PFC John P. Halada

 

Unit : "A" Company, 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division.

Camps : Stalag XIIA, VIIA.

 

Background

 

I grew up in the small Central Pennsylvania town of Palmerton. Working at Bethlehem Steel in the Ordinance Department, I had a deferment. I quit to join the Army Air Corps, but found out I was colorblind. Being too tall for the paratroopers, I was drafted into the infantry in November 1943. I was 23 years old.

 

We had lots of ethnic Pennsylvania Dutch near Palmerton, so I was quite fluent in German. Hunting was a regular hobby, so I was already a pretty good shot when I joined the Army. Being 6'3" and weighing around 215 lbs made me the obvious GI to carry the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). I was also considered a pretty tough guy.

 

After six months of training I was assigned to a Replacement Contingent. We left for England on the "SS Argentina" and arrived in April 1944. Invasion tension was already high and men with their equipment were practicing everywhere. D-Day was June 6th.

 

On my departure from England I was just amazed at the unbelievable number of ships and barrage balloons dotting the horizon. When we arrived off of Normandy, I had to go over the ships side and down a seemingly endless cargo net into a bouncing Landing Craft carrying my rifle and full pack. This was a daunting task, but nothing compared to what I was about to face. When ashore, I was ordered to discard my gas mask and join up with my unit. I was assigned to "A" Company, 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division.

 

Normandy

 

Although D-Day had been a week earlier, the effects of the battles for Omaha and Utah Beaches were evident in the Channel and on land. Wrecked vehicles, strewn equipment, wounded and dead were ever present. On June 16th we moved out to attack the entrenched German Garrison at Cherbourg. After 10 days of heavy fighting, the bastion fell to the men of the 79th Division. This was our first battle and casualties were heavy.

 

On July 3rd we began an attack on the small French town of La Haye du Puits. This area was very stubbornly defended and once again casualties were very heavy on both sides. House to house combat was the norm on July 7th and 8th. One of my first and most unforgettable experiences was hearing a seriously wounded German, lying between the hedgerows, calling for help. A Southern boy sought to shut him up and went over and shot him in the head. We almost got into a fight. A few days later, he was seriously wounded. The law of retribution? After witnessing such death and destruction, I asked a French farm lady to fill my canteen with Calvados in place of water.

 

The Hedgerows

 

For the next several weeks we made little progress against the German positions anchored at St. Lo. The hedgerows proved a natural barrier and were much more advantageous for the defender as opposed to the attacker. We lost a lot of men and armor trying to gain precious yards.

 

There were also the minefields. On one occasion, I was 2/3rds of the way across an open area, when Boom, Boom, Boom, delayed mines started going off. My Lieutenant, just 5 yards from me, stepped on a Bouncing Betty, which fatally injured him. Some how, I ran back thru that field to get help without stepping on another mine. We had to leave our guys there until the field could be swept. I had three of my four Lieutenants killed in my two months in Normandy.

 

On another occasion, I had just dug my foxhole when the "Jerries" opened up on us with their 88's. I raced back to my shelter only to find two others had already dove into it. I piled on top and lay as flat as I could. WOOM, one went off real close, and I felt this heat and pressure across my backside. A piece of shrapnel had torn the seat right out of my pants. Almost a disASSter, but my good fortune continued.

 

Almost an "ACE" and meeting "Blood and Guts"

 

After the Breakthrough at St. Lo and the attacks on the Germans in the Falaise Pocket, we headed towards the Seine. At this time we were part of Patton's 3rd Army and protecting his flank. Our orders were not to shoot at aircraft, as it would give away our position and strength. They were also much more likely to be Allied than German.

