Ernest Ray Hersman's Capture and Confinement as a POW in WWII
by Ray Brent Hersman, LTC, IN (Lieutenant Colonel, Infantry)
is the story of Ernest Ray Hersman's capture and confinement as a
prisoner of war of the German's during World War II as told to his son, Ray
Dad didn't talk about his military experience much prior to my enlisting in
the Army. And, even then, he only related some experiences concerning his
training. It wasn't until after my return from Vietnam that Dad talked about
his combat and prisoner of war experience. After Dad's death, we moved to
Pekin, IN and it wasn't long till I learned that a neighbor had also been a
POW, and as it turned out, was in the same camp as Dad. His name was Ralph
(Tub) Russell, and he helped fill in some of the blanks in Dad's story,
providing explanations of some of the events. (Tub didn't know Dad.)
Dad served in combat in the 78th (Lightening) Infantry Division. In late
November 1944, the 78th was pulled from the line and moved to the area
between Malmedy, Belgium and Aachen, Germany. This area faced the Ardennes
Forest and was considered fairly secure since Allied planners thought that
German armor could not penetrate the Forest. They were wrong, and the German
high command took advantage of this error.
Dad's company had been assigned a new commander. Their area of the line had a
raised rail road embankment running through it with the edge of the forest
being just across a clearing. The older, more experienced officers and NCO's
argued for using the railroad embankment as cover, making this their main
line of resistance. But, the new commander ordered that they dig their
foxholes in the clearing in front of the embankment. This was tactically
On December 16, 1944, the German's initiated their attack with armor
supported by infantry. The armor broke out of the forest in front of Dad's
company, and while the G.I.'s could keep the infantry at bay, they had
nothing that would even slow down the tanks. But, the tanks were unable to
depress their main guns, and machineguns enough to hit the American's in
their foxholes. So, the tanks simply stopped over a foxhole with their
exhaust right over the hole and asphyxiated the soldiers, or locked up one
tread over the hole and spun around causing the hole to cave in, crushing the
Dad and his buddy had dug their hole right against the base of the railroad
embankment and the tanks were unable to get at them. For awhile they thought
that the German's had forgotten about them, but then a tank came up over the
embankment behind them and was able to point it's machinegun and main gun
right down their hole. They surrendered. They were the only two survivors.
Dad's unit had been near Malmedy, Belgium where the German's massacred over
80 GI's, and Dad was always thankful that he didn't end up there. When we
lived in Cleveland, OH, I remember Dad taking us to meet a friend whom had
survived the Malmedy massacre. I have no idea what this gentleman's name is.
Just days prior to his surrender, Dad had captured a German SS Colonel who
was wearing a fleece lined leather coat. Since they had not been issued any
cold weather gear, Dad "appropriated" the coat and was wearing it at the time
of his capture. He was taken to Aachen, Germany for processing and was
questioned by the SS. He was severely beaten because of the coat, and was hit
in the lower back with a rifle butt. I remember that Dad suffered from back
aches and headaches, but, it wasn't till the early 1960's that the doctors
noted that Dad had bone and disc problems in his lower back at the site of
the beating. The German's thought that Dad might be Jewish and assigned him
to a special POW unit.
The American's in the special unit were stuffed into boxcars on a train that
traversed Germany and Poland to the Eastern Front. They went from ten to
fourteen days without food and water and had no heat even though the
temperatures dropped well below freezing. As GI's died, their bodies were
stacked at one end of the boxcar giving the living more room to sit down and
even lay down at night. The GI's would huddle together for warmth, and the
poor guys on the outside of the huddle often died from exposure. As the men
died, their bodies were stripped of coats and clothing to allow the living to
keep on living. Even so, there weren't enough coats to go around, and men who
didn't have coats would try to steal coats from the others while they slept.
Lane and I had learned early on not to wake Dad by touching him on the upper
torso. It was much safer to touch one of his toes since he would throw his
arm violently when awakened suddenly. Once after hitting me in such an
encounter, Dad apologized, noting that he thought I was trying to steal his
The GI's were finally let out of the boxcars just shy of the German Eastern
Front somewhere close to Russia. The weather was terrible with a blanket of
snow on the ground and temperatures at or below freezing much of the time.
The GI's were then marched for 87 days back across Poland to the POW Camp.
During the march they received minimal food and no health care. They had to
march as individuals, not being allowed to assist another GI in any way. Any
soldier who fell out, or was unable to march for any reason was shot. The
German guards were SS troops who were armed with rifles and pistols. Since
rifle ammunition was in short supply, they used their pistols if they had to
shoot a prisoner.
Dad talked about how cold and hungry he was, noting that he had never been
that hungry either before or after his military service. He noted that one
day he was so weak his legs gave out and he fell to the side of the road. An
SS Trooper walked up to him and ordered him back in line, but he couldn't get
up. The trooper then reached inside his greatcoat and Dad knew that he was
reaching for his pistol. The trooper was a young German, and Dad yelled,
begging the German not to shoot him and that he would get up. The German then
pulled an apple out of his coat, gave it to Dad, and ordered two other GI's
to assist Dad. He noted that this was the only kindness that he ever
witnessed from the German's.
