Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
Long IslandNassau

Bernard Rader, of Freeport, prisoner of war

William Rader, now 91 and living in Freeport,

William Rader, now 91 and living in Freeport, was one of the 119,500 American GIs held as prisoners of war during World War II. Rader, seen here at his home on March 17, 2015, knew his Nazi captors would check his dog tag medal identification and that the “H” on his dog tag which identified him as Jewish, could get him sent to a Nazi work camp and possible death. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

On Oct. 2, 1944, Pfc. Bernard Rader was serving in the 301st Regiment, 94th Infantry Division, near the coast of Brittany, France.

His Company K had been told that a group of German soldiers, pinned down and exhausted, had decided to surrender. Rader and the more than 50 other GIs who set off to round up the prisoners considered the mission so routine they had not even bothered to wear combat helmets, or to carry heavy weapons.

It was the machine gun and mortar fire that clued them in. What was supposed to be surrender had in fact been a trap.

Knocked senseless and riddled with shrapnel when a mortar shell exploded close by, Rader would become one of the 119,500 American GIs held as prisoners of war during World War II.

"I was dazed and on the ground," said Rader, 91, now a retired accountant living in Freeport. "But I realized I had to get rid of my dog tags."

He knew his Nazi captors would check the dog tag metal identification chips that American GIs have worn since 1917. Rader knew the "H," which identified him as Jewish, could get him sent to a Nazi work camp and possible death.

"I knew I had to get rid of them, and I called out "George, George," he said, referring to platoon mate George Boyd, who Rader still telephones regularly at his home in Efland, North Carolina.

He said Boyd quickly buried Rader's dog tags, then put Rader, who was too weak to make a run for it, in a wheelbarrow. They were captured a short while later.

Rader was held in a hospital commandeered by German forces at Lorient, a French port.

The Geneva Convention's rules of war bound its signatories to the ethical treatment of prisoners. But prisoners of both Germany, a signatory to the convention, and Japan, which had refused, often faced starvation anyway.

Rader said his prisoner meals consisted of a slice of bread smeared with lard. Dinners were supplemented with a thin cabbage gruel.

"I was afraid, not of being mistreated, but of starving," Rader said. "There was nothing to eat. And day after day, it would be the same thing."

He said he passed the hours fantasizing about food, and in a journal he still has penned a list of 140 foods he missed the most. Hershey's chocolate with almonds topped the list, followed by a whimsical assemblage that included chopped liver sandwiches, waffles with bacon and pumpkin pie a la mode. Even sauerkraut juice made the list.

"I still like it," said Rader, who studied accounting at City College of New York after his 1946 discharge and married June Richmond in 1952. He worked for the Valley Stream accounting firm Israeloff, Trattner & Co. until he retired in 1991.

With no idea of how long he would be held prisoner, Rader wondered whether his family even knew he was alive.

"Many were the hours that I lay looking up at the white ceiling thinking to myself, 'Do they know I'm a prisoner,' " he wrote in a 1944 letter to his parents.

" 'Do my letters get through and let them know I'm safe?,' " he continued. " 'Has the army reported me as a POW?' "

Eighteen days after his capture, the doorbell rang at 1634 Carroll St., his parents' Crown Heights, Brooklyn home.

Rader's sister Gloria opened the door to find an official-looking woman looking grimly back at her from the front steps.

"I knew from the stories of my brother's friends who were killed that a lady at the door with an envelope was bad news," Gloria Katz of East Meadow recalled years later. "I became hysterical, and told her 'Go away, and take your telegram with you.' "

The telegram the woman delivered only said Rader had been listed as missing in action.

Throughout World War II, being captured meant spending the remainder of the war as a German or Japanese prisoner. With food and clothing increasingly scarce as the war dragged on, American prisoners suffered from hunger and cold, disease and parasites.

Although the Red Cross was effectively barred from delivering food aid to Americans held prisoner by Japan's forces, the agency was a crucial conduit of relief aid and information about American prisoners in Europe.

Andrew G. Hodges, a 22-year-old Red Cross field director who had the confidence of German officers where Rader was being held captive, suggested a rare prisoner exchange. Prisoners would be swapped man for man, rank for rank, physical condition for physical condition.

"Another guy got down and kissed the ground," Rader said of the swap. "I would have but I couldn't. I was on a stretcher."

In all, about 150 U.S. GIs were returned. Rader, who was carried to the American side on a stretcher, was among them. He had lost nearly 25 pounds in his 47 days held captive.

"I was thinking 'I'm getting out! I'm getting out!' " he recalled. "When I saw it happening, when I saw the Americans, oh boy!"

Nassau top stories