(Editor's note: Over the next three days, the TIMES NEWS will share three veterans' POW experiences during World War II as we prepare to observe Veterans Day. Today Wilson Solt of Lehighton shares his story.)
Wilson Solt of Lehighton was one of 14 children. He finished the 7th grade and quit to help support the family. He worked as an assistant school janitor for $17 a month, helped out on Amos Strohl's farm, got his driver's license at 16 and shoveled coal until he was drafted by the United States Army in 1943.
He was 19 years old.
He joined other young men just like him at basic training at Camp Croft, South Carolina. From basic he went to Camp Shenango, PA for one week and then on to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia for a week. Soon he and the 45th Division of the 179th Infantry were going up the gangplank of the Mariposa, an ocean liner, heading to Africa. From there they boarded another ship that took them to Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy.
There had been heavy fighting there, but by the time Solt arrived, he saw no action. Sicily gave up and the US troops had "a couple of weeks of R & R," Solt says with a hint of humor.
"Then the big day came of the invasion of Salerno, Italy. (Sept. 3, 1943.) We went in as the third wave. When we landed we were in water up to our necks," Solt recalls.
He doesn't say very much about that event except remembering feeling very weak. His corporal took his bandoleer as he passed out. When he woke up on Sept. 20, his 20th birthday, he was in a hospital in Africa. A nurse gave him a shot of whiskey and sang "Happy Birthday" to him.
A week later he was sent back to his outfit, now in Anzio. The Americans had blown up a bridge. Solt and about 50 others couldn't forge the river. The Germans opened up on them and the Americans tried to trench in the sides of the river bank. In the morning, the Germans took Solt and about 30 of the Americans as prisoners.
"Then we walked to hell and back," says Solt. It took them four days to walk about 20 miles then they were trucked to nearby Florence.
While there, some of them dug a hole to escape but a dog found the hole and their escape was foiled.
They weren't there long before they were taken by train to Germany.
"We were there a couple of months. It was very cold. I remember walking around dreaming about what I would do when I got out. I wanted to go home," he says.
He was transferred to Augsburg, Moosburg and Meinholz. At the last camp at Memmingen, he was in Stalag 7 B. They were put out to work on local farms, leaving the Stalag in the morning and returning at night.
Solt says they were fed bread and water but for the most part, he was treated all right.
"I was a PFC. They didn't bother with me. But they didn't treat the officers too nice," he says.
While a prisoner, he mowed grass and chopped weeds at a dairy farm.
"The farmer had been in the German Army, was wounded and sent home. He had a couple of sons in the army. But he was decent to us. Every night we went back to the Stalag. We slept on straw and we got deloused every couple of months. They shaved you and then steamed you. It wasn't fun."
After about five months, they had heard the Americans were close by. Seventeen of the prisoners, including Solt, left the farm where they were working, walked about 12 miles and came across an American sergeant from the 44th Division. He led them to headquarters and said to the officer in charge, "Here's a bunch of AWOLs."
"He was joking," Solt says. "Then they gave us a meal and afterwards took us by truck to a place to be interrogated. From there we went to Camp Ramp in France and they put us on a boat to go home."
He was given a 60-day convalescent leave.
When he entered the Army, he had weighed 145 lbs. When he was liberated he weighed 113 lbs.
Solt says when he got home he "loafed" around for a while. He met Althea Dunbar and they married on July 5, 1946. They had three sons - Wilson Jr. of Palmerton, Robert of Alabama, and David of East Penn Township, and a daughter, Shirley Haupt of Lehighton.
Solt worked for the Bethlehem Steel for 30 years and the New Jersey Zinc Co. before he retired.
Now a widower, at 87 he lives with his son, Wilson Jr. and family, in Lehighton. He enjoys making homemade wines, mostly berry. Butler cherry is his favorite. The family dog, Daisy, keeps him company.
As he reflects over his World War II experience he says "It made me a good person and makes me appreciate what I have."