Chernenko gives insight on Bergdahl’s state of mind

WHEELING – When Bowe Bergdahl went to bed at night, his last thoughts before falling asleep likely were about whether he would make it to morning, a local World War II ex-POW said.

“For all those years, there was no guarantee that he would get up in the morning. They could have killed him in the night,” said Wellsburg resident John Chernenko, 90, a prisoner of war during World War II.

Bergdahl, a sergeant in the Army who had been a POW for five years, was released by his captors Saturday in Afghanistan. He was the only American POW during the Afghanistan war.

Chernenko, who serves as commander of the Ohio Valley Barbed Wire Chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, said he was among a group of 100 Army soldiers captured in January 1945 by the Germans during WWII. They made the group walk for 63 days before entering a prison camp. The POWs were forced to move the dead from buildings destroyed by bombs. They were given soup to eat that contained only scraps, and the entire group at one point had dysentery that they received no remedy for.

“I didn’t think I would make it,” he said.

Chernenko said they were released when the war ended. He worried about how he would be treated when he arrived home.

“I wondered about my friends and neighbors, about if they would treat me as a friend or an enemy. … They treated me wonderful,” he said.

Chernenko said he had some problems when he came home, but he learned to live with it. He believes Bergdahl will have issues to deal with also.

“Five years – there’s no question there will be post traumatic stress disorder with this guy. He would go to sleep at night and he didn’t know if he’d wake up the following day or not. As a prisoner, they’re always telling you lies to try to break your morale down,” Chernenko said.

“We slept in fields. A few times we were fortunate to sleep in a barn or a bombed-out church or house. … On the path we went along if there was a bombing the night before, we cleaned out the houses. Anyone who was killed we would pull out. We didn’t have gloves. We didn’t have any soap or water to wash with,” he said. “We were fortunate that we got hot soup. It didn’t consist of too much – maybe parts of a cow. You could see an eye or a piece of hide cut up in it.”

Chernenko said they did not know where they were being led, but they had no choice but to keep going. The group consisted of non-commissioned officers. The privates were let go.

“I was treated a little harder because my name was spelled Chernenko, a Russian name. When they interrogated me they brought that up,” he said. “They would shove you around when you were trying to rest up. They would poke you with the bayonet on their gun. The guards who watched us were wounded on the Russian front. They couldn’t do anything else – some of them were missing an eye or a leg.”

In contrast, Chernenko said POWs held by the American forces were treated well.

“We treated them like we wanted to be treated – we treated them nice,” he said.

Chernenko said there were times when they were told to take no prisoners during a battle, meaning the enemy should be killed instead. For example, German soldiers who were caught wearing U.S. uniforms were to be killed. He said the Germans did the same to American soldiers if they were caught wearing a German uniform.