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US Army

I was drafted

I was drafted
I was drafted, trained, supplied, unloaded, then waded ashore at Le Havre, France. We walked a few days through rain and snow, into the Ardennes Mountains.  The small town of St. Vith was about five miles from where we replaced the 1st Division on the front lines, on the border between Belgium and Germany.  They had been there for several weeks and were well dug in.  The gun emplacements for my two Machine Gun crews were each big enough for the crew of five to lie in.  If you bent over you could sit up. 
The Germans were dug in on the other side of a small valley.  We could see them and they could see us.  We stayed in our holes most of the time.  The artillery barrages would start up every now and then so we didn’t spend too much time on the latrine.  About December 13, we began hearing a lot of movement from the Germans, sounding like tank movements.  As it turned out, that’s what it was.  They also increased the heavy artillery shelling, so we were pinned down. 
On the morning of December 16, at daybreak, the Germans came at us with their heavy tanks, called Panzers.  We got orders to pull back.  We picked up our machine guns and ammunition and took off.  Our orders were to reassemble in the town of St. Vith, but the Germans had us cut off.  We would go in one direction and we’d run into them.  Each time we lost some of our men in the fight.  This went on for three days until the morning of December 19.  We had spent most of the night in foxholes, which had about a foot of water in them.  Every time we tried to get out the artillery would start up. 
I sent word to the Company Commander, telling him, “Let’s get out of here while it’s still dark and try to make a break for St. Vith.”  The commander said back, “No, let’s wait until daylight.”   We knew the Germans were all around us because we could hear them talking.   Actually, they weren’t all around us because we were at the edge of the woods.  In front of us were open fields and to the left open fields.  To our right were heavy woods.  We were at the corner of a small gravel road, so we had Germans behind us at to our right.  We knew they were there but we didn’t know how many and what equipment they had, except for a few artillery pieces. 
We had about one-half of an Infantry Company, but my two machine guns had very little ammunition.  The Commander gave orders for the first platoon to start out with my machine guns attached.  The rifle platoon got well out into the field when all hell broke loose.  The Germans were laying in ambush.  They opened up with everything they had, including an 88mm. 
I gave orders for the two Machine Gunners to advance across the road to set up on the other ditch bank.  It was only a small ditch, but I felt it would give us some protection from where we could return fire.  I grabbed some ammunition boxes and pulled the belt out of one of the guns.  I put it around my neck (a big mistake) because I only ran about ten feet when a bullet creased the belt and exploded three or four rounds in the belt.  The force knocked me flat on my face and my helmet went rolling.  The carbine flew out of my hand. It stunned me for a few seconds.  When I realized what had happened, I reached for my gun with my left hand at the same instant an artillery shell hit the tree above me and sent shell fragments raining down on me, one hitting my left wrist and another my left leg.  I could see what it had done to my wrist but I couldn’t see what it had done to my leg.  I felt like it was blown off. 
In a few seconds another shell landed and this time quite a few fragments tore into my back, knocking the wind out of me.  It also put my lights out.  When I came to, someone was rolling me over on my back.  It was a soldier from my squad.  He asked if I could take the sulfa tablets we had in our first aid kits.  I told him, “Yes.”  I noticed he was holding one hand up in the air, only there was no hand, it had been blown off at the wrist.  He used his remaining hand and took the eight sulfa tablets and put them in my mouth.  He took out my canteen, but it was empty.  He then took a handful of snow and put it in my mouth.  After a good bit of gagging, I chewed them and got them down, which probably saved my life.
I drifted in and out of consciousness for the rest of the day.  I saw a few of the guys get hit, wondering if this was “the end” thinking it really was.  I noticed the firing stopped and I could hear voices.  I realized most of the talking was in German.  The few American men still on their feet were rounded up and taken prisoner.  I guess I went back to “la la land” because the next voices I heard were German soldiers.  One was kneeling beside me to see if I was alive.  He asked a question, which I answered in German, which startled him.  He called to his buddy in German, “Hey, this one is still alive, let’s take him.”  They picked me up and put me into a trailer being pulled by a jeep, ours at that.  There were four of us in the trailer, just tossed in.  By now it was almost dusk and very cold.  The cold weather was probably another factor in saving my life.  My wounds were frozen, preventing me from bleeding.  The ride in the trailer was extremely painful and cold.  My head was resting on the side of the trailer, the wheel covering my face with mud, freezing on my face.
They made a stop to unload one of the guys who had died.  We continued on for I don’t know how long because it was dark.  We finally stopped and I was taken off the trailer.  The next thing I remember was a Medic cutting off my clothes and a Priest was giving me the last rites.  That was not too encouraging, but I was glad to get off that steel trailer to receive a little medical attention.  I felt blessed to have a Priest pray for me.  I again went back to “la la land.”
Whatever was in the shot they gave me must have been strong.  When I awoke I heard singing and at the foot of my bed were two angels singing Christmas carols. My first thought was, “Wow, I must be in heaven.”  Then I noticed the singing was in German.  Reality hit me that I was alive and in a German Field Hospital.  The Angels were the German version of Santa Claus, which they call Christmas Angels.  A lady and a little girl wore white clothing and had wings on their back.  It was Christmas Eve and I now had been unconscious for three days.  As I began to take notice of where I was, I realized I was in bed with two German soldiers that were also wounded.
The Christmas Angels were handing out Christmas presents to all the German soldiers.  The package contained a bottle of wine and a bag of cookies.  When they gave one to me, someone yelled, “No, no, he’s an American.” So I didn’t get a present.  I was in a lot of pain and I was hungry because I had nothing to eat for about five or six days.
I began to take stock of my injuries.  My left arm was in a huge metal splint (looked like two snow shoes) and this was lying across my stomach.  The rest of my body was completely wrapped (sort of like a mummy).  I couldn’t move my left leg or my left arm, but my right arm was all right.  The bandages were like crepe paper, which is what the Germans used.
The place we were cared for was formerly an Inn that had been converted to a Field Hospital.  The beds were mostly the old double beds, each with two or three men to a bed.  It didn’t look anything like a hospital.  Because I couldn’t get up they gave me a urinal.  Surprise!  Guess what?  They gave me a small can, the size of a can of peanuts.  It served the purpose.  Soon the lights went out and someone started singing Silent Night in German.  Slowly, everyone was singing and I could hear a few English voices.  I realized I wasn’t the only American in the Field Hospital.  There must have been five or six of us.  They sang a few more German songs when the man on my left handed me a cup of his wine.  He said, “Schnell,” which meant “quick” and, I did.  It was very good.  A few minutes later, the guy on my right handed me his cup and said, “Schnell,” and he also gave me a cookie.  For the first time since my capture, I felt a glimmer of hope.
Here I was, lying between two of the men that we were shooting at a few hours earlier.  What irony, but when the singing started, they became human beings and were perhaps wishing, as I was, to be at home for Christmas.  The only difference was that they got the wine and cookies and I didn’t.  That brought me back to the real world. When the lights were turned off, I drifted back to sleep, the wine helped, thankfully.
The next day, Christmas day, I finally was given something to eat.  It wasn’t turkey and dressing, but it was food.  By this time, all my wounds were becoming very painful.  There wasn’t much they gave me for pain, no shots every four hours, just some aspirin once in a while.  That night we were treated to a bombing raid and for about an hour is was terrifying.  You could hear the bombs whistling through the air, and then a loud BOOM and the beds would shake.  All the while the German guys were cussing out those damn Americans, because the planes dropping the bombs were of course, American.  I had no idea where we were, but I know it was near a large city, and they were bombing the city.  Some of the bombs were dropped very close to us.  Needless to say, this was a Christmas I’ll never forget.
The next day, they took me, along with the other four or five Americans and loaded us on a bus.  We were all on stretchers, which were made of some sort of woven straw.  All in all, this entire ordeal was very, very painful, and it was very cold.  When the bus came to a stop, I regained consciousness and learned I was now in a “real hospital” with Nuns walking around.  I had a hospital bed all to myself.  By this time, all of my bandages were soaked with blood and crusted, because they had not been changed since the first night.  Cleaning and dressing our wounds was the first order of business for the Nuns, because our wounds were still wrapped in paper.  The next morning they took me to the OR where they set and put a plaster cast on my badly shattered left arm.  It was a great improvement over the steel splint that had been on my arm. 
