by Frank D. Murphy (February 7, 2002)
Our lengthening hours of daylight, a brightening sun, and the warmer temperatures now arriving were finally enabling us to move about outside our squalid, miserable quarters for a breathe of fresh air without shivering uncontrollably and speaking in quivering voices through chattering teeth in sub-zero cold, or puddle-jumping across a sea of mud. For two months we had known only unrelenting knife-edged, icy winds, snow and bone-chilling cold which, when they eventually went away, were immediately followed by drenching rains that quickly changed the bare ground surrounding our dreary buildings from rock-hard ice to an impossible quagmire. Now, spring, and perhaps freedom, were possibly just around the corner.
It was late April 1945 at Stalag VIIA (officially Stammlager VIIA), a prisoner of war camp in Bavaria twenty-two miles northeast of Munich and a half-mile north of Moosburg, Germany. In a sprawling set of tightly spaced rows of drab, rundown, one-story military barracks built to accommodate 10,000 persons, the Germans had crowded together 110,000 prisoners of war: Americans, military personnel of every Allied European nationality (including 40,000 Russians), Indians, Australians, South Africans, Asians and South Americans
Since our arrival in Moosburg on February 2, 1945, the brutal central European winter now drawing to a close had kept us cooped up in our dirty, damp, dark, unheated, overcrowded barracks where over 400 men were assigned to buildings built to house 180. Outside the buildings large tents had been erected wherever there was enough space to set them up. Our cheerless barbed wire encircled world was comprised exclusively of austere, dilapidated buildings, grungy tents, mud, and clusters of gaunt, emaciated men in shoddy, worn out clothing occupying every inch of unused space they could find.
We had one cold-water spigot in each building; they were our only source of water for every purpose. The fortunate ones among us slept on triple-deck wooden bunks on gunnysack mattresses filled with excelsior and infested with fleas, lice, and bedbugs—the unlucky ones slept on floors, tables, or outside on the ground inside crowded tents.
We were all covered with insect bites and always hungry–there was never enough food. Our daily food ration consisted of two or three slices of heavy German black bread, which we believed was made from a combination of flour and sawdust, each morning, plain boiled potatoes or turnips, and a bowl of a vile, ill-tasting, watery soup made from dehydrated vegetables, which we called green-death, at midday; and one or two more slices of black bread in the evening.
We had no sanitary facilities inside our barracks; our latrines were unheated, unlit, unspeakably foul-smelling separate structures that were nothing more than large outhouses with a narrow passageway and a long row of bench seating against a back wall. The bench seating contained a series of about twenty holes, spaced about eighteen inches apart. Beneath the seating was a sickening, stinking, open slit trench. Every hole was continually in use and there were always long lines of men waiting their turn. Misery, diarrhea and dysentery were rampant. There was nothing to read and no room to walk. We could only sit and wait for the war to end.
Almost three months earlier to the day, on the dark, bitterly cold winter night of January 29, 1945, roughly 10,000 captured American and British flying officers were imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner of war camp located in a stand of fir trees near Sagan, Germany, approximately ninety miles southeast of Berlin. At nine thirty that evening Colonel Charles Goodrich, senior American officer in the South Compound, my compound, received an order from the German commandant of the prison camp complex, to have his prisoners ready to evacuate Stalag Luft III on foot within the hour.
This came as no surprise; we had known for days that at the rate the huge Russian offensive was driving into Germany from the east they would inevitably overrun Sagan and Stalag Luft III. We also knew from our guards that a spearhead of Marshal G. K. Zhukov’s First White Russian Army advancing into Silesia had now reached the Oder River at a point only sixteen miles from Sagan. What we did not know was that on the direct orders of Adolph Hitler himself late that afternoon, all American and British officers in Stalag Luft III were to be evacuated to the west. Plainly, the Germans could not permit the liberation by the Russians of 10,000 Allied POWs who might be returned to action against them. The prisoners in the South Compound would be the first to depart. Anyone who tried to escape would be shot.
