WW II HEROES: Photographs by Zach Coco
07/27/1918 Yorkshire, England British Royal Army
Clarence Adams, with the British Royal Artillery, was taken prisoner by the Germans early in the war and spent nearly five years as a POW, similar to his father who’d been taken prisoner in World War I.
Born and raised in Yorkshire, England, his father was a coal miner and his mother a housewife. Clarence was the youngest of eight siblings. As was the norm for coal miners then, they were very poor. Two weeks before his 15th birthday, after completing school, he started work as an apprentice joiner building cabinets, windows, doors, and stairs.
Mr. Adams was drafted into mandatory military service in the militia. After Britain declared war September 3, 1939, he became a member of the Army. Adams was trained as a signaler, after which he was sent to Dover Castle to the 34th Signal Training Regiment. On the last day of February 1940, he was shipped out to Cherbourg, France. They landed on March 3, 1940.
The entire base camp was moved to Forges-les-Eaux. Subsequently, they boarded a train for Amiens on the river Somme. The train was constantly under threat from air raids; they would have to jump out and take cover as the bombs would fall.
When they pulled into Amiens, it was no different. “I dove under the coach. I got behind the wheel, and there was a young artillery officer on the other side of the coach. When he ran, I ran, “Adams said.
“A few yards from the coach where I was, there was a regimental sergeant major, but he was buried up to his armpits. There were three officers trying to dig him out with rifle butts. I stopped and asked if I could help. They said, ‘No, you go.’ Further down the track I heard somebody calling out for help. It was a Grenadier Guard trapped by the axle of the coach. It had taken a bomb. So, I got him out. And the Guard said to me, ‘It’s no use you staying here; you go. Just leave me a water bottle.’ I left him a water bottle so he could reach it, and I took off. I just ran.” Mr. Adams paused.
“I didn’t know what was happening in the war. The only thing I could think of was to get back to Forges-les-Eaux, which was the artillery base, so I started walking back toward Amiens. I crossed the River Somme and just kept walking.” He walked by himself for five days back to the base. When he arrived, the camp was evacuated. “There wasn’t a person around. But all the tents were still standing.”
Adams was still covered in blood from the Grenadier Guard he’d helped days earlier. He put on a new uniform from the deserted quartermaster’s store and kept walking. “I don’t know where I was walking to,” he chuckled. “I just kept walking. I lost count of time. One day I came to a farmhouse, and there were three French officers outside standing around a table with a map. So, I asked them, ‘Where are the British?’ and they just pointed to where I was going anyhow.”
Clarence didn’t know it at the time, but he was walking toward Rouen. “There was a bridge over a stream. Two soldiers jumped out of the bushes at the side of the road and shouted, ‘Halt! Who goes there?’ So, I was back with the British,” Adams said. He was sent to a farmhouse where men who’d lost their unit—like him—had gathered. An artillery major was in charge.
Some days later, a sergeant major ran in and said German tanks were going right by the side of them. “We all got up to move. I asked the major in charge, ‘Where do I go? I’m all by myself.’ ‘You go with that group,’ the major said, pointing at a group of Irish fusiliers. They bunked down in the outbuildings of a nearby farm; later, the farmhouse itself was bombed. The wounded were brought outside and left on the ground.”
“We left them, crossed the road, and headed over a stone wall and across the woods. About three quarters of the way through, a machine gun opened up. So, we got down and we crawled the rest of the way. We stayed there the night; in the morning, we split up into small groups. There were seven men in my group.”
One day in particular stood out to Adams: “One day we heard horses and singing. We had no way to hide, there were no bushes or anything. All we could do was lie down in the ditch running alongside the road. A whole group of German cavalry rode by, singing their heads off. When they were gone, we just kept on moving,” he paused. “We had no weapons at all.”
During a heavy rain one night, they took shelter in a barn. In the morning, a French girl brought them breakfast. “We were enjoying ourselves,” Adams recalled. “Then I saw the tip of a bayonet coming up the ladder, followed by a helmet, then a head.”
It was a German soldier. “Hands up,” he ordered in perfect English. Clarence and his 6 squad mates had just been taken prisoners of war. They climbed down the ladder and stood with their backs toward the barn.
“On the other side of the courtyard, there was a German sergeant major,” Adams recalled. “There was a Frenchman with a bicycle. The way it looked is while the French girl brought us breakfast, the Frenchman had ridden to the village and brought back the Germans.”
While Clarence and his squad mates stood there, a German staff car pulled up. Two high-ranking officers were in the back seat. “They just looked at us,” recalled Adams. “One of the officers had a heavy baton in his hand. I had read that any German officer with a baton was a Field Marshal.” Clarence paused. “But I don’t know. Next to him could have been Rommel, because he was second in charge then.”
