Heroes: the Army
"...So "C" company's two machine gun squads and third platoon crossed in front of the German pill box under withering fire in the dark..."
Robert L. Eastman
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: Co. C., 407th Regiment,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: PFC
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Rochester, NY
Prisoner of War
Bob Eastman, Co. C., 407th
It was dark and overcast with a light rain falling as we climbed into the open 6 x 6 trucks the morning after Thanksgiving Day 1944 and headed for the front. We were going back on line.
Our light machine gun squad and riflemen from the third platoon crowded onto the wooden seats and floor of the truck. We felt fortunate we had the opportunity to enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner in the comparative safety of a reserve position while elements of the 405th and 406th regiments were actively engaged in fierce fighting around Apweiler, Waurichen, and Immendort. Little did I realize, at the time, this would be the last meal of that type I would have for the next six months.
Our convoy of trucks bumped and splashed along the deep-rutted roads and deposited us at a site just west of the village of Puftendorf. We silently dismounted and marched along the road to where it intersected with the Aachen-Linnich highway, passing the mud-spattered body of a dead German soldier laying alongside the road.
We dug foxholes at the Puffendorf crossroads, withstood an afternoon German artillery barrage, and to avoid direct observation by the Germans, waited until darkness to move into Geronsweiler. It was Friday, Nov. 24.
For three nights we stayed in a cellar in Geronswieler. On Monday evening, Nov. 27, again after dark, Company C moved into the fields outside of town and occupied the front line trenches, relieving B Company.
During the evening hours of Tuesday, November 28, Sgt. Henry Ferrini, our squad leader, informed us we were moving up about 300-400 yards to the crest of a small rise in the ground before dawn the next morning. Upon reaching the crest, we were to halt, dig a foxhole and stay put until further orders, or in the event of an attack from the Germans, to respond with fire.
So before daybreak on November 29, we climbed out of our trenches and started in a northeast direction toward Linnich, alternately walking, crouching, and crawling over the soggy sugar beet field. The third platoon was on our left and the first platoon was to the right. The two light machine gun squads were together between the two platoons. The second platoon and the three mortar squads were coming up later.
War Department telegram received by
Eastman's father ten days before Christmas 1944.
We had no sooner got out of our trenches then the Germans started a mortar barrage. They couldn't hit us with machine gun fire because we were still on the reverse side of the hill from them. Along with the mortars, the Germans sent over flares, which lit up the battlefield to make it look almost like daylight. I can still vividly recall the sound of the dirt that was blown into the air by the mortars as it rained down on my steel helmet.
My machine gun squad continued moving forward, following Sgt. Ferrini. The mortars and flares increased in intensity, and now we heard machine gun fire, that distinctive sound of the German machine gun. The fire was passing squarely in front of us, across the path of direction we were going. As we crawled closer, we could detect a small farm road, raised about a foot above the surrounding ground. The machine gun fire, coming from a pill box on the north side of the Geronsweiler- Linnich highway, was following the course of the road.
Sgt. Henry Ferrini crawled to the edge of the elevated road, looked back to make sure we were all following him, stood up, and dashed across the road. I am sure a spurt of machine gun fire followed his dash by a split second. One by one, we followed him over the road. I watched the ones in front of me and it seemed the machine gun fire always followed a split second after their mad dash. So "C" company's two machine gun squads and third platoon crossed in front of the German pill box under withering fire in the dark. I was carrying the spare parts box and spare barrel for our machine gun.
During my mad dash past the pill box, I dropped the spare barrel in the middle of the raised dirt road. After realizing what I had done, I crawled ahead to Sgt. Ferrini and told him what had happened. He said to crawl back onto the road and retrieve the spare barrel. I said something like, "Man, I'm not going back up on that road again. After all, we still have the barrel that's on the gun." Sgt. Ferrini didn't take too kindly to my remark and in much stronger language told me to go back and get the spare barrel I had dropped.
Without further argument, I turned , crawled back to the road, waited until I thought there was a pause in the German firing, and then dashed to the middle of the road, turned and came back in a leap to the side of the road, clutching the spare barrel in my hand. So I had two encounters with the pill box.
Being on the forward slope of the hill now, the German lines which were now directly in front of us, could hit us with frontal machine gun fire. The dirt road I mentioned was undoubtedly the crest of the slight hill. You can ask why we didn't stop. Or perhaps go back to the hill crest. Probably the German pill box we just passed made us decide not to go back, so we went forward. The two machine gun squads, headed by Sgt. Ferrini and Sgt. Cross [Frank L.], crawled toward the German lines.
While we were laying on the ground, a medic passed us heading toward the rear. He had a figure jack-knifed over his shoulder. Someone said,
"There goes Lt. McCurdy [Richard F.](our platoon leader)." Apparently he must have been in front of us and had been wounded.
It began to get light and artillery started to fall on us, coming from both the American and German sides. At this time, we were flat on our stomachs about 50 feet in front of the German trenches. Someone to my right yelled that there was a trench nearby. Sgt. Ferrini said to jump into it. So our two machine gun squads plus a rifleman from the third platoon crawled over to it and dove in head first. The trench left the main German trench (where the German fire was coming from) at a right angle and ran back toward our lines where it became a dead end against the raised road that was covered by the pill box machine gun.
POW dog tag issued by German government.
It contained prisoner's number and stalag.
We took stock of ourselves. There were 10 of us. One fellow thought he had a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder. He didn't. We were momentarily safe. We were off the flat ground and down in a trench. Suddenly, there was a rifle shot next to us. We thought one of our own men had fired his weapon accidently. Instead it was a German sniper in the trench before us. One of our men had decided to stand up and look around. This attracted the Germans and let them know some Americans had gotten into their trenches.
We in turn returned the fire. We looked for our machine guns, carbines, M1s, etc. No where in sight. They had all been left laying on the soggy ground when we dove for the safety of the trench we were in, but we had several 45 caliber pistols and each of us had 6 or 7 hand grenades. So we began our engagement with the Germans in one of their own trenches with pistols and hand grenades.
We quickly spotted the sniper. He was in front of us, but to the right. He would expose himself and Rayford Andrews and Sgt. Cross [Frank L.] would fire at him with the 45s, but he never would show himself above the trench in the same place. This shooting at each other lasted for some time. Meanwhile the sun was up and shining, and behind us from across the battlefield, we could hear American voices shouting. I thought I head words like satchel charge, bangalore torpedo, etc. Perhaps that troublesome pill box was finally being taken out?
Back in out trench again, the private war between the sniper and us was heating up. Rayford Andrews did not change his position when he rose to fire, and eventually the German sniper got him. Andrews received a bullet through the steel helmet and into the head. He fell into a foot of water that was in the trench, moaned for an hour, and then became still.
When the firing continued to come from us, the Germans determined there had been more than one American opposing them. So several more started firing at us directly in front. Our 45 caliber ammunition was about exhausted so we resorted to hand grenades. We passed them up to Sgt. Cross, the first man, and he tossed them over a small dirt mound to where the firing was coming from. I later saw we killed three Germans with those grenades.
1942 photograph of PW barracks at Stalag IIA.
Each nationality &emdash; French, Russian, American,
et at. - had its own area.
Sgt. Cross, because he exposed himself when throwing the grenades, received two bullets through his helmet, but none touched his head. One bullet came so close that after passing through the helmet and liner, it cut in half the toilet paper Cross was carrying in the webbing.
Eventually, our grenades were gone also, so we decided to become quiet, wait until night fall, and then crawl back to our lines. We could not escape via the trench we were in because before us lay the German front line and behind us the trench dead-ended. So we sat, not talking, or even moving in the water.
Shortly after noon, we heard someone walking toward us in the water in the forward part of our trench. We said, "Shhhh," and held an empty 45 caliber pistol at ready. Suddenly a German soldler appeared around a little bend in the trench. He froze on the spot at what he saw one dead American in the water and nine very much alive. Derwood Baird instantly raised the 45 and said, "Hands up." The German complied. We asked him where he was going. He said he was coming to take the papers off the dead American.
The other German soldiers just a few yards away heard us talking and shouted over "Was ist los?" We told the one German we had captured to tell his comrades to lay down their arms and come around the bend in the trench and surrender to us. I don't know what we would have done with four or five German prisoners in a narrow trench, the width of one man.
