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2014, Aaron Elson



9 Lives: An Oral History

The online edition

2014,, Aaron Elson

cov-9lives.jpg (4837 bytes) "... an absolutely wonderful collection of WW2 Vets' stories! Aaron Elson has collected some of the most exciting and informative stories I have yet to read on the European Theater. This book is basically a group of mini-memoirs that range in scope from paratroops to tank personnel to frontline infantry. Each one tells his or her (yes women did serve!) own story in his or her own way but all of them are fascinating and will give you a different glimpse of how average americans saw the war. You will enjoy this one!"

--Amazon.com reviewer

Order "9 Lives: An Oral History" from Amazon.com..

Chapter 2

Jim Koerner

Page 2

    Just as we got our wits together the Jerries knocked us down with an explosion that shook the town. We headed to the bridge and saw the Jerries had blown it up. Good boys there, sure saved us a lot of work and probable casualties.

    Slept in a good soft bed for a change. Next day the town was alive with MPs, a sure sign all was under control.

    Army boys spent the next week giving Jerries jitters by making smoke pot false river crossings while we went across to the north and south.

    Rumors of us getting rest soon. Proved true in the next three days.

    Pulled back into small factory town for rest and to await replacements.

    One of our boys on the third floor got a pass to go home by way of a discharged gun on the first floor, which blew off two toes.

    One other boy cut his foot in half with an axe cutting wood.

    Some of the luckier boys got to shoot German deer with carbines. You had to be a good shot or you couldn’t stop them with normal bullets; best shot in head. Had venison feast (real good).

    Some of the boys were getting to plot the Siegfried Line on patrol. Real heavy forts there. Getting real cold mornings and evenings now. Feels like winter at home.

    No packages of late but hear tell by letter that my foul weather gear is coming before Christmas.

    Dec. 16, ’44. Hot mission coming up. All big brass running around (rumored big push coming off). Grabbed all NCOs, told to be on two-hour alert to move out.

    News came down to load. Must be big; convoys started off like first race at Belmont. Traveled all day and into night; even had convoy headlights on. Pulled into small town in middle of night and told we were to be here for night. Picked out red schoolhouse for most of platoon, private house for Lt. Hanel, myself and two corporals.

    Boy invited us home, told us to expect air raid, but no bombs, only pictures. Sure enough, he was right. He told us we were here in Luxembourg to stop Von Runstedt’s drive.

    All taverns open, even ice cream, most all spoke English. Seemed like transferred U.S. town.

    Bright and early next a.m., off for unknown. Saw MPs chasing jeep loads of soldiers, said they were Jerries dressed as our boys. What a shock this was.

    Went all day and into night at full pace. Around 11 p.m. ran through town, saw sign to Bastogne, went right through and out onto highway to Ste. Margarethe – now could see and hear heavy shelling. Convoy came to halt and orders went out to get security out in all directions.

    I was in second halftrack from rear vehicles, radio truck. Slept on hood as motor was always running, nice and warm. Sure felt more and more like snow.

    Truck came roaring out of rear. Could hear rear guards halt and check same. Was gas truck from Bastogne, driven by colored GI.

    Was all out of breath and shook up, claimed Jerries rode into Bastogne in civilian clothes and he was last to get out.

    Loaded last truck with gas. Also our halftrack and one in front of us was busy loading Sherman tanks when the sky lit up like day. Got report Jerries lay on side of road and threw grenades into gas.

    As soon as truck lit up road we were clobbered by everything that fired.

    Sgt. Marks, myself and one corporal and one private set up a heavy water cooled .30-caliber machine gun. I had a light air-cooled .30 MG set on a little rise. Caught a patrol going back to their lines across open field. We cross-fired till my .30 light was showing a very nice hook as each tracer hit the dawn sky.

    We were now getting a constant stream of 106th Infantry and 9th Armored Division wounded and combat shocked troops. Must have been 500 laying from one side to the other of the road as fire increased or decreased from both sides.

    We had a constant battle going between ourselves and German infantry. We had gotten an M-90 .50-caliber equipped six-wheeled armored car and we put the turret over a knoll and with a 105 self-propelled gun that had a track gone. We managed to yell fire commands as the need arose. Which was getting closer and closer.

    Now we looked to dig into the hill for night security, but our shovels just bounced back.

    The town behind me had five houses that were in our hands and the Jerries had the rest. We started to pick up equipment. We now had an extra jeep that we got from a field. And we had a mean run to get to our ammunition trailer on the road, getting potted at as we ran.

    Next step was to head back to this small town and our five houses. Most had a whole load of shocked GIs.

    By nightfall we were lined up bumper to bumper with eight or nine tanks, two halftracks, one M-90 and three jeeps. We had set charges in the tanks and other vehicles that were disabled and set them off.

    I was next to the last in line to the west of the houses when Jerry started to move in. The first notice I had was a head peering over a hedge 15 or 20 feet from where I stood at the .50-caliber on the M-90.

