JOPLIN, Mo. —
Each day, the interrogation would play out the same way.
His German captors would enter the room and ask Keith Fiscus questions about American troop numbers and movements.
And each day, Fiscus would repeat the same answer: his name, his rank and his serial number. Nothing more.
Then came the rifle butt to his shoulder, leaving the young soldier wracked with pain. With no answers forthcoming, the Germans who held Fiscus captive at the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany eventually decided upon a new tactic.
If they couldn’t beat the information out of him, they would starve it out of him.
Fiscus sits at the small table in the employee break area of Wal-Mart, Store No. 59, at 15th Street and Range Line Road in Joplin.
He holds up a small photograph of a fresh faced, smiling soldier on the verge of being sent overseas. The photo was taken when he was just 18, which was 70 years ago.
“That sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it?” he said, his gaze meeting that of his younger self.
Though the years have passed, the 88-year-old Joplin man has no trouble recalling the path that led to him being held prisoner for nine months in the concentration camp, nor his journey after the war that brought him to where he is today.
This time of year, Fiscus can be found five days a week near one of the main entrances to the store, greeting customers, as they come in, with a smile and a friendly hello. In the spring, he’ll move over to his favorite part of the store — the garden center — where he’ll tend to the plants.
Wal-Mart’s home office is playing up its commitment to hiring veterans and has asked Fiscus if he’d like to share his story with others.
It’s not a story he often tells, but he’s a man who likes to be of service. If his story inspires someone, or encourages other veterans to seek employment with the company, then he’s happy to do it, he says.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
The Army bus sat outside of the auditorium, where Keith Fiscus and his classmates at high school in Sedan, Kan., were receiving their diplomas.
The superintendent of schools in Sedan had obtained a deferment for his students until they graduated high school. But come graduation day, the Army was there with a bus and a list of names. Fiscus’ name was on that list.
He took the bus to Coffeyville, and then a late-night train to the induction center at Fort Leavenworth.
“As part of the induction process, you had to take a standard test ... the Army Alpha test,” said Fiscus. “One of the people came up and said, ‘You scored very well on the test. Would you be interested in going to an intelligence and reconnaissance school?’
“I said, ‘If I can serve the Army best doing that, I would be willing to do it.’”
He was shipped to Camp Joseph T. Robinson in North Little Rock, Ark., where he underwent several months of training before being assigned to a rifle company with the 3rd Army and sent overseas. His job was that of a scout, often making him the first soldier to cross enemy lines in search of information.
“There were times they needed information about the enemy, especially armored tanks and artillery, and they would send us behind the line to scout,” said Fiscus. “Sometimes we’d be gone for several days.
“Very often, the dangerous part was getting back on our line because our soldiers were very trigger happy. They had a code that was changed every day. When they said, ‘Halt. What is the code for today?’ and you didn’t know it, why, sometimes that was a dangerous thing. So I started hollering at them, in a way that they understood, that I was an American and not to shoot me.”
Soon promoted to a captain, Fiscus would often report his findings directly to Gen. George S. Patton — a larger than life figure who “lived and died for being a soldier.”
“He was always at the front of the line, where a lot of the other generals chose to stay back and let the soldiers do the fighting for them,” said Fiscus. “He had a keen sense of knowing what the enemy was going to do.”
Fiscus’ unit helped counter the German offensive in the Ardennes region, a campaign that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Fiscus says that Patton foresaw the German troops running short on gasoline and ammunition, which did come to pass.
After the battle, Fiscus returned to the Saar Valley in eastern France, where the Allied troops were still fighting some of the remnants of German forces.
On a cold day, when snow was knee deep, Fiscus made the fateful decision to enter one of the concrete bunkers — known as pillboxes — that had been cleared. As he entered the bunker, the Germans launched a counter attack and he was knocked unconscious.
“When I came to, the Germans had me,” he said.
PRISONER OF WAR
The Germans knew they had captured an intelligence officer and transported him to the Dachau concentration camp for interrogation.
The routine remained the same, day after day; the questions, the refusal to provide the requested information, the beatings.
“Every day they would give me the same treatment as I got the day before,” Fiscus said. “When they decided that wasn’t working, they thought they would starve me into saying it.”
His captors cut off nearly all of his food. The soldier, once a robust 180 pounds, began to waste away.
Conditions at the camp were harsh, he says.
“A lot of people thought that only Jews went to these camps, but there were a lot of nationalities there,” said Fiscus. “Most of the Americans there were either officers or those (the Germans) wanted to get some answers out of. But there were British, Polish and other nationalities (held prisoner) there.
“They were harder on the Jews than on the other people; they would almost kill them at will. Toward the last, they were running them into a building to use gas on them and kill them more efficiently. I didn’t know it then, but there was a possibility that all of the others in the camp could have gone in the same way.”
Fiscus remained in the camp until it was liberated by the Army on April 29, 1945. By that time, he weighed just 93 pounds.
Being there to welcome his rescuers is something he says he will never forget.
“We knew we were safe and back in American hands,” he said. “It’s almost indescribable because we were like children, crying and so happy that we were still alive.”
Because of his malnourished state, doctors had Fiscus on a diet of protein drinks because they worried he wouldn’t be able to digest solid food yet. All he really wanted, he says, was a nice steak or pork chops.
“But they said that would be very detrimental to me, so I had to take their word for it,” he said.
He was taken from Dachau to Nuremberg, and then flown to England. After a hospital stay there, he was then transported to Scotland where he boarded a C-54 back to the United States. After receiving treatment in New Jersey, he then was sent to O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield.
For his service, Fiscus was awarded two Purple Hearts, one for injuries sustained in battle and the other for the time he spent in captivity.
During his convalescence in Springfield, he attended several college classes where he took an interest in studying agriculture.
After his discharge from the Army, Fiscus attended what now is Missouri State University (where he met his future wife, Pauline) and later Kansas State University. He received his degree in agriculture education, taught high school for several years and then obtained a doctorate in horticulture from the University of Illinois.
He taught at universities in Illinois, Washington and Tennessee before retiring and moving back to Coffeyville.
Retirement, he says, didn’t really suit him.
“My wife said, ‘You’re walking the floor. Why don’t you get something to read?’” Fiscus recalled. “I said, ‘I’m going to do better than that. I’ll go up the street to where they’re building a store to see if I can be of help.”
That store turned out to be a Wal-Mart, and after the manager looked at his application, he decided that Fiscus’ skills would make him a natural to work in the garden center.
Because of Pauline’s medical needs, Fiscus decided to move to Joplin where care was readily accessible. After making the move, he took a job with Store No. 59, where he’s been for the past 20 years.
Pauline died in March after 65 years of marriage. It’s a loss that he carries with him every day.
“I miss her,” he said. “She was so much of my life.”
But Fiscus says he’s happy that he is still able to maintain his job, working six hours a day, five days a week.
“I can’t think of a job that has treated me better than Wal-Mart,” he said. “As long as I can do the work that is asked of me, I’m going to do it. Maybe I can stretch those 20 years to a few more.”
Unsuited for retirement
Keith Fiscus’ job at the Wal-Mart at 15th Street and Range Line Road is a good job, he says, one of the best he’s ever had.
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Each day, the interrogation would play out the same way.
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