Holiday accents POW's freedom

Veteran Milton O. Price Sr., a former prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, knows the preciousness of freedom.

July 04, 2004

For former Staff Sgt. Milton O. Price Sr., 84, of Bel Air, the Fourth of July has a meaning that no words can describe.

"Nothing is like freedom," he said. "You don't realize how precious it is until it's taken away from you."

Price avoids telling people about life as a prisoner of war during World War II in Nazi Germany. He has heard too many caustic remarks in the past.

"Don't you have legs?" some have asked. "Couldn't you run?"

But the people who make such comments never spent six months in captivity.

They never slept on the floor of a crowded prison cell.

They never traveled by wagon for days in freezing temperatures.

They never wondered what new hardships each day would bring.

Price was drafted into the U.S. Army in April 1941. He was 22 years old and assigned to the 29th Infantry Division, 175th Infantry Regiment, Company B.

The men in the 29th went on to the D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944, but Price did not fight that day. Months before the Normandy invasion, he had been reassigned to the Army Air Forces.

"I am convinced that had I stayed in the 29th, I wouldn't have had much of a chance," he said.

In October 1944, Price was assigned to the 487th Bomb Group, 839th Bomb Squad as a waist gunner. In November, the B-17 bomber he was flying on was hit by flak.

One of the plane's four engines had been shot out, Price recalled. Another was on fire. The pilot asked the co-pilot to "feather" the propeller of one damaged engine -- to turn the propeller in such a way that the wind wouldn't hit it directly.

The co-pilot feathered the wrong engine. When he tried to start the good engine, he couldn't, and the pilot ordered the seven men on board to jump.

"I can't describe it," Price said. "You don't know what's in store for you. The pilot just gave you an order to jump. You've never jumped before, and you're jumping into enemy territory."

Price landed in a field, where two German soldiers immediately captured him.

He spent the next six months of his life as a POW in Germany.

Life as a prisoner

The guards took Price to Stalag Luft IV, a well-guarded, well-protected German prison. There, he shared a room designed to hold 12 men with 25 other prisoners.

The Germans fed the men black bread and oatmeal. Once, when the prisoners ate pea soup, nearly each pea had a worm, but the men were happy to finally eat meat.

In February, Price was sent to a camp in Nuremberg along with other men. The trip from Stalag Luft IV, in the north near the Baltic Sea, to Nuremberg usually took six hours by train. However, Price and the others were crammed into a boxcar for a week, traveling in the bitter cold.

There was little room to sit, none to lie down. The men were not given much food. Their only source of water was melted snow. They had one silver bucket for their bodily waste, which they were allowed to unload only when the train stopped.

At Nuremberg

Price met other American POWs in Nuremberg. But the company was no compensation for the living conditions.

Nuremberg was a dirty place and frequently bombed. At the prison there, Price slept on a bed infested with fleas and lice.

He had arrived in Nuremberg in February and stayed less than two months before he was moved again. Old German guards accompanied Price and the other prisoners to a camp in Moosburg, a small city north of Munich.

"We could have escaped at any time," he said. "But if the Gestapo or an SS trooper caught you, they wouldn't ask any questions. They would shoot."

Price arrived in Moosburg in mid-March 1945. There, he and the other men lived in big, circus-like tents.

Grateful for scraps

An American Army unit moved close to Price's camp in late April. Price, who had spent six months living off black bread, walked to the American camp and asked the mess sergeant if he had any extra food.

The man apologized, explaining he had nothing but a box of bread scraps.

"But to me it wasn't bread," Price recalled. "It was angel food cake. When I took the bread back to the men at Moosburg, I was a hero."

`He was freedom'

The next day, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. rode in on his halftrack.

"He stood there and spoke to us, and if he would have got down, everyone would have kissed him," Price said. "We knew that until we saw him, nothing was certain. He was freedom. We knew then that we were going home to our loved ones."

Decades later, Price said words cannot do his story justice.

"It's something you were very happy to forget about," he said. "When you lose your freedom and you have to depend on people that hate you, there's no way to describe your feelings."

But with World War II veterans dying daily, he said their words are priceless.

"None of us will be around too long," Price said. "My story, and the story of so many others, deserves to be told -- even if the memories are sometimes very painful."

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