A WWII Veteran's Story

Copyright (C) R. Neal & R. Neal, 2003, All Rights Reserved

Transcribed from an oral history recording:

"When I turned 18, I got my draft notice. Thank goodness I didn't know what in the world was going to happen then. I had to go to Camp Forest in Tennessee to take my examination. Of course, they look in one ear and if they can't see light on the other side, you passed. That's about what it amounted to back then. They needed people in the service real bad.

So there I was about 18 years and 3 or 4 months being inducted into the army. I passed the examination and went back home. They gave me a couple of weeks to get my affairs in order, not that I had many affairs to get in order. But they gave us that.

When I had to go back, I had to report to Fort McClellan, Alabama. I went down to Fort McClellan to take infantry basic training. It was an infantry replacement center. I took 13 weeks of basic training, which primarily consisted of familiarizing you with the different weapons, firing them, learning to sight them in and these kinds of things. We had to learn to take them apart and clean them and put them back. There was a lot of marching and a lot of drilling and good old things that the army likes to do.

When my basic training was getting down to almost over, I was out on maneuvers; and boy, I just really had Doris on my mind. That's all there is to it. So I wrote her a letter, and I asked her if she would marry me. I said, "Let's get married. Will you marry me when I come home on my leave?" I knew I'd have just a real short leave, a week or something like that. A letter came back saying yes!

So, I wrote my Dad and Mom and told them that when I came home Doris and I were going to get married. Both of our reasons for doing it was because both of us knew I was going to be gone. We didn't really know whether I'd ever come back or not. I loved Doris so much that I wanted to spend just a few days with her as husband and wife and to know that I had somebody waiting for me when I came back.

So we went down to get married. I had 5 days, what they called a delay in route, between Fort McClellan, Alabama and Baltimore, Maryland. Camp Mead, Maryland I believe it was. So we actually, Doris and I, had about 4 of those days as husband and wife.

After that, I had to strike out for up in Maryland. Doris had gone up to Akron, Ohio and was working at a defense plant at that time. So she went back to Akron. Well, I was never so sad in my life when I went back up to Camp Mead because I knew we were going to go overseas.

Well, I was in Camp Mead for a couple of three weeks, maybe a month. Then I was down at New Port News, Virginia, being loaded on a little old liberty ship to go overseas.

The ship that I was on, as I said, was a liberty ship. It was about 600 feet long or something like that. It was a small ship just packed with troops and their equipment. When our convoy formed up, there must have been 100 to 150 ships in the convoy with destroyer escorts.

We struck out across the ocean heading for North Africa. It took us about 21 or 22 days to cross. I never saw such a storm in my life. There were waves that were twice as high as the ship. Lots of time when you got in the trough of that wave, you couldn't see the ship next to you, which was usually no more than 50 yards away.

They kept that convoy real close and the German U-Boats had been sinking a lot of ships from those convoys going over. So naturally, we were concerned about that. We took a lot of safety or evacuation drills. Of course, if you had dropped off into that sea, as rough as some of those 30 foot high waves were, if you had dropped out into that, there would be no way you'd ever survive because it was cold as the dickens. You might as well have just gone down with the ship but didn't have enough sense to know the difference.

Anyway, we did have a couple of submarine scares. There were depth charges off to the edge of the convoy. Fortunately, I guess our ship was in the middle. They said a German U-Boat had been spotted, and the destroyers were dropping depth charges on it. Well, anyway, we landed in North Africa. Oran or Casablanca, I don't remember which.

From the time we formed up there in North Africa, the German U-Boats were laying for all the American shipping that were trying to go through the Straits of Gibraltar which is up on the northwestern coast of Africa. It's a very narrow straight, only about 22 miles wide. The ships had to funnel down to get through there. The U-Boats would just sit out there and pick them off.

Instead of us going by boat up through the Straits of Gibraltar, they put us on troop trains that took us across Africa. Of course, the fighting was over as far as North Africa was concerned at that time. Sicily had already been taken. They put us on troop ships there and took us into Naples, Italy. When we got off the troop ships in Naples, it was a matter of kind of filtering up towards the front lines by way of trucks and convoys. It took us probably three weeks to get ourselves up towards the front lines.

That's when I joined the 36th Infantry Division. I was in the 141st Battalion, the 36th Infantry Division. When we joined the 36th, there was nobody in it. We wondered where all of these men were that were supposed to be in that thing. Each company was supposed to have four squads. Each squad was 50 men, so a company was 200 men.

In our squad, there was like maybe 4, 5 or 6 men that were all olders. Everybody else was brand new people. We asked them what had happened. They had just come off the line and everybody had been killed. They'd been on assault on some mountain up there.

