A friend on mine, Harry Thompson, passed away today (August 3, 2011) at the age of 97. Harry went through hell for his country and his sacrifice is worth remembering. In 2008, Harry came into my office to talk politics and he let me tape our conversation. Our talk switched quickly from politics to his time as German prisoner of war in World War II.
“I was captured the second day of the Battle of the Bulge in a tank attack and was released at the end of the war. I was a prisoner about five months from December 17, 1944,” he said.
Harry was a chief warrant officer with the 924th Field Artillery Battalion of the 99th Infantry. “As a warrant officer, I was a personnel officer. My job was to keep track of the troops, keep count of the dead or wounded. I had something like 500 or so I was responsible for.
“I was captured in Belgium, at a little town, Bullingen. Ended up in boxcars that took me, well first it was to Bonn, Germany and then Nuremberg; finally to a camp at Hammelburg. A group joined our camp – Patton’s son-in-law was one of ‘em. Patton sent a commando raid in to free him and it failed. It got a lot of people killed.”
I ask Harry about being released. “It was in May, we started walking. It was 241 miles. For over 30 days, everyday we thought we were going to get shot. Hitler had given orders to shoot all POWs. While we were on the road walking, a German general came up to us and told us he had orders to shoot all POWs, but he said, ‘As long as you’re in my district that order will not be obeyed’.”
Harry and his fellow prisoners were force-marched across Germany for 36 days, before being liberated by Allied armies. “When I got home, I had a little bit of shrapnel in my shoulder blade, I’d been hit by a bomb fragment, I had two frozen feet, two bursted ear drums, a broken nose, real bad artery problems, which caused me to have two strokes, and a heart attack. I almost died from bleeding ulcers from malnutrition. And I was, they talk about the stress, I guess I had a bad case of that. At that time I should have been taken care of by a psychiatrist. But my wife took care of me; it took five years, she kept me together. We had got married right before I went overseas.”
“Do you still have nightmares?” I asked.
Harry said yes. “I had post traumatic stress – nightmares, I still do, once or twice a week. But that’s to be expected I guess.”
“Sixty-two years later and it still haunts you now like it did then?” I ask.
“I went through hell, I’ll tell you that,” Harry says and fixed me with his eyes. They did not blink. They were hard, deep and strong, and returning his gaze I felt the cold of that winter long ago.
“The worst thing was getting bombed by American planes. When we were on the road from Hammelburg, we got to Nuremberg at the train yard. There was a munitions factory a couple hundred yards from us. The air raid sirens came. First they bombed an adjoining town, like Wolfe City is to Greenville. And we’re wondering what in the world are they bombing there. They did a good job, an excellent job bombing, then another wave came and dropped right on that munitions plant, and tore everything up. Then here come another wave, and dropped flares right on us. It killed outright, it seems 24 of us, 105 wounded. It was a gruesome sight. People blown apart, it was awful. I had a friend, I was talking to right before that, he was no more than 15- 20 feet from me and his uh, his leg was blown off and it was hanging in a tree with the boot still on it. And about the time that was rolling in, I reached into a crater to pull a fellow, he was blown to pieces. On the other side, the guy was curled up in the corner saying, ‘My name is Bob Eberly,’ he said, ‘the singer’s name is spelled e-b-r-l-y and mine is e-b-e-r-l-y. I’m from Chicago.’ Blood was just rushing out of his nose and his mouth and I guess he had internal injuries. I never did find anything else about him, except he was from Chicago, whether he died or not. But it was gruesome. The good Lord looked after me. I covered up with rocks and dirt and boards, whatever. I was just fortunate. I just don’t know how I come out of that alive.”
Harry told me that he dreamed of that day at least once a week, the images were burned in his memory. He tells me how he was captured. “All I had was a pistol, it was shooting rocks at a tank, what good is it? The guy was shooting at me with a burp gun on a tank while I was running along the side of a house. As I was running I was like this,” Harry points back with his hand, crouches and covers his head with his other arm, ”shooting at him. I don’t know if I hit him or not, I was running too fast.”
How did they capture you? I ask.
“Finally, after I don’t know how long, I got in a house, I got into the cellar. And there were nine other fellows there, and we got to watching one tank right after another go by. In no time at all we were four, five miles behind the front. Tanks don’t take prisoners. At Himsteldt – apparently they killed everybody in the town. What are they going to do with prisoners, turn the machine guns on ‘em.”