    I fired five rounds and I had to hand operate after this or I’d get a jam.

    I went up to the captain in the lead house and asked him our intentions. He said if we had to move out on foot to head north and we’d run into paratroopers.

    I started back and noticed two Sherman tanks with no security and buttoned up. I jumped on the first and banged with my grease gun on the turret.

    A head popped out and said, "We have room for two more in here, how about it, Sergeant?" I didn’t get a chance to tell him I didn’t like tanks, I’m claustrophobic, when two dogfaces jumped out of nowhere and hopped in. Down went the hatch.

    I jumped up on the second one and did the same banging. About that time I found myself on the ground and saw the Shermans belch flame. I hopped up to the bogey wheel of the first tank again. There was an explosion and I was laying over a barbed wire fence with a burning sensation in my left heel and my butt (Five and four lives).

    The screams of the boys in the tank still live with me.

    A second loud explosion and they stopped.

    By this time a mass migration of men were heading across an open field for the woods.

    We gathered short of the woods and found there were close to 150 men and four officers in our group. I couldn’t see anyone I knew from my outfit but I knew the action was so fast and I wasn’t sure how long I had lain on the barbed wire fence before my reflexes made my legs move.

    The four officers told us to put security out and wait as they would try to make contact with our boys.

    We waited for six hours; still no return of the officers.

    We sent four men out to see if we could contact any outfit, myself and three other sergeants.

    I started across a barbed wire fence when I heard a loud yell in German. I hit the ground and lay still; so did the others. We suddenly heard a flare and in its glare two machine guns opened up and sprayed all around us for close to five minutes. As they stopped, we did a slow backward retreat till our legs could do the most good.

    Back to the challenge of the boys in the woods. Still no officers.

    We decided to head north in three split patrols.

    I had used up my pills but still didn’t have time to see how bad I was hit. (Two days later I got to see about ten or twelve small pieces and one fairly big piece in my left heel, which I dug out with my knife. The others less one are still traveling in me as one showed up in my chest five years ago and came out. It was the size of a large BB.)

    I buddied up with a Corporal Smith from an antitank outfit. He’d seen a lot of action in Africa and had returned on rotation to the States and here he’d come back to get stuck in this deal.

    We fought everyone and anyone in this heavy pine forest for the balance of the night, and also part of the next day.

    Ran into a lot of Jerries and all were paratroops. I guess these were the boys we were told we’d meet if we headed north.

    Smith and I decided to try to go behind the Jerries and back out in a less busy place. I had a compass and we headed northeast. Got to cut telephone lines in two or three places. Missed patrol of 10 men by 10 feet and some high bushes.

    Had a grease gun and one clip of ammo. Smith had a carbine and 10 rounds. Both were loaded with dirt from crawling and laying on the ground.

    Screaming meemies were all around us both back and front.

    Smith said he’d had it and was going to give up. I tried to talk him out of it, but he headed to an open field and the artillery outfit set up there. I stayed put in woods.

    He waved a handkerchief to two soldiers and they ran to grab him. He turned quite nonchalantly to where I was watching and waved me in. I was covered before I had time to do anything.

    I said, "Smith, I think we’re going to get the business."

    To my surprise we were treated with respect.

    We were taken to a farmhouse for questioning and here I saw a cripple I believe to have been Goebbels. He was at the center of a group of officers and had a few questions by an interpreter as to our outfits and condition of same. The boys showed him how rough they were as we gave only name, rank and serial number.

    From here we started a slow march with about 500 more GIs. We passed 9th Armored tanks that had been blown with shape charges lined up like so many ten pins. They must have had 25 to 50 vehicles and also alongside the road I saw our Christmas packages opened and looted.

    All the troops we passed looked older than the boys we tackled elsewhere. But all had ideas this was to be our end in the ETO [European Theater of Operation], at least all the Jerries that spoke English tried to convince us.

    Marched all day till just short of dark. Ended up in burnt-out factory where we had our first food – oatmeal eaten out of our steel helmets. Didn’t like the idea but it sure tasted good.

    Spent part of night unloading about six-inch shells. Tried to mention Geneva treaty but was told to shut up while I still had a choice.

    Got so disgusted near morning that we were throwing shells onto piles. Jerry guard gave us a safe distance but still let us know he didn’t like our crazy working methods.

    Could see things begin to change as we marched into Germany. Guards were very young and rough on us.

    Had a Catholic chaplain from 101st Airborne from Midwest with us. He was to have given midnight Mass on Christmas in England. Here he was trying to get Jerries to give us something to eat. Water was supplied by fresh fallen snow.

    Stopped in old factory with blown out windows for the night of Dec. 24.

    Father suggested we cover windows best we could as there wasn’t any heat inside.

    We found a candle and Father suggested we have services to welcome Christmas. The services were nonsectarian, but there wasn’t a dry eye as we attempted to sing a carol.

