We would be seeing people going through their own lives in small towns, as though nothing else was happening, seeming to be unaware of the war. We would see frightened people, crippled soldiers, children’s camps, long columns of men. We would be seeing artillery firing literally over our heads, in both directions, sometimes simultaneously, going toward both the Allied and German troops. At times I felt that I was totally crazy. I’m sure my buddies thought so; because I was seeing our whole situation as an adventure, albeit not voluntarily entered into. It was an unequaled, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see new countries, war at intermittent intervals, destruction and beauty blended in a confusion of emotions, on the part of all concerned.
The weather was getting worse, the temperature continued to drop, and the snow was piling up, at times as much as 3 or 4 feet. We had adjusted to the foot-in-front-of-a-foot routine and learned a kind of self-hypnosis to block out much of the reality of the bitter cold and the excessive hunger but the full force of reality often came breaking through our best defenses. Many of us developed a higher pain tolerance and seemed able to handle an excess of extremes; while others seemed to be more sensitive to the cold and literally gave up, just sitting down, refusing to move any further, and some dying this way. There was one such incident in which one of my best friends Bill and I decided that there was no point in going on.
We discussed our total dismal situation in what we considered was a realistic manner, weighing the pros and cons of dying. After due consideration, we tabled a decision at this point. After endless days of walking in a vast wasteland of snow, flat windswept country, freezing snow, with nothing to break the monotony of seeming to go nowhere, we reconsidered quitting. At night after a 10 to 20-mile walk, we would huddle close to each other on the ground, burrow into a snowbank to break the ever-blowing, howling wind, with a chill factor of 10 to 30 degrees below zero. After going through such a night, we would again be rousted out to continue on the next day.

The only change in our routine was that one night our feet had finally frozen, turned black up to the knee, and lacked any feeling. We agreed with each other that if we were not to be left behind or, even worse, be taken somewhere to have our legs amputated by hostile German doctors, we had better thaw out our feet and legs ourselves. We knew that circulation was the key and so all that night long we reinforced each other in the ritual of stomping and rubbing our feet, thus restoring circulation. It worked, because we did not lose one man because of frozen feet, although I am sure that night there were many circulation problems set up for future toes, feet, and legs.

Not long after this episode, my friend Bill and I again compared our viewpoints on whether or not we were going to be able to survive the lack of food, the bitter cold and the constant energy drain the long march was creating. We calmly came to the conclusion that we could not. We had heard how easy it is to freeze to death, how you really feel very warm just before dying, and decided the alternative was attractive. During one break we sat by the side of the road, closed our eyes to die. The howling wind was whipping around my legs and I kept feeling a hard object persistently bumping against the calf of my leg. Reaching down idly I felt a rectangular-shaped object inside the lining of my trench coat.

Without any particular emotion I tore the coat open and to my amazement out dropped an Army D bar. An Army D bar is a highly concentrated, nutritional kind of candy bar with chocolate. It was like a sign from Supreme Energy, saying, ‘Don’t give up’ or ‘Even when things are the worst, I am still with you’. ‘Eat, and get up and get going’. I broke the bar in half, gave half to Bill, and ate the other half. Never before had anything tasted as good as that dry, cold, and old candy bar. When the march resumed, we got up and went along, never again to feel desperate enough to even consider quitting or dying.
We were now determined that we would live unless the Germans made pointed efforts aimed at killing us. Survival had triumphed again but the near brush with dying gave much cause for soul searching about the meaning of life and a reassessment of values.

We had already walked through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Our only contact with the reality of Christmas was when we were walking along the ridge of a very high hill looking down into a valley very late Christmas Eve. We could see a small church lit only by candles. The faint sound of a German choir singing Silent Night seemed to reach out to us. The sound of the church bells could be heard long after we had passed this scene and the nostalgia rose in us to an almost unbearable level. We were feeling sorry for ourselves and worrying about those back home who did not even know what had happened to us. Our spirits were lower than the floor of the valley.

Continuing our course for Warsaw we saw, coming in the opposite direction, another column of men. They even looked more pitiful than we did which was bad enough. Their feet were bound up in rags, their clothing was in tatter, their faces were gaunt, and they were filthy and dirty; looking for the most part like a column of hollow-eyed zombies. We passed close to them and could tell they were Russians from hearing them talk. One man held out his hand and called out in a weak voice begging, ‘cigarettes’. I could not stand to deny him this request, even though my own supply of cigarettes, used for trading was nearly exhausted. I soon realized that the Germans did not take kindly to such a compassionate gesture and as soon as I had thrown the cigarette to the man, I was knocked to the ground by the German Colonel in charge of the Russian column. He began to curse me and his tirade seemed to feed itself.

