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POW

POW

By PETER GACKI, C/371

241 Cowley Ave., East Lansing MI 48823


     Our forward observer party, consisting of Lt. Warren Springer, Sgt. Willard Wibben, Cpl. Billy Queen, and myself, Sgt. Peter Gacki, arrived at Lanzerath on Dec. 15, replacing Lt. Mahaffy's forward observer post. We were using one of the houses in town for an observation party. We used an upstairs room and we had an unobstructed view toward Losheim but we could not see the town because of the rise in the ground. We were not too well oriented in the town, so it was hard to determine our exact location. Years later, Will Cavanagh and Dick Byers were able to locate the house we were in.

     We were maintaining our watch of Losheim and shortly after dark we could see that Losheim was glowing with light. We reported that there seemed to be a great deal of activity in Losheim. We didn't receive any instructions that I can recall, so we went to sleep.

     We were awakened some time before daylight by a very heavy artillery barrage. The shells seemed to be falling everywhere although none struck the house. We stayed some time after the barrage lifted. We reported to the battery but I can't recall what instructions we received. There was a tank destroyer company in town but they had gone.

     After some time Lt. Springer decided that we should try to get back to the battery, so we proceeded to load our gear in the jeep. I cannot recall the time we left but I would guess it was between 9 and 10 a.m. We had traveled only a short distance when we came upon the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon from the 394th Infantry. The I&R Platoon was under the command of Lt. Lyle Bouck. After some discussion, Lt. Springer thought we could be of some assistance so we stayed. There was some doubt that we could get back to our battery. We had parked our jeep some distance from the position. We had a battery pack for the radio and our weapons but I do not think we had a great amount of ammunition. The position was very well positioned in a small woods on a slight rise. The foxholes were deep and had excellent overhead cover; also each one had a good field of fire.

     There were 14 men in the I&R Platoon and four of us from C Battery. The Germans attacked shortly after we arrived and Lt. Springer, Wibben, and I went into one hole with one or two others. It was a very hectic time and I can't recall exactly what happened. At this time Lt. Bouck could give a better account of the battle. I do believe we brought some artillery fire to bear, although my recollections are not clear. The Germans could not penetrate our position. Just before dark all our ammunition was expended and both the phone and the radio were dead. Then we heard a German voice ordering us out of the foxhole. We all understood that one grenade would kill all of us so we came out and were taken prisoner. I believe we were very fortunate that the German soldiers were regular army. If they had been SS troops, I doubt we would have survived.

     After we had been searched, Wibben and I had to help carry a wounded German back to Lanzerath. We later learned that Billy Queen, who had gone to another foxhole, had been wounded and died. We were kept at Lanzerath that night then began our journey to a POW camp.

     In January, after the Germans had been driven back, Cleon Janos, a member of another C Battery forward observer party, found the body of Billy Queen where he had died earlier. Cpl. Queen was the only one of the 18 men who died in that battle.

     On Dec. 17, 1944, we began our journey into Germany as prisoners of war. We spent the night in Lanzerath and the town was shelled by our own artillery. As we marched out of town we saw several German soldiers who had been killed by the artillery fire.

     As we marched up the road we saw German infantry and armor going toward our lines. It would have been comforting to know that within a few weeks the Germans would be streaming back to their own country. We had no insight into this possibility at this time so we had very little to feel good about.

     Some of the German soldiers yelled at us, but very few of us understood German. We never had to march with our hands on our heads, although I have seen films on both sides, where prisoners had to walk that way. We marched through several small towns. The people for the most part, just stared at us. The only time they would show any emotion was if they saw anything that looked like an Air Force uniform.

     I don't recall much about food and water except there wasn't much of either one. The guards were reasonably tolerant to anyone having personal needs. In fact, we were not mistreated by any of the guards. They were older men and many of them were not German. They were given the choice — join the German army or be shot.

     There must have been at least 50 of us marching together. The first night we were all locked in a large storage building. I don't remember getting any food or water at that time either. The next morning we resumed our march and as near as I can recall more than 50 years later, we were taken to Bonn. There we became part of a larger group and all were put into boxcars. These cars were not as large as our boxcars. They were commonly referred to as 40 and 8 cars, (40 men or eight horses). They put about 60 of us in each car and locked the door. Needless to say, there wasn't much room. We spent four or five days in the cars. Since it was very cold and no one had any extra clothes, we tried to keep warm by huddling.

     Traveling by train in Germany was very dangerous. The allies had air superiority and would shoot up any trains that moved during daylight hours. Therefore, we moved mostly by night. We spent a lot of time on sidings, troop trains and supply trains took precedence.

     As near as I can recall we arrived at Limburg the day before Christmas. The prison camp commander refused to take us so we stayed locked up on the cars in the rail yard. That night allied air forces bombed the yard. Fortunately our train was not hit. The next day we were moving again. We must have been given some food and water, but I can't recall it. We traveled to Nuremberg where we were unloaded and marched to the camp outside of town and there we began our life in a prisoner of war camp.

