Private First Class Neil L. Overturf (1924 - 2012)

Bronze Star Military Award

US Army, WWII - European Theater, POW (#23697), Purple Heart, Bronze Star

Veteran Neil Overturf

Remembering - Private First Class Neil L. Overturf

“He the closest thing to a hero that we’ll ever know” - Family quote

OVERTURF – Neil L. ,Age 88, of North Tonawanda, died on November 22, 2012, in Veterans Hospital Buffalo, after a brief illness. He was born in DuBois, PA and lived most of life in North Tonawanda. Neil was a WWII U.S. Army veteran and was a P.O.W. He was a member of the Ex POW’s and the American Legion, Sikora Post. He was an Operating Engineer and worked for Local #463, Niagara Falls, NY. He and his late wife Helen enjoyed traveling and have visited all 50 states. He was an avid hunter and outdoorsman. He was the husband of the late Helen L. (nee Neddy) Overturf for over 65 years; dear father of Mary (Paul) Overturf-Gauthier of Warrenton, VA, Jim (Mona) Overturf of Williamsburg, VA, Phyllis Overturf-Spence of East Aurora and Shirley (Kenneth) Overturf-Harms of Greenville, SC; grandfather of seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and uncle of many nieces and nephews. Entombment will be in Mt. Olivet Cemetery. 

Neil Overturf grew up in Benezette doing the usual things of the time-going to school, made maple syrup, a lot of hunting, farm work, etc. Before entering the service, Neil worked on the railroad. After the service, he went to live with his mother in Buffalo, and met his wife-to-be: Helen Neddy. His marriage included 4 children, 7 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. He worked initially in a metal factory, then went into heavy construction, eventually operating large construction equipment. After retirement at age 61, Neil and Helen bought a “camper trailer” and traveled the USA. Helen passed away two days before Thanksgiving, 2011, and Neil Overturf died one year later, on Thanksgiving Day 2012. As his children were going through his war time stuff, they soon realized what a hero their father was. The following edited story was written by Neil Overturf many years after the war. (Like many of the returning veterans, Neil could not talk about his war experiences. Writing this story helped Neil overcome some of these frightful remembrances and fears.)

Neil Overturf Remembers:

“I was born on July 15, 1924 in DuBois, Pennsylvania. I grew up and worked on the farm and went to school (in Benezette), and also worked at odd jobs such as construction, the logging industry and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

I was inducted into the army March 11, 1943, in Eric, Pennsylvania, and was sent to an induction center at Indian Town Gap. From there, I went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for basic training with the 106th Infantry Division, and stayed there until late September 1943. I was taken out of the 106th division and sent to Fort Meade, Maryland, to be sent overseas as a replacement and from there to Norfolk, Virginia, where we boarded “cattle boats” which was an old liberty ship under crowded conditions- with 500 men in one center section of this ship- crossing the Atlantic Ocean for 45 days. We landed in Casablanca, Morocco in Africa on October 1943. I was sent to a transit camp. After two weeks, we were taken by small boxcars to Algiers, North Africa. Two weeks later we boarded a French government ship to Naples, Italy, where I joined Company E, 179th Infantry (Regiment), 45th division which was, at that time, in a bitter battle on the mountains leading to Casino, Italy.

My first night in combat, November 1943, five buddies and I were sent to transport two wounded German prisoners down the mountain to a field hospital. When we reached the prisoners, heavy artillery fire came on us. We had no place to hide. Two of my buddies were hit by shrapnel. One died instantly and the other was badly wounded. We carried our wounded buddy to a shelter of rocks just off the mountain top. I helped the medic patch him up, and carried him to a field hospital. This young man’s cry of pain still haunts me. 

