Attending Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, hoping to one day become a physical-education teacher, Robert E. Pope received a draft notice in 1942 that led to him put his physical abilities to the test in combat, hauling a machine gun across Europe.

But his biggest test of physical endurance would come in surviving as a prisoner of war. It happened just after the pivotal Battle of the Bulge started Dec. 16, 1944. Pope and other members of the Army's 590th Field Artillery Battalion had advanced too quickly.

“Our battery had moved up so fast to the front lines in the Ardennes Forest that we were cut off from our supply lines,” Pope recalls, “and on the night of Dec. 2, our commanders told us that we were going to surrender in the morning because we were surrounded.”

At daybreak Dec. 21, German troops entered, from both sides, the valley where the 120 soldiers were trapped. The surrender went peacefully.

“The Royal Air Force had bombed the railroads, and we had to march in subzero weather for 100 kilometers to where the railroad had not been bombed,” Pope says. “I have no idea where that was.”

But he vividly remembers the forced march.

“We had very little to eat, and what there was went to the guards. When we would stop at a farm, we scrounged around to find turnips, a carrot or anything else,” he says. “We marched nine days before we were placed in railway boxcars.”

That almost proved to be a deathtrap.

“While we were waiting in the boxcars, the train was strafed by U.S. P-47 fighter planes that thought the train was carrying supplies,” Pope remembers. “A shell came through the boxcar I was in and killed the guy standing next to me. The guards let us out, and we ran into a field of virgin snow and we spelled out 'U.S. PWS.'

“We left out the 'O' in 'POW' because we wanted to do it fast before the planes came back. When the planes returned, they flapped their wings at us, recognizing that we weren't supplies – we were American prisoners.”

A couple of days later, he and his fellow soldiers arrived at Stalag IV-G in Oschatz, Germany, between Leipzig and Dresden.

“We were there for about 10 days for interrogation, then the privates and private-first-class soldiers were put on a train and taken to Leipzig,” he says. “… They put is in what was a nightclub before the war that was in the suburbs. That's where we stayed at night.

“Every morning, we got up and had our meager breakfast, barley soup, then a piece of bread and liver sausage to take with us.

“At night, we had barley soup again. We boarded trolleys to the railroad station, and then we would go out on flatcars to where the railroad had gotten bombed out the night before and work on it. If you haven't seen it, that is heavy work.”

The POWs would fill in bomb craters with heavy gravel, lift replacement railroad ties into place and install new sections of steel train track. It was arduous work for soldiers on a near-starvation diet.

However, the enemy didn't care about that. The dimensions of the railroad track were what mattered.

“After the inspector measured to make sure the width of the track was right,” Pope says, “we would pound spikes in to hold the track.”

On the night Feb. 21, there were no air raids. “So the next morning,” he says, “we worked in the city on trolley tracks. At noon, the sirens went off, and a few minutes later, B-17 bombers appeared, one wave after another for over three hours. They were dropping 1,000-pound blockbusters and 250-pound incendiary bombs.

“We were not allowed in the bomb shelters with the citizens and had to stay out in the streets during this bombing. This raid virtually leveled the city. There were fires all over, and the city was demolished.”

Yet only a few POWs perished, compared with the many civilians.

And if the day had not already been trying enough, when the bombing concluded, the trolley line that transported the prisoners had been destroyed, Pope says, “and we had to walk 12 miles back to prison.”

After that, the misery continued until the Germans combined Pope's unit with a larger contingent of prisoners. They moved about like Gypsies, going from one farm in the countryside to another, in search of food and water.

“Then one day, when we were at a farm and told to fill some empty milk cans with water, we went to a farmhouse across the street,” Pope says, “and when we were behind it, we realized there were no guards who could see us, and we went out through the woods behind the farm until we came to a road and started walking on it.

“We walked for 36 hours. At one point, we saw dust in the distance and hid. It was a good thing. A German halftrack came by with SS troops, and they would have killed us. Then as we came up by a farmhouse, we saw a German soldier on the porch kissing a young woman.

“There was a fork in the road, and we didn't know what to do. We saw that the soldier's gun was against the house. So we yelled, 'Which way Americanos?' And the German, without breaking the embrace, pointed us in the right direction.”

A short time later, there was more dust, but this time, it was being kicked up by the wheels of an American Jeep.

“A captain and a sergeant were in the Jeep,” Pope says, “and they asked us if we came from a group of prisoners, and we said, 'Yeah, there's about a thousand, and they are 36 hours back on that road.' ”

The next day, a convoy was sent, and the other prisoners were liberated.

For Pope, the physical trial had been intense. He had gone into the Army weighing 175 pounds and was now 125.

“At Camp Lucky Strike in France, they had full breakfast, lunch and dinners and had eggnogs in between the meals,” Pope recalls, “and when I came home, I weighed 155 pounds – but I looked pregnant because it went on my stomach.”

His psyche, he added, had taken a pounding from the trials of war, but he resolved to move forward, telling himself, “That was my past. I'm going to work on my future.”

His dream to teach physical education never panned out. He eventually settled in Western New York and served as a fundraiser for various building projects, including structures at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and what is now Women & Children's Hospital.

But his biggest accomplishment, he says, was raising money for the construction of Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

“I don't consider myself a hero,” Pope says of his wartime service. “I consider myself a survivor.”

Robert E. Pope, 90

Hometown: Englewood, N.J.

Residence: Clarence

Branch: Army

War zone: Europe

Years of service: 1943-45

Rank: Private first class

Most prominent honors: Prisoner of War Medal, European Theater Medal

Specialty: Machine-gunner