WORLD WAR II VETERANS CONCORDIA PARISH LOUISIANA
William C. Falkenheiner
422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, 1st Lieutenant, Mortar Platoon
German Prisoner of War December 1944 to May 1945
I was born and lived my childhood years at Vidalia, Louisiana. I was a I was a senior at Vidalia High School, when the war began in Europe in September 1939. The school was small at that time, with only six members of my graduating class. In September 1940, at the age of 16, I enrolled at LSU.
At that time LSU had a strong and proud military tradition, and the ROTC program was large and popular with the male students. As a relatively unsophisticated young man, I was not entirely happy with the rules and discipline forced on me, but my experiences and the friends made in A Company of the Cadet Infantry Regiment was as valuable to me as were my academic studies.
I was a sophomore on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I was attending a movie with Ed Scheli from Vidalia when we heard the news. Ed was later killed in the Korean War. We left the theater immediately and went to listen to radio reports. The campus was in an uproar, with students shouting their rage at the Japs. The University President addressed the crowd and advised us to calm down and continue with our classes.
Although many of the older students were entering the armed services, I continued my studies, including ROTC. Of course the wartime conditions and activities affected us. We dealt with rationing of food, clothing and gasoline and served at Civil Defense posts, armed with billy clubs. I often thought about what we would have done if enemy soldiers had suddenly appeared.
My sophomore class expected to proceed into Advanced ROTC and receive commissions as officers, but were required to enlist in the Army
Reserves. We thought that the Army did this to keep us from entering one of the Navy or Marine programs. There was more to this enlistment than we realized. In April 1943, all of us in the Enlisted Reserve were ordered to active duty. We were in the Army!!!! From that time until about June 1, we were under Army control, part time on the LSU campus and part time at Camp Beauregard, near Alexandria. We remained at Camp Beauregard about a month, in what was referred to as basic training, mainly doing such chores as KP and barracks cleaning.
About July 1 1943, those of us in the Infantry were sent to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia. Fort Benning, an old established army post had been greatly enlarged; part of the massive training programs which were in progress all over the country.
The Officer Candidate School had been a 13 week course, but beginning with our Class, it became a 17 week course. The training was long and hard with very little free time only on some Sundays. I had no problems except for some of the most strenuous physical activities, which only the strongest could do. During the latter part of the course I had to go before a Review Board of senior officers for evaluation, because of my youth. I was 19 and younger than most others in my class. This caused me some anxiety, because of fear that they would not allow me to be commissioned. The program was highly organized and was the best instruction and educational experience I have ever experienced. The benefits from lessons learned at Benning, not only served me in the military, but in civilian life as well.
October 26, 1943 I received my gold bars as 2nd Lieutenant, Infantry in the Army of the United States. My parents, Mr. & Mrs. Clyde Falkenheiner had saved enough gas rationing coupons to come to Columbus for my graduation and I rode home with them. Hiram Wright from Winnfield rode with us. I had a 10 day leave with orders to report to Camp Walters near Macon, Georgia.
Camp Walters proved to be a holding depot for further assignment. From there I went to Camp Blanding, Florida, an Infantry Replacement Training Center, where draftees were given15 weeks of basic Infantry training after which they were assigned to regular units, sent to to specialist schools or shipped directly overseas as replacement for casualties, most of whom were going to North Africa.
Camp Blanding was isolated, uncomfortable and not a place of fond memories. I did get to go to Jacksonville and San Augustine a few times. Christmas was particularly dreary. Training there was for riflemen and for the use of 30 caliber machine guns and 81 millimeter mortars. Most of my time was with the Mortar training.
April 1944, I was assigned to Company M, 422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division Camp Atterbury near Indianapolis, Indiana. At that time I was promoted to 1st lieutenant and received my silver bars. I was in charge of the 3rd platoon, an 81 millimeter unit. Prior to my arrival, the 106th had been on extensive maneuvers in Tennessee. Since I had not participated I was, at first, considered an outsider. This attitude soon changed because of heavy drafts on its personnel. They were going as replacements for units in Europe who were suffering severe losses. I was not an “Outsider” very long. The mortar units overseas had not suffered as many casualties as had the rifle units, therefore, the drafts of my key personnel had not been as severe as others.
In September 1944 we were told we would be shipping out soon and I was given a 10 day leave. I returned to Vidalia and found that most of my friends were gone. The boys were in the service and the girls had moved elsewhere to better jobs. My mother worried about me not having any friends or dates, so she arranged a date for me with a nice girl who had recently moved into town with her parents. This proved to be one of the best things to happen in my life, because this nice girl was Dorothy McLemore, who later became my wife, now for more than 50 years.
