It was March 2011. I was visiting Carl Gromeaux, a former World War II Prisoner of War, at Parkview hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I’ve known his daughter Sheila Harrington, and her husband Jim, for years. For nearly ten of those years I’ve asked Mr. Gromeaux to tell me his story. And for nearly ten years he followed pretty much with the same response, “I will tell you about it, but not today.” Finally, the day came. Thus began a two-hour conversation that unwound the extraordinarily painful journey he had, for the most part, kept silent for so many years.
Though I’ve had this information for nearly two years there were follow-up questions I hoped to have answered before writing his story. But as before, Mr. Gromeaux stonewalled me. After his death on the 30th of January 2013, the time for follow-up questions was past and the time had come to tell what I knew about this humble soldier; a man I admired for his integrity and the sacrifices he made for the country he loved and whose sacrifices allowed me to write his story.
Life before the Army
Carl Gromeaux was born on the 28th of November 1919 near Zulu, Indiana in rural Allen County. He grew up on the family farm and went to Saint Joseph’s Catholic School in Monroeville. Carl was one of ten children. Carl stayed on the farm until a few years after his father’s death when his mother finally had to give the farm up.
It was wartime. During the War some farmer’s children were exempt from the draft and until the farm was sold Carl had been exempt. Carl was in his mid-twenties and working on another farm when the Draft Board agents approached him. They offered to help him avoid the draft for a “gift” of $100 payable to the draft board representative. He declined the offer commenting that had he accepted “they’d probably just come back a month later for another $100.” He added with a smile, “We didn’t have the $100 anyhow.” He enlisted in the Army in May of 1944. His pay for work on the farm had been just $1.25 per day, so the pay he received from the Army helped out at home. Of the ten children, three boys served during the War including a brother, Gaylord (Fudge) Gromeaux, who earned the Purple Heart after he was wounded in battle.
Life in the Army started out roughly for Carl. He performed his initial training in Little Rock, but had his follow-up training assignment changed several times. By the time he arrived in Oklahoma City, he was late to a Machine Gun Team which had already been in training and wasn’t interested in bringing the ‘new guy’ up to speed. He added, “they didn’t care about me, and I just wanted to learn what I could to keep myself alive.” He did like the fact that with the machine gun assignment he was able to exchange his personal weapon the M-1 Garand for the lighter, newer, higher capacity M-1 Carbine.
He was a member of the 242nd Infantry Regiment and they were teamed with the 222nd and the 232nd along with the 42nd Infantry Division to form the “Rainbow Unit,” which was a reincarnation of the highly decorated Rainbow Division of World War I. The name came about from the fact that men from 26 States made up the original unit and they were said to hail “from here to there” like a rainbow.
After several weeks at sea and a long arduous voyage that had them zig-zagging across the Atlantic to confuse the German U-Boats that were trying to sink their ship, they landed in France. Their first night on land was spent in an open field outside Marseille with below zero temperatures and winds blowing unabated. “Dumbest thing I’d ever seen,” Carl told me. The second night he asked for permission to move the camp across the meadow to take advantage of the relative shelter of the forest’s edge. Permission was given. He described how the biggest problem moving the camp was many of the tent stakes broke because they were frozen in the ground.
After fighting “here and there” eventually they ended up defending a section of the Rhine River near the town of Strasbourg, where the locals would give them milk and cheese. Carl told me at times it was so cold that the machine gun wouldn’t operate properly. In hours of darkness Carl and his men would just wait for movement across the river then launch a parachuted flare which he said, “lit up the sky like daylight.” Once the sky was illuminated they would shoot at anything that moved.
Carl described how at one point two Germans were able to sneak into a tower across the river and rain down terror on the men of the Rainbow Unit. He added, “at daylight one of our tanks took care of that problem.” Later they captured 30 or 40 Germans. Carl had the chance to go to the rear escorting the prisoners, but he opted to stay with his men.
The next day German tanks overran them. The men retreated to an underground bunker; out of ammunition and no longer able to resist, they surrendered. Carl and another man were chosen to offer their surrender. He shared that he was sure they would be shot when they left the bunker.
After being rousted from the bunker, which he referred to as a ‘pillbox,’ Carl and his men were marched about six miles to a barn where they slept the first night under the hay to keep from freezing to death. Captured groups such as Carl’s were amassed in barns throughout the area and gradually the groups were brought together. The groups of prisoners were moved nightly over the course of the next week.
Eventually they were marched to a rail yard where they were packed so tightly into boxcars that they couldn’t even sit down. Once a day they were allowed out of the cars for a short time.
The trip took its toll on the most seriously wounded. Random acts of violence by their German captors ended the journey midway for some prisoners. Carl called them, “the lucky ones.” Finally they arrived in the city of Bad Orb, Germany. Once there they were marched three miles uphill to the camp.
To Be Continued..
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