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John Rarick's story is told

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Rarick gave permission to print this story in the Checkerboard prior to his death in 2009.

Returning from Indiana on my Christmas furlough, sometime the first of January 1944, as I got off the train in Baton Rouge, MPs grabbed me and without even allowing me to go back to my campus quarters or recover any of my personal property, placed me on a train filled with other GIs. We were told that the ASTP program was closed and we were assigned to and being sent to the 99th Infantry Division at Camp Maxey TX.

What a revolting shock! While at LSU visiting the USO Center in Baton Rouge, we occasionally bumped into men from the 99th who were then stationed at Camp Van Dorn MS. Most agreed they were the dirtiest and most slovenly looking soldiers we ever came in contact with. We knew they were infantry and on maneuvers and probably didn’t bathe for weeks at a time. They literally lived out of a barracks bag. But to think that we were being delivered into that bunch was a genuine shock for a bunch of college GIs.

At LSU there were four of us cadets assigned to a room, two to an over and under bunk. The barracks room was in today’s football stadium. My roommates were Robert “Bobby” Hughes of Birmingham AL, Lewis Richardson of Pittsburgh PA, and Willie Promberger of Prescott AZ. Willie had been a staff sergeant and line chief in the Air Force before giving up his rank to go to college. He was allowed to transfer back to the Air Force and escape the infantry. I know he was a happy soldier.

At Camp Maxey, we were loaded on trucks and delivered to the camp. As luck would have it, Bobby Hughes and I were both assigned to Company C, 393rd Infantry Regiment. We were called out and given instructions by Top Sergeant Baker. Our platoon leader was a tech sergeant, Harry S. Oneta. My squad leader was Earl Swope of Pennsylvania.

It was explained there was to be a major push by U.S. forces in Europe and that more infantry divisions were needed. The old 99th had been a training outfit and was constantly pirated of its men who were assigned to other outfits to go into combat. The ASTP men were needed to increase the IQ of the division so it could mentally qualify for combat. We would be given stepped-up infantry training and could expect to ship out shortly.

Shortly after arriving at Maxey, we were granted three-day passes. I called Marguerite Pierce to see if I came back to LSU, whether she would go on a date. She agreed and Bobby Hughes and I took a bus for Baton Rouge. What a trip. As we got to the town of St. Francisville, the bus stopped at the center of town and the driver announced it would be a one-hour layover. Slot machines lined the streets and a bar was located behind the 3-V Restaurant located on the corner. Since U.S.-61 was the only highway between Baton Rouge and Natchez one quickly got the impression that the custom or the law of the community required to the bus to stop over so the passengers could spend a little money in the town before moving on.

Little did I realize then that one day I would return to St. Francisville to live and become a judge there. Nor did I realize that my date for the weekend, Marguerite Pierce, would one day be my wife and the mother of our three children.

We returned to Camp Maxey early Sunday morning and rather than change clothes to my fatigues, I kept on my suntans, thinking that after breakfast I would have plenty of time to change before falling out in fatigues for work or training. But the platoon sergeant, Oneta, blew up at seeing me at formation in suntans. He would listen to no reason and was going to have me court-martialed for disobedience and insubordination. He said he had told “those college kids” they were to always fall out in fatigues and that no college kid was going to run his platoon. Only intervention by Top Sgt. Baker kept Oneta from court-martialing me, or at least trying. But Oneta never forgot and never forgave. I remained one of his pet peeves. To him, a college kid that he hated had gotten away with something. He rode me the rest of my days with the 99th. Little did either of us realize that during the Battle of the Bulge, I would save his life.

On Sept. 10, 1944, we were loaded on passenger trains and shipped to Camp Miles Standish near Boston MA, a port of embarkation for shipment to Europe. We marched and had inspections and drills. Finally we were taken to sea-going vessels at the Boston Harbor and loaded on troop ships. In reality, the troop ships were a mix of Liberty ship and Army transports. They bore such names as the Marine Devil, George W. Goethals, Argentina, Exchequer, Explorer and Excelsior. Company C made the voyage on the Argentina. Sleeping arrangements were adequate but cramped. We slept in hammocks and were stacked in like sardines. Every day we went on the top deck to exercise b y doing calisthenics. There was a constant line up to pass through the galley for meals. We were fed three meals a day. Luckily we did not hit any storms and the sea was relatively calm.