Those Germans replied, "Nein", by beginning to lobe those potato masher grenades in the direction of our trench. Even though we were still holding one of their men, the grenades were aimed to fall in the trench among us. One of our guys said, "We'll all be killed, I think we should surrender." Another guy said, "We'd better take a vote to see who is in favor." So we voted. The results were eight 'yes' and one' no.' The member opposed let his feelings on the matter be known by uttering "F___ 'em."
So we extended the empty 45 caliber pistol to the German we had captured. He called to his comrades to stop throwing the grenades because he had just captured nine Americans. I have often thought how this ludicrous little scene played out. We had captured a German with an empty pistol and he captured nine Americans with the same empty gun!
We filed past our former prisoner's three comrades. They were dressed in ponchos and were just as dirty and wet as we were. One said to me in fairly good English, "You are lucky. For you the war is over."
I could see above the ground now and off to my left I counted five motionless American bodies, members of the third platoon, all killed less than fifty feet from the German lines. Another American lay on the ground behind the German who had spoken to me, and I thought I saw his hands move as he tucked them between his drawn up knees. It was George Illis, pretending to be dead. He laid there motionless in the mud and damp for the entire day and after dark succeeded in crawling back to Company "C's" line which was now at the crest of the slight hill which had been covered by the pill box earlier in the day. George Illis' story is told in the Winter 1989 issue of Ozark Notes (Vol. 41 # 2).
Letters sent home used special PW envelopes.
Here's one mailed by Eastman and postmarked
January 24, 1945.
Ted Troff followed me as we left the trench where Rayford Andrews lay dead in the water. He stopped in front of one of the soldiers holding a pistol on us and, in German, calmly asked, "Do you speak English? I learned German in school." At a time like that, Troff was wondering if his school learned German could be understood! In disbelief, considering the moment and place, the astonished soldier waved Ted on with his luger.
A few feet beyond the spot of Troff's matter-of-fact inquiry, three German soldiers lay dead, killed by the volley of hand grenades thrown by Sgt. Frank Cross and Derwood Baird. They were still flesh colored and wet blood could be seen on their disfigured necks and faces. We stepped around their bodies and were directed into a trench leading to the rear toward the Geransweiler-Linnich road.
Halfway to the Linnich road, our small group of nine was diverted out of the trench to a larger below-the-ground area. It was a German troop shelter with canvas hanging over the entrance. Troff was motioned into the shelter, undoubtedly because it was thought he could speak German.
Inside a German officer, after first trying to converse in German, which Troff could not understand, then changed to good English asking Troff what his division and regiment were. Troff replied that under the Geneva Convention, he was only required to give his name, rank, and serial number.
The German officer smiled and replied that they knew all about the American units opposing them anyway. As Ted turned to leave, the officer asked, "You wouldn't have a cigarette would you?" Ted gave him one and as he was raising the canvas flap to leave the troop shelter, the German officer wondered if perhaps Ted would have a cigarette for his aide.
After the troop shelter, we left the trench for open ground and American sharp shooters in the Geronsweiler church steeple immediately began firing at us. The soldier guarding us waved his hands, as if to dismiss the action, because the bullets were 40 to 50 feet over our heads.
Just as we entered Linnich, P-47 airplanes flew over and greeted us by dive bombing the town. It was about 2:30 pm, Wednesday, Nov. 29. We had been POWs for less than an hour and already subjected to American infantry and air force fire. I was beginning to wonder how lucky I was, remembering what the German soldier had said.
To avoid the P-47's machine guns, we all ducked into the doorways of the destroyed buildings. We were led to a cellar in Linnich where we spent the night. I ate a K-ration, emptied the water out of my overshoes, and contemplated my situation. I had never, never thought of being captured. We young guys, all privates, all 19-21 years old, thought that only two things could happen to us. We would either be killed or wounded. Becoming a prisoner of war never entered our minds.
During the night more prisoners were brought into our cellar, men from other 407th companies, the 405th regiment and 84th Division. About midnight, an officer brought us some pickles and home canned fruit which had been found by scavenging in nearby bombed out cellars. He was cleanly dressed, and on his uniform I spotted the skull and lightening bolts, the first indication I had that we were fighting the SS.
