Becoming a Soldier

Battle of the Bulge

Becoming a POW

Bad Orb

Deprivation

Liberation

Reflections

Annotation

Russell Hoff was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in October 1924. After a year, the family moved to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania where he was raised, attended high school and then was drafted. He originally attempted to enlist in the Navy, but was informed that he had been assigned to the Army in March 1943. His younger brother later joined the Marine Corps when he learned of Russell being a POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war]. His older brother had been drafted before the younger brothers. The oldest brother served in Panama for the duration of the war. For Hoff, basic training with the 106th Infantry Division was at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He was assigned to Company M [Annotator’s Note: Company M, 3rd Battalion, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division]. Although 37 men from his hometown went into the division, they were separated and Hoff only managed to keep up with one individual. The division was involved in the Tennessee maneuvers in January and February 1944. It was a cold and miserable experience. Hoff was a sergeant in charge of a heavy machine gun squad. The squad fired water cooled machine guns [Annotator's Note: M1917 .30 caliber machine guns]. After the maneuvers, the troops thought they were well trained, but the next step by the military was to take 9,000 men out of their ranks to replace losses after D-Day. One of Hoff’s best friends ended up being reassigned to a glider regiment and was involved in the failed assault in Holland and in Bastone. He lost good friends who were inducted with him. Several were lost at either Salerno or Anzio in Italy. Hoff learned that the human body has a tremendous capability to absorb abuse.

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Russell Hoff and the 106th Infantry Division had been sent to the front as relief for the 2nd Infantry Division, which had experienced severe punishment during the battle of the Hürtgen Forest. There was eight to ten inches of snow on the ground. The constant fog made for a confusing situation with the visibility being restricted. It was easy to get lost on patrol unless they followed their footsteps back to their starting point. It was difficult to tell what was going on just 30 yards away in any direction. Hoff’s unit [Annotator’s Note: Company M, 3rd Battalion, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division] was on the German border when the Germans attacked at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. The 106th Infantry Division had been told that they manned a quiet sector of the front, but the Germans changed that when four shells exploded directly behind Hoff’s position. Previously, they had watched the V bombs pass over them, on their way toward Allied targets. The 106th Infantry Division had allocated its 9,000 men across a wide area about 27 miles long. The division would use night patrols to orient themselves to their surroundings. They would pass other soldiers on these patrols not knowing who they were. When the Battle of the Bulge began, Hoff experienced heavy incoming fire, but their orders were to hold their positions. On the second day of the German offensive, Hoff was ordered to move to another section of the front. Artillery fired on them and Hoff was hit by two pieces of shrapnel. With supplies and ammunition running low, the 106th Infantry Division found itself encircled. There was a failed attempt to resupply the 106th by firing canisters of supplies to them. Before the battle had started, Hoff’s two gun squad only had 250 rounds for each machine gun. He had a bazooka but no rockets. Being the first time in combat, the 106th Infantry Division was not experienced enough to realize the extent of supplies and ammunition it should maintain. They were on high ground, and German artillery was landing on their perimeter. The enemy offensive completely surprised them because they had been led to believe that the 106th Infantry Division would be part of an Allied offensive in January [Annotator's Note: January 1945]. The division had been supplied with a nominal amount of heavy artillery, however, its deployment was not judicious. Positioned close to the front, when the Germans attacked, the big guns were quickly overrun. The Germans had the 106th Infantry Division surrounded. The Americans were out of food and very low on ammunition. The initial order was to break out but the Germans blocked the attempt. The order to surrender came on the afternoon of 19 December [Annotator's Note: 19 December 1944]. The Americans felt they were facing inevitable defeat, and further fighting was senseless. As the captured troops marched through the German lines, they saw King Tiger tanks [Annotator's Note: German Tiger II tank was referred to as the King Tiger]. They were immense and foreboding vehicles.

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Russell Hoff and his regiment [Annotator's Note: 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division] surrendered during the Battle of the Bulge. They were marched all night to a railway location where they were loaded tightly into railcars. There was no food or water provided to the POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoners of war]. The only means to quench their thirst was through consumption of snow from the railcar roof, it they could get to it. Hoff lost track of the men under his command during the march to the railcar. An individual’s visibility of what was going on around him was very limited. The only perspective was what occurred in the immediate surroundings. While at the front before the surrender, the activity beyond a couple hundred yards was audible but not visible. With weather conditions being so dismal, that further exacerbated the situation. The troops had taken their positions in the middle of the night so that they had not had a chance to extensively view their location. Being in the forest, most men never left their position on the mountain and did not know what lay below them. Hoff and the two machine guns in his squad had been assigned to Company K, however, he never saw a member of Company K during the action. With supplies and ammunition running out, the Americans felt they had to surrender. Their training had not prepared them for defensive action. They had been trained to attack. The situation they were in was unfamiliar to them. Likewise, the troops were not prepared for what to expect after they were captured. When they marched into captivity, there was apprehension about the future unknown treatment. The German guards were older men, but they carried weapons with bayonets and were intimidating as a result. When they reached the rail junction, they were loaded tightly into railcars and the door was locked. While in the railcars, Allied aircraft would strafe and bomb the railways not knowing POWs were aboard the railcars. The railcars would slam each other and throw the passengers about like ten pins. American officers who were being held in an outbuilding near the railcars were killed when a bomb exploded on that building. The POWs reached the camp in Bad Orb, Germany on Christmas Day 1944.

