POW during WWII
Herbert A. Lefor
Contributed by Dr. John Michels
My baptism of fire came when we were ordered to take the town of Aachen. We attacked early one morning and met fierce resistance from the Germans. We backed off and called the artillery, they shelled the town all night. The next morning we attacked again, and again we met with fierce resistance. We fell back once more and then contacted the 8th Air Force in England. They bombed Aachen until there was hardly one brick on top of the other. Still, when we got in there and entered some buildings, we could hear German soldiers speaking on the other side of the wall. We placed a mine at the base of the wall and blasted it out. We took the Germans prisoners. I heard one prisoner say as he was led away “Gott sei Dank, fuer mich ist der “Krieg over”, thank God, for me the war is over.
We were then ordered to take the next big town to the east towards the Rhine River and the city of Cologne (Koeln in German). This town was the headquarters for a German panzer division. We took off that morning with a full company of 160 men, by four o’clock that afternoon, there were only sixteen of our company able to continue. As we approached Duren from the west, the Germans opened fire with their 50 caliber machine guns mounted on their tanks. They wiped out about 4 of our company right there. I saw a buddy of mine named Jesse Couch from San Antonio, Texas go down. As he went down he yelled, “Help me Herb, I am hit.” I stopped just long enough to see his intestines ooze out from under his jacket. He was trying to pull them back in, along with some dirty dry grass. A sergeant came up behind me and kicked me, “Get going or you will get the same as he did. Let him for the medics”.
We continued on until we reached a ravine about 1 mile from town. This ravine was filled with wounded & dying men. Our captain was lying there, dying and he ordered that whoever could continue should go on. About 25 of us followed the ravine till we were out of the line of fire of the tanks. We edged into town and surprised several German soldiers. We shot those who resisted and we took some of them prisoners. By then we were down to 20 men. We went on and ran into more tanks, so we decided to retreat back to the ravine and wait for further orders.
As we retreated we ran headlong into a squad of German soldiers who opened fire on us and we fell into the nearest building that we saw. It happened to be a shed where they housed the horse drawn hearse. We were later surrounded in the shed by about six panzer tanks. They had their 88 mm cannons trained on the shed. Now these 88 mm were so accurate they could be swung around to pick off a man running down the street two hundred yards away. One of the tank commanders could speak English and yelled, “We are going to demolish the building, do you wish to give up?” I had a hurried discussion with the rest and I yelled out in German “Nicht schiessen! ” (don’t shoot). Sixteen of us (one was wounded) gave up and we were taken to their headquarters in Duren. The American artillery had zeroed in on the HQ and we almost met our end by our own artillery.
By then it was dark and two guards took us to a barn where we slept upstairs in the hayloft. The next morning we were walked towards Cologne to the east. I could see the twin towers of the cathedral in Cologne and I estimated it to be about 12 miles. We got to the Rhine River and crossed the bridge at Cologne. We got on a train with the guards and followed the Rhine River south to Koblenz. We got off and proceeded to walk east towards a city called Limburg where there was a huge prisoner of war terminal.
All prisoners were interrogated and sent to permanent camps. On the way we were strafed by American P-47 dive bombers. They came down so close I could see that one of the pilots had a mustache. I waved to him and immediately he waggled his wings in recognition and that was the end of the strafing. The Limburg camp was on the north end of the town. Limburg is about 30 miles north of Frankfurt.
When we arrived, we were given a card to fill out asking our name, rank & serial number and our address, if we cared to give it.– also our next of kin. I put down Herbert Lefor from Lefor, North Dakota. They also asked on the card if we could understand or speak the German language. I, of course, answered that I could speak, read & write it.
The next day I was taken into an office occupied by a German captain with a sign on his desk “Kapitan Franz Hoffman”. He started to interrogate me, speaking to me in German. I answered his questions in German. He then said, Lefor is a French name. I said yes but my ancestors came from Alsace. He said he knew that immediately because he could tell from the dialect of German I was speaking.
He then said he had a letter from a commandant of a prison camp 18 kilometers south of Berlin asking him to find an American prisoner who could act as a “Dolmetcher”, or interpreter. He had 400 American prisoners and none of them could speak or understand German. He asked me if I would go there and be their interpreter. I said yes, but how do I get there. He said he had a guard going that way who would take me along and deliver me to the camp at Wunsdorf.
It took this guard and me two whole days to get there by bumming rides on military trucks, freight trains and walking. When we arrived outside the gate of the camp, the guard told the inner guard (in German) that he is to get the commandant as he had brought an interpreter for him. In 2 short minutes a German Feldwebel (warrant officer) arrived and opened the gate and grabbed me and shook my hand, saying in German, “Thank God, I am going crazy here with no interpreter.” He told me his name was George Tegtmeier and came from Leipzig.
From then on I had it pretty good. I had my own private room. The room next to me was shared by two medics who were captured in Italy. One was an Italian boy named Phil from New Jersey. He was a burned-out medic, having gone all through Africa, Anzio & Italy. The other was Charlie Stenger from Maryland. Charlie took the brunt of the work since Phil was burned out.
You might say from then on I was the Colonel Hogan of our camp. I was in contact with the International Red Cross from Switzerland. The Germans respected the Geneva Convention and the Red Cross. In fact we would get a parcel for each prisoner every month from the Swiss. In the box were two packs of Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, or Phillip Morris cigarettes. These were very much loved by the German guards. I would have each prisoner give me 2 cigarettes, which I used for barter to get bread, eggs and poultry. The parcel also contained a tin of Spam, a tin of ground coffee (which the commandant just wanted to smell), some crackers, a D-ration chocolate bar (which the German girls would have given their virginity for), some jelly and some margarine, which was always rancid but always appreciated.
