WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — When U.S. Army Corporal Carmel Whetzel landed in France with the 26th Infantry Division three months after D-Day on June 6, 1944, some soldiers thought the war in Europe was winding down, when in fact, Germany was getting ready to “go for broke” during the Battle of Bulge in December.
Whetzel drove trucks and jeeps for the “Red Ball Express,” a convoy operation that hauled food, ammunition and other supplies from ports in France to the front lines in Germany. Whetzel was with American troops when they arrived in Rodalbe, a small village in eastern France near the Rhine River where they were ambushed and captured by German troops when the Fourth Armored Division pulled out when they ran low on fuel and ammunition.
“When we saw a German tank coming down the street, two buddies and I fled to a barn that was attached to the farmhouse where we had parked our vehicles, and we burrowed down about three feet in the haymow. That night German soldiers slept on top of us, but didn’t hear us,” said Whetzel.
Whetzel and his buddies spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday hidden in the hay, but decided to come out when they heard American weapons being fired.
“They have a different sound than German weapons,” said Whetzel.
But he didn’t know German soldiers were firing some American weapons they had captured.
“Those who weren’t captured were killed, and you didn’t dare put a potato peel in your mouth, or you’d be hit in the head with a rifle butt by a German guard,” said Whetzel, who spent the first day in captivity peeling potatoes for the enemy’s evening meal.
The next day, Whetzel and other soldiers in the 26th Infantry Division were marched to Stalag XII, better known as Stalag 2-A, just inside Germany.
“It was raining, and we had to sleep on the ground for two days without food or shelter,” said Whetzel.
Unlike their Japanese allies in the Pacific, the Germans allowed prisoners of war like Carmel Whetzel to notify their loved ones that they had been captured. Whetzel’s wife in Baltimore received this card from her husband in November 1944.
During the next six months until the camp was liberated, Whetzel says the Germans fed them very little food and worked them like slaves.
When Whetzel noticed their Nazi guard often failed to lock the door on their wooden barracks, he and his buddies made plans to escape.
One night when the guard failed to lock the door, Whetzel and his buddies used a pair of wire cutters they had acquired to cut a hole through the fence and slip past the guard tower.
“We were free for 15 days before we ran into some Germans in a forest and were recaptured.”
There was a standing rule in German POW camps; escapees will be shot if they are recaptured, “but we were lucky. We were only sentenced to three weeks on bread and water,” said Whetzel.
He weighed only 90 pounds when the POW camp was liberated after Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.
Carmel Whetzel, one of ten kids who grew up on Wilkins Moutain in West Virginia credits his hard-scrabble upbringing for his ability to endure six months as a prisoner of war.
Whetzel dropped out of school in the fourth grade. He said, “Hillbillies like me know how to survive.”
A few years ago, the 97-year-old soldier wrote a book about his experience as a Prisoner of War.