“They put us in these troop carriers; there were four of them. Each one carried 12 men, so there were at least close to 50 of us they captured that day. They took us to Bouchet and put us into a garage of a cafe. The German cook sent us a big boil of stew, with lots of meat. When we looked into the café, we could see the German soldiers coming in, sitting down, and drinking their beer. By that time, that part of France was occupied by the Germans.”
The next day, they were marched out again through France and over the border into Belgium. After one night in Ghent, they were marched to the border with Holland. Given nothing to eat except for three large beans during the trip, they were grateful to be given food by the Dutch when they reached the border.
Jammed into small Dutch trains, they were taken to the end of the Maas-Waal Canal, taken off the trains, and given bread. Adams’s loaf was green with mold. “I brushed it off to eat it,” he remembered.
The prisoners were put onto barges and taken down the Canal. “I remember passing under a bridge with the sign, ‘Nijmegen,’” he said. “We entered the river Rhine and sailed up the Rhine to the town of Wesel. It was five days on the barge with this loaf of bread, and a canteen of water with a dipper to take it out.”
They were taken off the barges in Wesel and kept there long enough for Adams to be sent on a work party digging up potatoes. He, like the others, stole as many as he could and ate them. Later they regretted it because their stomachs bloated and caused them discomfort.
They were once again moved, this time in livestock cars. They were given no food. After several foodless days, they reached their destination: Stalag VIIIB, a POW camp in Lamsdorf in what was then called Ober Silesia, next to Poland. “We called it Lamsdorf, not Stalag VIIIB,” he recalled.
After ten days at the camp, Adams and about 55 other men were put onto a passenger train and taken through Germany to a small town called Ratibor where they were put into an irrigation work party. Adams with his carpentry expertise repaired the tools and kept them in shape. Subsequently, he was sent to repair wagons on a nearby farm.
When winter arrived, the prisoners were put into an iron foundry to make parts for trains and for telephone infrastructure. The next spring, they were put back onto the irrigation project. The prisoners were billeted in a tiny unheated tavern, given firewood only occasionally, and given soup and one loaf of bread daily that six men shared. “It wasn’t enough to live on,” Clarence reflected.
One day, four Red Cross packages arrived all at once. They had bars of soap, which the men celebrated with a good washing up with water from the one spigot they were allowed to use. Along with the bars of soap were packages of cigarettes, non-smoker, Adams didn’t partake with the other men.
By June 1941, they were down to 50 men; 5 had returned to sick bay at the camp. Broken up into two groups of 25 each, they were moved once again. Adams was originally in the group to be sent to the coal mines, but with his skills he was soon transferred to the group that was sent to the airport in Breslau. They were bedded down in a schoolhouse on straw mattresses with two thin blankets.
Adams and his mates were directed to help build a camouflaged airport that the Germans hoped would be a decoy for Allied bombers. “One day they didn’t take me under the camouflage; they left me in a shed by myself,” Adams said.
A German officer who was the project engineer took Adams aside and had him make two toolboxes. For days, each day he made two toolboxes. The German would take them away then give Adams two cigarettes. “I thought he was probably selling the toolboxes,” Adams recalled.
When they finished building the camouflage airport, they were sent back to Stalag VIIIB by passenger train. “It was a pleasant trip,” Clarence chuckled, “The kids even waved when we went by.”
Sometime later, he was put into another work party and sent to Waldenburg. They marched to a glass factory and went to work making glass. Their quarters were finer than anything they had experienced. Because of his skills, Adams was put into a tischlerei, a joiner’s shop, repairing the wooden shoes the glass workers wore to protect their feet.
Adams was given other jobs, including repairing the blackouts used to block the windows during air raids, and building bookcases for the factory director’s home. While waiting for his partner to install the bookcases, Adams read a biography of Neville Chamberlain. Every day, the Dutch maids would bring him a cup of real coffee and two cookies. “That was a real treat,” he remembered.
Clarence remained at the glass factory until the end of the war. In November 1944, after hearing the big Russian guns getting closer and closer, they were surrounded. “We were surrounded with our backs to the mountains,” he said.
Although the factory had closed down in November, they stayed in the village until mid-February 1945 when they were ordered to move out. They marched over the Carpathian Mountains through the snow. The first night they stopped at a coal mine and were put in with French POWs who were ridden with lice. “Our biggest fear was getting lice because they carry typhus,” Adams said.
Adams recounted that the second night “was way high, high up in the mountains” and they “were put into a church.” As Adams remembered, “It was colder in the church than it was outside. If people were lucky they could sleep on the benches, but I wasn’t lucky. I slept on the concrete floor.