He took out his pistol, a very mean-looking German Luger, shoved the end of the barrel into my mouth, and said he was going to kill me. I began to sweat and shake in panic and decided there was nothing I could do but die at that point when suddenly a shout from his own marching group caused him to turn and run rapidly to the head of his column thereby saving my life. As he withdrew the pistol he gave me a final vicious shove, leaving me completely drained of all energy and badly shaken up. A Little later, we learned that these Russians had been captured early in the German-Russian conflict and were being returned from the Russian front near Warsaw where they had served as work crews in preparing defenses in and around Warsaw. They were being shifted to the western front for similar purposes, but from the looks of the few of them would ever make the move successfully.

One of the methods that we ingenious Americans utilized to survive was through fantasy. It was quite obvious we had no food, but we had good memories and so one day we decided that each man would spend as much time as he could possibly take to give his favorite recipe for his favorite food.

This was later expanded to each man who was participating, to have him describe his favorite place to eat or the most fantastic restaurant he had ever visited. Smorgasbord Restaurants had just been introduced in America and provided the basis for some of the most outlandish descriptions of varieties and selection of foods that it is possible to imagine. Jim, a tall gaunt-looking man with a slight southern accent was the first to start. He described a place called Fettrow’s, which was located somewhere near Columbus, Ohio, where the Prime Rib of Beef was so tender that it would melt in your mouth.

The selections from the Smorgasbord table were unlimited and the quantities were voluminous. Jim’s description of ‘fresh fish’, ‘succulent pork’, and ‘rare beef’ stimulated visual and olfactory images. There were many vegetables to choose from and each was described in detail. He sometimes took an hour to just describe the making of a cheese sauce or gravy. You must understand that no one was ever in a hurry to end their recipe; because we were all savoring every last morsel of this imaginary food and participating in its preparation. At times the fantasy was so real, the description so vivid and detailed, that we could taste the food – the contented smiles on our face must have confused our guards at times. We then were taken by another soldier to a place in St Louis where there were rare foods, exotic dishes prepared on our order as you sat there. Of course, everyone wanted to be sure to remember this one but unfortunately, the soldier telling the story could not remember the name of the place.

Naturally, everyone was disappointed and downcast but at least knew that it was in St Louis and promised to look it up ‘when we get home’. Then there was the Stockyard Restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, where you picked your choice steak from a mound of ice piled high with all of the different cuts of steak and then you branded your steak with your initials just like in the old west. The thought of the branding iron, glowing red hot had the effect of warming us. We must not forget the place in Skeiniatlas, New York, (Skaneateles) at least that’s how Ed thought it was spelled, where they had a choice of 7 different kinds of meats and fish, every known vegetable and desserts of every possible description. Chocolate Mousse, Jello, Butterscotch pudding, cakes, pies of all kinds, hot rum sauces, and your choice of any kind of hot beverage known to man. Perhaps a slight exaggeration but then who cared at this point. When it came to my turn, I felt very plain; because during all of my experience as a Prisoner of War, my only fantasy was of hamburger sandwiches with pickle, mustard, and onion with a hot cup of coffee with thick cream in it.

I was haunted by this thought night and day, to the point that when I returned to the United States, my first act was to eat 6 hamburgers and drink 5 cups of coffee. The restaurant owner finally refused to serve me anymore, possibly thinking I might die from overeating.

So that I would not let my friends down, I decided to describe one of my favorite meals in detail – cornbread and beans with a tossed salad. The beans must be of the Great Northern variety, must be cooked very slowly on low heat for hours, and must, of course, be cooked with just the right amount of onion and a ham butt or ham hock according to your own taste. The cornbread has to be light with just enough sugar to keep any trace of bitterness from appearing. The dressing for the salad has to be a delicate blend of vinegar, sugar, cream, and Miracle Whip salad dressing. The salad is tomato, lettuce, onion, and cucumber, coated with the special dressing. All of this is topped off with a fresh cup of coffee with heavy cream. Surprisingly these fantasy trips of cooking, visiting restaurants, and making up recipes or using actually usable recipes, kept us so enthralled that we were able to forget our plight, forget the cold for hours on end and I feel that this was the greatest contributor to our survival during this period of the bleak march to Warsaw.

