Isaac R. Zepeda P. O. W.

 

Isaac R. Zepeda Remembers World War II
(As told in his own words)

 

Somewhere in Normandy, in a swampy area away from main roads and highways, our company was deployed. When I am asked where I was captured, I answer somewhere East of St. Louis. I use St. Louis as a focal point because I heard one of our officers say East of St. Louis. I don't know if that was our position or if he was talking about something else after a Bloody Battle. Our first scout was killed at that time. I was just a new replacement with the company. I didn't know the officers or non coms or even the soldiers by name. I was getting acquainted with the soldiers close to me when a Sergeant called my name. "Zepeda," he said, "I am Sergeant So and So. We lost our first scout during the battle. You're now first scout for Co. I." A few minutes later here comes a messenger from battalion. "Zepeda, report to 13th Headquarters." I didn't know what to think. They don't call you back from the front lines for nothing. Did my mother or my father die? Did one of my three brothers serving somewhere get killed? My head was full of all the things that could happen. When I was approaching battalion headquarters, a voice from a soldier behind a tree called "Zepeda." It was Staff Sergeant Noble Damascus. I answered "Yes." He said "Get under a tree and stand by. We are going to be called in a minute." I got under a tree about fifteen feet from him. He looked me over from head to foot, and I did the same. He said "Chico, those Germans are going to kill you." I said, "They are going to kill you first Sergeant." He asked me, "Is this your 1st Invasion?" I said, "Yes, how about you?" He said this was his third one, Sicily, Anzio, and Normandy. He said his name was Sergeant Noble Damascus. I gave him my name, but the always called me "Chico." A lieutenant came and told us to follow him. As we went by the Bn. Tent we tried to squeeze some water out of the canvas bags in front, but they were empty. We managed to squeeze a few drops into our canteen, one little drink for each. We were thirsty. We didn't have water on the front line. It was the same everywhere we went. The Lieutenant led us to a place behind the Bn. Headquarters and told us we would spend the night there. We bed down along a hedgerow fence, but we did not get any sleep. There was a heavy motor section on the other side of the hedgerow, and they fired a round every fifteen minutes all night long. The next morning we got up early. We sat down in a clearing and rations were brought. We ate breakfast, and after we were called by the Lieutenant to fall in. He proceeded to brief us about the reason we had been called from the front lines.

 

Regiment Headquarters needed some specified information from behind enemy lines. Only one man came back from three different patrols they had sent out. The first two patrols either got captured or killed from the information we got from the one man who came back. It was impossible to penetrate the enemy lines in this sector. The Germans knew we were up to something very important, otherwise we would not send those men over.

 

Regimental Headquarters had sent word not to send any man patrols. The Lieutenant in charge went to Bn. Headquarters and asked for permission to speak to the Reg. Commander. He told them that he could pick some men from the front lines. He had gone through the records of men who had specialized training in reconnaissance patrol and in penetrating the enemy lines. He assembled twelve men, all volunteers. Out of the 12 men just four were needed. Sgt. Damascus had first choice, he picked me. The Lieutenant picked one. The Sergeant picked another until all had two men. The rest of the men were sent back to their outfits.

 

We ate rations for breakfast while the officer in charge briefed us on our mission. Our primary mission was to gather information on how many troops were in that sector. The second was to see how many tanks the enemy had, especially tank destroyers (T. D. s). Up to now the infantry had been fighting without tank support. We didn't know at that time that Gen. Patton was unloading his tanks on the beach. Another part of our mission was to get to a creek or canal that according to aerial photos show it to be dry. What they didn't know was how dry, or was it dry on top and very soft underneath. We were to bring back a sample on our boots. We were to stand on the middle of the creek and sink one leg down as far as we could and bring a sample of mud back on our boot.

 

The six men were divided into two patrols. The plan was to infiltrate the line at two different places. The Sergeant, the first scout, and me the second scout, were in one sector. The other three men were in a different place. If one patrol got in trouble the distraction might enable the other patrol to get through. We got a map of the area. They told us the maps were old and might not be accurate. The time came to go, and we made our way toward the last outpost on the American side. We told them we were going to be gone for a while, and to look out for us when we came back. We were given the pass word for that day.

 

NO MAN'S LAND AND BEYOND

 

There are so many details that have to be told, otherwise this patrol would have been just one of many patrols that go out daily. As we were setting out a sniper took a shot that was very close, and that makes you get the feeling that you are being watched. The terrain in front of us didn't have much cover. The pasture was covered with weeds to taller than twelve or fourteen inches high, so that means we have to creep in some places and crawl in some. The first scout took off crawling. I gave him a few feet and took off behind him. As I push the weeds aside so I could keep in contact with the first scout, I discovered that we were in a field of some weeds I hated since I was a little boy. The name of the weed in Spanish is "ORTIGUIA." The minute it touches your skin it burns like pepper. I got it all over my hands and when I pushed the weed to the side the tops whipped me in the face, but we kept going. I was hoping that my eyes didn't swell shut because I could feel my face swelling. We knew when we got to the German lines because there was a farm house to our left which we had to stay away from. For one reason or another, the first scout didn't move. I kept signaling for him to keep going, but he didn't move. The Sergeant came up to me and asked what the matter was. He crawled up to him, a very dangerous thing to do at that stage of the game, and they both came back. The Sergeant told me I was now the first scout. The other man was going to trail behind him, we took off again. The farm house was a good distance from us. There was a pasture between us and the house. I saw some German Officers come out of the house and start to look over our line with field glasses. I kept going, trying to get away from there. There was a cow in the pasture across the fence and she saw us in the grass. She ran to the fence with her ears pointing toward us. I was moving fast but she kept tracking us like a bird dog. A French woman came out and drove her home. That gave me a very uneasy feeling. We traveled to the next pasture and an artillery shell exploded about fifty feet from us. Luckily we were already hugging the ground. There were no more shells exploding anywhere else. That gave me the feeling that it was meant for us. I kept going, and came up to a fence and a road which had not been on the map. We were not supposed to cross the roads. A little to my right there was a gate on the fence that was partly open. The roads in France are dug through the hills--that was an embankment of about 15 ft. on our side. We could slide down, but climbing the other side would be difficult because it was even higher and steep. In case we were fired on we would be caught on the road between two walls. The Sergeant told me to go through the gate. I crawled to the gate and make a dash across expecting machine gun fire as I crossed the open road. Nothing happened. I hit the other side, crawled as fast as I could so the Sergeant would have cover when he came across. We were in a field with tall grass and weeds. Everything is quiet. "Too Quiet."

