In my last article, I discussed the two months leading up to the invasion of Normandy, but before we actually get there, I want us to all take a step back in time to late 1943-early 1944. I would like to tell you the story of the capture of James Francis Arsenault, of 116 John Street.
On April 8, 1943, in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the four Arsenault boys was drafted. Born on September 28, 1923, James grew up here in Reading and moved to North Reading later in his life. After undergoing training, James was assigned as a replacement to Company A, 30th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, and landed at Anzio, Italy in late January 1944. James climbed down the netting of the ship he was on and boarded the landing craft that took him to the land where he was ultimately captured.
In a book that James helped compile, called Brothers of War, James describes landing on the beach: “When we landed on the shore it was very quiet, but as we headed for the beach, all hell broke loose (34).” The big Navy guns were firing onto the beach to try to clear it, and the salvos were flying right over James’ head. Upon landing, the plan had been for some of Company A (James’ company) to hold a bridge about 18 miles inland. They were told not to engage the enemy and to simply wait for orders. The trek to the bridge was long and very hot. Once James and the rest of his group had established themselves at the bridge they were supposed to hold, it was dark out and they started to hear noises… They radioed headquarters but they just told them the same thing: hold your position, don’t engage. If they attack, help will be sent.
It happened at 4:00 AM. All hell broke loose. The Germans had a tank on the other side of the bridge. James’ unit radioed headquarters and told them they were under attack but no help ever came. The radio simply went dead. The fighting was vicious. As the sun broke through the clouds the next morning, James was reloading his rifle when he suddenly felt something sticking into his head: a gun. A gun with a German soldier holding it.
“The war is over for you,” he said to James.
According to James, after the battle had ended, there were only three men from Company A left that had been at that bridge. Toward the end of James Arsenault’s part about his capture in the book I mentioned earlier, he wrote the following: “I believe that by holding the bridge as we did, we allowed our division to land without a problem. I also believe that we were sacrificed so this could happen.” Honestly, those two sentences haunt me a little bit.
After being transported to a railroad, James boarded the hellish boxcars that took him to the prison camp he would stay in until the end of the war. After being strafed by American planes (who didn’t realize they were strafing POW transports), being shoved into a boxcar with 40 other men and just one bucket, eating almost no food, and thinking he probably wouldn’t make it at least 100 times, James would arrive at Stalag II-B, Hammerstein, Germany.
In March 1944, James Arsenault arrived at a German work camp called Burzen Kommando 1637 in Poland. In the first few days that they were there, the German guards decided to walk them through the town. People were laughing at them and shouting at them. They had been taught that all Americans were monsters, bad and evil. To see them here this way, covered in grime and crap, malnourished and thirsty must have been, perhaps, an amusing sight. Try to imagine it: you’ve been taught all your life that the enemy is a monster, almost larger than life, and here they are, a mangled mess of humanity. They wouldn’t look so scary anymore, would they?
As the American soldiers were marched through the streets, some of them started to whisper to one another that they should all form up and start singing or something, just remember that they were American soldiers, to hold their heads up high. So all of these malnourished and dirty men got into a marching formation and started to sing as they were marched through town. After the march, the men were led to the place where they would be living: it was a large barn with a barbed wire fence surrounding it. They sat down on the bare wooden floor of their new home, and all 39 men introduced themselves to one another. The men worked six days a week doing mostly agriculture-related jobs, and slowly but surely, the men began to develop routines and rules to follow.
I have read quite a bit about prisoners of war throughout the past year or so, and I can honestly say that I still don’t understand how they managed to survive. I suppose that it was just a matter of waking up every day and going through the motions. But the way these men held onto their identities, the way they hoped, the way they loved each other so deeply, the way they held onto each other for dear life when they were worried, it is what makes them the Greatest Generation. Do I doubt that any other generation could have pulled it off? No, I don’t. But I believe that these boys might just have been the best men for the job. In the coming months, you will hear more about the struggle of James Francis Arsenault, and perhaps, when you are struggling and you are hurting and aching, remind yourself that if James Arsenault could go through what he went through and come out on the other side as the amazing man that he did, then you certainly can too.