 

My squad and I were walking across an open area parallel to our vehicles that were on a road. I saw this fighter coming down after the tanks and trucks. When he started strafing, I raised my BAR, led the guy, and opened up with my armor piercing ammunition. Much to my surprise, the plane began to smoke and appeared to crash over the hill. Everyone was either congratulating me or yelling at me when this Command Jeep comes driving over the field. Some General, with a helmet full of stars yells, "Who shot that plane?" Well, everyone backed away, and I'm left standing there with a smoking BAR with about 50 brass casings at my feet. With little other choice, I said, "I did sir." With that, he said: "Good shooting soldier, you got that Jerry son of a bitch." He had an officer write down my name, but I never heard anything. When I asked who that was, I was informed that was "Old Blood and Guts Patton,' himself. Your blood, his guts."

 

What "guts" for a General to be up at the very front line. I thought he was great, even though his persistent aggressiveness led to my capture.

 

Lobbing A Grenade

 

Another training directive, besides not shooting at aircraft, was to "lob, not throw" a hand grenade. We were moving through a French cemetery on the outskirts of town when a German MG-42 machine gun opened fire from a 3rd floor window of a house across the street from us. With some difficulty, we managed to get to the stone cemetery wall opposite the house with the machine gun. With the yell of "covering fire" I was boosted over the wall and ran to the base of the house and underneath the Germans. I pulled the pin on my grenade and "lobbed" it towards the window. It hit the wall and fell at my feet. I quickly grabbed it, ran into the street and "threw a strike" at the window. The grenade went off right at the window and killed all three gunners. I was real lucky.

 

A Good Night's Sleep

 

As we approached the Seine, I was once again in a forward element. The plan was to pass through this village the next day. My buddy and I saw no activity and decided to move into town to sleep as opposed to a wet and cold foxhole. We went to this French home, had a wonderful meal with plenty of wine and a soft bed. We awoke at dawn and returned to our lines in a two-wheeled horse drawn cart. The camouflaged netting on our helmets was bedecked with flowers. Our CO was beside himself. Later that morning we moved forward only to be met by stiff German resistance. They had fortified the one side of town and did not want to betray their positions to a couple of inebriated GI's. Another stoke of good fortune.

 

Capture!

 

The 314th crossed the River Seine near Mantes-Gassicort about 40 miles Northwest of Paris on August 20th. Myself, along with a veteran Army Ranger named Lt. J. Bacchus occupied a far forward position. We were given orders to withdraw, but he insisted we stay and hold our ground. He said he did not want to take the same real estate twice. On the night of August 21st, the Germans, led by King Tiger tanks, counterattacked. Our position near Fontenoy St. Pierre was overrun and the two of us hid in a under road culvert. Around 10:00 in the morning, some Germans ordered us out or they would throw in hand grenades. The decision was relatively easy.

 

As was the usual practice, Lt. Bacchus, an officer, was separated from me and I never was able to determine his fate. To my surprise, a German officer asked me if our Captain Flannery was still wearing his lucky combat boots with the big hole in the sole. How they knew this level of detail about our unit was certainly surprising.

 

As a prisoner, I and other Americans were initially held near the front. Here we encountered what the Germans called "American Automatic Artillery." There would be a continuous scream, followed by boom, boom, boom…just like a machine gun. There must have been more than a dozen artillery tubes firing in tandem. We had much more firepower, but the German 88 was very accurate and deadly.

 

While near the front, I witnessed an American fighter get shot down. All the "krauts" opened fire on him with everything they had. The pilot did not bailout after being hit, but rammed his plane into a German arms depot. He was a real hero. I felt bad being a prisoner, but there was nothing I could have done differently. Behind the German front lines was a very dangerous place and I was anxious to get out of there.

 

Not long after capture, I was united with Bob Greenawalt, another member of "A" Company and a fellow Central Pennsylvanian from Kutztown. We were moved by truck to Amiens, France and then to Chalfonte. On the way, brave French women defied the Germans and passed us loaves of bread and water. From there we went to Stalag XII in Limburg, Luxemburg and on September 4th put on rail cars for a train ride to Moosburg. This trip was far from uneventful as US fighters strafed our locked up train.

