Private Edgar Hunter
Assistant Heavy Machine Gunner
D Company, 142nd Infantry Regiment
Born in 1924, Edgar Hunter’s life began like many other rural Kentucky farmboys as he grew in his hometown of Tyner amongst the hollers of Jackson County. Farmers by trade, Edgar and his siblings spent most of their days helping out when they weren’t in school, from which Edgar dropped out of in his later years. The Great Depression hit eastern Kentucky hard but the Hunter family managed to push through. By the start of the 1940s, however, the family was wanting in cash so the now working-age Edgar and his father looked northward for new jobs. In 1941 the pair were given a new opportunity to work for the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad. The chance meant moving to Cincinnati, a central hub for the line, however, and the family left behind their Kentucky homestead for the big city.
Edgar was only 17 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and despite his eagerness to serve, his mother would not permit his enlistment and thus he waited. On his 18th birthday, he attempted to enlist in the Marines but their quota was full. Disappointed, Edgar relinquished his enthusiasm and waited until he was permitted to join the army in March of 1943. According to Edgar, “basic was all it was” and while he did not find it too difficult, he felt the training lacked any sort of real preparation for combat as he and his compatriots soon found themselves aboard the USS Mariposa on their way to North Africa.
Landing in Casablanca and traveling across the continent, Edgar and a small group of replacements found themselves traveling by truck to Arzew where they joined D Company, 142nd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division. The heavy weapons company for the regiment’s 1st Battalion, Edgar now learned the ins and outs of the .30 water-cooled machine gun as an ammo bearer and assistant gunner on one of the company’s MG teams. On 4 September 1943, he and his company loaded up aboard the USS Thomas Jefferson at Oran and began the voyage to Italy for the first official allied invasion of mainland Europe. Leading up to H-Hour he and the infantry performed boat drills “teaching us how to find our station and line up in order of loading” which came in handy the rough and windy morning of 9 September. The call for alarm came and, loaded down with over 80 pounds of gear, Edgar and his comrades climbed down the ropes and into the boats which took them towards the small strip of sand known as Red Beach.
The 142nd Infantry landed south of Salerno near a town called Paestum, an ancient Greek and Roman city still dotted with ruins. Edgars’ LCI made its way towards the beach under heavy machine gun and artillery fire as a “melee” of rounds hit their boat and sunk the one next to them with all hands on board. As the boat hit the sand and the ramp opened up Edgar rushed to meet the shore but not before his own company commander received a machine gun round to the head, crumbling in front of the entire company and laying still on the ramp. With no way to go back, the company pushed on and ran through the waist-deep water while bullets rained around them like “angry hornets.” Edgar recalled in vivid detail the names and circumstances of all the dying men around him, watching them fall contorted across the beach as he crawled for whatever cover lay ahead. “The many memories of the horror and death toll of this war continues to haunt me,” he said, “I still wonder who I survived while so many others around me did not.”
According to Edgar’s memoir, much of his company’s casualties came from a machine gun positioned in a 40-foot tower nearly a hundred yards or so up the beach which “played havoc” upon the landing forces. The German infantry they faced were veterans of Russia and put up an incredibly tough fight, forcing the T-Patchers to pay for every inch in blood. By the end of the first day, Edgar was in shock, unable to truly understand what he had gone through and only hoping that he could continue on despite the terrible suffering he had seen for his first day of combat. The next few days were spent fighting the Germans through a valley off the beach. Tanks kept the infantrymen in check but allied air cover proved substantial enough to spur the advance. On 12 September Edgar’s and another platoon took point to dig in on a small mountain in preparation for the next morning’s objective. Unfortunately, that objective never came.
While Edgar and his team were awaiting the morning assault, their small group of 45-odd men was skipped over as the regimental commander decided to pull back toward safer positions in the middle of the night. Hidden among an olive grove and scattered fig trees, their night was uneventful until a massive German barrage began at 0800, ripping into the hillside and pinning down the infantry. Following the barrage nearly 250 Germans came in wave after wave, rushing to take out the now-isolated American soldiers. One German managed to get around back above them and tossed grenades into the various foxholes, hitting Edgar in the leg with shrapnel, while others ran point-blank into the position. “It was Custer’s last stand” he recalled, “the situation was hopeless… and I had never considered being a prisoner of war.” The surviving sergeant gathered Edgar and the remaining GIs and amidst the blasts of nearby grenades and the shouts of the dying, the T-Patchers decided they had done all they could do and waved their white handkerchief, thinking their war was over when it really had just begun.
Disarmed, searched, and relieved of any sort of valuables or worthwhile items, Edgar and the other Americans found themselves officially prisoners of the Third Reich. Although lined up and almost shot by an angry German machine gunner they had wounded, the band managed to survive their initial captivity and traveled slowly northward in a variety of cages, trucks, and other vehicles. Starvation quickly became a factor with German rations either nonexistent or in the form of watered-down soup and maggot-infested bread pieces. Several times Edgar recalled being teased by local collaborating Italians and German soldiers who threw food their way, only to have GIs pile over the scraps “like dogs fighting over one bone.” The northern-moving group of three to four hundred allied prisoners eventually made their way to a surviving railroad yard and loaded 61 men to a car. With hardly any room to breathe and no method of disposing of bodily waste, helmets were passed around to share the meager food and water rations when not being used as waste receptacles. Sickness was abundant and several died in the journey. From a small window in the corner of the car, the men kept track of the time and where they might possibly be.