At 11:00 P.M. that night the 2,000 American “kriegies” (prisoner slang for the German word Kriegsgefangen, meaning “war prisoners”) of the South Compound, carrying what pitiful belongings we were able to quickly throw together, trudged out of the gate at Stalag Luft III into piercing artic winds, subzero cold and deep snow to begin walking to a god-only-knows-where destination. By 3:00 A.M. the following morning, only five hours later, nearly every one of us had lost all sensation to the touch in our hands and legs in the numbing cold. For the next three days and nights we would plod tediously through heavy snow in gloomy, frigid weather with a total of about thirty hours of rest wherever we could find space to sit or lie down in one of the barns or buildings where the Germans permitted our columns to stop. We received no warm food during the march, only water and a daily ration of several slices of the usual sour German black bread and ersatz (artificial) margarine. Along the way dozens of men, malnourished from years of captivity and survival on a deficient diet, became exhausted marching in the sub-freezing weather and collapsed in the snow alongside the road. We could only plead with them not to give up, not to lie down and die, but get up and continue walking with us–we offered to carry their pitiful bundles for them. Many resumed marching, many did not.
On the cold, bleak afternoon of January 30, 1945, we straggled into the town of Spremberg, about fifty miles west of Sagan. We were then forced to stand in the open in the icy weather for another six painful hours, shivering, stamping our feet, and flapping our arms to keep from freezing before being herded into what felt like even colder, small, empty European railroad boxcars. Sixty men were jam-packed into boxcars designed to hold forty persons. For the next miserable two days and three nights, crammed together so tightly it was impossible to stretch out or lie down–we could only stand or sit with our knees drawn up tightly under our chins–we rode Germany’s strained, hopeless wartime train system. Throughout the second and third days of this horrendously uncomfortable trip, men were banging on the doors pleading with the guards for water or begging that the doors of our odious, filthy cars be opened so that we might get some fresh air. The odors of retching and the sick inside the cars were nauseating. Our pleas were never answered.
We arrived in Moosburg in the early evening of February 1, 1945, but were kept locked in the hideous conditions inside our boxcars all that night. When the doors of the boxcars were finally pulled back about 8:00 A.M. on the heavily overcast, still bitterly cold morning of February 2, 1945, the dreary scene that unfolded before us was our depressing first look at the snow-thatched, vermin-ridden hovels that would become our housing for the next three months in that hellhole of all hellholes, Stalag VIIA. As we were jumping and climbing down from our boxcars, a squeaking, decrepit, two-wheeled, horse drawn wagon led by a slovenly German guard came shambling through the snow out of the front gate. Several kriegies were positive they saw human feet in worn out shoes sticking out the back of the wagon from under a tarpaulin thrown over the wagon bed. Our future was not promising.
My long journey to Moosburg and Stalag VIIA began sixteen months before January 27, 1945. On the clear, sunny, autumn afternoon of October 10, 1943, I was flying as navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 100th Bomb Group taking part in a ‘maximum effort’ strike by 215 aircraft of the England-based U.S. Army Eighth Air Force Bomber Command on the railroad marshalling yards at Munster, Germany. Forty-six aircraft of the 13th Combat Wing of Eighth Bomber Command, comprised of the 95th, 100th and 390th Bomb Groups, were leading the attack. We no sooner reached our Initial Point (IP, the beginning point for our bomb run) at Haltern, Germany, twenty miles southwest of Munster, when we came under fierce anti-aircraft artillery fire from dozens of ground batteries of 88mm 105 mm (railroad flak) guns strategically placed to protect the approaches to the city. At the outer perimeter of the city the anti-aircraft artillery fire abruptly ceased. But, without pause, we were savagely attacked by scores of the upward of 250 Luftwaffe single and twin-engine fighter aircraft that had been launched to intercept us.
Despite continuing heavy attacks by wave after wave of German aircraft, we managed to reach our target, release our bombs, and commence a sweeping ninety degree left turn away from the city to rejoin the 95th and 390th Bomb Groups who made their own individual bomb runs. About half way through this turn Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Heinrich Klopper, staffelkapitan (generally the equivalent of an American fighter squadron commander) of 7. /Jadgegeschwader 1, slipped his Bf 109G fighter aircraft in behind us and raked our airplane from stem to stern with long bursts of heavy fire from his 7.9mm machine guns and 20mm cannon. Almost instantly our pilots’ flight controls were disabled and we had two out-of-control fires on our hands—an oxygen bottle-fed inferno in our radio room in the fuselage and a raging engine fire behind the firewall of our Number 4 engine in the right outer wing. We were going down and had no choice but to abandon the airplane. I snapped my parachute chest pack parachute on to the harness I was wearing and followed Glenn Graham, our copilot, out the forward escape door. I opened my chute and drifted down for about twenty minutes. Immediately upon hitting the ground I was taken into custody by local farmers.
