By Richard O Jones
George Altman has lived his entire life in Hamilton, except for the four years he spent in the U.S. Army, and for two and a half of those he lived in German prisoner of war camps.
Altman grew up in East Hamilton, near Schuler and Harmon avenues, working for Hamilton Metal Products on Belle Avenue making fishing tackle boxes and medicine cabinets when he was drafted in the U.S. Army in March, 1941.
“I hated every minute of the Army,” he said. “I was 23 years old and already set in my ways. It’s good for a younger fellow, who they can mold a little bit. I didn’t care too much for that. There’s a lot of wasted time in there. You’d spend a lot of days not doing anything, actually.”
It was only supposed to be for a year, but then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,
Altman found himself assigned to the First Infantry Division, known as “The Big Red One” after their insignia, pushing back the Germans from North Africa.
His company was in Tunisia on the evening of January 27, 1943, four days after he’d been promoted to corporal, assigned to secure a mountain pass.
“The intelligence officer and his driver went up there and came back with the report that all was clear,” he said, “That we could move up five or six miles.
“The next morning, three German companies hit that pass and there were only 200 of us. I was armed with an M1903 Springfield rifle, which was from World War I. We had no armor for the body, only a helmet.”
Dawn was just getting ready to break with company runner came up to Altman in his foxhole and said he was going to find another squad that was supposed to be in an outpost 200 yards ahead to get them to withdraw back to be with the rest of the company.
“He wanted to know what the password was so when he came back he wouldn’t get fired on,” Altman said. “The password was, ‘Halt who goes there?’ you’d say, “Hi-ho, Silver,” and they’d say “Away.” which meant you could come in or move on.
“He wasn’t gone five minutes before we heard the first shot of the mring from a German machine pistol, about three rounds, a burp. What happened, he must’ve stumbled on the fact that the squad had been captured by the Germans.
“I talked to a corporal who was in charge of them later on and he said he posted his men down there and he went to sleep because they got there about two in the morning and the Germans came up in the area.
The corporal heard someone moving around and said, “Halt, who goes there?”
He got a reply in English, “Where you at, Mac? I’m trying to find you.”
So he said, come on in, I’ll show you. And he took him up to where the outpost was so they captured 12 men without firing a shot.
So when the company runner stumbled on them, the Germans shot him.
“It was rough, hilly country,” Altman said. “The Germans held the high ground and we were pinned down in the low ground and we were sitting there in our ditch around five or six in the morning, and the company runner, one of the captain’s men who would send his messages because we had no radio, came by our foxhole.”
He and his buddy Max reported to the captain, who first said that he wanted them to find a German machine gun nest and take it, but then inexplicably changed his mind and said, “Forget it. Go back to your foxhole.”
Altman later found out that the captain had just learned of losing 12 men in an outpost and may have been reticent to lose any more.
So he and Max were going back to their foxholes when a sniper fired a bullet between them.
“We hit the ground,” Altman said. “Max had moved up and got in my fox hole and I hollered at him, ‘Move up again, I’m coming in. Go to yours.”
On the count of three, they shifted their positions and another sniper bullet passed between them.
“There was a sergeant sitting next to me when the firing started,” he said. “One of the men yelled at me and said, ‘Altman I think Sarge has been hit.’
“He was just sitting on the edge of his foxhole with his rifle in his lap and I couldn’t see his face.
“I hollered, “Are you alright?’ and he never answered. So I picked up a stone and hit his helmet, but he didn’t move. A sniper must’ve got him.
“You see in the movies how they fall over kicking, but he just sat there.”
The shooting got pretty heavy after that and a platoon of German soldiers marched past and engaged them from about 200 yards away.
“Pretty soon the lieutenant cried out that he got hit in the ankle, then different guys started hollering ‘I’m hit’ or ‘So-and-so’s hit.'”
Altman read a report later that said his company lost 79 men that day. His company was down to five men, and they all surrendered when the German platoon finally over-ran their position.
Altman and some of the others who hadn’t been wounded helped carry two soldiers down the hill with them when they were marched to the back of the German line.
