Forced March, from Schoenberg – St Vith (Battle of the Bulge – Belgium) to Berchtesgaden in Germany is the Prisoner of War memoir of the 1200-mile forced march done by Maj John J. Mohn, Hq Co, 1st Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, Golden Lion and has been extracted from a book published in Canton, Ohio, USA and printed by PPi Graphics, also in Canton Ohio, (ISBN-13:978-08-9863465-5-2). Being a friend of Mandy Altimus Pond, Maj John J. Mohn’s granddaughter, we talked about the publishing on this book in the EUCMH Website and agreed that this work would be a great way to render honor to Maj John J. Mohn and the terrible period he experienced while being one American Prisoner of War in Nazi Germany during the last year of WW-2. Before starting with the text, I would like the reader to notice that combat photos from a surrendered unit in the combat zone don’t exist, especially with the 422 and the 423-IRs of the 106-ID. On the morning of Dec 16, 1944, these two infantry regiments, trapped between two German main axes of penetration; on their front, elements of the 5.Panzer-Army (Manteufeul) coming from Blieaf in Germany and heading to St Vith and on their rear, elements of the 6.SS Panzer-Army (Dietrich) coming from Lanzerath and Manderfeld heading to Liège via St Vith, didn’t give a once of a chance to these two RCTs which once cut off, without supply, couldn’t withdraw in any direction. These men combated up to the last cartridge, then destroyed all their guns, machine guns and rifles, and finally surrendered. So, I will try to find images to illustrate this archive but we’ll see while doing the work.
To my wonderful wife, Cheri and loving daughter, Debora Mohn Altimus; without whose prodding and encouragement this book would never have been written. And to my son-in-law Richard Altimus who assisted in the computer editing of this book. Editor’s Note: Additional thanks to granddaughter, Mandy Altimus Pond, who helped me with the publishing of her grandpa’s book.
Foreword, Edward P. McHugh. Introduction, Mandy Altimus Mohn. Biography, Debora Altimus Mohn. Book, Richard Altimus. Edited by Richard Altimus, Debora Mohn Altimus, and Mandy Altimus Mohn.
Maj John J. Mohn, 1/442-IR, 106-ID
When World War II’s Battle of the Bulge began with a surprise German Attack on Dec 16, 1944, troops of the US 106th Infantry Division occupied the most exposed American positions. They had been in the European continent for less than two weeks, and cut off from reinforcements, were left to face the German onslaught alone. They fought back, standing their ground, but as their ammunition; food and medical supplies dwindled and the enemy noose drew tighter, over 7000 were ordered by their commanding officers to surrender to the surrounding German forces. Except for the Bataan Death March this was the largest surrender of American troops during World War Two.
Maj John J. Mohn of Akron, Ohio, the author of this book, was the Operations Officer of the 1/422-IR. He was a citizen-soldier who had volunteered to join the Army as private in 1941. This is the story of his 1200 mile odyssey as a prisoner of war to the far reaches of the Nazi empire during which he and his fellow soldiers were starved, frozen, bombed, and shot.
Because the Germans were unprepared to absorb a massive influx of American POWs and had little space to house them, Maj Mohn’s imprisonment became an almost continuous five-month march through the collapsing and chaotic Third Reich. Initially, he was sent to a camp for American officers over 500 miles away from Poland. He arrived there only to be marched out of the camp a few days later when the Russian forces broke through the German lines around Warsaw.
Seeing the prisoners as a potential bargaining chip and intent on keeping them out of Russian hands, the Germans forced the Americans to make a harrowing march westward across rural Poland and Germany in the dead of winter just ahead of pursuing Soviet forces. After this month-and-a-half ordeal, the prisoners finally arrived at the Hammelburg Prisoner of War Camp in northern Bavaria, only about 100 miles away from where they started. Two weeks later this camp was attacked and briefly captured by a Task Force of Patton’s 3-A. The Germans, however, soon recaptured the camp and immediately sent Maj Mohn and the other prisoners on another dangerous march which ended at the Austrian border five weeks later they were liberated by American troops.
Through it all, Maj Mohn preserved and returned to the United States where he underwent treatment and rehabilitation for injuries he had suffered as a prisoner of war. he returned to civilian life and developed a highly successful career as a psychologist. But his remarkable experiences in the military never quite left him. Eventually, he put words to paper and the result is the archive you are about to read – one of the very few accounts on this type ever to have been published. More than just a narrative of his experiences as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, it is a testament to the indomitable spirit of the American soldiers and a reminder to all of us of the sacrifices they made to preserve our freedom.
Before the Battle of the Bulge – Mandy Altimus Pond
About 1937, while attending Akron University, John Mohn took Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. John had no desire to become an officer, but by the end of his training, he had reached the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. In preparation for what appeared to be an inevitable world conflict, Congress passed the Selective Service Act in 1940. This was the first peacetime conscription in the US history. Enacted in September 1940, this act required men between 21 and 35 years of age to register with local draft boards. Men were drafted by a lottery system and were required to serve for twelve months. After that year was completed, John was told he would be draft-free and not required to sign up, should a war arise.
On Feb 4, 1941, John decided to enlist for this program, and join the Navy. He drove to Cleveland, entered the Armory, and began the process. He took the written test, passed the physical, and was about to be sworn in when the commanding officer at the Armory said that John’s teeth protruded too much and they would not accept him. John stated in an interview that ‘this is stupid’ and went to the other end of the Armory and enlisted in the Army. At this moment he could have enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant because of his ROTC training. It apparently slipped his mind and he enlisted as a Private.
John was assigned to the 37th InfantryDivision at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He volunteered for the Signal Company (Teletype) and the day after he signed up, the teletype was discontinued, so he was reassigned to supply in the Signal Company and was sent to Indiantown Gap near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. On Dec 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the next day upon request from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress declared war on Japan and their ally Germany. This canceled the draft-free status that John had signed up for, as he had not completed his twelve months of training.
