NEOLA, Iowa — Al Kenealy still thinks about the Russian gunned down in front of him nearly 70 years ago.
Kenealy spent 27 months as a prisoner of war during World War II, living with frequent hunger and haunted by an uncertain future.
In 1945, he returned home to Iowa, got married and spent his life as a farmer south of Minden.
That was the kind of future denied to the Russian prisoner who Kenealy watched die in a POW camp.
The Germans, inflamed by Nazi ideology, treated their Russian enemies poorly. At the Stalag 3B camp in eastern Germany, they received much less food than other Allied prisoners, and were separated with a fence and barbed wire.
The Americans could see the gaunt figures and blank faces of the Russians through the fence.
One day, an American hurled a piece of food over the fence, but it fell short. The Russian reached for it, and a German guard saw him. A rifle cracked. And the Russian prisoner fell onto the barbed wire, slowly succumbing to his wound.
Kenealy, 90, can still vividly recall the guards' treatment of the Russian prisoners.
“They were dying like flies,” Kenealy says now. “Most of them probably starved to death.”
Kenealy grew up on a farm south of Neola and joined headquarters company, 3rd Battalion, 168th Infantry, Iowa National Guard before the war began. He and the rest of his unit were mobilized in February 1941, as President Franklin Roosevelt sought to expand the U.S. Army with World War II looming.
After training in the states and in the British Isles, the unit deployed to North Africa, part of the Allied effort to drive out German forces under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the mountains above Faid Pass in Tunisia in February 1943, the western Iowans of the 168th were among the first Americans to engage the Germans in a ground battle during World War II.
It did not go well. German tanks smashed through the U.S. 1st Armored Division in the valley and raced into the American lines, leaving the infantrymen of the 168th stranded in the mountains above, watching the wreckage of American tanks burn.
“There was fires all over the desert,” Kenealy remembers.
Over the next several days the Americans crept back toward their lines at night in an attempt to escape. Kenealy remembers a long line of Americans picking through the hills.
They slipped past German soldiers performing maintenance on their tanks, hammers banging on metal.
“You could hear their voices,” he said. “They were that close.”
Kenealy and a soldier from Exira, Iowa, got separated from the others. In need of food and water, they hid out with a local family in their home. But when a German tank came by, they went to a window to look, and someone grabbed their rifles. Kenealy and his friend were forced to flee.
They soon encountered another group of locals, herding goats and sheep. Instead of giving the two men food and water, the locals took the two Americans prisoner and hauled them to a German airfield, where a German officer met them. He recited, in good English, the standard German line in such situations: “For you, the war is over.”
During the battle at Faid, 1,200 soldiers from the 168th were killed, wounded or captured, said Mike Vogt, curator of the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum at Camp Dodge.
So many soldiers from Red Oak were lost that Life magazine published an aerial photo of the town. Arrows pointed to the 20-plus households with a family member who had been killed, wounded or missing.
Kenealy and other Iowans from the 168th were loaded onto German aircraft and flown to Italy and then taken by train, first to Austria, then Germany. They eventually wound up at Stalag 3B, east of Berlin.
In the camp, the American, British and French prisoners were treated better than the Russians, but life was not easy.
Their diet consisted mostly of dehydrated rutabagas and fish soup. They liked the fish soup until the prisoners figured out it had worms.
At night they were given a loaf of bread — five men to a loaf. One night a week they might be given a tablespoon of margarine or beet sugar. Maybe one or two potatoes.
“They wanted to keep us hungry,” Kenealy said, “so you didn't have the strength to escape.”
Once a week they received a Red Cross box that included a small can of beef, two packs of cigarettes and a chocolate bar.
The guards, by and large, were not abusive to the Americans. An older German soldier, maybe age 50, was assigned to guard Kenealy's barracks. They called him “Pop.” He frequently was dissatisfied with the housekeeping of his American charges.
If he didn't like how they swept the floor, he would unbuckle his gun belt, throw it on a bunk, grab a broom and sweep the floor in a huff, then hand the broom to an American.
“We got along really good with him,” Kenealy said.
In the summer of 1944, the prisoners started to see glints and contrails in the sky from U.S. Army Air Force aircraft as the Allied bombing campaign of Germany intensified, devastating the German transportation network. It became rarer for the men to get the treasured Red Cross boxes.
“As the rails got torn up, it was hard to get them,” Kenealy said.
Some men coped with their hunger by planning elaborate meals for when they returned home. When the boxes finally came and the men could eat a little, their thoughts would turn to women, he said.
There was little fighting among the prisoners.
“There was no use arguing with somebody, because there was nothing you could do about it,” Kenealy said.
In early 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, the Germans marched the prisoners to another camp farther west. But a few months later the Russians were at that location, too. One night the German guards, including the taciturn “Pop,” slipped away.
The next day the prisoners were in the hands of the Red Army and would later be reunited with the U.S. military.
After the war, Kenealy left the military. He met his wife, Lois, worked for her father for a while, and eventually took up farming, harvesting his last crop in 2005.
He and Lois had three children, one girl and two boys. The couple live in the same house south of Minden where they have been since 1947.
But his wartime service sticks with him. He has always disliked having someone stand behind him. He never understood why until a Veterans Affairs counselor told him a few years ago that it had to do with his rifle being stolen in 1943, before his capture.
“When I go to a building, go to church, I don't want to be up front. I want to be in back,” Kenealy said.
But the long months of scarce food meant he never worried much as long as he and his family had enough to eat.
“I never met a refrigerator I didn't like,” he said. “The grocery bill never bothered me. You can get by without money but you can't get by without food and water.”
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