The Germans must have known right where the Americans were. It was William Semlek’s first day of combat. The 24-year-old soldier had rarely left Wyoming before the war, except maybe for a trip or two to South Dakota.
The Army’s 35th Infantry Division had landed on Omaha Beach on July 4, 1944, about a month after D-Day. They advanced quickly to the front lines.
Semlek lay behind the hedges with another young soldier, trying to stay out of the artillery fire as best they could.
“A shell landed pretty close to where he and I were lying. It was closer to him apparently because it blew off both his legs. And that kid, he said —” Semlek paused, composed himself, then continued:
“— He told me, ‘Give me a drink of water and then shoot me.’ Course I went and found the medics and we moved on.
“I never saw him again. I don’t expect he made it.”
After graduation, Semlek worked on the family ranch his father homestead in 1910. Unmarried, he expected to be drafted, and he was in February 1942. He patrolled the California coast for about a year and sailed for England in 1944.
Beyond France’s beaches, walls of shrubs and small trees grew out of long mounds of dirt. They called it hedgerow country, great cover from artillery. Of course, the Germans could hide behind the hedges too, and they were already dug in.
The infantry next advanced to open country, much like Semlek’s family ranch near Moorcroft. It was known for its apple orchards and cider. Every farm house had a barrel of it, “which of course, we tapped.”
Then, fighting moved to the towns and villages.
Semlek and about 25 infantry soldiers were told to take and hold Fresnes, France. They did, exchanging fire with Germans hidden in the town, keeping them at bay for three days. But the Americans’ radio died, cutting contact with their battalion. They’d run out of food and water. “You didn’t dare drink the water that was available because they could have poisoned it. We were running awful low on ammunition.”
The platoon officer decided they needed to get back to the lines. Semlek was to bring up the tail end of the column to make sure no men were left behind.
Soon after the first soldiers set out, Semlek heard small arms fire. Machine gun bullets ripped through his left leg. One bullet lodged in his calf bone, where it would stay the rest of his life. Up ahead, Semlek saw his fellow soldiers surrendering.
“It was a pretty dramatic experience. You threw your rifle down. And your hands in the air. And they were in the driver’s seat.”
What happened next convinced Semlek the passenger seat was not a good place to be.
An American had been shot in the stomach. A German told him to get up. He couldn’t.
“So (the German) just calmly pulled the pistol out of his pocket and put a bullet in his head.”
Though he’d been shot three times in the leg, Semlek realized he could stand. Americans wheeled him to the German lines in a wheel barrow.
That was Sept. 28, 1944. Semlek wouldn’t be liberated for another seven months.
One thing a prisoner could always count on was his meals: He could count that they’d always be the same, and that they’d leave him even more hungry after he ate. Mornings, a horse dragged in a wooden barrel on a stone-boat. Inside was luke-warm, discolored water that the Germans called tea. Prisoners used it for shaving. Afternoons, they got a medium-sized boiled potato, a piece of dark bread and a cube of margarine.
“On a rare occasion, we’d get a little piece of sausage, but that didn’t happen very often. They were pretty stingy with that sausage,” Semlek said.
“But I guess it was enough to live on. It kept us alive. I guess you don’t think about foolishness like trying to escape when you’re hungry.”
Prisoners walked the camps’ barbed-wire perimeters and tried to get information from the guards. Most guards were older men or injured soldiers who couldn’t fight anymore. One must have had a wooden leg because he creaked when he walked. They weren’t bad guys, Semlek said.
As the fall of 1944 turned to winter, the Soviets closed in. Prisoners listened to the artillery and watched the flashes in the night sky.
Germans started moving their prisoners farther in, packing them into padlocked train cars. In Berlin, after a night locked in a boxcar, only straw on the floor and just enough room to sit down, a German guard opened the door. He wore a new uniform and shined boots. “He looked great,” Semlek said. “I supposed that was to intimidate us.”
The prisoners marched to a “temporary” prison, which turned into a couple of months. They slept on straw, 400 men to a tent infested with head lice. New Year’s Eve, 1944, a guard told them they were leaving again.
They marched through the night and all the next day along the autobahn, German guards patrolling both sides. They got no food or water.
The second night, they stopped in a small farming village and got their bread and turnip soup. A German housewife came out to the barns with a pot of hot water. Even though they had no coffee to mix with it, Semlek remembers the gesture: “I know she took her life in her hands to do what she did.”
Six more days they marched. Once, Semlek and a few others stepped out of line to adjust their packs. A guard fired into the group, shooting one guy in the head. The prisoners fell back in line.
Then, in camp Stalag 11B, the guards disappeared. They just weren’t there anymore. Tanks rolled into the compound, driven by Soviet women. “They pretty much just turned us loose,” he said. “At last, we knew we were free.”