All John Hellmann had to say was "ja." One nod, and the marches through the snow, the hunger, would be over. He would still be a prisoner of war, but as a kitchen assistant in an enemy field hospital.
The head German cook needed a translator for talking to other POWs brought there, bad enough to offer Hellmann food, a bed and bath if he stayed.
Hellmann, a 17th Airborne Division corporal born in Germany, could do the job. Here was his ticket out. No more American planes would mistakenly strafe him. No longer would he survive on just water and morsels of black bread.An ordeal that began in a Belgian forest during the Battle of the Bulge would end. He made his decision. "I said, `Look, if you can fix my comrades up with the same deal, I'll stay,'" said Hellmann, today an 83-year-old retired golf-course greenskeeper in Patton Township.
So off to Stalag 12A they went. Weeks earlier, they had been with the rest of the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment as it attacked over a ridge. The paratroopers with the golden talons on their shoulders had missed two historical jumps, arriving in England after D-Day and too late for Operation Market Garden in Holland. But they were ready when, in late December 1944, the Nazis made a desperate assault in the Ardennes Forest. "Word came down that there was a breakthrough," Hellmann said. "We knew we were going for a ride then because they started passing out ammunition and hand grenades and whatnot. We knew were going some place. And that's when they flew us over to the continent."
After landing in Reims, France, as the sun set, they boarded open trucks for the front. The last five miles, they marched in darkness to relieve the mauled 11th Armored Division. Through a foot of snow, they scraped out cover. "The first night, I didn't get a hole all the way down," Hellmann said. "It was just enough that I could crouch down in it. They told us, `Look, the Germans are right over that crest. Keep down and keep your mouth shut.' " A machine-gun squad leader in Headquarters Company, he hunkered down while artillery screamed in from the trees beyond. "We didn't see a soul until we went into the attack a few days later," he said.
Fog rolled in the morning of Jan. 7, delaying the assault until late afternoon. It didn't get better. Several rifle companies had suffered heavy casualties by the time Hellmann found himself next to his lieutenant on the crest. Hellmann rose for a peek.
Six German tanks, infantry riding on the whitewashed turrets, clanked toward him. Horrified, he warned the lieutenant, who hesitated too long as the tanks drew near. "When they got (within) 100 feet of me, I looked up and the lieutenant had his hands in the air," Hellmann said. "And I wasn't going to argue."or a truck ride. Just then, a tank pulled up, its commander cursing and waving his arms toward the six Americans.
Tied to the front was a slain tanker. Hellmann, who emigrated as a child to New Jersey, didn't need his German to understand. "I think if he had had his way, he would have shot us all," he said. When the truck almost immediately ran out of gas, Hellmann began walking. A month later, the hike stopped.
Along the way, the GIs shuffled through snow by day and slept in attics and barns. If they were lucky, a single loaf kept them going. Once, an American fighter strafed boxcars that held prisoners. "There were about 10 or 12 of us locked in the freight car, and the guys started going crazy in there, being locked in," Hellmann said. "If that damn car had caught on fire, we would have been roasted."
As they moved deeper into Germany, Hellmann kept his German a secret -- until the field hospital, when a guard needed to communicate an order to the prisoners. But in any language, the Stalag prison camp was miserable.
Guards supplied enough wood and coal to barely warm barracks where GIs slept on cobblestone floors in straw beds, covered by lice-infested blankets. "Some idiot ran out of firewood and decided he was going to break a window frame," Hellmann said. "When he did that, the Germans took everything away from us (for a while). No more wood, no more coal." "Very foolishly, I sold some cigarettes to a Russian prisoner for a piece of bread," he said. "And they had diphtheria in their compound. We had been warned not to deal with them, but when you're hungry ..." Then one April day, the guards suddenly disappeared. Soon, two American officers in a jeep drove in through the gates. The Ninth Army had arrived.
Hellmann had survived 79 days of captivity. Freedom almost finished him. Army cooks, pitying the malnourished soldiers, fixed heaping amounts of eggs and pancakes. "Everybody got sick," Hellmann said. "Our stomachs couldn't handle it."
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.