WWII POW Never Gave Up On escape

George Sekel was a popular and essential member of the local cheerleading squad at his local high school in Buffalo, Ohio. Popular with his teammates, as well as the spectators, this little man showed at an early age that he was both fearless and cheerful. After graduating from high School he went on to enrol at Muskingum College in Ohio where he worked several jobs to pay for his tuition.

Unfortunately, he did not get to graduate from college, as enlistment in the Army came before he finished his studies. During basic training, this little man with a huge heart made such an impression on his superiors that he earned the right to attend college, but unfortunately, before he could return to his studies he was sent overseas to serve in North Africa. Sekel told an interview, “Literally, we were on the train to go to the Citadel in South Carolina and here comes this Jeep and a guy waving papers,” thus ending his trip back to his studies.

Sekel joined the 179th Infantry, 45th division, colloquially known as The Thunderbirds, and in January 1944, he was sent to Italy and took part in the Anzio beachhead invasion, a very difficult battle for the Allies. On the 16th February 1944, he was taken prisoner by the Germans, and would remain one for the next sixteen months. Meanwhile back home in Ohio, the local newspaper reported, “Pvt. George Sekel, 19-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. George Sekel of Buffalo, is reported missing in action since Feb. 16, according to word received by the parents from the war department.” Three months later he was reported as dead.

The residents of Buffalo, Ohio should have known better than to have written off this feisty little man. He was far from dead but was being held at the German prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag, Number Two. The day that he was captured, he asked to see his commanding officer, only to be told that he had escaped. That then became Sekel’s raison d’etre and he remembers, “From that point on (escape) was sort of my mantra.

He escaped six times, but failed six times, and as a result, he suffered torture in the ‘punishment camp’ in retaliation for this escape attempts. His constant escape attempts proved to be extremely troublesome for his captors, so they sent him off to Danzig in Poland to work on a farm.

All the men had been drafted into the German Army so prisoners and people whose land had been invaded by the Germans, such as the Poles and the French, had to carry out the work that was previously done by the German people. Sekel remembers cleaning up the debris left behind by the Allied bombing in Mousseberg, south of Munich, “they would take us in groups into the city to clean up the bomb debris. Many times we were actually under the bombing of our own planes!”

On the farm in Poland he was one of a group of twelve POW’s, and of the twelve, three were determined to escape. They had mobilized two of the German guards to help them escape but the only Allied forces in the area were Russians, and none of the POW’s fancied taking their chances with the Russians, so they postponed their escape attempt.

Then as the Russian army started making its way towards the camp, orders came down that the camp was to be moved. The POW’s had to build two wagons to transport the German villagers and they then set off on an incredible march across Germany during one of the coldest winters on record.

Walking up to 50 kilometres every day, between December 1944 and April 1945, they marched past Berlin, past the Alba River and arrived in West Germany. Sekel remembers, “It was pretty well organized and every stop had been prepared for them with shelter for the night.”

In typical Army fashion, no sooner had they reached Uelzen, near Celle, they were informed that they had to turn back and march east. That was more than enough for Sekel and his co-conspirators and they made their dash for freedom.  They escaped into the woods and lived off the land for two weeks. They were captured at one point by the SS, who decided to shot them, but on their way to be executed, a battle in the woods allowed them to escape again.

The villagers that the escapees came into contact with, offered them food and lodging but the escapees were too suspicious to take up these offers. They did not know who they could trust so they trusted no-one.

After two weeks they heard the sound of heavy engines and they took cover. Cautiously looking over the crest of a ridge they were astounded to see a big, white star coming over the hill. They had found the American Army and three exhausted, thin and starving men waved down the convoy and were welcomed back with open arms.

Sekel was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service during WWII. After being demobbed from the army he returned to college and gained a degree with a major in French and a minor in German. He also gained a teaching diploma.

Sekel was not finished with Germany and he searched for an agency that would send him back to help with rebuilding the country. He took part in the rebuilding and that work led to him being offered a job with the US State Department. He served as a diplomat in Germany, Egypt, Turkey, and India. His cheerful and feisty personality was a great asset to the diplomatic effort and in Egypt, it was instrumental in building bridges between the Americans and the people of the region.

As with many men, he revealed very little of his wartime experiences. For 40 years he kept very quiet about what he had done but as commander of the POW post in Shenandoah, Virginia, he opened up and spoke more freely about his experiences. He firmly believes that getting ex-POW’s to talk about their experiences is extremely helpful in helping them to heal the wounds that no-one can see.

This special man, who married a German wife, Dolores, in January of 1954, lived his life to the utmost. He believed that things fell into place and when that happened you followed where they led as good things came about when that happened. He held no animosity toward the German people saying, “They were normal people, except they were in an abnormal leadership situation.”

He lost his beloved wife on 6th September 2002 but this little man with the big heart is still giving to the people around him, something he will continue to do until he draws his last breath.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE