-by Howard Johnstone-
EDITOR’S NOTE by Greg Hoots: I am very pleased to present the digital version of this incredible World War II story, authored by an old friend of mine, Howard Johnstone. I met Howard in the early 1980s, and I first knew him as a sign-painter and horse farmer. We became good friends, and it was always a pleasure to visit with Howard. He and his wife, Glenna, lived two miles west of Dover, Kansas and an equal distance from my home.
In those days, I was Howard’s UPS delivery man, and I toted the boxes of paint and other supplies he used in creating silkscreen signs for his customers. Our routine was usually the same, I would enter his little building where he maintained a small office and his print shop. When I entered the door, there was always big-band music streaming from carefully positioned speakers, ringing with the sounds of the 1940s. Howard and I would visit for a bit as I delivered his package, and after exchanging some pleasantries, I would depart. As I approached the door, I would always say, “Howard, it’s good to see you,” and Howard always replied, “It’s good to be seen.”
In 1995 I spent a couple days painting signs with Howard. It was an experience that I won’t forget. I discovered that Howard was an artist, a designer, a mathematician, a painter, and a philosopher. And of course, he was a horse-farmer. While we painted signs, Howard told me a story about his time in World War II. He had graduated early from Kansas State Agriculture College in Manhattan in the fall of 1943 and attended Officer’s Candidate School before entering the U.S. Army in 1944, commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Howard was sent overseas, and soon after arriving, his entire company was captured and taken Prisoners of War. Howard told of being incarcerated in a series of POW camps in Eastern Europe as the war raged on all sides. In January of 1945, Howard and one comrade escaped from the prison camp and began a three-month odyssey of hiding and traveling throughout the war zone.
Howard was an extraordinary storyteller, and his tales were filled with detail, much like an artist paints a picture. His wit, mixed with his understanding of farm life, made me think I was spending time with a real-life Will Rogers. I recall him telling of being taken prisoner by the German soldiers, and upon his incarceration, he was given the opportunity to send a one-sentence telegram to his parents, assuring them of his well-being. Howard’s telegram to his father in Wamego, Kansas read as follows: “Breed my two grey mares to a jack.”
Howard revealed that he had authored an article about his time in the war which had been published in a two-part series in The Draft Horse Journal (https://www.drafthorsejournal.com/) in the Winter, 1993-94 and Spring, 1994 editions. Howard knew that I aspired to publish history books, and he urged me to publish his story, if I liked.
Recently, I contacted Lynn Telleen, the editor and publisher of The Draft Horse Journal, and Lynn generously gave me permission to reprint Howard’s entire article, A Citizen Soldier’s Story, in the Flint Hills Special Digital Magazine. While Howard was overseas, he utilized his talent as an artist and made sketches of the people, places and livestock he observed while in Europe. I’ve included those sketches, as well. I’d like to extend a special word of thanks to Lynn Telleen for sharing Howard’s story with us.
PREFACE by Maury Telleen, Publisher, The Draft Horse Journal, 1993
Instead of the “usual stuff” from 50 years ago, I have chosen to run a personal story about a man who graduated from Kansas State College in Agriculture on September 18, 1943. This narrative, which I have been urging Howard Johnstone to write for years, starts on that fateful Sunday morning in December, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and ends in the spring of 1945, as World War II was winding down.
It is not a Christmas story, in the usual sense, but it is a story of faith, hope, quiet courage and enduring decency. It is not about heroics or victory parades. It says a lot about the generation of Americans who served in World War II and the country they loved.
It is “too long” for our format. It is not “horsey enough” for our format. But it is an autobiographical story from one of our own draft horse people representing a generation that is now grey, spavined, and crampy-in many cases.
I don’t know whether it has any enduring literary merit or not and don’t really care. I scarcely edited it at all. It is 98% straight from the horse’s mouth, as they say in highbrow literary societies.
Howard and Glenna Johnstone from Maple Hill, Kansas have been friends of ours from the day we met them. That must be close to 30 years ago. During that time, we have looked at his wartime sketches a few times and bits and pieces of this tale have bobbed up in our conversations. Howard and I even went so far as to plan a trip to Poland once…to report back on draft horse usage and machinery, of course. But we never got around to it. We both had less frivolous things to do, I suppose. Like mow hay or clean out the barn.
Anyway, I kept nagging him to “write it down.” The first proposed title was “Can It Really Be 40 Years Already?” We missed that one by a scant ten years.
Howard is one of the most humorous men I know. His stuff is not canned. It is insty-mix, manufactured out of what is happening right in front of your face, or what was in this morning’s newspaper.
He is also a philosopher and he is the only kind of philosopher you can trust…one with a “regular job.”
When he was a boy in Kansas showing his pigs at the county fair and being a chicken judge (he was on a 4-H Poultry Judging team…very big on Silver Laced White Wyandottes) and practicing that trombone and piano, both of which he became very proficient on, he had some well-defined goals. When he “got big” he wanted to have his own threshing machine, his own stud horse, and his own tuxedo. For some years now he has had all of those things. I’d call that a success.
But, first, he had to survive being a shave-tail Infantry Lieutenant in World War II. And that is what the following story is about.
FOREWORD by Howard Johnstone
Wars produce casualties and survivors, and within both groups…heroes. Some heroes are well-known and many are known only to God. With most survivors, survival is reward enough. This is a story of survival, not of heroics, by American Infantry officers in World War II while serving their country and doing what was expected of them in that great struggle between good and evil.
The two principals came from similar backgrounds, with similar education and military training. The story is illustrated by sketches that capture scenes and personalities that were a part of the military operation, as well as those civilians that touched the lives of the participants. The high point of the story comes with the capture by the Germans, being prisoner, and finally effecting an escape that made survival nearer a reality.
For me, survival had a purpose beyond day-to-day existence. I wanted to farm and raise livestock and that dream helped to sustain me through periods of depression in discouraging and life-threatening situations.
The Infantry had its Sergeant York of World War I and Audie Murphy of WW II plus many lesser known and nameless heroes. WW II also had Bill Mauldin and George Biddle, among others, to chronicle the war through cartoons, sketches and works of art. What I have offered in this story does not compare in talent to their contribution in any way, shape or form. It is just a narrative of what happened to a foot soldier during World War II.
My father was not a “full time” farmer. He had 20 acres to support the team he drove on a rural mail route and to keep his family’s pantry and larder well-supplied. It also provided my parents with the kind of home, complete with the responsibilities of daily chores and a considerable measure of self-sufficiency, that they regarded as important in their lives. Full-time farmers or not, their outlook on life was far more rural than 95% of today’s full-time farmers.
My parents were very supportive of my 4-H Club livestock and farming projects. They were joined by similarly interested parents who had children within the ten to twenty age-span that membership covered in the 1930s. We met in an unused one-room school known as the Red Top school. The 4-H Club was to be an educational as well as a social organization for rural youth interested in farming and homemaking. One of the first things I learned at each meeting was how to do without electricity and indoor plumbing, a convenience I had not been without since I was old enough to remember. The one Coleman lantern with its delicate mantles, subject to destruction by flying insects, was no hindrance to the success of our club.
As a result of 4-H involvement, my projects ranged from a field of corn, to a brockle-faced steer, to pigs, sheep and dairy heifers. The social side included box suppers, picnics, project tours, contests, State Fairs, and being with kids that had common backgrounds and interests. We were green country kids, but we didn’t know it, so it didn’t bother us. We were having fun with each other, our livestock, cakes and pies, gardens, field crops and learning how to do what was necessary to carry on a rural heritage that was set before us. It was expected of us to continue that heritage. It didn’t always turn out that way, but some boys wanted to farm and raise livestock and some girls wanted to be good cooks and keep a clean house. Others wanted to go to Topeka and Kansas City.
I entered an essay contest that Sears, Roebuck and Company held for 4-H members in a four-county area around its Topeka, Kansas store. At that time, they had an extensive farm store in connection with their main store. The winners (eight in each county) would be awarded a gilt that they would raise, breed and farrow. The following year, they would return a gilt to be awarded to a new set of winners, thus perpetuating the program. Sears did it up brown with a luncheon at the Jayhawk Hotel for winners and their dads. After the luncheon, we went to the Farm Store and they passed out the pigs. They had bought sixteen Duroc pigs and sixteen Poland pigs, all gilts, from two local breeders. I think we got our choice as long as it was possible, but we had to take the pigs they had. I got a Poland gilt that was from Clarence Rowe of Scranton, Kansas. I knew who he was as he always had an ad in one of Capper’s papers, the greatest bread-and-butter item for the sheet writers that swarmed over rural America before WW I and up to WW II.
We got our gilts in June and we were to bring them back to Topeka to the Kansas Free Fair in September for judging. When we got home with the gilt, Dad suggested we put her on the feeding floor with a few barrows we were full-feeding to butcher. She did extremely well and by September was ready for the show ring. They were judged by counties and the first three places got 150, 100, and 50 baby chicks, for delivery next spring. The county winners competed for the grand prize of a registered Holstein heifer. She was from the St. Marys College herd of high-producing cows with equally impressive show records. I won the heifer, the baby chicks and still had my Poland gilt.
The win inspired me to keep heading toward my goal of being a farmer and stockman. Since we were only fifteen miles from St. Marys, we became good friends with Paul French, the herdsman, and when it was time to breed my heifer, he allowed us to use their herd sire which was a son of Governor of Carnation, one of the “hottest” sires in the Holstein breed at that time. In her second lactation, we put her on Advanced Registry test for three-year-olds on twice-a-day milking. She made a record of 599 pounds of butterfat and 17,520 pounds of milk. This was the state record for Kansas in her age group.
The next big event was the team of mares my folks decided that I should have. Dad always had a team that he used on the mail route on muddy days. He had used many horses to carry the mail, but this was his last team that he used on the route and of course, used them for farm work, also. They were a black team he bought from Jake Ubel. Colonel, the smaller, was by a Coach horse and Dan was by a draft horse, Percheron, no doubt. You could ride Colonel and he was a pretty good cow horse. Dan worked single on the five-tooth and hay rope.
The team we got were draft horses, grey Percheron mares, not registered, but true to Percheron type, and while they were not big, they seemed big to me and a team of which I could be very proud.
Another project I undertook that included the folks as partners was chickens. I undertook to assemble all different varieties of Wyandottes. There are eight different varieties and I finally got seven, by ordering hatching eggs and baby chicks from all over the country. I had to partition off the chicken house so the varieties wouldn’t mix. I didn’t want them to live like a bunch of 1960s hippies! The separation made chores seven times harder.
By going off to college I became aware of all these “fun” things that were to be a part of farming, and while I was home, I worked at taking care of everything I had accumulated; pigs, cows, horses, and chickens. I didn’t do it all, even when I was home, because I wanted good ol’ Dad and Mom to learn how to do my chores when the call to serve my country in the great war came. It came, and Dad and Mom were ready. I had trained them well!
The work they put in taking care of my stock was only a part of their dedication to being the best parents they could be. Their encouragement and guidance to me to do what I had chosen as my life’s direction was a great part of what I was to become in the years ahead.
And now, THE STORY ITSELF
A story about World War II, or an account of involvement in any part of it, frequently starts with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. While my active participation was to come some years later, I can remember very vividly where I was and what I was doing. Being a sophomore in college and a member of the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) unit at Kansas State College, this news made me sit up and take notice. The ROTC program was mandatory for the first two years at land-grant colleges, but the last two years were optional and the cadets who chose this advanced ROTC, as it was called, could expect to be commissioned a Second Lieutenant upon graduation. Summer camp between their junior and senior years was expected in order to receive the commission.
My home town was Wamego, Kansas, only fifteen miles from Manhattan where I went to college. Weekends found me at home where my interest lay in my livestock that I had accumulated in FFA and 4-H programs. Mom’s good cooking was also an incentive to be home every weekend.
On the weekend of December 7, part of the activities included a Sunday drive in the country to celebrate the birthday of the Sesler twins, Bill and Ben, who, along with their mother, my mother and dad, and myself made up the carload. I don’t remember where we went as we were just sight-seeing. Dad always liked to select a road on which he had never been, and after a while Mom would announce, “Dad, you’re lost!” Dad was a rural mail carrier and his answer was, that if there were mailboxes and you followed them, you would end up at a post office, somewhere.
It was a nice day and we were enjoying the early winter Kansas landscape. We had no radio in the car. If we wanted to listen to the radio, we would have stayed home. We wanted the thrill of the open road. Thrills were not as hard to come by then as they are now, some fifty years later.
After leaving the Seslers at their house, we came home to do chores and eat supper before the trip back to Manhattan to my rooming house. Still, no radio to hear what had happened that afternoon. My roommate, Carl Pache, greeted me with the news that most people had known for several hours.
The military department at the college was in the gymnasium on the south edge of the campus and a rock wall was the southern boundary of the campus. This was a favorite gathering place for students between classes to smoke, visit, meet girls (or boys), etc.
