It was just a couple of hours into the New Year, 1945, when Ray Knisley, 86, of Chiefland, peeked out of a freezing foxhole after being awakened by the sound of gunshots.
His unit, the 117th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mecz), had been dug in about 30 miles south of Strasbourg, Germany. There was snow on the ground, and in the light of a full moon he thought he saw a patrol coming in with German prisoners. He hunkered back in to put on his boots and a jacket
“When I went out to get a better look at what was going on, there was a rifle pointed at my nose,” he said. The prisoners he thought he saw were actually German soldiers advancing upon his position, a situation that he said might have played out differently if the two U.S. soldiers manning machine guns that morning hadn’t fled without a word upon seeing the Nazis approach.
Knisley, an Army medic, said the German soldiers marched him into a clearing in the woods—the enemy’s forward command post—where he saw his lieutenant standing, hands in the air. Soon, they were both marched down a series of trails and told to enter some thick underbrush.
“There were no footprints there. We thought we were gonna’ get killed.”
But the two continued to be marched down a series of trails and onto a road where shrapnel from American artillery rained down upon them. After a while, Knisley and his Lieutenant were taken to an underground opening with railroad tracks leading inside. The two were separated, and Knisley said he was put into a small, damp room, lit by a light bulb in the ceiling. Later, a German officer who spoke perfect English interrogated him.
“I told him my name, rank and serial number,” Knisley said.
But his captor persisted, and Knisley said the German showed him a book filled with photographs.
“I could see it. It said 117th Cavalry. It had pictures of all our vehicles. He was trying to figure out what size guns we had on our tanks.”
Despite threats from the German interrogator, Knisley said he insisted that he was only an Army medic and knew nothing about weapons. But Knisley was well aware of the size of the weapons. The 117th’s tanks, just before invading France, were retrofitted with 75mm Howitzers, he said. But he played stupid and was eventually sent back to his room. A few days later, more U.S. prisoners showed up.
“Up until that time, I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink.”
The prisoners were given hot millet, which they ate out of their steel helmets. Knisley said one of the prisoners in his room showed up with black, frostbitten feet. The man had been rousted from his foxhole before he could put his boots on. So, Knisley and the man took turns wearing the boots and socks that Knisley had put on just before his capture.
A week later, the men were put on a truck and then driven to a train where they were packed in like sardines. He said they stopped at one point and unloaded into a concrete building where they were made to write notes to their loved ones explaining that they were prisoners of war. Then they got back on the train for five days and headed to what would be their final destination as such.
Stalag 4 B, the German P.O.W. Camp where Knisley spent nearly 4 months during WW11, was near Muhlburg on the Elbe River. Knisley and the other prisoners, which also included captives from allied forces, slept on wooden bunks without mattresses.
“We had to sleep two guys to a bed, which was good because of the cold. I think it was the coldest winter on record at that time.”
Food was scarce, and Knisley said he and the other prisoners, about 160 in each barrack, spent a lot of time coming up with recipes for the food they would some day cook. They made bets on who could eat the most potatoes. Food was about all they thought about, he said.
“I believe a naked woman could have sashayed down the middle of the room and she wouldn’t have gotten much attention.”
But despite the gnawing hunger and freezing temperatures, Knisley said he was sure he’d make it out alive.
“I figured I was gonna’ get out. We all knew the end of the war was near.”
The British prisoners at Stalag 4B, according to Knisley, had managed to build a radio, and every morning a man would come by giving news of the progress that allied forces were making. He said they could also hear bombs being dropped on nearby Dresden and Liepzig. And they could see the skies light up at night.
But not every prisoner was convinced they’d be liberated. Knisley said a buddy of his, in the depths of despair, stopped eating and drinking the little bit of food and water that was given to him. He grew so weak he was carted off to a camp hospital where he died.
“You needed to have hope,” Knisley said.
On the morning of April 28, 1945, as the prisoners lined up to be counted, Knisley’s hopes had come to pass. He noticed that there were no Germans to be found.
“I heard somebody yell, ‘The Russians are coming!’”
He saw a Russian cavalryman galloping on a horse across a field, and he knew that he and the men held captive at Stalag 4B were prisoners no more. Knisley, along with the other prisoners, had lost about half his body weight when the Russians made it to the prison camp.
“I had almost no flesh on my arms or legs. You could see all my ribs.”
The Russians, though freeing the prisoners, said they didn’t have enough food for the 16,000 men imprisoned at the camp, and Knisley was forced to go out and find food, which was mostly found in the homes of Germans who had run scared from threat of Russian soldiers. Knisley had been so malnourished that most of what he ate just made him sick.
Nevertheless, he and a handful of Americans later managed to walk for about five days up the Elbe River until they found more of their countrymen.
“A G.I. spotted us and said, ‘Come with me. You look terrible.’ A cook made scrambled eggs and ham. Oh, that was great. I thought I was in Heaven for a while there.”
For the first time in months, Knisley was able to take a shower and put on clean clothes.
Knisley said he spent several weeks in different parts of France before finally being loaded onto a Coast Guard transport ship headed for home. A passage from his written account of that ride home states, “One thing that stands out in my mind was the amount of food that was served on this ship each day. All I can remember about it was that 17 pounds of pepper was consumed each day. There had to be an enormous amount of food to use that much pepper.”
It took five days for the ship, the H.T. Mayo, to reach Boston Harbor. When he was finally allowed to get off the ship, the first thing he and several others did was go to a bar and drink a “good old fashioned American beer.” The bar was about 12 miles from his parents’ home. He called them from the bar and told them he’d see them soon. They were reunited the next day. It was the first time he’d seen them in two years. He said they finally got the note he’d written about his capture after he’d already made it home.
Knisley was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1945. He met his wife of 64 years, Margery, a few months after getting out of the service. And though finding work after the war was not always easy, Knisley and his wife raised five children.
“We just lived hand to mouth for a while.”
He said he worked as a police officer for about 10 years but mostly made a living as a carpenter. His time at Stalag 4B sometimes made it difficult for Knisley to cope with life afterward.
“Because of that experience, along with the overall war, it’s kind of ruined my life.”
He said he took to drinking for a time. He has nightmares, and he said that because of the severe malnutrition he suffered as a P.O.W., he has pain in his legs and numbness in his feet.
“It took a long time before the VA began to pay attention to us,” he said—something that prompted Knisley to help other veterans to receive proper care and attention from the VA.
Still, despite what he’d been through, he said he feels a sense of pride about what he was fighting for all those years ago.
“I knew I was on the right side,” he said. “And I think people are losing track of what a service man has to go through.”
Editor’s Note: The Williston Pioneer would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the brave men and women who have fought, and continue to fight, for this country. Our hearts go out to you and your families who have sacrificed so much to keep America safe and free.