PFC John Ceney
Unit : Company K, 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Division, 5th US Army.
Served : Italy (captured).
Service No. : 33667040
Camps : Stalag IIB
I was pinned down under enemy fire for three days in snow and ice on Hill 1209. I received frozen feet and numbness to hands and legs. We were on the move and had to keep going in this condition. When we hit the lower lands we attacked Casino, Italy, foot hills and ran into a mine field. That night the Germans were shelling. Another soldier and I were standing together as they were shooting flares. A shell went off and threw me up into the air, I landed on my back and received shrapnel in my right knee. The other soldier had his leg off. I helped him back, and they told me to keep going. Three days later a line medic checked my leg and bandaged it and told me to have it checked when I could get to a rest area. I never got back to the rest area.
Around January 1944, we attacked Casino, Italy in the evening, one platoon of tanks and one platoon of men behind the tank, I was one of those men. We got a foothold in Casino, Italy under constant fire all night. We fought through Cassino, Italy being shelled and house to house fighting until February 13th. I was at a forward outpost with no relief or food rations for two days. When the Germans counter-attacked, three men were killed and I can't remember how many were wounded. They stood us up against the wall and made us take our helmets off. I thought I was done for. They took us to some big jail that was in Cassino, Italy. In the basement were hundreds of German soldiers, well rested, laying on triple bunk beds. If they would have known how many men we had, they would have drove us back to Africa. They made us empty our pockets and interrogated each man individually. When I was interrogated they asked me where the 88th Division was located and pointed to a map, and how many men did we have. My answer was, I did not know. I did not know there was an 88th Division. He slugged me and started to yell in German. I did not understand him and then he pushed me out the door, where the other men and myself were put on the floor. They could not move us until around 3:00 a.m. as our shells were too intense. They loaded us into a back of an open truck and we rode for almost four hours or five. In bitter cold weather, they took us to a P.O.W. camp somewhere in Italy. It was cold, no beds. We lay on the ground inside the building. At seven or eight o'clock in the morning, they gave us a bowl and we stood in line and received warm herb tea of some kind. We did not receive any food until around four or five o'clock in the evening. It was soup of some kind, mostly water and a foul taste, I could not get it down. This went on for four days. I was so weak when I stood up that I'd black out. They loaded us into a box car where you were squeezed in so tight you could not move. They sat a bucket in the middle for bathroom privileges and gave us a quarter loaf of German black bread per man. We were in the box car for three days. One man set on the bucket and the train jerked and the waste went all over everyone that was near. I was one of those men, and that started a fight. We lay in that filth for three days and I had to urinate in my pants. We lay in that, on the straw, and most of us got rashes all over our bodies which was not taken care of.
We got off the box car and they marched us for five or six hours to a building in a town that I don't remember the name of. We just waited in this building with nothing to eat but a corner of a piece of black bread until the next day, with no medical treatment, then they put us in another box car, and told us we were going to Germany.
I lost track of time and days. I sat because there was no room in the box car to get up or stand, so I just sat and looked and thought. We arrived in Germany. I think, I am pretty sure that it was Stalag 2B. There the Germans would throw cabbage scraps, turnip tops over the barbed wire fence so they could see us fight for the food. In the morning they would call us outside for a head count. If we didn't get out fast enough they would send the German police dogs in after us. We were weak and starving. They gave us soup once a day with maggots in it and I ate the maggots and anything else, including bugs that I could get my hands on. I lost track of time and can't remember how long I was there, but they then came and took eighteen of us, me included to Bonsico Stope, Germany to a farm. There they put us in a small brick building with two rooms, barbed wire fences and a guard station right next door. I had diarrhea, lice and loss of weight from starvation.
One loaf of German bread a week, potatoes and potatoes. That was our diet. Once in a great while, if they killed a horse we would get the head and we would make stew.
PLANTING TIME - We would plant the whole potato in the fields from dawn to dusk. This is where I stole a potato and was eating it raw when a guard hit me with a butt of his rifle and injured the muscles in my face. I had no medical attention and I still have the mark and indention on my face as that is where he hit me on my face. And then at this point I just turned into an animal. We worked in the rain, snow, cold, any type of weather.
In the summer time we used a scythe to cut down hay and straw for the animals. As we were doing it we were not allowed to wear shirts and there were horse flies as big as a quarter that would bite our skin till the blood ran down our chest. We would take the wheat and rye and strip the seedling, we would slip some of it in our pockets and take it back to the compound at night until we got enough to use the rye for cereal. The wheat we would grind between rocks to make flour and made pancakes.
