What to do with 400 armed prisoners
Along about late March of 1945 German soldiers could sense the end of the war even though Hitler could not. We were across the Rhine and moving as fast as we could repair blown out bridges and roads. There was great fear among enemy troops they would be captured by the Russians; they preferred the Americans knowing they would be fed, sheltered, and medically treated. They were partly right.
The Germans had been forced to leave their wounded as they retreated, hoping our medics would care for them as we had while moving across Europe. (Of course ours would be treated first.) But they failed to consider the weather and we convoyed past many hundreds that had died in their stretchers of wounds or hypothermia. I wondered how they must have felt, abandoned, fearing for their young lives. And many were young, more like fifteen, sixteen probably crying for their mothers.
German troops began surrendering in droves, dragging their rifles, one hand in the air, no look of defiance on their faces. Often our company of 160 engineers had to deal with them long before M.Ps would arrive to take them off our hands. We would park the trucks, some with machine guns, in a circle around them and instruct them to &uot;stack&uot; their rifles and squat in the snow. They wanted food and we made sure the cook’s new truck was kept a few hundred yards away.
We searched and separated them, best we could, by rank…they helped by separating themselves. We built pens, actually that’s what they were, barbed wire on stout posts in a two hundred-foot rectangle with a 30-caliber machine gun on each corner. The four pens held young soldiers, the non-commissioned, officers, and SS. The latter were the worst and constantly made trouble for us and the other prisoners. We doubled the guns around their pen.
There was nothing to feed them, but water was plentiful. It was a common sight to see a naked prisoner cleansing his body with water from his helmet. Same thing we often did but now and then we had hot water…they didn’t and we allowed no fires. Spring was coming on fast so the weather for them, except for rain, was not that bad. The same weather we were enjoying. Of course we took our &uot;meals&uot; out of sight of the prisoners. Food might have started a riot. It was bad enough when sympathetic locals brought what food they could scrounge, many brutal fights broke out and we were not about to interfere. There were often dead bodies reported, they wanted them removed and there was never any evidence of cannibalism.
It might be days before the Red Cross appeared. Often they were Germans and that surprised us. Where they got the food they brought was a mystery until we realized it looked very much like our K rations. I could understand why they hadn’t eaten it but wondered where they got it. They instituted a system, paint on the sleeve as each man was handed something to eat. No seconds and the great fear was that not all would get a meal. One thing you don’t want is a few hundred prisoners breaking through the barbed wire.
There were instances when a panicked soldier would shoot a prisoner attempting to escape. Our orders were firm in that regard…shoot to kill. I never understood that and found no reason it could be necessary…surely all he wanted was food. We had his weapons and bootlaces and we certainly would not have missed him. But manning those guns in cold late winter rains was no picnic, and during those days of holding prisoners the Captain allowed no distribution of &uot;juice&uot; until the joyful day the M Ps showed up.
It’s a good day to think about our troops in Iraq.
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