Owensdale brothers' prisoner of war tales from WWII told
Author's note: An audio-taped interview of Owensdale native, Don Keffer, forms the basis for this dual World War II tribute that includes his late brother, Homer Keffer. Don served with the 315th Regiment, 79th Infantry Division, while Homer served with the 110th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division.
Don and Homer were a part of the Allied Army invasion force that extended from Normandy, France to Germany. Their task was to destroy the Nazi war machine of Germany's Adolph Hitler. The timeline was June 6, 1944, (D-Day invasion at Normandy), to May 8, 1945, (German Army surrender).
The two brothers, being attached to separate fighting units, had no knowledge of the other's whereabouts during this time span. A momentous event toward the end of the war, as our Allied Army was dominating the battlefield, would put Don and Homer at great risk of survival. The German Army Panzers, under Field Marshal Rundstedt, launched a Dec. 16, 1944, counter-offensive in the Ardennes of Luxembourg that expanded into the historic “Battle of the Bulge.” Both brothers were captured during the German Ardennes “Breakthrough,” and transported to prisoner-of-war stalags.
Don Keffer was at home on Dec. 7, 1941, when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was relayed by way of the family radio. He entered the U.S. Army in November 1942. Upon completing basic training at Camp Blanding, Fla,, he was assigned to the 79th Infantry Division. Training followed at Camp Forrest, Tenn., Camp Young, Calif., Camp Laguna, Ariz., and Camp Phillips, Kansas. He was attached to Company M (heavy weapons including 81mm mortars and water-cooled machine guns). Upon arriving at Camp Pickett, Va., his specific assignment became driver to the motor pool.
The 79th Division and the ‘Cross of Lorraine'
The 79th Infantry Division adopted the insignia “Cross of Lorraine” dating back to the Division's World War I defense of Lorraine, France (Meuse-Argonne Campaign). The Cross denotes a symbol of triumph dating back to the 15th century, and is displayed as a uniform shoulder patch. The insignia reveals a white bordered blue shield on which is superimposed a Cross of Lorraine.
Embarkation to England
Don observed: We departed Camp Myles Standish, Mass., and our port of embarkation was Boston Harbor. The 79th boarded the converted passenger ship, “Uruguay” on April 7, 1944. We were part of a convoy, and arrived safely in Liverpool, England, on April 17.
Utah Beach landing
The 79th assembled at Southampton, England, crossed the English Channel, and landed at Utah Beach on June 12-14, 1944 (D-Day plus 6-8). Don drove his “Jeep” directly off an LST ramp, and immediately observed the widespread devastation still evident from the first wave American assault of Utah Beach. In Don's words: “Utilizing a “Jeep,” it was my assignment to deliver a variety of ammunition to the front lines, including 81mm mortar shells. I was assigned to Company M, 3rd Battalion, 315th Regiment, Our division reinforced the original invading divisions, and entered combat on June 19, 1944. The first village we encountered was Ste. Mere Iglese, site of the 101st Airborne Division parachute drop on D-Day. Our first objective was Valognes. Cherbourg was next. The 79th lost many men in our first battle. We were constantly under fire from German Panzer 88mm guns, and we had no heavy armor to counter the 88s.
Hedgerows to Paris and beyond
Immediately following the invasion of D-Day, the stalemate in the Normandy hedgerows lasted until the breakout from St. Lo on July 26, 1944 (Operation Cobra). It is significant to recognize the logistical problems of launching and maintaining military operations against a well equipped and trained German Army. The 79th Infantry Division encountered and/or crossed more than a dozen rivers, including the Seine, Moselle, Moder, and Rhine. Many French towns were bitterly contested. Don mentioned specific towns that included Cherbourg, Lessay, Montagardon (Bloody Hill 84), Mantes, Neufchateau, and Scionville. Only those who were there know the many sacrifices made by 79th Infantry.
Germans capture Don and squad
The 79th moved through France and prepared to enter Germany. During an 11-day battle in the Rittershoffen-Hatten area, Don described the details of his capture by the German Army: “A small group of our unit (6 to 8) spent the night in a cellar. During the night, German infantrymen surrounded the house. By early dawn, Jan. 10, 1945, a German officer, with drawn Luger pistol, opened the cellar door. Our group was taken prisoner.
We were forced to walk for three days in knee-deep snow. The eventual destination was Stalag IV-B, located near Muhlberg. The POW camp was located about 80 miles south of Berlin, Germany. The one-floor barracks were not heated, and had a hanging light bulb every 50 feet. Our treatment was alternately good and bad, and daily rations consisted of three small potatoes and a small piece of bread. Fortunately, the camp guards were not SS troops.”
Significance of the Rittershoffen-Hatten Battle
The combat history of the 79th Infantry Division best describes the importance of the 2nd and 3rd battalions' actions that were held off the main weight of the German offensive against the two Maginot Line villages, while routing two elite German Divisions.
