There was a Jewish Lieutenant with us who spoke Hebrew and this was close enough to some German to suffice for communication but we did not want to make this fact known because of our knowledge of the German treatment of the Jews and we were as afraid for the Lieutenant as he was for himself. After what seemed to be hours of pushing, shoving, dodging, cursing, and running we were on our way out of Koblenz heading in a northeasterly direction which was consistent with the previously mentioned town of Falkenberg and our hopes for finally getting a ride on a train were rising.
The walking mile after mile had given us time to reflect on our situation. We had settled down to some of the reality of being prisoners but I don’t think anyone truly accepted it. We talked optimistically of how our Allied Forces would break through the German lines anytime now, cross the Rhine River and liberate us. We had no appreciation of the size or strength of the German drive, nor did we know at this point that it was an all-out life and death struggle offensive for them. They were determined to break the back of the Allied Offensive and turn the tide of the war in their favor. In our limited space and understanding, we had already begun to be more concerned with our own survival than the war. We were struggling with hunger, inadequate clothing, shock, cold, and inhuman treatment. The population was hostile toward us and we had no hope of help from them regarding food, shelter, or compassion. It was interesting to note that the Northern Germans were extremely hostile toward us, spitting on us as we would pass groups of them, shouting obscenities at us, and even throwing objects at us; while the Southern Germans, as we found later, were more compassionate and apt to help us whenever it was safe for them to do so.
Early in the morning of the second or third day of walking, we heard the strange haunting sound of bagpipes floating over the column. We were puzzled as to the source of this music but soon learned that an Army Colonel who also had been captured had always carried bagpipes with him in battle as a hobby and had managed to salvage them even in the heat of battle. It seems that he was using them to lead us, and seemingly trying to unite us in our thinking and establish an Esprit de Corps which was badly needed.
We later learned that he was the ranking officer and the one the Germans used in an attempt to maintain order and get their major points across to us. In general, we all felt strangely reassured by this and felt more of a unit than at any time previously. It seems always to take a disaster to unite opposing forces, overcome petty differences, and stiffen the camaraderie necessary for survival. At this point, we were still fairly well civilized and apt to share cigarettes, extra clothing, and ideas, a situation which was to change drastically for the worse in the following weeks and months. This occurred in direct proportion to the increased cold, hunger, and fatigue.
The basic survival drive was insidiously rearing its head. An example of this was when some of the men who knew a little German had learned that the German word for ‘hot’ is ‘heiss’ but did not share this knowledge with others who were not aware of it. This only becomes important when you realize that in extreme cold, anything hot, even water, can be vital. These men had been getting hot water from farmhouses as we progressed, with the rest of us thinking that ‘heiss’ meant cold and avoiding any offer of this ‘cold water’; thinking how dumb the others were to introduce anything cold into their bodies – we were using snow for our fluid bulk. After we learned the truth, it got to be a dog-eat-dog effort to get to the ‘heiss’ water first.
The relief of being away from the battlefront, and in less danger was counteracted by a growing awareness that we were beginning to wear down and getting on each other’s nerves more and more. The distance we had traveled was pointed out to us when the German Guard Company accompanying us had to be relieved by another because the guards were unable to keep up the pace of 20 miles a day, even though they had been eating regularly, while we had not. Our guards were men who could not be in battle and as a result, were not physically capable of maintaining any rigorous activity for a long time. At this point, we were still in the fairly good physical condition and seemed to be able to handle the situation adequately.
The German Guard was utilizing contact with farms, along with their own daily rations to maintain their diet. They had none to share with us. In a way this made us feel superior to them, which in our own American way always had been true, but in another way, it all seemed so very unfair.
For a while, our spirits were up but our stomachs were still empty and the morale boost was short-lived. Small towns came and went. There seemed to be no goal but always there was talk of a train ride which in itself began to have value as a goal and would help us get through the endless foot-in-front-of-a-foot miles we were covering. About 5 days after we had been captured and after we had already walked about 100 miles, two unexpected and frightening events occurred deepening our insecurity; making it quite clear that we had no control whatsoever about our treatment or destiny. There had been talk of the possible use of poison gas in the German offensive action against the Allies. This had been discussed by the guards who had been responsible for us. The rumors went from one end of our long straggly line of men to the other end.
