Mans token of war returned
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000
CLEARWATER -- In 1943, Jim Cram's parents didn't want their son to go to war.
So with characteristic audacity, the gung-ho teenager went directly to the head of the draft board in his hometown of 1,100 in Galesville, Wis. Put me and my four buddies at the top of the draft list, Cram insisted.
"He said, "Well your dad will kill me.' I said, "I'll never tell him,' and I never did," Cram said.
When Cram and his friends were all drafted at once in March 1943, Vilas Cram could hardly believe it.
"How did they get all five you at once?" the father asked. "Oh, I don't know," was his son's reply.
Soon afterward, Cram's mother Mary bought a silver pendant with an image of Jesus on it. She had it blessed by a priest and hung it around her 19-year-old son's neck before he left to join the 106th Infantry Division of American forces to fight in Europe.
Cram wore the pendant every day until Dec. 19, 1944, when it was ripped from his neck by a Nazi soldier who threw it in the dirt on a Belgian hill after the Battle of the Bulge.
For 55 years, Cram's pendant and dog tags were buried. Then an extraordinary thing happened. A Belgian man unearthed the items, tracked down Cram here in Florida and returned the religious medal.
Tarnished and scratched, the pendant arrived in an envelope from Belgium last month. It bore a Nov. 2 postmark and a bundle of memories for the Clearwater man whose car bears an Ex-POW tag.
"It's pretty nice," Cram said this week as he told his story.
Cram's wife of 37 years, Carol, says her husband didn't talk about World War II for many years. But now the 77-year-old recounts his experience in rich detail and chuckles at his own impudence and remarkable luck.
"I thought they couldn't win the war without me," Cram said.
Cram was assigned to Company E of the 2nd Battalion of the 422nd Infantry Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division. He went to France, where he fought the Germans for three months. Then his unit was called to the Belgian border, where the Battle of the Bulge ensued.
"The Germans broke through on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944," Cram said. "They got us surrounded on top of a hill. They had tanks on top of a hill firing down on us and 90,000 Germans coming at us."
Cram was on his stomach when a piece of shrapnel lodged in the back of his right thigh. In the below-zero temperatures, a medic desperately cut away his pants and his long underwear to look at the injury.
The Germans lined up the soldiers who could walk and marched them off. The injured, such as Cram, were taken to an abandoned school house. Days later Cram and five other injured American POWs were loaded into a German truck. As it rumbled down the road, he said, American troops fired on it with machine guns.
"They thought it was just a German truck," Cram said. "They killed three of the six guys.
"I escaped a lot of things," he said. "I should have been dead 10 times."
Eventually, Cram ended up at a POW camp in Germany. Once a day they were fed a piece of black bread and lukewarm liquid that Cram figures was supposed to be soup.
"It was cold," he said. "I was hungry. No cigarettes. No nothing."
Cram was called into a room one day to be interrogated, and his streak of audacity got him into trouble. A German with impeccable English wearing a blue pinstripe suit offered him a chair, a cup of wine and a cigarette.
"I'm sitting on a chair, it's warm in there, and he's giving me wine and cigarettes," Cram said. "I'm going to play this for all I can."
The German asked whether there were any war factories or war materials being made in his hometown. At the time, the only factory in Galesville shelled and canned peas grown by local farmers.
"But I says, "Yeah, they're making something about a bomb.' And he says, "Oh, yeah? Anything else?' And I says, "Yeah, they're making those brushes you clean your rifle with."
The German asked where he was from and pulled down a map of Wisconsin.
"I told him Galesville, and he stuck a red pin in there," Cram said.
Then the German went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a folder full of information about Galesville.
"He told me who the mayor was, the council members, the name of the lake there," Cram said.
And the pea factory.
That got Cram bashed in the face with a rifle, then tossed out into the snow with a mouthful of blood and teeth.
Cram figures he spent four months at the camp. One day, he and other POWs were loaded into box cars. As the train made its way down the tracks, Americans began firing at it, Cram said.
"They didn't know we were in there," he said.
He escaped from the train and fled into the woods. Eventually he was rescued by American troops, who took some convincing before they would believe the unkempt, 63-pound man was an American.
Finally, with his wounds healing, he was sent home in 1945.
The pendant was found by a 32-year-old Belgian man named Rogers Maes who collects military artifacts and displays them in his home. He found Cram through John Kline, a past president of an association of veterans of the 106th Infrantry Division to which Cram belongs.
Kline said Cram is one of numerous Europeans who recover World War II artifacts.
"He's a good guy," Kline said. "He's been to two or three of our reunions."
Cram first learned he had found the pendant in July 1999, when he and his wife returned from vacation in Wisconsin and found a telephone message and a letter from Kline.
"I have a friend in Belgium who collects artifacts from the battlefield," Kline wrote. "He apparently has found some of your articles with your service number inscribed in them."
The Crams were stunned.
"It came out of the blue," Mrs. Cram said. "We couldn't believe it."
Cram told Maes he could keep the dog tags. Maes sent Cram the pendant with this message: "I hope you gonna be happy to see it again 60 years after. From your Belgian friend."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks