I Was a WWII German POW
POW captivity photo of US Army MSgt William A. Semlek, 137th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, who still lives on the same ranch he was born on in 1919, near Moorcroft, Wyoming. Shot three times, he was then held for 7 months in three different German prison camps. The bullet fragments from his wounds are still in his body.
Fighting My Way across Normandy
Well, I guess the one that sticks in my mind -- we had just been in combat just a day or two when -- it was hedgerow country. Northern France was hedgerow country. Hedgerows were -- those farmers used to pick the rocks up out of their field, and they piled the rocks up, oh, four, five, six feet high or more. And over a period of years the dirt built up in there and brush grew on those fences, on those rock fences. And I suppose it was some kind of a -- like our karagane (ph) is, some kind of a brush like that that grew on there. Of course, they made good protection for you from course they were over on the next hedgerow, which is maybe 2- or 3- or 400 yards over, whatever it happened to be.
I guess my most memorable incident was -- like I say we were only there in combat for two or three days, and we were hiding behind the hedgerows. The Germans were shelling us with their artillery. And we were scattered out another 20, 30, 40 feet apart. You didn't bunch up. You spread out. If a shell landed, you didn't want a half a dozen people to get killed. Anyway, the kid that was next to me, a shell landed pretty close to him. He was on the far side of me. It blew his legs off. And the poor kid, he said, "Give me a drink of water, and then shoot me." Of course I didn't do it. I got the medics. I don't think he ever survived though. We moved on, and he was in bad shape. He was bleeding bad. I doubt if the medics could have saved him. I think that sticks in my mind, that incident. It was only a day or two after we got committed to battle.
My Life as a Prisoner of War
I was captured along with about 20 or 25 other members of my platoon. We were in a little town of Fresnes just on the German border. We were told to take this little town. The Germans had pulled out. There was no resistance. We were holding this little town, and we held it for a day, and then we held it for another day, you know. And there was not much going on. We lost contact with our company. Our radio went dead. So we didn't know, you know, what was expected of us. We stayed right there. And we were in a railroad depot right on the edge of town, and the Germans were off about a quarter of a mile in a heavily wooded area. There was a clearing there between us and the Germans. We were in this little town in this railroad depot.
And they brought a tank out there one day and just shot -- blowed that depot all to pieces. We heard the tank coming so we got down in the basement of the depot. But they just blowed that thing all to pieces. Next day -- we stayed there that night, that day and that next night. And the next day they sent a patrol, about 12 men, come right up the road in broad daylight, and we saw them coming so we just waited for them until they got within range. So myself and a couple other three of the guys go out there to meet them, go out there behind some bushes, and we waited for them. We annihilated all of them but one, took one prisoner. The rest of them got shot. We took him prisoner.
We in the depot there. We started back across this town to -- we didn't know what we were supposed to do. We were out of food. We were out of ammunition. We started back across this little town one morning. The town was full of Germans. They opened up on us. I got -- I and along about two or three other got wounded. I got hit in the leg. They hit me three times in the leg. Must have been -- it was either a machine gun or they had what they called automatic pistols. They were about a 30 caliber. They hit me three times before I fell down. But I got wounded, and there was one or two other kids got wounded. They took us prisoners.
There was one poor little kid that he was shot in the stomach. The German soldier told him to get up. He was down on the ground. He told him to get up, and he couldn't. So he just pulled his pistol out and put a bullet in his head. But from there -- I could get up. I could walk after a fashion. I could jump around on one leg. They took me and the rest of the prisoners, and moved us back to another little town. The towns are pretty close together over there. They are not like ours. They moved us back to this other little town. I don't know what they did with the ones that were somewhere else with them. Where I was wounded, along with two or three others, they loaded us into a truck, and they took us to a railroad station and put us on the train. It was a German hospital train.
We went up through Apeldoorn, Holland. And I was there in a German military hospital, of all things, for just a couple of days. It wasn't that bad. They had nurses taking care of us and that type of thing. But that only lasted a couple of days, and they shipped me out of there to my first prisoner of war camp, which was an English camp. They put me in with a bunch of English people. And that's -- from that time on, we got no medical attention, nothing. To this day, I pack the -- one bullet in my leg. It drove into the bone just like into a piece of cheese, and it never broke my leg. I don't know how that is possible, but it drove into my leg bone, and two of the bullets exploded. And the fragments, they were in my leg. And some of them finally came out to the surface, you know, and I had to have them cut out. But I pack most of that stuff with me today. That was the initial prisoner of war happening.
