Former World War II prisoner of war Ralph Nelson remembers marching through German towns in the snow after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
The Army infantryman said German civilians grabbed boots off the troops as they marched. He also remembered being crammed into a boxcar after three days of marching. And after the journey ended by train, the prisoners had to escape an attack by American bombers.
“The Americans tried to strafe us one day,” said Nelson, 93, of Albuquerque. “I guess they were on a bombing run. … I guess they were trying to shoot up everything on the railroad tracks.”
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nava, the adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard, said American POWs such as Nelson were forced into slave labor and were guinea pigs in chemical and biological experiments.
“You endured loneliness and torture,” Nava told the former World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War POWs in attendance at a ceremony Wednesday at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center. “These men chose to live and fought to live.”
The veterans were honored during a Former Prisoners of War Recognition Ceremony. It’s held every year as part of the celebration of National Former Prisoners of War Recognition Day, which will be observed Tuesday.
World War II Army Air Force veteran and Albuquerque resident Joe Gideon, 93, said he was appreciative of the ceremony.
“We were just doing our job,” Gideon said. “I didn’t really expect special recognition.”
He was stationed in Italy with the 15th Army Air Forces, which held bombing raids in Austria and southern Germany. He was captured in March 1945.
Gideon said the Germans adhered to rules established for the treatment of POWs and did not subject him or his fellow prisoners to slave labor.
“We didn’t have to work,” Gideon said. “They fed us the best they could. We didn’t have a lot to eat. But they didn’t either.”
Army veteran Walter Rencehausen, 94, did recall being mistreated, part of which came as the result of having German ancestry.
“I’m German and was captured in Germany,” Rencehausen said. “I didn’t like them. They didn’t like me.”
Rencehausen, an Albuquerque resident, said he was captured during the final months of the war in Leipzig, Germany.
“We were trying to get Hitler but didn’t make it,” Rencehausen said. “They said I was a traitor to the fatherland.”
Each of the 15 former POWs in attendance was recognized during the ceremony. Former POWs who died during the year were honored by the playing of taps and the playing of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes.