EDITOR’S NOTE: Rarick’s story began in the fourth issue of the Checkerboard in 2011. Rarick gave permission to reprint this in the Checkerboard, prior to his death in 2009.
One extra cold day when our little detail was assigned to pail oats, we were taken to a top floor in a large building along the railroad. We were each given a tool which was a large blade mounted on a long handle. To pail oats, we would get under the oats with the blade and turn them over. This system was used to keep moisture out of the oats so they wouldn’t mildew or sour.
An Irish civilian, who was living in Germany and working with the Nazis was on the job. He was a friendly, no account type and very lax in his supervision. He was apparently tired from a night on the town and took a little snooze.
I slipped over to the stairway to see what was in the building and if there was any food that could be stolen. Come se, come sa. On one of the lower floors I found a stash of large metal cans. They bore no label but I figured they officers’ rations and must contain something edible. I worked on the lid until I got it open and found it contained what we in America would call Eagle Brand milk. I knew it would grant nourishment and I drank and drank. After I was filled up I hid the can in a bunch of sacks and went back upstairs to my work site.
I worked a while and started getting a stomach ache. I kept trying to work but couldn’t keep up. Finally one of the other men started claiming I wasn’t doing my share and woke up the supervisor. He asked me what was wrong and I told him I was “krank” or sick to my stomach. He told me to follow him downstairs and to the old Kommander Fuhrer. I couldn’t understand the conversation but I’m sure the Irishman was complaining that I was ill and couldn’t do his work.
The Fuhrer made a phone call and beckoned for me to follow him. He took me to the back door of what appeared to be a hospital or clinic. Soon he reappeared on the back porch with a well-dressed man whom I took to be a doctor. They shouted at each other as only Germans can do. What was said I don’t know.
The doctor motioned for me to drop my britches. He wouldn’t touch me. I’m sure he regarded me as a filthy American. I didn’t like the look in his eyes. It was freezing on the back porch but I did as he instructed and dropped my britches. He then shoved a rectal thermometer in place and upon removing it, again started shouting at the old Fuhrer. The old Fuhrer shrugged his shoulders in disbelief upon being told I had a stomach ache from over-eating.
After some more shouting the doctor re-entered the clinic and the Fuhrer beckoned me to follow him back to our barracks. I expected the worst but suffered no consequences except a big belly ache. To this day I have never been able to look at Eagle Brand milk again.
We were on several details that took us around the City of Wurzburg. It was a beautiful, old city. Right across the Mainz River, which flowed along the city, was a gigantic castle called the Festung Marienburg. There were several large manufacturing factories, several universities and many large cathedrals. There was an antique Alt (old) Bridge adorned with statutes and ornaments which went across the Mainz River from Wurzburg to Zell, a small village on the opposite side where four large concrete warehouses contained stores for the army. All in all there seemed to be no military forces or objectives in Wurzburg except for the railroad which ran right through the town and a large automobile factory which was right along the railroad. Life could have been worse. At least we got fed, had cover from the elements and weren’t being shot at.
The night of the bombing
Then came the bombings. On March 16, 1945, the British Air Force fire bombed the railroad at Wurzburg. The bombing runs came at night and early morning. Wave after wave of aircraft dropped screaming bombs. A most unnerving experience. We were all thrilled at the thought that it might not be long now that we’d be liberated. But we had to live through this harrowing experience. With the high wind, the fires spread and destroyed the entire city. That night as several nights before, the air raid sirens had gone off with an eerie and frightening wail. Everyone scampered to an air raid shelter. Wurzburg had few shelters and many of the homes with cellars had makeshift air raid shelters by erecting bales of straw and hay near the basement windows to shut out shrapnel and decreased the explosive forces. Someone goofed and forgot to tell the folk hiding in the cellars that if the straw and hay caught fire they would be suffocated … trapped like rats in a hole … and many women and children were killed.
From our location in the makeshift barracks we were always marched across the tracks, into town and placed in the cellar of the house where our kitchen was located. It was a basement with small slit windows so that one could see outside activity. That night, cluster bombs or fragmentation bombs also were dropped. Firemen and workers trying to douse the fires were maimed and lost their legs from tripping over the anti-personnel bombs which were scattered everywhere.
