Delbert P. Berninghaus
United States Army
Infantry, 422nd Regiment
West Bend, Iowa
In his memoir, Delbert Berninghaus does
an excellent job describing for the reader what life was like for a new
private in the U.S. Army in 1944. He
also describes very effectively what happened to the 106th
Infantry at the Battle of the Bulge. As
he writes about night watch duty in the Ardennes Forest, it’s impossible
not to feel some of his fear as the snow dropping from trees sounds like
approaching enemy soldiers. His
detailed account of the first weeks of his captivity is equally compelling.
Those men who were captured late in the war did not know the
depravation of prison life as long as some Americans did, but their
experience was equally as harrowing in most respects other than length.
Del was imprisoned at Stalag IV B near Muhlberg, Germany. One POW
described it as, “a
beautiful wooded area, on the banks of the Elbe River, about 25 miles
downstream from Dresden. . . drab wooden barracks were divided into rooms or
huts about 15 feet square with 25 or 30 men in each.”
Many of the men at IV B were evacuated along with Delbert early in
February; others, however, remained at the camp until the Russians liberated
it in May.
After Delbert returned home to West Bend, Iowa, he began farming. He
married a hometown girl, Irene Balgeman, on April 22, 1946. They owned and
operated a Century Dairy Farm (homesteaded by Delbert’s grandfather),
raising grain and milking cows for a number of years. The family consisted
of four children, three daughters and a son. They were blessed with sixteen
grandchildren. After 45 years of marriage, Delbert is now a widower. He has served as one of the top officers in the Iowa American
Ex-Prisoners of War Association.
book, aided by the editing of his daughter Nancy, was first published in
1992. A sequel was later
printed which included reactions from readers.
Among those readers were fellow POWs who “wondered who that skinny
PFC who crawled out the boxcar window to save us was.”
I want to share my experiences of being in the service and as a
prisoner of war during the Second World War.
On the day before Christmas, I bid my family farewell and boarded a bus for Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa. My first stop was the first step of a journey that would affect me the rest of my life. It was not a happy Christmas for me. Before I left, I put my Christmas gifts from my family on a shelf in my closet and there the packages remained unopened on Christmas Day. I tried to push the day out of my mind, but Christmas memories were with me. I knew my mother would be fixing the Christmas goose and dressing; there would be sweet potatoes and pies. My four brothers, my sister, and my parents would be attending Christmas morning church services after the morning chores were done. Later, they would all gather around the Christmas tree with the rest of our relatives and open gifts. For the first time in my young life I was absent from the festivities. Christmas was just another day at Camp Dodge. The day came and the day went and other than memories of home, I had nothing that seemed like Christmas. Little did I know my next Christmas was to be even worse than the one I was experiencing.
was inducted into the United States Army on December 29, 1943. Memories of
Camp Dodge are difficult to recall after all these years. I was there only
briefly - approximately three weeks. One thing I do recall is singing a solo
in a talent show during my stay there. Another part of my stay was a
physical examination, which included an eye test. My left eye is weaker than
my right or what one would call a lazy eye. The doctor thought I was trying
to fake this condition, so they put me in a cold storage situation. I was
placed into a frigid room without any clothes. After what was a considerable
amount of time, I called out, “Just how long are you going to keep me in
here?” It was cruel and inhuman punishment for a crime that I was not
guilty of committing. Finally I was released and nothing more ever came of
My next step of the journey took me on a train to Camp Blanding in Florida. It was here that I would have my basic training. I was assigned to Company “C.” In this unit, we were all given bugles. I did not enjoy this company, even though I had played a trumpet in my high school band. We were taught several calls and then given our assignments for each day. Being in the bugle corps is not anything like it sounds - playing reveille was a very small part of our duties. We were the scouts, a very important job, and I enjoyed this phase of my training very much. I also received special training in the Morse Code. It was not easy for a country boy to concentrate on the different sounds necessary to translate the code. I did master the skill, but was never given the opportunity to use it. As I mentioned earlier, Company C was not exactly my first choice. When I came to Camp Blanding, I had hopes of becoming a cook and had tried to be assigned to that division.
though I was young, perhaps it was because of my youth, I frequently spoke
my mind and defied the authority around me. Maybe I was a bit of a rebel.
While walking on the grounds of the base, we were to salute the officers we
would see or meet. I got tired of this nonsense and would turn my head as
not to see them. It wasn’t long before I would find myself being sent to
the kitchen as punishment for my misbehavior. Little did they know, it was
no punishment for me — 1 wanted to be assigned as a cook in the first
place. My misdeeds got me where I wished to be in this instance, but this
would not always be true.
initial impression of Camp Blanding can be summed up in words that I used
when I wrote home, “If you haven’t been stationed at Camp Blanding, try
and stay away from it. Sand and more sand; it’s all sand — why you even
have sand in your bed!” The food was wonderful and the officers were
swell, but the sand was unbelievable when you grew up on the black fertile
soil of Iowa.
the rifle range, I received a sharp-shooter score when using the M-l rifle.
I was impressed with the weapon and how it handled. The automatic rifles
that we were using would automatically kick the shell out of the chamber
when it was fired. I was a left-handed shooter, and this caused a real
problem. When the cartridge was ejected, it would hit my helmet causing a
clinking sound. The officer in the area noticed the noise and asked if I
thought I could switch and shoot right handed. I gave it a try and will
admit, it was awkward at first, but before long I had it mastered.
we would go out on the rifle range, we would stay in pup tents. Two fellows
would share one of the tents. It seemed to rain daily; and being in a sandy
low area, the rain would run in rivers. We would build dams around our
tents, pushing the sand up against the sides, hoping to keep the water out.
Sometimes we were successful with our endeavors. It was our responsibility
to keep our M -1 s clean and in good condition; not an easy task with two
boys in one tent during the rain. And then there was always the sand that
seemed to find its way into everything, including our guns.
Blanding gave me the opportunity to make several friends and to acquaint
myself with a new region of our vast country. One weekend I remember was
spent going to Silver Springs. Two of the boys and I had a weekend pass to
leave the camp. We went to a motel or hotel to spend the night. Our room had
a large ceiling fan circling overhead; before morning I was very cold and
had a sore throat. The discomfort of the night was soon forgotten and we
continued to our destination in the warm Sunday sun. Silver Springs was a
day of adventure. We rented a glass bottom boat and hired a guide to tour
the lake. Our guide told us the lake was fed by a main spring of water that
had been discovered 500 years ago. The spring was so abundant, it could
furnish every person in the world with ten gallons of water a day. The
temperature of the water in the lake was at a constant cool of 70 degrees
year round. The water was so clear you could see down to the very bottom of
the lake. As we began our tour, the view to the bottom of the lake was
breath taking! The lake was indeed crystal clear. We could see the plant
life reaching up from the lake floor and the fish gliding through the
vegetation. Catfish, we were told by our guide, weighed seventy pounds or
more in the lake. As we watched them, they reminded me of submarines
patrolling the area. There were so many of them, they had difficulty
reaching the bread we held out to them in the water without colliding with
each other. Our guide told us it was a fisherman’s paradise; to me, it
certainly appeared to be true.
swam in the lake and toured the grounds. I had my picture taken in a snake
gallery .The photograph shows me, a smiling young soldier, with a six to
eight-foot-long snake with a body circumference of six to eight inches,
wrapped around my neck. It was a tame reptile, but known to become
temperamental. This was a photograph to send home along with the one I had
taken with me seated on the head of a long-horned steer. I sat between its
horn span of six to seven feet. Pockets empty we headed back to camp, hoping
to come again, but not before another payday.
time away from the base was frequently spent on the Florida beach. It amazed
me to be able to walk along the shore in the morning only to find at
nightfall the tide had come in and the ocean now covered the same area. The
Florida sun took its toll, too. I remember catching hell one morning — we
were to do our morning calisthenics, but I was so sunburned I could not move
I had the opportunity, I would attend services at a nearby Lutheran church
on Sundays. At one of the services, a familiar face greeted me. Leo
Wehrspann, a young man from my hometown area, was also in the armed forces.
He was serving in the Navy and was a member of the choir at the Florida
church. Leo pulled me aside before the service began, gave me a choir robe
and said, “You can sing with us, Delbert.” I protested that I didn’t
know the song, but he assured me, “Oh, yes you do!” I sang with the
choir on that Sunday. Music had always played an important role in my life.
I had done solo and small group singing and did enjoy joining the choir.
will always remember pitchers of fresh-squeezed orange juice for sale.
Florida orange juice was sold everywhere for fifteen cents a pitcher. The
taste of it is still fresh in my memory.
people of Jacksonville also left an impression on me. Frequently, families
would invite a houseful of GIs home for dinner. It was a treat for us, so
far from home, to have a home-cooked meal.
were a welcome recess from our training, but a small portion of my time in
Florida was spent on them. After all, I was in the Army, our country was at
war, and I was learning how to be of service and how to survive. Basic
training came to an end and the dentist was my next stop.
was the Army’s responsibility to see that we were in good physical
condition. The dentist on base checked my teeth and felt the need to pull
two of mine prior to our unit going out on bivouac.
was a two-week period in our training when we would learn survival
techniques such as setting up and breaking camp, crawling, marching and
other moving maneuvers. The area we were sent into for this training was a
swamp with tall grasses and marshy wet lands inhabited by alligators, wild
boars, and snakes. The temperatures were cold and damp through the night and
late into the morning, then hot and humid until evening again brought
relief. The night was filled with darkness and unfamiliar sounds. As we lay
in our pup tent, we would hear the gnashing sounds made by the alligators.
