Soldier spent winter as prisoner of war
When Burns native Gene Obee and a group of 30 fellow soldiers surrendered to a German officer who promised they would be well treated as prisoners-of-war Dec. 18, 1944, it didn’t take long to realize the man’s promise was a lie.
As they were marched past a row of tanks, German soldiers took what they wanted from the Americans.
“I had to give up my overcoat and my steel helmet and my overboots,” Obee said. “That’s when I began to realize things were not going to go well.”
After being loaded onto a train, they were taken to Stalag IV, one of the Germans’ largest prisoner-of-war camps during World War II. Thousands of soldiers from 33 countries passed through Stalag IV between its opening in 1939 and its liberation by the Red Army in 1945.
Obee was given a little cheese and a chunk of bread as his only food during the journey to the camp in a boxcar.
The toilet was a hole in the floor and the stench was terrible. Nearly all his fellow soldiers fell ill. He said the trip was the worst part of his ordeal.
Once at Stalag IV, they were given prisoner-of-war tags identifying the camp.
“We were told if we took this off and took our dog tags off, we would be considered spies,” Obee said. “After we’d been kept a day or so, they questioned us, four at a time. All we would say is name, rank, and serial number.”
The German soldier questioning them already knew what date they’d gotten on a ship at Boston for the trip to Europe, and when and where the ship landed.
“They had great intelligence,” Obee said.
They were also warned against getting too close to the fence surrounding the camp.
“We were told to stay away from that fence,” Obee said. “If we got too close to it, they would consider we were trying to escape. They were pretty convincing.”
They were repeatedly told the war was over, Germany would win, and they would be sent to Russia to serve as slave labor.
The food in the camp was miserable.
Turnip soup was a daily ration. Sometimes it was warm and Obee could force it down because it was eat or starve. Other times it was served cold and he simply could not eat it.
“I got real sick from eating a turnip peeling off a garbage can,” Obee said.
He was put in a tent hospital run by a French physician who had also been captured.
“He asked me, ‘How old are you?’ and I said 19,’” Obee said. “He just shook his head and said, ‘So young.’”
After he recovered, Obee was sent to a work camp. There he was given decent food and better treatment.
He struck an agreement with a fellow prisoner that they would both write each other’s families and tell them what they knew.
“I don’t know how long we were there,” Obee said. “There were 22 of us.”
The camp was so close to a highway, the inmates could hear vehicles passing by.
“We were about 60 miles from the Czechoslovakia border,” he said.
One day the man who oversaw the work camp talked to the men.
“I’ve treated you guys really well,” he said. “I hope you don’t tell on me.
The overseer disappeared in the middle of the night.
The next day the men walked out of the work camp. They ran into a bunch of American soldiers who drew guns on them, not knowing the shoddy-looking group was prisoners-of-war.
They were taken to an Army hospital. A physician there told Obee that within a week gangrene would have set in.
When Obee wrote to his camp buddy’s wife and children, she responded with a letter saying she had only been told her husband was missing in action.
He received another letter from her later. It said an
Army chaplain had written that her husband had been liberated but died two days afterward.
Obee got a 30-day furlough at the end of April 1945. He returned to Burns and helped his father with harvest by driving a truck. His furlough was extended another 30 days because of the harvest.
Then he reported to a hospital in Arkansas, and later boarded a train to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Before he went to Japan, the war ended.
When the 99th Infantry Division was sent to Germany in 1944, they were called “Battle Babies” because of their youth and inexperience.
“At that time, I was the youngest guy in the company — and the dumbest,” Obee said.
His older brother, Fred, happened to be it the division Obee’s replaced in Germany. Fred had participated in the invasion of Utah Beach.
The last letter Obee had received from home about Fred said he was on furlough. His mother later had to tell him over the phone that Fred had been killed in the Philippines.
Obee, now 94, lives at Parkside Homes in Hillsboro.
Last modified Nov. 7, 2019