© 2009, Glenn E. Schmidt
Jack Nickellís letter
This letter, written by Jack Nickell to Glenn Schmidt some 54 years after being captured during World War II, shares some of the incidents leading up to their capture and the hardships they endured as POWs.
PATEROS, Wash. Sept. 13, 1999:
Dear friend Glenn,
It thrills me to get a letter from you. I have grown to expect one at Christmas time. Other times they are special going over old times.
Glenn, I am really sorry that we in the 60mm mortars didnít give you more help on that bridge that crossed the creek where you were dug in to prevent the Germans from crossing. Smokey Stover asked me to go up to the [Company headquarters] to get some 60mm ammo before daylight the morning of Jan. 6th or 7th. That old West Virginian loved his liquor but he was a physical specimen that was ready to fight at the drop of a hat. He had the advantage. He knew he was going to win.
When we got up to the Company headquarters in Hatten it was still dark. There was the weapons platoonís jeep close to the headquarters. Lt. Heavey had been using it with Novasinski driving. It wasnít being used at that time. Smokey suggested we had need of it to haul the ammo down to our position not far from the Maginot pillbox. He told someone, I donít remember who, we would bring the jeep back shortly. Two ignorant Privates, as if they were somebody. I imagine it was three miles down and back. It didnít take long. It was uneventful. We were within 100 yards of the bunker. Al Nusser was the first gunner and I believe the top mortarman I knew. With more ammo, he suggested to Gotterdam that we move behind the hill to our rear, dig our emplacement again and notify our rifle buddies to move under cover. We would zero in on (1) the bridge, (2) the schoolhouse, (3) the church building.
It was now daylight and the Germans had moved back. We intended to record our declination and inclination for our new 81mm mortar sight we were now using on our 60mm. Sgt. Gotterdam didnít recognize that if we were to reposition ourselves you fellows could call mortars on that bridge at any time later. Especially the next night and it may have been helpful. The answer was no. He said we couldnít waste ammo like that. We couldnít even fire on the target ahead of time. As a consequence we had no way of firing on the bridge the next night when it was so badly needed by you riflemen. We regretted our inability to do it.
Glenn, do you recall Mario Del Aqua from San Diego? When Al covered for me and I was thawing my feet in the pillbox, Del Aqua came in. On occasion he had seen me reading my New Testament. He said to me confidentially he had killed several Germans with a hand grenade. Would he go to hell? I related to him that when God in King Davidís time gave the promised land to the children of Israel, He required them to wipe out the wicked inhabitants of that land. The Germans as a nation had perpetrated the worst war the world has ever known. My understanding is they were responsible for that war and should pay the consequences.
Al Nusser and I got trapped out in our emplacement but stayed with it and frosted our feet on that real cold night. I believe that was the same night that you couldnít leave your post watching that bridge. It was so cold that anyone who was not free to move about froze his feet that night. Within 36 hours we were on that terrible forced march. Some of the fellows had just gotten new [boot]packs before. I was envious I hadnít, but though my feet were frosted with the old footwear they at least fit my foot. The poor rascals who got the new packs had horribly blistered feet. Remember Ed Evers from Ohio? He got charley horses so bad we were concerned the Germans were gong to kill him if he fell. Doug Faraier from Detroit and I had him rest one arm around Dougís neck with the other around mine.
Doug and I had a terrible time getting going the next morning. I can hardly understand how you with the new packs that had caused massive blisters could stand those sore feet mile after mile. I have been asked how I kept going with two of us struggling while assisting Evers. For a while we would pick out perhaps a tree ahead and our goal was to make it to the tree. We couldnít stand to see Ed shot. By nightfall we had quit picking out a tree. We were praying that we could make each step. But Ed Evers made it. I know your feet were in worse shape than mine. I know God heard your frequent prayers. I am sure Christ vividly recalled praying that He could make just one more step as He carried that terrible tree up Golgotha. How well He understood our frequent prayers Ė they were not vain repetitions.
Remember that night when they put us on those smoking charcoal Lorries after departing from the schoolhouse shortly after being taken prisoner? Those planes dropping bombs on either side of us? If it hadnít been for that German guard at the rear end of the truck, it would have been tempting to try to unload and make a getaway. I thought our time had come. When the shelling let up I softly said to Al, "I havenít ever prayed so hard in my life."
"Nick, you sure were not by yourself. I am sure your prayers were ascending with mine."
Glenn, I recall some of the hardships we shared at Bad Orb, Stammlager IX B. I recall how we were so short of clothes that we never removed them for three months. I had to sleep cooperative with a group of five. We had to take turns, three on our sides with two on our backs on that hard naked concrete floor. We would shift and have a different three and two. So on into the night until someone would say, "I am going to have to stand a little while."
Lights out meant just that. We respected the overhead American planesí firepower to the degree we didnít ever make a light.
I had an overcoat most of the time but no blanket. It seems as if we had two and a half blankets and one overcoat in our group of five persons snuggling with all the clothes we had to keep warm. We had a foot or foot and a half wide paths towards the honey buckets. Fortunate was the person who never had the runs. Most had them on more than one occasion due to the unsanitary conditions.
We were constantly hungry. We had seven to a food group most of the time. They had a loaf of dark bread per group of seven plus potato soup, usually less than a potato smaller than a baked potato per person per group of seven all in one helmet. I know, Glenn, you had to share helmets with a buddy in your group since your helmet was hit and had several holes in it so it was left behind useless. I presume you and your buddy had 2/7 of your groupís soup helmets allotment.
