©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
I Get Captured
We left on a daylight recon patrol and were taken captive by a German patrol in late June or early July 1944. We were on the patrol to obtain any information we could and maybe a prisoner or two. We in the 2nd platoon were given the joyful task of this jaunt into Hun territory.
I remember very clearly the day being bright sunshine and a clear blue sky the birds were chirping. Who would have thought there was a deadly war on? There were a lot of days like that in late June that everything seemed at peace. We enjoyed it while it lasted, for the next instant, all hell would erupt and back to the deadly business of killing.
Our squad was comprised of seven or eight. I was at the head with our platoon leader and the squad sergeant. I was considered valuable as I spoke French and I was the official interpreter, though with no increase in rank. I was an added advantage to get any info from the French inhabitants we might meet along the way if they were friendly to. Sometimes talking broke the ice. (My buddy, Bill, missed going on this little jaunt. I wonder how he got out of going.)
This countryside of Normandy abounds in small and
large farms, orchards,
and horse and cattle ranches. It's a beautiful province with fruit and
vegetable of all kinds,
and was also known for its dairy products. They have a great drink, a
kind of apple cider
(apple jack in the U.S.) called Calvados, strong enough to knock you on
your ass and it
doesn't take much. I think it's the national drink of Normandy.
Getting back to the patrol, we
took off early in the morning just before the sun came up, traveling light with rifles, carbines,
two Thompsons and a supply of pineapples (grenades). I had an M-1 and a Smith & Wesson revolver, a .45 caliber that I had picked up some time ago a pistol was great in case you ran
into your enemy quite suddenly and of course the formidable toad sticker, the bayonet, which
I hoped I wouldn't have to use.
The objective was to cross a couple of fields and over a foot bridge and a small creek to scout and reconnoiter the area of this small village with a large wooded or small forest of trees and shrubbery. We had received news from intelligence that the village was empty of any enemy troops. Then again, you never know. We'd find out soon enough.
This particular area had been fought over before and
taken and retaken a
couple of times during some German attacks by members of the 82nd
Airborne. We all felt
quite apprehensive and nervous as we had on a number of occasions. The
not up to snuff lately and we caught a lot of hell. On some of these
recon trips, a place was
put down as safe and it turned out to be one hell of a donnybrook. The
Germans were artists
at camouflage. Anyhow, we all got across the footbridge to this dirt
road and into another
hedgerow-lined field. We came to a ditch which ran into what is called a sunken road. A sunken road resembles a tunnel of overgrown vines and small trees with the branches of the trees and vines growing over an arc to join with foliage on the other side, forming a tunnel. Those things did not grow like this overnight or in months, but are natural growth, years and years old. Hardly any sun penetrated these tunnels. The foliage was very thick.
You could barely see the end or exit, so you just entered and made
your way through until
you came to the end, whenever that was. We knew this would take us pretty close to the village without being spotted, so we got together and started in. It felt real cool but humid and very close with not too much air. We didn't have to crouch. We could stand straight up and walk through. Sometimes the farmers used to drive their cows through these sunken roads. Nothing grew here because of the lack of sunlight, nothing but dirt and dust.
We finally came to the exit at the edge of this dirt road a ways off from the village. In single
file, we crossed the road to the entrance of the town. We gathered in a group to decide what to
do next. So far, we had seen nothing of the Germans. Maybe it was empty as claimed, but I
had my doubts. So off we went in single file. We didn't see one single inhabitant. It looked like a ghost town and was not badly shot up. Going up the street, I came to a house, kicked open the door and went in. The place was empty. I was in the kitchen and dining area.
There was a table with a couple of bottles of wine, a loaf of bread and a large piece of cheese, so I took time for a break. I called everybody in for lunch. We all put our weapons on a table or against the wall and sat down to eat. This was great but we were in for a hell of a big surprise. As we sat there enjoying this feast, we became aware of sudden visitors.
There in the doorway were three or four of the most menacing looking Krauts I ever saw. They leveled their rifles at us and we all raised our arms. Talk about getting caught with your pants down. That was us. We were disarmed and marched outside the house.
This was some shock to us as well as damned humiliating. I blamed myself entirely for this. If it had not happened, we wouldn't have been captured. Well, that's what one gets for being careless and stupid. I should have known better. Well, I guess that's the fortunes of war. I hoped to hell they were not going to shoot us. The thought scared the hell out of me.
us single file up the street. Looks like the Germans sent out a patrol
also, only we were the
ones that got caught. They marched us out of town and over a small
bridge to their bivouac
area. We were not mistreated, but one of bastards hit me in the back with his rifle butt for not moving fast enough. I had not understood his order. What the hell; I don't speak German. I cussed him out in my best New York insults. "You dumb Kraut bastard. I hope I see you again sometime, you shit-eating creep," but he only laughed. He didn't understand English. I think even today, I'd recognize him and I'd pay him back double.
