World War II POW recalls camp's liberation
By BRUCE MCLELLAN | The Decatur Daily, Ala. (TNS) | Published: April 12, 2020
(TNS) — George Mills woke up hungry the morning of April 13, 1945. By then that was nothing unusual for the U.S. Army sergeant. As Nazi Germany collapsed, feeding prisoners had become a low priority for Mills’ captors.
He had spent the night sleeping on the ground in the barnyard of a rural farm in eastern Germany with about 240 other prisoners of war. He didn’t have a pillow. He didn’t have covers. He slept only in his combat jacket and the same woolen uniform he’d been wearing for months. Fortunately, it had been a mild night.
“It was pretty pleasant in April,” Mills, now 98, remembered Friday from his Decatur home. “We had a terrible winter. Snow up to our knees. So that April was like summer to me.”
Mills doesn’t remember if he had anything to eat that morning. He might have found a rutabaga in the barn, but it wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy his hunger. He was prepared to endure his 117th day of captivity, but a surprise awaited him.
About 7 a.m., Mills heard a noise in the distance that sounded like a tank. He and several other prisoners walked to the winding, dirt road leading to the farm and peered through the woods.
Occasionally, a vehicle would come into sight rounding a curve and Mills could glimpse parts of it through the trees.
“We couldn’t tell whether it was German or American until it turned where we could see the star on it.”
It was the U.S. Army. More specifically it was a patrol from the 2nd Armored Division, which has the motto “Hell on Wheels.” Mills had heard a half-track, which has tracks on the back and tires on the front. It was accompanying a staff car with radio antennas attached to the side.
By the time Mills returned to the main group of prisoners, the guards — perhaps sensing surrender to American forces represented their kindest fate — had been relieved of their weapons by their former captives.
Mills was no longer a prisoner.
“It was a good moment for everybody,” he said. “We were really happy because we knew we were free.”
Mills said he always remembers the date of his liberation because the men from the 2nd Armored Division told the former prisoners that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died the previous day, April 12, 1945.
On Monday, it will have been 75 years since Mills’ liberation. Retired Army Lt. Col Michael Snyder, senior Army instructor of Decatur High JROTC, said even after three-quarters of a century, Mills’ experience remains worthy of reflection.
“We need some inspiration in the COVID-19 (response),” Snyder said. “People have gone through worse than this and survived.”
A hungry march
Up until about a week before his liberation, Mills had been held in Stalag — short for Stammlager — VIII-A, which was situated in the area where the borders of Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia meet. As Russian forces approached from the east, guards moved prisoners out. Eventually, they started marching them westward toward where Germans were fighting American, British and French troops.
Mills said his group of prisoners marched 10 to 12 miles a day. Their only nourishment then and for much of their captivity came from scavenged rutabagas and sugar beets, which German farmers kept for livestock feed much like American farmers use corn.
“That’s what we lived off of for five months,” Mills said. “They never gave us any food.”
Things got even tougher toward the end of his captivity.
“You don’t eat anything in a month, you figure how hungry you are,” Mills says. “It gnaws at you all the time.”
To illustrate the power of hunger, Mills told about the pocket New Testament with protective metal back that his mother, Eola, sent him shortly before his unit went ashore in France 23 days after D-Day in 1944.
“She sent it to me just before I left England and told me to carry it in my pocket,” he said.
He still had the Bible after his capture and was often asked to loan it.
“One of the guys would beg me to (let him) read the Bible to get their mind off their hunger.”
That may be why three incidents involving food shortly after his liberation remain with Mills.
In the first, the half-track that liberated the prisoners had two one-gallon tin cans of green beans and one can of carrots. The prisoners didn’t wait for the food to be heated before starting to eat. There wasn’t enough of the canned food to go around, and Mills didn’t get any.
But later on the day of liberation, several former prisoners with butchering skills prepared a calf from the farm. Others started a fire and began to cook the meat with potatoes from the barn.
Mills remembered the men couldn’t wait for the food to cool.
“It burnt our mouths we were so hungry,” he said. “That’s the first food we’d had in no telling how many days.”
The next day trucks arrived to take the prisoners to a nearby airfield where fighter planes were stationed. Mills and his buddy Andy McLaughlin soon found the airfield’s mess area and got in line. The airmen watched with amusement as Mills and McLaughlin kept adding to the piles of food on their plates.
“Then they all gathered around us to see if we could eat it,” Mills said.
Both men did although McLaughlin later got sick.
Mills still enjoys good food, and Snyder had wanted to provide him with a special meal Monday that is on hold. Snyder wants to protect Mills, who turns 99 next month, from the coronavirus outbreak and asked that anyone wanting to wish him well do so by telephone.
One year recently, Snyder took Mills to a steakhouse in Sheffield to honor him on the anniversary of his liberation. When Snyder went to take care of the bill, it had already been paid. By a Vietnam veteran.
Mills and the other former prisoners weren’t at the airfield in Germany long before they were transported by truck to Le Havre, France. There they were disinfected to get rid of lice, took showers and had their clothes cleaned.
The men also were weighed. Mills, who had tipped the scales at 200 pounds before entering combat, was down to 170 pounds, and this was after several meals.
Mills left Le Havre in early May on a ship and arrived in New York on May 13, days after Germany’s surrender.
He was bused to Camp Myles Standish, Massachusetts, near Boston and prepared to go home on a 90-day leave to see his family.
His parents knew by this time that he had been freed, but there had been tense times earlier. When Mills and 200 other Allied soldiers were taken prisoner by Nazi units in a large farmhouse in Fouhren, Luxembourg, on Dec. 18, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge, Mills’ family had been told he was missing in action. The Army didn’t know if he had been killed or captured.
Mills was initially taken to Stalag IV-B for processing. There he filled out a card for the International Red Cross, but never thought the Germans would send it out.
“Dearest Mother,” Mills wrote. “How is everyone at home? I am well and safe, and Andy is still with me.”
Amazingly, the card reached his family and his mother took it to a Decatur barber with German heritage to translate parts of it. She knew her son was alive.
Two days after his liberation, Mills wrote home again.
“Dearest Mother, … Today I really have something to thank God for. So much that I can’t write it,” he wrote on April 15, 1945. “I will just have to tell you when I see you. …”
Mills was headed back to Decatur, where he’d continue to reside once he finished his Army enlistment and received his discharge. He worked for Forbes Piano Co., and was married to his wife, Charles “Charlie” McDowra Mills, for 66 years until her death in 2015.
To get back to Decatur from Massachusetts in 1945, Mills took a bus. He could only give his family a rough estimate of when he’d be home. So when the bus dropped him off at 2:30 a.m. in mid-May at the Decatur station, which was then on Second Avenue near what is now City Hall, there was nobody to meet him. He had a cup of coffee and then about 5 a.m. started walking to his family’s home at 906 Sherman St.
When he got there, the front screen door was latched and his parents, James Robert Mills and Eola, were in the back of the house cooking breakfast. His sister, Elizabeth Bowman, had come in from Chattanooga knowing he’d be home soon, and she answered the door.
“She was so excited she didn’t unlatch the door,” he said. “She went back to tell them it was me.”
The family came back to the door and let Mills in. They all went back to the kitchen to talk and eventually eat breakfast.
But Mills, who had been gone since joining the Army in 1942 and being placed in the 109th Infantry, still had one member of the family left to greet.
Frank was a white English bulldog with a brown spot on his shoulder and face, and Mills had owned him for five or six years before enlisting. Frank was outside when he became aware of a voice through the back door that he hadn’t heard in three years.
“He about tore that door up trying to get to me,” Mills recalled. “I let him in. Oh, man. He was just all over me. I couldn’t get rid of him. He didn’t want me to put him outside.
“I think he was tickled more to see me than anybody.”
His soldier was home.
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