His division was scheduled to board a ship headed to the Pacific Theater of the war, but the boat blew up before they could head out.
John was then sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for officer training from February through April 1942. In late 1942, he was sent to Camp Forest and assigned to the 80-ID for a year. He became CO Fox Co, 1/319-IR, 80-ID. His division was in charge of clearing trees in the mountains in preparation for war games, to train men in firing artillery and surviving in realistic battle situations. John was in charge of the logistics and planning for the war games.
The 80-ID was then incorporated into the 106-ID. John was reassigned as Bn OP Officer and sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana and assigned to Hq Co, 1/422-IR, 106-ID. John reached the rank of Captain, and was told that he was the youngest Captain in the Division. As Operations Officer, he was in charge of logistics for troop movements. He staged a large 3000-troop parade in Indianapolis in 1944. After our advance movement order was in, we received new equipment, turned in motor vehicles and did what training we could at odd intervals.
Finally, in September we moved by rail to Camp Myles Standish at Taunton, Mass. This place was known as a staging area where life reached the maximum of not letting anyone know anything at all. As a matter of fact, we existed on a monotonous routine of rumors until the day we redoubled on our tracks, returned to New York, boarded the RMS Aquitania and departed for Gourock, Scotland, on Oct 21, 1944. The 423-IR with various attached units arrived Oct 27, the 422 and 424-IRs arrived Oct 28 with the artillery and some special units. We moved then to England where we were deployed in one of the most interesting and certainly the most beautiful parts of this country, the Cotswold section of the midlands. The 422-IR was stationed some 12 miles west and northwest of Oxford, the 424-IR near Banbury of Banbury Cross fame, the 423-IR and the Division Artillery near Cheltenham and Gloucester respectively. Division headquarters and special units were located centrally in this 200 square mile area.
We remained in England preparing for an expected early crossing of the Channel. Between Nov 30 and Dec 1, the Golden Lions embarked for the long slow fifty mile trip from Southampton to cross the Channel. We disembarked at Le Havre and at Rouen, a town about one-third of the way up the Seine toward Paris, and went into bivouac in deep mud in the open fields in a cold drizzling rain, between the Dec 1/8.
During these days liaison officers from the 1-A headquarters arrived at odd intervals with conflicting and inconsistent sets of orders, so that during a 48 hour period we were assigned to three different corps in as many separate locations. Fortunately, troops and staff were arriving in unrelated groups as the weather and the Navy allowed them ashore so that no damage was done except to my disposition. The final messenger appeared on Dec 6 with instructions for us to leave for the St Vith area in Belgium. The first combat team to move, left the area on Dec 8, followed by the others as rapidly as possible. Upon arrival, we were to relieve the 2-ID, then in a defensive position, as part of the VIII Corps whose headquarters was then at Bastogne.
Troops being in the throes of landing after a rough winter crossing, staffs only partly present and maps few and far between, our move to the battlefield was a rather remarkable one and highly successful in spite of its discomfort. The route carried us nearly 300 miles through Amiens, Cambrai, and Maubeuge in France to Philippeville in Belgium. After an overnight bivouac in extra deep mud near the latter town, we passed through Marche and the villages of eastern Belgium to the vicinity of St Vith, arriving during the period Dec 9/15. The relief of the 2-ID’s weary troops stationed along the quiet German border in the Belgian Ardennes Forest commenced on Dec 11, was completed on Dec 13, responsibility for the defense of the sector passing to me on the Dec 12.
The troops of the Indian head Division assured the men of the Golden Lion Division that there would be little action on this hilly terrain in the middle of winter.
Preface – Maj John J. Mohn
It was Dec 16, 1944, somewhere along the Siegfried Line near St Vith, Belgium. The German counter-attack that would later be referred to as the Battle of the Bulge had begun. The gray, foggy dawn made a perfect umbrella for the German launching of an onslaught which nearly cost the Allies World War Two. What happened at the Battle of the Bulge may be a well-known story but none of the stories make any reference to the group of American Soldiers taken prisoner at that time and marched for 140 continuous days covering over 1200 long, cold, starvation-ridden, nightmare miles, terminated only by the end of the war in Europe. Adversity is a mild term to describe the unbearable hardships endured by the ever-changing, ever-diminishing column of men. Temperatures dropped to ten degrees below zero. There were periods of fifteen days without a single bite of food. All suffered a phenomenal loss of weight (I weighed 65 pounds by the time of liberation). We had inadequate clothing; many without hats or gloves and at times no shoes. It was especially brutal for the poor Army Air Corps men who were only wearing thermal boots with no soles for walking when they were shot down and captured. The journey was marked by frozen feet, legs, arms, faces and even blood trails. Treachery, deceit, and fear are just feeble attempts to put into words the anger, horror, anguish, and despair felt by these military men.
The ordeal that the approximately 7000 US soldiers endured between Dec 16/44 and May 2/45 can only be epitomized by saying that a scant thirty of the original group even reached liberation as a unit. Losses of men beyond belief resulted from attempts at escape, exposure, starvation, the sadism of the German Guards and being strafed daily by our own and Allied planes.
My book is not intended as a condemnation of the German People or Army but does make reference to differing attitudes and treatment by the Wehrmacht, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for being alive, and the Elite SS Troops, who were constantly threatening our lives with attempts to exterminate us with machine guns and failed to provide even the most basic of necessities for our daily maintenance. The German High Command seemed at a loss as to what to do with so many prisoners and lacked a plan regarding the disposition of us. The result was a wandering march covering three countries with no apparent purpose, with a final goal of holding us as hostages in Berchtesgaden at the end of the war. The consequences for us, as Prisoner of War, were painfully clear. The facts and sequences of events I know first-hand because I was there from the beginning to the end. I saw dramatic changes in attitudes, values, behavior, and beliefs. Hidden strengths and weaknesses in the struggle for survival were surprising and at times frightening, but the salient factor through it all was that survival is ‘All-Important’ and that the ‘Veneer of Civilization’ is extremely thin.