Anyhow, as we moved along, I began making plans to escape. I studied everything around me, the bridge, the creek, the little apple orchard, everything in sight, the demolished house. I was pretty sure I'd be successful in getting away. You're pretty cocksure at twenty years of age. I made it known to Chandler. He said to count him in. At the first opportunity, we'd try it.
We entered this field with a number of farmhouses with a big stone wall, some buildings and stalls for livestock with a cobblestone courtyard. It appeared pretty much intact, which was unusual in a battle zone. We could see a number of German officers and some troops walking about and some staff cars and a car that looked somewhat like a civilian Volkswagen. There appeared to be a quite sizable enemy force, several companies, and I also saw some panzers (tanks).
This is one patrol I wished we hadn't gone on. We were made to stand in a group in the center of the field with a guard. A lot of soldiers were milling around staring at us, making comments and obscene gestures. They were chased away by the guard. An officer came toward us and he spoke fluent English. He would be interrogating us. I gathered he gave orders to the guard and marched us into the courtyard where we were made to sit. The officer spoke to a couple of guards and then stepped into one of the large houses, apparently the HQ. Some soldiers appeared with some food for us and a bucket of water. So far the treatment was okay, but still I was uneasy and apprehensive.
We were forbidden to talk to each other. Three Krauts came up to us with a machine gun which looked like the typical MG 42, set it up and trained it on us. The terrible thought came to me that they were going to gun us down, it would be just like the bastards. We just sat there in mortal fear and sweated it out. I lost my appetite. I said a few prayers I knew from Catholic grade school in times of danger and pleaded to my savior to protect and guide me and my comrades and hoped he was in a good mood. Those damned Germans did not look in too good a mood. I recognized them as the same ones we had come across and beat hell out of, so I don't think they were receptive to us. We had no marks or ID on us and no division patches. I could not tell if these bastards were SS or Wehrmacht. No doubt, a mixed batch. You can recognize the insignia of the SS and the Eagle bade on their left upper sleeve or is it the right? I forgot.
A sergeant came to us, singled one of us out and took him to the house where the Wehrmacht officer had entered. No doubt the interrogation was in the process of beginning. I was hoping none of us would divulge anything to him. We had heard they tried to force prisoners to talk by mistreatment or worse still torture by some of our intelligence forces.
I had a chance. Quietly I let them know that "mum's the word." Don't tell them anything. (Mum was a deodorant we bought in the PX to smell pretty). Keep it under your arm.
The reason I thought they'd torture us is we saw some plainclothes creeps walking around the area, the dreaded Gestapo. The same guys we used to see in Bogart Hollywood war movies back in England. We'd tell them rank, name and serial number, nothing else.
Finally, I was next. I was ushered in. The officer sat in a chair at a table with a bottle of wine and glasses. From the corner of my eye, I noticed one of these Gestapo characters sitting by himself in a comer smoking a cigarette in one of those holders that rich people back in New York used. Kind of a status symbol. I also noticed he held his cigarette in an odd way, like the Europeans do.
The officer pointed to a chair to sit down in front of him. The Gestapo character looked to me like bad news, a real wicked person. He gave me one of those cold stares which reminded me of a dead mackerel. The officer introduced himself as Hauptmann Karl Kremsdorf (a captain in our army). I was very agitated and angry at the same time. He asked me my name. I told him.
"Your name is French, are you?"
I replied, "Yes, I am."
He said, "You were born in France?"
"No," I replied. "Montreal, Canada."
"The French in Canada hate and despise the English, don't they?"
"No, they don't. We have differences, but we get along, especially when at war against you Germans. We all pull together."
He did not answer that. While this was going on, that Gestapo joker still kept staring at me. I wished he would find something to do and depart. The Hauptmann noticed my looking at the Gestapo man and said, "He is a member of the Secret Police, the Gestapo. His name is Gerhardt Shmidt. Pay no attention. They frequently visit our troops at the front." Even today, I hate the name Schmidt or Smith. It's the same to me someone evil. (I thought to myself, the quicker I try to escape, the better, especially with those SS troops and these Gestapo bastards evil personified. One has to be in this dreadful situation to understand. I was scared as well as determined. I don't know why they interrogated us. We had nothing to tell them that would be of use to them or anything that they didn't know already. The Hauptmann asked me questions and all I said was my rank, name and serial number and he didn't question me again. The Gestapo guy never spoke a word, just sat there giving me this cold, evil icy stare. He did look like the typical Gestapo person I saw in the movies when I was in high school trench coat, wide brimmed hat, cigarette holder and a sadistic look. He finally got up and left. I gave a sigh of relief. I asked the Hauptmann what he wanted and I was told he showed up at all POW interrogations. I said he looked none to friendly. The officer replied, "He's not. He's very rigid and cruel against the enemies of the Third Reich, military or civilian."
He fits the picture. "He's got the right job," I broke in.