    We now heard airplanes overhead and the Jerries came running in to tell us if we wanted to continue breathing to put out the candle and stay put.

    Guard told Father, "Put those candles out or I’ll kill you."

    He said, "If you have to kill me on this night, kill me. My name will still be here, and my soul will be up in heaven. You do what you want."

    Planes hit all around us and Jerries were really teed off. Hit an oil supply other side of railroad yard. Sure looked good.

    Dec. 25, ’44: Were told to get out and start to move. We must have had 700 to 800. Still nothing to eat.

    Father really told the Krauts his feelings. Finally got them to get a few burlap bags of frozen turnips. We each got a slice with coarse salt on. Tasted as good as any turkey dinner I’ve ever had.

    Marched all of 25th and into 26th. Entered town of Gerolstein just after their first air raid. People really wanted to kill all of us. Guards had to hold them off. Seems our Forts hit a children’s home and there must have been 50 to 60 boys and girls laying side by side near the road. Really felt sorry here. All were between two years and eleven years.

    Marched into town just as B-24s came over for followup raid.

    They really had fires going all over. We were put into a former factory building roughly 50 by 150 feet long. All the walls were covered by wooden racks for storage of parts. The racks were about two feet high and two feet wide by two feet deep. These were about six high to the ceiling. We were to sleep in these for the next few months.

    We heard planes or at least we thought they were planes flying low over our factory all day. Came to find out all the surrounding hills here had launching ramps for V-1s including a major railroad yard. This was really a major target area for all our bombers, as we sure found out for the next few months.

    We had a collection of sometimes 2,000 prisoners in this place at one time. I’ve seen times when we were stuck on work details that you’d not have room even to sit down no less lay down.

    The way they got their volunteers for work details was very simple. Just throw all our wounded and sick out in the yard and let them lay till they got their 50- or 100-man details.

    We were allowed in the way of rations all the water that ran through the streets above camp and into a brook behind our factory and anywhere from 10 to 15 men on a loaf of black bread. Once I had the detail of making soup for 2,000 men and I was given a horse’s head for flavor. I had to knock the teeth out of it and put the head in the soup, eyes and everything. I’ll admit I ate some and was very happy to get it. I’ve seen people eat dead rats.

    One time they called two of us in to this place where the soldiers ate, and they had an officer from the SS. They had this little stinker, what the heck was that German? The small guy that was a bastard as far as the way he treated everybody, in the upper echelon of the Nazis … Himmler. Nobody told me, but just by this guy’s looks, if he wasn’t Himmler he was a dead ringer. He came into that camp just before we got moved out, because we could hear and see artillery flashes and we knew they were getting pretty close.

    They brought two of us in; they knew we were sergeants. We’d pulled the rank off but they still knew that because the threads were on the sleeve. And they asked us, would we make an announcement that they could record? They told us what to say, and they wanted it in writing. They had food there, and they said, "If you say that, you can have that food."

    I said, "I love my country. I won’t say anything against it."

    The other guy said the same thing.

    They spat in the food. It was really the tail end of what they had on the table, the fatty meat and all, but it was food. They spat on it and threw it in the garbage. They said, "Go ahead. Kill yourself. Die. Do what you want."

    We got out of there. And when they left, other POWs came up and they took the food out of the garbage that he spit on, and they ate it.

    We had quite a few wounded die and on two or three occasions I was chosen to dig a plain grave for them. This with our lack of food sure was a rough deal.

    We had a Sergeant Eisenhower for our camp boss. He was really a rough bird. I saw him sic dogs on a GI that had stolen a potato.

    He came in one night for a 100-man detail for a sled carrying job up to the launching platforms.

    I was up in the sixth level cubbyhole. Had a sick GI in the next hole. Sgt. Eisenhower put a light up, saw his eyes, and pulled his P-38 – I yelled that the man was sick but he fired one shot into the hole and one into the GI as he fell. I hit floor on one bounce and was out into night before he knew who was there. The soldier was dead before he hit floor.

    Sgt. Eisenhower tried for a week to find out who was in next hole, but nobody knew. Even tried to bribe boys to find out. I know I’d be among the missing if he’d found out.

    He always reminded us that we weren’t registered with the Red Cross and we sure wouldn’t be missed.

    P-47s were chasing us all over, strafing anything that moved. The Jerries took to air raid shelters and left the door open to look at us. Told us to make break if we thought we could. Never had the strength to go anywhere. Had GIs [diarrhea] really bad and also was losing weight fast.

    Weighed 155 when taken, now must be close to 135 pounds.

    Lots of tanks heading up to front being pulled or on trailers.

    Had detail to dig out dead on two or three occasions. Dug out two old people side by side with an SS trooper. They never made cellar air raid shelter. They both were dead about five feet from safety. SS trooper said in perfect English, "Let’s eat, compadres. This is what your Luftwaff did to my mother and father." I expected to end up with them, but he spared us for future work. (Four lives to go.)

