VETERANS DAY: WWII POW recounts the faith that sustained him

Baptist Press
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Posted: Nov 11, 2009 4:15 PM
EDITOR'S NOTE: Excerpts from Joseph William Plappert's personal account of the Battle of the Bulge, "The Long Journey," which was handwritten by his wife Lois, appear throughout this story. Each citation will begin with the words The Long Journey excerpt.

MONTICELLO, Fla. (BP)--"Is this it?" Joseph Plappert remembers thinking. He and another soldier had received word that morning the Germans were coming and they would need to fortify their position in the Ardennes forest in central Belgium.

The 22-year-old soldier dug furiously into the frozen ground, throwing aside clumps of snow and ice to create a foxhole while another soldier watched the road with a bazooka.

"Run, run, the Germans are right behind me and they're coming down," another soldier yelled, jumping out of his jeep before diving behind a nearby tree with the guy holding the bazooka.

Plappert watched as a shell exploded the jeep. He dropped his shovel, glanced at the foxhole, realizing as he did that it wasn't going to hold him, and then dove for a nearby hedge.

It was Dec. 17, 1944, and thousands of American soldiers were fighting off Germans in one of World War II's bloodiest battles, the Battle of the Bulge. It was the day Plappert believes his life was spared for a reason. It was the day about 90 American prisoners of war were murdered by their German captors in the Malmedy massacre.

The Long Journey excerpt: "I lay quietly in the winter snow.... I was watching intently as German Colonel Peiper's armored Panzer tanks rolled down the adjoining road. The guns swung side-to-side seeking enemy targets and firing non-stop into the surrounding fields as the vehicles moved forward."

"When I was lying there, they fired with a machine gun," Plattert recounted in an interview with Florida Baptist Witness. "Fortunately, because of the Lord's desire, they were about three feet to the right of me. I could see their tracers. I thought, phew, that was close."

Plappert, now 85, said a lot of things went though his mind that morning, but as he watched the soldier behind the tree nearby lose a thumb and his false teeth after reeling from the concussion of a shell, he thought he should stay put in the cold snow rather than chance being caught by a stray bullet, shell or German soldier.

"I had my 45 in my hand, thinking, if two guys come, do I shoot one or do I give up?" Plappert said. "I thought if I give up, they are just going to shoot me, so I said, 'OK, at least you can get one.' But, thank you Lord, nobody came."

Hours later Plappert said he was startled and ready to shoot when he felt a hand grabbing for his foot. To his relief, it was a wounded buddy crawling around for help. By that time, Plappert said American artillery was returning fire and he knew he needed to retreat and find help for his wounded friend.

"We have to make a run for the house," Plappert told his friend, referencing a nearby farmhouse. "I know you're gonna have trouble. We'll stand up, you'll grab ahold of me and you hang on and I'm gonna run to the house." At the farmhouse, they learned three others had sheltered in the food-laden cellar. During the night the men realized someone else was in the house, shooting a rifle through a window. They could hear the exchange of fire, but didn't know whether Americans or Germans were upstairs. "So we didn't make a sound, we didn't know what the situation was," Plappert said.

The Long Journey excerpt: "We talked about trying to make an escape in the morning and actually had devised a plan, but the owner of the house returned and opened the door to the cellar. Lieutenant Varner grabbed him and pulled him down with us. Since Varner spoke French, he talked to the farmer who promised not to reveal our location."

"The old man was calling his wife. The Germans had come through and he couldn't find his wife," Plappert said. "He begged us to let him go.... So we let him go."

The Long Journey excerpt: "We could identify the sound of General Motor trucks moving outside, but we couldn't be sure if they were driven by Americans or Germans because the enemy was using everything they captured. The Nazis were losing the war and were unable to supply or replace their men without any reliable equipment. As a result of our lack of information, we spent another long, dark, cold night in the farmer's cellar."

It wasn't the farmer who opened the door next, however. After hearing footsteps across the floor, the men heard German voices and the door to the cellar flew open.

"Of course, that was it," Plappert sighed. "So they made us come out and these two guys took us out in front of the house on the porch and left four guards."

The guards -- two teens and two old men -- likely were all the Germans had left, since the Germans by that time had taken thousands of Americans and allied forces as prisoners of war. The teens, Plappert said, were trigger happy.

