Editorial note: Charles Sincavage is the third veteran to share his story about being a POW in Germany during World War II.
Charles Sincavage had earned a football scholarship. Unfortunately, he didn't get the opportunity to use it. He hurt himself playing baseball and it was lost to him. The year was 1935.
His dad asked him what he was going to do and Sincavage said he was going to work for him. But his dad didn't want to see him driving the rock tunnels in Shenandoah and told him, "No."
So, instead he found a job delivering newspapers, morning, afternoons and nights, for various newspapers.
A friend of his had an aunt who lived in Massachusetts and he was going there to work for General Electric. He invited Sincavage to go along with him. He did and worked for GE for four years.
Then Uncle Sam called him in 1943. He found himself in the United States Army and was off to Camp Polk in Paris, Texas. From there he went to England for more training.
"There were a couple of things that happened to me in the service that has steered my life. First, a staff sergeant took three of us in the office. He said you can go through the war being told what to do or be the person to tell others what to do. That night I thought about what he said. I decided I wanted to be the person to tell others what to do.
"The other thing that I learned was to be a good listener. You can learn a whole lot more listening than talking."
He rose to the rank of a staff sergeant of the 157th Combat Engineers A Co 1st Platoon. They landed on Utah Beach, France in June of 1944 on D-Day as part of the Invasion of Normandy. They participated in the battles at Falaise, France and liberated Cherbourg, France.
"Patton brought the 3rd Army over and our outfit transferred over to the 3rd. After the breakthrough of Saint Lo, it was to see how far we could get every day because the Germans were running," he says. "Then we got to two line towns of Nancy and Metz. We were told to stop and dig in and hold position. From then on, it was tough times. Every day worse than the next."
On Christmas Eve, 1944, Sincavage and seven others were captured. They were taken to a home in a village. One by one the Germans paraded them around to confuse them. Then they were interrogated.
"Since there was no lieutenant, they told me I was the lieutenant. They gave me a slice of bread and a dish of lard. I refused to take it. One of the officers told me it had come not too far from where I lived. The officer told me he knew where I was from and he had lived in Hazleton. I said to him, 'Well what did you come back to this hell hole for?'"
He was knocked out. It was a day and a half later that he woke up. He still has a knot on the back of his head from where he was hit.
Sincavage and others were loaded up in a 40-by-8-foot boxcar, so called because it could hold 40 men. But Sincavage says they stuffed at least 90 men in them. They traveled only at night and were on the train at least three days.
"We devised a way so some of us could get rest at different times. There was no way to relieve ourselves. We finally found a slit in the door where we could relieve ourselves. It smelled like hell in there. We didn't get any food. We had at least three dead in our car. Could have been more."
They were taken to Hammelburg, Germany. He was placed in Stalag 13 C. History reports that Stalag 13 was very grim, especially as the war neared the end. The Germans were running out of food and fuel and the prisoners were a low priority.
"Our barracks were the calvary training camp for the artillery. We were in the part where they had kept the horses. It was very cold."
They were given bread to eat but he swears it was made out of sawdust. Indeed, bread was made with sawdust, which was used as a filler.
In a derogatory manner, the commandant tried to make them feel bad about themselves and told them he knew where the comic Sad Sack came from and pointed to Sincavage and the other POWs.
"We wanted to show him. We picked out 10 to 12 guys we thought could stand up to representing the best of us. We shaved and then paraded up and down the yard like we would have on an Army base back home. He never called us Sad Sacks again."
Sincavage had been a POW for five months. When asked what kept him going, he replies simply, "Faith. We all believed it was just a matter of time before we got out."
He says as POWs, they used conversations to keep up their spirits and would try to think of anything to talk about, like, "Hey Charlie, how do you make spaghetti sauce?" and he'd make up an elaborate recipe, just to be talking.
Sincavage and a buddy of his, Tony Kamzzakus, had enough and "took off" one day.
They traveled by the stars and the moon and headed west to where they thought the Americans were. They walked at night, crawled into hay bales during the day and lived on cattle beets.
"We think a farmer saw us and turned us in and we were recaptured. We could see the river at Frankfurt. We had almost made it."
They were returned to Stalag 13.
Then the whole camp moved and they were on a forced walk to Munich, which took the better part of three weeks.
"An American plane flew over us dropping leaflets that told us to not jeopardize our lives. It was only a matter of time before we would be free," he said. After a couple of times of this, the German soldiers threw their guns away because the Americans were going to rescue us and they didn't want to be treated badly."
Germans and Americans alike lived off the land, eating any cattle beets, fodder, potatoes they could find along the way. When they arrived in Munich, they were greeted by Americans and were housed in circus tents. They were liberated.
"A GI came that night and asked if anyone was from Pennsylvania," he said. "I learned I could have called him a neighbor of mine. He had lived only three blocks away from my family. I had delivered papers to his family. He's the one who got the message to my parents that I had been liberated."
From there, they were flown to LeHavre, France.
"Everything on us was burned. They shaved us and sprayed us, which hurt like heck after being shaved," he added. "They gave us each a bar of soap and told us if we needed another they'd give it to us.
"That first shower was unbelievable. I did ask for a second bar of soap. I didn't want to leave the shower it felt so good."
They were given new clothes and then instructed on how to eat and how much because of having been deprived for so long. They were sadly malnourished. They were given food as often as they asked for it. When drinking a milkshake, they drank two mouthfuls at a time and then came back for more.
Sincavage says he weighed 160 pounds when he was drafted. He weighed 89 pounds when he came home.
After a complete physical, given medications and going through an orientation, four days later, he and 17 others boarded a freighter, part of a convoy, headed to America. His ship hit the one in front and had to leave the convoy to assess the damage. His ship went to Boston while the others headed to New York. He says he's glad they did.
"We were taken to Camp Miles Standish and they treated us like royalty," he remembered. "They served us dinner with white tablecloths, white napkins and served us steak. I'll remember that taste forever."
A couple of days later he was on a train to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
His homecoming was everything he dreamed of, including seeing his sweetheart, Peg.
Sincavage believes the Americans won the war because in the German army, unless you were an officer, you weren't allowed to think.
"In the American Army, you were taught to take command. I think that's why they lost," he explained.
Sincavage becomes contemplative as he sits and ruminates over the past.
"I wouldn't wish what I went through on anybody. But I'm glad I experienced it."
He believes it made him a stronger person.
Sincavage and Peg were married and had five children. He went back to work for GE and was later offered a job in the Pennsylvania Department of Highways. He retired after 37 years as deputy district engineer in Allentown.
Now at 92, a widower and grandfather of nine, he is living at Lake Hauto.
Sincavage has spent the last 30 years doing everything he wanted to, from golfing to fishing and boating and having a good time.
"I enjoy my family, my friends and hope they don't think I'm a S.O.B."
As for enjoying good health and longevity he says, "If I had any advice to give it would be this take an aspirin every day. I have taken one every day almost my whole adult life. Now I take a baby aspirin. And I drink 12 cups of coffee a day."
As for being a POW, Sincavage has rarely talked about his experience with his family. It's something he tries not to dwell on, even though the memory of the sights, the sounds and the smells are just a scratch under the surface away.
He overcame them all to live the American dream and he has lived it well.