Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: February 28, 2008

Corporal Don Cooley Army

Speaker Photo

* 1943 assigned to the 423rd Regiment, 106th "Golden Lion" Infantry Division.
* Two regiments of the division were surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge near St. Vith, Belgium.
* Both regiments surrendered. Personnel were marched for a couple of days and then transported in cattle cars east of Leipzig.
* Moved to Stalag 4B near Halle on December 30, 1944.
* Worked as labored repairing bombed railroad lines.
* Liberated April 13th, 1945 by the 104th Division and repatriated through Camp Lucky Strike in France. 423rd Regiment, 106th "Golden Lion" Infantry Division * Born 12/26/1923 and raised in West Lafayette, Indiana.
* Attended Purdue University - enlisted in US Army Reserve - expected to graduate in class of 1946.
* Called to active duty and went through basic training at Camp Wheeler, GA.
* As a draftee with some college behind him he was placed in an ASTP program.
* 1943 assigned to the 423rd Regiment, 106th "Golden Lion" Infantry Division.
* Two regiments of the division were surrounded during the Battle of the Bulge near St. Vith, Belgium.
* Both regiments surrendered. Personnel were marched for a couple of days and then transported in cattle cars east of Leipzig.
* Moved to Stalag 4B near Halle on December 30, 1944.
* Worked as labored repairing bombed railroad lines.
* Liberated April 13th, 1945 by the 104th Division and repatriated through Camp Lucky Strike in France.
* On ship back to the USA on May 8th.
* Separated from the service and continued his studies at Purdue under the GI Bill - graduated in 1948.
* Obtained a Masters in Business from Stanford University ('48-'50) and spend his career in sales with IBM.
* Currently lives on cattle ranch near Watsonville with his wife Diane.

Getting Out of World War II - In Germany

Cpl Don Cooley, U.S. Army

Golden Gate Wing Speaker, February 28, 2008

"You’ve seen a lot of documentaries and read books about people who

have been prison camps, and the terrible way it was in Japan. That wasn’t

the way it was because the Germans had signed the Geneva Convention."

Don Cooley was a college freshman, enrolled in the ROTC field artillery program, until the fall of 1942, when he turned 18. Don thought being enrolled in those studies would get him past the draft.

But at that time the government decided the Officer’s Candidate schools were full while the Universities were empty. So, the department of Defense established programs to train young men in universities—the Navy’s V-12, the Army’s Specialized Training Program (ASTP)—to keep students in school and learning, and not be drafted.

In the spring of 1943, the War Department was building-up for the pending invasion of Europe. Students then in college were sent to the infantry and then back to college, before having them join units headed overseas.

Christmas 1944

Cooley was assigned to the 423rd Regiment of the 106th "Golden Lion" Infantry Division. This ‘green’ unit had just arrived December 10th on the Belgian/German border in the Ardennes Forest to help ‘finish up the war in Europe.’

Unknown to the soldiers of the 106th and their brethren on that front, the Germans had been amassing armor and troops for a planned drive through the Ardennes to the Belgian port of Antwerp, northern Europe’s staging and supply point for American and British forces. This last-ditch thrust would become known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’.

"We were kids they’d pulled out of colleges, people who they’d pulled out of air training programs, people they’d pulled out of kitchens from various places in the Army, to throw together to take over there to ‘finish up the war.’

Where the Army would usually have a division responsible for a five mile-front, the 106th Infantry Division had been spread across more than 20 miles. When the armor-led German thrust began on the night of December 15th, the 106th was right in its path. U.S. Army records recount intense fighting from the 106th Infantry regiment, crediting the unit with severely slowing the attack and preventing the breakthrough from its key objectives. In that action, two regiments of Cooley’s division— right in the middle of the German salient near St. Vith, Belgium—were quickly bypassed and surrounded.

"It came down from the regimental commander that we were surrendering. He wisely felt that to fight out of that whole thing, we would lose more lives than anything else. We were told to destroy our arms.

"Where I was, no one fired a shot, because they had gone around us so fast, way to the north and way to the south. That was a blessing for us."

Cooley said he had been on the front lines for two days, away from most of his possessions. But buried in his overcoat pocket was a camera—to be exact, a 1939 Kodak Baby Brownie with three rolls of film.

