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Prisoner of war experiences are shared

By James Taylor

and Nina Redmon

On Dec. 16, 1944, families all across this country were making plans for Christmas, which was just a little more than a week away. As a nation, we had been at war for three dreary years and everyone was looking forward to the cheer, bright lights, and joy of the holiday.

On this same day, halfway around the world near Bullingen, a village in Belgium, the 393rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 99th Infantry Division just had been overrun by fast-moving Nazi forces. Captured GIs were being herded into boxcars as prisoners of war. Stripped of their heavy winter clothing and boots, helpless and shaking with cold in that bitter winter in the Ardennes forest, these men were the first POWs to be taken in the Battle of the Bulge.

Among the prisoners who would spend the next nine days jammed in a locked railroad boxcar, was Private First Class Bert Redmon of C Company. His unit had been brought forward from LeHavre, the seaport where they had disembarked from the ship that brought them from England to France. Now, only a month later, as he stood guard at the most forward line of the Allied forces, disaster had struck.

Until he entered the service at the age of 28, Bert had lived his entire life in Delphos OH. However, as the war in Europe and the Pacific grew in intensity, there were greater demands for guns, tanks, ships, airplanes, ammunition, and of course, men. The young men in this little Ohio town, like thousands of others, answered the call to duty.

Bert knew little about military life and could not imagine the incredible journey his life was to lead him on during the next three years. That odyssey was not to end until one special day, far in the future, when he would find a certain gift package waiting for him.

Upon entering the service, the newly-married young man began a frantic and bewildering series of trips by bus, train, truck convoy, and ships, to equally strange new army camps and training centers. Each move gradually led, step by step, relentlessly toward his destiny in Europe where he would join the millions of other fighting men already hammering at the crumbling defenses of the Third Reich.

Hopes were high that December that the war would soon end. Between the Russian forces battering the Germans in the East and the Allied armies pounding hard from the west, it was almost certain that Hitler's disintegrating forces soon would collapse. Therefore, pausing briefly in the face of the vicious cold weather, as well as for the coming holidays, the Allied armies were building up supplies and reinforcements at a leisurely pace.

The final push to follow would then sweep across the Rhine into the heartland of Germany and final victory. But, unexpectedly, disaster struck in the form of desperate, strongly reinforced enemy divisions, cloaked in heavy mist and fog which had Allied air power helplessly grounded. Through a soft sector of our lines, the enemy spearhead thrust a fast, well-planned encircling drive. Cut off from help, large segments of our army were overrun and forced into helpless submission. As a light-machine gunner manning one of our most forward outposts, it was Bert Redmon's fate to be among these men caught in the steel ring of the enemy trap.

The next few days, locked in the railroad boxcars, were nine days of unbroken horror. As the train lurched along the devastated tracks which had been bombed by Allied aircraft for four years, it was forced onto sidings for frequent stops. Inside the cars, the American soldiers fought to survive the numbing cold by huddling together to gain life-saving warmth from each other, trying desperately to compensate for the warm clothing that had been taken from them. They had no food, no water, and little hope in the struggle to stay alive. Many of the men who could not endure the hardship of the ghastly journey lost the will to live and died.

The train ride ended at Stalag 13C near Hammelburg where they were imprisoned with thousands of other soldiers. Here, Bert and the others found a relatively safe haven in the old, established prison camp. Contact was made by teams from the Swiss Red Cross and an immediate effort began to send a message home. A few doctors were on hand and a little food was available, mostly in the form of bits of bread and watery cabbage soup. It was Christmas Day.

Unfortunately, this stop was to last just two days. Since the Germans had so little supplies left themselves, there could not be an extended stay for most prisoners. Here, the harsh, unwritten, but ever-present bias that exists in every army showed itself. Only officers and the higher ranks of non-commissioned officers were allowed to remain in the comparative safety and comfort of the Stalag. The dogfaces . . . the privates . . . the eternal GI, had to move on.

The following weeks were a nightmarish blur of long marches, stumbling along on frozen feet. No food for days. Some soldiers during the march were randomly shot, with no apparent provocation, by a desperate, frightened, war-weary enemy solder. One never knew when they might arbitrarily turn to you. They were simply hundreds of nameless, faceless prisoners going deeper into Germany each day. At night any barn or haystack might serve as a resting place. They shuffled silently through villages and towns, watched impassively by local townspeople. No one spoke or made any gesture. It was a dazed and submissive populace watching them pass through. No one knew where they were going. The guards were carrying out orders to take prisoners deep into their homeland. No one knew why.

