Upon graduating high school, I snuck to Yuma, Ariz., to marry my sweetheart, Wilma, on June 6, 1943. I was only 19. But the next few years would be very different for me, as I was drafted into the Armed Forces in October that year. I reported to Fort Sill, Okla., then was transferred to Camp Wolters, Texas, where I trained for the U.S. Army Infantry for six weeks.
Next thing I knew, on my first wedding anniversary, I was on the high seas, looking at the beaches of Normandy in France.
Once we landed, each foot soldier had at least a 75-pound backpack on him, plus the added weight of the water we waded through—all carried while being directly fire upon. Not a pretty sight!
Not a man said a word, but tension grew with every step.
I was a Browning Automatic Rifleman with the 29th Division on Omaha Beach. Once the beach was cleared, they fought across the hedgerows of Normandy. These hedgerows separated the individual pastures and apple orchards and made a virtual redoubt of each successive field.
German machine gun fire rippled through the silence. Rifle fire cracked between the long bursts. The flat crash of mortar shells came along with the dreaded 88 artillery shells.
I saw my buddy wounded maybe 15 minutes into combat. It was bad.
The days were exhausting, and the nights seemed twice as long, with counter attacks one behind the other. The rain came every day and night. My platoon was the scout platoon for the whole company, and this meant we were to search out and find where the enemy was hiding. We encountered a lot of Germans, with almost hand-to-hand fighting at a close range.
Our objective: the city of St. Lo. This was a key city to win, as it was the trade center of Normandy. Ten days after landing on the beaches, we were able to take it. But it wasn’t until July 18 that we liberated the city and secured it.
A war correspondent who saw the unit capture St. Lo dubbed our group, the 115th Infantry, the “Indestructible Clay Pigeons,” describing it as one of the finest fighting units in the whole Army.
By that point, we had sustained great losses: Two out of every three men had been killed or wounded. As Infantrymen, one of the things we came to believe was that no matter where we served or what outfit we were in, the front would always be the same: savage, dirty, frightening horrible hell.
En route to Paris under General Patton’s orders, the five tanks we were supporting got too far ahead of our front lines and were knocked out: only 50 men left in our company, and some wounded, including myself. The German Panzer Division cut us off from our troops. We were prisoners of war.
As POWs, we were moved to East Germany and then into Poland. There, we dug air raid shelters and water lines with picks and shovels. When the snow began to fly, it was off to the railroads to shovel snow off the tracks during the worst winter that area had seen in 40 years. Our clothes had begun to wear thin, and the soles of our shoes were worn out. Many of us had frostbite. We lived on less than 700 calories of watery soup a day, eating it slowly, savoring each bite so as to make it last longer, to make it seem more than it actually was. We were infested with lice; they fed on every part of the body. Dysentery, too, was the order of the day, along with sores breaking out on feet and legs.
When imprisonment occurs with the terrible scenes around you, you put your mind into another world. You design, you build, you make plans in your mind. You try to keep your mind far-removed from the circumstances around you, try to forget the environment you are in.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross didn’t know where I was or if I was alive. Wilma was working the swing shift as a Rosie the Riveter at the time, building planes at Tinker Field. She would get off work at midnight and write me a letter. Every night. All those letters came back in a bundle, and still she kept writing.
As the war was winding down in Europe, we were being marched into Czechloslovakia. The Russian Army liberated us there, but many of them were ruthless. Some were drunken, spraying bullets, raping, and looting. We were still scared for our lives.
After the war was officially over, our POWs were still dodging bullets and bombs as a result of pockets of SS troopers still holding out. We stayed in a vacated Nazi apartment until we could get on top of boxcars and ride out to the American lines. I had been a POW for 331 days.
We were outside of Dresden when the firebombing of the city occurred, where more than 20,000 people died.
After a long wait, we flew to a hospital and eventually home. Good old home.
At home, Wilma was called in to the office at her job and told I was alive. When she came back to the floor to tell her friends, she started sobbing so hard they thought I’d been found dead.
That trip was a long way for a teenage farm boy from western Oklahoma to go and mature into a man. When I returned to my wife, we farmed the same land we’ve owned since 1947 and we raised five children: Charlotte, Vikki, Kathy, Doug and Jill. Now we have eight grandchildren and 19 (soon-to-be 20) great-grandchildren. Wilma and I will be celebrating our 70th wedding anniversary this June.
My family enjoys each day of freedom and hopes that future generations will cherish that freedom that was won for them.
Freedom is not free.
My story is dedicated to the memory of all those servicemen and women who never are able to return to their homes or see their families again.
Edward Fowler, Jr., US Army Veteran