Tuesday, January 03, 2017

 

14 days as a P.O.W.


            It was 1944 and the evening air in northern Italy was hot and humid. Warren Richter had just taken food to American troops in the Venetian Valley. Those troops were moving east. Richter was speeding back toward a rendezvous with his unit in an U.S. Army Jeep, but had reversed direction in the dark.

            Then he came to a junction in the road.

            “It was moonlight and I didn’t realize I was on the wrong road until I entered the shadows of a long row of trees. Then, I suddenly saw I was in the middle of a German Panzer division, sitting quietly in the shadows,” Richter recalled.

            Richter recalls sitting and wondering if he should stop and act like he was part of the German unit or whether he should floor the accelerator and try to out run the guns with his jeep.

            Richter continued to move slowly until he saw moonlight through the trees. “I had almost decided to try and out run the Germans when I was stopped,” said Richter. “They yelled for me to stop and I jerked the jeep to a stop and threw my hands up toward the sky. There is still a landmark there where I jabbed two holes in the sky with my fists. I remember looking up at the gun turret on the tank and there were rifles pointed down at me.”

            A German officer, who Richter later learned was named Dr. Al Pitrock, stepped from the tank and told Richter he was prisoner. “When he was walking toward me I said, ‘Do you want to surrender to me?’ What he really wanted to know was what nationality I was. I told them not to insult me by saying I was British. For just a few moments the Germans thought I was funny … but actually I was scared as hell.”

            Dr. Pitrock ordered the German men to frisk Richter and take over his jeep.

            That singular event marked the first of Richter’s 14 days as a prisoner of war. The experienced forever changed Richter and his perspective on what it means to be free.

            “I have more of an appreciation of what freedom is, and what it means, than anyone, said Richter, a longtime resident of Bois D’Arc, Mo. “I have seen both sides and fourteen days is long enough to be hungry and scared.”

            For 14 days, Richter was held prisoner while the retreating German Panzer unit sought to avoid contact with advancing American troops. But perhaps the most amazing part of Richter’s World War II story is the part involving his captor, Dr. Al Pitrock.

            During those 14 days of captivity Pitrock and Richter developed a friendship which survived beyond the war. It was a friendship based on the realization they were humans first and soldiers second, and neither of them a soldier by choice.

            Richter, a member of the 361st Regiment of the 91st Infantry Division, was drafted into the Army and eventually found himself in northern Africa training for the landing at Normandy.

            During that time (1944), General Mark Clark, commander of the 5th Army, called for reserves out of Africa. That included Richter’s unit and he was assigned to kitchen duty with the specific objective of taking chow forward to the fighting men.

            While in Italy, Richter earned a reputation among the men for his special “Ash Grove recipe” donuts. After the war, it was his capture and escape that gained him fame. However, Richter might not have lived to retell the story had the German officer, Dr. Pitrock, not gone through Richter’s billfold the evening he was taken prisoner of war.

            “That German officer (Pitrock) saw my picture of David (Richter’s son) and June (Richter’s wife) and then reached into his own pocket and pulled out his wallet and showed me pictures of his wife, a native of New York City, and his daughter.”

            Those family pictures almost immediately formed a bond between Richter and Pitrock, who spoke fluent English. “We spent most of the day just talking and we quickly discovered a common bond. Both of us were drafted and neither of us wanted to fight,” recalled Richter.

            The retreat of Dr. Pitrock’s 26th SS Panzer Division was a miserable endeavor. Every day the unit hid in the mountains and each evening they moved northward, leading the Germans into worse conditions. “Even while they were retreating, the Germans burned villages, killed innocent people, stole food and raped nearly every woman they came in contact with,” said Richter who packed rifles and supplies for the Germans as they moved. “The retreating German Panzer division even blew up bridges behind them but the American’s stayed within two hours of us.”

            Richter survived the cold mountain weather by sharing half a blanket with another German solider, wrapping his feet with newspaper before sticking them in his GI boots and eating stale bread and water. Despite the hardships of his capture Dr. Pitrock offered Richter hope by taking a personal interest in him. He even slipped Richter an occasional chocolate bar.

            On his 13th day of captivity, Richter was sitting beside Pitrock watching an allied task force through binoculars in a valley below. “We were sitting there together and Pitrock asked me what time the next task force would go through the valley. I asked him if it was for his own information or for the German Army and Al replied it was for his own information,” said Richter. “I told him more would be along soon, probably at dusk.”

             “The next night, we made our way down into the valley. Al had the password and we passed through sentinel after sentinel. At the crack of dawn we were behind a stone wall. We could hear an American task force moving in. It was the 10th Mountain Division,” said Richter, moving up on the edge of his seat with excitement as he repeated his often told tale of escape.

            Then, as suddenly has Pitrock had taken Richter prisoner 14 days before, Pitrock released Richter and told him to follow a path down toward the advancing Americans. Pitrock was saving Richter’s life by helping him escape but jeopardizing his own life within the German Army.

            “The troops in the trucks passed by me and just stared. They could not imagine what I was doing standing there in German territory. Finally, 14 MPs came and picked me up.”

            Richter was taken back to camp and interviewed by Colonel Rudolph Broedlow. “The first thing I did when I got back was write a letter home to tell my folks I was fine,” said Richter.

            Ironically, the unit’s mail orderly had been instructed several days before to gather up Richter’s possessions and send them home. “Thanks to the delay of the mail my letter got home the same day as the package of my belongings. In fact, my mother walked into the post office back home and got the mail and there was my letter. Then the postmaster handed her the telegram telling her I was missing so she got the latest news first.”

            In the meantime, the Germans, for letting Richter “get away,” arrested Pitrock. But, within a few days, the Germans released Pitrock, only to have him captured by the Americans. Thanks to a pleading letter from Richter to the corporal of the American prison camp, Pitrock was cared for and used in camp to separate captured troops by nationality. “I told the corporal to take care of Pitrock because he had taken care of me,” said Richter.

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