Edited by Paul C. Binotto
After seeing most of the United States, I shipped out for overseas, landing in Scotland, of which we were trucked down to Southampton, England, and entered our barracks near a British Camp.
We spent three months there before shipping out – crossing the English Channel in pontoon boats, heading for France. We landed at Cherbourg Beach, finding it a mess of twisted steel.
We hit beach in a fast run for safety; knowing that we could be shelled at any time. Seeing that we were pretty safe, we loaded up on trucks and set-out for our destination. We went through Paris in a big hurry among cheers and glad-tidings; throwing cigarettes and other items at the people along the way. I got to see some beautiful sights there!
We finally reached our C.P. (command post), and started down with our missions. My First Sergeant and I started taking care of the maps. Our job was to observe the enemy at all risks and situations. At times we saw more Germans than our own men. Afterwards, back in the C.P. pillbox, we went about our findings and tacked red pins to signify where the enemy was and how many, etc.
Moving to Belgium, we went into another pillbox for our C.P. Headquarters. The days there were more active, being a lot of fighting was going on, being near the front-lines. Our unit captured a lot of Germans while there. We counted 500 one day – a good haul!
It (the fighting) got so bad one day, our Captain ordered us to dig foxholes for ourselves; and to place logs over them for shrapnel protection. The Germans were very punctual; at 6:00 AM they fired artillery at us. During roll-call in the (next) morning, we had lost five men; one in the foxhole next to mine.
We got orders to move out to another location and set-up a new C.P. We got into an old farmhouse, closer to the enemy. An elderly couple lived there and welcomed us, risking their lives should the enemy find out.
Studying our maps and pin-pointing the German positions; the weather was bad, leaving snow up to our knees, (This was during the “Battle of the Bulge Break-through”).
On the 22nd of December, (1944), all hell broke loose! The Germans had broken through our lines – we were all surrounded. With no reinforcements to protect us, the Germans told us, thirteen of us, to surrender and come out of the house. A party of around ten Germans broke in and held us at gun-point. My Captain gave us the order to surrender, of which we had to.
Orders were given (by the Germans) to run under cross-fire, through an open field in hopes of getting to the woods on the other side. Well, doing so, one of our men was hit in the stomach. I tried to help him up, but was pulled back by my sergeant, and dragged into the woods instead. I felt a hot spot on my forehead and smelled hair burning. Feeling my forehead, I felt blood – I was lucky, for it was a tracer bullet scratch. Me being wounded just a few days before, I was still bleeding in my back wound. The Germans did not take care of it – I smelled like rotten blood for a long time!
(I was a three time casualty: Shrapnel (to the back), a stone to the knee from a mortar blast, and the tracer bullet skimming my forehead; I got two Purple Hearts for them – the second fifteen years later.)
While in the woods, the Germans lined us up in what we thought, they were going to shoot us, (their) guns pointing at us until a German officer came from out of nowhere and ordered them to hold off – good thing, because some of the men started to cry; we were scared, believe me! The officer gave his men orders to vacate and meet up with other P.W.S. (prisoner of war soldiers) – 1800 of them; THANK GOD!
I felt a load off my shoulders. The Germans told us that the war was over for us and that they would take care of us – B.S.!!
My P.O.W. Days:
After two weeks on foot (1800 of us) walked under guard over hills and hills in deep snow, through small towns where some people threw sticks and stones, even tried to spit at you; as this was a propaganda march.
At one village, a woman called out wanting to know if anyone was from Pittsburgh. Some of us were. She asked if we knew Pete Strasser. I said I did. She gave me her blessings and said if I get back home to tell Pete that she was alright, she turned out to be Pete’s sister! (When I did make it home – I told Pete; he did not know how to thank me, he was glad to hear that (his sister was OK) – what a small world!)
Well, after sleeping in barns to be out of the weather at night, we finally reached our destination in a forest inside of Germany, where we were to be interrogated. One by one, spending hours waiting in the cold, hoping your turn was next.
From there we were put in cattle box (train) cars with no light or ventilation. (We were) using our helmets (for toilets). Everybody had diarrhea; talk about a stink hole! Along the way, we were strafed by the Russians; we lost about twenty men. The train operators would leave us and find shelter until the (air) raid was over; we were trapped inside (the box cars).
