This story was submitted by the daughter of Walter Mehlhaff, Sharon Kalvels.
“Walter Mehlhaff was born on May 18, 1921, in Sharon Township, Hutchinson County, South Dakota. Raised in the Methodist faith, Walter was a hardware store clerk before entering the service on August 27, 1942, because “it was the honorable and right thing to do.” The following is his story, told in his own words.
Service Record: I served as a rifleman on the front line in an infantry rifle company, Co. A, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, during WW II, in six major campaigns through Tunisia, Sicily, Normandy, Northern France, Central Europe and Rhineland, two amphibious landings on D-Day, H Hour, at Gela, Sicily, 10 July 1943, and Omaha Beach, Normandy, 6 June 1944.
Camp Encounter: I was not in any liberation forces to liberate any American Prisoner of War camps, but I was a prisoner of war, [held] by the Nazis. I was captured on 19 September 1944 at Stolburg, Germany, and interned at Stalag XII A by Limberg, Germany. Later I was transferred to Stalag III C Altdrewitz near Kustrin, Germany, in a locked up railroad box car for ten days, with no food or water. Our toilet facilities consisted of a five-gallon bucket that stayed inside, unemptied in our box car the whole trip. The only prisoners who were allowed to sit or lay down on the floor where those who were sick. The rest of us had to stand up. We experienced the full miserable inhumane prisoner of war treatment while incarcerated by the Nazis. In the stalags very little nourishment was given the prisoners. What there was, was not fit for human consumption. The prisoners were severely malnourished.
In January of 1945 an opportunity prevailed, thus an escape was made. In extreme cold for the next two months, life was miserable. Getting to Allied territory to avoid being recaptured, moving in and out of the fighting areas, without food, with worn out clothes, worn out shoes and very little sleep, the will of wanting to live gave me the strength to seek my freedom.
Near Lodz, Poland I arrived at a prison compound that was still smoldering, the after effects of the Nazi dirty work of a couple days before. There were guard towers around this compound, a fairly large building in the center that appeared to have had a double high door on the front side. I observed that the building had been set on fire and the prisoners in the inside tried to get out through this door. The machine guns from the towers and elsewhere shot those prisoners as they came out the double doors. Bodies were stacked ten to twelve feet high in the doorway. The ones who could not get to the door perished inside the building. None of those poor souls had a chance to survive. I spent some time walking among bodies, trying to understand why those poor people were incarcerated, tortured, starved, then murdered in such a brutal way. The smell of death was very strong; my eyes could not believe what they saw.
In the middle of March I arrived at Odessa, Russia and boarded a British ship, went to Naples, Italy; there I boarded an American ship and later landed at Boston, Massachusetts.
Awards: Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation with three Oak Leaf Clusters, World War II Victory Medal, European-Africa-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, two Bronze Star Medals, the African-Middle Eastern Ribbon, Normandy Streamer, Jubilee of Liberty Medal from Normandy, France Certificate of Appreciation and Honorable Service Lapel Button for WW II, the French and Belgian Corix de Guerres, POW Medal, six Campaign Stars on European-Africa-Middle Eastern Ribbon.
After the War: Sgt. Mehlhaff was discharged on July 4, 1945. He had this to say about his experiences:
When our country was involved in World War II, as a young man I entered the military service for it was the right thing to do. I was trained to kill and destroy other human beings. I was told that is what was it all about. After experiencing some combat I realized that I was not trained how this would affect my personal life and what I faced every minute of the day. I came back to this country to be a civilized citizen. I fought hard personal battle within myself to become a human being again. I n order to live with myself I closed the war chapter of my life and became a production citizen again. This war was a long time ago and it is very difficult to think about my life and experiences in those horrible days of my life.
I am married and we have two sons, two daughters. They are highly educated, productive, and respected citizens. I also have five grandchildren, three of whom are presently in college and two in high school. We have a wonderful family and are very proud of them. I retired from the Veterans Administration and am currently living in Hot Springs, South Dakota.