Some of you may not know that before becoming a Charleston BBQ legend, Melvin served in the U.S. Army during WWII. His unit stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day +2 and he fought in the Battle of Saint Lo. Soon after the battle, he was captured and became a Prisoner of War in Augsburg, Germany for 10 months. But thanks to the Lord above, Melvin was able to escape the POW camp where he was being held, and a German family took him into their home and hid him. Melvin was released from hiding when the Americans took over the town where the German family lived.
After returning home to the USA, he was honored with a parade at The Citadel and given a Purple Heart and 3 Bronze Stars for his bravery and service. Melvin journaled about the hardships he and his fellow soldiers suffered while in captivity.
Our family would like to share his diary with you in order to honor him and keep his legacy alive.
The WWII Diary of Melvin Eugene Bessinger
On April 5, 1944, which was a beautiful day nearly Spring, I left New York Harbor for overseas. To go overseas was definitely not a surprise for it was expected, but to know that you were going, the resulting feeling wasn't too pleasant. An unknown destination, but where we knew not of, was like going into a different world - somewhat like darkness without light.
The voyage, going across, took us 14 days – taking into consideration having to dodge the U-boat warfare. Each day we drilled, in case of being torpedoed. When night came, service was held for those who cared to attend. We experienced a terrific storm for two (2) solid days and during this time we were not sure whether or not we could make it. The "Big Baby" was rocking so terribly – backwards & forth – backwards & forth until practically everyone was terrifically seasick for at least four days. A description of one getting seasick is unexplainable.
On April 19, 1944, we landed in Liverpool, England. To see foreign soil, for the first time, was a strange sight. Everything seemed quite different now. The people were absolute strangers to us. Before going ashore, in Liverpool, we spent a few days on the ship. Here, we watched various people pass. We more or less studied them individually. After a short while most of the people welcomed us with great hospitality, which meant so much to us at that time. After a few days aboard the ship, we marched through the city to the railroad station to board the train. People looked at us as if they had never seen an American. The English Red Cross fed us doughnuts and seemed to have taken a special interest. We rode for one night and saw some very interesting sights. About 12:00 A.M. we went through London. Here, we experienced our first air raid, which was the real thing. This particular night brought much excitement to us. People were running, in all directions, for shelter - oh, such a sight to have seen. During this air raid, we were on the train and weren't allowed to move; but, the bombing was terrific. After the air raid was over, we were taken to a camp somewhere in the southern part of England.
After having been in England for two months, the Invasion of France came to the World. We had waited for days and months to hear of this news. All night long we could hear planes, in the sky, going across the channel towards the French coast. Some of the guys were awakened by the noise and jumped to their feet to see what was going on, for it seemed unusual hearing a continuous noise for hours without stopping. A soldier replied, who was sitting directly across my bunk, "Well, the fireworks are here at last, boys." We, in answer, said, "What are you talking about?" "The invasion has started" he replied. Bright and early the next morning the sound of battleships, shooting their big 16-inch shells on the coast of France, were heard. Approximately two hours later, the radio gave the great and big news to the entire world…..."FLASH, FLASH, American, British, and Canadian troops are now landing on the northern coast of France and they are followed by paratroopers." Yes, I listened to the radio every chance I had for we were put on the alert immediately.
Packing time came again but was quite different this time. All of us G.I.'s were ordered to go to the marching area to sail for the battlefields of France. Another new country to make an adventure, but this was not a pleasant tour - twas the real McCoy.
On June 10, 1944, we landed in France and rested for the night. The next day we started marching for the front lines, perhaps to meet our buddies and to replace those who had been wounded and those who had lost their lives so that we might have "peace". Yes, it was something to a man's feelings at this time, this feeling which is so hard to explain.
Quite a number of times I have heard the saying "Have you had any experience, well, you are required to have some experience for this job?" I could hardly understand this old saying when I was told to replace a man - a soldier who had either been wounded or killed. I definitely knew that I didn't have any experience along these lines but surely I had been trained properly. We finally reached the front lines, and I mean the front, which I regret to say that as long as I live, I shall never forget this day. The feeling was strange and frightening, to hear such roaring sounds in the air, guns firing all around you, dead soldiers lying around & soldiers praying aloud in hopes that God might hear their prayers. At first, all these sights were heartbreaking - I felt that sometimes I could hardly stand seeing one fall dead beside me; in fact, falling all around me and at the same time thinking perhaps that it would be my turn next.
The battle of "Normandy" was a strange one, because of the terrain that was there. This battle was hedgerow fighting, which was somewhat like jungle fighting, perhaps worse.
Our division, the 29th, fought for days during the battle of St. Lo. In order to obtain one yard, we crawled so that we might reach our destination, but sometimes we would never reach it - that is the time required to reach it. This battle was such a bloody one. Men died beside me and were wounded beside me which left blood on the sand. To the eyes, this was not too revealing. Yes, for days and nights, we fought for St. Lo and I must admit the battles were not easy ones.