Before the snow while they were harvesting the wheat & rye, I would have to empty the chaff from the thrashing machine in burlap bags and make a big pile to be used later. I had to throw these bags over my shoulders and it got on my skin and caused itching and a terrible rash which has never gone away.
Sunday-morning I had to empty all the outhouses that held human wastes and dig a hole and bury it. Some of the men would heave from the odor, but I had gotten so hard and didn't care anymore what happened to me that it didn't bother me. I was just trying to survive and I built up so much hate in my own world, that I just didn't care anymore. I had no time to be alone, I was always with a lot of people, pushing and telling me what to do - when to do - how to do - do - I went into a world of my own. I just didn't care whether I lived or died. Something I figured, it would be best if I die. So I went into a shell and could be right there but would be somewhere else in my mind. At this point nothing bothered me. I just tuned everybody out, and I do this to this day. If I don't want to be anywhere, if there is a lot of people there (today I just went to sit in the room and I can tune everybody out as if I am there by myself) I just don't hear them, I am in my own little world. I just can't be around a lot of people.
WINTER TIME - The Germans would send us in to a forest to beat the brush.
They would stand on the three corners of the forest and shoot the wild boars as they came out. I almost got caught by one of the boars while I was beating the brush but it got a German civilian in the leg with its horn instead of me. They would shoot a rabbit in the leg and it got away so I chased it hoping to have something to eat. I remember thinking, If I caught it I would have torn raw, but the guard thought I was trying to escape and stopped me with a gunshot. I felt so bad because the rabbit got away, I was so hungry. For punishment the next day, they put me in the lye shed, to empty a wagon load of lye. It got in my throat. They gave me a pair of sandals made of wood. These suckers hurt my feet so bad, so I put straw in them to keep my feet warm. Then they made me clean the horse stalls and I had to stand in horse waste up to my knees. One thing about it, it kept my feet warm.
In the winter there was snow up to your knee caps. I had to dig in the snow and ice for what they call flucans which I stole one and tasted it. It was like a turnip. We had to clean and chisel our way through the frozen dirt mounds to get to them and then we had to load them in a wagon by pitch fork all day long so they could feed the cows.
Everyday the work was different, but it was always outside. Hot or cold we always worked outside and always a German guard watching us. At night they locked us in. Could not go to the bathroom, the outhouse was outside. So we dug a hole and a trench under the compound through a trap door under the compound, it was an old potato cellar, to the outside under the outhouse and lifted the board loose so we could get out. This took three to four months. The night that four or five of us was going to escape, three got out under the outhouse to the outside. We were suppose to stay one thousand feet apart from one another. When it was my turn the guard came by, so I could not get out. We heard three shots. The next day they brought new guards and told us that the three men were shot and killed. I went into a depression state at that time as they were my buddies, and then I stayed to myself and lost all sense of time and at this time I did not want anymore buddies. It hurt too bad.
JANUARY 1945 -- Guards come and told us at five o'clock in the morning that there would be no more work and that we would be moving out. When we were leaving they were bringing in Russian P.O.W.s to take over the compound. We walked everyday, morning till evening through towns. Some towns, people would throw rocks at us, curse us and spit at us. At night we were put in barns, pig stills to sleep. We marched everyday being fired upon by our own aircraft, as they did not know we were American. We made a map giving locations of the German airfield, hidden tanks, troops, etc. to give to the Americans if we survived, so they would know where to find the enemy. We marched everyday till April. As we marched more P.O.W. camps with American soldiers joined the march. There was one hell of a lot of us Americans. We ran into an American tank & jeep. The German guards thought it was the whole American Army and surrendered to us. It turned out to be a spear head consisting of a tank and jeep of the 79th Division that had got lost and was ten miles in front of the unit. We marched the German prisoners back to the 79th Division where they took over and we gave the map to the Commander.
The 79th Division put us in a town called Pigfetz. There we stayed for three days and then were flown to France, Camp Lucky Strike. When we arrived they gave us coffee & doughnuts. Three soldiers died because their stomachs blew up, their stomachs could not handle the doughnuts. Then they put us on a diet, no greasy food, everything well cooked to build us up. We were there approximately three months, before shipping us back to the States.
I went to Fort Mead, Maryland, where reporters from all newspapers were there to interview us. We were told to stay away from the reporters and say nothing. They interrogated each one of us by ourselves, by an American officer. The physical exam they gave me was a joke. They gave me pills for my nerves and said I would be ok. I was discharged without a proper examination. They EVEN wanted to just get me out of there. I got discharged under the point system. I was so tired of people, I just was glad to get away. My life as a P.O.W. was terrible. If there is a hell, I have been there.
