WWII prisoners of war gather, remember experiences
The lunchtime setting in a reserved room at Dave’s Dream restaurant in Hollidaysburg on a spring Saturday this year was bright, pastel-colored, with clinking glasses, an abundance of food and drink and every solicitude.
It was utterly safe – unless you calculated the looming certainty that for these men in their late 80s and 90s, such safety can’t last.
The scene contrasted utterly with the men 70 or so years ago, when, in their war-trained primes, they endured combat, then captivity – splinters in a cataclysm, embers in a conflagration, self-aware bits playing parts in humanity’s terrible adventure.
And they lived to talk about it.
Joe Conlon, Gabe Bruno, Joe Reasy Sr., Lyhle Kline, Ken McCracken, Roger Bowers, Barney Keller and Primo Lusardi are members of what’s left of the technically dissolved, but still functioning Southern Alleghenies Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War.
Each of them were “twice-forged,” yet potentially subject to shadowy thoughts, according to Conlon, writing in a ring-bound collection of chapter members’ self-authored war and POW stories, first published in 2002, on the urging of member Lewis Fulare.
“Once by the fire of battle and once again by the tenure of his captivity,” wrote Conlon, a retired Spring Cove School District teacher. “Given minimal food, shelter, clothing; caged behind wire; dependent entirely on a capricious captor; tortured; force marched over great distances … denied his basic freedoms and human rights, stripped of his sense of pride and self-worth, denied his human dignity … herded about like an animal – the prisoner of war survived.”
Yet he also “suffered subconsciously from the self-imposed guilt feelings attendant to having lived, to having been spared in battle when friends and comrades were killed,” he wrote.
Moreover, he endured being “called coward by a few unthinking critics who, safe at home, had never heard the roar of the cannon … castigated because, according to a few who were not there, it is somehow more honorable and fitting to die … as if the airman scrambling out of his plane at 20,000 feet … had choices.”
It was hard, and necessarily lonely, according to Conlon.
A POW “handled the interminable wait for freedom and home and family in the quiet searching of his spirit and of his will … as the war dragged on and the battle lines approached or moved away,” he wrote. “The POW had to find his own way to maintain his sense of individual pride, his sense of self-worth.”
For at least some, the monthly get togethers of the group, which began around 1980 with approximately 45 members, helped restore that pride and self-worth – or at least helped them come to terms with what happened to them during the war.
Until he went to counselors at the VanZandt VA Medical Center, who helped get him in touch with the group, Reasy Sr. – a confident retired master electrician in Altoona – virtually never spoke of his time as a POW, said Joe Reasy Jr., who was, astonishingly, a teen before learning his father had been a captive.
“I didn’t see this turmoil going on,” said Reasy Jr. who asked the Mirror to write about the group.
But getting together with the POWs allowed Reasy Sr. to unburden himself comfortably to people experience. He could “open his heart and clear his mind of the horrors,” re-establish himself “as a person living in freedom in America,” and begin healing, Reasy Jr. said.
“It liberated him,” the son said.
At meetings nowadays, Reasy Sr. might only sit in the corner and twiddle his thumbs, with tears welling up occasionally, but he never misses one, even when other important things come up, his son said.
“They have dramatically changed his life,” the son said.
The meetings, for Conlon, are like the bar in Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” for the protagonist – somewhere he could sit “and milk a drink until closing time.”
They’re like family gatherings, said Philip Waite, a Central High School teacher and local historian who was present at Dave’s Dream.
Until 10 years ago, Bruno wanted to forget about the Army.
Then he became part of the group, and he felt he “belonged.”
He realized it was OK to remember, because what he could remember was “worthwhile,” he said.
It’s a shame it took so long, he said.
His experience was lighter than Reasy’s dark one.
“I probably suffered the least,” Bruno said at the lunch.
Other than the first two or three weeks of captivity, when he was close to dying of starvation, “the rest I recall as a wonderful experience,” he said.
Still, there are times that “different things grab you,” he said. “There’s a scar in your system that never goes away.”
Editor’s note: Most of the information in the following narratives comes from “Stories of Valor,” self-written by members of the Southern Alleghenies Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. All but Roger Bowers’ was written in the first person in that compilation.
Conlon enlisted in 1943 at age 17, trained as a bombardier, took a bullet in the leg on his 13th mission and recovered in six weeks. Then, on his 17th mission, he bailed out when German fighters shot down his plane over Hungary.
Hungarian soldiers and civilians rounded him up with other survivors and took them to an airfield, where the soldiers began taking watches and rings.
He put his class ring in his mouth to protect it.