 

NEXT - HELL BREAKS LOOSE

 

The pasture where we were in had high grass and weeds. We could travel a little faster. The heat of the sun was unbearable. We had to keep our noses close to the ground breathing the hot steam from the earth. I looked through the weeds and there was a bunch of trees in front of us. I knew I had to get to them. The tops were swaying with the wind. I knew I had to get to them. I didn't know, and I should have known better, the Germans are also looking for cover from our fighter planes that were strafing everything that moves behind the lines. They were there. I kept moving along a fence in a shallow ditch. When I was about a hundred yards from the woods, I heard a voice. I knew it had to be German. I did not speak German, but I knew what he said, "Who is there," and I froze. I tried to see who it was. As much as I tried, I couldn't see anything. I turned my back and sent the Sergeant a message by raising rifle up and down. I told him enemy ahead, but for us it was too late. They spotted me before I saw them. I should have known that little piece of heaven was packed with a lot of hell. The Sergeant was trying to keep up with me. He didn't see my signal. I tried to see who was in front of me and still I couldn't see anything. I turned on my back again to warn the Sergeant, and I got a glimpse of him coming, but he wasn't looking. He did not see me the second time and my time was running short, so I turned on my belly. I knew that whoever it was, I didn't dare turn by back to someone closing in on me. I tried to get a bearing as to where he was coming from. I unlocked my rifle. He shouted something in German, but we were so far behind the lines he didn't think it was the enemy. He got closer, he was about eight feet to my right, and he had his rifle under his arm like he was hunting for rabbits. I had my rifle pointed at him watching him through my sight. He had already missed seeing me. He was looking behind me toward where the Sergeant was coming. I was going to let him get past me and spring up and stab him in the back. I had a trench knife. He stopped before he got past me, raised his rifle up to his shoulder and aimed at the Sergeant. I pulled the trigger before he could fire. I heard the thud where my bullet hit his chest. I still hear it often. He fell backwards and hell broke loose. They started firing at us. I started crawling backwards. I knew they were coming after us and I didn't dare turn my back toward them. I was dragging my rifle with my left hand and boogieing out as fast as I could. The rifle felt like it weighed fifty pounds. All I could do was to drag it behind me. Bullets were flying over our heads and a machine gun was firing down the ditch where I was. I had to crawl sideways in order to avoid being hit. Every once in a while I raised the barrel of my rifle and fired a round to keep them away from me. The Sergeant was a few yards from me. He never moved until he saw me coming. He never left me. He got to the road we had crossed coming in and just waited 'til I was very close. He bolted across the road. A machine gun opened up on him. He fell, got up and made it to the other side I didn't know if he got hit or slipped, but he made it to the other side. Going back our route was to the right, but for some reason he went to the left. He must have been hit and he knew he couldn't go too far. This pasture was bare, no weeds or grass. The only cover was two mounds of dirt. He came to the first one and crawled to the second one. It was my time to cross the road. You can jump very far when you are scared. By the time they opened fire I was across. I dropped behind the first mound and the Sergeant was in front of me, about 20 feet apart. In front of us was a hedgerow about 500 feet, and behind that hedgerow was a company of Germans. It's a good thing they didn't start shooting before we got to the mounds. They would have caught us out in the open without cover. They opened up on us with rifle fire, a whole company concentrating on us. Dirt was flying everywhere. I kept my nose buried in the dirt. Those mounds of dirt were dead soldiers who had been laid on top of the ground and dirt was shoveled on top of them. The bullets were puncturing the bloated bodies. I had to keep my nose buried in the dirt. Whoever said War is Hell didn't know what he was talking about. We were sitting ducks. I looked across the open field with my mind on making a run for it. I even took off my combat pack. I drank the little drink of water in my canteen and threw it away. A voice from the hedgerow would shout commands, "Surrender, you ain't got a chance." We opened fire on them to let them know we were not going to give up. We had been told that the Germans didn't take prisoners and we were not going to surrender 'til the last shot was fired. They fire on us two more times then asked us to surrender. We fired back. The last time I didn't see the Sergeant fire back. Maybe his service revolver was out of ammo., but he still had his submachine gun. I didn't know the Sergeant was dead. He had been shot in the head with a sniper rifle. I took inventory of what I had, one bullet in my rifle and one in my shirt pocket didn't explode and jammed my rifle. I did not throw it away. The Germans opened up on us again. I knew that whoever was calling us to surrender was sticking his head above the hedgerow. I got a glimpse of something to my right, something moved from behind a small bush. I moved my rifle, aimed at the bush. Something came up from behind the bush. I squeezed off my last bullet. He went down. They knew we were pinned down. They sent soldiers to our left flank and they started throwing hand grenades. The first one exploded about 25 feet from the Sergeant. The second one hit the top of the mound where the Sergeant was. It threw the Sergeant sideways off the mound. I knew the next one was mine. I didn't hear it explode. The next thing I knew when I came to, I was surrounded by Germans poking me with their bayonets ordering me to get up. My eyes and mouth were full of dirt. I didn't know what had happened, just like a dream. The Germans were ordering me to do something. I didn't know what and I didn't care. My mind wasn't working. I didn't feel no fear or pain. I think that's the way God helps you when he wants to help you. They told me to raise my hands and to run. We were out in the open field. We got to the hedgerow. They pushed me over to the other side.

