We were admiring the scenery and the gentleness of this town when suddenly I felt a hand grab my arm and pull me into one of the alleyways. The man doing the pulling was quietly saying something in Polish which sounded like ‘come’. The suddenness of this move and the fact that I was well aware that if the guards saw me leave the column, I was as good as dead, sent shudders down my spine. I have to admit I was scared and yet I was fascinated by the thought that I really had little to lose by going with him. A sense of not-too-well-thought-out-adventure took over and I began to run as fast as I could following him into one passage, then a turn to the right led into another passage, then more turns for what seemed an unending period of time during which my apprehension increased.
Wild ideas of being taken somewhere to be killed by someone who hated Americans or that this man might be emotionally out of control, though he had grabbed a German soldier and was seeking revenge for the death of a loved one. Worst of all, if these things did not happen how was I ever going to get back to the column and my buddies without getting myself killed, all of this buzzing through my mind as I proceeded. All of my worries were for nothing. The man finally arrived at a small house, built in the middle of a row of similar dwellings, much like the houses in an old Sherlock Holmes mystery novel. We entered the front door quickly and on the inside there were several men, women, and children all talking excitedly, again causing me apprehension but this was short-lived because for the first time in over a month since my capture I smelled the aroma of real honest good home cooking.
I can only say that it was a near-spiritual experience and the warmth and love of these people with whom I could only communicate by gesturing, permeated my entire being. They were hurrying around, pushing and pulling on me to get me to sit down. An elderly lady whose face was lined with wrinkles reflecting the misery and despair the Polish people had endured for the past years of occupation, brought a bowl of potato soup made with real milk and sat it in front of me. Another person thinking I didn’t know what to do, picked up a spoon, and literally began to feed me. What he didn’t know was that I was overwhelmed with the rapid development of events, too much so to really know what I was doing. However, being a fast learner I quickly got the idea and took the spoon, and began to feed myself.
All the while I was waiting, the people in the room stared at me, talked excitedly among themselves in Polish. I regret to this day that I did not know what they were saying but I am sure a lot of it had to do with how I looked, the rapidity with which I was devouring the soup, and their awareness that time was running out if they were to get me back to the column of POWs. While I was eating I could feel someone doing something at my back.
They were rigging me up with a kind of nap-sack with straps which they put over my arms, and then I could feel the sack getting heavier, still not knowing what they were doing except that they were putting things in the sack. After a few minutes I was again grabbed by the arm, the door opened and we were on the way somewhere. I had correctly guessed that the man was taking me back to the column. At this point, I was praying that he knew what he was doing and that the German guards would not see the return. Running down the back alleys and passages, we finally emerged in an alley through which the column was still passing and I was let in the line at almost the same point from which I had departed.
There were gasps from the men in the column but they did a beautiful job of covering my reentry with no one being the wiser. My greatest regret was that I never knew the name of these wonderful, compassionate Polish people, nor did I ever figure out why they picked me – I guess I was just the closest at the time and Divine Guidance was still operating in my behalf. It wasn’t until we had passed through Poznan and had taken a course to the northwest and stopped a couple of miles out of town that I even knew what I had in the sack on my back. Everyone was curious regarding what had happened to me, what I had on my back, and what was in the sack. As many men as could crowd around me at the first break in the march. Bill and Bob were closest to me and were able to form a protective circle around me as I opened the sack.
As unfair as it sounds to rule out anyone at this point, you have to remember that we were starving men and at this time manners and logic are not our strong points. Anything could have happened when the men saw food. We excitedly opened the sack to reveal a jar of blood wurst, a package of cheese, a loaf of bread, a couple of onions, a smoked polish sausage, a piece of head cheese about the size of a square quart bottle, and an egg placed in a stiff container so that it would not break.
I was both elated and saddened at the sight of all this food. I felt that this must surely be the rations for their family and I was moved by their unselfishness in sharing it with me. I hope that someday in some way I can return this humanitarian gesture, if not to them, to another in as desperate straits as I was. The sight of the food created a problem.