“The next day we started off down the mountains. We stayed in a Dutch barn, which is a barn that has no sides, just a roof.” They burrowed into the straw, where it was warm. The next morning when they woke up, the straw was covered in snow.
As they continued to march, his feet rubbed raw by ill-fitting boots, Adams fell and could not walk further. German soldiers carried him to the town of Trautenau where he was put into a work party with prisoners who were South African soldiers.
Moved by train once again, they briefly stayed just outside of Prague before re-entering Germany. They ran out of food again before receiving a tiny amount to keep them going. When they arrived at Nuremberg, they discovered the city was in ruins.
They were then marched to nearby Zeppelin Field, the site of enormous Nazi rallies before the war, where they were put into large tents. At first, they had plenty of room; then, more prisoners arrived. And more. Until they were packed in—shaved bald and all body hair removed to try to prevent lice.
Someone in the camp had a radio from which the prisoners would now and then get news of the war. “But I didn’t know about Pearl Harbor until after the war,” Adams said, although he had heard when Germany declared war on the United States.
In April 1945, the prisoners were moved out on the march again where they learned President Roosevelt had died the same day they departed. “Back on the march, we got one Red Cross box of food. The Germans didn’t give us anything. On the first day we walked along the Autobahn; after that, they took us on the side roads. I remember crossing the Danube River,” Adams said.
“One day, we stopped in a barn. The next morning the soldier who usually came every morning on his motorcycle never showed up to give the guards instructions for where to take us. No motorcycle. A Pole who was working with us in the barn told us American soldiers were going by on either side of us. So, we were liberated.”
“A jeep came down the road with an American lieutenant and some enlisted men. He had a beautiful camera he showed us. Awhile later he realized the camera had been stolen. Oh, he was so mad! I thought he was going to shoot everyone!” Adams laughed.
The now-former prisoners decided to march to Moosburg; as they arrived, a jeep went by with an American officer. “That’s General Patton,” their American soldier comrades told them. They tried to get into the newly-liberated local stalag to sleep, but were turned away. Knocking on doors, they were taken in by an old German couple whose son had been killed in France in 1940. “So, that was our liberation,” said Clarence.
“The next day, the Americans rounded all the prisoners up, and they put us into a factory that had been making the casings for shells and bombs. They locked the gates and put guards there so we couldn’t get out. I made a bed on top of two gigantic bombs, and we stayed there a few days. Then one day they told us to get ready to move out,” he recalled.
“They took us onto a parking lot and pumped us with yellow stuff for lice. We were waiting for transportation but it never came, so they marched us back into the factory. The next day, same thing! They pumped us with yellow stuff again, this time the trucks came and took us away.
“The trucks were side by side, going as fast as they could down the one-way road! These trucks were touching! I was about as scared as I’d ever been my whole life,” Adams exclaimed. “They took us into Regensburg, into the airport. They let us out on the landing field, they counted us out, 29 men. A plane came in, right close to us.”
After helping to unload, they boarded the plane, much to the pilot’s astonishment. “What are you doing here? I’m not leaving today!” the pilot said. But he made sure they got out on the very next plane.
“We landed quite close to the Eiffel Tower. They put us in posh hotels in bunk beds. The next day was V-E Day. They had a march through Paris…for food they told us to go to the American PX and they’d give us food. We had to take the metro, and I remember we went down the escalator to the bottom, and there was a Frenchman and he was drunk! He was trying to climb up the down escalator,” Adams laughed.
A couple of days later they were taken to Camp Lucky Strike, shown the movie “Gone with The Wind” that evening, and two mornings later were flown back to England. “The war was over for me. That was it,” Adams said.
Clarence was married; he and his wife wrote each other for the entire duration of the war, even while he was a prisoner. “We thought about escaping all the time, but what was the use? We were way out in Poland. You’d have to go all across Europe, then across the sea,” he reflected.
Adams was convinced that without the food from Red Cross parcels, he may not have survived. Certainly not on the scanty, poor rations from the Germans. Although he weighed less than 100 pounds by war’s end, he came through the war in relatively good health.
And he got to like the Germans, who treated him well. “They needed us for work,” Clarence said. One man in particular became like a father to him.
Mr. Adams recalled feeling terrified when they knew the Russians were approaching from November 1944 through to February 1945. He wondered how they would survive because “nothing coming in, nothing going out.” But they made it, and he reunited with his wife after five years apart. They immigrated to the United States in 1949. “I’m grateful I’m alive today,” he said. “I couldn’t see coming through the war alive.”
His tip for living to 100 years old was to “keep breathing,” he said laughing. But he also attributed his longevity to never having smoked and rarely drinking alcohol. Finally, his advice for current and future generations was “Don’t go to war.”