After the news of Pearl Harbor was announced on the radio that Sunday afternoon, it didn’t take the pranksters long to spring into action. Telephone calls were made to ROTC cadets to inform them they were to gather on the rock wall, in uniform, and await further orders. Of course, such a shocking report of the Japanese attack made some of the more gung-ho cadets obey without question, should the next report be that Ft. Riley, only twenty miles west of Manhattan, was under bombardment.
The Pearl Harbor attack altered the lives of nearly every American for the next four years and for many, the rest of their lives. But for the moment, most people, including me, continued in their line of endeavor, with relatively little change in their daily routines.
At the end of basic ROTC, a decision had to be made to enter advanced ROTC. Dad helped me make that decision, since he had been an enlisted man in the in the Navy in peacetime (1908) on the east coast. His evaluation of my choice was summed up as follows: “Become an officer; an enlisted man is just Uncle Sam’s little yellow dog!” I’m sure conditions for enlisted men have changed since the turn of the century, but I took his advice and enrolled in advanced ROTC.
As the war progressed, the military situation changed in regards to the ROTC program. Summer camps were discontinued and as a result, the cadets, upon graduation, had to attend OCS (Officer Candidate School) in order to be commissioned Second Lieutenant.
By the spring of 1943, the college offered an accelerated scholastic program that gave cadets a chance to get their college degree before going to OCS. This included summer school which was a new experience for me. I professed to hate school for fifteen years, but I finally graduated on September 18, 1943 with a BS degree in Agriculture. Now on to OCS in Fort Benning, Georgia.
When the OCS program started, the length of the school was three months and the graduating Second Lieutenants were dubbed, “Ninety-Day Wonders.” When I got there the course was extended to four months. I was commissioned on April 12, 1944; another “wonder” thrust upon the military, with its hands already more than full with WW II.
After ten days at home, I reported to Camp Joseph T. Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas for my first tour of duty. By this time the war had heated up to the point that personnel weren’t in one place very long. My “tour” at Little Rock ended rather abruptly with the orders for me to go where a part of the action was…the European Theater of Operations. All I learned in Little Rock was where the Marion Hotel was located; the auditorium where the wrestling matches were held and the Walgreen drug store where soldiers could meet nice girls. All this intensive training had to be put on hold until I returned a year later to continue my conquests. Late in August 1944, after another ten days at home, I was on my way to Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, next stop on my way to war!
The military was full of secrecy regarding information that might be useful to the enemy, especially troop movements. When I decided to chronicle my journey to war, I did it with drawings that more or less concealed dates, times, and places. I don’t think my “code” would have been hard to break if it had fallen into enemy hands. I’ll include a few examples. This was done to amuse myself, rather than confound the Germans whose attention was not riveted on an Infantry 2nd Lt. from Kansas. There was a General from Kansas named Eisenhower. His movements were of interest to them…and he used a better code.
I left Wamego, Kansas on the train August 3, 1944 and traveled east through Kansas City (heart of America), then to St. Louis (noted for a famous brewery). The train rolled on to the northeast via Cleveland (on Lake Erie), on to Albany (capital of New York), then down to New York City. My sister, Ella Gertrude and her husband Chevie Crandell were living in Chatham, New Jersey and that was my first stop before settling in at Fort Meade. I knew I had been on the train two days since I left home as she had 5’s all over her dress (5-3=2).
My stay at Ft. George G. Meade was brief and in fact, I was commuting between Washington and New York most of the time. Washington, D.C. gave me an opportunity for a combined Army-Navy operation with a very nice WAVE, Lena Bianchi of Gloucester, Massachusetts: my first dinner in a Chinese restaurant, and the discovery of combat boots, the Infantryman’s trademark. On the New York end of my commute was limited sight-seeing in Manhattan with Ella Gertrude and her husband, Chevie.
The time finally came to leave Ft. Meade. A band saw us off and everything was to be hush-hush from now on, especially at our next stop, Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Camp Kilmer was named for another infantryman, Joyce Kilmer—from another war, World War I. Kilmer, the author of the poem, “Trees”, was killed in action while serving in France in 1918. Our Port of Embarkation was N.Y. and after three days wait, we steamed out of the harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, on the Ile de France, a former luxury liner stripped of its luxury. Besides the hundreds of troops aboard the ship, the old crooner himself, Bing Crosby, was there to bolster the morale of the troops as they headed into ten days or more of enemy-infested waters. Limey food, seasickness and the certainty of combat. It’s a good thing they send young men to war because old men wouldn’t fall for that kind of appeasement.
This troop ship served as a gathering place for friends we had made in college, at OCS and at our duty tour prior receiving orders for overseas duty. We settled in for this journey to war, not knowing where we were going, how long it would take, or if we would return. Most of us were replacement troops, not a part of a regular unit. We fitted the old WW II term of “cannon Fodder,” but we didn’t dwell on that since we considered this an adventure, and we had a part to do as U. S. soldiers in a war that had a purpose, and in which we had a real chance of winning. In fact, I never knew anyone who thought there was any chance at all that the United States would lose a foreign war. We never had!
Our schedule on the Ile de France, now a troop ship under British command, was quite routine with two meals a day, emergency drills, and crap shooting in the passageways. Oh yes, that first meal in the morning included kippered herring, not a very good antidote for seasickness. There seemed to be quite a preponderance of brass on board from Generals on down. I was one of the “downs” as a Second Lieutenant, but I was an officer and entitled to their rights and privileges; therefore, I had no duties and was able to spend much of my time on my bunk which served to alleviate the seasickness which I experienced the whole trip. I’m glad I chose the Army instead of the Navy. It was nice to fraternize with the Navy though, especially the female kind in Washington, D.C.!
Bing put on his USO show many times to accommodate all the troops. The rumor was circulated that a Major was caught with one of the USO girls in his room. It was reported that he was made to stand at attention, naked, while a superior officer dressed him down, or should I say, “undressed him down.” Another rumor was that we traveled twenty-four hours in the opposite direction to evade submarines. From my position on my back in my bunk, I wouldn’t have known if we were coming or going.
We finally got to the other side of the Atlantic and sailed up the Firth of Clyde to Glasgow, Scotland. Scotland, the home of my ancestors, home of the Ayrshire cattle and Clydesdale horses, had to be viewed at a distance from the window of a train traveling south into England. My “coded drawings” tell me it was the 27th of September. Our destination was Codford in southern England where I was to spend a number of days waiting to make up a “package” of replacements that would be needed to bring various units in France up to strength. Our quarters were four-man tents in a cow pasture. We had a terrific mess with steaks and other delicacies not to be found in many Army mess halls. Our most important duty was baseball and being on time for meals.
I chose to use my leisure time to capture some of the countryside on my watercolor pad. I carried a box of watercolors and a pad in my musette bag, the Army’s name for a knapsack, and had done some sketches in New York and on the Firth of Clyde before we docked in Glasgow. Bicycles were plentiful and I bought one for four pounds. I think the pound was worth about four dollars then. This gave me transportation to travel the roads and villages to sketch and still get back to the mess hall for those great meals. With my farm background, I concentrated on animals and rural settings.
During this stay in southern England our group had narrowed and I was to get to know several individuals quite well. We usually traveled in pairs to such nearby towns as Bath, Salisbury, Sherrington and a big trip into London. In my watercolor painting, I used pigments made by a company, Windsor and Newton, there in London. I found their establishment and hoped to buy some new colors. The pigments come in small tubes about two inches long and one-half in diameter so they don’t take up much space in paint box or pocket. The Windsor and Newton people at the store advised me that they had no colors on hand as they had exported them to America! In turn, I wrote to my sister in New Jersey and she sent me some. A lot of ocean travel for some little tubes of paint back and forth between England and America. No wonder they call ‘em “watercolors.”
Salisbury, with its magnificent Cathedral, was a favorite sketching spot for me. I returned there in 1981 and again visited the Cathedral. In one of the transepts there hung an American flag. Great numbers of American soldiers were stationed in this area of southern England prior to D-Day, June 6, 1944, so General Eisenhower had the flag hung in the Cathedral. As soon as Viscount General Montgomery of the British Army found out that Ike had put up the American Stars and Stripes, he countered with the Union Jack. This story was related to me by one of the Canons at the Cathedral in 1981.
My time in Southern England was drawing to a close and orders were cut for departure at South Hampton and then across the Channel to France. My life as a carefree artist on a painting excursion through the English countryside came to a screeching halt. I sold my bicycle for five pounds and now with a duffel bag and musette bag, I was more military minded; but I could not view what I was experiencing without seeing it as a potential sketch or future painting.
We went across the channel on a troop carrier arriving at Omaha Beach. This was the most fiercely defended area on D-Day, resulting in many casualties for the attacking allied forces. The sea was not especially rough, but the swells were enough to make debarkation a different experience for a soldier that was used to the ground under him staying put. Small boats, landing craft, as they were known, came along side of the ship and we stepped across from a door in the side of the ship. A sailor stood on the edge of the landing craft to assist each man across. The landing craft was affected by the swells of the sea and rose and fell some eight or ten feet. When the landing craft came even with the door in the ship, the sailor would steady each soldier as he came across. The distance wasn’t far from ship to landing craft, but there was room to fall between the boats if there was a missed step.
When the landing craft came to shore the end-ramps came down, and we walked down the ramp and waded a short distance to dry land…just like they did it on D-Day with one important difference…there was no enemy shooting at us!
As we assembled on the higher ground above the beach, we could see the white crosses of a military cemetery. This was a stark reminder of what war was all about and how close we were to being a real part of it, or going out of it for good.
The nearest town was Le Mans where we were billeted in small tents. The country club mess and easy way of living in England was over. We were in the field and conditions were wet, muddy and cold as we were approaching fall weather on the continent. We moved on open trucks form one billet to the next, sometimes in French army installations or buildings the army had taken for such use. We were moving closer to the front where the fighting was taking place; action for which we had been trained…but did we really know what was coming? Our mood became more serious for we knew that combat with the enemy was inevitable for most of us and being infantrymen meant we were to come face to face with him.
Paris had been freed by now, and many allied troops were experiencing leave or at least some time in the famous city. The war was progressing favorably for the Allies and a big push was on to drive the Germans out of France. Our particular group of replacements pushed right through Paris on an open army truck, unaware for a while that it was really Paris!
We continued on and passed through the town of Nancy. The effects of the war had not been kind to France. Evidence of the damage was all around us. A somber tone pervaded our group as we approached combat, still not knowing what the end result would be.
My “end result” came when I was assigned to the 26th Division as a platoon leader of F Company of the 101st Infantry Regiment. The 26th Division, known as the Yankee Division, was formed from the Massachusetts National Guard. The arm patch was a blue YD on a grey diamond background. The 26th was a part of Patton’s Third Army and had advanced rapidly against the Germans. The company to which I was assigned had just come off a severe battle to capture a hill and had suffered high casualties. Their company commander plus many men were lost. Their morale was low since they had trained and fought together as a unit for many months, even years, with great personal bonds that had been broken by the ravages of war. As a replacement officer, I had no attachment to unit personnel. Many of my friends were experiencing much the same thing.
The first order of business as I remember was a meeting of company officers at the Battalion command post. A regular Army Colonel from Kansas, Burlington, I believe was Battalion commander. A First Lieutenant was company commander, and I was platoon leader. After the meeting, it was back to the foxhole to wait out the night. The hill had been captured and now it must be held until we moved forward.
When I first arrived on the line, I shared a foxhole with an enlisted man of the company. He had shown me a German pistol he had from the previous engagement when taking the hill. When I got back to the foxhole, the gun had discharged, striking him in the foot. As crowded as we were, it was a good thing that I was gone when it happened. It’s strange that those kinds of accidents usually happen when the victim is alone. In this case, it was a young, frightened kid, cold and miserable, involved in a life-threatening situation. I don’t judge him.
When morning came, not fifty feet in front of my foxhole, lay the body of an American soldier beside a straggly, broken and shredded tree. It was very demoralizing, making me wonder how long it would be before I would be a part of such a scene.
Our position overlooked a small village that was receiving artillery bombardment from behind us. The shells whizzed over our heads incessantly, day and night. In fact, at night I would estimate the distance by counting between the flash of impact and the sound that finally returned to my ears. We were taught to do this in order to judge distances in hundreds of yards. After several days of shelling, the village was considered vacant, but I was given a detail of five or six men to go down to see for sure whether anyone was still there. We found a couple of dead Germans but nothing else. We stayed overnight in a house and fixed C-rations for supper. We had an Italian boy in our group who was imaginative enough to go out to the garden and get some fresh garlic to enhance the flavor of the C-rations. He really did it! I remember his concoction was one of the tastiest meals I had ever eaten. It was better than the Chinese meal in Washington, D. C.
After we assured the rest of the company that the village was clear, we reassembled as a unit. In military tactics the flanks, or outside edges of a unit, are considered the most vulnerable. As I learned more about the disposition of other companies in our regiment, I realized that we were on the right flank of the regiment, and my platoon was on the right flank of F Company, which was the right flank of the whole Third Army!
The war in Europe was moving so well for the Allied forces that it was reported that General Patton, commander of the Third Army, made the statement that advancing troops under his command could “throw away your entrenching tools…we’re moving so fast that you won’t need them!”