The use of poison gas had of course been outlawed but then who makes and keeps the rules in a life and death struggle situation like a war? Using us as prisoners, and seemingly as hostages, in an attempt to prevent retaliation on the part of the Allies for their use of poison gas; the German guards ordered us to throw away our gas masks.
Any refusal to do so was considered an act of rebellion and punishable by being shot. Now we were stripped of a vital protective piece of equipment and did not hesitate to let our feelings be known. We began swearing at the guards at the top of our lungs but to no avail. Our pleading and shouting fell on deaf ears. We continued to grumble in true American style. Our outburst was followed by another order to throw away all of our mess gear (eating equipment), knives, forks, spoons, cups, and aluminum plates.
Again we protested in the loudest possible manner but again there was no relenting. This time the guards showed irritation, began to threaten us, and even struck some of the louder protestors. The unbelievable clatter of metal being thrown down expressed quite well our resentment and hostility toward the guards and the loss of our equipment. Except for the knives there seemed to be no justification for taking away our own means of obtaining or preparing food even if we should ever be able or lucky enough to locate any. Shortly after stripping us of the equipment, we were led into what appeared to be an old abandoned makeshift prison camp. The buildings were falling down from lack of maintenance, the barbed wire enclosures were falling down and the buildings lacked paint. Even the stairs approaching the buildings were broken. The siding had been ripped off or blown away so that protection from the wind was minimal.
By now the temperature had fallen well below the freezing mark and the winds were gusting up to 40 miles per hour, making the chill factor devastating. We were lined up outside the buildings in long rows and allowed to enter only a few at a time. Once inside, the bleakness was even more overwhelming. There were a few tables scattered around and there were German officers or possibly administrative help seated at these tables. In an adjoining room, there was a shower and what appeared to be a team of medical personnel. We were told to empty our pockets of everything and put the contents on the table while one soldier went through the items, taking each piece of paper out of our wallets, including our medical records, pictures of family, driver’s licenses, and so on. Another was asking questions such as ‘your name, your rank, your army unit, where were you captured’ and on and on.
All that is required according to the Geneva Convention is that you gave your Name, Rank, and Serial Number; which of course is what we did. It is one thing to learn this procedure in a training situation during basic training in the United States and quite another to be facing an enemy who does everything in his power to degrade and intimidate you. Some of us, Captains and above were taken into another more comfortable office filled with filing cabinets, a makeshift desk, and some chairs. The occupants of this room were a German Captain and a couple of armed guards. The Captain spoke perfect English and put on a show of being amiable in his communication with us. The amazing thing about this encounter was when he pulled a rather complete file on some of us, knowing where we had been born, our age, parents’ names, and even the schools we had attended. He was quick and proud to announce that he had spent much time in the United States prior to the war, in such places as Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, and several other places.
We were inclined to suspect that this was a set up to gain our confidence or give the impression that there was nothing we could tell him that he did not already know but we did not make a point of challenging him with this suspicion. The Captain then chose to talk to each of us alone, going into great detail about our background and, in my case, telling me that my grandparents had left Germany in 1882, which was a fact; even knowing that they came from Dresden, Germany. He then proceeded to question me about my loyalty to the ‘Fatherland’, asking how I could join the Americans against my ‘Homeland’ and fight my own people. He said that this disloyalty was going to result in my being on the losing side. I stated that I did not feel that this was the case but he cut me short and offered a proposal which I’m sure he thought I could not refuse. He told me that if I joined the German Army my post would be in Berlin where I would enjoy ‘wine, women, and song’ for the duration of the war and that I could then become a German citizen. He ranted and raved about my stupidity when I told him the whole idea was crazy. He said he would give me time to reconsider. I assured him that there would be no consideration at all. He then summoned another officer who apparently got the same treatment as I had gotten and with the same results.
