Curtis S. Church, Pilot,
320th Bomb Group, 441st Bomb Squadron
Curtis S. Church - FlyBoy
Home from war
1st Lt. Curtis Church; S/Sgt. Brosi; 1st Lt. Ambrose Riley; Sgt. Martz; Sgt. Meeker; Sgt. Christianson
Behind Barbed Wire
Curtis S. Church
August 21, 1943
The morning dawned clear and bright (as usual) on the outskirts of Tunis. We were awakened early and taken to the briefing room for the mission of the day, a raid on a railroad yard just northeast of Naples.
Nothing unusual about the briefing or the target.
On the flight line the crews assembled and went to their respective planes. Soon the roar of engines became deafening and clouds of dust swirled in the air as four squadrons of planes taxied to the end of the runway.
My co-pilot for the day was Lt. Tom Hammond of Seattle, Washington, while the navigator/bombardier was Lt. Max Rickles of Rochester, New York. The crew was filled out with three enlisted men; tail gunner, turret gunner, and waist gunner. Our position in the formation was the last lead flight in a V formation.
The group (320th) was taking off in pairs on dual dirt runways. The noise and dust increased as the heavily laden B-26s headed down the runways and ultimate airborne status. Eventually I was waved forward and, with full throttle, thundered down the field almost lost in the heavy dust that still hung over the field from the twenty-one preceding ships. Soon we, too, were airborne and, with perfectly functioning engines, were able to quickly join our squadron formation and then the group formation. Assembly was routine and we proceeded out over the Mediterranean toward our target. Out ahead of us was the 319th group of B-26s (Martin Marauder medium bombers) in similar formation, while 75 P-38s offered common coverage overhead.
Nothing unusual occurred on our way to our target except our flight leader, Captain Dobney, lagged back considerably from the group and thus backed up the following eight planes of his flight. Dobney's element of planes needed a special surge of power as we crossed over the Italian coastline in order to catch up with the rest of the group.
We were at 12,000 feet and the view was spectacular. Straight ahead were the Apennine Mountains; slightly to the right was Mount Vesuvius. Below were beautiful, white cumulus clouds drifting by, allowing glimpses of the brown terrain beneath. This serenity was soon to change dramatically.
An occasional burst of flak appeared and mushroomed into a bright orange flash and then heavy, black smoke. We passed by a fighter field down on the left and could see the fighters taking off and zooming into the air; trouble was on its way!
The flak became more intense as we headed further inland; our formation tightened up as we huddled together for mutual protection. We began evasive action to throw the ground gunners off. Despite this, we took a direct hit into our right engine. I feathered the prop and shut the engine down. By pouring more power to the left engine, I was able to keep up somewhat, but did begin to lag.
Rickles was in the nose preparing for the bomb run when the flak suddenly disappeared and the fighters were on the scene. They swarmed over us (we estimated between 45 and 60; later we learned it was 70 or 75) and took runs at us from overhead and to the rear, diving down on our tail three at a time and then below and up, blazing at us with machine gun and small cannon fire all the while. We were well into our bombing run and Max managed to toggle our load. The group then started a long turn to the left to leave the target, the land, and back over the Mediterranean, resuming evasive action. The attacking fighters were very persistent, boring in for one attack after another-they just swarmed like bees over and around us.
Our fighter coverage had left us to escort the 319th out over the Mediterranean, but soon returned to give us (the 320th) an assist. In the meantime, the damage had been done. I called Rickles out of the nose to assess our damage. I knew that our right engine was out; my side window and windshield had been shattered and the instrument panel destroyed.
Off to the right I saw a lone B-26 flying parallel but out from the formation with its vertical stabilizer in shreds. This was only a brief glimpse and who it was I haven't the slightest idea; I was too busy with my own problems to give it any thought.
Rickles went back through the radio/navigation compartment to the bomb bay and quickly returned with the word that the bomb bay was on fire. With our other problems, Tom, Max and I agreed it was time to abandon ship. I reached up and turned on the alarm, used the emergency bomb bay door opener, trimmed the ship the best I could, counted a slow ten to give the crew time to get out, and then followed out through the bomb bay. Opening the doors had apparently blown the fire down or out, for we were able to leave via that exit with no difficulty. It took no second guessing to leave the ship and soon after jumping, I pulled the cord, the chute rustled out, and after a tremendous jerk as the parachute fully opened, I was floating in the sky. How calm and peaceful everything seemed after the noise and violence of the air battle. I was now among the huge, puffy clouds and I could count the chutes trailing off in the distance, like a row of white flowers. In the other direction the air battle continued as the 320th proceeded on out to sea and the returning P-38s mixed it up with German Me109s. I was later to learn we lost four bombers that day, while the Germans lost twenty-five or thirty of their fighters. My crew claimed four kills, but these were not confirmed because we did not return to base.
The serenity of the moment was quickly shattered as a 109 came boring in with guns ablaze-he was shooting at me! And then another one-and another. No words could then, or now, describe the shock and fear I suffered in those few moments. While flying, I was too busy to be afraid, but now I had nothing to do but watch helplessly as the Messerschmitts attacked me. But one fly-by by each, and it was over.
Soon, however, I was approaching the ground and at several thousand feet of altitude I began to attract ground fire. Before long it seemed that anyone on the ground who had a weapon was firing at me. Huddled in a ball, I pulled on the shrouds to make myself oscillate as much as possible in order to present as poor a target as possible. If I was scared before, I was now almost petrified with fear. I watched with fascination and amazement the trajectory of the ground fire on its way up to me. I could actually see the bullets in flight! All coming up in a cone shape, apexing on me!
Suddenly the ground seemed to rush up at me with an incredible speed. Luckily, my landing was soft as I lit on the side of a conical shaped haystack.
I must have had exceptionally good fortune. I estimate twenty-five or thirty passes by the 109's while flying, plus ack-ack from the ground, three passes while in the chute, and intense ground fire from small arms-at least forty to fifty thousand rounds fired at me or my plane, and I came out of it completely unscathed. Incredible!
Quickly, I shed my chute and tucked it under the edges of the haystack and my thoughts turned to escape. A plan of sorts had been developed back at our base-anyone shot down was to proceed, if possible, to a point of land south of Naples. On a given night between ten and twelve, a sub was to surface just off the coast and would send in a rubber boat to pick up any survivors off the beach. Far-fetched, but it was the only plan I had.
By now it was mid-afternoon of a hot August day in a stubble field on gently rolling land. Off in the distance was a line of trees that might border a stream, an irrigation ditch, or possibly a canal. Whatever, it offered a hiding place until dark, when I might be able to work my way out of my seemingly untenable position.
Nearby was a peasant's home with all of the indications of occupancy. In another direction one of the 26s (possibly mine) had crashed tail-up and was burning. An open field lay between me and the tree line about 1½ miles away. Slowly and carefully, I began to make my way across the deserted fields. Shortly, it dawned on me that I was still wearing my bright orange Mae West flotation device that probably could be seen for miles. Quickly, I removed it and threw it down a nearby well. Further along, I threw away my web belt and canteen-my .45 had been left behind in the plane. Soon, I stripped off my throat mike and threw it on the ground and then realized I was leaving a “Hansel and Gretel-like” trail: parachute, Mae West, web belt, throat mike.
