This generation, now in their eighties, nineties and beyond, is one Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne asks folks across Louisiana, “Listen to their stories. Learn everything you can from them now.”
Amite resident Roy Mitchell is one such local who survived his youth in hard times, illness and poverty. He also volunteered to serve his country in the “Big One,“ only to be captured by the Germans in the bitter winter of Europe, then lived to tell about it all.
Mitchell, 87 and walking tall in his 6-foot, 7-inch frame, can sure tell a story.
In his home on Chicken Farm Road, the house is pristine; plush furniture, smiling family photos and an impeccable carpet.
Sitting relaxed in his rocker, the octogenarian remembers crystal clear to his youth growing up in the “tail end” of the Depression as he calls it.
He lived in Winnfield, the parish seat of Winn Parish, right amongst the famous and sometimes infamous Long family: as in Huey.
“We didn’t have money, but we never went hungry a day in our life,” Mitchell said.
His father lost what money they had in the bank--a result of the stock market crash of October 29, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday.
But they worked, this Southern family of eight. They raised hogs, chickens, livestock, and vegetable gardens too.
They raised their stock at a time when farmers had “free range,” Mitchell said.
Free range meant there were no gates to keep their stock contained which, for the most part, was a fine thing. These days, free range chickens can be trendy and expensive.
Until “tick fever” broke out when he was still just a boy.
Tick fever is highly contagious in livestock and susceptible to humans through tick bite. It kept the Mitchell family busy morning, noon and night. They’d rise early to herd the cattle, then to the veterinarian for their cattle’s dip, one by one.
“I missed a lot of school that way,” Mitchell mused.
He then let out a small chuckle: “When I couldn’t ride my horse to school, I rode my mule instead.”
In fact, it was his eldest brother, Guy Mitchell, who saw to it that all of the Mitchell siblings - three boys and three girls - completed their education and let it take them as far as they could go.
It was tough, but they managed.
Perhaps it was this hardship (or hard work ethic, rather) so early on in life that helped create, with perfect timing, Uncle Sam’s call to the “Greatest Generation.”
At 18, Mitchell answered Uncle Sam’s call with a resounding “yes.”
He enlisted rather than wait to be drafted, he said.
“By that time, it was all the same thing, you know? We knew we were going to go,” Mitchell said.
America was still a young country and growing still, he reflected.
“But then the Germans came along and tried to mess things up for us. We wouldn’t stand for that,” Mitchell said, ever so matter-of-fact.
So after high school graduation, which he completed in Atlanta, Mitchell went to Kilgore, Texas. There he endured in 1943 for 13 weeks of basic training at Camp Fannin.
Camp Fannin was brand new to the service, much like Mitchell himself. It opened the same year Mitchell enlisted. To its credit, Camp Fannin was responsible for training over 200,000 U.S. soldiers, sometimes up 40,000 at one time, in its mere four years of operation.
Mitchell was used to hard work. Sometimes working on very little sleep, too. He was incredibly physically fit as well.
Not much could prepare him for his final days of basic training when he had to scale a concrete wall that inclined toward him. With his rifle on one shoulder, and bayonet on the other, Mitchell scaled the wall alright.
“It was the landing I didn’t expect,” Mitchell said.
On his way down, the bayonet stabbed him in the left hip, leaving a scar to this day.
“So that knocked me out for a while,” Mitchell said.
He was sent to an Army hospital to recuperate. Mitchell was anxious to heal and get on with the task at hand.
Looking handsome-as-ever in his soldier suit, young Mitchell completed Army basic training and was sent to Europe immediately.
“We landed on D-Plus 45,” Mitchell said without missing a beat.
That’s 45 days from the actual D-Day on the shores of Normandy, June 6, 1944.
His company, the 116th Infantry Regiment, landed a at Omaha Beach in France which was now surrounded by the Germans.
“It was like a death sentence landing on that beach,” said Mitchell.
The Americans had been shelling the area for days, yet the Germans still had a stronghold on the six-mile wide beach with its rocky terrain and crashing, freezing waves.
“The chances of getting through there were slim. Harder than most,” he said. “But some of us, we survived.”
The 116th “finally got to going,” Mitchell continued.
It wasn’t long before Mitchell suffered another injury, from shrapnel -- a shell fragment that only God knows which side it came from.
It was in his elbow, on the same arm that he carried his rifle faithfully.
“It wasn’t bad, but was in a bad spot,” said Mitchell, pointing to his right elbow which bears yet another faint scar from his youth.
The days began to melt into one another. It was easy for troops to lose track of the date, let alone what day of the week it was.
While marching somewhere in France during this time, Mitchell acknowledged he had a birthday somewhere in there, too.
He was 19.
Then the day came, just months after storming the shores of Omaha, that Mitchell and the 116th were captured.
The GIs marched onto German soil sometime during Dec. 1944 and Jan. 1945. Mitchell cannot recall the exact day it all happened.
“It was in the cold months,” he said.
They were at the River Rhur, not far from Cologne, Germany That’s when they faced a massive field of landmines.
Several soldiers were hit trekking through.
Mitchell recalled that within the explosions, shelling and gunfire, “I could hear one of them yelling, ‘help me, help me!”
