• Last modified 2807 days ago (Nov. 9, 2011)


WWII veteran survived fire fight, POW camp, and escape

Staff writer

Leo Scharenberg, formerly of Cedar Point, now lives with his wife Dorothy in a house at Parkside Homes in Hillsboro.

At 90, Scharenberg is sick and frail. He does not move well and his vocal capacity has been limited.

“Dad was always a physically strong man,” Micki Siebert, Scharenberg’s daughter said. “People see dad at the nursing home and he’s helpless.”

On his 90th birthday, July 19, a flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol Building in remembrance of Schranberg’s accomplishments and sacrifices as a 21-year-old during World War II. He lived through events in Europe that killed many strong men.

“He fights the war all the time,” Siebert said of Scharenberg tossing and turning in his sleep.

Scharenberg was drafted into the Army on Oct. 2, 1942. He left his home in Marion and went through basic training at Camp Walters, Texas. He was transferred to I and R platoon, 143rd Regiment, 36th Division in Cape Cod before being sent to Oran, Algeria. He made sure to marry Dorothy on Jan. 11, 1943 before heading oversees.

Scharenberg was part of three invasions, two in Italy and one in France on Sept. 9, 1943.

During training, Scharenberg was tested by Army officers. With his strength, intelligence, and natural ability as a leader, Schrarenberg was one of 29 men chosen to become spy scouts. He was assigned seven men under his command, who worked with him out of a single jeep in France.

According to Dorothy, Scharenberg never knew his exact qualifications for the dangerous missions, and he never asked either. For nearly a year, from September 1943 through August 1944, Scharenberg and his team conducted spying assignments. His duty as a scout included sneaking behind the Nazi line and crawling into the German camp so he could learn of battle positions and plans. He said he was practically under the feet of the Nazis in many missions.

“If it were me I would sneeze or scratch my nose,” Siebert said. “He was really at high risk.”

The risk of those missions was proven on Aug. 25, 1944. Scharenberg and his team were behind enemy lines near Montelimar, France, when the Army ordered radio silence. They destroyed their radio but were found by Nazi soldiers. They attempted to escape by driving down the side of a mountain, but were not able to evade the enemy forces.

Scharenberg spotted a house with a basement in the side of the mountain, and he ordered his men underground. He hid the jeep in a tree and removed a .50 caliber mounted machine gun. The other men positioned themselves to fire outside of a window while Schranberg sat underneath the tree and ordered the men to refrain from firing until he shot first.

As the German troops advanced, Scharenberg mowed down wave after wave of enemy soldiers.

“They paid dearly,” Scharenberg told his daughter

At one point, a Nazi grenade fell from the branches of the tree and Scharenberg was hit in his chest by shrapnel. There are still pieces of sharp metal that reside in his torso, to close to his heart to ever remove. He was also shot during the fighting.

“He still carries a bullet in his chest,” Leon Scharenberg, Scharenberg’s son said.

Eventually, Scharenberg moved into the basement with his men, where he fought off the German soldiers for the remainder of four hours. During a lull in the fighting, Joe Pancake from Hershey, Pa., asked to run. Scharenberg declined the maneuver.

“Don’t run, they’ll shoot you,” Dorothy recalls Scharenberg saying.

One man did try to run and was hit with a bullet while still inside the basement; he died in Scharenberg’s arms.

Despite the determination of Scharenberg and his men, they were forced to surrender when a German tank pointed the barrel of its gun point blank at the basement.

“Come out or get blown out,” Dorothy recalls Scharenberg saying.

The Nazis marched the men out of the building and lined them up against a wall, with a German guard to each man, pointing a gun at their heads. Dorothy said Scharenberg later told her that he was not afraid at that moment even though death was imminent; he accepted his fate.

Before the firing squad soldiers could pull their triggers, a general ordered the troops to stop.

“He told me more than once, when you’re put into those positions, you realize there is a God out there,” Jerry Siebert, Scharenberg’s son-in-law and ranching partner since 1966, said.

Even though he escaped death, Scharenberg did not escaped suffering. All with wounds and injuries, the men were forced to march 180 miles north from Montelimar to Dijon. It took 10 days.

“They were treated worse than we would treat livestock,” Jerry Siebert said.

For food, the prisoners of war were fed potatoes or rutabaga in muddy boiled water. When the Germans would come upon a dead horse on the trek, they would cut off pieces of the animal and throw it into the stew.

Scharenberg told Dorothy that he felt lucky to get a piece of the dry, tough, and stringy meat whenever they could.

When the march finally ended in Dijon, Scharenberg and his men were loaded onto train cars, where they were stacked one on top of another, 30 men spooned together. Dorothy said men died from suffocation during the two-week trip. Everyone had to communicate when to move.

