WAR AND PRISON - BATTLE OF THE BULGEBy Milton Wassgren - 81st Engineer battalion - 106th US Infantry Division
My Wife and Daughter encouraged me to write an article on my overseas experiences in World War II. Through considerable research of the Battle of the Bulge, I was able to obtain battle history as it related to our combat unit, the 81st Engr. Combat Bn.
Some terms needed to be clarified. The SS were the elite troops of Hitler's rise to power. He later used these troops to spearhead his offensive battles. Hitler gave the SS an oath or right to eliminate anyone that was against the State or Nazi party. Even the regular German Army feared the SS.
Most prisoners of war were sent to permanent prison camps. Our group was sent to labor camps which proved to be an unbelievable experience.
The average weight loss per man in labor camps was 60 pounds. This was my experience 50 years ago. May I share it with you? Milton L. Wassgren
Another misconception was the duration of a given battle. Most were not even four months long. One of the most highly publicized battles of World War II was Iwo Jima which lasted for four days. Wars can last for years and may include many separate battles. The survival of the average infantryman in actual battle in World War II was days or hours - either being killed,' wounded, or taken prisoner.
Our Unit, the 81st Combat Engineer Bn, went overseas the first part of November, 1944. We were stationed in England a short time. The pubs were interesting. These were to be the only passes I had overseas.
Many of the men of our unit had some college. It was said, as a unit, we were the unit with highest I.Q. to cross the English Channel in World War II. We worked our way through France, Luxemburg and into Belgium to the village of Auw, Germany on the German-Belgium border. This area was a holding front at that time. We moved into civilian homes, whether they liked it or not. You really didn't know if these people were friend or foe. Four of us lived with a mother and daughter. The cattle were on one side of the house and we were on the other side. The manure was piled out in front with just a path to walk through to the house. One morning, I couldn't find my combat boots. The daughter had placed them in the warming closet of the cook stove. That certainly was a friendly gesture. No doubt, she had the hots for my body! There certainly wasn't much sex appeal there with the dirty overalls! So much for potential front-line sex!
Shortly after moving into these front-line positions, all hell broke loose. This was the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Six divisions hit us as a complete surprise attack. U.S. Intelligence had been sleeping at the stick so we had no warning of this attack. Our units were involved in Hitler's greatest offense of the war. It was the largest involvement of soldiers in battle in history. In the first week of battle, two of our infantry regiments were wiped out - approximately 7,000 men were killed, wounded or captured. The attack was well planned. The weather was foggy so we had no air support. The Germans shined huge lights on low-hanging clouds at night. The area was lit up like day so the enemy could move at night. After the initial attack, we were ordered to reform our lines on high ground outside the town of St. Vith, Belgium. We were sacrificed to hold back the enemy as long as possible while new lines of defense were formed to the rear. St. Vith was a very important road junction and we were highly commended for our defense of it. Military history tells us that without the stand at St. Vith, there would have never been a Bastogne. Bastogne, Belgium was 30 miles
to our rear.
One of the first days on the hill, the engineers laid daizy mine chains across some small roads. I had laid a seven-mine chain. It was snowing so the mines were well camouflaged. We had started to move out of this area when I saw a jeep with three men in it coming down the road. I ran to warn the men of the mines but was too late. The jeep and the men flew high in the air. What I thought was a disaster, turned out to be a satisfying experience. The dead soldiers wore the insignia of Hitler's S.S. Troops - they were driving one of our captured jeeps. This was a special prize after hearing word of a massacre in the Malmandy area. A short 15 miles down the road from our positions, a group of American G.I.'s had been captured near the village of Baugnez. Baugnez is a road junction 2 1/2 miles southeast of Malmandy on Route 23.
130 G.I.'s were ordered by the S.S. to assemble in a ditch. Shortly after this, some S.S. tanks swung into position and opened fire from their machine guns, killing most of the men in the first blast. After the firing stopped, S.S. soldiers checked to see if any of the G.I.'s were still alive. They kicked them in the groin. If they made a sound, the S.S. shot them through the head. Other S.S. soldiers coming by laughed as they fired into the heap of men. It seemed to be such a pleasure for the S. S. to kill. A few of the G.I.'s who had worked their way to the bottom of the heap of men, lived to tell the story. Later, some information was also supplied by Belgium civilians in the area. Shooting the enemy in combat was one thing, but capturing them and killing them was murder. These were the men of Tank Commander Col. Pieper, a highly decorated young S. S. officer who was transferred from the Russian front., He and 5,000 of Hitler's top S.S. were to spearhead the attack. Their new Tiger Tanks looked like a house coming down the road. Military history tells us Col Pieper and only 800 of his 5,000 men survived the battle. On December 24, they abandoned all their equipment and made their way back through the lines on foot. Col Pieper was tried at the Nuremburg trials and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His sentence was commuted in 11 years. He stayed in Germany for years but was always singled out for his reputation as a war criminal. Later, he moved to a mountain area in France. In 1976, an article appeared in a French newspaper indicating a certain Col Pieper of the German S.S. had been shot and burned at his villa. An unknown group of men called the "Avengers" took credit for his death. No further issue was made of this massacre.
