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Howard Meserve


WWII veteran Howard Guffer Meserve Jr. survived little-known Black Death March

BY NICHOLAS BROWN

Howard Guffer Meserve Jr. knows what freedom feels like.

It hit him on April 19, 1945, when he was liberated from German control after walking some 800 miles in 53 days, through a brutal winter and with only occasional scraps to eat.

The liberation marked the end of Guffers more than 10 months as a World War II prisoner of war.

Now, in his mid-80s and living in his Hooksett home with his wife, Lillian, Guffers eyes light up when he describes the day a British tank unit liberated the hungry and typhus-infected POWs packed into a makeshift camp.

I dont think there were words to describe it, he said. It was so joyful. You just feel fully free.

Guffer was one of the estimated 6,000 to 10,000 American and allied soldiers who were sent on the Black Death March a violent trek in subzero temperatures from a Stalag Luft IV  a POW camp in whats now Poland  to Stalag XI-B, in Fallingbostel, northwest Germany.

German soldiers were herding the POWs away from advancing Russian Allied forces.

People thought we could have been used as a bargaining tool, said Guffer.

While not as famous as 1942s Bataan Death March, the Black Death March claimed the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers, and it equally exemplifies the atrocities of the great war.

POWs, poorly clothed and with inadequate shoes, marched endlessly with little to eat but hard brown German bread, which Guffer said tasted like the product of a sawdust factory.

Guffer remembers a group of Russian soldiers trying to sustain themselves by eating tree bark.

Occasionally, American Red Cross rations were passed out during the trek, but still the poor nourishment led to widespread dysentery and unbearable fatigue.

Guys would just drop by the side of the road and die, said Guffer. We had to move on. Military career Guffers military career began nearly two years earlier when he, then 22 and a new father, reported to a Boston Army base.

He moved on to basic training in Greensboro, N.C., and aerial gunnery school in Panama City, Fla.

For Guffer, who would later be shot down while serving as a waist gunner on a B-24, the trip to Panama was his first-ever flight.

That wasnt something I was interested in doing, Guffer remembered.

Guffers crew  members of the 459th Bomb Group and 756th Bomb Squadron  eventually were based in Cerignola, Italy.

Twelve days after arriving at camp, Guffer was on a mission intended to bomb oil refineries in Vienna, Austria.

Guffer remembers the imminent dangers of flak  exploding metal from German anti-air craft weapons  in each of the B-24s missions.

We used to say, The flak is so thick you can walk on it, said Guffer.

During the Vienna mission, flak struck the B-24s gas tank and caused the crew to bail, using techniques gleaned during one-hour lecture on parachuting just days earlier.

Bailing out of that plane was a first for me, too, said Guffer.

Guffer remembers a German fighter plane circling him after hed opened his parachute. The plane left and Guffer remembers being engulfed by silence.

He entered a cloud, and Guffer remembers even more quiet.

I do not know how long it took me to get to the ground, but it seemed like forever, Guffer wrote in a short memoir of his POW experience.

Guffer was then found by a man from Eisenstadt, Austria, who treated him to endless brown bread and wine before turning the American over to Austrian police, and finally German authorities.

Once taken to a German air base, Guffer realized he hadnt yet been searched. Prompted by another American POW, Guffer slit a seam in his trousers where he placed his wedding ring, which has survived to today.

After moving through an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany, and a transient camp in Wetzlar, Germany, Guffer and hundreds of other captured American airmen were ushered to Stalag Luft IV.

In what Guffer described as a nightmare, POWs were forced to run about two miles to the camp while German soldiers prodded them with bayonets and ordered German shepherds to bite the men.

Guffer, who landed somewhere near the middle of the crowd, was unharmed.

During his six months at Stalag Luft IV, where POWs were packed into uninhabitable spaces and given little food, Guffer witnessed several bizarre deaths.

One POW was shot to death during an escape attempt, another when he was struck by lightning. POWs witnessed one German pilot perish after flying into a mountain, while another German soldier died after grabbing a live wire.

In camp, Guffer regularly played softball and football, which he believes may have conditioned him enough to withstand the Black Death March to follow.

Guffer and several other Americans finally escaped the infamous death march by breaking formation and jumping through windows at a building being inhabited by British POWs. Guffer remained there until the camp was dismantled by British troops.

Looking back Guffer, who retired from the Londonderry Post Office, where he was a rural letter carrier, still occasionally recalls some of the inhumanity he witnessed as a POW.

Some little thing might trigger it, and it might take you back there, he said. Most of the time, no.

In past decades, Guffer has taken solace in the companionship of fellow POWs scattered throughout the country.

I know what they went through, and they know the same of me, he said. Of course, thats dwindled now.

Guffer and Lillian Meserve now delight in the companionship of their eight great-grandchildren.

The couple celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary in October.

Published Wednesday, November 08, 2006 1:25 PM by Hooksett Editor Filed under: Hooksett



Sgt HOWARD MESERVE was assigned or attached to the 459th Bombardment Group on 16 June 1944 according to a 27 October 1944 dated document subject roster of personnel sent to the commanding general NATOUSA

MACR: 6321

Howard Meserve

Sgt Howard W Meserve Jr was assigned to the 459th BG 756th Squadron.
Military Occupational Specialty (MOS): Gunner.

Sgt HOWARD MESERVE was assigned or attached to the 459th Bombardment Group on 16 June 1944 according to a 27 October 1944 dated document subject roster of personnel sent to the commanding general NATOUSA

The following information on Howard Meserve is gathered and extracted from military records. We have many documents and copies of documents, including military award documents. It is from these documents that we have found this information on Sgt Meserve. These serviceman's records are nowhere near complete and we are always looking for more material. If you can help add to Howard Meserve's military record please contact us.

  Rank General Order Date Notes Award Ribbon & Device

Howard Meserve

Sgt

34

01/02/1945

MIA

AM - MIA

Air Medal (AM)

Please contact us with any biographical data, pictures or other information regarding the service and life of Howard Meserve.

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