By Naomi Hatch
Seventy-two years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, leading to the United States’ entry into World War II.
The small towns of Snowflake and Taylor would feel the impact of that war along with the rest of the world.
Eldon “Spud” Stratton was 20 years old on that day. He was born June 21, 1921, and grew up in Snowflake.
Stratton is one of Snowflake’s heroes, having been a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, and is honored on the Veterans War Memorial on Center Street near the Snowflake Social Hall.
He recalls they were having church in the grade school at that time when the bombing of Pearl Harbor was announced. “It was quite a blow,” he said.
In October 1943 he went to Holbrook for a physical exam. He passed, so he knew it wouldn’t be long before he was sent to war, leaving behind his wife and 5-month-old daughter, Sherry.
He arrived in Mississippi a few days before Christmas 1943. “I knew darn well I couldn’t get back home, I was too far away,” he said.
His history states, “I got there a few days before Christmas, and it was the saddest Christmas of my life. Later on, I was to spend a sadder one.”
He was sent to Fort McArthur, where he got his uniform, then to Camp Shelby, Miss., where he received basic training in the Army Infantry.
“I was trained as a telephone lineman until about May 1944,” Stratton recalled, explaining that a lineman would put up telephone lines, string wire and hook up switchboards.
His wife Pearl was at Camp Shelby for a couple of months, but went back to Arizona. She came again the latter part of May because he was finishing basic training. He had a three-day pass and they went to New Orleans. On June 6, while they were still in the Big Easy, Normandy was attacked. It was D-Day and a big battle was announced.
“In the fall of 1944, I went to England,” he continued, noting they shipped out of New York harbor on the Queen Mary. They went to England zigzagging to avoid the German subs through Ireland on down to France, landing in Le Havre.
“They sent me into France as a replacement. The only reason you go is you’re replacing somebody who had been killed,” said Stratton. “We fought pretty well. The Germans were pretty much on the run and losing quite a bit, and we were advancing pretty fast.”
“I was a telephone lineman in the battlefield,” he said. “Quite often in the evening we’d string the line in…quite often we’d be stumbling out of there in the dark.”
“You’d go where you were supposed to go, and hear the Germans and your mouth would go dry. I can’t start to tell you how many blessings the good Lord’s given me,” he said, noting that he could have been taken any time.
“We got where the Germans knew they had to do something or it was over. They launched a big offense called The Battle of the Bulge,” he said. “That’s when I was captured.”
The night he was captured he was in a French town that had a river running through it. The Germans had half of the town and they had the other half. They had been waiting for the flanks to come and protect them, but that didn’t happen.
Early in the morning the Germans were shelling them hard and so they laid low. The Germans shelled them all day and by evening they didn’t have any telephone communications, so he and Fred Napier were sent to trace the line. They found where it had been shelled, and were going to splice it and get back.
They could hear machine gun fire coming up the street and they could see the bullets flying all around, so they went over between the sidewalk and board fence and lay down.
“It let up just a little bit and I told Napier we can’t stay here any longer,” so they jumped over the fence and went into a house. It was very dark, but they saw a dim light and went down to the basement, where there were some French people. “One of the kids was crying, so we gave them some chocolate and told them in the morning they’d have the air corps, but that didn’t work that way,” Stratton said.
“Finally we decided we had to leave and went back over the fence. It was a mess. You were supposed to have a password, but nobody knew what they were,” he said. They finally jumped over the fence and went to headquarters. “In the meantime, the Germans brought in big tanks. They’d go up with the tank and tell you to come out with your hands up. If you didn’t, they’d blow the house down.”
About four in the morning, “They came in and wanted us to give up, so we went out with our hands up. They frisked us a little bit and marched us off,” said Stratton.
“We could see blood running down the curb of the street,” he said.
The prisoners were put in a barn and interrogated a little, but would only give their name, rank and serial number. “Later that night the Germans would start reading off names and told us to step forward. Mine was one of the first called,” he said.