The Hauptmann spoke a very good English as he had spent a number of years in the U.S., primarily in New York City in the Yorkville district of the city where a large number of German-Americans resided which was logical. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, he returned to Germany where he held a commission in the Wehrmacht and joined up with this division of infantry taking part in the invasion of Poland. After this, he was in the Norwegian Campaign and the invasion of Belgium and France and the British invasion of France at Dunkirk. From there to the Belkrau Campaign in Yugoslavia and Greece. All this he freely told me. I guess he was trying to impress me with his military experience. He was living in New York City at the same time I was attending grade school at a Catholic school located in the Yorkville area. I was 15 or so years old. I told him I might have passed him in the street not knowing that one day I would meet and be a war prisoner of his. The next unbelievable thing, he knew the proprietor of a German beer hall called Hans Jaeger's near the grade school I attended. The beer hall owner's son was in my class at school. How coincidental and uncanny can something be? The kid's name was Hans Yeager. It felt like a small world. It was too close for me, and again, Kremsdorf was familiar with the school, St. Ignatius, and knew where it was located and he knew some German people who attended Mass there, probably people I even knew.
This whole thing was too bazaar for me and the Hauptmann to believe. But it was true, none the less. Being a prisoner, it had all the marks of being like old home week. It was too astounding. I at times wonder what happened to this German Captain. He seemed like a decent sort, but still I had misgivings. I still would like to have seen him after the war to get his reaction to our escape, if he was still alive.
I remember some of the conversation I had with Kremsdorf during the interrogation beside him finding out we both lived in New York City at the same time in the 1930s before he returned to Germany. He knew the neighborhood I lived in and the church I went to. We spoke a lot about our living in New York, especially my upbringing before I went into the army. I remember the told me, "Well, the war is over for you. After Germany wins the war, you will be returned to your family. You'll be alive. You and your comrades will be sent from here to one of our POW camps in Germany until our victory is achieved very shortly."
I dreaded to hear those words. My world fell apart. I'll never see home again. As I sat there I vowed I'd escape by hook or by crook with the rest of the guys or by myself.
I replied to his reference that Germany would win and drive us and the British back into the Channel with "Sir," being polite, "what makes you think the Germans will drive us out? We are in Normandy to stay and you'll have one hell of a time trying to push us out."
He was taken back by my brazen remark. The stared at me and said I was a very brash and impudent young man.
I said, "Yeah, well, the good sisters at St. Ignatius told me that a long time ago and my parents have also."
He looked at me and said, "No doubt the Jesuits at St. Ignatius knew you as well as your parents. You Americans are unruly and bold, but I admit you are good soldiers."
When he finished, I said, "Thank you, Sir," and a guard entered and took me back to my buddies. I did salute him which he returned. I said to him in passing, "We are not unruly." I realized I had been foolhardy and bold to tell him my feelings. I should have been more humble, but I'm glad I spoke the way I felt anyway.
On the first day of captivity, we were taken to the field where we had been before and sat in a group and waited. We noticed a lot of activity with the Germans. It looked like they were preparing something. We were told by a sergeant that they were waiting for the truck to take us back to the Stalag. I asked the sergeant where they taking us. He replied in typical German English, "Shut up Ami." That's what they called Americans Amis or Amerikaner.
We ate and slept right there in the open field. They gave us blankets and escorted us to the latrines and a place to wash up. Next morning they put us on labor duty. I took notice of the weapons and equipment they had without appearing obvious and determined about how many men they had. They were a pretty big bunch and had vehicles, tanks, armored cars, personnel carriers, etc. I only wished our company or regiment knew about this. I had to escape tonight if everything went okay. I mentioned this to the sergeant and the others.
After some arguing, we decided to try tonight which looked like a good time. They placed one guard over us. I don't believe they thought we would try an attempt to escape, so much the better. It was late in the afternoon. One of the men in the group was not feeling well so we decided to cancel tonight's escape and would wait until the next night to try. It would give us time to make a plan and hope our pal was off the sick list.
They still kept us in this field but later moved us over near a medium sized shed which we later found out held farming equipment pitchforks, shovels, spades and some sickles, some bales of straw, etc.
So far, it had been two or three days since our capture and I was sure we were listed as missing. While sitting there, I reached in my cartridge belt for a pack of cigs, "Lucky Strike." Most cartridge belts held M-1 ammo clips but in my case, I split mine up with cigarette packs and M-1 clips. Cigarettes fit just right in the cartridge pockets. The guard over us saw me and I thought he wanted a cigarette, so I offered him one and to my shock and anger, he took the whole pack from my hand. I forgot myself, jumped up to protest and demand he give me back the cigarettes. Instead of that, he gave me a rifle butt stroke on the side of my neck and shoulder, which of course knocked me down in a heap. I cursed him up and down, but he only laughed. Then the blow began to hurt. It cut my jaw at the same time. He's one bastard I'd long remember. I finally got my cigarettes back. I spotted a non-com and asked if I could see Kremsdorf. He took me to him and I told him about the incident with the guard. He called the guard into the house and dressed him up and down for striking me and cussed him out and made the guard give them back to me. He then apologized for the guard's bad behavior. The Hauptmann even had the unit's medic take care of my injury. (My mouth had bled quite a bit). This attention and concern by this enemy Kremsdorf really surprised the hell out of me. I never thought a German soldier (officer) had that much compassion and justice toward an enemy. I thought, here's one German I had respect for and hoped he would make it through the war.
