Grade Rate or Rank: Corporal
MOS: Surgical Technician
Decorations, medals, badges, commendations and campaign ribbons awarded: Bronze Star with 3 service stars and German clasp, Purple Heart, Victory Ribbon, Combat Medical Badge, Good Conduct Medal, American Theater, European, African, Middle Eastern Theater of Operations Ribbon with 3 bronze stars, Prisoner of War Ribbon, Begium Merit of Honor Award
Campaigns: Ardennes Campaign, Rhineland Campaign, Central Europe Campaign
As we were heading back towards Phillipsbourg we were told, "Weve been cut off. The Germans have the place surrounded". I was still carrying all of my equipment in my backpack. My buddies yelled back to me to drop everything but my medical kits. I was scared and reluctant to leave my equipment behind. As we headed down the slope towards a gully I heard a voice, crying out, "...medic, medic. Ive been hit! ". Then as I headed towards the voice I slipped on some branches and gunfire erupted. A shot struck my back but luckily the equipment on my back absorbed the impact and saved my life. My helmet fell off, but I was able to crawl, recover it and put it back on. I was then able to attend the wounded. Just then, down in the gully we noticed a cave with 4 to 6 Krauts that had been firing at us. One of our men shouted for mortar fire, killing all but one of them. Our men, killing the Kraut fired more shots.
It was getting dark and soon we received word that we would not be able to go back to Phillipsbourg, the Germans had taken control of it. So, we headed up the hill to Falkenberg Heights. Several of our men were wounded and a medic was killed. I identified the dead medic - A buddy of mine named Murry Pruzan. We were without food for six days, the only thing in our favor was the snow which we ate.
We were being surrounded. Our planes were bombing the hill below us to save us from being captured. German tanks had surrounded us and before we knew it, the Krauts wereon top of us.
Shrapnel hit me and a Kraut poked me with his bayonet because I was too slow to walk. They made me take off my boots and walk on the snow bare footed. I dont know how far nor how long I walked that day, but whatever it was it seemed endless. We were then put into box cars used for cattle. We were not able to sit or squat for several days and nights. The train was being strafed due to the "dog fights". Suddenly the train came to a stop, we got out of the box cars and walked to a place full of German soldiers. We were ordered to march to the gates of a concentration camp calledBad Orb-Stalag 9B. The camp consisted of prisoners from different nationalities, Africans, Spaniards, French, and Arabs to name a few. Hereafter I was designated as prisoner number 27016.
One morning we were rushed out of the barracks and lined up along trenched dugouts. Behind us, the Krauts stood with their machine guns pointing to our backs. We had to stand outside all day in the snow. It was cold and some of us were bare footed. The Germans refused to let us put on our boots and as the day wore on some were so weak that they collapsed and fell into the trench filled with excrement. We later learned that the Germans wanted to know who had hatched the head of a cook with a meat cleaver. Food was so scarce that many were at the point of starvation and attempts were made to steal food. At the end of the day, a chaplain was able to convince those involved to step forward. Soon a couple of guys gave themselves up and immediately were put into confinement. They were not killed but punished severely. The rest of us were sent back to the barracks and placed under closer watch.
A few days later, in the morning, we heard the sound of barrack door chains rattle. Three SS troopers walked in with their machine guns pointing in all directions, behind them a Gestapo Field Marshall walked in wearing a long leather black coat, tall boots and a monocle over his eye. It was just like in the movies; he looked all around studying each of us while he smoked a cigarette with holder at the other end. Finally he motioned towards me pointing with his finger. The German guards pushed me to follow him. I was the only one singled out. We entered a room furnished with only two chairs and a table. He sat on one side and I at the other, then immediately began to interrogate me. He said, "You medics know whats going on behind the lines!" I told him I knew nothing and said all I know is my name, rank and serial number. He just laughed at my answers and said, "No, no ,no.....you know something!". I repeated I knew nothing of what was going on, "Im only a medic". He countered with, "Oh yes you do! Ive heard this story many times. You know something. Look, I know all about you." To my amazement he proceeded to tell me that I was born in San Bernardino, California and lived in Pasadena, California, with my cousins; that my parents moved us to Durango, Mexico; knew that my father was a civil engineer and had been commissioned by the Mexican Government to construct airplane landing strips for U.S. forces and was also involved in a PT boat project with an associate out of Texas; and knew of two employees that worked for my father. He added, "Isnt that the truth?". I said, "I dont know. How do you know?". "Look, Im not dumb!", he responded and spoke in both English and Spanish, fluently. At this point I felt pinned but maintained my composure as best I could. He continued, "You left Mexico when you were 17 to return to the U.S. to study medicine. You decided to enter the Army. That we know. I also know that your father had his two employees arrested"
Two friends and myself discovered that two of my fathers employees were spying for German U-Boats docked in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California, Mexico. One of my friends had studied Morse code and had detected the messages while we swam next to a building where the code was coming from. When my father made the discovery he had them immediately arrested.
As the field Marshall continued his interrogation, he told me he also knew of a Schweader family and a sailor cousin of theirs who deserted from the Graf Spee German battleship which fought the battle of Montevideo. He made it to Durango and subsequently sold my father a rifle. The family was part of a colony of German families living in Mexico.