They went to a prison in Budapest, then, after 15 days, went by boxcar to a German POW camp for allied air force officers.
In early 1945, with Germany trying to keep hold of its prisoners of war as bargaining chips in case of surrender, he left on a four-day forced march in mid-evening, in a blizzard.
That was followed by five days in a box car so crowded they couldn’t sit or lay.
That led to another prison camp, which was “a shambles,” overcrowded and with little food.
He lived on the ground for two months.
Liberation came on April 29, 1945.
Bowers came ashore at Omaha Beach eight days after D-Day.
They climbed down cargo nets into landing craft two or three miles from shore.
The Allies had already penetrated two or three miles inland, but the Germans were putting up heavy resistance through “hedgerow country.”
Bowers was a medic.
He wore a helmet with a red cross. That was supposed to prevent the enemy from shooting at him, but it actually was a target.
He went on two or three patrols a week as his 28th Division worked its way across Europe.
He was awarded the Bronze Star.
He ended up a prisoner of war when the Germans overran a position in Luxembourg that included an old castle being used as an aid station.
He looked out a view hole and saw hundreds of men in green uniforms shooting and shouting, and Tiger tanks rumbling down the road.
“The only logical option was to surrender,” states the narrative.
But first, he hid a dagger and belt buckle, souvenirs obtained from the enemy that could be fatal if found by enemy soldiers.
The captivity began with a forced march.
They slept in barns and walked through snow two feet deep.
The guards were brutal and warned the POWs that if they stopped or dropped out, they’d be beaten, stabbed or shot.
Then they went by rail for seven days with 70 to 90 men in cars built to hold 40, no heat or sanitation and little food or water.
They reached a POW camp Dec. 27, 1944.
The guards – recovering SS troops and older soldiers, many unfit for combat – lined up the POWs and asked how many were Jews.
Everyone stepped forward.
Each POW received a small mattress and thin blanket. They stayed warm by exercising and huddling under their blankets.
They ate black bread, the recipe for which, according to classified official records by a ministry in Berlin, included “20 percent tree flour,” which was sawdust, and “10 percent minced leaves and straw.”
One day the horse driven by the man who delivered vegetables to the camp died at the gate.
Next day they had meat in their soup.
The POWs worked all day, often digging latrines.
There were several unsuccessful escape attempts.
They got Red Cross packages, but desirable items were often missing.
The crackers always came through.
Back home, his mother received notification of his status in March 1945.
She previously thought he might have died.
That month, the prisoners began hearing Allied artillery approaching.
The camp doctor on the American side cleverly told the authorities he believed there was a typhus outbreak in the American section of camp, which also included British, Russian and Polish sections.
Next day, the Americans found themselves alone, as the German overseers and the rest of the prisoners headed east.
The Americans soon liberated the camp.
The “typhus” quarantine probably saved their lives.
Bowers lost 100 pounds in 115 days as a POW.
After the surrender of Germany, the Army planned for him to retake basic training, then serve in the Pacific.
So Bowers researched his “combat points” and discovered he had 118, 33 more than he supposedly needed to “earn a ticket home.”
Japan’s surrender intervened anyway.
The first phase of Bruno’s World War II adventure was “probably the most exhilarating period of my life,” while the second was just the opposite.
He served the first as a military policeman in the Los Angeles and Hollywood canteen.
That included “a rather intimate conversation with Errol Flynn,” and watching Betty Grable dance with soldiers “to the point that she was ready to drop.”
He’d provide protection for her and her escort as they went for a rest in back, where she would lay as someone fanned her, until it was time for more dancing.
He served out the second phase as a “casualty replacement” soldier, participating in “a battle that should never have happened,” as his 28th Division tried to break through the Siegfried Line on its own.
It’s recounted in “Follow Me and Die” by Cecil B. Currey.
Bowers was shocked by the sight of his first dead soldier, a German lying covered in light snow, his hand with a wedding ring exposed.
He was coaxed through a minefield by a lieutenant, who urged him to probe ahead with his bayonet.
And that was all before “two of the most frightening days I ever lived.”
He was in a group of about ten soldiers in a forward post, and a lieutenant told them they had to hold their positions at any cost.
He knew what that meant.
His soldiering ended on the way back from an ammunition supply run, when enemy soldiers encircled them, firing with a machine gun.
One of his comrades was killed and he was hit three times.
Then the firing stopped, “and a German who was sitting with a burp gun yelled at us … ‘The war is over for you.'”
He went to one POW camp, then to another near the Polish border – where they were bombed twice, once by Allied planes.
While his stay at the camps “was probably better, or more fortunate, than what some other prisoners of war had to endure,” they were always hungry, cold, ignorant of wider events and frightened – never knowing what the Germans would do with them, he said.
