ST. CLAIRSVILLE - Members of the Ohio Valley Barbed Wire Chapter 1 of American Ex-Prisoners of War know how it feels to walk for miles with their hands over their heads.
Some also experienced the desperation of being completely surrounded by enemy forces for days or weeks on end. They suffered through hunger and thirst, and a few even gathered the courage to leap into the unknown as their planes plummeted to the ground nearby.
These former POWs - mainly Army and Army Air Corps veterans of World War II - and their wives and widows gather at various locations around the Ohio Valley each month to share stories of their wartime trials and to enjoy the camaraderie of others who understand. Some of them have little to say about their time in battle or in prison camps, but their fellow members are quick to speak up about their heroic acts.
Photo by Jennifer Compston-Strough
Bill Daniel, left, talks about his experiences in World War II during a meeting of ex-prisoners of war in St. Clairsville as Pete Malone listens.
This week they met at Mehlman's Cafeteria in St. Clairsville. Not only did they share some of their stories, but they also heard from guest speaker J. Michael Myer, executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, about how important it is for them to pass that information along to future generations.
Chapter President John Chernenko recalled a pair of battles that tested his strength and determination. He remembered being surrounded by Nazi forces for about a week with no way for the Allies to send in food, water or ammunition. He was captured in the midst of a cold winter, and he said the eight or nine members of his unit who survived to be taken prisoner were "not treated too good" by the Germans.
Pete Malone declined to talk about his service with the 99th Infantry Division, but Chernenko pointed out Malone was captured just before Christmas 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.
"He knows how to walk for miles with his hands over his head, and it's really painful," Chernenko said.
Bill Daniel, who served with the 9th Infantry Division, said he was with a group of about 25 POWs who stayed in a farmhouse in the German countryside. He feels fortunate to have survived the experience.
"It was hard to keep from freezing to death. ... My grandmother always told me, 'Everything comes from the good Lord,' and I believe that ... " he said, looking around the table at the other group members. "I'm just glad we all made it back."
Nina Barr, speaking on behalf of her late husband Bob, told the tale of a group of men who were captured by the Germans on April 29, 1945. Russian forces arrived to free them on May 12, 1945 - Mother's Day. Barr said her husband always felt that the news of his release was the greatest gift he ever was able to give to his mother.
Ted Finck was a paratrooper with the 8th Air Force. Although he was shot in the thigh as he jumped from his burning bomber to his captors waiting below, he was modest about his role in the war.
"I was a radio operator on a B-17," he said. "Other than that, I didn't do a whole lot - just sit and enjoy the ride, mostly."
But Chernenko described how tough Finck had been, noting that the Germans had removed the shrapnel from Finck's thigh with a "working man's pair of pliers."
"Before they took him back to the aid station, they beat the hell out of him," Chernenko added.
David Dean recalled a fellow airman asking about a red fireball that had flown past their plane during a mission. Dean said he told the man that fireball had been their plane's No. 4 engine - and that the No. 3 engine also was on fire.
"Other than that, everything went pretty good," he quipped about his military service.
Sue Shallcross recalled that she and her husband met regularly with two other men who had served with him during WWII. She said when the reminisced, the men mostly talked about how hungry they were while being held as POWs.
Boyd Engle, a member of the 755th Tank Battalion, was shot and captured at the top of a mountain on Nov. 16, 1944.
"I had it better than most guys," Engle said of his stint as a POW. "I was in the hospital most of the time."
Chernenko pointed out that Engle's wounds are still being treated today, noting they "don't seem to want to heal."
Engle added that a reunion for members of his unit is set for Sept. 22 in Texas, and he plans to attend.
"I haven't spoken to those guys in 70 years," he said. "The last I saw them, they were carrying me off a mountain."
Bill Schwertfeger of Follansbee served with the 34th Infantry in Italy from 1943-45. He compared the size of the Rapido River - which the division crossed in January 1944 during the First Battle of Monte Casino - to Cross Creek in Brooke County, noting that the challenge in crossing the river had nothing to do with its size. He also was present at the Anzio beachhead in March 1944 when the abbey there was bombed.
Mike Trigg, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam era who now works for the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, served as chaplain for the meeting. He summed up the accomplishments of the group members, pointing to the sacrifices they made to ensure the freedom of their fellow Americans and people around the globe.
Trigg said, "The significance of all these gentlemen is ... they saved the world."