While crossing the open fields, I was aware of 109s flying above and making passes, but not firing. They were marking my position so that ground troops could intercept me.
I had been on the ground possibly forty minutes or so and had just gone over a gentle rise, down into a shallow hollow and was making my way up the far side when I heard a loud shouting behind me. Slowly I turned my head only to see a squad of soldiers behind me, rifles to their shoulders menacingly pointed in my direction.
With sinking heart-I knew it was over-I raised my hands in surrender and slowly turned from side to side to show I was not armed. The leader of the squad, an Italian, gave a sharp order and the rifles were pointed down, except for that of one soldier who kept up continuous yelling and threatening motions. Gradually this squad of six Italian soldiers encircled me as I nervously stood with my arms up.
Was I frightened? Not at this stage. I had used up so much adrenaline in the past hour or so that there was none left for emotion.
As the soldiers closed in on me, the one who was so angry came up behind me with his rifle and bayonet at the ready. Roughly, he pushed it into my back, not breaking the skin, but leaving an indentation that lasted for several days. I really thought my time had come.
But the sergeant in charge drove my aggressor away with a push and a kick. Immediately I was patted down for weapons. Finding none, they relieved me of my escape packet. This contained a map of Italy (in good detail), a small compass, cigarettes, chewing gum, a D bar (chocolate concentrate), halogen tablets with a rubber pouch for purifying water, and a quantity of Italian lira, probably more than these men would see in the rest of their lives.
The afternoon was extremely hot; not only was I exhausted and perspiring, so were my captors. After the search they motioned for me to be seated, and we all relaxed a little before our next move. They were eager to try the American cigarettes (Lucky Strikes) as well as to divide up the money.
They remained fully aware of me as an enemy prisoner, yet were certainly not unfriendly, and even offered me a cigarette-but not a share of the money! After several minutes they indicated it was time to move on and so we arose and continued in the direction of the line of trees. These bordered a deep drainage ditch. It was easy enough to descend into the fifteen-foot deep chasm; but getting up the far side was another matter. The slope was steep and by now my muscles and body were sore and exhausted, sore probably from the sudden jerk of the opening parachute. The soldiers gave me a hand up and soon we scrambled to the top.
As we continued along, we passed a large farmhouse surrounded by huge shade trees and weeping women and children who apparently thought I was going to be shot by the soldiers. I indicated I needed a drink of water and soon a pail was dropped into the nearby well and water was drawn up and offered to me. I gulped down a quantity of cool, cool aqua and was refreshed. I'll always remember the kindness and warmth of those women and children.
As we continued on our way we entered a small village where we were immediately surrounded by a menacing group of older men and young boys wielding clubs, rakes, scythes and other weapons, all intent upon taking me away from my captors. The soldiers quickly formed a protective circle around me, snapped open their bayonets, leveled their rifles into the mob and indicated they were to let us through. There were a few tense moments of confrontation until the sergeant in charge had the soldiers fire over the heads of the crowd and then immediately lower them into the mid-section of the mob. A lane opened up and we passed on through toward a heavily used road that now appeared in the distance.
Soon a military truck approached, braked to a stop and I boarded, leaving my escort behind. Already on board were the others in my crew as well as members of other crews who had also been shot down and captured. My crew was all accounted for, but two of them had received gunshot wounds in their legs. Fortunately, no vital organs had been struck and no bones broken.
The truck, with military police aboard, continued on its way toward a town on the outskirts of Naples. Along the way a young medical doctor (army) treated our wounded as best he could, but little could be done without benefit of hospital and surgery. The injured later were transferred to ambulances and sent off to hospitals for treatment. I was not to see them again until after the war.
Before long we arrived at our destination on the outskirts of Naples where we were temporarily jailed, probably in the local Bastille. We were to spend the night there in a large cell in the company of mosquitoes and bedbugs by the millions. We were to find that the latter were a very common phenomenon of Italian jails and prison camps. In fact, in one camp, PG21, we were allowed to use blowtorches to burn these voracious, blood-sucking creatures out of their hiding places. The effort gave us little relief for the little pests bred (or laid eggs) faster than we could torch them.
Our quarters that first night were not sumptuous to say the least. The cell was quite large, with a concrete floor, iron barred all around, one single bare bulb, an open latrine at one end, and raised planks for beds with a cross plank at one end for a pillow. This space was probably originally designed as the town drunk tank. We shared these accommodations with the mosquitoes and the bedbugs.
Sometime that evening we became aware of our hunger. We had not eaten since early that morning back at our base. Breakfast had been three stewed prunes, toast and coffee served at 4:30 a.m. (Since the fall of Tunis we were on short rations, because we had to feed the thousands of prisoners we had captured.) By now it was close to midnight and we could hear our jailers in an adjoining room playing cards. After a lot of shouting and banging we managed to attract their attention and indicated by sign language that we were hungry. A considerable length of time passed before they returned with a stack of sliced brown bread heavily coated with orange marmalade. Although I detest marmalade, I did eat and quickly satisfied my hunger. Then began the almost impossible task of falling asleep-our bed partners were busy all night.
The following morning we were given more bread with marmalade and ersatz coffee made from ground, roasted barley. The balance of the day was spent in the cell and being taken to an air raid shelter several times. There were no facilities for bathing or taking care of our personal hygiene, a situation to which I was to become somewhat accustomed.
Once, while in the air raid shelter, one of us, Lt. Paul Heimberg, was approached by an Italian colonel who demanded that Paul speak to him in Italian. Because Paul was olive-skinned with black hair and deep brown eyes, the Italian assumed that Paul must also be Italian. We thought this was somewhat amusing, although we maintained our silence and composure, because Paul was actually a Jew.
Late the evening of August 23rd, after more bread and marmalade, we were escorted from our cell by soldiers who linked their arms with us as we walked a considerable distance to some waiting flatbed trucks. The night was black, which made the stars stand out brilliantly, and in the distance we could see the red-orange glow of Mt. Vesuvius. As we walked along, twelve or so of us prisoners were moved to sing God Bless America and our voices rang loud and clear in the silence of the night. Even the guards joined in, although they didn't know the words. What a weird sight we must have been!
Somewhere along the way I suddenly remembered that the 22nd was my wedding anniversary. The previous day a year ago I was married to the love of my life in the base chapel at MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida. Only a few weeks prior I had arranged to have the Red Cross in Ft. Worth, Texas send a dozen red roses to my sweetheart. I fervently hoped they had arrived.
By early morning of the 23rd we were loaded into the flat bed truck which had raised edges about 18" high. We were told to stay flat and not look out because we would be going through Naples, which had just been heavily bombed. Despite the warning, we did look out from time to time and saw the tremendous damage to the waterfront with ships sunk and damaged, often times keel-up.
One amusing incident occurred as a tyrolian cap slowly appeared over the side of the truck followed by the amazed look of a curious soldier who wore it-such astonishment I have never seen.
The truck soon veered away from the harbor and eventually we made our way through a long tunnel that now housed refugees from the constant bombings of the city. On the other side of the hill was a long descent toward another bay. Off in the distance, we could see the Isle of Capri.
After unloading, we were taken across a long revetment that extended into the water toward a huge rock. The rock stood up on end like a giant egg. Stairs were carved into the side. We ascended to the top, which proved to be an ancient fortification. It was now our temporary place of confinement-infested, of course, with hordes of relentless bedbugs.
Several times each day we were escorted down the stairs to a large cave dug into the rock. The occasions were air raids in the immediate vicinity. This was to become our routine over the next several days.
Food was becoming a problem, because the Italians had made no arrangements to feed us. However, one evening we were taken back across the revetment to an Air-Sea Rescue base operated by the Italian Air Force and given a scrumptious dinner. It was in the officers club; we were placed in a separate dining room. Soon huge silver trays of steaming foods were being carried in by formally attired waiters and we were able to eat to our hearts' content-and in style. This was to be our last good meal for the next twenty-two months.
Our numbers continued to grow as new POWs were brought in-we now numbered twenty-five or so. Along the way we were interviewed by International Red Cross people and allowed to write a brief message home-which never arrived. On about the fifth day we were awakened, taken to the bottom of the rock, and loaded into a large bus for transport to Rome and beyond.
Food continued to be a problem as we were fed only sporadically and infrequently. However, for our bus trip we were each issued a day of Italian rations consisting of several tins of stew and meat with several slices of bread.
During this period I became aware that I was not feeling well. Soon I developed a case of diarrhea, followed by nausea. Then my skin and the whites of my eyes turned yellow; I had yellow jaundice. This was to stay with me until mid-October and I was to become increasingly more ill to the point that I almost died from it. Because I could not tolerate the food given me-oily or fatty-I gradually lost weight and strength. No medication or hospitalization was offered. It probably was not available.
When the bus was loaded we were on our way to new adventures and experiences. Beside the driver we were accompanied by eight armed guards, each of whom carried a leather briefcase, which later proved to contain food and wine for their personal use. From time to time as they smoked, our guys would bum cigarettes from them. As we became bolder, when a cigarette was offered we would take the entire pack and pass it around, much to the amazement of our guards. We prisoners laughed and kidded and took as much advantage as possible, even to stealing the food and wine from their briefcases. The guards raised no note of protest, although they stayed alert so that no escape was possible-it was on our minds constantly. Probably we could have overwhelmed them, but not without bloodshed-ours.
From time to time the strong urge of diarrhea would overtake me and I would indicate to the sergeant in charge to stop the bus to accommodate me. At first he refused, but with much urging I pointed to his cap indicating I would use it for my purposes. He did stop the bus and, accompanied by a guard, I was led off to the side of the Appian Way where I was able to relieve myself. What a sight I must have been to the Italian motoring public! Stooped down with my pants lowered and watched over by an embarrassed guard.
Along the way the bus broke down and had to pull over to the side of the road. A courier was sent back to Naples to send a replacement bus. We waited in the hot August afternoon but no help arrived. It became apparent that we would have to spend the night where we were and so we were escorted to a nearby field, which had just been burned over to get rid of the stubble. In the morning our uniforms (suntans) and faces were covered by black soot making us rather grotesque, as well as repulsive, looking characters.
By now I had been in captivity for seven or eight days without any opportunity for personal hygiene-shaving, bathing, brushing of teeth, change of clothing and all the rest. In the military the word “rank” is used a lot, and I was.
A tow truck and mechanic arrived by mid-morning and he determined our problem was a broken rear axle. Our bus was then towed away and soon a replacement arrived. Again we boarded and continued our journey. My jaundice was still with me and on occasion I would have to interrupt our journey in the same way as before, for the same reason.
On one stretch of the road we were high up on a steep slope paralleling the coast of the Mediterranean. We pulled into a rest area where a stream catapulted down in a broad, many-fingered fan. It was really a beautiful area, covered by a grove of shade trees, the cascading water, and the blue Mediterranean Sea below. Several portable type food shops were near and we were all “treated” to an Italian type (spumoni) ice cream cone. Because we hadn't eaten in the past thirty hours, I ate my cone although it did nothing to improve my ailment and the bus stops became more frequent.
Soon we were entering the outskirts of Rome and before long we were aware of the Roman Amphitheater and later the Vatican in the distance. We stopped at the Italian Army Headquarters for a few minutes while our escort logged us in and got further orders for our disposition.
In the late evening, after climbing up mountain roads, we arrived at a converted monastery. It was to be our interrogation center and “home” for the next thirty days. Exhausted from the trials of the last several days, we were escorted to individual cells where we flopped down on mattresses on the floor and soon fell asleep.
Early in the morning, I was aroused by the opening of the cell door and handed a bowl of vegetable soup and a small bread roll for breakfast. As I had gone without any substantial food for three or four days, I gulped the meal down-only to pay for it with severe nausea and diarrhea.
My cell was approximately eight by ten feet in dimension, with solid walls broken only by a small barred window that looked out over a patio area and a solid door with a peephole that led to an inner hallway. Otherwise the room was bare except for the mattress on the floor and a dim light bulb suspended from the ceiling.
It was now my ninth or tenth day of captivity. During this period I had eaten poorly. I was sick. I had not bathed, shaved, brushed my teeth, washed, and I still wore the uniform in which I had slept alongside the Appian Way in a burned-over stubble field. Surely, by smell and appearance, I was ready for burial.
The days soon turned into a routine: morning soup and bread; pounding on the door to attract the attention of a guard to take me to the latrine; an exercise period of half an hour spent walking in the patio; evening meal of soup, bread, and cheese; and lights out around eight or nine in the evening. The meals were greasy or fatty. They aggravated my jaundice and its side effects, so I ate very sparingly and slept most of the time.
One day dragged into another, so that the events became blurred and timeless, until one morning I was ordered to remove my clothing in exchange for a ragged but clean Italian shirt and trousers. My clothes were taken for laundering. Several days later when they were returned, I was taken to the patio area for a shower and shave. Probably forty-five days or so had elapsed since I last experienced these luxuries and, though they were simple, they were wonderful.
The shower was merely an overhead pipe that tapped into a natural spring and was as cold as Siberia. This and a piece of no-lather soap allowed me to at least rinse away some of the accumulated grime and smell of the last month and a half. As I stood in the shower, “shivering like a dog passing peach stones,” I was also allowed to shave with a razor that seemed to have been used by all the prisoners back to the time of Hannibal. Although my beard was not stiff or coarse, it was long and, thus, it was torture trying to shave smooth and clean. But finally the job was done and I really felt refreshed.
Then back to my cell, where I was able to don my clean suntans, before being led down to the commandant's office for my formal interrogation.
I was amazed by the information they had about me: place of birth, schools, names of parents, home address, telephone number, flight schools, bomb group and squadron, name of commanding officer, location of the group, and many other facts and figures of a similar nature. These facts were intended to impress me with the extent of their knowledge and lead me to confirm other data that was interspersed with the accurate information-an attempt to get beyond my name, rank, and serial number routine.
