Last weekend would have been Highland’s first Veterans Day event, had it not been for coronavirus restrictions on public events.
While organizers had several plans for honoring our nation’s veterans as a community, one special recognition was going to be the presentation of the POW/MIA flag by Highland resident and former World War II prisoner of war Clarence Adams during the event’s presentation of colors.
Organizer James Morales Jr., of the Highland Music Co., said he and the others on the Veterans Day Committee were especially excited for the opportunity to honor Adams, a 102-year-old World War II veteran, in his own hometown. (Last year, Adams told his story while serving as a special speaker at the A.K. Smiley Library’s 75th anniversary of D-Day event.)
Adams is a veteran of the British Royal Artillery who spent nearly the entire war as a prisoner of the Germans. He spent nearly five years in captivity in various POW camps and work parties throughout France and Germany.
Adams shared during a 2019 interview with the Redlands Community News, that his father, a British World War I veteran, had also been a POW captured by the Germans. Adams even remembers visiting his father in the military hospitals during post-war recovery.
Adams’ own war experience began when he was drafted into the Royal Artillery shortly after Britain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939. Adams was assigned to the 34th Signal Regiment and, in late February, shipped out for Cherburg, France. According to the 2019 book “Pictures for Heroes” edited by Rachel Basinger, which included an in-his-own-words account of Adams’ capture and captivity, Adams and his regiment landed in France on March 3, 1940.
After initially being camped at an artillery base at Forge-les-Eaux, Adams and his unit was being moved to another camp by train. Enemy aircraft harassed the train throughout the trip. Eventually, his train was hit by a bomb. With much of his unit killed, injured or buried by the explosion Adams offered to help a few of the injured and then did the only thing he could think of, leave the wreckage.
“I didn't know what was happening in the war,” he told “Pictures for Heroes.” “The only thing I could think of was to get back to Forges-les-Eaux, which was an artillery base, so I started walking back toward Amiens.”
He walked alone for five days. Upon arrival, Adams discovered an empty camp; Forges-les-Eaux had been evacuated.
After washing up and getting a change of cloths, Adams continued walking with no real direction. On a road to Rouen he ran into French soldiers who directed him to a British unit. Not having a unit of his own, he was placed in a squad with Irish Fusiliers.
One morning, after staying the night in a barn, Adams and his squad were captured by the Germans while they were eating breakfast.
“I hadn’t finished eating, and I saw the tip of a bayonet coming up the ladder followed by a German helmet and a head. The head said, ‘Hands up!’ in perfect English,” Adams told Redlands Community News. “And so we were prisoners of war.”
Adams believes the French farmer turned them in to the Germans.
Once a prisoner, Adams was taken on a series of marches, train trips and work details throughout France and Germany. Conditions under German control varied from being well fed and reasonably sheltered to going days with little or nothing to eat as the prisoners were taken from one camp and work detail to another.
At times, Adams benefited from better living conditions than many other prisoners as the Germans valued his skills as a carpenter. Adams had been a joiner’s apprentice since the age of 14.
The Germans put him to work repairing tools and wagons, building bookcases, toolboxes and wooden shoes (safety equipment for workers at a glass factory) and other related jobs.
On one of his more interesting assignments, Adams was sent to Breslau to help build a camouflage airport. They built fake planes and other structures to serve as a decoy airport during Allied air raids.
By November 1944, the war had turned against the Germans and Adams began to hear Russian guns approaching. As a prisoner, Adams knew little of how the war was progressing. He did not learn of Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor until after the war, he told “Pictures for Heroes.”
In mid-February 1945 the glass factory was closed and the Germans, now in retreat, set the prisoners on a march through the Carpathian Mountains in snowy winter.
When the march reached Nuremburg it was in ruins.
The Germans made a makeshift POW camp at a Zepplin airfield where the prisoners were shaved of all body hair, an effort to control lice, which carry typus.
In April 1945, the prisoners were taken on another march. During this march, one morning the prisoners woke up to find that their guards had left. American tanks had advanced on both sides and the Germans fled. The POWs were liberated.
When the Americans arrived they counted the prisoners and placed them under guard at a nearby munitions factory. Adams slept several nights on two large bombs.
The prisoners where then transported back to Allied territories.
After the war, Clarence reunited with his wife Olive and they immigrated to the United States in 1949.
Adams belongs to the American Ex-Prisoner of War Association, the only Englishman in the group.
Veterans Day event
Planning for Highland’s Veterans Day event was led by several residents to honor and recognize the service and sacrifices made by veterans. It was modeled after a similar Memorial Day event held at the Redlands Bowl in 2019.
It was to be a family-focused event at Highland Community Park on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. When state and county passed restrictions on public gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic the inaugural event was tentatively rescheduled for Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.