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Prisoners of war

This is an excerpt from a chapter that covers prisoner experiences at Hammelburg, Bergsinn, Würzburg, Mühlberg, Chemnitz, Greiz, Nüremberg, and Moosburg.

By ROBERT E. HUMPHREY

© 2005

On Sunday morning Dec. 17, 1944, Alfred Goldstein, a member of the Service Battery for the 924th Field Artillery Battalion, walked from his billet to the "kitchen" for breakfast in the village of Büllingen. After eating pancakes with syrup (later he wished he would have stuffed himself) he started back to his quarters unaware of the onslaught taking place just four miles away. Upon hearing staccato machine gun fire and seeing dotted lines of tracer bullets flying through the air, he decided to lie down in a ditch at the side of the road and wait with his carbine at the ready. Suddenly over a rise in the road appeared an enormous German tank propelled by a pair of menacing steel treads that could easily chew him into ground meat. Goldstein crawled away and then dashed back to "their house" where he watched a procession of enemy tanks, half-tracks with troops, and vehicles passing through the village. The unexpected appearance of this armored German force behind American lines generated considerable anxiety and confusion. Radio operator Earl Peters called battery headquarters and excitedly reported a German tank in the village. Not believing what he heard, the major asked Peters, "Are you sure the tank is German?" Peters simply hung the receiver out the window so that headquarters could hit the ripping sounds of a German machine gun. Peters was told to leave Büllingen at once, but it was too late, and he was captured.

Lacking experience in combat and lightly armed with a carbine, Goldstein decided nevertheless to attack the armored phalanx. A Jew, harboring an intense hatred for Nazis and wanting "to kill all those bastards," he began to fire at German soldiers riding in passing vehicles. The first sergeant, a non-commissioned officer he did not respect, asked him to stop shooting as it would draw return fire, but he did not comply. Outside he spotted an assistant cook near the house trying to load a bazooka from the wrong end. Goldstein ran to the cook, took the bazooka, and jumped in a foxhole. Normally two men were needed to load and fire the bazooka, but Goldstein managed to launch two rockets, both of which missed the tanks and hit a house across the street, setting it on fire.

Goldstein returned to the house and descended into the cellar. Some time later he and the others in the service battery heard voices speaking in English, calling for everyone to surrender. Looking out a basement window, he saw two American officers standing in the road telling the group to give up. Goldstein laid down the rifle and discarded his dog tags because the "H" stamped on the little metal plates would have identified him as a Jew, and he feared the consequences of that discovery. He and the others exited the house with hands raised and were surrounded by young, tough, black-uniformed SS troops. A huge SS soldier approached Goldstein, kicked him in the rear after Goldstein muttered something audible, and then relieved him of his D bars, saying he had devoured [gefressen, a verb describing how animals eat] enough chocolate.

The Service Battery GIs and other captives marched two miles to Honsfeld where they observed German and American dead, a few flattened by tanks — the crushed skull of one American reminded Burnett Hartley S/924, "of a coconut that had been shattered." Frank Garrett and his buddy wanted to pull an American corpse off the road, but the German troops forbade it. After spending the night without food in a recreation center, they continued their trek into Germany. Some regular German soldiers came marching by, headed in the opposite direction, and one of them came up to Goldstein and demanded his field jacket, which he meekly surrendered. But when another German tried to take his gloves, he jerked his hands away, and the trooper relented. Soon thereafter he saw two Germans attempting to take overshoes from a GI. Goldstein inexplicably and boldly ran over and protested in broken German [he knew Yiddish], "No, no, he is sick." Surprisingly the enemy soldiers just walked away, and he realized that resistance could work.

