He carries himself with a quiet dignity. His eyes are bright and provide the first glimpse at the enormous strength of spirit within.
Emilio Membrila was a prisoner of war captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. More than half a century has elapsed since his days in Nazi prison camps. Freedom from imprisonment came in April 1945 for Membrila and his starving, diseased and emaciated comrades. To this day, freedom is something Membrila thinks about each and every day.
He still carries vivid memories of the daily visage of death that surrounded him during his internment. He recalls the brutality and inhumanity of the murderous Nazis toward their Jewish and Russian captives. He remembers that only Jews were treated more brutally than Russians.
Captured Americans and their allies also suffered. Membrila, who is about 6 feet tall, weighed 94 pounds when he was freed.
Membrila is a Clifton native and attended school there. After the war he lived and worked in Morenci. He worked for Bechtel Corp., and the Phelps Dodge copper mine in Morenci, retiring in 1983.
Membrila was a teenager when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942. He was all of 19 years old. He was under way and headed overseas as Allied forces were landing at Normandy. It was June 1944. The stage was being set for the invasion of Europe.
He arrived in England, where he received further training and also underwent training in Scotland. He returned to England and crossed the English Channel to France. He ended up in Belgium.
France had been liberated by the Allies, but the Germans still had a strong foothold in Belgium. Nazi forces had been greatly reduced compared to 1941, when the United States entered the war. Allied forces were making rapid progress, fighting their way methodically toward Germany. Then came the unexpected.
The Germans launched a surprise offensive around the Ardennes region and caught the Allies completely off guard. The Allies were short on troops, and the massive Nazi offensive steamrolled through the Ardennes.
It was a desperate situation for Americans. Non-combatants, clerks, typists and anyone else who could hold a weapon were shipped to the front lines to beef up the infantry.
Membrila, a combat infantryman, was already on the front lines when the lightning attack hit. It was Dec. 16, 1944.
Membrila recalled, “We were on the front lines. It was quiet to start with. Then the attack came early in the morning. We were told 25 (German) divisions were attacking. We were outnumbered 10-1.”
Membrila said he and five others had been ordered to stand guard at a crossroads.
“It was about two or three o’clock in the morning. The sergeant told us to hold this crossroad. Before we knew it, there came a column of enemy armor. We hid and they passed us. We suddenly realized we were now behind enemy lines.”
He said the armored column was followed by infantry. It was then the Americans were discovered.
“They shined their lights on us and found us in a shell hole.”
Membrila said he feels fortunate someone wearing a red cross, probably a medic, discovered them. He said that may have saved him and his comrades from being shot on the spot.
“We were separated from the rest of our company, and we never did learn what happened to the rest of them.”
He said he later heard of an account written by a lieutenant in his company who said of around 200 men, only 60 were not killed or captured.
Membrila and his fellow captives were taken to a prison camp called “Schnee Eifel” in the Ardennes. That was followed by a journey of misery to Stalag XII-A near Frankfurt, Germany.
He said, “We were stuffed in boxcars and taken deeper into Germany. The boxcars were called 40 and 8’s — they could hold 40 people or eight horses comfortably. There were over 60 in the one I was in.
“There was no room to move. No way to use the bathroom and no water. We traveled like that for three days. It was freezing. If someone died — and some did — they died standing up because there was no room to move.”
The prisoners at Stalag XII-A were infested with lice. No water or soap was available for bathing or shaving. Prisoners’ clothes were filthy, Membrila said. Their once-a-day diet was a slice of “black bread” made of some type of coarse grain mixed with sawdust. They also received one bowl of watery carrot soup.
He and other prisoners were marched three days and nights to another prison camp, Stalag III, near Berlin. He said conditions were worse. The camp was farther north and it was colder.
Membrila recalls the camp’s name as “Luckenwald,” though it may have been the infamous death camp named Buchenwald. He said soldiers in his group who were Jewish were separated and taken elsewhere.
“We never knew what happened to them.”
It was at Stalag III where he saw the atrocities committed upon Russian prisoners of war. They were held in a compound adjacent to Membrila’s. He said it was an everyday occurrence to see the corpses of Russian POWs being dragged away. It did not take much effort to drag a corpse. Prisoners throughout the entire camp were literally skin and bones.
Membrila said an American sergeant and a corporal were in charge of prisoner work details. He said they both looked well-fed and wore clean American army uniforms. Their names were given to American authorities after the camp was liberated.
It was April 1945. Membrila recalls the glorious day prisoners saw the Nazi flag was no longer flying over the camp.
“We knew help was on the way. We knew they were starting to abandon the camp.” He paused for several moments and said softly, “To see that Nazi flag gone — that was excitement.”
It led him to speak of how much he cherishes the American flag. He said he’s been to Mexico and other countries and seen their flags waving majestically, but it’s not the same as seeing the American flag.
“When you’re under another flag, you just don’t feel right.”
Membrila said throughout his captivity, he felt despair but never once thought of dying.
“You just have to accept things the best you can and keep on going. You know you have to in order to survive.”
He said he occasionally reflects on his survival.
“I think about that sometimes. I was married at that time. It was just the idea of coming (home) that kept me going, I guess.”
He said an example of the Americans’ will to survive was the three-day march to Stalag III.
“Some of the Germans used to brag they could walk 50 miles a day. We were going to prove we could do it, too, even in the condition we were in.”
Despite his injuries, it took more than 63 years for Membrila to receive his Purple Heart medal. He received the medal during a special ceremony at American Legion Swift-Murphy Post 32 in Safford in 2007.