If I shared with all who were immediately present, there would not be enough to do everybody any good. The compromise of the problem was that I divided the food three ways as our Alliance had agreed on previously, then each of us, Bob, Bill, and myself could do what he wanted with his share. I then shared some of my past with a Lieutenant, who later turned out to be one of the most selfish men of the entire group and would never share anything he had with anyone.
There were many instances of survival need changing personalities or perhaps I should say bringing out the basic negative personality which had been present but well-hidden by the demands of a social structure under civilized conditions. While getting the food was an exhilarating experience, it was also a sobering one. It was difficult to meet the gaze of the soldier who had not been lucky enough to get even one scrap of the food. Yet at this point no one seemed to harbor ill feelings, I guess it was just the sense of the futility of trying to meet the needs of too many with too little to do the job. Another way of looking at it was you win some and you lose some and my number had been called in the lottery. Continuing with great haste the German guard company led us to the northwest. According to rumor, this would take us to the Baltic Sea. What then, we were asking the guards but they just shrugged and sullenly continued to walk.
It was very frustrating to me to have been an Operations Officer, whose job had been to map outmarches, deal with the logistics of a march, and be able to see the destination, to now be in a position of being in a strange country with only the broadest of ideas of where we were or what was ahead or how far we would be going. It was extremely frustrating. As we moved generally north and edged to the west we came to the Oder River, at its mouth, where it joined the Baltic Sea. Without even a pause we were started across this vast, bleak, barren estuary of frozen water and were quick to realize that we were about to cross a part of the Baltic Sea which was called the Pomeranian Bay. While it was frozen rather solid, there had been some warming trends in the past few weeks weakening the ice, and then refreezing had caused it to buckle.
We were constantly aware that we were no longer on land and that it was very slippery. We had to constantly watch our footing and our column began to look like a bunch of drunks; falling down, getting up, saying a few curse words, weaving from side to side to avoid a crack in the ice and generally losing the appearance of a column or line of men, but ever going forward.
The first time we heard and felt a gigantic ice boom, (that’s where the pressure and the freezing action causes the ice to buckle and rise, sometimes as much as a foot), we were scared out of our wits and we were sure the whole thing would open up and drop us into the sea. The worst that happened was that it threw some of us up into the air causing us to lose our balance and fall. The noise was deafening. This made for a very uneasy crossing of this frozen wasteland, not knowing what might happen next. We were on the ice for the better part of two days, which necessitated sleeping on the ice for one night.
This was a nightmare because when you are on the ice, in a prone position, you hear sounds of ice cracking and breaking up from many miles away but have no real idea where the sound is coming from. As you might guess, as tired as we were, we got little sleep that night. Those who did sleep had unbelievable dreams, often waking up screaming that they were drowning. When we returned to land, we were headed in the direction of Hamburg, Germany. We had no idea why we were going there but as it turned out that was the only direction it was safe for the Germans to go at this point. The Russians had nearly reached the mouth of the Oder River from which we had just come. It was in this general area of Peenemunde that had seen the launching of the V-2 rockets.
Frustration in Hamburg – The City and the Food
In spite of the cold and hunger and the flatness of the terrain, there was a sense of relief that the Russian Army was not breathing down our necks as it had been for several days. We heard that they had reached the Oder River but no one was sure at what point on a north-south line this had occurred. We were still being hurried across the country to the west toward Hamburg. Rumors were circulated that the Russians were converging on Berlin and these were easy to believe when you think that the Oder River is a scant 50 miles from Berlin. There was a mounting panic in the German Army and we heard via the German guard grapevine that there were many changes in the German high command, much unrest among the troops; this occurring on all fronts and even that there had been an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life by his own staff.
There is no need to deny that all of this unrest in the German high command had anxiety arousing effect on us as PWs because we had no idea of our status if things should change in the high command. We were undoubtedly a burden on the Army, in spite of the fact that they assumed no responsibility for proper care and feeding. They did have to constantly guard us and use much-needed soldiers to do so. As we discussed this among ourselves we came to the conclusion that there was no place to encamp us, that we were using manpower sorely needed in other areas and that we were an enemy force dangerously close to the very heart of the German nation. In this position, they had to consider the possibility that a massive escape or takeover of the German guards would leave us in a position to be a very real threat to their internal security. Thinking along these lines we could see two possibilities for the Germans to consider. One of these was to continue to move as rapidly as possible out of the more metropolitan areas of Hamburg and Berlin. The other possibility was to just eliminate us entirely and we knew they were capable of doing just this based on experience immediately following our capture when many prisoners were machine-gunned.