The interrogation went on. I was coerced and tortured with needles inserted in my fingernails. I felt numb all over. It was very painful. Realizing he wasnt getting anywhere with torture, he gave up, then made promises to send me to medical school in Munich and give better treatment to my buddies and me. He told me to think about it.
On February 6, 1945, we heard fighter planes over our barracks. A dogfight ensued. It was a P-47 with a German fighter. Bullets sprayed all around and some hit a brick wall. Two of our men were hit and killed. In the course of that event the clock tower was hit and stopped at exactly 12:00 noon. That afternoon, plans were being made to move us out and divide us into several groups from camp Bad Orb to other areas. We had heard that their intent was to segregate American Jews from the other prisoners and that this new location would be a better place to stay. There would be more food, better living conditions and more freedom. For some unexplained reason I was included among them.
Shortly thereafter, we had orders to stand outside of our barracks. About Three hundred-fifty of us were assigned to move out to God knows where. The Krauts spat, kicked and swung rifle butts at us because we wouldnt move fast enough. We were ordered to get into boxcars and traveled several days and nights. On February 8, 1945, we arrived at the new camp. It was called Berga an der Elster.
Berga was considered a mining center with caves and excavated tunnels for what appeared to be gun inplacements. We soon realized that it was nothing but a SLAVE labor camp. The worst was yet to come. Prisoners were being murdered and tortured by the Nazis. Many of our men died and I tried keeping track of who they were and how they died in my diary. During this time of confinement, we only ate 100 grams of bread per week made of saw dust with redwood bark. Just enough to barely stay alive. At 3:00 AM they had me and another buddy go for the "tea run". The tea was nothing more but dry weeds and shrubs boiled in water. I was told that the soup we ate was made from cats and rats.
Conditions were so poor that disease was prevalent and many soldiers were very ill. One of our men was dying of diphtheria I tried convincing the Germans to let me perform a tracheotomy operation by boiling and sterilizing my fountain pen. I told them that his life could be saved. Instead, one of the guards responded by striking a fellow medic and me on the jaw with the butt of his rifle.
On one occasion I remember a Commandant named Metz presenting us with a supposedly famous German boxer who had fought Joe Louis. He was dressed in a SS uniform and told us he was going to help us, which he lied since we never heard from him again.
On March 20, 1945, a fellow prisoner named Goldstein was shot and killed for attempting to escape. That day, when his body was brought in, I was ordered to testify that I witnessed Goldsteins escape and to claim he was shot for that reason. Not only had he been shot in the upper torso, but I also noticed upon closer examination, a shot to his forehead. The hole had been filled with wax to cover up the SS troops use of wooden bullets. I managed to acqure some of these bullets, but during my hospitalization I lost track of them. Others had been shot in the same manner as Goldstein. This I knew after having also examined them as well.
Since efforts were being made to escape, we were ordered to remove our clothing before bedding down to prevent anyone from escaping. While naked I was ordered to take the clothing outside to a shack. We slept unclothed, two to a bunk and without heat, constantly threatened by the Germans.
Sometimes we were able to find broken glass and use it to shave with, but better yet to help remove the white lice. We were always breathing and eating dust and dirt from those tunnels. Many of us could not tolerate the torture. On April 3, 1945, we had learned that American and Russian troops were about 100 km away and were closing in. The Germans were preparing to evacuate us. On April 6th we started to march out of the camp. Many of the men were becoming increasingly ill and suffering from malnutrition. Rumors circulated that we were heading towards the Bavarian Mountains, Hitlers Eagles Nest. It turned out to be a death march. Up ahead of us we saw many political prisoners, women and children. They were being machined gunned down while trying to escape. Shots were fired from both sides of the highway in what appeared to be an ambush. It was a massacre. The Krauts also made use of remote controlled miniature tanks.
Our men started to die one by one. It happened so fast that I couldnt keep track of all of them. We continued to march and took turns pulling and pushing a cart of 10 to 20 injured and sick soldiers. The night was spent in a barn outside the town of Hof. Ground activity had now escalated and we knew that our boys were getting closer. The Germans made us keep marching and I fell back to help the sick.
The march lasted and continued until April 22, 1945. That day while I waited in a soup line, one our interpreters cried out that we were to move out immediately! We could hear small arm fire in the distance. The guards yelled out, "Rouse! Rouse!", but we acted as though we were too ill to move. I laid down on the ground as a German Captain pulled out his pistol yelling for everyone to get up and go. By now General Pattons tanks had moved in. The guards started running and the officers did the same. Some of the guards came up to us and gave up their weapons pleading for mercy. We were finally free! Everyone was excited and breathed a sigh of relief. We had been liberated! I had lost so much weight that I was down to 85 lbs. but thankful to God I had made it.
Today April 24, 1945 we had our first good meal. I was in the hospital and reflected on the men who had not made it. Of the original 352 prisoners from Berga, only 170 survived [Editor's note: The actual total number of prisoners was 350 and the total number who survived is not certain, but probaly closer to 270].