     As near as I can remember we arrived at Nuremberg two days before New Year's Day 1945. As we walked through the town we could see the terrible destruction allied bombers had brought to the city. The POW camp was outside the city, which was fortunate for us because the bombers came back on New Year's Eve. Some of us went outside to watch where we could hear the shrapnel falling around us from the anti-aircraft guns. The next morning we were yelled at for showing lights. It would have been very dumb to show lights when the city was blacked out.

     The camp was bare bones; most of the buildings would need some improvements to be called shacks. I thought that Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi, an improved swamp, was bad but at least we didn't have armed guards and barbed wire.

     The routine in the camp was pretty simple since none of us were forced to work. We had roll call in the morning but instead of calling names they just counted heads. I don't know if they ever got the same number twice. Each of us was given a small blanket and a large bag filled with excelsior (wood chips), which was sometimes used for toilet paper, which we didn't have.

     We didn't get much food but the Germans knew how much food it took to keep us alive. We had hot water they called tea. Some drank it, some used it to shave with, and some washed with it. We were issued one loaf of bread for six or eight people depending on the supply. We also got a bowl of soup, which was at best greasy water. If anyone ever found anything in it, it was probably horsemeat. Some evenings we would have potato peelings soup. They had the potatoes and we had the peelings. They tasted a little sandy. We only had cold water and a sudsless soap to wash with. If you washed any of your clothes, you had to watch them while they dried since they might disappear and there were no replacements. Every few weeks we would be marched to a shower where the water was cold and the soap was like sand. While we were in the shower our clothes were placed on racks and put into a steam room to get rid of the "seam squirrels."

     It was at this time I discovered both of my feet were partially frozen. My galoshes and shoes were taken by a German soldier and the shoes I wore were too small. Even though I took off my shoes several times a day and rubbed my feet, they still froze. They put several of us with frozen feet in a small room. They didn't have any medical supplies except something that looked like axle grease which we rubbed on our feet.

     When my feet began to thaw, I walked barefoot all night on a cold floor. By morning the pain eased. On one toe on each foot I found a deep purple spot. It looked like the beginning of gangrene; my feet hurt and walking was very difficult all the time I was a prisoner.

     We settled into a life of dull routine. The weather was pretty much like a winter in Michigan. Given that buildings were not heated and we didn't have any extra clothes, we were never really warm.

     About three months later we were moved to a camp near Hammelburg. We arrived at Hammelburg on Feb. 23, 1945; life at Hammelburg was very much like the other camps, very routine. The rations were the same — hot tea, soup, and bread ration. Sometimes there was no bread ration or potato peel soup.

     After a few days they began to distribute Red Cross packages. The box contained about 10 or 12 pounds of mostly food. It contained canned meat, canned cheese, crackers, powdered milk, tea, and coffee. It also contained cigarettes and toilet paper. I can't recall if there was any soap, but I think there was a chocolate bar. We learned the Germans had thousands of boxes stored throughout Germany. We also learned they had not used them for their own needs.

     The boxes were not distributed every day and each box had to be divided into four equal parts. You can be sure the division was very carefully supervised by four sets of eyes. Some ate everything they got at one time and as a result they became sick and lost all of it. We had been on a restricted diet for a long time and their stomachs could not stand the rich food. Later on it was easier.

     The cigarettes were divided too, but I always traded mine for food. There were many who would trade some food for cigarettes. Some tried to smoke the tea leaves, but it was so strong they gave it up. We had small steel drums for stoves and each day we would get two bricks of compressed coal. While we had heat we would brew tea in a can and after using the tea bag 10-12 times the leaves could be rolled in a piece of paper and smoked. Our bread was very heavy and wet. We would slice it and stick the slices on the stovepipe. It would stick there until it toasted a little. It tasted much better that way.

     I don't know about the rest of the camp, but we were put into an old cavalry stable. The ground floor had two- or three-tiered bunk beds. They had put in a ceiling and some of us were put up in the attic. The lower bunks were infested with lice, but upstairs we slept on the floor. We weren't bothered much by lice.

     While we were at Hammelburg we were able to hear occasional artillery fire and most of us felt we would be liberated soon. Later in March we noticed large numbers of people leaving the town which was nearby. We assumed the allies were very near and these people were trying to escape. Then someone noticed that the tower guards were gone and so were the others. Our barracks leader called us together and said we should wait to be liberated.

     It never happened. The German troops came back. They had discovered the American forces consisted of one reinforced tank company and they were not part of a larger detachment. With the help of a nearby tank corps, they captured the remaining forces. Shortly afterward we were put on trains and on March 25 we left to go back to Nuremberg.