I hate to admit it, but we never saw that guard again. They put a new one in his place. One of our guys said, "After what he did, they either shot him or sent his ass to the Russian front and besides, it's a wonder they didn't shoot you for creating a commotion."
When the guard moved away some distance, we discussed how we were going to pull this off. I had suggested it so they kind of listened to my idea. I felt like a sergeant with no stripes. I asked Sergeant Arnex if he had an idea. "No, I don't," he said, "go ahead." It's been so long, it's a wonder I remember as much as I have related, even the plan. It began to rain a little. We called the guard and asked if we could stay in the shed. He agreed. We went in and sat down. The guard stayed outside. We looked over our surroundings and I was right all farming articles. Then to our amazement and joy, there was a back door unlocked. The guard, by the way, had locked the front door. Apparently he didn't know there was a back door. Boy, this was good luck. An escape route made to order. It was almost too good to be true. Now to decide quickly how to get the hell out of here. One thing we had to get rid of was the guard, but how? We decided to get the guard inside and put him permanently out of this world, hide the body in the hay bales and get out the back door.
That night we waited until they changed guards. We knew they went on two hour guard shifts before being relieved. Nailing the guard and dispatching him had to be done quickly and without any outcry or other noise and out of the shed and away before they discovered we had escaped. We could cover a lot of distance. The plan sounded good. All we needed now was a lot of luck and God's help. So we waited it out.
Soon we heard them come to relieve the guard. They opened the door to check us and closed it with the new guard. It was early in the morning, about one or two. We waited till the other guard left, then we knocked on the door in pretense of talking to him. As he came in, he was jumped on and pinned to the ground and strangled. That done, we hid the body in those bales of hay. It would take tune for them to find him.
We took his rifle and quickly darted out the back door to total darkness. We met no interference. We got to the dirt road which was away from the houses where Hauptmann Kremsdorf and his staff were and where the greater part of the soldiers were encamped.
So far, so good. Now our work was cut out for us. We all wished each other luck, shook hands and all went our own way. I felt terrified and prayed we'd all make it through this war, the scariest and most hazardous time of my life. I knew I had to be alert and keep my wits and not make a mistake. I'm glad I could speak French. It was going to pay off. My adrenaline was making my heart pound. I would try to cover as much ground as I could by night and hide during daylight to avoid detection.
I imagined how a convict escaping from Sing Sing would go about this. The main thing was that I got away. It felt like a game but a deadly one.
I had one perilous and close call in going down this dirt road. Before I knew it, I heard a muffled sound. I passed right by a squad of Germans traveling the opposite course. No one stopped me or asked questions. It was so dark you could just make out their shapes. I was suddenly petrified and in cold fear. I kept going and finally they passed me. Talk about close calls, so close I could have touched them. I kept walking fast, expecting any moment to catch a slug in my back. Ahead I saw light from some houses. I had reached the town we had gone through. So far, so good. I reached the small bridge we crossed over, so I had covered quite a lot of ground in a short space of time.
During my run, I found a Colt .45 which I stuck in my belt. I had a rifle and an M-1 which I discarded because it was clumsy and would get in the way in case of trouble, especially if I had to run through any wooded area. I also picked up a trench knife, one of those World War I knives with the brass knuckles on it, not that I intended to use it in any close encounter if I could help it. I did pretty good learning how to use a combat knife in the training in the States, but that's a different matter in a real hand to hand fracas. Now if I could only acquire some pineapples. Those things could be very useful and lethal in a tight squeeze.
As I moved ahead I spotted the bridge we had crossed. I hid in some undergrowth and shrubs a few yards from the bridge. The moon was bright and I could make it out pretty good. It was starting, to get a little light on the horizon and pretty soon the sun would begin to rise. I'd better find a place to hide. They must have found out we got away by now and the body of the dead German some hours ago. I. bet they were surprised, and especially Herr Hauptmann Kremsdorf and that jerk Gestapo idiot. I'll bet he swallowed his cigarette holder when they told him and sent the whole Kraut shebang and the guards to the Russian front or had them shot for being "Dumkopfs and dunderheads." Kremsdorf was probably in a state of shock. He'll be lucky if they don't ship his ass to the Eastern front. I had to laugh about that.
Well, I wasn't out of the woods yet. I left my hiding spot and made a bee line to the bridge. So far, no sign of Germans. The only thing I saw was a couple of cows munching grass. I had found a grenade bag sometime after escaping and I had put in some apples, some plums and a chunk of cheese. I did have a few packs of butter which the Germans failed to find on me. So as far as food went, I had no problem.
