This story was written by Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
Robert A. Kramer was born in Columbus, Ohio, on 10/23/25, the only child of a middle class family. His upbringing and schooling at Columbus’ Corpus Christi and Holy Rosary High School, he says, were nothing special. A week before turning 18 (on 10/16/43) he signed up for the Enlisted Reserves, a program that promised a guy he could complete a year of college before being drafted. So Bob began attending classes at Ohio State University pursuing a degree in engineering.
Unfortunately, the military was desperately needing manpower at that point in WW II; and life would quickly change for young Bob. He would spend his 19th birthday in Marseille, France. After only a quarter at OSU, on 1/3/44, Bob was activated at Ft. Hayes in Columbus, and (at the same time as 145,000 other bright young recruits from around the U.S.) he was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program. He was sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia on 1/19/44 for testing and then three months of basic training before starting this new, modified Officer Candidate School. Unfortunately, the ASTP program was abolished half way through their training, and they were all ordered to Ft. Bragg, NC on 3/25/44; where all the Privates had been shipped out to the European front and the Corporals and above remained to train these new members of the 100th Infantry Division for the next 3 or 4 months. Bob was assigned to the 398th Regiment, Company A - the unit he remained with until he was captured by Nazis in France late the following year.
On 9/25/44, Bob and the rest of his regiment arrived by train at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. Allowed 12-hour passes to visit the sights of NYC, these young troops created some lasting memories; as, for most, it was the first visit to such a huge city. The passes ended on 1/3/44, however, as they prepared to ship overseas. The official division history says the 100th had 762 officers, 44 warrant officers, and 13,189 enlisted men at that time. The whole division moved out en masse. Incidentally, they wore their best winter full dress wool uniforms - no fatigues. To their surprise, they were to wear those same dress clothes into battle. They carried their gear to a truck which transported them to a train and finally to a ferry, which took them to one of four huge transport ships. Each soldier had to carry his own 170 pounds of gear (70 pound pack, helmet, weapon, and duffle bag) onto the ferry and then across the piers on the west side of Manhattan, where four huge cruise ships awaited the 100th. (Unknown to them at the time, their ships would cross the Atlantic along with seven others that held the 103rd Infantry Division.) The men carried their 170 pound loads across the dock, up the gangplank, and then up several stories of shipside stairs to the upper deck.
On 10/8/44 Bob departed New York City for Europe aboard a converted cruise ship, the USS William H. Gordon. (The other three ships transporting the 100th were the George Washington, McAndrews, and Mooremac Mountain.) Forced to remain below deck most of the time with absolute minimal lighting for the entire 12-day crossing of the Atlantic, these men slept in bunks four tiers high (actually iron frames supporting roped canvas strips.) They were literally stacked like cordwood, and it was certainly no place for the claustrophobic. They ate only two meals a day during the crossing. Worse still, six days out the ship encountered one of the most horrific storms the Atlantic Ocean had experienced in many years. The storm lasted a full 48 hours; and, of course, all the men were violently ill for much of the crossing. The “medicine” for their seasickness consisted of lemons. It was a totally miserable voyage for everyone. Bob fondly remembers being allowed on deck for the first time as they passed Gibraltar in calm waters. On 10/20/44 the USS William H. Gordon landed in Marseille, France.
Upon their arrival they found the once prosperous harbor at Marseille a total chaotic mess, made so by the amphibious landing attack of American troops months before and further complicated by the intentional destruction of the harbor and its ships by the Nazis before they retreated. Instead of docking at a pier, the Gordon parked next to the hulk of a destroyed freighter; and bridges were built atop its hulk, across which the men and equipment of the 398th disembarked. Soon, with full packs, helmets, and rifles, the 398th marched to its staging area at Septemes, a village about 15 miles due north of Marseilles harbor. This was to be their staging area for the next week or so.
It was a busy time at Septemes, assembling the equipment and issuing gear and rations to the troops. But it was not all work. Men were granted passes to visit the exotic port of Marseilles, the first experience ever in a foreign country for nearly every soldier. While many partook of wine, women & song, others simply enjoyed a good civilian haircut and the magnificent scenery.
On the 28th & 29th of October, the first two groups of the 398th departed by rail for Villancourt, France. Bob Kramer was among those traveling in the famed “40 & 8” box cars on the narrow gauge French railroad. The cars were labeled 40 & 8 because of their ability to hold either 40 men or 8 horses, and travel in them was dreaded by those in WW I. In this case, however, the accommodations were quite adequate. They had heaters, blankets, and room enough at night to lie down. There were kitchens aboard the train, so the soldiers enjoyed warm meals. And it beat walking! On the 31st, the remainder of the regiment left Septemes by motor convoy. It took most of three days via Valence & Dijon to reach their destination, five miles from the front line. They were in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, in the Alsace Region of France.
