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US Army

They're our Prisoners

 They're our Prisoners
 
There were eight of us holed up in an old farmhouse in the village of Berg, northeast of the towns of Bullingen and Butgenbach with 19 Jerry prisoners.  We had been waiting there for two days for some personnel from G-2 to come and interrogate them.
 
About 4:00 p.m. on December 15, 1944, a carry-all came down the dirt road in front of the house with five sergeants aboard.  There were three master sergeants and two were staff sergeants.  They set up a table in the cellar in preparation of doing what they had to do.  They were dressed in formal GI fashion, ribbons and all.  We all looked like bums compared to them.  To me they looked out of place and not like someone who would be anywhere near the front.
 
One of them officiated behind the so-called desk.  There were three of us in the room with them – Sergeant James, Richardson and myself.  "Okay, soldier; bring them in one at a time."  The first prisoner came in, stood in front of the table, and came to attention clicking his heels.  The sergeant said in German, "What's your name, rank and serial number?"   The Jerry answered him.  The sergeant asked him what outfit he was in.  He clicked his heals again and said, "Fifth Panzer."  He was dismissed and the second was brought in.
 

They went through the same procedure with him, also the third and fourth man.  When the fifth came up he was asked the same questions, only his answer was the Sixth Panzer.  The sergeant behind the table looked up from his writing and asked him again.He got the same answer.  Slowly the sergeant stood up and stood there about 30 seconds looking at the man.  His open hand shot out and with a thunderous slap he hit the Jerry right across the face.  I was standing about four feet to the left of the prisoner.  The incident happened so fast and totally took me by surprise.Inside I was mad as all hell.I pushed the Jerry aside; pulled back the bolt on the Thompson I was carrying and stood there pointing it at the sergeant.  "You ever pull that again on any of our prisoners and I'll make you a part of that wall behind you,"  I calmly told him.  I watched him turn white with rage.  One of the other sergeants said, "Hold it, soldier, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

 

Sergeant James had been standing behind me leaning up against the stone wall, his right foot propped up on the wall behind him.  He stepped to the table and spoke to the sergeant, "You heard what he said and that goes all of you.  You don't hit any of our prisoners."  There was total silence.  He backed up slowly and went back to his place at the wall.  The sergeant behind the table was clearly shook up and I believe embarrassed in front of the others.  He said, "What the hell is the matter with you guys?"

 
Backing off and still pointing the Thompson at him, I stepped back and was now standing next to the prisoner – about two feet apart.  I said, "Sergeant, when you're finished here you'll walk up those stairs and leave, but we've got to get these prisoners back to a control point at Elsenborn and we don't need a fool like you to make it hard for us."  Elsenborn was northwest of where we were.  Twenty or so miles away and all we have is a lousy weapons carrier and no food.  The prisoners were hungry and out of the two toughest panzer outfits on wheels.
 
Hrbek squad. Left to right: Doc Ward, Sgt James, Ack, Cpl Whitehead (whitey) in front Tommy Tompkins.  Johnston took the picture.
 

The next two prisoners were out of the Fifth Panzers, eight and nine out of the Sixth.  When they were finished, six of the nineteen were with the Sixth Panzer Division.  The sergeant behind the desk came up to me and said, "They'll hear about this at division, soldier."  I looked at him, and I was still pissed off.  "Tell them for me also that we've been getting prisoners from the Sixth Panzers for the past three weeks, one here, two here."  He made some comment, that "it couldn't be, the Sixth Panzer were in Holland."  I replied, "That's G-2's problem, we just bring them in for you and we intend to stay alive."

 

My duty that night was at the front door of the farmhouse.  About 50 feet away from me, sitting at the base of a tree and at the edge of the road, I could see Tommy Tompkins in silhouette.  Tom was five feet on inches tall, and had more ass than a herd of buffalo.  He was from Oklahoma.

 
The night was crisp and clear and time slipped by fast.   It slips by fast when you run out of things to think about, and ever since the Normandy invasion on D&Z I had already thought about home over ten billion times.
 
During the night and toward dawn, I was hearing things I didn't like.  The door I was leaning against was being pushed out and Sergeant James stepped outside.  "How's it going, Yankee," he said — he being from Georgia and myself a New Yorker.  "I don't know Sergeant, listen up for a while."  We stood there in total silence and then the "thum, thop, thum" hit our ears.  "Their or ours," I asked.  He didn't say a word.  He turned and disappeared through the door.
 
About ten minutes later the door opened again and Sergeant James said, "We've got to get out.  The Jerries broke through and are coming straight for us."  By now it was light.  He waved to Tom who came running and they disappeared behind the door again.  Tom came back out carrying a 30 caliber machine-gun.  He was busying himself out in the middle of the road.  Johnson, Richard, and Doc Ward started filing the Jerries in a formation of fours.  Everything went like clockwork.  Tom had his barricade all ready to stop the panzers out in the middle of the road.  The prisoners were ready to go.I turned to look back at the house.  Sergeant James and Corporal Whitehead were helping a wounded prisoner up to the column.  I looked at Sergeant James and Whitey, but got no answer.  The prisoner was about 20 years old.
 
When Sergeant James saw Tom and his barricade he said, "What the hell do you think you're going to stop with that, Tom?"  Tom looked up from his sitting position behind the gun and said, "I've had it.  This is as far as they go.  No more, this is the end."  It was sadly and frustratingly comical.  The Sergeant looked down at him and in a loud voice said, "Tom, get that equipment into the weapons carrier and move it fast!"  Tom got the message real fast.  He had it all set-ups in the back of the weapons carrier in nothing flat.
 