It seemed to us that the next few days would be very crucial for them and for us. There were massive air attacks by the Allies on major cities all over Germany and there was a particular concentration on communication and transportation centers. This was especially disquieting because Hamburg was known as ‘the gateway to the world’; having Navy yards, ocean vessels, and railroads out in all directions except to the north, of course. It was logically a prime target and it was being hit nearly every night and day by bomber raids.
This was just what we needed, more anxiety, for we were soon to enter this city. As we approached Hamburg we could see fires reflected in the sky and could sense the apprehension of the German guards. It was obvious that they knew more of what was happening than we did and perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.
It was getting dark when we entered the city and my impression was that the whole world had gone crazy. There was confusion everywhere. There were soldiers, sailors, and civilians going from one place to another without seeming to have any purpose. The city had just gone through another bombing and sirens were screaming, rescue trucks were trying to get through crowds of people, fires lit the horizon and there were many open spots where there used to be a church, a school, or even a whole business district.
We were herded around much of this confusion and taken as quickly as possible into a Navy yard. I guessed that this was to get us out of the way, also be in a position to keep us confined behind high wire fences, and to minimize our escape potential; because this was not going to be easy since there were still 2000 or more of us in this column. Actually, there was another purpose which we found it extremely hard to believe. The Navy Command had been advised of our coming and had prepared food for us. We could smell the marvelous aroma of meat and gravy and anything else our imaginations would permit it to be. We were dumbfounded at the prospect of what was just ahead of us, anticipation was out of hand and then our column was stopped just short of, but in view of the tables which contained the large cooking pots, steaming and inviting us.
There was a fierce exchange of words between an SS officer with the rank of Colonel and a Navy Commander. We did not understand the words, but it was apparent that the Navy man was saying yes to something the SS man was saying no. After about 5 minutes of this arguing, the SS man gave the order for us to be marched away from the food tables. I cannot find words to describe the frustration, disappointment, and anger in us at this point. We began to chant ‘we want food’, over and over again, while refusing to move. The SS Colonel was livid with anger and ordered us to be shot if we continued to refuse to move. He had the guards fire warning shots over our heads, this made us decide to comply. A meal was not worth getting killed for at this late date and in spite of our disappointment and hatred of this man, we obeyed the order to move out – the worst blow of all was that we were walked past the tables holding what would have been our food.
Later we learned that the whole episode involved a clash of authority and a jealous rivalry between the SS and the Navy. The SS man had felt that the Navy man was trying to show him up by providing food for us, implying, in his mind, that he could not do his job adequately. At this point in the war, with all fronts beginning to cave in on Hitler, he was replacing generals and staff members almost randomly and in some instances even having commanders that he felt had failed shot.
Being aware of the cause of the decision regarding our food, however, did not make us any more forgiving because we too were caught in a struggle for our survival. It was soon made clear that we were going to be taken out of Hamburg as quickly as possible and the only logical direction was the south. Passing through the lesser trafficked areas of the town we could see that almost half of this large city had been devastated by heavy bombs from the Allies. The shipyard and the railroad marshaling yards were hardest hit but with over a million people crowded into this industrial area, the civilian casualties were excessive. It was estimated that 50.000 people had been killed in a single bombing raid and these figures continued to mount as the bombings got more intensive.
This very night was a grim reality and gave us first-hand knowledge of the effectiveness of Allied bombing. In spite of all of the confusion, the residents of the city were taking the bombing in stride. I suppose the same thing could have been said of the British during the heavy V-1 and V-2 bombings the Germans had poured on them on a nightly basis. My feelings as we passed through this devastated city were mixed. I knew that it was necessary to limit the potential of the German War Machine to produce more submarines and war supplies and yet I felt a great sense of loss seeing the destruction of so many ancient buildings, schools, churches, and especially the death of innocent people, The tragedy of war is much more than the loss of life and hardship, it is the destruction of monuments to the past and a loss of the ties to our heritage. Many of us had grandparents who were born and raised in the very areas that we were seeing reduced to rubble.
