|Stalag VII A: Oral history
|William Dale Harriman
World War II: My Part
By William Dale Harriman
I was inducted into the US armed services in Sept. 1944 about three months after my graduation from high school. I took my 17 week basic training at Ft. McClellen, Alabama. There were many German POW's there and they always laughed at us while they were riding by truck to whatever work they were doing while we were marching along the road carrying a full field pack and rifle. For them the war was over, but for us it was just beginning.
After basic training I soon boarded a ship at the New York harbor and headed for Belfast Ireland. We arrived there after 14 days sailing on extremely rough seas in the North Atlantic. After spending a month in Ireland, and month in England I was shipped to Southampton where, after being issued ammunition we boarded a ship on June 17 bound for Omaha Beach on the coast of France. The next morning we were taken to the beach on LCI's. At that time the Americans and British had established a beachhead of about 20 miles after extremely heavy fighting. The beach was still littered with junk, and only a four foot wide path had been cleared of mines up the bluff. We were then told to dig in as the Germans were expected to bomb and strafe the area at night, which they did.
The next morning we were trucked up to the regimental headquarters of the 29th Infantry Division. The 29th along with the 1st had spearheaded the landing on Omaha Beach. Along the way we met many ambulances carrying the dead to the rear. This gave us a good feeling. I was assigned to F company and told that I was to be second scout. During that period the division was in a holding position, but we stayed in our fox holes since there was continuous artillery and mortar fire. On June 27th I participated in a platoon size patrol when we walked into a trap in the hedge rows. Seven of us were surrounded and cut off from the rest of the patrol. We had walked into a field surrounded by hedge rows, and were climbing over another hedge row to enter the next field when we looked down, and immediately below us was a German soldier in a fox hole behind a machine-gun asleep. He had tunneled through the base of the hedgerow and we had walked directly into his line of fire. After the action started two men were killed by machine-gun fire, as we had failed to take him out. All but one of the rest of us were wounded by what I think were rifle grandees fired from across the field. I was hit in both legs and was unable to move due to considerable loss of blood. At that point we were taken prisoner. I was treated by German medics and, and taken to a field hospital where I was further treated by a German doctor. After spending two days in a small hospital in St. Lo I was taken to a hospital for American and British POW's in Rennes where I stayed for a little over a month. On August 2nd with Patton's Third Army on the outskirts of Rennes the hospital was evacuated. Only the very seriously wounded were left behind. I thought that I might be left behind since I had not been out of bed and could not walk without help. I was still extremely weak, but they got me some pants, since I had none, that had belonged to someone else, a pair of crutches, an aluminum plate, and a blanket, and we boarded the train. Patton took Rennes the next day. At first those of us that could not walk were placed in a passenger car with the guards. A few days later some officers broke out of a boxcar behind us, and we were taken back to occupy their space. The Germans had a practice of placing a car loaded with French women in front of the engine to discourage the French resistance fighters from blowing up the bridges as the train passed over, and this train was no exception. On about the third day while a few of us were still in the passenger car, and while the train was stopped the guards brought out a large tub of water and placed it beside the tracks. The women were then brought out a few at a time to bath. They were all wearing rather flimsy dresses which they did not remove. They started to wash themselves in the order of face, feet and fanny. Each group following the same procedure. The guards seemed to enjoy the spectacle, but to me the sight was pathetic. As they walked by the window of our car I held my bible open to a page showing the American flag up to the window for them to see.
There were about 45 men packed in each boxcar. The European boxcars being so small there was barely enough room on the floor for all of us to lie down at the same time. A bucket was hung on a hook at each end of the car for human waste. Many of the men suffered from dysentery so the buckets were kept in frequent use. One morning when the train was stopped, we noticed that some of the men from the car behind us were out of their car rubbing their clothes in the dirt. One of the buckets had fallen from the hook and it's contents thrown from one end of the car to the other. They were using the only way possible to clean themselves. The progress through France was extremely slow due to the extensive bombing and strafing of the railroads and bridges by the US air Force.
One day we pulled up to a railroad bridge at Tours. The railroad bridge had been destroyed and the Germans uncoupled the engine and backed it up on the siding beside our car. Very shortly four P-47's came in on a strafing run. After the attack 15 bodies were pulled from the car, including the man who had huddled next to me, and lined up outside the car. One of the men in a car behind us was somehow able to break out of the car. After the strafing he returned voluntarily, but a German officer accused him of trying to escape and shot him. Many more were seriously injured. Most of the food and water was provided by the French who seemed to know in advance that the train was coming. No medical care was provided and sanitation was nonexistent.
After 16 days on the train we arrived at Stalag XII A at Limburg, Germany. While there we received a shower, my first in over two months. I was given a uniform and shoes, since I had none, and we were registered with the International Red Cross. I was at Stalag XII A about two weeks, then sent to Stalag VII A at Moosburg.