As we approached Warsaw, we were again reminded of the war and the screams of the shells as they passed overhead on their way to deliver death and destruction to the Russians to the east. Planes were overhead and we continued our struggle to get out of the way of strafing. The planes grew fewer as we approached Poland and the Russian front. At one point we passed what looked like a launching pad for the V-1 or V-2 rockets, which the Germans had been able to develop and get into the air. They were significantly ahead of the Allies in rocketry. Suddenly there was a roar, a flash of fire and the huge casing started to rise into the air, slowly at first but then with increasing velocity. We were in awe and we had never experienced anything like this noise, nor this view and it was extremely frightening.

Here we were amidst the source of the deadly missiles, unable to do anything to stop the launching of these giants of destruction being used against our friends and allies. We ourselves had not long ago been on the receiving end of these monsters while in England. We had seen the huge craters when a whole building disappeared on impact. The disruption of communications and the frequent fires were etched in our memories. The frustration here was that there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop the missiles nor let anybody know that we knew where the launching pad was. The city of Peenemunde had been mentioned but held little meaning for us. The German guard company had again changed. We had outlasted our third guard company by this time.

Sometime around Jan 12, we finally saw the city of Warsaw and thought that our ordeal was finished. We were the first of Allied troops to see this magnificent city, albeit the worse for having been ravaged by bombs and battles. The Polish people were compassionate and as much as they dared to, would stand along our route of march trying to give us items of food, bread, onion, eggs, or anything else they could hand us but in doing so they literally risked their lives.

The guards would actually knock them away with rifle butts or threaten to shoot them for trying to help us. It was wonderful to feel compassion and love here in Poland contrasted with the hate and anger we had directed at us in Germany. We were quickly marched to the northeast to an Oflag; this for officers, as contrasted to Stalag for enlisted men. The scene was bleak and barren. Rows of wood buildings enclosed in barbed wire, with disheveled looking men milling about the yard, aimlessly looking us over as we approached. The feeling as we entered the camp was one of mixed emotion – it marked the end of a march which had been total hell, yet we were now for the first time to realize that we would be surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and truly locked up for the first time. This goes against the American grain and we were very depressed. On the other hand, we knew that at least they have food here, that we would be fed and have a place to sleep.

There was also the plus factor that the Red Cross would know where we were and could supplement our food with Red Cross packages. This turned out to be much less than expected.

The Germans in charge of distribution of the packages seemed to ‘lose’ some of the packages along the route to us and, as a result, a box of food meant for one soldier often had to be divided 16 ways. This meant that it did not do any one person a great deal of good but did provide us with some trading material in the form of cigarettes for which we were mighty grateful. This was the only time I can think of where anyone thought of cigarettes as good for your health.

A Prisoner of War Camp leaves much to be desired in every sense. It is bleak, dirty, confining, cold, damp, unpainted, and placed row on a row with isles or streets in between. The towers for the guards are placed in strategic locations giving full coverage to the compound below. Inside each building, there was a potbellied stove with a pipe extended into the ceiling for a chimney, bunk-type crudely built wooden beds, and straw-filled burlap for mattresses. At least we finally had a blanket, although it proved inadequate for the cold of the building. Although there was a potbellied stove, there was not ample fuel for heating a building the size of the barracks, especially since the buildings were not insulated, Chilblains was a common problem. This is a condition where your feet feel frozen, get numb and ache like a toothache most of the time.

One of the first things the German soldiers did to us on arrival at the camp was to delouse us. The delousing process is one in which you are to remove all of your clothing, walk through a tunnel-like room where you are sprayed with water in a shower like apparatus and then a powder is sprayed on you coming from an apparatus much like a fire extinguisher. Body lice was a serious and common problem wherever larger groups of people, soldiers, or civilians were gathered. You have no idea what it is like to have lice until you have felt a louse or lice running from the back of your head down your stomach or back, under your belt, then on down your leg, and then return.

We were grateful for this treatment. Following the ‘medical treatment,’ we were assigned to a barracks and finally given our first official meal, this being the first week in January. The meal consisted of a slice of bread, which had literally a sawdust base and was very grainy. We also had one spoonful of cottage cheese, one spoonful of some unfamiliar tasting jelly, one potato, and a small cup of beef barley soup. The Ersatz coffee, which is powdered burnt barley grain dissolved in hot water, was given to us and except for its heat value, we would not have even drunk it.

