While his wife and two small sons were celebrating Christmas Day in the United States, Art Van Moorlehem was imprisoned inside a boxcar in Germany during World War II.
Van Moorlehem passed away last July at age 96 in Arlington, Minn. For over a quarter of a century, he hardly ever uttered a word about his war experiences with friends or family members.
Art Van Moorlehem in 1944 during WWII. Contributed photo
One of five brothers who would serve in World War II, Arthur “Art” Leon Van Moorlehem entered the U.S. Army and eventually was stationed in Europe in September 1944. At 22 years old, his home was a foxhole and his companion was his rifle. He was scared, lonely and cold.
Van Moorlehem was smack dab in the middle of one of the most famous battles of World War II – the Battle of the Bulge, which began on Dec. 16, 1944, and lasted until Jan. 25, 1945.
Van Moorlehem and other American soldiers were pinned down in their foxholes by the incessant German fire. After facing a two-day barrage, the majority of the Company “B” soldiers that Van Moorlehem was a part of had been killed by German tanks and artillery. And nearly half of the 16,000 American soldiers in his 423rd Infantry Regiment of the 106th Division were now dead.
The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front. It took place through the densely forested Ardennes area of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg, near the conclusion of WWII.
The German offensive plan was to quell the Allies’ use of the Belgian port of Antwerp and to also split the Allied lines. They figured that would allow the German forces to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, while also forcing the Western Allies’ hand in negotiating a peace treaty in the Axis powers’ favor.
Van Moorlehem, recounting his past later in life to media members, admitted that he didn’t realize when the battle started that he had only four or five days of freedom left.
The 106th Division, referred to as the “Golden Lions,” was positioned at the front line along the border of Germany and Belgium in the Snow Hills. It was a time when that region was experiencing one of the coldest winters ever recorded.
The Germans’ surprise attack on the morning of Dec. 16 was expertly planned out, according to some experts, and partly blamed on a combination of overconfidence and preoccupation with offensive plans by the Allied forces.
American forces incurred the highest casualties of any operation during the war. Out of its peak of 610,000 troops, 19,000 were killed and 70,000 others were wounded. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the United States in World War II and the second-deadliest battle in American history.
Van Moorlehem, who kept a diary during the war, witnessed hundreds of teenage soldiers, many just out of high school, being killed at a time they should have been home with their families celebrating the holidays.
Once the Germans encircled the 106th Division, Van Moorlehem’s commanding officer surrendered on Dec. 19 due to his men starving and nearly out of ammunition.
However, Van Moorlehem, despite his foot being badly injured by shrapnel, decided to make a run for the border with 50 or 60 others instead of surrendering. But they were only able to make it a short distance before they were soon surrounded and forced to surrender.
Early the next morning, Dec. 20, Van Moorlehem and others were joined by another group of approximately 1,000 American soldiers that were captured. They were all then forced to march for nearly two days in the cold and snow in order to reach a German rail center in Gerolstein.
Van Moorlehem could feel the pain in his injured foot with every step he made during the lengthy march. And despite the freezing temperatures, the captors marched with wet socks and boots and no warm clothing albeit for the stocking caps they were wearing under their helmets.
Van Moorlehem later explained that the U.S. soldiers were wearing their summer uniforms at the time because their winter clothing never made it to the front lines.
The prisoners were given bread on Dec. 21, the first thing they had eaten in nearly four days. Once at the rail center, Van Moorlehem and his counterparts were herded into boxcars until they were packed in like sardines, making it difficult to even sit down. The cars had previously been used to haul horses, and the nauseating smell of horse manure wafted through the air.
This 1944 photo shows Art Van Moorlehem as he prepares to go off to war, with his wife Lucille and their sons, Gordon, left, and Dennis, right. Contributed photo
That night, the soldiers were forced to wait in the boxcars where they would be eventually transported deeper into Germany to a POW camp. Allied forces knew about the rail center and began bombing the area. It was unbeknownst to them that the boxcars contained their own men. Of the nearly 20 boxcars loaded with prisoners, only four survived the Allied shelling, including the one that Van Moorlehem was in. The prisoners occupying the other 16 boxcars were all killed.
The following morning, the Germans proceeded to repair the tracks and reconnect the remaining boxcars before heading to Stalag 9B, a POW camp southeast of Bad Orb, arriving on Christmas Day.
Once in Bad Orb, the prisoners were removed from the boxcars and taken to Stalag 9B near the top of a hillside that had once been the Hitler Youth Center.
When speaking to various media outlets, Van Moorlehem explained that 500 prisoners would be placed in barracks that should have been limited to around 200. The camp already was housing several Serbian, French and Russian prisoners.
There was little heat in the barracks. Two to three men shared a single blanket, and they would huddle close together in an attempt to stay as warm as possible when sleeping.
