“Any P.O.W. alive today is a survivor. I and the other prisoners of war made it by refusing to give up. I did what I had to do to survive and come home alive.”
Dec. 16, 2013, marks the 69th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the last offensive of Hitler’s army in World War II, and the largest battle of the U.S. Army in its history.
For one Boone County native, the Christmas season is a reminder of events of that time, events that would haunt him the rest of his life.
Rishel “Rick” White, of Wharton, joined the Army in Jan. 1941 and was assigned to the 1st Armored Division in Kentucky.
He was sent on a cadre to Pine Camp, N.Y., to form the 4th Armored Division.
Separated from his unit by a bout of rheumatic fever, he again was sent to form a new division, the 106th Infantry Division at Fort Jackson, S.C.
While in nearby Columbia, S.C., White married his wife, Shirley Weeden, from Adams, New York.
The 106th was sent to Europe to the Ardennes Forest area of France, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1944, just in time for the surprise German attack in the region. His unit was overrun by the Germans and he was twice captured by SS Panzer troops near St. Vith.
After marching two weeks in sub-zero weather, being bombed and strafed by allied planes while being transported in unmarked boxcars, and fed next to nothing along the way, he arrived at the P.O.W. camp, Stalag IV-B, near Dresden, Germany, where he would spend the next four months.
“To be a prisoner of war is to know hunger,” White explained. “I am not talking about the hunger you feel when you miss your lunch or when you cannot stand your diet. I am talking about hunger from the lack of solid food for weeks and months. Hunger that gnaws at your vital organs and strips the flesh from your bones. Hunger that forces you to eat anything and everything available…from black stale bread made from sawdust, watery soup infested with worms and made from garbage, to rotten potatoes and turnips dug from muddy fields…and, if you are lucky, hot water to wash it all down.”
White said to be a prisoner of war is to experience cold.
“I am talking about standing for hours in soup lines in freezing weather pelted by sleet,” he said. “Your feet are numb and fingers nearly frozen. You are sick, your body is racked by uncontrollable shivering and your mind is a mask of pain. Dysentery knots your stomach, adding to the misery and you begin to wonder if death is far away. It never comes…it merely teases you.”
White said the barracks at Stalag IV-B had no heating system, and no insulation, just a pine board building.
“You slept on a wooden slat bunk bed with only a thin blanket with holes, no pillow and no mattress,” White said. “You kept your clothes on for added warmth.”
“To be a prisoner of war is to experience fear,” he added. “Nameless terror as you lie packed into a railroad boxcar, doors locked and barred, while attacking aircraft bomb and strafe and not knowing if you’ll be blown to bits the next second. The terrible fear of catching a horrible disease that runs rampant throughout the camp with no medicine or strength to fight back. The fear that you might never again be free.”
White said to be a prisoner of war is to experience anger and deep depression.
“Anger knowing that your enemy counterparts, imprisoned in the United States, are well fed and clothed,” he said. “Thoughts of family and home lock your mind in bottomless depression and is perhaps the crudest torture. Anger at your captors and wishing for their death. It is the resentment you immediately feel for those who have never felt what you have seen, what you have experienced, and whose personal problems pale by comparison. It is the recurring nightmares that will plague you for the rest of your days. It is the nagging question, ‘What was it all for?’ ‘What good did it do?’ ‘Who cares?’…perhaps there was a purpose.”
Suffering for near starvation and the terror and privations of being a prisoner of war, White was liberated by Russian forces in 1945, as they closed in on Berlin. He still received no food or medical attention from his liberators and with the company of another P.O.W., made his way through a still hostile Germany to reach American troops across the Elbe River.
The gaunt and weakened soldier then spent 11 months in a hospital recovering from his adventure.
He learned that he was the father of a son, Michael, born May of 1945. Five months in England, then he was shipped back to the U.S., where he was sent to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia to recuperate.
It was there that he met his elder brother, Mondell, who had been a prisoner of the Japanese in the Pacific. Mondell was captured in the largest surrender of U.S. troops in history, while defending the Phillippines.
Mondell had survived the infamous Bataan Death March, a P.O.W. camp in the Phillipines, where a cousin, Kenneth White, died of starvation and disease, then having two Japanese ships sunk by American planes while he was aboard on his way to Japan.
He was sent to work in the coal mines in Japan just 50 miles from Nagasaki when the atomic bomb brought World War II to a close.
Mondell married, lived in Ohio, and had a son who now works for the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. Mondell passed away in 1989.
Rick White and his wife, Shirley, moved to Adams, N.Y., in 1960 with their two children, eventually living where he now resides at 13 West Church Street. Rick’s wife Shirley passed away in 2005, just before Christmas.
His son Michael is a former radio host and country balladeer, who now works for WWNY TV-7. R. David is a photojournalist with YNN-News 10 and an independent filmmaker.
Rick’s grandson Matthew produced a documentary movie in 2005 about Rick’s life and death-defying experiences called, “Coming Home Alive,” which is available through the White’s company Web site http://www.4thcoastproductions.com