    While at Limberg a certain GI made a habit of stealing from the stretcher cases and sold the food and other items to other prisoners for good old U.S. cash. He was warned by a master sergeant First Ranger Battalion survivor – he was high ranking man at Anzio when he was ordered by our command to give up, as they were cut off in front of our lines and badly shot up by both the Jerries and our own snafu. They captured a town and also some Kraut tanks. Our artillery opened up on the town and nearly wiped them out.

    The thief was caught doing the same thing again one night and the master sergeant/Ranger took him out bodily to a latrine trench and put him head first into the mess.

    He didn’t know that it was freshly limed and the GI thief was blinded. He tried when released to have the sergeant brought up on charges but we signed a statement clearing him (almost 1,000 POWs signed).

    He later got to be the go-between man between us and the Swiss Red Cross. His name was Master Sergeant Chalmers.

    He was a wonderful example of a brave and honorable soldier.

    The Jerries really were afraid of him and tried later to get him out of camp on a detail when the Red Cross representative was known to be visiting.

    This thieving POW when we got to Camp 11-A had close to $3,000 in American money taken off him at a sudden personal search.

    He really cried out loud at this turn of events.

    A number of times some of the boys would be out cleaning fat off the horses’ guts to use for a tin can fire grill to fry their ration of black bread.

    Really got to see the hold cigarettes have on chain smokers. Seen men get their only ration of bread for the day and trade a buddy that stole some cigarettes on a bomb clearing raid for one cigarette.

    Getting to hear more and more of the V2s going over us each day. Also hear more and more that run wild and crash. What a mean explosion they made when they hit near us.

    One night late in January of 1945 we were all rushed out into the night and on that particular night we had a roaring snowstorm going. All our stretcher cases were piled and thrown into the snow.

    Sgt. Eisenhower needed a 100-man detail to pull supplies and ammo to a mountain anti-aircraft unit. This unit was located about 20 miles up into the mountains.

    He was ranting and raving because he couldn’t get the detail fast enough. It must have been 10 degrees and damp. One severely wounded stretcher case died while laying there.

    Seemed like death at this stage was cheaper than the 40 odd cents our bodies were supposed to be worth in mineral value.

    I like quite a few of the regular volunteers ended up pulling a sled loaded with antiaircraft shells.

    It was a trip almost all the way uphill. We had four men to a sled and we drew a real goldbrick. He waited till we were about ten miles out and faked a passout so he rode the 15 miles while three of us pulled.

    I ended up in a fight with this guy at a later date (incidentally, I won, which in my physical shape was a miracle).

    About dawn we were stopped for a breather near a row of houses. I noticed a door open and saw a few fellows lean in and come back out with a drink. I ran up too as all we drank was snow on the whole trip.

    Here was a beautiful young woman about 20 or so and she was handing out full glasses of real milk.

    I got there in time to get one glass and hurried away as a guard headed up to us.

    The girl quickly closed the door in his face and ended up waving to us from the window.

    I tried to fix this place in my mind if I ever got another chance to escape.

    We made it to the antiaircraft camp in time to see them eating breakfast. We even got a cup of their imitation coffee. Which tasted like the best we ever had.

    On the way down to Gerolstein all the boys who had milk had a super case of the runs. We were a very sad, sick group when we got back to camp.

    We again got stuck with an air raid digging out job, although we tried to tell Sgt. Eisenhower we had just gotten back.

    I had such a bad case of runs that night that I stood and looked up to heaven and asked God, "Why? Why?"

    I knew this was the worst day of my whole ordeal.

    February ’45: One day while caught in the open by one of our P-47s, six of us on an air raid digging project were strafed for about three good runs. Lucky none of us were hit. The pilot came in to strafe us near one of the guided missile launching pads, and he changed missions.

    On his second run at the ground missile personnel he was caught in a crossfire, and as he headed up for altitude we could see he was hit and bad.

    He flipped over at about 4,000 feet and came out like a shot.

    His chute opened pretty close to the ground and he came down near the launching pads. He was quickly captured, although we got close to him with our curious guards.

    We could hear he was really telling them off but good.

    We were shocked to see a Chinese American flyer.

    When he heard us speak to him in American, he almost flipped with joy.

    He was loaded into a command car and amid cheers and wishes of good luck he disappeared.

    We expected him to turn up at camp, but he never did.

    Had a job to steal coal for a railroad conductor that lived near camp.

    Got caught in an air raid and spent 15 minutes huddled with four other PWs near an air raid shelter. One PW made a break for the woods.

    When the raid was over the corporal of the guard counted heads and threatened to blow our heads off if we didn’t tell him where he went.

    I honestly told him I didn’t care. I said if he lived to be a hundred in Germany he couldn’t have enjoyed life equal to fifteen years in our USA. I meant no flag waving here but sincere from the heart truth.

    An officer listening nearby said in perfect English that he had to take his hat off to me, as he had spent ten years in Chicago and hoped someday to return.

    Where were more like this guy hiding out?

