Samuel Gilbert

Samuel Gilbert
PFC – U.S. Army, 4th Infantry Division;
European Theater, France
World War II (1943-1945)
POW Stalag 7A

Sam Gilbert, whose given name is Samuel Gilbert, was born in Brooklyn, New York on October 6, 1919. His father and mother, Charles and Fannie Gilbert, were born in Europe and immigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. They settled in lower New York City and after several moves arrived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a typically all Jewish neighborhood, where Sam was born. Sam had an older sister, thirteen years his senior, Anne Gilbert, another sister, Ethel, who was closer in age to Sam, then Sam, the third child, and then his brother, Bernie, born two years later. Unfortunately, Sam’s brother passed away just recently and so Sam is the last one left of the family.

“Before the war I did a lot of odd jobs, and not very good jobs; something to make money at,” Sam told us. Sam also attended several art schools in New York City. “Actually, I was born to do the artwork because I came from a family of artists. My father, as a matter of
fact, was an artist too. He was a painter, but to make a living he had to be a house painter and decorator, wallpaper hanger and all that. He used to do some sketching and painting while at home, and I was watching at his elbow when I was very, very young, and I started drawing when I was only about 5, 6, 7 years old. Just like my son, Dan, who learned from me, at my elbow. He’s an artist also, a graphic designer.”

Asked about the situation in the U.S. at the time he enlisted, Sam said, “What was happening in the U.S. was that we were trying to stay out of the war. Roosevelt was the president and we were supposed to be isolationists; in other words, not to get involved in the wars in Europe, which we had before in the 1st World War, going back to 1914 where after a while, in order to beat the Germans, the Americans had to come in and fight with England and France and Russia on the eastern front. I was born in 1919 and the war was over in 1918, so I was born a year after the war ended; World War I. So in between WWI and WWII, I lived my youth, in between those years, and it just so happened that I happened to catch the second one, WWII. I was about 24 years old when I was in the army.”

“I very much wanted to join and volunteer, because Hitler was a menace and I wanted to make sure that we were able to get rid of him. And so I was waiting to be called in for service, and I waited and I waited for maybe a few months and I finally said to myself, why am I not called up? I was very eager to go. I went to the draft board, which was located in our neighborhood, and I went up there and I told the guys at the draft board I was waiting to be called up, and they asked me my name and I told them, and my address and all, and they looked me up and they said, ‘You, you’re supposed to be dead. You were killed in action.’ So I said, ‘Well I’m alive and well, and here I am.’ Well, there must have been a fluke or something or something was written up about me. Maybe somebody else, who knows, had put my name in. So at that point I was drafted into the army and went down to sign up and did my basic training in Mississippi.”

Sam’s brother, Bernie, had already joined the Coast Guard, joining when he was very young, only about 18 or 19 years old. At first, the Coast Guard was checking for enemy submarines and bombs that might have been left off the eastern coast of the U. S. Later
on, when Japan entered the war, Sam’s brother’s ship was moving troops off to the islands.

Sam enlisted on April, 27, 1943. He was 24 years old. First, Sam went to basic training in Mississippi. Since he was an artist, the army assigned him to draw human figures on big canvases to be used for instruction, to demonstrate where pressure points were on the body and where to apply tourniquets. These demonstrations were for the troops that were ready to go overseas. So, Sam was held back from going overseas for approximately 8 or 9 months.

About basic training Sam said, “I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies. The basic training was horrible.” It was very hot in Mississippi. “At that time, we were in basic training and a lot of the stuff was getting down on your belly and crawling, with your rifle, you know, and like you’re advancing on the enemy.”

“I didn’t know it, but I was covered with these little red bugs called chiggers. And the chiggers were a menace. They get into your pores of your skin when you’re sweating. Get into your pores and they cause blisters and infections and a lot of guys had to go to the hospital because of these chiggers.”

Sam also told us about the long forced marches. “What they call forced marches means you walk at a very fast pace and you drink a lot of water, as much as you can, while you’re walking. And what happened was, that a lot of people dropped out and some of them died
along the way. This is in basic training, not the war. And a lot of them died and I developed a high fever and they sent me to the hospital and they put me in a bed in the hospital area and they loaded a whole bunch of ice cubes into a rubber sheet and locked me up in it and rolled me around to lower my temperature. I had 108º fever as I remember. 108º. That was very high. That’s pretty close to dying. And my fever came down, luckily. I survived. I was in there, in the hospital, for a few days. And then they sent me back to basic training again.” Sam said that basic training was the toughest part of his service. “It was really rough. A lot of guys never made it out of basic training. Since we were all civilians not too long ago, we were kind of soft and they had to harden us up. Well, they hardened up some of those guys so much that they never made it. They died in basic training.” He said that the sergeants and officers were basically inhumane to the troops that they were training because they wanted them to feel that this was the way it was going to be in the war, and they better be ready for it. “They had to harden us up. ‘Don’t take it seriously guys. This is the way it’s going to be.’ And it was rough, rough.”

