Sixteen million Americans served in World War II.

In the European theater, roughly 94,000 of those soldiers lived out part of their service as a kriegsgefangener, which is German for prisoner of war.

Owensboro native and Army veteran Thomas Bell was one of them.

Bell, a resident of Heritage Place Assisted Living Center at 3362 Buckland Square, will share with the community his harrowing tale of survival in recognition of National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday, Sept. 20, said Jamia Newton, Heritage activities and recreation director.

"This is definitely open to the public," she said. "Starting at 2 p.m., Thomas will share what he calls his 'testament.' Afterward, we will have a reception for friends, family and those in attendance. He will be discussing how he felt, what he experienced. I asked him to make it feel like we were there."

Bell served from February 1943 until Nov. 30, 1945, as a member of the 106th Infantry Division. His story as a prisoner of war began during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and ended on April 13, 1945.

"We arrived on the battlefield and fought for three days from Dec. 16 to Dec. 19," he said. "After three days, we had run out of ammunition and food and there was no way for us to get any."

It was overcast, it had snowed and there was nothing but mud, smoke, bodies and trees, he said.

"We were in the Ardennes Forest," he said. "They hit us with 4-inch cannons off of railroad cars 35 miles into Germany. Then they came in with 155 mm howitzers and plastered the whole thing. On top of that, they had four tank divisions supporting infantry divisions that hit us at one time. The roads were so bad that they had to take the tanks through the trees. They just knocked over the trees right over our heads.

"There was one time that I was in a foxhole and a 155 came in and hit the hole next to me. There were two other guys in there and when that hit, there was nothing but a hole, and there wasn't anything left but the hole. Nobody will ever know who they were."

Bell said they had fought their way into a clearing in the thick forest and started breaking their rifles on trees to prevent the Nazis from acquiring them. As the Nazis closed in, his regimental commander was given two choices -- surrender or die.

"He said if we didn't surrender in the next 10 minutes that the German artillery would open up and obliterate us," Bell said. "So, the regimental commander said, 'I've lost all the men that I'm going to.' We were all that was left of our regiment, maybe 200 or 300 out of a full regiment."

Bell would spend the remainder of the war, before his liberation, walking a circle around Germany, upward of 18 miles a day, seven days a week, sleeping in barns and subsisting on the meagerest of rations, he said.

"They didn't have any place to put us there were so many of us," he said. "We moved all the time, from nowhere to nowhere. We ate what they gave us. It was usually a slice of black German bread, sometimes a bowl of soup, but they would take out the potatoes and give us the broth. They didn't treat us bad and if walking us around was mistreatment, then that is what it was."

During his time as a POW, Bell and his fellow soldiers couldn't shave or bathe and were covered from head to toe in lice. Aside from that, he survived hunger and loss, but, despite it all, he remembers the kindness of the German people.

"We would walk through the streets and the German women would meet us at the gate and give us cakes," he said. "The people of Germany helped us out all they could. I say it to this day, the German people are the best people on that side of the ocean. Hitler just got a hold of the army and they had no choice.

"I weighed 98 pounds when I was liberated, and from the time I left the states to when I got to the hospital in Paris before coming home, I hadn't shaved. I can tell you right now, I haven't missed a day shaving since."

Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com

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