CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Mortimer Hughes was working as a farmhand in Cape May County, New Jersey, when he was drafted on April 23, 1944. He did not mind being drafted, because his friends had already entered the service; and, he felt guilty about not being called up. After arrival at Fort Dix, Hughes was assigned to basic training at Camp Croft, a World War II US Army Infantry Replacement Training Center located near Spartanburg, South Carolina, after which he was sent overseas. He first went to Scotland, then he was sent to France, where he was assigned to C Company of the 23rd Armored Infantry Battalion, a unit of the 7th Armored Division.
The 7th Armored Division, part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, had landed at Omaha Beach in mid-August 1944, and was driving inland across France when Hughes joined the unit. The 7th took part in the liberation of much of France and the Netherlands. The division then moved to Belgium, and was reassigned to the 9th Army during the Battle of the Bulge. On the 4th day of that fight, the Germans launched an offensive which overran Hughes’ position. He was in a foxhole with another solder when a grenade landed and exploded. The explosion destroyed their rifles and severely injured both men — Hughes had over 30 pieces of shrapnel in his legs. He tried to aid his foxhole mate, who suffered even worse wounds. The Germans surrounded the foxhole and captured both men.
Hughes was transported to a field hospital, where his wounds were bandaged by German medics. He was then moved to a hospital in Germany, where he remained until the allies bombed the hospital, inflicting heavy German casualties. Hughes managed to get out of the hospital building with the aid of local civilians, who used a ladder to assist trapped patients. He then was sent to several camps in succession, either by marching or in a railroad box car. The German guards who escorted him and other Americans POWs were unarmed, and only carried a stick with a white flag; they were prepared to surrender to the allies at any given time. The guards also warned the prisoners that, although they could run off and not be shot, it was not a wise idea, since they might run into the SS, who would shoot them, no questions asked. This travel ordeal lasted for around three months.
Hughes was liberated while he was hiding underneath a barn in Germany. The area had been routinely bombed, so he had to seek cover until the bombing ended. While hiding, Hughes heard the noise of tanks and marching, which he assumed were Germans moving through the area. As they got closer, he realized they were Americans. Hughes remembered running to the street and shouting at them that he was an American. In a state of delirium, he chased after a half-track, shouting at a lieutenant that he needed to get on the vehicle. A total of 1,500 American POWs were rescued that day. The German guards did not resist and were taken prisoner. The Americans had no idea what to do with the released prisoners, who had to wait until planes were available to take them to France to be treated. Hughes, due to the poor conditions he had lived in, weighed a mere 87 pounds on his liberation, and remembered being covered in dirt and lice. It took him three months to be rehabilitated in a French hospital.
After the war, Hughes returned to his home in Cape May, where he found out that he had been listed as missing in action. He was a POW for 97 days. When Hughes first returned to America, he never discussed his service. At the time of this interview, he enjoyed talking about it, as well as went to schools to give talks about what he did in World War II. Hughes was a proud member of the South Jersey Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge and the American Ex-prisoners of War of Cape May County.
Mortimer Hughes earned the Combat Infantry Badge, the Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and the Victory Medal for his service. He passed away in Atlantic City at the age of 92 on November 28, 2012.