December 16, the Horror Begins
I couldn’t help being reminded of that famous poem by Rudyard Kipling ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ on that fateful, foggy, grey, cold, drizzling morning Dec 16, 1944. The difference was that instead of ‘cannons’ noted in the poem, we had German tanks to the left of us, tanks to the right of us, tanks in front of us, and tanks behind us. To ‘charge’ ahead would have been to go down the steep slope of an evergreen covered mountain. The landscape was so much like the mountain areas of Pennsylvania that it was hard to remember that we were in a foreign country fighting a very serious war. Even more serious, we were surrounded and being annihilated by German Panzer Divisions from the left and right of us. German artillery from the front was terrible enough but, to our dismay, the Germans had captured our artillery and were using our own guns to fire upon us from the rear. When we called for supporting fire, they were aiming at us instead of their own troops.
Our Battalion Commander, Col Thomas Kent was killed by a shell coming in from the rear of our ‘Pillbox’ command post. At first, we thought our artillerymen were firing short of their target, but when we heard the German voice on our radio, we realized the awful truth – we were literally at their mercy. The divide and conquer strategy used in the German attack had been completely unexpected and totally effective. The Panzer tanks seemed as numerous as infantrymen would be normally.
I was the Battalion Operations Officer for the 1/422. We were green troops, inexperienced. We had just been brought up to strength by new and very young troops from the United States, Green and young troops refer to the fact that many of the replacements brought to us to replenish the 106-ID had come from colleges, Army Specialized Training Programs (ASTP), and other academic deferment situations. These men were about 18 years of age on average and very angry at being called to active duty. Worse than that, their indoctrination to duty took place on cold, mud-ridden roads walking across France; along with inadequate equipment, fast movement, and confusion, all of this prior to the Bulge attack. In spite of this, however, they gave a very good account of themselves in a no-win situation – where the 422-IR was demolished.
Army Headquarters had put us in this position, just east of St Vith, between Schoenberg in Belgium and Bliealf in Germany, along the Siegfried Line, because they felt that it was the least likely place on the north-south line of our front to be a point of attack – how wrong they were. CCB, 9-AD on our left was either inundated or had pulled out, and the 28-ID on our right flank was being dissected, just as we were. After 72 hours of constant bombarding, we were ordered to ‘attack to the rear’. We had been infiltrated by English speaking Germans (Panzer-Brigade 150 – Skorzeny) and confusion was rampant. We were being systematically cut to ribbons. Elements of surviving units banded together, forming the most unlikely fighting units.
There were infantry, heavy weapons, artillery, Air Corps, tank, and anti-aircraft men, all pulling together. Then, the inevitable happened – we ran out of ammunition, we were surrounded, getting point-blank fire from the German Mark V Panther tanks and their deadly heavy power 75-MM guns. We were using wet, freezing ditches for cover, breaking out of traps by running behind the tanks. Many men were cut down in their tracks during these attempts. I was lucky. With 107 bullets and fragment holes in my trench coat, all the buckles shot off my boots and even my belt buckle being shot off; I was not touched by a single piece of metal. Divine Guidance or luck was to follow me through the next 5 months, through seemingly insurmountable odds. My radio operator, by my side, was not so lucky, and like so many others was killed instantly by a direct hit from a 75-MM tank gun.
There was something bizarre and unreal about everything happening. As I glanced over my right shoulder, I saw a Major standing dumbfounded with a spent bullet sticking rakishly out of his neck and another officer reaching over and pulling it out in a nonchalant manner, then wrapping a handkerchief around the Major’s throat. My immediate and irrelevant thought was that you can’t put a tourniquet around somebody’s throat but I guess you can because the Major lived. We continued to try to break out and establish a position which we could defend. As we retreated in the most orderly fashion we could, we began to accumulate men from all different units. The retreat was confused but we kept fighting with what ammunition we could find.
The first night out in our retreat, we pulled into a woods for cover and to rest. Much to our amazement, a large unit of German Soldiers was on the other side of this same woods. They were being as quiet as we were, not being sure, I feel, what they were facing. We could not estimate the size of this unit, and evidently they were not sure either since they made no move to come to us. Since we were out of ammunition and could not risk a confrontation, we did not move toward them, nor in any way disclose our position. At dawn, we were moving out of the woods and noted that the Germans had already abandoned the woods during the night. We rapidly moved to the west, but we were finally completely surrounded by a solid wall of German tanks. For 2 days they circled our position, playing Benny Goodman records, shouting out over loudspeakers how stupid we were to die for a lost cause and propagandizing us with the disloyalty of our wives and sweethearts at home; none of which we believed for a minute.
They would then announce a five-minute break ‘for an artillery barrage’. They continued this process until there were few trees standing in what had been a heavily wooded, evergreen forest. There were few men alive and not wounded. It was under these conditions that the decision to surrender was made and I will never be able to forget the anguished cries of two young Polish soldiers who had escaped from their German captors in Poland the previous year and made their way to the United States just to join the United States Army, with the purpose of returning to the war to help liberate their own country. Now they faced with the same fate of capture once again.
They pleaded with us saying, ‘You don’t know what it is like. We have come so far and all for nothing. We will not go’. Saying this, they hid in foxholes without taking into account the SS method of finally clearing an area by dropping hand grenades into all possible hiding places. We were able to pull the screaming soldiers out before they were blown to bits by grenades.
After rounding us up, the SS unit took us to a collecting point in a nearby woods and ordered immediate departure to the east. We erroneously assumed that we were to be evacuated but to our horror saw that the line was being marched past a machine gun emplacement, and men were systematically being shot down where they stood or when they passed. It was inhuman; we were outraged and scared beyond belief. No American could conceive of this kind of savagery. Some men tried to run but were shot as they left the column.