After fifty or sixty minutes of sparring back and forth, the colonel became quite angry and dismissed me. He had tried to soften me with kindness (even offering me an American made cigarette, which I had refused to his astonishment-I didn't and don't smoke). In turn, he cajoled me, became buddy-buddy, then confidential, and finally angry when I refused to respond beyond name, rank, and serial number but asked: "What would you do, sir, if our positions were reversed?"
All during this period I had been treated decently except for food and sanitation. For the most part I was left alone, which suited me just fine, because I felt miserable. The isolation was intended to soften me up for the colonel, but its effect was to allow me to rest and try to recover.
Several days had elapsed after my interrogation when twenty-five of us were again assembled and loaded onto another bus. We were transported over the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea and our prison camp, PG 21 at Chieti, Italy.
Except for exercise periods, when we were not allowed to speak, we had been separated from one another for the past thirty days. Our trip to PG 21 afforded us an excellent opportunity to share our accumulated personal experiences.
From initial captivity to the present we were under heavy guard. Although escape was always on our minds, no opportunity presented itself. Several factors hampered any attempt:
1. We didn't speak the language.
2. We were unfamiliar with the territory.
3. We were not organized.
4. We had no plan.
5. We were still in something of a state of shock about our captivity; our thinking was fuzzy.
Later these deterrents were either resolved or became unimportant.
Our bus looped and curved and climbed its way over the Apennines. At one point we encountered a steep grade into a valley. The driver rode the brakes instead of downshifting in the American fashion. After a descent of a number of miles, we entered a small village with our brakes on fire. We pulled into the village square where the driver used a bucket to douse the burning brakes with water.
The average Italian soldier knew very little about mechanics, perhaps because in his youth he had little opportunity to work on things mechanical. He was either from a small farm operated with hand tools or from a poor urban family where even a bicycle was a rarity. American youngsters had wagons, bicycles, old alarm clocks, and even old cars to tear apart and reassemble. So our undereducated driver was really not to be blamed for his ignorance about the operation of his vehicle-or maybe he was just stupid!
Eventually we arrived at PG 21, a compound with high, thick walls covering several acres. Guard towers were evenly spaced around the walls. Inside we went through routine admission procedures. We were checked for contraband such as escape aids; for example, a small compass tucked into the rectum-a thorough search indeed!
Nothing was found; my only possessions were the clothes on my back, my shoes, and an Omega wristwatch that my parents had given me when I graduated from flight school in August 1942.
Although beset with jaundice, I was finally admitted into the main compound along with my companions of the last forty-five days. There we joined those who had preceded us into custody. There were about fifteen hundred POWs. Most of them were British, taken during the North African campaign. Only several hundred were American, including a chaplain who had served with the British at Tobruk-Father Byer from Boston. My POW number was 262, signifying that I was the 262nd American that the Italians had captured to that point.
One of the first to greet me inside the compound was Lt. Robert Patterson of Columbus, Ohio, a fellow pilot and member of my squadron. Patterson went down after the May raid on the airport at Rome. We had met little opposition that day. However, after turning off the target, well out to sea his ship (he was flying on the left wing of our lead ship and I was on the right) suddenly veered off and plunged toward the water. We were at twelve thousand feet at the time. As I watched, I saw several parachutes and then the ship hitting the water followed by a widening oil slick. Because the target for that day was an extended mission, right on the very edge of our range, we had been instructed to conserve fuel as best we could and loosen up our formation after leaving the target. Despite these instructions, I followed Patterson down and buzzed the area. I saw two swimmers in the water. Doing part of a figure eight, I came back over the area and, as planned, the crew threw out our life raft. We could do nothing else to assist, so we continued back toward our base in Africa. Because of low fuel, we had to land at Bizerte to gas up before returning to our base outside Tunis.
My entry into PG 21 at Chieti was the first any of us had seen or heard of Patterson since May 1, 1943. We had a great reunion and a chance to exchange stories. After Bob left the target at Rome everything was going smoothly with no indication of problems at all. Well out over the Med, Patterson's control cables snapped and the plane plunged to the water. Although the alarm was sounded only two of the crew were able to parachute out: Patterson and an enlisted man. The co-pilot and other crewmembers perished, including Sgt “Red” Baines who had been a crewmember on the Jimmy Doolittle Tokyo raid in May of 1942.
After a few minutes of struggling in the water, our B-26 flew low over them and dropped a life raft within a few feet of them before it taking off toward Africa. At that time, he had no idea it was us, but was extremely grateful for the help. Swimming to the raft, they were able to clamber aboard and take stock of their situation. There were emergency rations, but the water cans ruptured upon impact and the contents were lost to the two survivors.
They were adrift in the craft for five days and six nights until they were finally washed up on the shore of Sardinia. They were eventually picked up by an Italian patrol and followed the same path that I was to follow several months later. Fortunately, they were only weak from hunger, their thirst problems having been solved by several providential rainstorms.
Despite my continuing illness, I quickly adapted to the routine of prison camp life. Because the camp was mostly British, we had a British C.O. and daily events were by British custom. The Italians presided over morning roll call, followed by “breakfast” at 6:30 in the mess hall adjacent to the kitchen. This “meal” was composed of a breadroll which was to last the day, and a cup of “brew” (tea). Later in the morning we were usually served a barley soup and whatever we wanted as a supplement from our Red Cross parcel, which had been handed out earlier in the week. Another “meal” was served around 4 p.m., and another “brew” was offered around 8:00 in the evening. Although it seems we were stuffing ourselves continuously, the fact is that these “meals” were pretty sparse. Often they would consist of a fresh fig or two and a small piece of hard cheese. (Just what I needed with my Yellow Jaundice.) The Red Cross parcels-mostly from England-were supposed to supplement the Italian food for one man for one week, but in actuality we were given one parcel for twelve men, most of which was taken out beforehand by the kitchen crew.
An English parcel consisted of a small tin of oatmeal, a tin of powdered egg, sometimes a can of bacon or corned beef, hardtack biscuits, a chocolate bar, boxed raisins or prunes, tea, and English cigarettes. Individually, we kept the chocolate, biscuits, and cigarettes, while the remainder went to the central mess.
The inside of the compound was about eight acres in area and surrounded by a high solid wall with sentry boxes and searchlights at each corner and in between. These were manned around the clock by armed Italian soldiers. An amusing sidelight was the practice of some British prisoners. Knowing of the Italian susceptibility to superstition, they would stand near the wall and stare up at the sentries. This would make the sentries extremely nervous and they would complain to their commander.
He, in turn, issued the prisoners an ultimatum-stop or risk being shot. The poor ignorant peasant/soldier thought he was being given the Evil Eye and feared for his future.
Included in the compound was an administration building, a small infirmary, a central building, mess hall, and several large buildings each with several dormitory bays. Each dormitory bay slept 120 men in wooden bunk beds. Again we were plagued by bedbugs, which we attacked with blowtorches (loaned on parole) to drive them from their crevices and cremate them. Their aggravation was intensified by hordes of flies that seemed to be bent on keeping us constantly slapping, brushing, and miserable.
Although we were each given an allotment of 100 to kill each day (a task which could be accomplished within ten minutes) there seemed to be no diminution in their number.