When I returned to my regiment after my leave, we immediately began preparations for our next move. My regiment went to Camp Miles Standish near Boston. Next we went by train to a port somewhere near New York where we boarded a big ship. It was dark and we had not been told where we were, where we were going, or the name of the ship. I learned later that it was the Acquitania, an old vessel, almost as big as the Queen Mary. The Acquitania, because of its speed, did not travel in convoy. Our only protection against U Boat attack was a zig-zag erratic
course. It was a rather stormy crossing, and I, along with most others, suffered sea-sickness. We had only one scare, when the ship’s crew fired on what might have been a German submarine. We were told nothing.
As we approached England we entered the Irish Sea, just off Ireland. We enjoyed calmer seas and the chance to be on deck and see the green fields and small villages. We passed the Isle of Man, entered the firth of the Clyde River and landed at Gourock, Scotland. We were told very little about where we were or where we were going. I learned later about the identity of the places we passed.
We all boarded a train and as usual, were told very little or nothing. Someone said we passed through Edinburg, Scotland. The train took us to our Regimental Encampment in southern England outside a village called Stowe on the Wold. While there we were able to enjoy visits to the local pubs. Two or three of us were invited by one of the farmers and his wife to their home for tea one Sunday afternoon. I was given a short leave to visit London. In spite of the German buz bombs and one V-2 rocket, it was a pleasant visit.
Shortly after my return from London we were alerted for movement. We were told nothing, but were sure we were headed for the continent. From a port on the English Channel, we boarded an LST. Most of our men were on troop ships. We anchored off Le Harve, France and waited a day or so to follow the mine sweepers up the Seine River. We debarked at Rouen, and joined the rest of our Battalion in a very muddy field at a village outside Rouen.
It was early December and the weather was cold and rainy. We were happy to be moving, even in unheated vehicles. We crossed northern France and into Belgium. I remember seeing ruins from some of the famous battlefields of World War I and wrecked vehicles and debris from recent fighting in the present conflict. In Belgium, the terrain was hilly, with small mountains like the Ozarks. We had no idea where we were but knew we were getting near the front, when we saw some of the long range artillery firing. The vehicles left us in a heavily wooded area with about a foot of snow on the ground where our wet and muddy tents were set up. Briefings began about our mission.
The only thing we were told at this time was that we were to go into a defensive position in relief of the 2nd Infantry Division, that the area was quiet, and that the Germans opposing us were not strong, and that we should try to get settled into our new positions. We left this bivouac by foot and moved into positions on top of a ridge that I later found was known as the Schnee Eiffel inside Germany and was one of the few places where the US forces had penetrated the German fortifications known as the West Wall. This position had been taken in September before the allied drive had been halted by lack of supplies. This area of Europe was characterized by steep hills or mountains with heavy thick wooded areas. The Belgium portion is known as the Ardennes and the German portion as the Eiffel. It is sparsely inhabited with people living in small villages and towns located primarily in the valleys along a stream. I saw no civilians since the area on the mountain is not inhabited. There was deep snow and the visibility was limited by the dense forest of evergreen trees.
I was ordered to move my platoon into the exact position of the 2nd Division we were replacing. In fact, the 6 gun mortar battery was in a sandbagged clearing near the Battalion Headquarters, which was in one of the German concrete forts. The 2nd Division left its base plates, since they were firmly in place. We simply gave them six plates and installed our tubes and bipods on the existing plates. Since US forces had been in this position since September, many improvements had been made. My Platoon Command Post and several similar positions were in log covered bunkers, which provided some protection from artillery fire and the very cold weather. I was near the mortar battery and the battalion headquarters bunker. I had telephone communications with the observers who were with the rifle units at the front line, located a short distance down the mountain, which was above the German town of Prum.
To be in front line positions, we were fairly comfortable. All this seemed to verify the information that the area was quiet. We had no idea how precarious the situation was, or how exposed we were to the enemy. We had not even been told that we were in enemy territory or that civilians were not likely to be friendly. We learned later that even in the adjacent areas of Belgium, that the villagers were German sympathizers who had relatives in the German army. The US commanders had to learn new operating methods, quite different from France and Luxembourg where the civilians were anti-German.
December 11 or12 we moved on to the Eiffel position. All our equipment had not arrived. Lack of overshoes was critical. Our leather boots did not protect us from frozen feet or trenchfoot. I personally, did not suffer either at the time. I was appointed Company Paymaster and given a sum of special paper money. I still do not know why the Army had to pay the men when there was no way to spend it. We had more serious problems and the money was never distributed.
THE ARDENNES CAMPAIGN, Known in America as the “BATTLE OF THE BULGE” was beginning. To understand the situation we were in on December 15, 1944, it is necessary to have some understanding of the tactical conditions at that time. As stated before, we were told by high Army authority that we were in a quiet zone and we assumed that they believed it. Moreover, all we had seen up to that time indicated that this was true, although we had not been in position long enough to do the patrolling that would have verified this. The men at the very front did see small signs of enemy activity, but nothing to indicate what was to come.
