U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division
325th Glider Infantry Regiment
American Ex-Prisoner of War, Stalag XIIA
...General Sherman said it best; "War is Hell."
My name is Matthew Parks and I was born in Audubon, New Jersey July 23rd, 1925. I went through the Camden schooling system for all but two years during the depression when I lived in Pleasentville, New Jersey. I was president of the 1943 graduating class of Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden.
I enlisted in the army sometime in April of 1943 with the understanding that the army would not call me up for active service until I graduated high school in June of that same year. I reported to Fort Dix in July of 1943. After a series of tests the army told me that they were placing me in the ASTP or the Army Specialized Training Program and that I would have to go through a 16-week infantry basic at Fort Benning, Georgia. After 15 weeks of training, my captain advised me that the army had done away with the ASTP program and since we had completed the infantry basic, we would be assigned to infantry units. I was then sent to Camp Howze in Gainesville, Texas where I joined the 103rd Division. From there we were sent to New England, where we shipped out of Boston.
We I arrived in Liverpool, England in the beginning of May 1944. We stayed in what was called a "repple depple," or replacement depot. We stayed there over night and the next morning we were placed on trains. After the train ride we got on a truck. When the truck stopped, I got up and jumped out of the back of the truck. Some paratrooper Lieutenant turned to me and said, "Congratulations, you've just made your first jump." There I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne and placed into the 325th Glider Infantry, Company "F." We trained together the rest of the month, until the Normandy invasion.
The first day of the Normandy invasion for some of the airborne units was a couple hours before D-day on June 5th around 11:00 at night. Some of the 325th did not go at night. Most of the 325th went in on June 6th in the afternoon. Some men went in on horse gliders, which are British gliders, made mostly of plywood. Other men went in on the CG-4A, the American glider, which was made of an aluminum frame and covered with canvas. Plywood gliders we're very dangerous because when they cracked, pieces of plywood would stick into the troopers. Some gliders would hold a jeep or artillery inside instead of soldiers. Gliders could hold up to 13 men including the pilot and copilot. A lot of times, the gliders didn't have a copilot, so the pilot would just pick a soldier and make him a copilot, teach him what he needs to know in case he was killed or wounded. The Brigadier General of the 101st Airborne decided he was going in on a glider on D-day, but what he didn't tell the pilot was that he had his people build a special seat for him with a steel plate across the bottom. It was so heavy that the pilot lost control of the glider and crashed. The Brigadier General of the 101st died in the crash.
We all landed around St. Mere Eglise on D-day. St. Mere Eglise is about 10 miles inland from the beaches. Our purpose was to keep the German soldiers, tanks, and infantry from going up to the beaches, which we were able to accomplish. The 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne were way off from where they were supposed to land. The 325th Glider Infantry had a very large casualty list on landings because of the poles the Germans had placed in between hedgerows. Others landed in swamps and drowned. We we're in Normandy about 3 to 10 days and 34 days later, we came back to Strapptoping, which is just outside of Lester. There we had more training and got replacements.
On September 17th, 1944, the 82nd Airborne was assigned to the middle bridges at Nijmegen, Holland. The 325th Glider Infantry went in a day later because the weather that day was bad for the gliders. We were there again around 7 to 10 days and we came out 68 days later. The Airborne does not get replacements in the line like a regular infantry division. If somebody is killed or wounded, you are just short a man. I had one second gunner shot through the jugular, there was nothing we could do for him, and we couldn't get him a medic because there were none around, so he bled to death right in front of me.
We took the middle bridges at Nijmegen while the 101st Airborne took the southern bridges. The British took the bridge at Arhnem, which was called a bridge too far, or Operation Market Garden. We were out on the perimeter; the Canadians came up from the south according to Montgomery's plan, but they stopped because the bridge at Arhnem had not yet been taken. So our regimental commander asked the Canadians to help deal with the artillery, tanks and guns we were facing, but the Canadians were not able to help because Montgomery ordered them not
to waste any ammunition. So we came out of Holland with just about half of our company left. Half of the company had been killed after 68 days in combat with little or no help from the Canadians.
We were then sent to Sicone, France, which is a place just outside of Rheims. We were sent there to get replacements and to rest up. On the evening of December 16th, 1945 I was sitting down watching a show when the major came out and said, "The Germans have started the Bulge today, we are going up in trucks, report to your tents, get your weapons and ammunition." General Gavin was in charge of all the airborne units, including the 101st Airborne, even though he was the commander of the 82nd Airborne. He sent the 101st Airborne to Bastogne and the 82nd he spread over a 25-mile front. We could not find foxholes, we were short, and we did not have anything.