Our days were spent in roll calls, eating, exercising, slapping flies, torching bedbugs, lots of sack-time, and talking-I had the added chore of going to the bathroom about every thirty minutes. Incidentally, the bathrooms were inside and central to the dorm rooms. They were beautifully tiled in blue and contained a large vat of water with a pail for flushing and also for showering. The latrine itself was merely a shallow trough with a number of holes emptying into the sewer system. A pail of water would serve as a flush. Also the pail could be used for showering, bathing, and washing clothes.
As mentioned previously, I came into the camp with absolutely nothing on my back except my suntan uniform and military insignia. Father Beyer, the aforementioned chaplain, shared his towel with me by simply tearing it in half. Because he had received a parcel from home that day, he gave me his old toothbrush, which I was to use (after cleaning it up, of course) for the next several months. The Italians issued me a large gray wool blanket and a canteen cup, both of which I retained until the end. These were my worldly possessions.
Because my acute illness persisted, I recall very little of the daily events or activities of the camp. After several weeks I was moved to the infirmary. It was manned by some British non-com medics and an American who had one year of medical school to his credit. There, with rest and a milder (bland) diet, I was on my way to recovery. Nonetheless, I still had remnants of jaundice until the middle of December-probably five or six months in all-and there were times when I thought surely I was dying.
We heard about the landing in Salerno, and that landing craft which were scheduled to be used in an American effort to liberate our camp had to be diverted to bring fresh troops to the intense fighting at Salerno.
One afternoon we heard that Italy had capitulated. By early morning all the guards had gone AWOL and left the camp unguarded. By orders of the British commander all escape attempts were to be cancelled in anticipation of a rescue attempt by the Allies. We remained as prisoners for several more days with camp routine as usual.
On the fourth or fifth day after capitulation, a German unit entered the compound and took over the camp. We were now German prisoners of war-Kriegsgefangenung. The sentry boxes were mounted, roll call (appel) was as usual, only under German supervision rather than Italian or British. Several days later we were rousted out of bed around three in the morning, as if for roll call. One unit of British were escorted outside the gates and soon we heard the rat-a-tat of machinegun fire. Then unit by unit we too were marched to the outside and loaded into trucks to be transported to another camp inland at Salmona, about 35 or 40 miles from Chiete.
The machinegun fire was for effect only-and it did its job. No prisoners were shot and no prisoners made an attempt to escape. The dulling effects of poor diet, the shock of captivity, the early morning low, and German psychology, all had their influence on our mental condition at the time. We were quite passive.
Salmona was located inland from the Adriatic in a river valley. It was at the end of a railroad line running over the Apennine Mountains to the west. The camp itself was a leftover from World War I. It was in a sad state of repair, certainly not ready for occupancy. Once again we were down to the basics of survival. It became apparent immediately that the Germans were not ready for us, because food and water were in very short supply.
The camp consisted of brick and rock barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. There was no central kitchen and each prisoner was on his own for food and any comforts of life he could find, scrounge, or improvise. Our British command was in disarray, and the Germans were interested only in keeping us confined until they could otherwise dispose of or provide for us.
Surrounding us were high craggy mountains that looked dry and arid. Many attempted to escape by simply crawling under the wire, heading for cover, and eventually moving into the mountains and going south. Still suffering from jaundice, I followed, but was recaptured by a roving patrol with dogs. I was returned to the camp with no consequences. It became obvious that the Germans did not have an accurate account of our numbers or identities, very unlike their usual Teutonic efficiency. The following several days were a blur. I recall little of the day by day events, except for feelings of hunger, extreme discomfort, and filth.
Early one morning we were marched in small groups down to the railroad yards. We were loaded into wooden boxcars, called “goods wagons”, about half the size of an American boxcar. We were locked in, thirty-five to the car, and supplied with German field rations, but no water. Lack of water was becoming a chronic problem. Soon all prisoners were loaded and we were on our way across the Apennines.
We were packed in firmly, but not crowded-at least not as crowded as we would be later. Robert Patterson and I had paired up and shared what rations we had. A small, wooden-hinged window was discovered at one end of the car and we soon had it open. One by one prisoners went through the aperture. Reaching around the end of the car, they could grasp the ladder and make their way to it. As the train was slowed by a steep grade or sharp curve they could jump off, go over the embankment, and hopefully find freedom.
Eventually it was Patterson's turn. He had his few possessions in a Red Cross box tied securely with heavy twine that he had scrounged somewhere. When he jumped, I was to toss the parcel after him. Soon he was on the bottom rung. When the train slowed on the way up an incline, he jumped to the rail bed and I dropped the parcel in front of him. Running fast from the momentum of the train, he grabbed the box in a quick swoop and went over the side, rolling and tumbling. I didn't see or hear from him again until the end of the war, when we met at Camp Lucky Strike near Le Havre, France.
Next was my turn. I made my way through the exit, on to the ladder, and down to the last rung. I waited for the train to slow down. It soon did-just as it pulled into a well-lit train station to take on water. I was immediately discovered and, with much shouting and excitement, returned to the car. A guard was posted to ride on top of the next car and the window was securely shut.
Later the twenty-some of us who had not escaped were transferred to another car, building up its occupancy to almost sixty. This group was mainly British, and they were busily engaged in cutting a trap door in the floor of their car. Using a case knife broken off near the handle and the iron heel of a British boot, they had managed to chisel their way through one of the wooden planks forming the floor of the car. To their dismay, the first cut put them astride one of the steel crossbeams of the undercarriage. Undaunted, they started over and eventually succeeded in cutting their way through enough of the flooring to make an exit passage sufficient to accommodate a good-sized man.
One by one they lowered themselves through the hole. As the train slowed because of a grade, they would drop on to the ties while the train passed over them. Many made good their escape via this means, but it was slow going. In the meantime others were working on the side door. In time, they succeeded in opening the door, but the cold wind that entered just about froze us. We were in mountainous country in late October and poorly clad for such conditions-we had all been based in North Africa and were clad only in suntans.
We managed to jury-rig an Italian gray army blanket across the opening to cut the wind. The following morning we were slowly pulling our way into the rail yards at Florence. We could tell where we were, through the early morning light and the light mist, because of the distinctive dome of the church that dominated the skyline of that city. When the train stopped and the guards jumped off, our open door remained undiscovered until the headlight of an engine on a nearby track shone on it. A surprised guard raised the alarm.
Again, we were transferred to other cars, half of us in one and half in another. Our car now held around seventy-five, and we were crowded to the point where half would stand so that half could sit. From time to time we alternated positions and somehow managed to survive. Sanitation was becoming a real problem. We used cans from Red Cross parcels, passing them along to where they could be dumped out. On later train rides this would become the only way to dispose of the products of our bodily functions.
As we left Florence, we continued northward, but now stopped from time to time to off-load for water and personal relief. At one point we stopped at the station platform of a small village and went through what was a necessity. Across the way an indignant Italian lady was protesting loudly to her neighbors, with voice, hand gestures and bodily movement, about what was happening in their beautiful town-comical as well as ludicrous.