The 106th Division and others in the sector were covering much wider fronts than good defensive tactics called for. Of necessity, there were wide gaps in the line. My Regiment, the 422nd and the 423rd were on the Schnee (snow in German) Eiffel ridge or mountain that was slightly over 2100 feet high and was a protrusion into German territory and a breach of the German West Wall defenses. There was a gap in the high hills, known as the Losheim Gap, Approximately four miles wide on our left rear covered only by patrols of a lightly armored cavalry group. A similar situation existed on the right of the 423rd with a gap before the positions of the 424th to the right rear. This gap was also lightly defended.
To compound matters there were hard surfaced roads in each of the gaps which looped around the ends of the mountain and followed a small river valley behind the mountain. The artillery battalions supporting us were located in the valley. I have learned since that our regimental commanders were aware of the peril posed by this and
actually protested to Division and Corps commanders. The Division Commander of the 2nd Infantry Division had also objected to the situation when he occupied the area, but his was a veteran unit and had been given an attached tank battalion and mobile anti-tank units which provided protection for the weak flanks for his two regiments, on the Schnee Eiffel. The 106th had no such protection, and those of us on the front had no knowledge of this.
THE BATTLE started about 4:30 AM, December 16, 1944 when the Germans opened with a heavy barrage by all types of artillery along the entire 60 mile front. I was awakened by the noise, particularly the rockets that we called “Screaming Meanies”. Since none of the barrage hit in our positions, we felt sure that the Germans had no intention of a frontal attack, but intended to exploit the undefended and poorly defended areas on the flanks, as described above. At the same time, the Germans were hitting our 424th regiment and the 28th division to its right, as well as the 99th Division on our left rear, on the other side of the lightly defended Losheim Gap.
All day the 16th and 17th we could hear the noise of the battle on either side of us, and by late in the day on the 16th it was from our rear. The Germans had overwhelmed the supporting artillery battalion in the valley to our rear, and we were left with no support. I did not know about this at the time, but I was very apprehensive, and was unable to obtain information at Battalion Headquarters. Meanwhile, with only minor attacks on our front lines, we received no calls for mortar support. I was getting very uneasy on the morning of the 17th, when I could still get no information from Battalion Headquarters. At about this time, I received the strange assignment as “Paymaster”, described above.
On the 18th, we had held our positions and still had not been attacked by the Germans. We did not know it, but ours was the only position, still held. All the rest of the entire front had been overrun or pushed back, and the Germans were pushing far to our rear. The 7th Armored Division had been ordered to come to our assistance. They got no farther than St. Vith, our Division Headquarters, approximately 10 miles to our rear. Only one of its 3 Combat Commands came. The other two were held back because of the threat of German penetration by Kampgruppe Peiper of the 1st SS Panzer Division to the north. This unit had come through the Loshiem Gap and was charged with the Malmedy Massacre, which occurred to our left rear.
As incredible as it may seem, with the communications available to us, communications between the Division an d the two trapped Regiments failed. Eighth Corps Commander, General Middleton; First Army Commander, General Hodges; 21st Army Group Commander, General Bradley; and Supreme Headquarters Commander, General Eisenhower were all late in reacting to the German attack. On the 18th we received a delayed order to abandon our positions and attack to the rear, a town called Schonberg, where US Armor would assist us. Moving a Mortar Platoon overland on foot can be done, but the supply of ammunition that can be carried by hand is severely limited, because of the weight. Nevertheless, we left our bunkers and followed the rifle troops down the mountain through the thick woods to our rear. Prior to leaving, we were fed hot cakes, all they had at the Company mess. Because of our advanced position, food was in short supply and we had not been issued C or K rations. The Mess Sergeant gave me a small can of corned beef and a chocolate bar. This was my last US Army meal for about 6 months, and there were times that I gratefully remembered that meal. During this time, I never saw a US aircraft or US armor of any type. I was soon to see all types and large quantities of German armor.
It was dark soon after we got off the mountain and we had to cross several streams in steep and deep defiles, which was difficult. I was carrying my 30 caliber carbine, ammunition clips, my heavy binoculars for observing mortar fire, the bag full of money, sleeping bag and 4 rounds of mortar ammunition. A platoon sergeant who was not so heavily burdened, relieved me of the ammunition. Some time after dark, the line in front of me lost contact, and it was apparent that we were lost and intermingled with other units. About one third of my platoon was with me and I sent one of the sergeants to locate the others. We resumed contact with the others who were resting in a relatively open area where I got a few hours sleep.
