It is fitting that Veterans Day falls in November right before Thanksgiving. I am so very grateful for those men and women of our military who are willing to risk their lives for our freedom. I still get teary when I hear the National Anthem or see the Stars and Stripes, and I get especially teary when I see military members bear the flag of our great country.
The following story was written by my son Zach for a school project in ninth grade. Joseph Beckstrand, my husband’s uncle, died a few years ago at the age of 89, but in his youth, he was a soldier in WWII in Germany where he was taken as a prisoner of war and later awarded the Bronze Star.
I have a great uncle who fought in World War II. He graduated high school in 1942. After almost two years his draft number came up. He was assigned to Ft. Douglas and put in infantry. He took his basic training in California, and he was a great shot. They later put him in training to be a machine gunner. Life in the war was never dull. When he first got to Europe, he was on a train to London when some bombers tried to bomb the train station.
Uncle Joe landed on Utah Beach a few days after D-Day. The dead bodies were so thick, he couldn’t see the water near the shore. The captain of his boat was afraid he’d get shot, so he let the troops out in the middle of the channel. Uncle Joe carried a big machine gun, and he couldn’t swim. He almost died right there. He managed to get to the beach alive. He was later taken to the front lines to replace a killed machine gunner. Uncle Joe said that being a machine gunner meant you were basically destined to die. They traveled up as far up as Belgium, and then their outfit came back down to Luxembourg. He and his outfit had to capture a Buzz Bomb base. They captured it, and he got a German helmet from that experience. They were right on the German border. His outfit was sent onto the front lines in Hurricane Forest to get another outfit out safely. Out of fifty-two men, Joe was one of seven who survived the ordeal. The rest of his men were killed. They got some replacements and sent them right back into the battle. He was one of only five who came out alive that time. He spent the next four days hiding in a basement until another outfit arrived.
His company then went farther into Germany. They were there for a few weeks, and they captured a young man who hated the Germans and told them some secrets. He told them that in the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans would fire different colored flares into the sky that would determine what outfits would move when. On December 16, Uncle Joe was on the front lines of the Battle of The Bulge. Out of fifty-two, he was one of seventeen who survived the first day. They knew that they had to get out of there. They knew that they were surrounded. Uncle Joe’s machine gun shot thirteen hundred rounds a minute, and he burned five barrels in that day. They tried to get out by taking the road they had come in on. He described that it wasn’t much of a fight to get out of there. The Germans had a fortunate habit of getting drunk if they did something great in battle. All the Americans had to do was go through a bunch of drunk soldiers.
They were walking along the side of the road, almost to the town of Aaron, when a machine gunner open fired on them. Joe was one of two of the seventeen who survived, but he was shot in the hand. The two survivors decided to stay down by the river and travel by night. At 4:00 four in the morning they decided to continue on, but it wasn’t long before they came upon a German machine gun unit and were taken prisoner. They were taken to the town of Aaron and interrogated, then the Germans put them on a death march back into Germany. They walked really far and weren’t given anything to eat or drink. They could only scoop up the snow and use that as water.
They reached the prison camp on Christmas Eve. They had only been there for about half an hour when the English missed a power plant they were trying to bomb and hit the camp. The Germans took Joe’s only surviving companion and put him in a building with seventy-nine others. That building took a direct hit from a bomb and killed all of them. Out of the fifty-two in his outfit, Uncle Joe is the only one alive today. The camp was completely destroyed so the Germans put them on train cars and sent them to Berlin. They let them out there and put them in a bomb cellar. They later let them sleep a few kilometers outside of Berlin. They continued to interrogate them. They made them write cards saying that they were being treated well. They were all lying, but they were forced to do it. They slept for a few more hours and went back into Berlin. They put them in another prison camp, the last one that he was in.
The camps were terrible. They didn’t have much food, and their toilet was a five-gallon bucket. Their beds were flat wooden boards with a blanket. They only got one meal a day, and that was a bowl of turnip soup. He was in the prison camp for a total of five months. They were never allowed to shower, and they didn’t have a change of clothes. They put Joe to work making packsaddles for mules and donkeys. He was treated very poorly. When they walked down the street to go work, people would throw rocks at them. He had his twenty-first birthday in the prison camp. The prison camps were a very hard place to live. Mostly the younger men would die off first, but Joe had something to live for, and it helped him fight and stay alive. On May 1, they were taken to Perlyburg where they joined eleven hundred Englishmen who had been captured. Their captors made them form a line. The Americans were in the middle of the line. Germans in limos would come and shoot a few people and drive off. A few days later, the prisoners saw American planes in the sky. The Germans couldn’t get their planes in the sky, so the Americans had total control of the air.
The next morning the prisoners were outside getting ready to march again when they saw seven American tanks coming toward them. They were saved! The Americans fed them bread that had been burned black, because they needed the charred bread to line their stomachs for when they ate other things. If they didn’t do that they would have died if they ate anything else, because they were so malnourished. The Germans began to surrender, laying their guns in big piles. Thousands of them surrendered. The Germans asked what they should do next, and the Americans said to go home, that the war was over. Uncle Joe had his first bath in five months. He later flew back to Utah Beach and helped bury all the soldiers.
Joe was awarded a Purple Heart, a Prisoner of War Medal, and the Bronze Star for all three of the major battles in Germany.