On November 18 the regiment was to jump off early on attack. Heeding Patton’s advice, I was travelling light. I left my musette bag in the company area. It contained my personal items, plus, my watercolors and sketch book with my drawings from England and France. I suppose I expected to be separated from my sketch book sooner or later, so I wrote my Dad’s address in the back of the book. I got it back due to the kindness and understand of the company clerk, PFC Wayne L. Smith.
This is the note he sent to my parents seven months later with the sketch book:
Germany July 25, 1945
I took over the mail clerk’s job a few weeks ago, and in looking through this junk, found your sketch book and what I take to be your snapshots. You’ve done what I would like to have done if I was not so lazy. I’m referring to your sketch book. Anyway, I’m sending it along to you with the photographs. If there is anything else I can do for you, write and let me know.
PFC Wayne L. Smith
We started off early on the 18th. Being the platoon leader, it was my duty to lead the attack. The traditional and expected cry of the Second Lieutenant platoon leader was “FOLLOW ME.” We advanced across comparatively open ground, but a group of trees to our right front produced sporadic small arms fire. Puffs of dust on the ground on which you had just walked is pretty convincing that you are in a shooting war. We returned the fire with carbine and M1 rifle fire and continued to advance through a small stream, through a barbed wire fence, on which I tore my pants, and on across the field. We came upon a foxhole that yielded a young German soldier who surrendered and became our prisoner.
All of a sudden, we were receiving mortar fire which we concluded later was from our own units behind us. I looked to my left and what was once an attacking soldier was only a half a soldier writhing on the ground…his top half completely blown away. We sighted some buildings ahead of us and we quickened our pace to reach them in hopes that they would provide cover from the fire we were receiving. We finally reached the buildings which had been a rural village with houses and barns very close together. My platoon went into the cellar of what had been a dwelling. The company commander and the other two platoons found cover near a barn and a haystack. After we got to the buildings, we realized that we were up against German Tiger tanks with 88mm guns. Before going into the cellar, we tried to advance across a road. I moved across the road, shouting, “follow me”, in true Second Lieutenant platoon leader style. After I reached the other side, the tank with the 88 fired from about a hundred yards down the road. That was a more forceful demonstration of what was happening than a “follow me” from a shave-tail; hence, my platoon stayed where they were. When I realized I wasn’t being followed, I ran back across the road and the tank fired again. We knew there were more tanks than the one firing down the road as other tanks were firing at the other platoons. We thought it was time to head for the cellar.
Once in the cellar, we realized our prisoner had been wounded by small arms fire. I furnished my first aid kit to patch him up and then I decided to leave the cellar and contact the company commander at his location near a barn. I had to climb a rock wall to reach his position. When I got there, I found they were pretty well pinned down by enemy fire. I was also told that a fellow platoon leader, Lt. Sunshine, was cut in half by an 88 shell as he came around the corner of the haystack. The tanks began firing again as I returned to the cellar. Climbing the rock wall this time could be described as hurtling it in a single leap!
The tanks had moved close to our building, and if the 88’s were stuck through the window of the cellar, we could die like rats in a trap. I decided to come out with my men and the prisoner we still held. As we reached the street, we joined the rest of the company who had decided the same thing. It was a classic case of fire superiority on the part of the enemy. We were a rifle company with only carbines and rifles. We didn’t even have a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) or more importantly, a “Bazooka”, which was a proven successful anti-tank weapon, not uncommonly attached to rifle companies.
To sum up our situation, we were making a rapid advance per General Patton’s orders and got out ahead of other units in our attacking force; hence, the “friendly” mortar fire we received. When we got to the village, we ran into the German tanks that were on an isolated patrol and just happened to capture our American Infantry company.
The company commander, being a First Lieutenant, surrendered the whole company to the German tankers. The prisoner we held told the tankers that we had treated his wound and fed him. How much good that did I do not know, but I received no mistreatment by my captors. The Germans, being rank conscious, separated the officers from the enlisted men and moved up to their nearest command post for the night. We were interrogated by a German officer, individually, and mostly about a pipeline that I had never heard of. My name rank and serial number did little to answer his questions.
Our quarters for the night was a room in a vacant house half-filled with loose straw. There were three officers plus a German guard. The company commander had advised before our attack that everyone should carry a chocolate bar (K-rations) in our pocket at all times. When we finally got in our straw room, we realized we had little to eat all day so it was time for the K-rations. Who had any? I was the only one but willingly shared what I had.
Every soldier that reaches “the line” feels that his only way out of this worst of all situations he had ever faced in his life is to be lucky enough to get a non-fatal wound or die. Very few realized that being taken prisoner was another way. I will say at this point, and perhaps will repeat it again, that I never received nor saw any mistreatment of prisoners by my German captors.
When morning came, we were on the road to somewhere, marching in a column with other prisoners that had been captured about the same time. A couple of incidents during this march come to mind. An airplane approached our column, rather low, as if to strafe. The guards started to run for the ditches on either side of the road. Someone in our group of prisoners had the presence of mind to tell everyone to stay put in the middle of the road so the pilot of the allied plane would realize that we were allied prisoners. That’s just the way It happened, as the plane lifted up from right over us and passed out of sight.
A little later we heard loud honking from a vehicle behind us. The guards moved our column over to one side of the road so the honking vehicle could pass. As it did, we saw that it was a soft drink delivery truck and emblazoned across the back were the words, “DRINK COCA-COLA!” Was this adding insult to injury? Was I in this situation, in part, because we were fighting a war to protect big business in foreign countries? It’s still going on! After we got farther behind the German lines, we had transportation to move us back into Germany. We had no idea where we would end up. One of the overnight stops was at a primitive prison camp near Sulzbach that held Russian prisoners. It seemed to be built on a pile of coal and was home to thousands of fleas. They perhaps didn’t realize we were prisoners as each new batch of inmates meant a fresh meal for them. I was glad our stop was only one night.
Finally, after travelling through Coblentz, we arrived at what proved to be only a temporary camp, Stalag XIIA, near the town of Limburg. By now it was beginning to feel like truly fall weather; cold, damp, and dreary. We were glad to be off the road and into a covered building, such as it was. It was a large building with double-deck bunks and a table or two. The only heat seemed to be from a large tile structure in the middle of the room. The latrine was a separate room with just holes in the floor. Very primitive surroundings, but adequate in the minds of the Germans for their unworthy occupants.
There were prisoners in this building when we arrived, and we found out that this was a temporary camp and from time to time small groups of prisoners moved out to different and supposedly permanent installations. At each corner of this building were towers that held anti-aircraft guns. The allies were supposed to know the locations of the PW camps in Germany to avoid endangering prisoners. Where better to locate anti-aircraft guns than a protected location?
With all of the excitement of the last day of combat, capture, movement to the rear and finally being incarcerated as a full-fledged PW, the realization of hunger at last took over my constant thoughts. I knew this would be no “Mom’s Kitchen”, but I was hardly prepared for the limited menu that was offered; namely, black bread, grass soup and ersatz coffee.
The bread was really good, but in such short supply. The grass soup, as we called it, was a clear broth with a few vegetable parings in the bottom and, of course, ersatz coffee is nothing more than colored water, hopefully warm.
The real-life saver for the PW was the Red Cross box containing concentrated foodstuffs that would supplement the prison diet. The International Red Cross administered the distribution of these boxes; however, the Germans had the final say of who got the contents. We got some items form the box, but it was not until we got to our permanent camp that each man got a whole box for himself. The boxes, as I remember them were about a foot square and eight or nine inches deep. They contained such items as dried milk, chocolate, liver pate, instant coffee, margarine, dried fruit, peanut butter, jelly or jam, crackers and cigarettes…all delicacies except for the cigarettes; but they were valuable for trading to the German guards for bread. It was rumored that a Red Cross box could be bought in Berlin for $300.
Food was uppermost in our minds at all times along with dreams of civilian life and all the comforts of home. Bread was the mainstay of our diet supplemented by the goodies from the Red Cross box. The small daily portion we were allotted led to “tea party style” eating habits. I guess we were trying to stretch the flavor of those bite-size rations.
To those who smoked, I suppose its importance ranked right up there with food. I wasn’t a smoker, I tried to once in England because my contemporaries made it sound so good and got so excited when it was announced that the PX had a shipment of cigarettes. I didn’t like the taste of smoke, so I gave it up before I got the habit. Cigarettes, to smokers and non-smokers alike, were important in the prison camp to smoke or to trade for food. The smokers saved every shred of tobacco to roll their own. They even broke ready-made to have tobacco to roll. Cigarette papers were in great demand.
The average stay for a captured soldier was about a month, so some imagination and resourcefulness had to come into play to help pass the time away. Most of us came with a minimum of clothing, so we were issued extra outerwear. I remember I got a Belgian overcoat, flared out at the waist. Foreign armies have different styles in uniforms; even tassels on the overseas caps. Beards were another outlet for frustration; Van Dykes and mustaches sprouted along with those just needing a shave. Another time passer, born of necessity, was keeping warm. Having limited space around the stove made finding a spot quite a challenge. One prisoner that met that challenge with great regularity was Frank Gandler, who, in the weeks to come would become my closest companion. Some heat seekers found that staying in bed covered-up solved their heating problems. Other forms of amusement included singing; a quartet, no less. Church-like services filled a great need for some, I’m sure. Loren Grisett was active in this area. There was a lot of visiting between prisoners about their units and the circumstances surrounding their capture. There were loners, as the bearded Captain, that paced the cobblestone floor incessantly.
We soon came to recognize some of the regulars on the guard staff. The Corporal who made the daily count to see if we were still there; a civilian who we dubbed, “The Registerer”, and the Corporal who came periodically to announce in English, “You are leaving this place.” He would read off a list of men that would be moving on to a permanent camp. The count at Stalag XIIA stayed rather constant with new prisoners coming in and others moving on. One permanent occupant was a doctor who remained in bed with a badly injured leg. His condition was serious and made worse by his surroundings, but his high morale was an inspiration to other prisoners. With our grass soup diet, nightly patrols to the latrine broke the monotony of the day and the night for some.
After we had been here for several weeks, we noticed that more Americans were arriving oftener and in larger groups. The Germans had been bragging that they were winning the war. We scoffed at their enthusiasm and dared not believe what they were saying. The arrival of these new prisoners made us wonder if there was something to it. We didn’t know at that time that we were seeing one of the results of the Battle of the Bulge. Because of this influx of new prisoners, the time for my “leaving this place” would come shortly. In fact, two days before Christmas, my name was called to join a group of fifty or so other prisoners and be ready to go at four o’clock on the afternoon of December 23, 1944. A change was welcome for most of us. We had been with the Germans long enough to know that we were the “kriegsgefangenen”, the German word for Prisoner of War, or as we shortened it to “kriegies”.
We assembled outside the building in which we had been housed for nearly a month. One “kriegie” protested that they had taken his four-buckle overshoes, and he wanted them returned. Most of us were disgusted with him as we were in no position to argue with our captors. We weren’t at a Union bargaining table. On this cold and snowy December day, we were marched to the railroad yards about a mile distance to board boxcars for our next move. Arriving at the rail yard, we were loaded into the waiting cars. These were small boxcars that we had heard of from WW I, referred to as 40 and 8’s (forty men and eight horses). One end of the car was partitioned and twenty-three prisoners were stuffed into that small end. A small stove was in the middle of the car, and the other end was reserved for the four guards that were to accompany us on the trip. Woven barbed wire from top to floor kept us in. There was not room for all of us to sit or lie down at the same time, so we took turns standing. Cattle and hogs have more room on boxcars!
We had been on the boxcar for perhaps an hour, when the air raid siren sounded in the town of Limburg and, of course, at the prison camp. We had heard them before but nothing was done except to stay in this one building and observe a blackout. I guess we drew a sense of security from the anti-aircraft guns at the corners of the camp. In fact, I never heard them fire during an air raid, so allied planes must have avoided the area, knowing a PW camp was there.
But we were no longer in that “sanctuary”. We were in a rail yard and the roar of the planes and bombs whistling down made us realize we were being bombed. When the explosions seemed to be right in the rail yard, the guards jumped off the boxcar and closed and latched the door. Several near hits rocked the boxcar and twenty-three frightened prisoners had to stay and take it. Suddenly, someone on the outside unlatched the door. We scrambled off and hit the ditch alongside the tracks. Bombs were still coming down and the hits threw frozen clods of dirt on us as we lay in the ditch. Truly a terrifying experience for all of us. Every prisoner is duty-bound to escape if he can; but certain conditions must be favorable for him to take the risk. Here we were in strange surroundings, it was dark, guards were still around, and we had no time to plan what we would do. Consequently, we got back on the boxcar when the bombing ceased. We heard that two prisoners from another boxcar had run a hundred yards or so from the train and were killed by the bombs. Whether they were escaping, I’ll never know; only that it was unsuccessful.
The guards came back to our car and resumed their posts in the big end of the boxcar. The rest of the night was uneventful as far as bombing was concerned, but the next morning we got the word that it was the RAF that made the raid, and besides the rail yard, they made a direct hit on the building at Stalag XIIA (our supposed sanctuary) where we had been less than three hours before. It was demoralizing news and our thoughts immediately were of the sick doctor and, of course, all the Americans lost in this terrible mistake by the British RAF…not the first in the confusion and uncertainty of war…nor will it be the last.