During the battle of "St. Lo”, one particular night we were shelled by the Germans 88's for three (3) solid hours the entire company was pinned down due to the shelling. At this time, we could only sit in our foxholes and that is we sat as far down as the good old earth would take us. This was the only protection we had and we weren't too entirely safe in our foxholes for so often direct hits would land in the holes. When the shelling had ceased, there were many soldiers who were killed and wounded - actually, we had such few men left; in fact, we almost lost the entire company. After the shelling, there was a counterattack and with the few men we had left and our superior weapons, we beat the Germans back every time. When the following night approached, I was alone in my foxhole when all of the fighting was going on. Of course, sleep was no such thing. As I have said above, I was alone in my foxhole - I didn't mean to exclude the "Lord" for He was surely beside me. I talked with Him and prayed to Him for help, and I cried unto Him. He had helped me so much before and I prayed for help throughout the end. I asked myself and Him the question, "How can I escape all this?" Then, I realized that there was no escaping from "WAR". I will just have to see it through to the end. Therefore, we could only fight, fight, fight, and more fight ‘til the end.
Early the next morning, we received reinforcements and word came to us that we were to blast the Germans out by our air force. The planes bombed, strafed and the engineers blasted the great hedgerow, which was a hindrance to us, out of the way. When all of this was done, we made a counterattack to push the Germans back towards St. Lo, which was approximately two miles from the city.
The next day came which was sad, for the dead soldiers outnumbered the living ones. I decline to describe to you this particular scene for it would only be incredible to each reader. These soldiers had to be buried so our Lt., in charge, asked for volunteers to go out and bring the dead G.I.'s in so that they may be buried properly. In the first place, a volunteer for this job meant risking your life - but most soldiers were very brave and offered their services, to this effect, frequently. I volunteered to help do this job with the other soldiers. We sneaked out and reached one foxhole where we found two dead soldiers, evidently, they were killed at the same time for so often buddies died that way. As we proceeded to take them out, we almost tore them in half trying to get them out. They appeared decomposable and the odor was intolerable. I would say they were beyond recognition for they looked as if they had been smashed, cut, shot, and practically blown to pieces from battle. Even though I didn't know these two soldiers personally, I had a soft spot inside for their loved ones back home. I thought to myself, "if your mother could see you now, she would never recognize her son.” I realize these were not pleasant thoughts, but how else could one have felt at this moment?
During the next few days, we advanced about a mile and the time was getting closer for the capture of the demolished city of St. Lo. The day before we entered the city, we had some hard battles in hedgerow fighting and here again we lost so terribly many men in order to advance a few yards. We fought in a valley, which was a narrow road to advance and as we advanced, the Germans had machine guns placed all around us but we could not see them. Mines were planted all around and just as I almost stepped on one, a buddy shouted, "Watch for mines". So, I looked down and there was the mine under my very foot so I suppose God said to me, "Son, look down around your feet, it's something dangerous below.” My buddy was wounded very badly by a booby trap and from the concussion it almost got me. We had to withdraw because it was impossible to finish our job without reinforcement help. As we pulled back from the position we moved out, which was our foxhole, a direct hit was made into that hole. It was blown to pieces from a German shell. So, if I had been there, I wouldn't be here today to tell you what happened. I don't suppose it was my turn yet, for I was missed so many times.
The next day we entered the city of St. Lo and here we fought hand to hand. Finally, the city fell and the horrible deaths and the cost of lives that it took to take St. Lo, it was like a city which had been dead for centuries.
The next day our entire division, the 29th, was pulled back about 10 miles for a rest period. The very word rest seemed quite swell to us at this time but there was a feeling of sadness in our hearts, the missing ones, our buddies, would no longer be with us. The majority of us were awfully tired for this was the first rest period we had gotten since the invasion. This rest period consisted of five days.
New replacements had to be gotten, boys who were so-called "green", and who didn't have the slightest inkling as to what they were about to approach but they had to learn as we had to learn.
