180th Infantry Regiment crest, 45th Infantry Division, second worldwar

Former POW Tom Mathews

180th Infantry Regiment crest, 45th Infantry Division, second worldwar
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Memories of war and sacrifice

BY JENNI VINCENT
The Dominion Post of Morgantown, W.Va.

Tommy Mathews was interviewed by Libby Smith on June 29, 2001

Edited by: Eric Rieth

Even though he's a former prisoner of war, Grafton native Tom Mathews, 75, doesn't have any regrets about serving his country.

Tom Mathews June 29, 2001

Now retired after working for the state Employment Security Unemployment Compensation Division for 37 years, Mathews devotes a lot of his time to veterans' causes.

He represents the Barbed Wire Mountaineers Chapter One (serving north-central West Virginia) and just recently stepped down as commander of the state's POW organization.

A 1942 Grafton High graduate, Mathews worked at the now-closed Hazel Atlas plant for about a year until he was drafted at the same time several of his friends also received a letter from the federal Selective Service, he said.

Things happened quickly after being inducted 12 August 1943, Mathews said:

"In August of '43 I took my physical for the service and I left Grafton on Sept. 2, 1943," he said, recalling his early Army training in Ohio and in Camp Blanding, Florida.

I think back years later and try to remember things that happened. I remember going over in a ship. We ran into rough weather. I almost washed overboard when I was on guard duty. I remember going through the Strait of Gibraltar and how beautiful the Spanish side was. We also stopped in Sicily one day. When they took us up through the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, I remember how pretty that was. It was very beautiful on both sides. You wouldn't think there was a war going on. When we got up close to Naples, Mount Vesuvius was erupting. This was in late March, 1944. That is a sight I'll always remember.

"Mount Vesuvius was erupting, we could even see it from the ship. There was lots of bright red fire and smoke coming out," he said with a chuckle. "It was something like you would have seen on television but there it was, happening right in front of us."

"I ended up in the 45th Division -- the Thunderbirds," Mathews said. "We were infantry, we were ground forces."

Later that spring, he was sent to Anzio Beach head and , Company E, 180th Infantry Regiment. It was important to keep German forces from infiltrating the area, Mathews said:

"The Germans were awful close," he said. "Maybe you've heard of the big Bertha guns Germany had? Well, those were big railroad guns and they kept throwing those big shells over. Most of them landed in the harbor, but you never knew when one would come closer."

Mathews said that on May 24, they started their march to Rome which was also intended to push back the German forces. "We went as far as Rome and then back to below Salerno, Italy for amphibious training. On August 15, 1944, I was in the invasion of southern France."

Later that summer Mathews said; 'However, as they began moving through southern France in early September, the German resistance increased and that proved to be a turning point in Mathews' life, he said.

On September 12, 1944, I was captured somewhere around a little town called Baume Les Dames, France. It was close to Belford Gap.

Yes. It's hard to explain. We had been moving up pretty fast. The day before I was captured, one of our squads from my platoon was sent out on a reconnaissance. They were cut off and unable to get back. We moved up to this one place. Since we were short one squad, they put us in the rear where they thought would be the least chance of anything. There was a big field between us and where the rest of the company was. About six o'clock the next morning they hit us unsuspectingly. They captured they successfully captured approximately nine or 10 other soldiers along with Mathews; and killed several others. That's how it happened. It was just at daylight. You could hardly see or anything. There was no way we could get back to the rest of our company or could they help us.

Before being sent to different places, Mathews said:

"They was on us quick. It was either be killed, captured or wounded," he said. "My best friend's sergeant was killed. As for those of us who were captured, They took us down over a hill someplace in the woods. I had no idea. There was an old schoolhouse. They kept us there all day long. They gave us something to eat. That night they moved us out by truck to another town where we were interrogated. What that town was I couldn't tell you. I have no idea.

We were in that old schoolhouse for that one day. Then they moved us out at night. They took us over to Belford Gap I mentioned. There must have been fifteen or sixteen of us. There were some other men from other companies. The room wasn't wide, but it was long. They kept us in there for almost a week. It was up over a train station. They began to interrogate us and took us up to a spot overlooking the rail yards." Tommy Mathews: Right now it's very hard to remember. They knew who we were. They knew different things about us that we didn't think they knew, but most of us had our billfolds and stuff. They knew a lot of stuff. Their intelligence was very good. They didn't interrogate us real heavily. Later they moved us out by train up through Mulhaus, Strasbourg, and on up to Limburg. That was all by box cars.

The prisoners were later taken by train -- in box cars -- to Germany's Stalag 12-A, he said. After about three weeks there, they were transferred to Moosburg, which is Stalag VII-A near Munich, Mathews said. . I was there from October until February. I was put on a permanent work detail in a little town called Landshut, Germany. It's between Regensburg and Munich. I worked there, forty-nine of us in a group, until I was liberated on April 29, 1945. Prior to going on the permanent work group, I went on work details into Munich and other places around. They had us doing different jobs around the railroad station and some of the buildings. They kept us busy.

He would ultimately be held captive for 7 1/2 months, Mathews said.

There was one bright spot: Mathews and another man from his company, Eugene Day, of Ohio, were kept together throughout their ordeal, he said.

