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Staff-Sergeant Earl F. Verham

Staff-Sergeant Earl F. Verham

 

Unit : 28th Division.

Served : Germany.

Camps : Stalag IXA

 

Staff-Sergeant Earl F. Verham was a medic serving in the 28th Division, and he was treating wounded near the front line at Ounen, Belgium, in December 1944, when his aid station was overrun and he was taken prisoner. The following is a half-finished letter which he began to write to his wife from Stalag IXA after its liberation on the 1st April 1945. He was then aged 26.

 

April 1, 1945

Ziegenhain, Germany

Dearest Betty Jo,

When this letter reaches you it shall be several days delayed, however, as I sit in this prison camp, Stalag IX-A, near Ziegenhain Germany, I find ample time to do nothing, so I shall start writing of my experiences since our [?] of correspondence was broken.

 

Before I begin, I wish for you to know that I am no longer a prisoner of war. I am indebted to our American 3rd army for my liberation. I am writing now awaiting trucks to furnish transportation for home. Yes, Darling, - home.

 

While with the 28th Division last Dec. we marched into a front line town of Ounen, Belgium. We had just returned from an attack in the Huntgen forest area near Schmidt, Germany. Our position in Ounen was to relieve the 8th division and remain in the holding position as a "static front". The activity here was limited. "Jerry" seemed to remain near his pill boxes & we dug in to make sure they did not infiltrate our lines. Each day we would each throw harassing artillery fire. Other than this there was no expectant danger. Here in Ounen our Bn, Aid Station was installed in a private home of three rooms downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. Casualties, during the early stay, were few. Our function was limited to the treatment of the aches and pains a normal individual often [?]. About 50% of the men suffered trench foot & frostbite. The living accommodations were excellent. I was in charge of the Surgical Technicians, as I occupied an upstairs bedroom with a real honest-to goodness bed. We always had coffee brewing in the kitchen and if the evening meal was poor, a batch of hotcakes or a powdered egg omelet was prepared.

 

Then came Dec. 15, 1944. it was about 6:30 am. & my slumber was broken by the unusual battle plead of "Medic", "Medic." I hastily dressed and ran downstairs to find two linemen assisting the wounded patient to our aid station. I could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of small arm fire, and the too familiar "bump" of the German bump gun (Machine gun). The patient was given treatment and I learned that "Jerry" had started an counter attack of strong intensity. I felt confident that our men would spoil any advance, and that my position was secured. More & more patients were brought to the station. We could not find time to eat nor was it possible to go to bed. As a matter of fact it was several nights later that I got my next sleep, with a German guard posted to keep the bogey man away. "G.I.'s" & "Jerries" were both being brought to the Aid Station, & the evacuation of the wounded by ambulance was stressed to maintain it's function. Artillery fire was becoming increasingly heavy and I hit the floor many times while applying dressings, or giving plasma.

 

About 15 yards. From the Aid Station I could see the linemen digging in and firing at the enemy. I mentioned this to Capt. Linguiti, our Bn. Surgeon, but in his manner of unconcern simply chuckled and said that it means nothing.

 

We labored day and night for the next two days, casualties were increasing and 50% of them were German. The G.I. was treated first and then Jerry, but each were treated with the same efficiency. I found that the German solders enjoyed our D-ration (choc. Bar), so I would always give them a ration. One particular time our Aid Station was filled, and many patients were wrapped in blankets, and left on a [?] outside. I risked small arms fire to deliver a few D-rats to some German patients left outside.

 

About 6:00 pm. On the 17th Dec. 44, mortars, and small arms fire seemed to be surrounding us. Orders came thru to be prepared to move at a moments notice. At this very moment we should have left, but instead our Bn Surgeon ordered that we should get the equipment together. Everyone worked hastily, until a runner from Regimental Aid Station entered our station stating that we were to evacuate in hour. We asked the runner if he saw any Jerries around our Aid Station. His answer was of the negative.

 

I went to the door and peered out into the darkness which was thundering with rifle fire. I saw Jerries and reported it. The runner was unable to leave, so we all quietly lay on the floor in order to protect ourselves from bullets, and shrapnel.

