World War II Vet, POW tells of capture
by LuJane Alger Nisse, Editor
The attack of 353 fighter and torpedo planes from the Empire of Japan early in the morning, 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian time, December 7, 1941 (74 years ago) was the strike which led the United States into World War II. All eight US Navy Battleships were damaged and four sunk. All but the Arizona were raised and six returned to battle.
The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, [Wiki-21] and one minelayer. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed; 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded (wiki-22). Japanese losses were light: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, and 64 servicemen killed. One Japanese sailor, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured.
Japan intended the attack as a preventive action to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from interfering with military actions the Empire of Japan planned in Southeast Asia against overseas territories of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the United States. There were near-simultaneous Japanese attacks on the U.S.-held Philippines, Guam and Wake Island and on the British Empire in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The attacks – from troop landings at Kota Bharu, Malaya, to the air attacks ranging geographically from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor – took place over seven hours. It obviously had the opposite effect. (Wiki-Attack-Pearl-Harbor)
War was declared against Japan by the U.S December 8, 1941. Subsequent operations by the U.S. prompted Germany and Italy to declare war on the U.S. December 11, which was reciprocated by the U.S. the same day.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”
Anger about the attack on “homeland” led to great support for the war with young men by the thousands enlisted and signing up for the draft. (Wikipedia)
One of these men, 91 year old Army Veteran Don White (Palouse, WA) fought, was captured and tortured as a POW during the Second Great War.
Like all young men at that time, White received notice, signed up for the draft a few months before he turned 18 and left for training shortly thereafter. Now at 91 years of age, he has been honored at the 2015 Veterans’ Day Assembly in Garfield, Washington, by the middle school students along with community members.
White certainly exemplifies the Greatest Generation – a term made popular by journalist Tom Brokaw. What could toughen a person more than growing up during the deprivation of the Great Depression and then going on to fight in World War II? The Greatest Generation is a befitting title for these men and women.
White registered for the draft not long after his 18th birthday and received his call, January 1943, from the Army to serve. His basic training lasted about a month in Jacksonville, SC, and then went on to Tennessee Maneuvers and then to Camp Atteberry, Indiana.
“I was in the 106th division of the 590th field artillery battery B,” he said. “We learned how to drive (big) trucks, how to fire the 105 Howitzer because I was in the field artillery.”
Young love had blossomed before he left for the Army and White sent for the girl of his dreams, Lorraine, who came straight away with the two of them marrying and staying in a home near the camp until he was shipped out.
White had to leave his new wife after being together only a few months. He was sent to fight at the Battle of the Bulge. He was ultimately taken by the enemy and suffered torture and starvation for many long, cold months as a prisoner of war.
White and his buddies left for England on the Queen Elizabeth (troop ship) November 7, 1944 – less than a year after joining the Army. It was close to Thanksgiving when the troops arrived in England and, White said, they were treated to a welcomed and early Thanksgiving feast.
The men loaded trucks, big guns and other large equipment on the LSTs (Landing ship, tanks). They climbed aboard the huge ship with their equipment and headed down the English Channel to the Seine River.
“We floated around there where there were mines and if a ship hit one it blew up,” White explained the tense feelings on the ship. “I was on the Flagship that gave orders to all the other ships. By the time all the other ships had gone around us to go up the Seine River, we pulled up anchors and discovered we had lost all three of our anchors.” The ship had to backtrack to England, losing precious time, to replace the anchors.
On the way back down the Seine, “I saw where some of the LSTs had been sunk in the river,” White remembers. “I don’t know if they were sunk from mines or if they had been shot. We could see them lying on their sides.”
They continued down the Seine to Luxembourg to unload the trucks, cannons, the 105 Howitzers… “It took us about two days to really get to the point where we were supposed to go to the front line,” White says. The troops were headed to the Battle of the Bulge – Hitler’s last chance to defeat.