"It was the dead of winter, the coldest winter in history and I had this big overcoat. When the Jerries arrived, it was four o’clock in the afternoon and getting dark on the 19th of December. They didn’t do anything but a pat-down. And so, that didn’t get patted-down.

"Then they marched us for three days behind their lines, hundreds and hundreds of us. After we were marched out of there to the rear of their columns, we were put into boxcars—40/8s—40 men or eight horses. Smelled a little like it, too.

"We were taken for ten days across to eastern Germany to their ‘reception center’, where we entered this very large multinational POW stalag."

A shower and de-lousing were the first activities for the prisoners of war. Then there were clean clothes. Cooley says the stalag was ‘pretty much run by the Brits’, mostly captured during Operation Market Garden, the aerial invasion of the Netherlands.

"A man came up to me and asked, ‘Do you have anything you don’t want Jerry to find?’ I was very dubious, but thought, ‘Why not trust him’, and I handed him the camera and a pair of pliers I had in my pocket."

Cooley says when he came out newly clothed and with some food in his stomach, here was the British soldier, the camera in hand, returning it to him.

‘I foolishly shot two pictures from the hip out of this overcoat while I was in this reception center. They didn’t come out very well because it was a dark January day."

Ten days later, Cooley was among a group of 25 POWs sent out as a work party. They traveled by train to Stalag 4B at Halle, near Leipzig, arriving December 30th, to work for a company that repaired railroad lines.

Cooley says he was in the camp for 3-1/2 months, during which he was kept optimistic by the routine of bombing raids, night and day, around them. One nighttime raid nearby greatly buoyed his spirits.

"The air raid siren sounded and we were to get out of the barracks. Searchlights were all over the sky and British planes were going by.

"It made a lasting impression on me because it was ‘the bombs bursting in air, the rockets red glare’ and every time I hear the Star Spangled Banner, I get choked up.

What a feeling it gave us. It told us that we were really on top and it wouldn’t be long now. It was such a boost and such a spectacular sight."

Daily entries - April 1945

Cooley had been keeping a diary during his time as a POW, though as he became hungrier and more tired, he didn’t always jot notes daily. Reading from his mid-April entries:

"There was no work on this Friday the 13, due to the proximity of hostilities. Hollis was supposed to be an open city last week. Strafing planes and artillery sound quite common now. ‘Mad Dog’ (the pet name for Cooley’s work supervisor) came over and got us at 4:00 a.m. Ordered to move out in half an hour. Threw stuff together.

"Ate remains of rabbit, etc., on the fly. Began march about 5:30 with the French, who are billeted below us. We were in kind of a dormitory over a warehouse the guy had."

Cooley described a new German sergeant and "Grandpa Alvin", a toothless guard, both of whom Cooley says were left in charge of the POWs because they were among those under age (15 years old) or men considered to be too old for combat.

The POWs, recalls Cooley, didn’t like the idea of moving away from the Yanks, except for safety. But he says the Germans wanted to keep the POWs as long as possible, so they were herded east.

"We started this hike with ample breaks until three in the afternoon, to a so-called ‘safety zone for arbeitz kommandos’ (work commandos). In an open field, about 25 kilometers east of Holland and 12 kilometers north of Leipzig, we camped."

There were now fifty POWs in the group camp, and they were nearly surrounded by German tanks, which ran down the Leipzig highway in hasty retreat. In the distance, the campers could hear the distant rumble of artillery fire.

Cooley says they were fed well—corned beef, ham, sardines and bread—but they still got dysentery, and couldn’t hold it. That night they bedded down in straw.

"The German guards, pretty sullen, more conscious of the situation nearby, issued us twelve Polish cigarettes.

"Next day, Saturday, we were rousted at four a-m to prepare to move out. Charlie Ace, my buddy who had been in my company, and I had decided last night to goof off today. The sergeant said he couldn’t make us go, but we couldn’t stay there. I felt so badly, we hid under straw and brush on the edge of the area until everybody had cleared out.

"Now, prisoners of war at large. Hallelujah!"

Local residents, remembers Cooley, had started coming through their bivouac, seeking discarded goods and promising the two Allied soldiers bread and baked potatoes. Cooley and Ace settled into a ditch about 100 yards away to sleep, eat and plan their next move.

