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If there is one thing you can count on in war it is that there is nothing you can count on in war.

-- Richard M. Watt
Memoirs of a POW12547 Reads  Printer-friendly page

POW The serene beauty of the rising sun on February 16, 1944 was disrupted by German heavy artillery barrages. This was the commencement of a large scale offensive. Presently tanks were rapidly advancing on us, followed by infantrymen. The approaching tanks caused me to break out in a cold sweat and I feverishly prayed for God's help. One tank spotted my foxhole and sent a machine gun burst over my head. I then heard an order to come out. Momentarily hesitating, to make peace with my God which bolstered my courage, I vacated my foxhole.

Being only eighteen at the time, I was amazed to discover that a fair portion of my captors appeared much younger than myself. One of them marched me to his command post. Here I received a cursory interrogation and later was driven to an old Italian castle where I was to undergo a thorough interrogation.

Arriving at the castle I was immediately questioned by a German Major who spoke English fluently. With each question I insisted upon giving my rank, name and serial number, as required by the "Articles of War". Unfortunately, at that time, I didn't have my copy of the contract or a lawyer to substantiate the claim. It was quite apparent that the Major was becoming exceedingly aggravated by uninformative answers. His aggravation reached the point of dire threats, which accelerated my heartbeat. Resuming his interrogation I called on God's help again. I then asked the major whether he would answer those questions if he were in my position. Springing from his chair with a livid face, he ordered me out of the room. God certainly was working overtime for me that day.

That same day, I was shipped in a truck to a large Italian studio about ten miles from Rome. Here for the next two months I received a daily ration of tea for breakfast, watery soup for dinner and a meager ration of bread for supper. Not to mention the havoc it plays with your teeth, bones and blood. Occasionally I was fortunate enough to receive work detail, thereby supplementing my diet with an extra ration of bread. On such detail was policing the area around the officers' barracks. Here I encountered an Italian girl who could speak a little English. When she learned that I was from New York, she informed me that she had a sister living there. During our amiable conversation I thought I detected notes of sympathy for my internment. Ideas of escape formulated in my mind, with hope of possible coercion on her part. Unfortunately, however, her sympathy for my plight wasn't as deep rooted as I had imagined. The arrival of her boyfriend brought my dreams to an abrupt end.

As the Allied front pushed forward, I was transferred to another camp aptly called "Latrina". A conglomeration of nationalities, numbering about two thousand, were billeted at this camp. Here the cuisine situation remained unchanged. The only diversity being that I promoted more work details thus increasing my bread rations.

At Latrina, I met the famous or infamous, whichever you may prefer, Max Schmelling. He rode into the camp in a chauffeured limousine, accompanied by a voluptuous blonde babe. In retrospect I might say that I had a premature preview of Marilyn Monroe. Schmelling at that time was a representative of the German Red Cross. He delivered a short speech, obviously from Goebel's pen, pertaining to the utopian treatment we were to receive when we reach Germany. Later that day, I was one of fifteen men selected to interview Schmelling, in a private house, outside camp. In all fairness to the man, I must admit he seemed quite candid in his answers when no guards were near. He informed us that it was an idiotic venture on his part when he returned to Germany. His most ardent wish, at that time, was to be united with his mother, who lived in Bloomfield New Jersey.

Another interesting incident was the celebration of Hitler's birthday. Wild rumors circulated through the camp and hopes were high that a decent meal was on the menu for such an occasion. My visions of such a meal were of short duration however, for I was given fish soup and nothing else.

Prior to my internment, when I possessed a healthy stomach, all varieties of fish nauseated me so what chance could I possibly have with a weakened one. Nevertheless, I feebly attempted eating the soup but to no avail. Hoping to salvage the meal somehow, I tried to trade it for a ration of bread or cigarettes, but failed miserably.

Finally, I was transported to Mooseburg, Germany. This camp was called Stalag VIIA and was the main camp for all working parties within a certain radius. Here I received my first Red Cross parcel, which contained food that I hadn't seen in five months. The parcel consisted of meat, biscuits, jam, cheese, soap, chocolate, cigarettes and even fist. Needless to say, I traded the fish for literally anything.

The contents of my first parcel I age and smoked excessively. Due to the complete absence of good food for the past five months, my stomach revolted. There were many others who overindulged and shared the same fate. The ensuing parcels were discreetly devoured with no ill effects.

After a few weeks at Mosseburg, I was transported by train to Augsburg with a contingent of two hundred men. Upon our arrival it was obvious that we were the first Americans in that city. Crowds congregated on the sidewalks as we were marched from the railroad station to the camp. Some of the people exhibited their feeling by throwing stones, but the guards expeditiously dispelled the crowds and no further incidents occurred. Upon arrival at the camp I was photographed, finger printed and given a POW number. My clothes were stenciled in white lettering "KGF", which means "prisoner of war". During my two months internment at Augsburg, the city received a daily bombing raid, which explained the cordial reception that was bestowed that first day.

After one month at Augsburg my successful bartering was terminated. I was transferred to a small farm town called Kranzegg. My assignment was to work for Mr. Andreas Zeller and family as a farm hand. This developed into a friendship that still exists. At first there was constant dissension between Andreas and myself. He expected an experienced farmer and I thought my complete ignorance of farming chores would limit my expected duties.

