POW Robert Smith
Tomahawk Leader, Tomahawk, WI
Second Section, p. 2-3. Nov 10, 2015
“Veterans Day 2015 Generations of Service, Sacrifice
One local POW’s focus on humility, humor, happiness.”
by Paul Russell
Come World War Two, the famed 32nd “Red Arrow” Division, once again answered the call to service. Ultimately, more than 332,000 Wisconsinites would serve in a war that engulfed both Europe and the Pacific theater. And they endured all of it while answering their nation’s call to protect our freedom. One of these extraordinary men from the “Greatest Generation” is Tomahawk resident Robert “Bob” Smith.
In June 1944, Private Smith left Hartland, Wis., to attend basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He completed crew training on the M4 Sherman tank and was assigned to the 4th Armored Division under General Eisenhower’s command.
Private Smith was assigned to Charlie Company 37th Tank Battalion which had been fighting all winter long late in 1944 and early 1945 in fierce battles of the bulge and Ardennes. In March 1945 however, Company C and one platoon of Company D’s tanks had been detached for a special mission called Task Force Baum. Their mission was to liberate 1,500 American prisoners of war in OFLAG XIII-B, a POW-Camp for officers, located at Hammelburg, 60 miles behind German lines. The orders came directly from General Patton, who wanted to get his son-in-law, Lt. Col. John K. Waters, liberated.
On 26 March, Company B of the 37th and Company B of the 10th AIB punched a hole in the German line at Schweinheim. Through this hole went Task Force Baum (TF Baum), which in turn found itself alone in the enemy area. Messages later that afternoon told of losing four medium tanks, two officers and 18 men wounded or killed.
Against ever-stiffening resistance by an enemy who thought an entire division had broken through the Main River defense line, Private Smith’s decimated column finally reached the stalag near dark on 27 March 1945. After a fierce fight, the prisoners were released, armed and mounted on the back decks of Company C’s tanks for the ride back to friendly lines.
Captain Baum directed the remnants of his force northeastward, but by now the area was swarming with German infantry and armor. By morning of the 28th all the task force’s vehicles had been knocked out. The force then broke into groups of four or five and attempted to exfiltrate back to American lines. Thirty- five men finally made it. The rest were killed or captured. Of the 313 of officers and men of Task Force Baum, nine were killed, 32 were wounded, and the rest including Bob Smith were prisoners at one time or another. Only a few made it back to the U.S. lines, to tell what had happened.
Although they did not accomplish their mission, the tankers and infantry of TF Baum contributed a great deal to the Central Europe Campaign. No less than an entire German corps was diverted to seeking out and achieving the destruction of the two-company American task force.
Private Smith and a few soldiers from his unit found their way to a barn that last night and slept in the hay. In the morning, the barn was surrounded by enemy soldiers and Bob was taken prisoner. On Easter morning they were loaded into box rail cars and taken to Nurnberg. From there Bob and the other able bodied POWs were marched 90 miles to Stalag VII-A at Moosburg to join the other 60,000 allied POWs.
Mr. Smith kept a small prayer book hidden from his captors that had some blank pages in the back. He kept notes during his time in captivity that I deciphered into the four Fs: faith, food, friends and family. I believe these are some of the essentials that anyone who has been in combat relies upon for survival. Bob credits the International Red Cross food rations with German government approval, as having saved his life and many others. Bear in mind at this point of the war in Europe, Germany couldn’t feed their own troops let alone enemy POWs.
In my interview with Mr. Smith, we shied away from the horrific parts of war and found ourselves focusing on humility, humor and happiness. Bob shared how allied planes would bomb and strafe their POW camps until they found a simple solution to an aggravating problem. Toilet paper as you can imagine was a premium but it was all they had to make a large POW symbol on the hillside and the planes acknowledged with wing tip flyovers!
He told me how they would share rations with the starving German guards near the end of the war. Bob described how humane actions and mankind can be greater than war and a promise he made if he ever returned home. Tec 5 Robert Smith did make it home and his promise of helping others continues today.