Oklahoma veteran recalls 2 years as a POW during WWII
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The red and blue are somewhat faded now, the white a little less white.
But as a symbol, Bill Grisez’s flag is still just as relevant to him as it was 70 years ago.
“I was fighting for it and it meant a lot to me,” he told the Tulsa World recently, as he spread the handmade American flag out on a chair at his home.
Grisez, who endured two years in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, made the flag during his confinement, using colored pencils and a white terrycloth towel.
He worked on it in his barracks at night, he said, with only candlelight to see by.
“It only has 48 stars. We hadn’t added Alaska and Hawaii then,” said Grisez, now 94.
“I’ve flown it in a couple of parades over the years,” he added.
As a stand-in for the real thing, Grisez’s flag more than served its purpose while he was imprisoned.
Every time he looked at it, he said, he knew he could make it one more day.
A native of Ohio, Grisez moved to Tulsa as a boy and attended Holy Family School.
However, his education would be cut short.
At age 16, Grisez, with his parents’ permission, joined the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Division.
“I don’t really know why,” he said. “I guess it was more money than I could make delivering papers.”
He didn’t know then that the 45th was going to be federalized, anticipating U.S. entry into WWII.
That came in 1941, a few months after Grisez joined.
Just like that, he said, “I was in the regular Army.”
But if that part wasn’t a choice, Grisez’s ultimate destination would be.
“Again I have no idea why,” he recalled of volunteering to be a paratrooper. “I guess I thought it would be pretty neat jumping out of airplanes.”
Grisez remembers it well — how proud he was of graduating from jump school.
Wearing his new “jump wings” and “fancy” paratrooper boots, “I thought I was about 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds and I could whip the world.”
Those feelings of invincibility would dissipate soon enough.
In July 1943, Grisez, a member of the 82nd Airborne, was part of the Allied invasion of Sicily and among the first American troops to set foot on European soil during the war.
Because of heavy winds that blew the planes off course, however, the paratroopers did not come down where they intended.
Instead of near Gela, Sicily, the town they were supposed to take, Grisez and his unit were dropped well north of it.
“There was no town. I didn’t see an airport. I didn’t see a highway. None of our targets. We were out in the boondocks,” said Grisez, 20 years old at the time.
By himself when he hit the ground, Grisez wandered around until daylight, when he finally ran into four other guys.
Before they could hook up with any others, though, the enemy found them.
The next thing he knew “a German soldier was right behind me with a bayonet sticking in my back,” Grisez said. “He said ‘Aufstehen!’ (Stand up!) and I got up.”
Rounded up with other newly captured prisoners, Grisez would be loaded onto a box car at Naples, Italy.
For six days, they traveled by rail, no idea where they were bound.
The car was “jammed so full,” he said, “we had to take turns standing or lying down.”
For most of his time as a POW, Grisez was imprisoned at Stalag II-B, a prison camp near Hammerstein, Germany.
Like the other inmates, he was forced to work — first on nearby farms, then later on helping rebuild bombed-out houses.
“You got Sunday off if you were a good worker. I never got a Sunday off. I was a poor one.” Grisez said, chuckling. “I was going to do just enough to stay alive.”
Whatever the task, he said he and the other POWs did everything they could to slow progress.
If that became too obvious, though, “you’d feel a rifle butt in your back.”
Only once, he said, did he flat refuse to do something.
It was the time a guard had driven them to a cemetery and instructed them to take four of the headstones. He wanted them for steps at a house being rebuilt.
“It was a Jewish cemetery. We said ‘you can’t desecrate a cemetery.’ ”
The German relented, and the men didn’t get in trouble.
The POWs worked from dawn to dark.
Grisez’s prized paratrooper boots were taken from him early on. In their place he was given wooden shoes. For “socks” he had pieces of burlap.
The prisoners received only one meal a day.
That meal, “if you want to call it that,” came around noon, Grisez said. It consisted of the same thing every time: a bowl of barley soup and a piece of black bread.
Most of the time the soup had worms in it.
“You either went to the trouble to pick them out, or you got tired of it and you just ate them.”
Like the days, the routine at night didn’t change either.