Escape from Stalag IV-B; Back to the USA
“On April 12, 1945, a POW work crew set out toward Leipzig by truck. The train station in Leipzig had no guards present, evidence of the approaching Allied Army. Surviving a friendly P-51 strafing alternate escapes and recaptures, we met with elements of the American 69th Infantry Division who were aboard a tank unit.
After proper identification, we were sent to Nuremberg, flew out to Paris to re-fuel, and eventually ended up at “Camp Lucky Strike.” I received a change of clothing for the first time since January, wrote a letter to Mother and Dad on April 26, and received a tetanus shot and 6,000 Francs in pay. The final trip back to the United States began at LaHavre, France, and eventually entered New York Harbor, a welcome sight.”
Homer joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1940. Records from the 110th Infantry Regiment reveal Homer qualified as an M-1 rifle expert during training. According to brother, Don, he was then attached to an anti-tank unit. His main skill involved communications.
Homer left Connellsville with the 28th Division on Feb. 7, 1941, and went overseas in October. 1943. Although being unable to interview Homer, we have been able to reconstruct his path from England to the “Battle of the Bulge.” A past interview with Chief Warrant Officer George Sebey, a supply officer with the 110th, gives us an excellent parallel to Homer's experiences.
Omaha Beach landing
Subsequent to training in England (Wales), the 110th Infantry Regiment assembled at Southampton and proceeded across the English Channel by way of LST (Landing Ship Tank). Destination was Omaha Beach, the date being July 20, 1944. Homer undoubtedly witnessed the massive devastation inflicted by American D-Day invasion forces and German defensive firepower.
Hedgerows to the Liberation of Paris
The invading Allied Army, including the 110th Infantry Regiment, was held up through June and most of July, 1944, by Normandy hedgerows. This configuration provided a natural defense for the German Army. Upon the breakout from St. Lo to Paris, Homer sustained shrapnel wounds from a “tree burst” exploding shell. Records from the 110th show the date as Aug. 4, 1944. He was evacuated to England to recuperate, and did not return to his unit until October. The 110th continued to press on to liberate Paris on Aug. 28.
Homer returns to the 110th
When Homer rejoined his unit in October, the 110th had crossed into Germany at Stupach. The Siegfried Line was breached at Grosskampenburg. The 110th ran into major resistance moving north to the Hurtgen Forest. A prior interview with CWO George Sebey indicated a major shelling by German heavy tanks equipped with 88mm guns. Homer would have returned to the 110th by that encounter.
The German Ardennes Campaign (Operation Nordwind)
After the Hurtgen Forest operation, the 110th Regimental Command was set up in the Clervalis Hotel on Dec. 13. The German counter-offensive began Dec. 16. The 110th was directly in the path of the attack. Homer's communication skills would have been in high demand. The 110th Regimental Command was forced to evacuate under fire, and the fragmented regiment was compelled to stall the German Panzer offensive push. During this period of peril, Homer somehow worked his way from the Clervaux-Wiltz vicinity to Bastogne, Belgium, focal point of the historic German siege.
The Bastogne ordeal
Bastogne was under extreme pressure from German Panzers and infantry. Remnants of the 110th Infantry Regiment made their way into this beleagured town to join the 101st Airborne, 9th & 10th Armored, and elements of the 106th Divisions. Don Keffer relates the conditions surrounding his brother's capture near Bastogne: “Near dusk, German tanks and infantry forced American forces into a wooded area, which was quickly surrounded. Homer expended his remaining ammunition, and he, along with his unit, became prisoners of War. “The date of his capture was Dec. 20, 1944. He was transported to Stalag II-A, located at Neubrandenburg, 100 miles north of Berlin, Germany. Homer's treatment and daily rations were similar to Don's at Stalag IV-B. Homer was liberated on March 30, 1945.
Don and Homer Keffer participated in one of the most intense battle arenas in American history. The Battle of the Bulge stands as an icon in our military history. The Keffer brothers survived their ordeal, mindful of the fact that the “Malmedy Massacre” of Dec. 17, 1944, resulted in American prisoners machine-gunned, in the snow, by German captors. Eighty-four were killed. One can imagine the deep concern of Don and Homer's parents, receiving a communique from the War Department relating to “Missing in Action.”
Upon termination of the war, Don and Homer returned home, seeing each for the first time in years. The first communication came from Don to Homer in these words: “They got you too.” Homer passed away Dec. 31, 1995.
A special thanks to Susan (Keffer) Zearley, Cathy (Keffer) Firestone, and Keith Keffer.
Last, but not least, a special tribute to Don Keffer, whose remarkable memory at age 94, made this tribute possible.
The 28th Division and the Pennsylvania Keystone
The 28th Division has adopted the image of a red keystone to be displayed as a uniform should patch. The 28th Division is the oldest division sized fighting unit in the U.S. Army. Its main nickname is “Keystone Division.”