Additional Notes, taken from an interview with John Ceney in October 2003
Italy prisoners fight amongst themselves (the Germans liked to see this) so they threw food over the fence and watched as they fought over it. John Ceney punched a friend in the mouth over the food. After the first time, they realized it amused the German guards so they sent out one man to pick the food up that was thrown over the fence.
There was an attempt to escape (Germany). It took 6 months to tunnel out of the potato cellar to the outhouse (they were locked in the buildings at night). There were 18 in the building. 3 made it out of the tunnel to the outhouse but they were shot and hung on the fence as warnings. His friend Jack Ruptca heard the shots. Ceney was to have been the 3rd guy out but he was sent to clean the Shit House. Ceney used to think this job was funny, and laughed while doing it: this infuriated the Germans who saw it as punishment.
Ceney remembers the smell from the town baking in the town stone oven. He says the smell would drive them crazy as they were starving.
Medals: He did not receive the POW Medal until the mid-late 1980's, 40 years after the war and his capture. He was refused the Purple Heart, although he was hit on a minefield in Cassino, Italy. This leg still bothers him and past X-rays had shown shrapnel still in his leg. He fought for many years for the purple heart. At a VA hearing for benefits a young guy was presiding over the hearing and he fell asleep while Ceney was talking. Ceney slammed his fist on the desk to wake the guy up. The hearings were culturally diverse so they were always tense. Ceney often felt ridiculed by these culturally different people especially when they rejected his claim for benefits. There were stacks of paperwork and hearings but Washington "Pushed it down". Ceney was told all his records were burned. He had to prove he was a POW by getting someone else that was there to verify it. Of the 18 guys he was captured with, only one was alive and that man could not speak, but could nod his head to his son. It took a long time to track the man down.
VA Hospitals - 1st VA hospital on Highland Drive, Pittsburgh, PA took care of POW's, Dr. Friday was his doctor. Dr. Friday would tell Ceney what was wrong (like frozen feet) but then told Ceney that he was not allowed to write anything down; so they didn't have to pay. At one point Ceney was suffering from intense stomach pains. He went to the VA Hospital. One X-Ray technician told him something was wrong in his X-Ray/Sonogram but three doctors came in and told him he was fine. A week later his appendix burst and he was hospitalized for several weeks. Dr. Friday told Ceney he never received the report. A German Doctor at the VA took care of his frozen feet. The doctor had no pity and ridiculed him. Ceney tried to hit the doctor over the head with a chair.
10 years after being liberated Ceney got Black mouth from malnutrition, the doctor's wanted him to go to the VA hospital and wait there until he had a reoccurrence. But Ceney had a wife and three kids to support and could not do that. Dr. Noden, Ceney's family doctor would not get involved with the VA. (Ceney outgrew the black mouth after 30 years)
Ceney finally received benefits when he saw the psychiatrist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Ceney believes this was only done because as he was talking about revenge on the Germans he also threatened to cut the psychiatrist as well if he didn't get some sort of benefits. He received only 30%.
Current Sentiments: "The government didn't take care of the men after the war (WWII). They won't take care of these guys coming back from Iraq either. They'll get the shaft." Won't go back to the VA hospitals, they don't take care of you, they don't give you anything, and they used POW's as guinea pigs. (When I asked him to clarified this, he stated that the VA would send him an envelope full of pills he was to take every month. Ceney flushed them down the toilet. But that other guys he knew from the VA were taking them and they died mysterious deaths.) Ceney won't fight for benefits anymore - too much hassle and ridicule. "You get tired of fighting".
Additional Notes, taken from a video interview with John Ceney in November 2003
Ceney was captured in Cassino Italy, and was a POW for about a year and a half. They (Americans and ally troops) were trying to get the Germans out of a monastery. He was captured at about 7am after the Germans threatened to throw a potato masher (grenade) into the shed he was hiding in. The POW's were taken to Cassino jail, where Ceney says the Germans were living the high life of luxury. After the bombing stopped they were moved into a truck, where they had to ride standing up, to Italian concentration camps. They kept moving the POW's back toward Stalag 2B (this was known as the worst POW camp). They were only at Stalag 2B overnight. In what was called a "Kommando Raid" the German guards came through the camp and sent certain POW's to Bower farms. This was a 3-4 day ride in a box car to Germany. Then marched to Hanover, Germany. Then onto Stope, Germany to the Bonzico farm. There were 18 on a farm. They had to dig "Flukens", this meant breaking through the mounds and filling the wagons with them. They also had to have smooth fields, Ceney states he did a hack job at this as he was no farmer. The "Hut Master" who was in charge of the farm only spoke German. This caused some initial problems as Ceney could not understand what they wanted him to do and he was not a farmer. By the time he was freed, he could speak Low German, High German, and Platte German. They were fed a tea for breakfast and a soup full of maggots, turnip tops and garbage for lunch. That was it.