I awakened shortly before daylight and when it was light enough to see, I saw that we were apparently in a pasture near a paved road. I saw my Company Commander who told me to follow the rifle troops, in general support.
We moved out and as we went down the slope we heard bullets from machine guns or rifles. They were going over us since we were in a ravine or ditch. We continued toward the road. I could see a small village on the ridge road to our right front. This was the village of Auw. I began to hear much firing and loud explosions to our left and right, with much screaming by wounded men. My platoon became mixed with many others who came in from our right, seeking protection in the small ditch. They were being hit by small arms fire and cannon from the vicinity of Auw. When we reached the road, we could not cross, because it was being swept by small arms fire. There were several men in the road, dead and severely wounded. No one could help them. I checked a culvert under the road, but it was too small to crawl through. I saw German tanks coming toward us from the vicinity of Auw. They were firing with their cannon and machine guns and none of us had effective weapons to oppose them.
My three gunners in each mortar squad were armed with 45 caliber pistols and the rest of us had carbines like me. Those of us with carbines began firing at the armored vehicles. We knew we could do no damage, but we would cause them to button up, decreasing their visibility and making them apprehensive of bazooka or anti-tank weapons. They obviously did not know that we did not have these weapons and they stopped about 100 yards from us and attempted to kill us with cannon and machine guns.
By this time I was at the edge of the road at the end of the culvert, firing at the lead tank with my carbine and calling for a bazooka or anti tank grenade even though I knew my mortar platoon had none. Our mortars were completely ineffective under the conditions and could not even be set up for use. A machine gun from another unit intermingled with us also opened fire, but it and its crew were silenced by a hit from a tank cannon. I did not have a chance to check on the men from my platoon except for those close to me and the only casualty I was aware of was Sergeant King, one of my best squad leaders. He was hit by one of the cannon shells and killed instantly when his body was severed at the waist. I had several near misses, one of which exploded on the road just above me. The shrapnel cut the wires of a small electric or telephone line, causing them to fall in the ditch around me. I was stunned by this and other exploding shells, but was not hit and did not lose consciousness. I remember thinking that I might be electrocuted by the falling wires, which actually posed very little danger when compared to
the enemy fire.
About the time the tanks stopped, other men in the ditch began to fire on the Germans with rifles and carbines. This only caused a halt by the armored vehicles, who continued firing at the men down slope in a more open area. They were being slaughtered and began waving white handkerchiefs to surrender. We knew the Germans would kill the men who had surrendered and were being held by them. Some of the men near me began waving white handkerchiefs and I made them stop. I was not trying to be heroic, but I was still stunned by the close shell bursts and was not thinking clearly. I, and those near me simply destroyed our weapons and walked the short distance to the German tanks when they called us to come out. The ditch I was in had about a foot of snow melt and I disassembled my carbine and dropped it and my binoculars in the water. John Toland’s book “Battle”, page 125 describes this battle, but the bazooka team he describes was not in our area. We had none and had received no help when I had called for such support. Major Moon and his headquarters group crossed the road before the arrival of the tanks. I was attempting to lead my men across when we were trapped at the culvert.
Zak, in his book “Soldier Boy” describes better than I can, the feelings one has in this situation. I remember the senses of absolute frustration, anger, humiliation and shame. I do not remember any sense of fear at this time, but fear came in large doses in later circumstances. The majority of my Platoon as well as the majority of the Regiment had been cut off at the road and surrendered when the attack on Schonberg failed.
When we got to the tanks they separated me from the enlisted men. One of the German soldiers tried to make me give him my watch. We had been instructed, as officers, to demand respect from the German soldiers, if the situation allowed it. We were in the open, with German officers nearby, so I refused to give him my watch and told him I
wanted to see an officer. This made him mad, but before he could react, a German Captain Hauptman came up, said some harsh words to the soldier, grabbed me by the arm and shoved me toward an armored personnel carrier. He ordered me to get in it. He was an SS Officer and I found out later that the unit was the SS Fuhrer Begleit Brigade, an elite unit with the latest in German Armor. This unit had moved up to give weight to the attack. I found that the German soldiers were particularly upset because those of us near the road had fired on them after other Americans had surrendered, which we did not know at the time. This SS officer may have saved my life by intervening.
In any event, I and the other officers (members of the1st Battalion) were taken into Prum where we spent the night in a school, sleeping on the floor. Prum was crowded with all types of military personnel and units. Some were headquarters units in passenger autos, carrying strings of sausage and other baggage. The roads were so congested that German officers were angrily directing traffic so that their tanks and other vehicles could pass. Much of the German artillery was horse drawn.
