Originally created 10/07/01

Vet escaped 3 POW camps



Bernie Porter's story of World War II has all the elements of a best seller: celebrities, intrigue and battle wounds.

He spent two tours overseas, rubbing shoulders with people such as Bob Hope and escaping three times from German captors.

Mr. Porter went into the Army as a private, and after 26 years of active duty he retired as a lieutenant colonel.

During his first tour of duty, Mr. Porter was wounded and declared unfit for battle. He was put in charge of scheduling celebrity performances in Casablanca and then sent home.

"I've met lots of stars, including Carole Lombard, Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope," Mr. Porter said.

Mr. Porter first went overseas in September 1942 - just 21 days after marrying his girlfriend, Pauline.

"The first month of our tour in Africa, our unit was reduced to zero strength by the Germans," the New York native said.

He ended up in a hospital - injured so badly that the Army classified the young soldier as ineligible for combat and sent him to Algiers to work at Allied Headquarters, where he was in charge of the officers' mess.

Soon he was in Casablanca, only to be sent home for good ... he hoped.

A second look

A little more than three months later, he was sent back across the Atlantic.

"I thought my overseas duty was over, but they had other ideas," Mr. Porter said.

Almost immediately, Mr. Porter - already a Purple Heart recipient - found himself in the Battle of the Bulge in Germany.

It was Dec. 20, 1944, and he was captured.

"We had been fighting since December 18 and were out of ammunition in Luxembourg. We had called for reinforcements and were waiting when we were captured," he said.

His entire company was loaded into a boxcar on Christmas Eve en route to Bad Orb, a prisoner camp northeast of Frankfurt.

"We stayed a long time at that camp," Mr. Porter said. "General Patton's son-in-law was captured and in the same camp."

In March 1945, Patton sent a reinforced tanker unit to break the soldiers out of prison.

Mr. Porter was free for three days before he was captured by members of Hitler's youth movement. He joined many other prisoners on a journey to a concentration camp, only to escape again.

"We were moving to another camp and I asked to stop in the woods to use the restroom," Mr. Porter said. "When I made it to the edge of the woods, I noticed no one was looking, so I ran for it."

But his freedom was brief. Within seven hours, Mr. Porter was recaptured.

Just 26 and married for less than three years, he already had met the rich and famous and escaped from two soldiers' nightmares. When it came time for a third escape, luck almost ran out.

A third strike?

The chill in the March air was unforgettable. It left a memory in Mr. Porter that still sends shivers up his 82-year-old spine.

The group of 150 soldiers led by 75 guards with dogs had been classified as a poor security risk and were marching to the prison camp at Dachau when it happened: Mr. Porter and two other captives made a run for it. They hid in a nearby river and waited for the Germans to retreat.

"That's when we began walking," he said. "We walked until we came upon three houses in a village."

The group knew they had to choose a home to stay the night, but that choice could mean life or death.

"Typically, the people in the villages didn't like Hitler," Mr. Porter said. "But it was always a gamble."

They chose the middle house - it was occupied by a couple who hated Hitler. Their children, however, were a different story: they were a part of Hitler's youth movement.

The couple offered the three American soldiers shelter - a night's stay in a shed behind the home.

Early the next morning, the soldiers were awakened by the sounds of S.S. officers - Germany's elite soldiers - pulling other escapees out of the row of sheds behind the homes.

"They would pull a prisoner out of the shed and shoot them right there," Mr. Porter said. "We were scared to death, but for some reason they stopped at the shed right next to ours."

After the S.S. guards left, Mr. Porter and his two companions traveled for days without direction, cutting German telephone lines every place they could and hoping to reach safety.

"It took us 18 days to reach American lines," Mr. Porter said, shaking his head. "We had no idea where we were going; we just headed west."

Reach Ashlee Griggs at (706) 823-3552.

The Augusta Chronicle is publishing the stories of our World War II veterans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of America's entry into the war.

We thank all of you who have responded. If you have a story to share, please mail it to War Stories, c/o The Augusta Chronicle Newsroom, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30903-1928. Or e-mail your stories to newsroom@ augustachronicle.com. Please include your name, address and telephone number.