we were sitting still while they were shooting at us. I was
glad to get back with my feet on the ground again.
The next morning the
breakout from the beachhead began. We got up early and went with the
Infantry to our position to start the attack.
Getting ready and waiting for H Hour (the time to shove off on
our attack) was the worst part - anticipating what will, or what might
happen, and wondering which of us will get killed or wounded before
night. To add to our
discomfort, it rained a little to make us cold and shivering as we
waited to push off. At H hour, 6:30 am, every artillery piece on the
beachhead (640 guns) started continuous firing right in front of us.
There wasn’t any place larger than 10 feet square that wasn’t hit by
at least one shell.
After the artillery
pulverized the German positions awhile, we moved out in the attack. The
first thing we encountered was a German minefield. I was following one
of the platoon leaders and was close behind him when he stepped on a
mine, which blew off one of his feet.
I took his platoon on through. We had just gotten past the
minefield when the platoon leader of the following platoon stepped on a
mine, so I went back and led his platoon through. Luckily I didn’t
step on one.
Most of the Germans were
still in their holes and either too scared to come out or too shocked
from all the artillery fired on them to offer much resistance. We
hollered at them to come out and if they didn’t immediately comply, we
threw hand grenades in and went on to the next holes. As we advanced we
radioed back and lifted the artillery barrage so that it stayed ahead of
us-a rolling barrage. By about noon we had gotten ahead of the units on
either side of us, so we stopped just over the top of a long hill and
occupied some of the shallow German trenches while we waited for them to
While my men took cover in a trench, I was standing in the trench
and looking around to see any activity that might be taking place ahead
or to the sides of us. Obviously a German spotted me and they fired
a single round from an 88 that landed to the right side of me. A
fragment from the exploding shell hit me on the right side of my head -
coming through the steel helmet and the plastic liner and hit the little
holding the headband in. This little clip was
bent almost double where the piece of steel had hit it. It did fracture
my skull as it hit just in front of and at about at the top of my right
ear. If I had had my head turned an eighth of an inch either way it
would have missed this little clip and killed me instantly. Once again
Lady Luck had a big smile on her face.
an hour later after I had recovered somewhat from the concussion and the
initial shock from the near-miss of the 88 shell, six German Mark VI
tanks started up the hill toward us. When the closest one was about a
block and a half away, he spotted us. In my mind’s eye I can still see
him lowering his 88 down. The first three shells he fired missed me by
about a foot or so directly above me. I could feel the heat from them as
they went by. Then he lowered it down a little and nearly buried us with
the next three shots fired. All the time the tanks were advancing and
shooting at us, I had been trying to get some phosphorous artillery
shells on them. Finally it came. I got two tanks and I think the others
pulled back, but we didn’t stick around there any longer to find out.
I didn’t know what the next move for the Germans would be, but it was
clear that we were in an exposed position well ahead of our flanking
units, and just staying there didn’t appear to be a good option. Also,
I wasn’t in very good condition from the head injury and all the
recent excitement and we were in a hurry to get back over the hill and
away from them.
I shot out my radio, as
it was too big and heavy to carry and didn’t want to leave it so the
Germans could use it. I had emptied my carbine on it to completely
destroy it and didn’t take time to reload before we left. As we came
up to the top of the hill, I looked up to see a German standing at an
intersection to the trench we were in. My gun was empty!
I looked at him and he looked at me. Neither of us bothered the
other and we kept on going. I’ll never know why he was there or where
he came from, but he must have been lost, or like I was, too dazed to do
We kept on going back,
looking for an Aid Station or medics. We followed one of Mussolini’s
big drain ditches where there were lots of dead and badly wounded men,
both German and Americans. The little stream of water from the previous
night’s rain was red with blood. Eventually, somehow, I ended up in a
hospital tent that was so crowded I had to sleep on a cot with another
The next day the medics took us to the Anzio harbor and loaded us
up on a hospital ship. What a wonderful feeling it was to be on this
clean white hospital ship with lights on at night and a bed with clean
sheets to sleep in—away from the war. We went to Naples where I spent
two or three weeks in the 45th General Hospital. The doctors
looked at my helmet, and looked at me, and marveled at the fact that I
was still alive. Lady Luck had smiled on me again! (I felt luckier than
ever after seeing how badly some of the other soldiers were wounded. The
fellow in the bed next to me had been hit in the back with shrapnel and
kept begging the doctors to let him die.)
Telegram to my parents
Finally, about the
second or third week of June, I was discharged from the hospital and
along with Frank Mathers, a 157th Infantry lieutenant, and
others, boarded a ship and went to Civitevetchi, on the coast just north
of Rome. While on this ship, German planes come over to bomb and strafe
us and again I wished I were back on land where I could dig a hole to
get in. It was a helpless feeling sitting out there in the bay, with
enemy planes coming at us. Fortunately, this time we did not get hit.
After getting off the
ship we were met by a 45th Division truck and were taken to
the Division bivouac area. (While I was in the hospital, the 45th
Division had advanced on to Rome and a little farther, before they were
relieved and taken out of the line.)
On the way we passed right by and saw the big railroad guns the
Germans had been shooting at us while we were on the beachhead at Anzio.
These huge guns were on a railroad track and when not firing they were
pulled back into tunnels for protection.
(Later, one of these two “Anzio Anne” guns - the one named
“Leopold”—was taken to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland,
where it is still on display at the US Army Ordnance Museum.)
After getting back to
the 158th FA I got together again with Dick Borthwick,
Charlie Smith and Herman Rodriguez. For the next three days my men went
sightseeing with other Battery C men. With my jeep and Carter driving,
Lt. George Olsen and a Lt. Grabowski, and I went sightseeing in Rome.
(Carter had the uncanny ability to never get lost and to always be able
to get back from wherever we were.)
We went to the Vatican
and St. Peter’s, but not being a Catholic at the time, I didn’t
understand the full significance of all there was to see. Of course, the
Swiss guards at the entrance were quite impressive. All the paintings
and mosaic pictures were very interesting, but I was surprised that
there were no seats or pews to sit down. I thought it odd that everyone
had to remain standing. We also went down in the catacombs and I
remember the sort of shelf with St. Cecilia’s body on it. It never
decomposed; she was lying there as if still alive. We didn’t see the
Pope, but there were lots of Cardinals, Bishops, and Priests and other
religious figures to be seen, and lots of visiting GI’s, too.
Another place we visited
was the old Coliseum. It was easy to visualize what it had looked like
so many centuries before when the Romans used it for their amusement by
watching all kinds of fights to the death by both men and animals. We
saw the balcony where Mussolini made many big speeches - lots of old
statues all over Rome - other churches and many government buildings.
The streets were crooked and very narrow, making driving or walking
difficult or hazardous. One day we went to the big Rome Opera House
where Irving Berlin and others with the USO show were entertaining the
American and British soldiers who had fought so long and hard to get
there. It was a beautiful building.
In Rome the general
population was somewhat different than those down in the southern part
of Italy or Sicily. Here most were bigger people, more blondes and
blue-eyed people, where in the south they were smaller, with dark hair
and dark eyes.
While I very much
enjoyed my time in Rome, the visit had to be a short one, since the
division was preparing to move. After three days of sightseeing, the
division’s vehicles were all lined up in convoy formation for the long
drive to our new bivouac area near Salerno, south of Naples. Though we
didn’t know it officially, we were being assembled to prepare for the
invasion of southern France, which was to take place in August.
At Salerno we
recuperated from the long fighting at Anzio, replaced those men who had
become casualties, and began training for the invasion. Amphibious
training was part of the schedule, so it was clear to us that another
landing was to be in our near future. Numerous times we practiced climbing down
the rope ladder-like nets on the side of ships into small landing craft
below. We also spent a lot of time riding around in the landing crafts,
as we would do later when we landed on the beaches in southern France.
The old-timers in the Division well remembered the bloody battle at
Salerno nearly a year earlier, when our forces assaulted the Italian
mainland - and this was after having taken Sicily.
After our move, Olsen,
Grabowski, and I lived in a tent in an Italian orchard. The weather was
warm and we enjoyed not having to fight for a while.
A couple times we went to Pompeii and it was very interesting to
see the way people lived about 2000 years before. They died when Mt.
Vesuvius, the volcano, erupted and covered them up with hot ash.
While here I got to go
on R&R (Rest and Recuperation leave) to Sorrento and stayed in a
hotel taken over by the Army. It was a well-deserved week of vacation
and relaxation. I went to the famous Isle of Capri one day, and spent
some time swimming in the blue Mediterranean. It was here that I lost my
high school class ring as it came off while swimming.
One nice afternoon, back
in the orchard, I stayed in our tent to write some letters while Olsen
and Gabby went someplace. While I was sitting there alone, a garter
snake about two feet long came across the ground floor in our tent. I
grabbed him by the tail and with a quick movement like cracking a whip;
I broke the snake’s neck without popping its head off. I coiled the
dead snake up on Grabowski’s pillow. That night when Gabby came home -
drunk as usual - he saw the snake, pulled out his .45 caliber pistol,
and emptied it on the snake while I pretended to be asleep—until then.
Grabowski was one of the few people who had an air mattress in his
sleeping bag. Needless to say, his air mattress was well ventilated. He
always thought the snake was alive when he shot it and I never told him
By the second week of
August all the equipment was loaded on the ships and on August 13th
we headed out to sea. After the ships were organized into convoy
formation, we sailed west, going between Corsica and Sardinia. I never
minded riding on the Navy’s ships, as we officers were always given
nice beds and had good meals with the navy officers. The trip was
Early on the morning of
August 15 we ate breakfast and put on our backpacks and prepared to
leave the ship. My FO party embarked in a landing craft with Lt. Van
Barfoot’s infantry platoon of I Company, 157th Infantry
Regiment. With a full pack on our back and carrying our guns, we climbed
over the side and down the nets to the small landing craft below. The
water was sort of rough with large swells. That made it difficult and
dangerous going from the more stable big ship with the nets to the small
boat that was bobbing up and down far below. We were two or three miles
from shore when we got into the landing craft and it seemed like we
traveled awfully slow toward the shore.
Massive firepower was
applied to the beaches, even before we got into the landing craft. The
Air Force had bombed the beaches and the area immediately behind them.
Then the Navy fired their big guns at previously known targets. All the
while we were headed toward the beach, the navy fired small rockets over
our heads. Some of them were defective and landed in the water near us,
but again we didn’t get hit - just scared. When we got close to the
beaches the offshore fire support ceased. Now it was up to us.
With me and my FO party was a navy officer who was supposed to
direct the fire from the ships after we landed, and until our artillery
got on shore. Then I would take over.
We knew there was a sea
wall where we were supposed to land at St. Maxime so we took along some
dynamite to blow a hole in it to get off the shore and on to the beach.
We also took some ladders in, just in case we needed them. The
dynamite had got wet and wouldn’t explode so we set up the ladders.
Lt. Barfoot climbed up and sat there for a few seconds and looked
back and said “Come on, they didn’t shoot me!”
The Navy and Air Force
had done a good job of getting rid of most of the Germans in our sector,
so we had little trouble getting into St. Maxime. Once in the town,
however, we encountered numerous snipers who had to be cleared out of
houses, buildings, and other structures. The Navy officer with me was
shot by a sniper. I don’t think he was killed though as we left him to
be taken care of by the medics. Now I had the job of directing fire for
the naval gunfire support too. With our artillery fire direction center
personnel working directly with the naval fire direction center, I could
use my 710 radio to communicate with them and direct the adjustment of
the shells in my usual manner. They would convert this to the navy’s
method of directing their gunfire.