The winter weather was not kind to the soldiers and they had to pitch tents in four feet of snow. White’s group relieved the 4th division at that point “because things were getting bad for them and they needed to be relieved. … We used up all the shells from the 4th division” and White was sent on a dangerous mission to Radiant, Luxembourg, to obtain more ammunition for the Howitzer. He explained he heard shells or bombs exploding all around him, even hearing shells whizzing by his head.
“As I was coming back some shells landed in the road and a piece of shrapnel from one of them went right through my windshield and through the back window where the ammunition was loaded,” White said. “It was a good thing that ammunition was what they called bore safe and it would not go off unless the end was hit by a pin in the cannon, just like a shotgun or a rifle… My assistant truck driver was a little bit scared. He was supposed to stand up on the seat and keep watch with the machine gun.”
When the men returned safely to their company along with the ammunition, the only casualty being a bullet hole in the windshield, their officer was shocked to see them. He asked why they were back. He had called a message for them to STAY there because the company was in a “pocket” and under heavy fire. The pocket was “more or less a ‘U’ shape around us and they were closing in from the sides and front… surrounding us, yah!” White exclaimed.
The First Lieutenant was obviously impressed with White’s driving abilities and ordered him to become his driver on a reconnaissance mission. “We’re going up to the front line on reconnaissance,” he informed the new soldier, “and you’re going to drive.”
White didn’t feel too good about what he was being ordered to do and was apprehensive about going to the front line to check things out. He obeyed his commanding officer and began the treacherous drive.
After just a few miles, the two men saw a few German pill boxes (see photo and explanation) which they were grateful to see and thankfully utilized. From that safer vantage point they were able to watch a lot of Germans walking around about a block away.
The Lieutenant needed to calculate the range and elevation for the American artillery to set cannon barrel for this area. “It’s like shooting a ball into a basket,” White explained. “You have to have the right range and angle or it won’t go into the basket.”
“I don’t recall (the Germans) shooting any shells over us,” White said, “but we got word we were supposed to retreat.”
They didn’t hesitate and upon their returned they were surprised to find the Germans had already swept through there and, to their dismay, all their cannons and guns were gone.
White and his Lieutenant went back through the area where they were told to retreat and came across an infantry group. Together they crossed a swamp, spending the night behind a load of ammunition. “There were hand grenades, rifles, shells and things like that,” he remembered finding himself quite exposed to the enemy. Instinct along with his training told him he had to dig a foxhole there but without a shovel and frozen ground the only tool he had was his steel helmet. “I dug down to where my head was just below the level of the ground,” he said, “and we spent the night there.”
In the morning he heard a lot of shooting and he knew the Germans were “feeling them out” with their cannons. He saw an American P38 fly over chasing a German plane and nearly simultaneous a shell hit a truck. “Boy, I tell you, the racket and the way those shells were flying it’s a wonder nobody got hurt.”
It was after that truck was hit he remembered a very important fact learned in training… never get underneath trucks or Jeeps to avoid shells because that is the first thing the enemy will try to hit. “I looked up and there were three officers underneath a Jeep!” he exclaimed.
They came across a place where the Army field artillery had large “long tom” guns. “It has a barrel pretty close to 20 feet long,” White explained. “Those fellows from the fourth division had been up there long enough and shooting long enough they received a bunch of ammunition in wooden crates, measuring eight to ten inches by about three feet.” The industrious soldiers had taken the boxes and built themselves log cabins. They now had a place to sleep instead on squatting in a foxhole or sleeping in a tent. They were there so long they had also dug holes in the ground like a basement with stairways to get in and out.
After hiding out in the foxholes, cabins and basements for a time, White and his Lieutenant went out to gather information about where they were and what might be happening.
The two men found a pathway leading to infantry men in the woods resting, periodically returning fire, which the Lieutenant thought was friendly fire. The Lieutenant said they needed to go tell those men to stop shooting or they would hurt their own people.