Death seemed inevitable, and then again Divine Intervention in the form of a young Wehrmacht Captain, showing as much anger and disbelief as we were showing, broke the line and shouted to us, ‘Don’t go there, follow me, run for your lives’. We needed no urging and immediately cut to our right, down a very steep mountain grade, stumbling, falling and dodging the volley of bullets from the frustrated SS troops. It was a nightmare. We lost many men but most of us literally fell down the mountain and out of that danger. Little did we suspect that we had just begun 140 days of constant walking, freezing, starving and living an existence that was always near death.
We were headed for Koblenz and the crossing of the Rhine River into enemy territory and incarceration. In all of our training for battle, we were never mentally prepared for the contingency of capture. The anxiety, fear, doubt and disbelief were overwhelming. The Germans had us. We were no longer free to do our own bidding.
The German Captain could do with us what he chose. Stories of brutality, death, experimentation, the horrible treatment of the Jews and hundreds of other thoughts raced through our minds and chilled our blood. ‘Go this way, Go that way’. ‘Take off your clothes’. ‘Put your equipment here’ and ‘Verboten, Rausch, Haltzen, Kommen sie herein’ all became familiar commands, always backed up with a sadistic gesture, a rifle, and a push. Even though the Wehrmacht Captain had saved our lives, there was no love lost between us and we were quickly indoctrinated with the futility of thoughts of escape or expecting any special treatment.
The First 100 Miles we Learn Self-Defense
We felt lucky to be alive but we were still full of terror, dismay and confusion resulting from our recent experience. At the time we had no real idea of a destination, just relief that it wasn’t a machine gun slaughter. The Captain and the Guard were moving us along quickly and soon the sound of the intense battle began to recede. Koblenz, with its many bridges crossing the Rhine, soon appeared downstream. We were privileged to walk along the beautiful shores of the River and see in the distance the famous ‘Rhine Castles’. They soon faded from sight and memory as we encountered the confusion at the bridges which were available to cross over to Koblenz. We were all fearful and at the same time ever hopeful that our planes would bomb the bridges before we could be taken across. This seemed a very logical plan because it would stem the German reinforcements and shorten their advance to the west.
To our dismay, there were no planes. The heavy fog and clouds had grounded all of our planes. This was one of the factors which had permitted the German Army to make the successful attack which had resulted in our being captured at this point and at this time. The darkness and overcast sky matched our spirits, and we wondered how long it would be before our planes could get into the air again and possibly save us from any further incarceration. We started our crossing of the river; crowding, pushing, and struggling against the tide of the German soldiers being rushed to the west to reinforce their troops and their supply lines. Every type of vehicle was being employed: tanks, motorized half-tracks, horse-drawn carts, and even bicycles. Soldiers were walking ahead of, behind and along-side the vehicles, catching a ride when they could but always surging forward in a huge mass. It was a nightmare for everybody, soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war all seemed to be confused.
After getting across the river, it seemed that a direction had finally been determined and I first heard of a town called Falkenberg, the only significance of this being that at that point we were supposed to be transported by train to another destination but tragically this plan was doomed to failure. Getting out of Koblenz was no easy task. The streets we were traveling were extremely narrow, the houses being built close together and to the curbs. Koblenz was not a modern city by our standards. Masses of humanity were on the move and the German trucks and tanks were moving in the opposite direction from our column.
Often it was nearly impossible to get around a tank making a turn around the corner without being crushed by it. There were angry shouts of orders from the German Guards and we did not always know what was being said but the sign language is very effective in getting a point across, especially when accompanied by a push, a shove or a rifle butt across your head. We had never really comprehended what the language barrier really meant until this time. German guttural sounds were no longer humorous but deadly serious and certainly malicious.
There was a tendency on our part to silently make fun of the guttural sounds we heard. There were a few men who knew a limited number of German words which they had learned in high school or college but under these circumstances, a few words didn’t help much.
There was a Jewish Lieutenant with us who spoke Hebrew and this was close enough to some German to suffice for communication but we did not want to make this fact known because of our knowledge of the German treatment of the Jews and we were as afraid for the Lieutenant as he was for himself. After what seemed to be hours of pushing, shoving, dodging, cursing and running we were on our way out of Koblenz heading in a northeasterly direction which was consistent with the previously mentioned town of Falkenberg and our hopes for finally getting a ride on a train were rising.
The walking mile after mile had given us time to reflect our situation. We had settled down to some of the reality of being prisoners but I don’t think anyone truly accepted it. We talked optimistically of how our Allied Forces would break through the German lines anytime now, cross the Rhine River and liberate us. We had no appreciation of the size or strength of the German drive, nor did we know at this point that it was an all-out life and death struggle offensive for them. They were determined to break the back of the Allied Offensive and turn the tide of the war in their favor. In our limited space and understanding we had already begun to be more concerned with our own survival than the war. We were struggling with hunger, inadequate clothing, shock, cold, and inhuman treatment. The population was hostile toward us and we had no hope of help from them regarding food, shelter, or compassion.
It was interesting to note that the Northern Germans were extremely hostile toward us, spitting on us as we would pass groups of them, shouting obscenities at us, and even throwing objects at us; while the Southern Germans, as we found later, were more compassionate and apt to help us whenever it was safe for them to do so. One has to consider, however, that we encountered the Southern Germans months later, and much nearer the end of the war when they had finally realized that defeat was imminent.
Early in the morning of the second or third day of walking, we heard the strange haunting sound of bagpipes floating over the column. We were puzzled as to the source of this music but soon learned that an Army Colonel who also had been captured had always carried bagpipes with him in battle as a hobby and had managed to salvage them even in the heat of battle. It seems that he was using them to lead us, and seemingly trying to unite us in our thinking and establish and Esprit de Corps which was badly needed. We later learned that he was the ranking officer and the one the Germans used in an attempt to maintain order and get their major points across to us. In general, we all felt strangely reassured by this and felt more of a unit than at any time previously. It seems always to take a disaster to unite opposing forces, overcome petty differences and stiffen the camaraderie necessary for survival. At this point we were still fairly well civilized and apt to share cigarettes, extra clothing and ideas, a situation which was to change drastically for the worse in the following weeks and months. This occurred in direct proportion to the increased cold, hunger, and fatigue.