When I awoke I was back in a room where they also had a very young boy, about 15 or 16.  He was a German soldier, a Hitler youth no less.  They were the worst kind and as I found out, very anti- American.  He kept harassing me until I ran for a Nun or nurse.  I told them to get him out of the room, because I was quite helpless and could not defend myself. I didn’t trust him.  They gave him hell and moved him to another room.  The nurse told me he was mad because he got shot in the butt.  I spent the next day there feeling somewhat more comfortable. 
I was clean and my arm felt better in the plaster cast.  The cast was up to my shoulder and enclosed my hand. It had a hole in the top and bottom and there was a hose about one-half inch in diameter and about three inches long with a safety pin on top and one on the bottom to keep it from coming out.  This allowed drainage, which it did a lot.  My stay in this comfortable spot was short-lived.  The next day I was loaded back into a stretcher and this time I was parked at the train station waiting for them to put me on board. 
The train stations in Europe are a bit different than here.  They are very large, because the trains go right through the building and you feel like you’re outside.  That’s where they parked me.  All I had was one Army blanket covering me and it was very cold.  I must have been there for about a half hour before they put me on a train car where all the wounded were on stretchers.  Some were American and some were German.  I had no clue as to where I was going.  At least it was somewhat warmer in the car.  We were caught in a few bombing raids and one strafing, but our car wasn’t hit.  We were on the train for a couple of days until we came to the city of Neubrandenburg, Germany.  It’s in the northeast corner of the country, not far from the Polish border and not far from the Baltic Sea.  Stalag 2-A was my destination, which was to be my home for the rest of the war.  They took me and four other GI’s off the train, all of us on stretchers and put us on a horse drawn wagon with steel wheels.  We started moving down a gravel road.  It was freezing cold and the jiggling of the wagon made the pain more unbearable.  I guess I must have moaned a lot because after a few miles they took me off the wagon.  Four German soldiers carried my stretcher on their shoulders.  I was very grateful for this and I thanked them in German, which pleased them.  They were older men assigned to guard duty at the Prison Camp.  They were too old for combat duty. 
We got to the camp with its barbed wire enclosure and guard towers with machine guns mounted in them, rows of barracks, on one end of the Camp was the “Hospital-part of the Camp”, and the buildings were the same as the rest, except for the dispensary.  There were two doctors, both from Warsaw, Poland; they had both been prisoners for five years.  One was a Polish Navy Officer and the younger one was a young resident at the Warsaw University, Dr. Grabowski.  They took me right to the dispensary, as they knew I wasn’t in very good condition.  The doctor put me beside a heater to thaw me out.  He treated my wounds, which by now were infected with gangrene.  He did the best he could with the sulfa powder he had to treat me. 
After a while they put me in a room in the barracks.  The room was small, just big enough for two bunks, about two feet wide and three feet wide, five slats with a mattress filled with straw.  The room had bare walls made of “barn wood”, with a small window I couldn’t see out of, but I did get a cold draft from.  This was home for the next three months and we all tried to make the best of it.  After being put in my bunk, the delousing crew came in, cut off my hair and doused me with powder.  Lice were a big problem and this was a normal routine for them.  Dr. Grabowski visited me the next day with some good news.  He said the gangrene in my arm was so bad he was going to have to amputate it just below the elbow.  I was so sick at the time; I didn’t much care what he did so long as it made me feel better.  The next few days were a blank.  I was out of it with pneumonia.  The only thing I remember was being placed in a sitting position by a few men and feeling something jabbing me in the back.  I passed out again.  They were sticking a syringe into my lungs to drain off the fluid and injecting sulfa powder.  They said I was out for three or four days.  When I regained consciousness, I noticed I still had my arm and the doctor said he decided to wait a little while longer so I accepted what he said.  He told me later the real reason was that he didn’t think I would live through the pneumonia so there wasn’t any point in performing the operation.  I pulled through both the pneumonia and the infection.  I HAVE NO DOUBT THAT WAS A MIRACLE. 