So we did a good bit of training, maybe a couple of weeks. We drew new rifles and went out to the rifle range. We zeroed them in. Then we'd begin to be picked up in trucks and moved toward the front. So when we got up as far as the trucks could go, they started hauling us up in jeeps 5 or 6 people at a time along with water and supplies. We began to work up the sides of mountains into positions that other troops had been in before abandon them as they moved on forward.

So, we got on up into an area that was relatively close to the Rapido River in the town of Casino, where the Germans had dug in a strong line, I believe they called it the Gustav Line. They had used forced labor to create a line of entrenchments and bunkers and dug in all the artillery and everything. Of course, the river was a barrier to try to cross as well. Mt. Casino was up high, and probably they were looking down our throats from observation posts up in the old monastery on top of Mt. Casino.

Along sometime in January [1944], I don't remember if it was the first middle or last, Lord, you lose all track of time, word came down that we were going to assault Casino, and that we were going to cross that Rapido River in pontoon boats. So each squad of 50 men had a pontoon boat they had to carry up. We just gathered up around that thing, carried all of our equipment they issued us, a supply of ammunition, hand grenades and live ammunition up on those pontoon boats.

The night the attack was supposed to take place, we were supposed to cross the river and be in place by 11:00. Well along about 5:00 that evening, maybe 6:00, somewhere along there, all of the artillery on the American side opened up. Every tank gun was fired. Every artillery piece was fired. The planes were bombing, and the sky was just lit up like a Fourth of July fireworks. We didn't have any breaks between us. It was just lit constantly. There must have been 100,000 shells across that river that night. It was just a constant roar.

We brought our pontoon boats up and by the time we got them to the river, most of them had already been shot up so badly they were hardly useable. They did manage to get a footbridge across with what few pontoon boats were left. They managed to get a footbridge across that was maybe 3 foot wide. We went across that river single file. Our scouts had gone ahead and sort of cleared the mines on the other side of the river so that we could get through the mine fields. Instead of getting across that river at 11:00 that night like we were supposed to and be dug in, it must have been 3:00 or 4:00 the next morning or somewhere in there, before we finally got to the position that they told us to be dug in.

Well, we started digging our holes, and they told me to face my hole to the rear from behind to keep somebody from coming in at us from the rear. So I dug my hole in a way that I could be looking to the rear, and the other guys were looking to the front. Well about the time I got my hole about half done, there was a terrible explosion right behind me. It knocked me off my feet and blew the rifle out of my hands. I wiggled my feet to see if I still had legs. I didn't call for the medic because everyone else was hollering "Medic, Medic, Medic!" So I thought, well, I don't seem to be hurt too bad. As it turned out I had shrapnel in both legs and they were bleeding, but soon it healed itself up.

I continued to dig. Well I tell you, we were under a barrage of what they called them screaming memees, a German artillery piece that they had that was a rocket launched type of thing. We didn't have any such thing as that, but the Germans did. It was fired 15 - 20 rounds just as fast as it could fire. They were like rockets. It screamed and hollered. It made such a noise it would half scare you to death. We were under a barrage of those, so I kept right on digging and got my hole dug except I didn't get it very deep. I just barely got my body below the top of the ground. That was about as far as you could go. It was in an orchard and the ground was hard as a rock. Daylight was coming on us so as soon as daylight came, the Germans really began to pour it on us. Mortars, machine guns. It was one that, well, would scare you half to death, you know. You didn't have that much time to get scared.

There was a little tree next to my foxhole that was as big a round as your leg, I guess; and that tree was completely cut down by machine gun fire. When I finally came out of the hole later on, I looked at the tree. It was laying over and was just the stub. It was mowed down right over my head.

But anyway, we held out until maybe 11 or 12:00 in the day and everybody was out of ammunition. An awful lot of the guys had been killed or wounded. Finally the officer in charge called a Sergeant up to him and they had kind of a consultation. I could hear them over in the foxhole near me. He said, "Well, our ammunition is gone as well as half or more of our men, so we may as well surrender." We can't fight anymore. Some of them wanted to surrender and some didn't.

He gave the orders for everybody to stand up. He waved a white flag, and the fire on the German side stopped. He gave an order for everybody to come out with their hands up. Leave your weapons. So we did. We left our weapons and came out with our hands up. As I stood up, I looked at the side of my foxhole. It must have been 10' away or no more than that there laid an American G.I. He had direct hit from a mortar or a piece of it or a hand grenade. The whole bottom of his face was blown away. I could see his upper teeth. His lower jaw was just flopped over to the side. I looked around and saw other Americans in their foxholes just pale, and they couldn't get out of there. They were so badly wounded they couldn't even stand up.

As I was walking toward the German side, I saw a German laying there. It turned out after I got there, he was laying halfway between our foxholes and from where he was fighting from. He had been gut shot. He was propped up on one knee and pale as a corpse. Obviously, the guy was dying.

When we got over to the German side, it turned out that our foxholes were no more than maybe 100 yards (200 to 300 feet) from where the Germans were firing at us from a stone wall on a road. They just had a perfect barricade to get behind that stone wall and fire at us across into that orchard where we were.

They searched us and took all that they wanted off of us. They made us dispose of our packs and belts with what little few rounds were left in our ammunition belts. Not much. They tossed those aside and took away any hunting knives and things like that the people had. They didn't take watches, wallets or anything of that sort. They did let you keep your helmet. They lined us up and started walking us down the road. I was limping pretty bad. I wasn't doing too well, but they didn't pay much attention to that.

We hadn't had any water for 24 hours. I remember we came to a pipe sticking out sometime after we started walking a way from the front. We came to a pipe sticking out the side of a mountain, and they allowed us all to remove our helmets and catch some water in them to drink. We got on back further enough from the lines, I guess. They felt they could put us into some kind of shed or someplace to hold us, and when we went in it looked like maybe a stable or something that had been barricaded.

There were Englishmen and Americans, just a mixture. An English Medic saw that my pant leg was bloody and that I was limping. He asked how bad it was, and I told him I didn't know. I said I hadn't had time to examine it. He examined it and dressed my wound from his first aid kit. That was the only attention I had. Fortunately there weren't any bones broken, just flesh wounds and shrapnel in my leg. We didn't worry a lot about that. It was insignificant.

Then we began to move back in further away from the lines. I remember we wound up in some town, and they put us in another stall-like affair that had straw on the floor. There was a courtyard there. I don't know what you'd call it. It had buildings all around it and a courtyard in the middle. Everybody was completely exhausted. I fell asleep on that straw. I woke up later during an air raid. Bombs were just falling all around us. So I didn't know that anything had happened.

But during the time that I fell asleep until the air raid woke me up, they had made all of the prisoners fall out into the courtyard. They took the names and home addresses off the dog tags of each one of those prisoners. Well, the next morning they lined us all up again, and they announced that one man had not come forward. They wanted to know who it was. And low and behold, it was me!

I stepped forward and told them that they didn't interview or interrogate me. They took me in a room and asked me my name, rank and serial number. They took it off my dog tags and asked what outfit I was with. I had no problem telling them that. I had the patch on my shoulder. I had my 36th Division patch on my shoulder. I told them I was the 36th Division. That's all they asked me. I went back to the barracks. Everybody wanted to know what they said to me and what they did. I told them. They said it was the same thing they did for us.

I remember in that place they would let us out once in a while to go to the bathroom. Bathroom, ha ha ha. What it was a big, long room with a trench, a concrete trough if you want to call it that, running right down the middle of the room. It seems that Europe or Italy had a lot of those things that were used as public rest rooms during peace times. People would go in and use them just like that. That was a new experience to me for a latrine. To straddle a pit and have water running down through it. You can imagine how sanitary that was. Nevertheless, I guess sanitation was secondary on our minds at that point.

Soon thereafter, they moved us up to close to Rome. They got us some trucks and hauled us up closer to Rome. They put us in what they called a staging area. It was a camp that had a lot of people in it. Of course, we didn't have any food. I did have a half a pack of cigarettes or something like that. I remember they put us in tents, and there would be maybe 10 or 12 or 15 bunks in each tent, two-tiered bunks. I remember one time it was so cold that I was about to freeze to death. I got under my blankets, lit one of those cigarettes and smoked it. That cigarette, fire, smoke and breath from my lungs kind of warmed me up a little.

We didn't have anything to eat at that place. You just got hungry, and that's all there was to it. I know me and a lot of other people too went through the garbage cans to see if we could find something from the mess hall that had been tossed out. I found some celery, kind of a half-rotten celery stalk and the leaves, and I ate those. Just anything you could find to eat, you ate.

Eventually they told us we were going to be shipped back to Germany. They gave us half a loaf of dark bread and marched us down to a rail yard and loaded us into what was called a 40 and 8 boxcar. It would hold 40 men or 8 horses. That's where it got the name 40 and 8. They put us in there, and sealed us up.

As they put us in, we could see that they had guard cubicles mounted on top of those box cars where the guard could stand up there and watch. They had guards in every one of those things. They put us in those box cars, and they locked the doors. We were on that. We had a half of loaf of bread, and we were on that box car for I don't remember but for about 3 or 4 days or something like that. Going up through Italy through the Brenner Pass and over, into and across the Alps and over into Germany.

I remember that when we got into the Brenner Pass, the American fighter bombers were strafing the rail yards. We were just sort of hoping and praying they wouldn't hit us. Anyway, we got through. A lot of the trains didn't get through. The pilots were able to hit a lot of those trains. They mostly were supply trains. They tried to hit the ones coming down into Italy a lot more than the ones that were going back out of Italy. The ones coming in were carrying supplies, and the ones going out were just returning home. They knew a lot of them were carrying prisoners. They didn't put any red crosses on top of the trains. They just ran them.

They ran them at night an awful lot and let them sit during the daytime. No rest rooms in there. The only way you could go to the bathroom, of course you didn't go #2 because you didn't have anything in your stomach. I don't remember whether they would let us out or whether they handed a bucket of water into us through the door about once per day. We did have a little water. If you had to pee, you'd go where the door was. There was a little crack there. You'd just let it fly on that door, and let it run out the crack. So we stayed there is those box cars until we got into Germany.

They unloaded us and put us on trucks and took us to a prisoner of war camp there. I guess you'd have to call it the southern part of Germany somewhere. I never will forget going in. They put us on open trucks. They didn't have any canvas on them. They did have guards on them, of course.

I never will forget seeing that Nazi flag, the swastika flying over the camp. That was the most despicable thing that I had ever seen in my life. I hated that Nazi swastika flag. Clear to the time that I came home, every place we went the swastika was flying overhead. To me, that was just contemptuous. I kept my opinions to myself. I didn't tell the guards that.

Anyway, we wound up at some prisoner of war camp. I don't remember where it was. A lot of Englishmen, a lot of Canadians and a lot of Americans. Then they sorted us all out. The officers went to one camp. The Germans are military-type people. They gave more privileges to their officers than they did their enlisted men. They also gave more privileges to our officers than they did the enlisted men. I think primarily it was because they felt that enlisted men weren't as much of a threat to plan escapes and things as officers would be.

But anyway, they separated all of the officers and down through first sergeants. A buck sergeant on down they kept together. We started going out into camps, and I sort of filtered up through 2 or 3 camps until I got to Stalag 2-B. Stalag 2-B was in the northeastern part of Germany in what used to be old East Prussia [Czarne, (German: Hammerstein) West Prussia]. It turned out they were almost on the border of what used to be Poland before Germany took it over.

So we were over in old East Prussia near a town called Statine [sp?]. Hamburg wasn't too far away. The camp was in a town called Rostach [sp?]. The farm that I was on was in the little town called Starns [sp?]. After I had been in that camp a couple of months, they began to send the enlisted men out to this farm. That's where I wound up in the little town called Starns.

When we got there, there was a little village. It must have had 20 - 25 - 30 houses on it. Forty at the very most. The big old head honcho had a nice great big old house. Down in front of his house was a courtyard. The courtyard was stables and barns and graineries and haylofts. There were two side entrances that could be closed off. In other words, it was almost an enclosed courtyard. Anyway, we had a little cubicle fixed up there that must have been thirty foot square or something like that and was in a stable where the horses and oxen were kept. They had put bars in the windows and had a big heavy door on the thing to bar it up.

At night when they locked us up, they set a milk can in there for us to pee in. If you had to do anything else, it was too bad. It was your problem. So they'd lock us in at night. The guards had a little small room. I'd seen in it once or twice. It was about 10' x 12' or something like that. They had two bunks in there and a desk. That's what it amounted to. They had one guard and one officer, maybe two guards and one officer. I don't recall.

Anyway, we were on this farm. We were doing just normal farm work. Well, I was a little fortunate in that respect in that it wasn't an alien environment to me. Some of these guys came from the cities. They didn't know beans from shinola about a farm. But I knew a little. So it wasn't that difficult for me. It was hard work, of course, long hours and cold as the dickens. Still, I was more in my own environment than a lot of them were. I could cope with it a little better, I guess.

They gave us a tolerable plenty of potatoes, and they gave us a ration of bread every week which was about a half of loaf of bread. One loaf and they said it had to do for two people. We did what we called a buddy system. We'd pair off. Somebody else and I would be buddies. The other people would buddy off two by twos so that you could conserve your food better. But we had a pot in there that we could boil them potatoes in. We had running water inside that thing that we could get a drink of water at night and wash our dishes in there.

They gave us a little ration of coal. We could take those potatoes and boil them on that stove in that big old pot and have boiled potatoes at least with our bread. But anyway, each morning we fell out and lined up and the guards marched us out into the fields to work. Depending on what there was to be done and what time of year it was, we'd be doing, maybe planting potatoes, thrashing wheat and hauling manure out of the sheds. Whatever was to be done. I was on that farm for I'd say about 13 months.