Early on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 30, the 25 of us who had been in the cellar, filed out and walked across the Roer River bridge toward the German rear. The artillery had opened up already on both sides and I imagined the battle had started again. I had a feeling that maybe I would make it through the war after all, as the sound of artillery gradually faded and the Roer River fell farther and farther behind.
Suddenly, a realization gripped me, as I walked toward the enemy rear. The sights and sounds of combat that I had been conditioned to for the past weeks were gone. You prepare months or years for combat, yet you become a prisoner of war in minutes and are unprepared. What will take the place of the military discipline and unit identification that were a part of our daily life?
As I walked silently along with Ted Troff, Derwood Baird, Murray Barsky, Sgt. Henry Ferrini, Sgt. Frank Cross, and the others, I found the answer. It was a time for personal discipline to accept whatever the future held and to form a closer bond with one or two of those around me. I followed my own advice and it served me well throughout my captivity.
Our walk continued throughout the day. More prisoners joined our column. A neatly dressed air force lieutenant, in clean trousers and jacket, shot down only hours earlier, was given a huge white bedsheet to carry at the end of the column. Its purpose was soon learned when an American fighter plane appeared around mid-day and swooped down to investigate. Spotting the large white sheet, and noting that the column didn't disperse into the ditches at the side of the road at the sight of an airplane (our German guards kept us on the road), the P-51 pilot acknowledged us by tilting his wings several times and then disappeared into the clouds.
Our group of prisoners, which now numbered close to 100, slept in a barn the first night on the road. For nourishment, we were each given a cup of weak tea. The second day, we walked another fifteen miles in the direction of the Rhine River. That night we were housed in a private home, warm but very cramped. Here we displayed our dog tags and the first record of our prisoner of war status was made by the German government.
Photo of Bob Eastman (right) and Ted Troff
taken in August 1944. They remained together
as POWs. Troff later was best man at Eastman's wedding.
The following morning Troff and several other prisoners were separated from the group and led out into a brick enclosed courtyard and ordered to line up against a wall. Two German soldiers with automatic weapons faced them sternly. I'm sure they thought their lives would soon be over. After awhile an SS officer ran out into the courtyard. "Hold it!," he cried. From his jacket pocket be brought out a motion picture camera and scanned the line up. "For the movies in Berlin," he explained, "to show the glorious victories of the Reich."
The third and final day on the road brought us to Dusseldorf. We had walked fifty miles from Linnich in three days on a cup of tea, a bowl of watery soup, and whatever K-rations we had when captured. However, a German soup kitchen was waiting for us in Dusseldorf, where we were given as much thick pea soup, with meat yet (probably horse meat), as our stomachs would hold. We didn't even mind when our steel helmets were taken, on the pretext we wouldn't need them.
The good feeling of a full stomach was short lived as one of the darkest moments of my POW experience was about to unfold.
We were each given a three inch chunk of bread, a small amount of sausage and cheese, and told we were being sent by train to a prison camp. Our food would be sufficient for the day and a half trip. We marched to the Dusseldorf railroad station, were herded into familiar "40 and 8" box cars and watched as the sliding doors were closed and locked. Ted Troff and I found a spot against the wall, sat down on the straw that covered the floor, and waited for the train to pull out.
This was Fall 1944 and the British Air Force had, for some time, been conducting night-time raids of 1000 planes on the cities of the Ruhr and Rhineland. Tonight was to be no exception. Hours after we had been locked in the boxcars, we heard the first faint sounds of massed aircraft. A single distant explosion was followed by multiple explosions much closer. We then heard a different sound. It was the German anti-aircraft guns responding, someone said. We were in the middle of a 1000 plane raid on the Dusseldorf railroad yards!
Just at the height of the raid, we felt our boxcar pitch forward, stop, then move ahead again. The increasingly rapid lurches associated with a steam engine told us we were gathering speed and moving out of the railroad yard. It being well past midnight, the occupants of our car fell asleep in relief.
As the train moved through the German country side the following day, stopping at times for several hours, we ate the bread, cheese and meat we each were given. After all, we would be at the prison camp that evening or early next morning we thought. Our second night on the train passed, and morning found us stopped on a siding. Repeated pounding on the sides of our boxcar to open it for a toilet break brought no response from the German guards. Instead the train started up and pulled back onto the main track.
Those prisoners who could wait no longer or who were suffering from diarrhea made their way to a small opening near the door and relieved themselves.
