We were confused, it seemed to be near dawn and we immediately figured that the Germans were finally going to dispose of us. We tried to get out of the locked doors with no success until a shell blew a hole through a wall, which made it simple to get out. We did not go, however; because we had no idea what was going on outside of that wall. All of a sudden it was deadly quiet, we could hear the shuffling of feet, some heavy motors, and then the sound of tanks maneuvering. We heard someone shouting to the Germans to come out with their hands over their heads. The voice was in English with a decided American accent and they were using phrases which expressed attitudes toward the German soldiers with which we could all identify quite easily. By some miracle, American soldiers had captured this POW camp and were now about to liberate us. We cheered them as they passed through the gates but they seemed to be all business with no time to waste and told us to hurry and jump on the tanks because we had little time to head west and back to the safety of our own battle line.
We learned that they had penetrated 100 miles behind the German lines to get to us. They had fought the whole way there and, as rumor had it, it was all because a Col Waters and his son-in-law to Gen Patton which was incarcerated in this particular Hammelburg camp. We never knew for sure whether or not this was true; because events took place so rapidly that we had no time to think of reasons why this was happening. There was not enough room on the tanks for all of the men, so that those of us who could not get on the tanks ran alongside them, taking turns riding and running – we had learned to share. In spite of our depleted condition, we were able to keep up for about a mile headed west from the camp, when we noticed the tanks, one after another, we’re stopping. They had run out of gasoline. Once again we experienced terror, rage, anger, and frustration. We quickly dismounted and began to turn to the west to no avail. The German tank detachment which had been pursuing our column merely closed in on a hill above us and with a few well-aimed shots of armor-piercing shells, disabled any tank which even tried to move.
Small arms fire discouraged our running any further to the west and I doubt that we could have gone very far under any circumstance because of our depleted physical condition. We were once again rounded up. This time the crews of the tanks were added to our Prisoner of War group and we were put back on the road to Hammelburg. This second aborted liberation was almost more than any of us could stand and our depression was long-lasting, our stamina and faith were being tested beyond belief. Our number had once again gone lower, either because of men being shot, wounded, or possibly by some miracle some of them avoiding recapture. Even though our original number of POWs had decreased because of illness, death from cold, some prisoners being wounded, and some escaping, the influx of prisoners from the Hammelburg camp made a sizable column once again. There was a mixed feeling because there were those of us who had already adjusted to the long march concept, newly liberated POWs from Hammelburg who had to get seasoned to the feeling of open-air living, and finally, the angry, newly-captured tank crews who were dismayed at the hand fate had dealt them.
Nuremberg and near Annihilation
We learned to accept the frustration, once we had a chance to adjust to the fact that there was nothing we could really do to change what had happened at Hammelburg. The trudging one foot after the other had begun again, with one exception: we were in contact with American soldiers who had very recently been free men and knew what was happening with the war. We eagerly pumped them for news about everything. At first, they were nearly hostile to us, seeming to blame us for what had happened to them and their resulting capture. After all, we had a long time, had endured much suffering, and had adjusted to the hardships; while they had not yet even accepted their plight, so we did not harbor any ill feelings toward them for their attitudes.
Once they realized that it was a military decision and not we PWs who had caused their capture they were more than willing to loosen up and talk to us. The Allies were on the move, in nearly all areas. The Germans were being routed and things were looking good. Gen Patton had evidently taken it on himself to try to deepen the penetration into enemy lines, in order to establish a front, very similar to the earlier successful German tactics which had gotten us so badly defeated in the Battle of the Bulge. It was ironic that a fuel problem and not lack of guts or planning caused the defeat of Patton’s efforts. The loss of the tanks and the capture of the well-trained crews could not help but set the southern American thrust back in terms of time, men and equipment. We often wondered what the top brass who engineered the overall offensive was saying to Gen Patton at that moment. One thing was for sure, he had shown them that deep penetration of enemy lines as possible and that more planning and cooperation between the Allies might well shorten the war since a weak spot in their defenses had been found.
Information regarding the war in Japan and the situation on the home front was pretty much rumor but optimism ran high. None of us was lucky enough to know any of the newly captured tank men who might have provided us with more specific news about the people in whom we were interested. In spite of our frustrated liberation and only having sketchy information, all of us felt happier and more optimistic just knowing that the war was going well for the Allies and that they were within range. One thought and fear which we all shared was asking ourselves what happens to PWs at the end of a war. We wondered if we would be used as hostages in the negotiations.