The rail yards, which were evidently the target, took quite a beating, but work crews were on the job, and perhaps had been, immediately after the bombing stopped. The prison train stood still all day, and we spent the day in our cramped quarters, cold, hungry, and apprehensive about whether we could survive a repeat performance of the night before. The day passed while we watched the guards, all old men, enjoy Christmas goodies that they had received from home. At least this reminded us that it was Christmas Eve, minus the cookies, minus any contact from home and minus any hope that we had much future at all. As night approached, our fears heightened. Would we be bombed again? Would the train move out of the yards? Would we be sitting ducks again, and when would it end? I guess these thoughts helped to keep our minds off our crowded predicament. We still had to take turns standing, sitting or laying down. The night passed…NO BOMBING!
“Christians, Awake, Salute The Happy Morn,” goes the Christmas hymn expressing the joy of the season. We could not express much joy at this moment but we did share the hope of the Christian world that things would be better. The Prince of Peace was born, and we were praying that the Germans could get the tracks repaired so we could get out of this potential death trap. With munitions, troops, food and war material moving on the rails, guess who had priority…not a trainload of PW’s!
Christmas passed very uneventfully. Maybe we sang White Christmas or Silent Night. I don’t remember; but our Christmas present came the next day when the train started to move. I think a weak cheer rose from the prisoners and maybe a slight bit of respect for the Germans’ ability to restore bombed out tracks. At this stage of the war, late 1944, they had plenty of practice.
Most ground soldiers had been subjected to small arms fire, mortar fire and artillery fire before they were captured, but most of us agreed that the bombing we had just experienced was the most terrifying of all attacks that an enemy could make. The mounting crescendo of the earth-bound bomb makes each individual feel that it is headed directly at him and is going right down his neck!
The train moved through the snow-covered countryside on a cold winter day. It was not an extensive sight-seeing trip due to the fact that there were only two small windows high up on each side of our end of the boxcar. Only those whose turn it was to stand up could do the sightseeing.
Where we were going was still unknown to all of us. I doubt if the guards knew. Days passed, although the misery of our quarters, little food, cold and monotony stayed with us. The scenery remained much the same, and we soon lost interest in even looking. The dreariness and monotony of each day’s weather made it that much more difficult to detect the direction in which we were going. It stood to reason that the direction would be east and not west. Since the Germans occupied Poland, that would be our destination. We spent Christmas in a German rail njm87yard, sweating out bombs. Where would we be spending New Year’s Eve? The train kept rolling along and lo and behold, we arrived at Oflag 64 near Szubin, Poland on December 31, 1944!
The name Oflag means that it is a prison for officers. The Germans are quite conscious of segregation of officers, and all groups in which I had been were all officers. This also meant we had no menial duties to perform. Perhaps their reasoning was that officers were a greater risk for escape. Enlisted men were sent out on work details where escape could be easier; hence, officers were kept secluded and under closer guard.
Oflag 64 had 1,500 American prisoners and had been in existence several years in order to accumulate that many. Being a permanent camp, the routine among the prisoners was more organized. Rank didn’t mean much in PW camps. Everybody was a “kriegie” although we knew that a Colonel Paul Goode was the senior American officer. I never met him or knew the circumstances of his capture. It was said that Amon Carter, Jr., from Fort Worth, Texas was in the camp. His father, Amon Carter, was the publisher of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I never met him, either.
We finally got our own Red Cross box; however, the meat from each box was pooled to combine with prison potatoes to make a warm dish to be served to everyone. Compared to what we had experienced over the last several weeks, this seemed like a cat finding a bird’s nest on the ground. A comparatively warm building, more food, our own bunk and a Red Cross box…who could ask for anything more! We were still prisoners and the wire fence surrounding our camp bore testimony to that fact. Guards were not too evident, but we knew they were there. It was reported that one prisoner, (or maybe more) paced back and forth along the fence, he was known in the camp vernacular, as a “fence climber.” Each man had his own way of dealing with incarceration. I can’t begin to know what they all were, but my own method was to plan for the future; a future that allowed me to do the thing I wanted most to do since I milked my first cow, drove my first team of horses, and showed pigs at the county fair…FARM. I considered WW II a temporary interruption of my goal to eventually farm and raise livestock. Dad and Mom were caring for the livestock I had at home, and my thoughts were with them almost constantly…all of them.
The PW’s weren’t entirely in the dark as to what was going on in the world, and, of course, what was going on in the war was of utmost interest to all of us at Oflag 64. Somewhere in the camp, a radio receiving set was being operated by the prisoners, and the prime-time program was the daily news from the BBC in London. Every night, rather late, the doors were shut and guarded while the day’s news was read. I’m sure that our families at home hung on every word when there was news of the war, but in the prison camp, the war, as far as active participation was concerned, was over for us. The war was still on in Europe and also in the Pacific, but we had this problem of terminating our tour of duty as a prisoner before we could rejoin our units or join new ones. Our concern was one of survival; day to day staying alive, eating, sleeping, keeping warm and doing what we were told.
In this respect, we were no strangers to being told what to do. That’s what the military is all about. Individual initiative was not considered too important, especially to a Second Lieutenant. As a Second Lieutenant, I had all the rights and privileges of an officer, but I was caught in the middle of the military system. I was responsible to everybody of greater rank and responsible for everyone of lesser rank. The chance to use initiative was to come for me, sooner than I could imagine.
This was mid-January, 1945, in Poland: cold snowy, blustery with the war still being waged on many fronts. The Russians were starting to make their push west to drive the Germans out of Poland; not only the German soldiers, but the civilians who had occupied Poland almost five years. We became aware of this by observing the constant stream of German civilians anxiously and hurriedly filling the road past our camp with horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians determined to get back to Germany before the Russians overtook them. The wagons held all of the possessions they could carry, plus women, children and the elderly who could not endure the walk. Men and older boys walked beside the wagons and there was no gap between the wagons as the entourage plodded its way along. We had observed this pilgrimage for about a week before we were told that we were to evacuate Oflag 64. They had an evacuation plan that was very simple…just open the front gate and let approximately 1,500 American officers who were prisoners and their guards mingle with the refugees and continue the march toward Germany. That we did and as they say in the movie travelogue, “as the sun sinks slowly in the west, we bid a fond farewell to beautiful Oflag 64 and journey westward through the war-ravaged wasteland that was Poland!”
We wore all the clothing we had been issued and carried the remnants of Red Cross boxes wrapped in a light blanket. The road was snow-packed from the days of constant travel by the refugees. I was fascinated by all the different horse-drawn rigs that the civilians were using to move back to Germany. I had missed the height of horse use in America, and always wondered what it was like to see horses on the streets and roads. We had a team of horses at home, and Dad, being a rural mail carrier, used them on his route when it was too muddy for a car. I finally saw horses on the road…did I ever!
After only an hour or so on the road, one of our guards played out, so he was put on one of the wagons, as were some prisoners that were in a weakened condition. This was no doubt repeated many times up and down the column. The mingling with the refugees was so complete that the prisoners soon lost their identity in this trudging mass of people, soldiers, prisoners, and horses.
Our group of Kriegies that had been together since Stalag XIIA narrowed considerably in this stream of humanity making its way on the crowded thoroughfare of cold, misery, and confusion. It was a result of this that Frank Gandler, First Lieutenant, and I seemed to pair off as travelling companions. I think Frank was a little older than I was and was married. He came originally from Brooklyn and was affectionately known as the “Brooklyn Bum.” His home now was in Long Island, New York.
When night fell, we were herded into barns already occupied by livestock. This served as an advantage as the animals provided warmth. Farm boys know this and were not afraid to share a stall or pen with these heat-producing servants of mankind. It was almost impossible for the guards to keep track of the prisoners in this conglomeration of refugees and Kriegies, so after our first night’s stay in the barns, the morning count was always less than the previous night. You guessed it…the prisoners were hiding in the barns until the rest had moved on, planning on making contact with advancing Russian troops and thereby effecting an escape. This was successful for some, but the majority stayed with the march. We were making about ten kilometers a day for the first few days these daily escapes were taking place. After the fourth day, the German commandant issued the order that each morning the haymows of the barns would be flushed with machine gun fire to discourage hiding prisoners. It had an effect on the future would-be escapees, as the number of defectors dropped drastically. It was reported that one prisoner came out of the haymow after the machine gunning and proclaimed, “I surrender for the third and final time!”
We continued our trek through more snow, cold and misery, sometimes passing through small villages. Gandler could speak some German, and many of the Polish people, being under German occupation for so long, could also speak it. He could talk some civilians out of something to eat on occasion. At other times, the Polish civilians offered tidbits to the prisoners only to be threatened by the German guards. This helped supplement the meager ration that was provided on the march. Our partnership was working. He provided extra food, and I found the warmest places to stay in the barns. At one night’s stop we, as Lieutenants, had Captains and Majors asking if they could bunk with us.
Survival is a day-to-day task, and each day that passed was a step toward my way back home. Hope and faith are great supports in situations such as this. On occasions, when the day was coming to a close and the shadows lengthening, I would look at the setting sun and remember, that although we were thousands of miles away, it was the same sun that eventually set at home and was viewed by my mom and dad. I know that I could continue to make these ten-kilometer marches, but I thought about escape on several occasions. We had been on the road for ten days and the report was that the Russians were only fifteen kilometers behind us. This was reflected in the actions of the guards as they were jittery and anxious to move out each morning.
On the tenth day of marching, we were about 100 kilometers from Oflag 64 and headed for Steffin. We were in a small village, that I learned later was near Deutsch-Krone, and were billeted for the night in this barn with four cows, a pen of ducks, a chicken coup and two dogs. Most of the hoses in the villages had barns attached to the house, and this one was one of them. Civilians were living in the house, and that morning Gandler scored again with some extra food, including a dill pickle. For breakfast, you say? We weren’t particular about which food was served at which meal as long as it was edible. It would not be long before I would wish that I had never seen that pickle.
The time had come when I was to make a decision. Perhaps the most important move I had ever made in my twenty-two years. I had about had it with waking ten miles a day in cold and snow with no hope of anything better in the near future. Many mornings, after a restless night trying to keep warm huddled with another prisoner under a thin blanket, we would find our shoes frozen and almost too stiff to wear. We took them off so that the warmth left in our feet would transfer to each other. Our Red Cross boxes were getting lighter to carry since we depended on them more and more. The guards were increasingly uneasy about any delay in travel and were more than lax in making accurate counts of prisoners. The machine gunning of haymows had ceased and guard and prisoner relations were not cordial, but then again were not tense. With Germany’s young men on the front, all guards at PW camps were old men. They were also cold, tired and hungry and less enthusiastic about the war.
The situation seemed right and I was determined to make my move, alone if necessary. Gandler and I were discussing all of these conditions that lent themselves to a successful escape, but he was not convinced it was the right time.
In this small barn there were perhaps only nine or ten prisoners who had spent the night. Among this group was a captain, Ralph Gleason, who evidently heard what Gandler and I were discussing, and asked if he could stay with me. Time was running short before we moved out and I said, “Sure, let’s get up in the haymow.” We both had a few things from our Red Cross box wrapped in our blanket. We didn’t have time to get them up in the haymow with us, so we stashed them in the straw in the pen for the geese. It was a concrete wall about three feet high in one corner of the barn.
The guards were outside the barn and urging the prisoners to get out and on the road. I asked Gandler and the others, who had been in the barn, to stall the guards until we hid our packs and got up into the haymow. Our entrance to the haymow was a two by two hole in the floor with access by a ladder from the barn floor. Gleason had gone on up and I was following. As soon as I cleared the haymow, a guard appeared in the doorway to the barn for a last look for prisoners. As he stood in the doorway, I froze in my position above the haymow opening. If he had looked up, he would have seen me, abut he didn’t and he joined the others outside.
The haymow was not full since they had been feeding from it all winter. It was loose hay that was to be thrown down to the cows daily. Loose hay is usually stored in sections in a barn, and at one end the section was completely filled to the roof. They had been feeding from a section near the middle of the barn and adjacent to the full section. There was another section at the other end of the barn with some hay, but not full.
We decided almost immediately to get to the top of the full section and hide in the loose hay. We still had our packs down in the goose pen back of the cows, but we were more concerned with laying low until we were sure the prisoners and guards had moved on. We thought we had it made…so far.
We had been so busy hiding from the German guards that I didn’t have time to find out about my new partner. We had the same questions for each other. I might have seen him before now, but I don’t remember. Who was this Ralph Gleason? He was an Infantry Captain from the 105th Division, and his hometown was Seneca, South Carolina. A graduate of Clemson University and married, he was a farm boy who, as it turned out, had much the same background as I did.
In the weeks to come in which we shared every minute, there was never anything but cooperation and understanding between us. What we accomplished might not have been possible for either of us alone, but together it made some almost unbearable situations easier and more understandable. As I have said before, military rank for a PW didn’t mean much. In our case we were two farm boys scrambling for survival in the greatest experience in which either had ever been.
