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World War II POW reflects on experiences

January 4, 2015

WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — One of the most striking things about Bart Hastings is his humility. Another is his willingness to discuss a part of his life that others with the same experience would rather forget.

Hastings, an 89-year-old World War II veteran, was captured by German soldiers in 1944 while fighting near the Belgian border. He spent more than five months as a prisoner of war, forced to build roadblocks during the day and sleep on a wooden pallet in a basement in Neubrandenburg.

He was just 19 years old.

Hastings enlisted at 17 through the Army Specialized Training Program, which allowed him to go to college before joining the armed forces. But the program was shut down just three months later, and, as part of 335th regiment of the 84th infantry division, he boarded a ship to Liverpool, England.

After crossing the English Channel to France, and working their way toward Belgium and the Netherlands, the troops encountered enemy forces and Hastings had his rifle shot out of his hand. He wasn’t wounded, but the company lost 200 men and he and 100 others were captured.

It was the first time he had ever seen combat.

During an interview with MassLive.com, Hastings repeatedly shrugged off any suggestion that he had endured hardship, calling himself “lucky” to have survived uninjured. Despite the poor food supply in Stalag II-A, and his significant weight loss, he speaks of his captivity as if he were describing a bad day at work.

“It wasn’t really back-breaking labor. It was more tedious, if you want to call it that,” he said.

Surviving on a diet not fit for sustaining life was a challenge, but Hastings found a way. He said fellow prisoners bribed the guards with cigarettes and were allowed to take quick trips to a nearby village to get food. Then they sold some of it to Hastings for more cigarettes, which came in the occasional care package from the Red Cross.

Hastings’ sense of humor, aided by a quick wit and a tendency toward gentle self-deprecation, was evident throughout his recollection. He laughed while talking about how he and his fellow POWs occasionally weakened rail lines to sabotage the labor they were performing for the Germans. He casually dropped in a mention of debilitating frostbite to his feet.

One might expect that he and his fellow prisoners were rescued in a hail of gunfire, gallantly freed by his countrymen. But what really ended his captivity was an open gate and the total disinterest of the elderly guards, who knew the war was over when Russian troops started closing in.

“Two years earlier,” he said, “I don’t know what they would have done to us, but they would have done something.”

“We didn’t want to be liberated by the Russians, so we just started walking west,” said Hastings. “We were in pretty good shape. You had to be.”

But who could endure a seven-day trek after spending nearly half a year subsisting on almost nothing but soup? Hastings and his comrades could, and they did, finally reaching an airfield controlled by Allied forces.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was there that some of the men lost their lives.

“Several of the fellows died because they gorged themselves on food,” he said, leading the Allies to carefully ration it out so the men’s bodies could adjust. After a month, he was sent back to the United States, where he helped prepare soldiers for fighting in Japan.

After the war, he was discharged and returned to his hometown of Worcester to study electrical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Instead of using that education to ply his trade, he joined the Boy Scouts of America, lived in several places in the northeast, and finally settled in West Springfield in 1977. He retired 10 years later.

When he first came to West Springfield, there were “seven or eight” other POWs in town. Today, he is the only survivor.

He works two days a week delivering mail between schools in town, and sells tickets during The Big E. If he quit his jobs, he could collect more money in veterans’ benefits, but “I choose to keep active.”

“I get more than I think I deserve sometimes,” he said, speaking of his 75-percent disability payments and extra assistance because of his ex-POW status. “I’m pretty physically fit. I don’t have any real problems.”

Hastings was awarded the Bronze Star for valor and kept other mementoes from his time in the service. His combat infantry badge is his favorite. He intends to leave them all to his three children.

War in the modern era is much different, he said, saying that politicians force the military to take a “piecemeal” approach. But, as it always has been and always will be, war is Hell, and “there’s a lot more stuff that can kill you.”

Nevertheless, Hastings believes everyone should join the service; he supports the Israeli government’s mandate of two years for most citizens. The benefits are not just financial. They include the instilment of discipline that lasts a lifetime.

The 17-year-old who joined the Army, endured more than five months of captivity, and survived one of the most brutal wars in human history, is now a mentally tough and physically fit 89-year-old with an obvious sense of peace about his experiences. And, decades later, he proudly wears the hat that denotes his veteran status, lights a candle every year in Westfield in honor of POWs, speaks highly of the town he lives in, and loves the United States of America.

“We live in a great country,” he said, “despite all the problems. Plenty of people want to come here.”

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