The 398th was to replace portions of the 3rd & 45th divisions, who had driven the Nazis from southern France to these mountains where the Germans hoped to dig in and spend the winter. This was the last stop for the 398th before going into actual combat. According to Bob Kramer, the combat was more of a cat-and-mouse game, with the Germans retreating from spot to spot, with some serious combat before they departed. In their wake they left “shuh” (shoe) land mines, designed to remove a soldier’s foot above the ankle should he step on one. Also feared was the deadly 88-mm cannon, the Nazi’s “greatest single weapon of the war,” according to many. It was responsible for the downing of thousands of bombers and tens of thousands of soldiers. Combat was sporadic, but it was fierce when encountered.
On 11/25/44 the Vosges campaign was over, and the U.S. Army had dominated. The 398th was moved some forty kilometers from the front for some much-needed R & R. They were reissued equipment and for the first time given winter uniforms, something they had desperately needed against the bitter cold and elements in the preceding three weeks. During this R & R, they stayed in houses, got hot showers and received the best equipment the U.S. Army could provide. On 12/02/44 Company A had replacements for their casualties that brought them back up to their fill complement, and they were trucked back to the front.
After marching to the front line, Company A still didn’t know where they were - only that the Germans had taken a stand, and our troops were having a tough time getting through. Later it was learned that they were outside the small village of Wingen-sur-Moder. Bob’s job was as a 60 MM light mortar gunner. On the evening of the 3rd the company captain ordered the men into town to occupy houses, a better place to sleep and fight than foxholes - or so he thought. The entire company successfully made it into two small three-story farm houses, Bob Kramer and three others in the small cellar. Soon the Germans had surrounded them and fired everything they had - small arms, rifle, bazookas, and finally tossing hand grenades into the sheer bedlam. A concussion type (rather than shrapnel type) “potato masher” grenade landed in the midst of the foursome, and then it went quiet. Two of the Americans were still unconscious but alive, and Bob and the other infantryman were briefly knocked out when the Nazis came down the cellars stairs and captured them. It was 3AM on 12/04/44. They were prisoners.
Bob and the other captives were quickly grouped and marched several miles in the darkness to a small town, where they were broken into smaller groups for short interrogations in various buildings. The guards near the front lines were not friendly, but they were quite professional and didn’t mistreat the prisoners. That was to change as they proceeded farther behind enemy lines. For the next few days they were marched during daylight through the countryside, the Germans obviously wanting to show the French that they were still in control of the area and able to capture large numbers of American soldiers. At night the prisoners were held in large buildings. Food was meager: breakfast consisted of terrible black coffee and black bread - often thought to be made from sawdust - sometimes with a smidgeon of cheese. There was no noon meal. At night they got a small allotment of soup with the same small piece of black bread. It was little consolation that the Guards only had the same meager portions for their noon meal.
Soon they were forced into older 40 & 8 cars, this time with more than 100 men per car. They remained in these cars for five days and five nights, with many men sick and dying from hunger, lack of water, and dysentery. The worst part, Bob says, was the waiting. The trains stood idle during the day, apparently because a moving train would be a target for allied warplanes. The waiting was maddening. Without food, the men got hungrier; and without water and medicine they got sicker. The stench from urine and feces was unbearable. Only twice did the guards open the doors, and then just momentarily to look in, before quickly slamming them on the prisoners once again. The dehumanization of Hitler and his minions hit the men hard. If the Nazis could leave them in these cars in frigid conditions to starve or freeze to death, what fate awaited these POWs? Fortunately, for the vast majority of the men, this fear and dread brought resolve. They were determined to survive.
After marching for three days behind enemy lines and then the five-day train ride, they finally arrived at what they later learned was Stalag XII-A, near Limburg, Germany. The sick and wounded were carried away, while the rest were marched directly to the bathhouse. They were ordered to strip naked and throw their uniforms in a pile. The Nazis told them they would be cleaned and returned later. They never saw their clothing again. They were then marched by medics who gave them (apparently) typhus shots directly into the chest muscle, an inch or so below the left nipple. After that they were allowed a hot shower, an encouraging event. But then they were given “new” clothes. Although clean, these were actually threadbare uniforms probably from the defeated Polish military.
