(Editors note: Thomas Linneman passed away May 11, 2010. He was 87. He talked to Xavier magazine about this story prior to his death.)
The longest 208 days of Pfc. Thomas Linneman’s life began at dusk on Oct. 4, 1944, in a cathedral in Breberen, Germany. He was holed up in his post with a machine-gunner, and he had a premonition of what was coming. He knelt before the altar and asked the good Lord to bring him through the night.
Minutes later, the shelling began. When rockets ripped into the back of the church, Linneman and his comrade moved to the front. The shells were falling all around them. As the attack intensified, the machine-gunner panicked and ran from the building, leaving Linneman to defend his position alone.
“I was one very scared and lonely Pfc from Cincinnati and wishing I was home,” he wrote in a veterans newsletter 50 years later.
As night fell, the shelling stopped and the German infantry poured into the town. Linneman gripped his rifle and listened to their footsteps running alongside the church, and then in front. He peered out the door and saw two German soldiers 15 feet away with their backs turned. He took aim and pulled the trigger of his M1, but the gun jammed. By the time he worked another round into the chamber, the soldiers had scampered around the side of the building.
Linneman was running out of options. He pulled a grenade from his belt, lobbed it around the corner and ran to his squad’s command post in the church rectory.
He found his squad hiding in the basement. They stayed there all night, listening to the German infantry overtaking the town above them. At 11:00 a.m. the next morning, a German soldier walked down the steps to the rectory basement looking for something to eat. Instead of breakfast, he found an entire 1st Rifle Squad of the 29th Division. The American soldiers, Pfc. Thomas M. Linneman among them, were taken prisoner of the German Army. Linneman recorded most of the next seven months with brief daily entries in a small diary he was able to conceal from the German guards.
Four days later they were loaded into freight cars with other prisoners and sent to a transit camp in Limburg, Germany. At 50 men per car, they barely had enough room to sit. They were in the car for three days and two nights—a fearful eternity because they knew the U.S. Air Force was combing the countryside for targets, and crippling the railroad infrastructure was a top priority.
At Limburg they were housed with hundreds of other POWs. They slept in lice-infested barracks, in stacks of 12-men bunks. As the winter approached, the men would break their bed boards to build a fire. After that they slept on the floor. The only latrine was an overflowing milk can at the end of the room.
By day the prisoners were put to work in the railroad yards, repairing the damage of U.S. and British bombing raids. According to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners up to the rank of non-commissioned officer may be put to work. For Linneman, the distraction that work offered was a blessing in some ways. But it was seldom easy. The prisoners’ energy levels were low. Most days their only food was a loaf of bread split between six men, and some bland sugar-beet soup. Many prisoners were ill with dysentery.
“In regular army life, women and sex dominate the talk around the barrack,” Linneman writes in a footnote to his diary. “In the POW camp, food was the main topic of conversation.”
The Red Cross distributed food boxes to POWs. They included a bar of soap, some cigarettes and a week’s ration of food for one soldier. But there were hardly ever enough boxes to go around. More often, the box would be split between six or eight men. To ensure equal distribution, whoever divided the portions got last pick.
The food boxes differed according to their country of origin. British boxes had tea. American ones had coffee and better cigarettes. Argentine boxes were especially prized—their rations included steak and onions. The prisoners built stoves from tin cans to heat their meals and saved special rations for holiday meals. For Thanksgiving, Linneman had a meager feast of Spam, pea soup, bread, plum pudding and coffee. “I can be thankful that I am alive,” he writes in his diary.
An informal food economy soon sprung up amongst the prisoners. Russian POWs—who were not entitled to food boxes because Russia was not a member of the International Red Cross—would trade almost anything to get food. A 12-jewel watch bought six loaves of bread. Cigarettes were another bartering commodity, and Linneman had his POW experience to thank for his quitting smoking.
“I learned early on that if I did not smoke the cigarettes we received in the Red Cross box, I could trade them for food,” he writes in a footnote to his diary. “It was a sad commentary that some GIs would rather smoke than eat. It was at this stage in life that I made up my mind that I would not let myself become a slave to smoking.”
Cigarettes proved to be a valuable currency. One day, Linneman traded two smokes for a quart of beer. He bought a pair of wooden shoes from a Russian prisoner for 10 cigarettes and a fur hat for another 10. He sold a chess set for eight smokes, which he then traded for a knife.
Keeping clean was difficult as a prisoner. On rare occasions, they could shower. A large number of men were sent into the shower room, where the water was turned on for a short time, then shut off. The men would soap themselves and wait for the water to come back on for a final rinse. The prisoners’ clothes would be fumigated to kill the lice—a temporary fix, as the prisoners’ bunks were warrens for the pests.