Would the anger of the German people be taken out on us? Were our very lives in danger? These thoughts were terrifying. We did, however, in our own inimitable way see the brighter side. We reasoned that the German people and soldiers might be more amiable and ingratiating to us, hoping for more lenient treatment by the Allies in the event of their defeat. We had to wait a good while for answers to these questions and, as it turned out, there was a mixture of reactions on the part of both soldiers and civilians. Some reactions were terrifying to us and almost humorous but all caused much fear and apprehension in us. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, specific situations will be brought up as they occur.
Our march seemed to be aimed at heading us east and south in an effort to get us away from the German western front and the Allies and still was consistent with the goal of getting us to Berchtesgaden. Rumor had it that we were headed for Nuremberg which was a very large railroad marshaling center and known to be a major munitions manufacturing area. Both of these pieces of information were good reasons for us not to want to go anywhere near Nuremberg since the Allies were doing some of their heaviest bombing of the war in the Nuremberg sector. In spite of our fears and apprehension, we were headed straight as an arrow for that town. En route nothing, much changed except that it was getting warmer with the approaching springtime.
The civilians we encountered in our line of march were somewhat more friendly or at least did not go out of their way to be cruel or call us names or spit on us. There were more people willing to offer to trade bread or other edibles for some of the cigarettes or chocolate which we were able to get from our Red Cross packages. The packages were still being divided between 6 and 8 men, in spite of the fact that we were supposed to be given one for each soldier. The German soldiers in charge of distribution were still ‘losing’ many Red Cross boxes. We were getting closer to the Swiss border and it seemed to us that the packages were coming a little more frequently. Our situation had become very confusing and conflicting. On the one hand, things were looking up from a temperature and food point of view but, on the other hand, they were looking very dark regarding our future in Nuremberg with the heavy bombing in that area.
The distance to Nuremberg was relatively short considering the distance we had already covered and soon we were aware of the increasing signs of a very large city ahead of us. For your geographic reference, it should be noted that we were coming into the city from the north and west which put us between the city and any incoming bombers which might pass over. We came into visual contact with Nuremberg without any particular incident and were lulled into a sense of anticipation in place of our apprehension.
Except for the scars of bombed-out buildings, Nuremberg was a beautiful city with the old buildings standing proudly in the background, spoiled only by the tremendous railroad marshaling yard in the foreground. There were much activity and train movement in and around the industrial-type buildings with nothing to suggest that a great war machine was being fed from this very area. Row on row of train tracks could be seen going out in all directions. While we were admiring the view and anticipating going into the city the guards decided to take a rest stop in a very heavily wooded area just west of town. We were permitted to lie down and rest. We were just beginning to relax when there was the deafening sound of warning sirens. We heard the extremely loud rumble of motors and what we estimated to be hundreds of bombers were droning on in an increasing crescendo to the point that we could hardly hear ourselves talk. The sky was nearly solid with the lead wing of planes going over our heads aiming at the heart of the city.
As the planes dropped their bomb load on the city, the city burst into flame and black smoke – it was awesome to watch and terrifying to see the damage done in so short a time. We waited for the all-clear to sound, but now – there was no all clear, as another wave of planes came in following the same path and repeated the bombardments. We were amazed to see that anything was still standing when the smoke cleared enough for us to see what had happened. But wait, the more thunderous roar of motors and more bombers to repeat the process with one exception: they were now beginning the bomb run on the town earlier, seemingly to try to avoid hitting the populated section and concentrate on the industrial complexes and the railroad marshaling yards.
There was only one problem from our point of view: we were in the path of this run and the bombs were falling short and on us in the woods. We were panicked and worst of all there was no place for us to go. The path of the bombers was so wide that running to left to right of the line of approach would only expose us to more direct hits than we thought we could get in the woods. Even here we were wrong: the bombs were making a splintered pile out of the woods and leveling everything in sight. Men were screaming and running in all directions to escape the bombs but to no avail. Those who were hit were in deep shock, one man was running around out of control looking for his arm, which had been blown off. Others were looking for their legs, they seemed driven to find the parts as though they thought they could put them back in place. One of my officers was hobbling around with his right leg blown off at the knee and bleeding in spurts.