 

As the minutes ticked by, we all knew the game was up. Everyone was silent & I know many prayers went up. We thought. What does it mean to be a POW? They say it is tough, but I bet it is all propaganda just to encourage a solder to fight rather than to give up too easily. I thought that no human being would treat one as I had heard. Besides I am a Medic, and Germany must respect the Geneva Convention Articles.

 

Suddenly the door opened and an G.I. entered followed by several Germans. He said, "Men, we are now Prisoners of War". That was that. Just what we expected. The guard sat in a chain and we all lay on the floor. Mail had just come in and there were several X-mas packages for station personnel who were not with us. We opened their packages and ate as much candy, etc. as we could find. Certainly the Jerry guard had his share of - especially the cigarettes.

 

About 8:30 that evening we were lined up and prepared to march. Some liten patients were to be carried. We marched all night. Orders were not to fall out of formation or you would be shot. We marched through questionable mined fields and mud hip high. Carrying liten with wounded Jerries through mud was a feat no man would expect. No water - nothing to eat - just march-march-march. We were promised food and water in another 3 kilometers. When we reached this destination it was another 3 kilometers. Their false promises were repeated again & again. The next night we reached Prum Germany and slept on the floor of a bombed schoolhouse. The windows were broken & the chilled air made every bone in our body ache. We received a slice a day of black bread & water. Hungry & exhausted I got a little intermittent sleep. The next morning we were frisked. Money, personal valuables, and sentimental trinkets were stolen from us. Then we started the march again. We reached a church where other POW's were assembled. In a group of about 2500 we continued the march. We took detours through surrounding villages, which was to the Jerries delight. We had to be shown off. Before we entered the villages, church bells would ring to summons it's populace to review us. Many German civilians smiled at us - others, especially the old women seemed to have tears in their eyes. None could look us straight in the eyes.

 

About Dec. 21st , we reached Genaldstein, Germany where 40 loaves of bread were furnished for 1200 men. After eating my crumb of bread we were put in a boxcar & started the trip by rail. The boxcar was sealed, it was cold, we had no food, water or hay to comfort us. Sixty men to a car did not give us ample room to lie down. German boxcars are much smaller than ours.

 

This ride by rail was the most miserable experience I have ever been through. Although we had only about 200 miles or less to go it required 5 days. There was no toilet facilities so our steel helmets were used. We could not sleep and the cold was almost unbearable. I was so thirsty my tongue seemed to swell. We were weak from starvation. We "sweated out" Bombings in many towns. Men died of starvation, but they remained in the boxcar with the others. One time our Air Force scnuffed, & bombed our train. We lost 8 men. The Jerry guards ran for an air raid shelter. What were we to do? Remain in the car and be blown to bits!! Men in the next car broke out and opened our box car door. We all ran for an open field, but remained in a group. We were planning to align ourselves in a formation of US when the Air Corp left us. Then the guards appeared & shot at us point blank. Some boys were killed. I saw one shot through the neck. We were handled back to the boxcar and we continued our journey. Christmas Day arrived. We had neither food nor water. The very least Jerry could have given us was water, but no, we could not have it.

 

On the 26th of Dec. we arrived at Bad Orb, Germany. This was a resort town, (Bad meaning Bath). This was our destination. As we came out of the car, men fist grabbed handfuls of snow to quince the thirst. It was hard to keep from taking to much, but I realized the consequences. We marched to our camp which was situated about 2 miles east of Bad Orb.

 

It was a clear day & the crisp cold seemed to make the last of our march the very last our frail condition could possibly endure.

 

We were admitted thru the barb wire gates & my barracks was one that had formerly been constructed to harbour Jews. It was a dirty, dingy, dark, barrack. It had several [?] of triple decker bunks. We had wooden slabs to sleep upon & two men to a small bunk. The wash room consisted of a tap (cold) & a sink. There were no toilets, so we had to use the floor & later haul it away in buckets.

