Odyssey of a "Kriegie"- Charles D. McMillen
I was assigned the 106th Infantry Division in August of 1944 after I had completed ASTP. (ASTP was the Army Specialized Training Program, which sent people to college who would become officers after their 2-year college program.)
We were reported to the “Siegfried Line” in an area called the Schnee Eifel. There was a concrete bunker with metal bunks similar to those on a submarine (without mattresses). When we were not on duty we spent time in the bunker. At night for entertainment we listened to the ‘buzz bombs” clear our area a couple hundred feet in the air on their way to England. They had those loud noisy ramjet engines aimed at London. I really don’t remember “moving out.” But I do remember seeing German troops 500-600 yards away crossing a big field, it was cloudy overhead, and there were P-51s trying to strafe them. They were going in a parallel direction to the road we were on.
Some time later, I remember being in a long column on the side of a long hill in the middle of a convoy. This is where they started to pick off the vehicles with their 88s. They were weird sounding. You heard woom, woom. One woom was the firing, and the next was the shell exploding almost simultaneously.
I would learn later, we were captured in the village of Bleilf on December 19. Our situation was quite hopeless. We hadn’t been fed for two days, we were out of contact with Division Headquarters, we had no idea where the Germans were, we were low on ammunition, and our long column of Jeeps and trucks was caught on a narrow road with no possibility of maneuver. At that point we ran into a German armored column, and it was clear we could go no further. Our company commander tried to find a way out by a side road but ran into a mine, and we decided that road was no good. We were surrendered by Capt. Foster of Regimental Headquarters.
The word came down that the column had been surrendered. This next incident is my remembrance that some of us were prepared to disable the gun and the truck; however, we were told not to do so. It is also my recollection that someone tried to break his rifle by hitting it on the truck and in doing so the rifle discharged and hit him in the thigh.
Then came confusion.
My next recollection was we were then marched to Limberg and Stalag XII-A, and then loaded into boxcars. I’m not sure how the walk actually started; however, I do remember the WALK. I never received Combat Boots (some problem with size or whatever). and along the walk, I was unfortunate enough to get my feet wet. I was trying to get over a small stream that we thought we could jump. Both of my feet were frozen, the right more so than the left. I didn’t lose any toes, but I did lose the toenails on two toes. Later I made little booties for my feet as they pained, and I tried to keep them warm when I slept.
I was never a big churchgoer, but I knew how to pray and I did every foot of the way. That spiritual help and the physical help from someone in the group that helped me when it really got tough enabled me to make it
The next remembrance is being locked in the boxcars at Limburg during the December 23 air raid. The boxcar ride to Stalag IV B took 8 days. It was cold and, especially so after we (the Americans) got approval to remove some of the horse manure from the car at a stop along the way. We “city boys” didn’t realize how many BTU’s there were in a pound of horse manure. I remember singing Xmas songs on Xmas evening along the way, and of course, ‘White Christmas” brought the tears.
My recollection is that we arrived at IVB late at night and that my I. D. picture was taken about midnight. I obtained this picture later on when the Russians took over at Stalag IIIA. Someone had obtained all of the ID pictures and passed them out. I still have it and my “Krigie” dog tag. I posed as a non-com and was processed as a non-com and went to a non-com camp.
IVB gave me my first exposure to long time POWs. The English, Aussies, Canadians, etc. had been prisoners, some for long times and had learned to adapt and control the situation to the best of their ability. They put on a great New Year’s show with music, some guys in drag singing and dancing.
The trip to IIIB is cloudy in my mind. I remember the SS loading us into cars, and I was hit on the head with a rifle butt because the people ahead of me were not moving in fast enough. At IIIB, I remember the dogs being let loose in the compound during air raids. I remember leaving III B in a hurry at night about the middle of February. The Russians had moved to the Oder River, and the Germans were going to try and make a stand there. I do remember one of the guards, who looked like “Schultsy” on the TV show. He was a Home Guard about as old as my grandfather. He stood at the door with tears in his eyes and shook our hand as we left the barracks. I’m not sure if he was sorry to see us leave or that he was sorry he would have to fight the Russians the next day.
The trip to IIIA is also confusing in my mind. As near as I can tell this was a 100-mile walk. I know we walked, but I also seem to remember some time in a boxcar. I remember sleeping in a school one night, another night we slept in an enclosed farmyard and someone stole a glass egg from a chicken’s nest. I thought someone was going to be shot over that damn egg. It appeared, and we went on our way. I remember going through a small village and people lined the road. It was here some of the future German SS in their black Cub Scout uniforms threw sticks and rocks at us and an occasional spit. These were little Cub Scout age kids, the standard knife in their boot and all.
