‘I was one lucky guy’
SARANAC LAKE – Tom Oddy counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
Ambushed, injured and captured by German soldiers during World War II, the Saranac Lake man spent two nights holed up in a bunker with no food or water, eventually abandoned by the Germans before he was rescued by American troops.
“I was one lucky guy,” the now 88-year-old Oddy told the Enterprise in an interview last week. “I was lucky to survive.”
Oddy, a 19-year-old private first class in the U.S. Army’s 100th Infantry Division, was working with the division’s 398th Regiment, Company L, to clear the hills around Bitche, France, so the Allies could take the town in late November 1944. A group of four or five squads, each made up of about a dozen troops, was working its way up a winding dirt road when they came across a roadblock.
“There was concertina wire set up across the road, but there was an opening,” Oddy said. “We sent scouts ahead. They went ahead but they didn’t see the Germans. They said it looked all clear, but the Germans had let them go by. They were waiting there for us. It was an ambush.”
The squads moved up the road, zigzagging across it so as not to stay in the open for too long. They reached a series of trenches that had been dug perpendicular to each side of the road. That’s when the Germans opened fire, Oddy said.
“We only saw three,” he said. “They started shooting at us. One fella, the bullet bounced off his helmet and they laughed about it. We emptied our guns, our M1s, on them. We think we got them.”
Oddy led a group of about eight soldiers into one of the trenches. With him was his foxhole mate, William Palmer, a PFC from the New York City area whom Oddy had been assigned to keep an eye on. Although Oddy was only 19, he had two years of training with the National Guard before he was drafted in February 1944. Palmer had been on office duty for much of the war and hadn’t had much basic training, Oddy said.
“He wasn’t much for having a gun, this kid,” Oddy recalled. “(Staff) Sgt. (Henry) Helmers told me to have him with me because I had more training with the Guard.”
As the squad moved through one of the trenches, Oddy said he came across some curiously placed balsam boughs on the ground.
“I said, ‘That’s funny,’ and I took my bayonet and moved the boughs away and there’s a shoe mine sticking up,” Oddy said. “Another five feet away, there was another bunch of balsam boughs. I moved those, and there was another mine.”
Oddy said he went closer to the road to tell another squad about the mines. He learned that their way back down the road had been cut off by a machine gun that was trained on the roadblock.
“I passed down to the rest of the squad that there’s two shoe mines here and you gotta step over them.’ I walked over them, the guy behind me walked over them, then the squad leader (Helmers) came up and said, ‘Get the hell out of there, let me talk to those guys over there,'” Oddy said. “He wasn’t there two minutes when, ‘Pow,’ (Helmers) got (shot) right in the head. The sniper must have been trained on him. They must have had it on me when I was talking to the guys across the road.”
Helmers fell back in Oddy’s arms. Oddy said Palmer panicked.
“He turned and stepped on one mine and fell on the other one,” Oddy said. “He died. It blew his side out. Then all of a sudden this concussion grenade hit me – bang – like that. It was about a foot-and-a-half or two feet away from me. I got shrapnel in my right ear, up in my forehead and down my side. I passed out.”
The rest of the squad surrendered and were taken as prisoners of war by the Germans, Oddy said. A German medic whom he described as an older man, probably in his 50s, took the shrapnel out of his ear and bandaged him up. Oddy said he couldn’t understand much of what the Germans were saying except that they were calling him ‘boy.’
“They took my wallet out and found a picture of my sister and her baby, and I think they thought it was my wife and baby. They seemed to take pity on me. A few guys from our squad carried me back to (the German) trench.”
As darkness set in, the soldiers from Oddy’s squad who weren’t wounded were able to escape, one by one, as the Germans slept. He said the Germans, not wanting to be slowed down by their prisoners, eventually left, too, leaving behind Oddy and another GI who had been shot through the eye.
Oddy said he spent two days and two nights in that makeshift bunker.
“I was just hoping I would stay alive,” he said. “We had no food or water. They just left us. We were laying there, sleeping off and on. Finally, the American engineers started coming through, blowing up mines and stuff. We heard them and started hollering. They thought we could be Germans and wanted to know where we were from. I said, ‘Saranac Lake,’ and one guy from Utica knew where Saranac Lake was, and he said, ‘He’s OK; come and get them.'”
Oddy was taken from the field by an Army ambulance and was eventually taken to a hospital in Epinal, France, to be treated. But he wasn’t out of harm’s way yet. The night after Christmas, Dec. 26, 1944, the hospital was attacked by a lone German fighter plane.
“He came over and dropped a small bomb,” Oddy said. “It blew and shook the whole place. Everybody started to get up. I got up and put on my bathrobe to go downstairs and he came around and started to strafe. A bullet went through the window and hit right where my feet and legs had been. It was a dud. It didn’t explode. It hit the floor. On my left was a fella from the 106th Division. It went in and out of his pajamas. He was lucky, too.”
Oddy eventually made it back to the U.S., where he continued to recuperate from his injuries. He was being treated at a hospital in New York City when he got a chance to go home to Saranac Lake and see his family for two weeks. Oddy’s mother had initially been told, via telegram, that he was missing in action, only to learn several days later that he had been injured in combat.
“When I finally got home, I got off the bus, and she felt me up and down to make sure all of my parts were there,” he said. “I was glad to be back here.”
Oddy returned to New York City where he worked at an Army post office through the end of the war. He was discharged in 1946 and given a Purple Heart, a decoration awarded to those wounded or killed in action. He eventually returned to Saranac Lake, where he met and married Patricia Ann Duffy. They had seven children and have been married for 61 years now.
Oddy worked for Huntington Novelty Company, then started Upstate Vending with Jack LaHart of Lake Placid. He was in business for 25 years before he retired. Oddy was also one of a group of businessmen who brought cable television service into the Tri-Lakes in the 1950s and 1960s.
Oddy said he hasn’t shared the story of his World War II experience very often, other than with his wife and kids. Pat Oddy said her husband has worked to pass on the importance of military service to his family over the years.
“He’s always tried to make them understand the sacrifices that a lot of people made, and to appreciate that,” she said. “He really instilled that in the kids.”