They would open and close their jaws; and as they did so, their teeth would
clatter in the night. Rest did not come without difficulty.
the morning, we would break camp, careful to leave the terrain as we had
found it, hoping to defeat our imaginary enemy by our trickery. We would
carry our packs, which consisted of: trenching tools, shovel, blanket,
plate, canteen, and sometimes rations. As the sun climbed the morning sky,
the temperature also rose and it would again become hot and humid. The coats
so needed for early morning warmth would be shed and added to the weight in
our packs. On our backs, we would carry a load of fifteen to twenty pounds
of necessities. Our march would take us through the wet muck of the marsh.
Our boots would be covered with mud, each layer adding to the strain our
bodies must endure. We would dig trenches, crawl into sandy fox holes, and
finally our day would end.
was during this time my mouth became very sore — so sore in fact that I
could no longer open it. The warm temperatures and the humid air, in
addition to the general conditions under which we lived, had no doubt
contributed to the infection which set in where my teeth had been extracted.
With my fingers, I had to literally push food I was attempting to eat
between the spaces left between my teeth. I was sitting away from the rest
of the group while eating, to conceal my problem, when I was approached the
First Lieutenant. He had been watching me and wondered why I was eating in
such a manner. I told him of my recent tooth extraction and my concern that
if I revealed my illness, I was afraid I would have to repeat my basic
training as one of the other boys had to do when he became ill. The
lieutenant reassured me my basic training would not have to be repeated, but
that I did need medical attention. I was sent to the base hospital for four
days of treatment. When my condition improved, I rejoined my unit on bivouac
to complete my training.
region in which we were training was infested with alligators. An engineer
corps was actively seeking an eight-foot specimen. It seems the gator was a
threat, although we were never informed of the nature of the threat. We did
learn of its capture. The engineers made a feast of the fellow, none of
which was shared by us!
boars were a continual nuisance. My birthday, May 19th, was
approaching, and my mother had baked and sent to the camp an angel food
cake. Having recently recovered from my tooth infection, I was looking
forward to the treat. However, it was not I that feasted on the cake; the
wild boars raided our camp during the night and my cake was one of their
targets. The boars also were credited with forcing our unit to endure a
twenty-five mile, forced double (running) march. We broke camp one morning,
taking care to bury our debris and leave the site as we had found it. A
colonel, who seemed to always be on our case, later inspected the site. Sure
enough, we failed to meet his standards again. The swine had rooted through
our site uncovering all we had buried, leaving the area totally
unacceptable. We were not happy to endure more than was required. As far as
we were concerned, we had done what was expected. The twenty-five-mile
course was more than many of the boys could endure. The heat and humidity
were unbearable. The Staff Sergeant in our unit was a very compassionate
man. He would not ask his men to do anything he, himself, would not do. His
comment was, “If you can’t do it yourself, don’t expect someone else
to do it.” Wise words that I later would use myself. The sergeant asked me
to carry another boy’s pack — he had already collected two packs for
himself to carry from boys that could not make it on their own.
thought the punishment unfair, after all “Was it our fault?” the swine
had rooted through the area. At our first opportunity, we surrounded a herd
of the boars, forced them into the lake, and bayoneted them to death.
training came to a close, and I was looking forward to my two-week furlough.
While waiting for my destination papers, I worked in the base theater making
popcorn and seating patrons. The manager liked me and was working on making
my next assignment one to keep me in my present position. He almost had it
arranged when my orders arrived — report to Fort George, Maryland, in two
came home on a train, not notifying my parents of my plans. It was a shock
for my parents to see me walk through the yard toward the house. Dad was
just finishing up the evening chores, and Mom was in the house preparing
supper. It was a tearful homecoming for each of us, and I decided that
shocking my parents with my arrival, as I did, was not necessarily the best
way to come home. They were happy to see me, but the surprise was unnerving.
Being a close family, and I being the first of their children to really
leave home, it was great to be reunited.
had changed during my brief absence. One of the first things I did the
following day was to climb the 98-foot tower supporting the new wind charger
power system that had been installed on the farm. For the first time, the
farm was supplied with electricity. We had light bulbs instead of a little
gas flame from carbide lamps. After chores, I told my dad, “Dad, I’m
going to climb that tower and see what it looks like up there.” To my
dad’s dismay, I climbed — it took longer than I expected to reach the
top. I could see for miles, the town of West Bend, and the farms of my
family —uncles and brothers — farms of friends. Absorbed by the view, I
felt a peace that would serve as a source of strength in the trials to come,
a peace I would not know again until the war had ended and I would
Christmas packages I had placed on the shelf of my closet were waiting right
where I had left them the winter before. I opened them; the shirt from my
folks and the other gifts were again returned to the shelf. There they
remained during my time in the service.
was great to be home again with a mother to feed you, clean for you, and
wash your clothes for you. And my mother was doing her job well, so well she
washed the clothes in which I had pocketed my destination papers. I didn’t
know where I was going after my papers were laundered. The help I needed in
my dilemma came from the Red Cross Office in Algona. It was there that one
of my former grade-school teachers, my fifth-grade teacher, helped me find
where I was to be shipped in my next step of active duty.
fourteen days at home flew swiftly by, and before I knew it, my two weeks
were gone. I was again on a train, this time my destination Maryland. As the
train wheels clicked over the track carrying me far away, my mind too turned
over the past two weeks and the memories I was storing away. I saw myself at
the station with my three friends, Salty (Richard Harms), Wayne Sell, and
Ronald Miller. I boarded the train and stood at the back of the caboose
waving to them, tears streaming down my face, as they stood on the tracks
returning my waves until we could no longer see each other.
stop in Maryland was brief. After four weeks at Fort George, I returned to
the Midwest where I was stationed at Camp Atterbury. Camp Atterbury,
Indiana, was very up to date as it was only two years old. As luck would
have it, if you can call it luck, I came to Camp Atterbury with the thought
of getting more training, but there was a division short of men, and I was
chosen to help fill the quota.
I was assigned to the 106th Division, Company One, the 42nd
Infantry. The 106th was known as the Lion’s Head Division. We
wore a shoulder tab of a lion head on a blue and red field. The blue
background stood for the basic complement of the infantry. We were basically
an infantry division. The red stood for the artillery wing and the lion’s
head for the strength the world now knows was theirs. Our division’s motto
was “To Make History Is Our Aim”. The Lion’s Head Division was noted
for its vigor, high morale, and youth. Two-thirds of the men were twenty-two
years old or younger. I was twenty-one years old in May 1944.
trained at Atterbury for one and one-half months, from September to October
1944. It was during my time in Indianapolis that I was “adopted” by my
second family, Grandma and Grandpa Hansen and their four children, Alma,
Eleanor, Hilda and Herbert. The first Sunday I received a pass, I attended a
Lutheran Church service. The Hansen family regularly attended that same
church and they, like many of the Indianapolis families, welcomed me and
others like me into their community and homes. The Hansens invited me home
to Sunday dinner with the family. From that time on our lives were entwined.
I attended church whenever I could obtain a pass. I had many good
home-cooked meals in the Hansen home and enjoyed the fellowship they offered
to me. They became my second family. When it came time for our division to
be transferred from Atterbury, it was the Hansen family that was there to
see me off at the station. They gathered around me to bid me farewell as I
again boarded a train to cross the states of our country. I was not the only
soldier on board, but I felt a loneliness, a loss, as I was again leaving
people that I had grown to love as my own family. I was once again stepping
into an unknown. The train moved across the countryside; I was lost in my
thoughts, remembering my family back on the farm, leaving West Bend on the
train, and the first church service in Indianapolis, Indiana, that bonded me
to my “other” family, the Hansens.
had scheduled stops in the cities of Boston and New York. The days spent in
those two places have become a blur in my memory. For the most part, the
days were spent in the barracks.
October 21st, 1944, we boarded the Queen Mary in the New York
Harbor. We crossed from harbor dock to ship on a rope ramp. It was similar
to a trampoline walk; our feet sank into the ropes with each step. Our ship
slowly moved out to sea passing our “Lady Liberty” with her hand holding
the torch — the Torch of Freedom for all to see. And each of us stood on
the deck watching as our symbol of freedom sank out of sight on the horizon.
For some there would be no return trip; I could not help but wonder if ever
I would see it again.
the next eighteen days, our base would be the Queen Mary .The vessel
transporting us to our next destination held me in awe and filled me with
curiosity. Having never been on an ocean liner before, I had many questions,
not many answers, but time stood still those two and one half weeks it would
take to cross the seas and time was mine. I did have an assignment; our
company was to fill the role of Military Police while on board the ship. It
was our duty as MPs to scan the horizon for enemy ships and submarines that
we might encounter on our way and to report any aircraft sighted overhead.
We had no escort as we tried to elude the enemy. Our only means to avoid any
detection was to weave in a zigzag fashion across the waters; the vessel
carrying us was not built for battles on the seas.
Queen, a British liner, was a city in itself, stretching 1,020 feet in
length. I remember standing on the top deck watching the waves as the ship
rocked its way through them. The Atlantic Ocean is noted for its high seas.