On numerous occasions when my work wasn't satisfactory he would curse me in German. In retaliation, I would curse him in English. This infuriated Andreas because he knew I was curing him but didn't know what I was saying. This petty bickering continue for two weeks before we grew to know and respect each other. I was treated as a member of the family as a result of this understanding.

Once I developed a huge boil on the back of my neck. This prevented me from straightening my head for a week. During that time Molly, Andreas' daughter, doctored the boil for me quite successfully. While recuperating, Andreas insisted that I relax in his house during the workday. His insistence was gratefully received without question. Another time I developed a high fever and severe stomach pains for several days. Andreas was concerned enough to have a doctor check me and called one at his own expense. I never knew what the diagnosis was, but the medicine I was given cured me in a few days.

A few weeks prior to Christmas one of the fellows received a box of cigars from home. Knowing Andreas would appreciate a good American cigar, I traded the fellow a pack of cigarettes for one cigar. The next day I gave the cigar to Andreas and he was delighted. On Christmas day, Andreas' wife baked a small cake for me and also gave me a wool cap as a Christmas present. Their thoughtful gesture made that Christmas a memorable one.

After six months at Kranzegg I was again transferred to another camp near Hindelong, which was a resort town equivalent to Lake Placid. Here twenty of us were lodged in an old abandoned factory. Two guards slept in a room above us. The work here involved retrieving stones from a creek bed with an electric steam shovel and load them on miniature trains. These trains would transport the stones to a nearby factory, where the stones were pulverized into a fine powder. The powder was then bagged and shipped to farmers as fertilizer.

Mr. Wachter owned the Kalk Werks factory (as it was known), and my main job was to drive with his son to deliver the packaged fertilizer to different farmers. The job wasn't bad because a fair portion of the day was consumed in traveling, reducing my work time to a minimum. Once I feigned sickness to gold brick for a few days, but the guard brought me to the town doctor for a checkup. The doctor spoke fluent English and for a pack of cigarettes, he momentarily forgot his Hippocratic Oath. He knew I wasn't sick but still gave me a week off from work. I guess there's a bit of larceny in all of us.

Our guards here were decent fellows, especially Fritz. We insured the continuance of their behavior by occasionally giving them coffee and cigarettes. Fritz was a handsome redhead who possessed an enviable female following. One Sunday, two of his risqué frauleins visited Fritz in his room. Another fellow and myself offered Fritz a pot of coffee to impress his girlfriends. He was delighted with the idea. We immediately made a pot and brought it to his room. The next few hours were spent in enjoyable conversation by the five of us.

The factory in which we were billeted was located on the main road to Berchtesgarden. During the latter weeks of April 1945, there was a constant stream of troops and equipment retreating to the mountains. Those were weeks filled with mental anguish. We didn't know whether the retreating Germans would take their bitter defeat out on us. The Hitler youths were the most dangerous because they were fanatical to the end. As a precaution against any reprisals, we persuaded Fritz to give us a key to the back door. This afforded us an escape route in the event of an emergency. Our minds were immensely relieved, but thank God we never had use for the key.

On May 1, 1945, the French forces came rumbling up the main road. Our exuberant shouts of joy were echoed throughout the mountainside. My first impulse was to order a hot meal at a restaurant. Ordering the meal was a novelty and its consumption fulfilled a fourteen month dream. After my hearty meal I acquired a Luger, principally for a souvenir but also for potential protection. Then I made a trip to Kranzegg to see Andreas before I went home. We were glad to see each other, but an American Captain didn't share our enthusiasm. He was suspicious about my identity. A thirty-minute exhaustive interrogation followed before I convinced him of my identity.

Hindelong was in the French zone so two men confiscated Mr. Wawchter's car to notify the American authorities of our presence here. They immediately sent a truck to transport us to an airport. We were then flown to Le Harve, France. There I underwent a thorough physical checkup and systematic diet buildup. I was also given a new issue of clothing plus a small advance on my pay. The money was swiftly lost in a nefarious card game. Being broke again didn't phase me because I'd grown accustomed to it during the last fourteen months.

One week later, I was aboard a glorious ship bound for home. It took them only ten days to ship me to Europe, while the voyage home was an eternal twenty-one days. During the trip, I encountered some rough weather which made me violently sea sick. Fortuantely, it lasted only a few days. The remaining part of the voyage was quite pleasant.

The ship docked at a New York port late at night, which necessitated sleeping on board until morning. My sleep was interrupted with mixed emotions so I spent the remaining hours roaming the deck and observing the beautiful skyline of New York.

Morning finally arrived and I was driven to the railroad station to board a train for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. While waiting for the train to depart, I was fortunate to persuade a track walker to call my family. Later, my dad informed me that he did receive the welcome call.

I was at Camp Kilmer for one day to receive a new uniform, my back pay and, most of all, a well earned sixty-four day furlough. I then made a fast departure for home and a gala reunion with my family and friends.

Note: by Pvt. Robert Davis, POW 11605, Stalag VIIB


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