This book will fascinate and perhaps unsettle the reader
who knows nothing about prisoners of war. There are many accounts of POW
experience but Richard Peterson has gone beyond just the experience; his
story will intrigue anyone who has even remotely entered the life a former
prisoner of war.
He has analyzed the effect on a survivor and how he personally fought and
overcame it. His story delves mercilessly into what happens to a man
captured and imprisoned by his enemy in combat. His graduate study of
psychology has enabled him to translate experience, effect and recovery in
both emotional and scientific terms.
Consider just one lasting minor effect of confinement in a POW camp: years
after liberation a former POW is incapable of seeing food wasted without
reaction. He squirrels away in the refrigerator left over bits of meals;
an annoying quirk but easily explained. Not so easily understood is his
grim determination that his young children eat every scrap of food served
them, a determination provoking endless dissention and sometimes lasting
resentment in the children. I know, in my own case it took me a long time
to understand and deal with this particular effect of captivity.
Dick Peterson and I were both members of the same American infantry
regiment in 1944. We were both captured by the Germans and we both spent
months as their prisoners. He had a worse time than I because he passed
through the prison camps while I was in hospitals before going to a camp.
Yet when he recounts what happens to a man as he slowly starves-sometimes
to death, I know and understand exactly what he is saying, and Peterson and
I were lucky. As prisoners of the Germans in 1944-45, we came close to
starvation, but we visited only the outer circle of a special kind of hell
invented for their prisoners by the Japanese and later the North Koreans
and the North Vietnamese.
Most prisoners of war will understand and feel again the hunger and
degradation of captivity described here. Any man who surrendered to an
enemy, whether as a personal act or by order of his military superior,
shares the lasting feeling of guilt explored in this work. "Could I
have somehow escaped? Should I have refused surrender, fought on until
I know the feeling. When I came home from Europe at war's end, I learned
something I had dodged in prison camp. A pilot or aircrewman escaped the
suspicion that he went willingly into enemy hands. When his plane was shot
down he was dumped without option into their possession. For a ground
soldier, an infantryman, it was different. Polite people did not say it
but you knew they wondered: how was this man captured? Why did he
surrender to his enemy?
The defense of the captured ground soldier when he came home was simple
but it had lasting and sometimes terrible results. Just keep your mouth
shut, never admit you had been captured. Never talk about it. That avoided
embarrassment but it became a thing bottled up inside a man that festered
for years. Dick Peterson fought that bottled up thing. Fought, lost, and
came back. His therapy will interest readers who never spent an hour
inside a prison camp.
Forty five years after World War II, Peterson and I began to correspond.
He wrote that he wanted to go back to Germany, to look again at the place
where he was captured but he was repelled by his memory of that place and
He overcame that revulsion. He went back to the hill on the Belgian German
border where what remained of our regiment, surrounded and overwhelmed by
the great German attack of December 1944, was surrendered by its
commander. He read and studied everything he could find about that
debacle, about the strength of the Germans, the strength of the retreating
American forces. He was determined to find out if our regiment had any
chance to fight on, to break out of the bag the Germans had closed around
it. I think also he wanted to make himself study that hill and the
surrounding forests once more, to find out if there had been any chance he
might have escaped capture by slipping away alone in the dusk of that
He was going to explore, regardless of the painful memory, something I
understood as well as he even though I had been spared that surrender. The
day before, as the regiment fought its way to that hill, I was wounded and
left behind in an aid station tended by a medical corpsman who volunteered
to remain until the Germans found it.
For forty five years I took refuge in that excuse. I didn't surrender. I
was wounded, I couldn't fight, and I couldn't escape. It was not a good
excuse, but I used it even though I knew it was unfair. Exactly the same
sheer chance that gave it to me condemned Peterson and his comrades to the
surrender that haunted them.
Dick Peterson has confronted that event head on. He retraced his way from
that German hill through all his POW camps. He sought and found Germans
who held him prisoner; made his peace with them and his memory of them. He
joined Frenchmen who shared a camp with him, visited the camp site with
them. He has truly done just what our children say: let it all hang out.
Talk about it. He has exorcised his ghosts. This is a fascinating story of
how he did it.
Near the end of his book he attacks a lasting, controversial and hateful
subject: could the two regiments of our infantry division, surrounded by
the Germans, have fought their way out? Why didn't the American units in
the Belgian town of Saint Vith come to our aid?
The survivors of those two regiments fight that lost fight endlessly. Many
are bitter about it, a bitterness fed by the criticism of some historians.
Hugh Cole, author of the official US Army history of the German Ardennes
Offensive states clearly what those critics ignored.
The story of the 106th Infantry Division is tragic. It is also
highly controversial. Since the major part of the division was eliminated
from combined operations with other American forces on the second day of
the German counteroffensive, information from contemporary records is
scanty, and, as to particulars, often completely lacking. The historian,
as a result, must tread warily through the maze of recrimination and
highly personalized recollection which surrounds this story.
I agree with Dick Peterson in his conclusion that the 422nd and 423rd
Infantry Regiments could not unaided fight their way out of the German
trap. They tried and failed.
I do not agree with him that the planned but never launched counterattack
to relieve the trapped regiments was "unilaterally cancelled" by
Brigadier General Bruce Clarke. Clarke commanded CCB, the 7th Armored
Division unit which would have made the counterattack. Who cancelled it
and why? The answers are not clear, but I doubt it was called off without
discussion with the Commanding General, 7th Armored Division, who was
present in Saint Vith. I think they concluded it should not be attempted
and overruled the commander of the 106th Division who so desperately
Why would they do such a thing? I think they simply made a cold, hard
decision; hard to make and even harder for any survivor of the 106th to
accept. They knew the Germans had by-passed Saint Vith on the north and
south; the other two combat commands of their division were fighting them.
Maybe a counterattack would succeed, but if it failed and the attackers
were trapped or seriously hurt, Saint Vith could not long be held.
I am sure they could not know what the five days Saint Vith was stubbornly
defended did to the German attack. They only knew every day it was held
was priceless. Later historians put a price on it. They say that thumb
stuck in the Germans' throat bought precious time to build the epic
defense of Bastogne and a northern shoulder of British and American troops
to lock the attacker in the gap he tore in American lines.
Cold comfort for the men sacrificed to win those five days. Dick Peterson
makes very clear just how hard it is for the men of the 422nd and 423rd US
Infantry Regiments to accept it.
He has written a good book. He has, as I said before, gone far beyond the
simple story of the fate of prisoners of war. He has taken that plight
apart and displayed its pieces in a remarkable way, valuable to any man
who has been a POW, even more valuable to family and friends sometimes
baffled by his lasting troubles.
Oliver B. Patton
Brigadier General, US Army, Retire