 

NEXT- POW

 

The soldiers on the other side catch me before I hit the ground. They took me to the open field. The officer I had just shot, calling us to surrender came and grabbed me by the front of my shirt. His right hand was hanging down and blood was running down his sleeve and down to the tip of his fingers. I had shot him in the shoulder. His eyes were red and his face full of hate. His medics were trying to take his coat off, but he shoved them away. He told me something in German. I did not respond. I was in another world. I didn't have fear or pain. I could see the faces of the other soldiers and I could see disbelief. I had shot their officer. He had to survive and now it was my time to stand before him at ten feet and have him shoot me and yet I didn't show no fear. Some of the soldiers were expecting me to plead for my life. I did not. The good Lord had given me a shot of courage which lasted for the rest of my time as a Prisoner of War. The officer ordered me to march. I took ten steps and he ordered me to halt. I turned around facing him. My arms were so tired I could not hold them up. I put them down. He reached for his side arm with his left hand, his right hand hanging down. He was going through a lot of trouble just to shoot me and pain I didn't deserve that. He raised his pistol to the level of my forehead. I clinched my teeth and raised my forehead hoping he wouldn't miss. He had given me a chance to surrender. I didn't take it. I shot him instead. Now it was his turn. No bad feeling. It was a game they call war. He shoots you as you shoot him. I saw the dark hole of the barrel of his gun. He held his arm up for a long time, but the shot never came. He wanted me to plead for my life so he could shoot me with a clear conscience. I did not give him the satisfaction. He lowered his gun, turned around and ordered two of his soldiers to take me prisoner behind their lines. I had to escape. I knew every step I took was taking me farther from the American lines. I didn't know at the time how far we had penetrated the enemy lines. I didn't know where I was, but escape was something I had to do. They put me on the road, two guards, one 12 feet in front of me and one 12 feet behind me. I tried to walk slow so the guard behind me came closer so I could jump him, but he kept the same distance all the time. The same with the front one, so I faked a bad foot. I told them I had to rest. We sat on the side of the read. One of the guards sat about six feet from me. He wanted to talk to me. He wanted to know simple things like how many cigarettes we got a day and how much pay did we get a month. I could see he was trying to know why I acted like I did. I told him that if he would let me escape, I would see that they would get special treatment. That didn't work. It's a matter of pride to every man to protect his country. I respected that.

 

