'Thanks to Hodges, We Survived'

Former World War II Prisoners-of-War Meet the Man who Gained their Freedom

by William A. Nunnelley

Attending a reunion of former World War II POWs are, seated, from left, Dr. William J. Reynolds, Bernard I. Rader and Harry Glixon; standing, from left, Jim Silva, Harold M. Thompson, David Trachtenberg, Wayne Stewart, Gerow Hodges, Morris Shulman, Roy Connatser, George Boyd and Kermit Harden, Jr. Inset: George Brady.

Jim Silva of Peabody, Mass., was flying his first mission over northwest France when anti-aircraft fire hit his P-51 at about 5,000 feet. Smoke filled the cockpit as Silva, then 21, struggled to bail out.

"I finally got out at about 1,000 feet," he recalled of his World War II experience. "Just another second or two in a 350 mile-an-hour dive would have been too late."

Silva drifted down and was attempting to bury his parachute when he realized German soldiers were surrounding him. They took him to a prisoner-of-war camp in the French port of St. Nazaire. It was Sept. 19, 1944-three months after D-Day.

By this time, these German forces-some 65,000 men-were cut off from the main German army, and food was in short supply. This was especially true for their POWs.

"We got a bowl of thin soup a day and a loaf of coarse bread to divide," said Silva. "We said the soup was so thin you could read a newspaper through it."

Wayne Stewart of Wenatchee, Wash., had a similar POW experience. A 19-year old private, he was on patrol in the same area Oct. 2, 1944, when he and his unit were captured and taken to an island fortress, Ile de Groix, off the French coast.

"Supplies were low, and we survived on two slices of bread, two spoons of lard and a cup of thin soup a day," Stewart said. "It was about 700 calories. I weighed 160 pounds when I was captured and about 130 when I got out."

Silva and Stewart might have spent the rest of the war in these circumstances-another six months on skimpy rations with little medical care-had it not been for the actions of Samford graduate and Board of Trustees member Gerow Hodges '42.

Allied and German officers meet to begin historic prisoner exchange arranged by Gerow Hodges (middle, in dark uniform) during November of 1944.

As senior field director for the American Red Cross, he arranged two rare prisoner-of-war exchanges in November of 1944 that resulted in freedom for Silva, Stewart and 147 other Allied POWs.

"Who knows what another six months would have meant?" asked Silva, who dropped from his normal 160 to 145 pounds during captivity.

Fifty-seven years after the POW exchange-the only one of its kind in the war-12 veterans of the swap gathered at Samford in January. They met Hodges, most for the first time, and shared remembrances of the exchange for a documentary being put together by an independent film producer.

Samford hosted Hodges, the former POWs, their family members and about 200 others at a recognition dinner Jan. 25. As part of the program, movie newsreels of the exchange were replayed.

"It was very therapeutic to sit in the hotel lobby and talk to men we hadn't seen since the war," said Stewart. "I had exchanged mail with David Trachtenberg over the years, but I hadn't seen him since November of 1944. It was a great service the school performed."

Trachtenberg, from Lake Worth, Fla., was one of nine members of Stewart's outfit, K Company of the 301st Regiment, 94th Infantry, that came to Samford. That company was surprised by Germans in an ambush. Greatly outnumbered, they fought for four hours before running out of ammunition. Finally, they surrendered.

As a gesture saluting their bravery, the Germans allowed them to bury their dead comrades in a German cemetery.

The veterans came from across the U.S. to meet and share thoughts on their war experience. In addition to Silva, Stewart and Trachtenberg, those taking part were George Boyd, Efland, N.C.; Roy Connatser, Louisville, Tenn.; Harry Glixon, Port Charlotte, Fla.; Morris Shulman, West Orange, N.Y.; Bernard Rader, Parkland, Fla.; William Reynolds, El Paso, Texas; Kermit Harden, Urbana, Ill.; George Brady, Bethesda, Md.; and Harold Thompson, Hawkinsville, Ga. All but Silva, Reynolds and Thompson were members of Company K.

To a man, they praised Hodges for his efforts and Samford for bringing the group together.

"I'm certain we would all have died or had our health seriously impaired had we stayed in prison," said Stewart. "Thanks to Hodges, we survived."

Hodges was an unlikely participant in the POW exchanges. He was unfit for military service in WW II because of a football injury suffered at Samford, but because he had seen so many young men his age go off to military service, he volunteered for the Red Cross. He was attached to the 94th Infantry in northwestern France.

Early in November of 1944, Maj. Gen. Harry J. Maloney, commanding general of the 94th, called Hodges in to discuss getting desperately needed supplies and medicine to Allied POWs in the Lorient sector of Brittany.

He told Hodges, "We think that's your job, not ours."

Hodges began making regular trips through the German lines under a Red Cross flag. After several such trips, he had a better idea. He suggested to his German contacts that an exchange of prisoners would be less trouble for everyone. Surprisingly, the Germans agreed. After getting permission from the European Theater Operations (ETOUSA), Maloney gave Hodges the go-ahead.

November 17, 1944, dawned gray and cold in the small fishing village of Etel. At 10 a.m., the exchange began.

"The prisoners were brought to the opposite sides of a river running through Etel," Hodges recalled. "We exchanged 10 or 12 at a time, going back and forth in small boats. I remember one young soldier, about 17, kissing the dock when he got on our side."

Stewart and the other Company K members were included in this group.

The second exchange was arranged for November 29, but only after Hodges had driven through the German lines and had been transported blindfolded by car and a two-hour E-boat ride to meet German officers in St. Nazaire. This exchange-which included Silva, Reynolds and Thompson-occurred in the French countryside near the village of Pornic.

Also included in this exchange was Captain Michael R. D. Foot, who went on to become an esteemed scholar and WW II historian. Foot, author of several books on the war and co-editor of The Oxford Companion to the Second World War, found the exchange to be unique in the war.

Both Stewart and Silva described POW life as one of boredom and routine, after their capture.

"I was kept in solitary confinement for five days after my capture," said Silva. "I was interrogated by a German officer who took out his pistol and said, 'I can take you out and shoot you anytime I want, and nothing can stop me.

'"But after a few days, I was sent to join other prisoners and settled into a routine. We tried to think of ways to escape and made a couple of abortive attempts, but mostly we played cards."

As a lieutenant, Silva was the senior American in the St. Nazaire camp. He decided a few daily calisthenics would be better for the men than just sitting around all day, and conducted the sessions with the help of a veteran sergeant.

"They grumbled at first," he recalled, "but then got over it."

Neither group had much advance warning about the exchange, and Silva was skeptical that it was the real thing until he marched his men past the German line and into the American sector.

"The cheering broke out at that point," he said. "Gerow was very important to us."

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Maintained by University Relations. Last updated: June 18, 2002

Spring 2002
Vol. 19, No. 1

Seasons Staff

William Nunnelley
Mary Wimberley
Associate Editor
Jack Brymer
Contributing Writer
Sean Flynt
Contributing Writer
Scott Camp
Multimedia Graphic Designer
Donna Fitch
Web Designer & Editor
Janica York
Editorial Assistant
Caroline Baird Summers

Samford University Alumni Association Officers 2002-03

Bennie Bumpers '63
Sonya Bumpers '63

Tom Armstrong '73
Vice President

Brooke Dill Stewart '95

Seasons is published quarterly by Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, Alabama 35229, and is distributed free to all alumni of the University, as well as to other friends. Samford University is an Equal Opportunity Institution and welcomes applications for employment and educational programs from all individuals regardless of race, color, age, sex, disability or national or ethnic origin.