BY PATRICIA SPEELMAN
SIDNEY — Les Edsall, of Sidney, is a World War II veteran who was a prisoner of war in Germany.
This week, he shared his story with the Western Ohio Television Consortium, Time Warner Channel 5, in Piqua, for inclusion in its “Veterans’ Voices” series, which will air monthly beginning in January. Veterans from throughout west central Ohio have shared their histories while volunteer camera operator Nick Essinger and technical adviser Ted Jones videotaped the accounts.
Vivian Blevins, of Piqua, developed the series to preserve the oral histories of the area’s veterans and to provide local material to classroom teachers. The TV shows will be archived at the Troy and Piqua libraries. They also will be submitted to the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project in Washington, D.C.
Edsall, who, with his wife, Edith, moved to Sidney from Piqua eight years ago, was manager of the Sidney Kroger store on Poplar Street in the 1950s before he became an insurance salesman and then fulfilled a 26-year career as a letter carrier in the Piqua Post Office.
But before all that, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Following basic training at Camp Croft, S.C., in 1942 and officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga., he joined the 26th Infantry Division, the Yankee Division, and served in the 1st Platoon. As they embarked for Europe from New York City, the soldiers were serenaded in the harbor by Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” through a megaphone.
“We landed in Cherbourg (France) after D-Day,” Edsall said. “Gen. Patton had broken the German line at Cherbourg. He raced across France and waited at Nancy for Allies to catch up with him. We were one of the first to get there.”
The fresh troops relieved Patton’s brigade in a secret transfer by night. Edsall found himself in combat on Oct. 8, 1944.
“We became part of Patton’s 3rd Army, so I met him,” Edsall said. “He was my kind of general. With his white pistols and dress uniform, he was a flamboyant character. He said, ‘No soldier ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the sons of bitches die for theirs.’ He was really inspiring and we went out knowing we could win this.”
They started their incursion into Germany on Nov. 8.
“Our battalion didn’t meet a lot of resistance, so we were two miles ahead of units on either side,” Edsall said. “That’s a dangerous position to be in.” There were a lot of casualties and the U.S. troops could hear German activity nearby. Darkness fell and the sound of U.S. machine gun fire stopped in one location. Edsall went out to investigate why and found the gunner dead and the other man in the foxhole severely wounded.
“I started back to find medics to take care of him,” he said. Burning houses and barns on the perimeter lit the area he walked through, allowing enemy troops to see every move he made.
“I met two German soldiers. One had a stick with a white flag. I thought I’d capture them and be a hero,” he said. Instead, the Germans gave Edsall a choice. His U.S. forces were surrounded by the forces of the Third Reich.
“They could have massacred us. They offered us the opportunity to surrender or be killed in our positions,” Edsall said. “I told him I would surrender what was left of the company. In all the years, I’ve never had second thoughts about the decision.”
Edsall was sent to a POW camp in Szubin, Poland. Although there was an extensive library in the camp and the YMCA furnished footballs and basketballs for recreation, prisoners were always hungry and always cold.
“The YMCA and the Red Cross both played an important part in POW life because the Red Cross made up parcels that had goodies in them: powdered coffee, cigarettes, a comb, a toothbrush,” Edsall said.
“They had food,” added his wife, Edith. She had received a telegram on Dec. 2, 1944, saying that her husband was missing.
“Then I didn’t hear any more until February when I received a letter from a friend,” she said. A fellow Army wife had read in a letter from her husband that Edsall was in a POW camp with him. Edith got official word from the government the next day.
Food was scarce for the Germans by 1944 because five years of losing a war had taken its toll on the populace as well as the military. The prisoners were fed a single boiled potato or cabbage or rutabaga each day. They ate a grassy soup which they called Once Over the Meadow Lightly, “because we thought maybe they had passed the bowl over the grass to flavor the soup,” Edsall said.
Hitler had ordered that all POWS be killed, so the Americans and other POWs in the camp constantly feared about what the next day would bring them. They struggled to stay clean. In his six months as a prisoner, Edsall took three showers. The captives knew that others had been sent to “showers” that spewed forth gas instead of water, so “we didn’t insist on taking showers,” he added.
As Russian troops closed in, the Germans decided to evacuate the camp.
“They decided to march us out of Poland and back toward Germany,” Edsall said. The day the march began, Jan. 24, 1945, it was 50 degrees below zero in the coldest winter Europe had seen in 100 years.
“The Germans had no plans for sheltering or feeding us. We knew we were going to have to live off the land,” Edsall said. They stopped their march in February at a POW camp in Luckenwalde, Germany. They had marched more than 250 miles. But the Russians weren’t far behind.
They were to pass through Luckenwalde on their push to Berlin.
“We didn’t know how to feel about that,” Edsall said. “We didn’t trust the Russians, but maybe they were better than the Germans?” The POWs were right to be concerned. The Germans fled the camp in front of the Russian arrival and the Russians were quick to throw guards around the camp and turn back American convoys sent to pick up the prisoners.
“Now we were prisoners of the Russians,” Edsall noted. The new guards sent automatic weapons fire down the fence rows to prevent people from escaping, but that didn’t stop attempts.
“I timed the bursts,” Edsall said. “I gathered a few items. I politely went through the fence and started in a westerly direction toward the Elbe River. I knew Americans were searching there for escaped POWS.” Although the Russians shot at him as he ran, he was not hit. He found a U.S. truck and climbed aboard.
“(The driver) sped off and took me across the Elbe and then I was free. I was free,” Edsall said. Even 68 years later, his voice rings with triumph. At Camp Lucky Strike, in France, he had all he wanted to eat, 24 hours a day. He gained weight and soon weighed more than he ever had before.
Back in Ohio, Edith read newspaper accounts of the end of the war and the names of returning soldiers. In due time, she got a phone call from Les. And then, a week later, she heard a tap on a window of the farmhouse south of Piqua where they lived. Les Edsall was home.