"Those kids wanted to shoot us; they wanted to shoot us in the worst way," Plappert remembered. "And these old men said, 'No you can't do that.' That was the only thing that saved us was those old men."

The Long Journey excerpt: "We were ordered to line up out in front of the farmhouse. Two of the soldiers were very young teens and very eager to 'shoot the enemy' as we stood silently in the snow. Hitler had ordered that any prisoners captured during this offensive battle were to be shot. We were all very aware of this possibility because word had spread among the Allied soldiers of a massacre at Malmedy two days earlier.... In all there were 30 GI's rounded up that day. We all stood there silently in line, facing enemy guns, not knowing what would happen next. To our relief, we were loaded into trucks and driven a short distance to a nearby town, Bullingen."

In Bullingen, soldiers were put in a German-occupied ammunition depot that was once a dance hall. In the midst of stacks of cannons, ammunition, rifles, Plappert said he could hear Americans shooting cannons.

The Long Journey excerpt: "That night as we tried to sleep, the U.S. Air Force heavily bombed the area. With the force of the concussions, the windows rattled and vibrated, shattering and spewing shrapnel. I'm sure the Germans would not have been disappointed if the building had been destroyed by 'friendly fire.'"

"'Lord, don't let a shell come through and hit this ammunition,'" Plappert recalled praying.

Though he left his gunbelt, his 45 and a knife his father had given him in the farmhouse cellar, lest he be shot with his own weapon, Plappert said he and the others were made to give up coats and boots -- despite the bitter cold of one of the most severe winters in history -- and anything else of value.

German soldiers, however, either failed to notice or weren't concerned with one of Plappert's most precious possessions -- a Gideons New Testament tucked under the flap of the chest pocket on his uniform.

The Long Journey excerpt: "I have no idea why it was not confiscated at that time. Some of the other POWs in our barn began to join us. Eventually the group numbered up to ten. Initially, the guard would not allow us to form groups because they didn't want us to have opportunities to make plans for a possible escape or to cause problems. Eventually the guards conceded and allowed us to meet."

In the months to follow, the young man who grew up in Detroit and trusted the Lord when he was 16 looked for ways to encourage others by taking time for Bible study and prayer. Only a short time before, as a new recruit, as he sat on his bunk reading his Bible just before lights out, other soldiers threw shoes at him and teased him.

Not so in battle or after he was captured.

"They all wanted to dig their foxhole around mine," Plappert smiled. "They knew the Lord wouldn't let a bomb hit big Joe."

THE LONG MARCH INTO GERMANY

After being interrogated at Bullingen, Plappert said he began the "long march" into Germany which initially lasted about two weeks. At one point, he said his fellow brothers-in-arms picked him up under his arms and carried him so he wouldn't be shot and left by the side of the road.

The Long Journey excerpt: "We marched across 'no man's land.' There were dead bodies everywhere because the Germans suffered tragic loses and they had neither time nor the resources to bury their massive numbers of fallen soldiers. Their futile efforts were apparent in the orderly stacks of stiff, lifeless corpses everywhere. We marched every day, all day."

Sleeping outside at night on the frozen ground was a challenge. "One night I had to brush the snow away to lie down," Plappert said, "and this sounds crazy, but I couldn't put my head down on the ground because it was so cold."

Reaching down and taking off his shoe, Plappert said he used it for a pillow. "It wasn't a very good pillow," he laughed, "but it worked."

And even when he found himself in the most dire of circumstances, Plappert said he believes God was watching over him.

One night at a snow-covered field adjacent to a farmhouse, Plappert said he moved away from the group to find some privacy. As he edged around in the dark, he slipped and fell and broke through the ice into the farmer's cesspool all the way up to his armpits. Convulsing and shaking, Plappert said he doesn't remember how he climbed out but that he couldn't even tell the men what happened afterward.

The Long Journey excerpt: "The stench on my clothes was all they needed to figure out what had happened. Of course, there were no blankets, heat or fire in the barn, so the men circled around me and began to massage me, rubbing my arms and legs to restore circulation."

Plappert is in awe still today that he survived the ordeal. His body temperature was dangerously low, he said, and he never had a change of clothing or a bath until he was liberated.

Afterward, however, Plappert said he remembers reaching into his pocket and pulling out his trusty New Testament. He said it had a permanent watermark on it -- a reminder of how his life was spared -- again. The story is an example he said, of "how good the Lord is."