About this time, the first army was getting ready for the advance through St. Lo. Yes, we were ready, at last, for the great push - that is to push the Germans back as far as possible. On July 21st, the great push started with the help of 3,000 big bombers, bombing everything in sight. It was definitely something to see. We infantrymen were ready and waiting for the call, "Push it's here, let's go for the time has come at last." Before this signal was given and after the bombing was over, you could hear the artillery which lasted for about 45 minutes. It was some terrific sight to see and never did I realize that we had so many powerful guns. Finally, the sounds came to an end; then all the divisions, on all sections of the front, started with those brave men, “the tank men”. We were riding tanks with fixed bayonets and following us was everything one could imagine for a great offensive. We broke the German’s great defense line and we pushed about 5 miles that day, for the first time since the invasion of France started. From then on, we advanced about 5 to 10 miles each day, trying to break out of Normandy. Some days there were hard battles and some were light ones. One night around August 1st or 2nd, we took a hill and early the next morning the Germans saw us and here another great battle started. They shelled us and tried to push the 29th off the hill, but thank "God" we held what we had conquered. We fought and dug our foxholes as soon as possible. My buddy would dig for a while and I would fight, then I would dig and he would fight. We fought on this particular hill for 2 solid days and nights and without any help. Many men were lost and the ones that were alive were hungry and worn completely out. For two days we were out of food, it was just impossible for food to get to us at this time. Our ammunition was giving out and finally, we received some, but how, I do not know. The second night we were put on strict orders, to be on the alert for a sneak attack from the Germans. My buddy and I stayed awake for I had to stand guard for two hours and it was about 2 A.M. that night when my buddy took my place for a while. Immediately after I had gotten into my foxhole to rest, there was a great sound from the Germans. This, we presumed, was the sneak attack and we almost got it too. I jumped to my feet and grabbed my rifle and jumped for my buddy's foxhole. We fought for hours to hold them back and fought the devil out of them until they had to withdraw. These were horrible days on that hill and I'll never forget it as long as I live for these kinds of memories last forever.
Around August 8th, we were advancing every day from 10 to 15 miles. The going then was easy and good but at times we were held up by the enemy. There were many days that we had to crawl from yard to yard to get to our destination. In France, I was made scout for about 3 weeks and during this time, we spent some horrible days. We would make counterattacks and our squad would make the point. Occasionally I was the first man in front of a whole company, in pushing the Germans back. One day around August 10th we were advancing down the road and there was a gun nest somewhere on the side of the road. My second scout was shot to pieces in both legs and my life was 99% of being killed. I jumped into the ditch and was saved by the quickness of acting. We knocked that machine gun out and continued, which was the last time I saw my buddy. We walked practically all night to get to a destination before the Germans could pick us up. The next morning we began a big battle which was a terrible one. Seeing horses, cows, and chickens lying around and having been dead for days, the odor was terrific. Late that afternoon, we met heavy resistance from the Germans. Our squad was serving the left flank security in the attack and I came upon two Germans standing with their rifles ready to kill any American they saw. We sneaked up on them, my buddy and I, and killed them both. They didn't want to give up so we shot both of their legs almost off. One died instantly and the other a few minutes later. It was an awful sight to actually see the men which we killed. About one hour later my buddy was killed from machine gun fire. He was a swell fellow and I'll never forget him. I remember so well the time he saved my life and I regret not having the opportunity to save his life.
On August 13, 1944, my last day in battle, we were in battle the entire day and achieving much. This day was on the Sabbath day, Sunday. Instead of being in His house to worship, here we were in the midst of a big battle, killing each other and why - why, have you ever asked yourself this question? Most of the Germans wanted to live as much as I or the other G.I.s. Despite the facts, we fought on. About 10:00 A.M. we had killed about 15 Germans again. They died and knew not what had struck them.
We captured a small city and just before we took this small village the Germans did not know that we were anywhere around. I was immediately put on an outpost and of course, was the first person to see them coming down the road - in a truck. As they came closer, we were ready for them and when they were close enough - we killed everyone except one and he was taken prisoner.
This day I captured 16 Germans. They gave themselves up to me. Most of the time, they were happy to do this but sometimes, it was just the opposite. I led them back to my platoon Lt. and he seemed very proud that I had brought these 16 Germans by my lonesome. The next few hours, my platoon Lt. was killed.
This day was my 61" day in battle - that is up to approximately 2:00 P.M.