Asked about the training, Sam said, “We had to train for any kind of gas attacks. If the enemy used gas, we had to have a mask. They distributed masks for everybody and we had to go into sort of a room where they released gas… and you had to get in there with your
mask and then you had to remove the mask for just a brief period of time without breathing. But what happens is, the gas gets into the mask and they did not anticipate the fact that gas gets into the mask and when you put the mask back on again, you’re breathing gas! So some of the guys inhaled pretty badly and they went to the hospital. I was lucky. I had a little bit of a problem with the gas and I had a cough. I coughed blood.
They sent me to an infirmary and I was coughing blood for about two days. And finally I got better and they sent me back to basic training. Some of the other guys were not that lucky. Some of those guys developed a terrible illness from the gas and some of the guys even died from the gas. Horrible situation. I think it was either mustard gas or some other kind of a lethal gas. I forget now what they called it.” Sam added, “As a matter of fact, I don’t think they even used gas during the war. No, not that I remember.”

And the food in basic training? “Don’t talk about food boy!”, Sam laughs. “We were just ordinary privates or PFCs in basic training and we got terrible food, awful. The only good thing I ever heard or remember is chef made a very good bread pudding. And if it wasn’t
for the bread pudding I would just go starve, because the food was terrible. The bread pudding made up for everything. I loved the bread pudding. That’s what I was living on, bread.” Sam added that if you wanted to get a real good bite to eat, you had to go to the PX.

Sam says that although the barracks food was horrible, the food in the officers’ section was extremely good. He said that the only time he was able to get some of the officers’ food was when they put him on KP duty. ‘Then one time I had to be a waiter in the officers’ training place, the officers’ dining room. And I would be serving the officers food and then I was able to eat their food too. And I’ll tell you something. It’s like eating at Longchamps. It was like a hotel. Those guys get fed pretty well. And not that I have it against them, it’s just that the difference between what we had to eat and what they had to eat was miles apart.”

When asked why he chose the Army over other branches of the military, Sam said, “Well, I didn’t actually. I wanted to go into the navy, and they wouldn’t accept me because my eyes were not good enough. Well, they could take me in the army and my eyes were good enough and I was able to shoot pretty well. The navy was a little more finicky about these things and they wanted to have people with good eyesight. I never found out why that is.”

“So, they didn’t accept me in the navy. And then I wanted to get into the air force. And while I was in basic training, I put in an application to go into the air force. And that was pretty close to the time when they had a problem in Europe. There was a battle being fought and the British were bottled up in a port somewhere in France and they had to get some troops over there in a big hurry to relieve the pressure on the British over there. And therefore, they needed more soldiers coming over, so I lost my chance to get into the air force, and I sailed for England. And from there on, I was in the war.”

“I was on leave [before I was shipped out to Europe]. I don’t believe I went home. It was too far away. I was down south, so the nearest city that I was able to get leave at was Baltimore, Maryland. I had a girlfriend there. We had an organization where we went to
have fun and relax and dance, you know, they had music, bands. We were dancing, we had food to eat there and we made friends with some of the girls and had some fun there, you know. Very nice.”

Sam’s 1st military assignment was in France. But first he was sent to England and from England we were sent on troop ships across the English Channel. He says that most of the guys got seasick going across the channel because it was very choppy. “It took us about a good part of the day to cross the channel. This was very, very rough waters and the people were just all over the place, throwing up,” Sam laughs remembering. “Most of us were not used to taking that kind of boat, that [kind of] trip.” Two weeks past DDay.

Sam recalls that there were two separate places where the boats landed, Utah and Omaha each. He recalls that he landed on Omaha beach. “We lost thousands of our troops landing on DDay and that was one of the areas that we had to land.” How did he feel on the way
across the English Channel? “You know, it never occurred to me to be afraid of anything. Not worried about anything. I was just there for the day and who knows what tomorrow’s going to bring,” he laughs. “And as a matter of fact, when we got to the shore and we were waiting to move on to our next place where we had to be marched forward toward the war, some of the guys brought out their cards and they were playing cards for thousands of dollars. I’m telling you, this is poker, for thousands of dollars! And I was saying to one of the guys, ‘Why are you playing for so much money? I mean why can’t you play nickels and dimes or quarters or a dollar or whatever?’ He says, ‘You gotta be kidding. We might not
be here tomorrow. This is more fun playing for thousands of dollars. We’re not going to be able to pay off the debt anyway! We never figure we’re coming back.’ …That was the attitude. And I felt the same way.”

Once in France Sam tells of an early experience. “We were traveling on trucks I believe and we finally got to a town, and we disembarked and the first thing I saw was a destroyed American tank. And right near the tank was something black, a big piece of black  something. And I had no idea what it was until I got really close, and you know what it was? It was a tank man, a young boy, burned to a crisp. Black, you could hardly recognize the body. And I said to myself, ‘This is war? This is horrible.’ He must have been in the tank. The tank was hit… He was probably in the tank and it burned and he got burned to a crisp like a piece of toast. And he was lying out there on the ground and that threw me. That threw me for a long time. I could never forget that.”