The conditions weren’t too bad once you got used to the straw bed and the cold.  The food?  Well, that was another matter.  Our menu was quite simple.  Breakfast was a portion of coffee; made with roasted barley (they didn’t have real coffee).  Lunch was a portion of soup, and it was mostly made with green stuff, which looked and tasted like grass.  Sometimes the soup had a little barley in it and that was a special treat.  For dinner we got a slice of black bread made mostly with sawdust and flour and of course, it was dry.  We received one Red Cross parcel per week.  It was supposed to be one parcel per man per week, but the Germans only gave us one parcel per ten men a week and they kept the rest.  It was divided up by making soup with the can of beans in it and the lemonade powder was used to make a very weak drink and so on.  It did help a lot and we were very grateful for it.  Our only eating utensils were small cans about the size of a Planter’s peanut can, which we used for our breakfast cup and our lunch soup bowl.  We didn’t have forks or spoons and there wasn’t a need for them. 
While I was in the little room I had several roommates.  One was only there for two days before he died.  Another was there about a week and was moved to the big room where most of the ambulatories lived.  The small rooms were set aside for the very sick and the higher ranked officers.  As soon as the sick felt somewhat stronger, they were moved into the big room.  The next one to be moved into my room was an Englishman who had been a prisoner for five years.  He had been forced to work in a factory in Poland.  The Russian Army came close to the town where he was and the Germans made all of the prisoners walk to our Camp, which was about 100 miles.  One morning, some of the men were shot because they didn’t move fast enough for the Germans.  My roommate was brought in by truck with a bullet in the back.  He was lucky because it passed through him and didn’t hit any vital organs.  When they brought him in the room I figured, “well, he won’t last long.”  He was tough and after a few days he was feeling much better. 
He had some interesting stories to tell and it was nice to have someone to talk to once in a while.  He had worked in the same factory for several years, alongside mostly Polish people so he learned the language.  He tried to teach me the language, but it was difficult.  After only a few days he was moved into the barracks with the other Englishmen.  They had us segregated by the Country we were from.  There were five buildings in all, in the so-called hospital compound and the dispensary.  There was a small shed where the dead were put until burial, which was about every other day.  This was a depressing sight because, as you can imagine, there were no funerals.  They would just haul the bodies out and dump them in a mass grave. 
As you can imagine, for those of us that were bedridden, it was not very comfortable.  There were not sheets, just Army blankets.   One to lie on and one to cover you.  I still had no clothing issued to me.  One day I asked a friend (his name was George Wunderlich) who had taken care of me when I was in a bad way, if I could get something to wear.  I was hoping to soon be able to get to the bathroom on my own power.  George said he would see what he could find and he brought me a pair of long johns (long underwear).  I didn’t ask where he found them because I was too grateful to have them.  We had one so-called bathroom across the hall from my room, with a few stools and one wall for a urinal.  There were no bed pans.  I had to get a couple of men to carry me to the bathroom.  I was very determined to try to walk, but with one arm in a cast, it wasn’t easy.  One day, George brought me what passed as a crutch, about a four foot stick with a Y on the top.  I tried to stand, but my left leg didn’t want to work.  I kept trying and finally was able to get myself across the hall to the bathroom.  That was a great day. 
The boredom was setting in and became one of our biggest problems.  There was nothing to do.  Nothing to read, no radios.  I was anxious to get out of my little cell so I would at least have someone to talk to.  One day I asked the Doctor if I could be moved.  He agreed that perhaps it was time.  They moved me into the big room, which was about half of the barracks and had about 30 beds in it.  Some patients were bedridden, some were able to get around and there were many with frozen feet that had one or both legs cut off or toes missing.  Some were like me, wounded in battle. 
There were men from the Air Force. The Ground Forces were well represented due to the Battle of the Bulge.  There were about 5000 men in the main compound and about 50 in the hospital compound.  I call it a hospital although it was no different from the regular barracks and there was no medical equipment of any kind, no nurse’s aids, no one except the two doctors.  A doctor would come into the room once a day to see how we were and to change dressings.  The medicine consisted of sulfa powder, aspirin and paper bandages.  How any of us were able to recover even a little was by the grace of God and by the skill and patience of the two Doctors. 
In early April, we had an influx of new guys coming into the Camp.  Almost all of them had frozen feet.  The camps they had been in were being closed and they were forced to walk for days at a time.  The Russians were closing in from the East and the Americans from the West.  Some of the men had been in good health until the long march, which caused them to lose one or both feet due to frost bite.  It was sad. 