He asked me, "Do you know why he didn't kill you?" My answer was no. He told me "We Germans respect valor. You did not plead for your life. If he had killed you, we would not have had any respect toward him." We got to the road again. Every two or three miles they had an Interrogation Station. We got to the first one. The guards came out and dragged me by the arms in a very rough way. They wanted to show me they meant business. The S. S. officer sitting behind the desk weighed about 300 pounds. I stood in front of him. "Don't you dirty American swine ever stand at attention and salute to a superior officer?" I didn't answer and I did not salute. I wanted them to know I didn't give a damn. "What's your name?" "Pvt. Isaac Zepeda, Sir." "What division?" No answer. "What regiment?" No answer. "You were captured behind German lines. How did you get there?" "I got lost." "Are you a spy?" "No." "If you don't answer my questions I am going to have you shot as a spy." He continued to question me about things I didn't know nothing about. He finally blew his top and ordered the guards to lock me up until the firing squad got here. I was hoping they would give me a good meal before they shoot me. Next morning we got on the road, just me and two guards. Next station was the same thing except that I tried to pull a trick on the interrogator. When he asked me for my name, I answered in Spanish. "Senor no entiendo ninguna palabra que me esta preguntando." (I don't understand a single word you are asking me.) He got so shook up he almost fell out of his chair. He answered in perfect Spanish. "Do you mean to tell me that Mexico got troops fighting here too?" I shut my mouth. I wasn't supposed to say nothing, not even lies. They ordered me locked up while the firing squad got here. They were going to shoot me as a spy. By now, according to them, I had been dropped by an airplane at night and I was part of the French underground. Next station, they stood me in the hallway while two guards carried a stretcher with a dead man. He face was a bloody mess. He had an American army jacket with 1st Sergeant striped. So this is the deal. We didn't have the honor of dying like soldiers by a firing squad. A rifle butt to the jaw, a crushed skull and a triangular bayonet with a needle sharp point to penetrate the base of your skull to your brain. I stood in front of the officer. The guard behind me placed his sharp bayonet at the base of my skull. The officer asked me a bunch of questions. I could feel the needle point bayonet burning the skin in the back of my head. The questions he asked me were about the French underground, names, places. I didn't have nothing to do with the resistance as the underground was called. I didn't say a word. He got up and slapped my face with the full force of his arm. I stood rigid like a piece of iron. Had I moved the bayonet would have penetrated my skull. Tears ran down my cheeks. I had no fear of pain. I knew they wanted me to move so they could kill me, too. I didn't give them the pleasure. My mind was full of hate. Hate like I had never experienced before now. I wanted to survive to live so I could even the score. Now I had something to live for. I made my plans in my mind. Instead of being aggressive, I was going to act different. That evening we hit the road. All during this time, from the time I got captured up to now, I had been alone with two guards. We got to a village after dark. The guards talked to the soldiers there.  They put me in a tool shed and locked the door. It was dark inside. I took a step and stumbled on something that felt like a body. There was snoring everywhere. I knew I wasn't alone. I got on my knees to feel around. I found a little space along the wall and curled up and went to sleep. The guard knocked on the door the next morning. It was daylight. Everybody in the shed sat up. They were German soldiers going to the front. I saw them and they saw me. They could not believe what they were seeing. Neither did I. The enemy sleeping together. They took me out to the next town to a long warehouse. They put me there. That was the end of my solitary life as a prisoner of war. They had American POWs and Spanish Moroccans from North Africa in separate compounds. I was very glad to be with my own people, "Americans." They were not glad to see more misery. They had been treated badly and they were thirsty and hungry. Every morning they took us outside to get water. You have to have something to get your water in or you didn't get no water. Everybody had a rusty can and I picked one up from the garbage pile. The piece of bread we got every day was so tough you had to cut it in small pieces and let it soften in your mouth before you could chew it. Black bread made out of wheat ground up with the hulls and chaff. It didn't get hard. It got tough like leather. After two days they took us up to an open field outside of town. The town could have been either Alancon, St. Marie Ecclise or La Chappell. I didn't know and didn't care. We were divided into groups of fifty, taken to the railroad and put in some box cars. They put fifty POWs in each car that wasn't big enough for 25. All the air ventilators were sealed to we couldn't escape, cutting off our air supply. It must have been the last part of July or the first part of August. It was very hot. The floor was covered with hay dust. When you move you stir up the dust and start choking. They put a two gallon can in each car to urinate. When they closed the car doors it got very dark and we felt the oxygen being cut off. I believe to this day that they meant to kill us all. Some of the POWs started to panic and made their way to the air vents stepping over everybody. Something had to be done. Two if the strongest men got to the vent and tried to pull the cover with their bare hands. They could not get a good hold. Their fingers could not get behind the cover. In the dark somebody passed an Army web belt to the two men. They men pushed the belt through the cover and pulled something that gave, air and daylight filtered in. I never knew air and daylight were so beautiful. The cars started moving. I think that it was their plan to wait 'til we all suffocated before the train moved. We had stopped at a lonely place along the trip. They opened the doors expecting to find us dead. We had some dead. How many? One of the POWs spoke German. He told the guard who opened the door we had some very sick men. He said one man can come out with a bucket for water. He told him we didn't have any buckets. You don't need water the guard said. We passed our piss can out to the door. Our man emptied the can and brought us water. We were dehydrated. Our throats were covered with dust. We got a little life back. The Berlin Express started to move. The train stopped on the outskirts of Muhlberg. We were ushered out. That was the biggest reception I ever had during my military career. Standing at a distance were all kinds of German Officers. In front of them a line of Guards each one holding a German Police Dog, pulling at their leashes to get to us. For a minute I thought they were going to turn them loose to entertain the officers. They marched us off.

 

STALAG IV B  MUHLBERG GERMANY

 

