Behind enemy lines

WWII prisoner recounts story during POW ceremony

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By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter
Gov. Shumlin greets Marlboro resident Richard Hamilton, who survived a B-17 plane crash and capture by Germans during World War II on Friday during a prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action remembrance at Camp Johnson. JASON STARR

Gov. Shumlin greets Marlboro resident Richard Hamilton, who survived a B-17 plane crash and capture by Germans during World War II on Friday during a prisoner-of-war/missing-in-action remembrance at Camp Johnson.
JASON STARR

Harry Howe remembered Friday a time in 1945 when he was prisoner No. 098411, a captured soldier in Nazi Germany.

Howe’s harrowing World War II story was part of the Vermont National Guard’s observance of Prisoner-of-War/Missing-in-Action Day at Camp Johnson in Colchester. The day is recognized at military bases nationwide on the third Friday in September to honor the roughly 85,000 American soldiers who are unaccounted for from World War II, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and the Cold War, and to honor those who were captured in battle.

Howe, 93, a resident of Quechee, shared his account of three months in a German prison camp, his escape and ultimate rescue for an audience of current soldiers, fellow former prisoners-of-war, Gov. Peter Shumlin, and members of the media in the Camp Johnson barracks.

“As years go by, memories fade and life goes on, and it becomes easy to forget,” said Wayne Whitelock, retired Army colonel and Vermont Guard chaplain. “We gather today to affirm our duty to remember.”

Howe provided a vivid account of prison survival. He punctuated his speech by showing the bowl, spoon and mug he was issued in the German camp and a Nazi flag he acquired while in Germany.

His story started in France in January 1945 in the middle of the allied liberation from German occupation.

“We were attacking every day,” he recalled, “taking one village after another.”

But when Germans overwhelmed his company, he was taken hostage with 12 other American survivors and transported behind German lines for interrogation, eventually landing in a prison camp in Hammelburg, Germany.

Howe spent three months in the camp until Gen. George Patton’s “operation Hammelburg” task force fought their way in and said, as Howe recalled: “We’re here to take you back.” But a return to safety was not that simple. The tank convoy he hitched to return to American positions was taken out during the journey. Howe survived for two nights with five other American soldiers in the woods.

“We had to be prepared to fight, but I had no weapon,” he recalled. “We hunkered down. There were Germans firing close by. We just sat there quietly.”

Eventually, German soldiers stumbled upon them, Howe said, and he was taken to another prisoner camp near Munich. It was a large camp with prisoners from several countries. The food was improved over Hammelburg, where Howe had described the evening meal as cabbage-water soup or vegetable stew where worms embedded in the vegetables became part of the meal.

“We very quickly decided the worms were well-cooked, and there was no taste, so we ate them all,” Howe recalled. He said he bathed only once the entire three months, an attempt to remove body lice that had infested prisoners.

It was early April by the time he got to the second prisoner camp in Munich, and the tide of the war was shifting against Germany. On April 29, the Munich camp was liberated by Patton’s forces.

“We were free with great relief and we soon moved out,” he said.

By July he was recuperating on American soil, and that August he got married. Sixty-nine years later, his wife sat in the audience Friday as Howe delivered his recollections.

Chaplain Whitelock described the ordeal of being captured and held by enemies as “an experience of fright and terror that has no equal.” He said efforts continue to determine the fates of America’s missing, which comprise about 75,000 from World War II, 1,600 from Vietnam, 7,800 from Korea and 120 from the Cold War, according to Shumlin.

“I join all Vermonters today in remembering those who aren’t with us and honoring those who are,” Shumlin said. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”