Overseas to Europe

We landed at Bournemouth, England, disembarked, and immediately went inland by rail to a small English town called Puddletown. We were billeted in Quonset-style huts that had not been used since D-Day. We marched five miles every day as a conditioner. We drilled and we waited. Every day it rained, but we marched rain or shine. We were allowed a few passes to a USO-type club in Dorchester. We were paid in British pounds. No one knew the values. When we’d play poker or shoot craps we’d say, “I’ll bet one of these,” and another GI would call the bet by matching the size of the coin. We had no idea of the values, just the size of the coin or its color. At that time a lot of money changed hands – at least we thought it was a lot.

Finally, the day for departure came. It was the end of October 1944. We were trucked to Southampton on the coast, where we were loaded on LST vessels. The LSTs were decorated with blood and guts from wounded. We only could surmise the LSTs had carried wounded from the front. It wasn’t real encouraging and made us wonder what we were getting into.

On Nov. 4, we started an overnight trip across the English Channel. Early the next morning, Nov. 5, we landed at LeHavre, France, where we were dumped on shore and the LST took off. We were again loaded on trucks in a bumper-to-bumper convoy with all lights blazing and headed into France. Somewhere in eastern France or Belgium, we were told to strip all our belongings and abandon our barracks bags and get back on the trucks with only gas masks and weapons. We went through France, city after city, at fast speed. One of the Company C boys, Hebert from Lafayette LA, could speak French. We nicknamed him Tish. He had a great time talking with the girls. When we stopped, he’d always get a bottle of wine and loaf of bread. We drove through cities in Belgium and could see foodstuffs and wine in the shop windows. Obviously the Belgians didn’t suffer extensively from the German occupation.

We finally unloaded near Aubel on Nov. 11, a rural Belgian community, and were billeted in a cattle barn. We slept with straw on the floor and my asthma stirred up my breathing. As the medic said, “Where can I send you for this? Stay away from the straw and it may leave,” which it did. While in Aubel most of us heard and saw the first German buzz bomb (V1) go overhead toward England. The Belgian farmer wasn’t overly friendly. That night, army intelligence found someone giving light signals from the farmhouse windows. No one was caught but German agents were about and they apparently learned who we were and our strength.

From there we started walking. That’s something the infantry always did as a hobby. Our company always sang as we marched. We went on the battle line in front of Krinkelt-Rocherath, Belgium. We were told we were relieving the 9th Infantry Division, who had already dug foxholes and reconnoitered the area. First Battalion, Company C, 393rd Infantry was holed up near the edge of a heavy forest in foxholes in front of the Siegfried Line just across the International Highway separating Belgium from Germany.

The German forces were established in concrete pillboxes surrounded by dragons teeth, tank traps, huge iron road gates, wire entanglements and anti-personnel mines. We were told that our division had been given a quiet zone and that we were opposed by Austrian soldiers who were not crack troops. Occasionally one would come across the clearing in our front and want to surrender. Orders came down that any man who took a prisoner would have to march him to the ear and give up his rations to the prisoner.

We learned that we of Company C were the only outfit that had our holes east of the International Highway, foremost toward the pillboxes and German troops. We were at the edge of the Krinkelter Wald or Huertgen Forest, which contained large and heavy foliated pine trees. The trees were so massive that it was dark in the daytime. And after every snow the melt down kept our clothing wet from the snow melting and running off the trees overhead.

