Riley served in the United States Army during World War II and was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. For over four months, he was held captive in a prisoner-of-war camp where he was subjected to horrendous conditions, but through it all, he managed to find a way to survive.
Talmadge Carmen Riley was drafted on May 28, 1942 at the age of 22 and sent to Camp Walters in Texas for basic training. He was later stationed at Camps Swift, Bowie, and Hood in Texas where he was trained as a gunner in the tank destroyers before being transferred to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.
On April 5, 1944, his unit embarked on the ship “Ilede France” at the New York Port of Embarkation and landed at Glasgow, Scotland. Riley was assigned to The First Army, Second Division as a gunner on a 3” anti-tank gun with 612 Tank Destroyers, B Company. He was soon placed second in command of a crew of 10 men.
On June 14, 1944, Riley landed at Normandy on Omaha beach, and in August of 1944, Riley fought in the Battle for the Brest in France where his company destroyed two platoons, two dugouts, sixteen naval guns, and inflicted nearly 100 casualties on the enemy.
Years later, Riley recalled with pride one of the remarkable shots he made during that battle. “The Germans had us in a very bad situation, with one of their sixteen inch guns hammering away at us. We were having trouble getting to it with our guns to knock it out because their gun was hidden in a railroad tunnel where they would move it in and out as they needed to fire it. Finally, I was able to get a good bead on the gun with my scope and I fired, hitting the target. Later, when we moved to where the gun had been firing from, we saw that I had placed my aim right in the middle of the barrel which blew the gun up.”
During the harsh blizzard of December 1944, German dictator Adolph Hitler ordered his army to stage a major surprise offensive in Ardennes Mountains in Belgium in an attempt to split the Allied armies in northwest Europe.
What followed was one of the most horrific battles of the war, and with over 100,000 casualties, the Battle of the Bulge was the deadliest action ever fought by the United States Army during the war. On December 11, 1944, Riley and his company entered Belgium not knowing the danger that was ahead of them. After a series of heavy fighting, Riley’s company, which suffered a high number of casualties, was captured by the German Army.
In the brutal cold weather with eight inches of snow on the ground and temperatures reaching 30 below, the captured men were stripped of their overcoats, overshoes, coveralls, and gloves and placed into unheated boxcars with no heat, food, or water.
“They didn’t give us no food or water for eight days,” Riley recalled. “And when they did finally give us water, it was dirty from where they had been washing out a cattle barn.”
Riley and the other men were later forced to march across Germany from one P.O.W. camp to another in order to stay ahead of the approaching American forces.
They were imprisoned in horse barns, suffered starvation, and were unable to bathe which caused them to be covered in lice and bedbugs.
The Germans gave the men only one thin blanket apiece, and in to survive the cold winter temperatures, the men wrapped around each other to keep from freezing.
To keep from starving, Riley and the others ate peas, bugs, rotten cabbage, sawdust bread, and twigs. The Germans gave the men potatoes and a loaf of bread on Sundays which was divided among the 14 captured.
Several of the famished men would fight over the bread crumbs. With these horrendous conditions, many didn’t survive.
Riley, however, kept the strength to survive, and on April 29, 1945, he and the other survivors were finally liberated by American forces.
During his time of captivity, Riley lost over 50 pounds and was considerably weak from the months of malnourishment. On June 16, 1945, Riley returned home to Marshall County and was later discharged in October 1945.
For his service, Riley was awarded the Purple Heart, EAME Theater Ribbon with four Bronze Stars, Four Battle Stars, and a Good Conduct Ribbon.
Riley’s service to his country was self-sacrificing and no words can fully express the gratefulness that is owed to him.
It is because of men like Riley that we are fortunate enough to live in a country of freedom and peace. Though it will never be enough to repay him for all he endured, an undying appreciation is certainly owed to Mr. Talmadge Riley.