To show how quickly soldiers can adjust and relax, even under adverse conditions, consider the following. We were sitting around toasting our bread on the stovepipes (which I will describe later) when we noticed that one man was cutting his slices paper-thin. When we asked how he did this, he confided to us that he had secretly kept a scalpel he had been using when he was captured and had successfully kept it hidden all of this time.

It turned out that he was a doctor in a field hospital that had been overrun, even though they are usually a safe distance from the front lines – this further demonstrating the depth of the German penetration during the Battle of the Bulge. As we discussed his profession with him it seems he had been a plastic surgeon before coming into the army. While we talked to him he had been looking at me curiously, then stated, ‘I could do something about that big nose of yours after the war is over, just a snip here and a snip there, and it would look great’. All of this, under our present circumstance, was bizarre, and I told him I would have to give such a project much consideration since I was not unhappy with my nose the way it was. I took a good deal of good-natured ribbing after this episode with friends saying ‘John you’d better be careful what the doctor snips off’, etc.

As we soon got into the spirit of limited rations, we learned that it was possible to make the bread more palatable by placing it on the stovepipe leading through the roof and burning out some of the sawdust. This was not entirely sanitary but neither was most of the things we had done in the past weeks anyway. It did help the taste of the bread. In all honesty, I have to admit that what they had given us to eat that day was to us akin to nectar for the Gods after what we had been through.

The organization in a prison camp is definite, though far from luxurious. There are days for showers, although the water is generally cold, there are no facilities nor equipment for shaving unless you had had the foresight to bring a razor which of course none of us had had the opportunity to do. We now had our first chance to see ourselves in a mirror, and I must admit it was somewhat of a shock. The extreme loss of weight had left us looking sallow and hollow-cheeked but because of the fact we had grown beards and mustaches, our weight loss was not as noticeable as it would be later.

We had a chance to see our feet for the first time, and it was a shock when I saw the bunions on the sides of my little and big toes, extending out as much as half an inch. The reason for this is that when you are issued combat boots in the Army you get a wider width than you normally wear so that when you have a full field pack on your back the weight will cause your feet to fill out the boots just right. In our case, we did not have full packs and we had lost so much weight, we were literally swimming in our boots, rubbing callouses near our little and big toes. Even to this day, it is difficult to get a properly fitting shoe.

Finally after settling in which only took the better part of a day, we learned that you are told when you can leave the barracks buildings, where you can go and that there is a definite curfew in the evening, by which time you must be back in your assigned building. In my usual question to everyone as we had progressed around our route I asked if anyone knew Bob, my friend from the Air Corps who had been captured 2 years earlier. To my utter amazement and disbelief, one man said, ‘Oh you mean Bob Scheible, yeah, he’s in the next barracks’. I ran over to the next building, shouting, ‘Is Bob Scheible here?’ I heard my buddy call out, ‘John, thank God you’ve come to liberate us’.

What a blow to all and a miserable feeling inside of me when I had to tell him that I was just another one of the prisoners and not a liberator. Nevertheless, after all of that emotion, our reunion was one of the warmest experiences I have ever known. We spent so much time talking, comparing experiences, and answering other prisoners’ questions that the time got away from me and the curfew was in force. Here I was, a new prisoner in a camp, in the wrong barracks with a curfew declared and with no way to get safely back to my own barracks – the German guard would shoot anyone caught in the yard after curfew on sight. I was petrified with fear, trying desperately to figure out what to do. One of the older, long-term prisoners said that they could hide me until morning and then I could return to my own barracks.

The reason for hiding me was that there is a headcount every night at around 10 o’clock. While the guards would not miss me in my barracks because they did not have an accurate count on new prisoners yet, they would find an extra man in this barracks and this would create a chaotic condition for all the prisoners in this compound.

At 10 o’clock the guard appeared and started the count. I was hidden under a mattress on one of the top bunk beds, praying that they would not look there, scarcely daring to breathe or move and sweating profusely. The count went okay because when they got the correct number, they left. Besides fearing for my own safety, I was concerned that I might have created a very serious problem for those who had befriended me. The night passed however with no further incident and when we were rousted out, next morning, I slipped back to my barracks, never having been missed. The next night, however, the story would have had an entirely different ending, for that morning we were accounted and assigned definite bunks, after which anyone missing would be searched for until found. The result possibly being shot or at least punished in some manner. The guards would assume any irregularity in an attempt to escape and would act accordingly.

