Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
WWII Veteran Spent 3 Months as a POW
Army Veteran William H. Bailey, 93, spent three months as a prisoner of war during WWII. To this day, it still haunts him.
Drafted in 1944, the engineer specialist turned machine gunner under General Patton in the 3rd Army deployed to Belgium during the second German push to occupy the country.
Holding a position on the edge of a ravine, his company was surrounded by two German tanks and foot soldiers.
“When I raised up from the foxhole, I had a rifle pointed between my eyes,” Bailey said. “It’s hard to explain how I felt. You don’t feel good, that’s for sure. Our radio man got tore all to pieces. The Germans wanted to make sure they killed the radio man to ensure no outgoing communication.”
He was captured in Trier, Germany, and was forced to march 365 miles over 58 days to the foothills of the Alps.
“I got the point where I didn’t care whether I made it or not,” he said. “We never were in a POW camp. We walked all the time as prisoners.”
Once at his destination, he and the others were kept in a cow stall in a large pasture. He survived off of sawdust bread, dandelions, snails, and sugar beets. “That’s all we had to live on,” he said. “We had some guys that went off the deep end. They just lost their minds.”
Bailey and company were told on a Saturday that they were scheduled to be executed the following morning. Hitler had given orders to kill all POWs. They would be lined up to face a firing squad.
“I heard machine guns going off,” Bailey said. I went to find a place to try to hide. There was a ladder going up a wall in a barn and thought I’d hide in the hay. I saw three American tanks heading toward us. They stayed there with us to keep the Germans from coming back.”
A day after being told he surely would die, Bailey and the others had been liberated.
“I just felt real high when I saw those American tanks,” he said. “The best meal I ever had was the day I was liberated. A chow truck fed us. All it was was sea rations, just a bunch of canned stuff, but it was the best … after what we’d been eating. My clothes had gotten real big on me.”
He was sent home for three months to recuperate. Once stateside, he’d wake up at night, sit on his cot and just cry.
“I’d think about things and get scared,” he said. “Back home, I was afraid to go to sick call because I thought they’d tell me I was losing my mind. I saw some things. Sometimes at night, I still wake up and don’t know why I think about it, but it just kind of gets to you.”
One thing that helps Bailey through this is a WWII group session at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Lufkin. It meets each Thursday from 11 a.m. to noon. and he has attended since 1992.
“I seldom miss a Thursday,” he said. “As long as you are around people and talking you don’t think about it. It’s when you get by yourself … that’s when you think about it.”