From Prisoner to Soldier

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John preparing to go to a Remembrance Day ceremony.Autobiography by John Gruszka, a veteran of WWII and a resident at Traditions of Durham Retirement Residence in Oshawa, ON.

This is the short story of my life during the War Era. I hope it will be interesting to you all.

1939 Fear of War.

In 1939, there was speculation the WWII may break out at anytime. Adolf Hitler had annexed Austria and Sudetenland, which was part of the Czech Republic.

Followed by Hitler's demand to build a corridor from Germany to Prussia through Poland, which was refused by Polish Government, the Polish government asked the public to build shelters and seal windows and doors in case of a gas attack. Meanwhile, Great Britain and France had offered assistance to Poland if Hitler attacked.

On September 1st at 6:00AM, I heard the sound of planes above our town. I rushed outside and saw a number of planes in ‘V’ formation flying over our house. Hoping this was British and French planes, I began to welcome them by waving.

In no time I heard explosions over the airport, bridges, and industries.

This was the beginning of WWII.

In 1938, Hitler and Stalin’s pact was to divide Poland into Russian and German territory. However, there were some disagreements among Stalin and Hitler on how Poland should be divided.

Our village became Russian territory. My Dad served in in the army as well as in the reserve army. During those two years, there were many arrests by the Russian Committee for State Security (KGB), but so far we were safe.

In February 1941 at 1:00 a.m. there was a loud knock at our house. My dad opened the door. Outside, there were trucks with Russian soldiers. My father was told to take as much food and clothing as we could carry and board the trucks.

Within a few minutes, we were boarded and headed for an unknown destination. There were some families in the trucks, men, women, and crying children.

We arrived at the Freight Station where we were ordered to board the train box cars. Inside there were bails of straw and buckets as toilets. Anyone who resisted boarding the freight car was physically forced inside.

We tried to question where we are going, but there were no explanations. We lost track of time, but in approximately eight hours, the train stopped and we were ordered out.

There was a truck with a barrel of soup. Everyone was given one bowl of soup with a slice of rye bread. Shortly after, we were ordered back on the train. People huddle together for warmth, as it was bitter cold outside. Children were crying from cold and hunger. We used up most of the food we had brought with us, as we shared it with other families and especially children.

I finally fell asleep. I was awoken by a sudden stop.

We were ordered outside, where a number of trucks were parked, with many people standing and waiting for orders.

There were a number of KGB officers. With the loud speakers, we were told to form 3 groups: young people, mothers with children, and older men.

I was ordered into a group of young boys, and in short time we were order to board the trucks. I was trying to say goodbye to my parents, but the officers told me to get on the truck. Soon we were traveling, again not knowing our final destination.

After some distance, the truck stopped at a large building, where we were told to disembark. I was chosen, with five boys of my age, to follow the officer to the State Farm Building. [I was 15 at the time.]

Inside, there were six bunks with two blankets, a straw-filled mattress, and a pillow filled with hay.

The following day, each of us was given a purple patch with a large 'P' to be sewn on the backs of our clothing. We were advised to have this patch on, or we would be severely punished.

Forced Labour Begins.

Our job was to feed hundreds of chickens, which included preparing the food. We cut up turnips, beets, and corn, and added fine gravel to their food. We collected eggs daily, washing and stack them in crates for shipment. We also had to clean the cages under the watchful eyes of guards who were always there, with the exception of our bedtime.

Our food was rather skimpy, mostly vegetable soups and occasionally some type of meat. Due to the lack of food, I was hungry. I lost most of my weight, which made me very weak. I stole a raw egg or two, making a hole in each to suck the contents through. I crushed the shells and spread them into the chicken droppings. I was very lucky not to be caught by the guards.

There were shower stalls with cakes of soap and towels. After a few weeks, we had lice and bed bugs. The barber came every two months to cut our hair, which killed some of the lice.

In February 1943, an army officer came and ordered us to get ready for a long trip. My shoes were worn out, so I tied burlap bags to keep my feet warm. We were all lined up outside with other prisoners and began to walk in the cold February day to distance unknown.

The Nazi Army were entering Stalingrad, with the Russian Army in retreat. During our walk, I became very cold, then I became very weak. I stopped and was going to sit down for a rest. Someone with strong arms picked me up and pulled me along, saying “if you sit down you will freeze or be shot by the guards. You must walk.”

Shortly after that, we arrived at army camp, along with a number of trucks filled with other prisoners. We were ordered to board the trucks. ln a few hours we arrived at the Caspian Sea, where a navy ship was waiting to tow a large barge.

The ship’s commander ordered us to board the barge. He was a British Captain.

