Death march: WWII soldier recalls time as a prisoner of war

jwilkinson@thestate.comOctober 13, 2008 

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    Each week between Aug. 31 and Veteran's Day, The State profiled a local veteran chosen to visit the National World War II Memorial on the Nov. 15 inaugural Honor Flight.

    Read more about the Honor Flight program

    Click on a name to go to each veteran's story

    • Nealy Sweat: It was just before dawn in March 1945 on the smoking, stinking, moon-like island of death that was Iwo Jima. Nealy Adolph Sweat of Summerville was carefully peeking over the rim of the shell crater that was keeping him alive when a shot cracked out.
    • Henry Austin Browder: Henry Austin Browder of West Columbia began World War II on horseback. Browder — a mechanic in a mechanized war — had never ridden a horse.
    • Mary Crum: Mary Crum still remembers that April day in 1945 when she and thousands of others gathered at Union Station in Columbia. It was Friday the 13th, by chance, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage the day before in Warm Springs, Ga.
    • William C. Wildman: The sky was black with flak over the Brenner Pass in the Italian Alps, the shells bursting like lethal popcorn all around the bobbing B-24 “Liberator” bomber piloted by William C. Wildman.
    • Thomas E. Grove: It was Jan. 5, 1945, and Pvt. Thomas E. Grove watched in horror as the massive German Panther tank slowly raised its long 88-mm cannon toward him.
    • Fred Andrew Shealy: It was midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1944, near the French-German border in Alsace, when the Nazis came down like howling ghosts, apparitions of death in white camouflage.
    • Solomon Bright: Solomon Bright felt the impact, but didn’t see the kamikaze slam into the bridge of destroyer escort USS Bowers as it cruised off Okinawa on April 16, 1945.
    • Irv Levine: Irv Levine didn’t think about the amulet until it was gone. His grandmother gave a kemeye, a cameo blessed by a rabbi, to each of her six grandsons who went off to war in 1941.
    • Fritz Gray: Fifty-two bodies — German or American, Fritz Gray couldn’t tell — lay frozen in a minefield.
    • Anna Bell “Wendy” Wendelburg Zeigler: Wendy Zeigler began work at 6:30 that December morning in 1944, in a sprawling Gothic hospital in Paris, to pandemonium, blood and screams.
    • Russell V. Meyne: Russell V. Meyne was sitting down to breakfast when he noticed, through the chow hall window, a fighter plane skimming the airfield about a quarter mile away.

    How to contribute: Call (803) 582-8826, go to honorflightsc.com, or send a check payable to South Carolina Guard Foundation Inc., 551 Granby Lane, Columbia, SC 29201-4655.

    Official Honor Flight homepage

    VIDEO

It was Jan. 5, 1945, and Pvt. Thomas E. Grove watched in horror as the massive German Panther tank slowly raised its long 88-mm cannon toward him.

Grove was manning a 30-caliber machine gun in the second-story window of a brick house in Bonnerue, Belgium. It was the third house he had retreated to during the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last-ditch push against the Allied invasion.

He braced himself for the shot.

“Death was inevitable for me,” said Grove, now of West Columbia. “Shooting that tank with a 30 would be like throwing rubber balls at it. I thought, ‘This is it.’”

Grove, 83, is one of about 100 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.

The first flight is full. But local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter a total of six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free over the next year or so.

Grove is lucky to be going.

The shell from the Panther tank burst through the wall below him, wounding or killing most of Grove’s platoon and peppering him with debris.

He and the survivors retreated to an inner room. Outside, there was a cacophony of small-arms fire, artillery blasts and German voices. Grove and the rest of the men from Company D, 345th Regiment, 87th U.S. Infantry Division, were surrounded.

“All hell had broken loose,” Grove said. “There was fire everywhere. Artillery dropping everywhere — ours, theirs — to the side, the back. All over the place.”

Soon, German infantrymen stormed the house.

“They burst in, told us in English to put our hands above our heads. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a prisoner of war.’”