White was a bit confused, explaining to his officer, “Sir, those are not our guns. They are German guns firing.” White had been trained in England to be able to tell the difference between German, French and Russian rifles so he could identify who was firing at them.
His perturbed officer said, “Don, what’s the matter with you? You’re getting battle fatigue.”
White assured him he did not have battle fatigue, he was adamant those were not American guns firing.
The Lieutenant ignored White’s repeated statements those “are not American guns” and as they crawled and the shooting got louder the Lieutenant decided they needed to get out of there and warn their infantry men in the woods about the unfriendly fire. They turned around, quickly reaching the end of the trail where the Lieutenant saw a road and decided they should take that road.
“So, when we get down I took a couple of steps and looked down the center of the road and out there, a good block or more, was a German tank with an 80mm cannon pointing right down that road!”
White quickly told the officer about that canon but his officer again protested saying, “Don, you’re seeing things. You’ve got battle fatigue. You stay here and I’ll go along the brush and take a look with my binoculars.”
White shook his head saying, “when he came running back…” he was really wound up. He told White he was correct, it was a German tank with its barrel pointed right down the center of the road. “We’ve got to get those guys out of the woods or farther into the woods – one way or the other.”
“Just as we started out of the woods somebody opened up on us,” White said. “Everybody dropped and the Lieutenant and I got close enough to a straw haystack (for cover). I told the Lieutenant I was going to crawl to see if I could find a way out of there.”
When White began to crawl, the Lieutenant grabbed him by the leg and was emphatic he should not go… “Look at the infantry men around here,” he said. “They all have white flags up and they are flying them…” They had surrendered!
White and his commander found themselves in an open field with only a haystack for cover and all their comrades surrendering. They could not see a way out.
It wasn’t long before the Germans lined them all up, took everyone’s pack and worst of all, White remembered, “They took away my rubber boots. They kept my feet warm with those boots over my leather shoes.”
The capture, along with his impending situation gave White pause to think about his young wife at home. They married only four months ago, missed Thanksgiving with her and his family and now, with Christmas around the corner, he found himself a Prisoner of War. Would she know where he was or even that he was captured? He worried about her all alone, not knowing.
The Germans began marching their prisoners down a very muddy road, so mucky the vehicles began to spin out in the sucking, thick sludge running the old trucks out of gas.
Starving and marching non stop
Horses were hooked up but even the horses bogged down in the mire. The prisoners were made to push and PUSH they did. “I don’t know how many times we did that,” White said. “They kept on marching us. I don’t know how far we walked and we hadn’t had anything to eat for pert near 18 days.”
The prisoners were certainly relieved when they found a bombed-out school house where they were able to spent the night.
“I was getting pretty hungry,” White said. “Some of the fellas would see turnips or rutabagas out in the field and would sneak out and get them and eat them raw. I was sort of surprised the Germans didn’t take a shot at them.”
Again the next day, the prisoners were gathered and walked a long distance to an old barn with loose hay where they spent the night – still no food.
The next morning they were told they would be boarding a train and, thankfully, they were given a little to eat before leaving. The tiny bits of “skilli” was received with great eagerness as they had not eaten for the better part of a month, White said. The “skilli,” as White described it, was turnips and rutabagas cooked together along with a slice of bread.
Later the men were walked to the train and put in dirty cattle cars about two-thirds smaller than those used in the U.S., White explained. About 80 men were put in one boxcar, made to stand tight, shoulder to shoulder, and there was absolutely no room to sit. When night fell, the men were removed from the boxcar and told to sleep behind a “benzene” (gas) plant.
“All we could see around this factory were small rocks in quite a few piles.”
Despair and disappointment and frustration fell on the men when they were told the camp was full and they had no place to sleep that night. So, Christmas Eve found the exhausted, hungry men sleeping on piles of rocks behind the benzene plant.