At times, waves came right up over the bulwarks of the ship. Scavengers of
the sea, large fish and sea gulls, followed in our wake. Many of the boys
became seasick; fortunately, I did not have that problem. There was a small
store where I purchased a box of Hershey Almond chocolate bars. I made the
purchase to follow some advice given me, “Don’t eat a lot, but keep your
stomach full and you won’t get sea sick.” I munched on candy bars all
the time. There were scheduled activities and entertainment available to
enlisted men, but definitely more privileges were extended to the officers
on board. At night, we slept in the belly of the ship on swinging hammocks,
so close together that we would hit one another if there was much pitching
of the ship. In the morning, the air on deck was filled with the aroma of
freshly baked bread made in the ship’s bakery.
possessions we had with us when we boarded ship were stowed in our duffel
bag. Each of us had been issued our own rifle, which would need to be
cleaned prior to use. The rifles issued were covered with an oil-like grease
as a protection for the metal and wood. We were advised not to clean them on
ship due to the salt-water conditions we were in while on board. I followed
that advice in order to prevent any corrosion of my weapon.
journey was uneventful; our ship docked on the British shores around the
eighth of November. The English weather was most unusual, not like anything
I had ever experienced. It would rain, the sun would shine, and it would
snow; every season of the year was experienced in one day’s time.
had a couple weeks in England before our orders were given to us. The
climate was damp, but it didn’t worry the English, no, they would just go
out and work in the rain. I was most interested in some of the rural
customs, such as their fences. With my country background, it certainly
didn’t remind me of home; it didn’t resemble the heartland of America.
The fences on the farms were constructed of small rocks, every rock placed
just so, giving evidence of the time and great care taken in construction
them. It must have taken them years. Other boundaries were neatly trimmed
hedges similar to those one might find around homes in our country.
Everything was very neat, giving evidence of great pride being taken in
other things stand out in my mind as I recall my short time in England. The
men all seemed to wear neckties to work regardless of their job. It appeared
as though both laborers and businessmen dressed in ties as they went about
their daily tasks. The other thing I noticed was the large numbers of women
who smoked cigarettes. The percentage appeared much higher to me than in the
had the opportunity to go to London on a four-day pass, to see first-hand
the damage war inflicts on a country. There was evidence of rationing and
Black Markets operating much as they did in America. The stores appeared
well stocked, but everything was rationed or priced too high to be
American Red Cross was also operating in England and was most helpful while
we were there. They offered continual assistance.
was there in England that my rank was elevated from private to Corporal
Delbert Berninghaus. We would be recommended for the rank change by the
noncommissioned officers of our company. I went up a step on the Army
December, we received our orders. I wrote home to inform my parents of our
destination. Later, I learned censors had deleted the information I gave to
them. They could only guess at where I might be. They thought it might be
Belgium; they were right on target.
unit was transported by truck to the area where we were to cross the English
Channel. We were loaded on LSTs, landing craft, and carried across the
channel to the Belgium side. There we were put on alert in the Ardennes
Forest as a replacement unit for the Second Indian Head Division. For some
time, that division had been in the twenty-seven-mile stretch we now
occupied and had reported it to be a quiet area. Due to lack of any prior
combat action, we were there as a “green” organization. They put us in
an area that was supposed to be a quiet area where nothing was happening or
expected to happen. I imagine they thought it would be an ideal place to
initiate us; where we could learn the terrain of the country and sharpen our
of us had a buddy; my buddy and I were assigned to the lookout area. The
bunker that housed the two of us while we were on duty was built down in the
frozen ground. The roof was flat and camouflaged with turf. We had to go
down below ground level to get inside, but it was high enough for us to
stand, once inside the structure. There were boughs from the fir trees to
lie on if one of us became tired. We watched through three peep holes, just
above ground level, with dimensions of about 8 by 18 inches. It was here we
stayed day and night until our shift ended and the next two on lookout duty
relieved us. Our meals were delivered to us at the bunker site. We were
armed with our M-I rifles plus a bazooka. A bazooka was effective against
the armored tanks. It is best described as a weapon that is portable, with
an electrical firing device that launches a rocket propelled through a tube
to the target. It required two people to operate, usually one to carry and
fire it and the other to load and aim it. It was a fairly new means of
defense, one that I had never been trained to use. I had no bazooka
experience, even though my official records listed me as a Bazooka gunner;
there was no time for any training now. Our orders were to shoot out the
German tanks’ tracks as a means of disabling them should we sight any in
routine continued day in and day out. For nine days we watched during our
various shifts. The forest of oak, beech, and fir trees was behind us, a
vast white field of snow spread out before us. The snow clung to the trees
and covered the terrain. The area was void of any noticeable wildlife; no
birds sang in the trees. There was a small grouping of trees in view to our
left with what might have been a road behind them. Occasionally, we would
catch sight of one of our scouts, dressed all in white to camouflage their
movements, steal across the field. The scouts traveled from camp to camp on
their missions. Time would drag on as nothing was happening. Yet fear was a
constant companion. Was there really an enemy out there? Would the German
army strike? and if so when ?
took turns doing night patrol. When it came time for my buddy or me to take
our turn, we would be relieved of our bunker duty and someone else would
take our responsibility there. We would take up position in the forest for
the next four hours. The first night I was on night patrol, the darkness was
still; winter stretched out its fingers touching us with cold. I wore my
combat boots, field jacket, and helmet with liner for protection from the
elements. We had no overcoats or overshoes as we stood in the wet snow,
stood, watched, listened, then moved on to repeat the cycle in another
location. Fear and cold were our only companions as we walked the quiet
darkness of the forest.
snow was wet and heavy as it clung to the branches and sides of the trees. I
can still see in my mind’s eye the night, moonlit, crisp, cold and silent
and then I heard a sound. “Wer ist das?” came the cry from my throat as
I threw myself face down in the snow. I froze. Hearing the sound again, I
again called out in German, “Wer ist das?” (Who is that?). Still no one
answered me. I knew, despite my fear, my ears had not played a trick on me;
the sound was real. I held my position; not moving a muscle. It came again.
It was then I knew my fear; heavy snow was being pulled from the branches by
the force of gravity and dropping to the ground. The footsteps I heard were
not those of the enemy, but those of the snow stepping down from the trees.
Relieved and thankful I rose from the ground to my feet and again started
walking. After what seemed an endless night, dawn broke and my four hours
were up, my shift ended and another day began in the bunker. This cycle was
to be repeated in the days ahead.
usual, the ninth day there was nothing unusual to report. The night began
and I was again on night patrol. Winter had not eased her grip on the area,
but why should she — winter had just begun. The air was crisp and cold,
the night still and quiet. I kept moving over my watch area: stop, look, and
listen before moving to the next spot. My shift had begun at ten that night.
As I moved over the area, at one point my stop, look, and listen routine was
altered. More than snow broke the silence; it was shortly after midnight
that I heard the Germans moving in. I could hear the sounds of metal hitting
metal, the distant rumble of their motors from machinery and trucks, and,
yes, voices, men talking. My body tensed; this was it, what I had been
trained for, the unknown was about to happen. I made my way back to the
Intelligence Headquarters Office not knowing how close the German troops
were or how many of them were headed our way. I called in from the outside
phone to report the activities. The reports were always one-sided
conversations — we would make our report and then move back to our watch
position. Before long I was again back at the headquarters’ office with
the same report, “the Germans are coming!” Once again I returned to my position with still no change in
our orders. I continued to patrol the area knowing something was about to
happen. For the third time, I made by way back to Intelligence Headquarters,
reported that the Germans were on the move. Still there was no change in
what we were to do, and to this day, I do not understand why we did nothing
but wait and watch. At the end of my watch, I returned to the bunker. It was
shortly after two in the morning and I was tired but unable to sleep, my
body tense and my mind wondering when we would make our move. Sleep came,
but not a restful sleep. Shortly before dawn, we were awakened to learn that
we were moving out.
were assembled to leave, pack and rations on our backs, guns over our
shoulders and one shell for ammunition. We moved out over the vast white
expanse that we had viewed from our bunker while on look-out duty. Our whole
company, dressed in army green, moving across the white plain of snow had to
be spotted almost immediately by German scouts. Were we sent out as decoys
being used to distract the enemy from another unit? Maybe. What was our
purpose? Where were we moving out to — a safer area, a battlefield?
Questions riddled my mind. Why were we issued just one shell per gun?
march went on all morning with very little change in the pace or the
scenery. At one point, the officers and noncoms told me to take the field
glasses and check a particular area. I carefully scanned the territory
sweeping my glasses in each direction. There was no movement or sightings
made by me. I reported back. By early afternoon the terrain began to change.
As we approached a valley, there was tension in the air. It was here that we
heard the first shots. We were instructed to proceed down into the valley.
We forced ourselves ahead, various numbers of men in each group, running in
spurts down the hill into the valley. When you felt your courage mount, when
you felt you had enough guts, it was your turn to run down. The only wound I
was aware of that incurred during this run was to the company mailman. He
was hit on the arm by the enemy fire.
we regrouped to continue our march up the other side and leave the valley
behind, our concerns became more tense. The enemy indeed was very near. A
lieutenant in our company motioned me over to his side. He indicated to me
that he wanted me to look over the crest of the hill. It was obvious to each
of us that there were German forces over the hill. “The hell with you!”
I told him. “The only way I go up there is with you.” We never went. It
was my theory he wanted me to draw fire up there and determine where the
concentration of the enemy force really was located. As we reached the other
ridge of the valley, we could clearly see the enemy soldiers dressed in army
green still some distance from us. There was no place for us to go, no
hiding place in the openness of the limestone valley, no trees for
protection. Armed with our rifles and only one shell, we were no match for
the numbers ahead. It appeared that we had marched into a horseshoe of
soldiers — Germans all around except to our back. If we attempted to
retrace our steps, we would be sitting ducks by the time we reached the
opposite side of the valley.
officers faced the dilemma with the only solution available — surrender.