On a Sunday, at about 2:00 P.M., we stopped for an hour or two to dig in and rest because on that day the Germans were retreating very fast and the infantrymen couldn't keep up with them. My buddy was put on an outpost and so we dug our foxhole together." When the hole was finished, I was quite thirsty for water for we had been having difficulty in getting drinking water. I felt that I simply had to locate some water so I told my buddy where I was going and he stood guard while I was away. Somewhere around I felt that I could find some water so I went approximately 200 yards and made a brief search of the area and at this time there were no Germans around. I found some water and drank quite a lot- then I went back where I had left my buddy. About 30 minutes later I felt thirsty again so I proceeded to go back to the same spot and drink some more water, taking my rifle and ammunition belt with me. When I got to the same place 12 Germans on a patrol sneaked up. Just before I got to the spring a German rifleman was under my very nose and all the time I thought there wasn't a German in sight. He threw his rifle on me and told me to give up and follow him. Not knowing that there were more Germans with him, for they were hiding behind the hedgerow with machine guns and rifles, he motioned three times for me to come to him and I motioned for him to come with me. We stood there for a few seconds and I decided to get out of his way and as I went to step back, the German behind the hedgerow fired upon me and the bullet flew so close to me and God only knows how I escaped that one. The bullet skinned my left arm by a fraction and I fell down and somehow managed to get up. The German threw his rifle upon me and started to fire into my heart and I immediately threw my arms up so quickly and prayed that he wouldn't still fire. I then walked towards them very slowly and the feeling which was inside of me at this time is not explainable for I could never explain to anyone the millions of things that ran into my mind. One thing I felt sure of, was that I spent my last day in this world and had almost breathed my last breath. I was quite nervous when they began searching me and talking among themselves, a language which I knew nothing of. I tried to be brave but it's hard for one to be brave at a moment like this. In my pocket was a letter from my dear mother, a letter which I had recently received from her, and every chance I had I would take that letter out and read it over and over again. They, of course, took this letter which meant so much to me. Then, they tried to question me by asking me where the rest of the Americans were but I wouldn't tell them. One German took me back about a mile to the German C.P. He only had a pistol with him and it was pointed to my back all the time. Twas such a strange feeling being captured and not knowing what they would do with you or where they would take you, especially since I was captured by myself. The Germans kept me isolated for three days. I was later taken to some location where some German officers ordered soldiers, which of course were German ones, to put me in a foxhole and there I stayed a few hours until they could get transportation to take me a few miles from the front lines. At this time I was simply starving for something to eat and drink. A young German soldier, who had real blonde hair, slipped me a piece of hard bread with a small piece of meat between it. At first, I did not know whether to eat it or not, but after I saw him eat a little of the same bread, then I really went to town. He again slipped me another piece and smiled which I couldn't understand. He looked as if he wanted to make friends.
Finally, a German officer and soldier put me in a small car and drove me about 8 miles from the front. While driving along, the officer asked me if I were from New York and I told him yes for I knew if I had told him the truth, he wouldn't have been very impressed. When I told him "New York", he seemed very impressed as if New York were the only place in the United States. This officer took me to a small barn house and left me for three or four hours. A German soldier came around and tried to talk to me in English, which he spoke very little, and the only thing he could say that I could understand was about the beautiful cars which they make in "America". Four hours had gone by when two German soldiers, armed with machine gun pistols, took me for a walk. Not knowing where on earth they were taking me, I must admit I was somewhat afraid.* To me, they looked tough and mean and talked very roughly to me - pushed me around and marched me about eight miles to headquarters. It was midnight now and I was tired – just exhausted from everything,
*It was a tough walk, our planes flying over us dive-bombing. I really expected them to kill me any time for I was the only prisoner they had at this time which meant more trouble for them. Why they didn't just knock me off, I'll never know.
After we arrived here at headquarters, a German who spoke very good English tried to get all the information he possibly could from me. I told him that we had lots of ammunition and that they could never win this war - the best thing they could do was to give up. From what I understand, he intimated that he knew that I was telling the truth. He finally got around to giving me a sip of coffee and just a piece of bread which didn't help me much. This was all the food I got until the next day.
The following night, the Germans put me on a little pile of straw to sleep, which was located in a little French Farm Yard. The Germans who spoke English told me not to try to escape for if I did, I would be killed. Just before I fell asleep, they brought an American Flyer, who had been shot down over France that day, in to sleep with me. This American boy was the first one I had seen since I was captured and he looked good to me. We didn't talk much that night for both of us were so tired 'til we were somewhat speechless.
Early the next morning we were taken to a place which I hardly know where so I suppose you'd call it an unknown place. I wasn't allowed to talk to the American Flyer for they hated our Air Force. A little later they took him away and where I do not know and here I was left alone again.
The next day I was taken to a camp with the other American boys and I surely did feel at home - twas next to really being back home. Here we peeled potatoes and helped cook for the German army for at least two weeks. Also, we dug foxholes for them and one day while I was digging a foxhole, a German Officer called me over and wanted to see me. I couldn't imagine what he wanted, and I immediately thought perhaps it was something I had done. A million things ran through my mind. Surely I had been working hard enough for it seemed to me that I absolutely couldn't work any harder. My strength was low and I felt very weak for lack of food. While I approached him, believe me, I was weak in the knees. I stood to attention and gave him the "Heil Hitler Salute". It was immediately after I had done this when I realized what I had done and I couldn't tell you why I did such a stupid thing. I must not have had my right mind at that moment for afterwards, I was terribly sorry and could have kicked myself in the seat of the pants. For two or three days I hardly spoke to myself for I was really angry inside. This German Officer wanted to know where I was from and how long had I been in the Army. Also, he thought that I looked extremely young to be in the service and added that I looked like a German myself. I told him that I was only of German descent. They often talked of killing us and some of the rumors we heard made us think we only had a short time to live.
The American Army was making a great offensive at this time and every night we would retreat further back toward Germany. The Germans often told us that we would be put on a truck and sent to Germany but here we stayed on the German front lines for several weeks. During this time we were being shelled and strafed by our American, artillery and planes. So often we lost some of our boys here on the German front and by our American Army.