I was amazed at the size of the camp. It was a concentration camp where they had prisoners from every country. The German Army had fought even before the U. S. got in the war. Each group was assigned to his limited area. You do not cross the line. In that camp they had Russians, Yugoslavs, Polish, Serbians, Bohemians and every country they had taken. English, Americans, French, Canadians, we didn't respect the barriers. We visited each other except at night. Anyone seen outside the sleeping quarters was shot. Two fences surrounded the camp, a 12 ft. barbed wire fence, a space of 12 ft. which was heavily mined and another 12 ft. fence. The guard tower was operated 24 hrs. a day. The menu consisted of one generous helping of a big tin can of dehydrated beet pulp from a sugar factory in the city. They extracted all the sweet off the sugar beet after they shredded the beets. The pulp was dried for cow feed. The cows were fed the fresh pulp. We got what was stored from other years. We got the once a day bread. At that time the Russians were winning the war. The Germans were retreating and the Russian POWs were being treated like animals. Russia did not join the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross. The Russians were without protection as POWs. We were, but we didn't live no better than anybody in that camp. We were supposed to get one Red Cross Parcel with food once a month. We were getting one parcel for two persons or 1/2 parcel each. The Russians didn't get nothing. They came to our area during the day and begged for whatever we could give them. I felt especially sorry for a 12 yr. old kid. He had been with Marshall Tito's general in Yugoslavia. He was shot and left dead. He had a bullet hole in his throat and he breathed through that hole. I always had a little something for him. Those days in IV B were something I would like to forget. Day after day full of nothing. Not much room to move around, too crowded and not enough water. After a time the guards came and picked some of us out of the group, fifty of us. We did not know at the time that they were picking out prisoners that did not look like Germans. We were going to Dresden, Germany. We were going to march down the city streets to and from work among the civilian people and they did not want us to disappear into the crowd. Our compound was in the middle of a housing project in town. We had a better place to live and sleep, only fifty of us. We walked from one end of the city to the railroad yards at the other end. We unloaded building material and unloaded it at the building site. We walked over the Elbe River bridge. It was a beautiful site. Dresden was a beautiful city. It was the last part of 1944. The Americans and the Russians were getting near. The airplanes were bombing Berlin, Limburg and Leipzig. Only the railroad yards at that time. They destroyed everything around us. None of us was hurt. They took us to the city hall to clean out the rubble. That's when we got to explore the basements of the buildings. We were looking for food. There wasn't any. They were small rooms about 10 X 10. There were shelves, empty shelves. I didn't know that the next time I would see that basement would be something that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I still have nightmares as much as I try to erase if from my mind. It was Nov. or Dec., 1944. Christmas was coming and it was cold. The temperature sometimes went to zero. The bombings intensified. We had to get up every night and run to our bomb shelter which was about 20 feet from the building where we slept. The planes would fly over the city going somewhere else. One night Leipzig was bombed. We could see the sky all lit up. It was on fire. Sometime later Hamburg got it. The cities around Dresden were being hit. Dresden, a big city which had 3 kilometers from one end to the other didn't have factories or Military Centers, was not bombed. The Russians made a bombing run, dropping hundreds of fire bombs one night. They missed the city and dropped them all over the area where we were. No damage was done. They messed up our front yard and burned a hole in our roof. That didn't make any difference. The ceiling of our sleeping quarters stayed covered with frost all the time. In the summer time we used to bring in fuel for our fires. Dry sticks, wood chips and anything we could smuggle in that would burn. In winter everything was covered with snow and the matches we got from the guards would not even light a dry cigarette. Cold all day and cold all night. The bread ration got smaller and the water and flour soup got thinner. Outside the camp the German people were getting the same thing to eat that we were getting. There was no more food in Germany. We in the camp were in bad shape. Some of our men were walking around looking at the ceiling and talking to themselves. They'd sit down and look at the wall. You think they were awake. They had their eyes open, but you pass your hand in front of their face and they were in a coma. We, the strongest, took care of them. We would get them up in the morning and make them walk around.

 

At this point, I want whoever copies this biography to decide if this next part of the story I am to relate should be included or not, or made public or not. It involves sabotage. My father was a railroad man. He worked all his life on the railroad. He raised all his children in the railroad section houses. I asked my father why a railroad car was smoking or burning and he went on to explain a Hot Box. There's a box at the end of each shaft. It should be half full of oil so when the shaft turns, it dips into the oil. When the oil gets too low, the shaft gets hot. The word oil in Germany was the reason people were freezing that winter.

 

I had a good friend I could relate to and he did the same. I could tell him what was in my mind and he did the same, even if it could get us in trouble. I told him that if we could get to the railroad yards, I could get some oil and we could have a fire in our barracks. I know he thought I was crazy, but he said let's get on the next day to the yards. That wasn't easy. My friend and I were involved in a roof that collapsed at the construction site. We were dragged to the Commandant Office with the German foreman screaming sabotage, sabotage. They brought us to the Commanders. I used a trick I learned in my early days as a prisoner of war. Instead of acting arrogant, act stupid, like you don't know what it's all about. The Commander got up. It had been a long time since he had said something in front of his men. He had to let them know who he was. He paced up and down in front of us saying something I didn't understand. The guards took us to our barracks and "Confined us to quarters, no week-end passes." We got away with it. We could have been shot. We talked with our group leader who was also a prisoner, but he spoke the German language. We had a hard time with him. He had been told by the camp Commander that the two of us were not to be allowed outside of the camp area. I told him that the men were weak. We could not last much longer. Once one got sick in those cramped quarters, everyone of us were going to die. We knew the Germans could not give us food. They didn't have any for themselves and their families. But a little heat in our sleeping quarters or just a fire we could stand around and take turns warming. He gave me a look like I was out of my mind too. Suppose I could take you to the yards. Just what are you going to? I am going to sneak some oil in here for our fire. If I can't, I'll have some rags saturated with oil and that would dry out the wood. If I can't go we better kiss our ____ goodbye. My friend told him that I knew what I was talking about. We were together. We had a plan worked out. We were going to use another man we could trust to distract the guard. This man was born to clown. He was always making everybody laugh and the guard we had that morning was an old man. We knew he didnít have ammunition in his rifle, an old rifle like the 306. You press the trigger and the bolt drops in your hand. Our man used to make our guard laugh all the time so when we got to the yard the guard found a good place to sit. He knew he was going to have a good time. Our third man started walking in front of the guard, goose stepping and clowning and the guard was bursting his sides laughing. He made a pass close to the guard, picked up his rifle, put it on his shoulder and kept on goose stepping in front of him. The guard couldn't stop laughing. My buddy and I had slipped under the car and could see what was going on. I opened one box, no oil, but a lot of saturated rags. That was better. If the Germans would have seen our clothes with oil stains they would have shot us. We had some tattered rags that had been discarded at the camp. I had picked some and dried them. We wrapped the oily rags in the dry rags and tied them to our waist. Put our coats on and joined the rest of the men. But before that, every box we emptied, we filled with gravel. We fixed several cars. Why? That was a compliment to the officer that slapped my face when I was captured. His guard put a needlepoint bayonet in the back of my neck. I could feel the point penetrating my skin. The officer said, you stupid American Swine don't know nothing but your name and serial number. I was standing as rigid as I could. That bayonet was penetrating my skin. The officer slapped me with all his arm rigid as a piece of iron. Tears ran down my face. Up to that time war was something like I win you lose, you win I lose, not anymore. I decided I was going to survive. I had to get even in a big way by filling up the railroad cars with gravel (the fire boxes). I had accomplished my mission. I had helped my comrades back at camp, men who needed heat. That's not all. Going back to camp it was almost dark. The Gestapo (German FBI) were waiting for us. They searched us for canned food. There was a black market of canned food in the city. The third man, the clown brushed next to me and grabbed my hand and put something heavy in my hand. When I closed my hand around it I knew what it was, the guard's bolt from his rifle. I was already loaded with oil and now I didn't know what the Gestapo was looking for, the bolt? I didn't know what to do. I broke out of line, walked to the barbed wire and pushed the rifle bolt under the wire in plain site of everybody who was there. I walked back to the line and the Gestapo left. That was not the only time they had been there. They saw me I know. For many nights I wondered why they didn't react. That's one of the things I'll never explain. If that camp is still there, that rifle bolt is still buried there in Dresden. (This ends the part that maybe should be omitted or not. If the writer thinks it will not endanger my family, feel free to add it to the story.)