The two men went through equipment left behind by the Germans, discovering rifles, ammo belts, trinkets and the notebook on which Cooley would further document his experiences in Germany. Shoes, clothing and cigarettes went to a couple of Poles and a Frenchman who had brought food. Cooley says that after awhile, the Frenchman brought more potatoes, as well as some hot coffee. One of the Poles, a man named Felix, had been a POW for five years, working as slave labor at a local factory until it was recently bombed.

Cooley said he decided to take one picture of their hiding place in the ditch. A flip of a coin decided Charlie would be the subject of the snapshot, "…prone, feet toward me, with a slice off of that loaf of bread."

That night, a Saturday, the two Poles returned and hurriedly led the two POWs to a one-room apartment in town where Felix lived with his wife and baby. There, the two GIs washed with hot water and some soap from a Red Cross parcel they’d given Felix.

Then Cooley said he met the other guests of Felix:

"Four Britishers—one Englishman and three South Africans from Durbin—were here also. They were captured three years ago at Tobruk in North Africa. Felix brought them in at about nine p.m., Fred, Ray, Dick and George. Older than we.

"How they were picked up only a Brit would believe. They had come out of hiding at 4pm to build a fire and brew a pot of tea. Felix was horrified by this risk and whisked them to security.

"They set the table for the six of us and fed us. Cows milk, coffee, carrot and onion and potato soup, bread… half a boiled rabbit and gravy, a bowl of potatoes. Absolutely couldn’t eat it all.

All the men bedded down for the night and slept in, then had breakfast in bed the next morning.

"Ah, what a full feeling of contentment. To hell with our getting out! This is primo! Felix brought in a French barber who cut our hair, washed up in hot water in an immaculate cow stable below, where there was a pen of rabbits.

"This was just like the movies—strictly on the hush-hush, lay low, French and Poles, the underground, dropping in with late news. They all know and they’re all helping us with the anticipation of utopian deliverance as soon as the American troops arrive."

Cooley says that Sunday evening, Felix came in with word that the SS and Volksturm were setting up defenses in the town, and that Allied forces should be getting there within a day. While appreciating the all-out efforts by Felix and others in the area to assist the POWs, precautions were made to be safe and ready to move at a moment’s notice.

On April 15th, news came via Walter Winchell’s radio broadcast that President Roosevelt had died. Cooley marvels that even then, so distant from his homeland, he heard the news the same day it happened.

By April 16th, 1945 the sounds of gunfire had dwindled, and Felix began to be worried about the potential danger of being discovered by the SS. News reports on the radio finally confirmed that Leipzig was in chaos and was surrounded by American troops, whose quick advance had outrun fuel supply. Tanks, armored cars, trucks and troops were stalled but 10-12 kilometers away.

Within two days, German troops were retreating through the town.

"Three Jerries came in early to water their horses, right below us, stayed all day and moved out at night, none the wiser.

"Walter Winchell returned with his daily report, a pamphlet to POWs printed in French, German, English and Polish, dated 17th April with news up to the 15th about the present front ten kilometers from here, the Japanese and Italian situation, Roosevelt and Truman. It was really a treat to see GI news. They dropped from airplanes with these ultimatums to the German people: ‘Give Up!’."

Thursday, the 19th of April brought a delicious veal dinner, and was followed the next day by work to help clean out the stable while Felix milked the cows. Later at one o’clock that afternoon, liberation came.

"Two Yank GIs arrived ahead of two tanks. We’re free! Damn, the GI stuff looks good! Chocolate, et cetera."

Cooley wrote in his diary they spent the day eating, taking pictures and riding in a jeep to battalion headquarters, where he ‘shot the bull’ with other repatriated POWs from the 106th Infantry. From there Cooley went into Halle and the barracks for repatriated POWs. He says the city was a mess, full of debris from bombings, and completely looted, and he and others spent time clearing the streets.

About a week later, Cooley rode on a truck to a nearby airfield, waiting three days for a C-47 ride that carried him and two dozen other US and British POWs to Reims, France. There he was able to clean up and get a new uniform.

On May 6, 1945, VE Day, Don Cooley was on a boat back to the United States, where he had rest and recuperation at a Miami Beach hotel.