Yankton Pastor Recounts Days As POW
by Tom Hanson, Anchor
November 14, 2013 9:40 PM
He is part of a vanishing breed. Oliver Omanson is a veteran of World War II. At 96 years old, he's sharing his experience as a soldier, prisoner of war and longtime Yankton pastor in a book. It is called "Prisoner of War Number 21860". A young Oliver on the cover tilted cap and a smile, today at 96 the cap is gone but smile is still there. It was1942, when Oliver was drafted and left South Dakota for the first time.
"Six weeks after they hit Pearl Harbor, I was in the Army, they drew my name," said Amonson.
Oliver was trained as a heavy machine gunner and ended up fighting the Germans, first in North Africa and then in General George Patton’s invasions of Sicily and Italy. Oliver and his squad survived battles in Sicily, but during the invasion of Italy, after walking all night, the young corporal and his men were caught in a German counter attack.
"We really thought we were going after them, they set a trap, and here we were on foot and so on and they had 400 tanks, and they were just waiting to suck us all in," said Omanson.
In his book Oliver describes his capture by German soldiers in Italy as one of the toughest days of his life.
"He shoved the barrel. He was ready to blow my guts out, and while he stood there with this gun on this side, he reached over to my shirt pocket, I had a Gideon bible that I had been carrying, and he kind of lifted it up, he took it out, he did like this, then he handed to me and I put it back. He said, you know this war is an awful thing isn't it?”
But not all of his captors would be so nice, during 19 months in German prisons like Stalag 7 there were several times Oliver was convinced he would be shot, especially when dealing with Hitler's black uniformed SS troops. Oliver spent most of his time in a labor camp, locked in a barn at night on the estate of a German baron who ironically once attended SDSU in Brookings. Always with his small Gideon bible, Oliver survived the extreme hunger, abuse and a forced march that ended on April 13th 1945 with the approach of American Sherman tanks like this one. Like many POW's Oliver was sent home for a short rest, here he is arriving at the airport in Sioux Falls. Still in the army, his next assignment was unexpected. Amonson ended up guarding German prisoners.
"Yes, right we had 500 of them over at Fairmont, Minnesota, during the corn picking times, it was quite ironic, I thought it was quite a turnaround", said Amonson.
Despite his abuse by Nazi guards, Oliver treated his prisoners with respect and kindness.
After the war, Oliver's faith eventually called him to minister to others. He became a pastor, spending most of his life in Yankton, his war experience always with him, always shaping his interaction with others.
Oliver now lives with his son and daughter in law in Sioux Falls. He wrote the book for family, but has gone back for reprints three times because so many people are fascinated by his story.
"Prisoner Of War Number 21860” is available at Crossroads Books in Sioux Falls and at the Carpenter Shop in Yankton.