A prisoner of war during World War II said the International Red Cross saved his life when it provided him with not only food, but glimpses of hope during his time in captivity.
Bill Roth, 94, has lived in Audubon, Iowa his entire life, except for the years he served for the United States (1941-1945) during the Second World War. While in North Africa at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, he was captured and held captive for 26 months—800 days to be exact.
His first encounter with the Red Cross was in Italy, which was a brief stop before journeying to Germany. The food, stored and packaged in Geneva, Switzerland, was distributed in parcels to POWs all around the world.
“They helped because we weren’t getting much to eat,” Roth said. “They were designed especially for prisoners in captivity.”
The contents of the parcels included powdered milk, ground coffee, biscuits, raisons and cigarettes, he said.
After several months of travel, he arrived in Stalag 7A, the largest POW camp in Germany during the war. Shortly after, he and his men were separated into smaller groups and transported to another work camp, where Roth remained for the rest of his captivity.
“That summer of 1943, [the Red Cross] sent representatives from Switzerland to check the work camp we were at,” he said. “Some of the main camps had been getting [the boxes] before that, but this was late summer, and we were really hurting. We weren’t getting fed very well.”
The Germans allowed the Red Cross workers and volunteers access to the camps because Germany was one of the few Axis countries affiliated with the Red Cross. He said the Germans were good about seeing that the captives received the parcels, even in the midst of war.
“We heard they were coming, and when we got them, we had a big celebration in the barracks,” he said. “When you get something that you missed out on for a long time, you really get excited.”
At the end of the war with the liberated POWs without food, the Red Cross delivered trucks with additional care boxes for those struggling.
Later, Roth returned home, where he belonged to the local fire department for 37 years, the Lions Club for 33 years and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Legion. Today, he commands the honor guard for military funerals, where he’s attended over 200 funerals. Additionally, he speaks to children in his community about his experiences with the Red Cross in the war.
“Those boxes were just a miracle,” Roth said. “I give the Red Cross a lot of credit for my well-being today.”