Bill Porter, an American
prisoner of war in Germany, braced himself against the icy winds—and
German guards with guns. A shadow of his former high school football
physique, the twenty-year-old infantryman knew he was in real trouble
not only from starvation, chronic dysentery and a festering leg wound,
but from an increasing familiar pain, the agony of corneal ulcers that
had threatened to blind him each time he caught a cold or got run down
during his childhood years. Now, without medication, Bill was losing
his sight, and the morning came when he collapsed in the line-up of
prisoners being forced to rebuild a bombed-out railroad track. He was
trucked to a hospital in Ludenschide.
The temporary hospital for care of German war
casualties had been set up in the town’s three-story elementary
school. Although Bill was a prisoner, his leg was treated and he was
placed in the eye injury ward on the third floor. There he shared a
space with the only other American prisoner, a pilot whose eyes had
been burned when he bailed out over Germany, robbing him of sight.
Since Bill could see out of one eye, he quickly
became the blind pilot’s companion and guide. He fed him—the
pilot’s hands and wrists had been burned as well—and took him for
walks up and down the halls of the building. But empty hours haunted
both young men.
"If only we had something to read, a
newspaper, magazine, anything," Bill said to his friend one day.
"I could read to you…just so’s it’s in English."
"I have a book," the pilot responded in
the warm, midwestern drawl Bill had come to know so well. "Take a
look in my jacket pocket." He paused for a moment.
"It’s…it’s my Bible."
From that moment on, day in and day out, through
his unbandaged seeing eye, Bill read The Old Testament aloud. Then he
read The New Testament and favorite passages until the entire Bible
had been read and reread many times. They didn’t realize it then,
but through the words from the greatest Book ever written, an
intangible bond grew between them as they found comfort and the
strength they needed to survive.
One morning as they walked down the hall, they
heard the unmistakable drone of American bombers. It wasn’t until
they stopped for a moment to talk with a nurse that Bill detected the
whine of misdirected bombs overhead. With no time to search for
shelter, he grabbed his friend, threw him to the floor, and shoved him
under a baby-grand piano. The hospital received a direct hit…an
explosion that burst Bill’s eardrums.
Bill has no idea how long it was before he regained
consciousness or felt the pain from multiple head injuries and an
eight-inch shaft of steel through his face. At first, he couldn’t
hear the shouts of German soldiers outside the ruptured building, or
the cries of the victims. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t hear
anything except his own heart hammering in his chest. But, he smelled
smoke and knew he had to get out. With his one free arm he struggled
to extricate himself from confining plaster, planks and debris. Then,
with a final upward push he broke through the fallen roof—and caught
"a glimpse of hell."
The dead lay everywhere: the nurse he had been
talking to only moments before; doctors; the wounded; the sick.
Everyone was dead—except himself. And his friend? Where was he?
Could the old piano have withstood the crushing weight of roofing
beams, falling bricks and cement? That’s when the thought struck
him. If his friend had survived he would not only be blind, he’d be
buried alive. Bill’s ears screamed. His head hurt. What was his
friend’s name anyway? He couldn’t remember. Was he losing his
mind? What difference did it make? He had to crawl back down and find
him. Now! Please God, he prayed, let him be alive.
The searing pain from the steel in his face dimmed
amid thoughts of what he might find. He reached under the piano and
felt a leg move. "Are you okay, buddy?" he said. "I
think so," the voice replied.
Somehow during the next ten minutes, Bill
maneuvered them both down two flights of shattered stairwells. Outside
the street was milling with a confusion of police, medics, ambulances
and fire engines. He found an empty bench and the two huddled together
for warmth in the bitter cold, all the while Bill dodging the Germans
spitting at the Americans who had lived while their own had perished.
Still others grabbed the glinting steel protruding from his face and
tried to pull it out. Perhaps they were only trying to help? What did
it matter? Unable to fight them off any longer, he put his head
between his knees and covered himself with his arms.
"Bill," the pilot’s teeth chattered,
"do you think you can get back inside and get us a blanket—and
my Bible?" "Sure," he said. "I’ll try. Just
don’t go anywhere," he added jokingly. "I’ll be back. I
The climb back up the stairs took longer than Bill
thought it would, but his friend’s treasured Bible and dog tags were
on the bed where he’d left them. He grabbed a blanket, and with
everything clutched in his arms hurried back down the broken stairs
and out to the bench. His buddy was gone.
Where was he? His voice a plea, he shouted at
passersby. "Has anyone seen a guy with bandages over his
eyes!" He held up two fingers and pointed to his watch. No one
responded. No one spoke English. God! Keep him safe, he prayed.
The guy can’t see!
Alone now, and in excruciating pain, Bill sat down
on the bench and covered his head with the blanket. Hours of sirens,
shouts and running footsteps passed before a young Ludenschide doctor
peered under the blanketed figure. He took Bill to his office in a
nearby building. There, after giving him a shot of Schnapps, the
doctor sliced into his cheek and jaw to relieve the suction and
removed the steel and other pieces of metal and concrete embedded in
his head. Finally, he rebandaged the eye. Still a prisoner of war,
Bill was packed into a boxcar and later forced to walk to
Fallingbastel, fifty miles away, where he stayed in another prison
camp until the war ended.
When he returned to the United States he wrote to
the War Department and asked them to search for his friend. He placed
the letter in a box along with the pilot’s dog tags—and a
well-read Bible. Then he printed his return address—Sigma Nu
Fraternity, LeHigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Nightmares, panic at sudden sounds, and mood swings
would plague Bill for the rest of his life, as they do most victims of
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. But even as a young father and now a
grandfather, he would always find joy in reminiscing about the good
things in life—before the war—and after.
He never talks about his time as a prisoner. He
prefers instead to tell stories about his years as a rancher, one
hundred miles from town, where he felt closer to God and his family.
He especially likes to tell his children and grandchildren stories
about when he was in college fifty-three years ago—especially the
day an unfamiliar car pulled up in front of Sigma Nu.
From the second-floor landing of the fraternity, he
remembers glancing out the window at the blue Chevy—and the driver
who climbed out from behind the wheel. It was lunch time. He knew he
should hurry on down to the living room where the rest of the brothers
were waiting for the lunch gong, but there was something about the
stranger walking up the sidewalk to the front door that stopped him.
The bell chimed. His roommate, Jack Venner, got up to answer.
"Hello! Can I help you?" he said.
From where he stood Bill felt sudden moisture dampen his forehead. He
had to grip the banister to steady himself.
"Yes," said a voice with a warm,
mid-western twang. "I’m looking for an old friend of mine named
Bill Porter. I want to thank him…for lots of things." He smiled
his eyes scanning the young men in the crowded living room. "And
this might sound sort of crazy," he added, "but I wouldn’t
know him even if I saw him. I…I’ve never seen him before."
Postscript: The two Ex-POWs talked all night. They promised to
keep in touch. But life has its demands. It takes curious twists and
turns, and they lost each other. Today, Bill is 74. He can’t
remember the pilot’s name, but the bond born in Ludenschide remains.
He hopes someone will read this story who does remember—so he can
give him a call.