At the end of that two week ride was the Stalag III-C POW camp. What Scharenberg saw as he was marched into the camp was a cart carrying and continuing to load and unload corpses.

“It was quite a reception,” Scharenberg told Dorothy.

The men lived in the camp for five months. Still injured they were tortured and starved. Scharenberg often wanted to help his men, but in one instance, he watched a fellow soldier bleed to death even though he was pleading with his Nazi captors to let him help.

“He never spoke of it in any way,” Jerry Siebert said of Scharenberg’s feelings about not being able to help his men. “You can’t not help but feel responsible

SS officers would walk through the camp and spit on prisoners, trying to antagonize them to retaliate.

“You do that to a man and normally that would be a fight,” Dorothy said. “You wouldn’t dare do anything.”

To keep himself sane, Scharenberg was able to keep a few personal belongings. He kept his watch hidden on the inside of his pants zipper. He had a picture of Dorothy inside an Army-issued Bible that the Nazis inexplicably let the men keep. He later had a soldier sketch a larger picture of Dorothy that he also brought back from the war.

The Nazis also allowed prisoners to write to relatives or spouses, although they censored what the soldiers could write. He wrote Dorothy seven, seven-line cards during his capture, which she still keeps.

“I am still OK and am thinking of you all the time,” Scharenberg wrote to Dorothy on Oct. 29, 1944.

During this time, Dorothy was working in a defense plant in Chicago. She made sure the radio mechanisms for bomb releasers worked properly. She waited two months before she received the first letter from Leo saying he was captured but alive.

“You just accept what comes,” Dorothy said of the experience of uncertainty she lived with during Leo’s time as a prisoner. “You don’t think about what might happen.”

On Jan. 31, 1945, a Russian tank knocked down the gate around the camp and the German guards fled. The prisoners scrambled out onto the snow-covered streets, most heading in a column in one direction.

Scharenberg convinced his bunkmate in prison, Paul Blackmer from New York, to head around the camp and flee in the opposite direction. Scharenberg later learned that Nazis picked up most of the prisoners when the Russians left.

Scharenberg and Blackmer then went on an incredible journey. They walked from the camp, located 40 miles east of Berlin, more than 1,000 miles to Odessa, Ukraine, a city on the Black Sea. If they would have walked a straight line, they would have walked the entire length of Poland and part of the Ukraine.

However, their trip was anything but direct and could have covered many countries in Eastern Europe. They only walked at night, avoiding capture in the day by hiding in fields. Scharenberg said he had no idea where he was as he walked in the countryside from town to town, hiding sporadically as the two men heard spouts of fighting in the distance.

They went from town to town, searching in the homes where the Nazis had killed entire families. They ate cereals and canned items. On their first stop, they came to a farmhouse where Scharenberg killed a chicken. He said it was the best chicken he ever tasted.

“Did you clean it good?” Dorothy asked her husband when he brought up the story.

In another stop, Scharenberg and Blackmer hid in a local bank. Scharenberg said the two men were up to their knees in bills from Germany, Russia, and France. Scharenberg took a handful of money and hid it in his socks.

The trek, during the dead of an Eastern European winter, while Scharenberg was still wounded, took two months. When Scharenberg and Blackmer arrived in Odessa, they found a British ship on the Black Sea and they were rescued, April 6, 1945.

Being the consummate leader, Scharenberg allowed Blackmer to board the first British ship and waited for a second to arrive.

For another two months, Dorothy did not know if Leo was alive. She said she could not describe the incredible joy she felt when she received a telegram sent from a British ship.

“You don’t know the feeling,” Dorothy said as she cried with the memory.

Eventually Scharenberg landed in New York City.

“When I stood up on that ship and saw the Statue of Liberty, I cannot describe that feeling to you,” Scharenberg told Micki. “I got off the ship and kissed the ground.”

Dorothy met Leo in Herington at the train station. Normally about 170 pounds, he was down to 60.

Scharenberg earned four Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for his service.

For every week that Leo was missing in action or in the POW camp, the Army sent Dorothy a check worth $50. With all of the compounded time, they had $1,500 that Scharenberg used to start his farming operation.

The Scharenberg farm and ranch, operated by Jerry Siebert near Cedar Point, now covers 4,500 acres and has over 100 cattle.

Although most of the soldiers from Scharenberg’s team are now dead, he met with the group every two years, sometimes hosting the group of urban men at his farm.

“They were just great friends,” Jerry Siebert said.

It took the first meeting before Pancake would forgive Scharenberg for not letting him run from the Germans on that fateful August night in France.

Jerry Siebert worked with Scharenberg for years and said he is someone he admires, respects, and loves.

“I learned more from him without him even having to speak a word,” Siebert said. “One of the things I heard him say is you’re only as good as your word. You learn a lot of from observing someone living the way they say. If he told you something that was the way it was going to be.”

Last modified Nov. 9, 2011