The Russians eventually liberated the camp.
Joe Reasy Sr.
Reasy came ashore on Normandy Beach just before dawn June 7, 1944, the day after D-Day.
When the landing craft hit bottom and the front dropped, they were on their own, with gear weighing 80 to 100 pounds.
During the next three days, they advanced by degrees, pushing forward, digging slit trenches under sniper and artillery fire, then advancing again.
On June 12, in an area of hedgerows, German tanks and artillery pinned down Reasy’s unit, then German tanks broke through the hedgerows and began driving the unit back, eventually cutting it off.
They held out for darkness, but the Germans closed in and soldiers were getting hit.
Reasy took a bullet in the right wrist.
The unit was down to a dozen men when his commander gave orders for surrender.
They were taken back through the German lines, the wounded in a separate group, under Allied artillery attack, and he was among those placed in a barn the first night.
Then a bus ride, then a walk, then another bus ride, and finally, at a German field hospital, his wound was treated.
He spent a day in an old church, then went to a French hospital, where the wrist and hand were operated on.
He remained in the hospital until the second week of July, then went to a POW camp in France, then on a hungry five-day march, then in a packed box car to Germany, then by foot, then by train again.
The Allies bombed and strafed the railcars, there was no food or water and only room to take turns sitting and standing.
Once, when it rained, they funneled water from a roof opening with cardboard into a tin can to drink.
On Aug. 18, they arrived at a POW camp in Germany.
Water was available for only an hour a day, and when the spigot was opened, prisoners pushed and shoved “like animals” to get a drink.
They went barefoot to preserve their shoes for the coming cold, and Reasy got a foot infection that forced him to hop. A camp doctor wanted to amputate his big toe.
On Sept. 10, with Allied troops closing in, they moved again by box car, and from late September until mid-October, by train back and forth through Germany, with little food.
The weather was growing cold, and prisoners’ feet and hands froze.
In late October, they reached a northern prison camp, near the Baltic Sea, where he spent the winter. They got a slice of sawdust fiber bread and two walnut-sized potatoes a day. They collected twigs during work detail as fuel for the barracks stove. A Methodist layman held Sunday services. They held lice contests, collecting them from their bodies. Twenty-five was a respectable number.
In May 1945, they heard “heavy equipment coming from the east.”
The guards threw down their guns and ran, and Russian tanks ran down the barbed wire fence, liberating the camp.
After walking off in search of the American lines, they encountered a Russian Army unit, whose members were suspicious of them. One of their own, however, could speak German, and was able to communicate with a female member of the Russian unit who also spoke German from time she had spent as a POW, according to Reasy Jr. That allayed the Russians’ suspicions, and they provided transportation to the American lines. She probably saved their lives, Reasy Jr. said.
In Fort Dix, N.J., Reasy Sr. made the obligatory call to Blair County – the Army didn’t want surprises in the case of POWs returning home – opting to call his girlfriend’s house in Tyrone, telling her he’d be home next day.
His girlfriend – who eventually became his wife – misinterpreted and thought he meant his own home in Hollidaysburg, which is where she was when Reasy Sr. arrived in Tyrone as intended next day. So his future father-in-law had to drive him south for the reunion to take place.
Kline joined the service as a draftee in 1941 and trained with a unit that used broom handles and stove pipes because rifles and mortars were scarce.
He became the leader of an anti-tank gun squad and went to North Africa. Two days after he survived his truck turning over onto the guardrails on a road in the Atlas Mountains, his unit deployed near the front lines in the desert.
After two days of being shelled, there was a tank battle.
“Morale went from high to low in minutes,” Kline wrote. “At first we thought our tanks were clobbering the Jerries. We soon found out it was the other way around.”
Stuka dive bombers knocked out the Allied tanks, which had no air support.
They held out for two days, then were ordered to retreat.
There was nowhere, really, to go, so like other POWs in the European Theater, he got to hear the English phrase the German soldiers learned: “For you the war is over.”
The German military was far superior to that of the Allies at that time, he wrote.
They were taken to Tunis and flown to Italy, where he was spit on and made the target of thrown garbage. He worked there a week burying oil drums.
Given the choice of remaining or heading to Germany, he chose the latter.
At a POW camp near Munich, he engaged in trading between the American and the French side of camp, which involved moving through a wire fence with a hole they could open and close between guard checks.
“So many things happened that were fun,” he said at the lunch.
Once, with three loaves of bread from the French side under his shirt, he couldn’t fit through the hole, so he tossed the bread over.