Surrender — can you imagine! I didn’t know what to feel! I wanted to
fight, to defend myself, my friends, my country. I wanted to survive, to
live my dreams of youth. What would become of us if we surrendered? To fight
meant a sure wounding and probable death, but surrendering . . .what would
that mean for us? My mind raced; it was a flight or fight situation and we
were surrendering. The officers of our company stationed a pole with a white
flag in the open field as we awaited the approaching enemy. We took our
weapons and destroyed them, striking the rifles against any material that
offered resistance, the frozen turf or field rocks, and then scattering the
pieces in every direction. We emptied our pockets of any identification
cards or letters that might be used against us if the enemy tried to break
us down. I tore up my identification cards. We sat down in our litter to
await the approaching enemy. The closer they came, the bigger they grew in
stature and in number. There clearly were more of them than there were of
us. Name, rank and serial number were the only communication to be made.
Delbert Berninghaus, Corporal, #37683647, ran through my mind as the Germans
drew closer. The place was in the province of Luxembourg. The time was
approximately 4:00 p.m.
I knew it, we were lined up on a nearby road. The German troops had gathered
us together and marched us to the road where they lined us up four abreast
to conduct their search. I could see down the line enemy soldiers taking
personal items from our boys and filling their own pockets with anything of
value such as money or jewelry. I had on the wrist watch my folks had given
me as a gift when I graduated from high school the previous year. Wanting to
keep it, I stepped out of line unnoticed by the Germans and slipped the
watch from my wrist to my dog chains that hung around my neck. Then stepping
back in line I watched as they drew closer to me. Some of the fellows
protested the search, some back talked the Germans and these boys were shown
little mercy. There were boys roughed up quite badly. Two Germans would
conduct the search — one from the front and one from the back of each
person in line. When my turn came, they missed discovering my watch, but
found a small Bible I carried in my shirt pocket. They took it. In German, I
said “My Holy Book!” They looked from it to me and then at each other.
The Bible was handed back to me. I’m not sure if it was because it was
indeed a “Holy Book” that I was allowed to keep it or the fact that 1
had addressed them in their native language.
the search was completed it was time to move out. It was our tenth day on
the front, December 16, 1944. The day would end as it began, marching, but
this time the march was to a beat of a different drummer. We became
prisoners of the German forces, POWs, prisoners of war.
German army had invaded the southeastern portion of Belgium. The attack
began in the Ardennes region, December 16, 1946, the day of our capture. It
was a desperate gamble on their part to break through the American lines and
advance to the sea. It would cut the Allied army in half. With that goal
accomplished, they had hopes of driving the Allies out of France. If Germany
failed, the invasion of Allied forces into Germany was certain. It was
Germany’s last stand lead by Army Ground Commander, Field Marshall, Walter
Model. Model was under Karl Von Runsdstedt whom Hitler had retired from
command and then recalled to direct the coded assault, “Watch on the
Rhine,” later to be known in our history books as the Battle of the Bulge.
Watch on the Rhine began under the cover of fog. Supported by a forte of
250,000 Germans, the attack broke through the American lines.
later learned Germany’s advance of 50 miles put them within three miles of
the Meuse River in Belgium. Their lines formed a huge bulge into the Belgium
territory. The brunt of the attack was dealt to the 106th Division that had
been assigned a twenty-seven-mile front. The division was thinly spread to
cover the area. My regiment, the 422nd, was on the left or north
flank, the 423rd had the center area, and the 424th
was on the right or south flank. On our left was the 106th
reconnaissance troop, near the town of Malmedy, Belgium. On the first day of
the battle, the 106th regiments were so wiped out they were
almost destroyed. One was the 422nd; the other the 423rd.
A total of 300 men from the two regiments survived; the rest were presumed
POWs in Germany.
the time the German forces had gathered us together, searched us and readied
us to move out, dark was moving in. We were separated from our officers,
they in one group consisting of other officers and we in another group made
up of enlisted men and noncoms (noncommissioned officers). Our officers were
allowed to shake our hands and tell us goodbye. On many of their faces were
smiles, odd in such a situation, so maybe it was a sign of hope or a wish
for courage in the days that lay ahead for all of us. We never saw our
march began in a direction that would eventually lead us to Germany. Under
the cover of darkness we moved across the Belgium terrain. The night was
cold; we were hungry, tired and discouraged. Escape would have been easy, as
the Germans would not have known who had fallen back or dropped out of the
march at that point. Perhaps some of our boys did just that. Although I
didn’t know everyone, I didn’t notice anyone missing or see anyone
attempt to escape. Had 1 been remotely familiar with the area, I would have
attempted to escape. However, being unfamiliar in this country, not knowing
where I was, where could I go and know I would indeed be able to get away?
marched on through the night, stopping briefly to rest and then continued
until the dawn of a new day. So much had happened in a twenty-four-hour
span. In my mind, I took an inventory of my possessions. I had my watch
(still on my dog tag), my Bible, a stub of a pencil, and a small blank book
in one pocket of my wool combat jacket. On my feet were wool socks and
combat boots. I had my helmet liner made of wool and woolen gloves with
leather palms for my hands. Cold and hunger became my companions.
stomach cried for breakfast and my body longed for rest, but there would be
none. We marched on interrupted only by the low hum of approaching planes.
As they neared we would dive for protection in the road ditches, our only
shelter from the possible bombing. As the planes roared overhead, we would
cover our heads with our arms. When the sky again cleared and the danger
passed, we would again reassemble to continue our march toward an unknown
destination. The roads were deserted and the countryside was a mixture of
rolling hills with trees and empty fields. During the first day’s march,
we passed through what must have been a slaughter field. Dead Allied
soldiers, bloated like dead cattle, were lying in the winter snow. Their
bodies were stripped of their socks and shoes and other warm articles of
clothing. The memory was imprinted in my mind, a memory I would never
forget. It was impossible to avoid seeing the bodies, yet we were reluctant
to look. There was always a frightening chance that one of those distorted
bodies might be recognized by any one of us. I wondered, “Did the Germans
march us through this sight as a warning? Did they want us to see their
power? “ My companions multiplied, fear became more veritable and the real
threat of death joined cold and hunger. I reached for God for it was in Him
that I could put my hope; it was only He that could give the strength I
would need to survive. Hunger, cold, death and fear marched beside us, but
my Lord was there too!
what seemed like an endless night of marching, the light of another day
slowly swallowed the darkness. We were very hungry and thirsty. The Germans
began promising us food at the next village, but village after village had
been bombed, and there was no food. The Germans warned us not to drink water
along the roadside or else we would become sick. Thirsty as we were, we
drank from puddles in the road, scooping the water in our hands as we
new day was no different from the previous day; we continued marching along.
We could hear bombs exploding in the distance. When we heard the whistling
sounds bombs make prior to exploding we would dive for the ditches. Our
troop of prisoners was told not to be concerned if we heard the whistling
and not to worry. We paid little heed to their words and lay in the ditches
until the sound passed.
lives functioned with a new set of rules and regulations. It became our
routine to start our marches with a prayer. Frequently, I would be asked to
lead the meditation consisting of a heaven-bound plea that asked for the
Lord’s protection and guidance on our unknown journey across the terrain
of Germany. Our devotion would end with the Lord’s Prayer said in unison.
Just as prisoners of old, we could find comfort in song. We would join
together during our marches singing spirituals, folk songs, patriotic songs
and Christmas carols. The songs served a purpose: they were a distraction
for some, hypnotic for others blocking out suffering and pain, and for
others lifting hopes and spirits. We were united in prayer and song. The
guards didn’t seem to mind; they couldn’t speak English, so they had no
knowledge of what our music was about.
became difficult keeping track of the days and what happened on each day.
Our hunger became so great, we resorted to stealing. The German farmers had
a practice of storing cow beets in their roadside ditches to feed their
livestock during the winter months. The cow beets would be covered with dirt
and their fermentation produced a kind of silage. We would steal of the
beets to feed to ourselves, frequently being shot at by the guards in the
only was there the constant demand for food by our stomachs; for some of the
prisoners there was a craving for cigarettes. Many of the boys were smokers,
and they hungered for nicotine as the others hungered for food. There were
no cigarettes for them, but the German guards would smoke and toss the
smoldering butts to the ground when they finished them. Anywhere from six to
seven of the prisoners would dive for the discarded butt in hopes of getting
a drag on the cigarette before it went out.” Cigarettes were more precious
than gold. I was hungry, but my hunger did not compare to those in search of
we continued deeper into Germany, our nights were sometimes spent in a
farmer’s barn. We were no longer marching day and night. I was not really
sure why our march slowed down, perhaps it was our general physical
condition or the fact that Germany had no place for us in their war camps.
There would be anywhere from twenty to forty prisoners in a barn. The barns
themselves were always very clean and did not smell of the animals that were
kept there. In Germany, the barns are attached to their houses and then
several of them were clustered together in villages rather than scattered
over the countryside. I became the interpreter for our group as I grew up in
a German- speaking household. In fact, other than a hired hand that spoke
English on my father’s farm, German was the only language I heard until I
started grade school. The guards would frequently remain with their charges
and send me to the farmer in whose barn we might be staying to ask for food.