 

Stalag 7A

 

Stalag 7A was located near the Bavarian town of Moosburg, about 35 miles Northwest of Munich. When I arrived it was just for enlisted men like myself. We were given showers to soothe our flea-infested bodies. There were four sections: one for the Russians, which was separate, and one each for Americans, English and French. We were free to intermingle except with the Russians. A double barbed wire fence surrounded the camp and we slept and ate in wooden barracks. My prison ID tag number was 85-79A. The tag was perforated, so it could be broken in two. One half was to be buried with you, the other half to the Red Cross.

 

As the war continued, the Stalag became even more crowded and conditions worsened. We were all quite depressed when so many American troops were added after the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. We knew however, that things must have been going in our favor as we regularly watched the endless waves of American and British bombers fly high overhead and bomb the nearby cities. Food was becoming very scarce and Red Cross weekly parcels were inadequate. I went from 215 to 165 [lbs] during captivity.

 

Meals were an interesting cultural event. American GI's would push and shove in line and gobble down their chow. The Brits would be "very proper" and have tea first and call: "Say there Jerry, just place the food on the table while we finish tea." They would then line up and march to the chow line. The French would periodically decorate their mess tins with dandelions or other flowers to have a more elegant dining experience.

 

I loved the Brits sense of dry humor. In their latrines, they hung signs that read: "Don't throw fags (butts) into the urinals, as it renders them almost unsmokeable." Some of those guys had been there since 1940.

 

The Chicago Gangster

 

The Brits got little tins of tea in their Red Cross parcels. One "Tommy" was drying his tealeaves on the windowsill. There was no more tea left in them. I asked if he smoked them. He said: "Oh no, I put them back in the tin and carefully reseal it. I can get two loaves of bread for it in town." He went on to warn me to "Give the bread to a mate to hide, for they will surely come back after you".

 

Some time later, I had the opportunity to go into town and thought I would try this "tea exchange". I got my two loaves of bread from a German woman but shortly thereafter, she was back demanding the guard to have her bread returned. She told the guard that I was a "Chicago Gangster". I was searched, but had already stashed the bread.

 

Six cigarettes could have been traded for a loaf, but the thought to quit smoking never occurred to any of us. Cigarettes were a precious staple of our culture.

 

The Guards

 

Overall, the treatment was fair. There were good and bad guards just as there were good and bad internees. One day we were sent by train into Munich to help clean up after the city had been bombed. One Brit, who was suffering from pneumonia and in bad shape, was being harassed to work harder by a guard. I decided to intervene and stepped between the Guard and the man he was bullying. I cussed at him in German and yelled for him to leave the sick alone and comply with the Geneva Convention. With that, he smashed me in the mouth with his rifle butt and chipped of my front teeth. After that however, he left the infirmed alone. I looked briefly for him at the end of the war to repay his hostility, but never located him.

 

On another occasion I threatened to kill some of our own guys who were stealing food from frail soldiers in the barracks. One of these sick guys, Bill Rosen, came by my hometown after the war to thank me for "saving his life". I barely recognized him, as I remembered Bill only as an emaciated body in the Stalag.

 

The Work Farm

 

In the Spring of 1945, there was the opportunity to get out of the Stalag and help the German farmers ready their fields. When asked my occupation before the war, I explained I was a farmer and raised pineapples. While they didn't have any pineapple farms, my ruse worked and I was sent as part of a work detachment to assist on a local farm. This enabled me to get some additional food that was essential.

 

One of the two farms, near Hohenkammer, I worked on was owned and managed by an old farmer and his wife. He hated Americans, but his wife was kind and helpful. On one occasion I was very sick and the "frau" gave me some hot tea with schnapps in it. A guard saw this and admonished her. With that she hit him with her broom and ordered him out of her house. Each night we returned to a central farmhouse where we were locked up for the night. Two other POW's that worked on the farm with me were Carlton Thomas of Monteagle, Tennessee and a French soldier named Micheau Pierre of Paris.