They then marched toward Calais, France, and went up to Cherbourg and then marched. “At one point the German planes came over and were bombing and strafing us and we lost quite a few troops right there because we had no air cover from our air force.” Asked about
additional training at this point, Sam says, “We had target practice. We had targets set up and we were practicing on that. And that was very essential of course. And it turned out that I’m a pretty good sharp shooter, and I got a badge for that. Kind of silly. And you know something? I have to admit, I never once shot any enemy troops because I was captured two weeks after we landed.”

At this time the 4th Division was under General Patton. “General Patton had a very good reputation as a good general but not a compassionate man. And he was very nasty to the infantry. His main love was for the tanks. He loved his tanks. They were his queen as he
called them. And so we never did care for Patton.” Sam says that Patton traveled very quickly in order to get the Germans off balance. “He took us behind the German lines and then cut ‘em off and then destroyed the troops that were in the front. And so, that was a good way to do the war, took the Germans off balance and they had to retreat. But at the same time, we were cut off too.”

This was the 4th Armored Division. Sam says, “We had the 2nd armored and the 4th armored. But we had to ride on the tanks. We took all our equipment, got on top of the tanks and we started to go forward. Armored infantry they called us.” Sam says that before
they got to St. Lo they were in an area with lots of hedgerows separating the houses and they started to lose tanks because the tanks had to go over mounds of earth rather than go through the hedgerows. “They used to build these mounds of earth so when the tanks wanted to go over these mounds, they had to go straight up and over and that’s where they were most vulnerable, because if you hit a tank head on, it’s not going to destroy the tank but if you hit a tank underneath, that’s the weakest part of the tank. And that’s where they destroyed the tank. …It took them about a day, and they came up with an idea… With the American tanks they would put these forked steel units on the front of the tank, that would
plow right through the hedgerows and just make a path to go through. And then they were able to attack the Germans on the other side.”

“One particular time the Germans were attacking us with mortars and I was carrying all this gear and equipment on me. And one mortar exploded not too far away from us and one guy had his fingers blown off and he was yelling, “Medic. Medic!” He was in terrible pain. And another shell hit, not too far from me and there was a hedgerow right close by there on my right. And what do I do? With all that heavy equipment, I dived right over the shrubs, on the other side to protect myself. And god knows how I didn’t break a leg. (laughs)… So that saved me actually. If it weren’t for the shrubs, I would have been a goner because a lot of guys were getting hit. That was a pretty scary moment.”

Sam witnessed an incident that he related… “We were taking a lot of prisoners. We had to bring prisoners back and take them behind the lines. One of the prisoners came to me… one of the Germans… I don’t even know if he was German, I think he might have been
Romanian, because they had other troops besides Germans in their army from those countries that they had overrun. Poles, Romanians, Hungarians. I have no idea what the nationality was. It wasn’t just Germans. And they took the prisoners behind our lines and I found out… I heard shooting back behind our lines and I heard one of the Sgts. say, “Well, that’s the end of those prisoners. We don’t have to bother with them any more.” They were actually killing prisoners behind the lines which is illegal. That is against the rules of war. The Americans had killed the German prisoners. I’m not sure that it happened all the time. I’m just talking about that particular moment. Y’know. And… I don’t know of any instance where the Germans were killing American prisoners. I don’t have any instance of that at all. It probably happened in isolated places where I was not witness to it.”

“And when we got to St. Lo in France… It’s hard to talk about it… Our own air force, killed, destroyed a regiment that was right in front of us. They misdirected their targets. And so
instead of bombing the enemy troops, they bombed our own troops, and they just about destroyed a whole regiment of soldiers that were right ahead of us.” The 4th Division had to take over in that area. “So we saw huge holes, the size of a house, where the bombs were dropped and the earth was thrown out so you have huge holes in the ground everywhere, where the bombs were, and we had to go around the holes in order to get to our destination.” The division marched to St. Lo. Sam laughs, “But after we were taken prisoner, we rode in style.”

Sam told us the following story of how he was taken prisoner. “As I said, the regiment before us was destroyed and we had to come in and we had foxholes that we had to dig in order to defend a certain area where the Germans occupied the town, in St. Lo. But they were on another side of town and we were on the outskirts coming in. We were attacking
them.”

“And they had Tiger tanks, and the thing about the Tiger tanks, they are the best tanks in the world with huge cannon on them. The 88s they called them. And we had to dig in, to make sure we wouldn’t get attacked by their troops and their tanks. And as soon as we got
through digging our foxholes, the Germans started to attack and we had no defense! Because our tanks were gassing up. They were waiting behind us, maybe about 1/4 mile away and waiting to gas up and attack the Germans. Meanwhile we were on our own.”

“I had a B.A.R. which is sort of a semiautomatic rifle. So I was in the foxhole with three guys. One guy way down there, another guy higher up and I was the top man because I came in last. So I had to dive into that foxhole and here the Germans were coming up with
their tanks! And I had my rifle with the bayonet stuck in the ground and I tried to get a hold of my rifle and pull it in with me, but they started to fire at me with their zip guns… They sound bbrrrippp, bbrrrippp, bbrrrippp! And I heard the bullets going right past my head so I just said the hell with the rifle, I better get in the hole (laughs). So I left the rifle outside, and so the guys below me said, “What’s going on, Sam? What’s going on? What’s going on out there?” I said, “I hear tanks are coming up. We don’t stand a chance.”