By now the Germans had their act together and there were no more escape attempts. Guards were posted atop all the cars and in the doorways of each. Slowly we made our way north, eventually crossed the Po River and passed the beautiful lakes on the approach to the Brenner Pass. Several days elapsed as we were shunted from line to line and often sidetracked as German troop and supply trains passed by, heading south.
One mid-morning we pulled into the rail yard at Bolsano, Italy, the last Italian city before going over the crest and dropping down into Innsbruck, Austria and the northern end of the pass. Our train stopped in the middle of the yard. At almost the same moment we heard the sound of high flying planes and sirens, and witnessed the guards dispersing to revetments on the edge of the yard. Then came the roar of 88's firing all around the perimeter. We were under Allied air attack. Peering out, we could see formations of B-17s moving up from the south on a bombing run.
This was the first bombing of the Brenner Pass and the target was the rail yard at Bolsano-and we were in the middle of the target.
Almost immediately we heard the eerie sound of dropping bombs-a frightening “whoosh,” caused by speed and the creation of a partial vacuum which was instantly filled-a collapsing sound, very distinctive, which had a shuddering effect on the whole body. Soon the bombs were exploding all around us. We managed to kick our way out of our boxcar and went up and down the train releasing the other prisoners. In the midst of this chaos several cars were hit or knocked over. At the same time, the guards in the revetments began shooting at us; probably thinking this was a mass escape.
Max Rickles (my bombardier and navigator) and I made our way across the tracks and into the city. We took refuge in the second basement of a large brick building. It was extremely dark, there were no lights, and we huddled together discussing in whispers our next move. Our plotting was in vain; before long a German patrol swept through the area and rousted us out. We were taken to the inner court of a large apartment complex for the balance of the day and the night.
Our stay in the courtyard was uneventful. We had water, and some German rations were issued-but bathroom facilities were nil, we had to be escorted to the street to take care of our needs. The courtyard was paved with macadam and here we spent the night the best we could with the temperature dropping to freezing.
In the morning, hot water was available for drinking, along with heavy brown German bread with an oleo spread. None of us had had an opportunity to wash, bathe, shave, brush teeth, or take care of other grooming essentials or luxuries. We were a motley looking crew, dirty and disheveled in our un-uniform uniforms; uniforms that had not been washed, pressed, or changed in weeks.
We learned there were casualties caused by the bombing and the firing by the guards. If any escaped, we did not find out. Our train and the yard were heavily damaged, but by the afternoon of the following day we were loaded on another train and continued on our journey to Germany.
Back aboard the train, we continued climbing up the Brenner Pass with snow covered Alps closing in on us and the temperature continuing to drop. We were miserable with cold, fatigue, hunger and other factors. The misery probably helped us to survive. Numbness set in and blocked out all other considerations. Survival was number one.
Many chilling hours later we descended the Brenner into Innsbruck, Austria, where we stopped for several hours, again under heavy guard. There we were able to wash our hands and faces somewhat, use adequate latrines, and finally, eat a hot filling ration of thick barley soup-the first cooked food in a number of days, supplied by the German Red Cross.
We continued on our journey toward Germany and Munich. On the way we passed beautiful snow covered mountains, forests, meadows, and occasional chalets with stacks of freshly cut firewood piled neatly on the porches. The contrast between the neatness, cleanliness, and organization of the countryside of Austria/Germany and the dirt and disrepair of Italy was dramatic.
Had it not been for the fact that we were prisoners of war and the harshness of our immediate surroundings, this could have been a scene straight out of a Christmas card.
We passed through Munich sometime in the middle of the night and proceeded another twenty miles or so without incident to Moosburg. Moosburg was the site of Stalag VIIA, a prisoner of war camp left over from World War I. It was a huge complex, completely surrounded by barbed wire with strategically placed postern (sentry) towers. Inside, the area was sectioned off into numerous smaller compounds by more barbed wire. Each compound had several wooden barracks structures to hold four or five hundred men. The barracks were divided into two sleeping bays and a wash room in between with a hand pump to draw water. A separate latrine was in a detached building. Beds were of wood, four tiered, side by side, and end to end, making sixteen beds in all. Each bed had a wood shaving filled mattress supported on wooden slats. Not very comfortable, but a blessing in that there were no bedbugs.
From the main gate we were taken to a shower room where we were allowed to take a hot shower, our first in a number of days, and were strip-searched. They were looking for any contraband, such as tools, or any escape materials, such as maps and compasses. The Germans were again very thorough. We then proceeded to the individual compounds and barracks.
Inside we met prisoners captured on all the fronts-Russians, Serbs, Yugoslavians, Poles, Greeks, Indians, and partisans from everywhere-thousands and thousands of men. Our rations were sparse, consisting mainly of potatoes, barley soup, and heavy German bread. Red Cross parcels were in low supply and we received one parcel for eight men.
We (those of us brought up from Italy) were at VIIA for only a matter of days until we again boarded a train headed north toward Berlin. Instead of boxcars, we entrained onto third class passenger cars, which allowed us to be seated en route. Before boarding, we were warned by a monocle-wearing army major that if anyone escaped, ten would be shot. He was very pompous and showered saliva as he spoke, making us all laugh and jeer at his words. This, of course, infuriated him and he turned on his heel and left in a huff.
We rode for several days and nights. Finally we pulled into a siding at Sagan, Germany, on the Bober River on the border with Poland. The countryside was flat but contained a dense pine forest. We threaded our way through the forest in a thick fog for several miles to the campsite of Stalag Luft III, Center Compound. This was to be my “home” for the next sixteen months.
Before entering the compound, we were held on the outside for a search procedure, picture taking, and identification check. The Germans again were very thorough, except they erred when they herded us into an area where there were several buildings housing offices and rooms, such as mail, dental, and Red Cross parcel distribution, all manned by British prisoners. They opened windows and talked to us and at the same time we were able to pass them tools that we had been able to scrounge at Moosburg. No matter how strict the security was, it seemed we were always able to obtain contraband materials!
While standing in the detention area, I became aware of someone on the inside of the barbed wire shouting my name. I looked and saw my best friend, Ambrose J. Riley, jumping up and down, waving one arm, and shouting at me.
Ambrose and I had gone through flight school together, I was best man at his wedding, and we were assigned to the same bomb group and squadron. We became room and tent mates and even flew as pilot and co-pilot together on several missions. We were both shot down on the same day but he was picked up by a German patrol while I was picked up by the Italians.
Late in the day I completed the outside checks and was admitted into Center Compound. Again I had very few possessions: the clothes on my back, a half towel, a toothbrush, an Italian army blanket, and a canteen cup I had stolen somewhere-and my good health, for I now had fully recovered from my illness.
Riley and I had a great reunion and he introduced me to Kriegie (short for Kriegsgefangenung-prisoner of war) life and all of its complications and routines.)
The camp was possibly 12 to 15 acres in area, all surrounded by a double barbed wire fence with coiled barbed wire in between. About twenty feet within the inner fence was a warning barrier, a single strand of wire beyond which we could not go without being shot by a postern (guard). Rectangular in shape, each corner had an elevated postern box with another in the middle on each long side. The boxes were manned twenty four hours a day by two soldats (soldiers), each with a rifle and handgun plus a mounted searchlight. On occasion the outer perimeter would also be patrolled by soldats, each with a dog. Two gates broke the fence. The main gate led into the vorlager (utility area) where a number of buildings were used for camp administration, warehousing, storage, and shower room (used by the prisoners on a weekly basis). There was also a back utility gate.