In front of the Company C battle line was a sloping hill, barren of trees or bushes, which gave us a clear view for approximately 100 yards to the top of the next hill. Just beyond the hillcrest, about another 100 years away, were the German pillboxes. We could not see them from our position, nor they us, but by climbing a tree or crawling to the top of the hill in front we could look down on the pillboxes. From time to time we could see German soldiers entering or leaving the pillboxes, which were large concrete buildings with slots for observation and weapon-firing. They always moved in angles, which showed us that the area near the pillboxes was mined to try to stop all infiltration. The Germans also had clear vision to their front, as did we. This clear field of fire was for killing fields to be able to stop any forward advance by either side. We were so close to their pillboxes that if one dropped a mess kit it immediately drew artillery fire from their 88mm guns. And we’d all hit the dirt or dive into our holes.

At first, as promised, our sector was quiet, except for occasional artillery fire just to keep us on our toes and guards posted at night. Company C was front line and we were spread thin along the tree line. Our squad of 13 men, 2nd squad of the 2nd Platoon, was spread out to where we covered probably two blocks. On our right was the first squad, under Sgt. Gilliam. On our left was a squad under Sgt. John Waddell. Our squads were separated by 10 or 15 yards. Lt. Nowlin, the platoon leader of the 2nd Platoon, was situated in a foxhole behind the 1st squad.

For us to go to Company Headquarters where the food kitchen was et up, we had to go down a gully to our rear, cross a stream and follow a road for about a mile. The 3rd Platoon was in reserve with the company headquarters and some of the weapons platoon. The machine gun squads were built up on our flank to the front. We were not close to any city and never saw or heard any civilians.

On the day before Thanksgiving, I was assigned along with seven others, to a reconnaissance patrol. Lt. Nowlin and my sergeant, Earl Swope, were in charge. One of us carried the BAR and the rest of us were riflemen. Our mission was to slip out in front of our lines, observe Germany activity to our front, if possible to capture a German soldier, determine the size and number of weapons in the pillboxes, locate minefields and after observing all day and dodging German patrols, re-enter our lines the next night. We were given passwords but the password for the night we left would not be the password for the following night so we were assured that all front line men would be told of our mission and on the lookout for our return.

We accomplished our patrol and were able to get back in through the Company A lines to our left. We were rushed to G-3, regimental headquarters to be interrogated as to what we saw, found and heard. After each of us were debriefed and given a shot of whiskey, the major who was the intelligence officer told us that our information was exactly what had been reported to them and they already knew. Intelligence simply wanted to confirm that the Germans had not changed their routine and troop strength. It was very reassuring and satisfying to those of us who had been on the patrol and gambled with our lives. We took a chance on getting shot both by the enemy and our own troops to secure data and information the command already knew. Anyway, on return to our company area, we were each presented with the new Combat Infantryman Badges. In order to qualify for combat we each had to pass tests to qualify for expert infantryman. The combat badge was like the expert badge but had a crest emblazoned around it. We were the first in the company or battalion to get the badges. That evening we had a superb supper of turkey and celebrated Thanksgiving.

By late November, we were receiving considerable snow and colder weather. Trench foot and frozen feet was our number-one enemy. Orders were for each man to pin one pair of stockings under his arm and in the crotch of his underclothing so that we always wore dry socks to try to cut down on our medical casualties. We were sleeping in log pile trenches made by piling a stack of Hitler’s pine logs, covering them with earth, plugging one end with sod and leaving one end open so we could crawl inside and keep warm and dry. What a joke for a dormitory. But it was better than sleeping on the raw ground under a blanket. We were wearing shoes with leggings and wearing light jackets. We never received the new issue combat boots.

In early December orders came down for the men to build a log cover over each foxhole as protection from shell bursts. Since we were holed up in the forest the thought was that artillery striking overhead trees would shower us with shrapnel and the overhead logs on top of our foxholes would offer protection from the shrapnel. Apparently no thought was given that the log cabin over the foxhole easily identified each hole to the enemy – or that it made the fortress a death trap from bazookas and grenades.