The hole in the hay was warm and we were secure up to now. We could put up with any inconvenience that might arise as we were pretty sure that we wouldn’t be here very long. Surely, with the Russians advancing and only fifteen kilometers away, they would be here at any time, and we would be in Allied hands.
The next day came and no Russians had appeared to welcome us to freedom. In fact, we were wondering what had happened. Surely the prisoners that hid out at the first of the march had been freed before this! What had gone wrong? Small problems were beginning to arise. Remember the dill pickle? It had been two days since I ate it, but I also had been without any liquid and thirst had almost taken over from fear.
Gleason had another problem besides thirst. He was a smoker. His habit had been arrested for two days, but his urge to smoke was getting stronger and he was beset with temptation. We both know that smoking, buried in a pile of hay in a barn, was out of the question, but his craving was almost overcoming his common sense. He tried to rationalize a quick drag, but I objected strongly. This went on for some time, but his realization of our predicament and what would be lost if we were discovered, or worse yet, burned up, made him forego this strong habit to protect our safety.
The first night we were in the hay I went down to retrieve our bundles that were hid in the straw in the goose pen. We needed our blankets and what food remained in the Red Cross boxes; and we didn’t want anyone else to find them. They might think a prisoner left them behind or they might suspect he was still around, and they would start looking.
The day we hid was January 31, 1945. We were settled in and as we suspected, the civilians that were living in the house would come up in the haymow and throw hay down for the cows. This they did the very next day. We were especially quiet, and they fed from the section next to our hiding place without incident.
Our thirst problem was becoming serious, and we decided that a solution would be to go down to the cows at night and get some milk. We waited until the night of the third day, February 2, and ventured down cautiously after all activity had ceased. Two dogs were also occupants of the barn, along with the cows. The first night when I went down to hand up our hidden bundles, I wasn’t aware of them, but this night they were there when we went down for milk. They jumped on us and licked us as if we were old friends; never making a sound! They were nondescript, yellow, long-haired dogs. We tried to reassure them that we were friends, and that we would see them again. This arrangement worked out very well as there was mutual respect between us every time we came down for milk. Knowing that the owners of the cows were still on the premises, we were cautious about how we milked the cows. If the same person milks the same cow, they learn that the cow gives about the same amount of milk at each milking. This being the case, we milked a small amount from each teat of several cows so as not to milk one cow completely dry. Our “milk bucket” was the empty can from the Red Cross box that held LKIM, our powdered milk, that was so vital to prison camp cooking. I was never a warm milk drinker, although I had seen Dad hold a cup under the cream separator spout for the skim milk, and drink it on a hot day like it was water from the northeast corner of the well. This was my sensation with the first drink from our own private dairy barn…tasty, refreshing, thirst-quenching, and, of course, it couldn’t have been fresher. We climbed back up into our hole in the hay, a successful venture behind us. The milk supplemented the few items we had left in the Red Cross box. Our hunger and thirst problem somewhat abated, our spirits rose, and we were much more optimistic about the future. We knew that the Russians would surely arrive at any time, and it would all be over. The next day was uneventful…just waiting for this seemingly interminable existence to end on a positive note.
Going into this escape attempt we were practically strangers, so with a chance to breathe a little easier while we continued to wait, we got to know each other a little better. We became a little bolder and found a loose shingle in the roof that gave us a peek-hole out toward the courtyard behind the house and in front of the barn. We could observe the coming and going of civilians that were living in the house. We labeled them as the old man, the boy, the old man’s brother, the old man’s father, the 11-year old girl, and the old woman. I think we were accurate on sex if not on relationship. Any event, no matter how insignificant, was something for us to think about besides our own predicament. For a lack of events, we turned to conversation on many subjects. There was no continuity; raised on a farm, Ag college, ROTC, commissioned in the army, overseas duty in the European Theater of Operations, capture and now here. I made a list of most of the subjects we covered, not necessarily in order. No doubt some of the subjects were repeated, certainly the more popular ones.
On February 5, the civilians left. We viewed this as good news since it must indicate that the Russians were getting nearer. We still followed our routine of lying in the hole during the day and making nightly foray to our waiting bovines below for the biggest part of our daily, or should I say nightly, sustenance.
German soldiers replaced the civilians in the house on February 6, and we presumed that they would continue to care for the cows. They did in a more haphazard manner, and we realized we wouldn’t have to be as careful in milking only small amounts so as not to tip off the milkers that we were pilfering milk. Through our peek-hole we confirmed that the German army had taken over the village. We observed extra caution in our movement within the confines of the haymow under our new landlord.
The next day, February 8, we heard automatic gunfire at a distance we termed CLOSE! Was it Russians and Germans in a gunfight in the street in front of the barn? The thought of being back in the war instead of hiding from it was shocking, since we were at a definite disadvantage, weapon-wise. A look out into the courtyard revealed no particular uneasiness on the part of the soldiers we observed. Evidently, we weren’t on the front lines of the Eastern Front. The gunfire was no doubt the result of somebody practicing using a machine gun. When it ceased, I don’t know whether we felt relief or disappointment. I guess we wanted something to happen…good or bad.
February 8th brought nothing out of the ordinary, and it was back to visiting and wondering when this would end.
February 9th, and the war was back in the form of artillery fire. What sounded like a 155mm howitzer was fired from the street in front of our location. Again, after a few more rounds, with no incoming, it was “all quiet on the eastern front.” What happened to the Russians…where are they when you need them?
Our diet of milk and fragments of the Red Cross box was wearing a little thin. In some of our bolder movements in the haymow, we observed that the cows’ diet was supplemented by big turnips. Kids are supposed to hate turnips, but I never did. In fact, I liked them cooked or raw, and if we were going to add them to our menu, it would be raw, no problem. The turnips were brought to the cows usually sometime in the morning after they were milked. The next day after the turnips were brought to the cows and the “soldier-caretaker” had left the barn, I went down to the manger and grabbed a couple of turnips, practically out of the mouth of the cows. Once I was back in the haymow, we had our first feast of raw turnips. Maybe our menu of milk and turnips was not too exciting, but it was nourishing and healthful. As our days passed, we got very little exercise, but we needed a little rest from walking 100 kilometers to get here.
On February 12th, when we checked the outside through our loose shingle in the roof, the sun was shining for the first time since we had been in the barn. With the boredom that had set in, you can believe that the sun was the event of the day! The routine remained the same; down to milk the cows at night with the dogs still greeting us in complete silence, then in the morning down to grab a turnip or two.
The days dragged on and our hope for a quick escape all but vanished. We were disgusted with the turn of events and wondered if we should take a different turn with our escape; but we asked ourselves, where would we go and where would we end up? We had no identification (other than dog tags), no U.S. uniform, no money, no food, no sense of direction, no command of a foreign language and as we finally decided, no chance!
Another event that provided a little relief from the boredom was my expedition to get a bigger supply of turnips. We determined that there was a root cellar back of the barn. It was not in sight, but we felt it could not be far from the barn. We went down to the cows at our regular milking time, and having found an old gunny sack, I ventured outside the barn for the first time. Gleason stayed in the barn, as I felt my way to the back of the barn, staying in the shadows and trying not to trip over any unseen object. After reaching the end of the barn, it was only a short distance until I was rewarded by finding the root cellar. I must have gathered up fifteen or twenty turnips, not taking time to sort them according to size or quality. The total length of time from the barn to the root cellar and back was perhaps ten minutes or less. During this time, a couple of German soldiers came out of the house into the courtyard for a breath of fresh air or to relieve themselves. Gleason observed this from inside the barn and sweat blood that I would return while they were there. As it turned out, they went back in before I returned, and I knew nothing of it until I was back in the barn and we were up in our hole in the hay. We both breathed a sigh of relief and cherished our bag of turnips. Another small victory in our battle for survival.
We had been milking the cows long enough to become somewhat attached to them as they were the lifeblood of our existence. Since we were with them in the dark, we gave them names according to how we “felt” for them. Since it was based on feel rather than sight, and while they weren’t imaginative names, they fit their personalities. One was tagged, “long tits”, another “wart”, still another “the kicker” and then simply, “the other one.”
In our Red Cross box, some instant coffee was one of the items that remained. Naturally, it lasted longer than anything else since we had no way to heat water after we left the camp. One night we had a bright idea to add some to our warm milk. The effect on our almost empty stomach was a sight intoxication. We felt giddy and carefree, but not to the point that we were noisy or careless in our actions. With no place to go to celebrate, we climbed back up to our hole in the hay and slept it off.
The pen in one end of the barn contained four or five chickens. The geese that were in the other pen left with the civilians, but the chickens remained. After the civilians left, we checked the pen for eggs every night. Since we never found any eggs, maybe somebody beat us to them or they weren’t layers; They might have even been crow-less roosters. I was always a great egg lover, but I was not looking forward to finding any. They were nourishing, that’s true, but the thought of eating raw egg or mixing one in our milk was distasteful to me. We were in no position to expect “egg in our milk.” I guess we were too well-fed and felt too secure with our bag of turnips.
The days passed routinely, but we were looking or listening for any event that might affect our status or endanger our position as escapees. If this was escape, we hadn’t escaped very far. I guess our task was escaping detection.
The section of hay from which they were feeding the cows was being depleted, and they would be feeding from another section when it was gone. Our section was adjacent to the depleted one. Would they start on ours next? Luckily, they didn’t. They went to the other end of the barn to feed from a section only partially full. WHEW! What a relief. Our hiding place was still our secret.
The longer we were in the barn, the bolder we got. We weren’t fool-hardy, but we were more active in our nightly milking sessions. The barn in which the cows were tied had an entrance directly into the kitchen of the house. The door was made of straight-up-and-down boards with quarter-inch cracks. Behind that door German soldiers sat around a kitchen table, eating, visiting, or playing cards. We didn’t envy them, we just observed them. After a look or two, we petted our dogs and climbed back up in the hay, another day closer to escape. This time, from the haymow.
Up to now, our stay in this barn was one of great anticipation. We were almost certain that rescue was on the way. Maybe it was, but we were approaching the end of February, and we had been here since January 31st! Lying low in the hay, conversing with each other, the milk and turnip caper, and peeks through the roof made up our hum-drum, day-to-day existence. I had been a prisoner only since November of 1944, but with the moves and activity I had been subjected to, I really didn’t feel like a prisoner until now. The conditions of my detention were plain and simple; guards, barbed wire, boxcars and guns. Hardships of cold and hunger were ever present, for prisoner or captor alike. We were more or less our own prisoners here in the barn, but to exercise our freedom outside the barn in such a hostile environment would be disastrous. Our little world had been successful up to now, but it was nothing we wanted permanently. We really didn’t believe it would be permanent, but we began to wonder what the outcome would be. We were keeping track of the days, and as we approached March 1st, we could hardly believe that we had been here a month, even if it was the shortest month of the year. March 1st was always moving day for tenant farmers in our part of the country, and I was certainly ready for a move.
March 1st came and passed with nothing different in our routine. March 2nd was a different story. It had snowed during the night, and when we awoke and looked down on the courtyard, we saw no tracks in the snow. Silence prevailed throughout the barn and house except for the movement of the animals. After we assured ourselves that the German soldiers had pulled out, we came down from the haymow and went through the door into the kitchen of the house. We were in hopes that the soldiers had left some food, but all we found were a few slices of bread, potatoes, and some onion sets. In case you don’t know what onion sets are, I will explain. They are very small onions that you “set” in the ground, as seed, in the spring in hopes of raising bigger ones. A crust of dry bread and a very small onion was definitely a change of menu for us, but its taste and volume were quite disappointing. We rummaged around in the house and came up with a pair of felt boots, a fur vest and a top hat. As serious as the situation was, we still couldn’t resist clowning around a little with the top hat and vest and boots. I don’t remember if we did a chorus of Ted Lewis’ “When My Baby Smiles at Me” or not, but at least “everybody was happy.”
We were jarred back to the reality of the moment when we heard a Jeep-like military vehicle with five or six Germans drive down the street in front of the house heading toward what we presumed was the front. We froze in front of the house. This brought our house exploration to a screeching halt and we decided to head back to the haymow. Before we could get out of the house, the military vehicle whizzed by on the street in in the opposite direction. We sensed that something was going to happen, and soon. The hole in the hay had been our home and our refuge for the last month, and we felt secure there. Since this was still morning, we didn’t know when to expect the next event.
Back in the hay, we could only listen and take an occasional peek at the limited area of the courtyard behind the house. We had no view of the street or anywhere else in the village. We got our milk from the cows when we went down this morning before going into the house. This was our last milking, although we were unaware of the turn of events tat was to come.
The day passed with no sign of activity and we settled into our hole for the night. Every night I had said a prayer that included most of the parts of adequate prayer. It was crude but included Adoration of God, Confession (I was a little light on this part.), Petition to God to deliver me, Intercession for the well-being of my folks at home and Thanksgiving for bringing me this far through all the dangers of War. As a practicing Episcopalian all of my twenty-two years, I thought I knew about God and religion, and that in times of peril and danger, I could ask for God’s help. Now was the time that I asked, and God helped! God’s help is a continual thing, and we weren’t out of the woods, yet.