It was all I could do to get another officer to help me hold him down so that we could put a tourniquet on his leg and stop the spurting blood. He cried pathetically, ‘where is my leg, give it back to me’ and then he mercifully passed out.
The bombs were making craters in the ground as far across as 50 to 75 feet and sometimes 3 to 4 feet deep. Men would disappear in the explosion. We would drag the wounded into these craters for protection from more exploding bombs. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the bombs were falling, we were being barraged by parts of machinery from the factories which had been hit – it was a nightmare watching a heavy metal wheel pass over your head or land nearby. Some factories kept blowing up for hours after being hit; we thought they might be ammunition plants or chemical plants. There was no let-up, wave after wave of planes passed over, each dropping its lethal load, circling and heading back to base – unfortunately not all were able to go back. There was no way a sky full of planes could escape the anti-aircraft guns and the flack which the Germans sent up to protect this vital city. Black puffs of smoke and spiraling plane parts were all too common. The bombing continued unmercifully, looking to my left I saw another man hit lying face down on the ground, a piece of metal fragment had cut him up the back as though a knife had been used on him and some part of him was laying actually outside of his body. With Ed’s help, we were able to open the wound, clean out the part, whatever it was, and put it back inside him. We held him together with a belt. We later learned that he actually lived through this experience with the help of some hospitalization when the raid was over.
The bombing continued, we kept seeing trees fall, there was very little if anything left standing as we had crawled into the deeper hole near us. Then Ed let out a yell, looked very odd and dazed, and held his hand to his head which was split wide open right down the middle, half of the skull part lying on his shoulder, his brain exposed. We rushed over to him, washed off the brain as well as possible, put his head back into position, and actually put a couple of thread sutures in his head, using a needle and some GI thread, which later got infected. In spite of the trauma, he did not pass out, although, I feel he was in shock for several days following this incident.
Toward evening the bombing stopped. The German guard, what was left of them, evaluated the situation and rounded us up, literally forcing us to run from this area to the southeast. Any man who was ambulatory was helped to move. It was, however, necessary to leave the non-ambulatory men behind. Ed was fairly conscious and with the help of the two of us was able to stay with us. He, like myself, feared being put in the hands of German doctors at this point in the war.
Leaving the open area which a few hours ago had been a woods but was no longer with any trees standing, was to be another anxious time for us. Not only were we pulling, supporting, and carrying some of our friends but the German guards had turned very hostile. They herded us toward the road; pushing, prodding, and yelling at us. We were faced with a new threat: very angry civilians. The bombing had left them in no mood to tolerate an enemy who was within their reach and they were menacing both in actions and in words. Some were carrying pitchforks and looked fully capable of using them. The guards, in spite of their probable agreement with the crowd, were evidently under order to get us to Berchtesgaden and therefore, had no choice but to protect us.
We moved rapidly to the south leaving the civilians behind. The next couple of weeks were filled with anxiety because there was a war going on now on all fronts and we were being zig-zagged first south and then west and then east to avoid battlefronts. The frequent changes were confusing and not having a map, half of the time we had no idea where we were. There were more frequent stops, giving us time to rest more and do some minor grooming. Probably the most horrendous event we experienced emotionally during our capture occurred on Apr 12 1945. The guards rousted us as usual but seemed somehow more compassionate. It was then they announced, ‘We are sorry to tell you but your President died’. This was a bombshell we had never expected, nor could we fully realize the implications. What would happen now? Would the war effort change? Would the leadership take time and prolong the war? What would the new President be like? How would this affect the German’s attitude toward us? Would the death of FDR, affect Allied cooperation? Of course, we had no answers to any of these questions but being egocentric human beings our concern was the direct net effect on us in the coming weeks.
Panic and fear were combined to give us some very anxious days. Rumors were flying, even the German guards were concerned regarding the net effect on them if the war were to end with a new President in charge. We didn’t have a lot of time to concern ourselves with this problem before another one took its place. We had pretty much shed any superfluous rags or pieces of the blanket we had been carrying to keep warm and to cushion us from the hardness of the ground. Carrying any excess weight was just too much effort and drained too much energy; this in light of the fact that it was definitely getting warmer and the need for these items was less. We noticed that we were beginning to climb gentle slopes in the direction of some foothills ahead.
