30th infantry division WORLD WAR II POWS meet 60 years later.
Leo Finegold is the publisher of this site
February 3, 2004
They were in the same infantry unit for months. Yet, did not meet each other for almost sixty years.
Nathan Blockman, from Memphis, Tennessee and Leo Finegold, from New Orleans, Louisiana, and now a resident of San Diego, California, were both eighteen years old when they began their basic training in 1944. Nathan received his basic training at Ft. McClellan, Alabama and Leo at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. They both served during World War 2 in the European Theatre, both were in the 30th infantry division, both were in the 119th infantry regiment and both were in Company L.
Yet, they were strangers to each other and only met for the first time in Memphis this past week after Leo learned from a friend that a surviving member of the 30th infantry division, company L, resided in Memphis. Leo, recently flew to Memphis and both he and Nathan relived their almost sixty year-old battlefield experiences. The coincidence of their stories is remarkable.
They were in different platoons, Nathan in the lst platoon and Leo in the 3d platoon. Both were riflemen and both participated in major river crossings, the Roer, the Rhine and the Elbe. Nathan was assigned to the 30th during the battle of the bulge and was hospitalized for a heavy case of frostbite. Leo was assigned to the 30th as a replacement after he, too, was hospitalized for frostbite. Both Leo and Nathan fought across Germany, part of the time attached to the Hell On Wheels Second Armored Division. Both shared many experiences including hiding in a cellar with others, surrounded by Germans. When they were discovered by the Germans, both were marched as POWs to the same German prison camp, the infamous Stalag3A, approximately 15 miles from Berlin.
Somewhere in the middle of Germany, riding on the back of tanks through Germany, they were informed that they would be in Berlin in two weeks. This was contrary to the Yalta agreement, signed in Russia by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt, which dictated that American and British forces would stop at the Elbe. Therefore, both Nathan and Leo rejected that scenario as just another rumor.
However, Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill wanted to take Berlin. Since the 30th infantry division was under the 21st army group, led by Montgomery, orders went out to cross the Elbe. Somewhere, well into Germany, both Nathan and Leo with their respective platoons were placed on trucks and sped to the Elbe. In the wee hours of an April morning, the trucks pulled up to the river and the troops were ordered into DUKWS (boats) and set out for the east side of the river. They were met with stiff resistance from the opposing German army, which at that time was concentrated in a pocket between the allied forces.
American engineers quickly built a bridge across the river, but German artillery immediately destroyed it. At that time, Eisenhower asked General Bradley to determine the cost in lives to take Berlin. Bradley estimated 100,000 casualties. This was unacceptable to Eisenhower, and the operation was called off. Infantry, including Nathan and Leo, now dug in on the East side of the river, were cut-off from their support and essentially abandoned.
Orders were then given to move south to Elbenau, a small town near the large metropolis of Magdeburg in an effort to break through the German resistance and escape across the river. When they reached the town, they took several Germans prisoner. Leo was ordered to guard them. As Leo recalls, “We were quickly surrounded by German troops and armor. My sergeant, Jerry Klingerman took a bullet through his elbow. “I ordered the Germans to bandage his wound and ran out the back entrance with him and the three German prisoners. The German troops lit up the night sky with flares and tracers. I directed Klingerman to follow other GIs into a cellar and when I found it impossible to escape, I and the three German prisoners followed him into the cellar.”
One of the German prisoners was an antiaircraft officer who had studied in a university near Philadelphia prior to WW 2. There were a large number of GIs in the cellar and a number of German civilians, residents of that house. A German tank stood about 100 yards from the house in a wooded area. It was an impossible situation.
Americans on the other side of the river set the house on fire with artillery and phosphorus bombs. “The barrage was so intense,” recalled Leo “that everyone in the cellar became numb. However, when the shelling ceased, we recovered rapidly and waited for possible liberation by Allied forces, which never came. Nathan recalls: “German soldiers were walking up and down the streets. We took a vote as to whether or not we should surrender, but, decided to hide out, hoping against hope that we would be liberated by our own forces.”
Since there was a well in the cellar, on two of the occasions with the house on fire, the men formed bucket brigades and put them out. On the 3rd occasion, the fire went unnoticed except by German civilians, who cried out....Eric, Eric, Hiraus (come out) Hiraus (come out)...your house is on fire. There was no answer. Leo says: “We were terrified that we would be discovered. The quiet in the cellar was deafening.” Apparently this aroused the suspicions of the neighbors outside the cellar, who notified German soldiers. “We were ordered to come out and surrender.”
"There were two options, surrender or die," Leo says. "We sent the German officer out first. Since he was of highest rank, he took over from the Hitler youth, mostly 15-16 years old who were armed with semi-automatic weapons." They marched Nathan, Leo and the remaining cellar dwellers to a square, stripped them of watches and other wartime paraphernalia , forced them to put their hands behind their heads and marched them in that fashion for what seemed like an eternity. When they finally were able to put their arms down, the pain of the blood rushing to their hands was almost unbearable. They were marched through villages and towns, strafed by their own planes (p38s), crowded into a train boxcar like sardines, and taken to their ultimate destination, Luckenwalde and Stalag 3a. where they lived in tents, 400 men to a tent.
“We slept on straw and spent most of our time picking off lice from out garments,” said Nathan. There were only two spickets to provide fresh water for 4000 prisoners (American). All nationalities lived in separate compounds. “Our food rations were a slice of dark bread and grass soup each day.” Distribution f red-cross parcels were irregular and uneven. Leo received one, promptly ate everything and spent the night over an open-air latrine, watching the guard in the watchtower, wondering whether he would survive at this late stage of the war.
“The Russians liberated us, but would not let us return to friendly lines. There were rumors that the Russians were going to take the liberated prisoners to Russia and load them on ships for their final return to the United States. Some, including Nathan, left the camp anyway and wandered back for periods of time until they reached American forces. Others remained, including Leo, and were not released until much later.
Leo is in contact with Rick Cosgrove, son-in-law of Frank Doody who also served in the same infantry outfit and whose experiences closely parallel those described above. Hopefully, he will be able to share sixty year old experiences with him as well.