Many of the men piled logs overhead and around their foxholes with shooting ports or holes for vision and to fire their weapons. They resembled block houses and were readily visible from a prone position. I deviated. I lowered the depth of my foxhole, left a firing step and partially covered the top of my hole with logs so that my log roof was even with the ground and offered no visible target. My plan proved right, for on the morning of the Dec. 16 attack, the Germans couldn’t find my foxhole. I had no pillbox to be seen from the front, from behind or the side. Those who had covered their foxholes with logs were easy targets for panzervelts, the German anti-tank weapons, hand grenades and direct fire into the port holes. They were protected from the top but nowhere else. I am convinced that the construction of my foxhole cover, level with the ground, and being different from the others, helped save my life that morning. They couldn’t find my foxhole. It was different from the others and wasn’t what the Germans expected or was looking for.

On Dec. 15, the day before the attack which became known as the Battle of the Bulge, we were alerted that U.S. units to our left were going to attack in the morning. We were told to fire our weapons, i.e., squeeze off a few rounds spasmodically all night long to make the Germans wonder where the attack would take place and to hold the troops facing us in place. In reality, it served but to point out our positions, our holes and our strength as well as use up our ammunition. Our little squad of seven was spread out over a distance of 100 yards. Any observer could count the locations of the fire and the fire positions so they could calculate the strength of our unit and location of each man. Little did we realize we were firing into the whole German army just sitting there ready to attack us after midnight. Rather stupid wasn’t it? Another U.S. Army command blunder.

By 2 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans started an unrelenting artillery fire -- rockets called screaming meemies because of their frightening sounds in flight and 88s, which hit the target about the time one could hear the gun fire. Every man was alerted and took his place in his hole. We knew the Germans had something in mind for us. Their artillery fire was all directed over our heads to the rear echelon against our artillery, command locations and reserves. At that time we were in the noisiest but safest place on the American lines.

Against the white snow background, we started seeing the forms of German soldiers lining up and running toward our positions. Their orders were being given by a flashlight-type instrument so that the orders were not drowned out by the noise.

As the artillery fire lessened, the wave of human beings started moving and walking forward toward our lines and we commenced our fire. The approaching numbers of enemy soldiers were so thick in number that it seemed one didn’t need to aim to hit a target – just point your weapon and let go. I learned for the first time that tracer bullets in this close proximity were not needed. A round striking a man gave a flash. Our fire again exposed our positions and the Germans countered with mortars and machine guns and pistols.

At the time I was a BAR man with an assistant on my right and a rifleman named Tony Macchi of New York on my left. We were built up in a diamond-like formation which formed a base of heavy fire. There were many bodies to our front and the onslaught seemed to separate and slide the attackers off to both sides rather than continue into our position. We were too busy out front to pay attention to our rear and flanks.

Young Tony Macchi was a new and raw recruit. He had never fired a weapon until brought to the front, where we were told to throw a tin can to our front and let him squeeze off a few rounds at it. I was probably the only one in the company who even knew his name. He was in a hole about 10 to 15 feet to my left and slightly in front of my position. I remember hearing Tony yelling there was something moving to his left. I replied for him to shoot the SOB. That was his last utterance as a machine pistol was heard and Tony never spoke again.

But Tony’s yell did alert me that the Germans had broken through our line and were now on our left flank as well as our rear. This posed a new threat since Germans to our rear could see us silhouetted against the open field ahead of us. Anytime we were above or out of our hole we were a target. Every foxhole covered with a block house was now an easy target to find and Germans were using grenades to try to provoke firing and exposure by Americans.

Sometime before dawn, our American artillery must have learned that the Germans had overrun our lines and they presumed we were all dead. They started firing heavy stuff and laid it right on our lines. Not to our front, nor our rear, but right on top of our positions. I was in my foxhole but the Germans were on the ground. By the time the eerie crimson dawn came, there were no live Germans or other Americans to be seen or heard. The forest of giant trees was reduced to snags and logs. The once-white snow was black with the putrid smell of gunpowder from the artillery explosions.

I looked out and around and could see only bodies. My assistant squad leader’s body, Francis Beattle of New York, was stretched up against the side of his block house. The body of the squad leader Earl Swope of Pennsylvania lay dead behind the dugout. All of my squad who had been on the front line the night before lay dead. Nothing was moving and all could only be presumed dead. German bodies lay everywhere. I could only surmise that the few Germans who had located my hole from my fire had been killed by the incoming artillery bombardment.

