Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995. Updated in 2017
By Leigh E. Smith Jr.
For many soldiers who fought in World War II, memories of great sacrifice and hardship are still vivid. Those not wounded in combat were considered lucky. For Ricardo Palacios, Jr., being wounded in combat was bad enough, but even worse was becoming a prisoner of war.
On the night of January 21, 1944, Ricardo Palacios, Jr. prepared to cross central Italy's Rapido River in assault boats with his platoon, members of Company E, 141st Infantry Regiment, and 36th Infantry Division. (See related story.) The boat crossing failed, so the company pulled back and waited for the engineers to build a pontoon bridge.
The bridge consisted of small rubber pontoon boats tied together with wooden planks over the tops and rope rails for the men to use as they walked across. The bridge was about 36 inches wide.
The Germans were waiting for them, however, and casualties were heavy. "I remember getting up early the next morning to see what was going on. All I could see was a lot of pieces of bodies scattered all over from both sides," Palacios said.
The survivors were now on the enemy side of the river and were rounded up by German soldiers. Palacios remembers: "The first time I heard a German officer say 'Auf Stehen,' I thought I better get up. I had a bar of chocolate in my back pocket. That was the first thing he went for -- the chocolate bar. I knew he was an officer because you can distinguish them, very sharply dressed, even in combat.
"He looked at me and said, 'Amerikaner Hund.' I didn't know what he was saying. He had fire in his eyes. You knew he was mad. Later on, I asked him at the POW camp what 'Amerikaner Hund' meant. He said, 'American Dog. You're a dog.'" January 21 will always remind Palacios of the day he became a prisoner of war. That day he also turned twenty-one years old.
Palacios continues, "Right after they took the chocolate bar, two other sergeants from the unit and I were brought over to a wall near the white house. A couple of German soldiers were pointing machine pistols at us and a German sergeant gave them an order. I said to myself, 'This is it. They're going to shoot us.'
I closed my eyes as they brought the machine guns up to aim, and I heard a loud noise. One German had slapped his leg so it would sound like a gun shot. I opened my eyes and they were laughing. They were young soldiers like us, nineteen or twenty years old. They thought it would be funny. It's a helluva feeling," he says.
When Palacios was captured, he was moved from place to place and put with other Americans who were captured at the river. He recalls encountering three friends from the unit. "I met up with Edwardo Lalo Romo, Raul Caracena and Eduardo Carreon, all from El Paso. We saw each other at the first camp. We were really happy to see each other." Palacios was interned in several POW camps including Stalag II B and a sub-camp of Dachau.
"I remember having nothing to eat until we reached Dachau POW camp near Munich," he said. His final destination was Stalag III B prison camp near Buchenwald, where he arrived in March 1945. Palacios recalls the processing and interrogation vividly:
"You come from Mexico?" a German soldier asked.
"You don't understand English? I can get somebody in Spanish."
"I understand English, I understand Spanish."
"Your parents come from Mexico?"
"Yes sir. But I was born in the United States."
The Germans who interrogated Palacios and his fellow Hispanic prisoners could not believe these men were in the American army. They assumed that since El Paso is so close to the Mexican border, the Mexican army had joined the American army in the fighting.
The Germans were always very efficient when keeping records of prisoners. They wrote everything down, took fingerprints and photographs and kept all the information on a prisoner card issue to each prisoner. Palacios was able to obtain his card when fellow prisoners ransacked the administration building of the camp after the Germans deserted it to escape the Russian advance. He keeps it in a plastic folder along with postcards he wrote to his mother while he was imprisoned.
Palacios was a prisoner for about 16 months. He became very ill, suffering from malnutrition, dysentery, pneumonia and other ailments, the effects of which still bother him. Palacios recalls that inadequate food and exposure to the weather caused most of his health problems. "Mostly we sergeants read, exercised, played cards and talked," he said. "We just tried to keep our morale up."
Palacios weighed 130 pounds when captured. When he was freed, he weighed only 98 pounds. On April 22, 1945, Palacios and the other prisoners of Stalag III B were liberated by Russian soldiers. Shortly after, he was returned to American troops in Hidelshiem, Germany.
Palacios looks back on his release and trip back to the United States: "After Hidelshiem, we were taken to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France. We stayed there for about two weeks where we were examined, debriefed and nutritionally rehabilitated. I was given a seven-day leave to London where I really enjoyed myself. Later I was sent back to the United States to a POW rehabilitation center in Santa Barbara, California, where I adjusted to civilian life and was discharged from the Army."
Because a fire destroyed Army records in St. Louis, it was 21 years before he received medals-- the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart -- for his actions at the Rapido River on January 21, 1944.
I've never been looking for publicity," Palacios says. "I've never looked for medals. If they ask me, I'm not a hero. I was doing my work and the heroes were left behind, like Captain Chapin and the rest of those guys from Company E. I was just lucky to survive."
A sad note is that Army records never showed Palacios being a prisoner of war, and he is still fighting with Veterans Affairs fifty years after the incident for his benefits.