Dozens of kind strangers relay an American POW’s reassuring words.
In late November 1944, Private First Class Richard E. Kells and his unit were pulled off the front lines near the French town of Niederbronn-les-Bains, just shy of the German border, for some rest and the promise of a Thanksgiving dinner. Kells, 22, was an infantryman with the 157th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, which had landed in the south of France in August to drive the Germans back to their homeland.
He was able to shower, shave, and get into a new uniform before word came that their replacement unit was getting hammered and was in trouble. “This is the day before Thanksgiving, the turkeys are on the table and we are going to have turkey and the whole fixings. They were warm,” Kells told historian Elise Forbes Tripp, who interviewed him for a new collection of oral histories, American Veterans on War (Interlink Publishing, 2011), “and we got orders to move out.”
He returned to the front lines and, along with Private First Class William Banning, began digging into a culvert just up the road from their command post. They had just settled in with their bazooka when artillery fire from a squad of about eight Germans slammed in around the two men, trapping them in their trench. “They deliberately avoided killing us right then,” Kells recalled. “They were trying to tell us, ‘We’ve got you pinned down.’”
Banning noticed that too, and said, “You want to call it quits?”
“Do we have a choice?” Kells answered. Both men walked out with their hands up.
The captured Americans were taken to a nearby command post for interrogation. While they were there, Kells was handed a small postcard and told to fill it out with a message for his family. He spent the next five months as a POW at a German military camp, eventually joining thousands of POWs from all over Europe and North Africa at Luckenwalde, just south of Berlin, where a circus tent was set up to receive them in the final days of the war.
On April 22, 1945, the Russians liberated Luckenwalde; a few days later Kells was in American hands, and took his first airplane ride to Camp Lucky Strike, where he shipped out from Le Havre, France. The final leg of his journey was hitchhiking some 40 miles home to Greenfield, Massachusetts.
And there he discovered firsthand the innate goodness of people in a nation at war. It originated from a surprising source: the Berlin-based propagandist known as Axis Sally— actually an American named Mildred Gillars (see “With a Sweet Kiss from Sally,” January/February 2010). “She took all this information down that I had put on the postcard; Axis Sally sent this over the airwaves, and all the ham radio operators from Canada and the United States picked up this message and my home address, wrote to my mother, sent telegrams, saying that I was okay.”
Kells’s mother received dozens of these messages from strangers.
“My nephew is a German prisoner too,” one read. “We heard last Friday night about him. Hope you hear direct from your boy soon.”
“I have a son in Luft I and we have had no personal message from him except his capture notice and so I know how eagerly you must be waiting for any news, however meagre, of your loved one,” read another.
“This makes 3312 P.O.W. messages of various types that I have relayed in recent months,” another said.
“I hope this news will make the days brighter until you hear from him.”
Throughout the war, Gillars broadcasted the names, serial numbers, and hometowns of captured Americans, along with their short messages home. (Following her arrest in 1946, an American couple who had listened to the broadcasts and written letters to the prisoners’ families solicited support for her on the basis of this “humanitarian work.” It was to no avail; Gillars was convicted of treason in 1949.)
Kells, now 89 and living two doors down from his childhood home in Greenfield, still treasures this collection of comforting messages sent by concerned strangers.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.