After a couple of days, we arrived at a place of separation to be sent to a P.W. camp. I ended up at Stalag IV-B, on the outskirts of Dresden, Germany. Ten of us went in and was greeted with loud cheers from the forty P.W.’s already there. There were three of us there from around Pittsburgh, which made it home-like. That’s where I met Sam Connel. He introduced me to all his men.
And, my P.W. life began by working on prefab barracks for more P.W.S.; up at 6 (AM), a cup of herb coffee, then to the work outside, building barracks, of which were blown-up by the British (bombing raids) when (the barracks were) almost completed – We would laugh like hell! And, the guards would blow their tops!
During the first week in camp, my feet were swollen to the point where my shoes had to be cut away from my feet – from all the hard walking, I was told. Well, the guard took me to a hospital in Dresden, where I spent two weeks for frostbite. My feet became black & blue and my nurse told me that the doctor may have to amputate one foot if it didn’t show signs of improving. Thank God, after my feet started to turn yellow, he (the doctor), changed his mind and told me, “let’s give it (the foot) a chance to heal” – I never prayed so much in all my life! It (the foot) finally came around and I was released from the hospital and sent back to camp.
A couple of months went by and the war was getting close to our part of the country. The ground would shake from the intense bombings. Every night we had to go to our bomb shelters because the British (RAF) was making more (bombing) runs in our area. With every bombing, our mouths had to be opened wide and scream as loud as you could to balance the pressure from the bomb noise and blast. Sam had to be taken out on a stretcher after a raid; his eyes and nose bled from the pressure.
When picked for a detail to work in the city (Dresden), we searched for cigar or cigarette butts for trade purposes. I would dry out the tobacco and trade it for a few potatoes at our neighbor, the Polish barracks.
We slept on bunk beds, one above the other. We all had body lice being there were no showers or decent soap to wash with. You scratched so much it brought blood on your legs and arms at night. Our bunks consisted of straw, one blanket. Never changing clothes, our Army jackets or coats kept us fairly warm at night. Heat was rationed, also water to drink. (We) used sticks for heat until bedtime.
Walter Schneider, our mason, informed us one morning that the rumor was that Germany is about to surrender – good news! Sure enough, a Gestapo officer woke us up a couple days later and told us to get our things and be ready to vacate camp – 4 O’clock in the morning – we sure followed those orders in a hurry!
We were told to go southwest. The guards handed out to each man departing a half-loaf of black bread for our trek west. I gave mine to an elderly couple resting along the way, not thinking I would be needing food later. The woman caught up to me with a pack of German cigarettes to thank me (for the bread), but I told her to keep it, I don’t smoke. God bless them, I hope they found a place of peace.
Sam and I and some of the others tried to stick together on our trek westward by foot. After many days walking through fields and by-ways, we would look for shelter to sleep nights – finding was very hard. Some of us would raid chicken coops to find eggs or anything to eat.
After sleeping in an old barn, tired and all, I slept through our leaving time, waking up to find the others gone. I then started out myself, hoping to catch up, but met a British P.W. going west also. Good thing, because he knew better than I where we were going. He provided us with eggs and potatoes; where he got them (I don’t know) but I thanked him! It kept us on foot until we were picked-up by Russian soldiers and taken to a small village to feed us, of which none of us could (eat much from effects of starvation –shrunken stomachs).
From there, they took us to an airfield (in Czechoslovakia) with many planes of different ally countries. I boarded an American (plane) and was taken to Laharve, France to be deloused and be ready to ship out for home – whoopee!!!
A troop ship was waiting in the harbor for about 20,000 P.W.S. to sail for the U.S.A. On the ship, I met Sam again; he said he was sorry they missed me, thinking I would follow soon behind.
Well, after we arrived in Newport News, VA, we were greeted with a big-band atop two-story bales of cotton; people cheering, welcoming us home! From there, it was all processing from one camp to another until I was discharged.
The most joyful walk was from the streetcar at Thompsonville (about a mile +/-) to our house! Mom and (sister) Helen met me and smothered me with kisses and hugs. Being home 90 days, I took Gloria’s hand in marriage. Her picture (was) in my wallet (during the whole time) helped me to keep going, always hoping she would marry me when I returned. Thank God she did – my prayers were answered!
I am indeed very grateful,
Peter P. Binotto, Sr.