“And so I very quickly put my head out of the hole there and looked to see what’s going on. And here these Tiger tanks were coming down, toward us, and shooting right into all of the
foxholes. I have no idea how many guys got killed in there or wounded but they were taking them all out in the foxholes. They were killing them all. And we were sort of toward the back. So as the tanks were coming towards us. I said to the guys, “You know, this is stupid for us to stay here. They’re going to get us too. They got all the other guys out there.” So I said, “We’d better get out and surrender. There’s no other choice for us.”

“So I had to hop out of the hole. I raised my arms and the tank (laughs), the Tiger tank moved it’s cannon directly at me. So what do I do? I moved sideways, just in case they might miss me (laughs). I moved sideway, and the guy gets out of the top, the German guy
gets out of the top and motioned, “Kamerade, kamerade.” He waved me forward in other words. They said something in German I didn’t understand. Waved me forward and us guys moved past the tanks and to a place in the farmhouse there and that’s where they held us prisoner.”

Sam was taken prisoner on July 29, 1944. Asked how the Germans treated the American prisoners Sam said, “If we had prisoners, I guess we would have treated them the same way. They didn’t exactly beat us up or anything like that. They weren’t nasty. They were young guys. I mean some of these guys were probably in high school. Very young chaps.” Sam said that they were searched for weapons. “I was loaded. I mean I had weapons coming out of my ears. And they were talking to each other and laughing, having a great time saying ‘How come I was carrying so many weapons?’ I must have been a really strong guy, because I must have been carrying at least 80 lbs. of weapons. And then I had to march with that stuff.”

Asked about the trip to Stalag 7A in Bavaria Sam said, “That was a long trip. We had to go all the way up France going north, north and east in France. And we walked, we went by truck… and we were in troop carriers. Lots of guys. Piled up, oh, I don’t know, maybe
twenty or thirty American prisoners. And the dangerous part of it all was, we were in German troop carriers and here the American planes had come to bomb the Germans and strafe them and we were sitting ducks, you know. They didn’t know for sure who was in those trucks but they thought some German troops. And so they were either Canadians or Americans, I’m not sure. They came down low and rode over our vehicle, and then they realized that there were American troops in there and so they came back and flew and started to come back down again and they tilted their wings, up and back, which meant friend, friendly. And then they took off and we all applauded… Every time seemed like it was the end! It’s the end, always the end! (Laughs) Yeah.”

And asked about arriving at Stalag 7A he said, “Well, y’know we weren’t sure we were gonna be alive. We thought we were going to go to an extermination camp. We had no idea.” The American soldiers had heard something about extermination camps. Somehow it got around. The last part of the trip was by train, a cattle car. “They used to have about, oh, fifty sixty guys in one car. And I have to tell you one little incident. While we were traveling on this train, the Americans came by and started to strafe our train. And on the train was not just American troops, but there were hospital cars on there and there were also German civilians like on a regular car. They had regular cars with seats like, you know, a regular train. But we had cattle cars.”

“We had about three or four of those cattle cars with just American prisoners. So, they came down and strafed our car, the car we were in and one of the bullets hit one of our guys, went right through his body, went through the whole body, came out through his arm or somewhere, and landed onto somebody’s chest… burned a swatch of skin along
his chest. A young kid, you know, I felt terrible and he waskilled instantly. And the other guy picked up the bullet. It was still hot. And he said, “Whooo, I got a souvenir!” (Laughs) That was the bullet that killed this guy. He got a souvenir. Crazy goddam things that happened. Incredible.”

“And after the attacking planes left, we all had to get out of the cars. Everybody had to move out. And they were moving hundreds of dead bodies out a lot of the cars along the way. Laying them out on the ground. And so, after a while we had to take care of our bowel
movements and all that and take care of all that, right along the side. Doesn’t matter whether anybody’s watching. We had to do it. And then we had to get back on the cattle cars and we had to travel again, and finally we ended up in the train station where we were supposed to disembark and walk toward the camp.”

Asked about what Stalag 7A looked like Sam said that the camp was just a bunch of barracks. “They ushered us into the barracks and we were marched into our place. And right away, when we were settled in there, they started to distribute big tureens of soup they gave us, a liquidy soup. Nothing that would be any good for you if you’re hungry. But
they had to give you something. And they gave us some, what they call, ersatz bread. Ersatz means fake. It’s not real. It’s made of sawdust. Believe it or not, I’ll tell you something, I was so hungry it tasted delicious. (laughs) Sawdust bread. It didn’t have any worthwhile ingredients that would satisfy your appetite. It would just fill up your belly. That’s all. So that’s what we had, ersatz bread and liquidy soup.”

Sam said that life at Stalag 7Awas very boring except for the times when the American soldiers had to go to work. “Not the officers, but the PFCs and the privates. They made us go to work. Munich was not very far away from where we were in the stalag. And they’d put us in the cattle cars to go to work into Munich.” “It’s wintertime. Cold. We didn’t have gloves.”