I am unclear where the POW camp was located. Dad stated on a number of
occasions that it was just on the other side of a German village from the
"Bilez" concentration camp. But, in doing some research, I have been unable
to locate a camp by that name. I intend to write the National Personnel
Records Center and request copies of Dad's military personnel records.
Hopefully they weren't destroyed in the fire at that facility in1973. I have
done some research and have located camps named Bergen-Belsen, Budzyn and
Belzec. If you have any information about this, I'd love to hear from you.
In any case, the POW Camp was near a concentration camp, and was divided into
four sections. One for the American's, British, French and Russians. Dad
noted that while the German's didn't treat anyone very well, starving all of
them, they treated the Russians much worse than the other allied prisoners.
He related a story where one day a German baker from the village came up to
the Russian section of the camp and tossed loaves of stale bread across the
wire. The starving Russians wolfed the bread down, and in a short while
started passing blood with many of them dying. There were several American
doctors and they received permission to treat the ailing Russians. They were
unable to help them, but did note that the German baker had baked ground
glass in the bread, which had lacerated the Russian's intestinal tracts
causing internal bleeding and death. After they were freed by American
troops, several of the American POW's went to the bakery and shot the baker.
All of the POW's worked in a stone quarry. Since any type of explosive was
sent to the military, the POW's quarried the stone with manual labor only.
They would work from sun-up till sundown without rest or anything to eat. The
quarry was ringed with machineguns, and one rule was that if you ran, no
matter what the reason, you would be shot.
When Lane and I were growing up, we used to hear Dad scream in his sleep,
"Snakes! Snakes!" After I returned from Vietnam, Dad explained that on
occasion, they would pry a large stone loose and it would have a nest of
vipers under it. The snakes would come boiling out and the GI's would walk as
fast as they could away from the area screaming to warn the other GI's. Tub
Russell related the same story.
Dad hated the French. He often said that he hated the French as much as the
German's, reporting that the French had no moral courage. He noted that on
one occasion it had thawed and then frozen covering the roads in the village
with ice. Tanks are useless on ice because their treads, while fabulous for
cross-country travel get absolutely no traction on ice. Since the tanks had
to pass through the village, they could not get off the road and were stuck.
The German's asked the American's, British, Russian and French POW's to go
out and clear the road, promising a reward for their efforts. The American's,
British and Russians refused. The French cleared the road and received the
American's Red Cross packages.
While I was growing up, Dad liked to relate messages using tales to reinforce
his message. One thing he told me was that a man of any moral courage
established lines in his head. These were rules that he established for
himself, that no one ever knew about, and if he crossed one of these lines,
while only he knew about it, he was less of a man. To emphasize this message,
he told about the German officer's daily amusement.
The back of the German Officers Club abutted on the fence of the American
section of the camp. There was a porch on the back of the officers club that
was right up against the fence. On the American side, there was what was
called a "dead wire" several feet inside the fence. This wire established the
limits of the POW's domain. If you so much as stuck a finger over the wire,
the guards would shoot you. But, at the same time each evening, the German's
would suspend the dead wire rule to allow the American's to come up to the
fence. At that time, they would have their cooks pour the kitchen swill over
the fence and then would sit on the porch placing bets on the American's as
they fought for the garbage.
One day Dad had diarrhea and was late. As he ran around a building, he noted
the other GI's hitting, biting and kicking each other to get to the slop,
while the German officers laughed and placed bets. He related that at that
time he vowed that he would die before he became an animal. That was one of
his mental lines.
One morning, the German's roused the Russians earlier than normal and marched
them off to the quarry. A little later, they got the American's up, but as
they were marching them to the quarry, the guards received word that there
was an American patrol on the road ahead of them and they took off. The POW's
were picked up by the American patrol and taken back to the village where
they were repatriated. Dad noted that he gave his name to a Lieutenant and
was asked if he had a brother named Ed. Dad said yes and the Lieutenant ask,
"Is that him over there?"
Uncle Ed made sure that Dad was clothed and fed, although the food was too
rich and Dad threw-up. He then took Dad to the quarry and showed him where
the German's had machine-gunned the Russians. It appeared that the American's
were to be next.
In 1996 I had the privilege of being the VA speaker for the national Ex-POW
convention. While there I asked about a "special" POW camp run by the
German's and was told about the death train/march and the special camp run by
the SS. The prisoners assigned to this camp appeared to have been singled out
by the Germans for especially harsh treatment. During his captivity, Dad was
beaten and starved and lost considerable weight. His health and mental
problems plagued him for the rest of his life and led to his early death. Dad
never forgave the German's, although he made a valiant effort in his last
Dad told me about one other incident in the camp. When the Germans were
trying to force the POW's to clear the roads, the POW's began singing their
national anthems. But, after the first few stanza's, the Americans were all
humming our national anthem since they didn't know the words. Dad said that
he was never so embarrassed in his life. He made sure that we knew the words
to the Star Spangled Banner and I've made sure [my children] Mikey and Amber
Bob, [Note: This story was related in an e-mail to Bob Marks] this is about all I remember.
I do remember other stories Dad told about his combat, but they are unrelated to his
POW time. I really miss him. I know you miss your Dad,because I miss him too.
Click HERE to see pictures of Ray & Ed's reunion.
Click HERE for a picture of Ray Hersman
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