So we finally got on the trucks. Since I was the light machine gunner of the company, I mounted my gun on the top of the truck. As we were going up, we were told not to take any winter gear. They said that they would supply us at the front. Fortunately, I wore my long johns, brought extra socks, I wore a sweater, and what ever else I had. Though it still was not the type of equipment that you would want to wear in that type of weather. We were told that we were to come up behind the 106th Infantry Division, which was a new unit and the Pennsylvania 28th, also known as the Bloody Bucket, or the keystone division. We were supposed to dig in behind them, let them withdrawal through us, then we would be the front, but it did not happen that way. We ran into the Germans in a town called Manhey, and our unit fought there for several days.
On the 19th of December, my company and I were told to go up to a crossroads. To get us to that crossroads, they started up that night. We walked up a stream, it was not high, but it was very cold. It was at least ankle high in some places, knee high in others. We were in that stream for better than eight hours until we finally reached the crossroads. We got to the crossroads on the 20th of December, just my company, company "F," 2nd Battalion of the 325th was sent up to the crossroads. There was only about 70 men left in our company.
The captain told me where he wanted me to place the machine gun. You could not dig a foxhole because the ground was frozen and covered with snow, so you would dig a slit trench. We were wearing our Olive drabbed uniforms. Lying in the snow, we stood out like sore thumbs. The Germans had white capes, so they blended in with the snow a little better. We were in a firefight from the day that we arrived at the crossroads until the morning of the December 23rd. That morning the fire got a lot heavier. I had fired my light machine gun so much, that I had to change the barrel, and I was running very low on ammunition. The purpose of us being at the crossroads was to stop the Germans from sending supplies to those that had gotten behind us, and we were successful in doing that. Then around noontime on the 23rd of December, from the woods in front of us where the Germans had been, we began to see the panzer king tiger tanks, we counted a total of six of them that day.
Every fifth bullet in my belt was a tracer, so I could see the bullet bouncing off the tanks. The tracer showed that my bullets were going straight, but they were not doing much damage to the tanks, they were just bouncing off. What those tanks started to do was to ride over the slit trenches that were in front of me and crush the men inside. We could hear the men screaming.
The day before on the 22nd, when we first got to the crossroads, Captain Woodruff informed us that we were to "…hold it at all cost." We knew what the hell that meant. General Gavin called up Captain Woodruff and told him to gather men to hike up the stream to the crossroads. We had no officers left. On the December 23rd, the tanks came, and they were firing machine guns and also had infantry behind them. There was only nine of us left on that crossroad. The rest of the Company "F" had been killed or wounded. We were all together behind my machine gun. My second gunner who was perhaps my best friend, turned to me and said, "Matt, I'm too scared to stay." I looked at him and said "Sam, I'm too scared to run." He took off in the direction that I had been firing my gun that morning. Some how he got through, and the next day he got back to American lines. I was the ranking officer among the men remaining, so I turned to them and asked them, "How do you want to die? Do you want to get crushed, or do you want to get shot?" We did not want to get crushed, we saw how horrible that was, so we figured that we would take our chances with the Germans. So at that point we surrendered and were captured. This was about
2:00 PM on the 23rd of December 1944. The Germans then went around and kicked or poked every American that was there. If you made a moan or a groan the Germans would shoot you right there on the spot.
My sergeant had been shot in the stomach that morning, I did not know if he was dead or alive, I figured that he was dead. I went to a reunion of the 325th about five years ago in Springfield, Missouri. I walked into the room and looked across the room. A man called out, "Matt?" I recognized him and said "Joe … I thought you've been dead for fifty years." He said that, "…they came and they kicked me, but I was able not make any sound or make any movements. I was very fortunate that the Germans didn't shoot me again. The next day the Americans came by, found me, and took me out of there and they got me medical treatment, so I survived." Sam some how got through, continued fighting with the 82nd Airborne all the way to Berlin, where the 82nd Airborne was the guard of honor. I have been very close with Sam. I have attended all of his children's graduations, elementary through high school.
After we were captured they took the nine of us into the basement of a castle and interrogated each of us. What was surprising is that the Germans wanted to know how the 82nd could be a fighting unit when we were spread out over 25 miles. When they questioned you, they would ask you for your name, rank, and serial number. When you gave them that information, they already knew the rest of the answers. I was told by the German officer questioning me, "You are in company 'F,' you are the light machine gunner, Captain Woodruff is you officer." He also mentioned the name of a Lieutenant that I knew at that time but I do not recall now. They knew as much about Company "F" as I did. They spoke perfect English, and they did not treat us too bad. After the interrogation, they had started to march us through Germany. I was utterly amazed about how much the Germans had pulled up into the Bulge. Horses were pulling a lot of the German trucks and tanks with the intent to move them towards fuel and safety. They had a lot of equipment there. They marched us through Cologne, down the main street. You could see that the city was almost completely in rubble. The population had enough rubble to throw at us. I was wearing a jump suit at that time, the group I was now with was mostly Airforce men that had been shot down. One of the men stopped at a pile of rubble and picked up a white handkerchief off the ground to use, he was shot right there in front of us. We were told to keep moving. We were warned not pick up anything or we would also be shot.