A jeep pulled up kicking the dirt off the road.  Lieutenant Wilson of the divisional MP's and two non-coms told us to get out fast.  Their jeep had a mounted 30 caliber machine-gun.  They swung the vehicle around and took off.  Someone said, "Nice guys, you would think they would stay with us."

 

The weapons carrier was in the lead, Ack was driving.  Sergeant James was standing on the seat next to him.  Tom in the back.  Doc Ward and Corporal Whitehead (Whitey) on the right side of the column of prisoners, Richardson and Johnson on the left, and yours truly taking the rear.  We got about a mile down the road.  The sergeant decided to take to a huge open field on our right because of a knocked out railroad bridge crossing the road in front of us.  The abutments on either side of the road were at least one hundred feet in the air.

 
The field was about the size of five or six football fields.  A dirt road ran right down the center of the field.  We got to the approximate center of the field when two of the Jerry prisoners at the rear of the column were talking excitedly to each other.  The wounded man walked about 15 feet behind them and I was behind him.  Those two guys were getting me nervous.  I yelled at them, "Mach Schnell" (make it fast).  One of them pointed to the tree line behind us.  I did a quick look and my heart almost quit.  A half a dozen tiger tanks were coming out of the woods and hundreds of soldiers were pouring out on the field.  They were about 200 yards away.  We were behind enemy lines which were bad enough, but this seemed ridiculous.  I yelled at Sergeant James, who was standing on the passenger side of the weapons carrier facing the whole scene, and he acknowledged my pointing.  I pointed the Thompson at the two who were by now enjoying our predicament.  When I yelled at them they closed up a bit.  The wounded man was farther back than before.  I yelled to the two clowns and motioned them to get hold of him and take him along.  One of them said, "Far vas?" (For what?), "Ict dott" (Its dead).  When I clicked off my safety they both shouldered him and dragged him along.  I looked at the vehicle, we were going up a slight grade.  I was in awe, what else could happen?
 
Two planes broke the tree lines, dropped to the field preparing to strafe us.  I yelled at the Sergeant pointing.  He turned, jumped off the vehicle, running down the road waving his arms, frantically trying to wave them off.  He had immediately recognized them as ours.  They couldn't have been 50 feet above the field, one behind the other.  Sergeant succeeded in his endeavour.  The first one passed over our heads and started to climb.  He got about 50 yards past us and about a 100 feet in the air when he blew-up in a black blast of smoke and fell in a belly flop back onto the field where he blew again.  I had a difficult moment deciding what to watch, the planes above us, the tanks at the edge of the tree lines or our prisoners.  I believe we were all hypnotized, prisoners as well as their captors alike.  The second plane almost ran into the first when the first exploded.  The second pilot manoeuvred to the right in a half roll straight up and was gone.  To this day I believe they were Thunderbolts.
 

The column kept moving, and no one shot at us.  I believe because they saw we had prisoners.When the plane hit the ground, I could see through the flames and smoke, two of the tanks had a white Smokey look around them.  I really believe he was hit by 88's on those tanks.  The Jerries were good with those things.  Rifle fire?  No, because there wasn't any.  Anyway, the pilot never knew what hit him.  They had a perfect target coming straight at them.  The Jerries were naturally camouflaged against the tree line and from all that was going on, and flying so low, he couldn't have seen them.

 
We reached the end of the field, cross the railroad tracks, went down an embankment, and straight up a hill of about 40 degrees.  The hill was about 200 feet in length.  Halfway up I saw a sergeant lying on his back.  He was yelling in both German and English, "Schnell, schnell, hurry, hurry."  He said, "Keep them moving, son."   Son, I thought, I felt like a very, very old man.  Keep moving, don't give us away.  Then I noted the hill was full of men dug in.  Big guns, 90 mm pointing downhill.  My God, the Jerry army following us will catch hell.
 

We got to the top of the hill and ran the prisoners the next hundred yards to a road.Two 6x's were coming down the road, both with Red Cross markings.  I tried flagging the first one down, but he was moving too fast.  I stepped a little into the road and waved.  The second one stopped.  The driver asked, "What's up?"  The wounded Jerry was standing next to me.  "You carrying wounded?"  "Yes," he answered.  Looking at the wounded man, the driver made a remark to the effect, "Hell, he won't make it.  Look," he remarked, "if the guys in the back will have him, its up to them."

 

I went to the back of the truck with the prisoner and pulled back the tarp, the vehicle had no tailgate.  The men inside were all wounded, bandaged, only temporary staff by the medics.  I looked at the nearest man to me and asked if they would mind taking this one with them, pointing to the prisoner.  "What say, you guys?" he addressed about a dozen wounded GI's.  They looked at him and in unison waved him in.  With my fractured German I turned to him and said, "You're going to a krankinhaus (hospital)."  He lifted his arm to my shoulder and said, "Danka, Danka, Amerikaner," (Thank you, thank you, American).  We helped him into the vehicle.  I gave the driver the on-the-double sign.  He waved back and took off.  We hitched rides on different vehicles, walked, ran, anything, just to get to Elsenborn.  We got shelled twice, but no one, prisoners or anyone, in our outfit was hurt.

 

We reached Elsenborn about four in the afternoon.  Our prisoners got to a collecting point and that was that.

 

That night we slept a bombed out building on the side of the road.  It had no roof, the walls were four feet high.  It was built of stone and stucco.  Corporal Miller, an old buddy, joined us that night.  He had red hair and lived in the bayous of Louisiana.  He was older than the rest of us, about 40 or so.  He and I acquired a corner to protect us from who know what.  We called it our castle.

 
Source: Bulge Bugle May 1994

By Jerry C. HRBEK

428th Military Police

Escort Guard

Attached 99th Infantry Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium