Bill Porter, an American prisoner
of war in Germany, braced himself against the icy windsand German guards with guns.
A shadow of his former high school football physique, the twenty-year-old infantryman knew
he was in real trouble not only from starvation, chronic dysentery and a festering leg
wound, but from an increasing familiar pain, the agony of corneal ulcers that had
threatened to blind him each time he caught a cold or got run down during his childhood
years. Now, without medication, Bill was losing his sight, and the morning came when he
collapsed in the line-up of prisoners being forced to rebuild a bombed-out railroad track.
He was trucked to a hospital in Ludenschide.
The temporary hospital for care of German war casualties had been set
up in the towns three-story elementary school. Although Bill was a prisoner, his leg
was treated and he was placed in the eye injury ward on the third floor. There he shared a
space with the only other American prisoner, a pilot whose eyes had been burned when he
bailed out over Germany, robbing him of sight.
Since Bill could see out of one eye, he quickly became the blind
pilots companion and guide. He fed himthe pilots hands and wrists had
been burned as welland took him for walks up and down the halls of the building. But
empty hours haunted both young men.
"If only we had something to read, a newspaper, magazine,
anything," Bill said to his friend one day. "I could read to you
sos its in English."
"I have a book," the pilot responded in the warm, midwestern
drawl Bill had come to know so well. "Take a look in my jacket pocket." He
paused for a moment. "Its
its my Bible."
From that moment on, day in and day out, through his unbandaged seeing
eye, Bill read The Old Testament aloud. Then he read The New Testament and favorite
passages until the entire Bible had been read and reread many times. They didnt
realize it then, but through the words from the greatest Book ever written, an intangible
bond grew between them as they found comfort and the strength they needed to survive.
One morning as they walked down the hall, they heard the unmistakable
drone of American bombers. It wasnt until they stopped for a moment to talk with a
nurse that Bill detected the whine of misdirected bombs overhead. With no time to search
for shelter, he grabbed his friend, threw him to the floor, and shoved him under a
baby-grand piano. The hospital received a direct hit
an explosion that burst
Bill has no idea how long it was before he regained consciousness or
felt the pain from multiple head injuries and an eight-inch shaft of steel through his
face. At first, he couldnt hear the shouts of German soldiers outside the ruptured
building, or the cries of the victims. As a matter of fact, he couldnt hear anything
except his own heart hammering in his chest. But, he smelled smoke and knew he had to get
out. With his one free arm he struggled to extricate himself from confining plaster,
planks and debris. Then, with a final upward push he broke through the fallen
roofand caught "a glimpse of hell."
The dead lay everywhere: the nurse he had been talking to only moments
before; doctors; the wounded; the sick. Everyone was deadexcept himself. And his
friend? Where was he? Could the old piano have withstood the crushing weight of roofing
beams, falling bricks and cement? Thats when the thought struck him. If his friend
had survived he would not only be blind, hed be buried alive. Bills ears
screamed. His head hurt. What was his friends name anyway? He couldnt
remember. Was he losing his mind? What difference did it make? He had to crawl back down
and find him. Now! Please God, he prayed, let him be alive.
The searing pain from the steel in his face dimmed amid thoughts of
what he might find. He reached under the piano and felt a leg move. "Are you okay,
buddy?" he said. "I think so," the voice replied.
Somehow during the next ten minutes, Bill maneuvered them both down two
flights of shattered stairwells. Outside the street was milling with a confusion of
police, medics, ambulances and fire engines. He found an empty bench and the two huddled
together for warmth in the bitter cold, all the while Bill dodging the Germans spitting at
the Americans who had lived while their own had perished. Still others grabbed the
glinting steel protruding from his face and tried to pull it out. Perhaps they were only
trying to help? What did it matter? Unable to fight them off any longer, he put his head
between his knees and covered himself with his arms.
"Bill," the pilots teeth chattered, "do you think
you can get back inside and get us a blanketand my Bible?" "Sure," he
said. "Ill try. Just dont go anywhere," he added jokingly.
"Ill be back. I promise."
The climb back up the stairs took longer than Bill thought it would,
but his friends treasured Bible and dog tags were on the bed where hed left
them. He grabbed a blanket, and with everything clutched in his arms hurried back down the
broken stairs and out to the bench. His buddy was gone.
Where was he? His voice a plea, he shouted at passersby. "Has
anyone seen a guy with bandages over his eyes!" He held up two fingers and pointed to
his watch. No one responded. No one spoke English. God! Keep him safe, he prayed. The
guy cant see!
Alone now, and in excruciating pain, Bill sat down on the bench and
covered his head with the blanket. Hours of sirens, shouts and running footsteps passed
before a young Ludenschide doctor peered under the blanketed figure. He took Bill to his
office in a nearby building. There, after giving him a shot of Schnapps, the doctor sliced
into his cheek and jaw to relieve the suction and removed the steel and other pieces of
metal and concrete embedded in his head. Finally, he rebandaged the eye. Still a prisoner
of war, Bill was packed into a boxcar and later forced to walk to Fallingbastel, fifty
miles away, where he stayed in another prison camp until the war ended.
When he returned to the United States he wrote to the War Department
and asked them to search for his friend. He placed the letter in a box along with the
pilots dog tagsand a well-read Bible. Then he printed his return
addressSigma Nu Fraternity, LeHigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Nightmares, panic at sudden sounds, and mood swings would plague Bill
for the rest of his life, as they do most victims of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. But
even as a young father and now a grandfather, he would always find joy in reminiscing
about the good things in lifebefore the warand after.
He never talks about his time as a prisoner. He prefers instead to tell
stories about his years as a rancher, one hundred miles from town, where he felt closer to
God and his family. He especially likes to tell his children and grandchildren stories
about when he was in college fifty-three years agoespecially the day an unfamiliar
car pulled up in front of Sigma Nu.
From the second-floor landing of the fraternity, he remembers glancing
out the window at the blue Chevyand the driver who climbed out from behind the
wheel. It was lunch time. He knew he should hurry on down to the living room where the
rest of the brothers were waiting for the lunch gong, but there was something about the
stranger walking up the sidewalk to the front door that stopped him. The bell chimed. His
roommate, Jack Venner, got up to answer. "Hello! Can I help you?" he said.
From where he stood Bill felt sudden moisture dampen his forehead. He had to grip the
banister to steady himself.
"Yes," said a voice with a warm, mid-western twang.
"Im looking for an old friend of mine named Bill Porter. I want to thank
for lots of things." He smiled his eyes scanning the young men in the
crowded living room. "And this might sound sort of crazy," he added, "but I
wouldnt know him even if I saw him. I
Ive never seen him before."
Postscript: The two Ex-POWs talked all night. They promised to keep in touch. But
life has its demands. It takes curious twists and turns, and they lost each other. Today,
Bill is 74. He cant remember the pilots name, but the bond born in Ludenschide
remains. He hopes someone will read this story who does rememberso he can give him a