The savage air battle above Munster, Germany on the afternoon of October 10, 1943, is now generally recognized as having been the most concentrated air battle of WWII between a single American air combat wing and the German Luftwaffe. Inside of ten minutes twenty-five bombers of the 13th Combat Wing and thirty-one German fighter aircraft were down—forty-six American air crewmen were killed in action, 177 became prisoners of war, and scores wounded. Of the thirteen aircraft of the 100th Bomb Group that reached the target area that day, twelve were shot down. Two members of my crew were killed in this air battle. The remaining eight, five of whom were wounded, were interned in Germany as prisoners of war for nineteen months.
Oberleutnant Heinrich Klopper, then twenty-five years of age, was one of Germany’s top 100 scoring fighter pilot aces of WWII. Official German wartime records credit him with 94 aerial victories. He was a holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and Golden Goblet when he shot us down. We were his 87th victim. Seven weeks later, on November 29, 1943, Oblt. Klopper himself was killed in a dogfight with two American P-38 fighter aircraft. (For a perspective of Oblt Klopper’s accomplishments, the all time leading American air ace is Maj. Richard Bong who was credited with shooting down 40 Japanese aircraft in the Pacific theatre in WWII).
Despite its worsening impact on our already overcrowded, appalling living conditions at Stalag VIIA, our spirits were lifted at the beginning of April 1945, by the arrival in Moosburg of droves of Allied prisoners from other prisoner of war camps all over Germany bringing with them news of the rapid advances of the Russian and American armies into Germany. These new prisoners were also full of new rumors. One such rumor had it that we would be moved further south in Germany near Hitler’s Alpine retreat and used by the Germans as hostages in surrender negotiations. A newly captured American major told us he knew that arrangements were already in place for us to be taken home within seven days after the American army liberated us. This was wholly unimaginable to those of us who had not been home in two, three or, in some cases, four years. At the same time, we knew that the moment of our liberation was near.
On virtually every clear day in April 1945, we heard and saw American P-47 and P-51 fighter aircraft strafing targets in and around Moosburg. Every so often one of the American pilots on these missions would indicate his awareness of us by swooping low over the camp and wagging his wings. On April 9, 1945, we watched with pride and awe as more than 500 B-17 aircraft of the 3rd Air Division of the U. S. Eighth Air Force, escorted by 340 P-51 fighter aircraft, passed overhead just to the west of Moosburg on their way to bomb targets in the Munich area south of us. On many an early morning we saw German FW-190 fighters hedgehopping over the camp trying to avoid detection by highflying American fighter aircraft. On April 26 and 27, 1945, we swore that we could hear the thumping sound of distant artillery–not the sounds of bombs being dropped. On the afternoon of April 27 several kriegies claimed they had seen two or more American tanks, presumably an American armored patrol, reconnoitering on the crest a hill about a mile north of Moosburg. The tanks reportedly stayed a few minutes, then turned around and left.
All through the night of April 28, 1945, we heard the sounds of trucks leaving the area. The Germans were pulling out the majority of our guard force and leaving only a skeleton unit behind.
Shortly after daybreak in the early morning of April 29, 1945, a group of American kriegies lolling near the main gate to Stalag VIIA watched intently as two German staff cars with red crosses painted on their sides drove up. To their surprise, out of one of the cars stepped two senior kriegies, U.S. Army Colonel Paul S. Goode and British RAF Group Captain Kellett. Addressing the astonished prisoners staring at him, Colonel Goode told them: “You guys better find a hole. The war is about to start.”
There was an unmistakable air of expectancy among the kriegies at Stalag VIIA on the morning of the April 29. 1945. Clearly, something big was about to happen. Some of our few remaining German guards were deserting their posts and turning their weapons over to their former prisoners. A new rumor sweeping the camp was that regular German troops had been seen taking up defensive positions outside the wire.
The first shots rang out about 9:00 A.M. In the beginning there was only the sporadic rattling of small arms fire coming from somewhere in the woods just outside the fence. Within minutes, however, the noise from the incessant firing of hundreds of small arms and heavy automatic weapons was deafening. Kriegies were everywhere scrambling for cover or attempting to burrow into the hard ground like moles. Some were climbing on top of the buildings and guard towers to watch the excitement. I flattened myself as best I good on the ground next to my barracks. Bullets were ricocheting over the compound. Several kriegies were hit, none seriously.