At the beginning of February of 1945 the commandant informed me that a guard and I would have to take a truck and go to the Swiss border to get our 400 Red Cross parcels. The guard that went with me was a jolly fellow and I got along good with him. When we made a stop for him to relieve himself at the side of the road, he handed me his rifle and said “hold this for me.” I pointed it at him in fun and he just laughed. After that he had me drive the truck for about 50 kilometers. When we arrived at the Swiss border. The Swiss guards handed the parcels across the border to us and we stacked them in the truck.
As the last parcels were loaded, one of the Swiss guards said to me “Step across this line and you are a free man”. I replied “this German guard will shoot me. ” The German guard replied, “I would not shoot you, I would take these 400 parcels and sell them on the black market and become wealthy.” I then wrote my parents name & address on a piece of paper and handed it to the Swiss guard. I told him to write to my parents to tell them that he saw me and that I was fine. My parents got the letter about the time I was released from prison camp. When we returned to camp, the guard related to the commandant what had transpired. The commandant called me to his office and commended me for what I did.
One of the guards was named Thomas Burger and told me he had relatives in Milwaukee and Chicago. He said that two of his cousins were in the US army and he could have conceivably been shooting at them. Another guard, known at Zinser, was nasty and acted like the SS. He carried a leather-riding crop and snapped it against his boots. One day I saw him whipping one of the prisoners and I stopped him, saying that the Geneva Convention prohibited that. I asked him what the trouble was and he said, “That dog won’t do what I told him”. I asked the prisoner about it and he said he could not understand him as Zinser was yelling at him in German. I informed Zinser that we prisoners are not dogs and that I was going to report him to the commandant. At that he took the crop and hit me on the bottom lip with the handle, cutting my lip. I reported him to the commandant and the commandant called him into the office and thoroughly chewed him out in my presence, making him promise never to whip anyone again. He never did.
Our men could work on the roads, railroad tracks or farms. I encouraged this as it made the time pass more quickly for them. They were paid 20 Pfennigs a day in German script money (about a dime a day). The money was worthless to them so I told them to give it all to me and I would try to bribe the commandant. I asked him if he could get the prisoners a barrel of beer for Saturday night. He replied for 20 cigarettes and a half can of coffee he would do it. He got us a 50-gallon barrel of beer and allowed the prisoners to stay out on Saturday night till 10 o’clock at night. The barracks were usually locked at 6 o’clock. The prisoners built a bonfire and some of them made musical instruments out of anything available. They sang and danced until 10 o’clock. One prisoner had too much beer and fell into the trench latrine; he was a mess.
On another occasion I was in the commandant’s office in the evening and the commandant and three guards were playing pinochle or a game like it. They ran out of beer around 8 o’ clock and the commandant asked me to take his motorcycle with the side car and go to the tavern in Wunsdorf (about a half mile west of the camp) and ask the attendant to give me twelve bottles of beer, and to charge it to him. Since I had used the motorcycle on numerous occasions to go to town for supplies & meat, the tavern attendant knew me. I set out and got the beer and was heading back east to camp when I spotted two columns of German troops coming toward me. I recognized the officer at the head of the column to be a major. I put my head down and turned into the ditch, as I passed by him.
He did a double take and yelled: “halt.” I heard him say “Here I am a major in the German army and I am on foot while this damned POW is on a cycle”. He said he wanted the cycle. I said it belonged to my commandant and that as the interpreter I had certain privileges. He said: “I too have certain privileges and reached for his German Luger pistol, and here is one of them.” I walked back to camp and told the commandant what happened. He and his driver headed out of camp in his Mercedes staff car and returned about an hour later with the cycle and a black eye.
On February 12, 1945 the commandant sent for me to come to his office. When I got there Max Schmeling, the ex-heavy weight boxer who had knocked out Joe Louis, greeted me. He was on a good-will tour visiting the American POW camps. He wanted to meet any prisoners in our camp from Chicago, as he had been in Chicago many times in his boxing days. He was in the German paratroopers and had been injured in his back. He wanted to see my room and, as we were half way there, he stopped and said to me “We did not want the Americans in this fracas; all we wanted to do was to whip the ass of the Frenchmen, drub the English and get rid of their queen, and obliterate the Russians as they were pigs. I said “Yes, but how about those millions of Jews Hitler had put to death.” He replied, “Mark my word, America will win this war and in twenty five years you will have the same problem.”
Around April there were many Americans prisoners on the march from the east fleeing the Russian horde. We put them up overnight and then sent them on their way, as we were full. Some of them told terrible stories of the atrocities the Russians did to the Germans. One first-lieutenant told me they were liberated by the Russians but the Russians told them to march west towards the Elbe river where the Americans were stopped, waiting for the Russians to clean up the rest of Germany. This officer said the Russians raped every female in sight including young girls and nuns. They even went into the hospitals and raped the women who had just given birth to babies.
Towards the end of April we could hear the Russian artillery to the east closing in fast. One evening the commandant came and said that we were going to abandon the camp and march west as he and the guards did not want to be captured by the Russians because the Russians would cut their throats. We marched two days and came to a bridge over the Elbe. I walked halfway across the bridge and met an American captain. I told him the German commandant and his guards wished to surrender but that I wanted to put in a good word for the commandant, as he was very nice to our prisoners. The captain said that they were expecting us and they had a camp with about 30,000 prisoners already. When the commandant and the guards surrendered their weapons, the commandant gave me his Luger pistol, saying “a souvenir for you”. Then the guard gave me a dagger of about a foot length with the Swastika emblazoned on its hilt. (These were later taken from me by a chair bound Lt. Colonel at the debarkation center who had never been overseas himself.)