Just as it began to get dark the English Royal Air Force planes appeared overhead and started bombing near the factory, causing the already desperate men to fear for their lives. “I don’t know if any bombs hit the factory,” White said, “but a few bombs landed very close to the train… about 100 feet or so away and made big holes. Some of us ran around the piles of rocks to try hiding to get away from the bombing.”
By morning, however, the guards found them and they were taken back to the train. White said he saw a large crater made by the bombs near their boxcar. There were at least ten dead soldiers laying in it.
The group headed to another camp at a place they called a hospital about two miles away. However, there was no place in the hospital for them to sleep so they were again faced with sleeping outside in the frigid weather. They had a few tents they put up in the ice-covered earth.
Frozen feet, no relief from hunger
“I froze my feet that night,” White said. “I get up and my feet are tingling and they are cold. I’m stomping them and stomping them to get the blood circulating through them again.”
The men were put back on the train to travel to Stalag 17 (“Stalag” is German for prisoner of war camp and is a contraction for Stammlager). When they arrived at camp they found a long shed. The English were the first to arrive at that camp so they were “in charge.” When the Americans asked about Red Cross parcels they were told, by the English, only parcels for the English and Danish had arrived and the Americans had “nothing to eat. It didn’t do any good to ask them for anything. They wouldn’t do anything for you,” White said.
The American prisoners were given a little food in the morning. “It was like the ‘skilli’ again,” White said. “We asked again about Red Cross parcels and again they said all they had were English and Danish parcels and ‘those are ours, you don’t get any.’ So we had to eat only a little bit of soup.”
Twenty-one US soldiers, including White, were chosen to go to a factory to work. Because of White’s welding background, he was put in a 10×10 foot room with welding equipment and given very large Y- and T-shaped cast iron objects that White thought could be used for sewers. He was instructed to fix sand holes in them. He and a few others had to burn the sand holes out and re-weld them. That was his job, day in and day out, 12 hours each day with no breaks. They were fed a bowl of soup and slice of bread every 24 hours.
Even with these unbearable conditions, White commented, “I was pretty fortunate.” His good fortune was a slice of bread or a couple of boiled eggs sometimes snuck in by some local Russian women.
“We had an old guard who didn’t care if we got fed or not,” White said, but, thankfully, that guard was with them only a couple of weeks being replaced by a younger fellow “about our age,” White remembered.
‘You stick with me. I get you back with you comrades’
Their new guard had been on the Russian front and had been shot through the neck with the exit wound behind his ear leaving a gaping hole. He also had been shot through the arm leaving one hand no bigger than a seven-year-old kid’s hand. “He did not like the Germans. Didn’t like the Nazis. He didn’t like Hitler and he didn’t like this war,” White remembered. “He kept telling us, ‘You stick with me. I get you back with you comrades.’”
The new guard treated them humanely and even gave them news from the US. “He would tell us where there was fighting,” White said. He told them what was happening in the United States, about the health of the President. Somehow the Germans got wind of this guard telling stories and they came in to search the camp looking for radios and propaganda.
“They came in searching our barracks… looking all over thinking we had a radio. But it was this young guard who was telling us everything that was going on. Every time he came back from eating, he would tell us.” The guard ate a restaurant where he would hear the news. He also was kind enough to wrap a portion of his food to bring back to his prisoners.
“No radio was found by the Germans and they did not bother us again,” White said.
This young guard carried a gun but, White observed, it was all rusty and he knew it would not fire but, even so, “we knew there was no sense in trying (to escape) because the place was well guarded outside the shop and at the gates, so we couldn’t get out anyhow.” The young guard was good to them and continued to reassure them he would “get them back to their comrades.”
Sometimes on the weekends the prisoners were allowed to go outside in the yard. “We would go out by the fence and watch the P38s fly over. We could hear shooting in the distance wondering what they were shooting at,” White remembered. They were later told the planes were bombing and shooting at other airplanes and at an airfield. The shooting appeared to be getting closer and, because of that, the prisoners were told they were being moved to a camp further away. The young guard went along with his prisoners continuing to tell them he would get them home safely.