After securing the town,
we turned to clear out the German positions along the coast where we
soon encountered a high hill with Germans in deep holes and tunnels. We
went around the backside of it and I directed the fire from the
battleship “Texas” and
several Destroyers. Since we were directly in line with the ships and
the hill, if any of the shells would have come over the top of the hill
we would have been hit. So instead of using the standard practice of
adjusting fire by using the first two shells fired to get the target
bracketed, I was real careful to creep up on the other side of the hill
with one gun to get to the top. Then I called for “Fire for effect”
and all the guns assigned to this fire mission fired on the target at
once. With those big
14-inch shells, the hill shook and sort of settled down. It was a lot
different than shooting the 105’s of our artillery.
There were still a lot
of Germans in holes on and around the hill despite the heavy shelling.
So after the Navy stopped firing, Lt. Barfoot and his men moved up. The
hill had a barbed wire entanglement around the upper part of it, so with
a bangalore torpedo, the infantry opened up a gap in the wire to go
through. Lt. Barfoot had gotten rid of his gas mask and filled the bag
with rifle grenades that were his favorites. He went in alone and it
reminded me of shooting prairie dogs in Nebraska. One would pop up out
of a hole and Van would shoot him. Then another, and another, until he
had killed seven or eight of them. Then all of the platoon went in and
finished the job. A German captain, a sergeant, and one or two others
surrendered. I helped search them and I took a really neat safety razor
from the captain. The sergeant was a mean looking guy and he had a pair
of brass knuckles in his hip pocket. One of the Infantrymen took it and
tried it out on the German to show him how it felt. (That is why we had
been advised to never carry a big knife.)
That night we were tired
and I slept outside on the sidewalk by a house that had been destroyed.
From then on we walked and cleared the retreating Germans who would stop
and fight and then we would chase them again. Lots of times they would
fight almost to the last man for some important road intersection or
some other key piece of terrain that could be defended.
Our artillery had a hard time keeping up and having the guns in
position to fire at all times. On one of these occasions my driver,
Carter, had done some trading with the French people and we started
cooking a rabbit stew that included some potatoes and carrots. We had
just got started with the cooking when we had to pack it up and move.
Again we got it all out and started cooking again, but before it got
done, we had to move again. The third time we finally got it cooked so
we could eat it. During these fast moving situations I usually had
Carter bring my jeep so we could ride instead of walking until we
engaged the enemy again. Otherwise he stayed with C Battery until we
As we went farther
north, generally following the Rhone River, we got into areas where
there were lots of good ripe tomatoes and then into the grape vineyards
with lots of delicious ripe grapes. They were welcome supplements to our
C or K rations. The French civilians were very glad to see us come and
always gave us a big welcome. They dug down in the dirt floors of their
cellars and got some of the best wine they had buried to hide it from
the Germans. Since the Germans had taken all their livestock and most
everything else they could, these people had been hurting for food.
Our chocolate bars (D-bars) were some of the things they hadn’t
seen for several years.
The Germans had
thousands of troops back inside France, and we in the Seventh Army
pushed north up the Rhone Valley, while Patton’s Third Army was
pushing eastward from the Normandy beachhead. A large German army was at
risk of being trapped behind the two American armies. The tighter we
closed this gap, the harder the German rearguard fought so their main
body could escape back into Germany. Here was where we had some real
Our American OSS (Office
of Strategic Services) officers had been helping to organize resistance
groups with the FFI (Free French of the Interior) as well as the Marquis
(the Communist French) to fight the Germans. Arms, ammunition,
explosives, etc. were dropped to help these Resistance Fighters to
sabotage and otherwise harass the Germans. Occasionally we would overrun
an area that they worked in and an OSS officer would join us for a
while. Some of the French also worked with us as they could contact the
local residents who knew the land and could move through the German
lines with relative ease and were able to monitor and report on German
activities ahead of us.
Many times we just took
the main towns and bypassed some of the smaller ones to the sides as the
Germans seldom stayed back where they would be trapped. One day a young
lady came running over to us and was so hysterical she could hardly
talk. Finally somebody understood French and could make out what
her problem was. We had bypassed a small village over three or four
miles to the side of us where the civilian FFI had been supplied rifles
and ammo. They got real brave since we were close, and chased the
Germans out of the town. Then they ran out of ammunition and the Germans
came back. They tied the French men up and put a stick of dynamite in
their mouths with a long fuse so the individual could watch the fuse
burn until it blew his head off. The women and kids were treated even
worse. Their eyes were poked out and their fingers chopped off.
Since no artillery was thought needed, I didn’t go over there.
However, few prisoners were taken in this case. This was a good example
of what the Germans were capable of doing to other people they
One night my FO party
and I were waiting beside the road under some bushes for our Infantry to
meet us before crossing the Daubs River. The Engineers were finishing
building a pontoon bridge across the river. As we were sitting there
under some trees and bushes, four trucks loaded with Germans came up the
road and stopped right in front of us. My initial thought was to open
fire on them, but after a moment’s hesitation, I came to realize that
there was no way the four of us with Carbines could kill or capture all
those Germans. I decided that I would rather be a live coward than a
dead hero. So we sat there watching them. After a few minutes they drove
on across the pontoon bridge. They were the first ones to cross it after
our Engineers built it. Maybe the Engineers saw them and felt the same
way I had - or they didn’t recognize the fact that they were Germans
instead of Americans. Later, our infantry arrived and we all went
One day we were supposed
to attack and while we were waiting to push off, the Germans decided to
attack us. They started out
with a lot of artillery firing on us while we were getting lined up. It
is nerve wracking waiting for the next shell to land—wondering where
it will hit and who will be the victims. Finally we pushed off too -
with me directing our artillery fire on them ahead of us—with them
trying to do the same to us. We finally made some progress, and my FO
party and I got in an old stone house, from which I had good observation
of the enemy from a window. The Germans were circling around from one
side trying to get us surrounded. I fired over 1,000 rounds at them and
finally succeeded in chasing the Germans out of the trees, forcing them
to retreat across an open area. I had already adjusted on this area and
had established a Concentration Number for it, so once the Germans were
out in this open area, all I had to do was call for this concentration
number and the whole battalion of our artillery would immediately blast
the area. Then I could shift back to the trees to chase out another
bunch. I killed at least 100 or more of them, and no doubt wounded three
or four times that many more.
However, just when
things were going pretty well for us, several Mark VI tanks and
supporting infantry, attacked toward my house. While I was looking out
of the window and adjusting fire on the Germans, I was hit in the
forehead by a fragment from a shell that exploded nearby. Again, my
helmet saved me as it just made a big dent in the steel helmet but
didn’t come through. Lady Luck had smiled on me again, but I wondered
how much longer this could go on. The
Germans pressed the attack despite the artillery fire, and it looked
like they were going to get through to us, so I took a chance and
brought the whole battalion of our artillery in on our position. While
it was hitting all around us, my men and I ran out and got away from
them without getting hit. The Germans had sense enough to keep their
heads down while the artillery was coming in. Lady Luck was still
smiling, as my men and I got away without being killed or captured or
wounded that day.
September 4, 1944, -last letter home.
After a few more days of
minor skirmishes with the Germans, we had advanced to the edge of the
Alps, and were getting fairly close to Switzerland. The land was
characterized by long sloping hills with most of the higher area
forested. The ground on about the lower third of the hills was cleared
and provided grass for livestock. Usually in the bottom was a little
stream and an occasional village or town - very picturesque. While back
at the battalion headquarters, preparing to return to I Company again, I
jokingly told Col. Funk that I was going over to Switzerland and they
could go ahead and fight the war without me. I was never to see the Col.
again, but I never got to Switzerland either.
On the night of
September 10, 1944, I was with Lt. Van Barfoot and his platoon of I
Company. We knew the Germans were up ahead of us, but we didn’t know
where. Leaving my FO party and Van’s platoon behind, he and I took a
sound-powered telephone and strung a wire as we went. In the middle of
the blackest, darkest night imaginable, the two of us moved cautiously
through the forest to see where the Germans were. Every little twig we
stepped on sounded like a herd of elephants out there. Once we saw a
small luminous spot ahead and Van raised his gun to shoot, thinking it
was a man’s wristwatch - and it did look like it could be. However, I
had seen this type of thing before and thought it was probably some free
phosphorous from an old dead and decaying tree.
Luckily, I grabbed his arm and stopped him before he shot. Going
up toward it, it did turn out to be phosphorous, so we avoided alerting
the Germans by shooting at the tree.
We kept going until we
came to the edge of the clearing and though we still hadn’t
encountered any Germans, we waited there until it started getting light.
Down the hill and about 500 yards from us was the little town of
Abbenans. There was the usual cleared area below us with a stream in the
bottom. There was also a road with a bridge that crossed the stream and
led into the town. We could see a lot of Germans in the town so, using
the sound-powered telephone, I started firing artillery on them. All the
houses had red tile roofs and the artillery shells hitting them sent up
a cloud of red dust. One Frenchmen came out waving a sheet indicating he
didn’t want us to shoot up his house, and I really couldn’t blame
him. After firing around
and on the town for an hour or two, suddenly about 60 to 70 ambulances
left the town. We had our doubts that they were all carrying wounded
people but we didn’t shoot at them. About that time a tree that was
right out in front of us, only about 200 feet away started moving. It
was a well camouflaged anti tank gun with a five-man crew. They pushed
it down the hill and, as they were crossing the bridge, I got a direct
hit on them. They flew in all directions. The bridge was also pretty
At about noon we
didn’t see any more German activity in Abbenans so we called my FO
party and the platoon of infantry to come and join us as we went into
town. There were no more Germans there. Lt. Barfoot’s platoon was then
relieved and they went back in the company’s reserve. After having
been with Barfoot’s platoon most of the time since we landed in
France, this was the last time I was to see him until many years after
the war.. A
few weeks later
Lt. Van Barfoot was awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary
heroism while at Anzio and was sent back to the States to receive it
from President Roosevelt. He
was a remarkable individual and excellent soldier. Van was half Choctaw
Indian and about 6 ft. 6” tall. He would rather go prowling around at
night behind the German lines than stay back on our side.
My FO party moved out
with the rest of I Company and headed out across the clearing on the
other side of Abbenans and up the slope toward the wooded area at the
top. Some of the Germans who had withdrawn from the town had taken up
positions in the woods above us where we couldn’t see them, and were
firing down on us. As we advanced up the hill, I walked along beside the
company commander, Frank Mather, whom I had known since we were both
patients at the same time in the hospital in Naples.
He always carried a
pistol instead of a rifle. I always carried a carbine. I remarked to him
that someday he would be identified as an officer because he carried
only a pistol and might get shot by a sniper. It wasn’t 15 minutes
later that, as we walked side-by-side talking to each other, he stopped
right in the middle of a word. I looked over at him as he fell to the
ground. He was dead - having been shot by a sniper from the trees above.
The rest of us kept
going and late in the afternoon we got to the top of the hill. Lt.
Howard Litske’s platoon was supposed to be out ahead of us. I joined
the battalion commander, Major Merle Mitchell, who had come up to
temporarily take command of I Company since Lt. Frank Mather was killed.
Other officers with him were Captain Henry Huggins, and another Lt. and
a Frenchman. With them, we
looked at our maps and tried to find a road that went down on the other
side of the hill, but couldn’t find it. After deciding what to do, I
left Major Mitchell and the other officers all standing in a group, and
started walking back to my FO party. About 10 or 15 seconds later, I had
gone only 50 to 75 feet when the Germans opened up with a machine gun,
firing in our direction. I
assumed that Major Mitchell and all the other officers who were standing
there with him were killed because they were not taken as prisoners, and
the Germans had occupied the area.
