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|Paynesville Press - November 20, 2002|
Local veteran recounts time as a WWII POW
"Then the hell started."|
So begins the narrative of Hub Schwandt of his captivity in World War II, which lasted nearly 30 months, a length of time he once likened to three solid school years, without the summer breaks.
Schwandt was captured by the Germans in North Africa in December 1942 and was held prisoner until May 1945. In that time, he traveled from Tunis to Sicily to Italy to Germany. He was held in a dozen camps during that time, including eight stalags, or camps, in Germany. "Being a prisoner of war...can be very, very hard work, there is usually little food and water, and it can also be very boring," said Schwandt in a speech for Veteran's Day in 1988.
Hub Schwandt, 82, survived 29 months and 27 days of captivity in World War II, which took him from North Africa to Italy to Germany. He recently was honored with a paid lifetime membership to the American Legion by the local club.
Schwandt, a Paynesville native who graduated from PHS in 1939, was drafted into the army in the fall of 1941, before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America even entered the Second World War.
He was member of a tank crew in the First Armored Division, which landed in Oran in French Algeria in 1942, under a combined American and British expedition to free North Africa from the Germans. Moving east towards Tunis, they ran into the Germans, commanded by General Ernest? Rommel, nicknamed "The Desert Fox" for his success in North Africa.
"It was hell in Africa because we didn't have the best equipment," he said. "Once we ran into (General) Rommel, we didn't last very long." Because the Germans had larger, better armored tanks and more powerful guns on them, the Americans had to score a direct hit on the track of a German tank to knock it out, said Schwandt. "They shelled the heck out of us," he explained "They shelled us and shelled us, and they knocked us out."
Even now, knowing what he endured as a prisoner, Schwandt thinks one of the stupidest questions that he has ever faced is why he didn't run instead of being captured. "Out in the desert, it's hot in the day and cool at night," he said. "With no food or water, where would you go?"
Taken to Tunis by the Germans, they weren't sure how they would be treated. "When we were first captured, we thought they were going to shoot us," said Schwandt.
They didn't, but during the next two and a half years, while the Allied armies were defeating Nazi Germany and Japan, Schwandt was held as a prisoner.
He left North Africa by plane, in a smoking plane, to be more precise, which carried the prisoners only 150 feet above the ocean and had to stop in Sicily, where Schwandt and 80 other men were kept in a dungeon for four days without food and water. "Your mouth got so dry from no water and no food," he recalled last week. "Oh, it was terrible."
At night, the men would crouch against the wall and try to rest. They would take turns walking around, dragging a coat over the other men to keep the rats away. "There were so many rats in there," said Schwandt.
At another camp in Italy, Schwandt lost over 100 pounds in 56 days. He started at 225 pounds and weighed only 119 pounds two months later. They worked half a day busting rocks to build a road, being prodded by gunpoint and bayonet to work, with only a small tin of macaroni soup for sustenance.
At this camp, water for the prisoners ran only for so many minutes each day, so not every prisoner would have a chance to fill his cup, said Schwandt. But the prisoners all shared their water to make sure that everyone got something to drink.
When Italy surrendered in 1943, the prisoners were released, and Schwandt hid with 14 other men in the hills, but they were recaptured by the Germans 25 days later and taken to Germany, where he would spend the next 20 months until the war in Europe ended.
While in Germany, Schwandt was held in eight stalags, or prison camps, more than once being forced to walk to a new location.
Hub Schwandt served in a tank crew in the First Armored Division, which landed in Oran in Algeria in 1942 as part of the Allied invasion of North Africa.
Aside from his initial capture, when he wasn't sure if they would be promptly shot or held as prisoners, one of the closest times Schwandt came to getting shot was in a German prison camp.
"One time, 10 or 12 of our guys hid out in an old incinerator," Schwandt recalled in that speech in 1988. "Nobody would tell where they were hiding, and the Germans were getting tired of our protecting their location. They lined all of us up against the wall. They counted out every 10th man and made him turn toward the wall. If the first man didn't tell where the prisoners were hiding, he would be shot - then they would go to the next 10th man in line - until he told or he was shot. I was one of the 10th men lined up, but, luckily for me, somebody told where our friends were hiding before they got to me, or I wouldn't be standing here today."