“You slept on straw, no pillow, one blanket. No heat, no electricity. That’s what it was like for two years.”
It was these dark nights that would eventually give Grisez the spark of an idea.
Looking for a way to kill time, he began working on the flag project.
With a candle to see by, he would work on it for a few minutes when he could.
“It took me a long time to finish it.”
The rest of the time he kept it hidden. If the guards found it, he knew there was no telling what kind of reprisal it would bring.
In late January 1945, after 18 months of captivity, Grisez’s time at the camp came to an abrupt end.
With Russian troops drawing near, camp officials began to abandon it.
Grisez and 11 other men in his work detail found themselves being led away on a forced march. They took turns either pushing or pulling two large, fully loaded carts through the snow.
The carts were eventually abandoned, but the march would continue. Over the next few weeks they covered more than 300 miles through Germany, as they tried to steer clear of advancing Russians.
Toward the end, Grisez and the POWs woke one morning to find their guards had fled.
“We didn’t know what to do,” he said. “We just kept marching. But we felt rejuvenated because we knew we were about to the American lines.”
By this point, many German civilians were marching alongside them. For fear of Russian atrocities, they, too, were trying to make it to the Americans.
As fate would have it, the first American Grisez laid eyes on was wearing a familiar insignia.
A member of Grisez’s own 82nd Airborne, “he said where the hell have you all been? And I said where the hell have you been the last two years?” Grisez chuckled.
It was the first week of May 1945, just days before Germany surrendered, and Grisez was finally back among friendly forces.
“You couldn’t believe how good it felt. Like you’d been lifted up off the ground. Two years. You almost gave up hope. It was just unbelievable the feeling.”
The good feeling, though, was tempered by a sobering reality.
Out of the 12 prisoners who had started the march, only five made it to the end.
“Some of them just didn’t have the strength to go on,” said Grisez, his eyes welling up with tears at the memory.
Grisez was still upright, but a physical toll had been exacted.
From his enlistment weight of 125 pounds, he was down to 85.
Also, he said, “I thought my feet were frozen. When the doc took my shoes off, my toes were black.”
Amazingly, Grisez didn’t lose any of them.
But 70 years later, his big toes still won’t bend.
All the time Grisez was enduring POW life in Germany, the rest of his family had been doing its part.
Grisez’s two brothers, Bud and Dick, both served in the military.
Bud Grisez, in fact, posted quite a war record. A Navy sailor, he survived 16 major engagements and the loss of two ships. That included his original destroyer, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor while Bud was attending Mass.
Then, there was their father, Bernard.
After his boys joined, the elder Grisez — 44 years old at the time and a father of five — couldn’t bring himself to stay behind in Tulsa.
Volunteering for the Navy, he would be sent to the Pacific, where he served as a storekeeper on a supply ship.
“I was really proud of him,” Grisez said of his father.
He added: “My mother had one of those (Blue Star) flags in her window and it had four stars on it — three for me and my brothers, one for my dad.”
After the war, Bill Grisez came home to Tulsa.
He would eventually settle down, raising six children with his wife, Rita.
But first, the former POW felt the need to do some roaming.
What better way, he figured, than on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He bought one and drove it to California, where he worked for a while on a boat.
“I wanted to feel free,” he said of his travels.
Although Grisez couldn’t shake the memories of his war experience, he had rid himself of a few things.
In fact, on the ship ride home from Europe he had made a literal farewell to arms.
Before leaving, Grisez had collected several German Luger pistols to bring back as souvenirs. But one day, his ship almost within sight of New York, he suddenly had second thoughts.
“I went and got all those guns and I threw them over the side,” he said. “I said I don’t ever want to see another one. I don’t know how many Americans were killed by them.”
“I never was sorry I did that. It was that many less German Lugers around,” he added.
One thing, though, did make it home with Grisez.
Throughout the march, hidden under his clothes, he’d kept his flag.
“I didn’t want to part with it,” he said.
After 70 years, he’s not about to, he added.
“It meant too much to me,” he said.
Summing up his war experience, Grisez said he’s just happy to have made it through.
“The dear Lord took good care of me,” he said.
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com