100th Infantry Battalion
Prisoner of War
Stanley is one of 17 soldiers (11 wounded, 6 escorts) captured in Biffontaine. The wounded are hospitalized; the rest are marched into Germany.
Stalag VII A, meant to house 10,000 prisoners, holds 80,000 Allied POWs by war's end.
On work detail, Stanley clears rubble from the railroads and off the streets and pathways of bombed-out areas in Munich.
German officials are curious as to why the nisei POWs are fighting for the United States.
Sixteen of us was captured. Eleven wounded guys, six guarding - seventeen of us.
Even in combat, when we got captured, the German soldiers were gentlemen soldiers. They were real professional to me. Probably they were trained while growing up, like Hitler's Youth [Hitler Jugend, Nazi paramilitary organization] and all that.
The few hours after we got captured, we were supposed to carry our [wounded] boy's litter, while they were lying down on the litter. But as you go up and down the hills in the Vosges Mountains, one German would just take his rifle and give it to his partner and he'd come to me and say, "Go take a rest." Not saying the words, just push me aside and he'd help me carry the litter. And I'll be walking on the back with nothing to do.
Then another German would come and take my friend's place. That kept on going. Afterwards, I realized, I don't know if we would have done that. But if you captured a bunch of German prisoners to carry, we never told them to take a rest and I carry. They did all the carrying earlier part of the day, while taking our boys back. But when the German soldiers did that, I figured, chee, somehow they are true soldiers.
[The thought of getting killed] never came to my mind because the camp I was in [Stalag VII A] had twenty thousand Allied prisoners.
It took us quite a while [to get to the POW compound in Munich] because the day [October 23, 1944] we got captured, we went to a small village.
By late afternoon the artillery fire had faded to a soft boom when we came out of the forest near a small town. This is where the wounded were separated from us and taken to a hospital.
The rest of us were herded in a small barn with straws spread on the ground. It was almost dark when a guard came in and gave us a few loaves of that 23% wood pulp bread. Hungry as we were, we couldn't stomach the bread. The bread was the same size and shape as our American loaf but instead of weighing one pound and being soft, it weighed 1 kilo (equal to two pounds) and very hard. You could kill a guy if you hit him on the head with it.
The German soldiers don't gorge themselves with this bread, for it almost always makes you constipated if you do as we found out. The way they do it was to carry a small pouch on their belt with a slice of that bread about 2 inches thick and a piece of sausage maybe 3 inches long. Whenever they felt hungry regardless of the time of day, they would take out the bread and sausage and put a small slice of each in the mouth and chew on it. Something like the way we used to eat dried abalone back home. They do this 5 or 6 times daily depending on how often they felt hungry.
That night in the barn was uneventful but a sleepless night. We stayed up until late talking of what it'll be like or food we used to eat back home like sushi, fish cooked with shoyu and sugar, barbeque meat and etc. We felt full just by swallowing our saliva.
Also how our parents were going to take it when the War Department sends a telegram stating that I've been missing in action.
We stayed in the open store area with guards around for a couple of days.
The following morning we were herded into a corner of a vacated shop in town and kept there for a few days. While in the shop, we saw the mother and daughter, probably owners of the shop play up to the Germans.
The food got a little better at the shop. Our dinner consisted of 2 slices of roast meat, bread and few leaves of lettuce and soup that looks like macaroni, water and salt.
On the second night we were interrogated by a German officer who spoke the English language very fluently. We were interrogated by pairs.
It seemed as though they were wondering why we as Japanese were fighting so hard for the United States when Japan was their ally. When we entered the small blacked out room with a dim light, He was seated on a desk. The questions were:
German Officer: "Did you go to Japanese school?"
German Officer: "What did you learn at the Japanese school?"
Frankly speaking, I was no scholar in either the Japanese or the English schools [public schools]. I went because I had to and also because all my playmates went and I'd have no one to play with otherwise. About the only thing that came to my mind as a reply to the question was, "We learned to obey our parents and to respect the elders."
German Officer: "Do you like America?"
German Officer: "Why?"
Answer: "Because of the democratic way of Life, Everybody is free."
German Officer: "Do you feel like an American?"
German Officer: "Did you know that a cat born in the fish market isn't a fish?"
Answer: "Yes, but he belongs to the fish market."
Then they took us to a big warehouse-like building in the forest where we stayed overnight.
The next day we were transported closer to Germany, also a small French town. This time our quarters was a section of an abandoned textile mill. It looked more like an overgrown dog kennel. We ate, slept and relieved ourselves in that same room.
Then we were taken to a small town in France, near France.
The following day we were loaded, the 17 of us, on the back of a truck just a little larger in area to our pickup trucks. It seemed like a 1930 vintage with hard rubber tires and it burned a type of alcohol. The back section was covered with fence wires and the top was about 4' high. You either sit with your legs folded or stood up stooping. It looks like the dogcatcher's wagon as you see it in the comic books.
It was this day that we found out we were going to cross the German border, through the Siegfried lines into Germany. If there was a last ditch line, well, we didn't see it. The years of work required to build that defensive line seemed well worth it for the camouflage was perfect. At the border there was a long line of gas, alcohol and steam auto, wagons, etc. on both sides either trying to get in or out of Germany. They checked the goods and identification of everybody. We passed through easily being that we were "military cargo."
Late that afternoon we were herded into another abandoned textile mill, this time in Germany. We were put in the second story where it seemed more like a larger hall with windows all around. The machinery was stripped.
During this trip, we passed a small German village where when the children saw us, they came yelling and waving their hands. We threw them a few candies we had and they scrambled for it like chickens for worms. They must have seen other American prisoners of war pass and found out that the Americans was a "soft touch" where children were concerned.
The further we got into Germany, the guard got older and older. Tonight’s guard was an old man of about 60 with greying hair and teeth missing from here and there in his mouth. He really meant to guard us with his life for the corporal locked him in the room with us and on him he had a full bandolier of arms and 2 potatomasher grenade.
Earlier a young cocky corporal came in and tried to frisk us, probably looking for an American pen, money and whatever he can get his hands on. We shied away from him and told him we'd report it to the officer. Then he finally gave up and left. Food for the day was thin soup and "UGH!" the 23% pulp bread.
The night was one of the most miserable one I'll ever experience. It was "teeth-chattering" cold. We had no blankets and all we could do was to pile about 6 excelsior mattresses over us and yet it felt like sleeping in an ice box.
Then we had to walk to Strausbourg. From Strausbourg, we stayed there overnight, two nights.
Early the following morning, we were gathered outside the building and started what ended up to be a 20 kilometer march to a town called Kolmar. There were about 6 guards on bicycle. It wasn't anything like a death march or forced march but walking 20 kilometers with a growling stomach wasn't fun.
The building that was to be our "prison" was a great big brick building six stories high. Again it was a sort of abandoned factory stripped of all its machinery. It had a barbed wire fence around it. In the confined area besides the brick building was another shed-type building which was the prison mess. This was the first time since becoming a prisoner I felt as though we were really entering a prison. I guess the barbed wire fences and the tall brick building with bars on the windows did it.
We were led to the fifth floor. The building itself was empty. They must have sent a batch of prisoners of war to the rear very recently. The fifth floor was another one of those empty affairs. It was approximately 150' by 50' in dimension and all they had in there was a long trough made out of sheet metal with a pipe running parallel to it about 18" above the trough. The 3/4" pipe had holes on it every 2' and when the water was turned on about 40 men can wash at once. The only other thing besides the toilet was a mountain of burlap bag excelsior mattresses.
Glancing down we saw the cooks who were prisoners themselves (Polish) showing cigarettes to us. The only way we could get at the "smokes" were to tear up a burlap bag mattress cover and for weight we found a nail and tied it to the end and lowered it 4 stories. The 2 cigarettes tied to the end was the American made Pall Mall. We were really surprised to receive American cigarettes from a Polish prisoner of war.
