This story, about the Battle of the Bulge, was originally published in May 2003. Elmer Meyers died on May 16, 2010.
Two dog tags — one worn by an American soldier, the other by a German soldier — were found in a Luxembourg woods near the German border more than half a century after hostilities ended.
The men who wore them crossed paths during the closing months of World War II.
Elmer Meyers, of Englewood, was captured by the enemy in Fuhren, Luxembourg, on Dec. 17, 1944, the second day of the Battle of the Bulge.
Members of his unit, E company, 109th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division, 1st Army were surrounded by the Wehrmacht in the biggest German offensive on the Western Front during the Second World War.
It was 54 years later when he received a letter from a spokesman for the Patton Museum in Ettelbruck, Luxembourg, wanting to talk to him about his U.S. Army dog tag he lost on the day he was captured more than 50 years ago.
Alongside his dog tag was the dog tag of the German soldier who had taken him prisoner.
The tags were found together in a woods near Fuhren by a museum staff member who was scouring the surrounding countryside looking for military artifacts from the war to put on display. Meyers would learn his captor was killed in the woods by American artillery fire on the day of his capture.
Meyers’ story begins on the first day of the historic German advance on Allied forces in the West near Bastogne, Belgium. Between sporadic heavy bombardment from a German 88 artillery unit, he and his buddies, who had been on guard duty, ate breakfast. While eating their chow, they realized most of the civilians in the little town of Fuhren had cleared out and their own officers were nowhere to be found either.
“Without officers, we weren’t sure what to do. So our squad established a defensive position in foxholes in the back of the town to protect against a German advance that everybody seemed to know was coming,” he explained. “The Germans bypassed us instead of hitting us directly.”
By the next morning, the town was on fire and Meyers’ company was surrounded by the enemy.
“The shooting started again. By 1 p.m., an American captain I didn’t know showed up, told us to go in a nearby barn and break down our weapons. He also said to get rid of any personal papers or pictures we had in our wallets because our unit was going to be surrendered.
“He left the barn with a white flag tied to a rake. About 10 minutes later a German sergeant and five or six soldiers showed up with submachine guns to take us prisoners,” Meyers recalled.
Meyers wasn’t wearing his dog tags because they bothered him. He had one tag in his breast pocket, along with some candy, cigarettes and an Army-issued copy of the New Testament with a metal cover.
“The Germans lined us up and searched us. He took everything in my pockets, including my dog tags. He also took my regulation Army belt with its shiny brass buckle. He went in the barn and found a length of rope to replace the belt to keep my pants up. He allowed me to keep my Bible,” Meyers said.
The Germans marched the captured American soldiers in a column of fours through the center of Fuhren.
“I was at the head of the line and I could see we were marching toward a German tank further down the street. All of a sudden, the tank’s turret started turning around and pointed right at us,” Meyers said. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen until it fired an armor-piercing round that hit the street right in front of us and ricocheted harmlessly away.”
The next round killed four or five American POWs. The prisoners and their German guards scrambled for cover. A guard fired a colored flare into the air and the aggressive German tank commander stopped firing and headed out of town with his tank, Meyers said.
The dead and injured Americans were left in the street where they fell as the other prisoners were marched out of Fuhren toward the German border only a mile or two away. On their way to the Fatherland, the POWs were marched through a woods on the outskirts of town.
“Our German guards told us if anyone ran away in the woods they would shoot all of us when we were in the clear on the other side,” he said. “They made us count off, before going into the woods, to see how many there were of us. When we reached the other side we had to count off again and we were one guy short. I yelled, ‘Count again.’ They did and no one was missing.”
They spent their first night on the road huddled outside a German machine gun emplacement in the cold as more and more prisoners were collected at this point. The next night it was better for the POWs because they were allowed to sleep in a barn.
After a few days in captivity, about 1,000 POWs ended up at a train station somewhere in Western Germany. They were loaded into boxcars and sent on their way with no food or water. They were headed east, deeper into Germany.
When the train stopped along a siding, the soldiers took their shoe strings and tied them together. Then they tied them to a metal helmet and dropped it out a window in the side of the car. The steel pot became a snow scoop. The snow they got in the helmet on the ground melted into water that was passed around to drink.
Several days later, Meyers and his buddies got off the train at Stalag 4B near Muhlenberg, 50 miles south of Berlin. Stalag 4B was a huge POW camp that held 50,000 to 60,000 Allied prisoners.
“We were assigned to work parties outside the camp. They took 20 of us on a train with our guards to Frankenburg in Saxony. The first week we spent cleaning up debris in the streets from bombing,” he said. “Then, we were to work in a rag factory in another part of town. The factory converted old clothes into fuzz that was apparently re-spun into yarn for more cloth. We’d do as little as possible and tried to sabotage the equipment.
“Every Saturday we’d have an interesting time. We all got showers together — us, French women, Russian women — all the people that worked in the factory,” Meyers said. “It didn’t make much difference because none of us were into sex. When you’re starving, sex isn’t much on your mind.”
The last week of April 1945, governmental authority around Frankenburg broke down and people began looting everything they could get their hands on.
“We could hear shelling in the distance. The Americans were on the edge of town,” he said. “One German sergeant decided he was going to take us back to our lines. We came to a pub and we suggested to the sergeant that we should go in and have a beer, which we did. When we got close to our lines we told the sergeant, ‘Since you’ve been so nice to us, we’ll take you as our prisoner so you don’t fall into the Russian’s hands.’”
The sergeant came along and became the Americans’ POW.
The former American POWs were given lots of food when they reached Allied lines. They all immediately became ill. After five months as a POW, Meyers said, he lost 35 pounds from lack of food.
It wasn’t long before the soldiers from Stalag 4-B ended up at Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France, a major troop debarkation port for the States. There were no ships available to Meyers at that time, so he decided to spend the next two weeks in England on a pass with $75 in his pocket — a fortune.
“I stayed with my cousin in London and bought them steaks and toys for the kids while I was there,” he remembered with a smile. “You could buy a big piece of fish and chips for 3 cents.”
Pfc. Elmer Meyers sailed from South Hampton, England on a troop ship for Boston in June 1945.
By the time he arrived back in the United States, the atomic bomb had already been dropped and people in Boston were celebrating the end of the war.