 

The last days of the war in Germany are the most important. Only the ones who were there can give an account of what happened. I was in Dresden before and after it was destroyed. When I remember Dresden, I remember a beautiful city. When we were marched through the city, some gave us their blessings. Others would throw bricks and bottles at us. Their sons had been killed in the war, mothers and fathers who had lost their children, mothers who had sons in the U. S. A. as prisoners of war. They showed us the letters. We knew they were treated right. Somehow, the story about Dresden doesn't end in my story. It goes on and on in my life.

 

Dresden 1945. I am not sure of the dates. Dresden was destroyed in one of the most devastating bombings of the war in Germany. Hamburg, Leipzig, Limburg and all the other cities were being bombed. The trains were coming into Dresden at night loaded with human misery of refugees, women and children in box cars. The weather was down to zero. No milk for the babies and no food for the people. The streets of Dresden were covered with snow and it was still snowing. The trains only traveled at night and brought the refugees to the yards. The guards would take us POWs to unload the cars. We opened the cars. A few were still alive, elderly people mostly. We took them by the hand and set them on the ground and told them which way to the city. Then we would get in the car with big scoops and scrape all the dead bodies of children and very old people covered with ice and pile them outside of the car. We left a pile of dead bodies at every car.

 

The people who were coming from the bombed cities were women with little babies, no milk, no food, no water, no restrooms and no standing room. The basements we knew were packed full. Women and children had to stand all day and all night in the street without food, water, or milk for their babies. The streets of Dresden were packed so full that there was no place to sit and the cold and the snow made the suffering worse. At that time, we the POWs had it better. We had a roof and a place to lay down. The suffering and misery ended in a matter of hours. March 1945, after dark, a very cold night, the air raid sirens started. We went to our shelter taking our time. In a matter of minutes a squadron of bombers covered the far end of the city with flares. They lighted the part of the city where the railroad yards were. The second wave dropped bombs. They flattened the area of about one block wide from one end of the city to the other. Another wave dropped flares or fire bombs on the next block, another one dropped bombs, and so it went, wave after wave getting closer to us. We were in the far end of the city, still within the city, our block was the only one left. The whole city of Dresden was on fire. Everybody in that hold we called a shelter was praying, all fifty of us. I wasn't praying for myself, I was praying for my father and mother who were old with four sons in the war or maybe there weren't four anymore, my kid brothers and sisters, hoping they would understand. I would probably be missing in action when I was first captured. The sky lit up with the roar of the planes dropping fire bombs. We embraced each other as tight as we could. Somewhere in the dark hole, you could hear loud praying and sobs, but nobody panicked. We were just a bunch of scared S. O. B. s. We were brave American soldiers. We had done our part in the front lines. We were all Infantry, the queen of battle. Our officers had told us, when the time comes, do the best of the situation. Everything went "Black," not dark. I have never seen a place as dark as that hole. A noise like a thousand freight trains running over your head. For how long? I don't know. Some of us were close to the opening. I stick my head out of the hole. The bombs had put out the fire near by, but now the cold wind was reviving the flames and the area was lighted once more. Our air vents had been covered. One of the main streets ran about one hundred and fifty yards from our camp. I could see people staggering out of hell. There was a small rise on the road, and they would stagger half way up and collapse. We were also having trouble breathing. I don't know whether the military planners know that instance, the fire 500 pound bombs did not have to be dropped. The fire bombs sucked all the oxygen out from the city, also from the basements that were packed full of women and children. The snow fell, the fires died like everything in Dresden. City officials came and asked us if we could help dig out the dead and we did. There's an article in the International Red Cross that says we could. As far as I know, no one came out alive. There were no survivors in Dresden when we came in to drag out the dead. After I came back to the states, I read an article about a correspondent of some paper who said he had been in Dresden during and after it was bombed. His story doesn't tell half of what happened.

 

We went to the place we had been to before. The basements we knew which I described in the story before. The city was frozen. The leader took us to a hill outside of our company where he was told that a field of greens had been harvested, nothing but roots were left, we dug two bags of roots and ate that night. The basements were frozen. We had to kick the doors in. Had I known what was there, I would have stayed out. All the people in the basements and the corridors below the street level were still there intact, standing up without begin touched by the fire or the bombing. I opened a door and the solid block of human beings stood there laughing at me, all incased in ice. Those people didn't have to die in a bombing attack. They were well protected. The fires on the top sucked all the oxygen from all of the city.  That's what killed all the people. That's why the people going up the hill did not make it, not the strength, the lack of oxygen. Just like up in the hole, out of breath. We did not know, but we did not move. What little oxygen there was, we used. The wind was blowing and things came back to normal after a while. The population of Dresden was dead.