The third day on the train passed and we were facing a third night confined to our "prison" car. Food was gone, tempers flared, the area closest to the sliding door was filthy with feces and urine. One GI had to be subdued by his buddies for pulling a knife in a fight with another prisoner.
The third night in the car proved restless and it turned cold. Troff, Barsky and I lay close together, taking turns being in the middle because it was the warmest spot.
As dawn broke on the fourth day, the train was still moving, but rather slowly, It finally stopped and for the first time since entering the car three nights earlier, we heard German voices. The sliding door was pulled back and we were motioned out for a toilet break.
As some jumped from the car, their legs crumbled from lack of activity. Others slipped on the human waste at the door and fell on the rail tracks and rocks below. After 15 minutes we were directed back into our boxcars. Even with repeated questioning, our guards could tell us nothing.
So our train started up, alternately traveling at slow and rapid speeds, as we made our way into central Germany. The fourth day wore on. We were hungry, cold, some were sick, but most were silent. It was as if a quiet resignation had set in.
Our fourth night in the locked boxcar passed. The human waste near the door was growing in area. It was rumored one of the men in our car had died. We didn't even bother to investigate. Troff, Barsky and I didn't want to give up the little area of straw we had staked out when we first entered the car.
Around noon the fifth day, the train stopped, and we could hear considerable German being spoken. One of our men looked through the cracks and reported seeing quite a flew soldiers and what looked like army barracks. Our box car door was slid open and we were told to get out. After four nights and five days on a locked boxcar, we had arrived at Stalag 11 B near Hannover.
It was a transient camp for us because we stayed there for only ten days, but it was a welcome respite after the five days in the boxcar. Here we showered, had our clothes deloused, wrote a postcard home, received a Red Cross food parcel, and began to feel human again.
Ten days before Christmas, we boarded the train again for a trip to our permanent camp, Stalag 2A, north of Berlin, near Neubrandenburg. Remembering our recent train ride, we hoarded our food in anticipation of a longer trip than promised. The ride was short, however, because the rail lines in this part of Germany were largely undamaged.
Stalag 2A was a large camp with prisoners from Russia, France, Poland, Britain, Holland and America. Each nationality had its own barracks and exercise yard, separated by fences. On Christmas Eve the Germans opened the gates between the various nationalities and we mingled freely with the other prisoners.
In our barracks, we erected a Christmas tree and decorated it with inflated condoms. On Christmas Eve we gathered around the tree and sang Christmas Carols. Now before you start thinking what a homey scene this is, let me set you straight. This was just at the time when the German drive in the Ardennes was at its peak, and the German guards were flushed with the good news. They were bossy, arrogant, and downright mean. Their attitude was completely different from that of the German guards we encountered when we were first captured.
Those Stalag guards pushed us, made us line up in double time in the freezing cold for roll call, and turned off the lights in our barracks at night without notice or reason. Also, new American prisoners began arriving daily, most captured in the Battle of the Bulge. When we learned there were bakers, truck drivers, regimental clerks, and even division personnel among the prisoners, we realized that the German army had indeed broken through our lines and penetrated deeply. Stories of German successes related to us by the new arrivals dampened our hopes for a quick end to the war and early release from the PW camp.
All in all, the month spent from mid-December to mid-January in Stalag 2A was not too comfortable. The attitude of our guards changed with the fortunes of the German army on the western front. By January 15, the Germans had been pushed back to their original lines and our guards assumed a more civil attitude.
The weather was bitter cold and the snow piled high, but we were inside and warm. Each day a work party with a guard went into the forests and gathered enough wood for 24 hours of heating in the large iron stove centered in our barracks. Each week a Red Cross food parcel was given to every two men. Ted Troff and I shared it. It contained Spam, Velveeta cheese, Sunkist raisins, etc. all welcomed food, but with recognizable names that for a moment brought distant America to the rough table tops we ate on. The parcels also contained instant coffee, chocolate bars and cigarettes which were popular items with the Germans and could be readily traded for more staple foods such as bread and sausage. The weekly Red Cross food parcel was almost as good as a letter from home.