What we did not realize was that we were actually going to climb a mountain in the next few days. We were off of the road network and the ground was getting more uneven. Helping the wounded was more difficult and our energy reserves were dangerously close to being exhausted. Thank God that the ascent was slow but even that worked against us because it was spring and it still got much colder as we climbed higher. Prisoners began to drop out of the column, our number from the few hundred who had survived Nuremberg was again dwindling. Thank heavens Ed had gained strength, in spite of the fact that his head had infected along the suture line. He was a hearty man and was carrying his own weight. It was a good thing that he could; because I am sure that we could not have handled any extra load at this point. We were out of contact with any food source and the guards were using some kind of dry ration for themselves. In spite of our miserable situation, I have to say that the mountains were breathtaking. We could see for miles over the tops of lesser peaks and down through valleys.
At one point we were actually looking down on German planes as though it were an aerial view. The reason for this situation was that the Allies had total air superiority and these planes were maintaining a hide-and-seek profile so that they would not be shot down, therefore, they followed the lowest valley they could find. The maneuver was not entirely successful, however; because even as we watched, two American fighter planes attacked and shot down a German cargo plane and a Nazi fighter plane, which was apparently the escort. It was as though we were watching a toy situation or a fantasy – everything seemed to be in slow motion. I began to realize that our reactions and feelings were beginning to be dulled by all of the inhumane things we had seen and experienced and by the bloodshed caused by the bombings and strafing which had affected us directly. The worst of all of this was our inability to help to change any of this or help in any way to shorten the war. We were useless to the war effort and we knew it.
Sleeping on the ground at this altitude, with the cold returning, was again taking its toll on our bodies. For weeks we had all experienced increasing pain in our feet, hips, and shoulder joints.
The cold would penetrate our bodies and a kind of arthritic pain would follow. Our feet were still tender from being frozen back in Poland and the fact that some of our callouses on the big and little toes were as much as a half-inch thick began to make walking definitely more painful. This added discomfort and was to persist until we descended the mountain but even then it would not entirely go away. The only positive things at this point were: one, the German guard attitude was better, two, civilian reaction was kinder and three, the sounds of the bombing were getting closer. The Germans called it ‘the war getting close’. The indications are that the war might soon be over. We could only pray that this was true. Once again, however, the question loomed: ‘what happens to prisoners of war when the war is over?’ Are they hostages, are they killed, do they become displacement targets for a country losing a war? It’s similar in essence to having no experience with such a contingency or knowing how to face death with no prior experience. One has to wait for what is happening to know the answer and the waiting is hell.
We were now headed west again, seeming to have had to avoid some obstacle or impending attack by some Allied Army, although we were never sure what. There was no way that we could know what the war situation was with regard to which troops were attacking in which zone. The walking had again become mechanical but there was much more contact with the civilian population.
It would seem that some German people felt sorry for us and would actually risk coming up to the column to give us bread or potatoes. Once a man carrying a string of fish passed us and then returned to give the string of fish to us. We were delighted but rather hard put as to what to do with them. That night the guards had built a fire and allowed us to put the fish in an old tin can filled with water and boil it on the fire. In spite of starvation, this turned out to be the worst tasting, most inedible food I have ever tried and nobody was able to swallow any of it. We didn’t know if it was a lack of seasoning, the boiling in the old can, or just plain spoiled fish but one thing was certain, a starving man will not and I emphasize will not eat just anything presented to him in spite of all the popular reference to the fact that he will.
Shortly after this, we were aware of being in a more populated area judging from the amount of activity, trucks coming and going, and supplies being put in piles along the road. Little did we know these were meant for us – they were the Red Cross packages that had long been promised. The distribution was on the basis of one box per two men, although again I emphasize it was supposed to be one box per man. The excitement of getting this food was almost too much for us to handle. Dividing the box was somewhat of a problem since there was only one can of some food and one package of another.
The most memorable item to me was the Nestle’s chocolate. Once again we had some trading material in the form of cigarettes. Never would anybody trade a morsel of food for any reason. It was difficult to know where to begin eating but the can of beans looked like a good place to start. Experience had shown us that measuring carefully what we were going to eat each time, insured the longest period of time a given amount of food would last. There was also a tendency to prolong the eating process and take very small savory bites. There was powdered milk in the package and I decided to make some chocolate ‘candy’. I made it a purposely slow process. I measured out a couple of spoons of chocolate and mixed it with just a trace of water, making a softball. I then rolled this in powdered milk, rolling it out in a wormlike configuration. I then cut this into tiny segments to be savored later at a rate that would be painful to an observer. The whole opening of the packages and the preparation process was like getting ready for and having an old fashioned picnic.
