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70 Years ago to the day, Bryan Campbell’s grandfather, Ronald G. Gallie, was captured by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. Here, we publish Gallie’s notes from his time as a POW.

by Bryan Campbell

This article was originally published on GearPatrol.com on December 20, 2014

“You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”  –  Commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman addressing the Michigan Military Academy graduating class of 1879.

When I was young I felt fortunate to have my grandparents live close by, enough so that they could always come over for a Sunday dinner and not just special holidays (I never knew my grandparents from my father’s side; they passed away before I was born). They’d come over around four or five o’clock; if it happened to be winter I’d be helping my dad stoke a fire in the fireplace. We’d all sit and watch whatever movie happened to be on basic cable — usually Superman Returns or Raiders of the Lost Ark, for some reason — and my mom would call everyone in to the dinning room to eat around six. “Pleasant” isn’t a very dramatic word, but it describes the memory perfectly.

When I first started learning about WWII, I became fascinated with the first half of the 20th century. It seemed to be such a romantic time in the world, just before the explosion of information intake we know today. An ambassador to the era, my grandfather Ronald Gallie immigrated from Wales when he was six years old in 1929; he grew up in Queens, New York, attended Cooper Union for architectural design in 1942, and was drafted into the United States Army in 1943. His exploits inspired me, to say the least. Enough so that one Sunday evening, before dinner, I told my grandfather I was thinking about joining the army myself. He quickly but calmly rebutted: “Don’t.” I stared, surprised he didn’t spur me on with my decision. With sound confidence, he continued: “War is something no one should experience.” He could have recited words to the tune of General Sherman’s graduation speech in Michigan, but he didn’t have to. I knew my grandfather had experienced war and I wasn’t exactly naive about what happened in WWII. But to this day, I’ve never heard such softly spoken words carry such weight.

My Grandfather never talked about his time in WWII, and come to think of it, I struggle to remember any detailed answers from when I inquired about it. I desperately wanted to know what one of the largest events in human history looked like through the eyes of someone I knew and loved. But for whatever reason he never felt the need to share — as if to humbly say, “What happened happened. It’s in the past and there’s no need to dwell.”

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However, a few years ago my mother had transcribed the diary my grandfather had kept to document his wartime experience. I needed to read it. Just to get a better understanding of what he had gone through. The events leading up to my grandfather’s capture seemed to be straight out of a movie. It was hardly believable, yet there I was reading his day-by-day account that he had scribed into a composition book given to him by one of his German captors.

Just five days after taking up position in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, my grandfather, a corporal and mortar gunner, and the rest of the 106th Infantry Division were engulfed in one of the largest battles of the war: the Battle of the Bulge. The attack began, as he described, “in the foggy dawn of December 16th with a tremendous artillery barrage.” His regiment, the 422nd, along with the 423rd, was “engulfed by the overwhelming weight of the German breakthrough spearhead” in an attack that continued through nightfall. By mid morning the next day, the 422nd, 423rd and 424th regiments were forced to withdraw. “At 3:35 PM on Dec 18 the radio sputtered that all units of the two regiments were in need of ammunition, food and water. Because of the fog, parachuting supplies was out of the question.” By 4 p.m. his regiment had surrendered to German forces. Over the following days they were marched to Stalag IV-B, one of Germany’s largest prisoner-of-war camps, where my grandfather and his fellow soldiers would remain until the following Spring, all while enduring forced labor and Allied air raids.

I was always thankful that my grandfather made it home, and after reading his personal account of imprisonment, the feeling is tenfold. He survived artillery barrages, air raids, a frozen winter landscape and a stay in one of Germany’s largest POW camps, and was able to make it home to eventually marry my grandmother. My grandfather never lost his quiet warrior’s spirit, even though he had been long removed from the theater of war; he was tough and straightforward, yet charming, intelligent and wise. He passed away earlier this year and I thought it would serve his memory best by sharing with you a glimpse into one of the most trying times of his life, 70 years to the day of his capture. The following is my grandfather’s account from the day he was captured to his eventual liberation, along with two letters he wrote home to his parents and brother while imprisoned:

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Early on December 18, division headquarters started moving west out of St. Vith. Some units were halted by English-speaking MPs who turned out to be Germans in American uniforms. One of them fired a rocket which signaled the opening of a terrific barrage against the division’s halted vehicles.

My regiment was surrendered at 1600 [hours] Dec 19. From my experiences I would never have been taken. But that is water under the bridge.

Our regiment had been without food for two days prior to capture, a misfortune as it turned out later. The day we were taken was a hard one. No one seemed to know where to go. Officers were helpless when it came to finding themselves. It became mainly a game to see how long we could stay away from the Germans. Cornered at last we gave up on top of a hill. Weapons destroyed, we marched out to the enemy.

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That night we were marched some 15 miles past long columns of advancing Jerries. Naturally the German troops took advantage of the situation to strip us of our valuables: wristwatches, rings, pens, knives, etc. were taken and pocketed. That evening we were bedded down in an old, muddy barnyard. However we were awakened an hour later and pushed into an old church. The temperature was about 0 degrees F. No food was given to us.

Next morning at daybreak we started out again on what turned to be a 30-kilometer or more march. Unfortunately for those of us without overcoats and blankets it remained cold. Frozen feet was the complaint of everyone. That night we went to sleep again with no food, except for some raw turnips we had picked up along the way. The following day was a repetition of the first. By 10 p.m. we arrived in a small town,Gerolstein, and again bedded down in the open courtyards.

After four days without food we were given two bags of hard biscuits. Each bag weighed about one pound. There was also a pound of cheese divided between seven men. These rations were for two days on the boxcars. The boxcar trip lasted 10 days. 60 of us were crowded into a French 40-by-8-foot car, the floor covered with straw and horse shit. The doors were locked and we were on our way to God-knows-what. At infrequent intervals we received 1/6 of a loaf of bread with a little margarine.

Lemberg, Germany was our first major stoppage. On the night of Dec 23 the RAF bombed the railroad yards just outside the Stalag. I woke from a sound sleep to find the car rocking and an unholy red glare in my eyes. The Jerries had taken off, leaving us locked in the cars. We pushed a boy out of a small window to open the doors; a few of us then piled out of the cars. The bombs sounded like locomotives coming down. Running across the field with a piece of bread in my hands, I hit the ground twice. I finally lay on the side of a hill and prayed to God to stop it. The glare died down and the bombers flew off. I was rounded up and put in the Stalag while the majority of the boys were left in the boxcars.

POW-Portrait-Gear-PatrolThe 10th day saw us at Stalag IV-B, an English non-com camp. Here after arriving in the morning we were deloused and registered. This took till 5 a.m. the following morning. A week was our length of stay; from there I went to Halle(Saale) [sic] on Kommando, Jan 9. Assigned to a private railroad contractor named Reckman, we started work the following Monday, Jan 15. There we labored 11 hours a day through the cold, snow and rain. Our food allowance came from the military plus what Rechman gave us for working. We received one bowl potato soup, 1/4 of a loaf of bread and 20 grams of margarine. Weekly we received about 300 grams of meat and monthly 1 pound sugar, 1/4 pound cheese and on Sundays we also got a small amount of jam. That was our roughest period, sweating out air raids by day and by night. The railroad was bombed a few times so we were put to work slowly filling the bomb craters. Americans, by this time, had earned the reputation of being the laziest beings on Earth.

Towards the end our rations were cut to 1/6 of a loaf of bread and one bowl of soup daily. We had received about six Red Cross parcels during this time, divided at times between six men. Thank God for the Red Cross.

March 18, 1945

Dear Mom, Dad & Joe

Another week has come to a close with hopes for the future still high. I trust this letter will find you all in good health and not worrying too much. As for myself I still enjoy good health. The warmer weather coming in makes it a little easier for us now. Most of our spare time we spend mending clothes and washing out the dirty ones, the rest of the time it’s different ways to prepare dishes. A good deal of our talks are concerned with what we will do when we return to the States. A terrific feast is of course number one on the list, with a variety that is hard to describe. They’ll have a hard job controlling us when we get back.

The Red Cross package came thru as I wrote you before. It had a can of powdered milk, spam, jam, coffee, two chocolate bars, five packs of cigarettes, tuna fish, cereal, vitamin C pills, prunes, meat paste, cheese, sugar and margarine, all adding up to five pounds. The Red Cross certainly is a wonderful organization as far as a POW is concerned.

