James R. Maier was born in the Bronx, New York on August 11, 1922 and enlisted in the U.S. Army on September 17, 1940. He did basic training at Ft. Hamilton, New York and was assigned to Co. B, 18th Infantry, and 1st Division. In November 1940 he was transferred to K Company at Ft. Wadsworth, New York.
In December he went to Edgewood arsenal, Maryland, for amphibious landings. In January 1941 he went to Puerto Rico to join the Atlantic fleet for amphibious landing training around Puerto Rico, and in February 1942 he went to Ft. Devens, Massachusetts, home of the 1st Division. He also trained in Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
In August 1942 James embarked on the Queen Mary to England and spent more time training in Glasgow, Scotland, in amphibious and mountain training. Later he embarked to North Africa in October 1942 where he landed in Arzew to help fight the French. After a cease-fire in December of 1942 James was sent to Tunisia just outside of Tunis and stayed there until February 1943, when the Germans attacked southern Tunisia.
"Our regiment pulled out to reinforce areas around Faid and the Kasserine pass. (My brother Tom was killed in action at the Kasserine pass, and I didn't know till after the war.) We held the Germans and counterattacked in March 1943 through the pass of Gafsa and El Guettar. When the Germans counterattacked, my platoon was used as holding action, and when we ran out of ammunition, we had to surrender to the German army, which completely surrounded us.
"The next day we were taken to a compound in Sfax in Tunis, where we lived in holes in the ground for two weeks. The food was very minimal -- one slice of bread a day, a teaspoon of meat and a teaspoon of sauerkraut, and a cup of water. We were cold and hungry and dirty constantly. There was no medical facility of any kind.
"The shrapnel wounds that I received from exploding bullets on the day I was captured were starting to get infected, and they couldn't do anything about it. They were oozing pus. We were moved out in the middle of April to a schoolhouse in Tunis. There was a French doctor who had minimal facilities, but he removed all the shrapnel from my face. At the end of April we took a flight to Italy. The day we left , there was bombing, and we were bombed taking off.
We landed in Palermo. We landed in Naples, and the evening that we landed in Naples, Naples was bombed. We were taken to an Italian compound in the city of Capra, about 20 or 25 miles from Naples. It was an awful place. The food was unbelievable. The sanitary conditions were unbelievable. We wound up getting dysentery from the flies in the latrines. I couldn't believe anybody could live like that. We were given a shower because we were lice-ridden from living in the ground in Sfax, and that's about the only thing we ever got.
"At the end of April we were put on a train to Germany. We got a quarter loaf of bread and a canteen of water and were locked in cars. They had one bucket for a latrine; twenty minutes after the train started, that bucket was full. One young soldier had a penknife, and we cut a hole in the floor and that's what we used as a latrine.
We were locked in that train for three days before we were let out in the Brenner Pass. We had no other food and no water all the way from Capra to Moosburg in Germany. It was cold coming across the Alps, and there was snow on the ground. We had no winter clothing. I had a shirt and pair of pants, pair of socks, and a pair of shoes. All the other clothing was lost. I had no jacket, no hat, no nothing.
"In the beginning of May, we got to Moosburg. By this time the young men and myself were pretty bad off. I was sick, hungry, thirsty, and filthy dirty. We stayed there two weeks, and in those two weeks I had dysentery twice.
"Sometime in May we were put on a train and taken to Furstenberg, which was in a sense little bit better. There were slightly bit better washing facilities. The food -- we got three potatoes a day, a bowl of soup and a quarter loaf of bread -– was not much, but better than what we were receiving.
"When we first got there we received Red Cross boxes. We were supposed to get one a week, but we got them sometimes one a week, sometimes every two weeks, sometimes every three weeks, according to when they came in and when they felt like it.
"As I was only a PFC, it was mandatory that I work. In June we went to a work camp building, an electrical plant near Furstenberg on the Oder River, a construction site. We worked there under bad conditions. We only had one meal a day. I got into some trouble there. I almost got my head beat off by one of the foremen with a pry bar.
"We worked building high-tension lines and building the water routes to cool the motors. There was the first time I ever saw what the Germans did to the young Jewish people--beating them, killing them--and it made me very upset. Evidently the Germans didn't like the type of work we were doing in Furstenberg, and they disbanded us and sent in Russian prisoners.
"In January 1944 I was sent to Predenburg construction camp. This was a hellhole. The food there was just unbelievable. Potatoes were half rotted. We worked in the wintertime in sub-zero weather building an electrical plant. There in February I threw down my shovel and refused to work anymore. I went before the camp commandant, and I told him I would not work in this camp again, and I didn't care what they did, but I was not going to work in the camp.
"I was sentenced to solitary confinement on bread and water, and to this day I still can't stand narrow, confined areas. When I left solitary confinement, I was so bound up from the bread and water diet that I had to go to the dispensary and get physics. I wound up getting hemorrhoids from it which I suffered from the rest of the time of my confinement and the rest of my life until 1981 when I was operated on.
"In March 1944 I was returned to Stalag IIIB for approximately two months. That time wasn't a total loss. I met some of my friends again. During this time that we were in IIIB, the food was very bad. The sanitation facilities were not as good as could be expected. The latrines were always full. Showers were not too good, but we made do with them.