The basic survival drive was insidiously rearing its head. An example of this was when some of the men who knew a little German had learned that the German word for ‘hot’ is ‘heiss’ but did not share this knowledge with others who were not aware of it. This only becomes important when you realize that in extreme cold, anything hot, even water, can be vital. These men had been getting hot water from farmhouses as we progressed, with the rest of us thinking that ‘heiss’ meant cold and avoiding any offer of this ‘cold water’; thinking how dumb the others were to introduce anything cold into their bodies – we were using snow for our fluid bulk. After we learned the truth, it got to be a dog-eat-dog effort to get to the ‘heiss’ water first.
The relief of being away from the battlefront, and in less danger was counteracted by a growing awareness that we were beginning to wear down and getting on each other’s nerves more and more. The distance we had traveled was pointed out to us when the German Guard Company accompanying us had to be relieved by another because the guards were unable to keep up the pace of 20 miles a day, even though they had been eating regularly, while we had not. Our guards were men who could not be in battle and as a result were not physically capable of maintaining any rigorous activity for a long time. At this point we were still in fairly good physical condition and seemed to be able to handle the situation adequately. The German Guard was utilizing contact with farms, along with their own daily rations to maintain their diet. They had none to share with us. In a way this made us feel superior to them, which in our own American way always had been true, but in another way it all seemed so very unfair.
For a while our spirits were up but our stomachs were still empty and the morale boost was short lived. Small towns came and went. There seemed to be no goal but always there was talk of a train ride which in itself began to have value as a goal and would help us get through the endless foot-in-front-of-a-foot miles we were covering. About 5 days after we had been captured and after we had already walked about 100 miles, two unexpected and frightening events occurred deepening our insecurity; making it quite clear that we had no control whatsoever about our treatment or destiny. There had been talk of the possible use of poison gas in the German offensive action against the Allies. This had been discussed by the guards who had been responsible for us. The rumors went from one end of our long straggly line of men to the other end.
The use of poison gas had of course been outlawed but then who makes and keeps the rules in a life and death struggle situation like a war? Using us as prisoners, and seemingly as hostages, in an attempt to prevent retaliation on the part of the Allies for their use of poison gas; the German guards ordered us to throw away our gas masks. Any refusal to do so was considered an act of rebellion and punishable by being shot. Now we were stripped of a vital protective piece of equipment and did not hesitate to let our feelings be known. We began swearing at the guards at the top of our lungs but to no avail. Our pleading and shouting fell on deaf ears. We continued to grumble in true American style. Our outburst was followed by another order to throw away all of our mess gear (eating equipment), knives, forks, spoons, cups and aluminum plates.
Again we protested in the loudest possible manner but again there was no relenting. This time the guards showed irritation, began to threaten us and even struck some of the louder protestors. The unbelievable clatter of metal being thrown down expressed quite well our resentment and hostility toward the guards and the loss of our equipment. Except for the knives there seemed to be no justification for taking away our own means of obtaining or preparing food even if we should ever be able or lucky enough to locate any. Shortly after stripping us of the equipment, we were led into what appeared to be an old abandoned makeshift prison camp. The buildings were falling down from lack of maintenance, the barbed wire enclosures were falling down and the buildings lacked paint. Even the stairs approaching the buildings were broken. Siding had been ripped off or blown away so that protection from the wind was minimal. By now the temperature had fallen well below the freezing mark and the winds were gusting up to 40 miles per hour, making the chill factor devastating. We were lined up outside the buildings in long rows and allowed to enter only a few at a time. Once inside, the bleakness was even more overwhelming. There were a few tables scattered around and there were German officers or possibly administrative help seated at these tables. In an adjoining room there was a shower and what appeared to be a team of medical personnel. We were told to empty our pockets of everything, and put the contents on the table while one soldier went through the items, taking each piece of paper out of our wallets, including our medical records, pictures of family, driver’s licenses and so on. Another was asking questions such as ‘your name, your rank, your army unit, where were you captured’ and on and on.
All that is required according to the Geneva Convention is that you gave your Name, Rank and Serial Number; which of course is what we did. It is one thing to learn this procedure in a training situation during basic training in the United States and quite another to be facing an enemy who does everything in his power to degrade and intimidate you. Some of us, Captains and above, were taken into another more comfortable office filled with filing cabinets, a makeshift desk and some chairs. The occupants of this room were a German Captain and a couple of armed guards. The Captain spoke perfect English and put on a show of being amiable in his communication with us. The amazing thing about this encounter was when he pulled a rather complete file on some of us, knowing where we had been born, our age, parents’ names and even schools we had attended. He was quick and proud to announce that he had spent much time in the United States prior to the war, in such places as Buffalo, New York, Cleveland, Ohio and several other places.
We were inclined to suspect that this was a set up to gain our confidence or give the impression that there was nothing we could tell him that he did not already know but we did not make a point of challenging him with this suspicion. The Captain then chose to talk to each of us alone, going into great detail about our background and, in my case, telling me that my grandparents had left Germany in 1882, which was a fact; even knowing that they came from Dresden, Germany. He then proceeded to question me about my loyalty to the ‘Fatherland’, asking how I could join the Americans against my ‘Homeland’ and fight my own people. He said that this disloyalty was going to result in my being on the losing side. I stated that I did not feel that this was the case but he cut me short and offered a proposal which I’m sure he thought I could not refuse. He told me that if I joined the German Army my post would be in Berlin where I would enjoy ‘wine, women, and song’ for the duration of the war and that I could then become a German citizen. He ranted and raved about my stupidity when I told him the whole idea was crazy. He said he would give me time to reconsider. I assured him that there would be no consideration at all. He then summoned another officer who apparently got the same treatment as I had gotten and with the same results.