I descended the embankment to a shallow creek and decided to hole up under the bridge and found a flat space right under the bridge boards. It was kind of tight, but safe from the enemy. I could hear any Germans crossing the bridge from where I was. I would try to get some shuteye. I was dog tired. Tomorrow would be another harrowing day. I hoped the Good Lord would sustain me. Maybe he'll send St. Joan of Arc to help me through.
The sound of voices woke me up from a restless sleep. The voices sounded close to my hiding place. The Germans were still hunting the fields and woods for us. I was wondering whether the others escaped okay or were captured. I had a dread that some of us wouldn't make it. The sounds of the hunters were getting closer to where I was. I could hear them walking on the bridge. Little did they know how close I was to them. I sure was glad I found this spot. The proximity of them standing over me was a scary sensation. Then I heard them descending into the creekbed. I saw them walking about checking the surrounding bushes and undergrowth, but never checking where I lay hidden. Fear seized me and increased my anxiety. Sweat poured off me, partly from the cramped space and shortness of fresh air.
Finally, they left. I breathed a sign of relief. I still had to stick it out till nightfall when I could leave for another day of keeping my wits and trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy. I felt I had turned into a mole. I ate some of the apples and plums and waited. When the Army said hurry up and wait, it wasn't kidding and it sure as hell applied here. It finally got dark enough to move away. I slid into the creekbed. There were still some water holes and I was damn thirsty, so like a wild animal, I crept to the water hole to quench my thirst. I hadn't had a drink since I had left my captors and didn't realize I was thirsty. Now I felt better. I crawled up the embankment and lay there a few minutes looking around and trying to decide what I would do next. It was dark but I could still make out objects and saw a small patch of trees. I made my way quietly to them. I stopped and listened for sounds. Everything was quite except the sound of crickets. The moon was bright. This would improve my vision and help me spot any danger. I saw a dirt road. It stood out in the moonlight like a white path.
I was startled by a rabbit that scurried across my path a couple of feet away. It just about gave me heart failure. My nerves were really on edge. It took me a couple of minutes to calm down. I said to myself, "Damned hare, don't you know there's a war on?" This caused me to chuckle a little.
Slowing, I ran low through the trees until I came to the edge of the woods a few feet from the road. I crossed the road and saw some houses nearby. They seemed to be like the ones we had passed when the Krauts captured us. When I escaped, I tried to remember certain landmarks we had passed like the bridge and houses and some of the wooded areas and other sites. This made it a lot easier on my trip to get back to my outfit. To my amazement, I came to the house where we had been taken captive. I must have taken a short cut and didn't realize it. What a stoke of luck and I still hadn't seen any Germans.
I entered the house. All the wine bottles, bread and cheese were gone. The Krauts who captured us must have hauled them off. They did leave a small piece of bread, half of which had been eaten, so I finished the rest of it and left the house. Now to find that damned sunken road we had come through along this dirt road. But try as I might, I didn't have any luck in locating it. Well, at least I was gong in the right direction so far.
Well, I can't waste all this time in trying to find it. I did remember about how far the house was from the road, so I started out across the field, heading away from the house. I got through a hedgerow into another clearing and spotted a house with the lights on. As I lay there in the ditch, I had a decision to make. I spoke French. Should I go up to the house, knock on the door and take a chance he'd help me or bypass the place?
I decided, what the hell, I'll try. So mustering up my courage, off I went. I just hoped to God he wasn't a German sympathizer. If he was, I sure as hell would found out tout suite (right away).
In desperation, I quickly ran up to the house and stared frozen at the door. I knocked and stood back so I would not scare the person. I had my hand on my pistol just in case it was a Kraut. A voice from inside asked who was there. I answered in my best French, "Je suis un soldat Americain. Je me suis echappe des Allemands. Aidezmoi s'll vous plait," which translated means "I'm an American soldier escaped from the Germans. Please help me."
He motioned for me to come in quickly. He had heard that some American soldiers had escaped and were running round loose in the vicinity. German patrols were everywhere combing large areas searching for us. We were to be shot on sight. I had figured as much. I thank God this Frenchman took me in, but now both of us were in danger. Well, at least I had a place of refuge until it was safe enough for me to take off again.
I was terribly concerned about the others of my comrades arid hoped things were going okay for them. This gentlemen asked if I was hungry and I told him I wasn't before, but I was now, but most of all I was thirsty. My throat felt like the inside of a dried-out pipe. He gave me a glass of water and I drank and drank. I was so thirsty. We talked. Some of my French was better than others, but I do not remember much about the conversation.
So it was that I decided that I'd hide here, then as soon as darkness fell, I would leave. I tell you I sure welcomed the rest and safety. I was sure the Germans would come visiting. I told him and he said he had a safe place in the wine cellar. I looked around the house. He pulled a table away and a rug and there was a trap door leading into the cellar. I sure would not have guessed it. If a patrol came around, into the cellar I'd go.