    They finally told us that the corporal’s report to Sergeant Eisenhower at camp would be that the missing GI was the victim of a direct bomb hit. Seemed to go over OK. Don’t know if this PW ever made it back or not.

    Finally got notice that we were being marched out to another camp.

    One morning we were told to get ready and we were given five days’ rations, which consisted of: one-quarter loaf brown bread; two slices horse meat; one hunk cheese (about a quarter pound). All were told if they ate it now they were out of luck.

    Four of us – all ex-paratroops or glider troops – decided to make a try at escape again.

    We could see the sky to the east light up at night with artillery blasts. Our lines must be 20 or 25 miles to the east.

    About 1,500 to 2,000 were being marched through Gerolstein west, destination unknown. While turning a corner in town, we noticed a house with barn connected about 150 yards off the main road. As we checked the front and back guard, we had approximately 50 yards distance between the first guard being able to see the farm and the back guard getting up to the corner.

    So off we went. One sergeant had a severe cold and had to be helped into the barn (later found out he had pneumonia).

    We no sooner got into the barn when we could hear soldiers talking in the farmhouse next door. We weren’t sure they didn’t hear or see us, but we had to find a better spot to hide. In the darkness we located by feel a ladder leading to an upper hayloft. So we went as quietly as we could.

    We watched through a small crack as the tail end of the walking PWs passed. So far so good.

    We must have been here four hours as quiet as we could be (the sergeant with the cold was having a harder and harder time covering up his cough), when one of the soldiers in the house came in to pick up some clothes he had hanging to dry. He had a lamp with him but we didn’t think he’d seen anything suspicious. All at once he yelled to two soldiers inside and out they came running into the barn.

    We made a quick, whispered decision, and myself and two buddies dropped on them. I know we’d have been more than a match in top shape, but we were in rough, weakened shape and we were quickly subdued. I had an old temple scar reopened and most of the fight was out of us when the sergeant with pneumonia yelled in German that we had it. I didn’t know my name for a day and a half. We were shoved into the house and a hurried call was made to our old friend Sgt. Eisenhower. While waiting for a guard to pick us up we decided if they were taking us back we’d better go with a satisfied stomach, so we munched down our five days’ march rations. Our stomachs almost turned flips with all this food at one time.

    In about an hour our very special two guards came for the swine that had the nerve to try and escape the German elite.

    Sgt. Eisenhower wasted no time greeting us as we returned.

    "Well," says he, "if it isn’t my old friends back again. You sure must really like it here. And I see you’ve eaten up your rations. So for the next week you’ll cost our government no money for food." (Our conception of cost for food would be about three cents a day).

    We were put into our pig pen and double guarded that night and every night we stayed thereafter.

    I think we had a better deal for the next week than at any time we were there. We were sent to a field bakery to chop wood and keep the fires going under the ovens.

    In the old camp we had three Russian women, PW’s taken on the Eastern front. They were really husky and healthy looking, and they were cooks for the German soldiers and also morale builders for them, too.

    They always gave us looks of pity before but now they managed to slip us a can of soup nearly every day. This sure helped out.

    We also were allowed to eat a piece of broken loaves of bread at the field kitchen.

    We managed to get into the bread storehouse one day and we each had a loaf of bread under our coat to take back with us, when into the storehouse came two soldiers. We were sure this was to be our end, when to our surprise they grabbed two loaves each and ran like the devil was after them. (Three lives to go.)

    Shows the average German soldier’s feeling the pangs of hunger too.

    We come to find out from an English speaking Pole that two blocks over from this camp there are Americans being held prisoner in a private house. They were mostly stretcher cases. And they had an American lieutenant doctor for their care. They were going to let them be retaken by our advancing GIs, but now with four more witnesses to their treatment of ‘our PWs,’ they’re a little undecided.

    Said he heard Sgt. Eisenhower would like to see us disappear real quiet like. (Bang, bang, bang, bang!) But all of the other boys are afraid of the consequences. (Two lives to go).

    Now they decide we’ll go with the wounded by boxcar. One day we’re all moved down to the railroad yards and loaded in two boxcars. One little window in a corner with steel bars. Window is about one foot by 18 inches wide.

    Just as we’re loaded into the cars and waiting for the engine to back out of its tunnel hiding place, a flight of four P-47s made a bombing and strafing run over and into the yards. Our car was strafed but no casualties. The car ahead had one man hit and one killed outright (he stayed in the car for the five days and nights it took to get to the Limberg registered PW camp.)

    We had about 35 men each in our cars and a pail for latrine purposes. What a picnic.

    When we finally got to the Limberg camp we were a sorry and smelly lot.

    Here we were to be registered as a PW (families all had us missing in action. No other news) and given a delousing and straw ticks to sleep on the floor. But the British saw a light from one of the barracks one night and dropped some 500-pounders on both the barracks and the delousing hut which was blown to bits. I think from reports that 35 to 50 of our own PWs were killed here.