Right where I needed it,
and when I needed it, there was a shallow depression inside of where the
walls of an old building apparently had been. My FO party was already in
it when I jumped in with them. The Germans continued firing directly
over us while our tanks from behind were shooting back over us at the
Germans. I set up the radio and was directing artillery fire in a semi
circle in front of us just by the sound, as I didn’t dare stick my
head up. As it got nearly dark our tanks pulled back, which was
customary, and the Germans quit shooting too. A few minutes later when
everything was quiet, we heard a German tank coming toward us real slow
and with very little noise. All we could hear was the clank-clank-clank
of the track as it came closer. I told my men that it was time we were
getting out of there and that I would try. If I made it, they were to
Prisoner of War
I got out and had to go
across an open area of about 150 feet to get to the trees beyond the
clearing. It was practically dark then. When I got out in the open, they
started shooting at me from all across the front of the trees ahead of
me as I headed back toward our lines. I raised my hands and gun and
hollered at them to stop shooting. They answered back in German! There I
was out in front of a whole line of Germans and in the open with no
place to go or way to get there. I had no choice except suicide or be
captured. They came out after me and took my carbine out of my hands.
Believe me, that was a traumatic experience with a feeling of
helplessness when they took my gun away from me. A couple of nights
before, I had lost my binoculars so borrowed a pair of real good German
binoculars from one of the infantrymen. I had them around my neck. Also
I had a little German pistol on my belt. If we ever caught a German with
any American equipment on him, we killed him, and they normally did the
same thing. Having no time to get rid of them, I figured this was going
to be the end. However, to my surprise, they acted like a bunch of
little kids to see who was going to get them. Later I found out that
they were some of the German Luftwaffe ground force that were put up in
the infantry and this was their first fighting. Again Lady Luck looked
at me and smiled from ear to ear . One of the first things the Germans
did was to take my glasses off and stomp on them to break them.
After finishing searching me and taking my cigarettes and
lighter, money, and jack knife, they made me lay down with my head on a
big rock. A rifle was held against it on the topside until they finally
captured the rest of my men.
Later, Dick Borthwick
told me they didn’t know that anything had happened to me, and came
out one at a time only to be captured too. None of them were wounded,
but the Germans did shoot through the radio while Smith had it on his
back. After they got all of us, they fed us some real good beef stew
with potatoes, carrots, onions, etc. that they, too were eating. This
was probably the best meal I was to get from the Germans while I was a
POW. My Lt. bars and insignia were on my shirt collar, but I had them
covered so they didn’t find out that I was an officer or I might not
have been treated as well.
Lt. Howard Litske, a
platoon leader, and one of his men were also captured, apparently before
I was, as his platoon was supposed to have been out ahead of us,. A
German soldier had been shot through the stomach and without a
stretcher, the six of us had to carry him about ¾ mile down the hill on
a shelter-half, holding it tight so his middle didn’t sag down. Every
time we let it sag down, a guard would jab us in the back with his
bayonet. The Germans took us down a trail on the back side of this hill
to what appeared to be like a Regimental Headquarters. When they had
searched me, they had failed to find my map that I had inside my shirt
next to my chest. It had our unit’s location etc. on it. As we were
going down the hill, I managed to hide it in some bushes next to the
trail. At the headquarters we were turned over to an old German Captain.
He had learned to speak English while he was a POW of the English in
World War I. With an English accent along with his German accent it was
rather comical, but he was a pretty good old guy and gave us some good
advice on things not to do. Then we were put in a truck and taken to a
schoolhouse where we slept on the floor that night.
Telegram to my parents:
next day they took us to another town some distance away where they put
me in solitary confinement for a couple of days. Then they took me in
another building for interrogation. The officer took me down a hall to a
room and showed me a technique they used to get people to talk. Here was
an oversize bathtub next to the wall. A sort of post was across the top
of the bathtub with one end of it in a hole in the wall on the other
side of the tub. On our side, at the end of the post was a crank. The
officer indicated they would put a person on this post and tie him down
like a chicken put on a rotisserie for a barbecue. The bathtub was
filled with water and stinking human excrement. They could then turn the
crank and hold a person’s head under this crap in the tub for as long
as they wanted to, and bring him up when they wanted to. The thought of
this technique was very unsettling, as I’m sure it was intended to be.
Then he took me to
another room where I sat by his desk, while he tried to visit a little.
After only giving him my name, rank, and serial number, he picked up a
big black book, about 12” by ‘15” in size, and about two or three
inches thick. He opened up the book and found my name. He told me where
I came from in Nebraska; when I went into the Army; and every place I
had been stationed in the States, when I left the States, and every
place I had been since going overseas. I was amazed! Obviously they had
this same information on thousands of other Americans. (Even today, I
don’t know how they got all that information, and much less how they
kept it up to date - and without computers. The only explanation I have
ever heard was that they had enough people in the U.S. reading
newspapers and keeping track of every one in every small town in the
U.S. and forwarding the information to Germany somehow.) I had given my
name, rank, and serial number, and the officer did not press me for any
more information. Thank God they didn’t put me through the bathtub
The next day we were
taken over to Mulhouse, France, arriving there just in time to be rushed
into an air raid shelter during an American bombing attack on the town.
When that was over, they put us on a boxcar, We were each given one loaf
of German bread to last us until we got to wherever we were going.
The train headed north, but of course we didn’t know where we
were going. We traveled at night and sat in the railroad stations during
the day to avoid being bombed or strafed by our own American pilots.
Their favorites were to catch a train going into a tunnel and
bombing the other end of it shut so it would pile up the train in the
tunnel. Occasionally we could peek through the cracks of the boxcar and
knew we were going north up past the Siegfried line as sometimes we were
able to see parts of it.
Our destination turned
out to be Limberg, Germany. They let us out of the boxcars and marched
us to our first POW camp, Stalag XII-A, which was a distribution center
for POW’s. This was the last time I was to see Dick Bothwick or
Charles Smith. Later I got to see Herman Rodriguez. We were registered
into the German POW system and with the International Red Cross in
Switzerland. They in turn notified our government in Washington D.C.
that we were POW’s. The registration process gave us a certain measure
of relief, since we were now officially “on the books” as POWs and
the Germans had acknowledged responsibility for our care. Until this
time there had been no official record that we were in German hands, and
they could have denied responsibility for anything that might have
happened to us. Each of us was issued a German metal “dog-tag,”
which was perforated so it could be broken in two, permitting one part
to be left with a body and the other half taken for the records. My POW
serial number - 87959 - was stamped on both halves of the tag. We
officers were photographed with a card showing our serial number and the
picture, which was glued onto the identification card.
We were instructed to carry this at all times.
German Identification Card
Dog Tags - WW2 - German & American,
also Korean Conflict:
this was in September, the Germans had lots of cabbage available, and
apparently little else, for all we got to eat was purple cabbage soup.
(I had never eaten anything that would cause more gas on ones stomach
than this did.) Every
morning and night we had to assemble outdoors for “Appel” - a muster
and prisoner count. We formed up in blocks of 50, (10 wide and 5 deep)
to be counted. One guard went down the line counting us --- then he
would click his heels and raise his arm in a
“Heil Hitler” salute as he reported up to the next level of
command. This heel clicking and saluting went on at each echelon until
all reports had been satisfactorily made. Each time they clicked their
heels and raised their arm to “Heil Hitler” all of us would make an
effort to fart as loudly as we could. It made the Germans mad, but there
was nothing they could do about it. At least it gave us a little
satisfaction to get rid of some of the gas from the cabbage at an
I was only in Stalag XII-A for a few days, but it was long enough
to witness some rather unpleasant incidents.
One day hundreds of American bombers went over heading north east
to bomb some other city. A couple hours later they came back over us. A
few of them had some bombs left, which they dropped on our camp. Some of
the bombs didn’t explode, so they made some of the American POW’s go
out and dig them up so they could dispose of them. On another occasion I
watched as a work detail of Russian POWs came back into camp after a
day’s work, when I saw a German guard hit one of the POW’s in the
head with a shovel and kill him.
Notification of Prisoner of War Status
After several days of
processing by the Germans in Stalag XII-A, the officers were loaded into
boxcars for another train ride. Again, we were each given one loaf of
black bread - which was about one-third sawdust - to last us for the
duration of our trip. We had no idea where we were going, but we could
tell we were headed east. I remember stopping in Leipzig.
Three guards rode in the
car with us. They put what looked about like a five-gallon bucket of
water in the car for us to drink. The guards told us that after the
water was gone, the bucket was also to be our latrine. Most of us had
dysentery by then. We had no toilet paper, no way to wash up, and of
course no change of clothes, only what we were captured in. One of the
guards was an ornery devil and didn’t like us - and we didn’t like
him any better. (In looking back, I will have to admit that we probably
acted like little kids do, in that they are continually trying different
things and testing their parents to see just how much they can get by
with and where the limits are.) When the train stopped this one guard
supposedly emptied the latrine bucket and refilled it with water to
drink without even rinsing it out. However he often left various amounts
of the crap in the bucket before refilling it. A person has to be pretty
thirsty to drink it, but being the latter part of September with warm
weather, and shut up in the box car, we did what we had to do to survive
- - no matter how disagreeable.
Letter to Parents:
Official Notification of Prisoner of War Status
On September 30 our
train pulled into the station in Schubin, Poland, and we were ordered
out of the boxcar. After a short march we were at our new
“home” --- Offizer Lager (Officers Camp) 64, or Oflag 64.
This is where all the American ground force officers were kept. (The
American Air Force personnel went to separate camps under the control of
Herman Goering and the German Luftwaffe.) Our camp was located north
west of Warsaw and south of the Baltic Sea - a long way from the
American lines. There was virtually no chances of escaping and getting
back to our lines. At the time I arrived, there were about 350 American
officers there. Most of them had been captured earlier in North Africa
or in Sicily or at Anzio.
Oflag 64 had initially
been a boy’s school before being converted into a POW camp. Then it
was used to house POWs of other nationalities before being designated as
the primary camp for American ground force officers.
It was said that Stalin’s own son, who was a pilot and was
captured after being shot down, was held here for a while and Hitler had
tried to trade him to Stalin for a German General that had been captured
by the Russians. However, Stalin had no use for any prisoner as he
thought they should all die fighting instead of surrendering - even his
own son, who ultimately died from mistreatment in another German camp.
For the first few days after our arrival at Oflag 64, our
reception by the other POWs was pretty cool. We learned that the Germans
often attempted to slip in a stooge with the incoming POWs, and as a
result, there was a committee of officers who interviewed each of us to
determine if we were in fact legitimate American POWs. It makes no
difference where in this world you go, there is always someone who knows
someone you know, or some common place or names that both are familiar
with. After we were “cleared”, the old POWs were very helpful and
friendly. We were put in an empty barracks up in the Northwest part of
the camp. Since this place was only for American officers, there were no
separate compounds as in most other camps, to separate different
nationalities or ranks. There was only a double barbed wire fence around
the entire camp - along with the guard towers and guards.
In our barracks we had
wooden bunk beds with one above the other. These were placed end to end
from the center aisle to the wall. By leaving a space between rows, this
formed sort of an enclosure or room. With me, in our little cubicle was
Edward (Bud) Fairchild, Dr. Edward McGee, Dr. Monahan, Bill Boucher,
John (Tex) Williams, Orville Simmons, and Bill Pryor. Boucher was an
Artillery Liaison pilot with the Third Division and had been shot down
and wounded. He and I had come up from Southern France while the others
were some of the early ones from the Normandy invasion. They were all
infantrymen except for the two doctors.
Our armies from the south and those from the north had not closed
together yet when I was captured. Dr. Monahan got sick and was taken out
and we never saw him again. Dr. McGee was later transferred to some
other POW camp as a doctor to help other POW’s - even though they had
very little to work with except giving advice.
