By Jenny Hall
American-born Clarence Hall signed up for military duty the day he turned 18 years old, on June 3, 1943. Three months later he was inducted into the 83rd Infantry Division basic training. There were 120 soldiers in his company and one of the first training exercises involved hand-to-hand combat with bayonets attached to their rifles. “We were supposed to side-step the bayonet and grab the rifle and flip the opponent onto the ground,” said Hall. “Once there we were to bash their head with the butt of the rifle, but being a training exercise, we were supposed to stop about 12 inches from their head.”
“Well, my opponent ended up gashing my palm and I did get him down, but when I put the rifle down to his head, I swear the most amazing conviction came over me,” he recounts. “It was the Holy Spirit and I could hear, clear as anything, the words of Jesus: ‘Love your enemies.’ I just knew I wouldn’t be able to kill another human being, even though I knew we had to stop Hitler.”
Clarence talked about this conviction to his commanding officer who warned him, “Well Private Hall, you will either kill or be killed.” Clarence stood his ground on the issue and the next day was transferred to the medical corps, to be trained in medical first aid.
They were in Normandy, July 8, 1944, when a German Tiger Tank approached the empty, evacuated farmhouse that had been set up as an emergency first aid station. Wounded German and American soldiers were waiting on stretchers to be airlifted across the channel to English hospitals.
The tank turned its 88 mm gun on the aid station and ordered an immediate surrender. Four doctors and 68 soldiers were forced to march four miles to Paris where they boarded a train that took them to Stalag V11-A, a one-square mile prisoner of war camp in Moosburg – the largest in Germany.
It was 35 miles northeast of Munich, and Clarence was prisoner # 84279. There were 27,000 prisoners in that camp and Clarence says of the 296 days he was interred there he had only two showers and his clothes were washed with cold water and no soap. But the worst of it was the constant hunger. “It’s the worst torture, being so hungry all the time”, he said. “So hungry you couldn’t even sleep at night, and then at dawn having to get up to do the forced labour.”
In the 296 days he was a POW, Clarence had no contact with his family, and with the girl that wrote to him faithfully. All they knew was that he was MIA – missing in action. The soldiers were supposed to receive a 16 square inch box of food supplies a week from the Red Cross, “Of course we only got half that, and had to share it with another prisoner,” he says. “By the end of the war, it was 14 men per box, and it was impossible to divide it up.” Clarence was resourceful. Since he didn’t smoke and the box contained a pack of cigarettes, he saved his portions and once, while in the city clearing the debris, he traded his stash of cigarettes for three small loaves of bread. “That was the best deal I ever made!” The hunger and constant illnesses within the camp took its toll. “Soldiers were dying daily, stacked in heaps and then dumped into trenches and dug under into the field in back, clearly visible to us all,” he remembers. “So many of my closest friends died and were buried that way.” Clarence ended up coming down with influenza and double pneumonia. He was taken to the prison hospital with a temperature of 105 degrees, and vomiting up even water. He couldn’t keep anything down for six days and was at the point of death.
“An American prisoner of war doctor who was treating me told me the powdered quinine was not breaking my fever.” There was nothing more to be done.
“But then, more real than talking to you now” Clarence said, “a voice, clear and vivid as anything, said to pray, ask God to heal you.” So Clarence prayed and after he did he says it was with utter astonishment that he was able to take a breath without pain.
“So I took a second breath, and the third breath I took in a lungful, and no pain. And then my fever broke, and I was hungry again! I saw the doctor pass by and I sat up and waved.” Back from death, Clarence was returned to the chain gang four days later. Then, on April 29th 1945 at ten minutes after one o’clock in the afternoon, two American tanks were driven into the camp – the German guards had to open the gates for them. The tanks were immediately surrounded by hundreds of men. When the news came that they were free, the cheering and the crying from the thousands of POW’s was something Clarence says he will never forget.
And neither will he ever forget the food that was served them immediately upon their release from the camp. “The U.S. Red Cross set up dozens of tables of food, with pretty girls behind each to serve us. There was fresh baked bread and cookies and peanut butter and jam. The bread was so fresh it couldn’t even be sliced. The girls had to break off pieces to give us.”
Beside him a British man started weeping when given his bread. “Angel food, Angel food,” he kept saying. That man was 38 years old and he had been in the camp for four years. A few days later, in Southern France, Clarence and 200 other soldiers boarded the ’MOR-MAC-MOON’-a luxury liner that was sent to take them home to North Carolina. It was a voyage of 11 days and Clarence said they ate the finest food to be found anywhere on earth. Clarence was given honourable discharge from the army in New Orleans, bearing the rank of corporal. He reunited with his family in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, and married the sweetheart, Beatrice, that had written him so faithfully. Clarence will never forget his time in the POW Camp and says he often dreams he is back there. “It really makes you appreciate things so much more. With death constantly in front of you, well, I am so happy to be alive.”
This story originally appeared in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Coast Mountain News