(Editors note: Thomas Linneman passed away May 11, 2010. He was 87. He talked to Xavier magazine about this story prior to his death.)
The longest 208 days of Pfc. Thomas Linneman’s life began at dusk on Oct. 4, 1944, in a cathedral in Breberen, Germany. He was holed up in his post with a machine-gunner, and he had a premonition of what was coming. He knelt before the altar and asked the good Lord to bring him through the night.
Minutes later, the shelling began. When rockets ripped into the back of the church, Linneman and his comrade moved to the front. The shells were falling all around them. As the attack intensified, the machine-gunner panicked and ran from the building, leaving Linneman to defend his position alone.
“I was one very scared and lonely Pfc from Cincinnati and wishing I was home,” he wrote in a veterans newsletter 50 years later.
As night fell, the shelling stopped and the German infantry poured into the town. Linneman gripped his rifle and listened to their footsteps running alongside the church, and then in front. He peered out the door and saw two German soldiers 15 feet away with their backs turned. He took aim and pulled the trigger of his M1, but the gun jammed. By the time he worked another round into the chamber, the soldiers had scampered around the side of the building.
Linneman was running out of options. He pulled a grenade from his belt, lobbed it around the corner and ran to his squad’s command post in the church rectory.
He found his squad hiding in the basement. They stayed there all night, listening to the German infantry overtaking the town above them. At 11:00 a.m. the next morning, a German soldier walked down the steps to the rectory basement looking for something to eat. Instead of breakfast, he found an entire 1st Rifle Squad of the 29th Division. The American soldiers, Pfc. Thomas M. Linneman among them, were taken prisoner of the German Army. Linneman recorded most of the next seven months with brief daily entries in a small diary he was able to conceal from the German guards.
Four days later they were loaded into freight cars with other prisoners and sent to a transit camp in Limburg, Germany. At 50 men per car, they barely had enough room to sit. They were in the car for three days and two nights—a fearful eternity because they knew the U.S. Air Force was combing the countryside for targets, and crippling the railroad infrastructure was a top priority.
At Limburg they were housed with hundreds of other POWs. They slept in lice-infested barracks, in stacks of 12-men bunks. As the winter approached, the men would break their bed boards to build a fire. After that they slept on the floor. The only latrine was an overflowing milk can at the end of the room.
By day the prisoners were put to work in the railroad yards, repairing the damage of U.S. and British bombing raids. According to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners up to the rank of non-commissioned officer may be put to work. For Linneman, the distraction that work offered was a blessing in some ways. But it was seldom easy. The prisoners’ energy levels were low. Most days their only food was a loaf of bread split between six men, and some bland sugar-beet soup. Many prisoners were ill with dysentery.
“In regular army life, women and sex dominate the talk around the barrack,” Linneman writes in a footnote to his diary. “In the POW camp, food was the main topic of conversation.”
The Red Cross distributed food boxes to POWs. They included a bar of soap, some cigarettes and a week’s ration of food for one soldier. But there were hardly ever enough boxes to go around. More often, the box would be split between six or eight men. To ensure equal distribution, whoever divided the portions got last pick.
The food boxes differed according to their country of origin. British boxes had tea. American ones had coffee and better cigarettes. Argentine boxes were especially prized—their rations included steak and onions. The prisoners built stoves from tin cans to heat their meals and saved special rations for holiday meals. For Thanksgiving, Linneman had a meager feast of Spam, pea soup, bread, plum pudding and coffee. “I can be thankful that I am alive,” he writes in his diary.
An informal food economy soon sprung up amongst the prisoners. Russian POWs—who were not entitled to food boxes because Russia was not a member of the International Red Cross—would trade almost anything to get food. A 12-jewel watch bought six loaves of bread. Cigarettes were another bartering commodity, and Linneman had his POW experience to thank for his quitting smoking.
“I learned early on that if I did not smoke the cigarettes we received in the Red Cross box, I could trade them for food,” he writes in a footnote to his diary. “It was a sad commentary that some GIs would rather smoke than eat. It was at this stage in life that I made up my mind that I would not let myself become a slave to smoking.”
Cigarettes proved to be a valuable currency. One day, Linneman traded two smokes for a quart of beer. He bought a pair of wooden shoes from a Russian prisoner for 10 cigarettes and a fur hat for another 10. He sold a chess set for eight smokes, which he then traded for a knife.