Early the next morning, before daylight, we were marched to a town called Gerolstein where there was a railroad. I had not eaten for over 24 hours, except for the chocolate bar. We stopped for a break and noticed some beets in the field. We started to eat them raw, but were told that they were sugar beets with very little nourishment, and that these were just culls, left in the fields. When we were walking to the train I did see some of my men who were captured with me. One was Sergeant Lynch, whom I had sent to locate the others the night we became separated. I threw him the can of corned beef which I still had. It wasn’t long before I wished I still had it. The shock had begun to wear off and the Germans had given us nothing to eat. I began to feel hungry; a condition that stayed with me in varying degrees for the next five months.
THE TRAIN RIDE TO BAD ORB
Since most of the captive officers were older than me and outranked me, I soon realized that I had little access to information about our situation. I had no choice but to follow instructions and be as inconspicuous as possible. Because of our defeat and capture, I and many others had very little confidence in the leadership of our army.
Our feelings of betrayal, shame, frustration and loss were soon overshadowed by the necessity to adapt to the dangers and hardships we were to face.
When we had boarded the train at Gerolstein we were crammed into boxcars with no sanitary facilities or food. The train would move for a while and then stop. We had no idea where we were going and it was bitterly cold. I now know that we were on the main German rail line in the Rhine Valley. At one of the stops the Germans gave us some warm liquid they called coffee. It was not coffee and I have read that it was primarily made from acorns. We were given the same brew when we got to the camps. At one of these stops I saw the name Andernach on a station when the door was opened to give us the brew. This train ride lasted at least a week and there were some terrifying moments particularly at night when we were halted on some siding. We could hear the air raid sirens and were bombed. The train I was on was hit and a number of men were killed and hurt. During the bombing we would try to get out of the cars, but the guards would shoot anyone trying to leave the train. We were in raids Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I believe this was the first time we got any food. It was a small piece of brown bread and I learned later that sawdust was one of the ingredients. The terrible conditions of that week and the terror and helplessness during the bombings are impossible to describe.
THE CAMP AT BAD ORB
When the slow train ride came to a halt we were ordered out of the cars into much snow. The sign on the station read “BAD ORB”. I do not remember much about the camp, except that it was terribly overcrowded and dirty. I had my first hot meal which was some form of greens that we called the green hornet. It was one of the staples of prisoner diet. There was one small Irish potato with the skin on in my portion. I was so hungry it was like steak. I did not remain at Bad Orb very long but was moved by train to Hammelburg. I later learned that serious outbreaks of disease occurred at the camp at Bad Orb and that a number of prisoners died.
When we first got to Hammelburg we were taken to a building that contained what appeared to be an arena with sawdust floor. It was unheated and bitterly cold. We were eventually assigned to barracks which appealed at first glance, as they were brick and reasonably clean. We settled into life which was boring with constant hunger and cold. Compared to the worst US Army barracks, this one was dirty and primitive, although palatial compared to Bad Orb. Since we were officers we were not assigned outside work details as in the case of the camps of enlisted men.
A typical day began when a detail from the prisoners delivered a large can of the liquid called coffee. The other meal was late afternoon and was thin soup or the “Green Hornet” greens. Once a week we were given a small ration of black bread with small amounts of margarine or an ersatz jam, which we were told was made from carrots, but was surprisingly tasty. There were no organized activities as this was a new camp and activities had not been arranged neither by the Germans nor the prisoners. Most of the day was spent in bed where there was some relief from the cold. There was a stove in the room ,but the ration of coal was so small that there was no heat most of the time. I remember being taken only one time to a place in the camp for a hot shower. The only clothes we had were the ones we had on when we were captured, except for one pair of some type of pajamas that we used for underwear. Most of us had been able to save our Army overcoats, which in my case, and in many others proved to be a lifesaver. The other lifesaver was the Red Cross packages. We received 2 or 3 while we were at Mammelburg. I will tell more about them later.
Once again, I was one of the lowest rank in the camp, and was not informed or not aware of some of the information available to the higher ranking prisoners. Information filtered down by rumor.
There were several things which helped to relieve the monotony. I found help in attending Catholic mass in the room of Father Kavanaugh. I have since read that he found that one of the Germans assigned to the camp was a priest who persuaded the Camp Commander to let him have the necessary supplies to hold these services on occasion. Another diversion was the nighttime visits in our barracks of Serbian Officers who had been imprisoned in another section of the camp. I have since learned that synce the Germans had not time to properly set up and supply Hammelburg to care fore the influx of Americans, many of whom were arriving from camps and areas in the East being invaded by the Russians, the Serbs let the Americans have some of their food and medical supplies. Our news of the progress of the war was mainly by rumor, and sometimes later in February and March recently captured Americans would be brought in who had some later information. As a general matter, we were aware that things were not going well for the Germans. We could see the large flights of American bombers flying overhead with increasing size and regularity.
