During the summer of 1943, Reggie Salisbury was just another country boy from Ridgeville, S.C., spending his childhood on his father’s chicken farm hunting, fishing and just being a good old country boy. He was thousands of miles away from the front lines of World War II and the Germans who would eventually take him prisoner.
Salisbury knew it was only a matter of time before he was drafted into the military, so with a sense of patriotism he took it upon himself to enlist. At the age of 18, Salisbury left the southern comfort of his father’s farm to serve in the U.S. Army.
“I was always the show off,” said Salisbury in regards to his attitude during combat training. “I volunteered for everything: raiders, paratroopers and just about anything to get out there. I was turned down for those, but I was selected to be a Native American Code Talker scout.”
The Comanche and other Native American tribes spoke languages unlike anything the Germans had heard before; languages that, if used as codes, were unbreakable. The Americans used these Native American dialects to relay messages on the battlefield. It was Salisbury’s job to carry the radio and protect the Native American code talkers, much the same as Nicholas Cage’s character depicted in the movie “Windtalkers.”
And on that infamous day, June 6, 1944, among the allied troops that bravely stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, were Comanche Code Talkers and their scouts, including Salisbury and Code Talker Charlie Wall.
A British sailor approached Salisbury and Wall on the deck of an old, decrepit shrimp boat chugging towards Omaha Beach on the morning of the invasion. The sailor spit tobacco juice between them into the English Channel and said, “This is going to be your last ride, blokes.”
Salisbury could hear the sounds of machine guns firing and explosions coming from the shoreline. The British sailor’s ‘death sentence still sends chills down Salisbury’s spine even today.
Carrying radio equipment and armed with only a pistol, Salisbury and Wall hit Omaha Beach and were immediately met with heavy fire by the Germans. Salisbury saw death all around him, yet he kept his wits despite being bogged down in the muddy and bloody sand. The tide had turned crimson from the blood and fallen service members were being washed ashore. As the chaos of war raged loudly along the French waterfront, Salisbury, the other scouts and the Code Talkers successfully transmitted messages back to commanders.
Salisbury picked up an assault rifle from a fallen solider and began returning fire. His mind drifted back to his South Carolina home where he learned how to use guns for hunting.
“This wasn’t like hunting in South Carolina; I didn’t know if I was going to make it out alive that day,” said Salisbury. “But really, I didn’t have time to think about it. I just stayed low and knew not to look up in the same place twice.”
Salisbury survived the D-Day invasion after he and another solider, also a South Carolina native, had the idea of putting bulldozer blades onto the tanks so the tanks could dig up the hedgerows and clear paths off the beach and out of the killing zone. From there, he and Wall were able to head inland towards the French countryside.
But surviving D-Day was just the beginning for Salisbury; the prelude to months of horror and pain.
Across a valley, where the 30th Division had set up operations, was a no-man’s land where Salisbury and Wall watched two German soldiers out in the open. According to Salisbury, it felt like a trap. Yet, a young officer ordered Salisbury and another scout to lead a patrol to attack the Germans. The patrol followed the two soldiers and eventually came across a group of German soldiers eating inside a small house in the middle of a wheat field.
Even though Salisbury expressed his concerns, the officer in charge ignored him and ordered the men to attack the Germans. The Americans opened fire and killed the Germans. The success of the mission, however, was short-lived.
More Germans surrounded the troops and after a brief firefight, the patrol ran out of ammunition. They disassembled their weapons and kneeled into the wheat field to conceal their location.
“The Germans were so close; I just knew they could hear my heart beating,” said Salisbury. “I hid in that wheat field with the other Americans, but it wasn’t long before we were detected. Charlie also spoke German and he was translating the Germans’ orders … they were yelling, ‘Come out with your hands up.’
Without ammunition and staring down the barrels of enemy rifles, Salisbury accepted the fact he would die on that French field in 1944. He didn’t even have time to pray. He just exhaled a single breath into the frigid air and closed his eyes as the German soldiers lifted their weapons at the unarmed men.
Salisbury was ready to die for his country.
“But, before any of us were shot, all I heard was ‘Nien! Nien! Nien!’” said Salisbury. “It was one of the German officers yelling ‘No’ over and over. He had other plans for us.”
The Americans were searched by the Germans, stripped of their field jackets, cigarettes and chocolate. Then they were ordered to march with their hands on their heads. Salisbury had no idea where he was marching to.
“If any of us slowed down or dropped our hands during the march, we were hit in our backbone with the stock of a German rifle,” said Salisbury. “So, I kept walking.”
It would turn into a very long walk.
“I was in a group of about 16 POWs,” said Salisbury. “We marched for a month across France into Belgium. There were only two German guards watching all of us.”
Salisbury thought of escaping, but he knew what would happen to the others if he escaped. All the prisoners knew the rules: if one POW tried escaping, they all died.
“We were in it together,” said Salisbury. “If we all couldn’t leave, then none of us would.”
When they got to Belgium, the group was placed with other POWs and crammed so tightly into an old rail boxcar that no one could even sit comfortably. The car’s floor was covered with horse manure from a previous shipment, and a small hole covered with barbed wire let some air into the putrid rail car. The men were given a bucket of oats to eat.
They spent seven days on that train before finally stopping and landing the POWs into a world of terror and interrogation. Salisbury was threatened by a Japanese officer for information. However, no matter how hard they tried to extract information, Salisbury endured and never said anything other than what he was trained to say.
“I gave them my name, rank and serial number,” said Salisbury. “Other than that, I stayed quiet.”
Salisbury was now forced to work, so he volunteered for the groups working outside the prison camp. This gave him an opportunity to meet locals and trade items for food. However, one incident gave him something he still carries with him today: a scar on the top of his forehead.
“I was bringing boxes into a drug store when I noticed the girl working there spoke Polish,” said Salisbury. “I don’t speak Polish so I asked a guy nearby how to say, ‘where can I place the boxes?’” Unfortunately, whatever he told me to say wasn’t the question I intended.”
The cashier giggled at Salisbury and moments later, a German soldier with the Schutzstaffel insignia, the mark of the dreaded SS, rushed into the store. The SS guard overheard the conversation and was furious with what Salisbury said, although Salisbury had no idea what it was or why it was in bad taste. The SS soldier responded by smashing Salisbury’s skull with the stock of his rifle and leaving Salisbury in a pool of his own blood on the floor of the drug store.
“I still have no idea what I said that was so bad,” jokes Salisbury.
Like other POWs, Salisbury ate very little food during his imprisonment. Because he worked outside, he continued trading his few rations with locals for items like potatoes, barley and wheat. But toward the end of his imprisonment, food became even scarcer. By the time he was liberated, his body weight had dropped from 160 to 92 pounds.
Salisbury and his Native American brother-in-arms were eventually freed from German imprisonment as the war began to wind down. They were taken from the prison camp and cleaned up, fed like royalty and given some free time in Europe. As good as it all was, there was only one place Salisbury wanted to be.
“I just wanted to go home,” said Salisbury. “After being a prisoner, the rest of my life fell together like most lives do; I got married, got a career and retired.”
Although he’s lived his life in peace since the war, the images of combat and his experiences as a prisoner were always kept close inside him. For more than 30 years, he never shared his POW story with anyone, including his wife. Yet, he unburied his past on a snowy night in 1973 when the television aired images of POWs from Vietnam coming home to America. Salisbury was overcome with emotion. He opened up to his wife and told her his life as a POW.
“Since I told my wife that night, I have been active about sharing my story with others,” said Salisbury. “It’s important to remember the sacrifices made by all of our military veterans.”
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