In the German army, rank
was highly respected and some of it was carried over to showing some
respect to us as officers. As such, they had brought in a number of
American Enlisted GI’s as our orderlies - mainly to do the cooking and
kitchen work. They had their own separate living quarters.
Until just before my
arrival at Oflag 64, Red Cross food parcels had been issued fairly
regularly and the POWs had been receiving letter mail and packages from
home. Supplementing the German “rations” with the contents of the
Red Cross food parcels and packages from their families had allowed most
of the POWs to get along pretty well. By the time I got there, however,
the Allies were closing in on the Germans on all fronts and things had
taken a turn for the worse for the POWs. Allied bombers, and even
fighters, had begun a campaign against the German transportation systems
that would continue until the end of the war. Railroad lines,
marshalling yards, rail and road bridges, tunnels, individual trains and
convoys and even lone vehicles were singled out for continuous attack.
Consequently, the Germans’ abilities to move supplies, troops and
equipment were seriously degraded. In this atmosphere, care of POWs
became a very low priority. I never received any mail and only a few Red
Cross food parcels while I was a POW.
With our meager diet, I,
along with the others, started losing weight. Dysentery had been a
problem most of the time after I became a POW - especially after that
train ride to this camp. For breakfast we had “tea”. They raked up
tree leaves and boiled them for tea. At least it was hot and provided
some liquid other than cold water which was available only from a faucet
between two barracks that were end to end.. For lunch, there was usually
some kind of soup or sauerkraut. I never did like cabbage anyway, but
here there was no choice or substitute. For dinner we had some boiled
potatoes - sometimes having been frozen and black. Also we got about a
1/8 of a loaf of their black bread, which contained about 1/3 sawdust
for filler. Once a week we got a little dab of margarine and a
tablespoon full of sugar. There was seldom any meat, but if there was,
it was in the soup at noon.
Each of us had been given a German knife, fork & spoon.
Swastika on Handles
I was given a razor and
five blades and they lasted me as long as I was a POW. We learned how to
sharpen and re-sharpen them. About once a month one of the POW’s who
had a pair of hand clippers gave us haircuts. There were no showers so
we had to wash the best we could with the one cold-water faucet when we
could - usually after standing in line. The only soap we had came from
the Red Cross food parcels. While I was a POW I had no toothbrush or
dental care. The only medical help I received was from Dr. McGee before
he was transferred to another camp. However, all he could do was suggest
simple home remedies with no medications.
Our latrine was in a
separate building that was also used by most of the other barracks in
the camp. Occasionally the Germans brought in a “Honey Wagon” and
pumped the pit out, as there was no sewer system
Every morning and
evening we had to line up for Appel where they counted us. If anyone was
not there, we all had to stand there and wait until all were accounted
for. Nobody wanted to stand out there in the cold or snow in the morning
waiting for someone who had a hard time waking up, so we always made
sure everybody was up and out there on time.
At night the lights were
shut off about 9 o’clock and everybody had to be inside until morning.
No radios were permitted, and the only authorized news we had was German
news that was posted on the bulletin board by them. When a new group of
POWs came, they of course could tell us what was happening in the
outside world up until they were captured. However, some of the older
POWs had been able to put together a secret radio that could get BBC
from London. During the
day, with someone guarding, the radio was turned on and the news copied
on slips of paper and distributed to each barracks to be read that
night. Then after the lights were out, with somebody standing guard to
prevent any German from catching us, we listened to “the Bird”. The
slips of paper were then destroyed immediately.
The Senior American
officer, Col. Paul Goode, and his predecessor, Col. Drake - both West
Point officers - dealt with the German camp commander, Col. Schneider,
to settle any problems that developed between the POWs and the Germans.
From the beginning at this camp the senior American officer had set up a
typical military staff to run the camp somewhat like any Army unit, with
pretty strict discipline for all those in the camp. This prevented the
problems of mob rule as happened in some camps and with some
In the camp we had a
library. Some of the books were there previous to the arrival of the
first American POWs and others were brought in later by the YMCA
representative from Sweden. He also brought in various equipment for
athletics, as well as some musical instruments and playing cards. I
couldn’t use the library because the Germans had broken my glasses
when I was captured. I did spend lots of time playing cards and just
visiting. I don’t know how it got there, but there was a pet Raven in
our barracks most of the time. It often landed on the table where we
were playing cards and would pick one up and fly over to the other side
of the room with it.
Most of the POWs here
were college graduates or had been in college and were from all
professions and all parts of the U.S. Some had been college professors
before being called for active duty. They, as well as other POWs, taught
college level classes on subjects of their expertise. At night the
lights were shut off about 9 o’clock and everybody had to be inside
Despite the fact that Oflag 64 was in such a
remote location and there was virtually no chance of an escapee getting
back to Allied lines, a number of escape attempts were made. But the
only successful one I ever heard about involved three POWs who implanted
coal dust under the skin of their chests, and then later put on a
coughing act until the Germans finally took them out to a doctor. X-rays
showed spots on their lungs, and they were diagnosed as having the
incurable disease of Tuberculosis, and were repatriated. A number of
other escape attempts were made, but resulted only in the harassment of
One day in October or
November the Germans got everybody out for an extra Appel while they
went through all the barracks and took all the parts of uniforms they
could find. I had all mine on that I was captured in, so I didn’t lose
anything. Later we found out that these uniforms were used by Otto
Skorzeney’s SS commandos to impersonate American soldiers in the
Battle of the Bulge.
Another secret that the
Germans suspected, but never could locate, was a tunnel that was dug
from one of the barracks to escape through. It extended under the fences
and beyond. One of the POWs was a mining engineer and with a lot of
ingenuity and help, they had dug down and out through the sandy soil by
shoring it up with the bed boards. By taking a few from each of about
all the beds in camp, it wasn’t too noticeable as long as our
so-called mattresses were held up and we didn’t fall through. Had the
Germans missed these “extra” bed boards, we could have been charged
with destroying German property, which was a capital offense and
punishable by death. Other works of engineering ingenuity resulted in
electric lights in the tunnel and an alarm to warn the one digging in
the tunnel in time so he could get out and look presentable if a guard
came close. Other people disposed of the dirt from the tunnel by
scattering it outside over the compound or hiding it in the attic in
Red Cross food boxes.
In early November winter
was coming on and I had gone from about 175 pounds at the time I was
captured down to about 140 pounds. In addition to the weight loss, I
began to suffer medical problems, which were attributable to a lack of
vitamins and other nutrients. I kept getting styes on my eyes and in the
latter part of November I caught a cold that settled in my chest and
developed into bronchitis and then into pneumonia. I couldn’t even
talk for a week or two. I am sure this was a result of the damage to my lungs while
at Anzio. I finally got over it about Christmas time.
Card sent home.
One morning I slipped on
the ice, hurting my back. For the next several days I spent most of my
time in bed, not only because it was cold, but because of my back.
Fortunately it got better before we had to march out of Oflag 64, but I
have had back problems ever since that incident.
Several amusing things
happened while at Oflag 64. Every Saturday morning the German guards
came in for an “inspection”. Usually they were only looking for one
item, and with the German discipline, they did exactly what they were
told - nothing more and nothing less. One Saturday the guard pulled back
the “mattress” on the bed of a fellow in our barracks. There lay a
German rifle. Why the POW had it and how he got it, I will never know,
but I suppose he had gotten it from a guard in trade for something.
Anyway the guard laid the mattress back down with the remark; “We are
not looking for guns today”. I never did find out what the fellow did
with the rifle after the guard left.
German Notice on Bulletin Board
With the arrival of more
new shipments of POWs during the winter, the camp population was nearing
1600. With the arrival of a new group of POWs just after Christmas, one
Lt got by with keeping the family pictures he had in his wallet. He was
showing some of the older POWs the picture of his wife. Suddenly after
looking at it again, one fellow said, “What do you mean, your wife?
That is my wife”. Evidently the girl didn’t think the first one was
coming back and married the other one. I have always wondered what
happened after the war, if both of them made it back home.
Another time the Gestapo
agents came in the barracks and woke us up in the middle of the night.
They made us take down our pants and bend over while they looked
up in our ass holes. I don’t know what they were looking for, but one
of the fellows down the line from me had a good case of dysentery, and
as the Gestapo was looking, he almost got an eye full. Needless to say
the German moved on very quickly. We never did find out what they were
looking for that we would hide in this part of our anatomy.
In Northern Poland the
winters are quite cold, and this winter of 1944-45 was certainly no
exception - in fact, it was to be the coldest winter in more than 50
years. We only got one bucket of coal each morning and another one each
evening to heat the one stove in our big, non-insulated barracks. All of
us slept in our clothes, huddled up under the two thin German blankets
we had been issued. The blankets didn’t keep us warm, they just kept
us from actually freezing to death. Temperatures would drop below zero
most nights and water would often freeze in our cubicles. We were cold
all the time.
Knit cap from Red Cross
In January 1945 the
Russians started their big drive across Poland and were headed our way.
On the morning of January 21, the Germans marched us out of the camp,
and we headed on foot back toward Germany and away from the Russians.
The only clothing I had was what I was wearing when I was captured in
September, and a wool knit cap from the American Red Cross.
The Germans must have felt sorry of some of us as they gave a few
of us old Polish overcoats. Mine had a number of bullet holes through it
with a lot of dried blood still on it. It certainly helped to keep me
from freezing to death. I had no gloves or heavy socks though.
About 100 of the POWs
were too sick to march, so they were left behind. About 1,500 of us
started out, marching to the northwest, which was against the wind. With
a foot or two of snow on the ground, it was mighty cold. Some days it
was snowing too. We shared the road with a continuous stream of German
refugees, with them on one side of the road and us on the other. - all
of us trying to escape before the Russians got to us. These German
refugees had moved into Poland to occupy some of the best farms after
Germany had invaded Poland in 1938. Now they were trying to get out of
Poland and back to Germany because they knew what would happen to them
under the Russians. Bill Pryor and I were at about the tail end of our
column of POWs as our feet were frozen and hurt, making it difficult to
keep up with the others. The Russian army was not far behind us and the
guards kept prodding us on to get across the bridges we came to, so they
could blow them up to slow the Russian advance.
At night we stopped at
the big collective farms that were characteristic of this area, where we
slept in the barns. I slept cuddled up as close as I could to sheep or
hogs, or on manure piles to try to keep from freezing to death, as it
usually was 30 to 40 degrees below zero at night. The Russians were
moving so rapidly that we would leave a place in the morning and the
Russians would take it that night. Every night the Russians sent out a
patrol but the German rear-guard always managed to kill them or drive
them off. One day Colonel Schneider, the German commander, who rode
around in his little car, left the column to visit a friend. He put a
German captain by the name of
Menner, in charge, with instructions that if it appeared the
Russians would overtake the column; he was to abandon the POWs and load
up the guards in the trucks and all head back to Germany. That night the
Russians did send out a pretty big patrol but the German rear-guard
managed to kill all of them. However, Captain Menner, an old Austrian
schoolteacher that had been more sympathetic toward us, stayed with us,
but loaded the guards up in the trucks and sent them on their way back
to Germany. Some of the POWs dressed him up so he could be an
“American” when the Russians came.
The next morning the
Polish people butchered a hog or two, and had started cooking it for us
when Colonel Schneider unexpectedly came back through the town. He never
even stopped, as it was obvious what had happened. He took off again,
and a couple hours later came back with a company of SS guards. They
quickly rounded us up and out on the road again. I don’t know what
happened to captain Menner, but I can guess.
Notebook—From Oflag 64 to Stalag 3A
After about a week of
marching, I caught a cold and it quickly developed into pneumonia again.
