THE PRISON YARD ROUNDTABLE:
US Army Gerald Kidd, POW in Germany 5 months
For the first 10 days of 40 Days of Honor we focused on young men from our area who gave their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan. And while Memorial Day is truly meant to honor their sacrifices, there are many still living in our area who served with significance in some of the hardest circumstances any man could face - and lived to tell the story.
It started with the promise of sleeping in a nice warm house. For a soldier who had been sleeping in a foxhole during the harshest European winter on record, it was the offer of a lifetime. That was the deal Gerald Kidd mulled as he looked down into a tiny town in Luxembourg still occupied by a handful of German soldiers. If his unit was able to push the Germans out, their reward would be the best night’s sleep they would have in months.
Fifty men went down the side of the mountain to get things started. The group split once they reached the streets. One group went straight and the other rounded the corner. Gerald Kidd turned his head in time to see the barrel of a large German gun hidden in a chicken coup turning in the direction of his group. It fired and several more German troops emerged. His unit didn’t stand a chance.
Gerald and six others ducked into an abandoned house where they huddled together silently for several hours. When German soldiers entered through the front door, Gerald and the others slid out the backdoor. They climbed a steep embankment then scampered up the hill under the cover of night. Eventually they came to a beehive shack on a farm. It wasn’t the bed he was expecting, but that is where Gerald Kidd spent the night of December 21, 1944 and most of the next day. Late on the afternoon of December 22, German soldiers kicked open the door and took Gerald and his men as prisoners. The previous day and a half had been hard. The next six months would be much, much harder.
Gerald's POW experience started with a long march. For a full month, he walked every day in line with other POWs. The group of captives would grow with every mile. They were guarded by German soldiers wielding submachine guns. The weather was damp and frigid. Food was scarce. At night, the men were herded into barns or other buildings and made to sleep. Many of the captives developed infections and illnesses. At one barnyard, a German farmer gave a large wooden sled to Gerald and his group so they could transport some of the more seriously ill men. Four men lay down on the sled and two men pulled it. But after only going a few hundred yards beyond the farm, the German soldiers ordered those pulling to stop and move on. They told the four sick men that they would just have to wait on the farmer to come back and help them. When the rest of the prisoners had moved a little further down the road, shots rang out. The men on the sled had been executed.
From December 22 to January 16, Gerald marched everyday through towns where he was spit upon and jeered at by the people. He arrived at German Prison Camp 12A in Limburg, Germany. He spent a few days there and was able to send a postcard home to his wife letting her know he was a POW. After a few days in Limburg, he was put aboard a boxcar. The train traveled slowly toward the northeastern corner of Germany, near the border with Poland. Gerald described the conditions inside the cramped railroad car as intolerable. There was no room to move or lie down. Filth covered the floor. Lice were thick on every soldier's clothes. American fighter planes would occasionally bomb the train's engine, slowing the journey even more. In total, the train would carry Gerald over 400 miles.
When he finally arrived at a camp in New Brandenburg, Germany, he found a virtual melting pot of prison culture. There were Russians, Poles, Turks, Czechs, Italians, British and Americans. He would spend the next month - February 1945 - living in a large concrete block building with dirt floors and a handful of straw scattered about. He saw men who tried to escape executed by the guards. He saw another man beaten to death with the butt of a rifle by a bully German guard for apparently no reason at all. It was a harsh existence.
Gerald and some of the Americans were moved from the large camp to a smaller farm camp outside New Brandenburg, even closer to Poland. The conditions there were slightly better, mostly because the war was just about to end. One day a German officer called the men of his camp out and offered them a ride in a transport trruck to the American lines far to the west. The men who chose not to get on the truck would be left at the farming camp to fend for themselves with the Russian Army creeping closer everyday. Half the group got on the truck. The other half stayed put. Gerald was one of those who stayed. They didn't trust the German officer's word, but those who boarded the truck did in fact make it to the American lines.
The Russian Army pushed through Gerald's camp a few days later. They burned almost the entire town of New Brandenburg. The prisoners at the camp were told they could follow the Red Army westward, but they would not be provided for in any way. There wasn't enough food or clothing for the Russian soldiers, let alone hundreds of prisoners from a dozen different countries. Gerald walked with the Russians for a couple of weeks, when the war officially ended on May 8, 1945. Gerald's ordeal, however, was not over yet.
At the war's end, the Russians took the prisoners walking with their army and put them into a makeshift prison camp. Gerald was now a prisoner of the Russian Army and he had no idea what the Russians were going to do with him. Gerald and a few of the men with him - 3 Americans and 2 Belgians - devised a plan to escape. They gathered whatever lumber they could find to build a crude ladder in order to scale over the encampment's fence. The rest of the lumber they used to build a fire. A few members of Gerald's group got some of the prisoners to gather around the fire and start singing loudly, drawing the attention of the guards. Meanwhile, the rest of them used the ladder to crawl over the fence. Once out, they piled into the back end of a cargo truck.
The six men traveled in the back of the truck westward for the whole night. They slipped out of it the next day and began making their way through the German forest to the Elbe River, the dividing line between the American army and the Russian army. At night, they stayed in barns, eating whatever they could find along the way. When they finally reached the Elbe River, over 100 miles from where they started their journey in New Brandenburg, they saw a small boat transporting Russians and Americans across the river. The boat's driver saw the men and ferried them over to the American side. For the first time in almost 6 months, Gerald Kidd was on friendly ground. He was still wearing the same clothes he had been wearing when captured in December. He was hungry and exhausted, but overwhelmingly excited to just be closer to home.
Gerald and the men he traveled with were taken into a small town nearby, where they were fed, bathed, and clothed. And that night - nearly six months from the time the original offer had been made to him - Gerald Kidd laid down to sleep in a nice, warm bed in a real house.
As a former prisoner of war, Gerald Kidd still faced a long road back to Pontotoc. The US Army set up special camps all over France to help process the immense number of POWs who had been released from German camps. Most ex-POWs would spend no less than a month receiving special medical and dietary treatment. Gerald was sent to "Camp Lucky Strike", named for the famous brand of cigarettes popular with soldiers at the time. Camp Lucky Strike numbered nearly 60,000 men at the time. He spent several weeks there before finally making it back to American soil on June 21, 1945.
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Gene Smith West Point, ms
Gerald. Was fascinated by your story when you told it when Smitty and I were with you at the Journal. You were really a lucky man. I have seen numbers of the American POWS captured on the eastern front by Germans whose's pow camps were overrun by the Russians. The outcome was not pretty. Good Speed, Gene Smith
RaNae Vaughn Iuka, MS
Thank you, Mr. Kidd, for your service to our country.
LACY CRUM WALNUT,MS.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SERVING OUR COUNTRY.MAY GOD CONTINUE TO KEEP HIS HAND UPON YOU.
Treny Tupelo MS
My grandfather is an amazing man! Despite such a horrible experience, he is the sweetest man I know. Thank you for your service to our country and teaching me what TRUE patriotism is! I love you.
Ruth Underwood Bowen Tishomingo MS
I am 83 years old and I will never forget the men in our family that gave lives so we could be free