SALT LAKE CITY — After taking machine gun fire, George “Red” Ellis and two other Soldiers finally made it to shore but soon found out they were surrounded by German soldiers on both sides of the Sauer River.
“We were trying to make our way back to the American lines when we ran into a group of German soldiers,” the 88-year-old veteran said. “We were carrying Browning Automatic Rifles, and they didn't work. The hand grenades didn't work. So we were up the creek without a paddle...and from there it was history, we were taken prisoner.”
Red, a 75 year resident of Edison, N.J., was held as a prisoner of war during World War II by Germany from February to May, 1945, and was forced to live through things most people will never have to experience.
George “Red” Ellis and his wife Doris stand outside their home in Edison, NJ on Veterans day November 11, 2013. They have been married for more than 68 years. (Photo courtesy of George Ellis)
“Red is a true example of the Onaway spirit [the motto of the 76th],” said Maj. Gen. Daniel L. York, commanding general of the 76th Operational Response Command. “Although he was the point of the spear in ferrying troops across the Sauer River during the 76th Infantry Division's first action, he showed his true resolve and resilience surviving as a POW.”
Drafted into the Army in 1944 when he was 18 years old, Red completed basic training and was assigned to the machine gun and mortar section of a rifle platoon, of the 76th ID in Fort McCoy, Wis., which has since been redesignated as the 76th ORC.
Shortly thereafter, on June 27, 1944, 21 days after D-Day, the 76th ID landed in Le Havre, France and began moving toward Luxembourg to reinforce Allied forces there.
“We were at Luxembourg at a little town called Echternach,” said Red, who was a newly promoted private 1st class at the time. “From there we made our advance into the [German] line prior to crossing the Sauer River.”
“I was in a boat that was supposed to transport more troops across but as we were coming back our medical boat got hit by machine gun fire,” he continued. “We attempted to pick up some of the survivors but the stream was traveling at a great rate due to flooding.”
At this time the Sauer River was flooding at more than 20 feet above flood level according to records from the time.
“Then a hotel that was on the German side got hit and it lit everything up like daylight and they opened up firing on us,” said Red quietly. “We laid down in the boat while it drifted down stream and when we finally made it to shore, we were in a pocket where the Germans were on both sides of the river.”
Shortly thereafter, they were captured and taken back to a German bunker that was a part of the old Siegfried line, which was a line of defensive fortifications used in World War I and again in World War II by the Germans.
“We thought we were going to get mowed down because they doubled up on the guards, two guards for each one of us,” said Red, who was only 19-years-old at the time of his capture. “I said to my buddy ‘we're not going to go down without fighting, if they make a move let's take some of those bastards with us.'”
Fortunately for both sides that didn't happen and along with the other POWs, Red was then moved to various locations.
“From there we were transported from different places and they kept moving us until we finally ended up in the prison camp,” said Red. “When we arrived, I was turned over to the SS [a paramilitary organization under the Nazi party] for about a week of interrogation and they tried to find out from me what the conditions of my unit were. They threatened to shoot me a few times but thankfully never followed through.”
The prison camp, which was located just outside the town of Limburg, 50 miles northwest of Frankford, Germany, held not only American POWs but also Polish prisoners who were being used as slave laborers.
The prison camp located just outside the town of Limburg was used to hold American prisoners of war during World War II. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
Due to malnourishment and difficult conditions, the prisoners would trade whatever valuables they had to the Polish laborers in exchange for a loaf of bread or any other food item they could get their hands on.
“I got rid of a watch,” said Red. “Everything was valued on food. You'd think everyone there were cooks because all they could talk about was what food they would have when they got back.”
In between being yelled at and harassed by the guards, time in the camp was passed by sitting outside, if it was warm, and trying to kill all the lice that were on their bodies.
“They would antagonize us,” he said. “I was fortunate because I never smoked but the guards would walk along the fence and throw their cigarettes just out of reach of the prisoners to antagonize them.”
At one point, during a bombing raid, Red and another prisoner were able to escape into the nearby countryside where a civilian helped hide them in a bombed out house and supplied them with maps. Unfortunately, 7 days later, they were recaptured and sent back to the camp.
Near the end of the war, hundreds of POWs were being transported, via train, when an airstrike caused the German soldiers to detach the engine and leave them behind, where they quickly escaped.
“We forced the doors open, got out of the cars and took off from there,” said Red. “We went down into the nearby town and we heard the rumble of the tanks and it was the 9th armored [division]. They said ‘you guys are in pretty good shape, can you set up a station to take in German prisoners as they come?'”
Ironically the former POWs were now the guards and set up a road side stand taking care of the German prisoners until the column finally went through and sent Soldiers back to take over. From there, they were deloused and given a month of recuperation after being sent back home. Red was discharged from the military November 29, 1945.
After the war Red married the love of his life, Doris, and raised a family. He has also proudly served as the president of the Onaway Association, an organization of former members of the 76th ID, and was even asked to take part in the repatching ceremony for the 76th ORC in 2013.
“I think he is a hero,” said Doris Ellis, Red's wife of almost 69 years. “What he had to go through, and I know a lot of other men have gone through it too, but he still thinks about others. I think he is very good and I'm very proud of him, and I'm glad that I married him.”
By U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kai Jensen
Provided through DVIDS
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