Many of the German people would look on us with compassion and give us what
they could. It was never enough to satisfy our hunger; after all, there were
many of us to share a pail of raw potatoes or apples. At this point in the
war, it did not appear as though the German people had much to share.
we were herded into the barns for the night, we would repeat our previously
established routine. Winters in Germany are much like ours in the Midwest as
far as temperatures and weather conditions are concerned. After walking all
day through snow, slush, or mud, our feet were always cold and wet or damp.
We had no overshoes for protection and any protection that might have built
up on our combat boots from polish or care had long worn off. We would
remove our shoes and massage each others’ feet to warm them and get the
blood circulating again. We had no overcoats or blankets, so in an attempt
to keep warm, we would huddle together to give each other body heat. After
days of the living conditions under which we survived, we were filthy and
sick with dysentery. Our very survival depended on each other .
formed as we bonded together in our struggle for survival. I guess in a
strange sense of the word we became a family, looking out for one another.
We would find ourselves grouped with the same bunch of boys from day to day,
but our guards would change.
morning our feet would be so swollen it was difficult to push our swollen
feet back into our shoes. The guards would again assemble us and the barns
usually would be searched by the dogs. Some of the boys attempted to escape
by covering themselves with the straw or hay found in the barns. Some tried
to hide in the haylofts of the barns; some simply tried running away over
the hills. As I said, the barns would be searched by dogs; the dogs used, in
most cases, were well trained German Shepherds. These dogs showed no mercy
as they literally tore apart the boys hiding or attempting escape. There was
no chance of survival when the dogs were turned loose in the barns or in
pursuit of those on the run. I remember a change of the guard when I saw one
of the dogs rip the clothing right off of a new guard before anyone could
control the animal.
Eve day was eight days after our capture. Here I was, twenty years old, a
prisoner of war in Germany, wondering if I would even live to see another
Christmas. As usual the day began with marching on the country roads,
destination still unknown. At each village we were told, “At the next stop
there will be food for you”, but the bombs were always ahead of us.
Village after village lay in ruins, bombed before we came; our stomachs
remained as empty as the German promises.
was approximately 4 p.m. in the afternoon on Christmas Eve when we arrived
in the little village where we would be spending the night. We would again
be spending the night in a barn. The guards allowed me to go to the barn
owner’s home to ask for food. I was hoping for some potatoes or apples.
The man answering the door invited me inside. The gentleman was a raw-boned
farmer with a warm friendly face. He wore a pair of little round wire-rimmed
glasses. I looked around the room and saw no one other than the man, but
suspected there were other family members, keeping out of sight. My eyes
were immediately drawn to the evergreen tree standing in the room. The
Christmas tree was not decorated as ours are today; it was standing there
unadorned in all its splendor. I shall never forget the sight of that tree
and the memories it triggered. Momentarily, I was at peace. It was
beautiful! Away from home and the security I once knew, a lump formed in my
throat. My eyes welled with tears. I asked the farmer, “Could you spare
some food for me and the boys in the barn? Some apples or some potatoes, for
we are very hungry. “ On the table lay a coffeecake already cut in wedges.
It was pie sized and covered with apple slices. Pointing to the cake, the
man said, “Eat it, you eat the whole cake.” I did eat the cake, the
whole thing. I felt a certain amount of shame because I ate without sharing
my treasure and at the same time gratitude. I was so happy. In this strange
country of enemies, God had given me a friend. I asked if he had any more so
I could give some to the boys. “Oh, no,” he said, but he gave me a pail
with apples and potatoes that I carried out to the others on that Christmas
Eve. They ate the seeds, cores, and peels of the apples and the raw
Christmas morning, I went to thank the farmer and tell him goodbye. He again
gave me a bucket of potatoes and apples. Our day was starting out better
than it normally did. We again set out on our daily march taking us
thirty-five to forty kilometers. This day the American fliers again flew
over us; our hope was that they would not drop bombs, but food. To our
surprise, they recognized us, dipping their wings. The event was a highlight
of our day — our spirits soared. The planes flew on to their mission; we
continued our trek across Germany.
guessing it was near Limburg, Germany, when we were herded to a railroad
track where boxcars were sitting. The date was shortly after Christmas. The
cars were marked Red Cross, but it was obvious they had been used primarily
for transportation of livestock. The cars each had a sliding door on one
side. At one end, there was a one by three-foot window with another window
on the opposite end; two metal bar inserts ran parallel to the windows.
About sixty men boarded each boxcar. We were no longer marching but
traveling by rail. We remained in that car all night and all day. There was
no food or water on board. The door to the boxcar was wired shut from the
outside so there was no escape. After our one night trip, our car was
stopped on a sidetrack where we would remain for six days. We lived like
animals, using the corner of the car as a lavatory; of course with no food
or water, the need to relieve oneself was greatly reduced. German villagers
would come to the car; we would beg them for water. Some were kind and would
pass water up through the window to us.
Germans were also using the rail system to move war materials in unmarked
cars. The Allies became suspicious of our Red Cross cars and began bombing
and strafing. The planes fired 20 mm cannon shells that penetrated the
boxcar walls and exploded. Shrapnel would shower the interior. Many of the
boys were wounded or killed by this action, adding to the casualties of war
Once I was sure that I had been hit in the back by shrapnel. I had a
buddy check my back when I removed my shirt, but I had been lucky. We were
sitting ducks in the boxcar; the guards ran for the hills whenever planes
approached. Our group began pulling on the metal window bars, and finally on
the sixth day of confinement, we were able to remove the bar. I was hoisted
up and pushed through the window. No one else wanted to go and I knew that
this would be our only hope of survival – or we would be slaughtered in
the boxcar. I landed on my feet and moved to the door-side of the car.
No time was wasted as I started unwiring the sliding door of the
boxcar. I freed my comrades and then moved to the other boxcars to free the
other prisoners. Others helped unwire more cars, until several of the wooden
deathtraps were emptied. The next time that the planes flew over us, we were
ready. Standing, we formed the letters POW-USA in the snowy field. We were
able to identify ourselves to the flyers. Although I did not see the planes
signal any sort of recognition, they did not fire upon us. Other prisoners
reported seeing the pilot dip his wings and wave.
guards did not return us to the railroad boxcars, but we did renew our
march. The filth and close body contact as we marched was a problem. Body
lice, parasites that suck blood for nourishment, were evident in the seams
of our clothes. We could see the lice on our bodies. If allowed to rest
during a march, it was not unusual to strip our clothes and wash the nits
from them in nearby streams. The December temperatures had not improved, so
we quickly redressed in our cold, wet clothes before they started freezing
into stiff forms. Our body heat would be our clothes dryer. The stream rinse
did offer some temporary relief for our itching bodies, but the rinse in the
frigid streams was a high price to pay. One form of suffering was replaced
New Year’s night, we had reached a prisoner-of-war camp. My first
communication home was from Stalag IV B at Muhlberg, but I believe our first
stay was at Dresden. (I think what may have happened was that Dresden was a
community we passed and it stuck out in my mind, as it is quite near
Muhlberg.) At our first stop, we were placed into a compound with prisoners
from all over the world: France, the Soviet Union, England, and the United
States. We were quarantined for a period of time as a means of disease
of the first things that happened to us in the prison camp was the removal
of our lice-infested clothing. They took our garments and supposedly
fumigated them in a gas chamber. If the process did in fact rid our clothing
of the lice, it did little good in the long run. We were never given the
opportunity to bathe, and it was not long before we were as infested as
before. In fact, the problem seemed to worsen. When we lay down at night to
sleep, the lice would race across our bodies. There was little room and
little warmth, but much bodily contact. At one point, during my captivity, I
acquired a knife much like a knife from a set of tableware. It was used to
slice our portion of bread into six or seven portions depending on the day
of the week. On weekdays seven prisoners shared a loaf and on Sunday only
six shared the loaf. I was cutting a bread loaf into the portions that were
being rationed to us when I cut through the bread into my leg. The cut was
in fact quite deep (deep enough to leave a scar), but there was no bleeding
from the wound. Similar incidents happened to other prisoners; we surmised
that our blood volume was so low due to our conditions and the lice that we
simply had no blood to bleed.
At the first prison or Stalag
(as they were known), the men, three to four hundred, were put in a compound
within a fenced area of similar structures. Each of the half dozen compounds
had a smaller enclosure of chained fencing topped with barbed wire
approximately eight feet high. It was into this area that we were allowed to
go outdoors. The building itself was long and narrow with windows and dirt
floors. There were no beds but there was straw scattered on the floor on
which we slept. The building was dimly lit with electric lights. All lights
were shut off at the end of our day. I recall one time some of the boys
gathered wood scraps from the interior of the building and started a fire on
the floor to provide wanted heat. The guards soon doused the flames and voiced their disapproval of the behavior.
of the men in our compound were quite inventive. I’m not sure what they
used or how they obtained the material, but they constructed a radio on
which we were able to get daily broadcasts. We could hear news of the war,
but had to use extreme caution so the guards were not aware of these
activities. It was wonderful knowing what was happening.
in each complex were prisoners who were being quarantined for a period of
six weeks. During that time, we did not receive a physical examination of
any kind, but it was the measure used to control any communicable diseases
that might be among us. Our compound was isolated from the other compounds
housing prisoners arriving at other dates. As the quarantine period was met,
those prisoners would be moved to the other buildings and new prisoners
diet while we were detained here was quite consistent. Six men would leave
the compound to pick up and deliver our ration. They would return carrying
three galvanized tubs of potatoes boiled with their skins. We were then each
given three to four of these golf-ball sized spuds as our meal for the day.
