WARTIME PRISONER EXPERIENCES
by Elmer E. Martell, 508th PIR, Service Company Rigger
The following is a summary of a portion of a taped
conversation -recorded in 1997 - between Elmer Martell and his brother,
John. Elmer was a rigger in Service Co. of the 508th PIR and had jumped
with that regiment in Normandy. He was captured not long after the jump
and spent the remaining days of World War II in various German prison
camps. This portion of the tape mainly recounts Elmer's experiences
during and following his Normandy action as he tells of incidents
"After we took off from our assembly-point airfield, we flew out over
the ocean pretty much toward New York. Our path took us between the Isle
of Jersey and the Isle of Guernsey so we were off to the side of the
invasion fleet. If we had flown over them, we would have been shot down
by the fleet support. We were supposed to land behind Omaha Beach. I
didn't and I'm probably alive today because I didn't land at the planned
spot. We were in a C-47 without a door and what probably saved me was
the fact that when we got to where we were expected to jump, we never
got the green light. The co-pilot came back and checked the light. So he
went back and made a circle - sort of a loop - and dropped us off. We
were probably the only plane that made this circle. I didn't know where
we were; but I reconstructed some of this later. I think there were only
15 or 16 of us on the plane so we weren't a real threat to the Germans.
When T landed, my parachute got hung up in a tree. Sergeant Keating was
close and I could see his parachute.
If you know where 1 or 2 are, you know the others must be nearby.
We were somewhat confused because of our mis-location. Our assigned task
was to set up a command post for the colonel. Keating was a master
sergeant and I was a staff sergeant. The Germans were shooting at us and
we were in a tough way. Our instructions were "Do not load your guns
until daylight" for fear of shooting our own people. Now, I loaded my
rifle; but it didn't do any good. Anyway, we decided to try to locate
the other fellows who we knew were close to us. We started going in one
direction; but we ran into a lot of small arms fire. We weren't hit so
we turned to another direction and ran into a railroad. This was
supposed to be there according to our pre-flight briefing and this
should run the whole length of the Cherbourg Peninsula.
It started getting light so we hid in a hedgerow. After daybreak we
moved over about 60 yards and we saw Germans riding by in the back of
trucks. They didn't seem too concerned. Keating wanted to start shooting
at them. I said, "No, there's something wrong. We can't be in the right
place. There shouldn't be that many peaceful Germans here". They were
just sitting there in the back of those trucks. I think they were
actually going towards the front as reinforcements.
So - we hid in the hedgerow until dark. Then, we walked into the nearby
town. We had this language book so we could talk to the people there. We
waited in the dark in a church cemetery. There was a church there and we
thought we'd go in and talk to the padre. Well, we didn't realize it,
but some Germans actually saw us go into the cemetery. We were sitting
with our backs to the tombstones and Keating was looking the other way.
You know, it isn't very glorious to be captured. You'd like to be like
Rambo. A couple of Germans came out of the church. I don't know what
they said, but obviously they meant for us to raise our hands. I was
sitting down and made some movement and one of them got real nervous. He
fired four rounds and the dirt was flying around me! The shots didn't
hit me - I'm not sure that he actually intended to. They took us over to
the church and we found out that they were using that as a German
Headquarters. The Germans weren't stupid. There was no priest there, of
I had a watch that had been issued to me and they took that. It was just
a wind-up watch and wouldn't be worth much today. They didn't take my
dog tags. Apparently they weren't interested in those. I wasn't married
so I didn't have a ring for them.
I had a hand grenade on me and for some reason, they didn't find that. I
carried it eight or ten days afterwards. I could have gotten rid of it a
lot of times; but I kept thinking maybe I'd have a chance to use it and
escape. We were sleeping in cattle pastures and places like that and I
could have ditched it many times. Anyhow, I didn't and they finally
found it in my pocket. They took me out - just me - and put me up
against a wall. There were about four or five Germans and I thought that
maybe this was the end. Then they just took me back and threw me in with
the other guys. It sure scared me!
Of course, they interrogated us several times. I didn't really know
anything which was an advantage. I wasn't Eisenhower. You're supposed to
give them your name, rank, and serial number and that only and that's
all I knew, anyway.
They gave me a German service record (prisoner of war card) and I still
have that. When I was liberated later by the Russians, this helped
identify me as an American who had been a prisoner of war.
We told the Germans that we were farmers. Of course, they knew very well
that we weren't all farmers. Anyway, I didn't have any military
information to give. Sometimes it helps if you don't know too much - or
act like you don't. One thing that they had many questions about was the
fact that we were wearing gas-proof impregnated clothing. We also had
gas masks. I had thrown my gas mask away because I wasn't worried about
being gassed. I think the Germans were initially pretty concerned that
the Americans might possibly use gas. They took our impregnated clothing
away and gave us different clothes.