Sam explained what the work detail had to do. “The American planes, and the Canadian planes I guess, were bombing the stations in Munich and their tracks were literally blown out of the ground and they were curled up into odd shapes and what we had to do is grab
those tracks that were destroyed, with about fifty guys, and pick up one of those tracks and carry it by hand a ways to the outside away fromthe train tracks and then they had to go back and put new fresh tracks in.” “So what happened? We went back home. And the next day or two days later, we went back and the bombers had already attacked the same places and blown up the tracks again. So we had a job of replacing tracks for about two weeks.”

Even in this environment, Sam was an artist. “While I was there, I made some sketches of the guards that were doing business with us. We had some cigarettes on us that we’d gotten from the Red Cross, and they were selling bread… and I was making a sketch in pencil of those scenes, which I later transposed into charcoal drawings.”

At Sam’s home his wife Lore pointed out a small painting on the wall. “You’ve got that little painting there. That little oil painting,” she noted. Sam added, “That painting over there I traded for a pack of cigarettes. I got that painting from another prisoner. He was from another country. I forget now which country. And that’s the way we used to do a lot of business, trading with one another for whatever we had.”

Asked about food and shelter in the camp, Sam said that the Germans had winter clothes that were provided by the Red Cross, and they were supposed to give them to the prisoners. The prisoners never got the clothes. “They had them in a big warehouse stored away and they were using it themselves as a matter of fact, and they wouldn’t give us that winter clothing. And their reason was that if they gave us good winter clothing we would try to escape, and we had the clothing y’know and we get some food, whatever, and that’s their excuse why they didn’t want to give us those clothes, so that we wouldn’t try to escape.”

The Germans were also supposed to provide certain food packages from the Red Cross, but that never happened. Instead they brought a certain cheese that Sam liked more than his fellow prisoners. “You ever hear of Limburger cheese? Limburger cheese is made in Germany in the town of Limburg. And they would come over and bring us a big brick of Limburger cheese. And we guys used to cut it up in pieces and distribute it. Well most of the guys wouldn’t go near it. It stunk so badly. Y’know they considered this as crap. You don’t eat that. Well I enjoyed it right away. I loved Limburger cheese. From the very beginning. And I had my Limburger cheese and their Limburger cheese… I would give them something in exchange for their cheese. You know it was very healthy to eat that cheese. So, I was very lucky.”

But life in the stalag was boring. “What do you do? You lay around, you tell stories. If anybody has any money on them, which is very rare, you gamble. (laughs) What the heck. Anything to pass time. That’s all. Y’know. You’d go crazy otherwise.” Life in the prison was like life in any other prison Sam guesses. We had a potbellied stove. “It was pretty cold. They had a fire going. I don’t know where they get the wood or whatever they use for a potbellied stove for the fire but it was very, very cold. And anything we could do… I was lucky I had my GI clothes on, y’know, some other guys maybe not. And we were able to keep fairly warm.”

Shelter was adequate. “It was a regular barracks like anywhere else,” Sam says. They had a stove and there were no “varmints.” “No mice or anything like that running around. No roaches. Everything was fairly, I wouldn’t say comfortable…” They had straw mattresses
to sleep on, which were very thin. “Ordinarily you wouldn’t even consider a thing like that to sleep on, but y’know, when you’re a prisoner of war, anything goes. And we used to buddy up with some other guys and keep warm. Y’know how you do it. You get together and you stay warm that way.”

About escape attempts Sam said, “In one case, one guy did try to escape, and they finally recaptured him and brought him back and they told us that anybody else who was caught escaping would get shot, so don’t try it any more. They didn’t want to have our soldiers
go out and try to escape and go into some German house and eat their food, you know, their reasoning was to protect themselves.”

And Sam told a story about a prisoner who was punished by other prisoners. “…One guy in particular… they used to hand out this ersatz bread, and we used to hide some of it for later, and one guy, while everybody else was sleeping went stealing other people’s bread. Well that guy got beat up something awful. We found out about it. He barely survived. A bunch of guys got a hold of him and they just about destroyed him. And the guards came in and had to take him away because they would have killed him. A guy stealing bread from somebody else in a situation like that. It’s just a crime.”

Asked what motivated him to keep going Sam said, “Well, you don’t want to die. You try not to anyway. You try to think positive or don’t think at all.” “And the wonderful thing is that we had in our barracks a shortwave radio that was hidden in the barracks underneath
the floor. And you might have seen that in one of the movies in Stalag 7. …It wasn’t my barracks that was in the movie, it’s a friend of mine I met over there, became very good friends. And it showed how under the floorboards, they turned it upside down, and when the guards came by all they saw was floor but when we wanted to get some news we turned it around upside down and there was the radio and we were getting reports for how the war was going on. So we weren’t losing hope because the Germans were losing. They were being pushed back as well as losing on the Russian front and all that. So that gave us the courage to stay optimistic. It was very essential, really.”

Asked for a humorous story from the camp, Sam laughs, “Oh! While I was a prisoner of war… while there was an air raid going on… we had to get out of the barracks and run through the woods and we had the guards. The guards weren’t young, they must have been in their 70s maybe and they couldn’t keep up with us young fellows, so we had to grab the guards by the arms, and practically lift him off the ground, and took his rifle away. We carried his rifle for him (laughs) and we went through the woods that way and so we were all saved. And then the bombs were coming down, and the shrapnel was flying through the trees and the noise was horrendous and we didn’t stop. We just kept on running and going and going and nobody got hit, miraculously. Nobody got hit. It was amazing.”

