August 7, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of my father, Roy D. Johnson, being captured by the Germans in Martain, France, in World War II. His capture would begin 6 months of a grim existence that really was a struggle for survival.
He was 27 when he was drafted in November of 1941 for one year compulsory military training. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, however, on Dec. 7, 1941, and his anticipated year of service was extended “for the duration, plus 6 months.”
He did not talk about his war experience when I was growing up, but it was hard not to notice his hang-up on food that probably came from his POW experience when he lost 50 pounds and almost starved.
He bought 2 lots near his home on Guntersville Road in Arab and put vegetable gardens on them. He would have jobs for me like pulling grass from a bean row and I’m not sure if it came from his military experience with chain of command, but the orders for the jobs would not come directly from him but through my mother.
His garage was lined with shelves with canned produce from his garden. He had 2 or 3 large freezers that were full of meat he had bought and vegetables he had grown. At any one time, he had more food stored than would be possible to eat. He also was bad to fish for food, which also rubbed off on me.
One experience that he had that really made a strong impression on him was a German soldier had been killed in a road where the Allied front was moving rapidly forward. He said the tanks and other vehicles did not slow down to remove the body but kept going and eventually the body was totally mashed flat by the rapidly moving vehicles.
I am not sure if it was war’s disrespect for life or war’s irreverence for death, but the experience really had an impact on him because he told me about it more than once.
After the war, he moved with his family to Arab and worked as plastering contractor before going into the grocery business. He had the Jitney Jungle grocery store in Arab which was said to be the first modern supermarket in that town. He passed away on July 28, 1988, from acute myelogenous leukemia which his doctors attributed to having been severely malnourished and having scurvy while in prison camp.
In 1984, my dad was interviewed and his experiences included in the book “Ex-POWs of Alabama” by Robert E. Davis and edited by Ann S. Cooper.
The following is an excerpt from that book:
Sgt. Roy David Johnson
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, and on D+6, the 30th Infantry Division crossed the English Channel, landing on Omaha Beach in northern France. Bitter fighting followed.
Our company was equipped with 30-caliber machine guns. We received reinforcements 4 times during the first few weeks of fighting. The 30th Division made an advance, while many of the troops worked off the front line, in a mopping up operation. The Germans counterattacked with a force of 50 tanks. I was captured near Martain, France, on August 7, 1944, in the resulting battle.
Here, I was placed on a truck with other prisoners and sent deeper into occupied France, on my way to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. I remember a French-speaking British captain in the group. When the truck went through Paris, the captain stuck his head out through a slit in the canvas and told the French people we were hungry. They brought us food and bread.
The truck carried us to a railhead where we were transferred to a boxcar. It was on of those French “40 & 8s” used to carry 40 men or 8 horses. The Germans put 60 prisoners in each car. During the transfer, the French-speaking English captain escaped.
Not long afterward, a German soldier came to the boxcar and cocked his rifle, jabbing it into my stomach. He spoke to me in German, asking where the captain was. I told him I didn’t know. He then hit me over the head with the barrel of the gun. Fortunately, it didn’t go off.
We were asked to take off our outer clothing and shoes and pile them in the middle of the car, making escape more difficult. The boxcar door was nailed shut.
During my imprisonment, I was in three or four prisons before finally being transferred to Stalag III in Kustrin (Alt Drewitz), Germany, near the northern border and Poland. American planes had bombed Berlin 21 times in a row, but when we went through Berlin, there was no bombing.
The planes were strafing everything that moved. Americans had learned that Germans were using Red Cross symbols to mark gasoline and ammunition trucks and other vehicles.
If our train had been marked POW, the Americans still would have strafed it. Since the doors were nailed shut, all we could do was get low on the floor. I remember once, there was a pilot in the boxcar with us. I asked if he ever though he would be on the receiving end of strafing. Some of the soldiers passed out because of lack of oxygen. They revived when the door was finally opened.
As for life in Stalag III-C, it was grim. We were given numbers and not called by name. 34 men were placed in one room. Double-decker bunk beds were constructed of lumber. Each of us was given two blankets, even when the temperature dropped to 40 below outside. There were no mattresses or pillows.
Each of us was given one cup of soup a day. It was made from turnips or collards. On Sundays, it was always pea soup. One small loaf of bread was provided for six men. There was a coal-burning stove in the room, but the ration was one bucket of coal per month. We used to build one big fire, were we all could get warm. The rest of the time, the room was heated by body heat.
When I was captured, I weighed 190 pounds. When liberated, I was down to 140.
I made it better than some of the bigger fellows who were big eaters. Some became so thin, they developed sores on their hips from sleeping on the wooden floors of their bunks.
On occasion, we got Red Cross parcels, but we were not allowed to stretch it out for several days. We had to eat it the day we got it. We would pry up the boards beneath the bunks and hide food from the packages there.
I kept a small pair of scissors with me and charged the prisoners three cigarettes to cut their hair. I would trade these for Red Cross food. My wife sent me packages with cookies and other items, but I never received them. The Germans told us the mail was destroyed by bombings and strafings.
I wore the same clothing all during internment. We got a bath once a month. The prison camp was located out of town. We would march to the showers. While we were bathing, our clothing would be given a hot steam bath to kill the lice.
Daily we would fall out of the barracks for a formation or head count. There was a barracks of Russian prisoners in a nearby barbed wire enclosure. They didn’t get all the inoculations we had before going to war. Every day we would watch the bodies of their dead being removed on stretchers during head count.
The only way we had to follow the progress of the war was by observing the guards. At first, they were regular soldiers. Then, as Germany began to lose, old men, and, soon, men with war wounds replaced these.
We knew from the radio that the Russians were getting close. On January 31, they told us to fall out and they were going to march us to toward the Russians.
We knew it would be safer to stay in the prison camp, so while the next barracks was being moved outside, we went back inside. Finally, the guards told us they were going to shoot the barracks leader if we didn’t stay outside.
As it turned out, my barracks was supposed to head up the column, but because we went back inside, we wound up in second place. When the column got near the Russians, they shot and killed 26 prisoners before one ran past the tanks shouting, “Amerikanos!”
We were returned to the camp where we remained for three days. The Germans had left us and the first thing we did was raid the camp’s storehouse. I got a five-gallon bucket of kraut.
After three days, the Russians told us to form small groups of 8 to 10 soldiers and go to Russia on foot, living off the land all the way. At first, we were in Germany, foraging food from deserted houses as we went. The bodies of Germans killed by the Russians were still in their homes.
About 4 o’clock each day, we would start looking for a house with no dead, decaying bodies. Here we would spend the night. Finally, we were far enough in the rear of the battle that we came upon a train which had brought Russian supplies to the front.
Displaced Poles and freed prisoners loaded on the train, riding on the top and clinging to the sides. We didn’t know where it was going, but we rode that train for 200 to 300 miles. Once in Russia, we boarded a British ship.
We were served two meals a day. We sailed through the Aegean Sea to Fort Said, Egypt, where we stayed for two weeks with a U.S. Army camp. We were fed well and got new clothes.
We then sailed to Naples, Italy, and after two weeks, came through the Strait of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic, then to Boston.