The biscuits, jelly, canned potted meat, and powdered milk provided us with a balance of food which we desperately needed. I have always been amazed at how we had survived without fruits or vitamins. Perhaps there was more vitamin and mineral in the ‘grass soup’ than we would have suspected from the taste of it. After eating and running through our nearly nightly grooming process, which by now had been more feasible because it was warmer out and we could take off our shirts and pants at times. Each man would help the other pick of the rapidly moving lice in areas inaccessible to him – again the scene would be similar to that seen in a zoo at the monkey compound; except that by now our hair and beards were so long we didn’t look much like monkeys. The thing which both amazed and horrified us was to see our bodies (I probably really should say see our bones) and what had occurred over the past months besides the excess growth of beard and hair. We looked like skeletons, with deep sunken eyes, ribs showing no meat, just skin covering the bone, prominent pelvis bones and between them a sunken area making the pubic area a large mound in its own right.
You could literally touch your fingers together as you grasped the radius bones at the wrist. The buttocks were caved in and the total appearance was disheartening and grotesque. On the light side, receiving the Red Cross packages and subsequent eating of some of the food had a relaxing effect and seemed to make us more able to relate to each other, even to the guards. By this time we had learned some German words and could communicate by supplementing the sentences with gestures and pictures. It was becoming apparent that the guards were more interested in relating to us in a more understanding manner now and we interpreted this to mean they were also concerned as to what would happen when the war was over, particularly if they should lose it. This created a complex interaction which was to become a problem for us some days later. It got to a point where the guards would take time to try to teach us some German words and even show us pictures of a wife, sweetheart, or children.
We had been walking to the west for several days and noticed that the guards were more uneasy than usual when two of them walked up to us and gave their rifles in a gesture of surrender. We were not sure how to handle this problem since the war was still on, we were in enemy territory, in US uniform, not knowing where we were, nor knowing where the Allies were and not knowing where the nearest fighting German Army was. During training, it was said that you would take the rifles and hold the guards captive but not all the guards had done this and as a result, we could have been shot on the spot by any guard who did not want to follow this procedure. Our next thought was if we took them captive where would we take them? Next realism, we are enemy soldiers no matter how disheveled we looked, we would be armed and behind enemy lines and, as a result, would be viewed as spies and probably shot on sight by any German troops who might happen by. The truth of this was to become quite apparent just prior to our liberation.
After long deliberation, we decided that if the war was this close to being over and if the soldiers felt that they had lost it to this extent, our best decision was to remain their prisoner for a while. We felt we had not come all of this way and with all of the suffering, to be shot as spies, the Geneva Convention rules could not save us. The German soldiers were surprised at our decision but seemed to understand our reasoning.
The Danube and the Danube
We continued to frequently change directions for no apparent reason and soon came into view of the Danube River. It is a surprisingly large river and was very muddy looking – we were expecting clear water to match our concept of the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz type river. These references were romantic in nature and, as often is true, the romantic idea does not match the reality. For days we would be plagued with anxiety and indecision on the part of the German guards and the German troops which we had finally encountered.
We now knew that our decision to remain prisoners had been a good one. The German Army had not given up in any sense but was in retreat. Their decisions centered around whether or not to blow up bridges as they moved away from the front, wherever at any given moment that might be. We would often be kept back from the bridges and the banks of the river while a decision was being made and then hurried across the river to continue on our way until the next encounter with this winding river, sometimes crossing to the west, sometimes to the south, then sometimes to the east.
Bridges on the smaller streams were often blown up just after we had crossed them. We had been routed around Munich and were headed south where rumor had it that there was a concentration camp ahead of us. We had heard of these camps which were notorious for cruel treatment of the prisoners and rumor had it that the primary group in this camp were of the Jewish faith. This again brought terror to those men in our group who were Jewish but had so far escaped detection. Since our guard unit was Wehrmacht and not SS troops, I doubt that at this point they would have done anything even if they knew a man was Jewish.
The End is Near
As we approached a large concentration of buildings in a high fence. The guards said it was the camp in Dachau. We walked along the fence to pass the compound. There was no effort to circumvent the main building, and from the road, we could see into a window and doorway where there was a large lamp with very large shade. The guards very quietly said that it was rumored that the shade was made of human skin and that the woman in the house was crazy. The thought that this might be true was enough to make many of us sick but that was only the beginning of the horror of this place. Further along, as we passed we could see human bodies piled up as high as 6 feet and covering nearly a quarter of an acre.