     At Hammelburg - as near as I can recall our area was in the northeast part of the camp. As we left the camp later, we learned that an armored force had reached the southern part of the camp. Their purpose was to free the officers. When they tried to get back to our lines they all were captured.

     After the raid they decided to move us again. We were marched to the marshaling yard and again we were crammed 60 men into each 40x8 car. The weather was more moderate in late March so we weren't as cold. We were traveling in the daytime, which was very dangerous as we would later discover. As we were moving along we heard one of the most frightening sounds we had ever heard. Most of us were trying to get through the floor. The train came to a stop and just about everyone jumped out when the doors were opened. Everyone, Americans and guards, ran out into the fields. We then saw that an American fighter plane had strafed the train. I wonder if you can imagine what it sounds like to hear eight 50-caliber machine guns moving up the train.

     We later learned that only one man had been killed. I don't know how many were injured. There was a long discussion. Some people refused to get back on the train, including some of the guards. We were not very far from Schweinfurt. Most of the people wanted to walk there. Because my feet were still sore, I decided to stay on the train. We were not attacked again. We later learned the Germans had neglected to mark the train with the Red Cross insignia. They let us travel to Schweinfurt with the doors open for their safety as well as ours.

     When we came into Schweinfurt we could see the town was devastated. The factories in town had provided most all of the ball bearings and other war materials. I later learned our Air Force paid a terrible price for those bombing raids. It was generally believed that it did help to shorten the war. At Schweinfurt everyone got back on the train and we continued on our way to Nuremberg.

     We did not have any more trouble and arrived at Nuremberg on April 5. We were unloaded and marched to the camp. We went through part of the town and we could see that the town had been bombed many times since we had left here before. There was a great deal of rubble.

     I don't recall much about the time we spent here because it was just the same as the other camps - same food and same routine. I did see two men trying to catch a cat. I'm not sure if they wanted a pet or a meal. The cat obviously had been around the camp for some time because it stayed out of reach. It was warmer now and it was not unusual to see someone with his pants down trying to get rid of lice. We were not a very friendly group. Everyone had a friend or two and they stayed together. I was lucky enough to be with two men from my own outfit and we stayed together until we were liberated.

     It was here that a man was caught stealing some bread from another man. Our highest-ranking NCO was a tech sergeant and with several other sergeants they agreed that he should have his head shaved and we would not be allowed to wear a hat. We did not get that much bread so stealing someone else's bread was a serious offense.

     Our stay at Nuremberg was relatively short and uneventful. We left the camp on foot not knowing our destination and that Moosburg would be our last camp. We were all convinced we would be liberated soon. I can't recall much about the march or how long it took. The weather was warm and at times we were able to get some potatoes and sugar beets. We walked about 10 miles a day which was a long way for us and most of the guards. We slept in warehouses or barns. They posted guards at the doors and others patrolled the building. It would have been to their advantage to turn us all loose. Just think of the confusion if our troops had to deal with hundreds of people.

     At Moosburg we were put into compounds with prisoners from all our allies. Almost none of them knew any English. I tried to make a swap with several men - some of my food for some barley, which at home my Polish parents called kasha. I don't know if it was the language barrier or they just didn't want to trade. At any rate, my attempt to trade was a failure.

     Each day we could hear and feel through the ground what we thought was bombing attacks by our allied Air Forces on some large towns in the vicinity.

     It really did raised our hopes. Our hopes were finally realized on April 28 when a tank force supported by our own 99th Infantry Division came into our camp. Our waiting was over and we were happy to see some GIs from our own C Battery, 371st Field Artillery. I still don't know how they found us in such a large number of people.

     A few days later we were flown into Camp Lucky Strike in France. I think one of the main reasons was to put some weight on us and also time to scrub the prison grime off us. Both were very much appreciated.

     The chow lines were very long. After eating you could get back in line and by the time you got to the head of the line you would be hungry again. You can be sure no one complained about the food. It was like being in heaven - clean clothes, candy, cookies, cokes, and the smokers were really in heaven.

     It was there that I met Dick Byers. We had been in the same section in C Battery, 371st Field Artillery all through our training at Camp Van Dorn MS. Camp Van Dorn was named after a famous Civil War general. I don't think he would have thought it was an honor to have such a place named after him.

     We stayed at Camp Lucky Strike for a week or more. Everyone had gained some weight and orders were cut to send us home. They put us aboard a Navy troop transport. I don't recall how long it took us to get home - it took days going the other way. They had given us some back pay so everyone was free to buy the goodies available on the ship.

     As we came into port we saw the Statue of Liberty and there was a lot of yelling. It was a wonder the ship didn't capsize because everyone was on the same side. As near as I can recall we were taken to Fort Dix NJ. The PX was busy but the one thing I can remember is the jukebox played "Rum and Coca Cola" over and over. We were all given furloughs with orders to report to Hot Springs AR, after our furlough was over. It was great to be home!

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