It was on this walk, we passed a column of “Jewish” prisoners in their flimsy black and white stripe pajama uniforms, wooden shoes walking in the cold, snow on the cobble stone road. The last man in the column would be hit on the back with a switch as they walked along. Since this would take its toll after a while, they exchanged places. A short time after we passed, we heard a rifle shot and assumed that one of them had fallen out of line or something comparable.
Finally we got to IIIA, and they had a full house in the barracks. They put up some more wire and enclosed a tent area. They put up 7 carnival or circus type tents side by side. I think there were 400 to a tent and 7 tents. We slept on the ground and each person had a space about 2’ by 6’ for his “condo”. There was limited water available for the group at the end of the tents, all outdoors. The personal facilities were typical field latrines. This was home until the end of April. There were the usual potato, ersatz coffee, and a loaf of bread for 5 or 6 people. I got so upset one day over arguing which piece of bread was mine that from then on I took the last piece. It couldn’t make that much difference, and I became upset with myself for becoming that unrestrained.
As the war progressed and the Allies went to 1000 plane daylight raids, we sat in the open “picking lice” and counting planes as they passed over. Things went the same each day. Lots of rumors. The Germans would ask, “What are you going to do when you meet the Russians?”
Finally the Russians did come. We went to sleep one night, and in the morning, the Germans were gone, and the Russians were in the “Towers.” Naturally things were confused, and eventually, we found out that the Russians would not shoot if you crossed the warning wire. There was no big exodus as we didn’t know what was out there. They were feeding us, and there was some control. We heard all sorts of rumors. They were going to hold us hostage, and they were going to ship us to Odessa on the Black Sea, which was the wrong direction.
Finally we heard of a link up of Americans and Russians at Torgau. After some discussion, we decided to take off for Torgau. We bundled up our “ciggies,” (cigarettes), and away we went. We got about 15 miles away and were picked up at a Russian checkpoint, then returned to camp. We didn’t relish going to Odessa, so we took off again. This time we hailed a 1½-ton Russian truck, and with the aid of a few “ciggies,” the driver let us climb up on top and lay on the canvas between the bows. Not only did we get through the checkpoint, the driver took us to his Motor Pool where we were fed and spent the night.
The next day we headed for Torgau. We were in our POW clothes, and I had made a “Mickey Mouse” U.S. flag from a handkerchief, red fingernail polish and black ink, and I put this on my arm. It was slow hitchhiking, so that left us to walking in Russian held German territory in a POW uniform looking for the American Army. I had grown a goatee and mustache, and I had lost about 40 pounds, which made my uniform look like it belonged to my big brother. About that time two Germans came along riding bicycles, and we proceeded to confiscate them.
We rode on down the road and came to a town named Wittenberg where we were hailed by some non-Germans and non-Russians. They were two French couples that had been working in Germany as “Slave Labor” and were now trying to get to their home in France. They told us that there was also a “link up” at Dessau, and it was supposed to be closer.
The next day, in Dessau we saw a couple of GIs in a Jeep. We screamed and hollered and peddled like hell until they finally saw us. Their Colonel had crossed the river to meet with his Russian counter-part and was in a meeting. He finally showed up, and we were on our way home. This was an MP outfit, and they treated us great. This was May 4, 1944. Big Day.
From here things started to move fast. They took us to Hildeschein and put us on C-47s and flew us to Nancy, France. Then the old boxcar trick to Le Harve with deluxe accommodations, only 40 people to a boxcar. We spent some time in Camp Lucky Strike to try and put weight on us as fast as possible. I actually saw Gen. Eisenhower and a couple of Congressmen who told us they would get us home as soon as possible, but, “Don’t gripe about the accommodations,” they said.
I came home on a liberty ship. It took us 8 days, and we arrived in the U.S. on June 12.
After 60 days at home, I reported to Ashville, N. C. at the Biltmore Estate for reassignment. The war in Japan ended while I was there saving me a scheduled trip to Japan. I was on a tentative list to go as I was 5 points short of getting out of the Army.
From there to Fort Behaviour in Washington, then to Walter Reed Hospital as an MP until the 5th of December when I was discharged.
I went back to Pittsburgh and on to W. Va. Wesleyan for a BS in Chemistry. I married a great little co-ed 50 years ago in this May, and we have 4 children, 3 grandchildren.