When the Battle of the Bulge began Dec. 16, German troops sliced through gaps in the 99th's defensive positions and circled behind exposed units, including K/393. Tony Dodd was angered and embarrassed they had surrendered, for he had joined the Army "to fight, not to become a POW." After being captured, rifleman Robert Grant K/393 turned over his galoshes, overcoat, personal items, and chocolate D-bars to the enemy; one German officer confiscated stuffed dates that Howard Harris' Jewish mother had sent and began eating them on the spot without knowing the "contaminated" source of the goodies. Grant and others in the company were ordered to carry wounded German soldiers back to an aid station inside a bunker. They made numerous, tiring trips through the snow to retrieve more wounded, while dodging American artillery shells. From a POW assembly area, B.O. Wilkins and another GI were forced to lug a box of ammunition to the front even though it violated the Geneva Convention. Seeing his company commander Stephen Plume coming in as a prisoner, Wilkins asked him, "Captain, they can't make us do this, can they?" Plume replied, "It looks like they're doing it." When a German soldier told Wilkins, "Your war is over," he assumed combat had ended and his remaining days would be spent in a warm, dry barracks with regular food. Little did he know that a struggle for survival had just begun.

Teenage German soldiers captured Wendell Cathey A/393 and, after cutting off all the buttons on his pants but one (presumably to hinder his ability to run away), also forced him to cart their wounded for the rest of the afternoon. (To retaliate, Cathey and his foxhole buddy twice deliberately dropped a wounded, helmet-less German on his head.) Robert Grant and three others were carrying a German soldier with a terrible stomach wound when he slipped from their grasp. In a moment of instant triage, the guard motioned them to pick up someone less severely wounded, leaving the German soldier to die alone in a snowy field. When the number of wounded accumulated, some were left outside the bunker in freezing temperatures, and the next morning Grant and others piled the frozen corpses into a cart and hauled them to the nearest town.

After spending the night in crowded pillboxes with scores of crying, moaning Germans, this group of captured 99ers marched in subdued silence eastward through the West Wall. Along the way they saw long columns of tanks, tank destroyers, troop carriers, and infantrymen all headed west toward the 99th Division, so they suspected the Germans had launched a serious attack, though no one had any inkling of the operation's size. German soldiers shouted insults and boasted they would be in Paris by Christmas; some also tried to kick or hit the prisoners with their belts, and one German in a troop carrier slammed his rifle down on David Thompson's left shoulder as he walked along. But not all enemy soldiers were unfriendly. As Bill Mudra of K/393 and others stopped before a large house, a group of young Germans came by and chatted without enmity. Everyone laughed when one of the Germans piped up, "Hitler drafted me. Did Roosevelt draft you?" This young draftee recognized that infantry soldiers on both sides shared much in common.

On the following day the prisoners gathered in a large dance hall where interrogations began. Before they arrived there a 2nd Division GI bragged to Harold Wagner 1/393, "You won't find captured 2nd Division guys, just 99ers." But Wagner noticed 2nd Division prisoners there too. When other prisoners arrived, the GIs realized the American Army had suffered significant losses, perhaps even a catastrophe. Sitting behind a desk with a huge Swastika flag and photograph of Adolf Hitler on the wall, officers interrogated them. When asked for information, everyone offered just his name, rank, and serial number. Besides, the Germans knew more about the disposition of American troops than did the GIs. The German officer who questioned Elton Kerbo K/393 found him carrying a humorous postcard showing Hitler being tossed into a toilet. Kerbo worried what might happen, but the German just grinned and said, "Oh, Roosevelt."

Jack McElroy, part of the forward observation party for Cannon Company/394 (a battery of 105 howitzers) occupied a house close to the German-Belgium border in the village of Losheimergraben. When the German artillery barrage of Dec. 16 stopped, McElroy and his group withdrew in search of the company, which had moved from its original position. Unfortunately the howitzers had been placed on a bare hill in a highly vulnerable spot not far from the front. Locating the company just as it turned dark, McElroy joined 10 other guys who decided to sleep in a shallow, covered shelter constructed by an anti-aircraft unit that had wisely moved farther back to Elsenborn.

At 2 a.m. Dec. 17, McElroy awoke to the sounds of gunfire and the excited yell of the night guard: "There's [sic] some Krauts out here," followed by, "they hit me." The German paratroopers began throwing grenades that exploded on the shelter's roof. Since there was only one small exit, the men were trapped. To their surprise, a German-accented voice shouted in English, "Come out or you'll be killed." Seeing no option, they complied, despite their fear of being executed. The German soldiers lined them up in deep snow and began removing watches and other jewelry; the men assumed they were being prepared for execution, but no one was shot. McElroy secretly dropped his 1940 Tekamah, Neb., high school ring in the snow and neither the Germans nor anyone else ever found it.