They marched us for a few more days, and then they put us into boxcars. We were in the boxcar for 2 or 3 days. You could not sit down; you could not lie down. You were shoulder to shoulder and you could not move. When the train finally stopped and they opened the doors, we were in Lindbergh, Germany. This is where the POW camp Stalag 12A was located. They started to let the people out of the boxcar, but as I was getting off, I saw two of the men fall to the floor. These men were dead, but they couldn't fall down because the boxcar was packed so tight with prisoners. We were taken in; we were not fed or showered that night. The two hundred of us were put into one of their buildings that had only one toilet, which didn't work. Most of us had dysentery that night. The Germans would shoot anyone who tried to leave or escape. It was one big mess that night. The next day they did allow us to shower, but we did not get our clothes clean. That next evening, the Germans told me that they would be sending me on a work detail the next morning along with some other prisoners. They did send us on a work detail, above Berlin, close to the North Sea. My work in the winter was to cut down trees. I guess they took the healthiest and the strongest prisoners. We cut the trees down into cords and we piled them.
The food we ate never varied. If we had coffee in the morning, we would have tea at night, and if we had tea in the morning, we would have coffee at night. At lunchtime we got one dipper of what the called "Kerdaffle," or potato soup, which was mainly water and the peels of the potatoes. We would get about an inch of cheese, an inch of a cold cut of some sort and about two inches of brown bread. These were to last us the week. But we did have the soup everyday. It was not like a Stalag, I was happy to be out there. They would wake you up in the morning with either a rifle butt or a kick. They were hollering "Arbeit kin, Arbeit kin," or go to work.
I was captured December 23rd; on that day I weighed about 178 pounds. After four and a half months of imprisonment, when I was liberated, I weighed about 112 pounds. I remember the day April 12th, 1945 well. The American planes had flown over the prison camps and dropped pamphlets in the camp. The pamphlets informed us of President Roosevelt had died and that Harry S. Truman was the new President. The pamphlets stated that the death of Roosevelt would not mean the end of America's war efforts, that President Truman was see the war to its finish. I have one of them upstairs somewhere, but I can't seem to find it.
When you are a Prisoner of War, you are supposed to get a Red Cross Parcel every week. I got three of them the four and a half months I was imprisoned. In the Red Cross Parcels, there was a small pack of cigarettes; they were Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, or Camel. We used to play poker for the cigarettes, and we would trade the cigarettes for food. We were offered dog meat for the cigarettes, but even in the state that I was in, I was not very interested to eat a dog.
One of the prisoners could speak German. There were only 23 of us in the work camp. The one German speaking prisoner tried to convince the Germans that the Russians were coming, and it would be better for them to be imprisoned by the Americans rather than the Russians. The Russians were known to treat their prisoners rather poorly. We were located near a factory that made jets. We could hear the jet engines; it was the first time I had ever heard a jet engine. We finally convinced the Germans and on May 1st, 1945 we left the camp. First we took all their weapons and ammunition. We gave them back their rifles with no ammunition. We took their small arms. The Germans found us a barn at night, some place to get us out of the cold. We had nothing to eat. We had to dig up frozen turnips to eat.
On May the 4th, we reached the German town of Swearene. Which is on the Russian side of the Elbe River. There we met the American 8th Division. They had the doctors examined and delouse us. We had the same clothes on that we were captured in, they had never been cleaned. They sent us back to France, up in the Normandy Peninsula. They put us in a hospital to ease us back into eating food. It was either Camp Lucky Strike or Camp Chesterfield, I don't recall. They were army field hospitals named after the Cigarettes. After they thought we were healthy enough to leave they sent us to La Harve and on a ship to go home. As you approach the gangplank, there is an officer calling your names off. He hollered, "Parks," and I said, "Matthew W 12211879 (which is my serial number)." The Officer looked at me and said, "What's wrong with you soldier?" I responded, "Not a thing Officer." He said, "Yes there is, stand aside." So I stood aside; a doctor came out to examine me and he said, "You have the Measles." I said, "I feel great, let me on the ship." He said, "No, you're going back to the hospital." They put me in isolation because the Measles are contagious. It was now June of 45; the war had been over for just about a month and I was not even twenty years old yet.