I had a good meal and milk. We talked some. I remember him saying my French was very good. He figured I was born in France and said I had a Norman accent. I told him I was born in Montreal, Canada where as a kid I spoke French and later in the States I learned English.
He replied laughingly "You have returned to the land of your ancestors."
I answered, "You know, that's true, but I never thought of it." Canada was settled predominantly by the French and Breton people in the 1600s through the early French explorers.
So, late that night, I went into the cellar where a bed was prepared for me and a pitcher of water and even a bottle of Calvados (a type of Apple Jack) which seemed to rejuvenate my spirits. I slept like a bear.
I woke up with sounds upstairs like someone was banging on the door. Sure enough, it was a German patrol out looking for us. I heard them come in and the sounds of voices. I could barely make it out, but the lead officer or non-com asked the man if he knew of any American prisoners moving around. If he harbored any of them and did not report sighting them to him or other units, necessary measures would be taken against him and his family in the name of the Third Reich. Little did they know how near I was to them. It made me shiver.
After they left, I decided I had better go because if they were here once, they'd be back and we'd all be in hot water. I stayed at the house that whole day waiting for nightfall. He hated to see me leave and gave me a fond embrace and we had a tearful scene with his family. While I prepared to leave, he told me I would be on the right track to the American lines. He told me of the bridge which I knew. He said they post guards there so be careful.
The sad thing about this is that I never saw him or his family again. When I left, he gave me a rosary, so with final farewells, I left in the dead of night and made my way across his orchard and field into a hedge without any incident. At one time, I spied a number of German soldiers moving down the path near me. I remained in some shrubbery until they passed and moved on. I could hear my heart beating fast. I thought about being so close to getting away and getting caught. It scared the hell out of me. Despite this I was determined to make it, do or die, as the old saying went.
This daring attempt at escape made me a clear thinker. The slightest error on my part would be my last or an unforeseen situation I could not get out of. I knew the consequence of my adventure. So far I had outwitted the enemy. If I survive, this ordeal will be one of the greatest achievements or gambles of my life. I must not give up hope.
I must have gone off course since leaving the house. The surroundings did not look familiar. I felt apprehensive. I saw no more of the German patrols. Maybe they had given up on catching us. I forgot all about time. I kept going till I arrived at a small stream. I had to get to the other side somehow. There was a high embankment on the opposite side. Maybe over there were friendly forces. I had the feeling my trip was damned near ended and even then, I was not completely sure.
It was now or never. I slowly entered the stream which had a slight flow to it and some holes which fell into waist-high water. I tripped over a number of stones. I came to a large boulder in the middle of the stream which offered some protection on one side. I got up and quickly ran the rest of the way to the shore.
I gave a sigh of relief. Something told me I had finally made it out of enemy territory. I scrambled up the embankment to dry ground. Soon after starting out, I heard the voice, "Halt."
I froze. Was this American or German? The word halt sounds a lot like the German sound. I yelled "Don't shoot. I'm an escaped American from the Germans. Don't shoot, damn it."
I was summoned forward. It was still not too dark and I could make them out. One voice said "If it's a Kraut, he speaks pretty good English. Keep your hands up."
"Okay," I said, "they're up."
They approached me with their weapons aimed. I was scared to death and sweating like the devil. I was glad they were not trigger happy. They called an officer who later verified who I was to regimental and my company. I stayed with them. They were an engineering outfit. I ate and then lay down and slept like a drugged man. My ordeal was at an end.
So ends the narration of a narrow and wild escape. It's a miracle I got away with it. I was worried how the other guys had fared. Next morning I got on one of their company weapons carriers and was taken to the area where my old company was in position. Most everyone got back all right, except for one man who was unaccounted for. We never saw him again and guessed he was recaptured and shot as the Germans had said they would do or else killed outright while fighting capture.
I was glad to see them all and my pal, Bill. We recounted our adventures and all were glad to see each other, not injured or wounded. We all had been listed as missing in action. I was happy to see Bill again. I said to him, "You missed all the fun."
He said, "No way."
We told the CO and Intelligence of our ordeal and gave them the information we had. We all agreed that they should award me a special citation and medal for getting us all captured by the Germans. I'm lucky I wasn't shot. I wasn't the practical joker in the company for nothing. I'll always remember this event and, I'm sure, so will the others, as long as we live. Since the end of the war the friends of my sons, Chad and Colin, want me to relate this escape and it has become kind of a ritual in our family. I think they all know it by heart. They tell me this story is better than the war movies they've seen. I tell them it was very hair-raising and hazardous. They all say they didn't think they would have had the courage and nerve to escape. All battles are terrible and some more so than others. Casualties are fearful. Combat can last a few minutes to hours or days. Some are a stalemate in which neither side gives in, but there is always a decision be destroyed, surrender or retreat. So goes the days upon days. Many became mental casualties after being maimed with permanent injuries. Some lost their minds and became like vegetables. Others took months or years to recuperate. Mental wounds are as bad as physical ones. I know. I was stricken with both injuries. A soldier has his limits of endurance. Sooner or later it will take a heavy toll. Some of the worst aspects of combat are to see your men, especially your pals, get killed or fatally wounded. In battle, the things that scared and bothered me most were mines and booby traps and also the deadly snipers. You never knew where they were until you located them and then it was too late. In times of a lull in battle, besides bringing boredom, was the fearful thinking of what was going to happen next. Too much horrible time to think. When you were in battle, you didn't have time to dwell on things. You were too busy fighting and staying alive and watching out for yourself or your pals or killing your next German. We were told the more Krauts we killed, the quicker we would go home and I must admit, that was the truth. Every bit helps which made for a pretty lively and deadly affair for the hunters and the hunted, and so goes the days into weeks, the weeks into months to the final end.