“One of them had his knee cap blowed off and another guy named Parks he tried to run up the hill and get away before we surrendered and one bullet entered his back. I asked the German, “Can we pick up our two men and take them down with us?’ and he said ‘Yeah, but hurry up.’
“So we picked up the kid had his knee cap blown off and we pick up Parks. They let us carry him down the hill to the aid station.
“The kid with his knee cap off he looked at the German doctor who spoke good English. He said, ‘I guess the leg’s got to come off.’
The doctor said, “Not necessarily. It might be stiff.”
Then he pointed to the kid who was hit in the back and said, “He ain’t going to make it.”
Two years later, however, he saw Parks in Miami, Fla., when Altman went there for rehabilitation.
“I walked in and I heard this voice and I knew right away it was Parks,” he said.
Parks was saying, “There’s that dirty so-and-so Altman who left me to die in North Africa.”
Altman went over to him and held out his hand, but Parks wouldn’t shake.
“Parks, how do you think you got here?” Altman asked him. “We carried you down that hill and saved your life.”
“Well, I didn’t know that,” Parks said. “I thought the whole time that we left him there and the Germans picked me up.” Then he held out his hand.
“No, you got it right,” Altman said. “Forget it,” and walked away.
The Germans marched Altman and other prisoners to the city of Tunis on the Mediterranean, to a fenced-in compound of ramshackle buildings they called the old schoolhouse,
“It was more or less a staging area for bringing in prisoners from the front,” he said. “We stayed there about a week. Then they took us to the Tunis airport where we boarded German transport planes, JU52s, they look like the Ford Tri-motor planes, and they put 15 prisoners on each plane and a couple of Germans going home on furlough.
“That was the first plane ride I ever had,” he said. “Our plane had engine trouble out over the Mediterranean and we landed in Sicily for a few hours and we continued on up to Naples to Camp 66 near Capua, Italy. We stay there in tents for about two weeks. That’s where we got our train ride.
In Naples, Italy, the prisoners were loaded 40 to in a boxcar to be transported to Musburg, near Munich and the infamous Dachau concentration camp.
“Four days and nights,” Altman said. “One five-gallon lard can for your toilet facilities for 40 men. That was a stinking mess. It was a strictly bread and water routine. No food. Five men on a loaf of bread every day. Once a day they would let you outside for toilet. Most of the time you spent in the box car.”
After two weeks in Musburg, it was another four day trip to Stalag 3B in Furstenberg near the Polish border, where he would spend the next 23 months.
Because he had just made corporal, he didn’t have to do work detail.
“If you were a private in a war camp, you worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, cleaning up after bombings, working on railroads, like slave labor,” he said, “and they did that on the same ration of everyone who was sleeping all day long. They had it pretty rough. All we did was play ball.”
The German rations of food were pretty bad most of the time. His barracks got a big tub of what they called coffee every morning, but it wasn’t real coffee and it was so weak that some of the men used it to shave once they started getting Red Cross rations, but a lot of those were taken by Germans.
“Then at noon they’d bring a big tub of dehydrated rutabaga, a turnip, all cooked up and it stunk to high heaven,” Altman said. “But it was edible, I guess and helped us.
“In the evening they’d bring a loaf of bread in for five men and five men would take turns cutting that loaf of bread up in five pieces. Each man got a fifth of it. Each time a different man in your group would cut that and he got last choice, so you can bet he’d measure that real careful. And every piece was equal because he wasn’t going to give anyone a better piece. And sometimes a little piece of sausage or cheese.”
After a while, the Red Cross boxes started coming in. each with 11 pounds of food: Spam, corned beef, cheese, raisins, sardines.
The prisoners would use the food as currency for their poker games, which would sometimes go on for two or three days.
“They’d put the food up to the guy who was the banker and you got so many chips for the food,” he said, “like a can of Spam might be worth 50 chips and a can of sardines might only be two or three.
“The man who got most of the money in the poker game, he got first choice, so naturally he’d take the coffee and the Spam and what was left like sardines and cheese they were left over for the guys who had less money,” he said.
