Carmel Whetzel can’t recall how he and two of his barracks-mates got their hands on some wire-cutters – only that they did. And one night in late March 1945, this essential tool of the prison-break trade performed admirably when the West Virginia-born Whetzel, now 87 and residing in Winchester, and his two buddies busted out of a German POW compound and roamed the Mecklenburg countryside for two weeks.
In the two decades immediately following World War II, prison-camp movies were Hollywood staples. “Stalag 17″ and “The Great Escape” spring quickly to mind, as does “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Sixties-era TV even boasted a spoof of the genre, the long-running series “Hogan’s Heroes.” As art can – and often does – imitate life, Whetzel could have been a technical adviser for any of these efforts, whether “silver” or small screen. For not only did he live the life of a POW, but also, somehow, lived to talk about it.
But that’s getting a bit ahead of the story.
Born and raised on a hilltop farm overlooking Lost River State Park near Mathias, W.Va., Carmel B. Whetzel, one of 10 children, “ran away from home” when he was 16. Landing in Baltimore County, Md., he worked at a hog farm, then for a tire company, and finally for Maryland Drydock and Shipyard Co.
World War II intervened and, at age 19, Whetzel received the inevitable call from Uncle Sam. Sept. 7, 1944, found him and the rest of his mates in Co. M, 3rd Battalion, 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division, disembarking at Cherbourg, France. For the better part of the next two months, Whetzel piloted trucks for the famed Red Ball Express, ferrying sorely needed fuel, supplies, and food to the soldiers on the front lines. He also drove a Jeep.
On Nov. 2, 1944, elements of 3rd Battalion “pushed ahead” to the French town of Rodalbe in the province of Lorraine. German troops surrounded the Americans, killing many and seizing about 200 as prisoners of war. Whetzel and two other drivers evaded capture by running into a barn and diving beneath a “haymow.” For three days, Whetzel and his comrades dared not move from their place of hiding – even as German soldiers took turns sleeping on piles of straw directly above them. Only when they heard the tell-tale fire of American guns did they reveal themselves.
But it was not Americans, coming to their rescue, who were discharging the guns, but rather Germans firing captured weaponry. Whetzel and his friends walked out of their hiding place into German hands. Taken initially to Stalag 12-A near Limburg, Germany, Whetzel did not eat for a week, but was forced to peel potatoes for his German captors. “We couldn’t eat,” he says, “and, if we tried, a guard would hit you over the head with a rifle butt.”
He and his fellow POWs were stripped of their GI uniforms and given raggedy old clothes and wooden shoes. Their uniforms, as they later learned, were used by German infiltrators, posing as American MPs during the Battle of the Bulge.
Ten days before Christmas, Whetzel boarded a 40×8 railroad car (so-called because it could hold either eight horses or 40 men) for his transfer to Stalag 2-A, near Neubrandenburg north of Berlin. This stalag had roughly 50 ancillary camps, known as Arbeitskommando, where POWs were subjected to hard labor seven days a week. Whetzel was dispatched to one such camp, located at a Luftwaffe base near Parchim, where he caught a glimpse of Germany’s prototypical jet fighters, sitting on the runway.
At Parchim, a captured French priest provided a fellow POW – Albert J. “Steve” Stevens – enough paper to keep a diary and, more importantly, to record the names and home addresses of all the men in the contingent. On pages 60-61 of the diary are recorded the events of March 26, 1945.
Wirecutters duly procured, Whetzel and his two bunkies – Harvey (Ikie) Boulerice and Roy Miller – hatched their plan for escape. They knew each night a guard would pass through and check each individual room in the barracks. On the night in question, the threesome saw the guard start his rounds and then move to the room closest to the front door – which they found unlocked. They slipped out of the barracks and into the latrine out back.
“We went through the crapper hole and cut the fence and crawled through,” he says. “The guards didn’t stop us. I don’t know if they even saw us. We didn’t care. We just walked down the road.” And they kept walking. For two weeks, they lived off the land – relieving chicken coops of their inhabitants to sustain themselves – until a German forest guard spotted them and picked them up. Whetzel says the trio would have gone farther afield had it not been for their inability to ford swollen canals. When they returned to camp, they were carrying a chicken.
Summarily put on trial, Whetzel and his fellow escapees were not sentenced to death – as may have been the case earlier in the war – but to three weeks of confinement, with a diet of bread and water. They were housed in a compound reserved for Russian prisoners.
Though Allied forces were inching closer as winter turned fully to spring in 1945, the work did not stop. When American warplanes blew up a railroad, Whetzel and the POWs were sent to repair it. One day, they saw a U.S. plane shot down. On another, seven POWs fell victim to friendly fire when U.S. aircraft strafed the area in which they were working. Whetzel and the other prisoners dug a trench and buried their buddies.
On May 2 came the “day of days,” as Stevens wrote in the diary. The war was over, at least in that sector. Oddly enough, after detonating all available ammunition, the guards herded the prisoners to a wooded area – and then departed. For about six hours, the men huddled together, wondering what to do. Eventually, they decided to march back to their compound, where Russian troops liberated them two days later.
Carmel Whetzel returned home to Baltimore, to a lifetime of hard work – in many vocations and avocations. True to his Red Ball roots, he drove a tractor-trailer for Amoco for 33 years, and served as his union’s shop steward for 28 of those. In 1969, he mixed race-car fuel for three events at “The Brickyard,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also “moonlighted” as a painter and learned the cabinet-making trade, eventually setting up his own shop to toil in those “off” hours when he wasn’t driving for Amoco. In later years, after taking early retirement, Whetzel and his son started building homes and townhouses in the Baltimore area and in Ocean City, Md.
“I’m just a hillbilly,” he says. “Never got in trouble…but I have worked seven days a week all my life.”
Not until his mid-70s, though, did Whetzel, still lean as a greyhound, begin to look back and reconnect with those men with whom he had formed everlasting bonds during the crucible of war. Oddly enough, it all started when he decided to purchase POW tags for his automobile. He then joined a POW club and, in 2009, he attended his first POW/MIA Recognition Day in Andersonville, Ga., where he was presented a certificate signed by former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. This past September, Whetzel returned to Andersonville under the sponsorship of Rolling Thunder, the biker organization dedicated to the heightened appreciation of veterans.
Three years ago, Whetzel moved to Winchester to be closer to the Veterans Administration hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va. He and his third wife, Carol – Whetzel’s first two wives, Mary Jo (mother of his five children) and Dorothy, have predeceased him – reside on Harvest Ridge Drive.
Outside their home, two flags fly daily. One is Old Glory; the other – fittingly – is the American Ex-Prisoners of War flag.
(Reprinted from the Winchester Star, November 11, 2010)