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04-24-03: 'Get in your foxhole and pray' - and he did
St. Marys man recalls World War II as  POW

The Daily Standard
    ST. MARYS - Pete Wissman spent 15 months as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II and, although initially frightening, he claims it turned out to be a lot of small potatoes.
    Wissman, an Auglaize County native, left the little town of Lock Two (population 72) in 1943 and headed to the East Coast for basic training with the 143rd Infantry Battalion, 36th Division. He had never been away from home before but, by Christmas he was in the hills around San Pietro, Italy, on the front lines.
    "Well, we were at the front about a day, then went back several miles for training. I guess they just wanted us to see what we were up against," Wissman told The Daily Standard last week at his home in St. Marys.
    After a month of training, what the 19-year-old rural Ohio boy was up against was the German army in full battle.
    By then he was a runner taking messages from his first sergeant to other unit leaders along the Rapido River.
    "I'll never forget the last time I ever saw my first sergeant. There was heavy shooting and I was waiting for a message to deliver. He told me 'Get in your foxhole and pray.' That's just what I did," he said.
    After a truce was called in order to clear the battlefield of the dead and wounded, the next person Wissman saw was a German soldier pointing a gun into the foxhole and looking straight at him.
    "He looked as scared as I was, but I didn't know if he'd shoot or not. So when he yelled Orouse' (get moving) I did," said Wissman, who understood and spoke German, learned from his parents and grandparents in New Bremen.
    That language ability was why he was assigned a better job in the prison camps where he and 500 other American captives were eventually taken.
    "The worst thing was that on the march with the Germans we were bombed by American artillery. But only one guy was hurt," he said.
    After the march and before the long train ride into Germany to the camps, the prisoners were deloused.
    "The Germans did that periodically and a good thing, too, because we wore the same clothes and shoes the whole 15 months we were prisoners," Wissman said.
    The Auglaize County man was one of 17 Americans taken to a large potato farm in Wusterwitz in then-Prussia, where they would spend the rest of the war harvesting and processing potatoes.
    "All the others worked in the fields but I was chosen to work in the distillery because I could speak a little German," said Wissman, adding there was still some language difficulty because he spoke Low German and his captors spoke High German. But he understood enough to get by.
    The prisoners, who slept in sheep stalls fitted out with cots, worked with potatoes all day and, boiled, roasted or raw, they ate spuds for every meal.
    About the only deviation from that menu was once a month when the Red Cross suppled a 10-pound goody box to every prisoner. Inside the box was two candy bars, instant coffee, a can of Spam and two packs of cigarettes.
    "The first month the food came we ate it all in a couple days. But then we realized we had pretty good trading material for the townspeople who also worked in the potatoes. They were mainly displaced persons Hitler had taken from Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and they had little more than we did.
    "What we traded for was white bread," Wissman said.
    Wissman's group of prisoners were not mistreated and his captors observed the tenants of the Geneva Convention.
    The closest the German guards came to physically harming the prisoners was if they decided the prisoners weren't working hard enough.
    "Then they might poke you with their bayonets. I only remember one guy that happened to," he said.
    That guy was the late Howard Hamburg of Coldwater. Another case of the small-world-theory in action, Wissman said he did not know Hamburg until he met up with him in Germany.
    "Howard had been working in the fields, and he just sat down to take a break for a few minutes. The guard didn't like it and poked him with the bayonet. Howard wasn't hurt and just went back to work," Wissman said.
    Overall the two guards and the prisoners got along well, even organizing a baseball game among themselves and some of the townsmen.
    Toward the end of the 15 months, news that the Russian army was approaching reached the prison camp.
    "The Russians were real close, but the Germans did not want their prisoners taken by the Russians. They wanted to wait for the Americans and turn us over themselves," Wissman explained.
    Soon American troops arrived and the German guards simply put down their guns in the fields and surrendered.
    "I don't think we prisoners ever had a thought we wouldn't get home again. I always thought the Germans would get to the place where they decided it was useless and give us back," he said.
    War is different now, Wissman commented, referring to Iraqi Freedom on television for the past several weeks.
    "It doesn't seem there's as much honor in it. And there sure isn't any more 'dig your hole and crawl in.' We lost a lot of people in World War II as we have in Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq, and it's a shame. But that's war," he said.


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