In addition to bugs, starvation and sickness, the prisoners were also victim to the rumor mill. Whispers flickered through camp that Red Cross boxes were coming, Hitler was in exile or the war was drawing to a close. The prisoners’ hopes buoyed on any positive rumor, and they derived almost as much sustenance from a few words of good news as they did from their insufficient rations. Prisoners fleeced new arrivals, guards and civilians for any information they had. At night they lay in bed listening to air raids thunder around them. Though they feared for their lives, they also wished their pilots success. In the morning they would head to the railroad yard to mend the tracks and fill in the bomb craters that their boys in the air had left behind.
When he wasn’t working for the enemy army, Linneman was resolving to be a better person if and when he escaped is ordeal. He found the occasional book to read, such as “On Being a Better Person,” by Harvey Fostick, and he studied German. He decided to spend more time with his family. He thought of ways to strengthen his moral fiber. He dreamed of going back to school when he got home. (He fulfilled this dream when he enrolled at Xavier with the help of the GI Bill. He graduated in 1949.)
Linneman found transcendence in attending Mass whenever he could. “It is a great feeling to right with God,” he wrote in his diary. “When I step inside the church I am in another world.”
Despite the dire conditions of his life, when Christmas came and the war was still raging, Linneman still found a moment to savor at a Solemn High Mass. He was in Moosburg at this stage, deep within German territory, but his diary entry that day is an example of unexpected camaraderie in bleak circumstances:
“It was a wonderful feeling and I thanked God for what little we had on his birthday, for things could be worse. I hope and pray that next year I will be at St. Mary’s [in Cincinnati] for Christmas Mass. For the first time I can say I have eaten well. For breakfast, sausage, eggs, tea, coffee, bread and butter. Lunch—Jerry gave us mashed potatoes and gravy and pork. I heated some peas and tea. It was a great meal. Supper was meat sausage. I made some plum pudding. Some of the boys were making cakes and were they beautiful. All and all it was a good deal. We sang carols as my English friend played the accordion. My mind wandered back to the Christmas formal dance.”
Outside the barracks, church bells were ringing, and the hearts and minds of the prisoners—and probably the German soldiers who guarded them—were all miles away with their loved ones.
Life as a prisoner also afforded Linneman opportunities he wouldn’t have had as a civilian in America at that time. One of them was racial integration. In February, 50 African-American POWs arrived at their barracks from a black division fighting on the Italian front.
“We all used to sit around and retell how we were captured,” Linneman writes in a diary footnote. “The black boys used to keep us in stitches relating some of their experiences. We had no problems living together as we all were in the same boat.”
Linneman hoped every passing month would see the end of the war. The prisoners were transported from camp to camp by stifling boxcars. In April they were in Munich, where the rumors were flying that the Yanks were closing in on the city and the war was in its final throes.
On April 30, it happened. At 3:55 p.m. the first American recon car and three Jeeps entered the city. The tanks of the 20th Armored Division rolled in behind them. Linneman and the other prisoners burst from the air raid shelter where they were hiding. Linneman kissed the first tank he saw.
As white flags fluttered from the windows of German civilians, the prisoners celebrated in the street. Linneman met a Dutchman and an Italian who had a milk-can of wine, so they drank, sang and danced in the middle of Munich. That night the prisoners toasted champagne with their fellow soldiers, and Linneman slept in a proper bed for the first time in seven months.
In the chaotic days that followed, POWs, political prisoners and displaced people filled the streets. The U.S. Army had not yet taken control of the city. The mood in Munich was celebratory—raucous, even—but that would all change for Linneman on May 5, “A day,” he wrote, “I shall never forget.”
Linneman met a chaplain performing a Saturday Mass. After the service, the chaplain said he was going out to Dachau, a concentration camp 18 kilometers from the city. He invited Linneman to join him. The young soldier wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“Yes I have seen it, but I don’t know if I can believe what I saw,” he wrote in his diary. “There were thousands of dead bodies. I saw the gas chamber where they gassed them to death. I saw the ovens where they burned them. They were killing the prisoners faster than they could dispose of the bodies. I saw the death train. I saw where they had shot them. I saw the police dogs the SS used and heard the terrible tales of how they used the dogs. I saw the remains of the SS troops who failed to get away, mutilated by the prisoners.”
For all the gruesome sights, it was a sound that struck Linneman the hardest. “They were unloading the corpses off the death train,” he writes. “They were throwing the dead bodies in a truck and that sound of dead bodies hitting dead bodies will remain with me forever.”
In 1990, 46 years after he was captured as a prisoner of war, Thomas Linneman returned to Breberen, Germany. He found the old cathedral where his machine-gunner had left him to defend his position alone. Inside the church, Linneman met the pastor, a young German priest who spoke English. He asked the priest to join him in prayer.
With tears in his eyes, Linneman knelt at the same alter where he had prayed in 1944. The good Lord had kept him alive that night, and for the seven difficult months that followed. His prayer that night had been for him. Now Linneman prayed for the world—that mankind would find some other way than war.