One day they gathered us together and ordered their men to march us to Germany which was approximately 200 miles. We walked for days and nights ‘til we were about 50 miles from the German border. At this point, they put us on a truck and carried us to Luxembourg, Germany.
The so-called "Death March" came to us. These awful days were horrible and actually gave you a death feeling. The American and English Armies were trapping one complete German Army; therefore, we had to advance so far in order to escape being trapped. For 36 hours we walked without stopping, no sleep, food, or water until we made it and we made it by the skin of our teeth.
In each French town we'd march through, the people were wonderful to us. They'd gather in the streets and as we'd march by they would hand us doughnuts and coffee. Their faces were happy ones for they knew that the Americans were not far away.
The underground in France was very strong and before we arrived in the big cities, they usually knew that we were coming through. We marched through Rouen, France. and just before we arrived here, people gathered around and as we marched along you could see people hanging out windows and all along the streets. They seemed very happy for we were the first Americans they had seen since World War I. So many of these French people, who spoke a little English, would tell us that the Americans were so near and approximately how near they really were. This really helped our morale and this sort of news made us feel that perhaps soon we would be released and the war would come to an end.
The German Army was retreating every day and night, moving back into their homeland. By this time, exhaustion was not the word. Our feet, so-called feet, were no longer feet - just blisters and raw skin. The heat didn't help either for it was during the month of August 1944 and it was terrifically hot. Still, we march on - the 20 of us Americans and four British soldiers. For hours of marching, without stopping, men began staggering - just puffing and blowing and repeating to themselves over and over again the words, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can make it." Then suddenly we all cried out and begged for just a little water, even a few drops would have been soothing. We received no results and finally, we just cried out for help but no answer did we get from that - no relief of such misery did we get from them. I remember two of the English soldiers, who were with us, collapsed completely from exhaustion. Later we heard that these two English soldiers were killed by the Germans. Yes, this road was a little tough on all of us and the load was getting harder and harder to carry until finally I felt that we absolutely had to have help so I lifted my head into the skies and asked God or rather I begged Him to give us strength and courage to pull through. I said Lord we've got to make it - we've stood it so far and we have got to stand ‘till the end. We can't give up for we know if we did, the Germans would kill us. Oh, the cries which were heard, and the prayers by all these boys. One English soldier was behind me and I heard his cry too and turned my head and I could see from the expression on his face that he was about to collapse, so I told him to hang on my shoulders and perhaps we could make it. My strength was weak but I prayed to God to help me make it and the feeling came to, "Don't give up, you can make it." Oh, how exhausted these 20 Americans looked - worn completely out. Every American prisoner was praying to make it and finally, at approximately 12:00 A.M., we reached the gap where the Americans were closing in on the Germans. This gap was being shelled by our tanks and artillery all during the night so that the Germans might not get through. Fortunately, we made it by a fraction. To see the German tanks burning and dead German soldiers lying around, we had a feeling that the Germans might kill us almost immediately. At this time the Americans were advancing tremendously and killing the Germans. Why the Germans didn't just kill us or beat us to death, we'll never know. Perhaps it was because of the earnest prayers that God heard when we were on the death march and He was our great protection of life. These were dark days and we still marched with Jesus. People of America, I can truthfully say that a number of the boys who never believed in prayers before - started praying and started believing in prayers too. My prayers were answered so many many times and exactly why I'm here today to tell this story, is because He wanted me to stay and it just wasn't my time to leave this old world.
Quite often we would ask the German guard to please let us rest a few minutes on this 35-hour march but they wouldn't for it seemed that after asking them such, the harder they would push us ahead. Some of these Americans would cry like babies -mere infants cry aloud for help but no relief was gotten - only march faster.
*** When we reached our destination, they told us that we had to march a few more miles and then we would be fed and given water. Just before we arrived at the final destination, we stopped at a little French home, out in the country, and this home fed us with everything they had in the house. I won't speak of what the American and British planes were doing to the German convoys in those days because it is too horrible to speak of. It was great to see and we were so happy about it but we could not express our feelings.
Along the roadside many horses and cows were found and many of us suggested that we cut a piece from one of them and later cook it. Starving for food and thirsty for water is about the worst feeling a man can have, I believe.
About this time we had passed the gap quite a distance and therefore our marching had slackened quite a bit. We were on the road to Amiens, France. Before getting there, we turned towards the road to Belgium. Before getting to Belgium, we turned again and went towards Rennes, France. Finally, we reached Rennes and here we were so gladly welcomed. Just before we reached this town, we had caught a ride on a German truck and while going through this town, we had a flat tire. We were so happy for we had a little while with the French people and they gave us food. The Germans were getting pretty sore at the French people for welcoming us so in a few minutes, by way of the grapevine, a number of Frenchmen surrounded us. When they heard that Americans were in the town, they brought water, wine, food, candy, and all kinds of things for us but the dirty Germans wouldn't let them give it to us.