Sgt. Ferrini and Sgt. Cross, the two non-coms captured with us, were soon separated from us after arriving at Stalag 2A. Under the German prisoner of war system, separate camps held Army non-coins and Army officers. Air corps officers and non-coms had their own camps as well. Privates had to work, so generally did not remain at a large prison camp but were sent out as work parties to nearby localities.
On January 15, my prisoner of war number 160155 - was called and 65 other men and I were sent to Teterow, a small town about 35 miles froin Stalag 2A, to work. We were housed in a former beer hall, now filled with triple-decker bunk beds and rough tables and benches. The four men from our machine gun squad: Troff, Baird, Barsky [Murray H.] and I, were still together.
On the third day in our new home, a local farmer came into our barracks and asked for twenty farmers to work in the forests and on his farm. Three of us stepped forward even though we knew nothing about farming. It seemed like a good job. We would be close to a food supply and remote from any bombings. I had been given a long red overcoat worn by the Czechoslovakian army in World War I when I left Stalag 2A for Teterow, The coat, along with a fur hat and thick gloves I had purchased from a Russian for five cigarettes on Christmas Eve when we could visit their quarters, would protect me against the cold when working out-of-doors. I forgot about my shoes, though.
While cutting wood in the forests, with over a foot of snow on the ground, my feet would freeze and I would hold my shoes over the fire we always built to thaw out my feet and dry my shoes. With repeated exposure to the hot fire, the thread holding the sole to the upper shoe burned and the soles began to pull away. I hoped the shoes would last until warm weather, as Spring was approaching.
I prevailed on the German guard who was always with us to let me tend the fire and not go into the deep snow drifts in the forest to cut wood for fuel. My shoes might last a few weeks longer if I kept them out of the fire.
I never knew if the German guard was showing sympathy for my footwear when he agreed to let me tend the fire or was more concerned about the daily quota of kindling expected from each member of our work party, because one day, as the two of us were huddled by the fire, he told me I was a lazy as a Russian.
The thaws came and it was time for spring plowing. Derwood Baird told Troff and me that handling a plow behind a team of oxen was just like plowing with horses. We said, "Whoaa! What's this oxen bit? We know from nothing when it comes to any kind of plowing!" Prison life being boring, we readily accepted the challenge, however.
Baird, who was an agriculture major at the University of Kentucky before entering the service, hitched up a pair of oxen to plow and Troff and I took turns plowing. The oxen were constantly stepping over the lines to the plow and to straighten them out, one of us would kick the oxen's ankle as hard as we could and when his leg flinched, we pulled the line under his hoof.
Planting potatoes was another spring time chore on the farm. Several of our men would walk ahead and dig small holes six inches deep. I walked behind and dropped one small potato into each hole. Someone followed me and covered the hole. At times I would deposit two or three potatoes in one hole if the potatoes were small.
Typical triple decker bunks in POW barracks.
Each had a straw mattress and one blanket.
One day the superintendent of the farm, an elderly German gentleman in his 70s, followed me and with his cane began digging in the holes. When he discovered two or three potatoes in one hole, he was furious. I thought he was going to hit me with his cane. I became very careful in my potato planting over the next several days, one hole - one potato.
The elderly German farmer was given the name of Step-and-a half by us because of the unusual way he walked with his cane. The practice of giving names to the German soldiers and German civilians we came into contact with was common practice among prisoners-of-war. It served a very practical purpose. Since there was never any formal introduction between captor and captured, it enabled us to identify the person we were referring to when conversing among ourselves.
There was Handsome Harry, the German guard. Two old German men who occasionally guarded us were named Camp Gruber and Fort Sheridan after the army bases in the USA where their sons were held prisoner by the Americans. We also had some choice epithets, which I won't put down here, for those German guards who did not endear themselves to us.
Our work continued on the farm as warm spring weather arrived. Often Troff and I were selected by the farm manure hauler to help him haul and spread manure at various locations. Because of our persistent questions about conditions in the Third Reich, he teasingly called us Herr Doctor and Herr Professor. Once we asked him why the German people had such loyalty to Hitler. "Before Hitler," he said, 'no work, no food, no clothes." "Now," he added, "we do, plus all this." He pointed proudly to a neat and attractive line of red brick town houses. "Hitler built these," he said. How could we ever convince him that his new prosperity was founded on confiscated property and slave labor?