They put me in isolation; Isolation in this field hospital was just a sheet hanging from the ceiling between the cots. So I picked up the sheet and said, "Hi, I'm Matt Parks, Who are you?" He told me his name and that he had the mumps. I finally got over the Measles and I was sent back to La Harve. I could feel my throat starting to swell, so I threw the duffel bag between the Officer and myself. He called out my name, "Parks." I hollered "Matthew W 12211879," and this time he said, "OK." I did not go down to the bunk I was assigned to. I waited to that boat got out of the harbor at La Harve and out into the ocean before I reported to sickbay. It was a liberty ship; there was no place to put me in isolation. There was a Colonel that had a cabin; he was told he had to get out so that they could put this ill private in isolation. The Colonel wasn't very happy about this, but I was. I had my own private cabin the entire trip home; they also brought me my meals, it was very nice.
We finally landed in Norfolk, Virginia in July of 1945. We were being processed while German prisoners carried our bags. The German prisoners were clean and shaven and also had nice and clean uniforms. We treated our prisoners a little nicer then the Germans treated their prisoners. I was given a 30-day leave to go home, after which I was to report to Lake Placid. I spent a week in Lake Placid then I was put on a train and sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. It was a very desolate place. There were six of us that came from Lake Placid. The Captain came over to talk to us. He said, "I don't have too much for you to do today." I interrupted him and said, "Captain, May I ask you a question sir?" He said, "Sure." I asked him, "Why are we here?" He said that, "… you are going to be a new calvary, and you are going to invade Japan." I told him, "No thank you sir, I have already had my share." He said to me, "What are you talking about." So I told him that I had two invasions to my credit; that I was captured by Germans and that these five other men with me are also former prisoners. I told him that we have had enough. The Captain said, "They didn't tell me that, you sit tight." Three days later, he came back to speak with me and he said, "Parks, you are assigned to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey." I said, "Thank you very much sir." I then went to Camp Kilmer and there I was assigned to the transportation corp. There my job was to go to New York when transport ships arrived, take the names of the American Soldiers, and to take them to Camp Kilmer to be processed. The second ship I met contained many elements of the 82nd Airborne.
I was discharged as a Private First Class on November 19th, 1945. In 1944 Captain Woodruff promoted me to Sergeant in charge of machine gun squadron, but I guess it never went through. Went back to my job had before the service on November 20th, 1945. I worked at City Service Oil Refinery in Petty's Island in Pennsauken. I applied for college because they told me that Uncle Sam would pay for everything. I was told that Woodrow Wilson was not a college prep school, so I would have to go back to high school and make up credits. So in February of 1946, I started at Benjamin Franklin Veterans High School in Philadelphia.
When I applied at Penn, Uncle Sam was going to pay my tuition. They gave me an interview; I met with a very high ranking official and he sat there and talked to me very nicely for about 10-minutes, then he said, "Tell me Mr. Parks, How many of your family have graduated from Penn." I looked him in the eye and said, "Sir, I am the first one of my family to graduate High School." He then said, "Thank you very much, the interview is over." I then called him a few choice names and left the building. So, I went across town to Temple and got my undergrad degree from Temple and my law school degree from Temple. I was submitted to practice law as an attorney on March 4th, 1954. I practiced law with my own firm for 33 years. 15-years ago I was appointed Judge of Compensation and I am still sitting today as Judge of Compensation, even though I will be 76 in July.
After I came back from the war in Europe, I didn't talk much about it, but I have worn my tags around my neck every day since I received them about 57-years ago. I was issued two American dog tags after I enlisted and one German POW tag while I was in Stalag 12A.
One day my grandson, Matthew, came to me and asked me to speak to his class on the 50th Anniversary of D-day. His teachers were looking for a speaker, so Matthew came over here and said, "Grandpa, we need a speaker for D-day." And I hesitated, and he asked, "Why are you hesitating?" I said, "Because I know the first question that the students will ask me?" He said, "What's that?" "Someone's going to ask me if I ever killed anyone." How do you explain that to an eighth grader? So I went and spoke to his class, and wouldn't you know it, as soon as I got through speaking, some boy in the back of the room raised his hand and asked, "Did you ever kill anybody?" I simply replied, "Yes." He then asked, "Didn't it bother you?" I said, "No, not really." He said, "Why not?" I said, "I'm here talking to you, and he's not." That's the best reason I can give. He also asked, "Don't you have flashbacks?" I said, "No" once more. He asked again, "Why not?" I said it was different type of war at that time.
One of the most amazing things was after I spoke, one of the teachers came up to me and said, "Judge, I have learned more today about history than I have in my own schooling." I asked, "What about the history books?" She said "Two paragraphs." I said, "Don't you mean two chapters?" "No," she said, "Two paragraphs."
They are just now getting around to building the war memorial to World War Two Veterans. There is nothing perfect in this country, but it's a lot better than every other place I've been, except Canada..