The stench was unbelievable and many of us threw up what little we had in us. The guards literally ran us past this obscenity. Never had any of us witnessed such inhumanity and almost immediately we were trying to convince ourselves that we had not seen this ghoulish scene of the past hour. Mercifully, the wind changed and we were out of the influence of any physical reminder. Except for mental blocking to save our sanity, the memory would not go away and served to remind us of how lucky we were not to be in the hands of the SS troops. For the next few days, we encountered the Danube River several more times, always with the feeling that decisions had to be made before continuing with us and determining the direction to be taken. We continued to wind around the countryside, crossing rivers and climbing and descending hills and small mountains.
We passed through many small villages which we could not identify. The names of the towns and the road signs had been taken down so any enemy troops who could get this far could not easily locate themselves on the landscape. In each village we could hear radios blasting with Hitler’s voice shrill and demanding, telling the people to fight to the end to protect their villages, assuring them that he was in charge and would continue to protect Berlin from the enemy. The people’s reactions were mixed but the greatest number of them seemed to realize that the end of the war was near. We saw people tear up Hitler’s picture and throw it out as we passed so that we would see them do it. We saw other people spit on the picture, tear it down from their wall, and stomp on it. Some people, as we passed, handed us food. Some people were very angry, would have no part of being nice to us, and would literally try to get at us with threatening gestures and abusive language. People were frantic and the situation was chaotic.
As we approached each village, if it hadn’t been so tragic, it would have been comical to see the people of the village trying to defend their town. Even on a wide-open space with a road running through it the town’s people would pile rocks and logs obviously attempting to stop or impede vehicle and troop movements.
What made it grotesque was it was a simple matter to go around such barricades. The population doing all of this was made up of old and feeble men and women, children of age 10 on down, and able-bodied women who had been doing men’s work in the village and in the fields while their men were at the battlefront. We had run across the older children in various places throughout Germany. They were always dressed in uniforms, generally, brown in color, and were being groomed to be soldiers. Some of them, especially toward the end of the war, had been armed. These youth camps were similar to our scout camps but with a life and death training program being followed. They openly showed hatred for us whenever we passed anywhere near them. The hate and Aryan philosophy taught to them was certainly effective. There were boys who were evidently graduates of these camps; because we had often seen boys from age 12 on up in actual uniform and in some of the fighting units.
There was evidence that the Amêrican command had been alerted to the possible danger to us as POWs with the war seeming to be drawing to a close. This awareness came in the form of leaflets being dropped by Allied planes in cities along our route. We were ordered not to pick them up and were threatened with being shot if we did so. Evidently, the civilian population was also alerted. However, there was no way that with that many papers falling from the sky they were not going to be read by somebody. In essence, the leaflets, signed by Dwight Eisenhower, said that under the threat of strong reprisal, no harm should come to any prisoner of war, either in camps or those still marching on the road. It was extremely reassuring to know that someone really knew of our presence and location.
We had begun to believe that this was a sure sign that the war was nearly over or at least that the Allies thought that it would soon be over. The incident of the dropping of the leaflets had particular significance for me because Gen Eisenhower was my second cousin. His father and my maternal grandfather were brothers. Dwight had spent a good deal of his early years staying with my Uncle Chauncey Eisenhower in Anderson, Indiana and they shared an interest in racing cars. My mother, Birdie Pauline Eisenhower used to go target shooting with Dwight. Thinking about all of this reminded me that my mother had wanted me to go see Gen Eisenhower when I first went into the army but I had declined because it seemed too much like brown-nosing. I can’t help wondering how different my life would have been if I had followed her advice and gotten on the staff of Eisenhower. Chances are I wouldn’t be writing this book from a POW’s point of view.
We continued our march to the east moving each day closer to what we had been told was our final destination, Berchtesgaden. Our primary fear was that we would actually get there, they would get us inside the installation and not acknowledge that we were there. According to the guards, the mountain retreat was extremely heavily fortified, was very thick with concrete and much of it was in and below a mountain. The word was that this was an area Hitler had loved and so had built this fortification for himself and his officers in case of a need to retreat. Rumors as to how far away this retreat was and how long it would take to get there were coming through heavy and fast. Even the German guards had reservations about wanting to go inside such a formidable fortification. We were now into May 1945 and rumor had it that the Allies were closing in on all fronts and that the Russians were already in Berlin. We were not sure whose Army was to our west but from the noise of battle, they were only a few miles away. We had just passed through another small town which was fortified in the home-front style already described above. I felt that since there were so few of us guarded by an excessive number of guards, we were no threat to the population and so they could be more curious than angry or aggressive toward us.