 

People who were below ground level, who by the rules of war should have been safe, were dead, but not by bombs or fire. The oxygen had been sucked out by the fires above. A lesson to be learned by civil defense officers. Life in Dresden was no longer life. One day we eat a bite, the other days you didn't eat. The refugees who came to Dresden were starving. They ate everything that was edible. When we went in to get the dead out, food was in our mind, maybe a piece of bread. You cannot find food around a person who starved to death. It was not what your captors did to you, it was what was happening to you. At that time as always, the Good Lord was the Supreme Commander. One of the five men in my group dug out a box from the rubble. Guess what? A five pound fruit cake wrapped up with several layers of paper. A gift from a mother whose son was coming back from the war. We made many trips to the city to take out dead bodies and pile them out in the street. The weather was very cold. There was snow on the ground. The dead bodies would keep. The ones who were still alive, we the walking dead, survived.

 

April 1945--The weather changed. Spring was here. The snow melted. The weather got hot. Thank the Good Lord we made it through a very difficult time. The trees bloomed. The ground got green. The Lord always provides. That's what my father used to say. One of my group walked around picking up something from the ground. We watched him. He was one of the ones we had to take care of more often. He came into the compound, took what he had in his pocket and washed it. He sat a can with water on top of the fire. Thank the Lord. We were the only ones who had a fire. When the greens were cooked, he ate them. He was the only one who didn't go hungry that night. The next day we watched him to see what kind of plants he was picking. Dandelions were coming up all over the place and even we who are supposed to have Indian blood from my father's ancestors didn't know that we were surrounded with food. The Lord had provided and we were too stupid to know. He chose one of the least intelligent in the group to show us. Hot weather came, the snow melted, the dead bodies decayed. Decayed bodies who were tons under the rubble smell. The winds of April brought not the smell of peach blossoms, but the smell of death like in the Bible. Dresden was the nest of jackals and vipers. Dresden, the once beautiful city, was the smell of death from one end to the other. We were free to go. We were very weak and besides we had only four directions to go. Hell to the South, Hell to the North and Hell to nowhere. We had been confined in a POW Camp and moved around so many times. We only knew which was up or down. I had planned to escape to Spain. I speak the language. I did not know which direction to take, like in a case I will relate later. My geography in a Spanish school lesson was in the Middle East. The Euphrates River, the Tigris River and the Mesopotamia. The land between two rivers and Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall. I was in Germany, the smell was so bad that the guards could not stand it. They moved us out to where, we didn't know. We slept in road side ditches, one piece of bread a day. Think of people who say that they live on bread and water. We didn't get water. I had even seen times get bad, worse and real bad. Things were getting tight now. Even the guards would look at you as if you could give them a piece of bread. A farmer walked by with a wheel barrow full of carrots for his hogs. He was lucky he escaped with his life. Even the guards had some they would eat.

 

Hellendorf, on the borderline of Czechoslovakia according to a sign we could see from the hotel we had wired to for reservations a head of time HA! HA! Who can give you what he doesn't have? If you don't have nothing, what can you give? In Hellendorf, we were interned in a two story building. The top floor was empty. That's where we were locked in. The hotel was empty except for us. A dirty creek ran around the building. That was our drinking water. The other side of the creek, the guard stood. If any prisoner tried to cross the creek, he would be machine gunned down. New guards were showing up every day. As the Russians were coming, the more contracting the Germans were. It was in Hellendorf that we had a big party and were hungry as always. The only crapper was an outhouse behind the building and every time we scared a hen that had nested in the woods near by, the guards didn't know there was dinner close by. One of the men told me about it. I told him I knew, but how would we cook it with the guard watching. "Don't worry. You watch if nobody is coming. I'll get the hen." He had the hen under his coat. We went upstairs, dismembered the chicken, crammed the meat in the narrow opening of the water jug. We went down by the creek, built a fire and made chicken soup under the guards' noses. The Russians were coming. The sky would light up at night with the artillery. We didn't fear our captors anymore. The Russians didn't know we were there--American POWs and they didn't care. We were in a corner of Germany where a German General had refused to give up. We didn't know that the war was over. By now our captors were high ranking officers. Where they came from we didn't know. What happened to the old commander and the guards who we knew? We had only a few days to know what was going to happen to us. The Russians were our allies, but it took me a long time to understand their motive. Why they acted so savage. I know the Russian soldier is proud and brave. Even in the most difficult time he lives to be presentable. We were put on the road. Our captors were going to turn us over to the Russians hoping that by that they would get their lives spared. As soon as we got on the road, the Russian fighter planes came in. We scattered to the woods. I myself and two of my closest friends never stopped going. We were on our own. The German officers told us if we stayed here the Russian Artillery was going to kill us all. We had to decide which way to go. We went through the woods as quiet as we could. A voice from the bushes ordered us to halt. German officers and men came from no where. They surrounded us. They knew we were not Russians. We knew how to say "American POWs." An officer told us to go back or we would be shot. We backtracked a certain distance and took a different route. We were weak. In order to escape we had to eat first and escape to where. My geography studies in school as I said before were in the Middle East. This was Germany, a country I didn't know nothing about. We had learned a few things in Germany. We know how they store their crops for winter. We knew they store their potatoes at the end of the field. We came to a bridge, a beautiful river, sandy beaches, but we moved to a clump of trees away from the bridge. The Russians were bombing everything that moved. We built a fire. One of the men found a rusty bucket, got some water from the river and we sat around to wait for dinner. The Russian fighter planes came closer on the bridge. Somebody trying to sneak through. One of the planes saw the smoke of our fire and came at us. We bolted backwards from the fire and rolled over. Our bucket of potatoes flew up into the air and scattered our dinner all over. We picked up a few half cooked potatoes and ate them on the road. We had no plan, no direction. We hit the road to nowhere. We were just going. We were in the Russian Sector. We got to a village, peaceful and quiet, a hay barn. We were exhausted. We went into the barn without asking permission. The barn was about 2 ft. with fresh hay. We lay down. We didnít know we had wandered into a German position. We were in a place where the Germans were on one side of the village and the Russians were on the other side. We could have been blown up by the Russians or the Germans. God takes care of His own. At one or two in the morning I heard a loud commotion outside. It was very dark outside and inside. I heard tanks running through the village for about half an hour and then everything was quiet. Sometime later, I heard some more tanks going through the Village. We were in the German held sector. The Russians took the village after midnight. The noise we heard were the Germans retreating and the Russians coming in.

