US POWs on a boxcar through Germany

American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944
American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of U.S. 119th Infantry are taken prisoner by members of Kampfgruppe Peiper in Stoumont, Belgium on 19 December 1944

The Battle of the Bulge was turning into one of the largest battles that the US would ever fight. Eventually they would suffer around 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead, in the space of just over a month.

Several of the Allied commanders were now welcoming the attack, an opportunity to hit the Germans hard if they could just contain them and then attack across the base of the German advance.

For the men in the middle of the battle it was a different story. William F. Meller was in the 110th Regiment, 28th Division. His 11 man section, manning a point just opposite the Siegfried Line, held out for almost 12 hours on the 16th December until, out of ammunition and surrounded, they were forced to surrender.

What followed was a miserable experience, shared with 23,000 other US troops who were taken prisoner:

20 December 1944

The train stops and we all get out. This sorry lump of humanity begins to move, then gradually develops into a group of individuals. As we climb down to the ground, the guards remind us they are watching us. It is getting tougher and tougher climbing in and out of the boxcar. These old civilian guards should be home with their grandchildren, not here, where they might be killed at any moment.

We relieve ourselves, then line up to fill our canteens from a faucet. No one asks if the water is clean or contaminated. No one cares. War is humbling. We have no dignity, look filthy, feel filthy, and we are at the bottom of the pit.

If the Germans are trying to break our morale, it won’t work. We have no morale. The snow—covered mountains around us remain cold and hostile. It has been four days now, and we have been fed nothing.

The genius standing next to me says, “Sarge, they’re not going to shoot us, they don’t have to. We’re going to starve to death.”

“Shut the hell up.” There is no use threatening anyone with punishment or promising violence. No one gives a damn. We just have to tough it out, period.

The German soldiers don’t look much better than we do. Some of them look disabled and some look older. They may have been injured in combat and are now only fit for this type of duty. Most are privates, plus a few noncommissioned officers. None of them look happy to be here.

They seem to be afraid of the American planes. They may be thinking about what would happen if we all jumped them right now. I know we are thinking about it. If we jump them, some of us will be shot. There is no doubt in our minds that we can take them. The problem is that we don’t know where we are. We don’t know how far it is to the American lines. I know we are east of the Rhine River because I saw it last night as we passed over.

The man next to me says, “We ought to jump them.” “Do you want to be the first?” He doesn’t answer.

We are herded back inside. I take a careful look at the train; it’s a long one. I don’t know where the guards ride; it must be in one of their own boxcars. The civilian guards carry old bolt-action rifles, while the soldiers carry submachine guns. I’m not afraid of the rifles, but the submachine guns are something to take seriously. The threats of these weapons keep us in line.

We are back inside. It seems we get out to relieve ourselves only when the train stops because of American planes in the vicinity; in this case, the engine unhooks and heads for the near- est tunnel for protection. The sergeant knows what he is talking about.

See William F. Meller: Bloody Roads to Germany: At Huertgen Forest and the Bulge–an American Soldier’s Courageous Story of World War II

German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.
German picture of Americans taken prisoner during their Ardenne offensive.

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