Because it was dark and at night, except for the fires, there were no lights. From our location we could hear orders being barked. See and hear men running in the streets and hear the screaming of the injured. The burning had destroyed approximately 80 percent of the city. As the bombing stopped, some of the POWs tried to escape by running into the hills and fields only to be rounded up by the SS and police who also had left the burning town for safety. After daylight and the cessation of the bombing, we were returned to the Kommando compound.
We came through the night unscathed. Like being charmed. We had been spared in our air raid shelter but our barracks down by the railroad was completely blown up and destroyed.
The evening before the 16th, I had seen several sleek and modern passenger trains pull into Wurzburg. They were an oddity and consisted of many cars. As we were working on the railroad coming back to the barracks I could see the trains were full of children and accompanied by adults who we assumed were nurses. Rumors were that these kids were Hitler’s children and were given top priority protection with armed guards on board.
Probably more sensible was the story that these were German children being evacuated from larger German cities of Berlin, Nurnberg and Frankfurt to protect them from the bombing. For some reason the government and people thought that Wurzburg had not been bombed and being principally a university town was a safe city.
The next day as we were being marched back to the barracks, we passed the location of the passenger trains. The trains all had been destroyed and burned. There were no children or nurses to be seen. Whether they had been moved to be spared from the extensive bombing no one knew or would say.
After the destruction of our barracks, we were loaded on a big four-wheeled wagon pulled by a tractor. The tractor had a fire burner for an engine and was stoked with wood pulp to get its energy. It made a lot of loud noise but it did move and reminded us all that Germany had a serious fuel shortage but a lot of pine trees to supply fuel wood. We were pulled through the city toward the alt Bridge and passed several walled cemeteries. Bodies from the bombing victims were stacked as high as the brick walls and in some instances higher. It seemed that many of the civilians, thinking they were safe in their basements, were suffocated by the fire and smoke. What a beautiful city shot to hell. Cathedral after antique building destroyed. Everything lay in an utter ruin.
Our new home was across the Mainz River from Wurzburg at a small railroad terminal called Zell (pronounced Zill). At Zell were four gigantic concrete warehouses, multiple stories high and made with thick walls like pillboxes. We were billeted in the basement of the fourth building. It was dark and damp but there were several small windows near the ceiling from which light could enter and through which it was possible to see outside. From then on we worked out of the warehouse. To go to Wurzburg to work, we’d get on the wagon and be propelled by the noisy old tractor down the road along the river, by the grape vineyard which grew up the slope to the old castle, the Festung Marienburg. Usually there would be Russian POWs in their green uniforms working in the vineyard on the slopes below the castle and as we would pass, their top non-com would call them to attention and they would salute us. We’d always salute them back. It made the German guards furious and mad as hell. They would scream in German and wave their arms but did nothing to try to stop us. We’d cross the river over the Alt Bridge and go to work and always return at night to the warehouse.
Jobs we performed were digging gun emplacement and repairing railroad tracks destroyed by the bombing. We were never allowed to assist injured Germans or to remove the bodies of the dead. One day on a work detail in Wurzburg with my bunk buddy, Harry Peck from West Virginia, we were poking around in a burned-out chicken coop and came upon several rabbits that had been charred in the fire. After pulling off the burned or singed hair they made a wonderful meal. Years later when Harry was in the newspaper business in Hinton, WV, he wrote a column about the best and tastiest rabbit meal he’d ever eaten. And then he proceeded to describe the burned rabbits in Wurzburg he had shared with me.