I was taken back to the interrogation room, and told to remove all of my clothing. The room was full of naked men who were very cold, had been searched, and were waiting to be told what to do next. In an attempt to save their wristwatches, most of the men had hidden them in various places such as the lining of their coats, in their combat boots, and any other place they could think of. One after the other I watched the guards find the hidden watches and decided to try ‘The Purloined Letter’ approach and leave mine on my wrist. Surprisingly this worked, and I walked out wearing my watch which I have with me to this very day. After the search we were taken to the shower room and told to bathe, which was the least likely thing that we would want to do in this 15-degree temperature with the wind howling through the cracks, never seeming to let up. We did comply, as there was little else we could do. Half frozen but clean, we were permitted to dress, except for our undershirts, the reason for which we soon understood. We were ushered into a room with a medical team, where one after the other we watched them plunge a hypodermic needle into the breast of each soldier. We asked what the shot was for but they pretended not to understand the question or perhaps they really didn’t.
One subordinate officer mumbled in broken English that we would know in 20 years what the shot was for. He would not elaborate. Even though this seemed to be an unbelievable length of time to wait for the results of an experiment, we were also aware that he might be referring to a futuristic annihilation of Americans, through failure to be able to reproduce or even unthinkable setting up a physical deterioration in those of us who might survive. While rumors ran rampant through the group, a German doctor announced in broken English that the shot was to prevent Typhus, a much-feared disease in Germany at this time. We were left to take our choice of believing him or giving way to rumor. Most of us chose to believe him, largely to allay our fear and anxiety about the whole situation. To this day, however, a thin line of doubt still persists.
A positive outcome of this experience at this abandoned camp was that we were permitted to stay indoors, sleeping on the wooden floor for the remainder of the night. This was our first time indoors to sleep and we thought of that as a luxury at this time; although we would not have thought of it as a luxury a week ago. The following morning we were ‘rousted’ out before dawn to continue our march in the ever-increasing fall of snow, with temperatures dropping daily.
The long, winding, snake-like column of soldiers had now raised the numbers to about 6000. We had lost some men along the way when they were shot for falling too far behind in the line, had just given up hope or were suffering from unattended wounds that finally infected and killed them. We didn’t always know what happened to others, nor did we know what their problems were, nor did the guards encourage any long-range communication between us. Some men may have escaped, although we would not get word to this effect since it would create new alertness on the part of the German guards and possibly bring a reprisal on those of us who were still in captivity. There was little to occupy the time as we moved; except to get better acquainted with the men nearest you in the line. Not all friends were together. It was a rare privilege when you saw someone you had known and were able to start the next day’s march with him.
While many of us were in the same unit of the Army prior to capture, we were separated during all of the confusion of battle and the subsequent escape from machine-gun slaughter. It constantly ran through my mind that a childhood buddy I had admired had been shot down over Germany two years prior to this time and I wondered if it would ever be possible to run across him in a country as large as this, under these circumstances – the chances seemed very slim.
Although the weather had gotten very cold, and there was much snow from time to time, the visibility in the sky was such that the Allied planes, fighters and bombers were able once again to take to the air. While this was a comforting thought, because to our minds this brought us close to the end of the war and our liberation, we had not reckoned with the fact that while on the ground and seen from the air, our pilots did not know us from the German troops who might be moving to new positions.
Our first taste of reality of our plight came suddenly at the dawn of the 8th day. We were cheering loudly because we had spotted the plane as one of ours, but the pilot had no way of knowing we were prisoners of war, and as a result came in with guns blazing, strafing the entire length of the column. Instinctively we moved to the left and right out of the line of fire, but the slower and less lucky men were killed outright or wounded. As fate would have it we lost surprisingly few men on that pass but we quickly came to the conclusion that we had to do something before the plane returned or another one showed up. A command decision, by several of us, quickly rallied the men into a huge, human POW, the initials for Prisoners of War, which could be seen from the air. You have never seen men move so fast, nor obey orders so quickly. Everyone knew something had to be done fast.
The success of that maneuver was apparent when the next plane coming in on us hesitated, banked to the right, waggled his wings, and best of all did not shoot at us. It became immediately apparent to us that he communicated this information to others because from that point on planes looked us over before shooting and, on seeing our POW made of soldiers, would waggle wings and move on. The German guards did not object to this maneuver because it offered them the same protection we were getting.
Not much later in the war, however, we were forbidden, by order of the German High Command to form our POW. Evidently they wanted to confuse our pilots who were shooting at everything on the ground that moved except POW groups. There was a rumor that German soldiers were using the same idea of POW with their foot soldiers in order to avoid being strafed by Allied planes. As a result of not being able to protect ourselves, the loss of men was tragically increased as we proceeded to what was now referred to as our entertaining point; to be moved further into Germany and presumably to a Prisoner of War Camp.
The loss of our ability to form our POW was devastating to our morale. Any planes, now even at a distance, brought fear to our hearts. This carried on for months after the war was over and after I had returned to Akron, Ohio, my hometown. I was dressed up in a suit and walking in a downtown area in Akron, when an unthinking, stupid pilot, buzzed the main street. Still reacting as I had in Germany months before, I moved to my right which put me in the middle of the street and fell flat on my face, covering my head. I was embarrassed as I saw the reaction of dozens of people who were looking on.
On the days following our interrogation, bathing and being stripped of our last possessions; we were marching along in an uneventful, boring manner. The countryside was bleak because it was winter but the knowledge that we were in a foreign country brought with it a kind of excitement that we might see something new and different, instead of just the back of the soldier in front of us. The feeling which kept us going was that just over the next hill a town might appear or there might be a farmhouse offering food to our hungry mob or we might even see the train which we were now anticipating seeing at any time. It was going to be a relief to ride for a while and have food brought to us, hopefully, hot food to remove some of the chills from our bones. Our hope of getting on a train and riding was a very real vitalizing goal which seemed to make the walking easier and the cold and hunger easier to bear.
