Navajo Veteran Reflects on 110 Days as a Prisoner Of War
He left the Navajo Reservation in 1943 as part of the World War II draft, but Thomas Lynch returned home 19-months later a veteran riflemen, German Prisoner of War and nights filled with haunting nightmares.
In January 1945, Lynch found himself in several combat situations in Offendorf, Germany where many soldiers in his company lost their lives and led to his eventual capture by German forces. Lynch fired upon a group of German soldiers as they crossed the street, hitting one. Meanwhile a German sniper took up post in a church steeple where Lynch and his company couldn’t see him and shot Lynch’s Sergeant in the head.
“I distinctly recall Sgt. [Chauncey] Moore’s last cries for help—‘MAA-MAA.’ To this day, I distinctly recall his last cry for his mother, a haunting memory that visits me usually in the form of nightmares,” Lynch recalled. “I cannot seem to tell this story, even now, without breaking down. Perhaps it is the silence with which I had to witness my comrade’s unforeseeable death that happened so quickly which to this day remains in my memory.”
Lynch managed to evade the sniper seeking refuge in a barn with another soldier where they were discovered and captured by German soldiers. As he was marched away, he saw the German soldiers eating his company’s breakfast. Although the scene angered him, he was grateful the German soldiers allowed him to retrieve his wool coat.
“Since the temperature was cold, around 40 degrees or less, I knew I would need my overcoat for POW camp. And throughout my capture, I never took it off until April 26, 1945. It is a 100 percent wool coat that reached just below the knee. I even slept with it on throughout my duration as a P.O.W. for 110 days.”
Lynch was drafted in May of 1943, just after completing his junior year at Sanders high School in Arizona. From there he was shipped for basic training in Riverside, California, where he was part of an anti-aircraft battery before receiving orders to become an infantry soldier. In the fall of 1944 he unsuccessfully volunteered for airborne parachute school in Fort Benning, Georgia.
“It was hard training so some of us guys chickened out,” he said. “In my case, it was my left shoulder joint. Little did I know it was tuberculosis, which didn’t bother me anymore until I was in POW camp where it became worse from malnutrition. So a bunch of us went back to Camp Gruber to the Rainbow Division just in time for shipping out.”
In November 1944, Lynch, now a member of Company G, 232 Infantry Regiment, 42nd Rainbow Division, received orders from Washington to prepare to ship out to Europe – with strict orders not to speak about it at all. He left Camp Gruber for Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and departed aboard a convoy surrounded by battleships, cruisers and other types of Naval ships watching for German submarines. The convoy reached Marseilles, France 13-days later, where Lynch recalled an amazing site. “I remember passing through the Strait of Gibraltar at midnight and I could see the harbor and city lights of Gibraltar.”
Lynch became part of the 7th Army and experienced his first enemy encounter on Christmas Eve following a dinner party in Strasburg, France. Later that night, Lynch’s platoon Sergeant asked him to relieve a guard, where he saw enemy forces and was ordered not to shoot for fear of revealing their position. Lives were spared on Christmas Day.
Less than a month later Lynch found himself in Stalag XI-A, the German P.O.W. camp near Altengrabow, Germany, where he lost around 46 pounds amidst the horrible conditions consisting of a daily diet of rotten carrot soup and a piece of bread and was covered in lice. In the more than three months there, Lynch met other Native soldiers and tried to pass the time by talking about preparing meals.
“To be in such a miserable condition, weak and cold, and lice infested, made me wish to die so to end the misery. I have never been that ill in my entire life. I remember even cursing the German sniper for being such a poor sniper.”
On April 26, 1945, 110 days after being taken as a P.O.W., Lynch was marched through a German front line to be exchanged. He was given a bath, clean clothes and a meal of C-rations and German bread. Though he could barely eat, he was still happy to sleep on a wood floor with clean blankets.
Lynch was discharged on December 5, 1945, almost a year from his first encounters with the enemy forces, and he boarded a Greyhound bus to Flagstaff, Arizona and the Navajo Reservation—it was good to be home.
Since the war, Lynch has connected with fellow P.O.W.’s and they share a union many don’t have.
“There are a few pleasures as nice as visiting with my former Comrades. The few times we have been together, have been occasions full of brotherly respect and compassion for what each of us experienced as prisoners of war. Most special, is the camaraderie that exists between us, even though we live thousands of miles apart it is something that will carry on probably forever while on this earth,” he said.
Though the war has long-since been over, Lynch will never forget those 110 days in Stalag XI-A, all of which he, along with his daughter Karen, are currently working on compiling in a book of his memoirs.