At this point there were about 120 of us who were too sick to march any
farther, so the Germans loaded us on two boxcars; there were sixty of us
and five guards in our car. The guards took the entire center area
between the two doors. We had both ends of the car and were so crowded
that we alternately stood up, sat down, or laid down at two-hour
intervals. For the first few days I was pretty much “out of it” and
I am sure that had they not made me move around and take my shift, I
would have died. My will to live was pretty strong as I was determined
to get home to Skeets and my folks instead of being thrown out in a snow
bank along the railroad tracks. Without
that will to live, I probably wouldn’t have made it. Fortunately,
after several days I started getting better.
One day our train
stopped in front of a depot or train station. The German Red Cross had
set up a soup kettle there to serve transients. Three of us talked two
of the guards into letting us get out and see if we could get some soup.
Along with the guards, we got in line and waited. By the time we got up
to the kettle, the Red Cross server wouldn’t give us any because we
were not Germans. Then we went to the restroom, where I was surprised to
see women and men both using the same facilities, side by side.
When we came out of the restroom, our train was
gone. We stood there waiting while one guard went to find other
transportation. Being fairly close to Berlin and with all the bombing
there by the Americans, the civilians had no use for the Americans.
Before long, the civilians recognized us as Americans and as the
remaining guard didn’t care, they starting spitting on us and hitting
us. I will always remember one individual that spit right in my face. I
swore that if that ever happened again, I would either kill the person,
or die trying. We were so weak it didn’t take much to knock us down,
and pretty soon all three of us were on the ground.
Fortunately, about that time the first guard came back and chased
the civilians away.
After a short wait, we
got on a regular passenger coach with a small compartment all to
ourselves where we could sit on the seats - pretty nice!
But it didn’t last long. A couple of towns down the line we
caught up with the train with our POW boxcars on it and
we had to get back on our boxcar again.
On February 3, 1945 we
were sitting in the main rail yard in Berlin. That day the Americans
made one of the biggest air raids of the war - 2,600 B-17’s and
B-24’s bombed us with the rail yards as their main target. In my
mind’s eye, I can still see those red streamers coming down to mark
the targets and hear the bombs coming down and exploding all around us.
This went on hour after hour as it took a long time for that many planes
to all come over their target. Again Lady Luck smiled on us as we
didn’t get a direct hit. After the raid ended late that afternoon,
there were thousands of old women and men as slave laborers out there
getting the tracks back in shape so the trains could run again.
Late the next morning
(February 4) the tracks were repaired sufficiently for our train
to pull out. That afternoon we arrived at the Luckenwalde railroad
station, just south of Berlin. Having been very sick when we got on the
train and then having had no food for 8 or 9 days, we were so weak we
could hardly walk and had to help each other to walk the ¼ mile or so
from the station to our new POW camp, Stalag 3A.
When we entered the
camp, we were put in a big building that had one corner partitioned off
and secured with a big iron door. The Germans told us they were going to
give us a shower. Some of
the POW’s had heard stories about Auschwitz, so as we looked at that
door and the circular room we had questions about the “shower”.
There was, however, nothing we could do about our fears, as we were too
weak to resist. Most took this opportunity to start “making peace with
our maker” They had carts that had racks with pegs on them to hang our
clothes on after being instructed to undress.
Then they ran about 30
men into that corner room and shut the door. Nobody ever came back out.
After awhile they opened the door and another bunch was sent in. After a
period of time they never came out either when the door was opened. Then my turn came to go in and the door closed behind us. In
the room there were showerheads all around the outside walls, but until
they turned the water on we didn’t know whether we were going to get
the showers or gas. After a cold shower, a door on the other side of
this room was opened into a room where our clothes had been wheeled
around for us to get dressed again in our old dirty clothes. After all
had been showered, we were taken out to a narrow street between barbed
wire fences into the main camp.
Stalag 3A was originally
Germany’s main interrogation center, being close to Berlin. However as
the war progressed it was enlarged and made into a permanent camp of
numerous sub-compounds that held POWs of all nationalities and ranks. As
the Allies closed in on Germany from both the east and west, POW’s
from other camps being evacuated were sent here. Because of the crowded
conditions, we were put in the same compound with the British Royal Air
Force (RAF) officers and a
few of the remaining old Polish Army officers who had managed to survive
more than five years of captivity.
Those with me in the
group that had arrived from Oflag 64 were in pretty bad shape, since we
had had nothing to eat for eight or nine days. In addition to being
starved, I also had had pneumonia for the second time when I got on the
train. I weighed only about 100 pounds by then and was so weak I could
hardly get out of bed and stand up. In fact when I stood up I had to
hold onto the bed, as I would temporarily black out. After a minute or
two, my vision would return and I could see where I was going and walk
away. Our beds were the same wooden ones, only here they were three
tiers high instead of only two as they had been in Poland. I had a lower
bunk to start with, as I was too weak to get in or out of an upper one.
Febr. 7, 1945 Card from Stalag 3A
We heard that there were
57,000 American Red Cross food parcels here in the camp, but the Germans
wouldn’t give us any. Instead, they were giving them to other
nationalities. The Norwegian officers were in the compound across the
fence from us. Up until recently their Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish
Red Cross had been allowed to bring in food in their own trucks to the
Norwegian POW’s. Now they knew they would get no more, but they gave
us one half of what they had. We got this on my 25th
Even though it wasn’t much, it was certainly appreciated. This
was far more than any other nationality did or offered to do for us.
Toilet Paper-A prized
In late March the
Germans started giving us barley soup, which was good. It even provided
a bit of protein from the abundance of little black bugs in it.
With spring coming, and lots of warm sunshine, I began to feel better
and regain more strength and traded for a top bunk where I could sit up
in bed. I made a calendar on the wall and each morning crossed another
day off - that much closer to when the war would surely be over and we
could go home again.
Here in this camp the
fleas, lice and bedbugs were thick and there was no way to get away from
them. On warm days we sat outside the buildings in the sun with our
pants off, picking out the lice and fleas that were abundant on the
inside seams. I was
fortunate in that they didn’t seem to bite me like they did most
others. They sure did a lot of crawling though. Many of the men have a
permanent scar about three inches wide around their waists from where
they were bitten.
Recipes—Memories of the Past and Dreams of the
Even though we Americans
were in the same compound with the RAF officers, we had separate
barracks, but we got well acquainted and enjoyed visiting with each
other. We all started trading and copying down recipes for good food
that we remembered and someday hoped to enjoy eating again. I filled six
pages in a little notebook I had managed to keep when I was captured.
Some of these are quite interesting as they were from all over the world
where the various POW’s had been stationed.
Another favorite pastime
was watching the Americans bombing Berlin in the daytime and the British
bombing at night. We could see the German searchlights at night focused
on some of the planes. All to often they were able to shoot some of our
A strange noise up in
the sky attracted our attention one day. There was a small plane flying
over that was a charcoal-burner. That is the only one I ever saw or
heard of being flown..
One day the Germans
brought in an officer who was part of the crew of a plane that had been
shot down on February 3rd—the day we were sitting in the
railroad yards in Berlin. He was the lead bombardier of a squadron or
group of planes. After talking to him about where we were at the time,
he said he was supposed to have bombed our area, but had goofed up when
he dropped his target marker that the rest of the planes used as an
aiming point for their bombs. So, yet again, by another simple quirk of
fate I had been spared. Lady Luck was still smiling on me, but I kept
wondering if my luck would hold out until the end of the war.
Cap with various countries buttons
In April the Germans
came in and announced to us that President Roosevelt had died and that
the U.S. would now join them in fighting the Russians. We of course
questioned that probability, but still it seemed quite possible. We
really wondered what would happen next.
Only a day or so
following the announcement of FDR’s death, we began to hear artillery
firing to the west; we assumed the Americans were getting close and
hoped they would come soon. However, on or about April 16th
the artillery fire ceased. When we woke up on the morning of April 18th,
the German guards were all gone. Now it appeared that the Americans had
either stopped or backed up, so it must be that the Russian Army was to
be our liberator. As the word passed through the camp that the guards
had fled, many of the POWs in other compounds broke through the fences
and gates and began to run wild—especially the Russian POWs, who had
been treated more brutally than most other nationalities for several
reasons. Russia had not signed the Geneva Convention; therefore, neither
the Germans nor the Russians felt compelled to treat POWs with much
consideration, and cruel treatment of POWs was the norm for both sides.
The Russian POW officers in Stalag 3A were constantly abused by the
Germans, being forced to perform such filthy and degrading jobs as
cleaning our latrines, for instance. They were poorly fed, and many of
the Russian POWs were deliberately starved to death. But the thought of
the pending liberation brought no great joy to them, for they knew that
Stalin viewed soldiers who surrendered as traitors, and they feared what
would happen to them when the Soviet troops arrived.
A few of the Russian
POW’s worked in the camp bakery, and the other Russian POW’s were
envious because these 20 or so Russian POW’s were getting more to eat.
After the German guards had left that morning, the Russian
POW’s took clubs and killed these so-called traitors who had been
working in the bakery. Other Russian POW’s got out of the camp and
killed anything that was German—dogs, cats, men and women (usually
they raped them first and then cut their throats). I saw this happening
just outside the camp. On their rampage, they got some guns from some of
the Germans and killed more Germans, getting more guns. Sort of a
snowballing effect as their violence escalated. Some of the Russians
explained to us that if they weren’t actively fighting the Germans
when their army got there, they too would probably be killed by their
own troops. In our compound our senior officers decided that we would be
better off staying in our own compound until the Russian army came and
things settled down again.
On the morning of April
20th a Russian armored spearhead group, commanded by a woman
Major entered the camp, knocking down the barbed wire fences as they
came. We thought that at last we were freed. Since the Russian Army did
not carry any food with them, they lived off the land, taking whatever
they could find. They told us to do the same, and moved on toward
German Back Pack
For several days we got
out of the camp to see what we could find. . Several of us stayed
together and saw a number of interesting things without going but a
short distance from camp. We saw various machine shops etc. with tools
and machinery for making various products. These were marked and
protected by Russian guards posted to protect this equipment until it
could be dismantled and taken back to Russia. Some warehouses containing
items such as one that contained a lot of new typewriters were also
marked and guarded. We got
into one German warehouse
though and “borrowed” some small backpacks. Mine was used to hold
all of my meager possessions and enabled me later to carry my
“stuff” back home. I still have it.
Also in the same area we
saw a sort of a hotel with a big courtyard around it. We were told this
was used as a German rest and recuperation center as a reward for heroic
German officers and men, mostly from the Russian front. Each man was
there for 30 days and was given 10 girls to get pregnant during that
time. The girls were selected for their “superman” German
qualities—blonde, blue-eyed and physically strong and fit. Afterward
these girls went back home to later have their babies, but were paid
well without having to work like everybody else. They were to raise
these super-race kids for Hitler’s future Germany.
In the fighting that
took place as the Russians came to Stalag 3-A and Luckenwalde, the
electricity and the water distribution systems were knocked out. The
Russians sent in a group that would be comparable to our Military
Government people to occupy and administer the area. These people were a
lot different than the front line combat soldiers and were much less
friendly toward us POWs, and really brutal to the German civilians. One
of their first orders to the Burgermeister of Luckenwalde was to get the
electricity and water back on within 24 hours. They didn’t offer him
any help or assistance of any kind; just orders to get it done anyway he
could, but to get it done! He didn’t quite make it, so they shot him
and appointed another Burgermeister. That guy got the job done. We were
told that one of the military government men went into the schools and
without any instructions or help to the teacher, the Russian sat in the
back of the room. If he didn’t like the way the teacher was teaching,
he shot that teacher and got another one.