And one day, a guy cashed in his cips for a jar of Nescafe instant coffee which was pretty valuable stuff.
“A couple hours later he was running around mad as hell trying to figure out who’d been in that game, trying to figure out who put in the coffee,” Altman said, because when he opened the jar he discovered that it was filled with sand with only a small amount of Nescafe on top.
On another occasion, a pair of guys who had been in college together and served together in the Iowa National Guard division got into an argument over a game of bridge.
“One of them must have made a cardinal sin in the game and the other one just blew up at him,” Altman said. “You could hear him cussing all over the barracks.
“We’re done,” one of them said. “Let’s split up everything,” referring to a Red Cross box they were sharing.
“They cut the everything in half, everything 50/50,” Altman recalled. “They got down to the box of raisins and of course it was a square box and they’re loose in there.”
One of them got the knife and started to cut it and the other one looked at him and said, “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to cut it in half,” he said. “You take which half you want and I’ll take what’s left.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “That ain’t fair.”
“What do you want to do, Count them?”
“Yeah, that’s what I want,” the other replied. “Empty them and count it out. One for me, one for you. We got nothing else to do.”
Altman, who took German in high school and whose parents were from Hungary and spoke German at home, kept up war news surprisingly well inside Stalag 3B, as long as they could read around the propaganda.
“You could get a German newspaper from one of the guards for two cigarettes every day,” he said. “They kept pretty accurate news articles in the paper. But instead of admitting a loss, they’d call it a strategic retreat.”
There were secret radios in the camps, crystal sets, where he could listen to German news, which he would translate for his fellow prisoners, or to the Berlin Philharmonic, at least until there would be an air raid, then the programs would go off the air.
One day, a prisoner from another barracks found out he knew German and told him he would come and get him in Barracks 19B around supper time.
“He took me to 14B and back in the corner they had a crystal set, good powerful set, and every 15 minutes a different fellow would sit down and listen to a different broadcast from London,” Altman said. “They would broadcast every 15 minutes in different languages.”
So he put on the big headphones and wrote down the broadcast of news from London. It was during the summer, and hot, so he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Unbeknownst to him at the time, a German guard came in the barracks with his dog.
“Right away the Americans gave him a cup of coffee and something to eat, a cigarette, whatever they could to keep his attention away from the corner,” he said. “I often thought if that dog had come in a touched me with his cold nose on my bare back, I’d have jumped out of the window.”
Also unbeknownst to him, he was sitting on top of a trap door that led to an underground room that the prisoners in 14B had dug under the floorboards, where a bigger radio receiver had been assembled, cobbled together a piece at a time from material purchased from the guards.
“Three or four months later they raided that barracks,” he said. “The barracks leader didn’t even know it was in there, but they gave him 15 days solitary for it.
“On the wall (in the underground room) they had three pictures: Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill,” he said. “The commandant of the camp, his name was Blau, he went down in that room and looked and said, ‘Tear it out. It looks like Allied Headquarters in London.'”
Although Altman was only called to translate broadcasts the one time, he realized that those broadcasts were likely the source of the little newspaper that some prisoners would put together.
“A guy would come in, read it, and then they’d tear it up,” he said.
As the war began to wind down, in February, 1945, the prisoners at Furstenburg were marched east to Luckenwalde, about 35 miles south of Berlin, as the Russian army advanced from the west.
“They didn’t want us to get liberated,” Altman said. “Later on we heard that wanted to send all of the prisoners to Berlin where they would be bombed by the Americans and British in retaliation for the bombings that were going on.
“We walked the first 24 hours without stopping,” he said, in blizzard conditions, temperature about 20 below zero, one of the worst European winters in many years.
“At the end of the 24 hours, we were pretty miserable,” he said. “They put us up in villages in big barns. It felt like heaven getting into the big pile of hay, getting warm. Then the next morning they started marching us again, but they’d only march us from eight to 10 hours for the next six days.
While others reported that the road was lined with American dead from the march, Altman said he knew of only one, a fellow by the name of Don Johnson.