By this time I was wondering how long it would be before I was discovered still alive. There was a bloody trail to my front, leading right up to my foxhole. I just knew that I was a goner and I prayed that I would not be wounded or suffer a slow death. I wondered what it would be like to die. I prayed it would be quick. I lived a lifetime in minutes. I thought of home, my parents, my grandparents, my brothers, and thought I’d never see them again. I resigned that all was lost and felt it was just a matter of time. I waited and knew I would have to fire at any Germans I saw and that when I did I would reveal my position and the noise of my gun would attract sappers, as they were called, to finish me off. Sappers were those who mopped up, killed and finished off the wounded to stop suffering and end resistance.

I had been standing and stooping in my foxhole so long I was getting cramps in my knees and my feet were frozen. I knew I dared not get out of my hole or overly expose myself. I even hated to breathe, afraid my breath might show my location. It was about 0700, I judged, and so quiet. There were no birds or any noises. As I looked forward from my position, I saw in the distance a young German soldier top the hill to my front. He had a Red Cross band on his arm and was carrying what appeared to be a medical bag or kit. As he made it down the hill, he appeared to be checking the bodies for wounded. But I also noticed he was picking up rifles that lay along the way. I kept watching him, thinking all the while, I can’t shoot a Red Cross medic. But what was I going to do if he spotted me and sounded an alarm? But then if I fired on him, the sound of my shot would certainly bring relief for him. Noise from American weapons was different from German fire.

As I continued to watch him, he must have had a premonition he was being watched. He suddenly looked up and straight at me and was startled that I had my weapon pointed right at him and had not fired. Instead of hitting the dirt or trying to escape, which even he must have known would have been futile, he walked right up to my hole, saying something I didn’t understand in German. But he shouted, “Hans Holt.” By this time I was doing some serious reacting myself. My choice was to fire my weapon and blow him, a medic, away, or face the ignominy of surrendering my weapon and being captured by an enemy Red Cross medic.

That German kid had guts. Apparently he figured out that if I was going to shoot him, I’d already have done so and killed him. He yelled something again and walked right up to my hole, grabbed my gun barrel and offered me a hand as to help me up out of my foxhole. In seconds, as I was trying to get out of the foxhole, four or five German soldiers in white snow suits appeared. All were shouting and yelling in German and pointing machine rifles at me. They took my BAR weapon and strip searched me for other weapons. In my shirt pocket I carried my Bible, a small pocket-sized New Testament with Psalms which had been given me by The Reformed Church, my church in Goshen at home. They looked at it, decided it had no intelligence value and gave it back to me. (I have it on my desk today.)

They ordered me to lie on the ground beside my foxhole while they checked the area, the squad bunkers and foxholes. All they found were dead bodies. They and I were the only live humans. None of the Germans spoke English or at least didn’t. They made their demands known by screaming and pulling and pointing their weapons.

They were all young, seemed well-trained and certainly weren’t of the mediocre unit we had been told that we faced to our front. They took particular pride in noting that I wore a Combat Infantryman Badge, which was something new to them. They kept referring to me as a Prima Soldotten (a top soldier). A great catch to them.

To this day I have never understood why the Germans didn’t kill me. They were obviously on the offensive and wanted to keep moving forward. Prisoners only made for delay and confusion. There was no one about except for them. No one would ever have known if they had killed me. It has always troubled me as to why? Because I didn’t kill the medic? Because the medic was present and not just infantry? Anyway, I have always considered Dec. 16 as my lucky day. I was spared my life and taken captive. I celebrate the day annually as a birthday, a day I was reborn, a second coming, a second chance at life. I have never stopped giving thanks. I used to think that I had been spared for some purpose or reason.

After their leader was satisfied he’d cleared the area of any resistance and all other Americans were dead, they marched me to our right down a footpath that had been created by our unit going to the platoon command post and for chow. After traveling about 200 yards we came to the command post where Lt. Harry Nowlin and Sgt. Gilliam of the 3rd squad were dug in or built up. They were all alive but captured. Their only casualty was my close friend, Erwin “Buddy” Blair of Wadena MN.

