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Behind The Wire (May 24, 1944)

On May 24, 1944, my flying career with the USAAF came to an end.  Not intentionally so, but I would never have another assignment which would be primarily flying.  I felt a great sense of relief when my feet touched earth again – relief that a person feels when a long dreaded calamity has finally fallen, but greater than that was the near over-whelming feeling of thankfulness that I was still alive.  It was finished, but I would remember all my life the piercing emotional experiences of those four months of combat.  I would remember the beauty of sky and cloud – the eerie dream-like sensation of being suspended in space when haze and layers of clouds shut out earth and sky, and the feeling of sitting on top of the world when skies were clear and the patch-work colors of the earth spread out beneath for hundreds of miles; the splendor and warmth of the sun after climbing up thousands of feet through an overcast; the majesty and symmetry of hundreds of bombers in formation; the exhilarating, lightening sensation of the ship at bomb-away, and the turn away from the target toward home; the nerve shattering strain of flying through heavy flak and fighter attacks; of seeing other planes hopelessly crippled dropping out of formation with parachutes blossoming in their wake; and on the ground between missions, the every present longing for home and loved ones, and the dread of the next mission coming up.

I came down near Ratzburg in Northern Germany.  I was free for three or four hours before I was picked up.  It was a cold drizzly day, and I sought refuge from a freshening downpour under a railroad culvert.  Five men of the home guard who were searching for me chose the same shelter.  On the way into town under guard, I saw small pieces of my airplane scattered about in fields where they had come to rest.

Later, the cumulative effect of all the terrible events of the past few hours upon my nervous system hit me like an avalanche, and I paced the floor of my cell through the night, my mind a seething caldron through which the violence and terror of that morning moved relentlessly in jumbled but endless procession.

The next day we were taken by train to Hamburg.  I had seen the results of the German raids on London, but the utter devastation of Hamburg staggered the imagination.  I hadn’t realized how completely a great city could be destroyed from the air.  After a series of raids a few months earlier, only twenty percent of the city was left standing.  The depot was a shambles.  As we stepped off the train, the people recognized us by our clothing as enemy airmen and an ugly crowd began to gather.  I have never seen such hatred and bitterness as those people plainly felt towards us.  Spitting at us and shouting hysterically, they closed in and I’m sure would have lynched us there in the station if the guards had not turned their backs on us and pointed their guns at the crowd, ordering them back.

We sent the night in jail somewhere in the city.  My cell had a bare raised platform for a bed – no blankets.  The turmoil in my mind had subsided somewhat, but still I found it impossible to relax to the point of sleep.

We arrived at the Luftwaffe Interrogation Center at Frankfurt the following afternoon.  We were taken off the train in the suburbs and took a street care out to the prison camp.  It was a beautiful spring day, and there were children playing on the quiet street as we waited for the streetcar.  For a little while the war seemed far away.

After a few days of what seemed like pointless questioning, my co-pilot, bombardier and I were put on a train with a group being transported to a permanent officers camp.  This would take us all the way across Germany into what is now Poland to Stalag Luft III near Sagan.

Sagan was situated on a flat plain with no mountains visible in any direction. The camp was surrounded by a pine forest which had been planted in even rows, and it was divided into three compounds – two occupied by American officers and the third by Royal Air Force personnel.  The Germans left administration within the camp up to the POWs themselves.  Each compound operated as a military until with the senior officer prisoner in command.

The morale was high in camp that summer.  The Allies had landed in Normandy just two days after my contingent arrived in Sagan, and a clandestine radio in camp brought glowing BBC reports of rapid advances.  The general consensus was that we would be home by fall.  In the meantime, there was much to do to keep busy.  Our barracks were divided into rooms, and eight men were quartered in each room at first.  Later it would be twelve and finally fourteen.  Aside from the menial tasks of care and maintenance dictated by our womanless society, I read a lot (the compound had a rather modest library furnished by the YMCA), tended a small garden, built scenery for the compound theatre, and made cooking pans and plates from tin cans for the fellows in my room and in between times managed to get a beautiful suntan that I fully expected to show off in Tucson in the fall.

But the war dragged on and on as the doggedly advancing Allied armies were slowed almost to a standstill. The beautiful weather we had known through the summer faded into cold gray days as winter approached.  The only bright spot on the horizon was the prospect of receiving mail from home.  Then in early December it came, my first letter from my wife Florence.  It had been written in July, but as least she knew I had survived the shooting down of my plane.

