Local man recounts time serving during World War II
Gene Obee may have turned 94 years old less than two weeks ago, but the Hillsboro Parkside resident became a young 19-year-old soldier as he recounted his experiences many years go in World War II.
Obee grew up in Burns. He and his two older brothers all decided to enlist in the army.in October of 1944.
“I figured it would be a good way for me to go see Europe, and I thought the war was almost over so I didn’t even think that I would have to fight much,” said Obee.
So, he entered the army at the age of 18. After some basic training, Obee found himself on a big boat headed overseas. He turned 19 on the 10 day trip to the shores of England.
“It was not a cruise. We had fish stew two meals a day. We would have to go down to the hull of the ship and about half of the boys wouldn’t make it because the smell of the food was so bad. They couldn’t take it and would go back to their bunks.”
After landing in England, the soldiers were then sent deep into the woods in France in the Ardennes Forest. It was November and very cold.
“We mostly sat around and had different jobs. Our leader was good to us and made sure we had good food. We always got a pack of cigarettes with our breakfast each morning. Only about five of us didn’t smoke so we would give our packs to other guys. I gave mine to my best friend there which probably wasn’t the best thing for him,” said Obee.
He talked about how the unit could see the German soldiers across the way and hear them sometimes and the Germans could see them. For the most part, they all just co-existed in their spaces although an occasional shot was sent across.
Obee shared many of his memories of the guys he served with and he remembered them vividly. He lit up as he shared about the different personalities and the times they all shared together. Then he grew solemn as he moved to the darker part of his story.
“We figured out later that the Germans had just been biding their time until the spring came and they could move out under the cover of nature. But, then there were an unexpected 10 days of fog that came in and they used that to their advantage,” said Obee.
Obee goes on to describe what he refers to as the most “terrifying nights” of his life. “When you hear the expression about it being so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, that’s what it was. One night I was on duty and I heard a noise behind me. I finally realized it was snow melting and dripping, but I knew it was a German who was going to kill me,” said Obee.
Eventually, Obee and the men who were left in his squad were captured in the battle that would later become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans forced Obee’s Captain to surrender after he captured five of the Americans one night with a gun in the back of each. Either they would surrender or would watch five of their comrades be executed.
The captured troops began a long march east in the bitter cold. They were humiliated, threatened and robbed. In addition to being starved, they were verbally assaulted.
“By the end of the day, you didn’t have an overcoat anymore or any overshoes. They took our helmets. Thankfully they didn’t take our long underwear. But that is about all I had to get through the winter with, and it was cold,” said Obee.
Unfed for days, men were getting sick. Even with shoes, Obee’s foot was frozen. The prisoners were put on a passenger train to cross the Rhine River. From there they either marched during the day locking them up in barns at night or were crammed into small boxcars for days on end.
“They were actually hoping that we would get blown away by our own Air Force. I tell you, that’s quite a feeling when you hear those planes going over when you’re locked up in a boxcar.”
Obee said they finally arrived at a camp and were fed.
“Our ration was a bowl of turnip soup and a little bit of bread,” he said. The prisoners were herded on to a work camp to repair railroads by night and then to Stalag IV-B.
“I was so hungry I thought I could eat anything,” Obee said. “There was a garbage can with a piece of turnip skin…that looked like it had some chewing left in it. I hate to think of it now, but I actually picked it up and ate it.”
Obee contracted dysentery and was put into a hospital run by captured allied doctors and medics.
“I don’t know how long I was there. It could have been a day or two or a week. My next memory was riding in a passenger car,” he said.
Because of his illness, Obee was put into a small work camp with better living conditions and food.
The camp’s guard was an older German gentleman in his 60s who wanted the war to end as much as the POWs did. The weather was starting to warm up and American vehicles could be heard passing on the autobahn near the camp. The guard assured Obee and his comrades they would be rescued soon.
“This old guard, he was a nice old fellow, told us he had treated us as good as he could and he was going to get rid of his uniform,” Obee said. “He said he was too old to be a prisoner of war. He said he hoped none of us would turn him in. He just disappeared into the civilian population.”
Even though they had no idea where they were, Obee said they left the camp. By then we were wearing old rags. I remember I had some old French beret and I was so dirty,” he said. “Nobody had shaved, and we’d only had one shower in four months.”
They didn’t know where to find the Americans, so they wandered around town.
“All of a sudden we heard them hollering ‘halt’,” Obee said.
It was Americans. Obee was put on an ambulance to treat his foot, which was only days away from having a full-blown case of gangrene.
“Eating that stinking old turnip peel saved my life,” he said. “It all worked out for me. I was one of the lucky ones.”
Obee eventually returned home where he got an extended furlow to enjoy some time with his family and helping out on the farm. He did find out that one of his brothers had died while he was a prisoner.
“That was really hard on my folks,” said Obee.
Thankfully, the war ended before long and Obee did not have to fight anymore. While Obee grew tearful and solemn at times, he remained positive while sharing his story and never showed self-pity.
“I could have had it so much worse. You see the pictures of the women with the children marching in those lines and that is who you have to feel sorry for. Not for us. I really didn’t have it so bad.”