WAYNESBORO, Pa. — On the eve of this Veterans Day, World War II prisoner of war Charles W. “Bill” Wagaman muses that there are fewer and fewer people like him still living.
Each year Wagaman, 91, sees a smaller number of World War II veterans at events reuniting POWs. The ones with whom he does talk have stories similar to his own.
We put our faith in God, and we knew somehow we were getting out of it," Wagaman said. "We just felt if we could make it to liberation, we’d survive.”
Wagaman had participated in the liberation of Rome and invasion of south France before being wounded and captured on Aug. 20, 1944. German forces treated his leg injuries and sent him first to the prison camp V B Villingen in Austria. He was later transferred three times.
“As the Allies and Russians advanced, they kept moving us,” Wagaman said.
In the comfort of his Waynesboro home and joined by Rosalie, his wife of 68 years, Wagaman spoke matter of factly about the deplorable conditions of prison camps.
He ate rats and dogs, dropped to 92 pounds, watched people die of dysentery, and marched through cities where children threw rocks at him. He used the support of his family back home to move on from the experience in the American workforce.
The return to the United States after liberation on May 18, 1945, gave Wagaman some sleepless nights and a resolve to move forward. He found employment as an engineer with Frick Co. and Allegheny Power. He is an active member of the PEForerunners Club, a retiree group from Alleghany Power/Potomac Edison.
“We credited our survival to our comrades, American ingenuity and most importantly, our faith in God,” Wagaman said, noting the prisoners used worn copies of the New Testament to hold church services while in captivity.
Wagaman still was in high school in April 1943 when he got his draft notice and subsequent assignment as a rifleman in the U.S. Army’s Company A, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Division. Artillery fire sent shrapnel into his leg in France, and unable to walk, Wagaman was picked up by German troops.
Because Wagaman had studied German for two years, he served as an interpreter in camps. He said the treatment varied from camp to camp depending on logistics and the temperaments of those in charge.
“We dreaded with good reason any encounter with the SS or Hitler Youth,” he said.
Wagaman, who showered once in nine months, burned pieces of his bunk bed to stay warm under a blanket as thin as a tablecloth. Lice and fleas chewed his wrists and ankles every night.
Meals consisted of items such as a cup of wormy cabbage, a potato, barley mush, and black bread made with sawdust and bits of glass or sand.
Sometimes, the prisoners worked on farms in the area. Farmers were feeding their pigs boiled potatoes at the time.“The guards would look the other way, and we’d take the fence posts, beat the hogs off and take the potatoes,” Wagaman said.
Radios in the camp provided information that did not align with propaganda shared each morning by the guards.
Still, it was the transfers between camps via walking, boxcars and ox carts that provided the best insight to what was happening outside the walls.
“The only way we knew (Allied forces) were coming closer is when we’d move camps,” he said.
Wagaman now enjoys traveling in much nicer ways — cruise ships and commercial airlines. He attributes his long life to his wife’s cooking and their shared love of ballroom dancing.
Article by Jennifer Fitch