‘When the Germans started shooting at us’: WWII veteran remembers time as POW
When Paul Wagner visited Italy, he sailed the Mediterranean, hiked into the mountains and was captured at gunpoint by German soldiers.
U.S. Army PFC Paul Wagner was a teenage prisoner of war.
Wagner will be 90 this August, now living at Brandywine Assisted Living Center in West Fenwick Island, but he had just turned 18 in Baltimore when Uncle Sam drafted him for World War II.
“They were waiting for me,” he said.
His mom was a “five-star mother” with five of her boys in the military. By some miracle, they all came home.
After nine months of Texas boot camp, Wagner sailed for Africa, then was stationed at an Italian racetrack controlled by the Allies. PFC Wagner wasn’t quite at the front lines, but he could hear mortar fire.
Germans were nearby, in the mountains, so rifleman Wagner and about 12 to 18 others patrolled the wilderness, using dried-up riverbeds as a guide.
“We knew we were close — too close — when the Germans started shooting at us,” Wagner said.
Hiding in the woods, the Germans had the advantage of the high ground on the riverbank. The Americans had some protection against an embankment and tried to fire back with rifles and grenades.
“They couldn’t shoot us, but we couldn’t retreat back down either. The minute anyone stood up to retreat, they got shot. Some of the guys put their rifles over the edge to shoot, and their hands got shot by the Germans. We were stuck.”
The Americans could wait all night, but eventually the Germans would come down after them.
“After we were shooting at each other for a while, my staff sergeant surrendered all of us,” Wagner said. “I was scared — we all were.”
Hands behind their heads, they yelled “chocolat” and “comrade,” promising candy and friendship to their captors.
“We threw our rifles out in front, and they came down and captured us. We were now prisoners of war.”
Planes, trains and automobiles
The young men were loaded onto trucks that drove north into the mountains.
“I had no idea what was going to happen to me. I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again, my mother again,” Wagner recalled. He would later meet prisoners who were captured in that same riverbed.
After being driven around “for what felt like a very long time,” they were loaded onto a train. It wasn’t a passenger train, either. The soldiers were squashed into boxcars. They stayed silent, still guarded during the ride north.
Suddenly the train stopped, on a bridge. Only two cars had reached land. Wagner was in the second of the two.
For more than an hour, the trapped soldiers took turns looking out of peepholes in the dark boxcars. Then they heard another noise approaching.
“What we saw was shocking,” he said. “All our American bombers — hundreds of them — coming closer and coming closer. Then someone yelled, ‘They are breaking formation!’
“I can still hear it.”
The American airplanes bombed the bridge.
“The train looked like ordinary boxcars, and they weren’t marked. They didn’t know we were in it,” Wagner mused. “They said, ‘Look at all those supplies they’re moving.’ Those supplies were us.”
Wagner’s boxcar was hit, but the cars resting over the bridge didn’t stand a chance. Shrapnel tore his car’s door open, but as the prisoners tried to get out, Wagner was hit and knocked unconscious.
A survivor and a prisoner
Dazed, Wagner awoke in an Italian hospital controlled by the Germans.
“I wasn’t sure where I was or what happened to me. I looked around, focusing my eyes to my surroundings. All I saw everywhere were all of these pretty nurses. I thought to myself, ‘We must be in heaven.’ I had a concussion.”
Still a prisoner, Wagner and about 12 others were sent to a civilian farm, where he plowed, planted and harvested with villagers.
“That was my prisoner farm life. … But we were closely watched, always guarded. They locked us up in the barn to sleep,” Wagner said. “That was our home. Each one of us had a job to do. Some milked the cows and put the cow milk on the highway for the Germans to pick it up. My job was to plow and rake the hay into piles.”
Prisoners met each morning then rode horses out to their work zones. Wagner was nearly trampled one day, when he slipped.
“Well, I remember this one day… I’m getting off the horse, the belt slipped and knocked me on the ground,” Wagner said. “My foot was tangled in the chain, and the horse is going wild, because it took skin off his back.”
The injured horse ran wild until the local women rescued him.
“Those girls settled that horse. The horse was wild, but they were able to calm him. The fräuleins untied me. I was grateful to them for helping me.”
Wagner got a new horse, but he never knew the fate of the first creature.
Another local girl was named Ursula, whom Wagner worked alongside to unload piles of crops into the barn.