We had one guy with us that could speak Polish. There was a bunch of Polish civilians there. They could get radios or had radios or something. They could get some news from some way. I don't know. Grapevine or some way. This Polish guy that was with us would talk through the barn windows into the stalls to those Polish and get news that he could on how the war was progressing.

We knew immediately when France was invaded. When the American invaded France, we knew it that day. He heard it on the radio, and so he told us that the Americans had hit the beaches of Normandy. We sort of kept tab of the war the best we could. It was a long wait. I sure did have my mind in one place. That was home and with Doris. She was my strength, my pillar that I leaned on. I think that knowing that I could come home to someone that I loved to somebody that loved me gave me a goal to stay alive. Hang in there.

Anyway, before I was liberated came a Christmas. I think it was 1944, December of '44, it might be. We got word that we were going to be evacuated. Well we had been seeing large lights of American bombers. Sometimes we could count as high as 200 bombers in one big fleet. We could see them high in the sky, and maybe thirty minutes later we'd start hearing them bombing. They were bombing Hamburg and Statine. They were bombing in front of the Russian troops we found out later on.

Well, at Christmas time, they told us that we were going to evacuate the place. We were gonna move back. So we had some Red Cross parcels that we had been eating off of, and we wanted to save them if we could. We managed to get the guards (We bribed them. We gave them one of those Red Cross parcels.) to round us up a pair of oxen. Then we made a big old sled. We piled those Red Cross parcels on that sled. We tied them down good and hooked them two oxen to them and started marching.

There was snow on the ground. Big snow on the ground. The temperature was close to zero, colder than hell. We took what we could carry plus those packages, and we started marching. We'd march all day. No food, no nothing. At night we stopped at some farm or some little community, and we'd sleep in stables where manure was on the ground. They'd just throw a little straw over the manure. the manure kept the straw good and warm. Of course it smelled to high heaven, but it sure was warm. It was the first time during the day we'd get warm.

So we marched every day for, as I remember, six weeks. We marched all the month of January, every day. The Russians were just nip and tuck. They were right behind us. As a matter of fact, Russian tanks were in the little town that we were in one time, and they just came in on reconnaissance and went back. The next morning we were on the road again. Refugees, that's really what we amounted to. The road was just clogged with people fleeing the Germans and fleeing the Russians.

The Germans were moving back all their prisoners, and a lot of civilians were going the same way. They were afraid of the Russians. I said then that I was going to make the months of January and February holidays if I ever got home. I never forgot it. I didn't always get to take off the month and a half when I got home, but I never have forgotten it.

We stayed on the road for six weeks, and I saw, fortunately, the Americans got along better than some of the others. I saw guards beat Russians. They would just beat their heads in and leave them on the side of the road. They just fell out. They couldn't make it any more.

They started beating up one right close to where we were. We told the guard not to do that and that we'd put him on our sled and see if we couldn't help him stay up with the rest of everybody else. We tossed him up on top of our packages that we had on our sled.

Well after about three weeks, we ran out of snow. We started getting into the southern part, into a different part of Germany. Snow ran out on the roads. Our sled wouldn't pull. The oxen were just struggling to try to keep up with the sled.

We decided we were going to have to do something, so we found another bunch of Americans that had a rubber-tired wagon. By then we had used up a lot of our supplies, and they had used up a lot of theirs. So we consolidated everything and put it on their wagon and we butchered the two oxen.

We gutted them, skinned them and boiled them to eat them. Not just us eating them but our American group. I guess a lot of other people ate off them too. We didn't get much meat, I know. So evidently someone else got some of that ox stew as well.

Anyway, we butchered those oxen and ate them. One of our guys had been working in a meat packing plant and knew how to dress them out. So the guard shot them, and we gutted them. They hung them up and he gutted them and they quartered them out. They used them to feed that bunch of people.

Well, a lot of people got dysentery. A lot of people got constipated and everything else. But I found out that if you ate charcoal, wood charcoal that would hold down dysentery. So every evening I'd hook one of the fires somebody had going where wood had been burned. I'd get me a little piece of charcoal about the size of a couple of lumps of sugar and ate that. I never did get dysentery. A lot of the guys did, and they were in bad shape. When you got dysentery and had to go, you just had to stop on the side of the road. It just drained their bodies and they'd have to get a ride someway or have big troubles.

Well, anyway, about six weeks later, we wound up on a sheep farm. They began to split us off into farms again. Our group wound up on a sheep farm. That must have been long about April. Maybe it was March. We went out on this sheep farm. We worked that farm until May, and I was liberated. I don't exactly remember when, but sometime early in May.