About noon we were treated to the long-awaited sight. The train really was there just ahead; just standing and waiting for the approximately 6000 foot-weary, hungry soldiers to get aboard and be taken to civilization, where they didn’t forget to feed you and provide a bunk for our weary bones. Perhaps I am being a little hard on the German guard contingency. They didn’t really have any way to get food for this many men and no one in the high command of the German Army seemed to care one way or the other. In Spartan fashion, we accepted the resulting pain of it all. It was easy to forgive all of the misery we had endured when the train was in sight. We began to joke and our spirits being much lighter. Even the cold didn’t seem so bad and we were certain that in a small country like Germany we would rather quickly be at an Army Post, a Prison Camp or some facility where they could take care of us properly.
The thrill of anticipation produced more out and out adrenaline and we were literally running toward the train. The engine of the train was rather small by American standards but we were more concerned when we noted that there were not many cars attached to it. From what we could count of the cars and knowing that there were about 6000 of us, we soon realized that we were not going to be riding in great comfort. Still a little discomfort was better than walking and definitely faster. We were lined up and herded into the cars which had only the usual sliding doors of a cattle car for an opening. Those of us who went in first soon found ourselves literally crushed against the back wall of the car and having to stand up. There were so many men in each car there was no way you could either sit or fall down.
After what seemed to be an endless period of time and with our tendency to claustrophobia mounting, we heard a shout, evidently that all was clear because we began to move. What a glorious sensation, moving without trying. I have to say one good thing about being packed in the cars as tight as we were, we were really warm for the first time in many days and had hope.
If you could just remember that the ultimate goal, not the present discomfort, was all that mattered, it was possible to endure this whole miserable situation. Thoughts of food and warmth and rest dominated our minds, little else mattered. As the clatter of the wheels on the tracks rhythmically passed the time and a kind of hypnotic trance came over the men, we were suddenly alerted to the roar of an engine, louder than the train engine, seeming to come from ahead of us. This shook us from our trance and we realized with renewed fear, one thing we had never considered in our joy of traveling. The one thing we had never been exposed to before, the reality of an air attack while being imprisoned in a boxcar. We were like rats in a trap and at the mercy of whatever would transpire. The groans of disbelief and fear were loud, our claustrophobia became unbearable but was short-lived because almost as soon as we had heard the first plane, a second one came at us in a steep dive with all machine guns spitting fire and bullets everywhere.
Men screamed in agony and pain, some just stood in abject fear and others began to pray aloud. I felt a dull thud on my shoulder, but in the confusion, and fear of another strafing, I paid no attention to it. Suddenly the train stopped, throwing us forward, nearly crushing the men in the front of the car, the doors were thrown open. Men started to detrain, falling out of the door, pushed by those behind them, everyone scrambling out any way they could, trying not to fall on or walk on others but getting as far away from the train as they could. It was only after we were out of the cars and feeling safe that we were aware of how devastating just one pass of an airplane strafing had been. Some men just fell forward and did not move. Others were holding their heads, their sides, their legs, and their arms trying to stem the flow of the blood spurting out or flowing everywhere. Men appeared to be in shock or pain, it was difficult to tell which.
I was suddenly aware that I wasn’t feeling anything in my left arm, nor was I able to lift it. I was sure it had been shot off or that there would be a hole in it – but surprisingly it was there, and there was no blood. All of this passed through my mind in less time than it took to tell it. What had really happened was a bullet had come through the panel of the wooden boxcar just above my shoulder height where I had been pressed against the wall, then it deflected upward and hit my shoulder like a sledgehammer, not breaking the skin or even causing it to bleed. Later I realized my shoulder was black and blue and it was a week before I could use it again.
Others were not so lucky and a total of 800 men were killed or wounded in that one pass of a plane which turned out to be British, not American as we had first thought. As quickly as we were out of the train we formed our trusty POW made up of men who could still walk or run into position. The planes must have seen us then and realized what happened. They made a couple of low flying passes without shooting, waggled their wings and moved on, following the train tracks to the southwest. To add to the tragedy of our situation, the train commander would not allow the train to move, kept us well away from it and could do nothing for the dead or wounded.
After keeping us out in the field for an hour he announced that he would again entrain us. To his dismay and I am sure disbelief, not one soldier in our group would even get on the train. He threatened to have us shot but at this time everyone was in such shock, so hungry, tired, and cold, that nobody really gave a damn what he did and we told him so. The German guards, some of whom had been wounded, had a conference with the train commander and it was decided to put the dead and wounded on the train and let it continue without the rest of us. While this confab and decision making was going on, we heard heavy bombers overhead flying to the northeast. We identified them as American B-25’s and were jubilant feeling that the war was again continuing in the air and hopefully shortening our captivity time. The planes were at about 30.000 feet altitude and we were not in fear of them as we had been of the fighter planes. At such heights, bombers do not have visual contact with targets and we knew we were not significant enough targets for them anyway.
Immediately upon hearing the bombers, we were made aware that we were indeed back in a war zone. German anti-aircraft guns began firing on the bombers. The sky was full of black smoke, exploding shells, surrounding the bombers with deadly accuracy.
It was like a bad dream or should I say a nightmare. Here we were standing by a railroad track, still in the shock over our own devastation and there were our planes being blasted literally out of the sky by antiaircraft guns. We were watching them in the sky in awe, barely able to comprehend the significance of it all until we saw one of the bombers explode in mid-air, thousands of feet above us.
Parts of the plane were scattered all over the sky, amidst thousands of bundles of aluminum foil they had dropped to thwart radar detection. We watched one entire wing of an airplane descend to earth. It seemed to be in slow motion as it spun like a propeller. The largest portion of the fuselage of the plane ejected several tiny dots which turned out to be those of the crew who managed to free themselves.
