World War II Vet Interview with Hiram Wright

Hiram Wright’s World War II Experience Goes from Utah Beach to German POW Camp

Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12. Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

Hiram Wright, former judge to Winn’s Eighth Judicial District, was one who left his story for future generations. That story is of a young Army lieutenant with the 90th Division, Infantry, Co. I, who landed on Utah Beach one week after the initial D-Day Invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. A little less than a month later, his unit was surrounded by German tanks and forced to surrender as they fought in the hedgerows of France. The captured soldiers were hauled in cattle cars by rail across France and Germany and into Poland to various detention camps. Wright finally took advantage of German disarray as the Russian army advanced on Berlin to make good his escape.

His story actually began in rural northeast Louisiana. His father, Howard Wright, received his degree in education at Louisiana State Normal and became the teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the Nichol community of Catahoula Parish. The school provided him a house, a cow and $25 a month. He married Rowena Randall and the family began to grow, eventually to six children. Hiram was fourth in line.Things went well, as he went on to teach in Jonesville, eventually becoming superintendent of the Catahoula Parish School System. Son Hiram, born in 1923, was a good student at Block High and an athlete looking forward to playing his senior year on the varsity football squad. But the elder Wright, believing it was time to be closer to LSU as his children approached college age, took a Baton Rouge position as secretary of the Louisiana Teachers Association.

Wright was naturally disappointed that he would not play football at the school where he’d grown up but made the best of his studies at Baton Rouge High. With his older brother, Howard Jr., in LSU’s Law School, Wright chose to study Government when he enrolled at the Old War Skule the following year. He also joined ROTC but his undergraduate studies would be cut short. In April 1943, the military called up all ROTC cadets and Wright found himself on the way to Camp Beauregard as a private in the U.S. Army.

His widow, Betty Poe Wright, picks up the account: “While there, these young men were doing a lot of things they weren’t used to. Like kitchen duty and marching. They were getting used to Army life and found themselves doing things that would get their bodies in condition for what lay ahead.

“Once at Fort Benning, GA, Hiram attended Officers Candidate School where he had classroom instruction plus tactical problems on how to solve enemy battle obstacles that could occur. He completed OCS in June 1943. As a second lieutenant, he worked to train new recruits. Once, it was so dark on a night march that each soldier had to grab hold of the belt of the man in front of him to keep up. Hiram was at the lead, with only one man ahead of him. He was holding the belt when suddenly it dropped from his grasp. Hiram yelled out and the soldier called back, ‘I’m down here.’ He’d fallen down a steep creek ravine.

“Before they got orders to go overseas, Hiram served at Camp Butner, NC, Camp Livingston, LA, and Fort McClellan, AL. As an officer, he was leading men in maneuvers and marches of 15 or 20 miles. On a long march, if a soldier sat down and declared he couldn’t go any farther, Hiram would encourage him to put just one foot ahead of the other, one step at a time. And they could finish the march.

“Then the orders came to ship out to Europe. He arrived in England on May 24, 1944. There he continued training men just like he’d done here, marching, handling firearms and teaching the recruits how to shoot. Then one night when they were out marching on the beach, they could hear the roar of big guns and the flashing lights of explosions in the sky over the English Channel. They knew the invasion was under way.

“Hiram never talked much about the crossing or what happened when they landed. He just said it was June 12 when they landed. They went in on Utah Beach in Normandy. I can’t tell you much about what happened over the next few weeks. But the officers had radios to keep in touch with the command unit. And the French farmers grew thick hedgerows to mark the boundaries of their properties. It was a really difficult fighting area because you couldn’t see through the hedges.

“At one point, the unit had gone as far as they could go. They spotted German tanks approaching, ‘Tigers,” they called them. Hiram radioed for air support, saying that without it, they’d have to fall back. The general denied retreat as an option, threatening court-martial. Air support did finally arrive but it was much too late. The tanks advanced, firing and killing many of our men. The Americans kept firing their guns and bazookas until they were out of ammunition and surrounded. They finally had to surrender. That was July 7, 1944.”

In contrast to stories of prisoner abuse by Japanese troops, Wright never told of abuse by the Germans. One story, in fact, showed humanity. “There were many wounded Americans,” Mrs. Wright continued. “The Germans rounded up bicycles from the neighboring houses. These were for the wounded, with the healthy soldiers helping them. They began to make their way to a place to load the POWs into cattle boxcars. It was only then that the American planes arrived overhead.

“At the railroad, men were packed so tightly into the cars that they couldn’t sit down. It was a slow process as they began to cross the country. Every time planes would fly over, the train stopped and the German guards ran to hide in the woods, leaving our men on the train at-risk. All along the way, they’d stop and interrogate our soldiers, trying to get any information they could from them. At one point, Hiram asked for food for his men. An officer said he could kill a cow, which he did. Then they cooked it overnight and served the meat and juice…in helmets…to the men, handing them from one man to the next.