The new camp did not keep the prisoners long as the shooting continued to get closer and, before long, they were on the move again to a town near Berlin.
On their travels (by foot) they came upon more prisoners on the move. In an open field there was great confusion in the enlarging faction and the young German guard took advantage and quietly eased his 21 charges to the edge of the group, getting ready to move. He continued to whisper to them, “Stay with me. I get you to your comrades.”
ESCAPE? Chicago bandits?
After he quietly eased his prisoners to the outskirts of the group he took advantage and quickly pulled them out without notice. As night fell they arrived in a small hamlet where they were allowed to sleep in a barn. The group was startled and quite frightened at sunrise when a few German pilots arrived. The pilots asked if they were “Chicago bandits.” Troubled by the inquiry, they assured them they were not Chicago bandits. The pilots left to continue their search for pilots but, before they left, one accused, “You come over and bomb us. We did not bomb you. We looking for Chicago bandits.”
On their “freedom travel,” the prisoners were taken through streets of Germany and were very concerned as people stared and pointed. They were certain they’d be shot at any moment especially when their guard left them alone to go look for food. Thankfully he returned fairly quickly and told them they’d stay in a barn close by. The owner was gone but the wife and four young women were there. “We didn’t much care if they were his daughters or not as long as we had a place to sleep,” White said.
Shortly after they arrived, the woman brought them a large dishpan full of bread along with some lard and salt to sprinkle on the bread.
“It tasted good,” White remembered. “She’d come out and feed us bread everyday.”
The soldiers hid at the farm and after about a week she told them, “I’ll kill a pig for Americanos … come I got pig to kill for Americanos. You come with me.”
Plunking the pig
She took three of them (one being White) into another barn where they saw a pig lying next to a tough full of hot water. “She gave us a wooden mallet about six inches in diameter” and she told them to hit the pig right between the eyes. White was the first to swing the mallet and “I’d hit him about three different times and all it would do is squeal and bounce.”
After the other two tried their hand at plunking the pig she said, “Wait. I’ll show you.” She took the mallet in one hand and swung it, not even as hard as the soldiers, White remembered. All of a sudden he went “plunk” and rolled into the trough… dead. She cut the throat of the pig and saved the blood for blood sausage. She then started to scrape the hair off the pig.
She planned to cut the pig up in the morning but she was taken to court to answer for killing a pig without sharing with the villagers. While she was gone, the prisoners were startled by a racket at the farm gate by a Polish man. Three of the prisoners were able to speak Polish and went to the gate to talk with them.
The three prisoners returned to the group and explained the Polish man informed them the American 9th Armored Division was just down the road in a ditch and they wanted to go with him to check it out. The guard allowed the request. They returned in short time, not only with good news but with the entire Division.
“There was an awful racket outside the gate,” White smiled. “Here was the 9th Armored Division! Oh man, we were so doggone tickled!! … we had to just stand and talk (with them) for a while. They started giving us candy bars and cookies and stuff like that.”
The soldiers told them they had just taken over a German warehouse down the road and they had eggs and bread… “and when we get through here we will go there and feed you some bacon and eggs and stuff.”
As the prisoners and the soldiers continued to visit, the woman of the farm returned from court. “She was tickled to death to see more Americans out there.” She continued to explain her plight in court and she had to share the pig but when her visitors explained what she had done for them, the soldiers began to load her up with candy bars and cookies and even some of the cakes that had prunes in them.
Although the captured soldiers never received their pork dinner, they received something a million times better… FREEDOM!
As the prisoners followed the soldiers down the road to ultimate freedom their young guard parted ways. But before he left he gave White his rusty rifle, knapsack with his canteen and ammunition belt… quite a souvenir!
