I have been taken prisoner of war in Germany. I am in good health.
We will be transported from here to another Camp within the next few days. Please don’t write until I give new address.
Howard Roman, Private, U.S. Army
So read the pre-printed postcard, with personalized information filled in by Howard Roman, sent to Roman’s mother during World War II, sometime after reaching the POW camp. He had only been in Europe 11 days when a tank fired an explosive and life, as he knew it, stopped. The card never made it to his parents. All they knew was he was “missing in action.”
“I got blown up, knocked out and things were all over,” said Howard.
Born in Mercedes, Howard was the oldest of three, having a brother and a sister. The Valley at that time was plains, having already been cleared for farming.
“My father came down here on a railroad that was established in 1904,” said Howard. “Things were rosy for a while because my father developed things to a point where he was making lots of money.”
It seems his father was one of several men who noticed the slope down from the river to town and saw a golden opportunity for irrigating the land. Buying up the land, they dug canals and put in a pump station, which pumped the water from the river up to the canals and then nature took its natural course. Today, that area is known as Water District No. 9.
As a young boy, Howard had his adventures.
“My father liked to grow citrus trees,” Howard said. “They would plant a sour orange and bud it by putting a piece of good wood in a t-slot they cut in the tree.”
After the budding process, they would mark those already budded with orange tape. Week after week, more orange tape would appear as the process continued.
One year, Howard and his buddies, too young to understand the importance of the orange tape, decided it would be fun to see who could make the biggest ball out of the tape. Howard’s not quite sure who won, though his tape ball was the size of a baseball. He does remember, however, the good licking he got for undoing three weeks of hard work in a few short hours.
Then there was the cow.
“When he was a kid, my daddy had a cow and milked it,” Howard said. “I guess he wanted me to have the same experience because he got me one. I was introduced to it and daddy said, ‘That’s your job to milk it, tend it, move it around and feed it.’ My younger sister, Dorothy, wanted a horse and Daddy found an old horse, way past retirement age.”
At first Howard and Dorothy would go out together to tend the animals. But then Dorothy looked over the situation and must have batted her eyes at her daddy as she said, “Daddy, Howard has to take that cow and stake it out on the vacant lots. He could just take the horse along and feed him, too, and I won’t have to.”
Daddy fell for it and now Howard had both animals.
“All Dorothy’s doing is currying that horse and riding him and you’re making me do all the work,” protested Howard. “Why doesn’t she have to do her share?”
“She’s a girl. You’re a boy,” said Daddy. And with that, Howard’s fate was set.
Actually, he did a great job moving the animals from lot to lot for fresh grass. One night he was in the middle of getting dressed for a Junior/Senior Banquet and looking out the window there went Cow, running down the middle of the street. Barefoot and shirtless he took off after the cow.
“I knew I’d have to pay the penalty if she got caught by the law,” he said, chuckling.
After high school graduation, Harold went to two-year Blackburn College in Illinois, a self-help college where his great-grandfather played a part in its creation.
“Every student worked 25 hours a week besides their regular classes and activities,” Howard said.
Graduating, he returned to Mercedes, working for three years, seven days a week in a drug store for $6.50 a week. At 20 years of age in 1940, he chose to head for California to visit relatives and ended up working at Lockheed building P38 aircraft. As WWII progressed, the men were leaving to be enlisted and women came into the plants to build the planes.
Instead of staying at the plant, he opted to enlist. Landing at Omaha Beach in the winter of 1944, Howard became part of a special team.
“As a kid I had a .22 rifle and if a bird wasn’t flying too fast, going against the wind, I could shoot birds out of the sky,” he said. “That’s the kind of guy the company commander wanted. I joined the group.”
Eleven days later, an arctic front came through, killing thousands. His group had become part of the Ardennes Forest Campaign, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge. After a battle, he found himself waking up from an explosion that left him temporarily deaf. Looking across the six-foot-deep hole, eight to 10 feet wide, he spied his rifle — bodies littered across the ground.
With the eight left in his unit, they begin a weeklong walk to Limberg, Germany, and his new home — Stalag XIIA. Feeding their prisoners nothing to lessen their temptation to escape, the Germans also took their boots at night.
“We joined 950 other woebegone POWs and were informed we were a work company with no POW rights as we were not registered. We were just ‘missing in action,’” said Howard, in a letter home to his mother after liberation.
“What did we eat? One half of a No. 2 can of potatoes and water soup and one eighth of a German loaf of bread, about three by two by one inches,” he said. “…It was bitter cold and the Germans took off our overshoes for their own use and some crooked American stole my gloves off my hands as I slept one night. As a consequence I froze both hands and feet severely — having to work just the same. My feet turned black, cracked open and several nails came off, but fortunately they remained so cold the pain was not excessive. This only applied when I wasn’t on them — to walk costs me lots of agony.”
By the time the camp was liberated in late March, early April 1945, Howard weighed 68 pounds, a shadow of his normal 150 pounds. Found in a camp “hospital,” there was no meat left on his body — only skin covering bones.
But Howard wasn’t about to quit. Four times a day the freed POWs were fed and he had his weight back within a few weeks. Eight hospitals later — the last in San Antonio, he was officially Honorably Discharged in November of 1945 with $13.90 travel pay.
Taking advantage of the GI Bill, he returned to college and was about six weeks from graduation when his father became ill and passed away, forcing Howard to return home to take over his father’s farm machinery business. Gradually converting it over to buy government surplus goods, it became the Roman Equipment Company until he retired after 40 years.
Along the road, Howard had met Della and courted her around Texas, as his story goes. She said it took a while, but 56 years, four children and a heart full of memories later, the marriage has been good. How could it not be with scrapbooks on their shelves about sailboats, a favorite ole’ truck and the Roamin’ Roman Bus — a school bus Howard made over into a home on wheels for their many adventures.
“I kept things interesting, she will tell you,” said Howard, a gleam in his eye, pointed to Della. “I had to keep her interested, too.”