We were not bothered much by the German guards, although we had to stand out in the cold twice a day for head counts. On one occasion one of our men was shot and killed by a guard while he was going to a separate latrine building at night. The guard was in one of the towers and there appeared to be no explanation for his actions.
I became infested with body lice called crabs and went to the infirmary to see if they could help me. To my surprise, I saw Louis Porterie, whom I had known at LSU. His father was a Federal Judge who corresponded with my Mother, when they knew we were in the same camp. We were classmates after the war. He found a small quantity of salve which did help with the lice.
Two or three times we were allowed to write short messages home, but I do not recall receiving any mail or packages from home. In fact, in the summer of 1945, when I was home, I did get several Christmas packages. Some of the candy and cake was still good.
Food was so often the subject of our conversations and thoughts that it became an obsession. We were all plagued with memories of past meals and food items we had taken for granted. This even included some of the Army food we had griped about. Some of us prepared detailed daily menus for meals we would have when we got home.
RED CROSS PACKAGES
These were small packages mainly of caned food which formed an important supplement to our diet, although they were not distributed often enough to satisfy our cravings. The packages, when available, were delivered one package to two men. We were called to a building where the packages were opened by a guard who punctured each can or package. We were told that this was done so the food could not be hoarded for use in the event of an escape. One package was from France, but all the rest from America. They contained items such as beans, meat pate and corned beef and powdered coffee. There were two items I had never seen before, which proved to be very important. One was Klim (powdered milk) and the other was M&M candy. The Klim cans were larger than others and some prisoners devised away to make a small stove out of the cans. Fueled with small twigs or wood shavings, we could make a hot drink of milk or coffee. The M&Ms and bars of Swan soap had other uses in our later trek from Nurmberg to Moosburg. The small quantities of cigarettes in the packages did not interest me because I did not smoke. I soon learned that they could be used as a barter item.
PATTON’S ABORTED RAID ON HAMMELBURG
To place this in perspective, it is necessary to understand some of the background. Near the end of March the Rhine had been crossed in several places and the Americans were facing crumbling opposition to their drive to the heart of Germany and the end of the war. One of the POWs at Hammelburg was Lt. Colonel John Waters who was married to Patton’s only daughter, and had been captured in North Africa. Patton denied knowing this, but writers on the subject have compiled substantial evidence that he did. Also, one of Patton’s Aides admitted that he was sent on the raid so that he could identify Colonel Waters. Evidence shows that Patton ordered the raid over the objections of his Division and Corps commanders, and without the knowledge or approval of Generals Bradley and Eisenhower, his superiors.
Two reasons have been advanced for Patton’s order. One was that he obviously wanted to rescue his son-in-law. The other, less plausible reason, was that he wanted equal or more publicity than General McArthur who had just liberated a large POW camp in the Philippines. Nevertheless, he ordered the 4th Armored Division to send a small force to Hammelburg and liberate it. This unit had a small number of tanks, some assault guns, some half-tracks and a small force of infantry. By the time it got to Hammelburg it had been greatly reduced by the opposition along the way. Patton’s only comment was that his only mistake was that he did not send a larger force. I knew none of this at the time, did not know Colonel Waters, or the identity of most of the POWs.
In the middle of March, the weather moderated and we heard rumors of Allied success. The dull routine continued, except that on sunny days, we could go out and sit in the sunshine. The guards made us go inside when a high flying bomber formation was passing over the camp.
March 27 there was a dramatic change in the camp routine when we heard gunfire which seemed close to the camp. Many rumors spread as to the cause. Father Kavanaugh had made arrangements to have a mass in a larger room. About 50 of us were in attendance. About noon there was a group shouting outside and some very close gunfire. Father ended the mass abruptly, gave us all an absolution and we lay down on the floor to avoid being struck by bullets or shrapnel. The firing stopped and we went outside to see what was happening. We saw many shouting, happy prisoners who said we were liberated by American tanks. I had a great feeling of relief and the belief that I was free again.
We went outside the camp to see the American forces that had come in. I was immediately concerned about the small size of the force and the condition of the men in the unit. They appeared tired, apprehensive and unwilling to communicate with what must have appeared to them as a large group of unorganized rabble. It was getting dark and word was passed that the main American forces were still about 40 miles to the west and that this small group intended to fight it’s way back to the American lines, and that it did not have room in it’s vehicles for the POWs. Most of us knew nothing about the Patton-Waters situation. The senior POWs said that we should go back to our rooms and wait for further developments. Most of the POWs returned to the camp, but a number did not. A friend and I decided that we would take our chances with the task force. It was not a wise decision, but we did not know all the circumstances. Our desire to get out of the prison dominated our action.
