Seventy years ago on Feb. 14, Ed Deaton stood under a clear sky on the barren landscape of North Africa and watched the enemy’s final approach.
“I ran back around that little knoll we had hunkered behind, to revise my earlier report,” said Deaton, 92, of Cody – who was serving as corporal in Battery F., 2nd Battalion, 17th Field Artillery Regiment.
“I didn’t have much time to talk, before they were on us,” he continued. “I looked over, and there they were; German troops, with their guns pointed at us.”
Years later, Deaton recalled their capture with another soldier, who had been a captain in their unit.
“I said, ‘Captain, we should have run like hell.’ But his answer to that statement was just one word,” Deaton said.
Deaton’s tale stands as a reminder that great events of history are woven from a tapestry of thousands of individual stories, too often forgotten.
A native of Troy, N.C., Deaton has lived quietly in Cody since 1961, the year he retired from the Army.
Like many allied formations Feb. 14, 1943, his unit was overrun at Faid, in Tunisia.
His capture took place during a clash of arms leading up to the Battle of Kasserine Pass – which saw Germany’s vaunted Afrika Korps, under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, scoring a tactical victory.
“At about 4 a.m. we were shaken out of bed – we had a pre-dawn fire mission,” said Deaton.
The battery had just enough time to put two rounds through their 155 millimeter Howitzers, before they got the order to “fire at will,” he said.
“That meant, you just started putting out rounds, as fast as you possibly could.”
Within minutes, the German advance forced Deaton’s outfit to stop firing, hook the Howitzers up to the trucks used to tow them, and get moving.
They hoped to fall back, re-set their artillery and begin firing again, but they didn’t get the chance.
“We never again stopped long enough to reposition – we were so steadily attacked by German tanks and aircraft,” he said. “The aircraft is what finally stopped us for good, and the tanks sealed the deal.”
By about 2 p.m., Deaton’s outfit had gone as far as they could. Their guns were destroyed. The trucks had been smashed by enemy fire, and since their small arms had been left on the trucks, most of the men were without weapons.
The land was mostly flat and barren, with small clusters of trees here and there, so there wasn’t really anywhere to hide.
Deaton was with about a dozen soldiers who had taken what shelter they could behind a tiny knoll.
“It wasn’t much higher than the top of your head,” he said.
“I went out around the front of the knoll, to get a look at what was going on. You could see for miles – and way off in the distance, I could see some tanks and infantry approaching,” he said.
“I thought they were Americans, so I went back around the knoll and told the men, “‘Fellas, the tanks are coming so everything is going to be alright.’”
But when he ventured around for a second look, the men and machines had come to within about 150 yards, and Deaton could clearly identify them as the enemy.
“Surprisingly, the troops who captured us were nice guys,” he said. “They could have killed us all. They could have easily shot every last one of us.”
None of the Americans spoke German, and none of the Germans knew English, so communication came down to gestures.
“Through hand signals, they told us where to go,” Deaton said. “They had the guns, so we didn’t argue with them.”
His unit began the battle with 120 men, about half of whom survived to be captured.
They were marched by their captors to an area near the position from which they had begun fighting.
“By that point in the war, the Allies controlled all the waterways, so the only way the Germans could get supplies into North Africa was by air,” Deaton said. “They would fly in supplies, and then fly POWs back on the empty cargo planes.”
Deaton spent 26 months in captivity.
He was first taken by air to a POW camp in Italy, and then by rail to Germany, where he was moved around to several more camps.
The rail trip from Italy to Germany, over the Alps, was cold and miserable.
“It was so damned crowded on those rail cars,” he said. “They just opened the doors, crammed as many of us into a car as they could, and then shut the doors.”
Each man was given a blanket, and “once a day, they gave us what they called food,” he said.
In Germany, conditions and treatment varied, he said.
“Some of the camps were bigger than others, and some where better than others, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”
On occasion, the Germans would allow packages from the Red Cross to be delivered to POWs.
“If you go downtown and buy a pair of boots, the box your boots come in is about the size of the boxes we got from the Red Cross,” he said. “It was supposed to be one box per man, but it never was. It was more like one box per four men.”
Inside were toiletries and other personal items, and perhaps some candy.
“Once in a while, we were given little post cards,” he added. “You could write home, to tell them you were still living.”
Prisoners weren’t afforded much shelter from the elements.
“We had little heat. Some of the camps had little brick stoves. Some didn’t have anything,” he said.
Still, Deaton and his fellow captives could eventually tell that the war was going against Germany.
“Toward the end, we could see our planes going over, way up high, on bombing runs,” he said.
One night, they were marched out of camp, and told by their guards to take only what they could carry. Deaton was among about 500 sparsely guarded prisoners.
“We slept in fields along the way,” he said.
They eventually came to a large farm, with several small outbuildings.
Seizing the chance, Deaton and about three other men slipped unnoticed into one of the buildings.