To the east, and adjoining on a long side, was the East Camp where British noncommissioned officers were imprisoned. In addition to the double barbed wire fence separating the two camps, there was also a tall wooden fence built in between to prevent communication-oral or visual-between the two camps.
Within the Center Compound in the southeast area was a large parade ground used mainly for team athletic programs and appel (roll call). In the center was a large square pool made of red brick for water storage in case of fire but used for swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. Opposite the pool on the east and west were two large wooden buildings used for various administrative purposes but serving mainly as a central kitchen, mail and parcel distribution, and a camp library.
On the north and west sides in the shape of an “L” were the barracks where the POWs were quartered; fourteen buildings in all, each holding about two hundred men.
Encircling the camp just within the warning wire was a walkway used by the POWs mainly for exercise but sometimes for security in communicating with one another. On the two long sides stood buildings called “aborts” (latrines and washrooms).
Several of the barracks had been partitioned off into rooms to house six to eight men each but most were divided into two bays, holding about one hundred men each. Each block (bay) was divided up by use of bunks into sections of eight to twelve Kriegies called a “combine.” Each combine had a fuhrer (leader) who rationed food, made cleaning assignments, and acted as liaison between the prisoners and their leadership (American). Internally we were organized on a military basis with the senior American officer as our commander. This was separate from the German structure of command.
I was assigned to Block 56B, the first combine out of eight in the block, along with five other officers. I was appointed Combine Fuhrer, a dubious distinction indeed! Within the block was a large central heater covered with ceramic tile. It burned compressed coal-dust briquettes for winter heat. An aisle went down the center. At one end was a door leading to the “A” block, at the other a door leading to an anterior set of rooms. The interior was dimly illuminated by bare electric bulbs and four double windows on either side. At the rear and just outside the door the aisle continued to the back exit door. On one side was a room used as the night latrine. On the other, there was a small kitchen area where each combine prepared its own meals.
A typical day would start at 6 a.m. with appel, when we would be awakened by a bugler playing reveille. After lining up by individual barracks in rows of five, we would be counted by the Germans. When the count was correct the senior American officer would dismiss us. Before the count, we would be called to attention by our own commander, standing at the opening of our “U” shaped formation on the parade ground. Our commander would then about face and salute the German commander, who would then order the count to be started. We remained at attention until our barracks was counted and then stood at ease until dismissal, when the Germans would salute our officer and then turn and leave the compound.
Some days would not be typical and the pattern would be drastically changed. For example, when an escape attempt had been made we needed to confuse, or at least delay, the count. We would deliberately not cooperate with the count by several different ruses. One such tactic had the lines of five leaning in opposite directions and then altering positions in a rhythmic way so that an accurate count was impossible. Eventually the count would be taken, but not before the Germans were quite enraged, especially if we laughed at their confusion or threats.
At other times, particularly if it was cold with snow on the ground, while we were waiting for the Germans to count our individual barracks, the men would play horse-and-rider or other active games in order to stay warm. It was really quite a sight to look across the parade ground and watch grown men participate in such antics.
An evening appel would be held at five and the same procedure (and antics) would take place as in the morning.
Occasionally, we would have surprise appels or even “picture parades” in which we would each pass by a German officer seated at a desk as he pulled out our identification cards with our pictures. He would compare the picture with the soldier, ask several questions to confirm identity, and then pass the soldier on to the waiting formation. These events would take several hours and were very miserable in winter.
A lot of cooperation took place between the various camps, mostly of a clandestine nature. This was especially true between our Center camp and the East camp which was adjacent but separated by barbed wire and a high wooden fence. Messages would be thrown over the fence at various set times and with adequate safeguards to prevent detection.
At other times, when prisoners had escaped from either of the two camps, an appropriate number of men would be sent via a tunnel to stand in for the escapees so that the count would come out correctly. For example, if two men escaped from the East camp, Center would send two men as replacements. When the East camp was tallied and dismissed, the two men would then return to Center while the Germans were exiting the East camp and coming to the Center for the counting. This procedure would take approximately four or five minutes, enough time for the exchange. The men would then stand for Center's appel, the German count would tally, and the escapees gained more time before they were found to be missing.
The tunnel between the camps was from abort to abort (latrines), which were the closest buildings between the two camps. The seats closest to the fence were the “traps” and the dirt from tunneling was dispersed into the pits, which were regularly pumped out by the Germans and spread onto nearby farmland. The traps were appropriately designed so that they could be used without anyone becoming soiled or contaminated.
Escape was always on our minds, mainly because it tied down a goodly complement of the German troops assigned to guard the camps. Very few of the attempts were successful and some were even disastrous; for example, the Great Escape out of the North Camp of Stalag Luft III. Some eighty British fliers tunneled out and many were shot and killed by the Germans as they were recaptured. (That story is pretty well told in the movie The Great Escape, starring the late Steve McQueen.)
In the East Camp, two British non-commissioned officers made good their escape by using a Swedish horse (or vault box), a gym exercise contrivance made out of wood. The box-like device was carried out to the parade ground with two men inside. Placed over an exact spot, a “trap” was made over a period of time. The tunnel was made under the barbed wire and out to a forested area on the other side. Two men successfully made their way to the Baltic and to Sweden where they were transported back to Britain. The story is well told in book form, but I no longer recall its title.
As indicated before, escape was a constant, on-going activity in our camp, and I'm sure in all the camps. We were well organized for such an objective, starting with an Escape Committee that had to approve all plans for the attempts. Some people were assigned to camp security. Others were responsible for making equipment, such as clothing, compasses, documents, maps, identification, and the like. Others worked on tunnels and plans. Everything connected with escape had to be done under the constant surveillance of the German guards.
Much of what was going on was so secret that even most prisoners were not aware of it. We were instructed (ordered) not to pay attention to anything going on that seemed unusual; just continue with our routine so as not to call attention to the activity.
Escape usually involved tunneling from a barracks, under a fence, and into a wooded area adjacent to the camp. A trap (door) would first have to be made. In addition to being undetectable, it had to be easy to open and close. Usually traps were made by lifting a stove from its base or tilting it to one side. Then a hole could be chiseled through the concrete base. Earth then had to be dug out to a depth of eight or ten feet before the tunnel could be started.
Once the tunnel was underway, it would need shoring up from place to place because of the sandy nature of the soil. Bed boards from our bunks would be “requisitioned” so that instead of having 10 or 12 boards we would be down to 5 and would be barely able to hang on to our places. Later we used flattened Red Cross parcels to fill in for the missing boards-and even later we used the metal straps off the Red Cross crates in a criss-cross pattern to eliminate the boards altogether.