A few moments later along came a German car with SS troopers firing on the French women, children, and men. These SS troopers would prance along up and down the streets shooting over their heads trying to scare them away from us. So many of the old French women and men who looked to be around 60 or 70 years of age would cry when they saw us. They felt sorry for us, I suppose and I can imagine how pitiful with such long beards and dirt caked for we hadn't had a bath for quite some time. We probably looked like beggars. I will never forget the French people in Rennes.
A German truck took us out of France into Germany. The first city was Luxembourg. This city was untouched by American bombing and the people didn't smile or make an attempt to speak to us - naturally. From Luxembourg, we went to Trier, Germany, about 15 miles from Luxembourg. Here we were put into a huge camp with all kinds of prisoners, Russians, Poles, French, Czechs, British, and many more American prisoners. We stayed here for two weeks. This first prison camp gave us a touch of what it would be later on. We were only fed once a day which consisted of a little water soup and a small piece of bread. At the beginning of camp life, we hadn't been assigned to any particular job and most of the boys would stand by the wire fence and wait until 5:00 P.M. when soup was served. Naturally, the majority of the boys here were losing weight and were on the verge of starvation. Finally, the lice started eating on you and so many of the boys had to be treated in hospitals for they were so terrible. All the boys would pray for food but no food, as yet. Suddenly we discovered a German cabbage patch and the following morning, the Germans found that they no longer had a cabbage patch. The hungry Americans and British prisoners had eaten all the cabbage raw. How well I remember grabbing a head of cabbage and eating every bit of it.
Water was turned on 15 minutes out of the day for approximately 5,000 prisoners to wash and to drink. We all had to stand in line and wait your turn and usually so many had to wait until the next day for their turn.
The soup which they gave us came from old dirty cans of the Germans. Practically every boy in the entire camp took the dish which was a terrible thing. You felt as if you would surely die.
Finally, the day came when they started moving a gang of us farther into Germany and I was so happy for I felt that if we could get farther inward, perhaps we would get better food. We were marched through the streets of Trier and all you could see were civilians who so many times tried to spit on you as if we were dirty dogs and they'd look at you so hard and cross-eyed. Some attempted to hit us but the guards would stop them before they could reach us. In this town, we were put on boxcars and rode for 5 days and nights before we reached our destination. We were packed in these box cars like sardines and still had nothing to eat. We begged for bread and water but no bread or water. Each boxcar consisted of 30 men and you could hardly breathe good. At one city we stopped, what place I do not know, and the Germans decided to let us have a little hot bread and soup for the German Red Cross came out and fed us. We felt somewhat grateful.
Yes, it really looked as if we were being treated like dogs and not as well as the Americans treat their dogs back home. Twas nothing to be pushed around like dogs either.
When we were put off the boxcars, we were all in rags. The weather was cold and rainy. A description of these boys would be incredible.
Our new camp Memmingen, Stalag #7-B Germany. Here life was somewhat better. We did get potatoes, besides soup and bread.
We were all registered with the Red Cross in Switzerland and within a few months, we started receiving the Red Cross boxes which you'll never know how much each boy appreciated.
Here we did at least have tents with straw beds to sleep upon and a little more to eat than we got at Trier, Germany. Our main thoughts were food and good old HOME SWEET HOME. How we loved that place, home. A gang of us would get together at certain times and have a big discussion about our homes. Each boy would take his turn and discuss what he wanted to and in this way, we knew each other's families. When mail call came around, each boy would read his mail to everybody and everyone was interested. Gee, we got a big kick out of that. When my mail started coming in, I got quite a few letters from various people back home and to hear from my Mother and Father was always the greatest pleasure of my existence. Also, a dear sister, who wrote practically every day, wrote so many letters and what letters she could write. I'm not kidding, when I'd receive her letters, practically every boy in the camp wanted to read her letters and usually they'd reply, "Gee, this girl can really write a beautiful letter, why I'd give anything if I could write such a beautiful and interesting letter." They honestly looked forward to reading her mail. They also felt that they knew her very well, from her writing. It was great to be able to write so beautifully, for each letter was censored and you could only write so much about certain things. The letters she wrote were so wonderful; in fact, I know she was inspired to have written such.
So many times we would make the remark, "If I ever should see America again, I'm getting the largest steak of any of you boys." Food was the topic of the conversation so often, just couldn't help talking about such, which was not helpful, I know.
After two weeks had passed, 60 of us were moved to a city which was called Augsburg, Germany. This city was about 30 miles from the great city they called München. Here we stayed 7 months working for the Germans. We saw the Germans as they really were, their homes, cities, trains, cars, and other things.