The division needed mule skinners (servicemen to drive the mules) to haul supplies into the mountains. Being a farm boy, I had a lot of experiences with horses. I volunteered my services and spent from November 1943 to mid January 1944 with the pack troop. A very frightening experience happened to me while transporting supplies. Alone and unarmed, I ran into a German patrol that was hidden in brush. Being too close to turn and run, I continued down the trail. One German soldier ran across in front of me and stood about ten feet off the trail with his rifle at port arms. He kept facing me as I walked by. My thoughts were, “this is my last trip”, thinking he was going to shoot me in the back. Why I was spared I do not know, but the next night that part of the trail was shelled by artillery all night. Two mules were killed and two soldiers were wounded. It must have been a reconnaissance patrol the night before…maybe this being the reason he did not shoot me. The pack troop dismantled in mid January when the Italian army took over with their troops.

The division was sent to Naples for r & r. We were there a short time and after replacements and more equipment were brought in, we were sent to a port in Italy. There we boarded landing crafts on the Mediterranean Sea, heading for the 2nd invasion at Anzio Beachhead. We were on the plains, leading to Rome, for 2 weeks.

Then on February 16, 1944, fierce fighting started and we got caught under a heavy artillery barrage and machine gun fire. I was wounded that night by small arms fire, my hand and left arm were hit. My canteen was shot off my belt. The night was a severe cold night my feet froze so much that they turned black and were painful. (For this, Neil was awarded the Purple Heart.) Just after daylight the next morning, on February 17, 1944, we were surrounded by German tanks and ordered out of our foxholes. I then realized that the American tanks had left us and we were like “sitting ducks” with no defense against the German tanks.

As prisoners of war we had to walk for a couple of miles through what had been the battle field the previous week. Dead bodies and body parts, blown apart by bombs and heavy artillery shells, littered the field, some so badly torn up I could not recognize if they were our buddies or German soldiers. It was the most horrifying, sick to my stomach, thing to see. I cannot forget that awful sight and that feeling. We were made to walk 15 miles into German territory. My feet were excruciatingly painful. Interrogated by German officers for two days in a staging area, we then were made to march 25 miles to a small prison camp near Rome, Italy. What would happen to me if I did not march?– they would have shot me.

After a couple of days in the prison camp, one other soldier and I were taken by car to an Italian Hospital, taken over by the German military in Rome, where our wounds and frozen feet were looked at by a German military doctor. Treatment was washing our feet and applying some black salve. We spent two nights in an army hospital ward. The ward was filled with wounded German soldiers. It was very frightening, not knowing their attitude towards Americans and how safe it would be. Then we were taken back to the prison camp outside of Rome. Two weeks later, we were loaded into small boxcars, very crowded, forty men to a car, just enough room to sit on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, facing one another. Our shoes were also taken from us. We had no food and no water for the duration of the five day trip and were locked in from the outside. They gave us a large bucket to relieve ourselves. We were taken to a prison camp in Austria where we were given soup and black bread.

After two weeks in Austria, we again were loaded into boxcars with nothing to eat, and it was also crowded on the floor to sleep. This trip was about 3 or 4 days, enroute to Stalag 2B in northern Germany or what was Prussia then. (Stalag II-B was a German World War II prisoner-of-war camp situated 1.5 miles west of the village of Hammerstein-now the town of Czarne, Poland. In August 1943 the Stalag was reported as newly opened to privates of the US ground forces). While is Stalag 2B, we were given one meal per day, consisting of very thin soup made from potatoes and turnips. Once a week, we also were given a small ration of black bread, made half with sawdust. 

I then volunteered to go with a work party to a farm near Rumoldsberg. (Arbeitskommandos were sub-camps under Prisoner-of-war camps for holding prisoners of war of lower ranks (below sergeant), who were working in industries and on farms). The trip took 8 or 9 hours by boxcar. The group consisted of twelve American prisoners of war. That was late April 1944. We lived on a farm in a small shack, inside a barbed wire stockade. We had no running water or toilet facility. After working in the fields all day, we cooked our own meals, basically potatoes and turnips. We were given half sawdust black bread once a week and a few vegetables when in season. We had very little heat. We had little clothing and suffered through one of the coldest winters in forty years. This camp was near the Baltic Sea. In December 1944 while exercising the farm horse, the horse hit a patch of ice, and I was thrown in front of him. I was riding bare back- without a saddle. His hoof hit my left shoulder as he was going over me. The injury was very painful and bruised badly. The guard took me to a private German doctor. Although I was not able to work, I was forced to work after a week. My shoulder has bothered me ever since.