In the morning, soon after they started moving eastward, American artillery shelled the road, and the heavily armed paratroopers and their prisoners scrambled up a ridge top and laid flat. After the shelling ceased, an American convoy approached and the Germans set up machine guns, opened fire, and riddled the Cannon Company trucks. Some men were killed, others wounded (and abandoned), and the rest surrendered.

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On Friday Dec. 15, 1944, Robert Gabriel A/394, and a buddy got the chance to go to Honsfeld for a shower, a few beers, hot food, and a cot. On the morning of Dec. 17, shouts by German troops in the streets awakened him and two dozen others. With no alternative the GIs surrendered and came out of the building in various states of dress and undress. Troopers of the 1st SS Panzer Division shouted at them to move away from the house. One SS officer carrying an American .45 caliber sub-machine gun came up to Gabriel and told him in German, "Make it so it won't shoot." Gabriel, who knew some German, closed the dust cover, which also served as the safety. The German placed the gun against Gabriel's stomach and pulled the trigger. When it did not fire, the German blithely said, "Gut." Nonetheless Gabriel worried what might happen next, but no one in his group was executed.

After an hour the SS troops continued on and paratroopers occupied the town, easing the tension considerably. Gabriel and other 99ers marched a few miles to Lanzerath, Belgium, where they joined roughly 200 other prisoners, including many from the 106th Division that had been overwhelmed south of the 99th's position. Gabriel and other prisoners were forced to collect frozen German corpses and wheelbarrow them into a barn where they stacked the bodies. Afterward they marched through the West Wall, where more POWs joined them, and spent the night in a large concrete bunker.

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German forces had raced behind the 2nd Battalion/394, and for three days the men tried to find their way back to American lines. Thinking that Mürringen, a village three miles west of the border and regimental headquarters, remained in American hands, the officers in charge carelessly ordered platoons to enter the town without first reconnoitering it. Actually regimental headquarters had pulled out, and the Germans held the village in force. Upon receiving machine gun fire, Sergeant William White led his squad into a stone barn, hoping they might be able to hold them off there. But the Germans began firing through windows, and bullets bounced off the walls, hitting the cows, wounding several men, and killing three. To avoid a massacre, the remaining squad members laid down their arms, went to the door, yelled, "Kamerad," and became prisoners. After a miserable night locked in a garage with no food, they marched out of town with their hands over their heads. They passed enemy tanks and equipment headed in the opposite direction, while German soldiers stopped GIs and took what they wanted.

Exhaustion replaced anxiety as columns of POWs trudged along to collecting points, where disbelieving, psychologically numb GIs were brought together. Having lost galoshes, combat boots, overcoats, and gloves to their captors, they suffered from the bone-penetrating winter cold, especially when confined outdoors or in unheated buildings. In addition to inadequate protection against freezing temperatures, the main problem would always be a lack of food, especially nutritious sustenance. Over time they grew weak from malnutrition and lost weight, 50 pounds on average over four and one-half months. Nevertheless enlisted men were forced to perform manual labor, further sapping their energy, but offering physical activity and sometimes the opportunity to pilfer food and keep alive.

Observing the military might the German Army had thrown at the Americans, the battle's outcome remained uncertain in their minds, and the POWs realized the war and their liberation might be prolonged for some time. In many cases the men were shocked and embarrassed by their capture, for "real" soldiers should not stop fighting, or so it was assumed. Bill Mudra K/393, admitted, "the pain within was great: a hard fight against self-pity, bitterness, and absolute melancholy."

The cohesiveness of the squad and platoon was destroyed. The Germans segregated officers from enlisted men, and sergeants did not have to work. A few members of the same squad and platoon managed to stay together, but often GIs were detached from their mates, ending up in separate barracks and even different prisons and work camps. Men were mixed with soldiers from other divisions, and some Americans were placed with British and Australian POWs. So the individual POW had to create connections with a few familiar faces or with strangers in an isolated world of extreme duress.