There was nowhere else for them to take us. So one day they didn't take us out to the fields. We knew there was something wrong. We could hear the artillery firing and knew that the Russians were after the Germans. So one morning about 10:00, the guards came out and rousted us out and put us in a bomb shelter across the street from the little old barracks they were staying in.

The Russian tanks pulled off the side of the road and began to shell the buildings and shell the town. They put one shell through the barracks that we just got out of. It left a big hole in the roof up there. So big that you could throw a bull through it. We saw all of these German soldiers cross fields and running and they were in cars. Some of them were on bicycles and some of them were riding horses. Just any way that they could flee those Russian troops.

About ten minutes later, maybe fifteen, we looked up and here came American trucks with the white star that was normally on the side for the American vehicles was painted red and loaded with Russian troops. We saw the tanks. The tanks went first and the trucks followed, hauling those troops.

We went up to the highway and met and talked to some of them. They were playing their accordions, and some of them were half drunk. Just one big old hullabaloo. We asked if they could give us transportation to the American lines to back of the fighting, and they said no, you're on your own. Do whatever you want. We won't give you any transportation, but you can follow us if you want to.

So we went back to our little village. We knew where they kept the tractors, the wagons and things. So we went to the shed and hot wired a tractor that had rubber tires on it. We took a wagon that had a tongue on it that would fit that tractor and we brought them two things down to our barracks or the old buildings where we were staying. We parked around back of it where nobody could see `em much and then we went up to the road and we asked the Russians if they could give us some gas for that tractor. They said yes - so they gave us five or ten gallons of gas and they told us about where the front lines were and which direction to travel.

This was kind of late in the afternoon so we decided we'd stay in our barracks overnight and get out the next morning and get all of our things together and get ready for our trip. In the meantime a German lady who lived there in the little village came to our barracks and she was in tears. She told us that her husband was fighting the Russians and she was scared that if the Russians occupied the town that they would molest her and maybe harm her and her baby. Her boy... he must have been about 3 or 4 - something like that.... small boy. And, she asked if she could go with us to meet the Americans.

Well we talked about it a few minutes and we told her yes, you can go with us - bring your belongs down and we'll start out early in the morning... so she brought just a little bag of stuff. Her and the boy came down to the barracks and they slept in the room that the guards had formerly occupied in that barracks. So the next morning, we all got our stuff piled on that wagon. This lady put her stuff on and the little boy and we headed down the road... down the road following the Russian troops, as a matter of fact.

As we'd go along, we'd stop from time to time and ask the Russians approximately where the front line was and where it was to either the some of the allied or American or British sectors and they'd give us directions. So when night would come and we would stop at some village and go to a farmers house - or some fellas house there, and ask him if we could sleep in his barn. He was really happy - because he felt like if there was Americans there, the Russians maybe wouldn't bother him and his family. Well, we don't know about that, but we want some place to spend the night out of the cold.

We kept following those Russian troops in the front lines - they were into bombing and tanks in the front. And, the Russians would tell them everyday when we'd meet up with them where the front was and we managed to get a map and we could tell where we were - so we just stayed about ten - fifteen miles back of the line and kept following those Russian troops until they met up with the English.

At a town name Widmark, where the Russians captured a German airbase that was formerly used for fighter planes. So we made a beeline for there and when we got there, here was this big old barricade across the road - the Englishmans were on the one side, manning it, and the Russians were on the other side. When they found out who we were, they raised the barricade and let us go through. That woman and that boy went right through with us.

Once we got a little bit away from the barricade and further into the sector, then the lady and her son were separated from us and I assumed she went into some German home. She was one of the very first refugees that escaped from the eastern sector to the western sector. I just hope she could find her husband right there at the end of the war.

A short time later we come upon a group of French political prisoners of the Germans and they were trying to figure out how they were going to get back to France. They ask us what we were going to do with that tractor and rubber tired wagon. We said we are not going to do anything. They said we are on our way to France. Would you give us that wagon and tractor and we said, we sure will... here it is. So, we just turned it over to them. They said they was going to drive that thing to France. And, I don't doubt that they did.

They were French civilians that had been rounded up by the Germans to bring up there to work. Of course, when the English liberated them, they didn't do a great lot about trying to send them back home, they just let them get home the best way that they could. So, they took that old rubber tired tractor and that wagon, put all their junk on it and headed for France. So, the English just sort of merged us in with their front line troops - we used their same mess halls and they gave us a little money so we could go to the PX and buy toothpaste and toothbrushes and cigarettes (for those of us that smoked)

We stayed with those Englishmans for - oh - I don't know, for maybe a couple of weeks and they (maybe ten days) and we'd have our tea with them and went right through their chow lines and we was eating for 15 1/2 months. They gave us uniforms, English uniforms. You ought to have seen me running around there in a little old English tam and one of those English uniforms. But one thing about it, they was good and warm and we were thankful for that, and they were clean.

