By Staff Sgt. Robert Cloys
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Dec. 16, 1944, Germany was making a push to reclaim land it had lost. The fight would forever be remembered in history as the Battle of the Bulge, but for Edwin Beck, a Browning Automatic Rifle gunner from the 106th Infantry Division, 422nd Regiment, it would be a battle that would truly test him. Three days after the battle started he became a prisoner of war.
“We were supposed to recapture a town another unit had lost,” said Beck nearly 68 years later in the 50th Space Wing’s heritage room. His eagerness to share the stories of others he had met, also former POWs, cast a humble tone on his story as he stood decorated with medals and a folder of pictures and newspaper clippings.
After spending a night in a wooded area not far from the city of Prüm, Germany, his regiment emerged from the woods only to be surrounded by Germans and taken as prisoner. The group marched for days without food to reach the city of Koblenz.
The next day, those captured moved to Stalag XII A, near the city of Limburg where they stayed for only a short time before being transported again, this time they were packed into a “forty and eight” boxcar. The car was meant to hold 40 men or eight horses, but the Germans packed in 60 or more men in each car.
“We were like sardines,” said Beck, his eyes distant. “We could hardly turn around.”
Arriving at Stalag IV B, near the city of Mulberg, the group found that during the trip, one of the men had died in the boxcar. They never knew until they arrived and he fell to the floor after all the other prisoners exited.
This time, Beck would spend a week waiting before he and 19 other Americans were sent to Stalag IV G, near the city of Oschatz.
“Everything we talked about was food and home,” said Beck, recalling how he passed the time.
Each night, they would go back to a large room with no furniture to sleep.
“When you lay down it was just like a human rug,” he said. “When you got up, you trampled on somebody.”
At Stalag IV G, Beck volunteered to work in a stone quarry, breaking rock. Rumor had spread through the camp that workers got better food.
Despite rumored better rations, Beck’s physical health deteriorated as he dropped more than half his body weight.
He spent 34 days in the hospital and some time in a rest camp before his location came under fire in April.
“We heard artillery fire coming from the Russians,” said Beck. “The Germans didn’t want the Russian prisoners there. If they would have been seen them [they believed] the Russians would have massacred all the German guards.”
The German guards marched the Russians out of camp when a P-51 fighter-bomber plane mistook the prisoners for German soldiers and began strafing the formation. The Russian prisoners scattered. One of the prisoners from the attack returned to the camp with wire cutters providing Beck his chance for escape.
“I’m going home,” said Beck told his fellow POWs.
“You’re going to get killed,” his friend cautioned back.
Beck, described by his wife, Fay, as a “stubborn German,” didn’t let the idea of death stop him. As the guards changed shift at noon, Beck cut a hole in the fence and he and two others made their escape. After passing through he exchanged his jacket for a British one, hoping the guards outside the fence line would think he was a prisoner on his way to one of the farms to work.
Together the escapees set out to find a nearby town rumored to have been taken by U.S. troops.
Further down the road, they came upon an old German guard sitting against a water pump eating a sandwich, his rifle propped up next to him. The three proceeded then to ask him where the town was, the guard, unfazed at the bizarre situation, informed them the village was just over the next hill.
“It was late in the war,” Beck said, a sly grin creeping across his face. “I think they knew they had already lost.”
Beyond the hill they found the town, but still had nowhere to go. Eventually, they found another German guard standing in front of a closed gate. They decided that whatever was behind that gate might be their only choice. Beck was skeptical.
“We just got out of somewhere like that and you want to go back in?” he argued.
With no other choice in sight, the three, already having luck with one German guard, attempted to speak with another.
Much to their relief, Beck found once they passed the guard they were in a large hospital. The escapees used the building as refuge but continued to look for their way home.
That night, Beck noticed a jeep pull up to the hospital with one American soldier in it. They went down and hurriedly told the soldier who they were.
“There are no American POWs in the area,” said the soldier, puzzled.
“There’s a whole camp back there that you don’t know about then,” said Beck. “That’s why it got strafed a couple of times.”
The soldier assured Beck that he would get them home; however the plan required the soldiers to remain at the hospital that night and wait for an ambulance to get them in the morning.
The last night they stayed in the German hospital was like none they had since they left England.
“What he told the Germans, I have no idea,” said Beck.
Beck and the two others had their first hot bath and hot dinner since shortly before they left for the warzone months ago.
“Gee, one day they try to kill ya and the next day they wait on ya hand and foot,” said Beck, laughing and still shaking his head in wonder.
The next morning, no longer having to sleep on a floor as he had in the POW camp, Beck awoke in a bed. The nurse was pulling back the curtains and letting the sun flood into the room. He was sure he had died.
The Soldier had kept his word. That morning the ambulance arrived and Beck and his two friends began their long trek home.
“As long as you’ve got life there’s hope,” said Beck looking out at the crowd of 50 SW members that came to hear his story Friday.
His message was a simple one, never give up and learn to forgive.
“We were all soldiers,” said Beck, “just on a different side.”
Though Beck’s story is a remarkable one, more than 83,000 Americans are still missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War.
We must never forget.