Citizen Soldier; Prisoner

by Chris William

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Drafted at 19, Harold Dombo would become a combat veteran and former P.O.W. by the time he was 21.

Just 19 years old, radio assembler Harold Dombo was a long way away from his Brooklyn, NY, hometown when he received a draft notice in 1942, while working at a defense plant in Carroll, Ill. In January 1943, he was sworn in at Rockford, Ill., and sent to Camp Van Dorn, Centreville, Miss., as part of the 3511 Ordnance Company.

He went through only a few quick weeks of basic training when he was transferred to Santa Anita, Cal., to be trained as an armorer; learning how to repair .45-caliber automatic handguns, Garand rifles, and water- and air-cooled machine guns. After completing this program, he asked to test out for the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program), a set of college courses designed to train soldiers as engineers.

He passed, and was reassigned to Washington, D.C., to attend the Georgetown University campus, enjoying the educational experience. He was able to travel to his parents’ house in New York each weekend on the “Congressional” rail system. In the fall of 1943, the ASTP program was suddenly discontinued, and Harold was transferred to Georgia, where he was trained to repair vehicles in an Army body shop school.

In July 1944, he boarded the George Washington troop transport ship, bound for the British Isles and Tidworth garrison. This was the vehicle and support staging area in England for US troops en route to the battlefields of Europe.

With D-Day a success, and the Allies battling their way towards Germany, Harold, along with Air Corps soldiers, support, and fellow Ordnance personnel went through intensive training to become infantry soldiers in preparation for going to the European front. Later, after a rough, seasick-laden voyage across the English Channel, they landed in France as part of the 35th Infantry Division in September 1944. Harold was assigned to a 2-man ammo team as part of  a .30-caliber light machine gun crew.

In October 1944, he took part in his first combat engagement south of the Saarland area of Germany. When asked later about the experience, his only comment was that combat was “scary as hell and that anyone who said that they could hardly wait to get into it was either an idiot or a fool.”

To keep going during these horrendous times, Harold concentrated on doing his assigned job while others in his outfit were getting wounded or blown apart around him. Between battles, his group was kept on the move, either marching, or if lucky, hitching a ride on a passing tank, always going deeper into increasingly hostile territory.

On December 19, 1944, Harold’s group was ordered into a forward position in the southern Ardennes Forest and told to dig fox holes for the night. His machine gun partner had been wounded during the day and left to make his way back to an aid station in the rear. In the morning, Harold heard tanks approaching. Feeling somewhat relieved to have the armor support, that soon changed when he heard the approaching infantry speaking in German. Next came shouts of “Hände hoch!” (hands up), and threats to “blow him out of the foxhole” if he did not surrender.

The Germans forced him to his feet and immediately took his wristwatch before marching him and the others several miles to a waiting railway train. They were loaded into a “40 or 8” (40 men or 8 horses) boxcar and transported to a holding area in Landstuhl, a small town in southwestern Germany. There, a German officer began to interrogate Harold, who only responded by giving his name, rank, and serial number as he had been instructed to do. Harold was surprised that the German knew who his commander was and seemed to know more about the 35th Infantry then Harold did!

Harold’s parents received this short message after his release from Stalag 341.

Harold’s parents received this short message after his release from Stalag 341.

Five days later on Christmas night, Harold crawled through a latrine window, climbed the encircling fence, and began to make his way west towards the sound of the allied artillery fire. He tried to remain out of sight, mindful of the enemy troops roving across the unfamiliar countryside.

On the second day of walking, Harold crossed a quiet country road. He didn’t see the German enlisted soldier on a bicycle approach, who stopped to point a rifle and yell “Halt!

Harold’s new guard, evidently a reservist, led him back to the soldier’s home where the young American was kept in the owner’s living room while the German and his wife went to bed. The following morning, Harold climbed out of the second story window and was once again on his way to the west.

Crossing through a forest later in the day, he heard a second “Halt!” followed by the distinct sound of a rifle bolt closing. This time, his more thorough captor secured Harold and had him transported back to Landstuhl, where he was informed that anyone attempting further escapes would be killed.

A few days later, another ride in a “40 or 8” unheated boxcar full of GI’s carried Harold to the large prisoner of war camp, Stalag 341, at Altengrabow. It had been a  German military camp since 1893, and a P.O.W camp for allied prisoners during both the first and second world wars. Altengrabow housed American, Russian, French, Belgium, English, and Italian prisoners who were all kept in separate fenced-off areas according to nationality. Boredom and constant hunger now became the everyday companions for Harold and the rest of the inmates of the German camp.

The meals served each day typically consisted of thin rutabaga soup, a small quantity of bread, and Ersatz (substitute) coffee. Conversations in the unheated barracks centered on candy bars and other favorite foods that the inmates relished talking about. The Germans, as well as the allied prisoners, found food sources dwindling as the unopposed allied bombers destroyed more and more railways, bridges, highways, and warehouses every day.

Lice were rampant. At first, Harold was ashamed that he contracted them – until he learned that everyone there was infested. Though it may have occurred in other parts of the camp, Harold never experienced or saw ill treatment by the Germans; no vicious dogs, forced labor, or exercise details.

While many disputes between prisoners were overlooked, stealing another’s food was a serious offense. Not wanting to go as far as killing or seriously injuring a fellow American, punishment by the inmates for this kind of act was still swift (and sometimes inventive). In one instance, a thief in Harold’s barracks was thrown down the latrine as punishment. As they had no soap or warm water, the shamed soldier would smell extremely foul for weeks afterward.

On April 25, 1945, the allies began operation “Violet,” air-dropping six multi-national teams near Altengrabow. The teams were to  attempt to contact the Germans and arrange for the camp’s prisoners safe transport back to allied areas. As the end of the war was in sight, many of the German guards abandoned their posts, leaving the camp to make their way back to what was left of their homes and families.

When the Allied paratroopers contacted the Stalag commandant, German Army Colonel Ochernal, he was one of the last remaining staff people there. After negotiations were concluded on May 5, 1945, 70 American troop trucks arrived with provisions to be off-loaded to make room for carrying out prisoners.

A US relief soldier gave an emaciated Harold a chocolate bar (he arrived at 150-lbs, but now was only 115-lbs). He hungrily devoured the candy, only to find that he was then full – His stomach had shrunk from the starvation.

Harold and the other American POWs were helped into the waiting trucks and transported to a US camp in France. There, the former inmates were  deloused and permitted to take their first hot showers in 5 months. After medical treatment, new clothes, and a healthy diet, the former POWs were loaded on a ship bound for the United States. When entering New York harbor and the the Statue of Liberty came into view, Harold noticed that there was not a dry eye aboard.

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Harold’s Prisoner of War Medal.

After a two-month furlough and a brief camp stay, Harold was discharged from the Army. He returned to work for the company where he had been employed two years earlier. He later married, started a family, and began what was to be a long, happy, and prosperous life, before passing away in 2014 at 90 years of age.

During his time in service, Harold was awarded the M1 Rifleman’s Marksman Badge, Infantryman Combat Badge, Good Conduct Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal, and WWII Victory Medal. He was later awarded the Prisoner of War Medal.

Years later, after much reflection, Harold said that he “Went into the army as a 19-year-old boy, and came out as a 21-year-old man.” He down-played much of what he had been through during the war, but he understood the importance of the sacrifices made by him and the others who served during the fight to free Europe from Hitler’s dictatorship. Harold’s battlefield experiences and personal loss of freedom made him appreciate the liberties that we all now enjoy every day but often take for granted.

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