The story of World War II veteran Joseph Hoerth is a story about courage, determination, perseverance, patriotism, compassion, friendship, humor, and love, all of which have contributed to his success in life.
Hoerth is a native of Ohio. He and Carolyn, his wife of 67 years, moved to Westport Island about 25 years ago after his retirement from corporate law. Now, at the age of 93, he volunteers one day a week as a mediator at the Maine Attorney General’s Office.
Hoerth, John Mason, and Bruce Fisher have been friends since they were in seventh grade. They graduated from high school together, went to college and basic training together, and graduated from officer training school as second lieutenants together. They were assigned to the 106th Infantry Division, trained in England, saw front-line combat, and were captured in the Battle of the Bulge.
During a recent interview, Hoerth said Fisher and Mason remain close friends. He doesn’t refer to them as “old friends,” he refers to them as “friends of long standing,” or FOLS.
The three men wrote a memoir about the experiences they shared before, during, and after the war. The title of their memoir is “FOLS,” and it includes each man’s account of their capture by the Germans, the train ride to the camp, their near-death experiences, their escape, and their dangerous, six-day trek through German-occupied territory during cold winter weather to reach the American lines.
Hoerth’s uncle gave him two pints of Old Grand-Dad whiskey before he left to go overseas, telling him to use it to celebrate victory day. When Hoerth’s unit was about to go into battle, he gave his platoon runner one pint for going back to the company headquarters to pick up his trench coat and the two pints of whiskey from his footlocker.
Around noon on Dec. 19, 1944, his unit was pinned down by enemy fire on a barren hill without much cover. They were surrounded, outgunned, and outnumbered. Hoerth wrote in his memoir that at about 1 p.m., an order came down saying the unit was going to surrender and soldiers were to break down their weapons to prevent their use against allied forces.
“I still had my pint of whiskey, so I called my squad sergeants and platoon sergeants together. Now realize we hadn’t anything to eat in three days, so the whiskey really made us feel quite loose. We probably were some of the happiest prisoners the Germans had in the general vicinity of Schoenberg,” Hoerth wrote in his memoir.
The first night after their capture, they stayed in a warehouse-type building and were given no food. The next day, the German guards marched them to a railroad and ordered them into railcars.
The cars were built to hold 40 men and eight horses, but the German guards loaded 60 to 70 men in each car. The first part of the trip back to Germany lasted two to three days. The cars were so crowded, only half of the men could lie down to rest at a time. There was still no food and it was very cold. The soldiers spent Christmas Eve inside the cars in a railroad yard in Limburg, Germany.
“That night the (Royal Air Force) came over and bombed the railroad yard. We all learned to pray that each bomb we heard screaming down would explode, because if you heard it explode, it meant you were still alive,” according to Hoerth’s memoir. “The air raid lasted 30 to 40 minutes and bombs actually hit several of the boxcars, killing a number of American troops.”
On Christmas Day they began another three- to four-day trip to the prison camp called Bad Orb, where the Germans began to interrogate them. Under the Geneva Convention, the Americans were only required to give their name, rank, and serial number. During the interrogation, the Americans changed the name of a Lt. Cohen to Lt. Quinn so he would not be identified as Jewish.
The officers were separated from the enlisted men and put back on boxcars for another two-day trip to Hammelburg, where they were housed in Offlag 13, a prison camp for officers, according to Hoerth. The enlisted men stayed at Bad Orb.
Hoerth’s childhood friends, Fisher and Mason, were housed in the same barracks with Mason sleeping on the bottom bunk, Hoerth on the top bunk, and Fisher in a bunk next to them.
It was a large prison camp with many prisoners from other countries.
During Hoerth’s time at the prison camp, he became friendly with a Serb prisoner, Capt. Dragomir Nicollic. Hoerth and Nicollic spoke through a barbed-wire fence daily. The friendship continued long after the war. Hoerth had his mother and father sponsor Nicollic to come to the U.S., where Nicollic became a successful civil engineer and businessman.
The prisoners were allowed to write three letters and four postcards a month. They were also allowed to receive packages, according to Hoerth.
In one of his first letters home after his capture, he told his folks the prisoners were being treated as well as could be expected. He also asked his folks to check with the Red Cross as to what they could send him.
Hoerth said he has been a strong supporter of the American Red Cross for its support of the POWs and their families during World War II. The Red Cross sent a bulletin each month to POW families. The bulletins included news and cartoons, which brought much-needed humor to the families.
According to Hoerth, humor was what kept the prisoners going through their rough journey. “As I look back, even though we were being held captive, we were still in a good mood, and humor was very important to maintaining that mood,” Hoerth said.
After Hoerth had been in the prison camp for about a month, the Germans marched about 600 American POWs into the camp. Among them was the son-in law of Gen. George Patton.
In March 1945, Patton sent a force to liberate the American prisoners at the Hammelburg prison camp. As Hoerth and his friends were marching out of the camp, they discovered only about 300 prisoners were going to be liberated, and about 2,500 were being held at Hammelburg.
“Being some of the last ones to get out of the camp, the group from our barracks was not going to be part of the 300,” Hoerth said. “Not knowing what the Germans would do with us, seven of us took off: Fisher, Mason, a fellow named Edwards, and three other Americans.”
After walking about an hour, the seven Americans decided to split up because a group of seven would have worse chances of making it back to American lines. Hoerth, Fisher, Mason, and Edwards stayed together in one group.
The group took off from the prison camp on Tuesday, March 28 and walked 35 to 40 miles across enemy territory to reach American lines Monday, April 3, 1945. The second group reached the line April 2.
Hoerth wrote in his memoir that on Saturday they came upon an old farmhouse which appeared to have no electricity and no telephone. They knocked on the door and, after a few minutes, someone came to the door. Three people were in the house, one old man and two older women. They didn’t speak English, and the Americans did not speak German. The Americans bartered with them, exchanging soap for a loaf of bread and a half-pound slab of raw bacon.
On Easter Sunday, Hoerth and Mason became separated briefly from their two companions and were recaptured at gunpoint by a German soldier, who was accompanied by several German soldiers. Fortunately there were no officers among them, and they appeared to be disorganized, according to Hoerth’s memoir.
Hoerth and Mason tried play- acting to see how far they could push their captors. Hoerth pretended he had sprained his ankle and could not walk, while Mason pretended to be ill. In the meantime, the German soldier’s buddies were a distance ahead of them. When the German soldier with the gun was a distance of about 50 feet away, Mason and Hoerth took off in the opposite direction.
“We were running like wounded apes,” Hoerth wrote in his memoir. The German with the gun didn’t chase them, nor did he shoot at them.
Another time, Hoerth and Mason were sleeping when they heard someone coughing and looked up from under their blanket into the face of a German soldier. They gave the German solder a Hitler salute and covered back up again. The soldier went away.
The next night, Hoerth and Mason found an empty cabin that was boarded up. They took a plank from a window and climbed in. During the night they heard a lot of shooting outside, and they wondered who was shooting at who.
The next morning they got up and walked into a small town to discover the town had been taken over by Americans the night before. They asked about their friends, Fisher and Edwards, and later found out they had reached American lines the day before.
After spending about 30 days in the hospital being treated for malnutrition and frozen feet, and after a three-day pass in Paris, Hoerth headed back to the U.S.
Hoerth said when he entered the hospital, he weighed 126 to 130 pounds. He had dropped about 40 pounds during the ordeal.
Hoerth recently was presented his service medals by U.S. Sen. Angus King.
“When I got out of the service, I wanted to get on with my life, and wasn’t interested in medals,” Hoerth said. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the Combat Infantry Badge.
The dedication of the memoir by the three men reads, “This work is dedicated in remembrance of all those men and women, both in and out of uniform, who contributed to the expansion and preservation of freedom for future generations throughout the world by their personal sacrifices and by putting their lives on the line in World War II and especially to my FOLS.”
Hoerth also wrote, “I find it very difficult to accept some of the things that went on after World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. I think we entered into these situations with the best of motives. I think protecting freedom is worth fighting for. I think the people that don’t understand that, or think that somebody else’s freedom isn’t important, are out of touch. Actually, the loss of anyone’s freedom is a loss to everyone.”