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POW recalls capture, detainment during WWII
‘I have to give God all the credit for our survival’
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Photo by Greg Eanes: Claude A. Hodges, who now resides at the Virginia Veteran Care Center, recalls his time as a POW during World War II.

Friday, July 4, 2014

By GREG EANES - Special to the News-Post

Claude A. Hodges, now 92, still has vivid memories of his experience as a Prisoner of War (POW) of the Germans during World War II.

The Rocky Mount native, who now resides at the Virginia Veterans Care Center, recently shared those experiences.

Hodges was born to Thomas Jackson Hodges and Laura Alice Brooks Hodges on July 14, 1922, in Rocky Mount. He was one of nine children, six boys and three girls.

"We were poor," he said, "and had a really small house and no running water."

He attended Rocky Mount Baptist Church on Sundays and graduated from Rocky Mount High School in 1940. Pearl Harbor's bombing on Dec. 7, 1941, brought the U.S. into World War II.

According to Army records, Hodges enlisted on Dec. 23, 1942 in Roanoke for the duration of the War "plus six months." He was described as in a general woodworking occupation, 71 inches tall and weighing 132 pounds.

He was assigned to Company A, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi. They were nicknamed the "Checkerboard" because of their distinctive blue and white checkerboard unit patch. The unit trained throughout the South before going to Camp Miles Standish, Massachusetts, in September 1944 and embarking Sept. 28 on the Army Transport Ship (ATS) Excelsior for Liverpool, England.

On November 6, 1944, the unit arrived in Le Harve, France. The 99th Division moved across France in jeeps and trucks headed for Belgium, where it relieved the 9th Division along the infamous Siegfried Line in the Weisserstein-Losheimergraben sector. It was cold and the ground was covered with snow, Hodges said.

Hodges was a machine-gunner, responsible for an M1919 Browning .30 caliber medium machine gun. The tripod-mounted weapon was fed by a belt of 250-bullets and was capable of firing 400 to 600 rounds per minute. Hodges said he was supported by a second gunner (who helped feed the weapon) and three ammunition bearers. When they moved, Hodges carried the tripod and a box of ammo. The second man carried the 32-pound weapon, and the rest carried ammunition.

Hodges recalled seeing the German bunkers along the Siegfried line.

"We were dug-in on a bank," he said. "We had two-man foxholes covered in pine. We were only about 300 feet apart and could see the Germans coming in and out of their bunkers."

They remained in that position for several weeks building up for what, Hodges believed, was going to be an American attack.

While waiting, Hodges saw a friend of his killed. An infantryman and company runner by the name of George Haller of Baltimore was standing in a pine wood when a German sniper killed him. Unit histories indicate the men were getting acclimated to combat with small unit actions, raids and occasional shelling.

But all of that was about to change

Battle of the Bulge

Late on the 15th of December, Hodges was selected by his First Sergeant to go back a few miles to the regimental rest camp at Honsfeld to get a hot meal and a shower. Belgian citizens were still living in Honsfeld and their houses were used to billet American troops. Hodges and several other men were placed in one of the houses. The men were excited.

"Marlene Dietrich was supposed to be there that night to entertain the troops," Hodges said.

Film actress Dietrich was a German native and visceral anti-Nazi, who was performing USO shows in the front lines, well within enemy artillery fire.

All of that changed the next morning with the German attack known as the Ardennes Offensive. Kampfgruppe Peiper, the spearhead of the German assault, arrived in Honsfeld around 4 a.m. on Dec. 17.

The speed of the German assault caught the Americans off guard. Hodges said he woke up on that morning, went outside and "saw a German tank making its way down the road."

"They were all over," he said.

Hodges and the other men walked out into the street and were made prisoners by members of the crack 1st SS Panzer Division. The man that took them prisoner said he was "SS," Hodges recalled, "and he spoke good English."

"They interrogated me. I gave them my name, rank and serial number. Then some SS brought me to the back and I was melded into the line of prisoners they had taken. The line was about eight abreast and went down this long draw. It was about a half-mile long."

Transport

"They marched us to a train, but it hadn't gotten there yet," said Hodges. "We had to wait during the night, and we put up in a house for the night. There were so many people (prisoners) in that house, I thought I was going to pass out. All the oxygen was used and we couldn't breathe."