The large prefabricated barracks were nearly as crowded as the railroad cars that brought them to Stalag XII-A. The three-high tiers of wooden bunks were covered with straw filled with lice. For the duration of their captivity and until being repatriated to the U.S. Army more than six months later the POWs lived with the constant red welts and itching of this lice plague. On the night of December 22, British planes bombed the railroad yards - conveniently located next to Stalag XII-A. Unfortunately, one of the bombs scored a direct hit on the POW’s officers’ barracks and killed 67. Bob says the enlisted troops responded by singing Christmas carols until they finally dropped off to sleep. Also during their stay at this POW camp, they never had their single issue of clothing laundered. Temperatures were well below freezing, and the barracks often had no windows.
The POW’s stay at Stalag XII-A was only for about three weeks. On 24 December, Bob filled out a Red Cross postcard to his parents telling them that he had been captured by the Germans but was in good health. (That postcard was delivered to his parents on 16 March, 9 days before the official Western Union telegraph from the War Department was received, finally telling them that Bob had been captured.) About 1/1/45 Bob and many other POWs were transported by unheated boxcar to Luckenwalde, Stalag III-A. The trip took five days in freezing weather. This camp was as bad as the last one.
About 45 days later, the POWs were marched for three days through deep snow to Altengrabow, Stalag XI-A. One night Bob spent sleeping against the side of a barn and the other was spent sleeping in a snow-covered ditch. While in this POW camp, Bob developed a huge growth on his neck, which prevented him from swallowing. A British surgeon (captured by the Nazis in Africa) who made weekly visits to the POW camp opened the growth and drained it. All the while he was in captivity here, Bob had running scabies on his hands and swollen feet from severe frostbite. At the time the Allied troops liberated the POWs on 5/3/45, PFC Kramer estimated that he weighed 85 pounds. The American POWs were liberated under a truce 12 miles behind the German front lines. The Germans were in terrible fear of the Russians seizing them and did all they could to march themselves and their former POWs to the American troops to the west. Bob recalls on this trip back seeing a German guard trading his German Luger for a carton of cigarettes
After spending time being treated for malnutrition and his other maladies at various hospitals in Germany and France, Bob was flown back to Fletcher General Hospital in Cambridge, Ohio. After a few more moves to various Army posts, PFC Bob Kramer was discharged at Camp Atterbury, Indiana on 12/22/45. Among other awards and decorations, he was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal,, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, WW II Victory Medal, and the WW II Honorable Service Pin.
After being discharged from the Army, Bob returned to Ohio State University and completed his BS degree in Mechanical Engineering. He then married and moved to Detroit, where he was employed by American Standard, a heating and air conditioning manufacturer. After brief stints in Cincinnati and Dayton, Bob returned to Columbus as a sales rep for American Standard’s HVAC products, a position he held until he retired. He then became an independent sales rep for American Standard for a number of years. Later in retirement he bought and ran a radio station in Johnstown with his oldest son and daughter-in-law and finally became a local sales rep for American Air Filter. Meanwhile, he and his wife built a home in Berwick where they raised three sons and a daughter. Bob now has six grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren.
Widowed in 1982, Bob married Mary Lou (a widow) in 1985. Together they have traveled extensively, including a trip back to France in 1990 to visit the battlefields and the basement in the home where he was captured on that fateful morning in 1944. Two years ago, the Kramers moved from their home in Berwick to a condo in Canal Winchester. Both are still quite active, and one can often see them at Motts Military Museum, where they have been generous supporters of our efforts to retain the legacy of our veterans and military heroes.
What a story, Bob, I cannot believfe all of what you went through at the hands of the German troops. I am proud of what you did to protect our country from foreign domination in those years. All the medals, even the Purple Heart, are a testimony of what your servfce means to all of us. Thank you is hardly adequate, but I am thankful for your service and your friendship.
So you know each other? Very neat.
I am so proud of my father and all the men of Company A. I have had the honor to meet many of them. The fact they survived unbelievable hardships and horrible conditions shows an inner strength and courage that most of us can never understand or appreciate. Their virtual silence for so many, many years about their own "war of survival" is an example of their humility and exceptional character. This extreme suffering was not in vain. One need only visit Buchenwald or Dachau as Dad, Mary Lou and I did to place their bravery in context of it all.
Robert, thank you for your comment!
Your dad sounds like an incredible man, part of that Greatest Generation for sure. Please post more memories and stories of your father, and pictures as well.