Putnam County's last WW II POW
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 4:09 AM
By Sara Bailey
Above, Cleo Schroeder, Leipsic, stands with his military ribbons and medals he earned while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II.
LEIPSIC - Cleo Schroeder, a United States Army Veteran from Leipsic, has a triumphant story to tell.
He is the last World War II prisoner of war (POW) living in Putnam County.
Schroeder was born and raised in rural Leipsic, and spent most of his childhood and teenage years helping his father on their family farm.
But after Schroeder turned 19, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in World War II.
He entered the service in 1943 and was sent to basic training in Camp San Luis Obispo, California.
After completing most of his training, Schroeder, among many other soldiers, sailed from New York to South Hampton, England, where he arrived in May 1944. Schroeder was assigned to the first battalion of the 134th Infantry.
From South Hampton, the soldiers traveled by train to southern England, where they waited to cross the English Channel into Normandy, France.
"We crossed the channel, went down the rope ladder off of the ship into landing crafts and waited on the beach with our rifles up," said Schroeder. "It was pretty rough when we got into combat."
His battalion was part of the last invasion in Normandy on July 1.
Schroeder and his fellow troops of the first battalion of the 35th Division continued to fight through Normandy before taking Hill 122 on their way into St. Lo, France, which would ease the path into Germany. The hill was supposed to be taken by the 29th Division in late June.
"We took that Hill 122 and we could walk into St. Lo," said Schroeder, adding that his battalion received a citation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for their efforts at Hill 122.
"We stayed in St. Lo until the allied planes bombed the Germans, clearing the path for us to enter into for us to enter into Germany," said Schroeder.
After waiting for a bit, the battalion was back on the line and crossed the Belize River from France with no problems until they entered Germany on Dec. 12.
"We were supposed to cross that river before daylight, but the engineers didn't get the boats up there in time," said Schroeder.
Because Schroeder and his battalion crossed the river in the daylight, their identity was not concealed and the Germans knew they were present.
"They were firing at us with rifles, but that wasn't too bad. It wasn't like machine guns," he said. "We got on the other side and we got into a house, and then they let us know who was boss. They had lots of equipment setting back their under the trees, just waiting for us to get there."
They came in on us that night. We didn't have strength in our outfit anymore. We had been riddled up several times," he said.
That's when Schroeder was taken by the Germans as a POW.
He was captured in Habkirken, Germany, which was a town divided by the Belize River. On one side of the river was Germany, and on the other side was France.
He said he remembers being taken from the abandoned house by the German soldiers and being marched to a camp.
Schroeder endured five prison camps in four months and 16 days, as well as a very miserable train ride to the Russian border where the boxcar was too crowded to even sit down.
"The engineers would stop and run off the train when our allied planes would come and scrape the train with bullets," he said. "We couldn't do nothing about it."
According to Schroeder, the camps were very cold.
"That was the coldest winter they had in Germany," he said. "At one time, I was over where I could hear the Russian guns. That's where I froze my feet."
Although nothing bad would happen to a prisoner if he obeyed the rules, conditions were still atrocious.
"As long as you behaved, they didn't treat you too bad, the only thing was we didn't get anything to eat. That was the worst part of it," said Schroeder. "They'd come around with that rutabaga soup, and you were lucky if you found a piece of rutabaga in it."
It was also really sad when they started bringing prisoners in by the division captured during the Battle of the Bulge," he added.
Four months and five prison camps later, Schroeder and his battalion were informed that they had been set free on April 28.
"The British liberated us. We were told then to stay put because if we went out on our own to go find the allies, we might get killed," he said.
Schroeder and his fellow men were then trucked to Brussels, Belgium, and then flown to Camp Lucky Strike in France.
"We got on the boat and sailed for the United States and we got into New York in the latter part of May," said Schroeder.
He arrived home on Decoration Day and received a medical discharge from the military on Sept. 12, 1945.
The entire time Schroeder was held captive, his family and girlfriend, Kathleen (who later became his wife), only knew that he was missing.
It wasn't until April before he was set free that his family received a telegram stating that Schroeder was taken as a POW.
"I didn't realize how serious it was at the time," said Schroeder about being imprisoned during the war. "Most of the time I wasn't scared, but they would blow taps almost every morning for someone who died of malnutrition."
Today, Schroeder believes war is very different than it used to be.
"They don't have that kind of war today anymore," he said. "We knew who we were fighting. They had black helmets. I would hate to be in the war today because you don't know what you're doing over there."
Schroeder received several ribbons and medals for his injuries/feats during WW II, including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.