Bill Mudra's group marched seven miles and at noon rested in a children's school. There two young, friendly guards obtained half a loaf of dark bread per man, two cans of sardines between three men, six biscuit crackers apiece, and a real luxury, all the water they wanted. Mudra assumed conditions might not be so dire, but he was wrong; this little "feast" would be the most food he and others would consume until after liberation.

They moved on, walking for hours, even after dark. The long trek gave everyone time to think about the miserable situation. Mudra asked himself bitterly what other soldiers must have thought: "Why we had to suffer, while others safe in the smug comfort of home were probably oblivious to the smallest hardship?" Families subsequently received a telegram from the Army that identified a son or husband as MIA (missing in action). Families had to bear the terrible burden of not knowing for a month or more if their GI was alive or dead, let alone have any idea of the hardships he faced. Moreover, the POW could not console himself with the belief he was fighting the enemy, for his combat contribution had ended. Henceforth he could concentrate only on staying alive when it hardly mattered to the enemy.

At last Mudra's group turned into the courtyard of a palatial building that swarmed with Wehrmacht officers, who ignored the prisoners standing for several hours in the cold. At 10 p.m. the guards separated the POWs into two groups, one half to a civilian barn and the other bunch into a stockade. In the morning the Americans were permitted in the stockade yard where they quenched their thirst with snow. A few wretched Russians, some on crutches, wearing tattered clothes and rags, wandered around while their hollow faces revealed an advanced stage of starvation. American POWs tried to give the Russians leftover bread, but the Germans wouldn't allow it.

The guards produced a small mobile boiler and heated a thin pea soup for them. Before they ladled it out into helmets, the Germans cruelly shoved the Russians back into the building, so they received nothing. It certainly wasn't much of a breakfast, but they realized, given the condition of the Russians, the situation could be far worse. At midmorning the guards hustled them into two old trucks that puffed and crawled along and finally reached Flamersheim, a village three miles southeast of Euskirchen, where they joined a group from K Company. After receiving a cup of ersatz [substitute] coffee (some GIs derisively dubbed it "Hitler's coffee") and a bowl of barley soup, the 200 POWs were crammed into two rooms with burlap mats filled with straw serving as beds. Four times during the night they were awakened and marched downstairs to be counted.

The next morning, after eating a slice of hard black bread and a piece of sausage, they walked to the city of Euskirchen and worked the next two days at the railroad station, a dairy, a warehouse and the produce center. Mudra's group unloaded and sorted the vegetables farmers carted in. Four Russian boys, captured three years earlier when they were 10 and 11 years old, worked along side them and at noon brought a large pot of rice soup cooked by their German Hausfrau.

On the night of Dec. 21, several hundred more prisoners arrived in Flamersheim, and all were stuffed into two rooms upstairs in the prison. Since there was no space to lie down, everyone sat all night with his knees drawn up. To make matters worse, most suffered from dysentery caused by contaminated food and water. The only latrine was a barrel placed in one corner of the smaller room. Trying to step over bodies and find the barrel in the dark or wait their turn proved impossible; many simply defecated in their pants and the resulting stench became unbearable.

The next day a large number of POWs walked 12 miles to the old university town of Bonn situated on the banks of the Rhine River. Their departure relieved some overcrowding, but most of Mudra's buddies left with that group. He stayed two more days in Flamersheim and worked unloading boxcars in the city of Euskirchen. When U.S. planes passed overhead on bombing missions, Mudra fantasized about a not-too-distant liberation but knew there wouldn't be any turkey dinners that Christmas, not even C-rations and D-bars, which would have been an improvement over their meager, unappetizing fare.

Dec. 24 dawned bright but cold, as the 400 remaining prisoners in Flamersheim departed on foot for Bonn; along the way some men found and ate raw potatoes and turnips. In one village an angry mob of citizens shook their fists and shouted curses at the GIs because Allied planes were making their lives hell. Some speculated that the policy of marching prisoners through towns was designed to boost civilian morale by demonstrating Germany was indeed winning the war. At 2 p.m. the POWs reached a transit prison camp dominated by French inmates, who received more food, or so the Americans believed. Inside the concrete block buildings, divided into spacious rooms, the Germans had placed small stoves but would not allow them to be used at night; consequently the cold easily infiltrated broken windowpanes. As Milton May N/394, lay down on the concrete floor with an empty stomach, he imagined what his folks at home would be eating for Christmas dinner. Bill Mudra and the other shivering POWs did not know what the future held, except movement farther away from American forces; it was a depressing, lonely Christmas Eve, a nightmare that stretched out to an uncertain end date.