"In May 1944 I was picked to work on the railroad work crews and sent to a place called Vechow. This camp worked as section hands on the railroad. Our job was also cleaning up after bombing raids. When the allied bombing started in earnest in '44 in the area between Holly Leipzig and Merseburg, we were there constantly cleaning up bombing raids. I worked there until October 1944. We used to go as soon as the bombing was over. In fact, sometimes we were on our way to the camp when they were being bombed, to the Merseburg marshalling yards. Sometimes when we'd get there, the bombs would still be exploding. There were many dead, sometimes prisoners, and it was very upsetting. I cannot stand even to this day the sirens.
"In October 1944 while on a work crew at a bombing raid, I escaped. I got approximately a hundred miles before I was picked up, not as an escaped prisoner of war but as a flyer that was reported in that area. I was brought before a colonel in the air force, and I finally convinced him I was not a flyer but an escaped prisoner of war. Fortunately for me I had taken my Prisoner-Of-War dog tags with me. I was put in a civilian jail. While I was there, a civilian guard beat me up and broke my nose. I was sent back to the work camp and told that if I ever stepped away five paces from the rest of the crew, I would be shot.
"During this time I went to the railroad doctor for my broken nose. Nothing much was done, but he tried to do the best he could. He couldn't set it because it was already too late, without breaking it. At that time too I went to another railroad doctor, a woman in Vechow, for my hemorrhoids. We stayed in this railroad camp until January 1945.
"We went back to the main camp, and we were there for approximately one month when the Russians started a drive for the Oder. In February the Germans moved us out of the camp, and we started a long march. We started out at 8 o'clock in an evening during a snowstorm. We could hear the guns of the Russian artillery across the Oder. The first day we walked 23 hours, probably the worst day of my entire life. Thinking back about it now, I am surprised that I even survived that one day. We were cold and hungry, exhausted, everything hurt, and many times during the night I felt that I would like to lie down and just die in the snow.
"I don't know what kept me going, whether coming back to see my family, but anyhow I survived that day. At seven o'clock the next evening they put us in a farm and we were able to lie down. We had no food at all that day; we had no food that evening.
"The next morning we started out again, and for the next eight or nine days we walked 12 hours a day on a piece of bread and a cup of coffee--no soup, no potatoes. During this time we walked past abandoned farms. There were turnips in the field frozen, and we dug them right out of the ground and ate them, which was not a very good thing to do, because we all wound up passing blood, but we were so hungry we didn't know what else to do.
"During this time we went through state farms where they were raising pigs. We were so hungry we ate the pig's food right out of their trough. It was a terrible time for a young man who grew up in the United States. The last day of the march, in February, we were coming into Stalag IIIA. A young man among us didn't move fast enough for the SS guards, and they shot and killed him.
"There were no barracks for us. They put us in tents with straw on the floor. Open latrines. We were fed once a day. We were starving. No Red Cross boxes of any kind. There were no washing facilities, no nothing. By this time I was down to approximately 125 pounds. We lived in the tents until we were moved into a barracks that was evacuated by Russian prisoners. The barracks were full of lice, and we became lice ridden.
"During this time the Russians were battling for a town called Touribritzen). They bombed it constantly. They bombed Berlin. Every single night the bombs went off. We could hear them, and they would just shake the barracks. Two young men went insane in the bombings, couldn't handle it anymore, and they were taken away.
"In April 1945 we were released by the Russians. An American colonel came to the camp and told us that the road was open between here and Wittenberg. He wasn't telling us to leave, but it was up to us. Twelve men and I the next morning started out walking to Wittenberg. When we got there we were refused permission to cross the bridge of Wittenberg by the Russian soldiers. We found a man that owned a boat, and he and two other men rowed us across the river. At this time I didn't know how to swim. It was a roaring day, pouring rain. The boat was overloaded, and I thought, my God, I've gone through all this and I'm going to drown. But we finally got to the other side. We walked to Dessau from the river crossing to the 9th division and arrived in Dessau, and the Americans, on May 7.
"These things I'm trying to say, I know many men probably went through more than I did, probably on the battlefield. But it was so bad. I still can't think about it without crying. The food, the bombings, cleaning the bombings all the time, all the time. It almost drove us crazy. In work camps they would treat you like you were a dog. I was once assigned to unload a boxcar with one other man who had a broken hand, and all he could do was pull the bags of cement. I unloaded an entire boxcar of cement.
"When I was finished, I couldn't even stand. He had to lead me back by the hand, because I couldn't stand up, just like a cripple. I had to get back to the barracks. The men put me on the floor, and they had to walk on my back to straighten me out.
"We once went on strike in this railroad work camp. After we'd worked 24 hours, they wanted us to go out again, and we refused. They shot up the barracks. Fortunately we were all on the floor at the time, so no one was killed. But just as easily we could have been.
"The VA says there's nothing wrong with me, but I've been constipated all the time. I don't know what else to do. I go see them. I lost my teeth, I lost my hearing, I lost my stomach. My colon is dead. I can't go to the bathroom without taking medicine. I just want the VA to understand. I don't care about anything. I was wounded. I never complained. They broke my nose. They beat me up. And I don't know what else to do. I'm an old man now. I don't think I've got too long, because I'll tell you the truth -- I'm slowing down so much it's unbelievable. I feel like I added ten years to my life in the last two years. I know a man my age is not supposed to feel like this, but I do."
Written by James R. Maier
James R. Maier has been married for 51 years to Marion; they have two sons, James and Thomas, and two grandchildren, Thomas James and Kristin Joy. James R. Maier left this world on October 3, 1998, and was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on October 8, 1998, as was his wish.