John Moddie was working as a stock clerk at Peterson Boat Works in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin in November 1943 when he did something that changed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
Moddie, 18 at the time, enlisted in the U.S. Army. After completing basic training he was assigned to B Battery, 590th Field Artillery Battalion, 106th Infantry Division at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, where he learned about the 105mm howitzer before he headed to England.
“The ships that brought us over were civilian transports, not naval,” said Moddie in a VA release. “We were only there a short time. We were allowed to go to the local pubs at night but had to be careful due to the blackout conditions we were under. The cars only had small blackout lights on them that were hard to see. We had a few close calls on the way back to the base.”
Moddie volunteered to be “second gunner,” a targeting duty on the eight-man crew of the howitzer, earning him a field promotion. On the morning of Nov. 30, 1944, Pfc. Moddie and the 590th boarded landing crafts on the English Channel. The small fleet of LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) crossed to LeHavre and awaited orders to sail up the Seine River.
“That night a massive storm busted the fleet up bad,” he said.
Two ships lost their anchors and spent the next 36 hours floating into the channel and sailing back into the harbor.
“I never knew why we got stuck on the boats for so long and was surprised to find out it was because of the LSTs losing their anchors. It took more than 60 years for me to learn this,” he said.
Once they landed, Moddie and his crew were on their way to take part in the Battle of the Bulge.
As B Battery made its way toward Schnee Eifel, they were strafed by Nazi fighter planes that were soon dispatched by some P-47 Thunderbolts. Moddie was on the front lines late that afternoon and hurried to dig in before dark and a long, horrible night. Dealing with cold feet and hands, the men were pounded by enemy artillery, as V-1 flying bombs soared just 50 feet over their heads.
“The V-1s sounded strange, like the putt-putt sound of a Model-T Ford engine,” he said in the release.
Bumper to bumper in their vehicles, the 590th moved through the night.
“During the ride, I could see some of the German artillery off in the distance that would fire over our heads,” Moddie remembered.”The rounds rained down like shrapnel.”
The two roads back toward Schonberg had fallen into Nazi hands and it was decided the 590th would follow closely with the infantry in the dark.
“That night, there was lots of gunfire. That morning we found ourselves in a narrow valley with wooded slopes on both sides and a swampy ground to the front. A small stream was in front of us with stuck vehicles blocking our path… and bodies everywhere,” he continued. “We fired the howitzer, starting out with multiple bags of powder for more distance and slowly we’d reduce the amount as the Germans advanced on our position. We only had short breaks in the action to readjust aim as the forward observers reported in. We fired 200 to 300 rounds a day until we were firing point blank.”
Command sent word to the gun positions to destroy the howitzers and any equipment that could be used against them and surrender. Nazi forces had gotten behind them.
Moddie and 25 others were captured on Dec. 19, 1944.
“We were marched by the Germans through the swampy valley. When we crossed over the hill, out of the valley, I could see the devastation the artillery had caused was massive," he said. "We squeezed close to the walls of the buildings in any town we marched through because of the large German tanks passing by us on the tiny roads."
They were taken to Stalag 9B in Bad Orb, Germany. There, Moddie was led into a large unheated building with bunk beds, two to five high and covered in straw.
“The beds were so lice infested no one bothered to sleep in them,” Moddie said. “This outraged the Germans, and they moved us to another building with no bunks. We spent many days hungry and assisting others in picking the lice and ticks off each other. One day they brought us into a field that was surrounded by machine guns because one of the German soldiers was killed. They gave us an ultimatum to turn in the killer by nightfall or they would just kill everyone. The Germans got the bloodhounds out and found the bloody coat of an American soldier stashed in a snowbank. We didn’t know what happened to him, but he was never seen again."
Allied troops liberated Moddie on April 2, 1945 when he awoke to an empty camp and open gates. The Nazis had fled in the night rather than be captured by Allied forces. Moddie had dropped from 150 pounds prior to his capture, to about 85 pounds at the time of his release.
He was given coffee and donuts by fellow Americans with the Red Cross. He told his family in a letter that he was freed and should be home soon for some of his mom’s home cooking.
“I told my mom that once I get home, I never wanted to leave again,” he said.
To build strength for the trip home, Moddie was held in the camp before returning in early April 1945. But during the sea voyage across the Atlantic, when they tried to eat, the ships rode the waves so hard that no one could keep food down.
“I went to the small store on board and bought a box of Hershey bars. That got me home without any more bouts of seasickness,” he said.
After reaching America, Moddie was given a two-week furlough in a hotel in Palm Beach, Florida and a meal card for the hotel restaurant for three meals a day. Once home, he took on many jobs.
“I worked building the mill in Quinnesec, Michigan, two of the shopping malls in Iron Mountain and even worked in the maintenance department at VA,” he said.
The POW camp survivor married Betty in 1971. They built a home in Quinnesec and had two sons, John and Gary, and a daughter, Betty Ann Stewart. He enjoys reminiscing about the cars he had “back then.” His favorite was a 1934 Plymouth.
“I really liked the style of the car and the little button I could pull that let me stay at the same speed,” he said.
Quick with a joke or advice, Moddie, 97, always has a smile on his face. He gets up every morning and walks the length of the Oscar G Johnson VA community living center to pick up his newspaper. He stops for a cup of coffee on his way back, then reads his paper from cover to cover.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.