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US Army

50 Years ago Byron Ellis was a German POW

50 Years ago Byron Ellis was a German POW
 
By Laurence J Sasso Jr 
 The Observer Newspaper
 Thursday, January 5, 1995
 
Despite the fact that he has a heart condition Byron J. Ellis, 78, looks as fit as can be.  So much so that it is almost impossible to imagine what he looked like when he weighed a mere 67 pounds.T  hat was all Ellis weighed in 1945 after spending several months as a prisoner of the German Army. 
 
On the 50th anniversary of his capture on December 20 of last year Ellis, a 37 year resident of Scituate, was honored by Rhode Island Adjutant Major General N. Andre Trudeau with a certificate recognizing his ordeal. 
 
A section-leader in charge of two half-tracks armed with multiple .50 caliber machine guns, he saw action with the United States First Army in France, the Ninth Army and British Second Army in Holland and the U.S. Third Army in France.  He served under U.S. Generals Omar Bradley and George S. Patton and British General Miles C. Dempsey. 
 
His entry into combat began on June 26, 1944 when his unit was sent into the Cherbourg Peninsula after sitting in the English Channel aboard ship for 20 days following D-Day. 
 
From the time he landed Ellis was involved in plenty of action. 
 
“It’s lucky I’m living,” says the unassuming former member of the 203rd anti-aircraft automatic weapons battalion, self-propelled. 
 
Ellis saw action in Normandy, Northern France, The Rhineland and the Ardennes.  It was in the latter campaign, known universally today by its nickname, the Battle of the Bulge, that Ellis’ luck changed for the worse. 
 
The attack by the German Army on advancing U.S. Troops began December 16.  It was the beginning of Hitler’s last desperate effort to turn the tide of war back in favor of the Third Reich.  It would take the allies until the end of January, 1945 to stem the German army pounding away at its lines.  Ellis was at St Vith with the Seven Armored. 
 
“The Germans threw their best troops against the allies.  They wiped us out.  They had 72 divisions going through the same hole.  No matter how we withstood the pressure they had another division coming at us,” say Ellis. 
 
“We had probed into the German lines, and we had taken a German prisoner.  When we saw him we grabbed him quick,” he recalls. 
 
Ellis’ unit shackled the POW to a frame on the outside of their jeep.  In part they did this to keep other Germans from ambushing them.  The ploy worked.But ..... the tables were to be turned on Ellis and his men.  While returning to their camp with the prisoner they were ambushed by a superior number of enemy troops.  The Germans shot out the tires of the jeep and it went into a ditch. 
 
“They didn’t shoot any higher because they didn’t want to hit their own man on the hood of the jeep,” say Ellis. 
 
The ambushing troops surrounded the Americans and held “potato masher” grenades at the ready until the G.I.’s surrendered.  The date was December 20. 
 
“That was the end of the war for me,” says Ellis.  It was, however, only the beginning of his suffering. 
 
For the remainder of the war in Europe he and a rag-tag band of other allied prisoners were kept on the move throughout the region from the North Sea to Bremen.  A lot of the time, he says, he had no idea where he was. 
 
Unlike many of the allied prisoners, Ellis was able to avoid frost bite.Ironically, it was because his shoes were not in good condition.  Any allied POWs with good shoes had them stripped away and were given worm out German boots.  Ellis own boots had holes in them, but they were warm.  He was allowed to keep them, and he credits this with saving his feet. 
 
In the matter of food he was not so lucky.  All the prisoners got to eat along their long and winding route of march were occasional bowls of watery soup.  They augmented this with whatever they could find foraging in frozen gardens and abandoned root cellars. 
 
“We ate rutabagas they left behind, and we dug up the stems and roots where cabbages had been cut.  There’s food in them, you know,” he explains. 
 
One night his band of prisoners was scheduled to sleep in a shed.  They agreed to forego the shelter when they learned that a group of what he terms “political prisoners, jews and the like” who were in much worse shape would be placed there. 
 
Once that weakened and exhausted group was put into the shed, Ellis and his mates watched the Germans cover the building with burlap and canvas.  Then to their horror they saw them douse the whole thing with flame thrower liquid and set it afire.  As he tells the story the horror of the moment returns, and his face contorts with the image. 
 
When his liberation by British soldiers finally came, he was too weakened by starvation to even respond. 
 
Soon he and his fellow POWs were put in allied camps, ironically by today’s standards, named for cigarettes – Lucky Strike and Philip Morris. 
 
“You could have all you wanted to eat.Day and night the guys were eating,” he says.  Later his group was sent to Lake Placid, New York for what is now called R & R. 
 
After the war Ellis returned to civilian life.  He is married.  He and his wife Isabel have one son, Mark, also of Scituate. 
 
“I feel good,” he says.  “Put that in the story.” 
 
Source: Email received on June 19, 2011 from Mark Ellis

By Laurence J SASSO Jr

The Observer Newspaper

Photo: Sgt Byron ELLIS

"D" Company

203rd AAA AW Battalion (SP)

7th Armored Division

Campaigns

Battle of the Bulge,

Belgium