It was while we were at Kolmar when we first witnessed American Thunderbirds making a daylight attack on the industrial area of town. They were having a field day. They just dove bombed and strafed without any opposition. Also since entering Germany we could see a couple of P-38 every day circling overhead reconnoitering previously bombed areas.
On our second day at Kolmar about 15 more GI's (haoles) were added on to our group.
By this phase of our trip, the cigarette situation was getting very critical. To save cigarettes, five or six guys would share one. After the cigarette is smoked to about 1/2" or 1/4" butt, we put out the fire and save whatever tobacco we can salvage and save it in a small container. After we get enough tobacco for one smoke, we'd make a cigarette out of newspaper and smoke it. We had to be careful when smoking "newspaper" cigarettes, for we couldn't inhale too big a puff. That thing can sure choke you.
On or about the third day, we were taken to the train depot and rode the first decent means of transportation. It was a regular European passenger coach. This trip was an uneventful one. It took us to an old cavalry camp in Stuttgart. It was all red brick building. We were quartered in the stable minus the horses. The buildings formed a quadrangle. Considering being it was winter and a few mud puddles, it was a very neat place to stay.
This stable we were in had no panes on the window, the floor was sloped towards the center to a trough to carry the waste to the end of the building. Our bunk was a triple decker affair made out of 2 x 4s and 1 x 6s with excelsior in burlap material for mattresses resting on wires.
A most revolting thing happened to us on the first day there. As we entered our quarters that day, we noticed two wooden barrel in one corner. It was shaped like a frustum cone with the small side to the floor, the opening side was about 12" and the bottom about 10". It was used for your daily business. That day they brought our soup in two containers exactly like the two in the corner. That first serving of soup didn't sell so good.
The nights were getting really cold. With only our OD [olive drab] uniform, we had to pile mattress after mattress over us and yet we spent a very sleepless night. We would catch up on our sleep during the day when it got a little warm by the sunlight entering the stable.
Every day prisoners were trickling in from here and there. By now we had quite a few in the stable. There were about 50 Americans and French so far.
This is where all the Hawaii boys were interrogated again. It was about the same as the first. What we learned at the Japanese school, what did they teach at the Buddhist church, whether we liked America, etc.
So I would say about two weeks.
The next three days were spent in a boxcar enroute to our home for the next five months about 45 miles northeast of Munich to a camp called Stalag VII A. It was a huge camp with about 20,000 prisoners of war from all the Allied nations you can think of. It was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence and machine gun towered all around. Every fifty yards there was a sentry on foot accompanied by a German police dog on leash. These dogs were really trained to be fierce. Once in a while the sentry has to come into the compound with his dog. If a prisoner of war comes too close to the sentry, the dogs just growl and show its fangs.
These boxcars were similar to any boxcars in the state only a little smaller. There were 4 barred windows about 2' x 4' in size, 2 on each side. Also the most famous phase "10 HORSES OR 50 MEN" was painted on it.
There's one thing I must say about those European trains. The initial start is excellent compared to American trains. I can remember clearly back in the states while on my way to Salt Lake City during my furlough. I happen to be walking in the club car when the train started and the jerk I got when it picked up the slack between coaches almost knocked me flat on my backside. These European cars had telescopic spring bumpers on both sides of the coupling and once the cars are coupled together, a large buckle-like thing is screwed until the bumpers compress each other. The telescopic effect is for rounding a sharp curve. One side compresses further while the other releases depending on the curve. These boxcars started off very smoothly.
Our train consisted of about 6 cars. Our car wasn't crowded but later on wished it was at least three-fourths full. It was so cold at night we all slept together side by side facing first to the right and then to the left, turning whenever one got tired of sleeping on that side. One person would be flush against the back of the next guy, etc. Whenever we had an opportunity to get out to stretch and relieve ourselves, we would pick up as much wood as possible and we'd get temporary heat by burning the wood in our steel helmet.