You must start looking for a new apartment soon or a house. With the two boys returning soon you’ll need more room; at least three bedrooms. New York won’t be too crowded once the war ends and the defense workers return to their original homes. I have not received any mail as of yet and to be truthful I don’t think any will ever reach us. All the packages you sent me must have been returned by now. Store them away and the day I get home will be like Christmas Day for the whole family and me. My 22nd birthday will be coming up soon. Joe won’t have to worry about you running off to spend it with me this time. You’d have a devil of a job getting to Germany unless you drop in by parachute.

We worked till April 12, when we were evacuated because of the approaching Yanks. After a three-day march of about 80 kilometers, with very little food, we were finally brought to rest in a pine forest. This proved to be our home for a week, under the filthiest of sanitary conditions. In the camp we were all mixed together: English, French, Serbs, Russians and Italians. Rations were small so we dug up potatoes in the fields, risking getting shot by some guard.

My 22nd birthday, April 12, 1945

My birthday, chronicled especially for my dear mother.

For some unknown reason the lights went on at 4 a.m. a full hour before their usual time. Loud explosions were heard in the distance at this time, later reported to be the dynamiting of the bridges across the Saale River by the Germans. I arose at 5 a.m. and put a bowl of potato soup on to heat, my sole meal for the day. I left for work on the railroad soon after. At 8 a.m. the air raid alarm sounded, enabling us to head for the open fields and sleep. I felt particularly weak this morning so it came in handy.

At a safe distance from the railroad we prepared for whatever was to come. By 9:30 a.m. Thunderbolt fighter planes have come into sight, a welcomed sight [sic]. One became rather nosey so we decided a bomb crater would be more suitable than the open ground. However he continued on his way to finish the strafing and bombing his comrades had started. I returned to work in hopes of getting a bowl of soup for our efforts.

1 p.m. Another air raid, so back to the field. Distant rumbling can be heard this time, possibly artillery. We have been expecting Patton for two weeks possibly it would be he [sic]. Fighter planes again, no bombers today, another sign perhaps that the Yanks are close.

3 p.m. Word has just reached us that the railroad line has been cut by the Yanks, a feeling of high excitement flows through the boys. The thunder in the distance continues; can it be possible we will soon be liberated from our bondage?

3:30 p.m. We are told to quit work a good hour before our regular time. Something must be up. Red Cross packages are supposed to be over at the Stadium for us: a good birthday present.

A Christmas parcel for six men just arrived. Our nightly bowl of soup must be dished out first though. The package was divided, my share has found its way to my stomach. It has been definitely [sic] established that the Yanks are close; will be in tomorrow morning perhaps. A double meat ration tonight, what a night it has been. The bread ration was cut to six men on a 1 1/2 kilo of a loaf a tonight. Who cares? The Yanks are coming!

It is now 9:00 p.m. Raleigh watch time. What will the morning bring?

The morning of April 24 we were marched about 15 kilometers to the welcoming arms of the Yanks.

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 My grandfather was sent back to the States not long after being liberated and awaited reassignment at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Though the war had been won in Europe, Japan was still a very active theater and seemed an inevitable destination. Luckily for him, the Japanese formally surrendered on August 15, 1945, before he could be redeployed. I’m sure he celebrated the end of the fighting with special vigor, knowing there’d be no chance of writing a Japan-based sequel to his German thriller.

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After being honorably discharged on December 6, 1945, my grandfather went on to work in New York City as an architectural designer at Barr & Barr until his retirement at age 74. He also happened to be working in downtown Manhattan the morning of September 11, 2001, arguably the most impactful event of the 21st century so far — but from the calm, even demeanor he displayed until the day he died, you’d never imagine he’d been subjected to violence in both his youth and his old age.

You’re always raised to respect your elders as a child, but it’s often unclear why. Having shared a fraction of his experience in WWII through these notes and letters, the admiration I’ve always had for my grandfather has only been solidified. Ronald Gallie was one of many members of “The Greatest Generation”, and an encyclopedia of experience and wisdom. Most importantly, he was my grandfather.

Here’s a direct link to the original article and an opportunity to review others on Gear Patrol:  http://gearpatrol.com/2014/12/19/grandfathers-war/

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