Needless to say, they were devoured in little time. Sometimes we were fed a
grass and turnip soup that was very watery, a cup of soup, never more, often
less, but when you are hungry a feast can be made of very little. As I
stated earlier, bread ration was seven men to a loaf during the week and on
Sunday only six men to a loaf. It was a dark brown bread; when fresh it
smelled like the corn silage we fed to our cattle back home. It was made of
sawdust, potatoes, wheat and poppy seeds. The bread was never good to eat;
it made me gag when it was fresh despite my hunger. I did discover if I
saved it and let it dry out, I was able to eat it. One time, I actually
found a fairly large piece of wood in my ration of the bread.
nights were long and cold; sleep did not come easily especially with the
continual lice problem. We huddled together or would lie next to one another
for warmth and the lice would race from body to body, multiplying in numbers
greater than before. We not only felt the lice, but during the daylight
hours, could actually see them on our bodies. Now there were not even the
frigid streams to rinse our clothes and get some relief . Washing of bodies
or clothing was impossible.
was at Muhlberg where I was issued my prisoner of war numbers to wear with
my Army dog tags. Now I had another number, Stalag IV B 313872, and still
later I would be issued yet another Stalag number. Here I was given a
postcard which I dated January 10, 1945, and sent with a message to my
parents. It would take some time before they would receive it. In fact, I
was allowed to send a second card, dated January 21, 1945, that they would
receive before the first arrived.
my parents received a Western Union message dated January 11, 1945, stating
I had been reported missing in action since December 16, 1944. It would not
be until March 8, 1945, that my second postcard would reach them. The first
postcard, dated January 10, 1945, reached them March 19, 1945. Upon the
receipt of my postcard, my father sent a letter to the War Department
informing them of the card received. He enclosed the postcard with the
thought that the department did not know that I was a prisoner of war. He
requested that the information be properly recorded and he received proper
labels to send packages to me. It would not be until April 5, 1945, that my
classification as a prisoner of war would reach my parents. On April 11,
1945, a package was mailed to me. It was never to be received but returned
to my parents on May 21, 1945. My parents also sent a Christmas package to
me ( prior to holidays); it was returned to them July 16, 1945.
is difficult for me to put the preceding and the following events in exact
order due to the time lapse and the fact that the diary I kept during my
ordeal was lost shortly after my liberation. I recorded my prison life in a
small notebook; it was my diary. (This notebook I kept in my breast pocket,
but failed to remove it when my clothing was removed and burned at the end
of my captivity.)
were given opportunities to go out on work details. It gave me something to
do and I frequently would go. I found if I got my mind off the constant
desire for food with other distractions, my hunger was easier to bear. It
was a mind game; if I thought I wasn’t always dwelling on food, I
wouldn’t be hungry.
didn’t take a patch of rhubarb long to catch my eye on one of these
outings. Before long, I was wishing for some of it and planning how I would
get it. I planned to steal it and hide it. At the Stalag, I found an old
burlap bag; before long it became my backpack. I asked to go out on work
detail so that I could find something to put in my pack. Well, as luck would
have it, we were working in the area where I had first seen the rhubarb. I
managed to break off some of the stalks and stuff them in my backpack. I was
careful not to take all of it. However, it was not long before the missing
produce was noticed. A German was asking, “Who stole the rhubarb?” No
one answered. He pointed his finger at me and said, “It has to be the
fellow with the backpack.” He came over, took my pack, and of course found
the evidence. “You could be shot for this you know!” he said. The truth
was, I knew it was wrong to take the rhubarb, to steal it, but I didn’t
think it was so serious a crime as to be shot. I spoke to him in German,
telling him I would not repeat the crime; he was compassionate and let me
the Stalag we had what we called “chow detail.” Six to eight men would
be sent out to get our ration of food. I decided to see if
an extra man could get out without being noticed. Instead of eight, nine men
went out but not always nine men returned. When I managed to stay out, I
would spend the time with some Canadians and Frenchmen. These men were known
They had more freedom than the
other prisoners, but were themselves prisoners of war. The Canadians and
Frenchmen were very kind to me. We became good friends; they would feed me
and then the following day I would return to my Stalag. It became my way to
get around and I was in very good physical shape with the extra food. Once a
Frenchman shared roast beef with me. “Delbert,” he said, “you don’t
know how hard I had to run for this!” He had stolen it from the butcher
shop where he worked. How wonderful it was for him to share something he
risked his life for with me! If on my outings I could return with extra
food, I would share it with my buddies at the Stalag. We had an arrangement
where they would pick up my ration if I wasn’t there to get it myself.
Sometimes I would get something; sometimes I would not.
what seemed like several weeks, we were alerted to the fact we would be
leaving the present Stalag very soon. One of the Frenchmen whom had
befriended me took me aside. “Boy, you are just like my son, you remind me
so much of him. You cannot leave and march without taking food with you.”
He and his friends obtained a suitcase somewhere; it was about two-feet
long. They filled it with food for my journey.
marches began again. In the beginning, I had my suitcase. It was heavy and
slowed me down; I pretended to be lame. It was not long before a German
guard noticed me. He urged me to get rid of the extra baggage so I could
keep pace with the others. “No!” I would say, “I’ll carry it”. I
would hurry along walking a little faster for a time, but in the end my pace
always slowed again. The cycle would repeat itself, and so I went until the
suitcase became lighter and finally empty. It was a difficult time. I knew I
had to protect myself. It was each man for himself, a very selfish way to
be. When I would open my case of food, I did it as privately as possible. I
tried to be away from the rest; it was almost a relief when the food was
gone and the suitcase empty. I no longer had to feel self-conscious about
eating, and I could finally toss the extra baggage into the ditch as the
guard wanted me to do.
were marching for what seemed to be weeks without end, eighteen to twenty
miles a day, frequently without food. We would pick up garbage as our only
nourishment. The villagers would toss out peelings from their potatoes, and
we would eat them. Occasionally, we would be where there were bread rations
our march would begin in one direction, and we would march all day long only
to retrace our route the following day back to our origin. There must have
been times we were changing direction with the advancement of the Allied
troops. We could sense the German army was getting desperate, and our guards
were beginning to suffer along with us as food for them also became scarce.
guards were as hungry as we were. During our march deeper into German
territories, there were villages where civilians would offer food to us. The
guards would frequently push the prisoners aside and consume all the food
themselves. Sometimes luck was on our side, and we would get a small portion
for ourselves. On one occasion, the guard was holding us back when some
villagers tried to give us vegetables. He was a small-boned, thin fellow
with little round glasses resting on his nose. Thinking he was going to have
the feast himself, I said to him, “You grosses swine.” (I called him a
big pig in his native tongue.) He started chasing after me with a whip as I
dodged him by running the ranks up to the front of the line. At the front,
the commanding officer asked “Was gehts on hier?” (What goes on here?)
The guard rightly accused me of calling him a big pig. The officer then
turned to me and told me that I could indeed think such thoughts, but I did
not have to say them. I was to remain in the front of the line for my
punishment. In a few days I started working my way back in the line so I was
again back with my group.
Prisoner of war camps were few
and far between. Many were full of prisoners with no room for more men. We
would march to a camp hoping to stay, hoping things would improve for us,
but they never did. Boys became so hungry they would sell their watches,
wedding rings, or dog tags; anything might be sold for a bite to eat. It was
only by God’s grace that some of the men were able to continue at this
point. It is here I wish to mention the Red Cross parcels we received. They
were a rare blessing for many prisoners of war, but what lifesavers they
were when we were lucky enough to get them. The parcels were designed, I
believe, for each prisoner to receive the whole package. None of the
prisoners I knew ever received a whole package. My experience was to share
in only one package at the last prisoner of war camp I was in. I thank God
for that parcel; it was a blessing to receive it, and as I mentioned
earlier, truly lifesavers for many; without them surely more men would have
died. The boxes contained things such as jam, coffee, sardines, salt and
pepper, corned beef, sugar, cheese, biscuits, cigarettes, prunes, and
peanuts. I especially remember the prunes and candies that provided energy.
Just to show how selfish we became, I will tell you of a time that still
brings me shame. I shared my box with one of my best friends, Fritz Lopez.
We divided everything equally, counting out even the prunes. I accused
Fritz of stealing one of my prunes; how greedy one becomes when one is
forced marches were probably a God-send in my case. The temperatures were
extremely low and my feet were always cold. I’m sure the marches were what
kept my feet from totally freezing. There was a time when my feet were so
frostbitten the Germans were convinced my feet needed to be amputated. I out
and out refused to allow this to happen. I spoke to them in German telling
them, “No, I am keeping my feet!” I wanted to live, to come home alive
and with my feet. At night, I would remove my shoes and rub my feet to try
to get the circulation going again. The pain was almost unbearable, but with
God’s help I was able to continue and to keep my transportation, my feet.
