Missing In Action
While the newspaper clipping may be small, the anguish behind it is great. “Sgt. Orie Welch, Paratrooper, Is Listed Missing: Sergeant Orie P. Welch, son of Mr. and Mrs. T.B. Welch of New Martinsville, has been missing in action since June 6, the first day of the invasion of France, the War Department informed his mother the past weekend.”
That news was printed in the Wetzel Republican on Aug. 11, 1944-two months since Welch had been seen alive. Three weeks later a glimmer of hope came from across the ocean. The American Red Cross let his mother know Orie was a prisoner of war of the German government.
Orie had enlisted in the Airborne in June 1942 when a buddy of his convinced him to join the elite force. Orie had a fairly low draft number to begin with, so he consented to the decision that began by hitchhiking to Parkersburg. After training in Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Nebraska, Colorado, and New York, Welch was transferred overseas. “In December 1943 we boarded a British ship for overseas,” said Orie.
On June 5, 1944, the 507th Parachute Regiment saddled up after a big meal of steak with all the trimmings, but word came down that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, had postponed Operation Overlord for a day.
“The jump was rescheduled for June 6. We did not get the good meal this time as they used up all the supplied the night before. We got beans,” recalled Orie.
On the eve of D-Day Orie and his company were loaded and about to begin what he felt could be the most important mission of the war. “I was just part of one segment on the eve of history’s greatest invasion. Men were lying on the ground with faces darkened by burnt cork,” said Orie. “Each man had grenades and ammunition or a bandolier around his waist. The pockets of each jumpsuit were bulging with K-rations, cigarettes, and other small items which would be of help jumping behind enemy lines.”
Maybe because of youth or the constant drilling, Welch did not feel ill at ease. “I didn’t think anything about it. Really, it seems like a story anymore. When we loaded up for the jump, it was just like going out for any other jump,” recalled Orie.
The plan was for the 82nd Airborne Division to land near Ste-Mere-Eglise. Their mission was to harry the German forces and capture the bridge at Amfreville. German General Erwin Rommel, in charge of the defense of the Atlantic Wall, had ordered the locks near the mouth of the Mederet River by Carentan opened at high tide to flood the area. Many of the paratroopers who landed in that area drowned beneath the weighty packs. Welch remembers trucks taking countless bodies from the waters.
“I was the first man out,” he said. “For some unknown reason the rest of the stick (planeload of paratroopers) must have hesitated. I never did find them. To this day I have never seen or heard of any one of them,” said Orie during his interview with Barry Harter 12 years ago. “None of my squad made it back to the states, or were ever heard of.”
The first night Welch tried to make some headway back to where he should have been dropped and by morning had met a radio operator from his company.
“We were right in the middle of the German army,” said Orie. “We would stay out of sight in the day and travel at night towards the American lines. We got close enough that their artillery shells were dropping around us, but were overrun by a company of German soldiers and had to give in. It was a very helpless feeling when they took your rifle from you.”
The journey before they were captured took three days. Along the way Welch and the radio operator found three other paratroopers, all of whom were captured at the same time.
He was taken prisoner June 9, 1944, on the Cheirobourgh Peninsula in France. In three different camps, Welch was eventually located along the Polish border.
“The Germans took us inland by foot and railroad. We were put through a very traumatic interrogation and threatened by the SS that we would be shot if we did not tell them what they wanted to know,” he said of the early part of his capture. “We didn’t.”
Eventually Welch wrote a letter to his mother from that prison camp, saying he was in good health. The Wetzel Republican printed, “He says they get a package a week from the Red Cross and that he has turned out some nifty meals for the boys. ‘Keep your chin up,’ Orie wrote. ‘and take care of yourself and I will do the same.'”
The Russian army liberated the prisoners in the latter part of January 1945. “A Russian guide came in the night and led us through the German lines and instructed us to travel any way we could to Pogman, Poland, where the International Red Cross was assembling all POWs,” said Orie.
The bitter winter weather added to the already deteriorated condition of the POWs, causing frost bite on the feet of many coupled with the effects of a lack of proper clothing and the spartan meals they could scrounge along the way.
As a POW, his main diet consisted of cabbage, rutabagas, black bread, and drink made from parched barley. “All POWs lost 15 to 30 percent of their body weight while captive,” said Orie.
By contrast, when he eventually arrived stateside at a camp in Maryland, Orie said, “We ran into German POWs who were fat and healthy running the chow line. They knew we had just come back from overseas and were asking about different cities in Germany. We just told them as they asked about each, that they were ‘kaput.’ At that time we weren’t really friendly.”
Eventually Orie went back to Fort Benning, Ga., but was granted a 65-day furlough to come home.
“It sure felt good to get my feet back on good old Main Street, New Martinsville,” said Orie. “The trouble was, the war was still going on and there were no fellows to pal around with. The girls treated me pretty good. Gasoline was rationed, but I could get all I wanted, so I kept their cars full.”
He eventually became bored and went back to work for Wells-Eakin, a furniture and hardware company on Main Street, for about 30 of his 65 days. He also agreed to accompany Mayor Robert Bruce to area blood drives. After his leave, which was extended by 10 days, Orie was given two weeks rest and relaxation in Miami, Fla., then sent back to Fort Benning.
Upon his return there, Orie heard rumors that he would be part of the invasions of Japan, which worried him. “That would have been disastrous,” said Orie. “There’s no telling how many lives would have been lost, but President Truman dropped the bomb and the war was over.”
On Nov. 8, 1945, he was discharged and came home. The following year, on Thanksgiving Day 1946, he married his sweetheart, Ruth Steele, whom he had met during the 65-day leave the previous year. They had two children, Greg and Linda; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Orie retired from Wells-Eakin in 1991.
Orie is still living in New Martinsville and is a frequent lunchtime diner at Burger King. He will celebrate his 99th birthday Saturday.