By Shelley Grieshop
ST. HENRY -- "I remember I stole an egg once that was just laid by a hen, and me and three other guys divided it four ways. Can you imagine being that hungry?"
Most people today cannot imagine what Bill Gast of St. Henry endured while a prisoner of war during World War II. Still, he believes he's in no way a hero; he was drafted into war and came back virtually unscathed.
Others weren't so lucky, he said.
"I grew up in a controlled environment here in St. Henry, and was thrown, like everyone else, into a world I never knew existed," said the 80-year-old U.S. Army/Air Force veteran. (The two military branches were attached back in the 40's).
For nearly eight months, Gast was held by Nazi soldiers in several different camps after the B-17 bomber he was in was hit by enemy fire on Sept. 13, 1944. "We got shot down on a mission over Czechoslovakia and bailed out over Black Forest," a wooded mountain range in southwest Germany, said Gast, retired co-owner of Beckman & Cast Co., St. Henry.
Gast had been in the military about a year and a half when he found himself on top of a "big, 80-foot tall pine tree. It was like landing on a featherbed," he said. "I first wondered how I'd get down, then I looked below and saw a German standing at the base of the tree with a gun."
The German soldier yelled and Gast quickly shimmied down the tree, he said.
The pilot of the 358th Bomb Squadron didn't make it; nine others including Gast did, but most were scattered as they parachuted from the sky. Two of his comrades were rounded up with him and the trio remained together through most of their captivity.
A sergeant at the time, he was taken first to a small jail in Oberhof, Germany, then transported to an interrogation center. There he was placed in solitary confinement for a week.
"My cell faced the courtyard and had a window up high for air," Gast said, as he recalled the fear he felt. "I couldn't see out the window, but everyday I heard shots fired. It scared me to death. I don't know if it was a psychological game they were playing or what."
He offered very little during his interrogation.
"I wasn't anybody; I knew nothing they wanted," he said, adding they never harmed him.
Ironically, they knew all about him, his military outfit -- and other surprising information about his family and the town where he grew up.
"They said I belonged in Germany not the United States. They said Gast was a common name there," he said, shaking his head and breaking into a smile.
Next, he was taken to another center near Frankfurt, Germany.
"It was the best three or four days I had. The barracks were clean, the eats were pretty good. I remember looking out over this hill and a bunch of us were singing 'Lili Marlene,'" a war song about a sailor leaving behind his girlfriend to go to war, he said.
The mellow days didn't last. Gast and other POW's were next shipped to eastern Germany in a crowded boxcar to a camp near the Poland border. It was early October, and it was there Gast stayed until Feb. 6, 1945.
"There were machine gun placements all around, 10-foot high barbed wire fences ... 10 barracks holding 300 prisoners each," he recalled. "They were stacking us in."
By the beginning of February, the Russians were approaching from the east and the English and Americans were coming from the west. The Germans had no intention of surrendering their prisoners to the Russians, so it was time to march on.
"We marched until May 3 (1945). Other than four or five days, we marched every day, about 500 to 600 miles altogether," he said.
Food was scarce. The American Red Cross sent parcels periodically to the prisoners -- a one-foot square box with graham crackers, margarine, two cans of meat, a couple chocolate bars, biscuits and cigarettes. But once they began marching, the parcels never arrived full and always were shared.
"Once in a while we got M&M's. It was 'one for you, one for me, one for you.' You counted them out and were lucky to get about nine," Gast said.
They lived off the land, stealing turnips or eggs from the hens they slept by in barns along the way. Their captors were mostly older soldiers who were tired and just wanted to go home themselves.
"One morning one of our non-commissioned officers went up the road after hearing the English were coming. A half-hour later they (English soldiers) liberated us," he said.
At six-foot tall, weighing only 115 pounds, his gauntness landed him in a hospital in London before coming home in June to his fiance, Geraldine. He married his sweetheart a month later and the couple raised six children in a house a block from where Gast grew up.
After nearly starving to death, he suffered stomach and bowel problems and now suffers bouts of arthritis, all blamed on his treatment as a prisoner.
"They (Germans) didn't treat us too badly, but they didn't follow the Geneva Convention to the letter. Of course, I found out we don't either," Gast said, referring to the recent publicity over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners.
Gast's parents, Lewis and Leona, knew their son was a POW within months of his capture. Ironically, his father was at the time working several German POW's in the family's canning factory.
Gast came back from the war at the age of 21 with only his prison dog tags and some German and English money.
"That war took three years out of my life, three of my best years," Gast said. "But when something like that happens, you know you're not going to come out scot-free. But I did come out of it, and that's good."