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He Fought for Freedom - Part Two

Story ID:4497
Written by:Michael Timothy Smith (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Biography
Location:Stalag XVII Austria
Year:1945
Person:Chet
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OurEcho Preface This post deals with a mature theme or contains explicit language. While the post is not extremely violent or pornographic, it does contain language or explore a subject matter that may offend some readers. If you do not wish to view posts that deal with mature themes, please exit this post.
A short time later, he felt a boot slam into his ribs. He stood. Fifteen old men and
the boy from the farmhouse surrounded him. One of the men pointed an old muzzle
loading rifle at him.

Chet was lead down the road and turned over to the German SS soldiers. They
beat him with a rubber hose for hours, as they interrogated him. Chet knew little about
the allied plan of attack. He had nothing to tell them. The SS gave up and locked him in
a cell.

The next day, the soldiers put Chet on a train with other prisoners of war. They
were shipped to Frankfurt, Germany, where he met up with several men from his crew.

The Germans piled all the prisoners into a train. There were so many men
crowded into the boxcars, they had to sleep in shifts. For four days they travelled,
with only a bowl of soup a day and a hole in the corner for a bathroom.

They departed the rain at Stalag XVII in German occupied Austria, where the
officers and enlisted men were separated into different POW camps. Of the twelve
compounds in the camp, Americans occupied five of them. They were denied contact
with prisoners from other countries.

They were led to a building and told to strip, so their clothes could be gassed to
kill fleas. The prisoners were ordered into showers. Groups of five men gathered under
each shower head. Each group of five was given one bar of soap and five minutes to
clean. It was the last shower they would have for a year.

After showering, the men were marched to their compound. The prisoners eyed
the new men with suspicion. The Germans were known to sneak spies into the
compounds.

“Hey, Mac!” A man called out. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Chet turned toward the voice. A man stepped toward him. “Joe?” Chet asked.

Joe Geiger and Chet graduated from high school in South Ardmore, PA two
years prior. Because someone knew Chet, the rest of Chet’s crew were immediately
accepted by those in the camp.

That night, Joe said to Chet. ”We’re going to escape. We have a tunnel half dug.”
He leaned closer. “Do you want to come with us?”

“Sure.” Chet whispered.

“We go tomorrow night!”

The guards somehow learned about their plans. Chet’s group was separated
and dispersed throughout the camp. The Germans filled the tunnel with human waste.

For the next year, Chet filed out with the rest of the men for headcount twice a
day and filled his time playing cards and trying to survive. He saw his friend Joe
occasionally. Eventually, they were separated. They wouldn’t see each other again for
more than twenty years, when they happened to meet at the home of a mutual friend.

At night, when he couldn’t sleep, Chet would think of home, his family, and
once in a while, the memory of the beautiful young lady who stood cheering in the
streets in Atlantic City.

In the winter, the men burned parts of their barracks for heat and to make a weak
coffee from the Nescafe© Soluble coffee that arrived in Red Cross packets, which the
guards usually stole.

They also made water heaters to keep warm. They cut two pieces of tin from a
can, attached wires to them, and dangled the metal strips in a container of water. The
other ends of the wires were inserted into an outlet. The strips grew hot and heated the
water. One time, they had so many heaters running, the lights in the camp dimmed.

The men wore only the clothes they were captured in. Every few months, they
stripped and scraped the black that gathered around their collars and cuffs.

The amount of food they received was only seven percent above the starvation
level. Their daily menu consisted of twelve ounces of warm water for breakfast and a
mid-morning snack of black potato bread, laced with sawdust and splinters. For lunch
they were served twelve ounces of rutabaga soup. Dinner consisted of twelve ounces of
boiled rutabaga. On good days, they prisoners ate soybean soup for dinner. Each bean
contained a bug, which the prisoners gobbled up for the protein.

In 1945, when the men filed out for roll call, they saw allied aircraft flying
overhead. The planes dropped bombs all around the camp, where the Germans built
underground hangers, in hopes the allied would not bomb close to the prisoners. The
bombers knew the German strategy and avoided the camps.

On April 10, 1945, the prisoners were told they were moving out and to pack
everything they owned – the clothes on their backs. The Americans travelled in groups of
five hundred. Weakened by their diet, they struggled with cramps and sore legs.

They passed a concentration camp in Lenz, Austria. They smelled the camp
long before they saw it – the smell of death. They marched by several twenty-five by
forty foot mounds of dirt. A short walk later, they saw POW’s tossing the emaciated
bodies of former comrades into a pit. The bodies were covered with lime and a layer of
dirt. Bodies were added to the pile each day, until it became a mound like the ones they’d
passed.

Beyond the camp, the prisoners were accosted by a group of Hitler youth. As the
weakened men marched, the youths threw rocks and urinated on them.

At night, their captures confined the prisoners into barns or other large buildings.
Outside the barns, the men dug in the dirt. If they were lucky, they’d find a potato.

In twenty days, Chet, and those with him, marched one hundred and thirty-five
miles, with only six bowls of soup to sustain them and what the Red Cross packets
provided. The packets were enough to provide for one, but were now divided between
five men.

At the end of April, the near-dead prisoners, were escorted into a new camp
still under construction. The only water available came from the Inns River, which
flowed nearby. The prisoners became sick with dysentery. They lined up at the latrines.
To keep from falling in, the men tied ropes around their waists, as the others held them
up.

On the night of May 5th, the men heard the sound of truck and tank traffic,
across the river. In the morning, most of the Germans were gone. General Patton’s
13th armored division had arrived. During the night, they’d constructed a pontoon
bridge across the river.

Tanks roared pass, guided to the German by the prisoners.

The Germans were now guarded by those they once held captive.

The main allied force arrived. The men were moved to a bombed factory, where a
field kitchen was quickly assembled. The men got to eat the army food they once hated
but now devoured.

Chet, suffering with dysentery, ate everything put in front of him, which he later
regretted. Cramps ripped through is abdomen. At sunrise, he staggered from the latrine,
and dropped to his knees.

On June 2nd, 1945, Chet stepped off a ship and onto the shores of New Jersey.
Eighty pounds lighter than when he left, Chet looked around him, and cried. He was
home.

Chet stood on line for hours, to get his chance to call home.

“Hello?”

“Mom, I’m in New Jersey. I’m coming home.”

Chet returned to his old job at the Pennsylvania Railroad and became friends with
a young man who worked on the same floor. Ken introduced Chet to his beautiful young
sister. Her name was Annamae. The second Chet saw her, his breath caught in his throat.
“It’s her! She’s the one I kept picturing in my mind – the girl from Atlantic City.”

On September 28, 2008, Chet and Annamae celebrated sixty-two years of
marriage. Chet’s hearing still suffers from the damage they received in Naples and the
dysentery he contacted still flares up every few months. They had five children: Jim,
twins Jack and Barry, Cheryl, and Joan, who died at a young age. They also have five
grandchildren and six great grandchildren. The love they found all those years ago still
flourishes today.

He fought for freedom and won.


If interested, you can email Chet at kriege17@comcast.net

I am sure he would love to hear from you.
Ginny and I plan to visit him next year.


Michael T. Smith