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Russell Hoff reached Bad Orb and was assigned to a barracks in the camp. When a group of Americans killed a German guard while raiding the kitchen area one night, punishment was meted on the POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoners of war]. They were made to stand in the bitter cold without their overcoats for the whole day. When the men did not give up the offending POWs, the Germans brought in two trucks with machine guns in an attempt to intimidate them into confessing. They did not succeed. The Germans then took every tenth man with the threat of executing them. That did not work either. The enemy guards then took 350 POWs who had Jewish sounding names and transferred them to Bertcheselgard [Annotator's Note: unsure of spelling]. The camp was a slave labor camp. The conditions were horrible in that camp. Hoff was questioned by a German officer who seemed to know a lot about the American’s service and background. The enemy officer had come from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The officer had returned to Germany and service in the Nazi cause as a result of a somewhat disguised threat by the German government to his family who remained in the Fatherland. The questioning probed for whatever minute details could be obtained. Hoff was asked about packages and letters he received from home. After overseas deployment, Hoff received no letters from home. His mother only received the three letters Hoff wrote from POW camp after he had returned home. Red Cross packages received by the camp at Bad Orb were not distributed to the POWs. Hoff only received one Red Cross package while a POW.

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Russell Hoff found the food horrible in the Bad Orb POW [Annotator's Note: prisoner of war] camp. The potatoes were often rotten. The best treat for the prisoners came when they were marched past a sugar beet field on the way to repair the railway. They would manage to get a sugar beet from the field. Hoff was too weak from weight loss to be able to pick up two beets the size of footballs. He had started at 195 pounds but in captivity had lost alot of weight. He was 135 pounds at the point of liberation. The men were quartered in a long, one room barracks with only a small enclosed latrine at the far end. There was no heat in the barracks. Hoff did manage to get a large blanket so there was warmth from that, but there was vermin in the blanket. Sanitary conditions in the barracks were very poor. The food was terrible and caused dysentery. The memories of the deprivation never left Hoff. The living conditions and paltry food were terrible. The men constantly thought of food. Bartering with big time operators went on for food and cigarettes. Wristwatches could be obtained for a few cigarettes. The French POWs had cigarettes that were so strong that it would make one dizzy. Life was not easy in the POW camp. The men had gotten word that Hitler had ordered POWs killed as the German defeat became more obvious. The camp commandant had the power to follow or disregard the order. In March [Annotator's Note: March 1945], the prisoners were ordered out of the barracks. They were told to disrobe. They were then told to shower and dress again in their unclean uniform. At that point, they were sprayed with DDT [Annotator's Note: a chemical used to kill vermin to combat disease]. Before the camp was liberated on 30 March, a British fighter mistakenly strafed the compound where the troops were quartered. Several French troops were killed. Hoff was mistakenly locked out of his barrack and nearly became a fatality. 

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Russell Hoff never thought he would die in a prisoner of war camp. There was a secret crystal radio kept in the POW camp by the internees. The prisoners would hear the status of the war from BBC broadcasts during their incarceration. The POWs began to hear artillery coming closer to the camp. German trains stopped moving through the local railway station. When the POWs looked to the skies, they saw thousands of Allied bombers and fighters flying over them. Even though the prisoners would occasionally see an Me-262 jet overhead, spirits were raised by the circumstances. Bad Orb was liberated on Good Friday [Annotator's Note: 30 March 1945]. While a POW, Hoff had always wanted to have an Easter egg and to go to mass. After liberation in time for the Easter weekend, Hoff got his wish. The 6th Armored Division and the 65th Infantry Division liberated the camp. Some of the older German guards did not flee prior to the liberation. The guard that had responsibility for Hoff’s barracks was a tolerable individual, but at Bad Orb there was an SS sergeant in charge. He rode a side car on a motorcycle and carried a Billy club. He would use the club on POWs who were out of ranks as he passed them. That was the only enemy guard that Hoff would shoot in a minute. Hoff never had to stay out in the open during his POW stay at Bad Orb. He always stayed in a barracks during his captivity. When he was transferred from Bad Orb to Ziegenhain, Hoff was strafed [Annotator's Note: Bad Orb was Stalag IX-B. Ziegenhain was Stalag IX-A]. After the strafing incident in the camp, the Russians were marched away. That was followed by the exit of the Australian and New Zealand POWs. The French were to be next, but the Americans were selected for departure instead. Eventually, the German guards left the camp and only an enemy officer was left to turn over records. The first food supplied by the 65th Infantry Division to the POWs was too rich for them and made them sick. The POWs were transported by truck to the Autobahn where transport aircraft picked them up. They were then flown to Camp Lucky Strike in France.

Annotation

Russell Hoff has vivid memories of his prisoner of war experiences. He has flashbacks that will probably never leave him. He remembers passing through Malmedy after the American troops had been shot. Hoff locked up his wartime thoughts for 40 years. When he brought his sons with him to the sites where he experienced the war, he began to open up. During the 1980s, Hoff joined the Disabled American Veterans. That organization helped him share his story with others with similar stories. Through this, he came to realize that he was not alone. His emotions can quickly escalate and become very raw. Counseling has helped him overcome some of this stress. Some of his squad members committed suicide after returning to the United States. Very little psychological help was given to returning GIs. When Hoff returned stateside, he had three days at Fort Dix and then 60 days of leave. He received a bus ticket and 100 dollars cash to head home. He took a train from Philadelphia to Willow Grove [Annotator's Note: Willow Grove, Pennsylvania]. POWs were not fully appreciated by the United States until the 1960s. Hoff’s shoulder wound from shrapnel was pushed off from Camp Dix, to Ashville to Indiantown Gap until Hoff took it upon himself to see a doctor in Valley Forge Hospital who immediately performed surgery on him. Being brushed off was a frustrating experience due to the lack of attention for his war wound. Hoff was discharged from Fort Meade [Annotator’s Note: Fort George G. Meade, Maryland]. 

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