CAPTURED

Grove’s path began as so many others when he heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

He was a senior in high school when he heard the news Dec. 7, 1941, listening with his parents and four brothers and sisters at home in Hollidaysburg, Pa.

“I was 16 years old and mad and angry and floored,” he said.

Grove joined the Army on his 18th birthday, Jan. 16, 1943.

“We were going to win the war, a bunch of kids,” he said.

Grove was trained as a machine gunner and saw action in Alaska in the Aleutian Islands before being attached to the 87th Division, making final preparations to go to Europe at Fort Jackson.

The division shipped to France in October 1944, four months after D-Day, and was a spearhead in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army counterattack against the “bulge” in the Allied lines caused by the German offensive.

Grove fought constantly until his capture in January 1945.

Combat “was terrible and miserable, and I hated it,” he said. “And I hated the Germans.”

His hate would grow.

German soldiers stripped many of the U.S. soldiers of their shoes “and marched us for days through the snow. It was a death march.”

“If anyone fell out of line, the Germans would shoot them or beat them mercilessly with their rifles,” Grove said. “That will get you back in line quick.”

In addition to the cold and the beatings, the rations were bleak — mostly frozen turnips dug from fields along the side of the road.

After marching more than 120 miles, the prisoners arrived at Stalag 12-A in Limburg, Germany, near Frankfurt — a factory-like building used as a holding facility.

“Our bed was an armload of straw on a cobblestone floor.”

After a few weeks, the 86 men were loaded into boxcars designed to hold 40.

“It was a space the size of a one-car garage, just not as wide,” he said. “You couldn’t sit or stretch out. It was too miserable to verbalize.”

Men defecated in their helmets and urinated on the floor.

“Or just went in your pants,” Grove said. “And we all were sick and had diarrhea. That was the most hellish spot in my captivity.”

After a few days — Grove can’t remember how many — the train arrived in Bad Orb, Germany, and Stalag 9-B.

The men were unloaded into wooden barracks, ringed by barbed wire and guard towers.

“Then they pretty much left us alone,” he said. “Our bodies were so weakened we could hardly move.”

Grove estimates his weight dropped from about 155 pounds to less than 100.

“Our ration was a little piece of black German bread and one cup of watery soup a day. It was supposed to be potato soup, but we never saw a potato. All we thought of was food. Not women or anything like that. Just food.”

The lone memento Grove has from his captivity is a small black notebook with three pages. Each page describes fantasy meals.

“I would have eaten out of a garbage can,” Grove said.

Then, on Easter 1945, the men heard artillery fire in the distance. The next day, the regular German soldiers disappeared. The day after that, the remaining guards, old German men mostly, brought in extra rations. Then, they too disappeared.

Soon, the prisoners heard the rattle and roar of tanks — U.S. tanks, breaking into the prison.

“We kissed those tanks like they were beautiful blonde girls.”

RETURN

Grove returned to the United States and became a traveling salesman, “doing all those things a traveling salesman was supposed to do — and more,” Grove said. “We tried to forget about the war, but the war never left us.”

Two years later, in 1947, Grove had a conversion, remembering the words of a chaplain who accompanied the troops that liberated his prison camp.

“He said, ‘You all made a lot of promises (to God), and he expects you to keep them,’” Grove said. “I had lived it up like fury. But when I came to my senses, I came to know the Lord.”

Grove went to Bible college in Rhode Island and spent his working life as a hospital chaplain in Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

He married his wife, Kay, in 1968, after his first wife, Dorothy, died from cancer in 1965.

They moved to Columbia in 1989 so Grove could take clinical pastoral training at then-Richland Memorial Hospital.

In 1998, the couple took a trip to Bonnerue, visiting the house where Grove was captured and the prison where he was held.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Kay Grove said. “It really helped him.”

Today, a scrap of wallpaper from the Bonnerue house, a splintered board from the prison and other mementoes of the trip are framed and on the wall of Grove’s study. They are talismans that pushed back the nightmares he suffered for decades.

“That trip, 1998,” he said, “is when the war ended for me.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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