(Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of profiles of World War II veterans in East Texas.)
EDGEWOOD — At the age of 90, Harold Staton remembers clearly the day he was dropped behind enemy lines in Normandy.
On June 6, 1944, Staton entered World War II after months of training to only fight for one day.
He and 30 others from his unit of the 101st Airborne Division, were captured and marched off through Nazi-occupied territory to spend the remaining days of the European campaign in a German prisoner of war camp.
Staton knew the bombing of Pearl Harbor would be the start of a new life for him and his classmates in Florence, Kan.
“The principal came in during math class and said, ‘I just got word over the radio that the Japanese declared war on the United States and … they’ve already invaded some islands down there,’” Staton said. “We were all seniors at that time, and we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we’re going to be in the army before too long.’”
Instead of waiting for a draft notice to put him into the advancing war, Staton enlisted. He then trained at different camps throughout the U.S. before joining the paratroopers.
“On that last day, after we had been shooting guns, throwing grenades and stuff like that, a big mobile wagon pulled in, and they sent word out through the camp that they were looking for volunteers for paratroopers,” Staton said. “I said I’m going to volunteer and (my friends) said they would too. I went and got a physical and passed everything, so I went back to (my friends) and said, ‘You guys going to volunteer?’ They said, ‘Heck no we ain’t gonna jump out of no airplane, we’re going to stay on the ground!’”
Fifty-plus jumps later, Staton was in England waiting for the day that changed his life — D-Day.
“I don’t know how many jumps we had before we got into D-Day, but it was several, and it was always at night because we were going to be jumping at night,” Staton said.
When the call finally came, it was light outside as the paratroopers prepared, but by the time the forces crossed the English Channel, the day sky turned to night.
“When it started, we were on our way across the Channel,” Staton said. “Our lead ship must have gotten knocked out with all the flak and things hitting the wings. Our copilot came out and said, ‘Y’all get hooked up and ready to run, we got to get out of here, this plane ain’t going to last long with them shootin’ at us.’”
Staton said flak was coming through the metal skin of the plane, but one scared lieutenant, who refused to jump at the right time, kept the others from making their drop zone.
“A guy named Pop said, ‘We’re getting out of here,’ and he came and threw (the lieutenant) out the door,” he said.
The group, coming down about 20 miles from their intended drop site, instead landed in an orchard surrounded by Nazi soldiers.
He said no one in that orchard knew where they were or which way to go.
Staton quickly gathered up his parachute, loaded his rifle, gathered the troops nearby and took off down a road.
“The first place we hit there was locked with gates on the road, so we all took to the ditch,” Staton said. “I was laying there and heard (something) hit my helmet. … I cocked my rifle and shot up and emptied the chamber in a tree and saw something fall out and figured it was a German.”
“That was one of my angels (protecting me),” he said. “I didn’t get hit in the head, it clipped my helmet instead.”
He said the group then encountered a concrete pillbox filled with Germans that Staton and his fellow paratroopers took out with grenades.
“Then … we got into the water,” he said. “It was coming up to our chests. There were three machine guns up on the hills shooting at us in the water. I got to a little place where there wasn’t water and the officer said, ‘Well, we can either put our guns down and throw our grenades or put our hands up and see if they’ll take us in.’ And they did.”
“It was either die there in the water or live.”
Staton said he and about 30 other men were lined up against a fence with another unit of paratroopers who also missed their drop zone. Then gunshots rang out.
“We had two with us that spoke German, and they asked, ‘What did they do with them boys over there?’”
While a German soldier answered, a group of enemy soldiers approached, and Staton thought, “I guess this is it, we’re gonna get shot too.”
Then a Nazi soldier explained they had caught an American soldier defacing dead German soldiers.
“We weren’t supposed to be doing things like that. Not even to the enemy. They didn’t bother us anymore (after that).”
Staton and his comrades were marched to a train, loaded aboard and taken to France.
“Where we were, we didn’t have any food at that time. We had the box we carried in our suits, and that was the only meal we had,” he said.
At the first prison camp, soldiers volunteered for work duties, taking the places of French workers. Staton worked in a hospital, where he cared not only for American soldiers, but for Germans injured in battles across France.
“One day, I heard bombers come by the hospital, and they bombed both sides,” he said. “They could see the white cross up above (the hospital), so (the bombs) went right beside us.”
From there, the American POWs were put on trucks and headed to Paris.
“The Frenchmen were throwing bottles of wine and loaves of bread, anything they could throw up to us as we went by.”
Somewhere on the route, the Germans ran out of fuel and forced the POWs to walk in line.
“We were walking like the Germans would do, down the road in a column, and we looked up and there were four fighter pilots,” Staton said. “We were waving at them, yelling, thinking they were our boys and maybe they’d do something to help us. But they didn’t do nothing to help us.
“The first plane came down, and we ran into a ditch. They were shooting 50-caliber machine guns. … The first one went by, and then the other one circled around and was coming to the orchard. We were in the ditch, when I looked to one side of me, and (the American soldier) was dead. I looked to the other side of me, and he was dead. I jumped up and ran into the orchard, when I saw this ditch was full (of dead Americans and Germans).”
The Germans ordered the remaining men to make a long trench with a bulldozer where 25 Americans and six Germans were buried.
The prisoners walked several more miles to an empty monastery.
“They gave us one meal a day and that was barley and horsemeat, and we’d get one soup a day,” Staton said. “If you wanted anything else, you didn’t get it. One of the boys was eating the soup, and said there’s something crawling in my soup, I said, ‘Shut up and eat, you’re not going to get anything else to eat.’”
Staton, and the few left of his group, finally made it to Stalag 7B in Memmingen, Germany where the prisoners of war were supposed to remain until the end of the war. But the Germans moved the group again to Augsburg, Germany.
“We were on details, doing this and that. Laying bricks and cleaning bricks,” Staton said. “We finally got our box of food and cigarettes from the Red Cross, and the cigarettes were worth more money as far as we were concerned. We could trade them for anything we would want to eat.”
The Red Cross sent these boxes once a week to the POW camps across Europe and the South Pacific.
Close to the end of the war, almost a year and half after being captured, the American forces were getting closer to Germany and Augsburg in particular.
“They started marching us to the Alps,” Staton said. “I don’t know what they were going to do with us, but maybe keep us as hostages.”
Staton’s captors were not the young Nazi soldiers typically seen on the front lines. Instead, the Allied forces were held prisoner by old men, called Volkssturm, or the German national militia.
“When we got about 10 meters away from Augsburg, we heard the Americans were close by so they sent one of the boys out to tell them we were in this village and not to come in and shoot or blow anything up,” Staton said. “Then the guards came down and gave us their guns and said, ‘We don’t need them anymore.’”
The Americans liberated the camp shortly afterwards in April 1945.
Staton came home and met his now wife, Pat, whom he married while in college at Henderson Teacher’s College in Arkadelphia, Ark. The couple has been married 60 years.
The former POW received a degree in kinesiology and coached football, basketball and golf at Edgewood High School for about 17 years.
Staton said he has no ill feelings towards the Germans for his time in captivity.
“It’s not the German people I was mad at,” Staton said. “It was (Adolph) Hitler and his Nazis.”
“When we got into Germany, we weren’t mistreated in any way. Those guards guarding us were friendly. They didn’t like the Nazis. They didn’t like Hitler, but they couldn’t do nothing about it. They were too old and they weren’t on the front lines.”
Today, Staton, the former paratrooper, refuses to get on an airplane.