It was his knowledge of Pennsylvania German, coupled with his “for others”, spirit, that saved the life of Pvt. Robert Greenwalt, Kutztown, and his buddies from Sutlag VII A, a prison camp at Moosberg, Germany. And during his eight months imprisonment, it was his rugged life on his father’s Berks farm that stood him in good stead. with the help of the generous Red Cross.
When captured, he was with Company A, of the 314th Infantry, 79th Division, on combat patrol, at Fountenay, across the Seine, 25 miles from Paris.
“The Germans counter-attacked and moved in on us during the night,” he reports, “and we crawled into the woods, 11 of us, our lieutenant, a medic and we bazooka men. Learning that we were in the enemy bivouac area and that it would be suicide to resist, our superior officer ordered us to surrender, but not until discovered.
“Because I could speak Pennsylvania German I took the last place in the group — nearest that portion of the woods into which the Germans were certain to come for though we couldn’t see them we could hear them.”
“The German infantryman, who was young, and I must say, a brave one, appeared the next morning. He didn’t see me at first, but after what seemed a long while, he came toward me, and I couldn’t helop but wonder how “trigger happy” he might be, and how soon he’d shoot. But I decided to watch myself getting it, though my buddy was so scared he hid his face in the ground.”
Ready to Surrender
“As the German pointed his burp (Tommy gun) at me, I said, “Scheez net! Mir Gewwe uf! He froze for a minute and then said, “How about your comrade?” And my buddy not understanding a word was getting even more frightened. Nor did he jump up until I explained that he wanted us to surrender. “Sure! he said, and we both put up our hands. . . the Lieutenant too, when discovered, and the others.
“We were taken to Stalag VII Aat Moosburg, where we slept on excelsior ticks covered with burlap and where the body lice multiplied so rapidly they almost ate us alive. At night we’d get up and stand near the light and fling off as many as we could. WHen spring came, the fleas came too, and they ate the lice, but we still had fleas.”
“We has but one suit of clothing, which we didn’t take off because it was so cold, but in February when the GI soap came through we sure went to work on them. I got a coat from the Red Cross, but I appreciated the Heavy underwear more, for though it didn’t fit at all, yet it clung. In fact, it meant so much to me I almost cried.”
“They used me as an interpreter to groups of 50, and I’d counsel our boys as best I could, on what to do to avoid having ‘Arbeit! Arbeit! yelled at them constantly.
Plenty of Slave Labor
“I was glad I was a private, for officers and non-coms didn’t have to work. We were taken out in groups of 20 or 25 to repair railroads shot down by our own fliers; some of us cleaned buildings; but only a few were sent to farms, for the Germans had plenty of slave labor from Russian and France.
“Though it was ‘verboten’ I kept a log of my experiences, the scrapbook a gift from the YMCA. A Russian comrade painted this portrait of my wife, here on the first page, from a photograph. I did a lot of writing during the diptheira epidemic, never knowing, however, whether I’d ever get it out or not.
“Now and then, among ourselves, we’d have a quiz; a University man would conduct a discussion group: and we’d have other Nationals talk to us.”
“We would have starved if it hadn’t been for the Red Cross whose parcels came through regularly except for three weeks in November. If we worked all day we got tea in the morning: our allotment of black bread was a loaf for six men per day; at noon a litre (1 1/2 pints) of watery soup; and in the evening, three or four medium sized potatoes. Many times I wished for the rugged diet on my father’s farm.
Barter to Keep Alive
“When the guards weren’t too strict, with the cooperation of railroad men, we did the bartering that saved us from starving. The two-ounce Red Cross chocolate bar we traded with civilians for two or three loaves of black bread: tea for four four or five loaves; sometimes as high as eight; and a small cake of soap was good for a loaf or two. Of course we didn’t trade in the other nourishing food. From the men we got bread in exchange for cigarettes, and the women were especially grateful for the soap.
“The civilians in our area, the Bavarian district, were on the whole quite, decent, particularly when they discovered I could speak German. I remember one girl about 20, with whom I sat riding to work, who asked me if I was a prisoner, and when I nodded she added, “But not for long.”
“No one will ever know what it meant to us to see the American flag flown from the tower prison, and the best ride I ever had was when a C-47 flew me from Landshut to LeHavre, headed for home. There we processed: deloused, given hospital rations and clothing, and those needing medical attention were taken to hospitals. We were cautioned not to eat more than they gave us, but if we got hungry in between, they let us have eggnog. Can’t feed starved stomachs too much all at once.”
“We pulled out May 16, picked up wounded in England, and landed in New York on the 29th — ready to live like human beings again.”
Right now the “Scheez Net” bazookaman is content to sleep late; to spend afternoons and evenings greeting loved ones; to let his wife continue to write the checks, and cook “everything” and endear himself to Karen his 18 month-old curly, red-haired daughter whom he hasn’t seen for a year. She follows him about seeming to sense that it’s quite wonderful to have him home, safe and sound.
By Amanda Saeger
Entrance to Stalag VII A. Image source: http://www.bauerka.de/stalag/
Aerial view of the Stalag VII A. Image source: http://www.303rdbg.com/pp-stalag7a.html