I remember before the war in 1939, there was a film, "All Quiet on the Western Front." It made a lasting impression on me. I was in grade school at that time and about 15 years old, and six years later, I was in a world war. I remember a saying by Rudyard Kipling, a favorite author of mine, "A man who has a sneaking desire to live has a poor chance against one who is indifferent whether he kills you or you kill him." You never know how you are going to react in down and out combat. Something inside you makes you want to live. You have the urge to run and hide, but something else stronger makes you keep on fighting and hope you survive. There is a narrow line between cowardice and bravery. I asked a soldier one time who had won the Silver Star what he had done to merit it.
"You really want to know?" he asked.
"Yeah, I do."
"Don't tell anybody but I was scared and ran the wrong way. I thought, from the Germans, but instead I ran into a bunch of Krauts and had to fight my way out and afterwards they gave me a medal. Of course, I didn't tell them my true intentions. I was actually trying to get the hell out of there."
So who is a coward and who ain't? What he told me made me feel good, being a hero and not trying to be one. I thought any animal, including man, will fight like hell and to the death if need be if he is cornered with no route of escape. My loyal pal, Bill, and I had many conversations about valor, bravery and hiding or running away from battle. We had come to no real answer. We admitted we had no idea what we would do. We figured out what would keep us fighting. Loyalty was always a strong point. The following story was very unnerving to me. As I ran up the side of a hill surrounded by shrubbery and a few trees, I turned the corner and right in front of me, laying flat on his back with his arms stretched out lay a soldier. I saw no sign of a wound though I knew he was dead. We were moving up this hill in intervals between each other. I saw this soldier and I had to stop near him. As I gazed at his face, I noticed a very peaceful serene look. He was just staring into space and as I looked at him, a strange feeling came over me, an almost spiritual type of feeling. I really don't know how to describe it. I was spellbound and struck by his gaze. The feeling he was conveying to me (and this is not an illusion or hallucination) with his outstretched arms and legs and his head turned to look me in the eye was of the crucified Christ. He had the same sad look as famous paintings I have seen of his ordeal. I was transfixed in looking at him. His peaceful gaze held me. I was oblivious to anything around me, the war, the fighting, etc. I finally regained my composure and I remember all I could say was "I'm so sorry, friend." With a last look, I rose up and moved on. I even looked back to see if he was still there. That brief moment had left an impression on me, something mystical. I mentioned this episode to Bill and he became very quiet and pensive like he knew what I had felt. It seemed to confirm my belief in a supreme being. It could not be otherwise.
I will relate a funny incident. We were pinned down by enemy fire. You didn't dare move a finger without being noticed, a very unhealthy and hazardous situation and to break up the fear and monotony, I said to Bill, "My mother told me there'd be days like this."
He looked at me with such a terrified look. Looking at him I burst into hysterical laughter (no doubt a nervous reaction). I said to Bill, "Is your life insurance paid up? I hope you put me down as your beneficiary."
Right after that the gunfire lifted and Bill said to me, "How the hell could you have been so humorous at a time like that? You must have ice water in your arteries."
I replied, "Don't you say that. I crapped in my pants. Do you have an extra pair of shorts?"
He broke into spasms of laughter which I didn't share.
This is about an incident which almost cost me my life. While searching through the houses, I entered a room. Unnoticed by me, a German came into the same room. He saw me first and brought his rifle up before I could fire at him. He opened up with his Mauser and it misfired. He stared in disbelief and so did I. I recovered my wits and shot him once through the chest knocking him to the floor. He did not move. I sat down in a chair in disbelief and thanked God that his rifle misfired or else I would not be here telling this story. I left the room scared as hell. This is one of the little surprises one comes up against in battle. Some have unexpected endings, like this one. I have such vivid memories of these battles, I was asked why I didn't try to illustrate some. I have done this and it has proved to be very traumatic. In most cases, even this recounting of combat incidents has brought a lot of strong and painful feelings at at times, has made me cry. So clear and vivid are they, but I write them down anyway. It's a way of releasing tension the fighting has brought and impressed on me for life. I still see faces of the men who were my comrades and even those men I did not know, even the Germans, but they don't bother me as much. They were my enemies and I tried to kill them if I could. I have no regrets, remorse or whatever towards them. After all they started the whole bloody mess and carnage. Even today, I could never shake hands with any German soldier of World War II no matter how long ago. Time does not heal all wounds and if I'm to bear this pain and anger forever till I die, then so be it. I still feel right before the Supreme Being. He understands. People were not created by God to be abused, tortured or massacred or ill treated and such. People who commit these crimes do not merit forgiveness and most of all by me. Those reprobates that do that also mistreat animals who at times have shown more gratefulness, compassion and gentleness than so-called man God's brightest creature, only because he can express himself by speech and with a so-called "soul," but so do animals.