Working on the railroad with us were men of many nationalities. Poles, Hungarians, Greeks and others from the Balkans. We could not converse with each other except by using smatterings of German. But we all were facing the same fate. A form of slave labor. I befriended a young Polish prisoner. I called him Joe. He gave me his picture. On the reverse side of the picture is his name, Joseph and a last name I never could make out along with a Kommerad sentiment. Joe had been a farm worker in the area and claimed to be familiar with the grounds around Wurzburg and how to get away if we escaped. We made a deal. He was to get us out of Germany and I was to get him through the U.S. lines and we’d both go to America. What great dreams he must have had. I have his picture in my scrapbook to this day. Near the railroad was a viaduct or tunnel which stretched under the railroads and opened at the other end into the wooded area beyond. One evening before loading up to return to the barracks, Joe and I took off down the tunnel and into the woods. Free at last – or so we thought. We hadn’t covered a mile and a half before we ran into SS guards who took us into custody and returned us to the railroad. Whether they had watched us or how they knew, I don’t know. I was only reprehended and warned that if I had walked off the job or escaped during an air raid I would have been shot. As for the Polish kommerad Joe, I never saw him again. I have no way of knowing what they did with him.
Through the underground among the prisoners it was rumored that the Americans were coming. That Frankfurt, Mainz and Stuttgart had fallen and were captured by the Americans.
In later March, American P-51s bombed the railroad we had repaired and bombs fell all around our barracks. Neither we nor the gigantic warehouses were damaged. My wife and I revisited the Zell area as late as the 1980s and the warehouses still stand unscathed. In fact, they were landmarks like the Marienburg Festung (the old castle) which had been repaired from the bombing and at last report was the home of the Archbishop of Wurzburg.
After the intense bombing and the daylight strafing the German guards became aware that it was but a matter of time. We knew they could sense the coming of the Americans. At night the woods were full of German deserters moving back from the front. We could hear distant artillery and see shell flashes. O, but how long would it be? It got dangerous to be too anxious.
We were rounded up and given orders that we were moving back from the front. We would march all night because it became too dangerous to be seen in the daylight by our American fighter planes who strafed everything. At times, when they were strafing on the railroad, they flew so low we could see that the pilots were colored men, their canopies open and their white scarves blowing. Sometime they would wave to us. IT wasn’t until years after the war that I learned the Army knew there was a POW camp at Wurzburg and Zell and the pilots had all been briefed to be careful of our camps.
Of interest, one pilot claimed that his photos had shown his superiors that he had bombed too close to our barracks at Zell and he came close to being court-martialed for his actions. He kept a picture of the bombing on March 31, 1945, showing his bomb explosions and the locations of all the buildings, including our barracks. And the photo, a copy of which I have, shows the closeness of his bomb explosions to our locations. The photo is in my scrapbook, thanks to former Kreegie, B.O. Wilkins of K/393.
Approximately March 25 or 26 before leaving Zell, Harry Peck and I were sitting on a hilltop above Zell and looking down toward the Alt Bridge and Wurzburg. We had a ringside seat and watched the German army take an unfortified city that had been bombed and prepare it like a fort with tanks, guns and armor everywhere. We watched the Germans backing tanks and anti-tank guns into bombed out buildings. They were hiding them from view from the air and setting a trap. The German army knew the Americans were coming and they would need to cross the river at Wurzburg to go east. The bridge was mined with dynamite and the stage was set.
In the distance we watched a long column of American tanks approach the town unaware of the trap. The column came to the bridge and halted. There was no way we could alert them or give them warning of what we knew would happen. Ignoring caution for speed, they failed to send any engineers to test for explosives. The lead tanks went onto the bridge and promptly the entire bridge was blown and several tanks overturned. Presumably the men were killed. All hell then broke loose and from a mile or so across the river, we watched the entire sham battle.
As we marched out of Zell with the POW group, the battle across the river at the bridge in Wurzburg was still raging. We were told our destination was Nuremberg, a city to the east. We marched only at night and hid during the day. This was necessary to prevent being shot at by U.S. fleigermen or pilots. That morning before dawn, we stopped to spend the daylight hours at a small village called Ebrach. For food, we received one small boiled potato apiece. The Germans loved to feed us boiled potatoes which they called swine essen or hog food. Good enough for Americans.
By now the artillery fire was to our back. Everyone was wondering how we were going to get away from the Krauts. Murray Fox, the camp interpreter, passed the word that he’d made a deal with the old German sergeant that if he would get us through the German lines, Fox would get him through the American lines and take him to New York. Some feared that Fox was getting us set for a trap. He was putting too much trust in the old Fuhrer who, if we got caught by the SS would turn on us. We walked all night and would stop and rest during the day. The air force was very active during the daylight hours. They would shoot at everything.
