Greenwood, Eaton, Clark Co., Wisconsin
----Source: Tribune-Record-Phonograph (9/6/1995)
Author: Dean Laser, Transcriber: Stan Schwarze
Meinhardt's war fought inside German Prison Camp
Clarence Meinhardt's service photograph, taken before he was shot down in 1942 and held captive by the Germans for 958 days.
958 -- Clarence Meinhardt knows the number. It counts the days he spent in a German prisoner of war camp, waiting, hoping, surviving. The number he won’t forget.
Nor will he, no can he, delete from his memory the numbing notion that more than two years and eight months of captivity almost ended in execution. He could have as easily as not died there, overseas, as World War II waned. He remembers that, but chooses to forget the bitterness he could have kept for 50 years.
Meinhardt’s in Greenwood (Clark Co., Wis.) now, living across the street from the post office where he worked for 16 years. He’s a husband and father and grandfather, retired, active in the American Ex-Prisoner’s of War. An American flag flies daily in his yard.
4 a.m., 14 Sept. 1942
Clarence Meinhardt, 23, is seated in the rear of a United States Air Force bomber, a dozen incendiary bombs in his lap. It’s his third bombing mission over Egypt. A German air base is the nights target.
80-millimeter anti-aircraft artillery slams Meinhardt’s plane, knocking it upward over the desert sky. Meinhardt radios to his crew, again, three times. No Answer. He jumps forward to see what’s happened, but his legs fall through a 2-foot opening in the plane’s floor.
The plane plunges at 250 miles per hour. Meinhardt’s trapped in the hole at the wrists and back. The slipstream of plane’s force rips him through. He’s airborne, misses the rip chord on his chute. The second time it opens, but he’s only 1,000 feet above the ground.
He land. Can’t move. The Germans come. Day 1 of 958.
Meinhardt trained for 15 months to fly three missions. He’d see no more combat action after the night his plane went down. The four others in his crew would see no more life.
After Meinhardt was drafted in June 1941, he trained at several bases before being sent to a base in Egypt near the Suez Canal. He was there to stop a crafty German general whose mission was to take the strategic canal and halt Allied shipping in the East Central European Theatre of World War II.
Meinhardt lived in a metal barracks built half underground. Conditions were harsh.
"It was very hot and dry and sand," he describes. "Sand dunes were as high as the dairy barns around here. The wind would get so bad we couldn’t even fly. The wind would scour the paint right off the airplanes."
Meinhardt and his crew had flown two daytime missions, successfully dropping rounds of 250-pound anit-personnel bombs. The charges were built to detonate a split-second before they struck the ground so shrapnel would spread and maim soldiers.
"If a man is dead, the other men will leave him. If a man is wounded, it’ll take two other men to carry him," Meinhardt said of the military strategy..
On Sept. 14, 1942, Meinhardt’s crew headed skyward with a load of five 500-pound bombs. British comrades that night were on a quiet sabotage mission, and the American bombers took to the sky to keep the German night fighters from foiling the British raid.
As Meinhardt’s 10-bomber squadron approached the German air base at Sidi Hanish, he suspects a design flaw on his B-25 gave the Germans a perfect target.
"The main reason we got shot down that night is because our planes were not equipped with flame dampeners from the exhaust," he said, explaining that fire from the engine cylinders all blew out one stack, creating a bright plume in the dark sky.
"It would be just like a blow torch up there," he said. "All they had to do was air at the torch and let ‘er go."
Four planes in the group went down that night.
"The next day they grounded the entire group until they got flame dampeners," he said. "After that, they quit losing planes at night. You learn by experience and somebody gets hurt in the process."
Or captured by the enemy, in Meinhardt’s case. After his plane was hit, Meinhardt landed on the air base his crew was bombing. As he tried to unbuckle his chute, he saw his plane and four buddies crash into the desert.
Searchlights crossed the base after the raid had subsided. Wounded and burned, Meinhardt covered himself with his chute and waited. He used his jackknife to cut strips from his chute to keep from bleeding to death from the shrapnel wounds in his leg.
At daybreak, German soldiers pick him up in a jeep and took him to a first aid tent.
Clarence Meinhardt - POW
Guards sat in the tower to observe the German Stalag 17B at Krems, Austria. Clarence Meinhardt was a prisoner of war at the camp for more than a year. (contributed photo).
Meinhardt spent 11 weeks in hospitals in Greece and Italy before he was sent to a solitary confinement and interrogation center. There he was grilled for eight days.
"Every single day they would bring in a different category of personnel," he said. "They’d just try to do anything to get you to talk. I wouldn’t give them anything but name, rank and serial number. Finally they figured out that I was as stubborn as they were."
Meinhardt was shipped to the first of several German Stalags he’d endure for more than the next two years. Stalag 17B at Krembs, Austria was "home" for 18 of those months.
As a non-commissioned officer, Meinhardt stayed in non-labor camps. International agreements kept the Germans from working the officer prisoners.
Conditions in the camps were poor, he said. They ate rotten potatoes and rutabagas, hard bread, maybe vegetable soup with maggots. Red Cross packages came to the POWs, but the Germans hoarded them by the thousands.
