William C. Dibble knew tough times long before he became a World War II prisoner of war and was forced to work on a German farm in often unbearable conditions.
When he was 11, his father, Leon Dibble, died from the lingering effects of being gassed by the Germans during World War I.
“Sometimes he was so sick; he couldn’t go out. He had worked as wallpaper-hanger but then found work through another veteran taking care of Niagara Square, Lafayette Square and Shelton Square. He would shovel the snow,” the 91-year-old son says in recalling his dad’s hard life.
An only child, Dibble said he and his mother, Catherine, barely made ends meet. His mom worked in the family business hanging wallpaper, and he went to school. But when he graduated from Boys High School on Oak Street, Dibble said he found work at Beals, McCarthy & Rogers Hardware Store on Lower Terrace, next-door to Memorial Auditorium.
“I would check supply orders that were going out on trucks,” Dibble recalls of his 50-cent-an-hour job. At end of the shift, he would drive home to Forest Avenue on the West Side in his late father’s 1931 Chevrolet.
Life for mother and son was interrupted when Dibble received a draft notice in late November 1942.
A week later, he was stationed at Fort Niagara in Youngstown, and then it was on to Fort Bragg, N.C., for training in field artillery. By April 1943, he arrived in North Africa at a troop-replacement depot, where he was assigned to the 1st Division, 26th Infantry.
“On July 10, 1943, I was in the first wave to hit the beach in the invasion of Sicily. It was pretty rough. I lost some friends before we even got to shore. I’d been looking for them and was told they were floating in the water,” Dibble says.
On July 26, out on patrol, he and six other infantrymen were pinned down in a ditch under German mortar fire. “Shrapnel hit the back end of my left foot, and it felt numb,” Dibble remembers, “but only the boot had a cut in it. I raised up my head, and all hell broke loose.
“They started firing with their rifles, and I put my head back down. Better to be hit in the foot than in the head. I tried wiggling my toes and it took awhile before I could start feeling them again.”
In the meantime, the main unit had pulled back because of the heavy artillery fire from 88 mm guns, leaving Dibble and his patrol stranded.
“We radioed and asked them to shoot smoke shells so that we could get back,” he says, “but they told us to wait until dark and come back then because they didn’t want to give away their position. But this was at 8 in the morning.”
Time was not on their side.
“We lay in the ditch, barely able to move for a few hours, and then the Germans came charging in,” Dibble recalls. “They were yelling, ‘Hands up.’ I started to raise my rifle, and I saw that one of the Germans had a cannon pointed right at my head. I just put my rifle down. They told us to undo our ammunition belts and to leave them with our rifles.”
As they headed through enemy lines, Dibble started thinking about the canteens they had left behind attached to their ammo belts.
“I asked the German sergeant if he could get our canteens; it would be nice to have them, I thought,” Dibble says. “He said, why did I want the canteens? And I said, it was a long way to Germany. He gave me a dirty look, but he did send someone back to get our canteens.”
For 21 months, Dibble was a prisoner of war in northeastern Germany near the Polish border, where he worked on a farm growing potatoes and various grains. “We worked from 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night six days a week, and Sundays we were busy most of that day with chores,” Dibble says. “The worst part was being out in the spring and the fall with the cold rains and winds. Even if we turned blue, they didn’t give us one hour off.”
Living conditions were beyond cramped. He shared a four-room cottage with 27 other POWs. And the menu for chow was limited: “We had boiled potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Plenty of carbs, but what about protein? “Now and then, we got a Red Cross package that would have coffee, powdered milk and a couple cans of meat,” he says.
When Russian forces started approaching Germany, Dibble says, he and the other prisoners were put on a forced march during one of the coldest winters on record. “We’d sleep in barns or sometimes in the open. We didn’t have sleeping bags or blankets, just our overcoats,” Dibble explains. “We’d bunch up together. We marched over 500 miles.”
Despite the hardship, he says, he and his fellow POWs were blessed. Other prisoners ended up killed by friendly fire from U.S. fighter planes.
“But we stayed in line in our column. We didn’t run, and that let the pilots know we were prisoners. They’d tipped their wings at us,” Dibble says. “The ones that ran in other columns, the pilots figured they were Germans.”
On April 11, 1945, he says, the 9th Army liberated him and his buddies. About being a free man, Dibble says, “It felt wonderful,” and the C rations they were given tasted delicious. “We were put on airplanes and taken to Camp Lucky Strike on the coast of France.”
By May 1945, he was back in the United States, but his service was not over. “I was sent to Oklahoma to be retrained for the invasion of Japan,” he says. “Thank goodness that did not happen.”
On Nov. 3, 1945, he was back home and living with his mom in their first-floor apartment at 204 Forest Ave.
He returned to the hardware store but later secured a job as a mechanic with the Postal Service, retiring in 1983. In 1950, he married Loretta Ward, and they raised two children, Bill Jr. and Donna.
“My wife died in 2003, but my two children visit me all the time,” he says. “They are wonderful to me.”