Blair, also a BAR man, had been ordered by Lt. Nowlin to surrender but refused and continued firing. The Germans had leveled his position with potato mashers or hand grenades, killing Blair and seriously wounding his assistant, the boy from the Lafayette area called Tish Hebert. Hebert was visibly seriously wounded at one shoulder with all flesh and muscle blown away leaving bare bone from his shoulder to elbow. He was obviously in excruciating pain even though the medic had given him a morphine shot.

The Battle Deaths records of our division list Erwin Blair, Earl Swope, Tony Macchi and Francis Beattle, but do not mention Hebert. He must have been given medical treatment by the Germans and lived to come home. Although I have lived in Louisiana for more than 50 years I have never been able to locate Tish Hebert, the energetic Cajun kid from Lafayette who was so popular with the girls in our drive through France en route to the front.

Lt. Nowlin was taken prisoner at his command post. Also at the 2nd platoon command post was the platoon sergeant, Harry Oneto of California, one of the old 17th Division cadre from Camp Van Dorn. He was an old, professional garrison soldier who was most certainly no friend or buddy of mine. He lay on the ground beside his foxhole. He had been burp gunned or shot with a burst of bullets, breaking both legs. As I walked by his hole where he lay screaming for help, the German soldiers were screaming to hurry on “Rauch! Maken Schnell!” and pointing their weapons at me to hurry and go on. They obviously were in a hurry to deposit us and get on their drive.

Murray Fox was the only remaining 1st squad soldier remaining at that point. It was obvious that if I went on, Oneta would have had no help and probably bleed to death. I leaned over and grabbed Oneta, a heavy man, and put him on my shoulders and started up the incline where the other Company C prisoners had gone and were headed. The Germans were protesting and pointing their guns at me to put him down and move on. Oneta’s legs were dragging behind me and blood was everywhere. He bled like a stuck hog. Oneta was obviously in great pain and screaming and yelling for help. I kept moving and got Murray Fox to give me some moral support. He helped by holding Oneta’s legs as we trudged up the hill. (See “Dauntless: A History of the 99th Infantry Division, pages 85 and 86).

After we had gotten about half way up the slope, American artillery fire started falling on the open slope and right over our former positions. Had we have had this fire hours earlier it might have helped. As it was, it fell right into the middle of some of our captured men and right in front of us. I hit the dirt and dumped Oneta and the Germans scattered. Thirty or 40 yards ahead, two Company C men, Robert Heymeyer of Cleveland OH, and John Pratt of Sixty-six SC, were hit by the artillery shrapnel and lay wounded, unconscious in our path. My first reaction was to dump Oneta and pick up Heymeyer and Pratt. Both of them were ASTP men and friends. Good men. Heymeyer was a great baseball pitcher and Pratt had already received an appointment to West Point. But I figured the two boys were gone. They had literally hundreds of shrapnel wounds and we thought since they were unconscious that they were dead or couldn’t be saved. We passed them by.

I carried Oneta over the crest of the hill and down the other side toward the pillboxes where we were herded into the protection of a pillbox entrance with the rest of the Company C prisoners. The American artillery barrage was continuing fiercely but of little or no consequence. Our positions had been overrun and we were in German custody. Most of the Germans had already advanced and were behind in the pillboxes, safe except for a direct hit.

At the pillbox Oneta was taken and placed on a cot. After we left, I never saw him again. He was not listed as a battlefield casualty so the Germans must have doctored him and saved his life and he lived and returned to the States. I never heard from him nor have any of the other men. He never attended or wrote to any of the division reunions.

That night,, we were billeted in a barn. Early the next day we were roused out and put on a march. We were constantly joined by other prisoners in groups and columns. By evening the parade of captured Americans had grown to an army in itself. In a long, narrow procession that stretched down the road ahead, were Americans of all grades and commissions. One could have panicked at the thought that the Germans had won their objective and the entire army had surrendered. Germans in jeeps were spaced along each side of our line, armed with machine guns to guard us. The worst mental reaction of being taken prisoner was a numb, “can’t believe it” feeling. We were all trained as killers, indoctrinated that all the Germans were godless Huns and low class people and it was our patriotic duty to never quit or surrender. Yet, here we were. In a matter of hours, overrun, captured and now facing the devastation of being prisoners. We had been told that we would be in Berlin by Christmas and home for New Year’s and here we were, prisoners being marched to what? Would we ever get out of this mess? Maybe those killed were the fortunate ones.