Their bleak pilgrimage into the depths of Germany was interrupted at one point when their captors decided to force the prisoners into slave labor, which, of course, was a violation of the Geneva Convention pact regarding treatment of prisoners of war. In any case, they were ill-advised in attempting to make these men slaves. The natural contrariness of the free-born and free-living Americans rebelled against such treatment. Put to work in a gravel pit breaking rocks with hand picks, a series of "accidents" in which the pick handles broke and gravel-laden carts ran off their small tracks to tumble down the hillside, brought the enterprise to a halt. In the face of possible severe punishment or worse, Bert and his buddies somehow managed to have their guards believe these acts of sabotage were actually due to the stupidity of their captives. The dumb Americans!

Bert escaped once with a fellow soldier, but after wandering aimlessly through the hostile countryside, unable to speak German or find food, finally in hopeless resignation, upon seeing another long formation of prisoners trudging slowly along a road, he fell among them and returned to captivity. Those prisoners proved to be Australians, New Zealanders, and other troops from throughout the United Kingdom. Bert still corresponds with one of whom he spent many weeks until they were liberated.

During this fruitless attempt at escape, he and several others hid one day in a hay mow. While burrowed deep in the mow, German soldiers searched for them by plunging pitchforks deep into the hay. By the grace of God none of them were hit or discovered.

Back home in Gomer OH, Mrs. Bert Redmon (Nina), in close touch with military headquarters in Washington, gradually learned, after the first stunning "Missing in Action" telegram, that her husband was alive and a prisoner of war in Germany. Letters, telegrams, and gift packages shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic, undelivered. Bert's unexpected move from Stalag 13C after only two days allowed time only for a single letter to get home, which Nina treasures to this day. The chaos in the war zone made it impossible to establish communication. Bert heard no more from home until he was freed.

As spring and warmer weather approached, the prisoners' physical suffering eased and they even found some edible roots and vegetables in the fields. The four months of no contact with relatives and friends at home were agonizing. On that memorable day of liberation they had dreamed of, Bert and a few of his fellow prisoners were foraging in the fields near the Austrian border when they saw a line of soldiers appear in the distance. Instantly they were recognized as Americans. By an incredible coincidence, in spite of the months wandering through Germany, through towns and villages with unpronounceable names (even for a while along the highly-touted Autobahn) Bert was freed by members of his own unit — C Company, 393rd Regiment, U.S. 99th Infantry Division. One of his officers, a lieutenant, walked up to him and said in amazement, "Bert, I thought you was dead." He was answered with a big grin.

Quickly the newly-freed prisoners were taken to a nearby airfield and flown out in a C-47 transport to a rehabilitation center called "Lucky Strike," in France. There he had his first bath since Dec. 16. New clothes were issued and in mess halls, open day and night, Bert began to put back the 50 pounds he lost during his long ordeal.

Nina, meanwhile, unaware of the events in Germany, had carefully prepared gift packages to send to the prison camp in accordance with instructions received from the Army. Certain items were listed as permissible and were to be wrapped in a special manner and forwarded to specific addresses. Bert never got any of them.

After recuperating at Lucky Strike for a week, Bert was sent to LeHavre and, ultimately by troopship back to New York. A few days later he stepped from a car in front of the house in Lima where his sister lived. Before going to the front door, he stopped at the mailbox. Hanging by its sturdy, Army-approved wrapping string was a package, returned as undeliverable, addressed to Private First Class Bert Redmon, Germany.

When Bert departed France it was May 16, exactly five months after that hellish day he was taken prisoner in the Ardennes forest, barely six months since the 99th landed in France. In that tiny fraction of time these men had faced horrors, suffering, and fear unknown to most men in an entire lifetime. On Nov. 4 they stepped ashore on a foreign land they had only known in school books before. Strong young men, full of confidence and well-trained . . . they had never fired a gun at another human being in their lives. Now they returned to the same seaport, LeHavre, old beyond their years, having witnessed war at its most brutal in the legendary Battle of the Bulge. Soldiers died before their eyes, ours and the enemy. Some blown apart by artillery shells. The lucky ones died. Others were shipped home to a life with arms and legs gone. With senses battered by sights and sounds of unspeakable terror, day and night, until the battles finally ended and they were cast back out of the inferno and sailed back to the tranquil, untouched shores of the United States.

Today, when these old soldiers gather for reunions, their wives, with puzzled expressions, watch them and ask each other, "Why do they talk only about the war?" The answer is clearly that the war is the only thing they shared. Before and after were different worlds. Their world, which only they understand, was the war. It forged a bond between them and branded scars on their subconscious which they will carry for the rest of their lives.

In a quiet cemetery in Belgium, near the Ardennes forest, lie 1,400 of the 99th's men who will never come home. They were needed there to stop the last major drive of the German Army in World War II.

Today, Bert Redmon and Nina live quietly in their cozy home in Delphos. They never speak of the war except when another soldier comes to visit.