“WE ARE FREE!” The yell went up loudly, with everyone hugging each other. We sailed until we arrived in Persia, where army trucks were waiting. Soon, the column of trucks began moving. We still did not know where we were going.

The prisoner who had helped me to keep walking by holding me up had disappeared. I still think he was my guardian angel.

On the way to Freedom.

Prime Minister Churchill took advantage of the situation in Russia, and suggested to Stalin that he move Polish prisoners to the Middle East, where Polish Forces were organizing to fight the Nazis.

Stalin did not trust the Polish, but agreed with some reservation. On the Barge, we were given bowls of soup and crackers. It tasted so good after all the years spent in the labour camp.

The next trip was all by land, to our destination in the Middle East, where the Polish and British armies were situated. We arrived in Pahlevi, Palestine, and were placed in the barracks under the watchful eyes of guards.

We did not know why, but we soon found out that due to our situation in Russia, we had to be screened for any health problems. Some of us became very sick from eating the food and being in very high tropical temperatures. I was tested with no major problems.

After a few days, I was given a uniform and began training. Since my voice was soft, I was selected to join the signal corp. We were trained in different areas of communication, including the D. M. telephone, and radio communication.

In March 1943, we were ready to join the Allied Forces in Sicily, Italy. We boarded an army ship to Europe. l was not to fond of being on the ship, and was sick during most of our voyage.

In the port, there were thousands of troops ready to hit the mainland of Italy, and we joined them. [I was 17.]

The Germans were not prepared for the large invasion and began to retreat north. The first major resistance was at Monte Cassino, Italy, where the German Elite Army fortified Cassino and all surroundings leading to Cassino.

The highway leading to Rome was to the south of Cassino, and in order to reach Rome, Cassino had to be destroyed. The most severe battle was at Monte Cassino, which was built as a monastery with high, three-foot-thick walls. It was built on top of a mountain, making it very difficult to bomb from the air.

The Allied Air Force tried to destroy Cassino, but on a number of occasions missed the target, and instead killed many of the Allied forces, including the Polish Second Corp. For weeks, the Allied Forces tried to capture Cassino. There were many loses to our men as the bombs fell on the army installations.

There were concreate and steel bunkers all the way to the top of Cassino, manned by elite German forces with machine guns. The infantry were eventually sent in to try and make it over the top. I was part of that force.

We had to crawl on hands and knees to reach the top of the bunkers. Hundreds of lives were lost, and many more were severely injured. The only way to reach the top was to destroy the bunkers by using hand grenades or flame throwers. We made many attempts over several weeks. Finally, on May 8, 1944 our forces placed the Polish flag on top of Cassino’s ruins.

We found only a handful German soldiers inside, the rest had been killed. There was no more food, only few barrels of wine.

I was injured in the leg by shrapnel during the fight, and was taken to the field hospital. Since the hospital was full, many injured soldiers were taken to the hospital in London, England.

War goes on.

After we captured Monte Cassino, we pressed north. As we approached the city of Bari we had some skirmishes, but they did not alter our route. As we went on, we found that the resistance was much lighter, as the German army was running out of fuel due to the constant bombardment by the Allied Air Force. We could also see that some of the German soldiers were very old or young. Known as the Hitler Yougen, it was comprised of boys 14-18 years old.

Most of the well-prepared German soldiers were sent to the eastern front, since the Russian army were advancing towards Germany. The Canadian, British, and Polish armies were able to capture several cities at this time, including: Barlettas, Trani, Fogia, Campobaso, Ascoli, and Picieno.

After reaching Bologna, we were met with a lot of resistance, and it took a number of days to complete the advance north. As we went, we noticed many German trucks, which were abandoned when they ran out of fuel.

We also captured many German soldiers. Our 3rd Division was responsible for rounding up all the German prisoners and placing them under our jurisdiction. Unfortunately, many of the German soldiers were brainwashed to fear being captured by the Polish forces. The Germans were told that the Polish hated them and would be brutal to any prisoners of war.

After reaching Udine, our plans were to continue pushing north to liberate Poland from Russian domination. However, we found out that Stalin, Rosevelt, and Churchill had agreed that Poland’s government was to be established by Russia. Although Churchill strongly opposed the agreement, he was overruled by Roosevelt and Stalin. We were very disappointed and demoralized by the decision.

If General W. Sikorski was still living at the time, perhaps the decision would have been different; however, he died in a plane crash on the way to a meeting in Gibraltar. Unofficially, it is rumoured the crash was planned by the KGB.

The war ended.

John never found his parents after the war, and came to Canada in 1947. He has an older, 101-year-old brother in Poland, who he still speaks with frequently.

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