Roughly an hour after it began the shooting abruptly stopped completely. The silence that followed was an almost deathly quiet, too quiet, strange and unnatural. It was short-lived. Within minutes we heard the unmistakable rumble and clanking of heavy armor approaching the camp from somewhere outside our perimeter fences. Suddenly, without fanfare or warning, three Sherman tanks of the American 14th Armored Infantry Division of the U.S. Third Army, came crashing through the fence near the front gate. Amid the shouting, screaming, and cheering of the newly freed prisoners, the tanks drove a short distance down the main street of Stalag VIIA and halted. Kriegies immediately swarmed all over them.
Feelings not expressed for long months and years were finally being freely released. Frantically trying to defend himself against being crushed by the mob of ragtag rabble climbing all over his tank, the besieged sergeant driver of one the 14th Armored Division Shermans declared that he had never seen such “a crazy bunch of ragged ass people.”
The true end of our captivity came about 12:30 P.M. when the American flag, Old Glory, was seen being hoisted to the top of a church steeple in the town of Moosburg only a short distance away. As one, 8,000 American kriegies faced the church, came to attention and saluted, all with tears of pride in our country and pent up emotion trickling down our cheeks.
At first, the new state of affairs at StalagVIIA brought little change. In the early afternoon of the day of our liberation a battery of American artillery set up in a field nearby and for several hours we could hear the ear-splitting muzzle explosions of 155m “Long Tom” guns firing on distant targets. Meanwhile liberated kriegies were pouring through the fences of the camp and roaming the Bavarian countryside around Moosburg “liberating” stocks of food, spirits, and souvenirs. Many of them went as far as Munich in their foraging.
On April 30, 1945, American support troops appeared at Stalag VIIA and began distributing K-rations and ten in one rations to the Allied POWs of all nationalities. On May 1, 1945 a grim-faced Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the U.S. Third Army, paid us a visit at StalagVIIA. He was dressed in a crisp, neat, fresh uniform and wearing his legendary wide black leather belt with a huge silver buckle to which were attached his famous paired set of ivory-handled six-guns. Maj. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, III Corps Commander, and Maj. Gen. Albert C. Smith, commander of the 14th Armored Infantry Division, accompanied General Patton. As he walked briskly through the camp General Patton occasionally stopped and exchanged a few brief words with small groups of American prisoners. When he came upon my group the General paused, looked at us, shook his head in disgust at the sight of the thin, unkempt scarecrows standing before him and said in a low voice, “I’m going to kill these sons of bitches for this.”
In the days that followed we were deloused, permitted to bathe and shower, and issued new American army uniforms. On May 9, 1945, I was in a group of ex-POWs trucked to a former Luftwaffe base at Regensburg, placed aboard a U.S. C-47 transport aircraft, and airlifted to Liege, Belgium. The next day, in a troop train filled with American ex-kriegies, I was transported to Camp Lucky Strike at LeHavre, France. Camp Lucky Strike was a collection point and rehabilitation center for former American prisoners of war. We were no longer prisoners of war; we were now officially designated as RAMPS (Recovered Allied Military Personnel).
Chest x-rays taken at Camp Lucky Strike revealed that I recovering from a touch of pneumonia and, at 122 pounds in weight, had lost more than 50 pounds as a prisoner of war. I was hospitalized for two weeks and treated with what I was told was a new miracle drug, penicillin. A few days after being released from the hospital, together with a group of other RAMPS, I was taken the port of LeHavre where we boarded a large troop ship, which happened to be the prewar Moore-McCormack Line passenger ship, Argentina that had been refitted for wartime use as a hospital ship. Following an overnight call at Southhampton, England where we picked up additional patients, we set sail for America in a large convoy of approximately thirty ships. It was a slow twelve-day Atlantic crossing.
While still at sea a few hours out of Boston, where we were to dock at the Boston fish pier, the captain of theArgentina tuned his radio to a local Boston station and fed the signal into his ship’s public address system. I recall how unfamiliar it was for me after two years in England and Germany to once again hear American accented voices coming from the ship’s radio. I especially recall hearing the Andrews sisters singing the song, Rum and Coca-Cola–I was on my way home to Atlanta, Georgia, the home of Coca-Cola.
We were finally going home to get on with our lives. Yet, almost six decades later, walking with ghosts we look back with pride and remember.
Frank D. Murphy
February 7, 2002