He said the train came the next day and took the Americans to another village, where they started marching on the road again.

"The people came out to watch us," said Hodges. "I'll never forget looking over at some Germans working on one of their (military) vehicles. They were putting wood chips in the tank -- they were using wood chips for fuel. I remember thinking 'I wish I could tell our people (the Germans) had no fuel'."

The weather was bitter cold -- the coldest winter in memory -- and the men were heavily guarded all the time and kept marching. There was no opportunity to escape.

While on the march, the men stopped at a farmhouse. Hodges remembered there was a large stack of hay in the barn. He climbed up on the hay to get bedding. From his perch he looked down to see a pig pen full of old potatoes for feeding the pigs. Hodges and the other famished prisoners jumped into the pig pen to grab the potatoes so they could eat.

"I got two," he said. "The guys got the rest."

Sleeping in the hay provided some warmth and protection from the cold weather, but it also brought out a pest.

"We had lice on us," Hodges said. "When it got warm, the lice started crawling on your body. It's one of the things I'll always remember."

Stalag 13-C

At some point, the men were placed on another train and transported past Nuremburg.

Hodges said he remembers seeing the POW camp there as they traveled to Stalag 13C in Hammelburg, the site of several prisoner of war compounds for Serbian, Soviet, Australian and British prisoners, holding over 5,000 prisoners of war, as well as a camp for American officers, Oflag 13B, which would swell to 1,400.

Hodges arrived in camp on the night of Dec. 25 --Christmas.

"There was nothing in the barracks," he said. "No heat. The beds were slats without mattresses, but it was clean. There was no food. They told us to sleep two men to a rack to keep from freezing to death. I didn't stay too long."

An International Red Cross inspection later that year said conditions in Hammelburg were very poor. Coal for heat was strictly rationed with average temperatures about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Latrines were inadequate and there was no hot water for washing.

Hodges recalls getting one shower during his time as a prisoner and doesn't recall sending or receiving any mail.

The military pressure on the German supply system meant food was scarce for German troops, as well as their prisoners.

American Red Cross parcels, which POWs normally used to supplement their rations, were not being issued to Hodges' group. Hodges recalled getting two Red Cross parcels, one was Belgian, but it was tailored to Belgian tastes, with sweets and little candies. Other records show that the Serbians tried to share some of their parcels as well.

The International Red Cross reported POWs at Hammelburg lived on about 1,070 calories per day. Hodges recalled the morning "meal" was a liquid that was supposed to be coffee. It was made of parched barley or some other grain.

"It got something warm in our stomach," he said.

Lunch consisted of one-sixth of a loaf of German bread. "Sometimes we'd get a piece of cheese with it," he said. The evening meal consisted of the same piece of bread and whatever the Germans might have on hand.

"You guarded that piece of bread with your life," Hodges said, "because that's pretty much all you got. It was red grain and heavy, about two inches thick. We got it once a day. We heard they put sawdust in it to make it up, but I never tasted any sawdust."

Hodges said one of the more vicious fights he observed happened when one POW stole another man's bread.

Under the Geneva Convention regulating treatment of POWs, enlisted men could be compelled to work, provided that work was non-military in nature. Hodges was assigned to a local work detail. On one of his details, he remembers digging a ditch near a house. His German guard was an older man. When Hodges finished, the German guard pulled a boiled potato out of his pocket and gave it to Hodges.

"That was good," Hodges recalled.

On another occasion while he was out in the yard, a German soldier "came up and got me and took me down a little draw," Hodges said. "There was small pine shanty and he took me inside to show me a man lying on a board."

As he got closer, Hodges said he recognized the man.

"It was Bob Simmons, one of my ammo bearers," said Hodges. "He was dead."

Since there were no obvious wounds, Hodges speculates Simmons died of natural causes or possibly froze to death.

The next day, Hodges saw Germans carrying a box out of the building.

"He was a quiet fellow...a wonderful fellow," Hodges said. "I tried to call his girlfriend and parents when I got home, but I was never able to get through to them."

(About six months ago, Hodges was contacted by folks in Franklin, Ohio. A bridge there had been named for his friend, Private First Class Robert E. Simmons.)

