179th Infantry Crest, 45th Division, Second WorldWar

Lynn E. Gerber

179th Infantry Regiment Crest, 45th ID, Second WorldWar

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A Different 9.11
POW-MIA InterNetwork

"From the eyes of a POW"

By: Phil Brown, Special to the News & Eagle
March 29, 2003

Lynn E. Gerber, the first man drafted from Alfalfa County for World War II, was a prisoner of war for 20 months after being captured in Salerno, Italy.

Enid man remembers Sept. 11 ordeal from different time during different war.
Editor's note: Reports of atrocities committed against U.S. and British prisoners of war by Iraqi troops are heard almost daily. This is the story of one man's struggles as a prisoner of war during World War II.

Sept. 11 and Dec. 7 have historical identities all their own. They are instantly recognizable for what they represent.

But say Sept. 11 to Lynn E. Gerber, and the story is very different. The "9-11" that played such a huge role in Gerber's life was during World War II - Sept. 11, 1943.

A day earlier, on Sept.10, America's 36th Division stormed ashore at Salerno, Italy, to open the Italian campaign. This was a full nine months before the famous D-Day invasion of France across the English Channel in June 1944.

Gerber was a foot soldier born in Driftwood in northwest Oklahoma. He was a member of the 179th Infantry, 45th Division. He had been drafted in January 1941 - 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II officially.

According to Gerber, his unit was held back at Salerno. They were aboard a troop ship in the harbor sitting just out of artillery range. They were reserves.

About 3 in the afternoon, the 179th was ordered ashore to fill in a gap widening between the 36th Division and the British on their left.

They had expected the landing to be pretty much a pushover, but when they got ashore they could tell from the large number of dead bodies and wrecked equipment the 36th had taken a pounding.

They began moving inland in the darkness - walking. They were encountering no opposition. Where were the Germans? They wondered if they were walking into something, and, yes, they were.

The German forces just stepped aside and trapped the entire regiment - front, sides and rear.

Gerber's platoon was pinned down in a ditch alongside a fence row and gravel road, when four German 88-millimeter shells hit the fence about 8 to 10 feet from Gerber.

"All of the shrapnel sailed over our heads," Gerber said, "but I was totally deaf for a couple of hours, with a bloody nose.

"As the afternoon moved on, we had nearly made it to a riverbank when I spotted a German tank firing with five Germans moving along behind it," Gerber said. "They were moving across my front from behind a big elm tree, about 500 yards away.

"I was on my belly, just drawing down on them, when a machine gun blasted me from the right side. The whole burst was ricochets. I was hit in the right leg, left leg and side.

"Right then, three Germans came out of the trees on the right. I didn't see them coming at first, and they were on me before I could move," Gerber said.

"I remember screaming and hollering and rolling over, and the Germans sticking bayonets in my belly and throat. One grabbed my rifle by the barrel and broke it against a tree, and said in broken English, 'Vor you ze var ist offer.'"

"I tried to get up," Gerber said, "but I couldn't. So they were correct - as of that moment the war was over for me."

The Germans helped him bandage up the bullet holes the best they could, gave him a cigarette and then went on with their part of the war. One German stayed behind to guard Gerber and some other wounded.

"I dug the bullet out of my right leg with my pocketknife," Gerber said. "I guess that was kind of dumb because of infection, although I did have sulfa powder to sprinkle on it.

"I never found the other rounds that hit me, although I found the holes they made in my clothes. I suspect they were spent, being ricochets. At nightfall, we were taken to a front-line hospital."

Gerber's 20 months as a prisoner of war had begun.

Back home, his parents began making funeral arrangements, believing their son had been killed in the fighting in Italy. But his young bride was sure he was alive and wouldn't allow it.

It was just before Christmas - three months later - when his family was notified Gerber was a prisoner of war.

Gerber said he was moved a lot during those three months, from one Italian village to another. He said he got the same care as German wounded.

He almost lost his right leg three weeks into captivity. Gerber said it was black and swollen, and a German doctor told an orderly if it did not look better the next day they would have to amputate it.

About an hour later, according to Gerber, the orderly returned with a large roll of paper bandages and a large bottle of brown-colored liquid.

"All day and all night the orderly kept the bandages soaked and warm," Gerber said. "The next morning, the doctor took a look at my leg and said I could keep it."

Gerber said the Germans kept moving them north ahead of the advancing Allied armies. He was held in Rome for awhile in a building in sight of the Vatican.

He also stayed in four POW camps inside Germany - Lamsdorf, Hammerstein, a location near Berlin and finally to Luckenwalde, near Potsdam.

To get to the last camp at Luckenwalde, the POWs, escorted by German officers on horseback, were forced to walk 125 miles through 6 inches of snow, carrying their belongings. It took them six days to make the trip. GIs who were unable to make it, and who dropped out, were shot by the Germans, according to Gerber.

A Good Samaritan German guard and a German farm family might have saved Gerber and 29 others from falling out and being shot during the grueling march.

It was on their third night out on the long march, when 30 of the men were billeted in the hayloft of a barn on a German farm. It was about 9 p.m. when the German guard informed the men the housewife was cooking dinner for them.

They were escorted five at a time to the house to eat.

"I was in the third group of five that got to go," Gerber said. "All five of us were seated around a big kitchen table. There was black bread and real butter, two boiled eggs, cooked chicken, fresh milk and boiled potatoes.

"The lady had a wash boiler full of potatoes, all cooked. They fed all 30 of us that night," Gerber said, "and took the risk of being put before a firing squad.

"Somewhere today in central Germany, there is a family with a halo above their heads, and this ex-GI remembers and is still giving thanks in their memory," Gerber said.

Gerber was liberated when a Russian tank, commanded by a large Russian woman, crashed through the front gates of the camp. He came home to a hero's welcome. He said it looked as if the entire area around Burlington and Driftwood turned out to greet him.

He also learned his young bride, Ila, whom he had married just before going overseas, had not been sitting at home. She had joined the Navy and was stationed in Florida.

Gerber is certain his life was pre-destined.

"I look back," he said, "and see the Lord has been in complete charge since the first day. And he still is."

Lynn and Ila Gerber have been residents of Enid's Golden Oaks Retirement Village for 10 years.

©Enid News & Eagle 2003 "


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