In his backyard, 90-year-old Howard Sharpell flies two flags that are lit by a spotlight; one of them is the American Flag, and the other is a flag honoring Prisoners of War (POWs) and soldiers who are Missing in Action (MIA).
The latter flag has a special significance for Sharpell, who himself was a prisoner of war in a German encampment following the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1945. He said he faced great hardship as a prisoner of what was then Called Stalag IV-B, a facility on the east side of Germany near Belgium.
The winter was harsh inside the prison and Sharpell and his bunkmates would frequently huddle together and pool their blankets just to maintain some degree of warmth from the bone chilling winter air and snowfall taking place outside. Food was scarce and packages from the American Red Cross hardly ever made it to the prisoners, who were often forced to rely on watery, grass soup for sustenance.
But Howard eventually escaped his captors and lived to tell the tale of how he found himself in a German POW camp; he told a captivated audience of his experiences as a prisoner while also sharing information about his escape during a two hour presentation at West Coast Ammo in Temecula on May 17.
The presentation was part of the World War II Experience, a series of informational presentations on World War II as seen through the recollections and perceptions of the people who were actually there. The presentation was led by Linda Dudik, PhD.
Dudik took West Coast Ammo’s audience on a narrative journey from the early 1910s through the end of the 1940s, when Howard faced the culmination of his war-time experience.
She discussed the transformative nature of the war and how it changed Howard in multiple ways.
“You are a different person after that war and it has impacted you,” Dudik said. “And Howard went through a transformation.”
That transformation began in December of 1944 when Howard was a combat engineer for the 106th Infantry Division of the Army. He and his fellow troops found themselves in combat when German troops began to pour into Saint Vi, a town not far from where they were stationed.
“We were awakened very early and told that we were going to have to fill in where the infantry was broken through,” Howard said. “And realizing then that we were no longer engineers, we took our positions in the hills outside of Bleialf.”
In Bleialf, men from Howard’s unit were pinned down by a heavy artillery German machine gun commonly referred to as a “burp gun.” After helping to free his fellow soldiers from the Germans, Howard was captured by the enemy and put on a train cart to one of the German Stalegs.
Howard made multiple escape attempts, but it was ultimately to no avail since he eventually found himself in the Staleg anyway. It wasn’t until a guard agreed to take him to get his tooth checked out by a dentist – since a filling had fallen out – that he found a way out of the prison.
He was having a conversation with a dentist who was also a POW and the dentist was asking him questions to gage whether he was an American or a German, as sometimes Germans planted English speakers as a means of thwarting escape
When he answered the seemingly trivial questions correctly, Howard was offered an escape route.
“And he said, ‘Good, you just passed. Have you ever thought about getting out of here?’ He was the chairman of the escape committee,” Howard said.
In April 1945, after being given money and information about how to escape, Howard made his way out of the prison and toward a location where he knew there would be American troops present.
After he arrived to a location where Americans were stationed, he was weighed and measured. He had gone from being 166 lbs. to being only 112 lbs, but he had survived four grueling months inside a German military prison.
He made the journey home not long after that, arriving to the home of his parents in New York. He would be discharged later that year in November.
Today, Howard manages a support group for former POWs.
He’s never forgotten his experience as a prisoner of war, nor has he forgotten the many thousands of military people who found themselves in the same predicament. He said his thoughts are always with those individuals who never returned to their
“In the support group, we are there for each other,” he said. “And one thing we keep saying is, ‘MIA’s you’re not forgotten and we will never let you be forgotten.'”