About mid-January 1945, the Russian army was invading Poland. We were about 10 miles from the Polish border. The Germans were preparing to move the P.O.W’s west, out of the area. In mid-February we left the farm in near zero degree weather. We had some food left from our Red Cross parcels, just the clothing we had, and two blankets. We made some back packs from old potato sacks and some rope we found. We marched every day for two months and when it got dark about 200 men were crowded into very cold barns. I did not get any rest, being awakened by men who were sick, had dysentery or were crawling over us on their way outside to relieve themselves. We had one meal per day and again a small ration of black sawdust bread was given to us. The 500 mile march took us along the Baltic Sea and we crossed the straits in open ferry boats, in zero weather, to northern Germany. The guards made us move fast and kept us moving all day. At times, I felt like I could not move another step. 

A few days later we ended up on a German air force base where we were held in empty barracks, sleeping on the floor at night. The guards made us go out and work, repairing the runway – filling bombed crater holes. We protested as much as we could. I went on sick call because of the blisters on my feet. Not being able to wash my feet or my socks made them worse. I was given no medical attention. The third day at this base, U.S. bombers bombed the air base. Stones and shrapnel broke through the roof. We had no place to hide. A few men were injured. This was a very frightening experience, and it still bothers me.

The next day we were moved and continued on our march toward Hamburg. We marched for three or four weeks. When the U.S. armored tanks were coming our way, the Germans decided to march us toward Berlin. After about five days we stopped at a barn for the night. We heard tanks and gun fire close by. Four German tanks stopped at the barn and told us that they had a battle with U.S. tanks and lost one of their tanks. During the night two S.S. troopers came by and forced our guards to get us out of the barns and marched us down the road. About a mile down the road, two buddies and I escaped from the group. We hid in a wooded area. American tanks, we hoped, would come our way. Two days later, they did come. We walked to the road the tanks were on, and flagged them down. This was April 13, 1945. The American tanks gave us a ride, about 70 miles, to their fueling area. From there we were taken by truck several miles to Hamburg. The army fed us. We were starved for food. I lost 85 pounds the last two months on this march. I hate to even think about what would have happened to me if I had not marched.

From Harrisburg we were flown to Le Havre, France and to nearby Camp Lucky Strike, where we were deloused and given a chance to take a shower-the first in many months. We were also given new uniforms and shoes. (From Wikipedia: “Camp Lucky Strike” was one of the American Army camps established near Le Havre, France in World War II. The staging-area camps were named after various brands of American cigarettes; the assembly area camps were named after American cities. The names of cigarettes and cities were chosen for two reasons: First, and primarily, for security. Referring to the camps without an indication of their geographical location went a long way to ensuring that the enemy would not know precisely where they were. Anybody eavesdropping or listening to radio traffic would think that cigarettes were being discussed or the camp was stateside, especially regarding the city camps. Secondly, there was a subtle psychological reason, the premise being that troops heading into battle wouldn’t mind staying at a place where cigarettes must be plentiful and troops about to depart for combat would be somehow comforted in places with familiar names of cities back home (Camp Atlanta, Camp Baltimore, Camp New York, and Camp Pittsburgh, among others). By war’s end, however, all of the cigarette and city camps were devoted to departees. Many processed liberated American POWs (Prisoners of War) and some even held German POWs for a while.)

We boarded a converted “liberty ship” for the trip back to the United States. The trip took about seven days. All told, I was a prisoner of war fourteen months. “

Lest We Forget - Thank you, Private First Class Neil Overturf