We had to find a place on one of the vehicles. All the half-tracks were full but 5 or 6 of us got on a Sherman tank. The column started out in the dark and move slowly, making frequent stops. We did not go far, but did go through a small village. Several times, the vehicles ahead of us were hit by hostile fire, including an anti-tank rocket known as a Panzerfaust. As the night wore on, it was apparent that we were not going to make it. The Germans were closing in. The column stopped and many of the soldiers simply fell asleep from exhaustion. The commander of the column eventually ordered the group to disperse and try to reach American lines on our own. We tried to slip through, but the Germans completely surrounded us. One of the task force and 2 or 3 of the POWs made it through. The Germans walked us back to camp, which we reached after daylight. After liberation I learned that I was entitled to a star in my campaign ribbon for the Central Europe Campaign, joining the Northern France and Ardennes campaigns. The Army said I had returned to American control for approximately 10 hours.
When we returned to the camp we learned that the POWs, except those in the infirmary, had been hastily marched out of camp. Those of us who had tried to escape, and the members of the task force who were now POWs were loaded into boxcars and taken to Nuremberg. This was a short trip and uneventful when compared to my earlier train ride.
The tragedies of the raid were; That Hammelburg was liberated about a week after the raid; That Col. Waters was shot and almost killed by a German guard; That many lost their lives or were severely injured during the raid; And several thousand, including the raiding party were subjected to another 5 weeks of captivity, in which a number died.
NUREMBERG AND MARCH TO MOOSBERG
When our train reached Nuremberg we joined a long column of other POWs, and marched to a hill on the outskirts, where for some reason we halted. This was in early April, about Easter. The day was clear and sunny and we had a good view of the city. We heard the noise of aircraft and saw a plane dropping some sort of smoke signal on the city. A flight of bombers appeared and dropped their bombs. This continued most of the day, with one flight after another dropping bombs. I learned that many POWs were killed in the railroad yards which we had left a few hours earlier. During the bombing we saw aluminum strips similar to Christmas tree icicles floating down. I learned from some of the Air Force POWs that this was aluminum chaff, designed to deflect German radar. One of the bundles did not open and fell near us. One of the POWs ran over to get it and the German guard began to shoot at him. I do not know whether or not he was hit, but it was a clear sign to us that our guards were nervous and not too happy to see one of their cities destroyed. This was also reflected in the attitude of the Germans, including the civilian refugees, mostly women and children, that we encountered on our march south toward Moosberg.
When our column of POWs left Nuremberg we were passing under a railroad trestle when we were bombed and strafed by at least one US P51 fighter plane. We scrambled into the shelter of roadside ditches and watched a second pass. We had to pass by what had been the head of the column and saw the dead and wounded POWs. There were body parts in the trees that lined the sides of the road. These planes could hardly miss since there was no anti-aircraft fire at all. We were enraged by this and had the Germans given us weapons, we would have used them in defense. The German guards, who by this time were elderly men called Volkstrum allowed us to put signs made of stone, metal or cloth on the hillsides with the initials POW and arrows pointing the way we were traveling. We hoped this would keep the Air Force from attacking the columns of POWs and refugees, who by this time were on the road heading south to get away from the fighting. In the case of my column, the signs were effective, except for one more strafing attack which scared us but caused no damage. I learned later that these attacks were by P51s flying out of England, whose mission was to protect the bombers from German fighters. At this time, the German Air Force had been defeated, and often the fighter escorts had nothing to do so they came down to attack ground targets.
Except for the problem of lack of food the march south through Bavaria was not too bad, even in our weak and emaciated condition. There were POWs from many nations all of whom appeared to be officers. I remember some Australians and New Zealanders who were captured in North Africa. There was some rumor to the effect that we were being moved to the Austrian Alps to be used as hostages. As stated, our guards were older men and they did not force long daily marches. At night, we would simply camp near a village and sleep where we could. Often we would find a barn, a shed or some other crude shelter. The weather had improved greatly and there were many warm sunny days. On this march we were met several times by white Red Cross trucks from Switzerland and received the Red Cross packages that sustained us. I don’t recall the Germans furnishing any food at all except one stop at a town called Neumarkt where we were given a type of dried pea soup. We were on a secondary road with no motor traffic and passed through a number of picturesque villages that were full of refugees from the cities. We did have some contact with the people and on occasion ere able to trade M&Ms with the children for potatoes. The women would trade food items for part of a Swan soap bar, and cigarettes were also a barter item. These trades were limited, because the people did not have a lot of food to trade with us. They would also have very little to do with Air Force people they called fliegers. This was the only indication of hostility I saw from the civilians and it was mild. Some of the villages we went through were Berching, Kelheim and Bellingries, where I spent the night on the stage of the local movie house. It was at one of these villages that women informed us of President Roosevelt’s death. We crossed the Danube River at a town called Neustadt on a bridge that had numerous large bombs strapped to it with wires indicating that it was prepared for demolition. In late April we came to the vicinity where there was a large POW camp. The word passed to us was that we would go into the camp rather than be caught between the retreating Germans and the US Army, and that because of the closeness of the Americans and the fact that the Germans were surrendering, we would be much safer in the camp than trying to contact the Americans on our own. Some did slip away, which was not hard to do. Those of us who had experienced the Hammelburg fiasco had no interest in trying to leave, took the advice that had passed down and entered the camp.
