WHILE THE WORLD anxiously followed the final battles of the long Allied invasion of Germany in early 1945, John Gatens could feel the explosions from a prison camp deep behind enemy lines in Bremen.
He remembers seeing American and English planes fly overhead, so close “you could get up and walk across them,” as he and fellow POWs, stripped of their weapons, could only watch the unfolding of a history they helped forge.
“I was at Mass. A French priest was with us,” Gatens remembered of one of the last nights of the barrage. “And he was saying mass and of course I did all the praying I could possibly do. And the shells were landing very, very close to the camp. The priest turned around and said, ‘Well, I have to finish Mass. But if you fellows want to go and find shelter, go ahead.’”
“I figured if I’m going to be killed there’s no better place to be than here at mass, than in some foxhole. So we stuck it out.”
GATENS GREW UP in Paterson, graduating East Side High School in June 1942 at a time when joining the war effort in either Europe or the Pacific was a given for a man his age.
“We knew eventually we’d have to go,” he said. He considered volunteering for the Marines out of high school, to join two of his brothers already overseas. “My mother kept saying, ‘Gee John, don’t, please. The war will be over before you have to go.”
But the final push of the war was approaching. Men from the Air Force were being retrained for ground combat, and the draft age had dropped from 21 to 18. As D-Day neared, the army needed manpower, and when Gatens was drafted in 1943, he was among the youngest group ever assembled.
“The whole division was nothing but a bunch of kids,” he said of the 106th Infantry. “Now they had to find out how much these kids could take, because they never had that young in the army before. And they put us through every kind of test you could possibly think of.”
“We came out with flying colors.”
The year and a half of training at bases around the country left little time to gather news from the front, and Gatens still vividly remembers the shock he and fellow soldiers experienced passing sunken ships, and the craters and blown up trucks scattered along the countryside, as their unit made its way to support the 422nd Infantry Regiment in Belgium.
The 19 year old thought, “Jeez, is this what I’m getting into?”
“But at that point we were winning,” he recalled thinking as they surveyed the toll that years of war had taken on the European landscape. “We expected to be, after the war was over, protecting people’s land, or whatever we had to do to get things back to normal.”
Gatens and his unit arrived in the Ardennes less than a week before the Battle of the Bulge, one of Hitler’s last attempts to stave off the Allied invasion, made it the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
“MARCH ORDER!” GATENS’ commanding officer Eric Wood yelled to his men as they set up position, his voice urgent with the order to pack up and move out. “Get out of here, as fast as you can, ‘cause there’s tanks on the road coming up.”
It was day two of the Bulge, and the 106th was in the middle of setting up its second position in as many days. The battalion’s twelve howitzers, used to provide artillery support on the right flank of the 422nd Infantry, had been reduced to three in the first two days of the battle.
During the morning hours of the first day, the division learned that German infantry would soon be advancing from nearby Auw. Gatens had assumed his position at his howitzer when the men spotted an enemy tank approaching.
The black cross, symbol of the German Army, appeared on the side of the tank at a bend in the road. As soldiers below him took cover, the black streak from Gatens’ first shot passed just over the enemy armor. When his second shot hit the tank, it burst into flames and ground to a halt, buying the division time to move into a new position.
After two days on the move, the men arrived at what came to be known as Parker’s Crossroads, named for the major who had been fighting to hold the intersection of two major highways. German capture of the crossroads would have given them the freedom of movement to easily surround Allied forces.
Artillery fire started the night Gatens arrived, while half his men were taking shelter from the freezing temperatures in a house across the road. “It was getting so bad that I figured I better go get my men and bring them back, because I knew once that barrage ends the infantry is right behind them. So I went over to get them. I was in the house and it was so bad being shelled I couldn’t get out,” he said.
He was approaching the door for an attempt to make it back to his howitzer when a shell hit the house directly, and the force of the explosion knocked him back against a wall. He sat for a moment feeling for his arms and legs.
Gatens had never received the word, which some in his division had, to retreat. “I realized what had happened, and that was it,” he remembered. “There was no way in the world you could have got out on that road.”
When he managed to get up and open the door, the gun of a German tank stared him down. Gatens remembers the ultimatum: “Hey, you coming out, or do I blow you up?”
“There’s no heroes when you got a tank sitting there with a gun pointing at you,” Gatens said. “I never did get back to my howitzer.”
On a trip back to Europe decades later, a Belgian historian showed Gatens a picture of his gun. The tank had run it over on the way to the house.
THE GERMAN SOLDIERS took Gatens’ overcoat, hat, and gloves, leaving him with only a steel helmet and field jacket for the four winter months as a POW that followed, and the 400-mile march to the final camp in Bremen.
The longest stay in any one camp was two weeks—most days were spent marching, and most nights sleeping in the bombed-out buildings along the way.
During the time in captivity, as an officer Gatens could avoid labor. “But you could volunteer to work, which I always did,” he said. “Because it was either sit there and rot or at least get some exercise.” They filled in craters made from their own bombs.
“The worst part was that every day you got weaker, and full of dysentery. It was tough going,” he recalled.
The ordeal came to an end the morning after the dark night at mass, when English tanks rolled through the gates of the camp. They had been fighting to liberate the prisoners, among them English soldiers captured at the Battle of Dunkirk five years before.
GATENS ARRIVED HOME on April 28, 1945, a date he instantly and effortlessly recalls. But for decades after his release and the end of the war he had difficulty discussing his experience, partly because during his months in captivity his unit had been written out of the history of the war.
“I never told anyone I was in the 106th division. I never told anybody, other than my family of course, that I was a POW,” he said.
Accounts written immediately after the battle minimized the impact of his unit, he says, because he was unable to recount his story from behind enemy lines.
“I was kind of disappointed, because I was proud—not proud of being a POW, but proud of the fact that I did serve, that we won the war, and things were going to be better,” he said.
Historians have written since that the stand of the less than 300 men at the Crossroads, though they were ultimately overrun, helped slow the German advance enough to allow an Allied counteroffensive the next month.
Gatens' trips back to Europe decades later, back to the spot of his capture, helped him finally tell his story. Seeing the country restored, and forming friendships with Belgians that had lived through the war as well, including the family who had owned the house where he was captured, gave him the closure that he had always lacked.
“It really revived me in the sense that I’m still alive and there’s no sense worrying about it anymore,” he said. “I’ve got a new life, I’ve got a family, and I made it through it.”