“And it was over and then when we came back the guard was very thankful. He thanked us for helping him out. And he gave us some stuff, I don’t know what it was, whether it was cheese or chocolate or whatever that he had. I just don’t recall. But he was very thankful. …We were sons of the fathers. They were the fathers and we were the sons. And we got along really well. Y’know. Who’s an enemy? (laughs) It doesn’t matter.”

Asked about his day of liberation from the stalag, Sam laughs, “Ah. Yeah. We were held in some small barracks where we were doing outside work. We were working in the field at a lazarette which is sort of like a hospital place. And they had their own agricultural lands that they raised beets and potatoes and things like that and we used to work out there in the fields. We would bring in the potatoes and beets, whatever had to be brought in and then it seemed that we saw the Germans retreating over there.”

“They were passing right through where we were being stationed. And we saw the German troops, coming back in terrible shape. Some of them were crying… The Americans had come by with their planes and they had destroyed the whole town of Landshut. We saw the
planes going through there. Lots of stories there. I don’t even want to go into some of them. Really, very horrible. And in a way, even though I was an enemy, I felt sorry for the poor people who were living in that town and were being killed, and their homes destroyed. I was thinking to myself, what would I do if I was in their place? And even though we were at war with them, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have any feeling for them. So I felt terrible about it but not everybody felt the same way.”

“And then finally an order came out that the war was coming to an end and we have to get all our troops out in the field so they came from everywhere, American prisoners. Thousands of them, from everywhere, and congregated in this field.” Sam says that the American prisoners were told to be careful because there were still enemy planes in the
air and not to leave the area because they might be attacked and killed. Sam says, “Not that some of the guys listened. They went to get some food or whatever.”

“When we first got back to our armored infantry troop area, they gave us, guess what? Champagne. Now to give champagne to a bunch of guys who haven’t had a decent meal in almost a year is absolute murder. Outrageous! I tell ya, we drank champagne, and I had a little bit of food, but not a hell of alot, there was not much to counter the champagne. Even if you’re a regular civilian with food, if you have too much champagne, you’re going to get groggy and sick. Well I had a whole bottle of champagne, just for myself. They were handing ‘em out, y’know. That they had pilfered from the French. Where else would it have come from? And so I got stinkin’ drunk. (laughs) I didn’t throw up but I was just laughing and I was having a ball. I hadn’t had so much fun in a long time.”

After a while they were given the word to go into a town nearby, and they marched to it. “We were supposed to go into some of the homes and get food and have lodging because they had no place for us to sleep.” And so, Sam and two other soldiers went to one of the nearby homes. At first they weren’t let in. Sam told them, “‘If you don’t let me in I’m going to bang this door down and get in anyway, because we have to get a place to sleep.’ And they seemed to understand a little English, so they understood what I was saying and the other two guys were saying, ‘Let’s go away. Don’t bother them.’ and I said ‘What do you mean don’t bother them. We have to have a place to stay overnight.’ And so they finally opened the door and let us in.”

“And actually they were pretty nice to us, once we got in the house. They gave us mattresses to sleep in one of the rooms and they gave us some food. The only thing they wanted from us was tobacco, because they didn’t have any tobacco. So I said, “Yeah I have
some tobacco. Do you have a pipe?” “Yeah I have a pipe.” So I gave him some tobacco and what do you think he did? He went to his closet, took out a bottle of Schnapps and filled up a glass and gave it to me. (laughs) And then I knocked down a couple of Schnappses. Oh they’re lovely. I was happy. And then we had a good night sleep, after that. I got up during the night and I was walkin’ around singing songs all over the place. I was so happy. You have no idea. And the guys saying ‘Shut up Sam. We got to get some sleep.’ And I said, ‘What? Come on! This is fun!’” The next day, Sam and the other soldiers had to leave the German home to go to where the trucks were assembled to take them west, to the coast. “And I thanked them very much. I really did appreciate them opening up their house for us.”

Sam says that they were taken to an airport about 10 miles away and put on airplanes. “Well, these were the troop carrier airplanes. They used them all the time, hundreds of them. The door was wide open. They had a lot to carry. A lot of troops there.”

“There was no door! Just an opening! And we were standing around, there was no place to sit down, just lying around on the floor and I went over to the outside to look down and I watched the whole scene go by me. All of the destruction that went on during the war as we were going further toward the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Going west and I was
saying to myself, “What happened to this land. It’s terrible! It’s all dug up, with bombs and automobiles and tanks, trucks, everything destroyed all along the way. We watched the whole thing as we were flying by. We weren’t flying too high. It couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet.” They finally arrived in Paris where they were deloused, bathed and then given new clothing.

“From there on we were on our way home. We got to the coast and we had to board ships, …and each boat was not very big, it must have carried about 500 troops, each ship, and on the way home they treated us very royally. Chicken a la King all the way home. And do y’know what happens when you have Chicken a la King all the way home? We got fat! We
had fat! Not muscle! (laughs) And some of the guys got sick! Naturally.”