Not only did they serve as POWs, they also kept in touch after they returned home and Day even visited Grafton once, Mathews said.

"After we were captured they used to take us into Munich on work details -- sometimes we'd work down around the railroad station cleaning up -- in all kinds of weather, it was a real cold winter that year," he said.

After being put on a regular work detail; I think our work group was number was 4125, by February 1945 Mathews said he had been moved to a different building that was an improvement and that he got better food. We were in a little town called Landshut where we worked with the people, like in a post office, loading and unloading box cars of parcel post packages. The packages had cookies and stuff like that in them. Some of us would be assigned to be put on a bus. We'd take that to the post office up town. We never rode inside the bus. We always rode on the fenders or on the roof because we had to watch out for straffing planes. That's about all I can tell you about that. The people we worked with treated us real nice. In fact, we got to be friends with some of them.

Yeah. We had to get up in the mornings, go to work, and come back in the evenings to the barracks. If there were air raids they let us out. We went up over the hill, on top of the hill. Naturally, we went with the guards. They didn't make us stay any time there were air raids.

Not all of the Germans were harsh to their prisoners, said Mathews, who still vividly remembers the individuals that befriended them -- sometimes at great personal danger to themselves, he said.

"We had a man who was in charge of our work group and he had a secret radio, so he would keep us informed about what was happening with the Allied forces -- which he wasn't supposed to do," Mathews said. "But he was a good person and he treated us nicely, saw that we weren't mistreated.

"Actually I was very fortuntate that I got on that work crew, because at one time before that I was down to about 110 pounds and I couldn't keep warm," he said.

"Well, as I look back over the years and think about it, I was pretty fortunate with the treatment I got. I never received any rough treatment or abuse. Other men did. I feel fortunate that I was captured by the people I was captured by and where I was. They were humane towards us. About the only thing - lack of food - naturally. You lose a lot of weight. You worry. Sometimes you're just to the point you're so tired you don't know what to think."

Tommy Mathews: "Well, it's hard to explain. At that time we moved so fast you were tired. You almost prayed that you'd be killed, captured, or wounded. You were so tired you could hardly move. It's hard to explain. You're scared. You don't know what is going to happen. That's about the only way I can explain it."

There was one time I wanted to tell you about. In March, 1945 the only time I can remember the town actually being bombed, we went through a pretty heavy bombing raid that day. A lot of us took off up toward the town. They let us take off with the understanding we would come back after it was over and not try to escape. We knew if we tried to escape it would make it rough on the guys behind. We all came through it okay.

Mathews was released April 29, 1945, but even that wasn't easy.

A couple of days before I was released, this colonel came down from Regensburg. He told us that when the troops moved into Regensburg to come toward Lanshut, there would be an air alarm signal. We could either stay there or we could go with the guards. That happened a couple of nights later. They were supposed to leave guards with us. In fact, the man in charge of us, which was very good to us, was supposed to stay with us. But they made him go and all the guards go. We were on our own.

We were trying to make our way out of town to the encampment. We knew the general direction we were supposed to go. This lady and a friend of hers met us. It was so dark you could hardly see."When we were leaving, it was so dark that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face -- we went down the street holding onto each other's shoulders," They took us out to an old house. We spent the night there while they made arrangements. After spending another night outside, Mathews said his group got what they had been waiting months for -- their freedom. One of the regular captains with the German Army met us at the house. He took us to a big encampment - a tent that they had set up. That evening about six o'clock we looked up and we saw something on the hill. We kept saying, "It looks like it's moving." We thought it was trees. It kept moving. It was the 1st Armored Division. They came down and liberated us. The lieutenant in command talked to us. They said they were expecting a counter attack. He said we could either stay there or we could do what we wanted to. My three friends and I just looked at each other. We picked our stuff up and started toward Regensburg. We spent that night in a barn. The next morning they picked us up with trucks and took us into Regensburg to the airport. It used to be the Messerschmidt Plant which was nothing but a shell with window frames. We stayed there for about a week. Naturally, they brought food and stuff into us. Then they flew us into Paris. From Paris to Lehavre and then home.

Although he now freely talks about his POW experience, Mathews said that wasn't always the case because he worried that others would think he'd done something wrong to become a captive or let America down.

I returned to Grafton. I finally found a job in April, 1946 which I remained on for thirty-seven years. Also, I joined the Reserves. I was called up during the Korean War. I ended up on Okinawa at that time. I didn't have any combat duty, but I worked in AG sections.
The thing that hurts the most is my dad died on January 10, 1945. I didn't know it until I got home in June. That hurt the most not being here to tell him "Goodbye". That stays on my mind an awful lot. Mainly in the last two years. Alexander Church Mathews.

Yeah. When I talked to my mother from Fort Meade, Maryland to tell her I was coming in the next day, she said, "I have something to tell you. Do you want me to tell you now or wait until you get home?" I said, "You wait until I get home." I knew either my dad was dead or he was real sick. When I went in the service, I didn't know his health was as bad as it was. Being the youngest in the family, they didn't tell me everything.

Sharing his experiences and helping other veterans is important to Mathews, a founding member of the color guard who has participated in 836 military funerals, he said.

"Even with what I went through, I know that some of the men in other places had it a lot worse than I did," he said. "And by never forgetting, that's one way to honor their service."

 

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