Among the gruesome sights he witnessed while a prisoner were the executions of Jews. He saw the Germans shoot long lines of Jews and push their bodies into trenches.
He spent the most time in Germany at a prison camp near Hammerstein near the Oder River by the border with Poland. Here, in 1944, they received Red Cross packages, put on a little weight again, and even got to play softball. One fellow prisoner - a former catcher in the Major Leagues -could throw a bar of soap from the camp and hit the barges floating in the Oder.
Schwandt's friend, who used to let Schwandt read his mail, because he got lots of letters from home and Hub never got any, once got a Dear John letter, with his wife asking for a divorce. His friend, Schwandt said, "just went to pieces." The Germans hauled him away, and Schwandt never saw him again.
Most days, though, they would have rutabaga soup with one or two pieces of horse meat and some black bread. "You had a terrible craving for food," Schwandt explained. "You can't imagine. You were hungry all the time."
At the start, two prisoners would share one Red Cross package, which was a little smaller than a shoebox and full of food. Then three would share a package. Then four. The explanation they got was that air raids always hit the Red Cross packages, which Schwandt finds hard to believe. "They never missed," he said. "They were perfect shots (when it came to the Red Cross packages). That's what they told us."
Prisoners would walk around and talk to try to keep from thinking about food, said Schwandt. People here may think they are hungry, he said, but the craving for food drove the half-starved prisoners crazy.
By the winter of 1945, the Russians had started their final offensive against the German army, eventually capturing Berlin. Schwandt and other prisoners were moved by the Germans as the Russians advanced.
One time, during his captivity, the prisoners were served soup with no meat, only maggots that they picked out so they could eat the soup. "You don't realize how bad it is," he said of their hunger and physical condition to be able to do that.
"We knew the Germans were getting hard up because they couldn't afford horse meat," he said.
While moving east in 1945, their guards left them one night, freeing Schwandt for the second time. But, while trying to head for the American lines with some other freed prisoners, they were recaptured by the Gestapo.
Schwandt was finally freed for good in May 1945. "One of the prettiest sights I ever saw was when the American troops came to free us - the troops came marching in waving the American flag. The American flag has always been a symbol of freedom throughout the world, but it had special meaning for me that day," Schwandt recalled in that Veteran's Day speech in 1988.
After being freed by the American forces, Schwandt was taken to France by truck. While there, they started to eat again, but they had to be careful because their bodies were not used to food. A few guys ate so many doughnuts and their stomachs swelled so much that they died.
As a prisoner of war, Schwandt was one of the first soldiers to be put on a ship and sent back to America. "I was lucky," he said of his captivity. "I was fortunate to get out of it in one piece."
Schwandt, now retired, worked as a carpenter, auto mechanic, and mail carrier. He and his wife, Delores, have six children and 14 grandchildren.
Schwandt, 82 now, thinks it is very nice for the American Legion to give him a lifetime membership, even if he isn't sure how long he will be able to use it.
"I think everyone should stick up for their country," said Schwandt. "We've got the greatest country in the world, but people don't realize what they've got. They don't know how good they've got it."
(Editor's Note: The American Legion Post #271 honored two local veterans - Milt Koshiol (center left) and Hub Schwandt (center right) - on Veteran's Day on Monday, Nov. 11, with lifetime paid memberships to the American Legion. The executive board of the local post discussed honoring Schwandt and Koshiol this way in August, according to post commander Larry Alstead. The gesture was then approved by the general Legion membership, Alstead added. "To our knowledge, they're the only prisoners of war in this area," said Alstead, "so we thought we'd pay our respect."
The $200 it costs to pay for their lifetime membership is a small thing for the local club to do, added Alstead. "It's the fact that we've shown appreciation for their service in the war and their suffering as prisoners of war," he explained. Both men, he continued, have led great lives in Minnesota since World War II, including great service to the Legion. For instance, Hub was instrumental in starting the color guard, and Koshiol still participates in the color guard, he said.
Over the next two weeks, the Press will profile Schwandt's and Koshiol's service in World War II and their experiences as prisoners of war. This week, Schwandt will be featured, and next week Koshiol will be featured.)
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