“In the morning, we noticed it was quiet, so we cautiously opened the door, and saw that everyone else was gone,” Deaton said.
“A German lady appeared, and pointed in the direction they had all gone. The other guys decided to catch up. But I said, ‘To Hell with that,’ and headed in the opposite direction.”
The world into which he now stepped alone had fundamentally shifted.
The Germans had been pushed out of North Africa, and were steadily losing ground everywhere else.
Vast formations of the Soviet Red Army, bent on revenge for Nazi atrocities in their own country, were thundering in from the east, and the Anglo-American armies were pushing from the west.
But even as they were crushing the remnants of the Wehrmacht between them, relations between the Soviets and western allies were starting to sour, setting the stage for the Cold War.
Rommel, who had commanded the troops which captured Deaton, was dead. After being connected to a plot by some of Adolf Hitler’s own military commanders to assassinate the Nazi dictator, Rommel had taken his own life.
It is here that Deaton’s story again illustrates the significance of small, often forgotten interactions during world-shaking events.
He started making his way across the countryside, mostly unnoticed by German civilians, who by then had bigger things to worry about than a straggling escapee.
“The second day after my escape, I came to an open field. I don’t know what was planted there, I’m no farmer. But it was beautiful. It looked just like a picture,” he said.
“There was the neatest little white house, right in the middle of it. And I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to have something to eat.’”
He walked up to house and knocked on the door.
A young woman with a small child answered.
“Through hand gestures, I let her know I was an American solider, and I was hungry,” Deaton said.
“She had the prettiest little girl with her, maybe about three years old, and that little girl was just gazing up at me,” he added.
The woman and child went back into the house, and Deaton waited outside.
“About 15 minutes later, she came back with a brown paper bag,” he said.
“It contained food. That lady was so nice to me, and that little girl was just the cutest thing I had ever seen,” Deaton added. “They didn’t have to help me. The war was still on, and the Americans and Germans were still shooting at each other.”
He ventured on into a nearby village, and saw numerous civilians, busy digging what appeared to be foxholes in a large field.
“I stopped an elderly man and asked him through gestures, why those people were digging,” Deaton said.
“He pointed in the direction I was headed and said, ‘Russians.’ Well, I didn’t want any of that, so I turned back around.”
He has since wondered what the name of the village was, or if there was any way he could contact the German woman who had given him food.
“The mother might not still be alive, but there’s a good chance that little girl would still be living,” he said.
Back in the Army
Deaton eventually found three other escaped Americans.
They ended up on a street corner in another town, where they were approached by a German civilian on a bicycle.
“One of the other Americans spoke German. The civilian told us he could lead us through the German lines, if we could get him away from the Russians and to the Americans.”
They set off, but ended up running into a German officer and a small band of troops, and were taken to another prison camp.
One night not long afterward, an American paratrooper was allowed to visit with the POWs.
They were told American troops were approaching, but they should stay put, in case a firefight broke out.
The next day, their German guards fled as the Americans closed in.
“They parked big transport trucks outside the fence, broke the lock on the prison camp gate and let us out,” Deaton said. “It wasn’t well organized. As soon as a truck was full, it took off. And that's how I ended up back with the U.S. Army.”
Deaton re-enlisted in the Army before the war in Europe officially ended.
He went to war again, serving in Korea, 1950-51.
Poem on handkerchief relates horrors of war
It’s been seven decades since Ed Deaton of Cody was captured by German troops after a battle in North Africa during World War II.
The world is a far different place now, but one keepsake helps remind him of his time as a POW, and those with whom he shared the experience.
In one of several German prison camps he was kept in, a fellow soldier in Deaton’s unit somehow came by three white handkerchiefs.
Upon them he wrote a poem, relating the battle that led to their capture.
“He just walked up to me one night and handed me one of the handkerchiefs, and I’ve had it ever since,” Deaton said.
After the war, Deaton lost track of the solider who had written the poem, as well as the others who were given handkerchiefs.
“One of the other soldiers who received a handkerchief recently passed way. Where the others are, I don’t know,” said Deaton, 92.
The writing on the handkerchief is as follows:
“Feb. 14, 1943”
The sun rose from behind Faid pass, to announce that the dreadful nite had passed.
And there in the valley coming so fast, were Germans and Panzers of every class.
Rommel was running he was forced, the British Eight Army made his cause lost.
We were so few, but the orders were tossed. Hold him, men, at any cost.
We hit the dirt side by side, fired bullets and shells into his front so wide.
We were trapped – so many died.
But God above knows how hard we tried.
Creeping and crawling bit by bit, the enemy was closer, hit after hit.
Bodies were falling, still no one quit. Till their machine guns were shoved in our pits.
I pray that you will never see, Hell in its fury as did we.
It will never be forgotten, by them and me.
The Fourteenth of Feb., in Forty-Three.
Ed Murphy, P.O.W.
(Mark Heinz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)