Vern Schmidt of Fresno, California, is one of the veterans whose story is told in "9 Lives: An Oral History." Vernís brother, Glenn Schmidt, recently published his prisoner of war diary in the newsletter of the 42nd "Rainbow" Division, and after it appeared he received a letter from Jack Nickell explaining some of the circumstances surrounding their capture.
Schmidt was captured in the village of Hatten and was incarcerated at Bad Orb, one of the worst of the Nazi prison camps. Following World War II, he joined the Air Force and retired as a major in 1967, after 26 years in the service.
The POW diary of Glenn E. Schmidt
© 2009, Glenn E. Schmidt
This is January 24, 1945. I have been a German prisoner for two weeks. I, with over a hundred other fellows from A, B, D and AT companies, was captured at approximately 1900 hours January 9, in pillbox No. 9, a part of the Maginot Line located just outside the town of Hatten on the French-German border in Alsace territory.
Although I am now weak from hunger and our meager diet I thank our dear Lord that I am still alive; for I have seen my buddies die and others in agony. God alone brought me out of a murderous Jerry ambush where bullets actually hit me. The night of our capture our company commander was severely wounded. The admiration I have for this man in spite of his wounds is a story to be told at some later date. Prior to our capture a direct hit on the turret killed my buddy Smith and caused Captain Corson to fall with wounds to the eye and shoulder. With the command to "hold the line at all costs," he would not yield to pressure from the Germans to surrender.
The night of our capture we were marched in groups to Buel, a mile or so away. The town was under heavy American artillery fire. Several buildings were already afire. While we were standing in two groups in the street in front of a schoolhouse, a shell came in, landing on the street between us, and ricocheted into the building without exploding. I can only explain it as a miracle by the grace of God.
Directly across the street from the building we were forced to stay in was one which seemed to light up the whole area. I believe it was a church. It was a perfect target for artillery to zero in on during such a dark, cold night. I prayed all night long for protection. We flattened to the floor every time we heard one coming close.
It seemed our building was hit only once that night with no one hurt. The scream of those shells is terrifying. By morning that church was well ablaze.
We were taken by truck then to a town about three miles behind the lines and ordered into a small room for about an hour. We were given a loaf of bread for six men. I saved part of mine. Then we were marched over to a group of small barracks. There we were given some yellow honey-butter which was very rich and went quite well with the dark German bread. I melted some snow to wash my hands and then some more in which I put some lemon powder and sugar from a K-ration. That night I was questioned and searched and then put into another barracks.
The interrogator had a company roster and tried to pursue speaking to me in German. I told him I wasnít German. His retort: "Well, your name indicated it!"
Back in the barracks I found more of the first platoon. I laid down with Morrow and Johnson. Morrow was so glad to see me and said heíd thought about me and my wife and baby all through the fight, wondering if Iíd get out alive. Burge was lying on the floor with a bullet in his left thigh. With our insistence, some German medics took him out after a while. They used flashlights freely and in just a few minutes our artillery came in within 100 yards. However, we slept most of the night and at about 0400 we were loaded on trucks and taken to a very large town.
On the way we passed some Japanese soldiers with our guards making fun of them by laughing and calling them "Japansky." We passed at slow speed a couple of trucks hauling 88mm shells to the front. If Iíd had a grenade it would have been goodbye truck! The names of many small towns I do not remember; however, they may be recalled through use of a map.
In this town we got some hot potato and barley soup and then we were marched through town to another [town] about 12 miles away. We stopped only once for five minutes. Each road leading to the front is fixed with rugged tank blocks. Other than that there doesnít seem to be too much in the way of defenses. We saw a little armor and artillery but Jerry is very weak. All of the infantry seemed to be moving up on foot. They have an advantage in firepower because they have so many machine pistols.
That night over 300 of us crowded into a small room. There were bunks but almost half had to sleep on the floor. Minah slept with me. We also got a small piece of bread and some jam. About 0400 the next morning we started out hiking again and went about 27 miles to a collecting camp at Longestoole.
We were well-treated but not so well-fed. We were searched but not questioned. In all this I was able to keep my wedding ring, pocket knife and New Testament. What a help the knife is to me now; and what a blessing the Testament is to all of us.
The second day there U.S. bombers blasted the town and rail yards only a mile away. They did quite well by not hitting us. They also dropped propaganda leaflets.
A day or so later I saw a B-26 being shot down.