As our column snaked its way through the city and the bombings continued, inevitably many POWs were killed and wounded and left behind. Perhaps the wounded ones were lucky because they would be taken to hospitals and possibly be treated in a more civilized manner or at least fed.
The rest of us was hurried along and were soon out of Hamburg, again on an unknown course except that it was to the south. It was almost with relief that I watched the lights dim, the confusion lessens and the noise of bombs exploding reduce to almost uncanny quiet. In resuming the march it was necessary to remember that what had gotten us this far in this entire unreal experience was confidence in our ability to survive because of inner strength and a belief that it would eventually turn out alright. It is hard to describe the personal mechanisms which account for optimism in the face of such adversity but I soon learned that a sense of humor was vital. This, coupled with a desire to help others who might be hurt or faltering, did wonder to keep the self-pity tendency from dominating the scene.
I feel that if a man keeps some control, however little, over his own life and in his own limited space, he has something to hang onto in any circumstance, provided he maintains contact with others in similar circumstances. Practicing this, I am certain, was the very basis of the survival of those of us who did survive.
Hammelburg & Brief Liberation – Tanks but no Tanks
The bitterness we felt because of the denial of food at Hamburg was in no way reduced by the rumors that we were heading for a place called Berchtesgaden, which the guards said was all the way to the south of Germany in Austria. The prospect of walking a great distance with no more reassurance of food than we had to this point was not a pleasant one and I wondered how many of us would survive such a long-distance project – if indeed any of us would.
The weather was still bitter cold, our housing was still the great outdoors and our food problems did not seem to have much chance of improving. We were still counting on whatever we could find, anywhere we could find it in order to survive. The great German grass soup, made by putting anything they could find that was green to include grass at times, in a huge pot and boiling it, seemed to be their idea of our steady diet. There was a monotony to the walking and I found myself singing little songs with each step until I was nearly hoarse. The days passed and the countryside kept falling behind us, with the monotony often being broken by the sound of an overhead artillery shell or V-2 rockets. Strafing of the column got to be a routine thing and with all the energy that we could muster we would move to the right or left out of the line of fire as fast as possible, again fall back in place till the next time.
A new turn of events regarding eating had taken place. When we stopped for the night, the guards would heat up a large pot of water and as I said put everything in sight in the pot, and make a kind of soup which we referred to as ‘grass soup’. It really did have a grassy taste. They would also make up an Ersatz drink, which, if nothing else, was warm. One night we were blessed with a chance to sleep inside a very large horse training barn. Except for the walls blocking the wind, there was little improvement in the temperature and it stayed down below freezing.
Being normally curious we checked into the various rooms of this very large barn and unbelievably found several barrels of sauerkraut. In spite of its fermented smell, characteristic of sauerkraut, the aroma was magnificent and one at a time we went to the barrel stuffing our mouths with the kraut. It is surprising how quickly filling kraut can be. We felt that either the raw kraut wasn’t that great or our stomachs had shrunk.
In any event, the barrels of sauerkraut we found were more than enough for 2000 of us who were left and although we did not know it at the time, eating no more than we did was a blessing in disguise. The following morning as we lined up to march out of the area nearly every single man had diarrhea and could barely stand up. The guards were impatient and ‘rousting’ us which seemed to do more to cause problems than to solve them. After threatening us and hitting some men with the butts of the rifles, they fired warning shots that got us on the road. The results of the kraut and being rushed were disastrous and men were dropping out to relieve themselves. The guard warned that anyone falling back more than 100 feet would be shot and followed through by shooting 2 men who they considered being too far back.
This caused both a tragic and a comic reaction. Realizing that we would be shot for falling behind, we would grab our pants and run ahead and hope to finish in time to keep up. The entire scene was ludicrous – rear ends were showing, men running hanging onto their pants and in general, the entire scene was chaotic. On the not so comic side, the kraut and diarrhea working on already depleted physical systems actually killed some of the men who died where they sat. It took nearly two days for us to get back into acceptable shape. Credit to the guards is in order for finally realizing that there was a serious problem and stopping the day’s march after four hours.