The whole Russian Army
seemed to move past us on their way to Berlin. Most of the Army was
horse drawn, except for the initial spearhead units and those who
followed with American made 6 x 6’ trucks. Their soldiers had taken
out the seats and replaced them with over-stuffed cushions etc. from
German houses. They usually had brightly colored curtains hung up in the
windows. The horse-drawn artillery was mostly American-made 105-mm
howitzers like we had used. The ammunition was hauled in wagons or on
the caissons with the howitzers. Following them was another interesting
sight—the hayracks hauling hay for their horses to eat. It was typical
to see several crates of chickens up on top of the hay and two or three
cows tied on behind the hayrack. This arrangement provided feed for the
horses and cows, and milk, eggs, and then meat for the soldiers.
The Russian soldiers
knew that the guns and trucks came from America, and consequently they
were more friendly to us than to the POWs of other nationalities. Some
of the Russian soldiers we were talking to wanted us to go with them to
Berlin. One showed us how they treated the Germans. He had a
beautiful SS knife, with a red swastika on the handle that he had taken
from some German officer. He indicated how he cut across their stomachs
and let their guts spill out. They were brutal and blood thirsty people.
But with them, as it was with many of us, it was either kill or be
killed. Human life didn’t mean much to them-theirs or anybody
I did not see any of
their soldiers wearing a steel helmet, nor did I see any evidence of any
medical personnel or equipment. They had an unlimited supply of men and
women to replace any who were killed. The wounded apparently were left
to either live or die as fate would have it. Some of their troops looked
like Mongolians, or others who were a long way from home. We found that
there were two distinct groups among the Russian soldiers-the educated
and the uneducated. Most were at the extremes, with not too many in
The Russian Army seemed
to have a lot of women soldiers, with the ratio of about 10 men to one
woman, and with women serving in all ranks from privates to officers.
One day as part of the Russian Army that came by, there was a whole
division of women cavalry. They rode some of the nicest looking Arabian
horses I had ever seen. All of the women had
dark gray capes over and around them with a Tommy gun under it.
They were a tough-looking bunch of women!
Some of the Russian
officers could speak English, so we were able to talk with them. We
asked if they had trouble with the men and women being integrated so
closely in their Army. One of the officers replied, “No, we don’t
have any trouble with that. If any of these women get pregnant, we will
start down the line and shoot 100 to 150 of the men until we are sure we
get the right one—then kill the woman too.”
Apparently this eliminated the problem—but it sure put all the
German women in danger of being raped and killed.
One day I went over to
the Russian POW’s compound and into one of their barracks. I had seen
a lot of human suffering since I’d been in the Army, but what I saw
there was probably one of the worst.. Laying in their bunks were very
sick and starving men who were nearly dead, along with many who were
already dead. If they weren’t able to fight, the Russian Army left
them there to die. They had not only been badly treated by the Germans,
but now they were being abandoned by their own countrymen.
May 1, “May Day,” was a time of great celebration for the
communists. Marshall Zukov, who was the commander of all the Russian
Army that came through here, came into the camp for a big celebration
and a ceremonial funeral - for the 20 or more Russian POWs who had
worked in the bakery and who had been clubbed to death by their
comrades. The Germans had been blamed for killing them, and now they
were to be buried with great fanfare.
A large mass grave had
been dug on the camp’s parade ground, and in honor of Marshall Zukov
all the different nationalities of POWs in the camp were requested to
form up on the parade ground and participate in the funeral.
A newsreel cameraman
took pictures, always insuring that the Russian soldiers, we Americans,
and the British were in the foreground. POWs of other nationalities,
such as the French, Serbs, Norwegians, and others were always kept in
the background. Marshall Zukov got up and made a big speech, then called
on the Senior American officer, and then the Senior British officer to
step forward and say a few words. Along in the middle of the ceremony,
the cameraman ran out of film, so everything stopped for about 20
minutes until he got more film. Big propaganda deal! The ceremony
concluded with the firing of Tommy guns over the grave and the Russians
starting to shovel the dirt back in to cover the graves.
Shortly after Marshall
Zukov’s May Day visit to Stalag 3A, there were rumors going around
that we would be taken back to Russia to use for bargaining power with
the Americans and British at the end of the war. After the Russians
started fixing up the barbed wire fences, we gave the rumors more
credibility. Then when they had the fences about fixed up, several of us
decided we had better try to get out and back to the American lines.
(Earlier when we had heard the American artillery firing to the west of
us, and it had suddenly quit, we figured that some deal had been made to
let the Russians take this area. Then we had heard reports that they had
pulled back to the Elbe River, which was about 60 or 70 miles from us,
and were letting the Russians go on to take Berlin.) That was when the
four of us Americans and one Norwegian officer, Leif Bucholz, decided to
try to escape and get back to the American lines.
We definitely didn’t want to go east to Russia. The Norwegian
could speak German and also English, so he would be a big help to us. He
was a naval officer so we found some army clothing to make him look like
an American. We managed to get out of the camp through a hole in the
fence, even though they were still working on them.
That morning they put
armed guards back in the guard towers, but were not too well organized
yet, which enabled us to get out. We headed west, but should have been
more careful. After going several miles, some of the Russian military
government people caught us. They took us back with strict orders to
stay in the camp. Now we were more determined than ever to get away, and
less than an hour later we managed to get out again. However, this time
we were much more careful to keep from being seen by the Russians.
Eventually, after we’d gotten away from the military government
controlled area around the camp, and closer to what appeared to be the
Russian front line troops, we decided to take to the roads again.
Not only because we could travel faster and navigate better using
the roads, but because we needed food and all the houses were near the
Soon after getting back
on the road, we stopped at a house and asked an old German lady to give
us something to eat. She was quite cordial; she fed us and even gave us
a map that helped a lot, although it did not cover the area far enough
west to show the Elbe River. On the map she showed us the road that
would lead us to the bridge at Magdeburg and across the Elbe river. She
told us that when Hitler first came into power, they were very poor and
could hardly buy enough food to stay live. He started building the
Autobahn highway and began many other projects to put people to work.
She said he built up the country and helped the people, but he went too
far—he shouldn’t have started invading other countries.
Not long after we
started down the road again, a Russian soldier came by and stopped us.
He wanted to know who we were and where we were going. After finding out
that we were Americans, he asked us why we were walking.
After visiting for a little while, a Frenchman, who had also been
a POW, came by driving a horse and wagon. The Russian stopped him and
told him to get off and give the wagon to us. The Frenchman argued a
little, so the Russian shot him and gave the horse and wagon to us.
Late that day we stopped
in a small town and asked to see the Russian commandant, to get
permission to stay in the town overnight. We were directed to the best
house in town—a nice two story brick home. We found the commandant
upstairs at a window, with a machine gun set up on the windowsill,
trying to shoot the chickens in the back yard. However, he was so drunk
he couldn’t even see the chickens! His deputy took us to the
second-best house, next door, where two old German women lived. The
house and all the furnishings were beautiful and immaculately kept.
There was plenty of room for the five of us, but we told the officer we
wanted the beds rearranged in the bedrooms—we didn’t trust anybody
and wanted to be closer to each other. The Russian told the women to
move the furniture the way we wanted it. They were having trouble moving
a beautiful, antique dressing table that had a glass top and very
expensive-looking cut glass lamps on each side. Apparently, they were
moving too slowly to suit the Russian, so he went over to the dressing
table and kicked it, breaking the glass top. Then he pulled out his
pistol shot at the dresser several times. Quite naturally, this
terrified the old women, but they did move a little faster after that.
After getting it
arranged the way we wanted it, the Russian officer asked us if we were
hungry. We were. He went outside and fired his gun up in the air several
times and began shouting. Townspeople came running to him from all
directions. He told them what he wanted for us, and they all took off on
the run. Before long several of them were back, with more food than
we had seen in months. One old man had several rings of bologna
over one arm. The Russian said something and then kicked him in the rear
end. The old man took off running again. We wandered what this was all
about, but pretty soon he came back with the bologna all neatly wrapped
up for us.
Once the matter of food
was taken care of, the Russian officer invited us to join them that
night for a party. He told us to just point out any girl we wanted and
he would see to it that she would be ours. We finally succeeded, without
making him mad, in telling him that we were very tired and weak and
wanted to go to bed instead. We thanked him very much though, and he
left us alone to eat and to go bed.
Along in the middle of
the night we were awakened by the sound of a lot of shooting. We
wondered if the Germans had counter attacked or what was happening.
Finally it quieted down and we went back to sleep. The next morning when
we got up, there were German women out scrubbing the steps in front of
our house and the Russian’s house next door. In talking to the
Russians, we found out what all the shooting had been about during the
night. It seemed that one of the Russians next door who had a German
girl up there with him, had got up to go to the bathroom or to get
something to drink. When he returned, he found another Russian soldier
was with “his” girl. They started shooting at each other. One ran
outside and the other followed, resulting in a running gunfight all over
town. We never did learn the outcome of the fight, but once again this
showed how wild and unpredictable the Russians were.
As we were preparing to
leave the town and head west again, a Russian tank crew asked us if we
wanted to ride with them on their tank. Of course we gladly accepted his
invitation and left the horse and wagon behind. We made pretty good time
riding on the tank and we covered quite a distance before the Russians
had to turn away from the route we wanted to follow. They let us off and
we were on foot again for the rest of the day. Considerable fighting had
recently taken place in the area we walked through, and there were a lot
of dead horses, as well as dead Germans along the road. One dead German
soldier at the edge of the road had a pair of spurs on his boots, so I
took them off of him as a souvenir. (I still have them.)
It was dark when we got
to the bridge that crossed the Elbe River and luckily, no Russian guards
were there to stop us from crossing. On the other end of the bridge were
the Americans! Lady Luck now gave us a great big smile!
Never had we been so glad to be back where we could trust people
and feel safe again. We were then taken to an army unit close by. Of
course their mess hall was closed by the time we arrived, but they did
offer us some white bread. After having eaten that German bread,
composed of about 1/3 sawdust, for eight months, that plain, simple
American white bread tasted better than any angel food cake that I had
Back in Luckenwalde in
Stalag 3A, when we were visiting with the Russian combat soldiers, we
had asked about our getting back to the American forces. They told us
that this would be up to the Military Government people after the
Germans surrendered. Until then they could do whatever they wanted to do
with the displaced people and the POWs they liberated or overran. That,
along with the rumors about being taken back to Russia, increased the
uncertainty about our future that led us to escape from the Russians and
risk the dangers of an active battle area to get back to our own people.
That night, after a good
hot shower, I slept for the first time without the uneasy feeling of
wondering what would happen next. I almost had to pinch myself to
believe that at last I was really free again and out of barbed wire
enclosures and away from the Germans and the Russians. Just being safe,
back among people we could trust gave me a feeling of well being that is
beyond description! We had crossed the Elbe River and regained our
freedom on the night of May 6, 1945. The Germans surrendered at 2:00 am the very next morning of
May 7th, while I slept, and the POWs who remained behind the
Soviet lines, became political bargaining chips in the rapidly
developing Cold War.
Of course, we had no
knowledge of it at the time, but according to the German and the
American records, over 3,000 American POWs who remained in Stalag 3A
never did come home. Apparently they ended up in Siberia as slave
laborers. According to some reliable sources, a total of 23,500 known
American POWs liberated or recaptured from the German POW camps in the
Soviet drive across Poland and Germany just disappeared, probably to the
Siberian slave labor camps.
I now know full well
that nobody can fully appreciate the freedom that we have and enjoy here
in the United States until they lose it.
Neither do they realize what the American Flag really stands for
(FREEDOM) unless they could only see the German flag with the big
Swastika, or the Soviet flag with the Hammer and Sickle displayed at the
top of the pole, instead of our beautiful and wondrous Stars and
Stripes. How very lucky I was - and am!)