At the warehouse, the newly released soldiers were treated to eggs, bread and coffee. “I had six to eight eggs, two or three slices of bread and three or four cups of coffee,” White said. “Oh, man, I tell you that really tasted good! I wanted more but I didn’t dare take any more.”
That night White and his buddy (captured with White) spent the night under a very warm feather “tick” blanket. “That thing was so warm! It was six to eight inches thick,” White exclaimed. The woman of the house brought bread to the men before they left the next morning. White said he exchanged the loaf for a piece of bread he had been carrying. “Mine was German bread,” White said, “made of sawdust and potato peelings so when the water hits the sawdust, the wood, it swells and you’re full. It was ‘military bread’.”
When the American soldiers gathered together that day, they headed out for a place called “Daliege.” White was surprised the young German guard was with them again but ultimately he knew that guard, who had taken such good care of them, would now become a prisoner himself. The guard was questioned for a long period of time and when he emerged with his new captors, White said they all emphasized to the officers that he was responsible for helping them escape and he should be treated very humanely. A letter was written to that effect, signed and sent with him as he was taken away. White has no idea what happened to him after that.
With newfound freedom, it was only fitting the soldiers would be taken to Camp Lucky Strike run by the American Red Cross. “They fed us donuts, cookies, coffee. They fed us good.” From there it was on to Paris by plane where they were allowed to really feel their freedom by walking around the city. White said he was a little embarrassed to be walking around in ragged clothes and wearing the same shoes in which he’d been captured… “I still had to stomp my feet a lot to try to get circulation moving.”
After one day in Paris, the group headed to their “liberty ship” run by American civilians. The ship was one of about 100 ships including LSTs, aircraft carriers, liberty ships – all headed home. The waters were rough and many of the ships were damaged so when the Statue of Liberty could be seen on the horizon, the troops let out a very relieved and overjoyed “HOO-RAH!”
“I’ve gone through bombing and shelling and everything,” White said, “now I think if something happens I think I can swim from here to there (Statue of Liberty).”
After going through paperwork and medical exams (he weighed 117 lbs. at discharge entering the Army at a weight of 175 lbs.), he headed home and, hopefully, into the waiting arms of his wife but she wasn’t at his folks’ place. After a quick “hello” to his family he took off with their car to find his wife.
“I drove in and when I got out of the car… man, she came running!” he smiled. When they got a chance to talk he asked if she knew where he was.
“I knew you were missing but I didn’t know where you were at,” she said.
White had sent a telegram to her from Paris three or four weeks earlier to tell her “I was liberated and was coming home.” She hadn’t received any of the mail even though he had written to her often while in captivity.
“While I was there a while, in came the mailman and she got ALL those letters I wrote while I was a prisoner of war,” he said, “AND she got the telegram.” She couldn’t wait to read them all right there.
When White returned to Fort Sheridan he took Lorraine with him. He didn’t want her out of his sight again. “They sent us to Miami Beach, Florida, for three weeks,” he said… the honeymoon they never had.
When they returned to Fort Sheridan, he was told he was being released from service. Anyone who had been captured and a prisoner for two weeks or more was receiving an honorable discharge.
Don and Lorraine White were married for nearly 70 years, had two sons – Aaron (died) and Mike (age 49, living in Palouse with his family). The family lived most of their life in Michigan where White worked in foundries and later became a carpenter saying working on churches was his favorite. Shortly after Lorraine died, Don came to Palouse to live with his son Mike, daughter-in-law Sharon and granddaughter Tay.
(White’s frozen feet caused him problems the rest of his life, even losing a few toes because of the frost-bite. He finally asked a doctor at the Vet Hospital about the problem a few years ago as the pain was getting unbearable.)
More videos of local WWII vets (if you know of other videos or web pages of local POWs or WWII Veterans – Whitman County, WA or Latah County, ID – let us know so we can add them here. Go to our Facebook page “The Boomerang online” and leave a message.):