Kane Brothers Recall the War—Article, Part II

This photo of Henry (at left) and Richard Kane was taken on the boardwalk in Jacksonville, FL while the brothers were on a pass during training. Henry’s son George commented, “Ironic that the photo depicts exactly what was to come several months later.” 

Memories of WW II Continue For Kane Brothers

December 23, 1986, The Sentinel, New Windsor, New York

Editors note: This is part two of a two-part feature. The first part appeared in the December 18 issue of The Sentinel.

by Linda Fehrs

Henry and Richard Kane are brothers who did many things together including joining the army in World War II. After fighting many battles, mostly in northern Africa they were captured together by the Axis powers and spent well over two years in prisoner of war camps in Europe.

After being transferred from camp to camp they had ended up in Palermo, staying there for about a year. They spent their time reading and playing games. The Red Cross sent them packages regularly, but life in the camp was not of the highest quality. The place was rampant with bedbugs and the men had body lice. The meals were sparse and the conditions less than pleasant to say the least.

One of the goals of captured soldiers in time of war is to escape. And this was what Henry and Richard Kane, along with other American soldiers, did. They managed to blow a hole in the wall of their camp and escape through some tunnels they had been digging.

The rough part was trying to get back to American lines without being recaptured—or killed. For months they walked only at night, following the North Star and the Big Dipper. They walked halfway through Italy, through the Apennines mountains.

The men tried to keep together along the way. Villagers would take them in for the night. In exchange for food and shelter, the soldiers would help with chores around the farms, such as stomping grapes. They died their prison uniforms so as not to stand out.

“From where we were,” says Henry, “we could hear the front lines.”

Along the way they were also helped by British paratroopers, who gave them each 20,000 lire. The soldiers kept only about 2,000 lire for themselves and gave the rest to the people who would help them along the way.

“If it wasn’t for the help we got,” says Richard, “there was no way we would have survived.”

Their journey took them to the city. One day, while there, an earthquake hit the town. The brothers say just about the whole town slid down the mountain, the house they were in cracked in half.

Then, six months into their travels, they were recaptured.

“We could have been turned in at any time,” says Henry, “but the people we had stayed with had been kind to us. They would even bring food up to us in the mountains.”

But eventually the Germans did find them and took the four soldiers and several people who had helped them into the local German headquarters near Podeo.

“They took us and put us into these small cubicles, in a dungeon,” says Richard.

“We figured we would be shot,” added Henry.

They were there about two or three weeks in separate areas. It was dark and the men could barely stand up in the cramped little spaces they were in.

Henry says the Germans thought the American soldiers were affiliated with the rebels in the area. Today they would be called terrorists, he says.

“There was seven of us all together,” says Henry, “and we had a German general court martial.”

The four American soldiers sat in trial for three days, not understanding a word of what was being said. When it was over, an interpreter told them they would be going to Germany.

The soldiers were lucky, and so was one woman who was also tried. It was discovered she had a husband fighting in Africa, and she was let go and given some money due her.

But one man was beaten severely for helping the Americans and one, even less lucky, received death by firing squad.

The soldiers were sent first to an area just outside of Florence, in northern Italy, where they would get a train to Germany.

The brothers say prisoners would be shot as they tried to escape. The bodies would sometimes fall onto the tracks, but instead of removing them the trains would just ride over them. The remains would stay on the tracks for all to see.

The Germans were anxious to get the prisoners to Germany, but the Allied forces kept bombing the tracks. Each day they would be repaired and perhaps a train would get out.

The trains were the box cars you see in photographs and films of the Holocaust. Forty-five men would be crammed into the barren car. There was no water, no toilet. If the men died, they remained with the living. The prisoners had to defecate on the floor, and because there was no room, had to stand, sit, and sleep in it.

As the train Henry and Richard were in travelled to Germany, it was bombed. The back end of the train was hit badly and all the prisoners in the rear were killed. The brothers once again, in a twist of luck, had survived.