Life began after dark. We were locked in a barn for the day and many bedded down. Peck and I explored the barn and found that there were three hay mows and the barn was full of straw and hay. We ended up at the top mow on the third floor and burrowed a tunnel into the stack. In a short time we found that we had actually made a room in the middle of the stack and could be completely hidden from view.
That night – April 1, we heard the old sergeant blow his whistle for the men to fall out for appell or roll call. A nose count before commencing another all-night march to the rear. Much to our surprise, there were others not answering. Some seven names did not answer. Since we were locked in the barn with guards at the entrance, we knew they would be convinced the missing were in the barn and come looking – and come they did.
We heard the guards come on the floor below and then we heard the sound of pitchforks being jabbed into the soft hay as they were probing for bodies of the missing. Next they came to the second floor below where we lay and more jabbing. But the sergeant was growing restless and started yelling to come down, that they were leaving and the SS would take care of the stragglers. The search was abandoned. And of that, we were relieved but concerned. And so the prison contingent marched off and we were left behind on our own in hostile, unoccupied Germany. Little did we realize this was April 1. We were to hide out for 13 days before American forces got near our position. It became far more than merely awaiting the Americans’ arrival.
After dark we would leave the seclusion of our hideaway and scrounge for food and water and take a good stretch. On one of these occasions we encountered the other 5 missing POWs who had also hid in the hay and missed the call out. Being an ardent stamp collector I had on my person a German envelope or cover with a picture of Wurzburg. I had each of the fellows endorse their name and state address on the envelope as a memento. Now I can’t find the envelope but I do recall Harry Peck, David Wylie of South Carolina, Jimmy Pruett of Texas and Charles Ogleby of Colorado, a fellow with an Irish name from Washington or Oregon and myself. I cannot recall the name of the seventh party.
We had to be extremely cautious as we moved about at night because there were many armed German deserters also moving about and also looking for food and a place to hide while awaiting the Americans’ arrival. We observed local farmers hiding their food, silver and valuables in water wells to prevent it being taken by looters and opportunists or even the advancing Americans. We were able to make contact with Polish and Greek girls who worked on the farms. They supplied us with some loaves of bread and cake but never any milk. We took a great chance on befriending these women but they never snitched or told on us and our presence to their German bosses. Whether they were sympathetic with us as escapees or it was the proximity of the American forces, who will ever know? I like to think they were friends helping out a bunch of desperate Yanks.
Late in the afternoon of April 13, 1945, we could look down in the valley below our barn hideout and see that the town’s people in Ebrach were flying sheets and towels. White was displayed everywhere and we knew it meant they were announcing their surrendering their town to Americans and didn’t want it to be destroyed. At dusk we observed several American tanks and armored vehicles pull into the town and park. Then we saw them posting perimeter guards and we knew that meant they were stopping for the night. There we were in the loft of a barn, high above and overlooking the valley, which would be a perfect position for an artillery observer. If during the night or in the morning, a shell was fired, the Americans would be bound to fire on us and blow us off the map. Or in the morning, just as a precaution that there might be a German observer in the barn, they might waste a shell at our hideaway just for safety.
The seven of us agreed that we had to vacate our hiding place and react. Our plan of action was to surrender ourselves to the sentries that we had watched being posted along the road to Erbrach. We knew they would be trigger-happy and shoot first and ask questions later. None of us were in American uniform. We wore hand-me-down French army coats bearing the letters USA on the back. We had no identification except our German POW dogtags. Our plan of action was to crawl down in the ditch along the road and capture the sentry and then give ourselves up.
As we quietly made our way toward the sentry, he was obviously, mentally a thousand miles away back home. He was softly whistling. He never knew what happened until we had his gun and were all trying to stand behind him to keep away from the town where we knew the strength was built up. As we marched toward the town behind the GI sentry, we announced to the Americans in town, who by now had heard the fracas and were on alert, that we were American POWs and wanted to surrender. The U.S. troops in town let us enter and then locked us in the town hall. They overreacted to our presence and thank goodness there were only seven of us.