During this trip whenever there's an air raid, being that all boxcars were locked from the outside, the engineer and all the guards stop and abandon the train for safety. We would pray hoping that the planes don't bomb and strafe us.
Stalag VII A
The first night at Stalag VII A was spent in a barn like building with no floors. It was infested with fleas and bedbugs. Our bed was a bundle of straw spread out on the ground.
The next day we were taken to be "deloused." As we lined up to enter the shower, we took our clothes off and hung it on a rack. By then we had been relieved of all our valuables and had no worries as to losing anything; also being that I'm just 5' tall, my clothes couldn't fit anyone there. After the racks were filled, they'd push it into an airtight vault and fill it with delousing gas. In the meantime, we'd shower and be led into a large room. We had to wait another two hours since the clothes took 2 hours to delouse. It was a very uncomfortable feeling when you just stand around naked and there's no pocket to stick your hand into. Just picture 200 men not knowing what to do with their hands.
After retrieving our clothes, to our dismay, we were led right back to the flea-infested barn.
The following day we were taken to our permanent quarters. Our compound like the others was about a quarter of an acre in area consisting of 4 units and approximately 2,000 prisoners of war of many nationality.
There were 2 sections to a building and over 200 men in one. There were 2 wood heaters and we had heat only when the work detail could bid enough wood.
There were no electricity. The only light we had came from 2 carbide lamps in the building. If your bunk was more than 10' away from the lamp, you'd recognize the next fellow by his voice or his silhouette. Sometimes when the carbide runs out, we go without light for that night.
Sanitary conditions were terrible. There were no such thing as a mess hall, dishes, etc. Our only utensil was a used margarine can and our GI spoon which we drank coffee from for breakfast and drank soup from during lunch. This can was our life line. It stayed with us wherever we went. Bathing to washing our cups and spoon was done on one tap outside the building.
During winter the ground doesn't dry out fast enough so there were mud all over the area. The floors in our quarters were dirty as can be.
The sewerage situation was the worst of all. The latrine was a 10-holer outhouse and we sat back to back. The waste dropped into a sloping trough and emptied into a large concrete tank along side the outhouse. About once a month the "honeywagon" would come and suck up the waste to be used to fertilize the fields and lawns in the prison camp. During winter the floor of the outhouse would be muddy and sometimes when the urinal plugs, that place would really be in a mess.
We were getting our Red Cross parcels regularly now but we still saved our cigarette butts so the fresh packs could be used for trading during work detail.
I didn't know everybody in that prison group. We got to know each other when they put us together. There was this guy, [Niroku] Dochin from Kamuela. And there was this Kozo Watanabe. He just came to the 100th and got captured. And then he didn't know what to do himself. So in prison camp, he asked me, "Can I partner with you?" I told him, "Oh, be my guest."
Almost all prisoners ended up by at least pairing off with another guy. Sometimes they form groups up to 6 men.
So he and I, not knowing each other, got to be partners in the prison camp. Luckily, he didn't smoke. So when we go out to trading, I had all the cigarettes I wanted. But he used to bring back his share of bread. We'd share with the other guys. Because we cannot eat the bread all the time. There's a lot of guys that goes without, come back without any trading done.
My partner and I sometimes never gets a chance to trade so we cannot just consume all we trade on that day. We usually had enough stored away so we can go without trading for 2 or 3 days and still have substantial amounts to eat.
[On work detail, we had to] clear rubble off the street or clear pathways into the bombed out [areas]. Every night, the American plane flies over the buildings to bomb the town. So next morning, it's our job to go in there, clear the rubble, make sure the cars can pass, the pedestrians can walk. It wasn't that strenuous a job.