A tin can he turned into a cup is a reminder of the hope one Christmas brought the young Plappert. Holding the cup from which now perches a small American flag, he patted it and smiled while telling the story of how he found it tossed at the side of railroad tracks on Christmas Day in 1944.

The Long Journey excerpt: "This was a Christmas to remember. We knew it was Christmas because our guards were talking about it. We had been marching for days. No food, no water, and little or no shelter. Sleeping in open fields with snow as a cover.... That was Christmas dinner. To us it was a priceless gift."

"I can't remember when we had anything last," Plappert recalled of that night. "And I saw this engine on another track off a little bit, hot water dripping down off of that engine and I walked over and on my way over, I found a can, an empty can, lying along the railroad tracks and so I picked that up and I held it under that dripping hot water. I filled it up and I went back to my circle and handed it to the guy next to me and he took a sip, he handed it to the guy next to him and he took a sip and handed it to the guy next to him and he took a sip. When it got empty I went back and filled it up again. I don't know how many times I did that."

When the POWs finally were interred in various prison camps, Plappert said they were sometimes given thin broth to eat or "terrible" soup with beans and black flecks they later learned were bugs. Once, he remembers tipping over a discarded barrel to climb into it and search the bottom for potato scraps he piled in a small bowl to share with his group of starving men.

THE END OF THE LONG MARCH

Suffering from diarrhea and other illnesses during his captivity, Plappert said he weighed less than 100 pounds by the time he marched deeper into Germany at the prison camp at Mooseburg. It had been nearly six months since he was captured in the Ardennes forest.

The Long Journey excerpt: "I was in this camp in Mooseburg when U.S. troops came through and liberated us. You would think that I would remember this momentous time, but we had lost all track of actual dates. We didn't even know what day it was. It was sometime in late June of 1945 and ironically, among the liberating forces was our own unit -- the 99th infantry division -- that was memorable."

Plappert enlisted in the military after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered the war. He had graduated from high school in Detroit and went to work for Chrysler, following in his father's footsteps. After the war, he returned to Chrysler for a brief time before enrolling at Bob Jones University where he majored in education.

As a veteran, the military would take care of his education and his medical needs, but they couldn't make it any warmer up north to help decrease the chill every winter when arthritis would make his body ache, so Plappert decided to head south.

At church in Detroit, Plappert met a young schoolteacher, Lois, and asked her to marry him. For their honeymoon, they traveled to Miami where she had secured a teaching contract and he was accepted at the University of Miami where he pursued teaching credentials.

"It's so amazing the way the Lord has worked in my life," he said.

The Plapperts are members of Faith Baptist Church in Tallahassee. They are the founders of Miami Christian School where they taught and served in various capacities until they left the Miami area five years ago to settle in Monticello, Fla., where their two daughters, Pamela and Patty, and their families live. A son, William, lives in West Palm Beach with his family and Robert and his family live in Houston, Texas. The Plapperts have seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Remembering the war, Plappert said, brings to mind a word he won't use, but he doesn't think it's a coincidence his life was spared.

The Long Journey excerpt: "Ultimately, we were flown to Normandy, France. It was my first glimpse of the D-Day beaches and the whole area was completely demolished from the intensity of the battles that had overrun the entire expanse of the beaches."

"I remember it as a separated portion of my life. It was an interruption of my early adulthood," Plappert said of the war. "It made me appreciate life because I could have lost it at any time, especially when the Germans were told, Don't take any more prisoners."

And if he had a chance to do it all over again, would he have taken an assignment Chrysler offered him to work at a different factory in order to avoid the war?

"I wouldn't change anything," Plappert said. "To me it was a privilege to know that I can help protect my country. If there was a danger today and they were enlisting people 80 years old, I would enlist because to me it's a privilege; it's an opportunity to demonstrate your concern not only for the people of the country but for the nation itself."

The Long Journey excerpt: "From France we embarked on a transport ship destined for Camp Lucky Strike in New York City. As we passed into the harbor, I saw the Statue of Liberty. I will always remember that sight. Seeing her, I finally realized that I was actually home, away from the death and destruction of battle, free from the fear of hostile captors, home and safe in the U.S., and eternally grateful to be arriving alive and whole."

"I knew what it meant when it said, 'In God we trust,' because at that point this nation was trusting in God," Plappert said.

"That was our only hope."

Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.gofbw.com.

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