Prayers never ceased.
time, I was terribly sick. During a break in the marching I was ready to
give up. I, like hundreds of the boys, knew to drop out was death. I laid
down beside the road and told my friends to leave me there when the marching
resumed. They begged and coaxed me to continue, promising to help me along
the way. I got up when the time came and shuffled along with the rest. It
was during this time I started dreaming and planning to escape. Perhaps it
was those ideas that pushed my body into a healing mode. I did begin to feel
better. If I was to survive and go home alive, I decided I would have to
formulated a plan where I could take my friend, Fritz Lopez, with me. I
could only risk taking one. Fritz was a very aggressive young man, a member
of the Second Division. He and I had thought of escaping early in our
captivity when we were temporarily housed in a brick factory. We had been
left on the third floor when the time came to move on. It would have been
easy to find a hiding place and stay, but the factories were Allied targets
and we didn’t chance it. The dogs were always the last to leave, making a
final search. We had not reached desperation levels, but now was another
continued to stay in village barns when they were available. We had just
spent the night in one when Fritz and I decided to make our move. I would
hide Fritz in the box of a wagon, covering him with straw. He would remain
behind and I would simply ask to be left due to my diarrhea. It was so bad,
I thought the guards would just let me lay in the corner of the barn. I
managed to hide Fritz, but that is where the plan ended. The guards listened
to my tale of ills and then insisted, “We have wagons, we will haul
you.” Fritz was able to remain hidden and I was off in the wagon. Soon
thereafter my bowels cried for relief; I needed to “do a job.”
were forests on both sides of the road. The march stopped not far from the
village for a break. Canadian prisoners of war were guarding me while I was
in the wagon. The French and the Canadian prisoners had been some of the
first captured and had gained the trust of the German guards. They were
sometimes put in positions of trust and known as trustees by the other
prisoners. Perhaps there had become a need for the German soldiers on the
front or perhaps it was because our numbers were so great and the Nazi
forces were not providing enough personnel for guarding that the trustee
system developed. I told the Canadians I was going to the woods to relieve
myself and I would appreciate it if they did not come and look for me. I
walked into the wooded area and covered myself with leaves. The Canadians
granted my wish and did not search for me. (I had escaped close to Kassel,
Germany.) I lay in the leaves; the deer came. They watched with a sense of
knowing something was amiss, but not seeing me, they paid little heed to my
presence. I prayed that the Nazi police dogs would not find me! Finally, I
felt it might be safe to get up and go back to the village and find Fritz.
My sense of direction always has been poor and this time was no different.
returned to the village, but began my search for Fritz at the wrong end. I
couldn’t find the barn. During my brief fling with freedom a German lady
invited me into her home. She asked me if I was hungry, “Would you like
something to eat?” We conversed in German, “Yes, I would appreciate
food.” She gave me some mashed potatoes and a hard-boiled egg. I was so
thankful for her food and kindness to me. I thanked her. She told me, “If
I get caught doing this for you they will kill me. I am doing this for you
because my husband is a prisoner of war in your country. I hope he is being
treated as I am treating you.” I assured her I thought he would be treated
well in America.
continued my search for Fritz but not for long. Some villagers reported a
stranger on their street and it was only a short time before I was picked up
and returned to the front lines of the prisoners that had passed through the
village. I would later learn Fritz had been lucky. He was able to escape
back to American hands. He would spend thirty days in an American hospital.
After a period of leave time, he would return to service this time as a
paratrooper. Fritz and I
corresponded for several years until one Christmas I sent a card and never
heard from him again.
vowed to my friends, I would not spend my May 19 birthday there but back in
American hands. I was watched very closely for some time.
German civilians would frequently ask me, “Why are you here?” My German
reply would always be, “We are here to keep Hitler from conquering the
whole world.” I did like being able to communicate with the people; it was
nice for me to know their language. It also gave me a bit of status with the
guards because I could understand them too.
again became a desperate man. It was unknown to us how the war was faring. I
decided to attempt another escape. This time I would go alone. I watched for
a chance with no real plan in mind. This time, I simply slipped away; hiding
behind some trees. As I walked on a road, a German farmer riding by on a
horse-drawn wagon picked me up. He asked me if I would work for him.
“Yes,” was my German reply, “I will work for you.” He helped me into
his wagon and it was decided I would go home with him. As his team of horses
carried me closer to his home, I suddenly became violently ill. Much later,
I would learn this was the first of a series of attacks of appendicitis. I
wanted to vomit but could not. The farmer urged me to stick my finger down
my throat to induce vomiting. I took his advice but it was useless. We came
to a small house where he stopped the horses and helped me inside.
there we could hear a distant rumbling that seemed to be coming closer to
our position. I thought the Americans were coming. “It can’t be the
Americans,” the gentleman cried. “It has to be the Americans,” I
countered. We waited and watched. The farmer had a pair of large binoculars
(some of the nicest I have seen) that he used to look in the direction of
the sounds we heard. We took turns looking through the field glasses.
Finally, I could see the American star on the side of a tank. “It is the
Americans,” I cried! What a thrill it was for me to see that star! I
thanked God for being able to see an American soldier to protect me. Despite
my physical weakness, I suddenly felt very strong. I told the German
gentleman to stay inside the house. “I’m going down to the Americans. I
won’t tell them you are here if you just let me go.” I didn’t know if
he would try to stop me. “All right,” he said. I was off. I met the
Americans. They asked me if the house was occupied. “There is no one
there,” I lied. Yes, I lied. Was
it sinful to do so under the circumstances? I don’t know. The German
farmer helped me and I in turn helped him. I know he intended no harm to the
troops; he had no weapons. We were both free!
escape was accomplished at last! I begged the fellows in the tanks to go and
help the rest of the prisoners of war. I told them the direction the march
was heading. “They are marching them to death!” I told them, “Go and
American soldiers were going from village to village collecting all the
German soldiers they could find. German soldiers were deserting the cause
and hiding in the villages. I was given a gun to carry. How proud I was to
be able to carry a gun again. How brave I felt crying, “Come out of
there!” as we searched for the enemy. They would come out of the buildings
and it was I who would be searching them. The tide had turned; it was they
who were fearful and hiding now. I was told to take everything the German
soldiers had, just as they had taken everything from the American prisoners.
I did as ordered. What a day, what a victory for me to be once again the
proud American soldier.
glory was not to last the day however, for the hot appendix would not be
forgotten. The evening brought another attack. I was loaded into a truck,
but we were unable to get through the German line that night. We stayed in a
house of some sort until the next morning. The American troops broke through
the line and we were on our way to a field hospital. I was sent to a
hospital in Paris, France.
memory is gone as to how I arrived or how long I stayed at the hospital. I
had been a prisoner of war for five months. When I entered the service, I
weighed in at 160 pounds; in the hospital my weight was recorded at 116
pounds. I do remember our clothing was removed and put on a pile outside the
hospital where it was burned. This is where I think I may have lost my diary
of events - I forgot to remove it from my jacket pocket. I had kept the
diary of all that had happened while we were POWs, writing in it almost
every day. It had the names of the villages we had passed through on our
marches. To this day I still wish I had it.
do remember receiving special treatments to remove the lice. How wonderful
it felt to soak in warm water — to bathe. As POWs, we were put on special
diets. Feedings were five times a day and everything was liquid. Others were
easily identified by looking at the stomach, for almost every prisoner of
war developed a potbelly. While in the Paris hospital, I again had an attack
of appendicitis. I bloated up like a balloon. Not knowing what was happening
to me, I went to the nurse’s station. As I staggered in, the nurse looked
up and laughingly asked, “What’s the matter with you?” I answered
with, “I wish I knew!” She dispensed some pills to relieve what she
thought was gas and I went on my way. The problem again subsided and I was
was a time while at the hospital I was given a pass to go to the city with
one of my buddies. We walked all the way (how far it was I do not recall).
Both of us were country boys from small communities and although we had seen
some of the world, we were rather surprised with what Paris revealed to us.
We took in the sights including the Eiffel Tower .Two things still stand out
in my mind. One was the coloring the Paris women put in their hair. We saw
purples, yellows and oranges. The other was the street vendors with their
wares. The sale of live crabs caught our eye, so we each purchased one. The
civilians would try to take them from us as we walked along. My friend
finally gave up the battle and lost his, but mine came back to the hospital.
my daring had not been compromised by my previous months’ experiences. I
decided to have a little fun with the lad who slept next to me in the ward
of the hospital. I took that big old crab and put it at the foot end in his
bed while he was gone. You can imagine what happened when he returned to
bed. The lad came back, crawled into his bed and was out like a torpedo when
his foot hit the crab. His eyes were as big as saucers while the rest of us
struggled with our pent-up laughter. He pushed it with two sticks down to
the nurse’s station. The nurse tossed it into a wastebasket. When the
nurse left the room, I retrieved the creature and took it down to the French
cooks in the kitchen. I didn’t get to eat any of it, but I sure had fun
was June 1, 1945, when I was transferred by stretcher to a plane and flown
back to the United States. We landed at Long Island, New York. I was given a
choice as to which state and which hospital in that state I would like to be
admitted to as a patient. I wanted to go home to Iowa. Clinton had a
hospital, Schick General, so that was my choice.
was transported to Schick. It was a surprise for me to see Margaret
Shellmeyer, a nurse at the hospital, who was from my hometown. Her husband
Lee Gary also worked there, in the surgery department. It was nice to see
someone I knew. Of course, my parents had been notified of my arrival in
Clinton; they didn’t waste any time to travel from West Bend to Clinton to
see me. My appendix was not to be forgotten, in fact, it was shortly after
my parents’ departure from the hospital, I again experienced an attack of
appendicitis. It was painful to even have people touch me. The medical staff
was baffled by my condition. The pain was more than I could bear. As I lay
on the bed, I’m sure I passed out. I was taken to the operating room.
appendectomy was preformed. I would later learn from Lee Gary, who was
helping the surgeon, my abdominal cavity was green. My appendix had ruptured
and resulted in a need to flush my abdominal organs of the infectious slime
that covered everything. Lee Gary told me, “They threw everything out of
you and washed it. Everything was green!”
parents were notified by phone of the emergency just as they returned home.