Bitburg, Germany was the assembly area for the S.S. Troops before the Battle of the Bulge. Some of the S. S. Troops that we fought against were brought back and buried at the Military Cemetery in Bitburg. A few years ago, President Reagan came to Bitburg and decorated the graves at the S.S. Cemetery. Better he should have traveled a short 40 miles down the road to Malmandy. There, he could have laid a wreath at the Malmandy Massacre Monument in honor of the American soldiers massacred by Col Pieper's S.S. Col. Riggs, our battalion commander, had been an All-American fullback for Illinois in the late 1930's. He had worked up in rank from college R.O.T.C. He was a leader who was, in every sense of the word, a man. He worked back and forth, co-ordinating the efforts of the few units left making the final stand at St. Vith. The Germans were breaking through at all sides but not through us. We eventually ran out of food and ammunition. We split up in small groups to try to work back to the American lines. We were surrounded for many miles and soon became aware that getting back to the American lines was a hopeless cause. Eventually, we were taken prisoners of war. Col. Riggs was sent to a prison camp in occupied Poland. He escaped and got to the Russian line. He fought with the Russians and praised them for their combat ability. He noted that most of their equipment was American. His desire was to rejoin the 81st Engineers. The Russians arranged to help him. He traveled 5,000 miles by foot, boat and plane through Eastern Europe, down to Africa and up through Italy. He finally found his unit in France. He later learned he could not return to combat in the European Theatre having been a prisoner there. He was an authentic hero of the Bulge. I met Col Riggs at our 106th Infantry Reunion 2 years ago. He remembered me as one of the boys from the hill and said "We really gave them hell, didn't we?"
Another misconception has been the plight of a P.O.W. As one reads of different P.O.W. experiences, we find quite a variation in conditions and treatment. From air corps officer's volley ball to stalag filth and starvation and to the dreaded labor camps.
The Germans respected rank. All officers were separated and were sent to special camps where they were treated good according to German P.O.W. standards. Some non-coms and most medics were given better conditions. Most P.O.W.'s were sent to permanent camps. Our group was sent to labor camps. We worked 12 to 14 hours a day on roughly 500 calories. The duration of one's captivity didn't always determine his condition when repatriated. Some men fared better in two years than others did in three months.
1944-45 was Central Europe's worst winter for many years. As a P.O.W., you were separated from men of your own unit. You soon found that the buddy thing was gone - survival was to become your main concern. As a P.O.W., we never expected the Hilton, but we also did not expect the filth and the starving conditions we were about to endure.
My soul possessions were a skull cap, shirt, light jacket, winter underwear, pants, shoes, a pocket knife, billfold and a steel helmet. I ate from y helmet but dumped it as excessive baggage when I found a metal can. I also had a spoon which I carved from a board. The can soon became rusty and so did my bowels. My underwear became so filthy from diarrhea that I cut the legs out and threw the rest away.
Most roads showed of P.O.W. use from the brown stains of diarrhea-in the snow-covered ditches. I remember one one occasion, while walking through a small village, some very unfriendly civilians threw some apple cores on the road. The delighted seeing the hungry American "swine" fighting line animals for the apple cores.
The labor camp menu consisted only of coffee in the morning, nothing at noon, and at night, we received a can of soup - I called it "lawn mower stew". It consisted of some type of greens and a sprinkling of barley. On a rare occasion, a small piece of potato could be found. One loaf of bred for 7 men. I had a picket knife so the men designated me the cutter of the bread. This was quite a production with the helpful advise of 6 other men. To squelch any bitching, I always took the last piece. This meal consisted of about 500 calories for a 12-14 hour work day. Some men became sick and were unable to work. Not even the strong could survive for any length of time. The International Red Cross was to provide an occasional food parcel for each P.O.W. but we were so far removed from any supply center, we received nothing. Our work camp was 20 kilometers north of Trier. The camp was in a small village called Kyleville, on the Kyle River. Our camp consisted of some 40 men from many different units but no one with me from the 81st Eng. From our camp, we walked to wooded area each morning to cut wood. In the evening, we returned with cured wood. This was cut into small pieces and was used as fuel for trucks when chemicals were added. The trucks had large tanks behind their cabs where this combination was burned to provide fuel.
