The World War II Pow Memoirs of John (Jack) F. Hawley
By Jack Hawley
Early one summer morning in July 1944 we were going to clean out German snipers from the little town of San Romano at the Arno River in Italy. Our information from the Italian source was that the Germans had left the town and that all the Germans remaining there would be snipers. So I entered the town very early in the morning about four o'clock with my squad of men, and we were going to clear out the town of snipers. As I walked up the main street of the town, I saw one of our field jackets lying on the street and it had been machine gunned up the back. Just as I stood up to look at it, a machine gun nest opened up on me on the other side of the street so I knew that we had more than snipers in the town. What we discovered was that the Germans were dug in and we were in for a rough time. By the fourth day our food and ammunition and everything had been exhausted and we were completely surrounded. We had no radio contact with our forces wherever they were. We were to have tank support but never saw any tanks.
There were six of us left in our squad out of the twelve. With no ammunition we just waited. After we were captured, we were taken back to an interrogation far up in the German front lines. The interrogator knew a great deal about me. He knew what ship I had come over on and where I had trained in the States. We were heavily bombarded by our artillery and long rifles. They sounded like a freight train coming in. They didn't hurt any of us, but they did kill a few German soldiers. That made the interrogator angry. Since I was a sergeant, they were eager to interrogate me and did slap me around a little. I was a Ranger trained like a British commando. We were then taken to an Italian prisoner of war camp where we were bombed by our planes, but we survived that too. The next day we were loaded on a boxcar about four in the morning. It was July, and the doors were closed, and we had no water, no food, and we were left in the boxcar a whole day. About nine o'clock that morning we were strafed by British Spitfires. We sat there in the marshalling yard. Later in the day - about six o'clock-we didn't have any watches - we had had watches, but they were all confiscated. Our train began to move, and we wound up in Munich at Moosburg Stalag VIIA.
The Germans had roll call every day until we were so weak that we could not stand up. We were there, I guess, two months and were loaded on boxcars again and taken to Stalag IIIB on the Oder River up near the Polish border. They herded us into a shower bath in this concentration camp. We knew what went on in those showers and thought that we would be next. We were there until the last part of December 1944, and then we were told that we were going to be moved to a camp called Luckenwalde Stalag IIIA thirty kilometers outside Berlin, a trip of about seventy-six miles and we had to walk. On that trip in the last part of December and the beginning of January it was real, real cold, and I think that they fed us once. We didn't have any cups or saucers or utensils. The only thing that we had were tin cans that we could eat or drink out of, and they gave us some kind of soup-barley or rutabaga- they gave us a lot of rutabaga. One time time on the whole trip we were walking down the road, and some of us were trying to get sugar beets out of a field. We did eat some sugar beets, and our medics told us not to eat too many sugar beets because they affected the saliva. Somewhere along the line there was an American soldier who had been shot. I heard that he had appendicitis - no medical help, no doctors, no dentists. They didn't want to fool with him; perhaps there was no way they could as we were a pretty long line of prisoners. The whole camp had been evacuated of all different nationalities. When we arrived at Luckenwalde, they had tents for us -100-man tents with straw on the ground. We slept on straw. We lay in rows in the tents. We each had one blanket, so overlapping blankets and body heat kept us warm. We had no heat the entire time. We had two water spigots for 2,800 men. Our food for the day consisted of a little piece of bread for breakfast, a little square piece of bread, a little pattie of margarine- when we got margarine-and a half cup or tin can of barley soup or rutabaga soup and half a tin can of chicory. That was the day's rations. That's all we had every day. Then some days we were missed completely.
Earlier in the other camp we had built two little radios, and, of course, the Germans didn't know that we had them. Once the commandant of the camp in a shakedown after finding one of them cleared the camp of tin cans and wires. He said that with those things the Americans would build an airplane and fly out of there. We listened to BBC that broadcast to the French underground every night at midnight so we monitored that program to get the news. We would write it and go to each tent and read the news every day.
The whole time we were there we didn't have any medical help. We had a latrine outside with a ditch and a log. That was the restroom. We had a mass grave outside with barbed wire. If anyone died, he was placed in that. At the last of January I contracted dysentery and lay in the straw. I had to go out to the spigot to wash, and the barbed wires and the poles were white with frost. One morale-builder we had was that on one Sunday morning an allied P38 Lightning came over our camp and buzzed our camp. That was nice to see.
I was in the battle for Berlin. It was quite a battle. According to the newspaper there were 80,000 Germans killed in that battle and 120,000 captured by the Russians. The Americans were at the Elbe River. We stopped there I don't know why.
On a Sunday morning - I don’t remember the date-a Russian tank came into our camp. The Russians encircled the camp as they wanted to keep us there and eventually take us to the port of Odessa. Five or six of us fellows - a good friend of mine from Bedford, Charley Kline, and Bill Bradley, a lightweight boxing champ, decided that we weren't going to stay with the Russians. We took off. How we knew where to go I have no idea. We went toward the Elbe River. How we got there I don’t know, but we did. I never knew the Russians' intent for sure. Recently I read that a lot of American prisoners of war were taken to Odessa, and they've never heard of. (Editor's note: Recent reports indicate more than 9,000 American POW s who fell into Russian hands are still unaccounted for.) We took off toward the American lines at the Elbe River. That took us four days and maybe a little longer since we were pretty weak, before we left-there was a field close the that had potatoes in it so we slipped outside the wire and got potatoes. We cooked them, and they were mush. We got our energy up pretty good before we took off. We went through little towns -there was no one there, of course. One of the fellows said, "Let's sleep in that barn." You could see a barn down the road. I suggested that we sleep in the house. In the house there was furniture. We went in, and there was a brick oven in the wall. So we went out back in the garden and dug some more potatoes. We washed these potatoes and placed them in the oven. We baked these potatoes and really ate a lot of potatoes. About midnight the potatoes that we had left in the oven started exploding.