We were given a rare opportunity later in the day because we were permitted to write a letter home. To this point, we had no way of knowing what our families back home knew and what they did not know and we virtually felt like nonentities. The rules, there were always rules with the Germans, were strict about what we could and could not say. We were to let the people at home know that we were alive ‘and being well cared for’ and that was about all, except maybe to express how we missed them, loved them, and to wish that we were home. The monitors of the letter-writing left no doubt in our minds that the letters would be heavily edited and censored, even with all the rules and near threats, it was wonderful to know and feel that some connection with the outside world would be made through this letter writing. Somehow it took away the loneliness and the futility of the whole experience of being captured, hungry, and in the hands of an enemy who had little or no love for us.
The feeling of finally settling into a routine situation generated by the events of the past two days was to be disrupted by a situation which, up to now, had only been a rumor. We had been aware of the rumbling of heavy guns in the east, a good distance from us, but since we were not immediately threatened shrugged off the implications. We did not know how quickly our total situation was to change, nor did we know how it would change, not only for us but the entire Oflag and German contingency.

Return to Germany via an Ocean Voyage – on Foot

In any large gathering of people, especially when denied access to the outside world, there are always rumors of a variety of topics. We had heard that the Allies had broken through on the Western front and that liberation was only a matter of a few days, which we found out later was only a wishful thinking story of a soldier who always professed to be ‘in the know’. Contrary to this we had heard that the Allies had been pushed back to the English Channel as had happened at Dunkirk and was therefore at least believable.

This turned out to be pure fiction invented by an over-zealous German patriot. The story that the Russians were on their way to Warsaw and consequently to our prison camp, circulated cautiously but with a more ominous overtone. When this was mentioned, the German guards looked genuinely worried and at times very frightened. There were stories of how brutally the Germans had treated the Russians in the assault on Russia and in the near-victory short of Moscow. We had our first-hand view of the brutality of the German guard, during our own march to Warsaw. The guards were terrified of the possibility of retaliation in the event that the Russians were successful in their drive toward Warsaw. Stories of a breakthrough and repulsion of the threat persisted, when in fact no one really knew what was happening. The constant rumbling of the guns being fired by both the German Army and the Russians within our hearing left little doubt that there would be no settling down to any routine activities in this camp.

Early on the third day since we had arrived at the Oflag, we were rousted by very nervous and frightened German guards, who were telling us we were to grab whatever we could to keep warm and to get ready to move out as quickly as possible shouting at us ‘schnell, schnell’. There was confusion and near hysteria among the German soldiers, many seemingly conflicting orders were being shouted and the abject fear on the faces of the guards was apparent. We gathered that word had come down that the Russians had broken through the eastern front and were descending on Warsaw, which turned out to be true. It seemed that the only concern of the camp commander was to get us out of the area to prevent the Russians from liberating us and to save their own necks at the same time. Even now they persisted in wanting to keep us as hostages. Loosely organized, but very carefully guarded we were herded out of the camp and headed in a westerly direction. It was extremely cold, the wind was howling, and in the half-light of dawn the soldiers scampering everywhere, there was an unreal aspect to our very existence. The thought of going back out into that Polish flat country and resuming our previous hellish conditions was almost overwhelmingly depressing. The only hope that any of us had that made the situation bearable was that the Russian Army might succeed in overrunning the Germans and actually liberate us. We had no thought of the mechanics of how this would happen or how we might be killed along with German soldiers when they were overrun.

After all, the Russian artillery had no way of sorting out the good guys from the bad guys, nor did we even know if they were aware that we were there. This set off a whole new set of fears for us. We too had heard how the Russians moved quickly, decisively, and murderously on an enemy and wondered whether or not we would have time to tell them ‘hey we’re on your side’. With this thought, we were almost willing to run with the Germans to anywhere where our position would be generally safer. Running, tripping, slipping and sliding, and falling we were moved to the west toward an unknown destination. We could hear the roar of the artillery and the general battle getting closer and closer. We later learned that the Russians had indeed gotten to Warsaw and in holding up there had unwittingly allowed our group of guards and prisoners to get away from them.