I was taken back to the interrogation room and told to remove all of my clothing. The room was full of naked men who were very cold, had been searched, and were waiting to be told what to do next. In an attempt to save their wristwatches, most of the men had hidden them in various places such as the lining of their coats, in their combat boots, and any other place they could think of. One after the other I watched the guards find the hidden watches and decided to try ‘The Purloined Letter’ approach and leave mine on my wrist.
Surprisingly this worked, and I walked out wearing my watch which I have with me to this very day. After the search we were taken to the shower room and told to bathe, which was the least likely thing that we would want to do in this 15-degree temperature with the wind howling through the cracks, never seeming to let up. We did comply, as there was little else we could do. Half frozen but clean, we were permitted to dress, except for our undershirts, the reason for which we soon understood. We were ushered into a room with a medical team, where one after the other we watched them plunge a hypodermic needle into the breast of each soldier. We asked what the shot was for but they pretended not to understand the question or perhaps they really didn’t.
One subordinate officer mumbled in broken English that we would know in 20 years what the shot was for. He would not elaborate. Even though this seemed to be an unbelievable length of time to wait for the results of an experiment, we were also aware that he might be referring to a futuristic annihilation of Americans, through failure to be able to reproduce or even unthinkable setting up a physical deterioration in those of us who might survive. While rumors ran rampant through the group, a German doctor announced in broken English that the shot was to prevent Typhus, a much-feared disease in Germany at this time.
We were left to take our choice of believing him or giving way to rumor. Most of us chose to believe him, largely to allay our fear and anxiety about the whole situation.
To this day, however, a thin line of doubt still persists. A positive outcome of this experience at this abandoned camp was that we were permitted to stay indoors, sleeping on the wooden floor for the remainder of the night. This was our first time indoors to sleep and we thought of that as a luxury at this time; although we would not have thought of it as a luxury a week ago. The following morning we were ‘rousted’ out before dawn to continue our march in the ever-increasing fall of snow, with temperatures dropping daily.
The long, winding, snake-like column of soldiers had now raised the numbers to about 6000. We had lost some men along the way when they were shot for falling too far behind in the line, had just given up hope, or were suffering from unattended wounds that finally infected and killed them. We didn’t always know what happened to others, nor did we know what their problems were, nor did the guards encourage any long-range communication between us.
Some men may have escaped, although we would not get word to this effect since it would create new alertness on the part of the German guards and possibly bring a reprisal on those of us who were still in captivity. There was little to occupy the time as we moved; except to get better acquainted with the men nearest you in the line. Not all friends were together. It was a rare privilege when you saw someone you had known and were able to start the next day’s march with him.
While many of us were in the same unit of the Army prior to capture, we were separated during all of the confusion of battle and the subsequent escape from machine-gun slaughter. It constantly ran through my mind that a childhood buddy I had admired had been shot down over Germany two years prior to this time and I wondered if it would ever be possible to run across him in a country as large as this, under these circumstances – the chances seemed very slim.
Although the weather had gotten very cold, and there was much snow from time to time, the visibility in the sky was such that the Allied planes, fighters, and bombers were able once again to take to the air. While this was a comforting thought, because to our minds this brought us close to the end of the war and our liberation, we had not reckoned with the fact that while on the ground and seen from the air, our pilots did not know us from the German troops who might be moving to new positions.
Our first taste of reality of our plight came suddenly at the dawn of the 8th day. We were cheering loudly because we had spotted the plane as one of ours, but the pilot had no way of knowing we were prisoners of war, and as a result came in with guns blazing, strafing the entire length of the column. Instinctively we moved to the left and right out of the line of fire, but the slower and less lucky men were killed outright or wounded. As fate would have it we lost surprisingly few men on that pass but we quickly came to the conclusion that we had to do something before the plane returned or another one showed up. A command decision, by several of us, quickly rallied the men into a huge, human PW, the initials for Prisoners of War, which could be seen from the air. You have never seen men move so fast, nor obey orders so quickly. Everyone knew something had to be done fast.