So we stayed with the English for 10 or 12 days - maybe 14 days. The English then took us down to where they had a little airfield and the RAF was bringing planes in there - ferrying in supplies and going back empty. So they told us we have a plane going to Brussels, Belgium - do you guys want to go to Brussels and meet the American forces there? We said yeah - that's fine with us... so we bailed into that plane and flew from there to Brussels, Belgium and there is where we met the American military.

The American's took charge of us and gave us new American uniforms... we had to turn in our English uniforms, fed us good and we had everything going for us. They gave us a little money to go to the PX to buy cigarettes and toothpaste and anything we needed... razor blades.

There in Brussels we were with the Americans for long enough to get together a truck convoy of us and went from there to camp Lucky Strike at Laharve, France. Laharve was a port of embarkation, P.O.E. they called it. That's where they were loading American soldiers on troop ships sending them back to the United States. Well we went into Laharve, France and went into these eight man tents - eight bunks in each tent, and we were just laying around there doing nothing - just watching at the airfield the pilots going around in their planes and things of this sort.

I did see one thing that made me feel bad there. We were getting some shots or something and I saw a truckload of German prisoners. That truck was really loaded and it had stakes on the side - he rounded a curve and he rounded it too hard and he slung about half that load of prisoners off and two or three of them were killed. That hurt me because I hated to see those guys, there the war was over and they were waiting to go back home, and they get killed in a dang truck accident - simply because that guy was going around the curve too fast. That stake side broke off and about half those guys fell out into the street and two or three of them were killed.

Anyway, we laid around in Laharve there until we could get passage on a boat. While we were there, by the way, some of the guys could catch planes from the airfield and get passes to go over to London. They asked if anyone wanted to go over to London on a pass. They said we'll give you a pass if you want it and hitch hike on one of these planes down here and hitch hike you one back. Some of the guys went but I didn't want to, I was afraid I might miss a boat. Oh, the plane I wanted to catch was somethin' going to the USA - not to London. So I stayed there and we were in those tents about three weeks I guess. Then they loaded us on troop ships and here we come to Newport News, Virginia - come back in to where we started out from.

Man I was never so glad to see someplace in all my life. We got in there and they processed us, gave us new clothes. Gave everybody a sort of a physical - not much but a little physical and said we're going to get you home boys, and that suited us just fine. I don't know how long I was there at some camp there close to where they took people through coming out and going in. They got me out of there pretty fast, must have been a week or ten days - maybe two weeks.

Then I headed home. I never will forget. I had told Doris and Dad and Mom, wrote and told them that I was on my way home. We didn't have any transportation in our county to amount to anything. All we had was a Trailways Bus. Well, I managed to get to Crossville and they said there wouldn't be any trains or buses or anything out until the next morning. Well, I hired a cab and he said he'd drive me to Cookville for $20 and I said OK that's fine, let's go. Loaded my bag in and he got to Monterey and that son of a gun set me up and run off and left me. So I still had to stay there until the next morning and catch a train into Cookville.

So, when I got to Cookville I caught the Trailways Bus and when I got to town my brother Frank was waiting to meet the bus to see if I was on it. I got off that bus and dumped by bags off - I remember I just throwed them in the ditch line and I made a bee-line for the house. And I never will forget it, Frank picked up my barracks bag and carried it across the road for me. I made a bee-line and there was Doris about half the way to the road, and you talk about glad to see somebody - I was glad to see somebody right there. A big old hug and a kiss and a squeeze - on up to the house to see my Dad and Mom. To be gone as long as I was - it didn't seem real to me. I just walked around the house and looked around to make sure it was real. It sure was a happy time for me.

Well, it turned out that dad and Frank had been doin' a whole lot of fishing and they had a little old motor and a boat, so me and dad and Frank started doing a lot of fishing. Doris went with us one or two days but she didn't care that much about fishing, so we went two or three times. I had a two week furlough and they sent notice or they sent word. While I was home we had dropped the bombs in Japan, and Dad said the next morning well son, this is going to end the war - let's go fishing and by the time we get back the war will be over. I said that suits me! So we went fishing that morning and got back in about 2 o'clock and sure enough, the war was over - Japan had surrendered. When we got back the war had ended with Japan and we really were proud of that.