Except for their loved ones, who might have been hurt or killed, thus making these people angry/ these people had not been bombed, nor directly affected by the war at this point. We had passed the town of Mùhldorf and immediately ahead of us was another river; this time, not the Danube. We were told that it was the Inn River and that we had to cross it. We were being hurried along and told that there was talk of blowing up the bridge, which we were to cross before this occurred.
For some reason, we were routed upstream away and to our amazement we saw a huge sign saying ‘International Red Cross Settlement, Soldiers Forbidden’. Behind this sign was a church which we believed to be Catholic. The church was surrounded by a concrete and stone fence. We were milling around, evidently waiting for the guards to get some idea of instruction as to how to proceed with us. A priest or at least the head of this set up invited us inside the courtyard. After several hours we were again on the way to the river when we heard an explosion at the river. We were told that someone had prematurely blown up the bridge, we could not cross. We were taken back to the church.
The shooting to the west was getting louder and soon a German SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) with a group of soldiers, about a platoon, looking very harassed and moving rapidly, appeared on the horizon; bearing down on our position, evidently wanting to cross the river. This SS Officer was livid with anger when he found that he could not cross the bridge because it had been blown up.
Liberation – Thank You God & an Unnamed Catholic Priest
The Hauptsturmführer was in full battle gear brandishing an automatic weapon and looking very cruel. His uniform was dirty and he needed a shave indicating that he had been on the run or retreat in the field for a good length of time. His men looked tired, sad, and showed little spirit for battle; showing more a need to rest. The SS approached us with anger and aggressive shouting, saying in German many things which we did not understand. His actions, body language, and his weapon in his hand left little doubt as to what he wanted us to do and was getting us together in the courtyard to achieve. He took the priest aside and talked to him and then in turn had a long discussion with our guard unit who acted completely subservient to him and definitely afraid of him. There was no doubt about his being an SS trooper. At best they had always been cruel and disdainful to us throughout Germany but here it could get worse because in addition to all of this he was nearly defeated, on the run and here we were, ready-made targets for his displaced anger and hate. After his conferences, which seemed to indicate that no person present was agreeing with him in his position, he strode over to the nearest POW and hit him across the head with his weapon for no apparent reason, just frustration. He then turned to the soldiers in his unit, the one carrying a light machine gun, and evidently told him to set it up ready to fire. The priest pleaded with him but he knocked the priest down and proceeded with his preparations.
The guard company just stood by seemingly helpless in the face of this man’s actions but never taking their eyes off of us. It was clear that he meant us real harm and there was nothing we could do because there were only between 30 and 100 of us against all of these angry, fully armed Germans. At this point, we could fully understand why the Jewish people had not charged against the soldier holding guns on them; it would have just been futile and ended in a slaughter. We had little choice except to conform to his trying to line us up. We could have tried to run for our lives but this would have only shortened the time of his shooting us. We now fully realized that he intended to execute us and we were powerless to help ourselves. We stalled as much as we could pretending to not understand that he was trying to line us up, pretending to turn around when he wanted us the other direction, and doing as much as possible to prolong whatever was happening. We would go to the right instead of the left and ask him questions in bad German as though we were really retarded.
This only served to anger him more but it was buying time for us. Time for what we really had no idea, all we wanted was some intervention by someone or something and there was nothing in sight. I feel that we all felt that all of the past months of suffering had been in vain and that there was no way we could beat these final odds. There was no Wehrmacht Captain to save us, no Russians to overrun us as they had in Poznan, no Gen Patton to storm the prison camp as he had in Hammelburg; just a vicious Captain with a soldier setting his sights on us. The guards and Priest were looking on in disbelief as though they expected that at the last minute he would abandon his plan and indicate that it was a cruel joke to play on the American POWs to make them suffer. He gave no such sign and gave an order to the gunner at which point the machine gun was cocked, the waiting was unbearable, everything in us told us to charge the gun, to run, to plead but there was no time for any of this and we felt that it was all over.