    We managed here to see some soup from a kitchen that was getting Red Cross parcels. It had a piece of meat the size of a bean once in a while.

    Some camp GIs that were here a year or so later were brought up on charges of feeding German soldiers and civilians with our food.

    We were here about two days when a call came for all NCOs to form a line on one side of the camp. Us four para buddies didn’t like the looks of this so we stayed with the bucks (Later we found out how wise this move was). They marched all the NCOs out amid a razzing from us of "You’ll be sorry."

    We managed to make friends with some British Hindus that were the neatest, healthiest PWs we’d ever seen. They were in the next compound to us. Also the Italians had the bordering compound.

    The Hindus wanted good old Uncle Sam’s gold, silver or paper money to supply us with our own Red Cross parcels.

    I traded a watch I had for some bread and cheese but first the jeweler’s eyepiece had to come out to check the jewels.

    Some horse traders these boys were.

    The Italians were a little less jewelers and a little more swindlers.

    They’d show you a rotten dried apple over the fence and say it was an onion (very much in demand) and trade for clothes that had to be put in their hands first. Then if they even bothered they’d throw over the rotten "onions."

    After a week or so of watching diplomatic relations get worse and worse, we were given the job of unloading two boxcars of U.S. Red Cross parcels. We broke our backs carrying these from the railroad yard to a storehouse, only to be told to march down to the loading platform for departure in the 40-x-8’s again.

    Here we were given a South American parcel, a half to each man, two PWs buddied up. We were loaded here about 45 to 50 in each car and shut in.

    After two nights and days of running from our bombers we were halted one night and half of the men were taken out of our car, including my glider trooper pal Ken Ripple. He tried to express that he had to get his half of the package I had but the guard wouldn’t listen. Instead he shoved some evil smelling Russian soldiers in with us. They were covered with dirt, filth, beards and lice! Oh, how I grew to hate this beast.

    My body grew covered with scabs and they were festering as fast as they were scratched.

    I hid the biggest remain of Rip’s and my package as we were concerned how long it would be before we ate again if we ate it up. I had it wrapped in a burlap bag and I sat and held it between my knees. Some of the boys that had eaten their packages as soon as they got them knew I had the biggest part left, and one dark night I fought off five different attempts to take it from me. The man turns beast when starvation sets in.

    We went for three or four days and nights before we pulled into a station and were told this is it. All the time we were on the move we only got water once a night and sometimes the boys would start a fight over a drink and the guard would throw the whole pail on the floor and we had to wait till the next night if we were lucky. Once I waited three days for a drink.

    I didn’t touch any of the package I was holding for Ken and myself in the three days we were separated. And when I got to see him at the station he was in tears when he heard and saw this. He also had a very bad case of pneumonia, and I and another GI had to carry him fifteen miles from the station to camp.

    We had a constant alert and air raid every day about 12 p.m.

    A double flight of B-17s crisscrossed over the railroad and launching sites and let the big ones go.

    The civilians would head for the big community shelters early in the morning and it was after dark before they came back to town. A lot of times they didn’t have a home left. Then they’d love to have killed all the PWs.

    The SS troopers would slap them and tell them to show no signs of breaking in front of us swine.

    Three of us – two former glider troopers and myself – made plans for escape. We saved a little bread and some dried horse meat. The night we were to make our break the doors were locked and we were forced to stay in all night.

    This sure made for a sweet smelling mess, as there must have been 2,000 men in the building and more than half had the GIs and nothing to use but the floor and at times there wasn’t even room on the floor.

    Once in a while the Jerries would break down and give us a treat in the form of imitation jelly on our ration of bread.

    And twice more within a two-week period we got the horse’s head for soup. What a day when the lucky guy turned up with a pea size piece of meat in his soup.

    We were getting to know the ropes of organized prisoner of war ways and means. The Canadian boys that were in the commandos at Dieppe and were prisoners for three or so years had the Germans figured to a tee. They had radios hidden from them. These they managed to get by barter with the French prisoners that worked the neighborhood farms.

    They had the German guards asking how the war was going.

    The officers made many a search but they never did turn up anything worthwhile.

    Once one of the guards was searching for a civilian in one of the attics and he fell through the roof and broke his leg.

    The Canadian PWs even set up a monetary system, telling all of us fairly new PWs the bartering price of cigarettes against all items of food such as two cigarettes for a fresh egg. All these items were stolen from farms either by guards or prison workers.

    They even had a barter store set up to sell items for cigarettes, etc.

    The Canadian PWs had gotten cigarettes by the thousands before D-Day. They even filled their mattresses with cigarettes to hold down inflation. Our boys tried a few times to outbid them and they learned this the hard way. But now that things were rough in transportation they and we couldn’t get much of anything, although we did get a Red Cross parcel a week.

    We even had situation maps set up in each 50-man room that were brought up to date by the Canadian PW with the radio for two cigarettes charge each room.