An English speaking German Sergeant was very helpful. He had traveled through the States. While only there a couple of days, eighty of us were taken by truck about 70 miles. We stayed that night in a German bar. An awful picture of Hitler hung on the wall. I wanted to tear it down.
About 0600 we started hiking again to Germersheim, a rail center about 12 miles away. My feet were so sore from those new bootpacks I could hardly walk. My left foot has not healed yet. But Iím in great shape when I consider some of the other fellows. The walking wounded are a study in real courage. I should be so fortunate.
That day we were placed into a dark room of a wall in an old fort and we were told we could not leave before dark. The room was cold and unlit. We had to stand up all the time. A pile of frozen potatoes was in the corner. I ate my last piece of bread and meat with half an onion I located on the floor. We had been given two hunks of bread, sausage and butter which was to be rations for two days. By this time our bodies were too weak to adequately resist the cold, but I could feel the Lord giving me strength.
About 1500 we marched down to some barracks for a little ersatz coffee. It doesnít help the body at all. A barrage balloon was in the air above us and we could hear a dogfight going on between one of theirs and one of ours way overhead.
We boarded a third class coach about 1800. Very fortunate to get such fine riding. We went about 15 miles to Speyer and there waited in a railroad station. Then we took another coach to Heidelberg where we waited about 45 minutes in an air raid shelter. We were a haggard bunch, not having washed or shaved for many days. The people stared at us and many said some awful things. Good thing I canít understand the language.
I have thought many times of ways to escape but I donít have the slightest idea where we are or which way to go. It is so cold and always seems to be overcast. How could I get my bearings? In my present shape I probably wouldnít get very far. These clothes are a handicap, too. Perhaps there may be a time and way. Meantime my buddies may need a helping hand.
From Heidelberg we departed in a cold baggage car. Haas and I sat together against the wall with his overcoat covering us. We rode this way to Frankfurt where we got on a better passenger car. All 80 of us crowded into half of it so I had to stand up all the way. We arrived and got off at the outskirts of Bad Orb and came up in the little tram railway about three miles to Bad Orb. Itís a pretty little town and seems to be unaffected by the war so far. We passed a confection shop with chocolate displayed in the window. When I get out of here Iím making a trip downtown and I believe the treat will be on the house!
After leaving town we hiked about three miles uphill to where we are now. My, how I hate this filth and monotony. We arrived on the 16th. A Jerry guard in a GI overcoat was at the gate. He said weíd live from five to seven months on what we get to eat here. I wonder how right heís going to turn out to be.
On the 17th we got a "hot" shower without soap and our clothes were deloused. We then moved into a wood/cement barracks with men from the 100th, 70th, 79th, and 106th Divisions so we totaled over 300 in this one large room. We sleep on the floor on sort of straw ticks. They are loaded with lice from previous occupants.
We go down to the mess hall for a barrel of ersatz tea for the group each morning Ė about two-thirds of a canteen cup for breakfast. Dinner is one liter of soup Ė carrot, potato or barley. There is seldom a piece of meat in it.
Haas and I eat and drink out of his helmet as I had to leave mine back at the bunker with a hole or two in it. For supper we are getting one-sixth of a loaf of bread and an ounce of margarine. Some nights we get a spoonful of jam or meat or cheese. That is not enough to live on and we are getting steadily weaker and thinner. Some have pneumonia and many have diarrhea. (300 grams of bread, 50 of oleo is our supper tonight).
This is Sunday, January 21st. It is Vernonís birthday. Sure do miss him. Heís a grand brother. Hope his Army life is better than this.
This is Sunday, January 28th. It has been bad for us. Last night two hungry GIs got into the kitchen. A guard discovered them eating bread under a table. As he shone the flashlight on one, the other chopped him on the head 14 times with a hatchet or cleaver. They got us all out in the snow. Machine guns were pointed at us from all directions. The matter was eventually put into our hands and then the two were found. We were promised nothing to eat until they were found. While standing in a daze and half frozen with the snow coming down I saw for the very first time the glory in the beautiful shape and designs of a snowflake as they landed on the hair and jacket of the man in front of me. I knew then, for certain, there is a God and He cares for me.
Friday, February 2nd. Today we received one 12-pound Red Cross box to be divided among four men. My, how we enjoyed it! It was Christmas and New Years to a lot of fellows.
Saturday, February 3rd, was our first wedding anniversary. How I hated to spend it here. Hope my dear wife was not in anxiety over me. Hope she and Mom baked us a cake. I love her and Lonnie more than ever.