Continuing our move to the south we were to be treated to two further food experiences. We had noticed large farm complexes with barns and open fields, which looked very much like farms in the United States except for the style of the building. We were told that nobility owned these large farm complexes and that they had slave labor working them.
The owners were referred to as Counts and Countesses. It was one such complex that was to host us one very cold freezing night. We had noticed that the soup had a better taste with a flavor of carrots and turnips. We wondered where, in this war-torn country, in the middle of winter they could get fresh vegetables like this. We were told that they bury the carrots and turnips in the ground in beds several feet across, and two to three feet deep. You could spot these by the mounding up of the ground.
Realizing that we were vitamin starved, it seemed reasonable that we should have more of these vegetables for future days since we were in a survival situation and faring quite badly, there was no moral consideration at this point, nor thought that we were stealing. We planned to help ourselves with the carrots and the turnips. After the guards had settled down, we began to mill around in groups as we approached a mound. Several men would block the view with their bodies, and several others would dig into the mound with hands, sticks, or anything else they could get their hands on. Once the vegetables were exposed, it was a very short time until the bed was empty, the dirt put back and many bulging shirts appearing. Nobody said that digging in the frozen ground was easy but all agreed that the effort was worth it as we filled our shirts and trouser legs with carrots and turnips, as our pockets had too many holes in them to hold anything.
There was no way we could cook the vegetables and so we just munched on them for days. (Just a Note, The morning following this, as we marched out onto the road, we saw the Countess wildly waving her arms and shouting after the German guards who paid little attention. We asked what was the matter and the guards said, ‘That crazy woman keeps saying somebody stole her carrots’. We were never sure if they knew we had done it or not but it was never brought up again.
Continuing on our way south we were treated to beautiful landscapes, woods, rivers, and streams. At one point we were bordering a woods so thick with overhead foliage that we thought it was the Black Forest until we learned that the Black Forest was further to the west and south. We came across the famous Autobahn which was lined with military vehicles rapidly going about the business of war while we trudged on seemingly without purpose, endlessly day after day. As with all things time passed, we were moving toward warmer weather. We were headed south, spring was approaching and the miles piled up behind us. There was still a hard freeze which worked to our advantage in one instance. The incident involved a dead horse, which had been killed and was freezing as he lay by the side of the road. The horse had only been killed for a short time and we all saw this as a chance to finally get some substantial food in the form of meat. I could not help but flashback to another exciting time involving a meat carcass while I was still in the United States. I was in the back of an Army 6×6 truck, traveling through Mobile, Alabama, in a convoy, where the lead truck was supposed to stop for a relief break every two hours but failed to do so. Being of the small bladder, I took the initiative and jumped from the truck, found a service station, and then hitchhiked on to Mobile, meeting my outfit.
This was considered a punishable offense and in spite of the circumstances, I was punished by being put on Kitchen Police (KP), meaning get up early and go to bed late and do all the dishes, clean pans and help with general preparation of food in any way possible. It was Thanksgiving and we were to have turkeys coming in for this occasion. I was ordered to get rid of a side of beef that was on hand and would spoil because we could not refrigerate it. We were in the middle of a stadium in Mobile, Alabama, surrounded by the town and there was no place to bury this beef. I saw a restaurant across the field, and since there was meat rationing, it seemed like a shame to waste this side of beef. I contacted the owner of a restaurant to see if he would want it and he was so delighted with the idea that he gave me and any three of my friend’s permission to have free meals as many as we would want, at any time of the day or night, for the remaining days we would be in Mobile. Remembering that bonanza, the sight of the horse stirred not only memories but triggered great anticipation of the tasty treat in store for us if we could figure out just how to slice the meat.
As mentioned before, one of the doctors who was with us had kept a scalpel out of sight of the guards, and with this instrument, he cut out large chunks of the meat which we would later cut into useable pieces. That night when we were put into a guard position, we were able to take time to slice up any of the pieces of meat into steak size and over a fire which we were allowed to build, roasted the meat.
