Sergeant Robert W. Chaudoin
Unit : Company D, 423rd Regiment, 106th Division, US Army.
Served : France, Belgium (captured)
Army No. : 37111472
Camps : Stalag IXA, IXB
Sgt. Robert W. Chaudoin, serial number 37111472, entered service on January 3rd, 1942 at the age of 24. He was sent to Camp Roberts, California for three weeks basic training where he was promoted to corporal and was made an instructor at the Infantry Replacement Center. In August of 1943, he was transferred to Camp Blanding, Florida as an instructor at the rank of sergeant. After one month, he was transferred to Camp McCoy, in Wisconsin and finally onto Camp Atterbury in Indiana as a member of the 106th Infantry Division of the Army also known as the Golden Lion. He was placed into company D of the 423rd Regiment before going overseas in September, 1944. In England the whole division was split up. Sgt. Chaudoin's company landed at Le Havre, France in October, 1944. By the 1st December he was on the front lines.
Chaudoin and his company landed at Le Havre via the North Sea or Dover Strait. They travelled on a small ship in rough waters. He became seasick and threw up. Nearing Le Havre, they had to jump overboard into an LST (tank transport) to land on the beach head. After walking to a farmer's field, they set up camp in the late afternoon. They were bivouacked at the farmhouse for two weeks but were told not to go near the farmhouse. At this point, Chaudoin was made a squad leader with eight men under him (one gunner, two assistant gunners, and five ammunition carriers).
After two weeks of bivouacking, they were transferred on the Red Ball Express to the front lines in Belgium. Before being transferred, the chaplain for the 106th held a Mass, and the soldiers were given absolution. From there, they walked to the front and replaced the Second Division. Once on the front, they were kept busy by digging fox holes and trenches. Chaudoin replaced a soldier who manned a machine gun. Just as the change occurred, the soldier barely made it to the trench before being shot in the foot. Sgt. Chaudoin manned the machine gun for a rotation of four hours on and two hours off. The company commander, at the time, was Captain Clark, who was killed from a direct hit.
The Battle of the Bulge was in full swing. During the night of December 18th near St. Vith, Belgium, there was considerable activity and vehicular movement in the German rear areas. More troops were re-enforcing those already attacking St. Vith. After midnight, there was constant patrols and counter-patrols on both sides. Chaudoin recalled that a Lieutenant told him he needed to accompany him back to field headquarters which he did. They returned to their unit only to find all his men had been killed or were wounded and dying. The Lieutenant yelled for him to run, they turned and ran right into a group of Germans. The officer told him to lay down his gun. As they were lead away by the Germans, he could hear the wounded calling for help and calling for him. He carried their sounds with him for the rest of his life. I think he felt some shame that he wasn't with them when they most needed him. Chaudoin and 20 others were captured and forced marched into enemy lines.
Sgt. Chaudoin had slit a hole into the lining of his flak jacket and dropped in his high school graduation ring and two silver dollars. The Germans never found these items. He also had approximately nine dollars in French currency, which the Germans took. They gave him a receipt for the money which he turned in after liberation and was refunded its equivalent in American dollars. That was all the money he had until he reached California.
The captives were marched to Prum, Germany about 15 miles from St. Vith where they stayed overnight in a bombed out school house. They were then marched on to Gerolstein the next day and arrived in the late afternoon. They were finally given a meal which consisted of cheese, crackers and water. They were not fed at all on the first two days of capture.
At Gerolstein which was 30 miles east of the German border the captives were loaded onto train cars called "40 and 8's" (cars were large enough to hold 40 men and 8 horses). About 60 men were piled into the train cars. They were forced to sleep almost on top of each other. It was December 21st or 22nd, 1944. The train took them into Frankfurt where they were forced to stay in the cars while the British air force bombed the railway station on Christmas Eve. Sgt. Chaudoin said he remembers some of the men were becoming claustrophobic and panicked when they were being bombed. They tried to get out of the train cars and run to the station. The Germans waited in the buildings and shot the men running from the cars.
Sgt. Chaudoin arrived at POW camp Stalag 9B (Bad Orb) on or about December 26th. He was interrogated by a German officer who was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. One other German soldier had graduated from the University of Illinois. He was told that the Germans knew when the 106th left the states, when they arrived in England and when they were placed on the front lines and therefore, were green untried troops.
They were finally given some more food. Not everyone had mess kits so Sgt. Chaudoin shared his helmet with another soldier and they ate out of it. They couldn't eat all that was given to them because their stomachs had shrunk. Food consisted of watery soup (sometimes made of grass), ersatz bread, cheese, and a coffee substitute. They weren't given any shaving equipment, so Chaudoin borrowed a scissors and used cold water to trim his beard. About one month he was transferred to Stalag 9A near Ziegenhain.