The young tank commander was from Fort Wayne IN, about 60 miles from my hometown of Goshen. In his interrogation, I told him all about For Wayne, that our high schools competed in athletics and answered all kinds of stupid questions to try and reassure him that I and my fellow POWs were really escaped Americans. He didn’t believe us or was over-cautious and called to the rear for reinforcements, telling them he feared we were the advance party of a counter-attacking force. None of us had bathed in 10 days, we had no weapons, even to a knife, and we were in outlandish, filthy clothes. We certainly didn’t resemble any dangerous enemy force. His commanding officer must have laughed when he arrived the next morning with a battalion of tanks, armored vehicles and supply trucks to repel the enemy counterattack and the only enemy in sight was us.
We had spent the night guarded in the Rathaus, or German City Hall, which was also a bar and restaurant. We had a great time trying to eat boiled eggs and drinking beer all night. Our stomachs had shrunk and most of what we would try to eat or drink would come right back up. We also picked the lock on the mayor’s cash register and the alarm went off. This really set off the young tank captain, who came charging in the restaurant with his pistol drawn to investigate the noise as if it was a signal to enemy troops down in the valley to attack.
In the morning, after further interrogation by the new commanding officer, we were placed on the back of a tank and whisked away to the rear under the watchful eye of MPs. Harry Peck got aboard one tank and I another. I never saw Peck again. The tankers were friendly and helpful. They took us at first glance as fellow GIs and gave us liberated cigars and cognac and champagne. What a thrill and challenge to try to drink champagne while bouncing on the back of a tank. They had C-rations and we tried to eat the canned crackers.
Our first stop was at a field hospital near Wurzburg, the same city where we had worked as prisoners. There wasn’t much left of it. The firebombing and the tank battle for the bridge had taken a terrible toll on this once beautiful city.
From the hospital we were flown to a hospital near Nancy, France, where, much to my surprise and chagrin, we were put in locked wards under the guard of liberated Russian POWs dressed in American uniforms and wearing GI helmets painted blue. They couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Russian so we grunted at each other in pig German. This made them all the more suspicious that we were Germans in disguise. The Ruskies would have loved nothing better than to shoot us as Krauts.
We were all interviewed as to volunteering for service in the Pacific Theater. They didn’t recruit a single man.
Since there were no records of my regiment and I had no identification. I was finger-printed and interrogated by the FBI to try and prove my identity that I was who I said I was. They asked me who my parents were and who my grandparents were and where they were born, etc. I wondered what my friend Joe Pacolt, a Czech immigrant from Brainard MN, could have told them. Joe was an Air Force fighter pilot who had been shot down over Italy. He spoke better German than English.
In our hospital ward we were ordered to observe all blackouts, etc., even though there had been no air raids. We were in a hospital for POWs and constantly fed weight-gaining assistance. Our commanding officer was a woman colonel who was the head nurse. One evening I was showering late with the light on after curfew, naked as a J-bird and she came right in the shower to run me out. She threatened to court-martial me if I ever dared disobey one of her orders for lights-out again. Then I learned through the grapevine that General Eisenhower had issued an order that all courtesies were to be extended to former POWs and that they could not be court-martialed. She never bothered me again.
We were still wearing our German POW dog tags and I was still being treated as a suspect enemy. I was placed on a plane and flown to a U.S. Army hospital near Blanton, England. Our ward consisted of some ambulatory and some bed patients. Most were suffering from malnutrition like me. I had dropped below 100 pounds and was still having problems with my stomach, keeping food down, and with my feet. At this hospital we were constantly receiving food. Tables were at both ends of the ward containing bread, jam, juices, ice cream and fruit. We fell for the trick and ate constantly although we were never allowed out of the barracks. We were treated like feeding hogs. We did gain weight, but it wasn’t for real. I remained in the United Kingdom hospital from April 18 until mid-May.
