Willie Holm, of Benson, said he has a guardian angel that’s been with him through everything he’s encountered in life, including when he was held as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp in Germany.
“I definitely believe in that truly. He or she has been kept very busy.”
His angel saved him when he got shot by his neighbor with a 22 rifle at the tender age of 17. “The bullet went through me and missed my heart and my spine. I was in the hospital for 50 days, couldn’t get up or down, just had to lie still, and every week they’d come in and stick a needle in my back and pull out the dead blood.”
Everybody told him he would never make the military because of that, but he proved them wrong. It took him two years, but he was determined to sign up and serve because an older brother by three years was killed in the Aleutian Islands in the Japanese invasion. “I decided I better do my part. I wanted to enlist into the army. They said they couldn’t take me right then, so I said ‘put me down, and as soon as I can, I’ll go in.’” About six weeks later he was called, passed his exam and took his basic training at Camp Walters, Texas. He got through the basic training and then came home on an 8-9 day pass before they were shipped over to Nazi Germany. “I came home and Tootsi (Agnes) and I got married Oct 17, 1944. I was home two days after we were married then headed to the East Coast to be shipped overseas.”
They had 8,000 to 9,000 men on the ship going across, he said, and one day they encountered enemy submarines. They had support from the US. Army in the water, so they weren’t too worried about it, but the alarm was sounded, and it wasn’t long before that was clear. “We crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in England, and everything went wrong. We did a lot of walking. We were greeted well as we got into England because they needed help really bad.”
From there they took a train across England to the English Channel between France and England. They then took a ship across the English Channel. “It was a rough, windy day, very nasty, but we crossed and landed in Lahr, France, where we had our first encounter with the war. We didn’t have to have a fight there. It had all been taken by the Americans; all of Nazi, Germany, had retreated. The Americans had taken over everything.”
From there, he said, they took a train for a while, moved deeper into France, and then had to get out and walk. “We were infantry so you do walk. We kept advancing across France and we encountered more of the conflict of Hitler’s Nazism and his soldiers. It wasn’t too bad at first, but we did encounter some, and we battled with them, but we were lucky nobody got really hurt.” They kept advancing and pushing the Nazis back because they had completely taken France over. They had civil encounters, he said, but they were fortunate; they held their ground. “It got worse as we encountered two battles. I was a first scout so I was always up front, and my second scout was Steve Renquil from Iowa and the next in line was my lieutenant, Steve Heick. We were always up front.” They had a captain whom Holm described as a tremendous individual. “He didn’t have to point his rifle when he was using it; he shot from the hip and was exact, deadly. He saved us guys a lot of times. He was a tremendous individual.”
They had some close encounters, he said, but it worked out pretty well. “We pushed the enemy back, didn’t let them sleep. We went on day and night; we never quit. That’s the way you wear them out, that’s part of being in battle.”
One day they had a really close encounter; they were advancing and came to a small river 10 to 12 feet wide and a bridge. They were coming up onto that and Holm was again out in front with his second scout next in line. He said the German guys yelled out something in broken English, and they had Red Cross banners on their arms. “We thought they were medics. We advanced, and all at once, they pulled up their burp guns and started shooting us. We were maybe 100 to 150 feet away. As I was walking, the bark off a tree hit my face; it just burned like the dickens.” That bullet had missed him and hit the tree. “About that time you get serious; if they’re going to shoot at you, you’re going to shoot back. But you hit the ground when someone’s shooting at you,” he said, noting that was the first real close encounter they had. “I have a guardian angel, believe me.”
As they advanced along this road, the Nazis opened up on them with machine gun fire. “All you do is hit the ground and try to protect yourself.” There was water along the ditch, and part of his body was in water, but he kept the upper part of his body dry where he had his prayer book and his new testament in his pocket. “I lay there. I couldn’t move because there was too much rifle fire and machine gun fire. I remember this so well As I was laying there the bullets would drop in front of me and splash water on my face and part of my body, they just lost their power and dropped into the water. That makes you stop and think, why would those bullets stop and not hit me? I’ll never forget that.” Holm said they lost one good man that day. When night fell they held their ground and retreated, then repositioned themselves. “It’s strange how things can be so close, and yet, you don’t get killed or blown apart.”
Holm said they had different on-and-off battles like that, but they held their ground and kept pushing them back. “We were lucky. Most of us guys made it okay.”
Every day it was a little different encounter, he said. Sometimes it would be in open fields, and it was pretty safe, but you didn’t know if you were going to step on a mine. “We never quit pushing them back. We’d go on night patrols, and we never let the enemy sleep.” Holm said they had some close encounters on night excursions. One was a very close shave. “We were walking along a wagon trail, kind of tapered up a hill. There were three of us, we were just about ready to turn and go into the woods, and just like that, one of the Nazi’s chopped into a tree up the hill.” He said they froze right there. He had his gun, and when he came down with his fingers so he wouldn’t fall, he was surprised because his fingers came right over a trip wire. He had one foot on one side and the other behind it. “If that guy hadn’t hit that tree with the chop I would have tripped that wire, and right there was a bouncing Betsy. That bomb would come up 6 feet and hit anything in its way. If it hadn’t been for the German chopping into that tree I would have tripped that wire.” He said they continued to go ahead, got just about to the top of the hill and found rolls of wire just like barbed wire.