The battle was so close that at times we were walking through a corridor with German artillery going over our heads toward the Russians, and the Russian artillery going over our heads toward the Germans. Fortunately, neither of them were aiming at us but the scream of the shells was just as unnerving, we didn’t know what anyone was shooting at.

It didn’t take us long to realize that we were once again in the rut of a foot-in-front-of-afoot routine, out in the open and blinded by the awful whiteness of the snow and the nothingness ahead of us. I don’t believe that there is anything worse than not having any idea of a destination or feeling that your captors are in a little better position. What made it worse was that we knew the effect of the cold and the hunger potentials which lay ahead. We had learned this from our not too remote previous experience of the weeks prior to this. One of the things which struck us was the benefit we had derived from just those couple of days in the Oflag. This was really instrumental in helping us to make a better adjustment to our total situation. At least we had learned to cope with cold and hunger within reason and, what is more, we each now had a blanket, a luxury not true in our previous exposure and the lice were temporarily under control.

In typical American style, we were perpetually optimistic that it was only a matter of a short time until the Russian Army would overtake us and our ordeal would be over. As we passed through small Polish villages we were aware that the attitude of the Polish people matched our optimism, and they were more open in their hostile attitude toward the German soldiers, often shouting obscenities at them and gleefully asking them how it felt to be on the run for a change.

It was obvious that they knew much more of the total situation than we could surmise and were feeling confident that it was only a matter of time until they would be liberated from the long torturous German occupation and oppression.

Their departure was rapid and unexpected and our being left, we were confused as what had happened.Our guards were literally rushing us through town after town often going from before dawn to well after dark. We could still hear the sounds of battle behind us. The German Luftwaffe was active in desperate attempts to assist the ground troops. We could see them going to our north and also to the south indicating to us that the Russian advance was on a broad front and closing fast. After 5 days at a point midway between Warsaw and Poznan, we entered a small town that had been evacuated. Some said it was Koto, and others thought it was Konin, but in any event, the German guards suddenly disappeared without any warning, leaving us to just mill about.

It suddenly dawned on us that we were free and just as suddenly we knew why. The Russians were attacking from the east and went right on past us. What we saw was unbelievable. There were Russian soldiers on horseback, riding hard and in every way, except the uniforms, reminding us of our own Cowboys chasing Indians. They paid little attention to us, although they did seem to know that we were not Germans. They seemed intent on pushing their advantage at such a speed as to nearly trample us at times. After we recovered from the shock of what had happened we began to cheer and hug each other scarcely believing that it was all real, we experienced feelings of euphoria that you feel after a victorious home ball game.

We began to search the town for food and any sign of anyone who might be able to tell us where we were and what had really happened, but we found no one. When we reached the center of town which was a kind of square we were amazed and delighted to see a huge hog hanging from a rack, head down, split wide open, and thoroughly cleaned as though ready for roasting or cutting up, either of which we would be happy to undertake as soon as possible. We wondered why the people who left the hog there had left in such a hurry, not taking such valuable food with them. We would never learn this. We busied ourselves with planning what to do with the hog.

We had two major things to consider, one to build a fire, and two to start cutting up the meat, meaning we had to find a knife. We had little idea about cooking but knew enough to build a kind of rack to lay the pork on and to do the cooking slowly. We scrounged around for wood using anything we thought would burn without adverse flavor. One soldier found some matches in a house nearby, and soon we had a beautiful warming fire going. We had intended to let it burn down making a charcoal bed suitable for roasting the meat but this was not to happen.

Some prisoners on the west edge of town screamed that the Russians were returning in full retreat with Germans close on their rear – the Germans had been reinforced and had counter attacked driving the Russians back killing hundreds of them as they advanced relentlessly. We were panicked and had no idea which way to go. To go east would seem to ally us with the Russians and probably get us killed as well. The decision was made to try to hide and let the Germans go past us, then under cover of dark try to escape to the west or east, whichever from the judging of the battlegrounds, to have the closest friendly troops. All thoughts of the hog were put on hold and we hid in houses and cellars. One man even put himself inside the carcass of the hog.

