Liberating a childhood friend

MedineRuiz.adv s090.jpgNolan Ruiz, left, and Mervin Medine knew each other in elementary school, and it was Medine’s unit that liberated Ruiz from captivity near the end of World War II. (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

When the story of how Nolan Ruiz was shot down and captured in World War II and endured a horrific, weeks-long march was told in Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper, he heard from a lot of his friends. The story, however, connected him with someone else from his past.

It was Mervin Medine — who not only knew Ruiz in elementary school 80 earlier near Plaquemine, Louisiana, but was part of the military unit that liberated him.

Medine, a Baton Rouge resident, was a soldier in the Army 104th Infantry Division, which was fighting its way through Germany when, on April 26, 1945, they encountered a ragged column of military personnel marching westward. The Americans didn’t open fire, because at this point in the war, many German soldiers were surrendering rather than continue what obviously was a lost cause.

These Germans had that on their minds, but they also had a bonus — thousands of Allied prisoners of war. They had been marching for 86 days, a tortuous ordeal for captor and captive alike.

“The Germans were marching the prisoners to be captured by the American forces. They didn’t want to be captured by the Russians,” Medine said. “They knew what was going on, and they knew they’d be better treated by the Americans, work out a better deal.”

Although they didn’t recognize each other at the time, one of the POWs Medine helped liberate was Ruiz, who lives in Plaquemine.

As children, Medine and Ruiz lived in the Samstown community near White Castle. When Medine read a story in The Advocate about Ruiz’s wartime experiences, the name rang a bell. He telephoned Ruiz and asked if he had gone to the Samstown School. Medine was two grades ahead of Ruiz in school.

“I remembered him because he was smaller than all of the other kids his age,” Medine said.

They saw each other again for the first time when The Advocate treated them to lunch at Don’s Seafood and Steak House.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” Ruiz joked when Medine walked up.

A machine gunner in a B-17 ball turret, Ruiz’s airplane was shot down on March 4, 1944, and he was immediately captured after parachuting to the ground. He ended up at Stalag Luft IV, and with Soviet forces approaching from the east, German guards force-marched POWs in the opposite direction.

Night had already fallen when the weary, starving prisoners and guards happened upon the 104th Division. This was not the only military unit to encounter such groups of POWs, but when they conversed, Medine became convinced that his division liberated Ruiz.

“When I talked to Ruiz, he said we had a dog’s face for our shoulder patch,” Medine said. “I said, ‘You’re almost right. It was the timberwolf patch. The 104th Division was known as the Timberwolf Division.”

The Germans were counting on getting much better treatment from American or British armies than they’d have received if from the Soviets, Medine said.

“The guards were as happy as we were,” Ruiz said. “They were so glad the war was over.”

“We took their weapons away from them, and we gave the weapons to the Americans and said, ‘As of right now, things are reversed. The Germans are the prisoners and the Americans are the guards,'” Medine said. “Of course, we didn’t let the Americans have any ammunition. We just gave them empty rifles, because there was no telling what they would have done. Some of them might have caused problems.”

Ruiz doesn’t recall that, but his attention was drawn to something more basic.

“I remember they served us stew at the field hospital, and I thought it was the best thing I’d ever eaten,” Ruiz said. “Of course, we had gone so long without eating a decent meal. We were eating raw foods like sugar beets and corn. I got sick from (the stew), because it was so rich.”

He had no such problems with his reunion lunch, where Ruiz and Medine spoke about the war, but more about their boyhood days — school teachers, mutual friends, neighbors.

Ruiz moved to Plaquemine as a boy and, except for the war, never left, running a popular cafe until he retired. Medine married Dorothy Hidalgo during his first Army furlough and settled in Baton Rouge after the war.

There would have been little time for a reunion when their paths crossed during the war even if Medine and Ruiz had recognized each other. The 104th Division was still moving into Germany, so responsibility for the prisoners were quickly given to others.

“It was at nighttime; we didn’t see a whole lot,” Medine said. “I didn’t get to see any of the faces of the prisoners. The German guards and the prisoners, it seemed like they hadn’t changed clothes in weeks. They had been on the march for several weeks the way Ruiz described it. They just happened to march through the area we were in.

“I had no idea that somebody that I knew would happen to be in that group.”

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