Well, they sent me orders and said they would give me and Doris a week or two weeks of convalescence at Miami Beach. Good Lord I'd never been on seashore in my life except to catch a boat. That really did please me - I was happy about that. So Doris and I caught a train to Miami, I think a train, as best as I can remember - we got to Miami someway anyway.

We stayed in the St. Moritz Hotel. I've always thought about going back to Miami and see if I can still find that St. Moritz Hotel. Boy, that was the snazziest place I've ever been in my life. It was real nice - one of the those big ocean front high rises. We must have been up on the eighth or tenth floor. Had us a real nice room and lo and behold here come a hurricane! They put up hurricane warnings and told everyone to run their bathtub full of water so they would have water to pour down their toilets and to drink if they wanted to. They said wash your bathtub out good and run it full of water - and we did.

So, that hurricane hit and we just had to stay in the hotel -couldn't get out. The tide and the water washed up to the door of the hotel almost but we were eating breakfast one morning downstairs - had a big old plate glass that looked over the ocean and those waves were rolling and the wind was bending the palm trees half over, it looked like, and a coconut came sailing through one of those windows, busted that plate glass out and all over the dining room. Scared everyone half to death, but anyway we hung in there and out of that time that we were there we only had pretty time were we could be outside and around maybe three or four days out of the whole time we were there.

But we did enjoy it and from there we caught a train back to Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia. They allowed Doris to ride the troop train back up with us. She was the only woman on that troop train. Boy I tell you right now she was a little concerned about it - I wasn't really because I felt like it was safe, but those guys all ogled her and gave her a lot of good looking over. We was on that train for about 24 hours non-stop -had to sleep in our seats. We wound up in Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia.

So Doris came on home and I stayed on in Ft. Oglethorpe - they smacked me in a barracks there - waiting to go to what they called discharge center, separation centers. Normally the separation center that I would have gone to would have been, I think Ft. McPherson, Georgia.

Anyway they decided to make Ft. Oglethorpe a separation center. Well, I had been assigned to the cadre there - I had been assigned to that post instead of waiting on going out to some other place to be discharged they had given me a job in the office typing up other people's discharge destinations or camps where they would be discharged from.

They called them separation centers but they were for discharges. So they decided they would start issuing discharges from Ft. Oglethorpe and they started with what they called the cadre or the people who were assigned to the camp. So I got out probably a month or three weeks earlier than I would have normally have gotten out.

But, as soon as I got out and got discharged, I said I want out of these military clothes - I want me a suit. We went downtown and tried to find me a suit of clothes and couldn't find one anywhere. Finally found one at a loan shop - a loan place. Found a suit that would fit me. I think I paid $50 for it or maybe $100 - I don't remember, but I paid it. I took them khakis and o.d.'s off and put on that suit."

Thanks, Dad. America salutes you.

Epilogue: Many years later, a farmer was plowing in the orchard where the battle of the Rapido River crossing took place. He uncovered the skeletal remains of an American soldier. The farmer recovered the dog tags and returned them to U.S. officials, who got in touch with the soldier's surviving family to let them know what had happened to him.

My Dad read this story in a veteran's publication and recognized the name. It was the soldier he had trained with and fought next to at the Rapido River -- the soldier he had seen killed next to him. He contacted the family and they met and talked about their lost loved one and his last days. It was very painful for my Dad, but it was a great comfort for them.

My Dad never talked about the war or his experiences when I was growing up. It haunted him, I could tell. He wouldn't even apply for veteran's benefits until he got involved with an Ex-POW organization more than forty years later. They encouraged him and he finally applied and was initially declared 80% and now 100% disabled from his wounds, malnutrition, and frostbite. Finally in his sixties he began receiving benefits he had been entitled to his whole life. More importantly, I think talking with the other Ex-POWs has helped him finally start coming to terms with his experience. Perhaps that, and his age, prompted him to record the oral history of his life, a small but important and moving part of which is excerpted here.

While all this was going on, my Mom was working in an airplane factory in Ohio building Corsair fighters (a genuine "Rosie the Riveter"). She was small and could crawl up in the fuselage and rivet the wings on and such. She got word that my Dad, her husband of four days, was missing in action. She came home to wait for word. For several months they feared him lost, but finally learned that he was a POW.

They still have a "yearbook" documenting the 36th Infantry operations during WWII. It lists my Dad as MIA at the Rapido River, Casino, Italy.

He celebrated his 85th birthday this week. He and my Mom celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary in September.

UPDATE: Ralph Neal passed away on October 8, 2017 at the age of 92, just days after his 74th wedding anniversay with Doris Neal. He served his country, his community and his family his entire life. He will be missed.