We had made a serious mistake in thinking that the Russian attack would succeed. We would have many more weeks and months of cold and hunger to lament this error. The Germans did return, but either they were not fooled by our hiding or perhaps they were just looting the town, in any event they found nearly every one of us – I am sure, but could not prove it, that some men must have escaped them. I later learned that my former battalion commander, Claude Scales, in another unit had actually made good an escape to the Russian line but that it had done him little good in getting back into allied hands because of the circuitous route he had been sent by the Russians, in returning him to American control. Many POWs had been wounded or killed in this brief liberation episode but were left by the guards who had rounded us up and rapidly moving us out of town to the west. The soldier who had hidden in the hog was found and returned to the column. The Germans who were left in the town had found him when they decided to cook the animal for themselves.

At what they considered a safe distance from the town, we were finally slowed down and had a chance to discuss what each of us had thought had happened in this brief interlude of liberation, anticipation, and recapture. We all agreed that we had been extremely stupid not to run as fast as we could to the east and Russian lines when we had the chance but then we agreed that we had been deluded into thinking that freedom was a sure thing at that point. A general headcount, as near as we were able to make it, about 200 of own POWs had been killed, wounded, or escaped in this all too brief liberation.

After we had thoroughly berated ourselves for stupidity, we turned our attention to the current situation of seeming to have no direction, the cold getting more bitter, and no prospect of food. The German guard company seemed to totally blame us for what had happened and were very hostile toward us, acting as though they would welcome any excuse to shoot or manhandle us. There is a psychological term for this called displacement, meaning that they had to blame someone and we were the subordinate and closest to them. We decided among ourselves to do nothing that would provide them any excuse for them to vent their anger on us.

There were rumors that the Russians were breaking through on the front extending from the Baltic Sea south to Hungary. This meant that they were closing in on our column from the north, the south, and the east. The German goal seemed to be to get us out of that zone as fast as possible until they headed us due west toward Poznan in Poland. We made very brief stops for overnight rest and were being pushed forward 15 to 20 miles a day, almost beyond our ability to keep up.

Many men dropped out from sheer exhaustion and were shot or shot at, the guards didn’t seem to want to even stop long enough to check to see if they were wounded or dead. The guards themselves were also exhausted and were in no mood to waste any energy going back to check a man.

At this point, they were not eating any better than we were unless they had been carrying some rations. We noted that there were more frequent stops and we were permitted to dig into snow banks for warmth, largely we felt because the Germans were too exhausted to go on, rather than any concern for our welfare or well-being. During one of the stops, a most welcomed and lifesaving event occurred. The day had been particularly bitter cold and the snow was getting deeper by the minute because of a blinding blizzard. The guards had found a large dairy cow barn, half of which was empty. The other half had many dairy cows in it. We were permitted to go inside this barn for one of our rare under the shelter experiences, for a warm night’s rest. During the night someone had found a way to get into the dairy cow part of the barn without being seen. All night long men were in and out of the cow area drinking all of the milk which the irritated cows would permit them to take.

Morning found a large number of satiated prisoners of war and a large number of cows with empty udders. We were glad that this particular morning the guards rousted us out early before anyone found out what we had done. I’m not sure what the consequences might have been. It was during this phase of the march that alliances between the various groups of POWs began to form. We had decided that only a cooperative effort could help us survive. If one member of a group got a scrap of food, from any source whatsoever, such as a friendly Polish person standing along the line of march or having it thrown to him, he was obligated to share it equally with the others of his group. This also expanded our chance of getting to any source of food.

To this point, there had been a little problem since there was no food. However, the potential for things to get better improved as the Polish people sensed the oncoming defeat of the Germans, making them more amenable to help us. Discussing how we would divide our imaginary food seemed to pass the time and created a kind of optimism that had taken a beating during our brief ‘liberation’. Four days passed, and we were nearly in sight of a Polish town Poznan. Again the rumors were flying. Some said the Russians had already captured Poznan; others said that the German defenses around the town were too great for it to be taken, largely because of its near proximity to Berlin. The latter rumor was correct, the Germans were still in the town, and showed every sign of intending to stay there at all costs.

As we approached Poznan we saw a beautiful city; quaint and peaceful looking, with its old-style buildings, built too close together and standing tall, that is, those buildings which were still standing, for the town had been ravaged by bombings and yet still looked majestic. The cobblestone streets were narrow, by our standards, and we were led down what appeared to be alleys with little sub-alleys branching off from them. It was almost claustrophobic just walking down these alleyways. It was also difficult for the guards to keep along-side of us as our long winding column of men snaked its way through the town.

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