    Never in all my days as a PW did I hear mention by anyone of women or sex with anything but respect, but little by little as our stomachs were partly filled, you’d hear reference to women in a more sexual reference.

    We had Mass every day in this camp as the French PWs had built a beautiful chapel from all scrap wood. It would be a beautiful chapel even in freedom anywhere in the world.

    We now heard through the BBC radio that the Allies were moving up to and near our camp.

    One time we were told we’d be unable to visit the other compounds. The reason came out one morning when we saw the Polish compound empty and reloaded with the most pitiful bunch of humans I’ve ever had the misfortune to see. They turned out to be Jewish prisoners and also political prisoners. They all looked like small frail girls. They were all dressed in black and white striped suits.

    They had sunken eyeballs and rotten teeth and also shaved heads. There were women, men and children and we had a tough time telling them apart. I knew we were not in the best of physical or mental shape, but we weighed in the neighborhood of 110 or so while their weight must have averaged 75 or 80 pounds.

    When we marched out of this camp we saw the prisoners carrying out their overnight dead, stark naked, and they must have had 20 dead piled like cords of wood.

    They got a bulldozer out and made a mass burial ditch and covered it up as we were being issued a package of Red Cross food.

    But I saw those people go into that pit, and I said, "God have mercy on every one of them."

    We also got a marching package of food, and we passed a steady line of the same type prisoners being marched into camp. They had their knapsacks if they were lucky and that was all they had.

    They begged for a bite to eat and I’ll admit we did start to throw them a piece of candy or a cigarette but they killed each other trying to get them, and the guards were busy cursing us and cracking their skulls with clubs. We passed three dead laying on the road in roughly a quarter mile. Before they hit the ground their clothes were stripped off and their knapsacks were fought over.

    This sight lives with me even today. I’ve never been more sincere when I say for years I wouldn’t even talk to anyone about some of these sights because they’d call me a liar and I’m afraid I’d really get mad.

    I found out later that the reason the Jerries wanted to get them in camp was so the Allies wouldn’t get to see them sleeping and dying in the open. They were afraid of the consequences.

    We were told that our new camp was only 15 miles away but by later comparisons I’d say we marched closer to 50 miles.

    We went two days and two nights. The old escape buddies – less the one with pneumonia, who stayed in the camp hospital, later to be released by Patton’s rescue team – and myself were getting the urge to try again but we couldn’t get the opportunity as they always found enough guards to secure ranks.

    We moved into the new camp (Westertinke, near Bremen and Hanover), which consisted of Polish, English and Russian PWs. And also English civilians that were torpedoed and held here.

    This was by far the best prepared camp we hit. It had mess halls, movies, dining rooms, community kitchens and playing fields.

    They would send the prisoners that were to be exchanged with the British here and get them fat and healthy and happy so the good German lords within the Geneva treaty would be spread all around. Yes, yes!

    We managed to get laundry soap and we also got showers. Our poor bodies were a mess. Recall hearing English GI say to buddy, "Look at the poor Russians. They sure look half dead."

    We were covered by big lice bites and our scalps were infested.

    I know here if we hadn’t gotten all our shots before capture we never would have survived.

    The fighting could be seen at night to the west of us. One night a group of German tanks went past the camp and a rumor was spread to the guards that they were British and all the guards took off from their posts. The British GIs climbed up the guard towers and stole the machine guns they left in their rush to leave.

    The boys wanted to set up a battle zone in the compound but the camp senior officer said we’d be slaughtered, so the four machine guns were dismantled and parts hidden all over camp.

    When the news spread that the guards had left the boys wanted to head out for open country. I almost went myself, but I decided against it when the shooting began to sound closer.

    The guards finally came back quite sheepishly now and spent three days trying to find their guns. They threatened to cut off our rations, but as small arms fire could be heard they changed their minds.

    One day a convoy of German tanks backed up to our camp and for two more days the British were forced to use smoke to get the Germans under control. The British were afraid to fire on the Germans as they knew we were there.

    The boys painted big signs on the roof of the barracks to show the Royal Air Force who and how many PWs were in this camp.

    One night the Polish compound left a fire burning and a bomber dropped a load of bombs that killed quite a few in their compound.

    By now all the civilians slept in trenches they had dug to protect themselves from small arms fire and bombs.

    Mostly all the GIs did too but myself and a few others would rather have a roof for protection from the rain and weather than catch cold outside.

    By now quite a few trench sleepers had real deep coughs, and yellow jaundice was the fashion of the day. I was one of the fortunate ones. I never did get jaundice.

    After being liberated by the British, they lined all the former guards of the camp up and had prisoners look them all over and decide who was decent and who was rotten.

    They let the decent ones off with easy jobs and sent the rats on all the rotten jobs.

    We were treated too good by the liberators. They force fed us everything we wanted to eat and our poor mistreated stomachs just couldn’t stand the kindness. Some boys were so sick from overeating that they had to be hospitalized before we were able to leave the camp.