“We were pretty close to the enemy at that point. We took hold of the barbed wire roll and moved it just a little bit. We could hear the machine gun when he pulled the mechanism. The first time he pulls it, it’s okay, but after the second time you better be careful because its ready to go.”
Holm said they didn’t move for a little while. Then they started going back one at a time. “We retreated down the hill and saved ourselves.” Because of that night excursion they knew what they were going to encounter the next day. “That’s good for survival. We fought all the way back to camp.” The next day they had a battle going, and drove the Nazis out of there. “Battles were very close, very serious. The guardian angel was there.”
They kept advancing; they kept pushing them back and took the territory they were after. “We did a lot of night excursions. We’d walk several miles sometimes. Try to keep them confused.”
As they were advancing in France they encountered heavy mortar shells and rifle fire, so much that they had to halt and wait until the shelling settled down so they could make a move. Holm didn’t have a shovel to dig a fox hole so he asked his buddy, who was 6 to 8 feet away from him, to dig it big enough for two people, which he did. “I got in and hadn’t been there more than a minute of two when a mortar shell came in right where I had been laying on the road. If I hadn’t been in the foxhole with him I would have been blown to smithereens. My backpack and gear, the shrapnel cut everything to ribbons just like they went in with razor blades and sliced it up.” Once again he credits the guardian angel.
After that, everything went along great until Jan. 15, the day he got wounded. “We were advancing; it was kind of a dumb deal by the big brass. We were under orders to go to this village. They put on a good battle. They took out three of our tanks, and I was close to the tank.” Holm was holding onto the tank because they were moving pretty fast. The tank he was holding onto hit a mine. “It moved me over about 8-10 feet. When I came to I tried to get up, and I couldn’t. I got the worst of the blast that morning.” He said he laid there with rifle and machine gun fire from the Nazis flying in all directions.
Holm laid there for an hour, and then his lieutenant said they better surrender so they tied their white handkerchiefs on their rifles and put their rifles up.
“That stopped the shooting. The guys stood up and were going to walk in. I couldn’t stand up so I told them to go on in, that I was okay there.” They all went in, he said, and what’s strange is the tank driver had gotten out of the tank, disabled it, then jumped out of the ditch and grabbed Holm by the back of his collar and pulled him alongside of him.
There was machine gun and rifle fire from all directions, Holm said, so it took a lot of guts for him to do that. “I laid there for quite a while, and then this Nazi soldier came over, took all my grenades and offered me a cigarette.” They loaded him onto a little cart and lifted him up. There were 11 who surrendered that day, he said.
Holm’s leg was broken and was dragging on the ground when they took him into the building for interrogation. They spoke English well, he said, and every time he was asked for information, he gave them his name and serial number of the U.S. Army. Holm just kept repeating his name and serial number, and then the officer put the pistol back in his holster and told his men to get Holm out of there. “They loaded me onto the stretcher with my gun tied to my leg to keep it from dangling, and we went back into deeper Germany.” They took him to a big old barn where the rest of the guys in his company were being kept. “I was pretty well shot, a lot of blood loss, and I was freezing and shaking, so the guys put some extra jackets on me, but it didn’t help.” Those are the things you do for your buddies, he said. He lay in that old barn the entire day. He said some of the Nazi soldiers he saw there were all mangled up as well.
“It was awful to see. I was in good shape compared to them. I lay there all day, then towards evening they put me on a stretcher, took me into deeper Germany. They got me to a hospital that was three stories high.” Holm said he lay in the hallway until 3 a.m. before they picked him up. Nothing was sterilized, he said, that’s all they had. He lost a lot of blood and figures he was unconscious about three days. “I got wounded on a Monday morning, and I must have been out of it three days. There’s nothing you can do but lay there, hurting beyond all numbers. There was no cast, there was nothing.
He does remember getting a little bit of food, but he was hurting so bad food didn’t matter to him. “I was mangled up pretty bad. I laid there, and every three days they unpacked the stuff and put new pieces of cloth in the holes and wrapped me up with something like crepe paper – it wasn’t bandaging – that’s all they had.”
Holm said the hospital had an anti-aircraft gun on track and when the airplanes went over, they’d wheel this gun out and use it to shoot at the American and English planes. On a Sunday morning they decided to move Holm, loaded him on a stretcher and took him to the second floor. “I remember it well. About 8-9 a.m. that Sunday morning they had wheeled this anti-aircraft gun out and were using it for shooting at American planes. Just like that it was quiet, and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose because this American plane came in at an angle.” Holm, who was lying by the second- story window, said the plane came in, and the pilot dropped bombs, shooting 50 caliber rounds steadily as he flew by. Then a second pilot came in at an angle, and when he dropped his bomb, he took out the tracer gun and blew it all to smithereens. “All hell broke loose for a while. And when he went by the corner of that window I thought he was coming right into the hospital. I could see him sitting in the cockpit as he went by.”