 

We were at last ordered to "fall out" for chow. We were given a canteen cup full of what we called "grass soup." It was a broth of greens. I ate every drop & scraped my steel helmet clean. At this camp we spent most our time in bed trying to keep warm. I would recall the suffering of the jews and wondered how many had gone thru this camp prior to their execution in Poland. I had read that millions had been executed & knew that many had slept on this very same bunk.

 

Our food here was the same as that which I received at all my prison camps. We received about a canteen cup of soup & 1/7 [?] a loaf of bread per day. The beverage was a cup of unsweetened tea & occasionally a cup of barley coffee.

 

It was miserable here - especially during the cold January weather. We had little or no fuel. We would stand our roll call outside each day. As the men were undernourished, many of them fell. One particular time our roll call required one two hour standing. About 25% of the men fell-stiff & were carried as a plank to the dispensary. We also got numerous frost bite & as of this writing there are a few who are still unable to wear shoes because of their mistreatment.

 

On January 26th, we were ordered to leave for a non-commissioned officers camp. We [?] the Pvts good bye & loaded a boxcar with 1/3 loaf bread & a few spoonfuls of canned meat.

 

We arrived at Ziegenhain the following morning. It was another bitter cold day & we marched about 1 hour thru blizzard to our Prison Camp. After hours of delay we were sheltered in a huge tent. We shivered until 5' o'clock in the afternoon. Every bone in my body ached, & a terrible tooth ache. My groins became sore & it was almost impossible to walk. We were taken to a barracks which was slightly better than my former barracks at Bad Orb. There were 225 men in my barracks. The floor was old & dirty. I slept on the floor with a buddy. We were given 2 stinking blankets apiece so we pooled our blankets for warmth.

 

The next day we started on our usual soup & bread. We had roll call inside by a Pvt guard called Hector. They expected discipline & we were forced to oblige. Everything had to be done without hesitation. We selected our own barracks leader, squad leader, etc. We also had to select an interpreter & a "man of confidence" who is to act as a "go between" to Jerry. The confidence man represented the American POW's.

 

Then began the weeks of uncertainty, boredom & the miserable suffering. We all became [lousey?]. Our bodies became one lump of lites. Every evening I would strip down and pick lice from by clothing. It was not unusual to remove over 100 of them an evening. We were twice deliced, but to lie again in the filthy blankets etc, meant that we would immediately be lousey again. Thanks to our Army's shots - no man took typhus. We noticed our [?] on the [?] fell off. Men became too weak to get out of bed & all of us experienced "blacking out" every once in a while. The talk among the G.I's was of food. Everyone was interested in recipes & to pass the time of day nearly all took recipes, menus, etc. Men of various occupations would give lectures on their professions. We had cooks, lawyers, & nearly all professions. All were indebted to "Phill" who secured news. The news came thru the grape vine & also thru German broadcasts. Phill helped to keep us orgainzed through his wisdom & former experiences as a prisoner.

 

Stealing became a problem. I recalled what the Chaplain at Bad Orb said; "It isn't what happens to a man that matters. It's how a man reacts when something happens to him that matters" Men here in prison either become an animal or it makes a man out of one. Stealing bread was taking a man's blood. Yet it happened. For punishment to the lawbreakers we organized a Kangaroo Court. Our [?] were [?] with it's function.

 

We pronounced sentence & kept a record which was turned over to our American officials on liberation. As an example a slice of bread was stolen, the sentence being 1 week latrine duty & recommendation for reduction of rank when liberated.

 

There was also much trading. Those who managed to secure a few cigarettes were able to trade them for food. One cigarette was worth about ration of bread - one eversharp pen was worth about 2 cigarettes. I realized the bread meant more to me than a cigarette, so I did no trading. However, some boys who traded bread away died from malnutrition. There are too many instances of mistreatment to put on paper & I do not like to recall them. We were scnuffed by our own planes, promised food, cig. [?] [?] [?]. [?] worked in [?] [?] Worked on Bombed railroad. Kicked with [?] in [?]. Threatened to be shot for trivial actions.

 

Capt Morgan Altman (mad man) -------

 

END.

 

 

Earl Verham's health was badly affected by his months of captivity. He died of heart failure in 1963. My thanks to his son, Randy, for this letter.

 

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