    Our Army boys that were sent to get us ready for return were really swell Joes.

    They got us set to leave in a matter of two days.

    Meanwhile, we were nearly overjoyed to hear that the Germans had surrendered.

    We had a close call before the end of our prison stay when Hitler passed the word down to kill all POWs. We knew from the way the guards wanted to get on the good side of us that things weren’t going good, and we also doubted that they would attempt to carry out the last orders of Hitler.

    The BBC was really giving us a lot of good news and the Jerry guards were very interested to find out just how things stood.

    We finally got up one morning to find that we were to be taken by truck to an old bombed out German airport to be flown out in B-17s. The British came in Lancasters and cracked up two ships.

    They only had minor clearance but it gave us something to think about as our forts took more space to land and take off.

    Twelve planes came in all in one piece. We were loaded into the bomb bays, 25 men to a plane. They had a plywood cover over the bomb bay, and here we stayed till we got off.

    We landed two hours later at Raye, France. Here the 11th Airborne had been waiting for action over the Rhine. When Patton took off over the Remagen Bridge it loused up their jump plans.

    They hated the thought of going to Japan.

    One British plane made a crash landing here and killed most all the ex-POWs and the crew. Some had been prisoners four or five years.

    We also heard rumors that one Lancaster hit the runway in England and blew up, killing all 20-some ex-POWs right in front of a reception committee of Britishers. Some fate.

    We were at Raye, France, for almost a week when we got a load of C-46s in and they took us to Camp Lucky Strike, France. Here we landed right in the camp airfield.

    This was an embarkation point. We had 10,000 or more ex-POWs. Here was Ken Ripple, who also was liberated before the war’s end. He was liberated by the American Third Army. He looked good after his siege of pneumonia.

    We also met some other fellows we had been with at both Limberg and Gerolstein.

    One day in came an Army C-46 plane. In it was General Eisenhower. He had a question and answer session right at the plane’s side.

    He asked us if we wanted to wait for single trips back on a boat or did we want to double deck. Of course we said double deck.

    He told us we’d be on our way home within two weeks, and he was right.

    We loaded ship at Le Havre, France, for a 12-day uneventful trip to Newport News, Virginia. From here we trained into Camp Patrick Henry, Va.

    From here we were sent home for a 90-day furlough before returning to camp.

    I was home three days and I ended up in a hospital for a 30-day visit to check a nervous and bad stomach condition.

* * *

    My father was a manager for the A&P. He had a wonderful disposition, and he had a heart. He was making $35 a week. So what they would do with him, with the disposition he had, they’d send him and build up a store. When it got to a certain point, one of the bosses would take a friend and put him in, and send my father to another store and build that up.

    They sent him down the last time to Roselle, New Jersey, and he built that store up in Roselle on Amsterdam Avenue, and what he did – he had $5,000 worth of insurance – and they must have told him that they were sending him to another store, because he shot himself.

    He set an example for me to realize, because you ask yourself for the rest of your life, did I do anything to cause him to do what he did? After the war was over, when I first came home – my brother was still in the Pacific – I had a gun up to my head twice. Because I was so confused, and so sick, and you don’t realize when you’re so hepped up. I’ve walked away from arguments sometimes, but then I got my prayer. It was found in the wallet of Dr. Tom Dooley shortly after his death in 1961. It goes:

   Your Cross. The everlasting God in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents you as a gift from His inmost heart. The cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms, and weighed with His loving hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His holy name, anointed it with His grace, perfumed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you and alms of the all merciful love of God." – St. Francis de Sales.

    I’ve given that to so many people; I’ve made so many copies. I don’t care what religion you are, if you have a totem pole and you have respect for it, you have respect for my rights and I have respect for your rights, I’ll accept it. I never argue religion. But when I saw that prayer, it really calmed me down.

    When I came back, I had a guy who owned a gin mill who was a gambler, too. He wanted to send me up to New York State to Whitey Bimstein to make a fighter out of me. He wanted to give me $50 a week – $50 a week and I’d learn to box under the best trainer in the business. I said, "You’d be wasting your money." Because I know with that gut I’d never take it. I’ve got an irritable colon. Many a time I’ve wished I could dig Hitler up and shove it to him, and then I read my prayer and I calm down.

    Once, I questioned God. That night when I was in the slave labor camp and I escaped and got recaptured, they had snow outside, and I had the runs so bad that I crapped my pants. They had taken my shoes, and I had that heavy underwear which they didn’t take, that was the only thing I had, they took my jacket, and I stood out in the snow, about 1 o’clock in the morning, and I washed myself down, and I looked up to God. And I said, "Why me?"

    I didn’t hear any rustling, and I didn’t see anything in the clouds, but now, when I see my four kids, and I see my ten grandchildren and my wife, and I see what I’ve made of myself as far as financially I’m not poor, I said, He’s answered me. He’s blessed me in a lot of ways.

    He’s answered me a thousand times.

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Contents           Chuck Hurlbut

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