With my prayers and with
lots of luck - and with the good fortune to have encountered only
friendly Russian soldiers during our escape—I had made it back just in
the nick of time. Once again, the feeling overcame me that some one had
been “looking over my shoulder” and had kept me from being killed so
many times during the past two years. I could sense that Lady Luck was
still smiling, and Old Father Time was still saying, “ Not Yet”.
After a good breakfast
with our US Army hosts the next morning, we said good-by to Leif Bucholz,
the Norwegian navy officer, who had been an essential help to us in
getting back from Stalag 3A. He would take a different route to his home
in Norway. We boarded trucks and rode
about 40 miles to the airport at Hildesheim, where we also spent
the night. The next morning, May 8, 1945, we caught a C-47 plane that
took us to Rheims, France, where representatives of the German military
forces had signed the official instrument of unconditional surrender to
the Allies only the day before. After arriving in Rheims, we were taken
to a sort of collecting center for POWs that had been liberated in that
area of Germany. After being assigned to a tent and getting settled in,
an American one star General stopped by to visit. Despite the fact that
we were still in our old dirty clothes and badly needed haircuts and
shaved, he took five of us for a ride around Rheims in his big, official
Cadillac or Packard car. We saw the building where the surrender had
taken place, along with a lot of other important government buildings.
We were disappointed that all the taverns in town were boarded up that
day, so he couldn’t get any drinks for us.
Shortly after the
general delivered us back to our tent, I was very much surprised and
pleased to receive a visit from Herman Rodrigues, who had been a member
of my FO party and was captured with me. Herman told me about some of
his harrowing experiences. The Germans required all American privates to
work and he had been sent to Dachau Concentration camp to live and to
work in the railroad shops near there as a slave laborer. He said that
each morning when they formed up on the parade ground for Appel before
being marched to work, if any one of the men in his group had caused a
problem, all the men in their group were made to undress and an SS guard
made them run over to the gas chambers. Usually this was just to scare
them, for unless the offense was a serious one, the men were just
reprimanded and sent back to get dressed and then go to work. For
“serious” offenses, however, the punishment could be horrendous.
Some prisoners were “hung up spread-eagled” and naked. The SS guard
pointed his whip to the man’s testicles and a big German police dog
then jumped up and tore them out! Herman said these sorts of things were
very common occurrences.
In a nearly unbelievable
coincidence, Herman Rodriguez was liberated by I Company of our
“own” 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry
Division! He had temporarily visited the 158th FA Battalion
headquarters and C Battery and had found out that my promotion to first
lieutenant had come through right after we were captured. That was
welcome news to me. He also filled me in on a lot of other happenings.
Lt. Olsen had been badly wounded and was in England in a hospital for
about five months. It was really good to see Herman again, and to know
that he had survived. I have no idea how he found me, since this was a
rather large tent area to temporarily house former POWs before they were
sent on to Camp Lucky Strike.
Much later, I learned
that Dick Borthwick and Charles Smith also survived their POW ordeals.
They had been sent to Stalag III-C, at Frankfurt on the Oder in Eastern
Germany, which was a camp for non-coms. Their camp had also been overrun
by the Russians in January or February. Somehow they had made their way
down to Odessa through the Russians, where they managed to get on an
American ship that took them back to the US.
First letter after Escape
After a couple of days
at Rheims, we got on a train and went through Paris to Camp Lucky
Strike. Here we got hot showers again and dusted from head to foot with
DDT to kill all the lice and fleas and any other vermin we might have
accumulated. With new clothes and a shave and haircut, I felt wonderful.
The first day I tried to eat three meals, I passed out like a light and
fell flat on the ground. Like most of the recently liberated POWs, I had
tried to eat too much food for a stomach that was not used to it and
just could not cope with the volume or the richness of “real food”.
Between the scheduled processing appointments, I
was able to write a short letter home. Because it had been so long since
I had received any mail, I did not know where Skeets was, but I
remembered that she was to take part of her schooling at other locations
than in Lincoln. Therefore, I just sent a letter to my parents and asked
them to call Skeets to tell her I was on my way home.
It was here that we had
to sign statements not to reveal anything that had happened to us as
POW’s that might be considered “classified” information or that
could be detrimental to the well being of POW’s still being held, or
that might damage relations between other countries and the U.S. Only
after we had signed the statements were we “eligible” for transport
Though the war in Europe
had ended, operations in the Far East were still going full-blast and
the Allied forces were concentrating every effort and asset to bringing
the Pacific War to a rapid conclusion. This understandable emphasis on
defeating Japan resulted in a shortage of ships going to Europe and,
consequently, returning to the States from Europe. Despite the shortage
of shipping and the huge number of soldiers awaiting transport, only
about 250 of us former POWs walked up the gangplank of the USS
John Erickson and
settled in our staterooms for the trip home. Unaccountably - given the
huge number of men waiting to leave - the ship still had room for a lot
more people when we pulled out of the harbor.
We went to South
Hampton, England where we stopped again overnight. We didn’t get off
the ship though, and the next day we sailed for New York. On this trip
across the Atlantic the lights were on at night, and we were allowed out
on deck at all hours of the day or night. We were only permitted a small
amount of food on each visit to the galley - in consideration of our
weakened systems - but we could go back anytime, day or night to get
more. This was certainly the most enjoyable ship ride I had. As we came
in to New York Harbor, all of us were out on deck, to get a look at the
Statue of Liberty. It was a very beautiful and emotional sight, and it
served as a welcome confirmation that we were really free and home at
We got off the ship and immediately were taken to Camp Kilmer,
NJ, where they kept us for three days to get our records up to date and
to pay us and to take care of various other administrative matters. We
were so rushed in the processing that the only contact I was able to
make with someone from “home” was a quick call to talk to Dwight
Cherry, who was still going to medical school at Columbia University. As
soon as our records were “straight” we were put on one of many troop
trains, each taking all those men going in the same direction and
dropping them off at stations closer to their homes. I got on one
heading west, and we stopped in Indianapolis at about midnight on about
May 31st. While
standing out on the station platform to get some fresh air, I saw a man
standing close to me who looked familiar. I asked him if he was Bing
Crosby. He smilingly acknowledged that he was, and we visited a while.
He had been in “Indy” for the auto races and was now waiting
for a train home. I got his autograph on the back of my German
In. St. Louis, Mo. we
stopped again, and some of us went into a restaurant where we got the
first hamburgers we had seen since leaving the U.S. in 1943.
From there we went to Leavenworth, KS, where I got off this troop
train and waited to get another train to go to Nebraska. While there I
was able to make several telephone calls to locate Skeets. We had been
on the move all the time up till then without even access or time to
When she answered, I
sensed immediately that something was wrong. Apparently she didn’t
think I would ever make it back, and now had “other” arrangements
with some Air Force captain who never got out of the U.S. This was about
the biggest blow to me that could be. After being engaged and with all
that I had endured during combat and as a POW, she was
the main reason for my will to live and survive. This was hard to
take! During the war I had seen other men who got the “Dear John”
letters, and many of them were either recklessly killed or lacked the
will to live and did not survive. Now I was glad I did not know this
while I was a POW. Since I never did get any mail while a POW, I
didn’t know whether she had written to me or not.
The train I was on
arrived in Shelton, NE, about 6:00 am on June 2, 1945. Bill Evans, the
depot agent, was there when I got off the train; he was the first person
from my home town to welcome me back from the war. Bill sent someone
across the street to the tavern to get a pint of whiskey, and we had a
“welcome home” drink together. I called my brother, Harold, and he
came down to get me. We went to his place and then to my parent’s
place. My other brother, Bob, had just got home from the South Pacific,
after fighting the Japanese, so the whole family was home together
again. Much had taken place
over the past two years that I had been away, and we spent a lot of time
just “catching up.”. After several attempts to reconcile my
relationship with Skeets were unsuccessful, I gave up.
The Army gave all of us
former POWs a 60-day “rest and recuperation” which was in addition
to any other leave we had accumulated. This was a much needed
opportunity to help restore our health and regain some of the weight we
had lost; also to relearn our civilian social manners.
In August I went to Hot
Springs, Arkansas to an Army Redistribution Center. Here I stayed in a
nice hotel with some of the other POWs I had known in POW camps. We were
all processed here to get our records up to date and to give us another
physical exam. This was also like most of the others since I had got
back from being a POW --- we could walk and were warm and breathing.
However, we were just so glad to be back to the U.S. again that
we didn’t complain about anything.
While at Hot Springs the Japanese surrendered, and now WWII was
over, both in the European side as well as the Pacific. There was a big
celebration in Hot Springs, but I quietly celebrated with a friend and
fraternity brother from Nebraska, Mark Keller, who was stationed at Hot
I was informed that it
would be a few months before I could be released from Active duty with
the Army, and was asked where I would like to be assigned while I waited
to be separated. I chose to go to Ft. Bragg, NC because it was the
closest place to Atlanta, Georgia. I wanted to see a girl I had met
there while on my way in 1943 from Camp Shelby, Miss. to Ft. Meade,
Maryland and had stopped in Atlanta to visit my cousin, Elsie Moye.
This time I stopped in
Atlanta on my way to Ft. Bragg and was glad to see Elsie again and also
to see her husband, Lt. Leon Moye, who was an OSS officer and was home
on a leave with orders to go to the CBI (China, Burma, India) area to
work. However, with the war ending, his orders were soon canceled.
Anyway nothing developed there with this girl I had previously met.
At Ft. Bragg I was
assigned to a new outfit that was just being formed. It was composed of
all black enlisted men with white officers. This was a new and
interesting experience for me, but after a few weeks I wanted to move
on. I put in a request to
go back to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma and left Ft. Bragg a short time later. At
Ft. Sill, with nothing else to do, I joined a few other officers in a
class at the Field Artillery School. We spent a lot of time out on the
firing ranges. It was sort of fun adjusting artillery fire on targets
again as we had done in combat in Europe—only this time it was amusing
and entertaining, as our lives didn’t depend on it.
In October they decided
to release me from the Army and after another physical exam, they sent
me to Borden General Hospital in Chickasha, Oklahoma, which specialized
in treating those with hearing problems. I had had too many close calls
with exploding artillery shells and concussions that had broken my left
ear drum and damaged my hearing abilities in general.
I had hopes that they could help me. During the six weeks that I
was there the doctors tried all kinds of hearing aids, but the
technology available at the time was fairly primitive and none of them
helped very much. I did get some lip-reading classes at the hospital and
that has been a big help ever since. (Forty years later the Veterans
Administration did give me some modern hearing aids that do help.)
On December 5, 1945 I
was discharged from the hospital and left for Shelton, Nebraska, where
my parents lived. With accumulated annual leave, I was separated from
the Army as of February 11, 1946.
While on leave and back
home, I met Rosalie Wiese who was also in the area visiting relatives
and friends. She had previously lived close to my parents, but had moved
to Vancouver, Washington several years before. She and I had both
arrived at about the same time and immediately started going together.
It was love at first sight for both of us. On New Years’ Eve we
decided to get married, and on February 3, 1946, we exchanged vows in
Shelton. After a honeymoon in Omaha, we rented a small apartment in
Kearney, where on February 15, 1946, I started on my first civilian job
with the University of Nebr. Extension Service as the Assistant County
Agricultural Agent of Buffalo County. Thus began a long and happy
marriage, as well as a very enjoyable and interesting career working
with Nebraska farmers to help them improve their farms and home life.
Rosalie and Gene- Just Married- Febr. 3, 1946
For the first few years
I worked as a County Agricultural Extension Agent in Buffalo and Clay
counties. Then after transferring to the USDA Soil Conservation Service,
I worked as the District Conservationist in York, Hall, Thayer, and Red
Willow counties until I retired in 1975.