The first camp for the men was Stalag VII-B in Moosburg. While only there for a week, Edgar described the camp’s putrid conditions and recalled several accounts of murdered prisoners, brutal punishments, and an overall air of inhumanity. Before long they made it to their final destination, Stalag II-B, on 1 November 1943. Their rotten and decomposing uniforms were replaced with bug-infested ones from WWI and the long-stay began. Edgar struggled with the extreme illness that began sometime around the start of the train ride and was now told it possibly could have been bronchial pneumonia. Delirium, chronic weakness, and high fever plagued his first days at the camp but recovery only meant delivery into forced labor. His assignment to various work details throughout Poland consisted primarily of planting and harvesting potatoes but the work was spattered by verbal and physical abuse from locals and guards. The labor was tough, 14 hours a day of carrying heavy loads and lifting with only a bowl of cabbage soup and a piece of feces-laced moldy bread sustaining him per day. At one point he needed serious dental surgery after a non-medicated tooth filling came out, but rather than refill deeper, he asked for the tooth to be pulled, to which the German dentist ripped the tooth from his mouth in such a way that it shattered part of his jaw at the root. Life at the farms and under German command was in a single word, brutal.
Inside the camps was often no better. In his memoir Edgar refers to a child once being shot because he had boils on his hands and was unable to work, one man killed because he tried to shake a guards rifle away when he was being beaten with it, and another beaten close to death because he tried to throw away rotten socks. Frostbite was everywhere and Edgar himself lost his toenails and his feet could barely move. Below is an excerpt from his experiences describing in his own words life day-to-day:
“How does one put on paper the fear, the dread, the anxiety, the terror, the physical and emotional pain? All brought on by kicks to the groin, the rifle butt to the kidneys, the cocked luger to the head, the bayonet to the throat, the belly crying for food, the body screaming for rest, the brain begging for sleep, the flesh pleading for shelter from the intense cold. How does one get feeling into paper and ink? How does one convey the feeling of watching a friend and comrade die of starvation? How does one explain the hell of not being able to do anything to prevent it? How do you write of such pain, of all this suffering? I wish I knew, then I would write of the ugly side of war and forever explode the myth that war is a glorious adventure. I saw no glory in drinking someone else’s piss. I saw no glory in any of this, but for the same reason I’d do it again.”
When Russians began to close in on the camp in late February of 1945 the prisoners started to gain some semblance of hope. The Germans would not have it. Afraid of the approaching Russians the guards decided to instead round up all the inmates and begin a forced march through the worst winter Europe had experienced for decades. Thousands joined along the way and no food rations compounded with the months of starvation and brutalism, as well as intense, cutting, and bitter cold to kill many men which Edgar recalled passing by, wondering how they looked so peaceful and pale in the snowbanks beside the road. The column left behind a trail of “bloody excrement, discarded underwear, and bodies.”
The forced march continued for a ruthless and indescribable 53 days with the 300 POWs of Edgar’s original crew themselves traveling over 900 miles deeper into Germany. Hope was fleeting but the occasional American fighter or bomber planes reminded the GIs that the war was in their favor. It was not until 12 April that the exhausted prisoners were told they could stop. American forces, although miles away, had surrounded the Germans in the area and the guards decided to wait it out rather than continue traveling anywhere. The prisoners were allowed their first meal, a decaying horse corpse, which proved to be their final meal as inmates of the Third Reich. The next day, Friday the 13th, an American tank and jeep met the group and ended what was a brutal two years of inhumanity. According to Edgar there were no shouts of glee or joy, the pain and dying and death were simply over.
Edgar went from a lanky 145-pound machine gunner to a 65-pound emaciated sliver of a man. The day the war ended he and a few thousand other prisoners were finally unloaded back in Boston, Massachusetts under the darkness of night. He personally felt the army was ashamed of the “skeletons in uniforms” that shambled out of the ship’s cargo hold with uniforms hanging like carpets over them. Finally arriving home at the beginning of June he turned to alcohol to cope with the newfound horror he had faced, unable to talk with anyone around him as none could begin to remotely comprehend what he had faced overseas. He was ashamed of being so thin, feeling the stares of those around him and his baggy, limp clothes on his bare neck. His family too had few words they felt they could say to their now 20-year old son who had seen so much.
In his conclusion Edgar simply reminds the reader of the price of Freedom and the many, many sacrifices made by those who served:
“These men have spent their whole adult lives in hospitals. Most have never known the love of a woman, never had the chance to have children, and know the joy of holding them close and watching them grow. It was a high price, but it's been paid. Enjoy; they want you to.”