The P.O.W. – A WW2 Memory
– as told to Gideon D. Asche
A few years back, I was researching an article and I came across the headstone of SSG Francis J. Taphorn. I immediately recognized one of the dates on the stone as the Anzio invasion and assumed Taphorn had been killed there.
Intrigued, I researched the young soldier and found that he had been on 5 seaborne invasions, earned 5 Bronze Star Medals for Valor, two Silver Star Medals for Valor and had the distinction of being one of very few people awarded three Purple Hearts. I felt compelled to write about this Warrior – so I did, it was a damn good piece too.
Within days, I received a reader e-mail with a phone number for Francis J. Taphorn and a message that “Frank” wanted to meet the “Dunder-head” that was telling everyone he was dead.
I had mistaken the second date as the date Frank fell at Anzio – I was wrong. SSG Frank Taphorn lived less than 20 miles from me. Over the next few years, I spent at least one day a week just hanging around with frank listening to him. There were times that my eyes blurred with tears, times I laughed so hard I snorted and my side hurt, and there were times I was struck with such awe, that I was speechless.
This is one of those stories…
The P.O.W. – a wartime memory.
– as told to me by SSG Frank J. Taphorn.
The Germans pulled out of Rome while the allies, by agreement, held off their attack allowing German troops a safe avenue of retreat. In one of the few acts of compassion from any German commander, the Germans agreed to pull out of Rome and avoid the destruction of countless historical masterpieces.
SSG Frank Taphorn commanded an M-10 tracked artillery piece – basically an open-topped tank with a crew of 4 or 5. Frank was already a veteran of three seaborne invasions. He was pinned down at the beach at Anzio until the Americans were able to fight their way off the beach and north to Rome.
Rome was the first break most of the “Dog Faces” from Anzio had in months. Frank and his M-10 were ordered back to the beach for re-group and resupply. Just an easy 3-day drive, something Frank and his crew hadn’t enjoyed since Tunisia. In fact, the last R&R Frank had to was the few days he sat on the Hospital ship waiting for them to retrieve the MG-34 round from his back, the round entered just above his collar bone but had somehow not hit anything vital. It lodged near one of Frank’s shoulder blades.
Frank drove his M-10 south but only made a few miles before the war caught up to him again. The Infantry came across a bunker they were sure was manned, they hadn’t taken any fire, but observers with scopes could detect movement. It could mean they were going to lay low until the Americans got closer, then open up. They asked Frank to put a round into it.
Frank pulled his M-10 up in front of the suspected bunker and his gunner shouted “Hände Hoch – Komm Raus – Hände Hoch!” – (“Hands up – Comme out – Hands up!”) There was no response, so the next step was to simply place a “HE” round in the hole and go in and check for bodies. But that wasn’t Franks way – it could be civilians hiding in there.
Frank told his gunner to Trim the hedges. Frank’s gunner fired a long sweeping burst from his 50-Cal BMG. To everyone’s surprise, a Mauser rifle came flying out of the bushes followed by the meek cry of “NO- SHOOT! NO -SHOOT!”
Frank and his gunner waited with their weapons trained on the source of the sound until a young boy, no more than 12, crawled out of the bunker with his hands up. They tried to speak to him in German but he didn’t speak a word. He wasn’t German but an Italian wearing an ill-fitting German uniform, much too large for him.
As the Wehrmacht retreated, they would conscript local boys, anyone old enough to hold a rifle then force them to act as a rear guard. They were nothing more than cannon fodder, untrained, starving and scared to death describes most of these children the Germans used to slow the Americans down.
Frank had the sights of his Carbine directly on the boy’s head when he realized it was a child, his gunner spoke up – “Hold fire – Hold fire – it’s a child.” With the threat neutralized, Frank and his crew took the boy prisoner. The Infantry had no way to transport him, and they were going the other way anyway. A P.O.W collection point was just a few hours down the road.
Frank’s driver retrieved the tin of Rations from the top of the engine manifold where it had been heating up for the last few hours and served dinner to the crew – including their prisoner. The M-10’s ration packs were designed to feed 6 men, so Frank’s crew of 4 had plenty to spare for the boy. He devoured the rations and when Frank offered him more from the leftovers. He bloated himself with as much as he could swallow. It was like he hadn’t eaten in days.
It took no time to realize that the boy really hadn’t eaten in several days and had no interest in an escape, he was safer and fuller and warmer than he had been the entire war – and no one was trying to kill him. He wasn’t going anyplace, and the crew decided to remove his bindings, let him move around in the tank and even sit up top without his uniform tunic.
The M-10’s loader was a New York Porto Rican and managed to communicate with the kid in a mix of street Spanish and bad Italian. They were breaking every cardinal rule about P.O.W.s by fraternizing with the prisoner. He said his name was Claudio and he was 11 years old. He looked a bit older, but combat will do that to a child.
Frank and the crew settled in for the night at a refueling point, there was no reason to risk night movement. Huddled inside the crew compartment they taught the boy the fine points of 7 card Stud and a few other card games – they were becoming attached to the child, and he was looking at them as his salvation. The odds of survival were tiny for the kids left behind to hinder the Allies.
There was a P.O.W. collection point run by the Military Police about a third of the way to the beach – they planned on dropping Claudio off there. Frank told the boy to put his uniform tunic back on and what was about to happen – he tried to encourage him and promised that he would be treated well, receive medical attention and be fed.
When they rolled up to the P.O.W. collection point, a silence fell over the crew. The sight of so many prisoners in such conditions was a shock to Frank’s system. It wasn’t that the Prisoners were poorly treated – everyone was experiencing the same conditions of squalor. The allies took tens of thousands of prisoners in just a few days. They didn’t have the capacity to properly care for them.
As they pulled up to the sentry where they should have surrendered their prisoner, Frank motioned for the boy to get back inside the crew compartment and out of sight then floored it. Frank just kept on going – there was no possible way they would leave the child there. The reaction from Frank’s crew told him the feeling was unanimous. Two more days on the road created a comradery that would endure.
By the time they got back to the beach, the boy was enjoying the warmth of U.S. Army wool socks and a full set of Army “Long handles,” under his uniform. Frank and the entire crew escorted the boy to the collection point and made sure they explained the boy’s situation and that he was not a threat – just an unwilling conscript. The four Americans never saw the boy again, but in just those 3 days he had somehow rehumanized the enemy for Frank and his men.
Up until then it was hate for the Germans that drove them forward, and they hated the Germans even more for what they did to that boy, but Frank said it gave them a new reason to fight. The big picture became clear – they were fighting for that boy and his family as much as for their own – They were fighting for all humanity.
Author’s note –
My friend Frank went into Hospice last week. Just days before his 99th birthday.
He knows he’s short for this world but didn’t want me to worry his children with it.
I didn’t tell him it was his daughter who called me with the news he has Stage four cancer. – even in his last days, someone else is more important to him.
My people believe that when the end comes, we will all meet up at the East Gate and wait. Once we’re all there, Uriah will form us up by Company. King David will call us to attention, and we’ll all march in together.
Frank promised to wait for me there, at the East Gate.
– I told him he can bring the beer and I’ll bring the bullshit.
I’m gonna miss my friend.