 

One humorous farm story was when I was given a new young ox to replace an older one. Two of these oxen were used to plow the fields. The first thing this young bull did was pinning me in the stall when trying to put on a bridle. A hard punch in the nose let him know who was boss. On the road, he kept forcing the other ox into a ditch. After repeated unsuccessful tries at altering his behavior, I decided to whip the older bull and yell left. After a while, the old bull got smart and would gore the young one and they would both stay on the road. When returning a large number of townspeople had lined up to watch how the "Ami" would bring the bulls back to the barn. Much to their astonishment, I drove them right down the road. They could not get over such an accomplishment.

 

My Escape

 

Without maps or a compass it was hard to plan an escape. I was also in my POW uniform with triangles painted on that everyone recognized. I also had only wooden shoes. When I heard the sound of distant artillery I knew which direction to go and made my plans to escape from the farm before being returned to Stalag 7A.

 

Late in the day, I picked up a scythe so as to look like a POW farm worker and headed northwest. I traveled mostly at night. One day I came on a farm and figured to hide in the barn. Not long afterwards, I heard two armed and obviously inebriated German soldiers approaching and climbed into the small hayloft. Later one of them started to climb into the loft saying he was going to sleep. Half way up the ladder, the other one grabbed him and pulled him down saying he would fall from there and kill himself. Lucky again.

 

I continued heading towards the firing. Hiding in the brush I saw an American truck approaching. Experience taught me to be wary of the first vehicle as they were likely trigger-happy. When it passed it was full of German soldiers who must have captured it for their escape.

 

Friend or Foe

 

Finally, I noticed a column of American vehicles and infantry approaching. I slowly walked out and explained my escaped POW situation. They were members of the 20th Armored Division, new to combat, and wary of potential of German officers impersonating as civilians or escaping Americans. Being alone and also admitting I spoke German added to their disbelief.

 

I was then passed to a Doctor or Physiatrist who asked me multiple questions. When asked about baseball, I said I didn't like it. He asked about Frank Sinatra, and I thought he was still asking about baseball players. After a while, he believed me and I was given a new uniform, great chow, but no weapon. They still were not 100% convinced.

 

My P08 German Luger

 

At this time it was late April and the Germans were surrendering in droves. One group of old Volkstrum, accompanied by an SS officer, approached and laid their weapons on the side of the road. I was directed by the 20th to interrogate the officer while others stood back covering them. The officer demanded I salute him and that he surrender only to an officer. With that, I walked to the side of the road, picked up a holstered Luger, pulled it out, and cocked it while walking back. I then again asked the SS officer for information. This time he was very responsive.

 

With this act, the Americans now believed I was legit and the Volkstrum got a chuckle from the SS man being humbled. I kept the Luger (DWM 6745a) with its holster for personal protection and not as a souvenir. I brought the Luger home with me and had it in my possession for over 60 years.

 

My Enjoyable Return

 

Not being a member of the 20th Armored, I was basically free to "find" my old unit now that the war was over. I "signed" for, or rather commandeered an Opel sedan and started back across Germany. I unfortunately encountered a temporary bridge that was unable to accommodate my low-slung Opel. For a while I traveled with another "straggler" named Cutler. We managed to have a great party with some German girls after liberating some wine and food from an obstinate German and his late Doberman.

 

On my way I did manage to stop in Nancy, France for several days of wine, women and song before heading to Paris. Finally I was reunited with a large contingent of ex-POW's called "Recovered Allied Military Personnel" or "RAMP" and readied to return to the United States. The plan was to prepare us for the Invasion of Japan.

 

The Trip Home

 

We shipped out of La Harve in mid-May on a Liberty Ship. Even this was not without incident as some ships were going straight when others decided to zigzag. The result was our ship was struck by another, but fortunately there was only minor damage except for a lot of frayed POW nerves. Fortunately, after we got back to the States, and the Japanese surrendered in August. I had real serious doubts about my willingness to fight again.

 

John P Halada March, 2006

 

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