written by Todd DePastino

Portrait of 82nd Airborne Veteran Elden Smith in 1942

PVT Elden Smith – Camp Claiborne May 1942

Among the many records, photos, stories, and ephemera collected at Bill Bonnamy’s website devoted to the 319th Glider Field Artillery, 82nd Airborne Division, is the remarkable story of Elden Smith from B Battery. Elden was a sergeant from West Virginia who saw a lot of heavy combat, from Sicily to Italy to Normandy. And he captured it all in letters home, which are excerpted extensively on the 319 Gliderman website (https://319gliderman.com). His firsthand accounts vividly describe the chaos and brutality of battle, including close encounters with enemy tanks and the loss of comrades.

But Smith’s observations of local populations and the places he saw in Europe infuse his letters with broad humanity. He describes, for example, the utter destruction of Naples, which the Germans deliberately wrecked as much as they could before evacuating the city:

When the Germans retreated they turned raw sewage into the water mains, creating a severe water shortage. They also put bombs in all the major public buildings, set to go off when the Americans turned on the electricity.

The 82nd was assigned the task to bring some kind of law and order back to this city. It turned out to be a bigger task than was first anticipated.

There was a shortage of everything, food and drinking water was in very short supply. The natives were very restless and weary. They would stand in line for hours for a loaf of bread then find out that there was none left. This caused a lot of fights to breakout.

Our orders were to be as polite as possible and stop trouble before it started with the least amount of force. This tactic paid big dividends in the end. I heard many locals comment the Americans are our friends, they are nothing like the Germans. That made me proud to be of some help.

The bulk of Smith’s story takes place after his capture in September 1944 near the Dutch town of Groesbeek. After his glider landed in a plowed field near a canal, Smith was squeezed between Germans on the canal and a achine gun nest in a nearby church steeple. His gun crew surrendered were taken as prisoners of war.

He and other prisoners were marched through occupied territories, facing the threat of violence from German SS troops. Smith vividly described the chilling sight of a Dutch civilian shot dead for simply trying to catch a glimpse of them.

Elden Smith’s WWII German P.O.W tag with 75042 etched on it

Elden Smith’s German P.O.W tag -75042

Arriving at Stalag 3C in Germany, Smith found himself in cramped quarters with thin walls, inadequate heating, and sparse amenities. The camp was heavily guarded, with barbed wire fences, watchtowers, and strict regulations enforced by both American and German sergeants.

Life in the camp was difficult, with meager rations and harsh conditions. Smith recounted instances of theft and punishment among the prisoners, highlighting tensions and struggles for survival. He also described acts of solidarity, such as when a fellow sergeant intervened to protect him from a potentially violent confrontation.

As the war progressed, Smith witnessed the advance of the Russian army, leading to chaos and uncertainty among the German guards. Eventually, the Russians liberated the camp, bringing both relief and new challenges for the prisoners.

Smith’s journey to freedom was fraught with peril, from navigating war-torn landscapes to encountering Russian soldiers and fleeing German forces. He shared stories of kindness from strangers, as well as betrayals and suspicions among fellow prisoners.

Hand drawn map of Stalag 3C

Hand drawn map – illustration of Stalag 3C by Elden Smith – courtesy of Carma Cupp family

Upon his release, Smith faced the daunting task of reintegrating into a world forever changed by war.