“He got off the road to urinate and was slow getting back in line and this old German just shot him for the hell of it,” he said.
There were corpses lining the road, he said, but they were German civilians.
“Trainload of civilians were going to Berlin on open flat cars and they were throwing the dead bodies off,” he said, “new born kids, women and children. They froze to death.”
As they approached Luckenwalde, Altman saw a collection of big circus tents, their new home.
“I asked a guard what kind of beds do they have in those tents, and he laughed, and said ‘Beds? You’ll see.’
“There weren’t any beds, just piles of straw.”
The conditions at Luckenwalde, the last three months, were the worst of the entire ordeal, Altman said.
There were 1,500 men, four or five hundred to a tent without heat except for body heat.
“But you had to lay there for three months without a bath and very little food,” he said
“You had one faucet out in the middle of a field for all 1,500 men to wash and bathe,” he said. “They dug slit trenches for defecating. German people would walk right by the fence and they could watch you.
“Red Cross boxes came in slowly at that time, the war drawing to a close. The Germans were taking some of the food and keeping it for themselves,” he said.
The Luckenwalde camp — Stalag 3A — already had a prisoner of war population for much of the war, and the tents has apparently been erected for those being marched in from other camps.
“In the brick buildings they were even more crowded,” Altman said.
After about three months, they could hear the Russians coming, the thunder of the guns in the distance. On April 22, 1945, they finally arrived.
“It was on a Sunday morning we woke up and all the guards were gone,” Altman said. “The guard towers were empty, no guards walking around. Word got out real quick that they were gone.
“We were told by our leaders that they evacuated the camp and to let the Russians take over, otherwise we’d get caught in the crossfire.
“About two hours later, here come the Russian tanks tearing the fences down,” he said. “They were a motley looking crew. Mongolian types, no IQ at all. And women truck drivers. They were rough.
“We were liberated and that was it. They told us to stay put, they were going up to Berlin to fight.
After a few hours, one of Altman’s buddies, a policeman named Phil, said, “Let’s go up to the front and see what it’s like to be free.”
“So we went up, walked through the gate and on up the road, but we didn’t know what to do, so we just went back to the tents and laid down.”
Eventually, however, they started to figure things out and would leave camp during the day to go into Luckenwalde.
“We’d watch the circus going on there because these troops were a riot,” he said. “We’d go into the hotels and there’d be a bar and they were drunk and shooting their tommy guns.
It was rough enough in the daytime, but too risky to be in town or out on the roads at night, so they’d always get back to camp before dark.
On one occasion, they saw five Russians pick up a piano and throw it out an upstairs window.
“The keys just flew all over the street and they hung out the window laughing,” he said. “Or they would shoot the windows out of the furniture stores and sit there and eat their lunch there on the tables and chairs.”
Shooting out windows seemed to be a favorite pastime for the Russians until their command told them not to do that anymore.
“Then they started taking the windows out of all of the houses and shipping them back to Russia because everything was lost there,” he said.
“One day, Phil and I went down the back way to Luckenwalde and met a Norwegian naval officer,” he said. “They were real nice people, the Norwegians, but he was mad.”
“Don’t go up that way,” he told them. “There’s two Russians up there. They got this woman and one of them is raping her and a little girl about two years old and the other Russian is raping her.
“If I had a gun, I’d kill both of them,” the Norwegian said.
Phil said, “That’s no place for us, so we just by-passed them. It was probably true, because that was going on all around us.”
Even though they were still living in big tents and sleeping in beds of straw on the ground, they ate better under the Russians.
‘They brought in cows and told us to go ahead and butcher them,” he said. “They brought us potatoes. Anything they got from the Germans, they’d bring it to camp and dump it out. It was an orgy then. Everybody was eating something.”
After a couple of weeks, they started getting anxious to move one, and one Sunday Phil and Altman met two American lieutenants on the road to one of the neighboring villages. They were carrying home made billy clubs.
“We’re going to have a problem here,” said Phil, a big rough fellow about six-foot-five who hated the Army even more than Altman. “When they jump me, you keep one off my back and I’ll take care of the other one.”
