One of the Survivors

  Editor’s Note: The following story was published 20 years ago on Jan. 27, 1995, in the Huron Daily Plainsman and submitted to us by Vicki Berg Linke of rural Woonsocket.
    The late Vernon Berg was a long-time Woonsocket resident and World War II POW. April 29 was the 70th anniversary of Berg’s liberation from the German POW camp that held him for 70 days during the war.
    May 8 was also the 70th anniversary of the formal acceptance by the Allies of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces and is a public holiday in Great Britain.
    Vicki Berg Linke writes, “On this 70th anniversary, we need to stop and remember the dedicated service and sacrifices of all our veterans, now and in the past and thank them for our freedom.”

By Gloria Hanson, Huron Daily Plainsman
WOONSOCKET, JAN. 27,1995 — Vernon Berg lives with his wife in a new house in this Sanborn County community. If you ask him what he did before retiring, he’ll tell you he farmed.
Press a little harder and he’ll tell you he survived.
For 70 days during World War II, he survived in squalid prisoner-of-war camps, where his weight fell from 210 to 140 pounds.
It was on the afternoon of Feb. 16, 1945, when a B-26 Marauder two-engine, medium-range bomber with a crew of six took off from northern France.
Berg had flown a mission that morning and while his regular crew got a day’s rest, it was his turn to be on standby. That put him on a rotating schedule — if any of the 18 bombardiers assigned to the squadron got sick, or for some reason couldn’t go on a mission, the standby filled in.
“I was assigned to a crew on their second day in Europe and their second combat mission,” he said.
With Berg riding in the nose of the plane as bombardier, the crew took the low flight in the formation — the last plane.
“We called it coffin corner,” he said.
On board were 150 bombs each weighing 100 pounds, meant for the mission’s target — a ball-bearing factory near Cologne, Germany.
The formation first flew south out of the range of German gunfire, then turned east, crossing the German border south of Luxembourg, The bombers continued on that heading toward Frankfurt, crossed the Rhine River and turned north toward Cologne.
“We were about an hour and 45 minutes from our home base,” he said. “We released our bombs on target and were heading back when groundfire took out our left engine.”
Forced out of formation, the plane limped back across the Rhine. Then came more trouble.
“The pilot ordered us to bail out,” Berg said.
Landing 20 miles inside Germany and right in the middle of a camp of German front-line troops, Berg was taken prisoner. The pilot landed on the Allied side of the front.
“The Germans had their bayonets right on me when I landed,” he said.
He and another crew member were kept in the front-line camp for three days before being moved by train to a prison camp near Frankfurt.
“The guards tried to protect us while we were in the depot, but the German people near us would throw hot tea and coffee in our faces,” he said. “They blamed us for all the destruction to their country.”
Thrown in a 4-by-6-foot cell, Berg remained at the camp for three weeks. He was fed two slices of bread and two cups of tea a day and saw daylight only  when his captors would take him away for daily interrogations.
Berg was moved to Stalag 7, a camp near Nuremberg, Germany. There, he was handed two blankets and assigned to a 3-by-6-foot spot on the floor of a long barracks, Five-gallon buckets were used for toilets and dogs were turned loose in the compound at night to prevent escapes.
“The body lice was so bad that when you looked at your skin, you could see it move,” he said.
By April 1, Russian troops were advancing on the eastern front toward Berlin. Assembling their prisoners, the German guards marched them toward the western front.
“We walked for 18 hours and then they gave us a bowl of potato soup and a slice of bread. We walked another 18 hours and were given another bowl of soup and some bread. Then they let us sleep in a barn for the night,” he said.
The march continued for several days before the American POWs arrived at yet another camp near the Danube River west of Munich.
Berg and the other prisoners were put in tents and given a spot on the ground on which to sleep.
“They issued us Red Cross packages,” he said. “One box was supposed to be enough food for one prisoner to survive on for a week. We got one package for every two men.”
Each day a POW detail removed the bodies of those who gave up on freedom. Berg described how the prisoners drew cards for a lone prune or raisin left from a Red Cross box.
“The man with the high card got the prune,” he said, fighting back 50 years of emotion. “The prune was big enough that we could cut it in half. The raisin wasn’t.”
As time passed, Berg said, the GIs would learn from newly captured prisoners that the war was nearing an end.
Then freedom came.
“It was 11 o’clock on April 29 when we heard a lot of shelling near our camp. By noon the German guards were assembled and our tanks were moving in.”
The Stars and Stripes was raised over the camp and the liberators — troops under the command of Gen. George S. Patton — began the task of helping the weak and dying.
“I was standing right next to his Jeep,” Berg said of the famous American general. “I was so close I could have reached down and shined his boots.”
Berg said Patton’s trademark pearl-handled pistol was the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen.
Patton’s C-54 planes landed and evacuated the worst cases. Berg and some of the others who fared better remained.
“We were given food that day from the camp warehouse, which was full of Red Cross boxes the Germans never gave us,” he said.
Berg’s turn to leave came May 8, the same day the German army surrendered.
Taken to a hospital in France, he spent 11 days there before boarding a troop ship for the trip home.
“When I got to New York, I called back home (to South Dakota). It was the first time my family had heard anything about me since they were told I was missing over Germany.”
Berg said constant hunger was the worst part of the prison camps.
An American Jew who was part of Berg’s crew was tortured by the Germans. “Every day they would beat him until one day he finally died,” he said.
After a 30-day furlough, Berg was sent to Santa Monica, Calif., where he recuperated and asked to be assigned to a bomber squadron in the Pacific.
While he was still in California, the Japanese surrendered.
Berg was discharged from the Army Air Force on Aug. 29, 1945, after serving 3-1/2 years.
For his service with the 453rd Bomb Squadron, he and 140 other WWII flyers from across the state were enshrined last August in the Combat Air Crew Members Division of the South Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame.
And although he will be remembered for his military service, he wanted to make sure others will never forget the sacrifices of those who never made it home.
In 1991, he took his idea of a Sanborn County veterans memorial to the people.
The memorial facing Highway 34 on the grounds of the Sanborn County Courthouse was dedicated May 30, 1992.
“Now everyone who drives down this road will remember.”

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