“They crossed France and Germany and entered Poland. All along the way, they stopped, leaving POWs at various internment camps and interrogating the officers. Hiram wouldn’t say anything, afraid they the Germans might find and hurt his family. They put him into solitary confinement and didn’t let him out until he admitted he was from ‘Wham, Louisiana.’

“The prisoners couldn’t tell where they were but could see out through the slats in the boxcar walls that snow was on the ground. Figuring it was near Christmas, one soldier began singing ‘Silent Night’ and others joined in. After a while, they could hear the voices of their guards, also singing ‘Silent Night’ in German. The train finally reached Poznan, Poland, and Oflag 64, where Hiram and other officers, including J.C. Scherer who he befriended, were held.”

The detention camp was a barbed-wire enclosure with dormitories and some brick buildings. There wasn’t much for the men, about 500 when Wright arrived, to do and their chief focus was food, because there wasn’t much of it. Breakfast was a cup of ersatz, a substitute coffee that didn’t taste so good but at least was warm. Lunch was some thin cabbage soup, a bit of uncooked meat…and bone…and a small portion of black bread. Supper was potatoes or turnips and ersatz. Red Cross food packages were infrequent but when they arrived, lifted morale. Powdered milk, sugar, meat spread, spam, crackers, jam and margarine. Wright told the Rotary Club in 1948 how he contrived a makeshift oven out of tin cans to bake a “delicious” chocolate pie from the Red Cross bonanza. But that was rare. Rations were even worse over time as the camp population grew to 1,300. Wright weighted 165 pounds when he stepped ashore in Normandy. Upon his escape after six and a half months of confinement, he was down to 130 pounds…though he was still wearing the same clothes.

“They took everything from the American soldiers,” Mrs. Wright said. “When Hiram first left for the Army, his mother gave him a khaki-colored New Testament. Whenever the guards came around, he hid that on top of his head, under his Army-issue knit cap. Because he refused to cooperate, he spent a lot of time in solitary. He told me that if hadn’t been for that New Testament he had to read when he was alone, he might not have made it through the war.

“At the end, as the Russians were moving in on Berlin, the German fighting moved that way, too, so they started shifting the camps. All the Oflag 64 prisoners who could march moved out. Those who were hospitalized were left behind. They’d sleep in barns at night. Some of the Americans had learned enough German to tell the guards that the Russians would be here any minute. It made them nervous enough that some of the Americans were able to slip away into the woods. Hiram and his buddy Scherer were among them. That was January 22, 1945.

“They made their way to a nearby railroad and grabbed onto a passing boxcar and held on in the freezing cold. The train stopped at a little town. Scherer was able to drop to the ground but Hiram’s hands were frozen to the rails. Finally they were able to pull him down and a Polish officer gave him something warm to drink from a Thermos. The pair began traveling with a group of escapees, some Polish who were unable to recognize their own towns due to all the bombing.”

Passing Russian tanks would stop and together, soldiers and refugees would drink a toast to victory with a beverage that also served as their tank fuel…probably vodka. ‘Stalin, Roosevelt, Kaput!” they’d cheer and down the burning liquid. At one point, the Russians took all the filthy clothes from the escapees while they showered. They baked the clothes in an oven to kill the lice, then gave the cleaned clothes back to the grateful refugees.

When the group finally made their way to the Black Sea, they boarded a British ship headed for Port Said, Egypt. On March 11, 1945, Wright was able to send home an Army-approve memo, ‘Dear Folks, I’m free and in Allied hands. Safe & in good health. Hiram.’ While there, he also bought a silver pin and bracelet for the girl he’d later marry. From there, ships carried this weary soldier to Italy, then England and at last back to the States.

The Army was impressed with the skills and determination Wright, now a first lieutenant, had shown and in February 1946 tried to persuade him to re-enlist so that his country could benefit from his accumulated knowledge. But he would not be persuaded and went to LSU Law School instead. There he studied and finished with Winnfield native Charles Beck and came here to open a law practice in the back of a barbershop.

“Hiram had a wonderful personality. Over time, he was elected as City Attorney and then City Judge. District Judge Harwell Allen, because of poor health, knew his time was limited. He wanted Hiram to follow him in office. He encouraged some businessmen to go down to Baton Rouge to ask Gov. Edwards to appoint Hiram as interim judge. Later, the people elected him judge here in 1974 and he served until 1984 when he retired.” Wright died January 9, 2002.

During his undergraduate days at LSU, Wright noticed two pretty Texas girls, Betty and big sister Rose Poe, as they were moving in across the street from him. He came knocking on the door in no time. “We rode the same city bus to classes every day and got to know each other very well. I have every letter he wrote to me during the war. Later, he lined them up according to their postmarks to help piece together a timeline for himself.”

Upon his return, Wright traveled to Beaumont to see his girl again. They were married June 9, 1946. The couple has four children. Jim, Earle and Katherine W. King were all born on September 9, in 1950, 1952 and 1955 respectively. Mary Elizabeth W. Vaughan was born May 17. 1962. They have seven grandchildren and one great grandchild.