POW reflects on his close calls

Carmel Whetzel was captured by the Germans and served time as a prisoner of war during World War II. Photo courtesy of Phil Fravel

STEPHENS CITY – Carmel Whetzel, of Winchester, and Thomas Strickler, of Front Royal, are survivors.

One was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. The other was discharged early from the Marines after he was hit by an exploding shell during the invasion of Guam.

They are among a dwindling number of veterans around to recount their battlefield experiences, the kinds of experiences that millions of their counterparts did not live to tell about after the war.

Whetzel and Strickler, both 92, made it home, but just barely.

Optimists thought the war in Europe was nearing its end when Whetzel arrived with the 26th Infantry Division at Cherbourg, France, in early September 1944.

Carmel Whetzel, of Winchester, left, and Thomas Strickler, of Front Royal, both 92 and World War II veterans, say they made it home from the war, but just barely. Photo courtesy of Phil Fravel

Whetzel is from Hardy County, West Virginia, a place he left at age 16 with a fourth grade education. He landed in the Baltimore area and worked at several jobs, including on a hog farm and at a tire company before he was drafted in 1943.

Whetzel’s first assignment in Europe was driving trucks for the Red Ball Express, a convoy operation that carried food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies inland from the beaches of Normandy to front line troops.

He was with a contingent of American troops that reached the town of Rodalbe in eastern France in early November. German troops surrounded them, killing some and taking others prisoner.

A nearby barn offered Whetzel and two other Americans a chance to evade the Germans, and they took it. For three days, they hid in the barn, but it was hardly a safe refuge. The Germans were also using it for shelter and slept on piles of straw directly above a mound of hay that was concealing the Americans.

The sound of American guns firing led Whetzel and his companions to think friendly forces were nearing the barn. Their relief proved to be short lived when they emerged from their hiding place and encountered German troops.

Whetzel remained a hostage for the next six months. During the earliest days of his captivity, he spent a week peeling potatoes for the Germans.

The newly captured POWs were ordered to remove their uniforms and put on ragged clothes and wooden shoes.

“They took our shoes and everything,” Whetzel said.

On a visit to the sites of former death camps in 1967, Whetzel made a horrifying discovery. The POW clothing he was wearing came from the victims of the death camps, the places, he said, “where they burned people up.”

“That was the clothes we got, from where they destroyed the people,” he added.

Whetzel and other POWs were moved around among several POW camps during his months of captivity.

He and two others escaped from a camp at a Luftwaffe air base near Parchim, Germany, after they managed to obtain a pair of wire cutters. They made their exit through an unlocked door at the barracks and entered a nearby latrine. The escape required them to slip down the holes used by men to relieve themselves and crawl across the frozen human waste below. The reward came when they reached the barbed wire fence, cut it, and walked away to freedom.

The escapees roamed the woods for 12 to 15 days before being recaptured.

“We stole chickens from farmers, ate the bark off of trees. We did everything to get something to eat,” Whetzel said. “They had a guards in the forest, and we walked down through the woods, and here a guy jumps out from behind a tree, and that was a forest guard, shoves a gun at us, captured us again.”

Whetzel was put on trial and sentenced to three weeks confinement and a diet of bread and water.

The Germans were making heavy use of POWs as a labor force at that point in the war, and Whetzel found himself assigned in the spring of 1945 to the repair of a railroad that had been blasted to pieces by Allied warplanes. A British Spitfire fighter, apparently flown by a pilot who mistook the POWs for enemy soldiers, appeared one day and killed seven of them while strafing their work area.

The German soldiers guarding the POWs suddenly disappeared one day. The war’s end was at hand. Their last words to Whetzel and the others were to remain in a compound in the woods and not to let anyone in. Russian troops arrived a few days later, freed them and returned them to the American military.

Whetzel drove trucks for an oil company during much of his post-war career. He also held other jobs such as painter and carpenter while continuing to work for the oil company. He spends part of his time in Florida where he owns a home next to a golf course.

Whetzel has led a full but uncelebrated life since the end of the war. The French government, remembering his hardships as a POW, changed all that recently when it presented him with the Legion of Honor, the highest award given to civilians or military members for serving France.

He has also been named an honorary citizen of France and Belgium.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com