The POW

by Mike Peters

 
The old car didn't have any windshield. But the three occupants were without a care, as they raced out the ridge.  The young couple and the girl's younger sister were headed for the picture show.
Thermus Hinzman 
and
 Olive Pritt

The couple tied the knot on 13 July 1940.  I hunted for a record of their marriage in Kanawha County, home of the bride, and then scanned neighboring counties without success.  My great Aunt laughed and told my mother, "He won't find it."  That was because Uncle Thermus "Nerm" Hinzman and Aunt Olive Pritt eloped and were married across the border in Kentucky.


 
 Olive, Uncle Nerm, and Raymond
I remember Uncle "Nerm" and Aunt Olive when they lived in St. Albans.  They had four children, but I only knew sons Raymond & Jerry. Carolyn was two months old when she died in 1943.  Michael was almost 15 when he drowned in 1959.  I was named after him.

I sat in the living room of the Hinzman home on Allen's Fork, about a year ago, while Uncle "Nerm" discussed World War II.  He was part of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, often called the "Big Red One." The 1st, according to a website dedicated to its history, is now the "oldest continuously serving division in the United States Army."  Their motto is "No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first!"

 
The two soldiers sat back to back and nervously scanned the horizon.  They clutched their M1 Garands and focused on the European landscape.  Their surveillance of the countryside was deliberate and systematic, back and forth, like windshield wipers moving in slow motion.  One of the soldiers froze when he saw men of Hitler's Third Reich approaching. He was unable to fire his weapon, the rifle that General Patton called "the greatest battle implement ever devised."  He was unable to run.  He could not warn his buddy of the impending doom. Both men were captured without much of a struggle.  The buddy, of the soldier that froze that day, was my great Uncle "Nerm."  "Nerm" never blamed him for their incarceration.

Stalag life began in the office of the Commandant.  Per the Geneva Convention, the POW need only give name, rank and serial number.  Uncle "Nerm" did just that.  Over and over!  It was his answer to every question, until the Commandant asked one particular question. "Hinzman! That is a German name. You will help us, won't you?" asked the Commandant.  The two-word reply started with a four letter expletive and ended with a pronoun.  The POW made sure that the emphasis was on the first word.  The Commandant understood enough English to realize that he was the pronoun following the expletive, that he was the object at which the insult was directed.  The Commandant angrily grabbed him by the neck of the shirt, while a cohort opened the door.  The POW was kicked hard in the seat of his pants and thrown down the steps into the yard.  It was the first of many beatings he would incur at the camp.

A young prisoner, also about to meet the Commandant for the first time, looked afraid. Uncle "Nerm" got up and reassured him, "Just give 'em your name, rank and serial number. You'll be fine."

They were made to work in the fields. On one such work detail, a group of prisoners which included my uncle, found a "sweet beet" that hadn't been harvested, one that had been overlooked, food that was meant for the Nazi soldiers.  They passed the beet around.  Each prisoner took a bite and chewed many times before swallowing.   They savored their little taste of sugar beet.  It was much better than the small bowl of cabbage soup they were fed, soup that was more water than cabbage.  They were beaten for the incident.

Part of the compound was bombed by friendly fire.  The remaining prisoners were forced to search the camp for body parts. Torsos, heads, arms and legs were pieced together, an Allied jigsaw puzzle.  Officer's arms were on enlisted men's bodies. British and American limbs rested on French torsos.  They didn't have to match. It was the Nazi way of making sure that no one had escaped during the bombing. Then the prisoners were made to bury the body parts.  Some of them threw up what little was in their stomach.  Others dry heaved.

When they were liberated, the POWs were treated to donuts and coffee.  They were instructed to go through the line once, to eat slow, and to limit their intake to one donut and one cup of Joe.  One guy, ravaged by months without proper nutrition, refused to heed the advice.  He ate, as the saying goes, like there was no tomorrow. And there wouldn't be for him. After 11 trips though the donut line, he collapsed and died.  The balloon that was his belly popped.  Uncle "Nerm" had been a big eater before he left. When he returned, one egg would fill him up.


 
Uncle Nerm and his parents -- Father Holly Hinzman and Mother Golda Milam Hinzman

I recently did some research on the Hinzman family and found that "Nerm's" great grandfather was a POW during the Civil War.  Samuel Bonnett Hinzman was a private in Company "G" of the 60th VA Infantry, CSA.  He was wounded in action at Cloyd's Mountain, Virginia, on 9 May 1864, captured and imprisoned until 16 July 1865.

According to an article in the Washington Times, dated 22 May 2001, "In the next year around 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II will likely die."

Uncle "Nerm" became one of the 400,000 Wednesday.

He's a lot stronger now because he doesn't have to carry Hitler's baggage anymore. He can breathe again without the aid of a portable oxygen tank.  He's going to the movies in an old beat up jalopy, dodging raindrops and lady bugs.  His woman sits close by his side.  Life awaits out on the paved road.  You can see it pretty clear through the hole that used to be a windshield.

Thanks for listening and thanks to those that remain from that elite group, a group that once numbered 16 million.  I ask that you say a prayer tonight for a fallen comrade.

Uncle Nerm on the porch of his home located on Allen's Fork in Kanawha 
County, West Virginia

Sincerely,

Mike Peters
npeters102@aol.com
 





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