“We went directly to the USA on those ships. We were in a convoy. We had a convoy of, oh I don’t know how many ships there were. I would venture to guess they must have had about 40 ships in the convoy.” “Even though the war was over the UBoats were still out there to destroy American ships. They wouldn’t give up. They wouldn’t recognize the end
of the war. Or they didn’t know the war was over, whichever one it was. And the UBoats were attacking American ships on the way back so we were in convoy and we had some submarines, we had warships of every description to defend our troops on the way back.”

“We went the north route going through Newfoundland, Iceland, all the way up on the north route. And it was cold, icebergs everywhere. We were mostly concerned about icebergs.” “We were also supposed to be down below, not coming up on top. They wanted to protect us. So we were down below and it was cold as hell. And you know, you get tired
down below on so long a trip, and some of the guys wanted to go up and look around and I was one of them that went up and walked along the deck for a little bit.” Sam also told the story of how one of their escort ships, an aircraft carrier, collided with an iceberg and ended up with a huge opening in the front of the ship. The carrier had to go in for repairs, either in Newfoundland or in one of the countries nearby. “There were lots of icebergs around. That was one of the most dangerous parts of the whole trip besides the UBoats. We destroyed some UBoats along the way… I know we sunk a couple of ‘em.”

Asked where they landed in the U.S. Sam says, “I’m almost sure it was Norfolk, VA. …The war in Japan was still on at the time, and I was told that we were going to be transferred to
the west coast and there we’d go to the Pacific and join the war against the Japanese.” “Well, in about two days the war was over in Japan. And we were all celebrating because we didn’t have to go fight another war in Japan. And so I guess when the war was over, they said ‘okay, I guess there’s no reason to keep you guys here. You can take a leave and go home.’”

At that point the soldiers went off home to be with their families. When asked about his homecoming, Sam says that he’d been sending mail to home from the prison camp but that his family hadn’t heard from him in a long time. “My mother didn’t know for sure if I was home or where I was. She had no idea. She had no more reports about my hereabouts and so when I finally arrived at home, my mother was there, and she almost passed out when she saw me.”

“There were a lot of people waiting for me to come back. Everybody knew about me in our neighborhood. And so my mother was in absolute tears, and she was laughing and gave me a big fat hug of course. And I had my first good home meal that day.”

“And the funniest thing is that one of my sister’s friends was a fortune teller and she read her my fortune, and she told her that there was nothing wrong, I was okay, was missing in
action but I’d be back home again. And they thought this is not true, this is not going to happen, because they didn’t believe in that stuff, fortune telling. And when they finally saw me, they said, ‘She was right! He’s home!’ (laughs) And it was a big celebration. Exactly what happened I don’t know. God (laughs). I hate to relive this stuff anyway, because it gives me bad nightmares.”

Sam says that he had to report to the Veterans Administration and got his 5220 pay. He says he remembers better what was going on in Europe when he was fighting the war, than what happened when he got home. “All I know is that I was a celebrity when I got home, like any of the guys coming back. And my brother of course was back already at that time. He was married. He got married pretty young. And we got together, the family, and I can’t remember exactly what happened. All I remember is that we got together, as a family.”

He says it wasn’t hard to adjust to civilian life. “No, not at all. The only thing I had trouble with was getting a job. I wanted to go back to work as soon as possible and what could I do? I had training as an artist, as a graphic designer, but there were no jobs available. A lot of companies had gone out of business… Most of the business was with the government. The government gave out jobs to a lot of the manufacturers that were doing work directly for the war effort.”

“The civilians had to live on rations… You got very little to eat. Each coupon to get a ration for food or clothing or whatever it is. And there wasn’t very much, so there was not too much available as jobs were concerned and I was trying to stay busy, I guess… Finally, I managed to get a job at an advertising agency for a minimal amount of money for a month, or a week, whatever it was. And that was very good, I felt very good about that. And I met a very good friend there, who was also at a stalag… He was in the air force and he was shot down and he was in one of the stalags, not the same one I was in. But we got to be very good friends. And I worked there for quite a while, maybe a few years until I got into another place, and that established my work.”

Asked about his career since the war Sam says that he was a graphic designer for many years. Before he got into the advertising business, he had a job hand painting ties in NYC in Harlem. “And that’s where I met my wife. She was fired… To make a long story short, I
was sticking up for her, we had a union there and I was a shop steward and I was looking out for my guys to be treated properly so the boss took me on the side and he said ‘Sam you’re better off not being here. You’re causing a problem with me and my union.’ So he fired me. (laughs) So my wife got fired and I got fired. So we got very attached to each other, Lore and I. So from that point on I did very well. I got into an advertising agency. I was doing very well. I made better money. Not a lot but better money. And that’s where my art career in the advertising business started, at that point. So I was fairly lucky in that respect.” Asked if his division had reunions after the war, Sam says, ‘Yes, they did! But you know something? I never attended any of them. I didn’t want to get involved with anything that smelled of the war. I wanted to forget all that.”