Ceney sustain some injuries while a POW. He suffered from huge fly bites, that left bloody marks all over his body, especially his torso, as the POW's were not allowed to wear shirts while farming. He was smacked with the butt of a German rifle for eating a potato that was meant to be planted. He was hurt all over. Frozen Feet that first started on Hill 1209 but continued and worsened while he was a POW, but the nerves in his feet are bad. Black mouth and tongue from malnutrition. Rashes all over his body. Long term: Ceney still can't stand to be around people, he begins to feel closed in. His frozen feet still ooze from the soles of his feet. There is still shrapnel in his leg from a mine field - deep scars where the shrapnel is located. Curve and hump in his back from malnutrition. Could not re-adjust to life
His walk to freedom started around December 1944. The Germans kept moving the prisoners because they feared the Americans were coming. They walked the prisoners everyday until April 1945. One night as they were locked in a barn, they looked out at a moon that Ceney swears had a cross on it, plain as day. The men took it as a sign something good was going to happen to them soon. The next day they came across 1 American jeep and 1 American tank from the 79th Division. The Germans feared that the whole American army was there and surrendered to the prisoners. Turns out that the tank and jeep were lost 10 miles away from their division. They heard on the tank radio right after that, Roosevelt was dead. They continued to walk until meeting up with the 79th Division. From there they were taken to France and received medical treatment. Several prisoners died as the Red Cross gave them donuts and told them not to eat more than one, they ate several they were so hungry and their stomachs blew up and killed them. From there he doesn't remember how he got on a boat heading back to Maryland. Where they were debriefed quickly (less than an hour) by one colonel, and then told not to talk to reporters or anyone. Ceney was then sent on furlough home for 64 days. He returned home to Pittsburgh, PA where his family was. Upon getting on the street car, things in his neighborhood had greatly changed. The school which was his landmark for getting off the street car was gone so he passed his stop. He arrived home at 3am, banging on a locked door. His brother answered and told him to keep it down or he would wake the family up. This pissed Ceney off, so he left and went to the mill where his father worked and spent the night talking and sitting with his father there. They returned home in the morning where Ceney's mother was ecstatic at having her son home finally and upset that he didn't wake her at 3am to let her know he was home. The neighbors were "nice" to him but there was no huge community homecoming or party or anything.
After his furlough, he went to Camp Gordon, Georgia, where they gave him a job in the message center. Ceney wanted to go back to Germany for revenge, but they sent him to Fort Mead, Maryland instead. He was with a group that was getting ready to go back overseas when they pulled him out and discharged him. They did not give him a reason. He was given $300 for mustering out. Nothing more. He still could not readjust to life so he went to the enlistment center in Pittsburgh, PA to reenlist, but was told they would not take him. No reason was given why they would not take him. The VA did many medical exams, blood tests, x-rays and such to determine benefits and to help with the many ailments that plagued him while in civilian life. But was told there was nothing they could do for him.
Ceney says he had a huge file that said POW on it. They even gave him a POW card. Although he was not receiving POW benefits, just the 10% for being a veteran of the war. 8 years later, he was referred to the POW Center in Pittsburgh PA where his doctor was Doctor Friday. But after an incident where he went in for stomach pains and was told nothing was wrong with him and sent home, a week later his appendix burst, Ceney had had it with the VA. The only benefit he received was from the POW Center psychiatrist after threatening to cut his throat like he would any German he saw.
40 years later, the VA still want to do examinations and testing before they will even consider a benefits increase. Ceney was told if there was an increase it would not be retroactive. But the VA hospital scheduled appointments for the 78 year old Ceney over a 4 day period in Madison, WI (a 70+ mile drive for the old man) and the appointments were at odd times, like 7am one day and then 9pm another day. Ceney called and canceled everything since he wasn't being seen for his frozen feet and the shrapnel in his leg. He was disillusioned with the whole process and feels he is too old to have to go through this with no guarantees he will receive anything. He states he does not want to be their guinea pig again. Ceney says about the process to get benefits you are supposed to be entitled to - "it sucks." When Ceney was asked about the American POW's coming home from Iraq he states, " they are getting the same lousy deal I did."
Thanks to John Ceney and Donnalynn Hayes for contributing this account.
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