As they drifted down they were targets for ground snipers and some were unlucky enough to be caught in the ack-ack fire of the anti-aircraft guns. A couple of men made it down and were immediately taken into custody and added to our group of prisoners. They were probably lucky because many airmen in similar distress had been taken by a hostile civilian population who had just undergone a bombing and were very angry and would beat or kill the airmen without compassion. While all of this was happening I couldn’t help but wonder if my brother Bob, who was in the Air Corps flying missions in this area, might have been up there. I learned later that the chances were good that he had been and that while flying missions and knowing I had been captured he would often drop a package of clothing, socks, gloves and canned foods, in a futile hope that I might somehow get it. Amidst all of this, I was feeling sorrier for the poor men in the planes who were sitting ducks for anti-aircraft fire than I was for those of us relatively safer on the ground.
The din of explosions northeast of us indicated that we were probably not too far from an important town or possibly a large city and we had hoped that perhaps we could still get to some kind of civilization soon. By this time we didn’t know where we were or how far we had come from the entraining point. We did know that we were heading generally east and the town of Magdeburg was mentioned by the guards. We walked for a few miles following all of the events of the day and were bedded down as usual, on the ground, with nothing to keep us warm but the proximity of another soldier. We were near a farmhouse and the guards who were not actually on duty were bedded down in a nearby barn, having eaten a fairly good meal prepared by an unwilling farm woman. I say unwilling because in late 1944, rations of food were getting very short in Germany and the appearance of a couple hundred guards and prisoners was not really a welcome sight.
After finishing their meals, some of the more compassionate guards would offer any nearby prisoner the scraps of food from his plate. Not many prisoners were lucky enough to be that nearby, and I for one always seemed to be in the wrong place or too late in the right place. Arising at dawn and continuing our march, it wasn’t long until Magdeburg loomed into view. It was a fair-sized town and showed the scars of having been bombed, with some whole blocks of rubble still in evidence where old-style buildings once had stood. The streets of the town were fairly wide and people were walking, probably to work; occasionally shouting an obscenity at us or using what was to be often heard by us, the phrase, ‘American gangsters from Chicago’.
The most memorable sight and also the most heartbreaking was seeing a large plate glass window in a butcher shop with frankfurters piled up in it and we were just marched by it. The unfairness of it all. It was like rubbing our noses in our plight and yet I can’t believe that this was done on purpose or with malice or forethought. Magdeburg came and went and we saw the city fade behind us as we now headed east, south of Berlin, toward Warsaw, Poland. We were told that there was an Oflag (a camp for officers) there and that we were to be kept there for the duration of the war.
Warsaw and the End of the Trip – No Way!
Being happy go lucky Americans and very optimistic, we figured that the worst had happened to us and now the march to the east and Warsaw would be just something to get out of the way – how wrong we were. We were not really sophisticated enough in the ways of war and fortune to realize that we were in a unique position, being able to see a country go down in defeat, getting a first-hand view of what the Germans went through as they saw their towns destroyed, their homes threatened and often bombed out from under them and feeling the wrath they had toward us when they saw or learned that a loved one was hurt or killed.
I remembered the reactions of my own men before we were captured when they learned that a brother of one of our men was killed the day before. They were ready to maim and kill the next German soldier captured and it took a direct command order to stop this kind of senseless killing.
We would be passing through areas from which the Germans were firing their infamous V-1 and V-2 rockets aimed at the Allies and Britain killing soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. We would see the change in the attitude of the German people toward their leaders and their lack of response to Hitler’s impassioned speeches on the radio after it was evident that defeat was imminent. As these events unfolded I never ceased to be aware of the unique opportunity afforded by all of the rare insights to be gained in being behind enemy lines and fluid in the situation. We could hear radios blasting out Hitler’s voice imploring his people to fight to the end, demanding loyalty from them, promising success of the war effort but saying it was only with the full cooperation of all German people working in concerted efforts that they were to thwart the enemy. He assured them that he would be in Berlin, directing all war efforts, There was mixed reaction on the part of the people hearing these broadcasts and some even made fun of his hysterical voice and the tone of his speeches.
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 unequalled, 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 snow bank 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 view points 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 a 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 them 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 a 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 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 actual 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 wooden building 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 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 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 stove pipes (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 which 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 stove pipe 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 farfrom 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 moustaches 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 a half an inch. The reason forthis 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 iittle and big toes. Even to this day it is difficult to get a proper 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 head count 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 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 wondetful 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 byt the entire Oflag and German contengency.
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 break through 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 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 tofturous German occupation and oppression.
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 which 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. Their departure was rapid and unexpected and our being left, we were confused as what had happened.
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 a 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 battle grounds, 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 head count, 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 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 which 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 cobble stone 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.
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, thought 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 to God 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, crowded 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 bloodwurst, 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 unsel fishness 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 paft 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 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 out marches, 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 ourfooting 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 raise, 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 for 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 linethis 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 an anxiety arousing effect on us as POWs 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 us 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 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 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, the disappointment and the 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 marshalling 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 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 were 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 lessen and the noise of bombs exploding reduce to an 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 an 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 wonders 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 circumstance. 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 the 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 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 the 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 furtherfood 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 to 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 body, 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 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 on 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 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 flash back 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 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 which 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 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 that owner of the 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 friends 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 taste 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 hunks of the meat which we would later cut into useable pieces. That night when we were put into 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 raise. 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 which 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 flifted 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. 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.
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 the 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 along side of 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, were 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 from 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 afterthe 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 POWs 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 were saying to Gen Patton at that moment. One thing was for sure, he had shown them that deep penetration of enemy lines was 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 POWs 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 a 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 marshalling 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 marshalling yard in the foreground. There was 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 direction. 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 talking. 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 no – 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, 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 marshalling 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 splinter 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 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, was 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 battle fronts. 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 the 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 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 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 which 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 soft ball. 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 which 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 off the rapidly moving lice in areas inaccessible to him – again the scene would be similarto that seen in azoo 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 of 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 lewish 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 on 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 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 which 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).