News: One man's story: A 36-star flag and an American POW are reunited at USARC
Story by Amy Phillips
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – A World War II prisoner of war shared his experiences with U.S. Army Reserve Command soldiers and civilians at a presentation hosted by the National Museum of the Army Reserve, Sept. 10, 2013, at the command’s headquarters.
Pfc. Bernard Rader, who was assigned to the 301st Regiment, 94th Infantry Division, from 1943-45, shared his war experiences with the aid of his wife, June, his battle buddy of 61 years.
He and his wife began giving presentations 10 years ago, at the urging of friends, to honor Andrew Gerow Hodges, the American Red Cross field director who helped set him free in 1944. When time permits, they show the award-winning World War II documentary based on Hodges, called “For One English Officer.”
The presentations are also a form of speech therapy for Rader, who suffered a stroke in 1999. He still has some speech impediment but is going strong at age 90.
“Because I’m stubborn,” Rader said.
June said her husband did not open up about his war experience until the last decade or so.
“It helps because you get to talk about it,” he said.
Rader begins his tale in February 1943 as a 19-year-old Jewish boy drafted as an infantryman. He was fearful of being captured by the Germans but that didn’t stop him from serving his country.
“You have to do something for your country,” Rader said, while June stresses the effects of the war at the home front.
“Everyone was involved in that war ... everyone had a blue star in their window,” she said.
June recalled “meatless Wednesday,” how hard it was to find shoes, and how women filled jobs left by the men who went to war.
Unlike those days, June notes that people today are not involved with the conflicts occurring in the Middle East unless they have someone they know in the service.
“You weren’t asked to make any sacrifices,” said June.
Rader went to basic training at Camp Dix, N.J., and Fort Hood, Texas, where he learned to be an engineer.
“When I was done, I was a man,” Rader said.
He said the most important thing the Army ever taught him was discipline - something that he has used throughout his life.
The highlight of Rader’s story is the fateful patrol on Oct. 2, 1944, at Lorient on the south coast of France.
Rader was part of a 55-man patrol on what was supposed to have been an easy mission to pick up a group of German soldiers wanting to surrender. According to a paper written by his son, Robert, the patrol set out at 8 a.m. not even wearing their M1 steel helmets because they believed it was a low-risk mission.
By 11 a.m., the quiet march along the French countryside suddenly turned into chaos as they walked into an ambush.
“They gave us everything they had ... we didn’t have a chance,” Rader said.
Rader believes that one of the French resistance fighters accompanying them was a German spy, who gave them the false tip that led to their capture.
Robert writes of his father witnessing a fellow soldier killed by a “burst of machine gun fire” while trying to wave a white flag. Dazed and wounded by a mortar shell himself, Rader said everything after that was a haze.
Later, it was discovered that the patrol fought three companies of Germans soldiers during their six-hour fight.
Rader and the surviving members of his patrol were held captive for 47 days. He and the other wounded were kept at a German-held hospital while the others were kept at a small compound.
He recalls that although they were not mistreated, the German-held hospital was ill-equipped to properly take care of the wounded. Also, food for everyone, Germans included, was scant.
“I was a starving prisoner of war until a gallant Red Cross worker saved my life,” Rader said.
Rader spoke with great respect of how Hodges risked his life every time he crossed the enemy line to bring supplies to the American prisoners. But his greatest feat was negotiating three prisoner exchanges with the Germans.
On Nov. 17, 1944, the first prisoner exchange was conducted during an unprecedented six-hour cease-fire: the one that freed Rader and his patrol. According to Rader, 79 American, British, and French troops were freed during that exchange.
There is a tribute to Hodges at Samford University, where he served where he served as the chairman of the board of trustees, that credits him with freeing 169 Allied prisoners.
Robert cites the exchanges had to be “rank for rank, branch for branch with physical condition as nearly as equal as possible.”
Rader said that he kept in touch with his hero up until Hodges’ death in 2009.
The Raders found their way to USARC while searching for a 36-star American flag given to him and other former POWs by the people of Lorient during a visit in 2004.
“They didn’t know how many stars were on our flag and thought 36 was a good of a number as any to put on it,” Rader said.
For that matter, June said she is shocked that the school kids they speak to today don’t even know how many stars there are on the flag, or what they symbolize.
In 2004, Rader and fellow former POWs returned to Lorient with a plaque they bought in honor of the French, and placed it on a wall leading up to the compound which held most of Rader’s remaining patrol. The plaque expresses their gratitude for the French compassion and generosity while they were held captive decades ago.
While they were there, they found an American flag placed next to their plaque. After some research, they discovered a French woman who hoped Americans would liberate them, made the flag. When the Germans invaded, she hid the flag in her chimney. According to Rader, she told the Germans that discovered the bundle that she was curing a ham.
Rader also traveled back to Lorient in hope to find his dog tags, which were buried right before they were captured in 1944. A fellow patrolman helped Rader bury the tags because it bore an “H” for Hebrew - a simple letter that could have spelled death for Rader.
Although he never found his dog tags, he and the other former POWs returned home with the rare 36-star flag now displayed at USARC’s basement.
Army Reserve curator, Chris Ruff, said the special flag was acquired by the Army Reserve Museum in 2007.
Upon his Army discharge, the New York native returned home, completed college, and fulfilled his dream of becoming an accountant like his father.
Today, the 94th Infantry Division is an Army Reserve training division located at Fort Lee, Va.