We had no way of knowing what was happening on the outside as we received no mail.  We were not allowed to write, except for one short note we could write when we first arrived at the camp to let our loved ones know we were still alive.  That was it until we were liberated.  The only news we ever received was from the German guards and we didn’t believe anything they told us.  They told us it wouldn’t be long until the Americans would be pushed back into the sea.  We tried hard not to believe them.  On one of the routine checkups of the small cells, one of the guards learned I could speak German.  He would visit me for a little while whenever he could.  However, he was very careful about what he told me.  I got to the point where I could read between the lines and I could tell the war was not going as well as they wanted us to believe.  The one thing he told me that was more truth than not was when he said, “You Americans will be sorry you aligned yourself with Russia.”  Boy, how true that was. 
In early April, the city of Neubrandenburg was bombed day and night by the Allied Air Force.  They knocked out the power plant and the water.  We had no lights and no water for the bathroom.  The last bit of creature comfort was gone.  They brought some of the men from the regular compound to dig slit trenches for us.  That was our bathroom from then on.  There was no water to wash our face.  It was bad enough before with cold water, but cold water was better than no water.  They did give us water to drink. 
I was healing quite well by early April and the doctor took my cast off. It was a big relief, but my arm was totally useless and very painful.  I had nothing else to do but to give myself therapy.  I tried to exercise as best I could.  I had another problem, the latrine was outside and I didn’t have shoes.  I asked some of the guys if they could find something to put on my feet.  They came up with some slippers.  They worked so I could go out to the latrine. 
As the war seemed to be getting closer and closer to us our rations began to diminish slowly.  We could see all was not well with the mighty Third Reich.  We were also nearing starvation, wondering how much longer the war would last and if we could hold out. 
One of the items contained in the Red Cross parcel was a small pack of eight cigarettes, which were parceled out each week.  It was our money.  Nobody smoked the cigarettes as they were valuable to trade the guards for whatever they brought (sneaked) into camp.  Food items were the most valuable.  They would sneak in food such as turnips, cabbage and other stuff and we would trade them our cigarettes for the food items.  It was cut up and made a part of our soup, which helped a lot.  Once in a while they would bring a rabbit, all skinned and ready to cook.  It would be tossed into the soup.  A funny thing about those rabbits, they had long legs and tails.  Oh well, they did put a little protein into our diets and helped keep us alive. 
One day, about the end of April, we heard some planes overhead.  This was a common thing, as they made a lot of bombing runs over us.  This particular day, the planes seemed especially low and as they passed over us a shower of leaflets came fluttering down.  They were dropped by our planes and the simple message told us to hang on, that the war would soon be over.  They were signed by President Harry Truman.  That was our first indication that President Franklin D Roosevelt had died.  It also gave us a big lift. Until then, we had no knowledge of how the war was progressing. 
We knew the Russian Army was closing in from the East because of all the prisoners coming into our camp.  Germany was now only about half as big as it had been because the Russians were pushing in from one side and the Americans and British from the other. 
On April 28, we began hearing the sound of artillery fire in the distance, from the East.  We knew this meant the Russian Army was coming.  When the battle got closer, the barracks Commander had the able-bodied men dig trenches alongside the barracks for protection.  That night the battle was closer and the shelling was very heavy.  We spent most of the night in the trenches, freezing cold.  We didn’t have any direct hits, but a lot of near misses.  The next morning, all of the German guards were gone. 
The camp had two barbed wire fences about four feet apart, all around the camp with a machine gun tower about every fifty feet and guards with rifles and dogs patrolling outside the fence.  When we woke up they were all gone.  In the distance came the rumble of tanks.  The Russians came with tanks, riflemen and men on horseback with sabers.  We looked on with amazement.  On the front of some of the tanks would be a Russian playing a Concertina and singing as if he were in a bar room.  We figured they had already had their ration of Vodka for the day.  We later found out the men on horseback were Cossacks.  Their sabers were used very effectively.  We noticed all of their equipment, tanks, trucks, jeeps, and airplanes were from America.  They painted the white stars red.  This was the equipment we gave them on our “lend-lease” program over the years, since about 1939. 