In late March, General George Patton launched Task Force Baum, a 300-man, 57-vehicle mechanized force, to raid and liberate what was reportedly only 300 prisoners at Hammelburg.

Patton suspected his son-in-law was at the camp. The raid ran into trouble and was shot up, but got to the officer's camp on March 27 only to find there were over 1,400 officers, plus 5,000 other prisoners.

They were unable to fight their way back and were all captured or killed.

Being on a work detail, Hodges said he did not witness this event.

Liberation

Hodges was working on a farm in the first week of April. On the night of the 5th, he heard a single shot near a house and assumed someone was hunting and perhaps had killed a deer.

The next morning, he and some other men heard an American two-ton truck and looked towards the highway to see an American truck from his own 99th Division go by. A passing jeep saw Hodges and his two buddies and stopped. Hodges ran up to the jeep. He was very weak from lack of food, he said.

"The day I ran up to the jeep, I could hardly get up there," said Hodges. "There was a major and a driver. And he said, 'You're free now. Get everything you can to eat. The government will pay for it'."

Hodges and his two buddies walked up to the house from where they heard the shot the day before and went inside to find a lady cooking the lunchtime meal, consisting of potatoes and meat.

He had guessed correctly -- the meat was venison that had been killed the night before. Also in the kitchen were their former guards.

"We sat down at the table with the guards and had lunch," said Hodges.

When the newly liberated prisoners finished, they took a horse and wagon and drove to the rear of American lines eventually coming up to a Red Cross tent, where liberated POWs were being processed.

The men went to a German house to sleep for the night. The two ladies who lived there left the house and Hodges noted their household items consisted of powdered milk and other supplies from POW Red Cross parcels.

The next day, the men flagged down a 2 1/2 truck and caught a ride to Regensburg, where they remained overnight in the house of an elderly German couple who cooked their meal.

They left the next day and made their way back to Army control at Camp Lucky Strike in France, which was being used to process liberated POWs back to the United States.

"The Lieutenant who processed me was from Roanoke and an accountant," said Hodges. "They gave us vitamins and things we were supposed to get. They made us drink this big glass of eggnog type stuff that was supposed to be good for us."

Hodges said he saw General Patton, who visited the camp while he was there.

After a couple of days at Camp Lucky Strike, he was flown on a C-47 to Le Harve, where he and the other liberated men were shipped home.

Hodges was on the Liberty Ship SS Charles Brantly Aycock (No. 313).

He recalled the convoy over to Europe involved "so many ships," yet on the return trip, they were all alone. The men ate well as Hodges recalled.

"They gave us a steak dinner," he said.

The men arrived in the U.S. and were sent to Ft. Meade for further processing.

"They examined us, gave us new uniforms, and we came home for 30 days furlough," he said. "Then we went to Miami to a hospital in Coral Gables. We were allowed to take our wives and stayed in a hotel on the beach for 10 days. They told us the rooms cost $140 a night. I was impressed with the white sand at Miami."

The men were eventually sent to Ft. Oglethorpe, Georgia, to wait for discharge.

"While waiting, they had some guy come out and make us march (drill)," said Hodges. "That didn't last long.

Hodges was discharged from the Army on Nov. 20, 1945 -- 11 months after his capture.

Home

Like most of the men of that "greatest generation," Hodges turned his sword into a ploughshare and got on with life.

He returned home to his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Clingenpeel, who was working at Grant's Department Store in Roanoke and whom he married while on furlough before going overseas.

She passed away in 2010 after 67 years of marriage. They had three children -- a daughter who died at the age of 5; another daughter, Claudia Beth Rice of Virginia Beach; and one son, Leslie Blake Hodges of Roanoke. The also had six grandchildren.

Using the GI Bill, Hodges attended and graduated from Roanoke's National Business College. This led to a job as a clerk for Norfolk & Western Railroad. He was eventually promoted through the ranks to a commerce agent, which required a lot of travel to New York, Atlanta and Chicago. Hodges retired after 37 years with the railroad.

"It rarely crosses my mind," Hodges said of his POW experience. "I haven't lost any sleep over it. I'm surprised we got through as well as we did. You really got hungry. I'm sure I was pretty thin."

"I have to give God all the credit for our survival," he added.

(Eanes is the adjutant of Franklin County's Obie D. Minter Post 10840.)

 
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