Lee Clingan considers himself a lucky man.
At age 87, the Covington, Ind., resident counts among his blessings his family and friends, a successful career in the insurance and auctioneering business, his 24 years in the Indiana state legislature, and his status as a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war.
“I often wonder how I’ve been so lucky,” he said.
Off to war
Clingan entered the Army as a private in 1941, but was sent to officer candidate school to become an infantry platoon leader for the invasion of Normandy.
“The average life expectancy of a platoon leader was seven days,” he said, referring to himself as a “replacement” for the many who died before him.
Clingan fought in the Netherlands, Central Europe and Normandy campaigns, leading his platoon through two major battles. Along the way he was captured Oct. 29, 1944, in Holland, when a Panzer tank division wiped out his unit.
“At that point it was die or give up,” he said. “I hated that. We didn’t have a chance.”
The Germans put Clingan and the other survivors on a train destined for a POW camp in Poland. En route to the camp, British planes bombed the train’s engine, sparking chaos.
Clingan and nine other officers were traveling in a boxcar sandwiched between two others, each filled with 75 infantrymen.
“The men in the car ahead of us were panicked,” he said. “You see, the car ahead of them was full of ammunition, and everyone was afraid the whole thing would go up.”
Clingan defied orders from a German guard and jumped from the boxcar to help rescue the men.
“I don’t know how I got that car open,” he said. “I guess luck was on my side that day.”
The Germans sent another engine and the train would eventually make its way to the POW camp designated as Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland. The camp was established in June 1943 by the Germans to detain American officers. It initially held 150 prison-ers. By the time the camp was evacuated in January 1945, their ranks had grown to 1,400.
The march begins
Clingan and the other prisoners would not stay at the camp much longer. On Jan. 21, 1945, they were sent on what was later termed the “Poland Death March” through Central Europe as the Germans tried to outpace the Russian forces on their tail.
“We knew we’d be going,” he said. “We had a radio in the camp and we could pick up the BBC. We knew things weren’t going well for the Germans.”
The Oflag 64 men were forced to march during the bitter winter. Clingan recalls marching about 10 miles a day during blis-tering cold weather. At night the men would sleep in barns, sheds or any other structure that could be found.
“I’d try to find some hay and curl up,” Clingan said. “My feet were always so cold.”
Each night he’d take off his wet boot, place them next to his stomach and wrap his body into a tight ball. “I was hoping my body heat would dry those boots.”
Food also was scarce, which meant the men often had to fend for themselves.
By the time the Oflag 64 men made it to Hammelburg, German, their numbers had dwindled to half.
Former POWs report German guards often shot and killed those who straggled during these marches, while other prisoners were simply tempted to escape along the way or hide. Most POWS figured their odds were better staying together as a group. For those who survived, it was difficult to overlook that each week of the march there were fewer POWs than when they started.
“I really don’t know what happened to a lot of them,” Clingan said trailing off.
Among the many the prisoners at Hammelburg was Gen. George S. Patton’s son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Waters. Patton ordered a raid on the prison camp. He sent in members of a 300-man task force to liberate the POWs, but many were killed, wounded or recaptured after the raid.
After the raid on Hammelburg, the remaining POWs were marched out on the second leg of their journey, farther south to Moosburg. The POWs had no way of knowing, but those who would finish the trip, start to finish, traveled about 450 miles. It was done in two stages, and took from Jan. 21 to April 20 to complete, about 90 days.
Headed for home
At Moosburg, Clingan and a few other men decided to liberate themselves. They walked away from the camp and began to hitch-hike their way home. Clingan eventually made it to France, where he boarded a Liberty ship bound for New York City. Once in New York, he took the train to Indianapolis, where met up with his family. He made the last leg of his journey to the family farm in Kingman.
When Clingan arrived home, he had dropped from 170 pounds to 135. He was released from active duty as a first lieutenant in June 1945. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Clingan then pursued a career in the insurance and auctioneering businesses. He was elected to the Indiana State Senate and served from 1960 to 1968. He was then elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1972 and served until his retirement in 1988.
“He has really seen it all,” said his eldest son, Greg Clingan. “He didn’t really talk about his war experiences much.”
While serving as a legislator, Clingan often helped veterans find needed resources. He also has participated as a member of the military honor guard.
“I’ve seen a lot of death on the battlefield, and it’s a shame people have to fight, but it happens,” he said.
Clingan hopes for a speedy end to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We need to bring those men and women home,” he said. “I feel sorry for them.”
When the country’s newest veterans arrive home, Clingan is confident America and its fellow veterans will be there to support the troops.
“Our numbers may be falling,” he said of WWII veterans, “but we’ll be there to look out for them.”
Lee Clingan considers himself a lucky man.