In March 1943, he was taken to a camp in eastern Germany, where he spent 21 months.
The prisoners tried to make it livable.
They had a radio and small stoves to heat water.
“We believe we had one of the best and cleanest places,” he wrote.
He avoided using straw for his bunk, not wanting a haven for fleas and lice, setting up a hammock instead, with a back support and tobacco juice along the edges to keep the lice away.
“One of the first lessons I learned after a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself was to stay as active as possible,” he wrote.
He set up a routine of push-ups, chin-ups and walks around the compound.
Starting in late summer 1943, Red Cross packages began arriving, with biscuits, coffee, Spam, bully beef, sugar, cigarettes, prunes, raisins and chocolate.
The YMCA sent sporting equipment, books and musical instruments, and they set up a band called the Yankee Doodlers, which put on shows the German officers attended with their wives.
They established baseball teams, whose players included Mickey Grasso, who later played for the Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians.
One inmate traded cigarettes with the Germans for a 35-mm camera, then took snapshots of camp activities, actually creating a video.
During the winter, they played cards, debated and planned what to do when they got home.
Still, there wasn’t enough food, and he went from 192 pounds in Africa to 140 pounds in three months.
And the cold could be unbearable.
In early 1945, with the Russians bearing down, the Germans moved them.
They took only what they could carry, but he had hoarded a fair supply of food. One of their group spoke German, which helped them wheedle their way into the house of a family in whose barn they had been sleeping one night for a late snack of bread, sausage and wine.
At one point, they passed through a slave camp.
“[T]he prisoners were chained at the ankles and forced to carry logs the size of a telephone pole,” he wrote. “I remember boxcars with bodies frozen and stacked.”
Yet the German people they encountered were “mostly considerate,” he wrote.
It helped to have the German-speaking POW with them.
At a new prison camp, some men had to live in tents, and the Russian section lacked for food and medical attention.
“The Russian government was not a member of the International Red Cross; therefore, the German government did not have to follow the rules of the Red Cross,” Kline wrote.
The Russian Army liberated the camp on April 12, 1945.
The Russians didn’t let them go immediately, however, possibly, the Americans thought, because they hoped to get paid for restoring them to their own lines.
So after three days, Kline and two others took off.
They got bikes from a town, headed to the front lines, got turned back by the Russians, located an English-speaking officer who promised to fly them to the American lines, but they ended up in a wagon pulled by horses instead, and were in Poland in an apartment when the war ended.
They traveled west by truck and by foot with thousands of other refugees, until they reached the American lines.
“We were finally free,” Kline wrote.
He got back home to North Ebensburg for the first time in five years on June 27, 1945.
The whole experience taught him a lesson: “how to prepare yourself for the world you live in,” he said at the lunch.
On Kenneth McCracken’s 15th mission as a tail gunner on B-24 bombers, two bursts of the flak “that seemed to come from everywhere” set fire to the plane and knocked two engines out, forcing those who could to bail into the Baltic Sea.
Two had gone down with the plane, two drowned, two were captured by boat and four landed close enough to shore they were captured by shore parties.
At a prison camp, there was solitary confinement and rough interrogation, according to the book.
They were considered spies, because they had come down near the Peenemunde V-2 rocket base, McCracken said at the lunch.
At one point, when information they were providing wasn’t satisfactory, the Germans threatened to shoot them, he said.
McCracken spent eight months in the infamous Stalag Luft IV in Poland, according to the book.
Then with the Russians approaching, the Germans moved the prisoners out in groups of hundreds on an 87-day, 600 mile forced march.
“Some call it the Black March,” he wrote. “Some call it the Death March. I call it simply Hell.”
They lived off the land, taking what they could steal and kill in the barnyards, he said at the lunch.
Liberation came six days before the war in Europe ended, while they were still on the road.
He started in a group of 300.
There was less than 200 left when it was over.
“You can imagine what we looked like,” McCracken said at the lunch. “[But] they haven’t got me yet.”
Keller was a Browning Automatic Rifle soldier.
He saw heavy action, Waite said.
He was point lookout for an encampment in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, when he fell asleep.
He awoke to find three German soldiers surrounding him.
Not long afterwards, a German captain lined them up in front of a machine gun for execution.
Another officer stopped the execution, however, and they were taken to a chicken coop, fencing in about 20 of them.
While there, a woman would come and work adjacent potato fields.
She would offer them items, and she seemed to like Keller.
After a few days, realizing they could lift the bottom of the fence, they left, despite having no maps.
But the battle lines were “really mixed up” in Czechoslovakia by then, Waite said.
And the woman from the potato fields?
“She’s still waiting,” Keller said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.