The increasing tempo of Allied aerial activity through the summer and into the fall had unpleasant side effects for the men in the prison camps.  As Allied fighter planes gained control of the air over Europe, anything that moved on the highways or railroads became fair game and the German transport system began to fall apart.  Being very non-essential to the war effort, the shipment of Red Cross food parcels to the prison camps stopped.  At Sagan, we were fortunate to have a full warehouse, but even so it was deemed necessary to go on half rations in the fall.  Slender waist lines became the style, and food replaced women as the chief topic of conversation.

The thing I remember best about those winter months in Sagan was being cold and hungry all the time.  We were not prepared either mentally or physically for a winter in Germany, and an aura of gloom and frustration hung over the camp.  Letters and packages from home cheered us, but even more important was the knowledge each of us had that ultimately our side would win and we would return home again.  I spent many happy hours oblivious to my surroundings, carefully going over and over each loving detail of my home-coming as I dreamed it would be.  About once each month, we had classical record concerts in the theatre.  We had to take blankets to wrap up in to try to keep warm because the building was unheated, but the stirring music of those great artists brought warmth and comfort to the soul.  I had only one package from Florence, but she enclosed some pictures of herself, and it made life a little more bearable to have her smiling down at me from the wall above my bunk.

In January there was a sharp increase in German aerial activity around Sagan.  Many types of aircraft – some we had never seen before – flew over.  The low overcast forced them to fly just above the tree tops and they seemed to use the camp as a navigation point.  Obviously something was brewing to the east.  By mid-January, we had begun to hear the low rumble of artillery when the wind was from the east.  The guards told us the Russians were less than fifty miles away.  All the camp strategists and tacticians agreed that it would be impractical for the Germans to move us.  How could they guard and feed so many prisoners outside of the barbed wire?  Besides, and this was the clincher, we were such an emaciated group now (I was down to 135 pounds) we just weren’t physically able to walk very far and the railroads were so balled up they wouldn’t be able to move us by rail.  But the Germans were from another school, and one night about nine o’clock, they came in and told us to be ready to walk out in an hour.

Suddenly we realized that there had been a large measure of security in the closely regimented, cold, hungry, frustrated lives we had led at Stalag Luft III.  All the stories we had ever heard of German brutality, and they were legion, came to mind.  Besides that, it was bitterly cold and snowing, but since we had no choice in the matter, we got ready to go.

Packing wasn’t difficult. I merely took my other pair of trousers, tied a knot at the bottom of the legs, stuffed my two German and one GI blanket down one leg, my other shirt and long johns, socks, handkerchiefs and town down the other – topped it off with my share of our larder and a few personal items – tied it at the top and I was ready to go.

We formed up about midnight and moved out through the front gate.  The temperature was hovering around zero and there was a heavy snow falling.  The guards set a brisk pace as though the Russians were baying at our heels, but after the first hour the pace slackened. We walked steadily for eight hours with ten minute rest periods each hour.

With ten thousand prisoners on the road the line of march stretched for miles.  When we stopped to rest the next morning at a Russian labor camp, the snow had abated somewhat but the temperature seemed even colder.  Since there weren’t buildings enough to house all of us, we had to take turns inside, but there was so little room, each man could only stay two hours.  When I took my turn, I found it so crowded there wasn’t even room to stretch out on the floor.  Outside we sought shelter from the bitter wind on the leeward side of the buildings, but we had to keep shuffling about on the frozen ground to keep our feet from freezing.  About four o’clock word came down to form up again on the road.

I will never forget the second night on the road.  When we started our march that evening, most of us hadn’t slept for thirty-six hours.  Just after dark during a rest period, one of the guards opened fire – at what, we didn’t know.  There was a mad scramble for the ditches alongside the road, and luckily only one man was hit and him not seriously.

I remember plodding mile after weary mile through dark canyons formed by the tall pines on either side of the narrow ribbon of road.  Now and then the trees swept far back from the road revealing vast areas of white where snow-covered fields lay.  All of the houses were dark in the small villages we passed through and only the dogs seemed aware of our passing.  The one exception was an old couple who stood out beside the road after midnight in one of the villages ladling out hot water to the men as they passed.  I hadn’t realized just plain hot water could taste so good.  It was a warm thoughtful gesture, and I deeply appreciated it.

Long before midnight, both prisoners and guards had begun to drop out.  Most of the guards were older men and some of them were the first to go.  Mind numbing weariness dissolved the barriers between us to a point of indifference, and it didn’t seem odd or unusual to see a prisoner helpfully carrying a rifle for a faltering guard.