Christmas Day produced a few reasons to be a little happier. First, everyone received a bowl of hot cabbage soup, including a few potato chunks, and one-sixth of a loaf of black bread. Milton May thought, "No stateside turkey would have tasted better." Second, they enjoyed ringside seats to a dogfight between a gray German Messerschmidt and a high-powered American P-51 fighter. When the pursuing American's machine guns struck the German plane in the midsection, it burst into flames, which elicited cheers from the POWs.

Bonn served as a central distribution center for POWs, and the guards crammed and locked a large group of 99ers in boxcars (60 or more men to each small European boxcar designed for 40 men or eight horses) headed for Limburg, a city roughly 45 miles southeast of Bonn. Some German civilians came to gawk at the disheveled Americans, but one "courageous lady" brought a platter of cookies, from which Furman Grimm L/394 took one and told her, "God bless you." The GIs received only a cup of ersatz coffee and a piece of bread with a little honey for their Christmas breakfast. The "peep peep" toy sound emitted by the locomotive's whistle ironically contradicted the brutal conditions inside the cars. Shipped like livestock headed for a slaughterhouse, the men suffered deprivation and humiliation, underscored by crammed quarters and the lack of any sanitary facilities. William White, who was without gloves and an overcoat, remembered the freezing temperatures and the ice on the inside of the boxcar. Squeezed together on the floor, the men tried to lift their spirits by singing Christmas carols, but there was little to celebrate except they were still alive. It was White's first Christmas apart from his wife Rena and he, like so many others, could not dispel the pain of homesickness.

Hammelburg

After traveling several hours they arrived in Limburg, disembarked from the train, and marched to the Stalag [Stammlager] XIIA. But British aircraft had bombed several barracks (killing prisoners) two nights earlier, so there was no room for the new arrivals. The POWs turned around and walked back to the station, where they discovered the train had left. Forced to wait outdoors most of the day for their train to return, they walked around to keep from freezing. Knowing the GIs had not eaten, a German guard teased and humiliated them by cutting a slice of bread into small pieces and throwing them on the railroad tracks. Stan Colby would not play the German's mean game but others scrambled for the crumbs. Robert Grant and Howard Harris recalled that some German housewives gave pastries to the guards, but none for the POWs. Robert Grant said bitterly, "All we could do was watch and think about Christmas back home."

One prisoner collapsed but the guards would not allow him to be taken into the station, which fueled anger toward the German soldiers (the sick prisoner died some days later). It was as if, Marvin Snyder G/394, concluded, "they didn't care what happened to us." Snyder ate a piece of cheese he had saved and drank hot water, as did others, that trickled off a steam engine sitting in the railroad yards. A group of prisoners, including Sergeant Dwight Bishop, began to softly sing "White Christmas" but lost enthusiasm in the cold. Forced back into the boxcars without food and water, the POWs were transported to Stalag XIIIC near Hammelburg, 100 miles to the east in Bavaria, a little north of the Main River and the city of Würzburg.

Since the small boxcars were enclosed, except for one small, rectangular porthole located high up at each end, the POWs could not even pass the time watching the scenery as they sat between their neighbor's legs. Faint light penetrated holes and cracks in the daytime, but at night they shivered in total darkness not knowing where they were going, except farther into Germany's interior. Most of the men remained quiet but sullen, a few expressed anger, and others wept. Everyone endured a degree of fearfulness, for they had no idea what might happen to them. Some thought about Christmas and home, but they had to focus on survival, then, and in the coming months.

They relieved themselves in their helmets, which were passed to the man nearest the porthole, who proceeded to throw out the stinky contents through the small opening. But this was difficult to accomplish, so men often just urinated in the crack of the door. Once or twice the trains stopped and the men were allowed to dump their helmets (if they still had them), empty their bladders, and drink some water. Many of the men had become heavy smokers; consequently they suffered nicotine withdrawal symptoms. The lack of food only increased this desire. William Heroman C/393, remembered when the train halted and the doors opened for a break, the smokers jumped down and scrambled for leaves, grass, and even rose stems, anything that might replace the missed nicotine.