The people seemed to be afraid of their next-door neighbor, just didn't trust anybody.
After we got off the train, we walked to the camp which was built between a railroad station and a huge factory. This camp consisted of two barracks, very small, and only 60 of us Americans.
For weeks we worked hard without receiving any Red Cross parcels. Here we didn't get much food either. So many days we had nothing to eat. Finally, word would come that there was no food today. When we got this message, we could hardly keep from crying like babies. When they did feed us, we'd beg for more, for doing the work which they required us to do, a fellow just couldn't hold up. When we did receive some Red Cross packages, it was like a kid awaking on a bright beautiful Christmas morning - so thankful for what Santa had brought, really overjoyed.
Each of us was getting mighty thin and skinny. We needed shaves from long beards, and long hair somewhat like a girl's. You can imagine how we looked. Sometimes we would just tell the Germans in charge that if they didn't give us more to eat, we would not work. Their reply was, "If you refuse to work for the furor, Hitler, all of you would be killed." What else could one do?
While working one day, I was wounded in the foot very badly. So, I was sent to a German hospital to be treated. It took quite some time before my foot would heal - for a while I was a little worried, thought perhaps they would have to amputate it, but finally it healed. The meals were better here and the doctors who treated us were French and Italian ones. They were very good to us Americans.
From the hospital, I was sent back to camp. We started building air raid shelters and the work was not too easy. Day after day we'd struggle along, not knowing how the outcome of the war was, just hoping and praying that the Americans were getting closer and closer.
The weather was so cold and the snow was so deep. At this time, there were so many air raids. Even at midnight, quite a few times there were air raids and we had to go to the shelters. Out in the snow, we'd go with so little clothes on and weak from running for the shelter. The shelter was about 1/4 from the camp and so many times we were afraid that perhaps we would get caught in the middle of the city if they were to bomb Augsburg. Sometimes the planes would be over the middle going to München but if they had bombed that city, we never would have been back here today to tell the story. Night after night and day after day this occurred. You hardly got any sleep for you usually stayed in the air raid shelter a few hours before the call signal would come. Then, we would run again back to camp.
One day, which I shall never forget, when we were bombed for the first time by 800 American bombers, I was standing up watching them as they were approaching the city and said to myself that they must be going to München, but no they were headed for the air raid shelter which I was near and a minute before the bomb dropped, I rushed inside and was missed again. I heard a great sound coming from the planes and I was standing right by the air raid shelter, their target was the railroads that day but we didn't know then, a strange feeling came over me and I wondered why they were coming from that direction just to go to München. About this time is when I leaped for the shelter. The shelter was very crowded with Russians, French, English, Polish, and prisoners of war. People were crying and pushing, trying to get down to the bottom of the shelter, and just before we reached the bottom, we felt a concussion that knocked us completely down. I was really afraid then, just can't explain the feeling I had at that time. Each boy couldn't seem to utter a word, just thinking and I suppose each of us was thinking the same thing, wondering if we'll ever return home to see the ones we love so dearly. Do we have to die here in Germany, so far away, and after we had escaped death so far, why couldn't we escape it again, or is it our time? Yes, death was surely close, bombs dropping so fast, the earth shaking as if it were an earthquake, and oh so many noises. This lasted for about two hours after which we started out and the only way out was to crawl through a small hole. The destruction was not pleasant to look at. Homes were destroyed and railroads were completely demolished. It took the Germans weeks to repair the city the best they could. All the trains couldn't run for a long time and therefore they couldn't get supplies from München for the front-line soldiers. The German people wanted to kill us at this time but we were heavily guarded by German Guards, so they couldn't touch us. Some of them would look at you and speak in German such awful things about you.
After this terrible bombing, we went back to camp but found there was no camp, it had been destroyed completely. We had to sleep in a factory that night as there was no place in camp to sleep. I suppose it was ordered that we weren't supposed to have been at camp that day.
We were protected by God who, when you were worried back home about us, watched over us and kept us safe so that we might return to home once again.
When we met in the air raid shelter, I came in contact with an old German lady who spoke very good English and she would talk to me, when the German people were not looking or watching, and tell me the latest news of the War that the Americans were close and they were coming with great offensive. During peacetime, she had been educated in England and there she learned to speak English. She was 67 years old and seemed to have mellowed with her age.
Spring was here and my best friend and I were making plans to escape, if the Germans tried to evacuate us when the Americans came closer.
It was during March 1945 and the War news was looking very good. Germany was getting bombed day and night and sometimes 3 and 4 times each day, they would come over and bomb. The German sirens would be heard all the time, day and night. The people finally started to live in the Air raid shelters as it was all during the day and night when the bombing came.
As the War was coming to an end, we were getting very uneasy that the Germans would kill us. Rumors were flying that Hitler had ordered that all prisoners of war be killed so quite a number of us were making plans to escape.