“She was 18, like me. She was a pretty German girl. The farm was small, with about eight to 10 little bungalows on it where people lived. Ursula lived in one of those bungalows,” he said. “Ursula’s nickname on the farm was ‘Ushey.’ As the other prisoners came back from their chores they yelled out to me, calling me ‘Ushey.’ They were giving me a hard time because of Ursula. It was all in good fun. They were my boys.”
With the guards’ German accents, Wagner’s name was pronounced “Vogner.” Another prisoner was just called “Juda,” because they knew he was Jewish.
The men lived and worked in their Army uniforms, which became very ragged. Their beds were made of straw, and their bathtubs were just big milk cans. They tired quickly of potato soup, which was the farm’s main harvest, along with rye. It was Wagner’s first experience with farming and horses.
Wagner never suffered a great desire to rebel or sabotage the work, he said.
“You had to keep going. You had to keep your mind on what you’re doing. It’s just one of those things,” he said. “You work with the civilians, and you just wonder what’s going to happen to you, because if anything happened to their family … what would they do to you?”
The farm was in the east, near Russia and the approaching Allies. The Germans decided to move the prisoners, zigzagging for a month over a river and through Germany.
The prisoners walked for about a month, avoiding the Allies and sleeping in guarded barns. Wagner was no medic, but he helped a captured doctor treat the men’s wretched feet every night.
Once during that walk, they saw a single Allied plane flying nearby. Hit by enemy ground fire, the pilot leapt from the ruined plane, but even as Wagner’s men were yelling “Open up!” the parachute failed.
“The chutes wouldn’t open. We were yelling because you could see this [happening].”
Finally, one morning, Wagner and the prisoners refused to leave their barn, having recognized their proximity to an American-held village. The Germans set up a machine gun to coax them out.
“All of a sudden, we see these American trucks come up, and that’s when the guards threw their guns down and [ran],” Wagner said. “Those old German guards that were assigned to us bolted. They were running from the Americans. They ran off into the woods and left us. The Americans took us back.
“I was yelling, like ‘Yippee!’ and jumping. That was really something, when they come around there… It was a great feeling to be with my fellow Americans again.”
Freed, the prisoners travelled “all over the place” again, toward France and eventually England.
Germany surrendered in May of 1945, while Wagner and the other soldiers were crossing the Atlantic.
“I was a POW for 16 months. I made a lot of friends, but we never stayed in touch after we left the farm. I have no idea what happened to any of them, or what happened to Ursula.”
After more than two years away, he went home for two weeks before the Army put him on a train for Miami, Fla. Soldiers were on Miami Beach by day and heard live music by night.
“Everything was free, all paid by the Army. It was like a vacation,” he said. “Everyone was there in uniform. We took over Miami. It was my two weeks of rest.”
When the battalion was assembled one day, Wagner was surprised to be called forward. He was presented with the Purple Heart medal, for being wounded in action.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he recalled.
He was discharged in New Jersey and went home.
“I found out later that my mom wrote to me. I never got her letters. She stopped writing when she was notified that I was MIA,” Wagner explained.
At the Italian hospital, Wagner had spoken to a Catholic monsignor and given him his home address.
“I had no idea what he was going to do with it. I found out later that he notified the officials that I was a POW.”
The government informed his parents, Agnes and Henry.
“During my time on that farm, I often thought of my family. I saw the civilians with their families. I wondered if I would ever see mine again.”
Wagner was only 18 and thought of his mother often.
“When I made it home, my mother was so happy to see me. All of my brothers also made it home from the war, and it was the best thing ever for my mother. Before I left for the war, I was a kid, 18. I took my parents for granted,” said Wagner, the youngest of eight children. “Once I was home from the war, I appreciated my time with them.”
His four brothers survived Europe and were sent to finish the war in Asia. The U.S. government also nearly sent Wagner there, too, before realizing what he had just escaped.
But Wagner stuck around for a 30-year career in the federal government. Working in the secretive and newly formed National Security Agency, he had to tell people he worked for Department of Defense.
“When I worked with the NSA, you couldn’t tell anybody. That was top-secret,” he said.
So what did he do?
“I can’t tell you,” he replied with a grin.
Wagner still defended people for 15 years, as a firefighter in Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department in Baltimore County, Md.
“It was pretty rough [with] your buddy next to you, and you’re going into a fire,” he said. “It gets pretty close. Fire burns.”
As for the war, “My brothers and I shared our war stories and experiences, but I’ve never really talked about it outside of them,” Wagner noted. “They are all gone now. This is the first time I’ve talked about it. It brings back many emotions and memories.”