There was a Russian column going down the street. To them we were enemies. We could have been Germans; the way we looked we could have been anything. I could see a glow in the sky - something was on fire. The next morning we got up, ate some more potatoes, and went down the road. The barn that we had thought about sleeping in had burned down. Fortunately we hadn't slept there. Along the road was a house. Nearby there were a civilian man and his wife, I assume. She was holding a little baby. They were all dead- the Russians, I suppose.
We went on. Finally we came to the Elbe River. We were in a pretty sized town. We were sitting on a curb; the river was right there. I looked down the road and saw something coming. There came a Jeep and a couple trucks with American insignia on them. I knew that we had made it. This experience covered eleven months. The Jeep with a couple officers in it stopped. They asked us if we wanted to jump on and ride with them or whether we wanted to wait for their return. We said we would wait. They threw off some cigarettes, candy bars, and k-rations. We sat on the curb and ate until they came back. In about an hour they returned. It was near evening when we jumped on, and they took us to a camp.
There they fed us and then isolated us as we were full of lice and fleas. The next morning we had a shower. They had us take off all our clothes and drop them on a pile. Then they sprayed us with powdered DDT, and we sat on a bench for five or ten minutes. We entered a shower and had cake of soap. That was the end of the lice. Then we were given new clothing and duffle bags.
They flew us out to LeHavre, France. They were going to send us home. When we got to LeHavre, I was standing there with my duffle bag and fell over. Then I was taken to an evacuation hospital at LeHavre and was there for two weeks. Finally I was loaded on a ship to go home.
Editor's Note: This account by Jack Hawley needs a context as it only recounts what happened after he was taken prisoner in 1944. A few years ago while researching old Mercersburg Journals from WWII, I was surprised to see picture of young Jack Hawley who had just finished Ranger training in the Army. Knowing the Rangers to be one of the most elite forces established during WWII, I was determined to find out more about Jack's wartime experiences. Later when I met him in a restaurant, I caught him off guard by saying, "Jack, I didn't know you were in the Rangers during WWII. You guys were the toughest of the tough, weren't you?" He paused for a moment and with that well-known Hawley smile and twinkle in the eye replied, "We thought we were!"
Jack is too modest or at times troubled to say much about the fact that he was a sergeant in the legendary 1st Battalion, a light infantry unit created in 1942 by special order of Gen. Marshall to train for action behind enemy lines and for amphibious assaults enemy-held coasts. Three thousand men volunteered for the 1st Bn; six hundred were accepted after review and only five hundred made it through the rigorous training conducted by the British commandos. Later the 1st Bn of Darby's Rangers led the way in the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy. In 1944 at Anzio in Italy as a result of faulty intelligence, they were surrounded 5 miles behind enemy lines by a superior German force of heavy armor and veteran troops. There, the 1st and 3rd Bn of Darby's Rangers were eliminated as an effective fighting unit. Out of 900 men, 700 were taken prisoner, the others wounded or KIA. Eight men returned to the American lines. Jack was not with the 1st Bn on that fateful night, but was attached to the 88th division 351st regiment where his Ranger skills and combat experience from the previous assaults were being used to train and give support to the green troops of the 88th, the first all-inductee division to enter the war. Thus, Jack, along with a few remaining rangers from the 1st Bn also attached to the 88th, would carry on the tradition of Darby's Rangers through the liberation of Rome and then to the Arno river to take Florence. Jack would become a POW in early July and as he faced the travail of his first POW camp, his old unit, Darby's Rangers 1st Bn, would, unknown to him, be deactivated from Army rolls in August 1944, the unit now nearly annihilated.
Jack speaks little of what he faced while with Darby's Rangers, acknowledging it is sometimes too painful to remember, but he does recall and wants told the strange, nearly mystical and ironic experiences sustained him through those times. First, throughout the war Jack carried a small New Testament given to him by the Young People's Society of the Reformed Church in Mercersburg, which he still has today. Jack says he read it every day and he always had faith that he would return safely no matter what he faced. Secondly, as a lad of 15 living on Park Street, he could look out from his bedroom and see the mountains. One night he had a dream that the Germans had come here and there was fighting in the mountains. He went out to defend his home and was captured. Jack remembered that dream when he was captured in the mountains of the Germans. I also pointed out to him that during the French & Indian War the men defending the area around Mercersburg, then known as Black's Town, who ranged from Ft. Marshall in the corner to John Steele's Fort at Church Hill and then on to Ft. McDowell at Markes were, indeed, called Rangers in the orders of the day. So there was, perhaps, more in his dream than he knew.
Lastly, a recently discovered letter from his wife which had apparently been returned to her as undeliverable since he had been taken prisoner reveals an even stranger occurrence. In it she recounts that Jack's family unsure where he was in Italy at the time had consulted an Ouiji Board and it had spelled out FLORENCE. Jack was captured in San Romano, a little town like Mercersburg only miles from Florence, Italy!