I scandalized and shocked a person one day when I said, "Satan created the world when God was looking the other way." It's not without its merits; I';m getting away from this narration which should be confined to combat experiences, so I'll try to stick to that, but sometimes, I get carried away with incidentals or maybe in my case, it's all bound up together in one lump sum. I still like and enjoy watching war documentary films, not the Hollywood variety, which is only half truths, and by people who were never a combat soldier or by people who were never caught up in a shooting war. As I'm watching war films, I relive my own experiences and have a good understanding of what's taking place and what a soldier has gone through and the trauma. We were walking along this highway one day. You sometimes get involved in useless talk just to pass the time and I said to Bill, "You'll miss me if something happens to me."
He replied with a grin, "Whoever told you that was shell shocked. I'd be glad to get rid of you."
I said, "You lie like a rug. You know you'd miss the hell out of me."
After some time, he said seriously, "You know, I think I would miss you. It would be like losing my shadow."
"Likewise," I said and we kept up the pace with nothing happening so far. Someone said, "Let's have a song," and everybody broke into "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," a British tune but everyone knew it and a parody of the same, "That's the Wrong Way to Tickle Mary," which was somewhat risque the lighter side of a dismal war where every day could be your last.
During a short break, I said to Bill, "How long do you think the war will last?"
Bill said, "Maybe we might not live long enough to see the end."
I replied, "Guys like us are too mean not to see the end."
Bill didn't answer. He seemed to be lost in his thoughts and then he said, "What did you say?"
I said, "Ah, it's not worth repeating."
The signal for the end of the break came and so we started our trek again. Let's see what the Germans are up to or going to be up to. As we went along, we saw a number of dead Germans on the road and along the ditch. I tried not to look at them. It was ugly and depressing. Some looked so young, even younger than us, and others looked old. Some looked like store dummies that were discarded. Some looked like they were cut to pieces and suffered untold agony before they died. We even saw some crows feasting on the corpses. Well, everything has to eat. As I had that grim thought, I started to laugh. Bill looked back and said, "What the hell's so funny?"
I said, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Jim Crow having a feast."
He had a puzzled look. He then spotted the crows, looked back and said, "You have a weird and ghastly humor."
"Well, it's a ghastly war. What do you want?"
Later we stopped to eat our lousy Army "C" rations. I opened a can of beans and franks. I asked Bill, "What have you got?"
"Meat and vegetable stew, but I'm not hungry."
"How come?" I asked.
"I'm thinking about those crows you damn well showed me."
"Oh, is that all? You don't want yours? I'll eat it."
Well, this terrible war had a funny side to it. This one fellow Hagwood by name from North Carolina said, "When I get to Germany, I'm going to shack up with every Kraut broad I can find, young or old." To that someone else said, "You don't care who you sleep with, do you? Any port in a storm." Another said, "Hell, after the Ruskies get done with them, there'll be nothing left worthwhile to lay with."
Going our way through the woods and shrubs, we heard a sound ahead of us. We cautiously crept ahead through the foliage for fear of an ambush. We came to the edge of a clearing. We looked up into the trees and spotted a pilot hung up in his chute a few feet from the ground. We went toward him. He then spotted us. We discovered he was a British RAF pilot shot down while he was on a recon patrol with another fellow flyer flying Spitfires. He said he had hung there for a good part of the day but could not free himself. He was grateful to us for finding him. He first thought we were Germans scouting for him. When his plane go hit he was forced to bail out and landed in these trees. The Germans he knew were looking for him somewhere in the area of the crash site. His fellow pilot kept flying around to locate his whereabouts. Hanging there he heard machine gun fire, no doubt from his friend after the German search party for he saw the Spit flying around. He thought maybe he had driven them off.
We cut him down from his chute and took him away from the woods back to our company. We all decided to try and catch the Kraut search party. He knew the vicinity of where his plane crashed. The pilot was sent back to the rear to get back to his squadron. He thanked us for finding and rescuing him. Otherwise, he would have been captured and sent to a POW camp. He said due to us Yanks, he'd get another chance at the Huns and he asked our regiment's name. One good turn deserved another. His squadron would help us out anytime we needed them. He told us his squadron number but I have forgotten it. I still don't remember his name. A hell of a nice guy and very grateful to us. He wished us good luck and good hunting.