What a happy day when one morning in mid-May, a young U.S. officer entered the barracks and called my name. I went forward, saluted and was informed that I had been declared by special order to be an American soldier and welcomed back to the U.S. Army. He also presented me with a Purple Heart medal, a handshake and a triple-A priority pass for return to the United States by air. I told him I knew I was an American all along.
Shortly thereafter, I was flown to a hospital at Preswick, Scotland, a departure base for patients to be flown back to the U.S. At the hospital, I contacted the Red Cross. They gave me a bag which contained a toothbrush, toothpaste and a razor. They allowed me to draw an advance of $25 on my salary. I was last paid in November 1944.
One morning in the barracks, I was lying in my bunk when a sweeping woman came in and asked me to move my feet. I called her a Limey. She got worked up and ran me out of the barracks waving her broom and shouting that she wasn’t any blooming Limey, she was a Scotch woman. She was dangerous. I could understand why their men wore kits. They entered the barracks to sell kilts. They were asking $44 for them. Considering the English breakdown of our money to theirs, I saw no takers.
Shortly, we were put on board a large aircraft. There were walking wounded and litter cases of wounded. My feet were killing me but I was too anxious to go home to bellyache or be carried on board. There were several hundred of us lucky GIs who wouldn’t have to sweat out the delays of a return to the States by ship.
We were told we flew to Iceland and then over the North Pole and Newfoundland into New York’s LaGuardia Field. We made it and regardless of my feeling about New York, I cherished the idea of being back again in my home country. We landed at night and were met by ambulances which were loaded and took us directly to a Jewish synagogue in the city where we were unloaded and taken into a meeting room, a part of or near the synagogue. The room was jammed with soft chairs, booze, food, music and, of all things – girls. They weren’t all Jewish women so they must have been volunteers. We were royally welcomed back to the U.S. like conquering heroes. Only problem, after having been away so long, was that the girls were off limits. We were even locked in and couldn’t leave the building. We ate, drank and danced the night through. I don’t know where they dug up the girls but they were pretty, well-dressed, most sympathetic and they stayed with us until the end.
Early in the morning, the ambulances came back to pick us up and we were taken to the airport, put on special planes headed for our respective state. My plane flew me to Indianapolis IN, and an ambulance drove me to the Billings General Hospital at Fort Benjamin Harrison. I was back home again in Indiana. It was before noon. I was examined, given a new uniform and a 90-day furlough to go home. I left the hospital that afternoon.
I was so anxious to get home and see my folks that I didn’t even go into town to get a bus. Indianapolis was 160 miles or so from Waterford. I went out in front of the hospital and stuck out my thumb. In those days, there was a gas shortage and a car shortage but what few motorists there were picked up soldiers. I hitchhiked my way home. It was still light when the last ride left me off in front of the old G.W. Rarick home, south of Goshen IN, on SR 15 at Waterford.
The first person I saw was my Grandmother Rarick. She looked at me and, in utter amazement said “Johnny, what are you doing home?” Her second question was “Did the Germans mistreat you?” After being greeted by my dad, I went on to Goshen and saw my mother and the Clover grandparents.
I was home, but everything was changed. It just didn’t seem like the home that I’d left and the one I’d remembered and dreamed about. Something seemed missing.
Mother had been working for a munitions factory near Crown Point IN. The Clover grandparents had gotten so aged. Junior was still the in the Army and Jerry was assigned at Fort Monmouth NJ, in the Signal Corps. My close friends were all gone. My roommate at Ball State, Keith Worthinger, had been killed in France. Another close friend, Douglas Randolph had died in combat in Germany. Dallas Rohrer was away in the Navy and Rollin Hoover was on duty somewhere. As I walked down the road from the store in Waterford to the Rarick farm, I thought we had won the peace but at what a tremendous price. Nothing seemed to be the same. And although I was home, what was there to do? I joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Order of the Purple Heart, and the American Legion. They were all veterans’ organizations and meeting places for good people. They may have been drinking too much and were a wild bunch and all, but they knew what war was about to the common soldier and we all agreed. Never again. I was always going by the post headquarters and seeing old veterans … some not yet 20 years of age. Just dropping in to see who else had gotten home. I was an old man going on 22 years of age.