April came and the trees were getting green and little did we know that our prisoner life was coming to an end.
On April 2, 1945, the American Army (7th Army) was getting very close to Augsburg. They were about 35 miles from the city. We were told by the Germans that there would be no work that day which made us think something strange was happening and that they were getting ready to evacuate us. My friend and I got together and reviewed our plans of escape which we had so long waited for, our freedom was soon to be restored.
They started marching us to the mountains and probably to kill us, we thought. As they were marching us through the city, I started to escape first for my buddy was somewhat afraid he would be seen and he thought of the consequences, death. I told him that if he didn't come with me, I was going anyway. Life or death, I took the chance and he followed me. We made the escape and it was good. A civilian air raid shelter was close by so here we hid for an hour or two. Later the Germans must have missed us for they started searching for us. We were hiding behind a huge door in this air raid shelter. We could hear their voices and of course, were afraid that if they found us, we would be killed. One of the German police started to look behind the very door which we were standing behind but the other German attracted his attention to the next door and, of course, they never returned to the door, which we were standing behind. After they left the shelter, I sneaked out very cautiously to see if there were any Germans around and I left my buddy behind to keep a watch for civilians. I met an old Polish friend who I had known for some time in camp and when he saw me, he came running. I immediately told him of our escape and he asked that we remain where we were and he would go and try to find some civilian clothes for us to wear so that we might be able to walk through the city. My friend and I were grateful to this Belgium kid for having been so kind to us. The three of us then walked through the city and there were many German soldiers but since we had civilian clothes on, they didn't notice us. We were led to an old German home about 3 miles out of the city. This old German woman seemed to be kind and willing to do this for us. We felt that we could trust this Belgium kid and his judgment. We remained here 5 days and nights hiding in an old cellar under the house. Each night we listened to the BBC (British Broadcasting Station) telling the war news and how far the Americans were away.
On the fifth night, the American Army (7th Army) took the city by light resistance. We could hear the American tanks at 12:00 midnight fighting for the city and finally, we heard the news, before daybreak, that the Americans were in the city. Oh, how happy we were to hear such glorious news; the most wonderful news we had ever heard. The feeling of happiness that came over us to speak the truth, was the happiest day of our lives.
My friend and I immediately dressed in our old clothes and started to leave to join the good old Americans. Before we left, we extended our gratefulness and gratitude to the kind old German woman. In return, she asked us kindly to please leave a note telling of what she had done for us so that perhaps the Americans wouldn't bother her home. This we did and signed our names.
When we reached the city, we saw with our own eyes the American tanks rolling through the streets, and soldiers marching. We were simply speechless, all we could possibly say was "Thank God, Thank God". There we stood to attention still repeating the same words and tears that came could not be helped for now twas so easy to cry for happiness. It had been a long time since we last wept so freely and fully. There was no pain, but the tears still rolled like water from an old stream running down from the bank of a river.
We proceeded to tell the Americans exactly what had happened to us, which seemed hard for them to believe but they seemed happy for us too. They gave us the best of everything then.
Just before we left, I met the same old German woman who used to talk to me in the air raid shelter, on the street and she seemed mighty happy to see me again and wept like a child when I told her that it wouldn't be long before I could return home. She said, while shaking my hand, "Son, tell your mother when you get back home that I think she has a fine son."
A few days later we were flown to an evacuation hospital in France. After we arrived in France, we were given the best medical treatment and had to remain in the hospital for quite a number of weeks to recuperate. Naturally, we had lost so much weight, clothes were hanging off us - we were simply in bad shape, I must admit.
I left France on June 4th, 1945, and arrived in New York on June 12th. The good old Statue of Liberty which stood to greet us was most welcomed. The lights came on again and such beautiful lights. Here we were really on American soil again and like the majority of fellows, just had to kiss the good old earth. Bands were playing, and people were laughing and singing. What a welcome for the boys who returned. But, think of the boys who didn't see or never will return to their loved ones. That, to me, is about the saddest thing of all.
I was on my way home, yes good old Home Sweet Home they call it, which there is no name so great and righteous. Oh, I was happy and when I arrived in the dear old town, Holly Hill, I was welcomed with open arms, and in the sweetest arms of all was my dear mother's, who had waited so patiently and hopefully for my return. The bright lights were on again and everyone was extremely happy that night. We had a great celebration of the entire family and what a wonderful celebration.
Friends, people of America, this story I have endeavored to tell you of my experiences, I must add that the worst has not been included. I have merely spoken the truth, briefly, of the disasters of war. I beg of you, here in America, not to forget our mistake or mistakes because of this terrible War. Keep your ears opened and eyes peeled and never let another war come to us and our children of tomorrow. Let us stand rightly for the Red White and Blue that waves so proudly and let us strive to hold our peace, freedom, happiness, and justice for all. Let us always cooperate and love our fellowman so that we may deserve the right to sing,