It took until August 12 before I was in a regular POW camp. I lost about
30 pounds in 60 days. I lost another 30 pounds afterwards in various
camps and in forced marches. I didn't see a German plane until July 4.
We were still en route to Limburg at the time.
I got moved around a lot into different prison camps. The first one was
12-B near Limburg. That was close to the German/French boundary. I
stayed there until after Christmas. Then they sent me way over to a
prison camp in present day Poland. As the Russians advanced, they kept
moving us back to other camps. And I did a lot of walking. I was in
better shape than a lot of the other prisoners partly because I was
younger than most of them. Some of them had been prisoners for a longer
time. Some had seen action in North Africa.
Finally, we could even hear the Russian artillery so we knew the war was
winding down. We were about forty miles from Berlin when the Germans
decided to leave the area - without us! They said "We're leaving now.
You people stay here and don't any of you people go into town and bother
the German women!" That was the last thing in the world on my mind.
Eventually, the Russians came through. They didn't do anything to us
-just asked if any of us wanted to join them and go towards Berlin. I
had no hankering to join the Russian army so we stayed in that area for
awhile. When we heard that the Americans and the Russians had linked up
at Wittenberg, we looked that place up on a map. Cecil Neal and I were
buddies because we were in the same company and had been captured at the
same time. Everybody else was leaving camp. A lot stayed there, though,
and we ate pretty well. Some of the guys went into town and brought back
sides of beef. They barbecued them right in the prison camp. The wire
around the camp had been cut so we could walk out anytime. We stayed
about a week and then even the Chaplain left. Neal and I looked up the
town on a map and found that it was only about forty miles away. That
isn't a bad walk so we left.
When the Germans left, I recovered my records they kept on all POWs.
This was a help later on when we crossed a Russian pontoon bridge to get
back to American lines and control.
Then we went on our way until we got to that pontoon bridge operated by
the Russians. We got across alright; but they were looking for Germans
who were trying to escape.
Fortunately, I had that German prison record card with my picture
showing me as a prisoner and they let us cross. When we got to other
side of the Elbe River, it was getting dark. There was still some
fighting going on and we didn't want to be walking in the dark so we
went into this bombed-out house in the village. Cecil Neal and I were
there and in the middle of the night we heard somebody coming into the
house. There were just the two of us and we thought maybe we should have
stayed out. As the guy came in the door, I got a half nelson on him and
Neal was right there, too, and he was in pretty good shape. I think the
guy was a little scared. He was a civilian and owned the house. He was
living next door and saw us go into the house. He was afraid we were
going to loot whatever was there. We explained that we were Americans
just out of prison camps. Then he went back to the other house and
brought us some food so we stayed overnight. At daylight we left again.
You hate to walk much at night. For practical purposes, the war was
over; but not quite yet.
Soon we ran into an American patrol. The war was still on; but I don't
think there was too much shooting. They recognized us as being
Americans. They invited us onto a weapons carrier and said they'd go
back and pick up some others. They offered Neal and me a chance to sit
up front with them; but we were loaded with body lice. We said, "No,
we'd better ride back here instead"! They took us somewhere, de-loused
us (sprayed and gassed us with DDT or something), and gave us clean
They flew us from the place we were at to Le Havre. From Le Havre, we
loaded on a Liberty Ship. On this trip, we didn't have to worry about
being torpedoed! They fed us two meals a day on this trip. After
arriving in New York, we were sent by train to Fort Sheridan. At that
time, I hadn't been discharged. I was sent home and then on to Fort Sam
Houston in Texas where they were going to re-train us and send us
overseas, again - this time, to Japan. Then the atomic bombs were
dropped and that ended the war. After that, I was discharged for good!
So -for some of us - it had been a short war."
So ends a part of the story of a paratrooper - a rigger from Service
Company of the 508th PIR. As a paratrooper, he was a volunteer - both to
get into that branch of the Army and later to make that jump into
Normandy. He - like many other paratroopers and servicemen from whatever
unit they were in - had served our country well by being ready to go
into combat zones and withstand whatever dangers and hardships the enemy
had to offer - even the prison camps.
Some, like Elmer Martell, survived those struggles and he meets with us
for reunions to renew old friendships formed during those years. Elmer,
we're happy to have you with us!
(Introductory and closing paragraphs as well as the tape summary was
prepared by Heimer Swanson, Serv. Co. Rigger, 508 PIR with final
approval by Elmer Martell).