During the night, we were awakened by noise outside the barn, and before long it was in the barn and in the haymow, accompanied by flashlights and jabbering voices. Were the Russians here, or were the Germans back? We took no chances and stayed put the rest of the night. If we slept any the rest of the night, it was very little, as we wondered about our new roommates in the haymow. When daylight came, we looked out of the hole in the roof to see what we could see. We saw people, soldiers, I guess, but with shabby, mis-matched uniforms, which told us one thing, for sure, THEY WERE NOT GERMANS! With this bit of good news, we ventured down from the haymow past late sleepers who had only been there part of the night. We went into the house through the kitchen-cowbarn door and into the next room past the kitchen where seven or eight soldiers were gathered around a table having breakfast. They turned out to be officers of a Polish army unit operating under command of the Russians. We announced ourselves as “Amerikanski Kriegsgefagenen” or prisoner of war. Would they buy it? Here we were with no American uniform, no identification, unshaven and unkempt. Did anybody understand English or even know we were speaking English? Finally, they gestured for us to sit down and partake of their breakfast fare…which included vodka. They seemed quite jolly and relaxed also. The vodka was poured all around, and I supposed we were expected to take part in a toast of some sort. Besides the small glass of vodka, there was a glass of water on the table in front of my place. I had my eye on it and expected to appropriate it as a chaser after the toast. The toast was made and I downed the vodka. As I reached for the water, a hand passed over my shoulder and lifted the glass to the waiting lips of a solder standing behind the table.
The breakfast was some kind of fried meat, grease, bread, sugar and hot milk. The abrupt change of diet from milk and turnips made our first meal as freed prisoners one to remember.
We soon realized that these people had a war to fight and couldn’t be bothered with a couple of ex-German prisoners; so, we thanked them for the breakfast and bade them good-bye…for the time being as it turned out. They gave us two loaves of bread and a six-inch stick of some kind of baloney (sausage). We left the house and hit the street, which by this time, was crowded with the Polish army moving through the town. We knew which way to go, since we wanted to be going in the opposite direction from advancing troops. We were heading back to Deustch-Krone, supposedly 16-kilometers away. Included in this motley array were men, women, horses, wagons, foot soldiers, cavalry, artillery and supply wagons…no trucks.
As I walked along on the snow-packed road with biting wind in my face and the vodka burning in my stomach, I could not help but be amazed at this primitive army moving ahead and pushing the highly mechanized Germans back into Germany.
We hadn’t even left the village before some of the over-zealous foot soldiers, armed with rifles, challenged up as they thought we were German prisoners. We said, “Amerikanski, Amerikanski,” but they herded us at gunpoint back to the house where we had breakfast with the Polish officers. Evidently, this was the command post for the units in this town. We were lucky they were still there as they told our new captors that we really were Americans and wrote directions to Duetsch-Krone on a piece of paper. We had no assurance that this episode wouldn’t happen again, but we quickened our pace and tried to look like we were part of an important mission and blended into the scene around us instead of gawking at what was going on like a couple of green country boys (which we were). After walking for a mile or two and not being challenged, we decided that we were being accepted as part of this war-time drama being acted out on the barren, cold and windswept plains of Poland. We were only bit players in this life and death struggle for survival, thankful for each day that brought us nearer home with our families. This thought sustained us as much as food and warmth, meager as it was. Enough philosophy on the whys and wherefores of war; we had to make better time if we were to get back to responsible Allied hands.
We stopped for our noon meal of bread and baloney that the Polish officers had given us. All dwellings were vacant and we selected a deserted farm house which also included a barn and other outbuildings. The barn sheltered cows and a horse. My remembrance of these cows was that they had not been milked for some time and had terribly distended udders. Evidently, they had no PWs hiding in their barn to keep them milked out. The horse, we decided, could be of some use. He looked like a work horse, but we were going to ride him…”doubs,” no less. He cooperated quite graciously and seemed glad to get out of the barn. We both rode for a while, then one rode and the other walked. He wasn’t a thin horse, but his back was no rocking chair, and his gait was not that of Whirlaway’s. I don’t think we rode for more than a mile or so before we gave up on “riding victoriously into the dawn on our charging steed.” He was no worse off where we abandoned him than where we found him. That made my conscience clear for the time being.
By this time, there was some motorized traffic moving, and we caught a ride on an American 2 ½ ton truck. It didn’t contain American soldiers, but rather Polish soldiers with a lend-lease truck. We rode for a time until it reached its destination. We caught another ride, same story. Finally, our third truck got us to Deutsch-Krone, only 16-kilometers from the village where we started. Arriving here, we met an English-speaking Polish officer who invited us to their temporary quarters. We had supper and afterwards the Polish officer came to our quarters to visit. When he left, the fun began! Other officers, having been out on the town, came back loaded on German “hootch”. They were overly friendly, and expressed their exuberance by firing their side arms at the lights and into the ceiling. They had their orderly with them, a 47-year old enlisted man, and he patiently stood by while their revelry progressed to the point of unconscious intoxication. We were then able to continue our night’s sleep after a very eventful day exercising our new-found freedom.
March 4, 1945
We arose and fixed our own breakfast and after washing up and packing up our minimal belongings, we hit the road to hitch hike to the next town of Flatow. We caught the dependable 2 ½ ton truck which was usually a Studebaker. Whenever it was known that we were American, some people would try to relate by saying either “Studebaker or Roosevelt.” One of the occupants of the truck was a Polish first sergeant that had lived in the United States. We caught another ride on a truck to the town of Jastrow. I remember these towns from when we passed through under German guard. At Jastrow, we switched to the top of a loaded truck that was part of a five-truck convoy to Lublin. The truck was covered with a tarpaulin and that’s where we rode in the sub-freezing temperature with the wind assailing us constantly. There was a girl soldier in the convoy and she administered to our needs with a woman’s touch. She gave us cookies, candy, and a handkerchief and pinned up my hat. We arrived at Bromberg at nightfall and the truck stopped, for which we were thankful. We were about as cold as we wanted to be.
Together with two Polish Second Lieutenants and a Sergeant, we were billeted with a Doctor, his wife, and daughter. Their hospitality was gracious, and we spent the evening “talking,” (two languages that neither party understood), showing pictures, listening to the phonograph and dancing with the daughter. This was all well and good, but when would they serve supper? It finally came at 10:30 with more than adequate meal of fried side meat with onions, bread, coffee, fist, cream and sugar. We all sat at a table and after supper retired to a bedroom where Gleason and I shared a three-quarter bed and the Polish sergeant was in a single bed. We rested very well and realized we were experiencing our return to civilization, here in the middle of war-torn Poland. They were generous and compassionate people who were willing to help their fellow man at any time with no questions asked. We had no identification, no money, no American uniform and no command of their language. You might say that “Amerikanski” was a magic word and no doubt it said that we were their allies, but their concern for mankind was the quality that benefited us the most.
March 5, 1945
Up at 7:00 am, we washed and had breakfast before we went out on the street to continue our journey to the rear. By now there was lots of military traffic; trucks going both directions. The battle zone had moved on. Our only enemy now was cold, snow and anxiety for the future in this land where many, we found out later, had never before seen an American. In the street, we met a Belgian who was an officer and a PW. He spoke French, Belgian, German and English all mixed together. He invited us to his room, on the top floor of one of the buildings (maybe second or third floor) which he shared with two Polish women. They served up bread, butter, cheese and coffee which we never refused, whether it be mealtime or not. He told us his troubles, and looking back on it I am inclined to believe that sharing a room with two women could have been cause for most of them. The women, wrapped in layers of clothing due to the cold, were not exactly what young Americans would regard as seductresses; however, we had the feeling that they would extend the Polish hospitality a step further than merely food and shelter. We smiled back at them and left to resume our travel on the road.
We caught a ride on a truck and rode until dark, arriving in Sanniki, where we met a woman who, we found out later, had five little girls and was named Anna. Since we were Americans, she summoned a fellow villager named Frank Nowicky, who had lived in the United States. Frank, who could be considered a promoter, immediately promoted the evening meal with the town’s Postmaster, convinced that we were considered celebrities. This was one of the places where people other than Frank, had never seen an American before. His stay in the United States was cut short by deportation. Frank lived in St. Louis and, as he described it, made whiskey for his own use. He found out that he could make more than he could consume, so the logical answer was to sell the surplus. As his business prospered, it came to the attention of the authorities. Since the United States was experiencing prohibition, this was considered illegal in the eyes of the law. He gave me a list of brothers and sisters still in St. Louis. More about Frank later. It was bedtime, and we stayed with Anna for the night.
March 6, 1945
We were still in Sanniki and who would show up for breakfast but Frank. His role as official interpreter made him an indispensable part of every meal. He earned his meal by seeing that we weren’t passed salt when we asked for sugar. We found out, during our travels in a land with a different language, that lack of knowledge of that language was not much of a stumbling block for the basics of life…food, shelter, warmth, direction and appreciation for extended help. While there, with nothing better to do, I sat down at a piano. It’s not uncommon to hear somebody “sing” at a police station, but few have piano accompaniments. One of my standards was “I Get The Blues When It Rains.” After one chorus, who walked in singing the words…you guessed it, Frank, a man of many talents. Several others gathered around and we had an old-fashioned songfest. There was a young man who played a violin, but I wasn’t good enough to accompany him. He was fantastic! I wasn’t good enough to play in the same police station with him! He made you think of the song, “When a Gypsy Makes His Violin Cry.” I think that was a song, but regardless, he was a violin virtuoso in my book.
No ride had shown up, so to pass more time I made an American flag for my hosts. The morning had passed quickly, as they say, when you’re having fun. Believe it or not, Frank invited us to his home there in Sanniki. Its appearance could only be described as a hovel. The largest room served as a kitchen, living and dining room, and on its dirt floor sat a table and several chairs. Frank had a Russian wife much younger than he and they had a little boy about two years old. He was there, but made no sound. Over in one corner of this room, on a pallet of mostly rags, lay an old man who was Frank’s wife’s father. He was a veteran of the Crimean War that was fought in 1904, I believe. He looked as old and sick as anyone I had ever seen. I hope the VA hospitals are doing a better job treating veterans of our wars. The meal was one of scrambled eggs, served in a single bowl in the middle of the table, and we each had a spoon to eat from the bowl, all at the same time, until it was gone. It was meager but we relished it and appreciated Frank’s invitation. Good old Anna came to our rescue and invited us to supper. She and her husband were butchers, so meat was not a problem when planning her menus. Of course, Frank came along since his escort business had become full-time and quite official. Singing and visiting occupied the evening until we finally bedded down on the kitchen floor.
March 7, 1945
When we awoke, we were not far from breakfast, having slept in the kitchen. We were going to try to get a ride from the police station, but before we left, I made another American flag for Frank and Anna. Our ride finally materialized and we were once again on a Russian 2 ½-ton truck bound for Lowicz. Upon arriving, we went to the train station with a Pole who was on the truck. There was a Red Cross unit that gave us soup and coffee, and while imbibing, we met a man who spoke English. He took us to an apartment which was quite spacious, we thought…all of four rooms. The occupants were two sisters, an aunt, and a cousin. Marie and Anna were the sisters and about my age. They fed us and we bedded down for the night.
March 8, 1945
When I arose, I felt sick at my stomach and after a light breakfast, I lay back down but the breakfast came back up. Our hosts fixed a special soup for dinner and I lay back down again, at which time they took my temperature and brought out a hot water bottle. The dinner took the same routine as the breakfast…back up. After the second episode, they called a doctor who administered medicine, and with some tea for supper I felt better and was able to join the family circle to listen to phonograph records for the evening entertainment.
March 9, 1945
We slept later than usual and after a light breakfast, which I was able to keep down, I felt much better. They fixed a special soup for dinner, which included scrambled eggs and a white roll, instead of the usual fried potato pancakes. In the afternoon, Gleason and I took a walk into the town of Lowicz. My “family” with whom we stayed was still very much concerned about my health and diet. My dinner menu was still limited, and I was not allowed to eat salad.
March 10, 1945
This was my sister’s, Ella Gertrude, birthday. She was my only sister, and I was her only brother, seven and a half years younger. The two sisters in this family were young and I presumed about my age. Marie, the younger of the two, was quite pretty and was very attentive to me while I was sick. I was back on a regular diet now that included cottage cheese, potatoes and carrots. I guess my illness was a result of all the dining out we did with Frank in Sanniki. This day we seemed to be on exhibition as all the neighbor girls came by to see the “Amerikanski Soldats.” The evening was spent playing Chinese checkers which they called “halma.”
March 11, 1945
This being Sunday, our hosts went to church but were back in time to serve a delicious meal of fried meat, potatoes, soup, sauerkraut and hot mush, with strawberry syrup, for dessert. There were visitors, and we spent the afternoon playing records and dancing. I don’t believe I was obsessed with food, but after our Milk and Turnip Diet Plan in the barn for thirty-two days, we were more than excited by the good meals served by the wonderful Polish people that had taken us in as strangers in their country.
