James W. Bancker ’38

Bancker '38

James W. Bancker '38

Army/AUS, First Lieutenant

From Recollections of World War II, compiled by J. Read Murphy ’38; pages 8–9

While with the 701st Tank Destroyer Battalion, 1st Armored Division, I was captured on March 25, 1943, in Tunisia, North Africa. I and two other officers had been sent at night 10 miles in front of our lines on recon. We saw that the Germans were getting ready to attack. We alerted our units by radio, but were then cut off and captured. After two escape attempts in North Africa and Italy, several of us were shipped by boxcar to Poland to a new and “escape-proof” POW camp in Shubin. Two Yale classmates later showed up there, Doc Barnum and Fred Boucher.

In January 1945, the Russians were getting close, so we were marched in zero weather west, back towards Germany. Each night we were locked and under guard in a handy barn. On the third day, six of us decided to escape. It was then or never! We hid on a shelf in a cow barn about eight feet above a dozen cows. The Germans knew we had escaped, but they couldn’t find us. After machine gunning the barn, they left, and we were alone. We stayed there three or four days and then started walking east toward Russia. We walked in snow and ice for about 100 miles to Warsaw. The city was almost completely destroyed. However, we were able to contact a Polish family who let us warm up for a few days in their apartment in Praga across the river from Warsaw.

After a few days, we set out southeast to Lublin, the new Polish capital. We were lucky to hitch a ride on a truck for most of the trip. In Lublin we stayed in an old concentration camp (Maidanak) that had been liberated only a couple of weeks before. We still could see the gas chambers, the ovens with burned bodies still in them, and a large mound outside the camp where a reported 400,000 civilians and Russians had been killed and buried.

After a few days we learned that a freight train was leaving for Kiev and Odessa (the closest city with American troops). We hid out in an empty boxcar. After seven or eight cold days we arrived in Odessa. By comparison Odessa was warm and sunny (40–50 degrees) and we could get a thick soup twice a day. We also could get deloused and have a shave every other day. We got weighed and found that each of us had lost 30 to 40 pounds in the previous two years. We stayed for about a week until we could make arrangements to ship out on a British freighter bound for Egypt.

There we officially contacted the U.S. Army. We were given new clothes and shoes and flown to Naples, Italy. I tried to rejoin my old Army unit. All my old friends had been killed, wounded or shipped home. The new Battalion Commander told me to “go home.” About 50 escaped POWs from all over Europe had collected in Naples. We got on a large troop ship and sailed home to the USA. At home we all got 60-day leaves. Then I was assigned to Camp Shelby, Miss.

The camp was so bad that after a couple of months I volunteered for the Paratroops. After a month of Jump School, I was going to be sent to the airborne unit getting ready for the invasion of Japan, but the war ended. I was discharged immediately as I had more than enough points. It was October 1945.

I went home, but not before signing up for the Inactive Reserves. I was sure that there would never be another war. However, in 1950, Korea reared its ugly head. I was called up to active duty at once and spend 18 months in the Army, getting out for the second time in February 1952.

This time I didn’t sign up for the Reserves!

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Filed under In Uniform, Western Front

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