By Tom Rodriguez
In 1942, my uncle, Benny Rodriguez, was drafted into the Army at the age of twenty years. In December of 1944, while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he was wounded and was captured by the Germans. In his own words, recorded a couple of years before he died, following is his account of his experiences at the Battle of the Bulge and his days as a prisoner of war in Germany.
“I was in the Battle of the Bulge and had been injured by a bullet. I was being treated at a medic station when we were overrun by the Germans. After our capture, the Germans agreed to exchange us for their wounded. We were put into an ambulance and were to be taken to the front line. As we were driven toward the front, we hit a land mine. The ambulance was destroyed, one man was killed, and others were wounded. I was wounded by the impact and my face was paralyzed on the right side. We waited for help, wondering who would find us first, the U. S. troops or the Germans. Unfortunately, we were found by the Germans and taken prisoners.
We traveled by train to Falling Bostle, Germany, where I was held at Stalag 11B. This camp held 3,500 military prisoners from many nations. Our living conditions were terrible. There was no heat, poor clothing, and very little to eat. In fact, toward the end of the war we were given one bowl of watered down soup a day, and that usually had worms in it. We also had to sleep three abreast on wooden bunks.
One day, my buddy and I went to church services and afterwards I waited in line to talk to the chaplain. While waiting , I heard someone call out “”Rabbit” and I looked around but didn’t see anyone I knew. Once again, I heard someone call out “Rabbit,” which was my nickname from my boyhood in Topeka, Kansas. My buddy and I heard it again, and my buddy said, “Someone keeps calling you.” We looked around and still didn’t see anyone. The fourth time, I heard my name and I caught sight of a guy in a large Russian overcoat. I looked at him closely and said, “Man oh Man.” I was shocked because it was David Carreno, a boyhood friend of mine from Topeka, Kansas. I was so shocked to see another Topekan, thousands of miles from home in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, that all I could do was give him a big hug and just kept saying, “Man oh Man.” David and I then spent a lot of time laughing and catching up on news from back home. When we were finished with all of our news, David told me the sad news that Jesus Tostado, another friend from Topeka had been killed in action.
We were liberated on April 15, 1945, by the English, after five months of imprisonment. We had a feeling of uncontrollable joy as we ran toward the main gate to greet our liberators. We were quickly given food and cautioned not to overeat. They flew us out to receive medical care and to prepare us for going home. We were deloused each time we boarded a plane. After several times of being deloused, we were finally allowed to take our first shower in many months.
My face was still paralyzed so I was encouraged to stay overseas to receive treatments. I didn’t want to, but I knew that I had to get well before going home so I stayed in Europe for another couple of months. After the treatments I was able to close my right eye and my mouth returned to normal.
I returned home in July of 1945,. The same week that I returned, my parents received a letter informing them that I was a prisoner of war. Earlier, they had been sent a letter telling them that I was missing in action. That’s how things were during wartime. It was a harsh experience in my life, one that I will never forget. Yet, I was proud to have served my country and to do my duty as an American.” Benny Rodriguez
After they returned home from the war, and for many years afterward, my brothers and I would ask my uncles Benny, John and Raymond Gomez, to tell us about their combat experiences in World War II. None of them, however, would talk about the war. I guess it was something that they all wanted to forget. And, until my Uncle Benny recorded his prisoner of war experience a few years before he died at age 76, none of them ever talked openly about their time in the war. In spite of their silence, or maybe because of it, my brothers and I, and our friends, remained convinced for many years that Mexican-Americans from Topeka, Kansas, had won World War II all by themselves.