“We went down the Rhine River that night. They had blown out all the bridges,” so they put planks across the river and drove the trucks across. This is how they crossed the Rhine.
“We walked until after midnight or so that night, and they put us up in a barn again,” Stratton recalled, noting how cold it was because it was around Christmas time. They lay on top of each other to keep warm.
They walked another day or so and arrived at a train station where they stayed that night. Early the next day they were put on a train. The cars were made to hold 40 men and eight horses each, but carried 90 to 100 men. There were a few inches of straw on the floor and what they called “honey buckets” on each end of the car. Those were five-gallon buckets used as latrines. The prisoners were fed very little, so they were cold and hungry.
After two days on the train they arrived at a camp called Stalag 5-A in Stuttgart, Germany.
“It was the first camp I was in. On Feb. 5 they were going to move us again,” he said, noting the reason he knew the date was because it was his wife’s birthday.
“We walked quite a ways and they put us in some train cars,” he said, It wasn’t that bad with 9,200 of them in there, because it kept them a little warm.
Finally, they got to Stalag 11-B between Hanover and Bremen, where there were about 10,000 prisoners, with the majority being Russian.
“I had one shower in four months and we were so tickled to get out of there.” said Stratton. They had rations of barley water and “that old German black bread, but it was pretty yummy.”
“I always tell people there’s no such thing as not liking something. If you don’t want it you’re just not that hungry,” he said.”
They slept on bunks two and three high that had sides on them, and two guys would sleep in a bunk. They had to roll over at the same time.
“We had a guy there 120 to 125 lbs. and when we walked out, I walked out in his britches and they just fit,” he said.
Stratton recalled that once in a while they received Red Cross packages that had cigarettes in them. “You could buy anything with cigarettes,” he said.
“They deloused us one time, but in just a day or two the lice grew right back.
“I just laid there a lot of days and thought, boy, if I could keep what my parents had to take out to the pigs, I could live high on the hog.
“One day they come in and asked if anybody could drive a team,” Stratton said.
He wanted that job. He knew he could drive a team and maybe fatten himself up a little. The Germans took four or five of them and went six to seven miles to a little sawmill, got a load of beds and stuff, but when they got back, they were told they were done.
He spent a month in combat stringing lines before he was captured and was a prisoner of war for four months.
“I weighed 185 to 190 lbs. when I went in, and when I came out I was 132 lbs.,” he said.
“I’m not a drop in the bucket to a good friend of mine, Paul Wasson, who spent lots of time as a prisoner of war.
“The morning we were liberated we looked out and there wasn’t a German in the camp any place. They’d all left. We ran down to the tanks.
“We were flown back to England to a staging area and then put in the hospital, where we were stripped and all of our clothes were burned,” he said. They were put in bathrobes and pajamas.
They went to London, where the army had rented hotels, and stayed there. Each day they would check the bulletin board to see when they were going to get a boat home.
Stratton was in London for approximately two weeks and could sign the payroll every 48 hours for $52. They all had quite a lot of money due them, but he only signed it once.
There was a convoy of 11 ships loaded with POWs for the trip back to the states. It took 21 days to get from England to the United States. They landed at Camp Patrick Henry, Va., then continued on to the Chesapeake Bay, where he caught a train to Fort Bliss, Texas. He was given 71-day recuperation leave so he could see his family, spending the Fourth of July in Snowflake.
Following his 71-day leave he was sent to Santa Barbara, Calif. He took his wife and they stayed in some fancy hotels.
Stratton’s records were lost, so they didn’t know what he had been trained for. He was sent to Camp Roberts, Calif., where he was supposed to train new troops because the war in Japan was still going. Not long thereafter, the atomic bomb was dropped and it looked like the Japanese would surrender.
Spud, Pearl and Sherry rented a small farmhouse near Camp Roberts and stayed there until he was discharged in the latter part of December 1945.
He never wants to leave Snowflake, and knows that he was very blessed.
By Naomi Hatch