This led to frequent dysentery. What a stinking mess those paths would be when someone with the runs could only inch along towards the honey buckets in the room with the water faucet in it at the end of a barrack that had perhaps 100-plus people in it. All the while absolutely dark.
When someone caught a cold it often turned to pneumonia and that person would be carried to the cemetery. How sad it was to see a young man perhaps 20 years old whose body couldnít stand the filth, disease, exposure, due mainly to the lack of food.
Glenn, do you remember the slit trench latrines with posts and poles between the posts to lean against? Nearly every user would backfire a shot to the center of the trench without even trying. That was a daytime luxury.
I recall when the evenings came. Dwight Hall would get a larger ration so he could sing some solos but also lead the barracks in hymns. I enjoyed getting close to you as we sang. I vividly recall your beautiful tenor "When the Saints Go Marching In."
I recall we were hauled from Bad Orb when liberated to Frankfurt in American trucks. One C-47 after another took us from Frankfurt to Le Havre, but that was four or five days after Easter 1945, the day we were liberated. Glenn, I remember in our closing prayer after Dwight sang so beautifully, the last three weeks we prayed, we would ask to be free by Easter. If I remember, that was what you requested, and our Loving God listened and granted.
Glenn, as my wife Zella and I prayed this evening I thanked Him for listening to our mutual prayers in our youth because He has granted us 52 plus years together as husband and wife. I am thankful for Godís grace for those years, when I knew our prison and combat mutual prayers were for minutes instead of years oftentimes. We paid a price, but our rewards have been worth it.
I recall that before daylight one morning the Germans threw open the barracks door and ordered us to "evacuate as you are." "Raus! Raus!" As we rushed out we could see the Germans had set up and were manning the machine guns outside the fence. They made us join ranks and stand at attention. It appeared as if they might open up the machine guns. We all had seen individuals who were in good shape pass out. How long before we suffering malnutrition would pass out and break ranks? Many were praying it wouldnít happen.
We knew we had a serious problem, but what? Ö After a couple of hours they ordered us in the barracks, each in his own place. My overcoat disappeared, blankets disappeared. When we turned the water faucet on there was no water. Shortly a German explained that two Americans had hidden in the kitchen and had used a meat cleaver on two Germans. At least one of the Germans was physically able to tell what happened. Then the Germans ordered the two Americans to be turned over to the proper Germans and the water would be off until they were certain what happened. Quite a dilemma! Two starving Americans in the kitchen trying to steal something to eat. The camp knew without water it would be intolerable. In one of the barracks someone recalled not seeing two fellows. They took them to the window and in the daylight they detected spots of blood. They were turned over to the Germans and to this day I donít know the outcome of either the Germans or the Americans.
When the Americans came and checked the cistern water it was condemned for (1) drinking (2) cooking (3) clothes washing (4) bathing (5) animal use. Without that same water faucet in the end of the barracks it would have been impossible to have cleaned up the stench of those who didnít make it to the honey bucket. Wasnít it wonderful the Army required all those shots all soldiers complain about? I am convinced that without the shots the casualties in Bad Orb would have been far greater.
We had time on our hands, we were weak from hunger, and couldnít have done much work in our physical condition. It was common for POWs to be marched on the roads so when the American planes came over they might strafe the columns. It was nearly liberation time before we understood why we were not. We didnít have a doctor in camp but we did have a dentist whose name I canít recall. He served as a doctor. He diagnosed two men suffering from malnutrition to have spinal meningitis as well. When one of these men grew worse he diagnosed another nearby man as having caught meningitis. The Germans didnít want to expose their people. The dentistís foresight saved countless lives. That same dentist was a fine singer. As we got closer to being liberated there would be more carried out to burial. One morning as the corpses were being carried out we came to attention and amongst us was the dentist. How fitting it was, when he in a rich beautiful voice sung Brahmsí Lullaby. As we stood there on this occasion, how fitting. It would be fitting for me when my time comes. Dwight Hall, sometimes called Blackie, has gone on before us Glenn. He would have sung that song well.
I remember sharing the Red Cross packages. Each prisoner was supposed to get a package per week. We had slightly less than one in three months. I recall how each seven numbered one, two, three etc. to seven. We started counting each thing by taking our pick starting with No. 1. Then all in turn. Next item No. 2 had first pick. Next item No. 3 had first pick. We went through that exercise, even opening up the raisins. We didnít even take for granted that M&Ms were all the same size. I doubt if any small thing was divided up more carefully and more fairly.
I recall the small box of cheese was divided that way also. Glenn, do you remember we would suck even raisins trying to get the very last smidgeon of food value? Most divided their portion and made it last as long as possible.
I recall a fellow grabbed machine gunner Sloanís morsel of cheese and swallowed it quickly before we were aware of what happened. I recall that court-martial. They found the thief guilty and he was given his choice Ė to man the honey bucket until we were liberated or be put to death. At the time no one quarreled about that decision. With many starving and all on the brink of starvation, thievery of food just could not be. I donít believe I ever knew who sat on that trial but a good decision was made.
This is quite a few remembrances but we could go on. Last one. When Nusser and I got some food our systems couldnít handle it. We ate anyhow and heaved again and again. I recall Al looking over at me, sick as could be, and he said, "Nick, I am going to be happy even if I die because I have had something to eat." I agreed as undoubtedly all of the hungry GIs imprisoned there at Bad Orb would have if they would have been within hearing distance.
Your Company "A," 242nd Infantry, 42nd Division Rainbow Buddy, Jack Fulton Nickell