While the train stopped at one railroad junction, British planes bombed the yards. Robert Gabriel recalled the darkness, the screams, the noise, the ground shaking, and their helplessness, as the guards would not release them from the boxcars. On Dec. 26, after being confined for 24 hours, the POWs reached Hammelburg. They walked through the narrow cobblestone streets as German civilians poked their heads out to look at the first American prisoners. Some residents handed baked goods to the guards but not to the prisoners, who walked south three miles to Hammelburg lager, a former German Army training center that had been converted into a large prison camp. Since the prison was located in a saucer-shaped hollow on top of a plateau, the walk uphill with snow on the ground proved especially difficult for men with frozen feet; Dwight Bishop was in such bad shape that two men had "to carry me up that long hill from the rail station to the POW camp." The huge camp (30,000 enlisted men and eventually 4,000 officers) was divided by nationality (Russian, Serb, French, British, and American) and by rank — commissioned officers at the north end, Oflag XIIIB, while sergeants, corporals, and privates crowded the southern barracks, Stalag XIIIC.

According to Marvin Snyder, enlisted men of the 99th Division and the 106th Infantry Division supplied the first group of American POWs at Hammelburg. The privates were assigned to wooden barracks while the non-commissioned officers (non-coms) stayed in a one-story, brick-and-plaster horse stable. Two rows of barbed wire fences with guard towers, lights, and machine guns surrounded the entire camp. Close to the inside fence, the Germans had placed a warning wire a foot off the ground. The prisoners were told that anyone who stepped over that wire or who ventured outside the locked barracks at night would be shot.

The Germans were unprepared, in terms of shelter and food, for such a large influx of new prisoners accumulated during the Battle of the Bulge, a problem that worsened as the Russian Army advanced through Poland and Eastern Germany, forcing the Germans to march their prisoners westward. Hitler foolishly believed the POWs could be used as a bargaining chip with the Allied powers. By the end of 1944 the Germans held two million POWs, including 95,000 Americans.

Since heating was minimal, the men suffered from the bitter cold in flimsy barracks and the stable. The Germans issued each man a thin, wool blanket, which the prisoners kept wrapped around themselves. At night many slept two men to a narrow bunk, with two blankets on top, so that each benefited from the body heat of his bunkmate. No one thought anything about this unusual sleeping arrangement because survival triumphed over civilian social codes. The guard who commanded Emil Wieleba's C/394 barracks (where the men stripped to their underwear), however, stopped this practice, which he thought encouraged homosexual behavior.

Since the mattresses were gunny sacks filled with straw, lice thrived in their beds. Day and night men scratched their bodies especially about the stomach, ankles, and head. They spent an enormous amount of time killing the lice and squeezing the eggs, which settled into the seams of their clothes. Many but not all men had one cold shower, but as soon as the men returned to their bunks, the lice hungrily hopped on their warm prey. The first morning began with a roll call (appell) or a count of the prisoners, a practice repeated twice a day, often taking 45 minutes or more in freezing weather — a method of determining if any escapes had occurred while humiliating their captives. On this occasion the officer asked all Jews to step forward, warning terrible consequences would occur if Jewish soldiers failed to identify themselves. The German assured the group that no harm would come to the Jews but would if they failed to let the authorities know. Sensing danger, Goldstein refused to move, but other GIs, either out of concern for Goldstein or for themselves, kept saying, "You'd better step out, Al." Finally, the murmuring became so loud he felt he had no choice but to identify himself. (In other barracks most Jews remained stationary but some did move to the front.) The Jewish prisoners were escorted to a separate barracks. Worried about what might happen, Goldstein slipped out that night and returned to his original barracks. No one said anything. That daring move may have saved his life. Later, when registering and receiving new German dog tags, Goldstein and other unidentified Jews maintained they were Protestants. A short, mustached German guard asked Ray Wenzel, "What are you doing here with a German name like that?" Wenzel replied, "I was born in the USA, thank goodness."

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