From Time to Time Post 581 Legionaires bring up
"The Good Old Days"
This section of our site is dedicated to preserving those memories
Clifford Haberl shared recollections of his POW Experiences in Germany during WWII
at the 2007 Memorial Day Services of Columbia American Legion Post 581
I was captured in November1944, shortly before Thanksgiving during the battle of the Hurtgen Forrest, while serving with the 1st Division. I was a company runner wireman radio operator. I was sent back to battalion to bring two sergeants up and to string wire from battalion to our company. On the way the wire ran out. The tech sergeant said to tie the end to a tree.
About that time the Germans yelled “Hands Up!” A sergeant grabbed me and pulled me into a nearby foxhole and yelled “Shoot!” The Germans threw two grenades in our direction. I was wounded in the lower leg and foot. The sergeant was wounded in the back and the tech sergeant was wounded in the face. A German patrol leader who spoke very good English, said they could have killed us but they want prisoners. They strip searched us for guns and other weapons. The Schmeiser machine gun barrel looked very huge when pointed at us. They then put soldiers on either side of me to help me walk and took us to German Headquarters. On the way we were under U.S. artillery fire. We would fall down whenever the shells went over us. The Germans would laugh at us.
The German Headquarters looked like it was in the basement of a large church. It was here that a German medic bandaged my wounds. They interrogated us but all we gave was our name, rank and serial number. They knew more of what was going on with our side than we did. While we were in a shed waiting after our interrogation, we talked and figured out we had walked into a gap between our company and the next company. The Germans had infiltrated this gap. That day for Thanksgiving dinner, we had a few turnips and rutabagas.
The next day, the sergeants were sent to a camp for sergeants and I was sent to a camp for lower ranks. I went to a camp located in Bonn, Germany.On the third morning we were shaved, deloused and showered. We were told that our clothes would be deloused and cleaned. When we came out after our showers, our clothes had been replaced with other clothes and wooden soled shoes which caused me much pain because of my wounds. We found out later that our confiscated clothes were used by the Germans to infiltrate the lines during the Battle of the Bulge.The next day we were served black bread and molasses, we then were marched ten miles to a stockade where we joined another group of POW’s. We received one loaf of bread and one small can of horse meat for eleven men.
After several additional transfers, we were herded into boxcars of a train with so many in a car that we could not sit. We had no water and no toilet facilities. Some broke down and began crying because of the conditions. We were given a half loaf of bread and a third of a can of meat apiece for a two day train ride. We finally reached our destination, a stalag in Limburg. This was the first of six detention camps I was sent to during my captivity. The other camps were located in Neubrandenburg (twice), Rostock, Wismar, and Warin. Whenever we had to move to a new camp, we would have to walk. During the transfers, we slept in barns or fields under trees in the cold, even if it was raining. Wherever there was a potato pile, we would bribe the German guards with cigarettes so we could crawl out to the pile to get some potatoes to eat. You were not sure even with bribing the guards that they wouldn’t shoot you. Getting enough to eat was a very big problem.
We had primitive living conditions such as outhouses for latrines. Water was always cold for bathing. The buildings had double bunk beds with straw mattresses and pot bellied stoves for heating and cooking. When we marched, kids frequently threw rocks at us. The guards would yell at them to stop. In some situations we felt the guards were protecting us as well as guarding us. The daily rations were a cup of erzat coffee and a small piece of black bread in the morning. Evening dinner was cabbage soup. To this day I cannot eat cabbage.
We received Red Cross parcels. Normally there was supposed to be one parcel for each man every six weeks. I received two parcels during the six months of my captivity and had to share one parcel with 5 other men. This was to prevent the accumulation of food, which could be used for an escape. These parcels had cigarettes as well as food. The main source of currency among POW’s was the American cigarettes in the parcels. I once saw a POW with a $100 bill trying to buy loaves of bread, but could not. I usually tried to get the sardines and paste liver, etc. because most of the POW’s didn’t want this food, but it was high in nutrients.
I was able to trade with a Frenchman, my wooded soled shoes and some cigarettes, for a pair of regular shoes. I also had to bribe some German guards with cigarettes, who saw the trade. Every day the German guards would yell at us, especially when forming the morning count. This would occur whether it was sunny or raining. Frequently they would have to recount. We were told by the POW ranking person to beware of the SS because of the punishment the SS would hand out. If you stayed in the stalags, you would roam from barracks to barracks to see if you could find someone you knew or find something extra to eat. You were always trying to find food. Wherever I went, I always carried a cup and a quart milk can to carry water, especially on the marches. I also carried a blanket during the marches.
During the Christmas season, the Germans began to brag and push the POW’s around. That is when we found out about the Battle of the Bulge. At first we didn’t take them seriously, but then the camp suddenly began to fill up with more American POW’s. One prisoner was an African-American who told us he was far behind the front lines when he was captured. This is when we became worried.While I was in the camps I had different assignments, depending on which camp I was in. At Rostock, I and a group were assigned to repair and install new railroad tracks. We did not fully cooperate. We had to roll carts of dirt down to the end of the track. Many times we would roll it off the end of the track and dump it over. The Germans would get mad and chewed us out.
One of our POW’s was killed when he accidentally stepped into the path of a train. He was treated respectfully. He was placed in a wooden coffin and we were taken under guard on a trolley to where he was laid out near the cemetery and was buried in a plot that was reserved for enemies of Germany. A German firing squad fired a salute.
We were marched about 9 miles a day heading for the American lines because the Russians were closing in on Germany from the east. On the second day, I couldn’t march anymore because of my wounds, so they put me in a wagon along with other wounded and sick POW’s who couldn’t continue to march. We spent the night in a shed which was cold with no heat. During the night, one of our soldiers died of gangrene. He was placed in a wooden coffin and buried in a small family plot. A German firing squad fired a volley over his grave.
There were 12 of us working on a farm. There were two guards assigned to our group. One was an old guard who was OK. One day as we were hoeing the fields, he got mad at us because we were not hoeing properly. He got so mad, yelled at us, gave his rifle to a prisoner named Max and he grabbed his hoe, and began to show us how to hoe. While he was doing this, Max was doing the manual of arms with his rifle. When the guard realized what he had done, he threw down the hoe and grabbed his rifle and said a couple of expletives in German. He often told Max that he was a Chicago gangster.
After our time on the farm, we were marched down the road toward the American lines again. We stopped for the night in the woods, next morning we woke up and found the guards left during the night and marked the area with POW signs. We saw many Germans headed for the American lines, the soldiers having shed their weapons. Shortly, we saw Russian troops coming over the fields in vehicles shooting weapons in the air. One of our group could speak Russian and talked to them as to who we were. They loaded us into a wagon and took us to the American lines. After six months, we were back behind the American lines.
For many years thereafter, I had a reminder of my wounds as grenade fragments at times worked their way out of my leg. I also had nightmares about my experiences as a POW. I don’t have those nightmares anymore and can now talk easier about my experiences.