Free from the stalag

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 29, 2006

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

May is a very significant month in the life of Joe Jensen for two reasons. First, in on May 3, 1945, he was liberated from a German prisoner-of-war camp near Berlin by a unit of the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division. Second, earlier this month he and his wife, Leota, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

Jensen grew up on a dairy farm near both Le Roy and Chester, Iowa, became a member of the U.S. Army in April 1942, thanks to the draft.

He was sent to Camp Bowie, Texas, for basic training and originally assigned to the 31st Division. Jensen was later assigned to Company L, 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Division. His unit was sent to North Africa.

In April 1943 his company advanced into a front-line area in Tunisia, North Africa.

Through a miscalculation the unit was soon surrounded by German troops.

&8220;I could hear tanks and half-tracks all around us, but they were German,&8221; he said.

What was left of the company after an intense battle surrendered to the Germans.

Jensen was moved across the Mediterranean Sea on the deck of a tanker. He was held in a prisoner compound in Italy, then sent north to Germany and spent time in Stalags (prison camps) 7A, 3B and 2B. This last stalag was about 50 miles from Berlin.

During his time in this camp Jensen became acquainted with another prisoner who happened to be a Polish priest. This priest spoke English and helped Jensen, who had become Catholic just before going into the Army, with instructions about the church.

Jensen also became an altar server for this priest. He added that the services became a combination of Latin, Polish and English.

Jensen couldn’t speak any German before going into the service. In the prison camps a knowledge of this language became a necessity for bartering with the guards for extra food and for getting a fair idea of what was going on in and around the camp. In fact, he became fairly fluent with German

and actually served as an interpreter on several occasions.

Jensen said there were other Minnesotans in the camp. And the one he really recalls is the late Jerry Traynor from Delavan.

Toward the end of the war Jensen volunteered to be a laborer on a nearby farm. He commented that this helped with the food situation.

&8220;I lost 75 pounds as a POW,&8221; he explained.

In several of the stalags he said some prisoners were always plotting to escape. However, as a POW in both the stalags and on the farm he didn’t consider this as an option.

&8220;We didn’t try to escape. Where would you go?&8221; he said.

As the war front came closer to the place where he was in late April, and gunfire could be heard in the distance there was speculation as to whether the POW’s would be liberated by the Soviet Russians or the American forces.

Jensen was liberated by soldiers from the 9th Division, the same unit he had served with when captured, on May 3, 1945.

He was discharged from the U.S. Army in September 1945 and went back to the Le Roy area to work for a produce firm. He married Leota Buttolph of McIntire, Iowa, on May 2, 1946.

Jensen became an inspector with the United States Department of Agriculture in the poultry division in 1955. He spent 27 years at various plants in southern Minnesota, including Land O’ Lakes, and the Kroger and DeSoto egg plants in Albert Lea. He retired in February 1982.

&8220;I’ve been in charge of all the ushers at St. Theodore’s for 24 years,&8221; he commented.

Jensen is a member of the American Ex-POW’S, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He was the commander of Albert Lea’s Glaydon Iverson Chapter 16 of the Disabled American Veterans for two years.

(Contact Ed Shannon ar ed.shannon@albertleatribune.com or call 379-3438.)