The Germans lined up the POWs twice daily for roll call, and in between they were left to wander the prison yard and find ways to keep busy. It wasn’t work, but it wasn’t easy.
"I played contract bridge eight hours a day there," Meinhardt said. "It was a Godsend because it kept our minds off things."
Things like the few escape attempts, the time a prisoner tried to climb the barbed wire fence and was shot there and left to hang. Meinhardt said escape plans were useless considering the ever-present armed guards and attack dogs.
But trickery and deception were another story, Meinhardt said. POWs bribed guards with cigarettes for the parts to make a radio. The POWs used wire coils and radioactive rocks to build crude crystal radio sets, and they’d use them to keep up with the war front news.
"We had ‘em hidden all crazy places you’d never think," he said. "You can’t imagine the ingenuity of these people that are pushed to the limits."
The POWs also used Red Cross dried milk cans to make stoves to cook food. A shoe lace would be a drive blt, the can a furnace. Wooden slivers ripped from the barracks walls were fuel.
Meinhardt said every POW had days of depression, but the group rallied as a whole to bring back those who were down.
"I think what got us through was the cohesiveness between fellows," Meinhardt said. "We paid close attention to our buddies. I’m sure we saved many of our fellows from losing their minds. They would have just gone of the deep end."
Meinhardt said his own religious beliefs helped him cope.
"I’m a Christian. I believe in God. I believe in prayer," he said.
And he and the other POWs believed in home. Through their radio monitoring, they knew America had not suffered the war destruction as had German.
"We knew the United States was not being bombed," he said. "e knew the United States would primarily be the way it was when we left it and we had a place to come home to. What did those people (Germans) have to go home to? Nothing."
March to freedom could have been march to death
In early 1945, Germany was losing the war and knew it. In April, the guards told the POWs they were leaving camp. The planned destination for the 4,200 men was not revealed, and Meinhardt said he did not know the true plan until 12 or 15 years ago.
"They told us they wanted us to be liberated by our own forces rather than the Russians because they hated the Russians," Meinhardt said.
The men marched 17 straight days from dawn to dusk. Tired and hungry, they did not know how close they came to marching to execution.
"We were being marched to the gas chambers," Meinhardt said. "We didn’t know that until two of our buddies went back to Austria (years later). The only thing that saved us, we thing the commander who was in charge of us knew the end of the war was a week, two weeks, three weeks away. He didn’t want to get his neck in a noose and be executed for some atrocities."
"Instead of marching the men to the gas chambers, the Germans too them to a "beautiful" evergreen forest," Meinhardt remembers. They lived there for eight days, sleeping in makeshift pin bough shelters.
On May 2, at 6:45 p.m., according to Meinhardt’s diary, American troops liberated the POWs.
"The minute the guards saw those (American) jeeps, they threw down their rifles," Meinhardt said. "When we saw those jeeps and those uniforms, that was it. We cheered so loud we almost shook the needles off the trees."
By June of 1945, Meinhardt was back in Greenwood. The town hadn’t changed much, "But I tell you, I was very thankful," he said.
"There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t count my blessings," Meinhardt said. "It made a better man out of me, by far. It made me more tolerant, more generous. It made me a better Christian."
Meinhardt farmed for 17 years after his return, then held Greenwood’s postmaster job for 16 ½ years. He retired in 1980.
Meinhardt said he hasn’t wast his freedom on animosity.
"I have no hate of anyone, including the Germans," he said. "If a person continues to hate because of circumstances that probably were beyond someone else’s control, you hate is going to haunt you and it’s going to destroy you. It’ make you miserable in the process."
In terms of miserable, Clarence Meinhardt paid his dues. 958 times.
Clarence Meinhardt of Greenwood holds a drawing of a B-25 bomber like the one he was in when shot down over Egypt in 1942.
Meinhardt spent the next 958 days in a German Prisoner of war Camp. Meinhardt also holds the medals he received for his World War II service. (staff photo)
Parents Hear From Clarence Meinhardt
Mr. and Mrs. Otto Meinhard had a telegram from the War Department last week that their son Clarence was among the prisoners of war leberated by the American soldiers in Austria.
Clarence has been aprisoner since the fall of 1942 and his many friends are looking forward to his return home. The following letter was received by Mr. and Mrs. Meinholdt.
May 14, 1945
Dear Mother and all:
This is my final letter to you as a free man once again. It surely is a great feeling to get out and around. I was liberated at Braman, Austria on the Inns River, May 2nd by Gen Patton's 3rd Army. We were flown out of Austria by American transport plances to Nancy, France, where we received a wonderful reception from the French people and American soldiers there. At Nancy we received our first hot American chow and Maxwell House coffee. We had been on starvation rations for so slong that I believe that this mean tasted better and was appreciated more than any I've ever eaten. We are now at a processing camp on the west coast of France, near LeHavre. We are not expected to remain here long before we will be on our way home. This letter is not very informative but I hope it serves its purpose in letting you know I'm once gain being cared for by Uncle Sam. I am safe and well, so don't worry. I will probably be home to see you very soon. More later. Tell the rest. Love to all.
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