From there they sent me -- they took me out of that British camp. That was stall logs. That was what they call stall logs. They were prisoner of war camps. There was 11-B. They sent me to. Some of the camps -- one of the camps, we had barracks, old German military barracks. They weren't being used by the German military, but they were -- windows were broke out of them and all. They were brick buildings. It was in the wintertime. It was December and January in their cold weather. But there was enough people in there to get where you kind of stayed warm.
You had a blanket. You had your clothes, and you had one blanket to sleep under. Then they moved us to the second camp. They moved us by train. They loaded us into boxcars. You may have heard, they called 40 and 10, 40 men or 10 animals. They were small boxcars. They weren't big like the boxcars in our country. They were small boxcars, and they lock the doors. And I guess the most worrisome part of that trip was they left us overnight in the railroad yards in Berlin. And, you know, the English were bombing those towns at night and the Americans were bombing them during the day. Luckily, we never got -- you know, we never got hit. They never bombed Berlin that night. And we survived that.
The next morning we took off with the train and took us to our new camp. There we lived in tents, 400 men to a tent. There was about 12 of those tents in that compound. And that was the -- that was the camp that we got liberated from. The Russians liberated us. The Russians came in there with tanks morning. And they ran the fences down and turned us loose. It was about two weeks after that before we -- before the Americans got trucks in there, you know, hauled us out of there. But in a nutshell, that's -- that's what happened.
As far as food, they fed you once a day. You got a potato, a boiled potato, about that big. You got a piece of dark bread, about -- a slice about that thick and probably a piece of margarine, kind of like you get in the restaurants, you know those little cubes. We got one of those. On a rare occasion, you'd get a little piece of sausage, about that big. That was your meal for the day. You were just about as hungry after you ate it as you were when you started eating it. You could survive on it. You could stay alive. Towards the end of the war, we did get some -- the Red Cross parcels, American Red Cross parcels. Usually the common practice was two men to a package. You split a package. Oh, there was chocolate bars and there was soybean crackers and there were coffee and, oh, there was some canned powdered milk and vitamin E tablets and stuff like that in them. Kept you going.
The living conditions were not good. There were -- you know, you had no place to clean up, take a shower. On rare occasions, they'd take you to what they call the bath house. They take you out there, and you could take a shower. We had body lice. They did sterilize -- when we took a shower, they'd take our clothes and run it through some kind of a heat treatment, I don't know, probably like an oven or something. I suppose that would destroy the lice, that type of thing.
Isolated during Captivity
Up until I got captured, we got letters on occasion. We got mail. But after I was captured, there was no correspondence. We never got any. There was a letter that my sister mailed to me kind of fragile. She was going to Vancouver, Washington at the time, and she sent me that letter, but it never got to me. I guess they moved us or something in the meantime. The only information that we got was -- they had what they call "confidence men." They'd take a certain individual in the camp, and he would have a few more liberties than anybody else. He would be able to go outside of the camp, and he would come back with information how the war was going. We didn't have radios. They wouldn't--no radios. No newspapers. You had no information of what was going on.
I guess it was an experience that you'll never forget. You made friends with those people that you lived with all this time. They were just close, close friends. It was the real buddy system. You looked out for one another when you was over there. Living in this day and age with drugs and alcohol and this type of thing, I think military [as antidote]--the time that I spent in the military--you were rigidly disciplined. And those things never entered your mind. If there was some way that some of these young people could get in on some of that type of discipline, we wouldn't be in as much trouble as what this country is in now for drugs and alcohol use.
Along with her father, daughter Vicki Cook also lives on the same ranch near Moorcroft that William Semlek was born, raised, and entered service on. The ranch's history provides the story of hard-working Americans who pioneered a newly tamed land, then lived through both World Wars and the Great Depression. Semlek's parents came to America from Europe, reminding us that ranch families are unique in having several generations identified with a continuous sense of place. Compare to the rootlessness of most families today. Vicki says that the family is currently reading Leonard L. Robinson's book Forgotten Men, the story of the POWs from the Bataan Death March.