This is Wednesday, February 6. We have just been strafed by our planes. Several fellows killed and everyone plenty scared. It would be better if we were allowed a red cross on one of the barracks. One thing I noticed later today. The clock tower is stopped. A bullet came right out the hole of the 6 Ė pretty good aim!
Tuesday, February 13. Today the chaplain wanted each barracks to elect whom they considered the best all-around fellow in the barracks. One who was clean-cut, did all he could for his fellow man, and didnít shirk details but volunteered for them. Dwight Hall was elected with 78 votes. I was second choice with 72. "Norby" got a pack of cigarettes out of the deal. The whole affair showed that I am well liked and thought of in this group of men. Iím so glad the Lord gives me grace to pray before all these fellows every night. I love to hear the hearty "Amen" as I finish Ė it shows I do not pray alone.
One Sunday night a short while back we were lined up in the barracks and carefully scrutinized by face and dogtags. All the Jewish boys were pulled out and sent to the salt mines it is said. I donít know what will become of them.*
It is now Thursday, February 22. Ninety more men moved out now so only 104 remain. I donít know what is to become of them. Where are they being taken? It doesnít look good to me. Today I was elected assistant barracks leader. Peterson is the detail man now. Our soup has been slightly thicker the past few days and lights are on until 1930. Hope Patton comes over the hill pretty soon. The planes fly, bomb, strafe this area continually. Sure looks good.
This is Saturday, February 24th. Been married 55 weeks and Lonnie is 13 weeks old. Would sure like to see what he looks like Ė [he was] born while we were at Camp Kilmer. Iím pretty thin now. Canít sit on a bench without a blanket. Good news today Ė the 1st, 9th and 3rd Armies have begun their big push. White bread and peanut butter soon, we hope. A note on the bulletin board says April 15 when we begin work outside the camp weíll get more to eat Ė big deal!
Now itís Sunday, March 4. Itís been snowing hard the last few days. But it hasnít seemed to hinder our fliers for yesterday and last night the bombers went over continually and this barracks rocked from one end to the other. We could see flashes in the sky. I wish it were artillery. Today I was chosen to go as a witness to the funerals of three of our men who died of pneumonia. That is official but we all know it was starvation. It snowed all the while. The boxes were of plain pine and [had] no names on them. We were dressed in overcoats, gloves and helmet liners. We marched in a column of twos behind the caskets. Six pall bearers to each casket. A 15-man German guard of honor walked ahead. The irony Ė only thing they were there for was to prevent us from escaping. Chaplain Neel read the sermon and sprinkled dirt on the caskets. It was certainly cold. My hands and feet nearly froze. We had no flags or bugle. It is my understanding that only recently have we been provided boxes for the burial. Prior to that they were carried on pallets on the two-wheel cart and dumped into the huge pit I saw today.
Chapel service was really good this night. Neel preached from Jeremiah on making vows to God here and then perhaps forgetting or breaking them when we get back to the U.S. He also mentioned cursing and reread the marriage vows to us. My, they sounded good as memories of that Thursday night as my precious wife joined me came back so clear.
Todayís soup was peas, potatoes and meat. No salt. I had a rib that was either goat or dog. A dogís hind leg would certainly go excellent just now. Tonight we have bread, oleo, and 30 grams of raw bologna. Some time ago Haas and I got one-half the pelvis bone of a horse that they brought in on a wagon. He had been dead quite a while as his legs were really spread out. We carved out the marrow very carefully with my trusty knife. Haas has been a real buddy to allow me to eat with him from his helmet. I had made a spoon so we both have equal portions.
Sunday, March 24th. I have been in barracks 30A since the 8th. Received a Red Cross package (three to a barracks) on the 14th. What a help. Days have been nice but our food has been decreased. Been having burials all week. Many men are dying. Trying to have Bible class every day. Liberation perhaps by Easter. News very favorable and watching artillery hit about 15 miles from our hilltop barracks. Have to delouse twice a day to sleep at all at night. Think and dream very often of wife and family.
Sunday, April 2, 1945. Things are noisy all around us. While out under a tree with a group of fellows tonight some .50-caliber fire came up over our heads. We went back in a hurry. Not locked in and I believe the guards are gone!
Monday Ė we are liberated by troops of the 44th Division. What a glorious day this is. Too late for many but praise God the rest of us are free at last.
(Footnote: Glenn has returned to his place of capture and to Stalag IXB on more than one occasion. The story of his son finding his steel helmet in the bunker at Hatten has been told in the Rainbow Reveille.)