At Ziegenhain he was given black crusty bread and potato soup to eat. Sgt. Chaudoin found a piece of metal and tried to hone it into a knife to cut the bread but ended up slicing the fingers on his left hand. There was no medic or dispensary in the camp so the Germans took him into the nearby town where a tailor stitched up his fingers.
Sgt. Chaudoin refused to work for the Germans and therefore didn't receive a lot of rations like other prisoners who chose to work on the nearby farms. The prisoners who worked got their Red Cross packages and lots of food. These POWs seemed to have all they wanted to eat including candy and lots of cigarettes which they traded for other privileges. Chaudoin weighed in at 210 pounds when he entered the service. He lost over 60 pounds during his three months imprisonment.
The camp at Ziegenhain was surrounded by rows of fence. The barracks were long with high ceilings. About eighty men were assigned to one barrack which had rows of double bunks to accommodate the prisoners. Sgt. Chaudoin shared his bunk with another prisoner to keep warm as they were issued very thin blankets. It was so cold that most of the prisoners suffered from frostbite. There were separate buildings for latrines but no bathing facilities. Prisoners were given one blanket but no change of clothing at all. While in camp Chaudoin suffered from dysentery and malnutrition. On nice sunny days, the prisoners spent the day in the sun leaning against the barracks sometimes playing cards, but mostly listening for news from the underground. He told of one story of just going into the barracks to get out of the cold and his bunk mate (a gunner from his company) was lying in the top bunk. They were talking when a British plane flew over strafing the camp. The guy on the bunk had just gotten down when bullets from the plane came straight through the roof and plowed down the top bunk the man had just vacated. Split the post down the middle to the floor. Close call!
The German guards of Ziegenhain were not combat troops. They were elderly men from the nearby town who were forced into service. A regular army colonel was assigned as head of the camp.
The Germans knew that the Allies were approaching, and they tried to move the prisoners to another camp. The ranking American prisoner, a colonel of the 101st airborne, quietly told the other POW's to "drop like flies and to tell the Germans were they were too weak to be moved". Some of the POW's jumped into the latrine trenches to escape being put on transports. The elderly guards knew it was useless to try to force the prisoners to evacuate the camp. They threw down their rifles and gave up to the advancing Americans. Sgt. Chaudoin was very weak but was able to walk to the evacuation truck that was to take them to freedom. He was liberated on March 26th, 1945.
After liberation by the American First, he was taken to a place they called Camp Lucky Strike and offered a big meal of chicken, potatoes and gravy and all kinds of food, but he was unable to eat much of it because his stomach had shrank so much. The POW's were then taken into Giessen, Germany, then flown into Le Havre, France and put on board a Liberty ship after being issued new clothing. The ship took the POW's into South Hampton, England. He was disinfected and given powdered eggs to eat. On the way across the Atlantic, about a week into the journey, Chaudoin remembers hearing that President Roosevelt had died. They disembarked in New York and were taken to a Red Cross area. They were put in debriefing and asked about next of kin and where they wanted their final destination to be. Chaudoin decided on going to California to see his sister on Los Angeles. He was immediately put on a train to California.
After returning to the states, Chaudoin was issued a sixty day rehabilitation furlough which he spent with family. At the end of the furlough, he returned to Santa Barbara, California, then sent onto Ft. Warren, Wyoming where he was stationed and discharged from the army one month later. He wanted to stay in the army but was given no choice and was honorably discharged. I believe he took this as a slap in the face for being a POW and summarily felt he had not done his job well while in the service. He was given $99 for being a POW, that was all the pay he received for service to his country and suffering the indignities while being a POW.
For the most part Sgt. Chaudoin felt he was treated in a decent and fair manner by the Germans. But he also spoke little about his experiences until very recently, a few years before his death. Whenever I asked him he would just get a vacant look on his face and stare off into space. A few years ago he joined the local group of American Prisoners of War in the Quad City area and started receiving a monthly magazine. There were many times while reading the articles in the magazine he would just start crying and all he would say is that it triggered a response in him. I believe he suffered for many years by believing he had not protected the young recruits under his charge (Chaudoin was 25 while most of the men in his squad were just out of high school). Many nights he would thrash around in bed as if he was fighting someone and then yell out. It wasn't until we gave him a party recognizing the 50th Anniversary of his capture that we heard most of these stories and that he finally told us about what happened the day he was captured. He truly felt he had failed his squad by not being there when they were attacked. He carried this feeling with him for close to 50 years. It was only at this party when he heard other stories from other World War II veterans and what they went through and heard them say he was not responsible for their deaths that I think he finally made peace with himself.
The medals he received while in the military:
30 caliber water cooled Machine Gun
American Campaign Medal
European, Africa, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
Bronze Star for meritorious service
World War II Medal
Prisoner of War Medal
My thanks to Sheila Chaudoin, Robert Chaudoin's daughter, for this story.
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