The success of that maneuver was apparent when the next plane coming in on us hesitated, banked to the right, waggled his wings, and best of all did not shoot at us. It became immediately apparent to us that he communicated this information to others because from that point on planes looked us over before shooting and, on seeing our POW made of soldiers, would waggle wings and move on. The German guards did not object to this maneuver because it offered them the same protection we were getting. Not much later in the war, however, we were forbidden, by order of the German High Command to form our PW. Evidently, they wanted to confuse our pilots who were shooting at everything on the ground that moved except POW groups. There was a rumor that German soldiers were using the same idea of PW with their foot soldiers in order to avoid being strafed by Allied planes.
As a result of not being able to protect ourselves, the loss of men was tragically increased as we proceeded to what was now referred to as our entertaining point; to be moved further into Germany and presumably to a Prisoner of War Camp. The loss of our ability to form our PW was devastating to our morale. Any planes, now even at a distance, brought fear to our hearts. This carried on for months after the war was over and after I had returned to Akron, Ohio, my hometown.
I was dressed up in a suit and walking in a downtown area in Akron, when an unthinking, stupid pilot, buzzed the main street. Still reacting as I had in Germany months before, I moved to my right which put me in the middle of the street and fell flat on my face, covering my head. I was embarrassed as I saw the reaction of dozens of people who were looking on.
Crisis over Train Travel
On the days following our interrogation, bathing and being stripped of our last possessions; we were marching along in an uneventful, boring manner. The countryside was bleak because it was winter but the knowledge that we were in a foreign country brought with it a kind of excitement that we might see something new and different, instead of just the back of the soldier in front of us. The feeling which kept us going was that just over the next hill a town might appear or there might be a farmhouse offering food to our hungry mob or we might even see the train which we were now anticipating seeing at any time. It was going to be a relief to ride for a while and have food brought to us, hopefully, hot food to remove some of the chills from our bones. Our hope of getting on a train and riding was a very real vitalizing goal which seemed to make the walking easier and the cold and hunger easier to bear.
About noon we were treated to the long-awaited sight. The train really was there just ahead; just standing and waiting for the approximately 6000 foot-weary, hungry soldiers to get aboard and be taken to civilization, where they didn’t forget to feed you and provide a bunk for our weary bones. Perhaps I am being a little hard on the German guard contingency. They didn’t really have any way to get food for this many men and no one in the high command of the German Army seemed to care one way or the other. In Spartan fashion, we accepted the resulting pain of it all. It was easy to forgive all of the misery we had endured when the train was in sight. We began to joke and our spirits being much lighter. Even the cold didn’t seem so bad and we were certain that in a small country like Germany we would rather quickly be at an Army Post, a Prison Camp, or some facility where they could take care of us properly.
The thrill of anticipation produced more out and out adrenaline and we were literally running toward the train. The engine of the train was rather small by American standards but we were more concerned when we noted that there were not many cars attached to it. From what we could count of the cars and knowing that there were about 6000 of us, we soon realized that we were not going to be riding in great comfort. Still, a little discomfort was better than walking and definitely faster. We were lined up and herded into the cars which had only the usual sliding doors of a cattle car for an opening. Those of us who went in first soon found ourselves literally crushed against the back wall of the car and having to stand up. There were so many men in each car there was no way you could either sit or fall down.
After what seemed to be an endless period of time and with our tendency to claustrophobia mounting, we heard a shout, evidently that all was clear because we began to move. What a glorious sensation, moving without trying. I have to say one good thing about being packed in the cars as tight as we were, we were really warm for the first time in many days and had hope.