Many men were so hungry they did not wait for this and as a result would tear at the meat, eating it raw. No restaurant ever fixed a steak like it was appreciated more than this horse meat, not too clean, but a very tasty roast. We were quite surprised that the German guards did not give us more of a hassle about having a fire or roasting this meat. Things were looking better little by little and our hopes began to rise. We desperately needed a boost because we were getting extremely tired and depleted, our bones constantly aching from contact with the frozen ground at night, the loss of weight was extremely serious and our energy levels dropped in proportion to this loss. It was strange how little we ever thought of home or loved ones and how conversation hardly ever went in that direction – survival was tantamount.
After plodding through months of cold, suffering, food deprivation, and lack of vitamins and minerals, our thoughts were concentrated on survival. The unbelievable extent of this preoccupation was pinpointed by an event that took place in a barn on a farm where they utilized Polish men and women as slaves. We had arrived at this farm after a relatively short march for the day and were pleasantly surprised when we were told for a change that we would be allowed to sleep in the barn.
We were resting in the loft when we were approached by a fairly attractive young Polish girl who evidently spoke no English but did communicate quite well with her body language. The way she moved, lifted her skirt, and flirted with each man outrageously, made it clear that she had sexual activity on her mind. She went from soldier to soldier flirting and exhibiting herself and was utterly amazed that she got no response or reaction from any of us. Not one man revealed any interest in her. She increased her activity and still got no response. What she did not know was that we were physically depleted, emotionally blunted at this time, and possibly somewhat short on hormones or sex-generating stimulating food. The poor girl was so frustrated that she began a tirade in Polish, none of which we understood but it probably was just as well we didn’t.
She ran out into the barnyard below and began to help with the breeding process which was ongoing and was quite graphic in her moves and activities, often glancing up at us in the loft and reflecting anger and disgust with us.
The days passed and we had left Hannover, Erfurt, and many small villages behind. The rumor came down to us that it wasn’t certain that the guards could get us to Berchtesgaden as planned and that a town called Hammelburg was now our destination. Since we were nearly always in the dark regarding location and plans anyway, this news was disquieting until we heard from a recently captured Air Force flier that Gen Patton was not too far west of this town and moving steadily east in our direction. Anticipation once again. We would be close to allied lines, escape might be possible or we might be liberated. We arrived in Hammelburg late in the day to find that it was, in fact, a prisoner of war camp. In reality, it looked more like a fort, with its thick cement walls and cement-walled buildings.
We arrived at the gate to the encampment being down to about 1000 men at this point. As we entered, I once again had the claustrophobic feeling of being closed in which I had experienced in the Oflag in Poland. We were given the usual camp ration of some bread, a small bowl of barley soup, and a potato; all poorly seasoned, but nevertheless delicious.
The camp looked very little different than the other ones which we had been in; except there was more cement to this one. There was no ceremony about assigning us to beds, we found wooden frames with mattresses filled with straw. There was a potbellied stove in the middle of the room, there was no fire in it, however. Being very tired we quickly bedded down figuring we would explore the camp the next day, since we would be going no place anyway.
To my surprise, I heard a familiar and distinctly New York-type voice calling my name. It was a voice I had prayed I would hear again, not knowing what had happened to one of my best friends and Army buddies, Capt Edward W. Vitz. I had only experienced this feeling once before, that was when I had found Bob Scheible in another camp. We spent hours talking about our experiences after the start of the Battle of the Bulge. Ed had been commander of the anti-tank company, which had gotten hit hard and literally destroyed. He, along with the rest of us, had been in full retreat but had had problems getting his vehicles out of the line because of the ice, mud, and endless delays. While scouting ahead his jeep hit a land mine and he was thrown out; severely injured his back and rendering him unconscious. He was taken to a German hospital where he recuperated and was then sent to this camp in Hammelburg. He had remained here until the very moment we were talking. We exchanged stories about the long march, finally too exhausted to talk anymore we went to sleep. It seemed that we had just closed our eyes when the total area exploded into action. Cannons were firing, small arms fire was distinct and the walls were caving in.