Harry said he and his fellow soldiers were discovered and forced to surrender. “When the got us, they lined the ten of us up against the wall, they were getting ready to shoot us, they had their guns cocked when some officer stopped them. They wanted our clothes for infiltration – took my overcoat, took my overshoes. And it was cold, right then it was about zero.”
The prisoners were placed on German tanks, to be taken to the rear. “I jumped on the tank, there was so many POWs on it, you couldn’t tell whose tank it was. I had a friend, and he was in the bunk next to me, name of John Pettyjohn. “I said ‘John, let’s get off of here. There’s a counterattack.’ And the bullets you could hear hitting the tank but they hadn’t hit nobody. I said, ‘John, you can stay but I’m getting off.’ I jumped off; I thought I was going to get killed right then. Anyway, that tank got about a block from me, got a direct hit from an artillery shell and killed everyone on it. And I crawled, had to go over the dead, and I could hear shells all around me.”
It was winter, but Harry said he was so scared at that time he can’t remember if there was snow on the ground or not. “I don’t mind telling you that I was scared to death. I was scared. Somebody say they’re not scared when they get in a situation like that, I don’t believe ‘em,” then Harry laughed. “You get so durned scared you can’t even cry.
“I don’t think they could train people to be that cruel, that they would just shoot you. They said to this one guy, ‘Get your hands up’, and then stuck the gun in his stomach and shot him. That was at the Battle of the Bulge, they shot civilians. They had us on the road walking, there was something along the road, it looked like carrots, stacked up like cordwood on the side of the road, and one of us said, ‘I wonder if that’s good to eat.’ He went over to get one. They killed him right there. Doesn’t matter if it was Germans, Japanese or what, they get POWs and your life wasn’t worth a plug nickel. I imagine we were probably the same way.”
“They took us to the boxcars, I about died of starvation in those boxcars. In those boxcars, it took us 13 days before we finally reached Nuremberg without anything to eat but snow and ice. And on the 13th day when we were in Nuremberg, they told us they were going to feed us. They gave us a bowl of warm water with half a turnip in it. I was so weak, I couldn’t hardly walk. It was so cold we had to run in place to stay warm.”
What was life in the camp like? I ask. Was that something, running in place, that you had to do everyday? “We called it hell camp,” Harry answered. “I guess there were a hundred to a barracks, stacked three high. All we had was a sleeping roll and wood slats. I guess it was the later part of January that I got to sleep on straw, instead of sleeping on cold cement or wood. They didn’t care if we were alive or dead, a lot of ‘em was shot too. Start arguing with ‘em and they’d turn around and shoot you.”
Did they have you do calisthenics like you see in movies, or did they do head counts? “No, they left us alone, it was so cold. There was no heat in the building whatsoever. We got seven lumps of coal for the whole week.”
Seven lumps, I interject, per person.
“No, for everybody, to go in a big pot-bellied stove. It was so cold, they gave us thin cotton blankets, about 3 foot by 6. A fellow by the name of James Park, we had the same bunk together there, we slept together for warmth. It was 20 degrees below zero. That was at about the same latitude as North Dakota.”
Were there Russians or British there as well or just Americans? “Oh yes, There were mostly Serbs there, from Yugoslavia. They’d been there a long time. They’d go out and work, they got plenty to eat – when we didn’t have anything. I went from 155 pounds in five months to 105.
What was the first thing you wanted to eat when you got home? “When we got home, I’d eat one meal, turn around and 15 minutes later eat another full meal. I’d eat anything, I’d eat anything but raspberries. They taste like old medicine.”
I wanted to know if he still ate the things he was forced to eat in captivity. “I ate cabbage, I stayed alive for 30 days eating raw cabbage and raw potatoes.” So you don’t eat cabbage anymore? I ask. “No, I love cabbage. I’ll unroll it and eat it leaf by leaf,” he says as his hands mimicked unrolling the leaves. “I still like it. Pretty soon you start to like everything. I’ll eat anything.”
Harry, I said, you are a true hero.
“No, I ain’t a hero, I did my job. If there’s a hell, I went through it. But boy, I’ll tell you, I wouldn’t give anything for my experiences. I’d do it all again.”