We stopped having rest periods after midnight because so many men were unable to get up and go on again each time.  Even so, by morning fully a third of the group had dropped out.  The Germans collected these men into groups and left them with guards in barns or whatever shelter was available along the way.  We reached the point of complete and utter exhaustion and kept on going.  Somewhere up ahead there was an awakening from this awful nightmare of cold and misery.  Along toward morning I began to go to sleep on my feet as we plodded along, and time after time I was jolted awake as I fell full length in the snow.  We reached our destination shortly after dawn and it was a dream come true.  My group was sheltered in a pottery factory and it was warm and wonderful.  Even the floors were warm.  We unrolled our blankets and prepared to sleep for a week.  We had walked fifty-four miles since leaving Sagan and I hadn’t slept for over forty-eight hours.  We spent two days and nights recuperating before we moved on.

As we moved on, clearing skies and a rising temperature seemed a good omen for what lay ahead.  That night I was introduced to a German barn for the first time.  Actually it was quite comfortable sleeping on the loose hay.  Later on we would spend night after night sleeping in barns while we moved from Nuremberg to Moosburg.  We spent one more night on the road, sleeping on the floor of a large gymnasium.  I remember it well because the Germans had set up a field kitchen and served us the most delicious barley soup I have ever eaten.

The next morning we were loaded into French forty and eight railroad freight cars.  They were much smaller than American freight cars and had probably served as troop carriers in France during World War I, for each was placarded on the outside in French, ‘forty men or eight horses’.  There were fifty-two men in the car I was in and I sat for two days and nights with my knees up under my chin because there wasn’t room to stretch my legs out.  The weather was cold and stormy again, for which we were thankful because there would be less likelihood of the train being strafed by our fighters.  We were nearly bombed in Breslau, pulling away from the city just as the RAF started a heavy night raid.

The section of the camp we moved into at Nuremberg had been occupied by Italian officers and they left it literally crawling with fleas.  With flea bites to add to our chilblains, we kept pretty busy scratching, and scratch was about all we could do because we didn’t have any insecticide.

Sharing a bed with a bunch of ravenous fleas was a little bit unnerving, but it at least diverted some of our attention away from our number one problem – food!  The German food ration was just enough to whet our appetites, consisting of one cup of dehydrated soup and a couple of slices of bread each day.  This was supplemented with an occasional issue of cheese, margarine and blood sausage.  Red Cross parcels had been the mainstay of our diet at Sagan, and there weren’t any at Nuremberg.

While we were at Nuremberg, the city suffered continual air attacks.  Fast twin-engine RAF mosquito bombers came over each night singly and in small groups on harassing raids, as they did to every major city in Germany.  We were rather complacent about these nightly raids until one night a mosquito pilot dropped his load of bombs through overcast and it landed right on the camp perimeter.  None of the prisoners were injured, but our faith in the RAF suffered.

The German propagandists called the airmen who manned the bombers ‘terror flyers’ and I was able to understand why after being on the other end of a few raids.  The arrival of the bombers was always heralded by the air raid sirens, and there was a note of terror in just their eerie wail.

Toward the end of February, the RAF mounted two consecutive heavy night raids against Nuremberg, and it was a terrible thing to see and hear.  It was a violet thundering panorama of light and sound.  The long probing fingers of the searchlights anxiously swept a sky overspread with the smoke and angry red puffs of anti-aircraft shells.  Brilliant parachute flares lit the target area as they slowly drifted down, and the earth shook as bombs fell into the city.  The attackers always paid a price, and we saw several bombers, hit by night-fighters or flak, burst into flame and plunge toward earth. 

A few days later, the Eighth Air Force came over in heavy daylight raids, but more airplanes were involved, and there was a continuous stream of bombers over the city for what seemed like hours.  It was a thrill to see our bombers in action again, but it was very sobering to realize that just a few miles away people were dying by the hundreds as wave after wave of bombers dumped their bombs.

Prison camp life reached its lowest point at Nuremberg.  The camp was filthy and the fleas made life almost unbearable, but even worse was the added misery of being cold and hungry all the time.  The Germans never issued fuel to heat the barracks – this was a luxury we could do without.  Before we left Sagan, my weight was down to 135 pounds, and while we were at Nuremberg, I must have lost at least another ten pounds.  Then one day when the morale in camp had reached absolute rock bottom, three white six by six GMC trucks with big red crosses on their sides rolled into camp.  Only a liberating army could have been welcomed with more enthusiasm.  Because of the critical food situation with the POWs in Germany, the American Government had given fifty of these trucks to the International Red Cross to shuttle food into the prison camps.  It was good to know our government hadn’t forgotten us.