To set the scene, there was no medication, no sanitation, no water in which to wash and we slept in lice-infested straw on the floor. As the weeks went by, lack of food and the working conditions were taking their toll. At times, civilians would try to get food to us. Some kids who were too young to be Hitler youth, would sneak apples to us from their bulging pockets. Kids were kids - wherever. When we would complain about the conditions, the guards would tell us "you have no business here. This is not your war". They also told us we would have to fight the Russians when our lines met. We had an S.S. Soldier at the head of our camp. The top brass in our camp had been on both the Italian and Russian fronts. He had medals out the butt. He was typical S.S. - out of his mind! There were no civilian prisoners in state prisons in Germany during the war. Hitler placed them all in the S.S. After some time, the labor camp conditions were taking their toll on the men. I had continuous diarrhea for some time and was getting very weak from malnutrition and loss of weight. I also had a painful case of frost-bite. One morning, I was getting sick and tired of this treatment and didn't fall out for work. Shortly thereafter, my S.S. friend, the head guard, came after me. When he approached, I showed him my frozen feet and he kicked them. I laid back down while the two of us exchanged some choice words. In his rage, he pulled out his luger and laid the gun between my eyes. After a few more words, he became extremely nervous. The gun was rapidly tapping on my forehead and something told me it was time to move out. I actually ran outside and, in my haste, forgot my boots. Mr.S.S. had them! He ordered me to fall in with the other men. He didn't give me my shoes until we had walked some distance in the snow. At that point, our S.S. friend left us and we continued the rest of the day with the other guards. Through the years, this experience has come back to me a million times. The fact that our head guard was one of Hitler's S.S., it was very unusual that he hadn't killed me. Then again, you had the feeling that he enjoyed seeing your physical and mental condition slowly deteriorate -The old "cat and mouse" game.
We had some guys on the ward that actually looked like skeletons. Some pictures of them appeared in the Stars and Stripes newspaper upon liberation. My total time in 12A was less than a month. I had made some improvement - at least I could walk better. When the Americans came close, those in the ward who could walk were moved out several miles to a rail center. We were loaded - 30 men to a locked boxcar. This was the beginning of our last 8 days. The crapper was in one corner on the floor or in your pants if you couldn't make it. We received some food the first couple of days. The Krauts had not marked the box cars P.O.W.'s, so we were bombed and straifed by our own air corp. Finally we were moved into the tunnel at Burgsholm, Germany to protect the engine. The guards took off. Later, units from the first army freed us after 8 days of being locked in box cars. The Stars and Stripes had pictures of our train which had not been marked P.O.W.'s until the day we were freed. The Stars and Stripes also had several pictures of our repatriation at the Village of Burgsholm, Germany. Some of the G.I.'s never made it alive from those box cars. Most of the men in our box car were litter patients. We were placed in civilian homes that night. The next morning, we were taken by ambulance to an air-evacuation hospital. There we were de-loused and had our first bath in nearly five months. We were given many exams followed by continuous shots and medication. We could not keep any solid food down. Within a week, we were flown to the 82nd Airborne Rehab Hospital. Later, we were flown to the first general hospital in Paris. I was placed in a mental ward. There was a mixture of guys from many different outfits. An air corp captain was in a bunk next to me. His face had been melted from fire. No features remained, only slips for eyes - no nose or ears were left. He was in the best of spirits. He was soon to return home to visit his family. What could home coming be for him?
A soldier showed me a roll of new $10 bills he had found near Hitler's headquarters. They had large Swastika emblems on the back with writing stating it was to be used as invasion money. Money for the invasion of U. S. America had managed to fight most of its wars on someone else's soil. The average American civilian could not handle a war. A little guy on the ward was quite talented. He had picked up some battleship gray clay from the Red Cross. He built a ship and, in his mind, was going to sail it back to the states. He had a complete volunteer crew - all but the man in the crow's nest. He finally asked me if I would volunteer for the crow's nest. I said I would. He said we would be sailing as soon as the seas calmed down. A few days later, I was informed that I would be flying back to the states the following day. I had to tell my little friend I was sorry. I often wondered if he found a replacement for the crow's nest and if the seas ever calmed down for him.
To qualify for flying back to the States, you had to be a litter patient. My condition at least saved me from the sea voyage. After returning home, some fly-boy remarked to me "if everyone had been a P.O.W., the war would have never ended. I said "listen my friend, if everyone had killed as many Krauts as our unit before we were captured, you wouldn't have had to set your dead fanny in England for two years in the air corps ground troops!!
In 1988, at our 106th Inf. Division Reunion, I found two American P.O.W.'s who were Jewish. They had been at Badorb Stalag 9B. They were sent with 350 other Jewish soldiers to a Concentration Camp. They survived with only 47 other G.I.'s because the Americans over-ran their camp before it was their turn in the gas chambers.
More of an issue has been made in recent years about a few hostages than all the 142,000 P.O.W.'s who were captured in World War I, World War II, Korea and Viet Nam. We gave three years of our young lives to our country. Something tells me we did our part. We gave up everything, up to, but just short of, our lives.
Some questions remain unanswered. What right does a man have to take another man's life? Does your country give you that right or is it a God-given right? Was our P.O.W. experience to be part of our punishment? Do the memories of our War experiences cover the balance? The later can be a life-time sentence.
Milton L. Wassgren passed away on October 20, 2001 in Iowa, USA.