A nation at war


Published, The Secaucus Reporter, May, 2001


            By looking at Anthony Argenziano's face, you can tell he never stops thinking about his role in World War II.

At 76, Argenziano doesn't talk about what he did to win the Bronze Star --  the fourth-highest honor a military man can receive.

            "There are things a man does in war that he shouldn't talk about," he says.

            But Argenziano will talk about his time as a prisoner of war.

            He often tours schools and visits with veterans groups to talk about the experience,

            With the average age of World War Two veterans at 78, the first-hand stories of the war are dying with them, leaving many people, Argenziano says, ignorant about what the common soldier experienced.

            Argenziano was among the thousands of soldiers who hit Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944, an invasion depicted graphically the film Saving Private Ryan. After two months making his way inland, he became a prisoner or war. His unit had gone to the aid of a trapped British unit. He still remembers  the woods. He also remembes seeing the German tanks as these over ran his unit.

            "We caught hell," he says, recalling the SS Troopers – an elite German military force – catching him and two other American soldiers in the woods.

            "One of the SS officers was a Harvard graduate," Argenziano says. "He spoke perfect English."

            One of Argenziano's companions was a Jewish man named Stanley Steinberg from Alburn, New York.

            "We told him to get rid of his dog tags," Argenziano says.

            Argenziano had heard tales of how the German government treated Jews. Dog tags were metal tags attached to a chain and hung around a soldier's neck. Among the information contained on them were the soldier’s name, rank serial number and race.

            Steinberg, however, apparently feared he would be in deeper trouble if he could not identify himself. Argenziano takes on an agonizing expression when he recalls that moment when the SS troopers took each of them away to be interviewed.

            "Stanley was second to be interviewed," Argenziano says. "They shot him."

            This moment haunted  Argenziano throughout his captivity, and set the tone for a series of horrors he can never forget. He recalls being herded together with other prisoners: French, British, Italian, Russian and being marched to the nearest town.

            Along the way, French citizens tried to give the soldiers food and drink. Depending on the mood of their German guards, the prisoners got the food or the French citizens got chased away.

            Argenziano also recalls being loaded onto freight cars for transport in land to prisoner or war camps in Germany, and the long 15-day ride, with no toilet other than a bucket. Aircraft, unaware of what the train contained, fired on it. Half the prisoners died along the way, he said.

            After being transferred into a truck for transport to a stalag, Argenziano did something he would regret for years: he tried to escape. He leaped out and landed in a ditch, fracturing nine vertebrae in his back. He received no medical treatment, although a German doctor did acknowledge his injury later and exempted him from hard labor.

            "There was no medical help. They Germans didn't have medicine. They had no bandages," he says.

            The prisoners found themselves in a stalag 30 kilometers from Munich. He says American airplanes bombed Munich by day, and the British bombed it by night. So they heard the rumble of it all the time.

            He remembered being cold most of the time.

            "We were in the Bavarian Alps during one of the coldest winters of the war," he says.

            Prisoners in camp could not drink water because the wells were polluted. So they sucked on raw potatoes to cure their thirst. Food consisted of turnip soup and hard bread baked before the start of the war.

            "It was made from unbleached flower and it had woodshavings in it," he says. "It was tough and dry, and difficult to swallow."

            From the beginning of their captivity to the end, the soldiers wore the same clothing, and suffered invasions of lice. Plumbing did not exist in the camp. Soldiers had to use a local field. During air raids, they could not go out – if they did, the Germans loosed the dogs on them.

            "I went out three times and the guards hit me in the head with a rifle," he says.

            Argenziano says he lived like this for nine months. During that time, the camp received four Red Cross packages containing cocoa, chocolate bars, cigarettes, stew and candy. Clever soldiers removed the cocoa from the tins, put dirt in them, and carefully removed the wrap from the chocolate bars and put pieces of wood in them. Then the soldiers bartered these with German guards for loaves of bread. When the guards discovered the trick, they flung open the doors and sent the dogs into the barracks, seeking to find the people who fooled them.

            "Yet each time we got a package, somebody did the same thing, and each time the Germans fell for it," Argenziano says, still chuckling over the old joke..

            Towards the end of the war, the German guards – trying to win favors of the prisoners since each knew Germany would lose the war – brought wood alcohol for the prisoners to drink. More than 400 prisoners went blind as a result.

            General George Patton – whose son-in-law was among the prisoners – liberated the camp, breaking through the gates.

            "He was the first one in," Argenziano recalls. "The German guards ran away."

            He remembers the liberated prisoners stealing some chickens from a local farm. But they were so hungry, they forgot to gut them, and they cooked them whole.

            "We all got sick," he says, explaining why he hadn't eaten a chicken since.

            Eventually, Argenziano made his way home, through a number of stops. When he reached New Orleans he wrote the family of Stanley Steinberg – the Jewish man the SS Troopers had killed. Argenziano wanted to let them know what happened to their son. The parents came down to see him from New York State. They were not happy, but they were grateful to know what had happened.

            "They had heard nothing about their son, only that he was missing," Argenziano says. "Stanley was their only child."

            Yet for Argenziano, the war wasn't quite over. His injuries plagued him. He did not get surgery on his back until four years after the Germans surrendered, partly because that kind of surgery hadn't existed. During that time, he could barely get out of bed, rolling himself out of the bed onto the floor so he could stand up gradually. After surgery, he remained in a full body cast for 26 months.

            Over the years, Argenziano has become a kind of advocate for World War Two veterans, particularly those who were prisoners of war. Just as the number of World War Two veterans was shrinking, so was the number of those held prisoner.

            In 1975 -- at the end of the Vietnam War -- 180,000 still survived. By 2001, the number had fallen to less than 36,000, and only about one third of them got compensation for their injuries.

            "They either don't know they should get them, or don't have an organization to work on their behalf,” Argenziano says. "So I make a point of telling them."



So long, Joe

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