There was little the Americans could do now, surrounded by their enemy, ammunition and explosions above and beneath them.
The most they could do was fire back. So fire they did, over and over until the last bullet was spent.
Mitchell said it was at this point that someone (he doesn’t know who) ran forward with the whitest piece of materiel he’d seen in a long time.
“I don’t even know where he got it from,” Mitchell said, still perplexed after all these years. “Even our boxer shorts were olive drab. Socks too. I still don’t know where he got it from.”
Taken as a surrender, the Germans ceased fire and moved toward these Americans left in the 116th.
The became part of the 93,000 Allied soldiers held at about 100 Nazi POW camps. All but about 1,000 survived internment.
“For you, this war is over,” said a German soldier in broken English to Mitchell.
The Americans were marched to their first POW camp.
It was a camp Mitchell himself does not recall the name of, but was no less the hell a prisoner of war camp proclaims itself to be.
Perhaps it was the physical wear and tear of war that caused Mitchell to breathe less harshly in Europe, rather than the alternative POW camps on the islands surrounding Japan.
He said he’d heard and seen all sorts of horror stories there.
“They’d skin you alive if they could,” Mitchell said, adding “That’s where my brother Guy was. In those islands around Japan.”
Mitchell made an oblong circle with his finger then, as though drawing in his mind’s eye those islands surrounding Japan.
Then his words trailed off, signaling the slightest thought of his brother as a POW in Japan an unbearable one.
Mitchell then corrected himself by saying “I told you earlier I never went hungry a day in my life. Well, that’s not really true. I never went hungry a day in my life until I was a POW.”
As a prisoner, food and water was scarce. Illness was everywhere and filth the norm.
During this freezing winter, some soldiers were “allowed” to work outside, Mitchell said. “But only if they had a coat.”
Unfortunately for Mitchell and many of his men in the 116th, their few coats and clothes burned in a fire at the camp long before.
Forget the coat. Forget the freezing winter. These men were starving.
“If I could just get me a coat, maybe I could get outside and work for some food,” Mitchell thought.
So he and another soldier, who owned a coat, traded dog tags for a day.
Mitchell said he did it for survival just so he could work for a pittance of “black bread” the German soldiers portioned out.
As for the soldier who bore Mitchell’s name on dog tag only, no one really knows what happened to him.
“I never saw him again after that,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think he was killed. They would have identified him as me if he had been, you know?”
Mitchell and his men were later forced on railcars to another POW camp in the country.
This trip was more unbearable than the first.
Mitchell said they were hauled in stock cars that had carried horses. It took 10 full days in subzero temperatures to reach their destination.
The German train moved only at night.
“Anything that moved during the day got shot at,” Mitchell said.
The soldiers huddled together for warmth. Once a day they were allowed a few moments outside.
Mitchell said they used melted snow to drink like water and to wash.
“One of them didn’t make it,” Mitchell said of the 10-day ordeal.
April 29, 1945, is a day Mitchell will never forget.
“When we got up and looked around, there wasn’t a guard anywhere,” he said.
In their newfound freedom, Mitchell and the troops began to celebrate.
Some raided camp potato bins, while others searched the area for more food.
Someone found a loose cow and sure enough, they butchered it and ate steak for breakfast.
Mitchell and fellow soldiers went to a nearby village and found a recently abandoned home. They went straight to the cupboards for nourishment.
Mitchell said he found some strawberry preserves in a jar and “ate every last bit of it.”
With a wide smile he exclaimed “Lemme tell you what. The Germans can make some good preserves!”
It took days of negotiations between Russian troops and the Red Cross to sort prisoner release. Mitchell and his men were eventually sent to another camp, then finally to a safe haven poetically christened “Camp Lucky Strike.”
He weighed just over 130 pounds when liberated.
Camp Lucky Strike of Janville, France, was a slice of heaven on earth for Mitchell and his men.
Weak and emaciated, the men were nursed back to health at Camp Lucky Strike. Many Army camps were named after cigarettes.
“The people who worked there were given strict orders,” Mitchell said. “They were told ‘Whatever these guys want, let them have it.’”
Mitchell doesn’t remember what he ate during his stay at CLS, “But it sure was good,” he said.
These boys were ready to come home.
It took three days for the Navy ship to carry them back to America.
Mitchell said that was pretty fast for ships at the time.
Upon his return, Mitchell was anxious to go back to school. It was an urge instilled in him by his brother Guy again, who also made it back from the war.
Mitchell graduated LSU with a degree in Agriculture. He spent his career near Amite working as Tangipahoa’s official county agent. (A government employee who serves as a consultant and/or adviser in rural communities for agriculture.)
Now retired and relaxing in his home surrounded by family photos and comfortable furniture, Mitchell reflects his experience often. He refuses to be bitter.
“No, I’m not bitter,” he said, shaking his head. “We were still a fairly new country then. We weren’t about to let them take us out.”
“It’s an experience you never forget,” Mitchell said.
It’s also a lesson he hopes that history never repeats.
Never should anyone take for granted their freedoms and opportunity in this country, he explained.
“We were ready to get it done,” Mitchell concluded. “We wanted this over with, and to get on with our lives.