Life was not easy at the camp, as food and water were scarce, there was little heat in the barracks, and there was no protection from body lice. Food consisted of something resembling coffee which was rumored to be made from parched corn, and a small piece of bread in the morning. At noon we were given a bowel of something they called soup, we called it grass soup, but I think it was mainly made with cabbage. In the evening we were given a boiled potato, and sometimes a piece of limburger cheese. Bread was hauled in on flat bed trucks and handled like bricks, and was about as heavy. It tasted like sawdust, and I have reason to believe that it did contain some sawdust. A Red Cross parcel was supposed to have been provided each week, but we were fortunate to get one per month. The food parcels were furnished by the British, Canadian and US governments, and were shipped through Switzerland being handled by the International Red Cross. Toilet facilities consisted of a pole suspended over a pit which always seemed to be running over. Such a commonplace item as toilet paper was a scarce commodity, and it was necessary to use any piece of scrap of paper that could be found.
Occasionally the guards provided us with small amounts of wood to be used for heating food, but it was too green to be used without help. Many of us built small blowers which were constructed from the cans from the Red Cross parcels. The powdered milk can served as the fire pot. A small hole was cut in the bottom and connected by a tunnel to a small fan which was operated by turning a crank. Although some camps may have been provided with some recreational equipment, and an area to use it we had neither.
Every day many of the men were loaded into boxcars and taken into Munich to repair bomb damage on the railroad. However, there wasn't much work done as we spent most of the time in air raid shelters as Munich was on a 24 hour air raid alert. On day while working there I was pushed around and threatened by one of the guards, as I couldn't understand what he wanted me to do.
Sometime during the month of October 17 of us volunteered for a work detail. When we volunteered we had no idea what we would be doing, but most anything seemed better then staying at the camp. We were sent out to a local farm to dig potatoes for the camp. We, of course, were kept under guard, but they were not nearly as strict as those in Munich. We slept in the loft of an outbuilding which was covered with straw. The food was better but not plentiful, and we were still plagued with lice. The work was not hard but we were kept busy. Also on the farm were two girls which we worked with during the day. One was Polish forced laborer, and the other was a captured Russian sniper. who was guarded much more closely. The Polish girl had some privileges as she had a Polish boyfriend down the road on another farm. There also were three Frenchmen who worked in the fields, and a few German female prisoners who took care of the cows. I'm not sure why they were prisoners. We were there for about a month, and sent back to the camp. The girls hated to see us go as I think we did lift their spirits.
Because of the good experience on the farm we soon were given another opportunity to volunteer for another work detail still not knowing what we were getting into. There were 37 men in this detail. We were taken into the town of Landshut, and put to work digging air raid shelters where we spent most of the winter. We were housed in the second floor of a factory called the Landshut Cake and Chocolate factory, which again turned out to be much more comfortable than back in the Stalag. There were usually three guards looking over us, but they were decent. Several German women worked in a small factory beneath us making aircraft parts. They were also kept under guard, but I never learned why. Also several Polish women forced laborers worked in the cake factory. The guard in charge was badly crippled due to having been wounded on the Russian front. The others were too old to fight. Landshut was a city located between Munich and Nuremberg and had never been bombed while both Munich and Nuremberg were hit almost daily by American planes during the day, and British planes at night. The flames from the bombing were visible almost every night. This resulted in the railroad yards at Landshut being full of box cars. On March 19th the railroad yard was hit by what must have been about 1000 planes, all B-17's and B-24's. After the raid not a single car was left on its wheels as far as we could see, but only houses on a two or three block area on either side of the railroad yard were destroyed. One of our men was killed during this raid. We were soon put to work helping the civilians sift through the rubble for valuables. On one occasion while working on one of the houses I was asked to come inside, and was given some coffee and a very thin slice of bread with jam. I'm sure this was all they could spare. After looking around the house closely to make sure no one was listening they asked me if the Americans would slit their throats when they came, and of course I tried tot assure them that they would not. On another occasion I was helping a very nice elderly gentleman look for a very valuable violin that had belonged to his son who at that time was on the Russian front. We found it but, it was destroyed, and he was devastated.
In late April we were assembled in a large area where some large tents had been erected. Many other POW's were also there, some having been marched from as far away and Poland. On April 28, 1945 we were liberated by a small American reconnaissance patrol which probably had been sent out in advance of the infantry for that purpose. I understand that the liberation of Stalag VII A was much more traumatic. We waited another two or three days before we were evacuated. During that period it was rumored that the SS was going to shell the area. Some POW's along with some civilians who had gathered around us thinking they would be safe left the area. But the group I was with felt that we would be safer staying together. The shelling never happened. We were soon taken to Regensburg where we were flown out on C-47's to Reims. We eventually ended up in Le Havre where after being deloused, cleaned up, given a new uniform, and some good food, boarded a ship for home.
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