They faced the 6th Panzer Army at St. Vith – Ed Deluka and his company didn’t stand a chance
His unit dug in outside St. Vith, Belgium, in the snow and waited that cold December afternoon in 1944. They were lost, outgunned and about to become cannon fodder in the largest German offensive on the Western Front during World War II — the Battle of the Bulge.
Ed Deluka was a 19-year-old foot soldier in Company B, 345 Regiment of the 87th Division. The Port Charlotte, Fla. man was part of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army ordered to the Ardennes to block the German breakthrough.
“When our lieutenant became aware we were lost and behind enemy lines, we dug in late in the afternoon,” he recalled. “I think we got misdirected because the Germans turned the road signs around.”
German troops who spoke fluent English and dressed in American uniforms, led by Col. Otto Skorzeny, infiltrated Allied lines and caused confusion.
Although Deluka and the other soldiers in Company B didn’t know it, they were facing Gen. Josef Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army. The German tankers overwhelmed the 200 men of Company B, and the Americans never saw an enemy Tiger tank.
“In the morning, about 8 a.m., the battle started,” Deluka said. “All kinds of stuff came in on us — German artillery shells, mortar shells, machine-gun bullets. We were so badly out numbered we didn’t last long. We fought as best we could, but we were surrounded and we had little fire power. A group of our guys tried to break out. They didn’t make it.”
Finally, around 10 a.m., German infantrymen reached them. The war, for Deluka and his buddies, was over. They were taken prisoner.
“I don’t know what happened to our seriously injured. But the guys who received only minor injuries or weren’t injured at all were searched, stripped of their possessions and marched out of the area,” he said.
Deluka was one of the lucky ones. He wasn’t hurt in the Germans’ massive advance.
“For three or four days we marched without food until we reached a barbed-wire holding area 80 miles to the rear. At that point we were herded into cattle cars for the final part of our journey,” Deluka said.
“You just stood there for four days and starved and froze as the cattle cars moved along toward Germany,” he said. “We tried to arrange it so some of the weaker POWs could sit and the rest of us would stand. But that didn’t work because some of the stronger prisoners sat when they got a little room. Eventually we all stood up and supported one another.”
Ten days or so after they were captured, they arrived at Stalag 9-B. It was a POW camp in Germany filled with thousands of American enlisted men.
The food in the camp was lousy, the sanitation was just as bad and the POWs were forced to work at night on the German railroad. The railroad tracks and rolling stock were taking a beating day and night from the Allied air forces.
“The camp guards would line us up in the early evening, count out a certain number of prisoners and march us to where the railroad tracks were damaged,” Deluka said. “I discovered during our march that I could drop out of line as the work crew snaked its way through the buildings and homes, circle back to the camp, slip back in and do no work at all that day.
“I only did that a couple of times because I guess the Germans figured out what was going on. The fourth time I slipped away, I looked around the other side of a building and saw they were setting up a machine gun. It was apparently being set up to shoot anyone who ran off. I decided to go back to work again,” he said.
The worst thing they had to contend with was the lack of food. It was a constant problem the entire four months Deluka was held as a POW.
“Once a day we got very bad soup with some kind of cabbage in it,” Deluka said. “I never saw one of those Red Cross packages the entire time I was a POW.”
On several occasions, while he was on the work detail, his railroad work paid off. Deluka found extra food he ate on the spot.
“I got some cabbage I discovered stored in piles. I couldn’t take it back to the camp, so I ate it raw. Another time I found some bee hives. I ate the hives, the bees and everything,” Deluka said. “It tasted real good.”
It was April 1945 when the POWS in Stalag 9-B realized the war was coming to a close.
“We knew something was about to happen because they changed guards. The regular army guards were moved out and they put a bunch of old guys in their place to guard us,” he said.
Finally, Patton’s 3rd Army with its tanks and men showed up at the front gate of the Stalag. By that time, the German guards had melted away.
“When we saw our guys, our main thought was food. Whatever K-rations they had they gave us,” Deluka said. “We immediately got deloused and received new clothes.”
The POWs were taken to hospitals in France. Once Deluka was checked out at the hospital he was sent on his way to Le Harve, where he got a troop ship back to the States.
“I weighed 98 pounds. I’d lost almost 60 pounds during the four months I was a POW,” Deluka said. “We reached New York just before VE-Day (May 8, 1945). Nobody was celebrating. We were trucked to Fort Devens, Mass.
“When my mother and older sister showed up at Fort Devens to collect me they didn’t even recognize me because I was so skinny. “I spent months in the hospital after I got home being fattened up. I was discharged in December 1945.”
Since then, Deluka says what’s happened to soldiers who have gone to war for this country has bothered him.
“It’s painful to see how the Korean War and Vietnam War veterans were treated when they returned home,” he said. “There were people in the streets protesting our soldiers.
“In order for us to survive, it takes soldiers who love this country and who are brave enough to fight. People have to understand — if that doesn’t happen, they don’t retain their freedom,” the old soldier said.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Nov. 11, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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