Over the years J.E. “Gene” Carlisle, 92, has learned to enjoy his freedom, but he does not take it for granted.
Carlisle spent nearly 20 months as a prisoner of war in Europe during World War II, after being captured in battle in Italy.
“You may not realize how important our freedom is until you get into a combat zone and your freedom is taken away in a second,” Carlisle said, sitting on the front porch of his Killeen home.
Born in Killeen in 1921, Carlisle, at 18, joined the 36th Infantry Division, a Texas National Guard division based in Ballinger, which was absorbed into the Army.
Carlisle’s division participated in the Battle of Salerno on Sept. 9, 1943, one of the most important military operations in the European Theater because it established an allied presence in Europe.
“We were the first American troops to set foot on foreign enemy soil,” Carlisle said.
As a 22-year-old sergeant, Carlisle led a machine gun section of Company C of the 142nd Infantry.
Although the company had trained on 30-caliber machine guns in North Africa for seven months before the invasion, soon after the landing crafts opened their doors on the Italian beaches, German artillery fire destroyed most of Carlisle’s machine guns.
Carlisle’s first gunner and ammunition carrier were killed during the battle and many other soldiers in his unit were wounded, he said.
Split up by the fighting, Carlisle joined a platoon in a separate company and kept fighting up the beach.
Of the 13 German tanks mobilized to stop the invasion, the American soldiers destroyed five and forced the others to retreat.
By the end of the day, American forces controlled five miles of beach, important high ground and several vital roads leading into the Italian countryside, according to division history.
After their first combat experience, “the 105 boys from Ballinger” — as Carlisle called his Texas National Guard unit — had transformed itself into a battle-tested group of young soldiers.
The troops moved up into the Italian hill country around Alta Villa, taking the village Sept. 11, 1943.
That night a heavy German counterattack commenced, dividing the American battalion in two and forcing a retreat from the high ground around the village.
Fighting over the ground that they had lost in the night, Carlisle’s platoon became disorganized and lost communication with the other units, which had received the order to withdraw from the area.
Isolated and running low on ammunition, Carlisle said most of the men in his group were either killed, wounded or captured.
After running into a rock house, German soldiers captured Carlisle on Sept. 13, 1943, giving him a choice to surrender or die.
Nine months before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Carlisle was on his way to prison camps in Germany.
Flanked by German soldiers, the prisoners marched for a week through Italy before loading into box cars.
The American prisoners of war traveled for several days by train without food or water, Carlisle said.
He said he remembered refreshing himself by gathering moisture on his hands from the steam of the train and rubbing it on his mouth.
“Losing your freedom is a terrible thing,” Carlisle said. “Going hungry and thirsty, a human being can go through a lot before he breaks down.”
Placed in double-bunk barracks, enough for about 4,000 men, Carlisle waited out the rest of the war surrounded by the machine gun towers and barbed wire fences of Stalag III B, a prison camp 80 miles from Berlin.
As the days passed in boredom, Texas was always on Carlisle’s mind.
“I just wanted to eat some good food and drink some good cold water,” he said.
The prisoners’ only respite were the parcels from the Red Cross that would arrive containing chocolate, cigarettes and canned meat.
After many months, information began leaking into the prison that the Germans were losing the war.
Carlisle never lost faith that he would one day regain his freedom. “I always had faith and hope that someday I would return to the good old USA alive,” he said.
As allied troops closed in on Berlin, German soldiers attempted to move the 3,000 prisoners of Stalag III by foot, through cold and snow, Carlisle said.
After several weeks of marching, the defeated German soldiers let Carlisle and the other prisoners go, although only a few hundred remained.
One day, the prisoners, emaciated and sick, spotted American troops arranging supplies on the shores of the Elbe River.
Shortly after falling into the custody of the Army, Carlisle lost the use of his legs due to severe malnutrition. The young soldier rehabilitated in a New Jersey hospital and regained his ability to walk, readying him for the big trip back to Texas.
Arriving by bus in Temple, Carlisle took a taxi cab to his family’s home on College Street in downtown Killeen. He did not phone ahead to tell his mother he was coming.
“Since she had been praying night and day, her prayers were answered,” Carlisle said.
Soon after returning from the war, Carlisle found a job at the post office and later the Killeen First National Bank, where he spent 36 years.
“I started filing checks on my knees and ended up becoming chief executive,” he said.
Carlisle married Margie Sue Sprott, and together they raised two sons, Rickey and Rex Carlisle, in Killeen.
Now retired, Carlisle’s greatest joys are tending to his vegetable garden and mowing his lawn on a pair of sturdy legs. He said those simple pleasures would not be possible if it weren’t for the people who protect the nation every day — the U.S. military.
“Our military protects our country and gives us the freedom to live the lives we live every day,” Carlisle said. “We still have the greatest military in the world, just as we always have.”