We were brought into a small village called Flamersheim and interrogated by a German intelligence officer. We knew little or nothing and we repeatedly said the Geneva Convention’s required answer of name, rank and serial number. The intelligence officer would look at our shoulder patch and then turn to a coco malt book made and printed in the U.S. carrying pictures of all division shoulder patches and he’d say, “Uh huh, 99th Division.” German newsmen or propaganda agents were everywhere, espousing the greatness of their fighting men and their superb soldiering which would result in German victory.

We were taken to a POW camp at or near Bonn, Germany. For food, we received either a fifth or sixth of a loaf of hard brown bread or a boiled potato a day and a cup of the artificial jimsonweed coffee which, for the best part, was hot. Occasionally we would receive a small can of sardines and a tube of spoiled cheese. Whenever asked my training or occupation, I always said I was a student before the war.

Sometime around the 18th or 19th of December, we were herded into railroad boxcars. We made several stops at prison camps only to be refused because of overcrowding. At one stretch we were crossing a railroad bridge over a river, opposite the city of Schweinfurt, which then was under a night bombing attack. The engineers and crew stopped the train on the bridge and jumped off, leaving us locked in the cattle cars. We could peek through the cracks in the cars and see the pyrotechnics of the tracers and anti-aircraft fire and the bombs falling and exploding. And there we sat, dead still, locked in boxcars on a railroad track over a river. A ringside seat to the exposition, but it wasn’t entertaining. It was frightening. At any minute, one of the pilots could have spotted us and strafed or bombed the train. And then it ended like it began. The crew mounted the train and we went on.

It was extremely cold. There was insufficient room to sit or lay down so we jumped and jogged in place all night long just to keep warm. With no toilet facilities, we assigned one corner of the boxcar as the latrine or toilet and took turns. Without ventilation, even in the cold the stench became unbearable, but there was no escape.

After being refused at several camps because of overcrowding, we were accepted at a POW receiving camp at Hammelburg. As we were taken off the train, we passed through the town square where a decorated Christmas tree stood. German civilians we passed were decked out for the Yule season. Their glares and grimaces at us as we passed were not of good will, nor indicative of the Christmas spirit. Of course, we understood our planes had bombed and strafed their homes and villages. We had a bleak Christmas. No tree or decorations. No food. We celebrated by singing Christmas carols and talking about the food we would have eaten if we were home. Like a hobby, we made notes of various foods and preparations and would exchange them with each other. Sex and booze seldom crossed our minds or entered into the discussions. We had no Betty Grable pin-ups. It was always food and home. I still have several of my food lists which I keep in my Bible the Germans allowed me to keep.

The prison camp at Hammelburg was located at the top of a large, cone-shaped mountain at the edge of town. We were forced to trudge up the mountain road two or three miles to the top. At the top, we were told, was hot chow and blankets and beds. Having had no food or water except from snow or ice we’d scooped up, we were not only tired and exhausted but weak from hunger. Many of the men passed out going up the mountain. A horse-pulled wagon followed our group. The guards threw any dropouts on the wagon and we think they may have dropped them off at the top but we never saw them again.

At the top of the mountain, we were herded into a stockade and each given one thin, old gray army blanket and a cup of hot water containing coffee made from jimsonweed. There was no hot or cold chow. Food at this camp was about par. We were being systematically put on low rations to starve us as protection against escapes. After leaving Bonn, we were separated from others who had told the Germans they were trained in other vocations. I never again saw Billy Heroman, Herbert Netter, Richie Richardson or George Golman. As I understand it, they were placed on a work detail cutting firewood for German officers at another camp and location.

Last modified Dec. 22, 2011

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