Holm said if he could have moved out of the bed he would have got under it. “But I was hurt so bad I couldn’t move, but he took that son of a gun out real good.” It wasn’t many days, and they loaded Holm on the ambulance to take him deeper into Germany, into the prison camp. It was in the wintertime, he said, and they took him and another guy into the city of Monheim. “It was pitiful to see. Everything was just blown to smithereens. There was nothing, a chimney here and there a piece of pipe sticking up. Everything in the town was just mangled up, twisted pipes, it was a big oil center, and the planes had dropped their bombs and ripped everything all to pieces.”
Holm lay in the window of a charcoal burner ambulance and saw the dead, which the Germans had piled up crisscrossed like you do wood. “On every corner they had men, women and children piled up like that, frozen stiff. It was all through the city of Monheim as we passed through. It was a terrible thing to see.” They got to the Rhine River, and there were three trenches on each side. “They told me the women and the children had to keep that maintained in case the Nazis had to fall back. He told me about it. As we went through the bridge the bombs were wired every 15 to 20 feet so the bridge could be blown. Both sides of the bridge were wired.”
Holm said that was a lucky day for him. When they moved him out of that prison, out of the hospital. It turned out to be a real foggy day or else he wouldn’t have gotten to the prison, instead he would have been blown to smithereens because everything that moved was blown. “It’s strange how everything fell into place.” He was taken into deeper Germany, and after close to 50 miles in that charcoal burner ambulance, they arrived at the prison camp. They didn’t get any food that day, but after that they started getting one bowl of things they swept off the floor – the peelings, the bugs, the worms. “They’d just sweep it up and cook it. We got all that good stuff and one slice of dark bread that was coarse as all get out.” That was their daily rations, plus water, but nothing else. “In prison camp that’s the way we lived. We had seven kinds of lice and we never turned the lights off in the room. You couldn’t because the lice, would come and practically slide you out of the cot you were laying on, they were so thick. When you turned the lights off you could feel them hit your feet, your toes. We always had the lights on.” He was amazed they always had electricity, he said.
On occasion, some strange things happened while in the prison camp. They were just cripples laying there on the cot, he said, they couldn’t do anything. “Even though it hurt, I would slide off the cot and go across the room. I was on the second floor. Then I’d slide over to the stairway, I’d slide down.” The walls were about 24 inches thick on the building, and everything was all stone and concrete, he said. “I’d slide down the steps and go down to the first level, then I’d have to try to get up again. That was good exercise, and now we call it therapy. I’d go up and down twice a day. It hurt like the dickens, but you do it. If you’re going to survive you have to move.” He did that daily.
Holm said they knew they would get liberated by the American forces. He would hear big shells booming, coming a little closer and closer. “We knew that was going to happen so we never gave up.”
Early one morning, the American forces made their attack. They came in and took the prison camp. “The American forces came in. They gave us cigarettes, candy bars, tomato juice. They tried to kill us. Your body can’t take it. They didn’t realize we couldn’t take food. Oh, did we get sick. I wish I could have died a few days there.” They lay like that three days, he said, waiting for a bridge to be put in so they could cross the Rhine River. The American troops had a pontoon bridge done in three days, he said, and they brought ambulances in and loaded up the prisoners and took then back into France. “Again, they were going to be nice to us that day, too, so we got pancakes and milk and all that good stuff. We ate it, and I wished I could have died.”
They got to Paris, France, and Holm remembers going into the hospital where an older middle-aged woman told him she heard he was a POW coming in, and she would take good care of him. “She spoke good English. She brought me in brown tea and burnt whole wheat toast, that I got morning and evening, two slices of burnt whole wheat toast and brown tea. That started going pretty good. Then pretty soon it was that and two hard boiled eggs. That started working okay and then things started shaping up.”
They used DDT powder on them to get rid of the lice. Holm also needed surgery on his knee to remove a big piece of shrapnel. Dr. Edward Johnson from Minneapolis removed the shrapnel, which was as big as a silver dollar. “I’ll never forget Edward Johnson from the Cities, or my nurse from Iowa. She would come in and switch my sheets, she’d get her arm around me and switch them and you never knew what happened.”
This same nurse told Holm to write his wife a letter. “I said ‘I can’t write with this hand,’ she said ‘You practice with your left hand, and I’ll take care of the rest of it for you.’” Holm wrote the letter, and she mailed it. “That’s the first notice my wife, Agnes, got that I was liberated from the Nazi prison camp. The Red Cross had come in a few days earlier, he said, and taken all the information down and was going to let his wife know he had been liberated.
Holm was in the prison camp 93 days. “If you don’t keep a good attitude you won’t make it; you go downhill pretty fast. I can see where you can will yourself to die. You’re hurting. I couldn’t move or do anything, and the hurt was so bad. I never told my wife about this. I never talked about this until about four years ago.”
You have to fight your way out if you’re going to survive, he said, which he did. “You take some awful close chances. My guardian angel was always there.”