As many as 1,300 Serb prisoners had been executed and buried in a mass grave near the entrance of the camp to make room for the new arrivals of U.S. prisoners.
Van Moorlehem once said that there were more prison casualties that winter due to extreme frostbite and starvation than those killed by the Germans.
The prisoners were given little food or clean water. Once a day, they would be served a foul-tasting thin broth served in their helmets that included a few pieces of unknown meat and a few potatoes. And they would also get stale and tasteless bread that contained sawdust. Many of the prisoners developed dysentery and lost a lot of weight which zapped their energy.
Adding to being cold, hungry and tired, the soldiers soon were infested with lice and bedbugs. Pneumonia was also prevalent, and the death toll among the prisoners was climbing.
When American forces finally arrived on April 14, 1945, the liberated soldiers quickly climbed aboard trucks, ending their nearly four-month nightmare.
The soldiers were soon fed, cleaned, administered medicine, and given all new clothing. They eventually boarded the SS Argentina, a ship that would take them back to the states on a 13-day journey.
The liberated soldiers were unable to eat much of anything on the ship over the nearly two-week voyage other than oatmeal because their shrunken stomachs could not accept anything but bland foods. Van Moorlehem had entered the service weighing around 150 pounds and had shed 35 pounds in prison.
Once the liberated soldiers arrived at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, they were allowed to enjoy a steak dinner.
Van Moorlehem was decorated with a myriad of military awards for heroic or meritorious achievements, including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Badge, and several battle ribbons.
After the war was over, the Stalag 9B German camp commander was tried and convicted of war crimes by the Serbs because of the cruel and harsh treatment the prisoners had to endure. The commander was executed for his crimes.
All the while her husband had been away, Lucille was unaware what had happened to him until the war department sent her a Western Union telegram, reading: “The Secretary of War expresses his deep regrets that your husband Pvt. Arthur L. Van Moorlehem has been reported missing in action since Twenty One December in Germany.”
For two months, no further details were given to Lucille until a second telegram arrived. This time, it read: “Report just received through the International Red Cross states that your husband Pvt. Arthur L. Van Moorlehem is a prisoner of war of the German government.”
Van Moorlehem was finally reunited with his wife in Chicago in early May 1945.
Return to Belgium, Germany
Van Moorlehem, accompanied by his son, Edward, returned to Belgium and Germany in 1990.
“He was even able to find his old foxhole,” said his son, Dennis Van Moorlehem. “And he went back to the prison he was in at Bad Orb.”
When Van Moorlehem visited there, Stalag 9B had been renovated and turned into a children’s summer camp.
“As I got older and discovered the things (my father) had gone through, he became my hero,” Dennis stated. “He never complained or spoke badly of the Germans and that mystified me for many years.”
Van Moorlehem was born in 1922 in Huron, S.D.; the third youngest of 13 children to Octaaf and Marie Van Moorlehem. Eventually, the family moved to Minneota, Minn., renting a farm just outside of town.
Art Van Moorlehem in 2015. Contributed photo
Art graduated from Minneota in 1940. On Dec. 31, 1941, he married Lucille Langten in Watertown, S.D. They were living there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor but moved to Chicago soon after.
Art was employed in Chicago in a defense plant that manufactured supplies for the war effort. The importance of this job during war time enabled Art to defer being drafted on two different occasions. As the war progressed and more soldiers were needed, he did not request a third deferment and instead reported to Fort Sheridan in Illinois for induction into the U.S. Army.
Lucille stayed in Chicago with their two small sons, Dennis and Gordon (they would later have three more children, sons Edward and Brian, and daughter Jean), while being employed at an International Harvester plant that was making parts and supplies for the war instead of farm equipment.
When Van Moorlehem returned from the war, they remained in Chicago until 1948 when they moved to South Dakota to farm for many years.
They eventually moved into a senior living facility in Marshall in 2006. Lucille passed away in October 2010. In 2017, Art was brought to Good Samaritan Home in Arlington by his son Dennis and daughter-in-law Marion, who lived just a block away.
All four of Art’s brothers and all four of his sons also served in the military.
When Van Moorlehem was stationed in Indiana for basic training, he was assigned to guard a U.S. soldier named Ed Slovak, who admitted that he “wasn’t cut out for combat” and “too scared to serve in the front line.” Slovak also had threatened to run away if he were assigned to a rifle unit, which constituted desertion. But he was assigned to a rifle unit, and as he had threatened to do, ran away and deserted his unit. Slovak was captured by military police, court-martialed, and later found guilty of desertion. Slovak then became the first American soldier to be executed by a firing squad since the Civil War. A book about Slovak was written in 1954 by William Bradford, and a film called The Execution of Private Slovak starring Martin Sheen was also produced in 1974.