Bob Bearden felt like a snake, crammed with about 50 other prisoners of war in a 20-by-8-foot boxcar, as he tried to survive the trip from Germany to France. The floor was covered with bodies; their legs intertwined.
The barrel meant to serve as a toilet failed them, and as the rickety freight train started and stopped, human waste sloshed from side to side.
During the World War II veteran’s seven months in German custody, the five days he went without food, water or sunlight were the worst.
“You can’t run. You’ve got no place to go,” Bearden said. “We went about five days without opening the boxcar door once.”
When the train stopped in the middle of the night, the American prisoners would climb on each other’s back to get a whiff of air and whisper through a two-inch slit covered with steel bars.
“Wasser, wasser,” they said. “Water, water.” But, no one responded.
American and British fighter planes shelled the trains, trying to take out boxcars transporting supplies to the Germans, not knowing American soldiers were inside.
“It was a real harrowing experience to know that you’re alive by the grace of God, no other way,” Bearden said. “Everything in (the boxcars) is either dead or full of bullet holes.”
Bearden will receive the French Legion of Honor on Friday in Houston to recognize his contribution to the liberation of France during World War II.
Bearden, a paratrooper who fought on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was captured by the Germans days after jumping over France with the 82nd Airborne Division’s H Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Then a 21-year-old sergeant, Bearden was not prepared for the months ahead.
As the days ran together, Bearden remembered the only advice he got about what to do if captured — “After you’ve run out of bullets and you’re through shooting and killing, just be the biggest hassle. You need to represent confusion.”
Soon, Bearden learned the rules. He did anything he could do — short of getting shot — to disrupt the German army. From begging, borrowing and stealing, the captives pitted German soldiers against their officers.
They were masters at it because they did that against each other in the United States, said his wife, Debbie Bearden, who’s heard Bob recount his experiences many times.
“If they would send me on a truck to the railroad yards ... if I could take that (truck) someplace else, then some poor German is not going to get his next meal,” Bearden said. “And it’s their job to figure out which one of us did that, and there’s so many of us they never could figure that out.”
Life in captivity
Getting a piece of horse meat, no bigger than a fingernail, was a big deal for Bearden and the other prisoners who lived at a make-shift camp in lower Normandy.
“You didn’t eat it right away,” Bearden said. “You took it around and you showed everybody what you got in your soup.”
They lined up about 10 a.m. for a slice of bread made with sawdust and tin cans filled with thin soup.
Within his first 90 days of captivity, Bearden lost about 65 pounds.
When the POWs finally arrived in Paris, the Germans herded nearly 5,000 prisoners like cattle along the Arc de Triomphe.
At his lowest emotional stage, Bearden said he looked over and saw a little man peering from behind a door.
“He was looking at us prisoners being herded along, and I just kept looking at him; and all of a sudden, he was looking around to see that no German was looking at him and (he put his fingers up to spell) V for victory,” Bearden said. “It’s like he had given me a shot of some kind of juice or something. Boy, I just all of a sudden felt rejuvenated completely and like, ‘Hey, it ain’t over yet.’”
Life on the run
The sound of Russian artillery in the distance was a sign of hope. Prisoners began anticipating the day they’d wake up with Russian tanks replacing the German ones sitting outside the front gate. They had no idea when it would happen, but as the sound of the tanks got louder, they knew help was on the way.
After 10 days, a shootout took place and the prisoners were liberated from the German prison, Stalag III C, on Jan. 31, 1945.
In the chaotic atmosphere, soldiers lacked direction.
“We were all so flaky and fragile mentally, and we had no leadership,” he said. “I thought I would be better off on my own.”
Unequipped for war and without a destination, Bearden spent the next three months wandering, following Russian supply lines.
“The Russians were friendly enough with the American POWs that they would help us out as much as they could,” Bearden said. “There was some crazy stuff going on as to how to get people back to their rightful place.”
He survived by stealing whatever food or goods he could.
Bearden remembered letters from his mom and sister talking about the shortage of women’s silk hose.
“The Lord must have just told him to take 50 pairs of women’s hose,” Debbie Bearden said.
He found an empty department store and stuffed as many as he could down his coat.
When he reached train stations, he bartered with the women selling pastries off carts.
“Those women would go nuts,” Bearden said.
Once he finally reached Italy, Bearden was interrogated.
“The U.S. Army wanted to know what I knew from coming out of the German prison system,” he said. “I answered all the questions and that’s when we got on the ship (that) left from the Mediterranean Sea (to Boston).”
Nearly 10,000 service members are buried under white crosses and bright green grass at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France.
“It’s very moving for me to go back and look at those crosses and walk amongst them,” said Bearden, who has visited Normandy five times since the war’s end. “They were just as good of soldiers as I was; they just happened not to be the same place (as me) at the same time.”
Every year, Bearden celebrates Jan. 31 as his “Liberation Day,” the day he became a free man again.
“That’s the one thing I remember every year,” he said. “I try to eat a special steak or drink a special beer or something and think about those guys who didn’t have that pleasure.”
Sometimes, “wasser, wasser” still rings in the back of Bearden’s head. But most days, it’s not hard to forget about life during the war.
“The Lord has relieved me of that,” he said.
As a former POW, Bearden could either be bitter or better.
“He chose better,” Debbie Bearden said. “He’s appreciative and grateful for life now.”