Each man had in his own way been praying and each of us felt betrayed and abandoned but we had not reckoned with the method of God who had gotten us this far. The Priest suddenly lunged forward knocking the soldier and his gun over and then turned facing the German Captain defiantly. The Captain was so surprised by this action that he just stood motionless in disbelief. At that very moment, we could hear the sound of trucks and jeeps and what we thought was a tank. The Captain also heard it and turned rapidly ordering his men to follow him at a full run toward the river but the American jeep with his 50 caliber guns firing was bearing down on the area and the Germans stopped, not daring to fire a shot. The German guard company threw down their rifles, the Captain and his men put their hands on their heads in surrender and the most intense moment of my life was over. There had never been a more welcome sight than this – American soldiers with guns who were not prisoners – the liberation – the release of extreme anxiety – all at the same time. We all cried, unashamedly, and at the same time laughed in joy as we embraced the soldiers who saved us. There was evidently much action in this area of a mop-up nature. The rescue outfit didn’t want to take any chances with us and quickly ordered us into the 6×6 truck and headed west.
The Germans were marched out under guard. We were amazed by the speed of which all of this was happening and were extremely sad that we had not had an opportunity to thank the priest for saving us, nor could I ever find a way to find his name or even his denomination – we asked God to thank him for us. We did not realize it until much later that the guards had gotten us to within 90 miles of the supposed Berchtesgaden destination. If we had actually made it there this story might have had an entirely different ending, I will never know. The truck took us to an interim camp near Regensburg. The ride there was short and very bumpy but after all of our hundreds of miles of walking, who was going to complain? We were all ecstatic and at the same time numb – emotions were confused – it had all happened so rapidly, and our status had changed so drastically. We had to stop thinking like prisoners and think liberated. It is surprising how, over a period of time of capture, some functions are dulled, others stop working because they are protectively shut off and the net effect becomes one of a dull acceptance with only one goal – get through the situation and survive. This, for those few of us who were left, had done just that. We could only guess at the fate of all of the hundreds of men who had been and were no longer with us at this wonderful moment. We knew where we had left many and what had happened to many others but at this point, there was no real enlightenment. We had envisioned getting to wherever our liberating friends were taking us, getting off the truck, and starting to forage for food.
This remained a number one priority for us. This was not, however, to be. We arrived at a makeshift compound that already held hundreds of other liberated prisons of war from all sources. We were taken in behind the fenced area and the gate was closed. The feeling was very similar to that experienced when we had been put behind our first enclosure at ‘Oflag 64’ in Poland. We were incensed to think that our own troops were treating us like prisoners. We wanted to be free to move about as we chose even if we didn’t go anyplace. Of course, this would have been idiotic on our part at this point in the proceedings, with the war ended and nobody knows what a defeated civilian population might do to unarmed GI’s wandering around the countryside.
We had not reasoned out that the liberators had to keep track of us and deliver us somewhere in order to account for us. We were told, not unkindly, but firmly that this arrangement was necessary until transportation back into France could be set up. What made this all the harder was that our liberators did not have enough food to feed us and we had lost our mobility to scrounge for food from the general population, a process with which we had gotten quite proficient by this time. We were interred in this fashion, sleeping again on the ground for 3 or 4 days and then taken by truck to an airport near Regensburg. I felt good at this point because I had kept a running notebook throughout the period from December 16 to this date, May 2, 1945. It showed names of towns when known, what the buildings looked like, the distances we had covered each day, what we had or did not have to eat. Significant events and in general the attitude of the German people were important parts of this notebook.
The book would have helped keep in perspective what had happened and later helped to locate soldiers who had been killed or wounded in the accounting process. We were kept busy comparing notes with other prisoners who had not been in our group, asking about various friends they may have run across and, in general, getting back to having a life one more time. The soldiers did manage to bring bread into us, evidently from local sources because I am sure we had no baking facilities this deep in Germany at this time, extending to May 7, 1945. We had survived so many varieties of hardship in the past months, it was mostly our feelings, not our physical conditions which were hurt during the waiting process. The fact of being treated like prisoners by our own soldiers was hard to take.
Major John J. Mohn’s book ‘Forced March: From the Bulge to Berchtesgaden’ is available on Amazon and you better get a copy of the book because it was private one-time publishing and also before it is out of print. If you want to pay a tribute to John, get your’ copy on Amazon (click the book below).