We felt that now that the war was over we would be going home.  However, the Russians took over the German guards’ positions and nothing changed for us, with one difference, they forgot to feed us.  A few of our higher-ranking officers got together and went to the Officer of the Guard at the gate and asked for food.  They said, “Sure,” and proceeded to round up a cow, drove it into the camp and shot it.  They said, “Here you are.”  It was skinned, cut up and dropped into the soup kettle along with some potatoes.  The next day, we had the first meat meal in six months.  Everyone was sick with dysentery. We spent the next day and night on the slit trenches.  The poor guys that were still bedridden, well, let’s just say there weren’t enough pans or buckets to handle the situation.  When we were able to go inside, we chose not to because we couldn’t stand the smell.  Thank God it was the first week of May and was no longer as cold as it had been.  It took about a week to get over the dysentery and several men died from it.  Needless to say, no more beef stew. 
The waiting seemed worse now, because we could not understand why the Russians were not contacting our lines to come for us.  They didn’t tell us the war was over on May 7, and we were still there until the middle of May.  They ignored our Officers, who kept bugging them to contact our lines to come and get us.  Nothing worked.  We still didn’t even know the war had ended. 
One day they came in with a few trucks and told us they were taking us to more comfortable quarters.  That scared us, because the rumors were flying that we were going to Russia.  The fact that we had no say in the matter, they just loaded us up onto the trucks and took us to what was a German Air Force Camp.  The quarters seemed to be much better, brick buildings with Army cots, a big improvement over the wooden racks with the straw sacks on them.  The food was also improved, a little.  We were kept there another couple of weeks until; they allowed a Catholic Army Chaplin, from the main compound, to get a driver for a jeep to take the Captain to contact the U.S. Army about our whereabouts.  This gave us some hope that our captivity would soon come to an end. 
I referred to our captives as the Russians.  Actually, they were troops from all over the USSR, which were many countries besides the Russians.  Some were a bit unsavory, and hard to figure out.  They kept bugging us for cigarettes, which we didn’t have, because the Red Cross parcels stopped coming when the Soviets took over.  Anything we had saved from the Germans, such as watches, rings or anything else of value the Ruskies took from us.  They kept interrogating us.  They would get upset when we wouldn’t tell them anything besides our name, rank and serial number, as we did with the Germans. 
They did give us some lighter moments, though, such as every evening at retreat they would lower their flag and march in close ranks about eight or ten abreast around the compound.  It was like a circle with a parade ground in the center.  While marching they would sing some rousing songs which were very beautiful to hear.  When they were through and broke ranks, they would bring out a few concertinas and sing, as well as dance their special dance.  I found this quite enjoyable.  It would for the moment, make me and the others forget where we were. 
Every once in a while one of the Ruskies that had a bit too much Vodka would let go with a burst of his submachine gun.  We would all hit the deck.  The Ruskies thought that was funny.  We did pick up a few Russian words such as, when they bugged us for American we had cigarettes, we learned how to say, “We have no cigarettes.”  We would always tack onto the sentence, in English, “you SOB” and of course, smile.  Lucky we never had anyone that understood English. 
The biggest part of the day was spent looking out of the windows toward the West, searching for any sign of American trucks coming to get us.  Finally, one morning around the first of June some loud screams were heard from the guys looking out the windows.  They spotted some trucks and other vehicles coming from the West.  When the trucks got close enough we could see the white star, we knew they were American.  Everyone in the building let out the biggest and longest cheer that you could imagine.  This was it.  We were finally liberated. 
After six and a half months, we were no longer prisoners and no longer under the control of a foreign country.  The emotions and feelings we had cannot be described; you had to have been there.  To be locked up is one thing, but to be locked up by your country’s enemy is quite another thing.  We couldn’t wait to get into the trucks.  Those of us that were sick or wounded were put into ambulances.  The rest of the men were loaded on the trucks.  What a “rag-tag” bunch we were.  I still had dirty, unwashed, tattered, long-johns on, which I had been wearing for more than three months. 
We left the camp and headed for a small air strip about a half hour away.  On the way we passed by one of the famous Concentration Camps with the gas furnaces.  Up until that moment we had no idea this was going on.  We arrived at the air strip and were put on DC3’s and flown to Paris and driven to the hospital considered Paris’ best medical facility.  It had been turned over to the American Army for its soldiers. 
Source: Battle of the Bulge website 2015

By Sgt Joseph J. LAUX


"L" Company

423rd Infantry Regiment

106th Infantry Division


Battle of the Bulge,