March 12, 1945
Being treated so royally by the Dolenski family in Lowicz, it was a hard decision to leave these lovely people, but we were still American soldiers escaping from the enemy, and it was our duty to make it back to American units. We went to the train station but found there were no trains scheduled for this day. We returned to the Dolenskis and stayed the rest of the day in the apartment. Since we were assured of a train the next day, we knew we would leave, so Marie and her sister fixed us a lunch to take on the train.
March 13, 1945
We got up at 5:30 and had a breakfast before departing on the train at 6:45. We met an English-speaking Pole on the train who was with us when we arrived in Warsaw at 6:00 pm. We started to walk in the cold and dark night of a war-devastated city. It was said that there was not a building without damage in all of Warsaw after the siege by the Germans. Even in the darkness and cover of snow, we could see the destruction that this city endured; graves in the courtyards and backyards bore testimony to the suffering of the populace. This was in addition to the military casualties.
We finally caught a truck that took us across the Vistula River to a place called Prague (not the one in Czechoslovakia), where we were directed to the Red Cross, this one full of French ex-PWs. Our lodging for the night was with two brothers and their wives. They were movie fans and brought out scrapbooks of American movie stars of the 20’s and 30’s and the pictures in which they appeared. One of the brothers played a guitar, so we didn’t lack for entertainment before we went to bed.
March 14, 1945
We had heard that there were American officers from the Military Mission to Moscow in Lublin. This was the first time we had what we felt was a positive lead on the whereabouts of any Allied unit with which we could make official contact. So, it was back to the road as hitch-hikers to Lublin. It was tough going, and it was noon, and no one had stopped. While we were wondering what to do next, an English-speaking Pole stepped up and correctly guessed that we were Americans. He invited us to eat, an invitation we never turned down. After dinner, he took us to his room that was in the home of a young couple with a little boy of three or four. They had a very nice apartment and they served a delicious meal that evening. We sensed that the Pole who brought us here had been involved in the underground resistance against the Germans and was now directing some of those efforts against the Russians, who were beginning to be a threat to the Poles. He never gave us his name, and to add to the mystery and intrigue that surrounded him, he told us that within five hours the NKVD (Russian Secret Police) would know that he had been in contact with two Americans. The Russians certainly had a thorough system if they thought two bedraggled ex-German prisoners were a threat, even thought they were Americans.
Our stay with this couple was memorable for another reason. When we retired, they furnished us nightshirts to wear and clean sheets on the bed in a separate bedroom. I hadn’t slept in a nightshirt since I was a small lad at home. Mom made nice long flannel ones that were really comfy on cold winter nights. This triggered a flashback to home and my mother and dad and what a wonderful home I had and hoped to have again.
March 15, 1945
We made another attempt to catch a ride to Lublin and met another English-speaking Pole. We had breakfast with him, as our host, in a restaurant before catching a ride. His story of the way things were in Poland was similar to others we had talked with. We heard the statement made that conditions in Poland, after the Russians had been there only three weeks, were worse than they had been after five years of German occupation.
Our next ride took us to Garwolin where we had dinner in a restaurant and then travelled with a Polish First Lieutenant on to Lublin, arriving there at 8:00 pm. Some of our rides on Army trucks took longer than they should, due to mechanical breakdowns on the road. The Russians had no echeloned maintenance, so when it broke down, they fixed it. They would grind valves in the middle of a snow storm. The truck on which we were riding had a civilian man and woman who invited us to their home for supper and to spend the night. Another example of the gracious hospitality extended to us by the Polish people everywhere we went. Would Americans do the same for a couple of “furiners” in their country? Maybe they would. People are good and people are not so good in all countries. We were lucky to find the good ones when we needed them. I tried to be on my best behavior at all times as I felt I was representing my country and what we stood for in a land that, in places, had never before seen an American.
March 16, 1945
Our reason for coming to Lublin was that we had heard that there were American officers here. After breakfast, we found the French Red Cross, and they directed us to the Americans. They also gave us a meal ticket which we used for our noon meal. The American officers we found were a Colonel and a Major, who was a Medical officer, along with an enlisted staff. We briefly described our past adventures, and they wanted us to record what we had experienced; especially what we had observed of the Russians. It was evident that our ally, Russia, could present problems for their allies instead of cooperation. These American officers had flown into Lublin from Moscow and had room on the plane for us to return with them. Our hopes soared as we envisioned being home in a matter of days; but it was not to be. The Russians would not allow it. We were Americans, the officers were Americans, and the plane was American. Why not? I guess we, as Americans didn’t want to create an incident by crossing the Russians. They had been successful allies in a terrible struggle on the Eastern Front and we respected that, but it wasn’t long before we realized that their attitude was not compatible with our values. And after all, that is what we were fighting for. We made a detailed report on what we had seen and heard and they recorded it electronically. I had never heard my voice recorded before, so when they played a portion of it back for us, I thought I sounded like Ted Husing, the famous sports broadcaster. They said this report, along with others, would be sent to the State Department in Washington. We stayed in their quarters in a hotel and had dinner in the hotel dining room. Taking a hot shower before retiring was a small reward for this unsuccessful side trip that we hoped would be a short cut to complete freedom with American forces.
March 17, 1945
It was back on the road to Warsaw and thence to Rembertow where the Russians were assembling allied prisoners of war to transport them to Odessa on the Black Sea. Our first ride brought us back to Garwolin where we stayed with a rotund, jovial and friendly middle-aged man we dubbed, Mr. Five-by-Five. His house was small and it was here that we saw first-hand and arrogance and indifference the Russians showed toward their most recent conquest, the Poles. While we were sitting around his stove after supper, two soldiers came into the house without knocking or announcing their presence and proceeded to gather up firewood and take it out for their own use. Mr. Five-by-Five made little notice of their actions, so I presume this was not the first time it had happened. We bedded down in the same room with him and we observed him kneeling at the side of his bed before he retired. His, as well as many suppressed peoples, answer to their mistreatment was in prayer, not confrontation.
March 18, 1945
Before leaving Garwolin, we met a man on the sidewalk while we were waiting for a ride. He approached us in a friendly manner and seemed to want to converse. There were Russians on the street and his conversation with us seemed to center around his displeasure with the Russians. We sympathized with him the best we could with gestures and facial expressions. Remember this was not an English-speaking Pole and we were not Polish-speaking Americans. As I indicated previously, anyone that we had met knew “Studebaker” and “Roosevelt” so I told this Pole that not everyone in America was pleased with the way Roosevelt governed. This didn’t make us fellow anarchists, but it did give us common ground for a discussion of our dissatisfaction with government. The political conversation was so satisfying to this man that he invited us to his house for a mid-morning snack. We had the usual bread, meat, horseradish and tea, but the thing I remember to this day was thickly-sliced, freshly-baked white bread with real butter and topped with a coarsely ground beet sugar. It was another chance to make up for the month-long diet of milk and turnips in the barn.
After this international meeting of great political minds, we were jarred back to the reality of the moment and our need to be on our way back to Warsaw. Our ride came along and we got to Prague just in time to catch another ride to Rembertow. Upon arriving, we immediately boarded the train that was to take us to Odessa. The Russians had assembled about sixty-five British and American ex-PWs. Our accommodations for the trip were two boxcars, with very meager appointments, including a stove in the middle of the car and shelves in each end of the car for sleeping. Our rations, intended for the trip, were black bread in a gunny sack; a sack of spaghetti; a sack of brown sugar in slabs; tins of American corned pork and a barrel of grease. The shelves for sleeping had straw mattresses, straw pillows and a light blanket. The shelves were on two levels and filled most of each end of the boxcar, with only standing space around the stove in the middle of the car. This was a bigger boxcar than the 40 and 8’s we rode from Limburg to Oflag 64, but we could not help but compare our upcoming journey to that ride. This time we were riding as guests of our ally, instead of the enemy, but conditions were not that much better. Before boarding the train, we had a meal of “Rusky” soup, bread and tea, but from now on it would be do-it-yourself meals.
March 19, 1945
The British “blokes” had three women with them, presumably Poles or Russians. We identified them, not too imaginatively as “The Blonde,” “The Other Blonde,” and “The Black-Headed One.” One of the more personable of the Englishmen was Harry Carr of County Durham, who gave me a picture. I didn’t know the particulars of their capture, but all had gravitated to Rembertow for this train ride away from the war, whatever their part of it had been. The Americans were from various units, and there was no one that Gleason or I had known in previous situations.
This was our first meeting with the other American soldiers since we left the march from Oflag 64 and hid in the barn the last of January. One of these Americans was George Donovan, a member of the 45th Infantry Division, the division well-known to GIs by Bill Mauldin’s cartoon characters, Willie and Joe. They appeared regularly in the Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper. The 45th Division was formed from the Oklahoma National Guard and was an extremely successful fighting unit in its own right.
George Donovan was a Second Lieutenant as I was at that time; but by continued service in the army through the Korean conflict and the reserve, is now General Donovan back in his home town of Ardmore, Oklahoma. He was teamed with another prisoner I remember as Charley Lyons. I understand that Charley died sometime in 1992 but George Donovan is active as curator of Ardmore’s extensive Military Museum.
We had spent the night on the boxcar, but when morning came, we had not moved. We left the boxcar an went to a house near the tracks and washed, and then went to another and “begged” breakfast. We wanted to spread our business around and not play favorites with our free-loading escapade. The train finally pulled out at 2:00 pm, and traveled into the night on our way to Odessa and hopefully a step nearer complete freedom, if you can call the United States Army complete freedom.
March 20, 1945
Moving slowly with long stops on the siding occupied most of this day and by the end of it we had made only 100 kilometers, more or less. No excitement to break the monotony of a cold and crowded ride on a boxcar. We were moving through the Ukraine, an agricultural region, not unlike the middle west of the United States, with which I was familiar. Our “lounge car” to view the passing scene on this wonderful excursion was lacking one important thing; no windows through which to view the scene stretching before us. So, the fertile farm lands of Russia’s breadbasket were lost to our eyes as we remained caged in a boxcar. Even cattle and hogs traveled in slatted cars and could watch the passing panorama of rural Russia.
March 21, 1945
Sitting on a boxcar in the railroad yards all day and all night make a bad situation even worse. At each stop of the train when the doors were rolled back, there always appeared along the tracks, people with things to sell or trade. It was mostly food that caught our attention. We had food that was hardly edible to us, much less to be used for trading. If we had, I’m sure the track-side merchants would have gotten the best of us and we would have ended up worse than we were.
By this time, hunger was getting the best of us and we were forced to partake of the Russian fare that was provided. I took a piece of dry bread and some cooked spaghetti, but I drew the line when it came to the peas. Since our food was not suitable for barter, we turned to what we did have; the clothes on our back. Coming out of bitterly cold weather, most PWs had started out with several layers of clothing, or accumulated more along the way. We were now in the Ukraine, so it was Russian values that set the market with track-side traders. Someone sold an overcoat for 500 rubles and bought five loaves of bread. The same coat, a day or two earlier in Poland, would have bought 100 slotes and bread sold for 50 slotes per loaf.
March 22, 1945
We had all day to observe our surroundings as we didn’t move until midnight. Our train was on the siding and next to several cars of Rumanian gypsies, easily distinguished by their dark and swarthy complexion and distinctive dress. They seemed content with this nomadic life; women, men-folk, children and dogs, all making their home on a boxcar. We were in the same fix, but we expected to reach a destination…some day. The women were typical of the true gypsy type, long, full, bright colored skirts, bright scarves over long black hair. They seemed to have very small fine boned legs and ankles. Even on such a cold chilling March day, the children played barefoot in the sand along the tracks. A German Shepherd dog was tied to the car and lay in the sun, unmindful of the happenings about him. Their carefree attitude fits this way of life.
March 23, 1945
Our next stop, was another all-day affair. The track-side sharpies appeared to conduct their business of buying and selling. I don’t think anybody worked, they just bought and sold. I sold one of my shirts for 150 rubles and bought five big buns for 10 rubles each.
March 24, 1945
We awoke to find we were still in the rail yards, and after going to a house to wash, it was back to the track-side market to do my daily shopping. I bought ten more buns and my money was gone. I never was one for a budget. This afternoon we hooked on to boxcars with the tri-color of France on them and then pulled out in the evening.
March 25, 1945
We were still rolling as we awoke and we kept on rolling all morning much to the concern of all passengers on the car. We all needed to affect our morning ablutions and we were dancing on one leg or walking funny for need of relief. We finally stopped in the afternoon and there was a mass exodus from the train, and with modesty thrown to the winds, we proceeded to find relief wherever we could. Some made it to the front yards of the houses in this village in order to be behind a picket fence, while others barely made it off the train. We dared not go far as we did not know how long this rest stop would last. There was no conductor that called out, “All Aboard.”
