This was the second filming of the oral history of World War II POW Lester Edsall, 93. He had been displeased with the first interview, felt he wasn’t adequately prepared. I took charge this time and moved us into a room in his residence at the retirement center where the lighting was good. As the camera crew worked on sound and image, I tried to make him comfortable by saying, “You don’t need to be perfect, Les. Perfect is not what we want. We just want your account of your experiences in POW camps; that’s all.”
I could tell, however, that he wasn’t listening. As I learned later, he was preparing for perfect. As he regaled us with his story, I forgot that he is blind and deaf and uses a walker. Every nuance was perfection itself.
Earlier that day as I sat in my car at the college parking lot waiting for the camera crew to load the van, I began to read I Was No Hero But…, Edsall’s 138-page account of his time in the U.S. Army and his incarceration in four POW camps in Poland and Germany. Beautifully written with explicit detail, the account was informed by a journal he had kept during his imprisonment.
In the room where we were filming, his wife, Edith, had that journal, a New Testament and a photo of Edsall and his one-year-old daughter Karen, all items, in addition to his wedding ring, that he had been allowed to keep during his time as a POW.
Monday will mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of his long walk from Shubin, Poland, to the final camp in which he was imprisoned, STALAG III-A at Luckenwalde, Germany. The trek involved bitter cold (50 degrees below zero Celsius), winds, rough roads, sleeping on straw or boards, little food (at one time flavored hot water, two loaves of bread and one-half pound of oleo for a ten-day walk in snow and cold) and later on at times, no food.
It was this camp at Luckenwalde from which Edsall escaped after the Russians took control of the camp. As he fled on foot, Russians fired on him, but he managed to flee and walk “in a westerly direction along country roads trying to avoid main highways” until he saw Americans in vehicles “searching with binoculars and waiting uneasily for the arrival of any ex-prisoners and always watching for the approach of any German or Russian soldiers.” After boarding the truck, he was still uneasy until they had crossed a pontoon bridge on the Elbe River and were under Allied control. Edsall reports, “When I realized I was free again, I cried.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s retrace Edsall’s journey. He had survived the Great Depression, graduated from high school, had a job as a grocery clerk, and had married. When he was drafted, he reported for service on July 15, 1942. After training, he reports that “One of the last sights of America was Kate Smith standing on the pier, microphone in one hand and a piece of paper held over her head to protect her from the rain, singing her parting song ‘God Bless America.’”
On the day Edsall became a POW, he found himself a part of a company on a front line that was experiencing “extremely heavy artillery fire along with frontal small arms fire.” The tank that was supporting them had withdrawn, and they were being attacked by Germans, “twelve Tiger Tanks and infantry, of that pesky 11th Panzer Division.” The Germans set fire to barns filled with dry hay which created a circle of light within which he and his company were displayed while the enemy, secure in the darkness, began “picking off our men with very little risk to themselves.”
Edsall’s job required that he be “at or near the front line practically all the time,” and his orders had been to “dig in” and hold the position.
“I knew what position we were in. We were sitting ducks. The Germans had told me ‘Surrender or we’ll massacre your unit.’” Edsall was surprised and shocked when he learned he was the senior officer of what remained of L, K, and M companies. He surrendered.
“I’ve never second guessed that decision. Sometimes common sense tells you to surrender.”
That first POW camp was the Dulag Luft, an air force transient camp near Wetzler, and Edsall continues with his story, moving from that camp to the next to the next and finally to the camp from which he escaped.
I think the story is over as the camera crew packs up equipment and leaves the room where Edsall is sitting on the sofa, the black-and-white POW-MIA flag still hanging on the wall behind him. He begins a different story and this piques my interest: “I came away with anger. I can’t forget or forgive my company commander. He abandoned us at Rodalbe.”
We all have heard stories of commanding officers who have been derelict in their duty to the men and women who serve under them. I sensed I was about to hear one such story.
Edsall continues, “The question at our initial capture by the Germans was ‘Where is the company commander, the battalion commander?’ I learned that we had been abandoned and of 18 officers in three units, only two were left, me and a second lieutenant. I’m sure some officers were killed.
“I was the senior officer and had been in the Army two years and four months and was a first lieutenant.” Those in charge, including Edsall’s commander, Captain Joseph C. Lujan, according to Edsall “could have sent a messenger to the front but didn’t.”
At a yearly reunion in the early 80s of the 104th Regiment, Edsall asked one of Lujan’s “drinking buddies” if he knew Lujan’s current address. With the address in hand, Edsall wrote a letter asking the big question, WHERE WERE YOU? He got no answer.
Edsall learned in 1986 that Captain Lujan had left Rodalbe in the afternoon with the tanks, telling no one. So he wrote a second letter to Lujan late in 1987, and he received a response dated Jan. 20, 1988.
In that letter Lujan offered his apologies for not responding to the previous letter, claiming that he “must have inadvertently thrown it away.” He claims to have been hurt by Edsall’s letter and his accusation that he had been unfairly “left holding the bag.”
Lujan wrote, “It has been a long time but I will try my best to reconstruct what I think happened in November 1944.” He refers to a history of the 104th Regiment published by Major General George Palidino. He then asserts that he was in the command post when it was shelled and he “was hit and knocked unconscious” and “ended up in a field hospital for a week to ten days. ” Further, he writes that after returning to the regiment, he was wounded again and evacuated to England until March of 1945 when he returned to the regiment.
Next he discusses his wife, his children, his first wife’s death and his remarriage, finally inviting Edsall to visit if he is ever in Minneapolis and ending with “I hope that what I’ve written will clear up any ill feelings that you might have.”
Edsall’s ill feelings, however, remain as he explains the problems with Lujan’s account:
“I found that he had the dates wrong. I kept a diary and it was the date of my daughter Karen’s first birthday that I was captured. I was amazed to find that an officer who had lost his entire company would not remember the details of the loss. It wasn’t my company, my responsibility, and the details are vivid in my mind. I find it difficult to believe that he was wounded in the basement of the command post. If he had been wounded, he would have ascertained that there was someone there to take over, so that we could move back to a more secure position. He never referred to the tanks which was another sticking point for me, and he left us at the mercy of the Germans – poor leadership.”
Anniversaries come and go, and the memories of war are often harsh, still taunting those soldiers who served.
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