I had a strong sense of
patriotism, even as my military service in WW II ended. Though I did not
desire to have a career in the active Army, I did join the Army Reserve.
In the spring of 1951, the Soil Conservation Service transferred me from
York to Grand Island. As a consequence of the move, I sent a
change-of-address card to my Reserve Unit - and almost immediately
received orders calling me back to active duty. The Army was mobilizing
to take care of the crisis in Korea, and I was ordered to report to Camp
This time Army life was
a lot different than it had been in WW II. The most important difference
was that I was no longer a carefree bachelor; now I was married with two
children, and I had to be concerned about the welfare of my family as
well as myself. We bought a large trailer to live in, rented out our
house in Grand Island, and headed out for Camp McCoy. Soon after our
arrival in Wisconsin I was reassigned to Camp Carson, Colorado, where I
joined a unit that was getting ready to go to Alaska. That sounded like
a good assignment and as we were getting ready to go, I got a letter
saying that because of my hearing loss, I wasn’t even supposed to be
on active duty. But a few days later, I was ordered to go to Walter Reed
Army Hospital in Washington, DC. So we took the trailer to Denman,
Nebraska (south of Shelton)
and parked it at Rosalie’s Aunt Ann and Uncle Mike Andersen’s place,
which was also close to my parent’s home. Then I headed off for
After about six weeks at
Walter Reed Army Hospital, the doctors finally decided that my hearing
loss was good enough for active duty in Korea. I was released from the
hospital “for duty.” However, by this time I had missed the
opportunity to go to Alaska. Instead, the Army sent me back to Ft. Sill,
Oklahoma for more Artillery training. So, I went home, picked up
Rosalie, Jim, and Dorothy - and the trailer - and we drove to Lawton,
Oklahoma, where we found a trailer park where we could live. In January
1952, after completing the schooling, I received orders to report to
Seattle, Washington, for further shipment to Korea. Since Rosalie’s
parents and family lived in Vancouver, we sold the trailer and drove
to Vancouver, where I left my family with Rosalie’s parents.
In Seattle, prior to
shipment to Korea, via Japan, I hurt my back again by swinging a
barracks bag over my shoulder to carry it. When we arrive in Japan, I
was sent to Tokyo General Hospital. The doctors decided that my back
condition precluded a combat assignment, and released me for “limited
service” only. So, instead of going to Korea, I was assigned to an
anti-aircraft unit and stationed about 40 miles from Tokyo. Here I had
ample free time to go and see many interesting places and things in and
around Tokyo and Yokahoma. While there I attended a Chemical,
Radiological, and Biological Warfare school at Osaka. (My good friend,
Merritt Plantz, was also called back to active duty, and while passing
through Japan on his way to Korea, we were able to have a good visit
near Tokyo. I didn’t see him again until we were both back in Nebraska
as civilians. (We both worked for the Soil Conservation Service in
Nebraska until we retired.)
In July 1952 the Army
decided to make me a civilian again, and sent me back to the States.
This time by plane from Tokyo, instead of by ship. We stopped in Guam
and again in Honolulu, Hawaii before going on to Travis Air Force base
in California. There I was separated from the Army for the last time.
This time, I resigned my commission as soon as I could, and became,
finally, a permanent full time civilian. Rosalie met me in San Francisco
in August and we went back to Vancouver to our two children, Jim and
Dorothy, and Rosalie’s parents. Though this time I had only been away
about 6 months, it was wonderful to have Rosalie and the two kids to
come back to. We went back to our home in Grand Island, Nebraska, and to
my job there with the Soil Conservation Service. Two more children, Ron
and Marianne, became part of our family during the next several years.
After living in McCook and working in Red Willow County, Nebraska for 13
years, I retired from the Soil Conservation Service in 1975. In 1979 we
moved to Vancouver, Washington to further enjoy our retirement years.
NO ---- NOT YET
AFTER THOUGHTS AND REMINISCES
For me and most of my
fellow combat soldiers, the war was a matter of killing or being killed.
There was always a very fine line, a delicate balance, between these
cold alternatives, because those opposing us faced the same realities
and their wishes were directly opposed to ours. The ultimate fate of a
combat soldier on either side of the front lines was decided by many
factors. Training and experience played a big part in staying alive, but
the greatest influence was pure luck and happenstance. Almost all of the
fighters in an infantry division were fated to be wounded, captured, or
In World War II Generals
Marshall (Chief of Staff of the Army) and McNair (Commander of the Army
Ground Forces) “shared a common mental picture of how the enemy would
be defeated. They imagined a comparative handful of men picking
themselves up from the dirt and mud after spending hours lying on the
ground; these were men who were wet, probably men shivering with cold;;
thirsty, hungry, tired and afraid, mentally scarred by the deaths of
friends and by witnessing sights that would haunt them for the rest of
their lives, they would move forward under machine gun and artillery
fire. Some would fall, but the survivors would close with the enemy and
kill him in a foxhole or a bunker, a building or a ditch, or die in the
attempt. All the machinery the Army possessed came down in the end to
that one-act drama. And it was that moment, repeated a million times
over, that Army Ground Forces was created to produce.” (Source:
There’s a War To Be Won, by Goeffrey Perret, Random House, NY, 1991,
I was wounded twice and
captured, but I managed, with the help of a lot of luck and prayers, to
survive the war. Now, having reached my 83rd birthday, I find that my
good friend, Lady Luck, is still smiling at me and Old Father Time is
looking closer, but still saying “NO---NOT
Like a school teacher
awarding gold stars to children for certain achievements, all nations
present colored ribbons and medals to their soldiers, as recognition of
service and personal achievement. At the time I was separated from the
Army for the last time, I was only interested in becoming a full time
civilian again. The ribbons and medals didn’t mean much to me -
compared to returning home. Only much later did I begin to reflect on
how my comrades and I, and the soldiers who served so nobly before and
after us, had earned and protected all the rights and freedoms that we
as citizens of the United States now enjoy. Those bits of ribbon that I
had cared not a whit about in 1945 and in 1952 became more important to
me in my later years.
About 50 years after WW
II, our US Senator Slade Gorton, got all the medals and ribbons I had
earned during both WW II and the Korean Conflict and presented them to
me in Vancouver. These included the following:
Bronze Star Medal
Purple Heart Medal, with one Oak Leaf Cluster
Prisoner of War Medal
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, with 4 “Battle
and one Bronze Arrowhead
device for an amphibious landing
WW II Victory Medal
American Campaign Medal
National Defense Service Medal
United Nations Medal - Korea
Korean Service Medal
Gene and Rosalie Liggett in 2003
May 23, 1944
The morning the breakout began from the Anzio
beachhead, we got up early and I, along with my Forward Observer Party, went
with the 157th Infantry to our position to start the attack. Getting ready and
waiting for H Hour (the time to shove off on our attack) was the worst part -
anticipating what will, or what might happen, and wondering which of us will
get killed or wounded before night. To add to our discomfort, it rained a
little to make us cold and shivering as we waited to push off. At H hour, 6:30
am, every artillery piece on the beachhead (640 guns) started continuous
firing right in front of us. There wasn't any place larger than 10 feet square
that wasn't hit by at least one shell.
After the artillery pulverized the German
positions awhile, we moved out in the attack. The first thing we encountered
was a German minefield. I was following one of the platoon leaders and was
close behind him when he stepped on a mine, which blew off one of his feet. I
took his platoon on through. We had just gotten past the minefield when the
platoon leader of the following platoon stepped on a mine, so I went back and
led his platoon through. Luckily I didn't step on one.
Most of the Germans were still in their holes and
either too scared to come out or too shocked from all the artillery fired on
them to offer much resistance. We hollered at them to come out and if they
didn't immediately comply, we threw hand grenades in and went on to the next
holes. As we advanced we radioed back and lifted the artillery barrage so that
it stayed ahead of us- a rolling barrage. By about noon we had gotten ahead of
the units on either side of us, so we stopped. I, along with my FO party went
just over the top of the long hill where I could have better observation of
the area ahead of us and occupied one of the shallow German trenches while we
waited for the other units to catch up. We were out ahead of our infantry.
While my men took cover in a trench, I was looking
around to see any activity that might be taking place ahead or to the sides of
us. Obviously a German spotted me and they fired a single round from an 88
that landed to the right side of me. A fragment from the exploding shell hit
me on the right side of my head - coming through the steel helmet and the
plastic liner and hit the little metal clip
holding the headband in. This little clip was bent almost double where the
piece of shrapnel had hit it. It did fracture my skull as it hit just in front
of and at about at the top of my right ear. If I had had my head turned an
eighth of an inch either way it would have missed this little clip and killed
me instantly. Once again Lady Luck had a big smile on her face.
About an hour later after I had recovered
somewhat from the concussion and the initial shock from the near-miss of the
88 shell, six German Mark VI tanks started up the hill toward us. When the
closest one was about a block and a half away, he spotted us. In my mind's eye
I can still see him lowering his 88 down. The first three shells he fired
missed me by about a foot or so directly above me. I could feel the heat from
them as they went by. Then he lowered it down a little and nearly buried us
with the next three shots fired. All the time the tanks were advancing and
shooting at us, I had been trying to get some phosphorous artillery shells on
them. Finally it came. I got two tanks and I think the others pulled back, but
we didn't stick around there any longer to find out. It is one thing to have
someone shooting at me with a rifle, but it gets scary when a tank with an
"88" is shooting directly at me as his target. I didn't know what
the next move for the Germans would be, but it was clear that we were in an
exposed position well ahead of our flanking units, and just staying there
didn't appear to be a good option. Also, I wasn't in very good condition from
the head injury and all the recent excitement and we were in a hurry to get
back over the hill and away from them.
I shot out my radio, as it was too big and heavy for
my men to carry and I didn't want to leave it so the Germans could use it. I
had emptied my carbine on it to completely destroy it and didn't take time to
reload before we left. As we came up to the top of the hill, I looked up to
see a German standing at an intersection to the trench we were in. My gun was
empty! I looked at him and he looked at me. Neither of us bothered the other
and we kept on going. I'll never know why he was there or where he came from,
but he must have been lost, or like I was, too dazed to do anything.
We kept on going back, looking for an Aid Station or
medics. We followed one of Mussolini's big drain ditches where there were lots
of dead and badly wounded men, both German and Americans. The little stream of
water from the previous night's rain was red with blood. Eventually, somehow,
my men managed to get me to a Hospital tent. When I woke up, I was on a cot
with another wounded soldier as it was so crowded.
The next day the medics took us to the Anzio harbor
and loaded us up on a hospital ship. What a wonderful feeling it was to be on
this clean white hospital ship with lights on at night and a bed with clean
sheets to sleep in-away from the war. We went to Naples where I spent two or
three weeks in the 45th General Hospital. The doctors looked at my helmet, and
looked at me, and marveled at the fact that I was still alive. Lady Luck had
smiled on me again! (I felt luckier than ever after seeing how badly some of
the other soldiers were wounded. The fellow in the bed next to me had been hit
in the back with shrapnel and kept begging the doctors to let him die.)
Finally, about the second or third week of June, I
was discharged from the hospital and along with Frank Mathers, a 157th
Infantry lieutenant, and others, boarded a ship and went to Civitevetchi, on
the coast just north of Rome. While on this ship, German planes come over to
bomb and strafe us and again I wished I was back on land where I could dig a
hole to get in. It was a helpless feeling sitting out there in the bay, with
enemy planes coming at us. Fortunately, this time we did not get hit.
After getting off the ship we were met by a 45th
Division truck and were taken to the Division bivouac area. (While I was in
the hospital, the 45th Division had advanced on to Rome and a little farther,
before they were relieved and taken out of the line.)