He also stressed that prayer sustained him during his woeful days as a prisoner of war.
The 89-year-old retired Army sergeant first class was the keynote speaker for Robins Air Force Base’s annual POW/MIA Recognition Day at the Museum of Aviation. Lankford, a rifleman in the 106th Infantry Division during World War II, was captured by the Germans during the fabled Battle of the Bulge and held prisoner until liberated by U.S. troops led by Gen. George Patton.
His 30-minute presentation to a largely military audience was laced with references to perseverance and prayer.
“I’m here by the grace of God,” the Georgia native told the Hangar One audience. “If it hadn’t been for prayer, I wouldn’t have made it.”
The recipient of nine Bronze Star Medals and a Purple Heart offered a graphic account of the German siege on Allied lines in Belgium, the final, desperate push by Hitler’s forces to stave off defeat.
“I had been on line only 15 days when they hit our company,” Lankford noted, “and in less than four days they surrounded our two regiments. We were cut off and we had to fight with what we had. We quickly learned you can’t fight Tiger tanks with M-16 rifles.”
He said German troops assaulted their lines like wild bulls, their bodies piling up after American forces met the charge with a hail of steel. The bodies became shields against subsequent attacks. Most were dead, he underscored, but some were still alive.
“It’s like it happened yesterday. I remember looking at guys face to face,” he said. “He’s asking you to kill him. He’s not an enemy any more. He’s a dad. Someone’s son. But that’s war.”
Finally, the hail of steel ran out and the U.S. general surrendered his troops. “We were like sitting ducks on a pond,” Lankford recalled. “We didn’t have anything left to throw at them.”
Months of captivity followed with little food and the direst of circumstances. But Lankford said he had a substance – a substance obtained from prayer – that sustained him.
“I weighed 93 pounds when I came out,” he said. “Others looked about like banjo strings. We couldn’t sit down without skinning ourselves. We could see flesh peeling off our bones like sweat off our brow.”
As he gazed through the barbed wire fencing of his compound, he said he could see elderly Germans who were not much better off than he was -- people foraging for food in trash cans.
“With what little they had, they weren’t going to give it to POWs,” he said.
They desperately sought to supplement the scrap of bread they received most days from the Germans.
“We ate bark, roots, bugs, worms. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “You might think you wouldn’t eat worms, friend, but you’ve never really been hungry.”
He vividly remembers the day Patton’s troops liberated the camp.
“Their tanks hit the barbed wire fence and made holes wide enough to drive two-and-a –half-ton trucks through,” Lankford said. “The trucks would come through with men throwing food off the back.”
He said the liberated POWs went after the food like animals.
“We had been treated like animals. We had lived like animals. We had become animals,” he conceded. “The last thing I do every night after enjoying a good meal is say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ I pray that I never see that again.”
He asked the Robins audience if they would be meeting as they were if World War II had ended differently.
“I don’t think so,” he said, increasing his volume for emphasis. “Freedom doesn’t come free. Somebody has to pay. I just want you to know: War is not easy. Nobody who went through World War II would think that. I was one of them and I have to say we did a good job.”
He again underscored prayer as his sole reason for survival.
“It’s the power of prayer,” Lankford stressed. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t work. I’m here. It’s the strongest power you will ever have.”
He encouraged the Robins audience to vote in this year’s elections.
“Ask God’s direction,” he requested. “Our nation is built on trust in God. So trust Him and go vote.”