“I did have a lot of bad memories, a lot of bad dreams, and it got so bad I couldn’t sleep, so I went to the VA and they got me a few sessions with a psychiatrist and not that he put
me on the couch, but he asked me a lot of questions for about two or three sessions, and I didn’t think it was helping me so I quit, I just figured that I don’t need that stuff and I went to 2 psychiatrists, as a matter of fact. And I went to another one and the other guy was terrible also, so I had nothing to do with that and I managed. It was fine. I was okay. They gave me some kind of pills at the VA hospital to help me sleep and I wouldn’t have bad dreams. That’s about it.”

Asked about his scariest moment, Sam says, ‘It was all pretty scary. But after a while ‘know you get used to it. One experience was no worse than another experience.” Asked if his sacrifice was justified, Sam states, “Oh, absolutely. Of course. That’s what I joined the army for… because we didn’t know the full extent of what was going on with the German Jews and being exterminated and the camps. We only found out afterwards.”

“It certainly was justified because we had to get rid of that monster Hitler and we succeeded in doing that and then they used to say, ‘This is the war that ends all wars.’ Well that’s pretty familiar stuff because we said the same thing after the first world war. ‘This is the war that ends all war’. The Second World War, that’s the war that ends all war. We’re still fighting wars.”

“And even though I say it was justified, at the same time… the human animal obviously is very brutal and very mean. I’m not saying all of them are, but those who are the ones who rule the world are the ones who are mean and don’t mind having wars every so often. And killing off millions of people. The Russians lost millions of people during the war. And that’s why I say, yes, it’s justified. I don’t think it’s a good idea to tempt humanity’s demise, because one of these days, with the atom bomb, we may not have a planet.”

How did his WWII experience change his outlook on life? “…Well, it’s not that simple a question to answer…It’s not that pinpointed as to one particular idea. It’s sort of a vast area that you have to think about. …Well, the fact that we were able to come out of that war and still come back to normal life again was something that I could appreciate.”

“In reality I think we did better, the veterans of the Second World War, did better in adjusting to life and going back, even though we had no jobs, we were helped to get back on our feet again. It’s not happening with the wars now, where the guys coming back,
they have nothing to hope for, and I go to the Veterans Hospital and I see all those crippled guys coming back with no arms, on crutches, in wheelchairs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that’s horrible.”

“And sometimes you kind of lose hope that there’s never going to be peace in this world. And that could sort of turn off your optimism about the human race. Will this continue on and on? I hope for your [the young interviewer’s] sake, we’re not going to have any world
wars, that’s all I can tell you.”

When asked what lessons people should learn from WWII, Sam laughs, “That’s a loaded question… You should learn that we shouldn’t give up hope. We should be very aware and wary of what the people in power are doing and make sure that we’re on the right track of
having a peaceful world and not getting into any more wars.”

“I know it’s an easy thing to say but it’s very difficult to do because most people haven’t got the time or the energy to devote to their work, their family, enjoying their life, at the same
time be concerned about how the politicians are behaving themselves, or misbehaving themselves, and getting us into any further trouble.” “There’s always the possibility that wars will continue, because somebody makes a mistake. They don’t get together and form a peaceful life together, whether it’s a different culture or different religion. And it’s always been that way. Back even to the middle ages. And the Christians, the Muslims, the Jews. They used to fight each other all the time. It’s still going on, maybe not in a religious sense. Well the Muslims now today… I don’t hold it against the average Muslim but I think the Muslims today are in a very destructive mood and they want to take over and what’s going to happen? We’re not going to let them take over. What’s going to happen? More wars? Big wars? We have to be concerned about that and we have to be aware that we don’t let that happen.”

“I have no real answer to how to make a better world.” Sam laughs, “Believe me…. the biggest minds in the world haven’t got the answer.” In addition Sam said, “We have to be aware of what our leaders are doing and make sure they’re not going in the wrong direction and carrying us into a quagmire where we can’t get out. We have to worry about
what’s going on in the middle east. We have to be aware of what’s going on inAsia, where all kinds of things can crop up and cause wars, and make these little wars look like nothing, like a little street fight. It could be a terrible, terrible war. So we have to be aware of that and not let it happen.”

Any advice for future generations? “Yeah, I would say go out and play tennis and golf and enjoy life. Y’know I’ve been doing that since I came back from the war and if you stay active, mentally, physically… I play music. I was playing music with a group. If anybody has the talent or the ability to pick up some kind of music instrument and enjoy that. This is all civilization. This is all part of civilization. You have to learn to do the things that are culturally helpful to you as a human being instead of looking around to make trouble… and say who’s better, you or I. …Do the things that bring people together, not keep people apart.”

In parting Sam added, “They used to say that being in the army makes the man. In other words, you come back as amore mature individual. I rather doubt that. You learn a lot of things, but maybe a lot of the wrong things. And you’re supposed to come back as an individual who experienced the war… [We need to be] people who live together in harmony and don’t believe that all [crises] can be solved with a war and that peaceful negotiation, no matter with who, and no matter how difficult, is the only solution to keep the world flourishing and in harmony.”

Interview by Michael Assmus on May 5, 2013

This entry was posted in World War II (1939-1946). Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.