Just one guard to every ten prisoners. The guard was, chee, I would like to think that I would qualify for a guard today, if I was at that time in Germany. An old man with gray hairs and no teeth. The last resort, seems like. They just recruit them and let 'em wear uniforms as guards.
Nobody else around.
While doing the period in prison, we've had actual stories where a lot of guys ran away. So what do they do? The first thing they do is near the Bavarian Alps. So we were near the Swiss Alps. You can see the Swiss Alps.
So they run away and run to Switzerland. As soon as they go into Switzerland, they say, "American, American," they do that. Switzerland is bordered by Germany, Austria, Italy and France. If you're bordered on the French side, you are able to speak French, the Swiss people. And so they speak German if they're bordered on the Germany side and so forth.
So as soon as you run up, a farmer goes into his house, telephone and here comes a German jeep coming up, take the prisoners back to camp. They were probably getting paid informing the government that prisoners were running away. They had people say, no use run away if you're going to go to Switzerland. And that's the closest place to so-called freedom, at one time.
You never can tell, you get the wrong guard, they might shoot you. One mistake and you might get shot at.
Based on the safety side, you had that safe feeling as compared to combat. Combat, it's something where you don't know what's going to happen to you. You can make just one mistake and you can get shot at. Whereas as long as you're a good prisoner, they don't do anything to you.
Never [felt unsafe or that I might die]. At one time, I got sick on a work detail, so I went up to the officer, I told him, "I'm sick," in German, you know. Ich bin krank. And he assigned one old man to take me back to the so-called camp, which was about two, three miles away. We had to walk.
We were, at that time, in a barn. They took - because of the bombing of the American planes destroyed a critical railroad junction - five hundred of us was taken to a barn right near, as close as possible, to work on that junction. And I was one of them. And still today, I can't figure out how I got segregated from the rest of the Hawaii guys, 442nd and the 100th boys. I was the only AJA [American of Japanese Ancestry] among four hundred ninety-nine other haole people.
When I got sick, the officer assigned an old guard to take me back, just one guard and me. And I don't know what kind of sickness I had, or flu, every maybe hundred feet, I want to sleep. So right through, along the way, all I can remember is when I felt tired, I just laid down on the side of the road and fell asleep. And I don't know how long I slept, ten, fifteen minutes, half an hour. When I opened my eyes, the guard was patiently waiting for me. Without even telling me, kicking me to get up or anything like that. Just patiently. And that kept on for the rest of the time going back to the camp. So somehow, I felt that these guys are just as human as we are.
We [nisei POWs] were the prize of the German army within that district, apparently. Whenever an English-speaking German high official passed by, we didn't have to go to work. We were held back and interrogated.
They were kind of very curious as to why we were fighting for America. We were supposed to be their allies. In fact, one German actually said, "You're supposed to be fighting with us, not against us." But I felt that time, they must have heard of the 442nd and the 100th, the way they fought in combat. So now, if any preference, they would prefer us fighting with them and not against them.
While training in Camp Shelby, they'll tell you, "When you get captured, name, rank and serial number, that's all you give them." They never asked us how many guys the 442nd had.
Personally, I think they were smart enough to know that we were privates, PFCs. What the heck do we know about how many men we have, how many officers we have? We just supposed to follow the orders and follow whoever leads us. We're not supposed to be knowing about 442nd has a colonel this, two generals and whatnot. We're not supposed to know those things and I don't think I knew who our battalion commander was, even. So why should they ask us? Maybe probably get our heads cut off for not knowing, technically, but that's the way it is.
In fact, they knew more about the U.S. Army than we did by that time. They were more curious about why we were fighting for America.
Condition-wise, there's one officer and we go in two by two and he questions us, maybe for about maybe maximum of half an hour and that's about all.
Stanley Akita's interview courtesy of the Center for Oral History. Supplemental text excerpted from Stanley Akita's unpublished manuscript "Stalag VII A" courtesy of Stanley Akita. Photographs courtesy of Moosburg Online (www.stalag.moosburg.org).