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Ex-POWs recall ordeals at tribute

November 01, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

For Bill Diehl, one of thousands of American soldiers taken prisoner after the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Christmas dinner in 1944 consisted of a spoonful of oatmeal eaten with horse manure-stained hands.

Diehl, 79, of Greencastle, Pa., was one of 40 or so people who attended a ceremony Friday at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg designed to honor prisoners of war and missing-in-action soldiers.

Sharing his story after the ceremony, Diehl leaned close to speak of unimaginable events.

An infantryman with the 106th Division, Diehl was sent to the front lines with 16 shells and quickly was greeted by attacking German forces. With defeat seemingly imminent, on Dec. 19, 1944, U.S. troops were told to destroy their equipment, he recalled.

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After his capture, Diehl was locked inside a train previously used to haul horses. For six days he and the other prisoners of war went without food or water.

A bombing eventually destroyed the tracks during a time when the temperature was said to be 35 degrees below zero. Prisoners in the train all slept facing the same way so they could put their hands between the next man's armpits or legs to prevent freezing.

On Dec. 26, the men started to walk. They would not stop until Jan. 1. Dysentery followed after the men drank from a stream, but strength came from an unlikely source.

As the prisoners crested a mountain, they were confronted by the sight of "the cutest bungalow," with smoke pouring from its chimney.

A young women ran out and greeted the Americans. She was from Chicago and had come to visit her grandparents.

Hearing a girl's voice and imagining that they might one day share such a home with such a woman, the soldiers found strength.

"It really boosted our morale," Diehl said.

Eventually, Diehl made it to a location where soup was available and the men were allowed to take a bath. Each was given a dog tag and a number. Diehl can still recite his - 312598.

Grouped with English POWs, Diehl went to work in a wood-splitting factory where ammunition and grenade boxes were made.

Release came on May 7, 1945, after which Diehl again started walking and ended up in Czechoslovakia.

When he first went to the front, Diehl weighed 185 pounds. Three weeks after coming home and eating well, he weighed 123 pounds.

He credits his survival on a base instinct.

"A will to live. You'll try anything to live," he said.

George M. Moore Jr., director of the VA Medical Center, said it is important to recognize prisoners of war and those soldiers reported as missing in action, whose fate may always remain a mystery.

Former World War II POW Fred Mayer of Charles Town, W.Va., addressed the crowd.

In 1938, when war clouds started to darken Europe, he and his family immigrated to the United States from Germany, he said. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he tried to join the U.S. Army, but was turned down as an "alien." A year later he was accepted and became part of the elite group that would become known as the Green Berets.

After jumping from a B-24 onto an Alpine glacier, he and other members of the group skied down the mountain and behind enemy lines. With the help of fake paperwork, he became a German lieutenant.

When Mayer found out about 26 trains loaded with artillery and tanks, he informed Allied forces, who destroyed the machinery. That action, he was told later, may have shortened the war by six months.

When he was captured by Gestapo forces, Mayer was interrogated and tortured. His captors stuck a pistol in his mouth and broke all of his back teeth, hung him upside down and poured water into his nose and ears.

When a more compassionate soldier entered, Mayer was released and sent to a cell with straw on the floor and no heat. An old guard who felt sorry for the young soldier gave him part of a sandwich, but Mayer could not eat it.

After his prisoner experience, Mayer received a new uniform and continued to serve.

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