“I am a relic from World War 2. I volunteered for the service at age 18. I shipped overseas in the early part of 1944, just after D-Day and landed in LaHavre France. We worked our way into Luxemburg and Belgium. My biggest battle was the Battle of the Bulge. I had been on patrol and came in about 3:30 in the morning. We lived in dugouts and had no heat. We cut shelves into the side of the dugout and slept on that. Our door was an opening covered by a poncho. That was my home for about five weeks. The floor always had about two inches of water that froze at night. We were always cold and wet in the winter of 1944. I suffered from frozen feet. I still suffer from it today. About 5:30 that morning, the Germans opened up with every piece of artillery they owned on the front. They bombarded us. It was like a thunderstorm with continuous lightning and thunder all at once. My ears were ringing. A lot of guys were hit by shrapnel going to foxholes. We tried to dig foxholes as deep as we could, hoping those screaming artillery shells didn’t follow you in. I swear every one of them had my name and said ‘Sy bang, Sy bang.’ as they went by.”
When you live in fear for quite a while, you become immune to it. Survival is the only thing on your mind. Your nervous system is thrown off and other parts of your body take over. When your body has that much adrenaline inside and then it comes out that void it PTSD. The Battle of the Bulge started with big tanks coming in on us and we were surrounded within hours. There were four infantry divisions with 15,000 men, but only 4,000 riflemen in each division. 16,000 men fighting along and 85-mile front who were being hit by 250,000 German soldiers. They went quickly through us. They made a bulge around us and cut off 16,000 fighters. We couldn’t break through and ran out of ammunition and food. They made a final charge on the third day we were surrounded. They came in with bayonets and threw hand grenades into our foxholes. A German soldier ran at me shouting. I am Jewish and can understand a bit of German. I was so filled with fear that I couldn’t get my arms were frozen and I couldn’t get them up. He jabbed me with a bayonet but it caught the button on my field jacket and slid off. He was going to stab me again, but I got my hands up. My status changed from a combat soldier to a prisoner of war. That button saved my life.
From the first three days of being a prisoner of war we were given no food or water, the temperature was at freezing. We were forced to march on the side of the road because the trucks and tanks were using the roads. We were walking in water and at night it froze. They marched us to the east. On the third day, they shoved us into railroad cards. 65 to 70 of us in a car. We were packed in so tight we couldn’t sit down. As our wounded died, we stacked them in the corner like cordwood so we could have more room. I was in that boxcar for seven days. On the third day in the boxcar, my sixth day without food and water only eating the snow coming off the boxcar, they stopped and gave us big soda crackers. They also stopped gave us water but said pass out your helmets. All of this time, you know what those helmets have been used for. The guys tried to clean the helmets with snow as the helmets got to the door. Dysentery took over and our situation grew even worse. Survival and camaraderie were the only things we could think of. Your regular thought process stops. You worry about the guy on your right and left and I am not going to allow them to kill me. When we were released from our boxcar, more than 20 guys had died from wounds, starvation, and going out of their minds. You don’t make friendships on the line. Two minutes from now you may be dead. Every death took a little more out of you. It is all feelings that are difficult to put in words.
I was in camp IV for 2 weeks. I was interrogated by a German soldier who spoke perfect English and had graduated from Penn State. His family answered the call to return to the homeland. After two weeks of interrogation, I was placed with New Zealanders captured in North Africa. I was put on another boxcar for four days and shipped further east. I was in a camp for two weeks when the Russians started their offensive. There were 4,000 Americans in this camp. The Germans evacuated the camp to keep us out of Russian hands and sent us on a 110-mile march. I had frozen feet and couldn’t put my boots on. We had no food or water and lived off the land. We were guarded by vicious German Shepherd and Doberman dogs. I saw them tear a man’s arm off. We found dung heaps that farmers used to store vegetables in there and we dug in those for rutabagas. We would walk for ten miles a day. If you dropped out, you were shot or bayonetted. Walking through the small villages, the women would dump water on us from the second floor to make it more miserable on us. The Germans weren’t kind. How does humanity and a civilized nation, the seat of science, turn on other men like this? It was hard when we had time to stop and think about what was happening.
There was a stretch where the temperature never got above zero, day or night. When the march stopped, you plopped down where you were and tried to sleep. We huddled together and slept in the snow. We were man nationalities and were separated in different compounds, but we started organizing. After a month, the Germans passed an order that all American Jews were to step forward. When they lined up, a whisper went through the ranks that nobody step forward. The German’s went crazy and threatened to shoot. Then the order went through that everybody step forward and we all did. This was happening at all of the camps because Hitler gave the order to kill the American Jews.
How did we survive? In the morning they gave us a cup of hot water and lunch they have us watery soup from barrels. They caught up the wild pigs and boars and boiled them up. Sometimes if you were lucky you got a piece of meat in it, but the fur was still on it it. At night we had another cup of hot water. We slept on the ground in the straw. Each tent had 500 men in them. No heat. I lived like this until April when the Russians arrived. We were liberated by the Russians, but they were not our allies. After two weeks, we escaped and made our ways through Russian and German lines and made it more Elbe River but the Americans were on the west side and the bridges were down. We found our way across on little boats. I spotted the first American truck and fired in the air. They turned their weapons on us and started firing. We were screaming we were American POWs. We traveled in a diamond formation and I was the point man that day. The guy on the truck yelled come forward and identify yourself. He asked where I was from and I said Gary, Indiana. He also asked what I thought was a ridiculous question, what high school did you go to? I told him and he said, come in you SOB, your high school beat my high school for the Indiana state basketball championship. That is how I got back into American hands. I will never forget those words. The guys who didn’t escape the Russian camp were never heard from again. It was covered up for a long time.
From there was rehabilitation. They weight me and I just dropped below the 100-pound mark. I weighed 165 or 170 pounds when I went in. We were fattened up at camp Lucky Strike so we didn’t look like sticks returning home. When we came back in through New York and saw the Lady, there wasn’t a man on that ship who wasn’t crying. Four days later I was back in Gary.
You have to know what happened in the past to avoid mistakes in the future. Whatever you are doing right now, someone paid for your freedom to do that.
Sy Lichtenfeld Part One