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Our War: Pocahontas native reflects on his POW days

Leander "Hank" Weber was a member of the 101st Airborne Division.
Leander "Hank" Weber was a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

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When allied landing craft arrived at Normandy on D-Day, Leander "Hank" Weber was already there.

A member of the 101st Airborne Division, Weber parachuted into Nazi occupied territory at 1 a.m. on June 6, 1944 -- or about five hours before the main force hit the beaches.

"I was drafted into the Army in May of 1942," Weber said. "They asked for volunteers for airborne paratroopers and I had no intention of joining because I don't care for high places."

But Weber, an 89-year-old Pocahontas native who now lives in Greenville, didn't particularly care for having his manhood questioned, either. And when one of his fellow soldiers called him "chicken," he strode to the front of the group and signed his name on the list of volunteers.

Originally in the 82nd Infantry, the same unit as World War I hero Sgt. Alvin York, Weber and his fellow soldiers heard a lecture from York during basic training. The aging war hero recounted the day he led 17 men on an attack of a well dug-in German machine gun nest and captured 132 enemy soldiers. The feat earned York the Medal of Honor and led to a movie about him.

York's words of wisdom: Make sure when a German sticks his head up that you get him before he gets you.

"Well, he said it a little bit more harshly than that," Weber said with a chuckle.

After he volunteered to be a paratrooper, Weber was assigned to Fort Benning, Ga., where he learned to pack parachutes and jump from a 250-foot-tall metal tower.

"I would just grit my teeth and do it," Weber said. "That's what I still do to this day when I have something I don't want to do. It works pretty good."

Weber was then sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he learned to handle field artillery.

"We learned to jump out of that plane with a 75 millimeter cannon, assemble it after we landed and fire it," Weber said. "We had to be our own pack mules, pulling that heavy barrel with a rope after we hit the ground."

Weber said the training seemed to go on forever. After being chased across the Atlantic by U-boats, Weber arrived in England for dress rehearsal. Countless times his unit, Battery B -- 377th Parachute Field Artillery, loaded onto a C-47 Skytrain transport plane and headed out over the English Channel toward France only to turn back.

The paratroopers knew things were different on what turned out to be D-Day because they were told to bring loaded pistols, grenades, knives and rations. After they cleared the French coast, Weber said his plane began taking ground fire and was enveloped in black smoke.

The unit commander was bent over at the waist at the door of the plane when Weber asked him if he was all right. The commander said he was -- just as the jump light came on.

"He told me to get the hell out of there, so I jumped, Weber said. "I was the first one out of our plane, but I think I was supposed to be the fourth."

The disorganization was common.

"Those planes were going 90 miles an hour, so even a few seconds difference when you jump out could make a big difference in where you landed," Weber said.

Like many units, Weber's was miles away from where it was expected to be. Supposed to control bridges to Normandy to prevent German reinforcements' access to the coast, Weber's squad found it was too far inland. Still, it landed and assembled its howitzer, which some paratroopers began to fire while others went to help soldiers who were wounded during the drop.

"We were supposed to just give them first aid and then move on," Weber said. "But some of them were pretty bad and we didn't want to leave them."

Some of the paratroopers had lost limbs or had severe wounds from ground fire and flak suffered as they floated to earth. Able bodied men drug the wounded to a ditch where they tried to patch them up as best they could.

Unfortunately, that ditch in Gourbesville near Ste. Mere Eglise, was soon surrounded by Germans. There was no escape.

Facing superior numbers, members of the artillery unit were forced to surrender when the sun came up.

"They took away our weapons and emptied our pockets," Weber said. "One of the Germans said 'The war is over for you' in bad English."

Men from the unit were lined up against a wall and machine guns were trained on them when a German officer arrived and began shouting orders in a language Weber and the other men didn't understand. The German soldiers turned away their machine guns and the men breathed a sigh of relief.

They were loaded into a railroad box car packed so full that there wasn't even room to sit down. It took a week to reach Germany, where the men were taken to Stalag 12-A, a prisoner of war camp.

The men received a German dog tag that was squared off with perforations down the center. While Americans wore two dog tags so that one could be taken off a dead soldier while the other was left to identify the body, Germans only wore one tag that could be broken in half if the soldier were killed.

"There I was taken to a man who spoke perfect American," Weber said. "He gave me a cigarette and said he had to ask me a few questions. I told him I could only tell him my name, rank and serial number. He didn't like that."

The German persisted with inquiries about Weber's hometown, his job and his unit.

"All the while, he told me more about my unit than I ever knew," Weber said. "Finally, he told me he would have me shot if I didn't talk. When I told him to go ahead and shoot me, then, he said 'Get out of here.'"

Weber was transferred to Stalag 4-B near Muehlberg, Germany. In prison camp, he lost nearly 40 pounds during a year of captivity on a diet of a piece of bread for lunch and something that was optimistically called potato soup for supper.

"It was mostly water," Weber said. "I volunteered for a work detail and they told me I didn't do enough work. I told them maybe if they fed me more I could work harder."

Stalag 4-B is where Weber not only spent Christmas 1944, but where he was when the British and Americans bombed nearby Dresden day and night.

In February 1945, more than 1,300 Allied bombers dropped more than 3,900 pounds of explosives and fire bombs, flattening 13 square miles. As many as 40,000 people died in the raids which targeted more than 100 German factories and the people who ran them as well as the town's rail and communication centers.

"For three days straight I huddled in the corner with a blanket over my head all night," Weber said. "In the daytime, we could see the B-17 bombers come in and see the bombs dropping out of them. We'd think 'go get 'em guys' to ourselves when we saw that, hoping it would bring an end to the war."

When they weren't trying to survive bombing raids, men in the prison camps circulated news of how the war was going that was heard on a smuggled radio that could pick up the British Broadcasting Co. news.

"The British soldiers wouldn't tell me where the radio is," Weber said. "They told me if I didn't know that the Germans couldn't beat it out of me."

As the front line drew closer to the prison camp, Weber's captors told the prisoners that they were going to move them down the road and began to march with them. When the British and Americans announced they weren't marching any farther, the Germans didn't have time to mess with their captives anymore and just let them go.

After more than a year of being penned up and malnourished, the men had no choice but to walk toward the rear of the Allied attacks. They fell asleep to the sound of passing Russian tanks at night as they slept in haystacks in fear that any building where they would stay could be shelled or bombed.

His jump suit rotted away, Weber was given a British uniform to wear. After a couple days worth of walking, he came upon some Russian soldiers who were less than helpful until they learned he was really an American in a borrowed uniform. One of the Russians took Weber to a German store where a line of local civilians waited in line for food.

The Russian pushed his way up to the front of the line, saying "Americanish! Americanish!" There he took a sausage and a loaf of bread and gave it to the recently freed American prisoner.

With a full belly and his new-found friend pointing him in the right direction, Camp Lucky Strike near Sainte-Sylvian, France, Weber walked for a week before reuniting with American forces and being truly free.

A few years later, at his home in Illinois, Weber got a letter from one of his German prison camp guards who complained that he was poor and hungry.

"I thought to myself that I didn't really owe him anything and I didn't think about it again until I got a letter thanking me for the package I sent," Weber said. "I never sent him a thing. I just wanted to know how he found me."

It turns out that Weber's sister-in-law saw the letter and sent a package in the veteran's name.

"If she wanted to do it, that's fine," Weber said. "But the war was over for me."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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