They turned around and returned again to Schick hospital where they found me
enclosed in an oxygen tent. I remember talking to them through the tent. I
was told I would have to stay flat on my back because my tissues were so
thin they feared something might rupture. I would be on my back for almost
thought I was getting along rather well; the surface wound from the incision
healed. But an abscess developed on the inside and a tunnel of pus worked
its way to the surface of my skin. At first, the staff tried treatment that
consisted of penicillin swabs being inserted into the tunnel. It was a
painful experience, one I endured without painkillers. The program of
treatment was not gaining the desired results so I was again scheduled for
surgery. It was necessary to remove the infected tissue. It was then that
healing began. Before long, I was able to get up.
on September 4, 1945, I received my medical discharge from Schick General
Hospital at Clinton, Iowa. I was allowed transportation to anywhere I wanted
to go from the hospital. Before I returned home to West Bend, I decided to
use my transportation in another direction. I felt the need to visit the
Hansen family in Indianapolis, Indiana. They had befriended me while I was
stationed at Camp Atterbury. I was treated like a son. My own family had
visited me several times at the hospital, now I needed to see the Hansens.
The Hansens had written many letters to my family while I was missing in
action, a POW, and while I was hospitalized. So I postponed my trip home to
my devoted family thinking I might not have the opportunity to visit the
Hansens [pictured left] again. (This later proved to be true.)
visit was unannounced on my part; I wanted it to be a surprise. The Hansen
family would frequently go for an outing at the train station. They would go
and watch the people arriving and boarding the trains. As God planned it,
the Hansens were at the station that evening of my arrival and saw me
getting off the train. They were so surprised and happy to see me. Our
reunion lasted a week and then I was headed for home, back to my hometown
and my life.
from England, written 11-12-44.
West Bend, Iowa December 18,1944
Folks & Gilbert,
this letter finds all of you in the best of health, I’m feeling fine.
the chickens laying now. Sure
would like to have some of those fresh eggs now.
Say, Mother, do you think that you could sent me some pickled duck or
something like that? Don’t go to any bother.
If you can do it easy, I sure would appreciate it a great deal, and I
couldn’t return the favor for a long time.
raining again, I never saw so much rain! It rains, snows, and sun shines
also in the same day. The way the people talk it’s that way the whole year
the cream checks come up yet or are the cows walking it all out in the corn
stubble? Sure wish I could go after them on Daisy or Flory or with our dog.
guess Roosevelt won the election again. Well, I hope he ushers the war along
a little faster. I thought I better write tonight because I’ll be away for
three of four days. I’m going on pass, so may God be with all till I hear
reprinted in the hometown newspaper.
Frank and Friends,
I can’t think of anything to say as so many of the boys have
already been in England and expressed their feelings about the country on a
The climate is very damp the year around but it doesn’t worry the
people here. They just work in
the rain. The fences are of
small chips of rock which makes a very nice job.
Every rock is placed, so I know it took years and years to build
them. Some farmers have hedges
for their fences and they keep them trimmed just like people do around their
yards. The country is very
neat. The people, no matter if
he is a laboring man or a business man, wear ties to work.
women all smoke. It isn’t a
new habit for them because the older ones are just as bad. They walk and work just like the men, with the cigarettes
right in their mouths . . .
went to London on a four-day pass and saw what damage was really done.
Most people do not realize the extent of the damage. The stores have more things in them than our own have, but
everything is rationed or so high that the people can’t touch them.
They also have black markets over here, only their prices are higher.
must say that the American Red Cross is something any person can put his
money into and know the boys are going to get a benefit out of.
The American Red Cross is located all over on this side and the boys
are getting a great benefit out of it.
So if you want to help the boys, give to the Red Cross.
can’t think of anything more to say, but if anyone would care to
drop me a line, I would sure appreciate it because news is very far between
in this country. And may I wish
you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Delbert Berninghaus 37683647
I 422 Inf.
433 c/o Postmaster
Card Sent from Stalag IV B Kriegsgefangenenlager Datum: Jan 10, 1945
I’m feeling fine hoping you
are all in the best of health. Mother, will you sent me five pounds of
chocolate and put six pounds of clothes in it like socks an underwear. The
weather is cold like at home. Well, the space is getting small so I say may
the Lord be with you all. Love,
Gov’t. Washington D.C. Jan. 11 , 1945 11 :43
B. Berninghaus R.R. #1
Sec. of the War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Pvt. 1st
class Delbert H. Berninghaus has been reported missing in action since 16
December in Germany. If further
details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.
Acting the Adjutant General
Card Sent from Stammlager VIllA
Jan. 21 , 1945
Folks, I’m hoping you are all fine as I am. Getting alone fine myself.
How’s everything at home? Say hello to the other kids and the creamery
boys for me. Tell Rinin family hello also. This will be my permitted place
for the war. How’s my cow and yours? I hope you sold some bulls. Love
Gov’t. Washington, D.C. April 5, 1945 2:00 P.M.
B. Berninghaus (Sr)
Sec. of War desires me to inform you that your son Pfc. Berninghaus, Delbert
H. is a Prisoner of War of German Government based on information received
through Provost Marshall General. Further information received will be
furnished Provost Marshall General.
A. Ulio The Adjutant General
On May 8, 1945, my parents received this letter written
I suppose you have received by
now that I’m safe again, and I can say that I’m just lucky. I don’t know anything to write but I sure would like to
hear from you again and tell me how everything is again. It’s been quite
some time since we received any letters. If you sent any packages before I
was captured well I didn’t receive any, to my disadvantage. I’m in
France now. My nerves quite
bad. I wish I could get away from the sound of planes. We had some very
close calls by planes. I suppose you have the oats sowed. I wish I could be
on the tractor once more. Just send me the word that you are all well. Use
that address in c/o N.Y., N.Y. I have a backache all the time now. I walked
around six to seven hundred miles in that time I was a prisoner and you can
believe the papers on what they say about the Germans because it’s all so
because I saw it with my own eyes. I’ll tell you my experiences whenever I
get home again. I shouldn’t want to live through it again. In fact I
don’t know how I stood up to such treatment and thank you for teaching me
German. And, Father , you take the fifty dollars back again.
postmarked 5-8-45. Second
Letter sent from Paris.
fine - hope all of you feel the same. How’s the bean planting coming along
by now? I suppose they have those things all running smoothly by now. It was
in the paper we receive at the hospital that all ex-prisoners are suppose to
come back to the States and guard the P .W.
I was hoping that they would discharge us so I could come home and
work on the farm again. I’m going to think of some way out if possible.
Mother, how many chicks did you get this year? I hope not so many so
that you don’t have to work so hard because I know Father and Gilbert are
very busy and don’t have much time to help you. When you write, use
airmail stamps and I’ll receive them sooner. It’s hard for me to write
because I can’t think of anything to write about being in a hosp. and not
seeing any active things going, so you understand. Did you ever receive word
that I was a prisoner or not? Well, I guess you know it now, and I’m sure
I know you won’t believe my story when I get home again and I am in pain
now. Did you ever get the bulls sold and how is that other system working
out by now? I’ll sign off
with all my love.
.M. Sans Arigine Received May 10, 1945
R. B. Berninghaus
sent. No news of you for sometime. My love and greetings on Mother’s Day.
Delbert H. Berninghaus
53 Gov’t. Washington D. C. May 19, 1945 10:01 A.M.
Chief of Staff of the Army directs me to inform you, your Son Pvt.
Berninghaus Delbert H. returned to Military control and is being evacuated
to the United States within the near future and will be given an opportunity
to communicate with you upon arrival if he has not already done so.
The Adjutant General.
to: PFC Delbert Berninghaus
B 1 7
RL T 4318 A.P .0. 887
Postmaster New York, N.Y.
R. B. Berninghaus
your welcome letter last Monday. Had quit writing to you - thought you would
be drifting in, but it seems a long time waiting. Rudolf got a letter
stating you are still in France. The weather here is so wet and rains every
day - have not worked in the field since May 19 but a lot of it will never
come up. Also got my beans planted but there is a lot of planting to do yet.
Had a fine letter from Herbert Hansen yesterday. Also had our Elevator
meeting last night. Had a good
year - we are paying $56,000.00 in rebates. Same director got back in. Was
in Algona today and had a tooth fixed. Levi Frieden was here today and
started setting up the hay loader. Sheared our sheep last week
and sold it in Algona -
got 42 cents - it averaged 12#.
were in Des Moines a week ago Tuesday.
a birthday dinner with the Rienens last Sunday. That was quite a letter you
had in the Journal last week. Things were really tough the way you
write and you can sure thank God to be able to tell about it.
got married to Eugene Elbert and they are working for Uncle Otto.
cow had twin calves last December - we lost the calves and nearly lost the
cow but she is OK now but does not milk like last year. Well I must get to
bed - hope you will be home soon.
regards and a happy landing.
parents & GiIbert
This letter was sent but appears to have been returned to sender June 16,
241 extra Gov’t Clinton la June 14-1945 3:13 PM
R. B. Berninghaus
son Pfc. Delbert H. Berninghaus seriously ill this Hospital with ruptured
appendix. You will be
notified of any change in his condition.
Winn C. O. Schick General Hospital