Moosburg was overcrowded. Conditions would have been very bad if we had been required to stay there for any length of time. Two or three days after we entered the camp there was a late spring snow and we noticed the German guards outside the fence without their rifles individually walking by. Their only response when we called them was “alles kaput”. We knew that meant liberation and shortly tanks of the 14th Armored Division entered the camp. Also General Patton showed up with his pearl handled pistols. I am sure some of us would have had questions for him had we known of his connection with the Hammelburg affair. In any event, I don’t recall any great sense of jubilation. I was probably emotionally exhausted and I was certainly physically exhausted. Of course I was glad that it appeared that liberation this time was final.
I did not remain in Moosburg very long and other than seeing Patton and the large number of troops and Armor, the only other event I remember well was the impressive Te Deum Mass. There were POWs in Moosburg from all Allied Nations. Very shortly after liberation the POW Catholic Chaplains organized this mass of thanksgiving. The leaders were Poles, with participation by English, US and others. The Mass was outdoors and the singing was beautiful,
THE JOURNEY HOME
I, with many other Americans were soon taken by trucks to a former German airfield near Ingolstadt, where we were divided into groups of about 25 each. There were a number of American C-47 transport planes lined up for us to enter. Before leaving, we had at least one scare when a German plane circled the field. We all jumped into some of the many holes cased by Allied bombing. This threat soon passed because the German plane landed. We were informed that the formal surrender had taken place and that this pilot was just coming in to surrender. We boarded the planes and landed at Rheims, France. We were put in a tent camp, relieved of our stinking clothes, allowed to shower and issued some used but CLEAN clothing. We were given quick physical examinations and I was assigned to a unit where we were allowed bed rest and given frequent, but very small quantities of nourishing food. After several days of this I began to feel much better and began to put on a little weight. I think I was at Rheims a week or ten days. I was taken by truck to Camp Lucky Strike, a large temporary camp near the Port of LeHavre. I have read of some reports of POWs about ill treatment at this camp, but I did not experience any. I was given some used uniforms, not in very good condition, but they were clean and I did not complain. General Eisenhower visited the camp and I heard he revoked the order limiting us to the camp. They allowed those of us who were able to make a trip to Paris. I was not quite up to this and did not feel that I had the proper uniform for it. I am sure there must have been some way of acquiring money, but I do not remember being paid. The routine at Lucky Strike was about the same as at Rheims. After about a week I was put in charge of what was called a packet of about 50 men. All were ex POWs from Louisiana and Mississippi. Most were enlisted men, but there were about 5 officers, mostly Air Force people.
In early June we were taken to LeHavre to board a transport for home. As we marched to the boat we passed French men who spat near us and made derogatory gestures and what sounded like insulting remarks, That port was heavily Communist, and it wouldn’t have taken much to have some retaliation, but most of us were so happy to leave Europe that we didn’t want to cause trouble. While I am sure these trash did not represent the feelings of the French people as a whole, it did leave a bad impression on us.
We boarded a transport named the Marine Robin and departed LeHavre in a convoy of a number of ships. After several days the convoy got the message that since the last German submarine had surrendered, the convoy could be broken up, and each ship could proceed on its own. The Marine Robin was much smaller than the Acquitania and we had a very pleasant voyage to New York. When we entered New York harbor, the vessels saluted us with whistles and horns. We went by ferry up the Hudson River to Camp Shanks, where I called home for the first time. My packet went by train to Mississippi, with a steam engine taking us the last several miles to Camp Shelby. We brother from Natchez was in my packet.
The only unpleasantness on the voyage home was the theft by the sailors of the small packet of souvenirs we had been given at LeHavre. I would like to have kept them, but this was typical of the situation where the people who got the souvenirs were those in the rear echelon who had the means to keep them while the troops doing the fighting were too busy trying to stay alive and had no way to keep anything, even though they were the first to occupy enemy territory. This is admittedly a selfish comment, but it is a feeling that is not unique to me. The only things I brought back were my dog tags, the dog tags given me by the Germans, my watch that I kept even though it had stopped working, some ragged uniforms and my life. I feel guilty for any selfish thoughts because I do continually thank God for bringing me back home in good condition. There were too many times when I came very close to death or severe injury. The real heroes are those under the white crosses or other monuments in the cemeteries, and I have no cause for bitterness or regrets. Not a day passes that I do not in some way recall some portion of the past.