OTO, Iowa -- Dale Timmerman, 87, of Oto, spent much of World War II in German prisoner of war camps.
Prisoners were shot if they didn't obey guards' orders. The food was horrible -- rutabagas, potatoes, bread they called "sawdust." One small fire heated the barracks for 200 men. But deliberate abuse was uncommon, he said.
Some of the details are hazy now, the names of the four or five different camps, how long he spent at each. Yet, he remembers clearly to this day the value of a bartered cigarette and the lasting appreciation for the smallest kindnesses.
Timmerman recounted his World War II experiences Friday at the home he's shared for more than 60 years with Nan McNamara, the Scottish girl he met at a dance in Glasgow before shipping out with a British unit for North Africa. She became a casual penpal during the war, writing notes to him in the various prison camps where he lost 50 pounds and 27 months of his life.
Once he was liberated by the British, he returned to Scotland to see her. They fell in love. After waiting a year for immigration papers, she joined him in America. The two were married on July 14, 1946, in Oto. They soon moved into the house where they still reside, farmed with Timmerman's parents and had two children, a son, Scott, and daughter, Sharon.
Timmerman, an Oto native and the grandson of a Civil War prisoner of war, joined Sioux City's first Army National Guard unit, the 34th Division, 133rd Anti-tank Company, in 1941. He completed training at Camp Claiborne, La., and Fort Dix, N.J. He was sent to Belfast, Ireland, for training with British commandos and transferred to the 168th Anti-tank Company, leaving his Sioux City buddies.
His unit was camped in the Algerian desert when the Germans began shelling it. A U.S. plane dropped a note, telling them to get to a certain intersection and they'd be picked up.
"The Germans beat ` em there and pointed half-tracks at where we were hiding," Timmerman remembered. "They killed two and wounded two. We took off."
They were surrounded and captured. It was on their forced march to Tunis that Timmerman met the notorious German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. "He was in his command car," he remembered. Rommel offered Timmerman a drink from a canteen. "I hadn't had a drink all day. My tongue was hanging out," he remembered. "It was wine! It about knocked me out!"
The captives were sent to Italy where they were paraded with thousands of other prisoners through the streets to be jeered by the people. They were shipped to a POW camp in southern Germany in boxcars, with 40 men in an 8-by-12-foot space. Unaware, Allied forces bombed the train.
Timmerman's legs were so swollen from standing up for three days in the boxcar that the camp doctor wanted to amputate them. Two American doctors, fellow POWs, wouldn't allow it and Timmerman recovered in the prison hospital.
Once out of the hospital, he was moved with his company to POW camp at Hammerstein. He was forced to work in a rock quarry, 70 feet deep. Other prisoners were sent out to work for area farmers, and even stayed with them.
Three months later, Red Cross parcels were finally getting to the prisoners and Timmerman was put to work distributing them. He also worked in the camp hospital. The camp's 560 prisoners grew to 3,000 as more soldiers were captured.
The packages contained cigarettes, candy and other items, even new uniforms one time. Timmerman, who didn't smoke, sometimes traded cigarettes with a guard in return for use of his camera. He still has the developed pictures the guard brought back to him.
The Red Cross also sent band instruments, he recalled, a great morale booster.
Asked what he most remembers, Timmerman recalls several things. First, the French soldier who could understand German. "He'd tell me what to say and how to cope with what was going on," he said. "It helped (me survive) a lot."
And he recalled the French prisoners in the first camp who shared food from their own care packages before the Red Cross aid arrived. "They probably saved us."
Also seared into memory are the stacks of bodies of prisoners from an adjoining camp, mostly Russians, heaped in a pile and buried in a pit. And the frozen bodies they saw during a move to a different camp, stacked 8-feet-high along the railroad tracks.
Shortly before the American POWs were liberated, the Germans brought prisoners from their concentration camp at Auschwitz to his camp. Men, women and children, they were weak and leaning on one another just to walk, Timmerman recalled. "I'd throw food to them. They'd run out there and get it. Some wouldn't make it back." (They were shot.) "So I quit doing that.
"It's hard to read about that stuff," he said. "But you'd have to be there to believe it."
Finally, the British arrived, liberating the camp on May 1, 1945. By that time, the guards were 15-year-old boys with machine guns, Timmerman said. The freed prisoners were taken to Camp Lucky Strike, in France and given two choices. They could take some money and go home, or take some money and go to England. Timmerman chose to go to England, where he visited Nan. He then took a boat to New York.
Before leaving France, Timmerman recalled, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, addressed the soldiers. "I'm gonna get you home as fast as I can," he told them. "And I don't want no bitching when you get home."
Sixty-one years later, just 11 members of Timmerman's 168th Anti-tank Company remain. They continue their annual ex-POW reunions in Clarinda, Iowa.