It all started back in May of 1942, when Smitty reported for duty at Camp Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas after receiving his draft letter. He was sent to Camp Wolters located in Mineral Wells, Texas for sixteen weeks of basic training. He was a member of the 337th Infantry Regiment in the 85th Division, 1st Battalion, Company D. Company D means heavy artillery or anything larger than a rifle. Smitty was trained to use a .30 caliber water cooled machine gun.
After completing training at Camp Shelby, Smitty was moved west by truck convoy. Along the way, they practiced maneuvers. Maneuvers is where you practice war in different situations and climates. They stopped in Louisiana near Caney and Leesville for practice on swampy ground.
In June, 1943, they arrived at Camp Pilot Knob in Yuma, Arizona. Here they practiced maneuvers in desert conditions. It was here, also, that Smitty had the very sad experience of searching for a platoon that had gotten lost during their training. Most of the platoon was found safe, but two soldiers were found dead from heat exhaustion and another was given up for dead because he was never found. Smitty couldn’t help but wonder if this was just an example of the terrible things awaiting he and his comrades overseas.
After stops at Camp Coxcomb near Desert Center, California and Fort Dix, New Jersey, Smitty and his fellow soldiers of the 337th Infantry Regiment arrived at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia on December 20, 1943. Here, they prepared to leave for their tour of duty across the ocean.
On New Year’s Day, 1944, Smitty along with the rest of the 337th Infantry Regiment set sail on the HMS Andes from Hampton Roads, Virginia. Eight days later, on January 9, they arrived in Casablanca.
On April 10, 1944, they were moved into the lines west of Minturno. The 337th Infantry, commanded by Colonel Oliver Hughes, assisted the other regiments. On May 12, 1944, Smitty and the 1st Battalion of the 337th advanced under a smoke screen toward Hill 66. Hill 66 was what they called the western side of San Martino Hill. It was in the afternoon when they made their first attack on Hill 66. On their first try, they were run back off. But, on their second try, they succeeded. Shortly after midnight, the hill was taken. This particular battle was one of the worst Smitty had seen so far. Almost all of Company C was killed. Only three or four men survived. There were bodies of fellow soldiers lying everywhere. Smitty remembers that this was when he realized that he was really in war. People were dying here and he now had the understanding that he could be next.
Soon Smitty’s battalion discovered that the German troops had located their position on Mt. Croce. They had to start withdrawing immediately. After fighting non-stop for thirty-six hours straight, they were too exhausted to continue. They stopped along the beach to rest. They were allowed to bathe in the ocean. While they were bathing and playing in the water, their mess Sargent cooked them a steak dinner with all the trimmings. Just as they were getting ready to sit down and eat, their commanding officer gave them orders to move out immediately. They didn’t have time to sit and eat. They had to just grab a sandwich to eat on the way.
As they continued to push forward, it was getting late in the evening and night was beginning to fall. Smitty and six other soldiers ran ahead of the rest of the battalion to spearhead the battle. Their orders were to dig in every time they stopped to rest. Digging in meant digging a hole long, deep and wide enough to lay down in so they wouldn’t be easily spotted by the Germans. After digging in eight to ten times that night with no sign of the enemy, they were exhausted and decided to rest for a short while without digging in. They were awakened by German soldiers shouting, "Hands up, Hands up!" and guns pointing at them. Smitty’s Sargent surrendered immediately and the rest of the now captured soldiers followed in line behind him.
Next, they were placed in cattle box cars with other prisoners. They were packed in like sardines, seated between each other’s legs on straw and drying cow manure. They were forced to use the restroom right where they were sitting because there was no room to move around. After four days on the train, they were messy and stunk. They had not had any food since being captured, so they were weak from hunger.
When they finally unloaded off the cattle cars, Smitty was moved to several different prison camps before arriving at Stalag III B in Furstenburg, Germany. It was here that prison life became routine. Or, as routine as life can be while you’re being held prisoner.
Smitty, along with sixteen other men, were moved to a small prison shed and forced to work on German farms for long hours each day. Smitty didn’t mind too much because it got him out of the large Stalag and at least he was able to be out in the fresh air each day. The work reminded him of the family farm back home and gave him hope that he would return there someday. He did encounter one problem, however, the mules didn’t understand his commands! He could pull back on the reins and yell whoa all day and those mules would keep right on going. You see, the mules only understood German! The command for whoa in German was made by making a funny sound with your mouth. Once Smitty learned to make that sound, things went a lot smoother.
On the last day of January, 1945, due to the Russians approaching the other side of Oder River, Stalag III B was forced to move. They marched in snow and slush for eight days stopping only four nights when the guards were able to locate a barn or shed suitable to sleep in. Sometimes, the guards would allow them to build a small fire so they could dry their socks and shoes. During these eight days of marching, Smitty developed an infection in his foot and had to stop at another camp along the way.
Smitty didn’t know the location of this camp. They were never given an address. He remained at this prison camp until the end of April, 1945. Conditions here were not much better than the previous camps. Lice bred quickly in the straw that was used for bedding and on all the hairy parts of the prisoners bodies, even in their nose and eyebrows. Food was scarce here, also. Smitty continued to do whatever was necessary to avoid dying from starvation.
There was one new concern at this prison camp. At night, American and British planes flew overhead dropping bombs. The POW’s nicknamed these raids, "Bed-Check Charlie". Each night as they lay in bed, they feared they might be killed by friendly fire. This really took a toll on some of the prisoner’s mental stability.
On April 27, 1945, the German guards informed the camp that they were moving out again. They rejoined other POW’s and marched for eight days. On May 5, 1945 the German guards told them that the American lines were a few miles ahead and they were free to go. Smitty took off as fast as he could go on feet that were still sore. They finally found an abandoned German weapons supply truck and rode on it the rest of the way to freedom. To this day, Smitty still says words cannot describe the incredible feeling of freedom after being held captive for almost twelve months.
Once they reached the American lines, they were fed, deloused and clothed. They were then flown to Camp Lucky Strike in Janville, France. Camp Lucky Strike was a city made up of over twelve thousand tents. It had theaters, hospitals, a PX and gift shops. Smitty and his fellow POW’s had a great time when they were given passes to go to this unique city.
They arrived in New York on June 11, 1945. They were met by cheering people and a ticker tape parade. Smitty remembers not feeling much like a hero but he appreciated everyone’s kindness, anyway. He just wanted to get back home to Arkansas and forget everything he had gone through.
They were kept in New York for another three weeks. He was given his final delousing, more new clothes and still more food. It took Smitty’s stomach awhile to adjust to having so much food. His digestive system couldn’t keep up with all the food intake! They were given back- pay for the time they were held prisoner and told they could have a sixty day vacation. They all rushed to the bus station to get a ticket home.
After Smitty’s vacation, he was sent to Camp Crowder, Missouri. It was there that Smitty was honorably discharged from the United States Army on October 15, 1945 as a Corporal. Smitty was recognized for his participation in battles at Naples - Foggia, Rome - Arno, and Rhineland. He received a Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Good Conduct Medal, EAME Ribbon, M1 Rifle Sharpshooter Combat Infantry Badge and Pistol Marksman.
Smitty returned home to Arkansas, married a wonderful woman named Daisy. They became the parents of five children. Three sons and two daughters. And that’s where I come in. My mother is Smitty’s youngest daughter.
Thank you for allowing me to share this story with you. Maybe, now, you can understand why my Grandpa is such a hero to me and the rest of our family.
This POW/MIA Ring