Occasionally we would miss a day of work on the farm. This occurred when we were sent into the town of Teterow to perform some chore. On just such a day, I along with several others, were marched through the streets to where a dead horse lay. We were told by a civilian we were to bury it. We looked at the horse, at the person giving the order and then at each other. Slowly our heads moved sideways and someone said, "Nope."
The German official looked startled. Another prisoner said there was nothing in the Geneva Convention about having to bury a dead horse. The German sputtered and fumed, made gestures with his hands, and after 10 minutes stormed away - all the while we stood quiet, making no effort to move. With his departure, our German guard, who had remained silent throughout, told us to fall into line and he marched us back to the barracks. There was nothing unusual about our behavior in this matter. It was standard procedure to give the Germans a hard time as long as we could get away with it.
On another occasion, Troff and I were not so smart. We were called down by the German officer in charge of our barracks. We had been in town on another work detail, this time filling an air raid trench so potatoes could be planted. It was an exceptionally warm day and admittedly we weren't working too hard. In addition, we were clowning around, making believe the shovel blade was a microphone and announcing the news like Edward R. Morrow. Our elderly guard profoundly announced he had learned a great truth. "Americans were like children," he said, "always goofing around."
After dinner that night, the guard entered our barracks and motioned for Troff and me to follow him. We were met outside by a German officer who told us we were reported by a German civilian for not working hard enough. The charge was we were not putting enough dirt on our shovels and were goofing around. The officer informed us we could be sent to a hard labor camp for this. We promised to put more dirt on our shovels, and be more serious and he dismissed us.
People ask how I was treated when they hear I was a prisoner of war. I always say there was never any physical punishment, just always a lack of food. We still ate far better than the average German civilian, however. Along with the weekly Red Cross food parcel, which I shared with Ted Troff, we had all the potatoes, carrots and onions we could steal from the farm where we worked.
Guard tower and double fence of
Stalag IIA shown in winter.
Our clothing was another matter. We were beginning to look ragged. The last of my army uniform I had were the shirt and trousers. After the soles of my shoes finally fell off, I bought a pair of Belgium army shoes for three cigarettes. They were one size too small so I cut the toes off and the heels out. My socks had long since disappeared so my bare toes stuck out in front. The weather had turned warm so it didn't matter. The dirt didn't bother me either because I hadn't bathed or showered in four months.
Physically, it was the teeth that suffered the most. With no toothpaste or brush, and no dental care available, most PWs came home badly in need of a dentist.
When under German guard, our actions were controlled, but when we were alone in our barracks we disciplined ourselves. I don't remember anybody with the title of Barracks Chief like you see in the movies. But we were asked by our captors to elect one person who could speak German as our liaison to the camp commander. He was called The Confidence Man.
One day an event occurred that none of us liked to see. One of our fellow prisoners was caught stealing food from another man's Red Cross food carton. This was about the worst crime a POW could commit. A kangaroo court was held and 20 swats with a belt was decided upon for punishment. The man, a member of the 84th Division I believe, removed his own pants, bent over the table, and took the twenty lashes without a whimper.
As April wore on, we began to see refuges from the east coming through our town, all heading west. By the third week in April, the stream of refuges had become a flood. We were still going out to the fields from our barracks in town every moining, and we had a front row seat to observe the humanity being swept ahead of a crumbling army front.
There were PWs of all nationalities who had been evacuated from camps in East Prussia; concentration camp victims in striped pajamas; German soldiers in full uniform who had deserted from the Russian front; civilians pushing baby carriages loaded with their possessions; horse drawn wagons carrying sick and elderly; and so on. It was a tableau that made me wonder if the world would ever be an orderly, civilized place again.
Then it became our turn. On the morning of April 29, we learned that our guards had fled west in the night. They had left the gates open, and we were free to do the same. From some refugees coming from the east we had been told of the barbarism of the Soviet troops. Some of the prisoners in our barracks elected to stay and be liberated by the Soviets who were only 24 hours away. Most of us, however, didn't want to chance the truth of the refugees' tales, so we fled west, too.
Just before leaving the former beer hall that had been our prison for the past 3 1/2 months, Troff and I joined the others in breaking into the Red Cross food parcel room and stocking up for a hike - with no idea how long that hike would last.