After this episode reached a successful finale, it was back to the trading. We were moving south and the Vernal Equinox had passed, so I took a bold step and sold my overcoat for 200 rubles and my blanket for fifty rubles. Now I was ready for serious shopping; three apples for 18 rubles, six eggs for 30, six more for 36, my British friend, Harry Carr bought rolls. While standing in this village, two little boys boarded our car and started to sing some mournful, Russian song. I thought they were very good and cute to say the least. I would have liked to take them home with me and I don’t think it would have taken much urging for them to go. We gave them two rolls and they jumped off the train. The train started to move and it was indicated that we would arrive at Odessa in the morning. Hooray!
March 26, 1945
The money from the sale of my overcoat and blanket was burning a hole in my pocket. The unscrupulous store keepers were out in force, and I was their pigeon. I bought six eggs for 30 rubles; five rolls for 50; and get this, a leg of baked chicken for 40; a glass of grape juice for 7 and a “pancake” for 10. What a feast! The prediction proved to be true and late in the afternoon, we arrived at Odessa on the Black Sea. We were met at the train by Russian military troops and marched to a building in the town where we ate and were billeted. Included in this package deal was a session in the public bath with attending village women in peasant attire. After the bath, we were issued new underwear in the latest style of drawstring tops and bottoms, in unmistakable muslin, designed for one size to fit all.
March 27, 1945
We got up at 5:30 and had breakfast before leaving for the docks, where ships of several allies were docked. Their ensigns were plainly visible in the spring breeze, and when I spotted the Stars and Stripes, my heart skipped a beat and a lump came in my throat as I filled with pride at the sight of this symbol of true freedom; the freedom which I had been pursuing since my escape almost two months previously. We didn’t board the American ship but rather a British ship which seemed, in the days to come, to be a luxury liner in the eyes of a country boy who had been through the most trying experience of his life.
We boarded the boat at 7:30 am and had breakfast again. This time a real one in a real dining room with glassware, china and silverware; seated at a table with a tablecloth and served by a British waiter. After breakfast, we were assigned a cabin and given a partial pay of two pounds, ten shillings, which was about ten dollars. The boat left the dock at 11:00 am and dinner was served at 1:00 pm. After dinner I napped, had some orangeade, then supper was at 7:00 pm. Is this living or is this living! BACK TO CIVILIZATION! We felt for the first time that we were safe as we had never felt safe before. This was in spite of the fact that none of these people knew us and those who did know us back home had absolutely no idea where we were. It was reported that among the ex-PWs that gathered in Odessa, two were killed when a stone wall fell on them. What a cruel twist of fate that this should end their struggle for survival.
March 28, 1945
After sleeping until 8:00 am and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, I headed to the canteen to restock some of the luxuries that I had been foregoing the last several months; namely, toothpaste, talcum, razor blades, shoe polish and a hair brush. With most of the hard times behind me, I had time to reflect on where I had been and what I had done. My activities in the past four months were not spectacular or heroic, but the fact that I had accomplished my escape was a source of satisfaction. I had enjoyed the guidance and support of my parents, teachers and superior officers in the Army for all of my twenty-two years. Finally, I had done something on my own. Of course, I had the support and companionship of Ralph Gleason; the kindness and unselfish help of the Polish people and most importantly, the help of God. Who kept the dogs quiet in the barn so our hiding place would not be revealed? Who made the person feeding the cows in the barn switch to another part of the barn instead of where we were hiding? I still need Him because I’m still a long way from home. By afternoon, I could see land on each side of the ship and at 3:00 pm we anchored off Constantinople. We didn’t leave the ship, but we got typhus shots and I got a haircut for a shilling. That about did it for romantic Constantinople. They even wrote a song about it, remember?
March 29, 1945
We stayed in port all day with nothing out of the ordinary taking place. Three good meals a day was the ordinary and certainly nothing to complain about, whether we were sailing or not.
March 30, 1945
The ship started moving before daylight and by afternoon we were entering the Dardanelles. The sun was warm but the breeze off the water was cool.
March 31, 1945
Our Mediterranean cruise was continuing and we were enjoying it immensely. The lower end of Greece was visible on the starboard side. High, rugged mountains with small villages nestled at the water’s edge, looking like doll houses against the backdrop of the majestic mountains and endless blue sky. My diary for this day revealed that I bought a can of sweetened condensed milk, two dozen cookies, a bar of candy and a sack of gumdrops. It also indicated I was sick at suppertime and retired early.
April 1, 1945
Easter Sunday! (also, April Fool’s Day) I attended a religious service conducted by an Army Chaplain, professional voice, make-it-up-as-you-go prayers, sit-down singing and hand over head stance with eyes closed. One more reason to be thankful for the Episcopal Church and its structure. The celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ has real meaning to all Christians, but to survivors of the ravages of war, the meaning is brought closer as a result of their personal experiences. Didn’t someone say that there are no atheists in foxholes?
Our cruise was progressing as we passed between Sicily and Italy this afternoon on our way to Naples.
April 2, 1945
Our ship docked at Naples at 7:00 am, which brought to a close our all-expense paid cruise of the Mediterranean which was spent under azure blue skies and sun-drenched spring days. As we left the boat, we got a real American welcome with a band and Red Cross girls passing out doughnuts, a sweater, and a Red Cross kit. We got on trucks that took us to Naples where we ate dinner. Afterward we were deloused, given typhoid and smallpox shots and trucked again to our “resort hotel” on the outskirts of Naples. We were promised clean clothes tomorrow.
April 3, 1945
Our processing continued and we did get the new clothes, a bath, three good meals and that feeling that goes with good living. In fact, we were getting used to it. Our resort hotel was the Terme di Agnano and was staffed by civilian Italians and they added to the comfort we were experiencing. The barber shop gave shaves for twenty cents, so I took advantage of that for the several days we were there. This gave me a chance to visit downtown Naples and Pompei for sight-seeing and sketching trips. It was a long bus trip which was sight-seeing, in itself.
The war was still on in Europe and also in Japan. I didn’t know where the 26th Division was and they didn’t know where I was. In our processing, we were questioned about our activities from capture until now. When I was captured, I had about thirty-five dollars and the Germans took it; but they gave me a receipt for it. I still had it and was reimbursed for the amount. We were asked for the names of people who had helped us in our escape. I gave the names of those whose addresses I had gotten in Poland. There were many whose help we received, but we did not know their names. These details of personal attention by the Army gives one a different view of what is considered an impersonal giant, the United States Government. After I got home, I read the telegrams my parents had received from the War Department about my being missing in action and subsequently the one that said I was a prisoner. They were quite personal in tone, even though they were a form notice sent to thousands of anxious loved ones and relatives. To take the time to advise about the well-being or fate of the individual, no matter where he was, made me appreciate the United States for the great nation it is; and gave me another reason as to why we fight to keep it that way.
As they say in the song, “the days dwindled down, to a precious few.” Basking in the sun on the Mediterranean was not the most difficult tour of duty that a Second Lieutenant could pull in this man’s army, but somebody had to do it. The war was still on and Second Lieutenants are always in demand, so on April 10, 1945, I set sail for the United States on the USS Wakefield. It was an uneventful voyage in that we were not chased by German subs as had been the case on my trip to Scotland on the Ile de France in August of 1944.
On April 12th, we got the news that our Commander-in-Chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had died at Warm Springs, Georgia. I had visited Warm Springs when I was in Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. April 12, 1944 was also the date I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant at Fort Benning.
Our port of debarkation was Boston. Boston, USA, that is! The streets of that old city, so important to the struggle for our independence, as a nation, looked might good to this Second Lieutenant.
I was heading back to Kansas, to Dad and Mom, my livestock; to the home that had been in my dreams for months. We came into Ft. Leavenworth on the train and then on to Topeka by bus. The folks were going to meet me at the bus station, not knowing if I was all in one piece, or disfigured or shell-shocked, as they used to describe the World War I “loonies.” It was about noon and we went for lunch, but with all three of us talking, embracing and crying, food was inconsequential at that moment.
My sister was seven and a half years older than I, and while I had a childhood with her, our ways parted when she went to college and I stayed home to be with the folks and my livestock. This is when I embarked on my “only child” status.
I would be home for a couple of weeks, but I was still in the Army and would report to Hot Springs, Arkansas for additional R and R and assignment to a new tour of duty. I learned that former PWs could choose their next assignment and I chose to go back to Little Rock and Camp Joseph T. Robinson.
The war had ended in Europe while I was at home, but the Japanese had yet to surrender. Being back in Little Rock had its advantages. I knew which bus to take to get around town and some of the phone numbers that I had, produced some old friends that I made the year before.
I got an undesirable assignment upon arriving at Camp Robinson, but before long they realized that I should be in charge of the training aids section of Battalion S-3. This put me in charge of a bull pen of artists, a silk screen shop and a carpenter shop. In charge of the silk screen shop was Sgt. Eugene Drabowski, a Pittsburgh Pole, who also worked nights for a downtown sign company. I had never heard of silk screen printing, but I immediately wanted to learn as much about it as I could. Little did I think that I would someday depend upon silk screen printing to be a means of earning a living and establishing my own company.
In August of 1945, the war ended in Japan. The whole camp declared a two-day holiday to celebrate the Victory of all Victories! I remember going to Christ Cathedral in town for a prayer of thanksgiving. The Very Reverend Cotesworth P. Lewis was the Dean of the Cathedral and I attended fairly regularly both in 1944 and 1945. A few people entered and left while I was there, all with the purpose of thanking God and asking for His help in the days to come.
Army life continued after the surrender of Japan but at a slower, relaxed pace. Discharges of both enlisted men and officers were based on their length of service and overseas assignments. A point system was established but my length of service was not long enough to affect my release by the point system. So, I rocked along resigned to being in the Army for some time. I was promoted to First Lieutenant and that gave me a few more bucks to blow at the Officers’ Club.
Meanwhile, “back at the ranch,” as they say in the movies, Dad and Mom were getting hay put up and corn shucked to feed my animals the coming winter. They had bought a field of standing corn from a neighbor. They had Dolly and Kate, my grey mares and the Mitchell high wheeled wagon that Dad and I had brought from George Riat, a retired farmer. He bought this wagon in 1887 to drive to town, and it was said that if a shower came up while in town, he would give the livery stable a quarter to pull his wagon in the driveway to keep it dry. Of course, it was shedded at home and we also tried to do the same and I still have the wagon, now over a hundred years old!
Mom shucked right along with Dad (and maybe shucked more). She used a peg and Dad and I used a thumb hook. This particular day, they nearly had a load and it was almost quitting time. The team was lagging and Dad hollered at them and they made a jump. The lines got down between the team and the front of the wagon. Reaching to get them, he stumbled and they made another jump and the wagon ran over his leg, breaking it quite badly. Mom went for help to a house across the road from the field in which they were shucking. Fortunately, the woman, a nurse, was home. She called the ambulance and then returned to the field with Mom and administered aid and comfort to Dad.
When I got the word, I got emergency leave to go home. After being home a week or two, I got a communication from Camp Robinson that if I came back, I could be separated from the Army due to a recent ruling that former PWs could be released, regardless of length of service or required points. This all happened before Christmas of 1945. What a joyous Christmas it was, compared to Christmas 1944. I was home, we were together (in spite of Dad still being in the hospital) and we had a white Christmas!
My official end of army duty was in January of 1946. I could now concentrate on farming. I had my milk cows, a few Shorthorns, my team of grey mares and now I bought my first registered Belgians. I purchased a stallion and two fillies from J. F. Bergert, who bred some “right good ones” at his Justamere Farm, southwest of Topeka. He showed quite extensively in the 30’s and early 40’s. I think I got the three head for the four hundred dollars they gave me when I was separated from the Army. I was getting out of the Army, and Bergert was getting out of the draft horse business, as there were so many breeders at that time.
Since our place was only twenty acres, I only had the farmstead and a few acres for pasture; consequently, I had to rent land to raise feed and grain. To cut a long story short, as Ray Lum, the Mississippi trader and auctioneer would say, I couldn’t rent land farming with horses. By 1947, the farming had come to a halt and I headed to Dallas to see my sister, Ella Gertrude and her husband, Chevie and their first-born, Tom. Before I left, I had met Glenna Clements, a teacher in the Wamego schools. I stayed in Texas and got in the sign business, first as an employee and eventually running my own business. We were married in April of 1948 and operating our own business by 1949. We stayed in Texas for ten years before coming to Topeka.
This had been a lengthier interruption in my plan to farm that WWII had been; so, in 1961 we bought our present farm of 240 acres. 1961 was the year of the Kansas Centennial, so we called it Centennial Farm. Another reason might be that we do things like they did a hundred years ago. Now I could farm with horses, as it says on the bumper strip, “like the Lord intended for you to do.”
We are still in the sign business, but I rationalize it with the statemen’t that if you live on a poor hill farm and farm with horses, you’ve got to have something else going for you. I’ve never taken a dime of government money or been affiliated with any of the farm programs…no “Wallace acres,” set-aside or whatever they label the farm dole!
We haven’t set the world on fire, but we have our farm, our way of life, comparatively good health and our horses. I don’t think they can starve us out, no matter what happens in this great country. I say great because there is still the opportunity for a young man to fulfill his dreams and do what he wants to do. We fought for this right and we would fight again to save it.
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