If you could just remember that the ultimate goal, not the present discomfort, was all that mattered, it was possible to endure this whole miserable situation. Thoughts of food and warmth and rest dominated our minds, little else mattered. As the clatter of the wheels on the tracks rhythmically passed the time and a kind of hypnotic trance came over the men, we were suddenly alerted to the roar of an engine, louder than the train engine, seeming to come from ahead of us. This shook us from our trance and we realized with renewed fear, one thing we had never considered in our joy of traveling. The one thing we had never been exposed to before, the reality of an air attack while being imprisoned in a boxcar. We were like rats in a trap and at the mercy of whatever would transpire. The groans of disbelief and fear were loud, our claustrophobia became unbearable but was short-lived because almost as soon as we had heard the first plane, a second one came at us in a steep dive with all machine guns spitting fire and bullets everywhere.
Men screamed in agony and pain, some just stood in abject fear and others began to pray aloud. I felt a dull thud on my shoulder, but in the confusion, and fear of another strafing, I paid no attention to it. Suddenly the train stopped, throwing us forward, nearly crushing the men in the front of the car, the doors were thrown open. Men started to detrain, falling out of the door, pushed by those behind them, everyone scrambling out any way they could, trying not to fall on or walk on others but getting as far away from the train as they could. It was only after we were out of the cars and feeling safe that we were aware of how devastating just one pass of an airplane strafing had been. Some men just fell forward and did not move. Others were holding their heads, their sides, their legs, and their arms trying to stem the flow of the blood spurting out or flowing everywhere. Men appeared to be in shock or pain, it was difficult to tell which.
I was suddenly aware that I wasn’t feeling anything in my left arm, nor was I able to lift it. I was sure it had been shot off or that there would be a hole in it – but surprisingly it was there, and there was no blood. All of this passed through my mind in less time than it took to tell it. What had really happened was a bullet had come through the panel of the wooden boxcar just above my shoulder height where I had been pressed against the wall, then it deflected upward and hit my shoulder like a sledgehammer, not breaking the skin or even causing it to bleed. Later I realized my shoulder was black and blue and it was a week before I could use it again.
Others were not so lucky and a total of 800 men were killed or wounded in that one pass of a plane which turned out to be British, not American as we had first thought. As quickly as we were out of the train we formed our trusty POW made up of men who could still walk or run into position. The planes must have seen us then and realized what happened. They made a couple of low flying passes without shooting, waggled their wings, and moved on, following the train tracks to the southwest.
After keeping us out in the field for an hour he announced that he would again entrain us. To his dismay and I am sure disbelief, not one soldier in our group would even get on the train. He threatened to have us shot but at this time everyone was in such shock, so hungry, tired, and cold, that nobody really gave a damn what he did and we told him so. The German guards, some of whom had been wounded, had a conference with the train commander and it was decided to put the dead and wounded on the train and let it continue without the rest of us. While this confab and decision making was going on, we heard heavy bombers overhead flying to the northeast. We identified them as American B-25’s and were jubilant feeling that the war was again continuing in the air and hopefully shortening our captivity time. The planes were at about 30.000 feet altitude and we were not in fear of them as we had been of the fighter planes. At such heights, bombers do not have visual contact with targets and we knew we were not significant enough targets for them anyway.
Immediately upon hearing the bombers, we were made aware that we were indeed back in a war zone. German anti-aircraft guns began firing on the bombers. The sky was full of black smoke, exploding shells, surrounding the bombers with deadly accuracy. It was like a bad dream or should I say a nightmare. Here we were standing by a railroad track, still in the shock over our own devastation and there were our planes being blasted literally out of the sky by antiaircraft guns. We were watching them in the sky in awe, barely able to comprehend the significance of it all until we saw one of the bombers explode in mid-air, thousands of feet above us.
Parts of the plane were scattered all over the sky, amidst thousands of bundles of aluminum foil they had dropped to thwart radar detection. We watched one entire wing of an airplane descend to earth. It seemed to be in slow motion as it spun like a propeller. The largest portion of the fuselage of the plane ejected several tiny dots which turned out to be those of the crew who managed to free themselves.