They were taken to Stalag (camp) 17 near Munich where they stayed for one month. Their job was to repair the railroad tracks.

Every day, they say, about 500 bombers would drop 1,000 pound bombs destroying the tracks. And, every day the prisoners would go out and fix them.

“We could see them (the planes) coming, says Henry, “and we’d go for shelter. We’d come back after the bombing and all the work we had done would be gone from the bombs. We’d see the steel rails wrapped around telephone poles because of the force of the bombs.”

From Munich they were sent to Muthburgh Stalag 2B. At that camp there were prisoners of all nationalities including Russian and Arab soldiers. Each nationality was kept separate. While the Americans received packages from the Red Cross, many others received nothing. Many of the other prisoners, say the brothers, had nothing to live for, nothing to go home for, because of a feeling of disgrace. Many, they say, died in the camps because of it.

Stalag 2B was actually relatively comfortable. At times there were cigarettes and beer available to them. They had bread, and hard rolls, which they kept and were able to trade for other things. They lived in barracks and were assigned work details. Richard and Henry worked in East Prussia, cutting wood for a year. Two cords a day they cut, by handsaw.

From Jan 2 of that year, until May 2, they marched together with 1,500 fellow prisoners from the Russian front to the American front. They had to keep moving.

In May it looked to them as if the German army was retreating. Then the Spitfires came out. “We dug in,” says Richard, “we were waiting for something to happen.” They were in Russian territory, under German guard. “The guards were taking care of us,” says Henry, “making sure we were all okay.”

The two brothers say it was probably because they knew something was about to happen.

“We looked up,” says Henry, “at an aircraft coming at us, not knowing what was going to happen. He flew over us and tipped his wing at us.”

They knew then that the war was over. It was time to go home.

The German soldiers wanted desperately to come with them to America. They knew things would be bad in Europe after the war.

The former prisoners were taken to Hanover Airport and shipped to France. They spent one night in Paris before returning home.

But going home was not like coming over. They had come over in style on the Queen Mary. They went home on a freighter.

“But,” says Richard, “we knew we were headed in the right direction. We were going home.”

The freighter took them to New York Harbor, past America’s landmark of freedom, the Statue of Liberty.

“It was a beautiful sight,” says Henry, “it’s impossible to express how we felt. For two and a half years we heard no English…You can’t put into words what it was all like.”

The brothers spent two and a half years in Europe, but for them it was a lifetime. “Things change,” says Henry, “you go into the army, and war, a young boy. You grow up a lot. Nothing is ever the same. You look at the world, at your home, differently after those experiences. Your thinking is just not the same.”

After returning they were given two weeks R & R (rest and recuperation) leave in Lake Placid.

Richard came home and married the girl he had left behind. Henry got married one year later.

After getting out of the Army in Sept. 1945, Richard worked a few odd jobs before working at A & P, from which he later retired.

Henry began working at Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania, but then came back to the Newburgh area and worked at American Felt and Filter for awhile. Under the GI Bill he learned masonry, and worked as a mason at West Point. Now retired, Henry Kane’s work can be seen all over the area. He does work privately now, and a sample of his work can be seen at the Midway Market in New Windsor.

It’s hard for them to talk about the war, even though it’s been forty years. “Sometimes, talking about it bothers us,” says Richard, “It opens old wounds, old memories. It brings it all back. But you learn to live with it.”

This year Henry got Prisoners of War license plates for his car. Richard is still waiting.

Throughout the years they have both been members of the American Legion. Richard is the commander of the post in Montgomery (No. 5210), and Henry is the vice-commander in New Windsor post (No. 1796).

Both men have sons who served in Vietnam.

The brothers are still married to the women they wed after the war, Henry to Gertrude and Richard to Marie. Between them they have eight children. Richard and Marie have four sons; Robert, Richard, Roger, and Ronald. Henry and Gertrude have three sons and a daughter; Kevin, George, Henry, and Karen.

Henry and Richard have many things that they share, many memories, but perhaps none so great and deep as the experiences that being brothers together in time of war.