 

The next morning I peeked out of the barn door. I saw a bunch of tanks, American made tanks, but the men around them were Russians. I still wonder why they didn't search the barn when they took the village. I think it was because they were armor invasion. They didn't care about human beings. There were more people in that barn that night. There were two women and one baby, a soldier who had hidden from the Russians. The Russians were all over the yard. I told the men we were going to identify ourselves. I walked out of the door. The Russians saw us. I could see their surprise. They had never seen an American and we had been held POWs for almost a year, no hair cuts, no shaves, no baths and no clothes. My friend spoke Polish and he could speak with the Russians. He told them we were POW Americans. The Russians were dressed no better than we were, but this is war. I would think they would be more disciplined. They shouted "Americans" and embraced us like we were their brothers. They showed us their tanks and told us they were American made and how much they loved America. We joined the Russians. They were after revenge. They were not fighting a war. The war was over. The war ended May 12. We were in some part of Germany, fighting with the Russians. I don't know if the Russians knew if the war was over. We didn't know. The Russians we fought with were not soldiers. They didn't have military training we soon found out. These people were in prison. A Russian told me where his home was burned down and his family disappeared. He had lost everything. They, the Russians had control of that part of Germany and the pain of losing his children and wife. The pain of his family being killed and he locked in prison and could do nothing. He got to Germany and took his revenge. I saw the destruction of Dresden. I also saw the revenge of the poor Russian people who had suffered, over came their enemy and avenged the death of their children. Que Es Justicia?

 

 The enemy would separate the strong, women and men, and send them to Germany as forced labor. They killed the children and old people who were no use to them. Germany was full of forced labor people from every country that the Germans had taken. Germany had lost its finest soldiers in the war. They had taken many countries, but now their big cities were being bombed, factories, Ammo. Depots, and all that by the RAF and American Air force. The British are very well disciplined. I admire them. The American were brave, not well disciplined, reckless, like Gen. Patton, "old blood and guts." I heard a speech in English before the invasion of Normandy, in front of all the soldiers and civilians, women and children. He said if you see a German coming at you shoot. If he comes any closer, stick your bayonet on and if the comes any closer hit him with a sock shot.

 

The Russians were acting like savages. The officers would shoot their own men and the drunk soldiers shoot their own officers. As soon as daylight came, we took off in a different direction. It was not safe to travel at night. We had to get away from that part of the country where they were still fighting. We mingled with the crowd of displaced persons on the road in the daytime. At night we slept in the ditches by the road. We didn't know if we were going toward the American side or walking away from it. We had to find Dresden where we had been before. From there I knew which way to go. There were people coming and going. We asked the people coming where was Dresden. One of the three of us could speak Polish, so we didn't have any trouble with that. They also told us the Americans were in Leipzig. Dresden was only fifty miles from Leipzig. We were so happy that we forgot how tired and hungry we were. We walked all that day and at the end of the second day we could see the city from a distance. We came into the city at night. The center of the city was all lighted up. The Russians were celebrating the end of the war. They had big fires in the middle of the street and were dancing around the fires having a good time getting drunk. I knew we were not going to crash the party. We wanted to get around the city.  I always prayed to God to help us find Dresden and we were now in that city, fifteen miles from safety with our American troops. I don't remember walking from Dresden to Leipzig. When you are in a state of hunger and weakness and see the Promised Land, you don't feel nothing but the need to be free with your people. They received us with open arms and explained to us that they could not go to the Russian Sector to bring us back. The Russians had closed their border to the Americans, British and every one of the allies. We had saved their lives. Now they didn't need us. The International Red Cross could not help us while we were in the Russian Sector. The Russians never joined the Red Cross. That is why the Russian POWs were treated like dogs.

 

The road back home is another sad story. Another story about survival in the country where you were born. In the country where you went to give your life for, because you thought that you were part of that country. It's my country and I would fight for it again.

 

I was refused a hair cut in Bay City, my home town. In 1944, I was in uniform because?

 

THE END

Special thanks to Wilma Eidson who first transcribed Mr. Zepeda's story from his hand-written records. Her copy was used to type this version.
 

 

 

Copyright 2007 - Present by Isaac Zepeda
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This page was created
Jan. 13, 2007
This page was updated
Jan. 31, 2007
   

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