Clearing skies and warmer weather brought a sharp increase in the tempo of the war.  The winter stalemate was broken and the Allied armies were on the move again.  Since we were in the western part of Germany, we expected to be moved again, and we weren’t disappointed.  This time we were headed southeast toward Munich.  Our departure from Nuremberg was as calm and unhurried as the departure from Sagan had been chaotic.  Although we had finally won the battle of the fleas with the help of some insecticide the white trucks brought us, we were not reluctant to leave the dirty crowded conditions and generally unpleasant memories of Nuremberg behind.

Allied aircraft had become a familiar sight over Nuremberg.  We knew the pilots were briefed on the location of the prison camps, but it would be hard to establish the identity of a long column of men from the cockpit of an airplane several thousand feet away.  Therefore, it was decided that we should travel at night and sleep during the day.  However, it took only one night to prove the impracticability of this plan.  Allied control of the air forced the Germans to move all their troops and supplies at night, and there just wasn’t room for all of us on the roads.

In the forenoon of our second day on the road, we had a tense few minutes when two P-51’s came over at medium altitude.  We watched them warily as they lazily criss-crossed our line of march.  Half an hour later they were still loafing around in our general area, and we began to realize that they recognized the straggly rag-tag column of men as American POWs.  It gave us a warm feelings to look up and see them flying top cover for us.  It did until they had been up there for about two hours and we had become so complacent about having them there we stopped watching them.  Then they livened the party up.  All of a sudden we noticed a change in the sound of their engines and found ourselves looking right up their gun barrels as they came screaming down on us.  There was a frenzied scramble to get off the road.  I rolled and slid down a twenty-five foot embankment, pack and all, and caught just a glimpse of them as they flashed by at tree-top level, waggling their wings.  It was a nice friendly gesture, but as we picked ourselves up and counted our aches and bruises, we couldn’t fully appreciate it as such.  Each day thereafter until we reached Moosburg, two P-51’s would look us over at least once during the day, and we knew that the USAAF was watching over us.  Nevertheless, we carried a bundle of white cloth panels with us and a team quickly spread them on the ground to form a large USAAF insignia and the letters POW whenever Allied fighter planes appeared in the area.

By this time it was quite obvious that the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Most of the civilians we encountered had already accepted defeat, but the German Army was retreating stubbornly, blindly destroying their own roads and communications as they withdrew.  At this point, about all that was needed to escape was the desire, but there were few takers.  As a matter of fact, the pendulum had swung so far the other way, we worried about the guards deserting us.  The white Red Cross trucks were making regular deliveries to us even though we were on the road, and the guards were issued food parcels along with the prisoners as an incentive to stay with us.  We were able to barter the cigarettes in our food parcels for potatoes and bread in the little towns we passed through.  Food was still a problem, but we were gaining weight and on the whole, morale was pretty high.  We dragged our feet and stalled along the way as much as the German Commandant would permit, in the hope that an American armored spear-head would overtake us before we reached the Danube.  Our strategy failed, though, and there wasn’t an Allied combat unit within a hundred miles when we crossed over.  The Danube was disappointing.  I expected  much more from a river with such a romantic background, but anyhow it was blue.

The next day we straggled into Stalag XIIID at Moosburg.  Our group was the last to arrive.  Living conditions were about on a par with those at Nuremberg – crowded and dirty, but we didn’t mind because we knew the war couldn’t last much longer and we were eating – not much, but regularly.  We were told this was to be a temporary stop to rest for a few days and get into shape to move on.

A week later, BBC news broadcasts had Patton’s Third Army armored columns only seventy-five miles away.  The next day was Sunday, April 29, and one of the really big days of my life.  That morning we saw tanks on the crest of a hill about a mile from camp.  They were too far away to identify and we thought they must be German since our armor had been reported so far away just the day before, but as we watched, a liaison aircraft with American markings crossed over the hill and a tidal wave of excitement swept through the camp.  There was a sharp exchange of fire around the camp which quickly faded away as the tide of battle swept by us.  We climbed up on the roofs of the buildings and from that vantage point we could see the smoke and fire of fighting in Moosburg.  As the fighting died away – so far away we could barely make it out, we saw the Stars and Stripes rise fluttering to the top of the flagpole in the town square and the camp went wild.  It was a cherished moment I will never forget.