“What the hell,” Altman thought to himself. “I guess that’s something we’ve got to do.”
The lieutenants held their batons up and said, “Hold it soldiers.”
“What do you want?” Phil asked them.
“Back to camp,” they said. “You’re off-limits.”
“Who says so?” Phil challenged them.
“I said so,” one of the officers said.
“We didn’t see you guys for two years, now all of a sudden you’re going to take over?” Phil challenged them. “You must be nuts.”
The lieutenants just looked at each other.
“Don’t have any idea of using those clubs,” Phils said, “or you’ll be eating them.”
“The colonel who was in charge of the camp says you got to stay in the camp,” one of them said.
“We’ll go anyplace we want to,” Phil said, not backing down. “The Russians liberated us and they’re not complaining.”
“So we went our way and they went their way,” Altman recalled.
That’s when Phil said, “George, it’s time to leave. I’m not going to stay here and be bounced around like that.”
So they went back to camp to gather up some supplies and ran into a young kids about 18 years old from Kentucky they called Junior, who wanted to go with them.
“We had maps of the area and this boy from Kentucky had two or three guns already,” Altman said. “You could get any gun you wanted. They were all over.
Phil told him, “Junior, throw the guns away.”
“No, I’m taking them with me,” Junior said.
“You ain’t going with us then,” Phil said. “Carrying them guns is just going to get us in trouble, we’re open game for everybody. We’re going unarmed. You can go with us or stay behind.”
So Junior threw his guns away and the three of them took off.
“We weren’t out of the camp two hours and we heard something coming down the railroad tracks so we jumped in the bushes,” Altman said. “Here comes four or five drunken Russians on one of those hand carts, two of them pumping and the other three shooting their rifles up in the air and at the cows in the field, so it was a good thing we didn’t have any guns.
After they passed, the three of them cut across a big wide open field trying to get around a Russian road block.
“They hollered at us to come on up but we kept going like we didn’t hear them,” Altman said.”I don’t think they were trying to hit us, but they starting shooting over our heads.
“Then right in front of us four other Russians came out of the weeds in camouflage,” he said, “so there we were captured again.
“We hollered ‘We’re Americans,’ and they understood we were prisoners of war, so they marched us down to the administration building to a Lieutenant colonel or something like that in charge of the air base.
“He explained we were being held by the Russians now and we had violated coming across their tarmac, but he was glad to see us.
“He gave us some food and we stayed with him and his men about two hours. They drew us another map and told us how to get to the Elbe River and wished us good luck. So we take off down the road.”
They didn’t get far, however, before they went around around a bend in the road and saw three three German soldiers and three German women hiding out in a hollow.
The women looked all hard-edged and military, wearing combat boots and military slacks, but Altman didn’t see any weapons.
“Should I give them some cigarettes?” Phil asked.
“Yeah,” Altman said, “a peace offering.”
So in his broken German, Altman started talking to one of the men, telling him that they were POWs and looking to get to the Elbe while Phil passed around cigarettes.
“Be careful, Moose,” Altman said. “One of these guys has a machine pistol pointed at you under the blanket.
“I just kept talking to the one guy,” Altman said, “asking which was the best way to the Elbe. He wanted to know if there were any Russians in the area. I said, ‘There are a lot of Russians in the area. I don’t think you’ve got much of a chance.’”
“We’ve got to get to our lines,” the German said, apparently unaware that their lines were gone.
“So we shook hands and told them good-bye,” Altman recalled. “We went down the road a little bit and the fellow I had been talking to started to holler. We’d left a canteen behind or something.
“You don’t trust us, do you?” Altman asked him.
“What do you mean?” the German replied.
“Your friend had the machine pistol pointed at me,” Altman said.
The German laughed and said, “You saw it?”
“No,” Altman replied. “My friend saw it.”
“Well, we were going to shoot you if we had to,” the German said. “But you weren’t causing us any problem. You’re free to go.”
“I suspect they didn’t last two or three hours after we left them,” Altman recalled, “because they were going to make a fight for it, but they didn’t have a chance at all, and the Russians were after all the women they could get.”