I found a pair of army "long-john" underwear, tied knots in the two legs, filled them with canned goods, cheese, etc., slung the pack over my shoulder, and took off with the throngs of people heading west. We knew, however long it took, we would meet the Americans and British. I was wearing my army shirt and pants, Belgium shoes with my bare toes hanging out, long red Czechoslovakian overcoat from the first World War, and a tam on my head I bought from a French PW.
Troff, Baird and I fell in together and marched along with the thousands that crowded the road. The sounds of distant artillery followed us, never getting louder or fainter. It was the Russians. We were walking about as fast as they were advancing. We stopped for the night after walking fifteen miles and slept in a field.
The next morning we continued our march with the sound of Russian artillery a little stronger. Along the way, Troff struck up a conversation with a German deserting soldier who was still carrying his rifle. He was heading to the American lines to surrender and he welcomed the friendship of an American soldier. We were still in Germany, however, and passing through German towns. The German soldier said we were at great risk, because Himmler had ordered all unguarded prisoners of war to be shot on sight. So Troff and the German soldier struck a deal.
When we passed through a town, we would form a line and he would pretend to be guarding us. At one point, in the heart of the city of Wisinar, he even had the traffic guard hold up traffic so his "prisoners" could pass. We even counted cadence as we marched through town. Later he fell back in with us as our "prisoner" so as to guarantee his safe passage through the American lines. We became separated along the way, however, and we never saw him again.
In the afternoon of the third day on the road after leaving Teterow, we were attacked by British fighter planes. The bullets were coming too close, so we left the road for the cover of the nearby woods.
While lounging on our backs, an unarmed German soldier came through the woods, pushing a bicycle with an extra pair of shoes hanging over the handlebars and a loaf of black bread strapped to the rear fender. We asked him where he was going and he said, "Home. The war is over. Your comrades are down there in that village." One of our men jumped up and started out of the woods on the run towards town. Twenty minutes later he came racing back, waving his arms and shouting, "It's over! It's over! The British are down there."
We got to our feet, gathered our sacks of food, and walked down to the little town. In the village were two British soldiers and a jeep. That morning they had landed by glider many miles to the west. As they drove east, they shouted along the way, like a latter day Paul Revere, "Hitler is dead!" They met no resistance from German soldiers who threw down their weapons upon hearing the news.
As we entered the small town, one of the British soldiers greeted us. "Hi Yanks, do you want some tea?" Of course. It was four o'clock.
It was another seven days before I reached the assembly point for recovered POWs in Paris. Once there, things moved quickly. My Belgium shoes, Czech overcoat, and French tam were disposed of and I was deloused. Then I showered (for the first time in more than five months) and was given a preliminary physical exam. An issue of clean clothing was given to me, as well as a partial payment of $20.00 from my back pay. I was back on the morning report and a member of the United States Army again!
As I proved physically fit, I was given an overnight pass for the city of Paris. The next morning was May 8,1945. It was V-E Day!
When that German soldier told me at the point of a gun, "You are lucky. For you the war is over.", he was only half right. It's true I was lucky. I went through combat and a prisoner of war camp unscathed, but when you've been through combat, and in my case, the PW experience, your war is never completely over. The incidents I've written about occurred 50 years ago but some are just as vivid in my memory as if they happened yesterday. It's healthy and proper that we can put aside those events of 50 years ago, but their images will always be there in the distant recesses of our minds.
Ted Troff, Co. C - 407th Regiment, contributed to this story.
----- Bob Eastman
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
12 January 2005.
A photo of Co. A., 2nd Platoon, 407th Regiment, 102nd Division. This image is on a page that is dedicated to Mr. Edward Marchelitis, Sr., by his daughter Carol. Most of the men in the photo taken on December 20, 1943 are identified on the back of the image.
To view the photo of Co. A., 2nd Platoon, 407th Regiment as well as other photos of Edward Marchelitis, click on the image above.
The family of Mr. Marchelitis is seeking information on his platoon.
A special Thank You is extended to the daughter of Edward Marchelitis, Sr., Carol Marchelitis Heppner.
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The above story, "Prisoner of War", by Bob Eastman, 407th, Co. C., was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 47, No. 3, April/June, 1995, pp. 4 - 14.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 31 October 2003.
Story added to website on 3 November 2003.
September 5, 2002.
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