WWII Army veteran Bob Oppelt recalls time as guard at POW camp in Indiana

By Corey AmEnde - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Wed., Jul. 3, 2013
WWII veteran Bob Oppelt smiles in photo of himself in his formal Army attire. Courtesy photos. - Contributed Photo

With a microphone in one hand and a set of meticulous note cards in the other, Bob Oppelt began to reminisce on this life experiences.

Sitting at white table in front of a crowd gathered at the South End Senior Center, the East Hartford resident recently delivered an entertaining story of his old Army days.  On the table in front of the 89-year-old Oppelt were two pictures positioned to his left. One was from 1943 when a then 19-year-old Oppelt was standing with his draft class in Lewiston, Maine. Another was a smiling, proud portrait of a young Oppelt in his formal Army attire. 

Laid out in front of Oppelt was a self-made catalog that chronicles his days in the Army. The black and white photos carefully placed in the album show static portraits and scenes taken during his service. Oppelt's words brought the images to life on a sunny June day, taking the audience and himself back in time to an era when living history wasn't chronicled by timelines on Facebook.

Oppelt attended East Hartford High School, “the old one,” he clarified, for his freshman and sophomore years, before quitting school at the age of 16. “At the time we were in the Depression, and the family was poor and we needed the money,” recalled Oppelt. So he went to work as a plumbing apprentice for two years and then took a job at Colt's Manufacturing working on a milling machine.  “I worked there for about six months on the night shift, but as a teenager working the night shift that just did not go at that time, so I quit,” said Oppelt.

After moving to Lewiston, Maine, he worked at the South Portland shipyard for a while before getting his draft notice on April 13, 1943 – about a year and a half after the United States had entered World War II. Oppelt attended a couple of different camps, eventually being trained for the role of Military Police (M.P.).

He was passed on overseas duty twice before his group received orders for stateside service on Sept. 8, 1944. Oppelt's company was being transferred to Camp Atterbury in Indiana to act as guards for German prisoners. In October of the same year, his guard company was transferred to Camp Austin in Indiana – a facility that held about 1,500 German prisoners of war – located about 35 miles north of Louisville, Ky.

Oppelt said thast when his company arrived the entire camp consisted just of tents to start. Both the soldiers and the POWs were housed in the tents. “Under the Geneva Convention rules in this country, if the prisoners were in tents, the guards had to be in tents,” recalled Oppelt.

The POW stockade had two fences, about 10 to 15 feet apart, with four guard towers armed with machine guns, explained Oppelt. The POWs worked at the Morgan packing company, where they canned locally-grown crops.

“The government put these prisoners to work,” said Oppelt. “They said, 'Why should they be idle?'”

The POWs were paid 10 cents an hour, not in cash, but in coupons. “The government charged the packing company about 70 cents an hour for the POW labor and then back-charged the POWs about 60 cents an hour for their lodging, the M.P. guards and their food and everything,” Oppelt explained. 

Oppelt said he personally knew of eight to 10 POW camps throughout the U.S., mainly in the area of Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois. He said the POWs were mostly German and Italian, with the majority of them having been captured in Africa during WWII.
On Sept. 19, 1944, two German prisoners were reported missing and a search for the POWs ensued. They were found two days later.  The public never knew of the escape, Oppelt said.

The following month another escape attempt was made, this time with a different outcome. Oppelt was on duty in the guard tower with his .50-caliber machine gun in hand when a POW was in between the two fences, heading for the outer one. “I yelled, 'Halt, halt, halt!' three times and he did not stop,” recalled Oppelt. “My hands were on my machine gun. I fired one shot and hit him right in the hip, right through the thigh.”

Then, as Oppelt explained, “all hell broke loose.” Medics quickly took the POW away and Oppelt was relieved of his duty at the guard post and taken to the captain's quarters to explain what had happened and then given the rest of the day off.  The following day he was taken to Camp Atterbury to be court-martialed for shooting a German prisoner. 

“I was brought before a formal session of ranking officers. I was asked to explain why it happened and how. I did,” recalled Oppelt.  “After a short recess the court came back to session. I was found guilty of shooting a prisoner of war. My fine was six cents – the cost of the .50-caliber bullet I fired. That six cents was actually taken out of my pay.”

Oppelt was then sent back to Camp Austin, where instead of receiving punishment, he was given another set of orders. “I was taken to the post exchange and told to drink and eat all I wanted at the expense of the government, which I did,” said Oppelt. “I had a hell of a time. I really filled up.”

The following morning he was summoned again for a formal session. “They gave me corporal stripes. That must have been a reward for shooting the German prisoner,” said Oppelt. Although this sounds like a very mixed message, after Oppelt received his corporal stripes it was explained to him he was found guilty to protect him from a potential lawsuit from the German prisoner later in life, because under the U.S. Constitution no person can be tried twice for the same event or crime, as that would be double jeopardy. 

The public never knew of this event and all records of Oppelt shooting the POW were erased. “Going back, searching my records of the court-martial, there's no record in my military records; yet, I know and everybody else knows that it's true, but it's just one of those things that happened that our government says it's all over.”

In 1946, Oppelt was discharged from the Army and his story was over. He fielded a few questions from the audience before putting down the microphone to get a cup of fresh coffee.

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