The three men spent the night in an abandoned school house in a small village, and the next morning got a ride with some Russian troops who were going to Wittenberg on the Elbe River.
“We stayed there two or three days, then the Russians told us they were going to march us back to prison camp so we go away from them again,” Altman said. “We walked up the Elbe River hoping we’d find one bridge that wasn’t secured. That’s when we ran into an American patrol picking up stragglers. We got on the truck and went 40 miles up the Elbe River until we came to a check point where they had Americans and Russians, so they let us go across.”
While they were on the truck, Phil poked Altman and said, “That fellow next to you ain’t American.”
Altman checked the guy out, saw that he had American clothes on but “was strictly Polish looking.”
“Looks like he’s trying to get away,” he said to Phil.
“It looks like it it,” Phil said. “Ask him who he is.”
“I can’t do that,” Altman said. “I don’t speak Polish, but I’ll check him out.”
“Do you have a light, Mac?” he asked, but the man didn’t answer, apparently didn’t know that Altman was talking to him.
So Altman switched to German and asked: “Are you Polish?”
“He got a real frightened look on his face,” Altman recalled. “He asked if I was going to turn him in.”
“No I don’t care who you are,” Altman told him.
“I want to go with you and get away from the Russians,” the Pole said.
But after they crossed the Elbe, Altman never saw him again.
“The Americans at the time were giving them back to the Russians,” he said. “They either killed him or put him back in the army.”
They took Junior, Phil and Altman to Hildesheim, a big German air base that had Americans had taken over, where they stayed for about two weeks until they could get a plane ride to France.
“You weren’t allowed to talk to the Germans at Hildesheim,” Altman said. “We didn’t know it at the time but the American Army had put out an order that there was to be no fraternization with the enemy.
“If you got caught even talking to German kids or offer them candy, they’d fine you $75 and take your rank away from you. They were sticking to that rule because we were talking to some kids outside the gate and this guard came over and said, ‘If you guys want to pay 75 bucks, keep it up,’ and he explained the rule to us.
Phil said, “Hell, we’ve been with these people longer than we’d been with the American Army.”
“I don’t care, Mac,” the guard said. “No fraternization. That’s the rule”
“We would get up every day and go to the mess hall, get anything we wanted to eat,” he said.”Then the Red Cross group came in so we laid around for two weeks eating doughnuts waiting for the plane to go to France.”
When he finally got back stateside, he received a 60-day furlough and came back to Hamilton for a while, and was in Miami for rehabilitation when the war in the Pacific Theater ended and he got his discharge.
“I was in Indianapolis to catch a bus or a train to get home,” he said, “when I ran into a guy from the First Division with all kinds of medals and everything, the patch on his arm, the big red one.”
It was a guy named Red Johnson, who had managed to get away on the day Altman and the others were captured in Tunisia.
“I wish to Christ I’d got captured when you did,” he told Altman.
He said, “We got sent over to Sicily to fight, then went back to England, where the First Division Operated. Didn’t send any body home, sent the whole division to England, retrained there the rest of ‘43 and into ‘44, then took part on the D-Day landing, fought all the way across Europe and got captured six days before the war ended in Czechoslovakia.
“I marched all that way and ended up in a prison camp the same as you did,” Johnson said.
“There’s only one fellow out of our company, a Mexican boy from Victoria, Texas, who was the only one of the 200 original men who wasn’t wounded, killed or captured,” Altman said. “He took part in all of the campaigns and came home safe and sound.”
When Altman got back to Hamilton, married Dorothy, his high school sweetheart, and joined the Hamilton Fire Department, advancing to the rank of Captain.
But before he moved to the offices in City Hall, Altman spent 13 years as a firefighter in the East Avenue station.
He wrote to one of his Army buddies that it was worse there than any barracks he’d slept in while he was in Germany.
“This place is a barn with no central heat, just a potbellied stove heating the upstairs. It’s crumblier and dirtier than any barracks I was in,” he said.
“I’m in another Stalag.”
A version of this originally appeared in the Hamilton Journal-News, October 20, 2013.