As they drifted down they were targets for ground snipers and some were unlucky enough to be caught in the ack-ack fire of the anti-aircraft guns. A couple of men made it down and were immediately taken into custody and added to our group of prisoners. They were probably lucky because many airmen in similar distress had been taken by a hostile civilian population who had just undergone a bombing and were very angry and would beat or kill the airmen without compassion. While all of this was happening I couldn’t help but wonder if my brother Bob, who was in the Air Corps flying missions in this area, might have been up there. I learned later that the chances were good that he had been and that while flying missions and knowing I had been captured he would often drop a package of clothing, socks, gloves and canned foods, in a futile hope that I might somehow get it. Amidst all of this, I was feeling sorrier for the poor men in the planes who were sitting ducks for anti-aircraft fire than I was for those of us relatively safer on the ground.
The din of explosions northeast of us indicated that we were probably not too far from an important town or possibly a large city and we had hoped that perhaps we could still get to some kind of civilization soon. By this time we didn’t know where we were or how far we had come from the entraining point. We did know that we were heading generally east and the town of Magdeburg was mentioned by the guards. We walked for a few miles following all of the events of the day and were bedded down as usual, on the ground, with nothing to keep us warm but the proximity of another soldier. We were near a farmhouse and the guards who were not actually on duty were bedded down in a nearby barn, having eaten a fairly good meal prepared by an unwilling farm woman. I say unwilling because in late 1944, rations of food were getting very short in Germany and the appearance of a couple hundred guards and prisoners was not really a welcome sight.
After finishing their meals, some of the more compassionate guards would offer any nearby prisoner the scraps of food from his plate. Not many prisoners were lucky enough to be that nearby, and I for one always seemed to be in the wrong place or too late in the right place. Arising at dawn and continuing our march, it wasn’t long until Magdeburg loomed into view. It was a fair-sized town and showed the scars of having been bombed, with some whole blocks of rubble still in evidence where old-style buildings once had stood. The streets of the town were fairly wide and people were walking, probably to work; occasionally shouting an obscenity at us or using what was to be often heard by us, the phrase, ‘American gangsters from Chicago’.
The most memorable sight and also the most heartbreaking was seeing a large plate glass window in a butcher shop with frankfurters piled up in it and we were just marched by it. The unfairness of it all. It was like rubbing our noses in our plight and yet I can’t believe that this was done on purpose or with malice or forethought. Magdeburg came and went and we saw the city fade behind us as we now headed east, south of Berlin, toward Warsaw, Poland. We were told that there was an Oflag (a camp for officers) there and that we were to be kept there for the duration of the war.
Warsaw and the End of the Trip – No Way!
Being happy-go-lucky Americans and very optimistic, we figured that the worst had happened to us and now the march to the east and Warsaw would be just something to get out of the way – how wrong we were. We were not really sophisticated enough in the ways of war and fortune to realize that we were in a unique position, being able to see a country go down in defeat, getting a first-hand view of what the Germans went through as they saw their towns destroyed, their homes threatened and often bombed out from under them and feeling the wrath they had toward us when they saw or learned that a loved one was hurt or killed.
I remembered the reactions of my own men before we were captured when they learned that a brother of one of our men was killed the day before. They were ready to maim and kill the next German soldier captured and it took a direct command order to stop this kind of senseless killing.
We would be passing through areas from which the Germans were firing their infamous V-1 and V-2 rockets aimed at the Allies and Britain killing soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. We would see the change in the attitude of the German people toward their leaders and their lack of response to Hitler’s impassioned speeches on the radio after it was evident that defeat was imminent. As these events unfolded I never ceased to be aware of the unique opportunity afforded by all of the rare insights to be gained in being behind enemy lines and fluid in the situation. We could hear radios blasting out Hitler’s voice imploring his people to fight to the end, demanding loyalty from them, promising success of the war effort but saying it was only with the full cooperation of all German people working in concerted efforts that they were to thwart the enemy. He assured them that he would be in Berlin, directing all war efforts, There was mixed reaction on the part of the people hearing these broadcasts and some even made fun of his hysterical voice and the tone of his speeches.