The plan was to interrupt the flow of supplies and destroy radio communications equipment so that the Germans would fall into disarray as Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
As is often the case in the chaos of war, the plan failed, and it cost 19-year-old Leonard S. Gaj, a paratrooper, his freedom.
Gaj, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, and his comrades were gung-ho to wreak havoc on the enemy as they leaped out of planes at about 3:30 a.m. on D-Day, well behind enemy lines. Their goal was to take control of Amfreville, but by mistake, they landed many miles from their destination.
Even worse, Gaj – pronounced guy – sprained his ankle.
“Capt. Smith was the company commander, and he left me behind. He said I would only slow them up when they went to attack Amfreville. He left another soldier with me in a gully, and over the next three days, we would direct a total of six lost soldiers into the gully with us,” Gaj said.
When two patrolling German soldiers passed a little too close for comfort, an American GI threw a hand grenade at them. One died; the other got away.
“The next day we were attacked by Germans. A fierce battle was under way, but we knew we did not stand a chance. There were too many Germans. Two out of six of us were already wounded. It was a case of die or surrender. We surrendered. As we came out of the gully, I saw a German soldier had been ready to throw a hand grenade. I realized I had been seconds away from being wounded or killed.”
For the next 11 months, Gaj was a prisoner of war, spending time at several different prison camps, arriving either in railway box cars or by truck. Each move brought anxiety. American fighter planes often strafed “anything that moved,” he said.
For months, Gaj kept a secret diary, which he started on D-Day and concluded Feb. 15, 1945, “when I ran out of writing material.” After being liberated, he filled in the blanks. These days the penciled words of his accounts are fading, but they are still readable, and his memories of miserable treatment by the enemy are sharp.
Christopher Misztal, Gaj’s son-in-law, recently transcribed the war diary onto a computer document.
“I was reluctant to have him do it. I never talked about my war experiences. I kept things to myself,” Gaj said, adding that he has since had a change of heart, aware that it is part of history.
Thumbing through his diary, Gaj recalled that after his capture on the morning of June 9, 1944, the Germans made him and the other prisoners march 10 miles before arriving at a barn where they spent the night.
“My foot felt better, and somehow the pain had disappeared,” according to an entry that referred to his sprained ankle.
His first prison camp was an abandoned monastery, where fasting was the order of the day, and not because of monastic asceticism.
“We called the place ‘Starvation Hill.’ They feed us sour milk in the morning and hot watery soup with a turnip in it. Some days you didn’t get anything.”
At a camp in Chartres, France, he was pressed into service as a stretcher bearer.
“I carried Germans who had lost their limbs and some whose eyes were gone. It was terrible. We were at a hospital, and I kind of felt sorry for them, even though they were the enemy.”
After a few days, he was shipped out to another prison camp in the Chalogne region.
“We worked in the town there, filling in bomb craters in roads and inside bombed-out warehouses.”
Gaj caught a break one day when a Frenchman took pity on him and offered him a glass of wine.
“I remember getting a little dizzy drinking it on an empty stomach.”
The amicably offered libation didn’t lead to a refill.
“A German guard shooed the Frenchman away with the butt of a rifle.”
In time, Gaj and about 450 other American prisoners were herded into box cars and transported into Germany, where they stayed in barracks that at one time had been part of a German army camp.
Reading from his diary, Gaj cited a prank a fellow POW played on a German guard. He explained that the Germans were fanatics when it came to cleanliness and insisted that the table they ate off of in the barrack be kept immaculate. The prankster had hammered an empty bean can to the table.
“The German guard’s angry reaction was to send the bean can flying with a swift whack of his hand. The can never budged, but the guard’s hand was hurt. As punishment, whatever food was supplied [turnip soup] was withheld for a couple of days.”
For those food-free days, they lived off amusement from the prank. “It kind of kept up morale,” Gaj said.
Then there was the final camp on the outskirts of Dresden, where Gaj was assigned different work details, from helping a plumber install gas lines at a factory to unloading rail cars.
In one entry, Gaj told of how he and his fellow POWs attempted a work stoppage when they were told they would have to work more than 10 hours unloading a steel shipment. It wasn’t so much the longer workday, but rather that the steel was intended for the German war effort.
“We believed that this” – the longer workday – “was against signed treaties, plus we knew this was for their war effort. So we staged a strike. Shortly after the strike was called, a German army truck rumbled into the loading area and stopped. Its rear canvas was pulled up, and we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a machine gun. Needless to say we went back to work.”
Reading from yet another entry with a penciled headline of “The Hell Fires of Dresden,” Gaj said:
“Dresden was regarded as an open city. That meant it had no major military or strategic value to the Allies. I was lucky that I was kept outside the city limits during my imprisonment.
“Allied bombing missions flew by day and night dropping millions of pounds of incendiary bombs on what had been Germany’s cultural and artistic city. The result was the complete destruction of the city and the loss of an estimated 145,000 civilian lives.
“I was sent into the city along with other POWs to search the rubble for bodies. The task was hideous … finding whole bodies dead, sitting upright. I didn’t know if they were baked to death or what. The majority of the dead in Dresden came with the ensuing fire storm of an entire city burning all at once. The result was that all the available oxygen was pulled out of such places as basements, leaving anyone in them to suffocate to death. Even a week after the bombings, the basements were still hot.”
But Gaj’s time in living hell was coming to an end.
“We were evacuated by German guards and were marching in the direction of Czechoslovakia. After several days of exhaustive walking, our group was fired upon by advancing Soviet troops. Looking around, we realized that our guards had fled.
“Two of us noticed a house across the road and ran for it, in case the Russians bombed the area. Running across the road, we were fired upon, and luckily they missed us. There was a young, scared German soldier in full uniform hiding there. I told him to take the uniform off if he expected to be safe from the Russians. He was just a scared kid, 12 or 13 years old. Eventually, the Russians made their way to the house.
“I was able to speak a great deal of Polish and was delegated to greet them at the door. I explained to them we were American prisoners of war. They treated us nicely and gave us cans of meat and explained they had to move on and leave us there.
“One day a U.S. Army truck pulled in with a lieutenant and GIs who were out purposely looking for stranded American prisoners in small towns. They drove us back to an airport with planes waiting, and we were flown back to France.”
After 11 months of prison and forced labor, his weight dropped from 175 pounds to barely 100 when he was liberated May 9, 1945.
He still recalls his joyful return to Weiss Street in Buffalo’s Kaisertown.
“When I came home, my mother had a chocolate pie waiting for me. At that moment, I knew I was home.”
And while he did not record this thought in his war diary, Gaj has carried it with him throughout the decades:
“All in all, serving this beloved country was an experience I will never forget until my dying day.”