Lincolnshire vet tells of life behind enemy lines in World War II
Ben Edelman talks about his experience as a prisoner of war during World War II. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 11, 2013 2:19AM
After telling an hour-long story packed with specifics — dates, locations, names and other details — Bernard “Ben” Edelman smiled and looked out the window of his Lincolnshire apartment. There is so much to this 95-year-old’s tale of World War II combat, imprisonment, escape and recovery that he can tell one complete story to one audience, but still have enough minutia left over to tell it another way — different, but accurate — to another audience.
Two weeks ago, a photographer from the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. came to Lincolnshire to document Edelman’s tale. Last week, a different photographer and a reporter came to his apartment to hear the tale as well.
“I don’t know if I told him the same story,” Edelman said last week of the activist from Washington, D.C. “I think I did. Basically.”
Whatever he put into the NationalArchives, if it is as richly detailed as what he recounted last week, it will make a story for the ages. The opening chapter — combat — could be pretty short, though.
Edelman was raised on Chicago’s South Side, and joined the Army in April 1941. On Nov. 8, 1942, Technician Fifth Grade Edelman joined British forces in northern Africa, assigned to capture airports.
On Valentine’s Day 1943, Edelman, his lieutenant and the driver of their half-track were patrolling outside their base (near the Faid Pass in Tunisia) when a German unit surprised them. A bullet hit his lieutenant’s leg, and as Edelman administered the blood-clotting agent sulfonamide to his injury, an enemy got the drop on them.
“He came up to me and put his gun up to my head,” Edelman said. “He said ‘For you, the war is over.’
“I said ‘Let me finish dressing his wound,’” he continued. “He said ‘Our medic will take care of him.’ He spoke English very well.”
From that moment, the 27-month-long chapter titled “prisoner of war” began.
“We went out in the morning,” he said. “Never came back.”
Encampment near Tunis, Rome and Berlin followed, where Edelman found that a number of Germans and Italians were fluent in English.In Tunis, the Germans interrogated him; in southern Italy, the guards were much more civil.
“They more or less treated us like we were cousins,” Edelman recalled. “They wanted to know if I knew anyone in Chicago who was their family.”
The Germans returned and took Edelman and other North African P.O.W.s up to Camp 7A near Rome. There, they were registered into the German captivity system, with British P.O.W.s sitting at the desks, pushing the pencils.
As Edelman stood in one of several lines, waiting to register, he happened to spot a man he knew: First Sgt. Bertram Stephen, for whom Edelman had once clerked. With no words, Stephen signaled for Edelman to join the line at the far end of the registration room.
Edelman had no idea why. And he never saw Stephen again.
When he got to the front of his line, the British prisoner seemed to run through all the same questions the others did, jotting the answers down on what looked the same form, which was written in German. One of the questions asked what religion the captive practice.
Edelman is Jewish, and told the British recorder so.
The recorder turned the form in, Edelman joined the camp — and nothing happened. Time passed, and the Germans moved his group again — another rickety boxcar ride, this time up to Camp 3B, near Berlin in Furstenburg.
Two years went by in Camp 3B. Their captors gave them some liberties: the prisoners built their own library and chapel, received food and musical instruments from the Salvation Army, YMCA and Red Cross, and played the quintessentially American game of baseball.
Edelman joined a team (only as a scorekeeper, not a player), and the group allowed him to name them the White Sox. Future Major Leaguer Micky Grasso was their catcher; Edelman said that even against prison-league pitchers, Grasso could not hit.
The White Sox won the World Series of Camp 3B.
The end of his captivity began early in 1945; the Axis was losing, and the Russians were close. On Jan. 30, 3B’s commandant ordered an evacuation — requiring about 20 guards to keep track of more than 1,000 P.O.W.s as they marched through snowy woods.
Nutrition at the camp had not been great, and Edelman said he feared that he would collapse and die during the march. At one point, he looked ahead, and could not see any guards; he looked behind, and could not see any guards.
He dashed out of line, into the woods. After 27 months of imprisonment, Edelman was free — and alone, in hostile Germany.
Cross-country traveling followed, including run-ins with French P.O.W.s, combatants from southern Italy who had rebelled against the Axis, and two SS patrols — but when Edelman found his way to the Russian army, he was finally back under Allied protection.
But he was still not a part of any American unit. He heard that the US’s Camp Lucky Strike in Janville, France was only a few days away by bicycle, so he borrowed a bike and rode through “sporadic fighting here and there” back to an American base, inhabited by 40,000 freed P.O.W.s.
From there, he hitchhiked to now-liberated Paris, where the Army had set up an office that held American dollars to pay its soldiers with.
“I had two years of pay coming to me,” Edelman noted.
And it was a larger sum that he expected, because soldiers’ pay had gone up from $21 a month to $30. While he was in prison, Edelman got a raise.
Eventually, the Army brought him back stateside, where he received an honorable discharge and began the almost seven-decade-long chapter that has been the rest of his life. He married, raised a family in Homewood and worked at a gas station and an aluminum-smelting plant.
For more than 50 years, Edelman left the war, and as many of its details as possible, behind. Until his phone rang in 1996, with a call from San Francisco.
A stranger asked him if he had been imprisoned at Camp 7A near Rome, which he had. The man said he had visited a gun show in San Francisco and came across a box of German P.O.W. records, which included Edelman’s.
And soon, Edelman held in his hands the sheet that documented his admission into the German P.O.W. system — the sheet that his old sergeant Stephen had signaled him into a different line to have filled out. He flipped it over, where the British captive whose line Stephen motioned him into had recorded his religion.
It said “Protestant.”