Dirt disposal was always a problem. Its telltale light or fresh color would give away the digging activity. It was mainly disposed of on the parade ground where constant activity of games and such would quickly mix it with the old topsoil. From the entry room it would be placed in socks. Prisoners would suspend these dirt-filled socks from a girdle arrangement around their waists. They would then walk out onto the parade ground, slip their hands into their cut-off pants pockets and untie the knots at the toe of the socks. The sandy dirt would empty out and be scuffled into the soil.
Between the barracks was an area that we used for vegetable gardening. When the need arose, we would lift the topsoil, empty the tunnel soil into the garden, and cover it back over with the topsoil. Sometimes we would dump the dirt into a volley ball court when an active tournament was underway. Other times some of the dirt would be dumped down into a latrine which would later be pumped out by the Germans and spread onto their potato and cabbage fields.
As tunnels progressed, a trolley system was worked out using boards for rails, rope for towing, and tram wheels made out of bed boards and the bottoms of cans. A ventilating system was devised by fitting cans together to form a pipe and using an air pump made of boards and canvas from duffel bags. This forced air contraption would support the man at the end of the tunnel and his illumination; a candle made from a can, margarine, and a rag wick. As time went on these tools became increasingly sophisticated and we were even able to tap into the camp's electrical system for better illumination.
In Center Compound we never had any successful escapes by tunnel because they were always discovered before they were ready for use. Either we would become careless, or the Germans would find them in a periodic sweep. I often felt they were also playing a game, allowing us to stay busy on such projects until it was time to close in on us just before the big breakout.
A number of methods were employed to obtain equipment, tools, and supplies for our escape efforts. Guards could be bribed with American cigarettes (which had a powerful appeal to them), chocolate, or coffee - all of which came in Red Cross parcels. Another method was sometimes used when a repair crew entered the camp with a horse and wagon. A diversion would be created, such as a fight between two Kriegies (prisoners). Bystanders would contribute a lot of yelling and excitement, distracting the workers' attention long enough for other POWs to steal tools, wagon lanterns, and other things loose on the wagon. For the most part though, we just converted things at hand into what we needed.
Many other methods of escape were attempted; clipping through the wire at night, going hand over hand along the main electrical line during a heavy snow storm, riding out on the garbage wagon, and others. None from our camp succeeded in gaining their freedom for more than a few days.
The penalty for attempting escape or other misdemeanors was a period of time in the “cooler”, or camp jail. Toward the end there was such a backlog of people waiting their turn that the whole system became meaningless. Besides, “cooler time” was like a luxury: food was served to you, you had a room to yourself, the cell was warm, and there was a peace and quiet unknown in the main camp.
The ingenuity of the POWs was remarkable. They came into the camp with nothing but the clothing they wore. They were given a paillasse stuffed with wood shavings, a mattress cover, one bed sheet, a blanket, eating utensils, and food supplemented by Red Cross parcels. Everything else the Kriegies made for themselves out of whatever material was available. These were mainly made from items salvaged from the Red Cross parcels; such as metal from cans, solder from Argentinean corned beef tins, cardboard, and metal strapping. They also used materials stolen, “borrowed”, or obtained through bribery, from the Germans.
For example, the metal from tinned food containers was formed into utensils and tools with which we cooked and ate. One of the food items in an American food parcel was a can of powdered milk, called Klim (milk spelled backwards), the size of a typical one pound can of coffee. The top and bottom would be cut off, and the side split at the seam, making a flat rectangle of metal. The lateral sides were curled back and over to form a narrow slot; this was done by using a straight edge of our cook stove and a hand-made, wooden mallet. A thin strip of metal was then cut from another metal strip by using a narrow slit on our mess tables and a regular metal knife used for eating. This strip of metal was then shaped laterally into a letter “C” and slipped down the sides of two larger sheets already shaped as previously described. Then, gently tamping the curled edges down, a watertight seal was made.
A number of sheets would be thus clamped together and finally closed together to form a circle for the sides of the pot being made. A bottom would be made and shaped to the size of the pot and then soldered to the sides with solder salvaged and saved from the drops of solder used to initially seal the cans.
Dishes and cups were similarly made and later even time clocks were made from the metal saved from cans. Still later, when we arrived back in Stalag 7A at Moosburg (near Munich), where no cooking facilities were available, we made forced air burners from metal, wood, and a shoelace. These latter devices were very efficient to boil water or cook food in very short order using splinters, twigs, paper, or any other solid fuel we could scrounge.
The following is a picture of the device:
In time we became quite adept at using the materials around us to make the things that we needed. A section of the Wright-Patterson Museum in Dayton, Ohio is devoted to these devices made and used by the prisoners of war. The Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3 also kept a collection of Kriegie handiwork. It is surprising what can be done with a few simple materials, tools,-and imagination.
Food was usually on our minds, especially when we were on short rations. A Kriegie doggerel poem highlights this quite vividly:
I dream as only captive men can dream
Of life as lived in days that went before,
Of scrambled eggs, and shortcakes thick with cream,
And onion soup and lobster thermidor;
Of roasted beef and chops and T-bone steaks
And turkey breast and golden leg or wing;
Of sausage, maple syrup, buckwheat cakes,
And chicken broiled or fried or a la king.
I dwell on rolls or buns for days and days,
Hot corn bread, biscuits, Philadelphia scrapple,
Asparagus in cream or hollandaise,
And deep dish pies - mince, huckleberry, apple,
I long for buttered creamy oyster stew,
And now and then, my pet, I long for you.
Besides “housekeeping” (making up our beds, sweeping, and cooking daily meals) our most common activity was “walking the perimeter.” One lap around, just inside the trip wire, was probably _ of a mile or slightly less. Rain, snow, or shine, we went four or five laps two or three times a day. We usually walked in groups of three or four, chatting about events, or the war, or home, or recent letters, or ___.
Ambrose Riley and I usually walked together, along with several others, even though we were quartered in different barracks. Either he would drop by to pick me up or I would go by his quarters for him. Ours was probably the most solid friendship of my life. Later, as a fireman in Rochester, Minnesota, Ambrose lost his life when he volunteered to go under the ice in an attempt to rescue a child who had fallen into a frozen river.
Once a week we could go on “shower parade” (and more often if the line was short.) A line formed every day beginning at 10:00 a.m., at the main gate (and about every half-hour until noon) and then we marched under guard outside into the “vorlager” area to the shower room. In the summer time we would be pretty well stripped down except for our towels, but in winter we went out in our “long johns.” The shower room, which could accommodate about fifty men, had a concrete floor and about 25 or 30 showerheads. It was operated by the “shower fuhrer,” a German non-com who took his work seriously; two minutes of water for a wet down and then water off and time for a soap down. Then water back on for a rinse off for two minutes. For two or three American cigarettes he could be bribed to let the water run for five or six continuous minutes. And then a dry-off and a march back into the camp.
Washing our clothes was especially difficult, particularly in winter due to the bitter cold. All of our socks, underclothing, shirts, and trousers had to be laundered from time to time, even though most of us had no change. We had no hot water for laundry, so, of course, we had to use cold. We seemed to have plenty of the so-called G.I. type bar soap that was strong and usable in cold water. Off would come the trousers to be laid flat upon a table in the wash room, where cold water was run over them. They were soaped, scrubbed down with a stiff brush, thoroughly rinsed, and then hung out to dry. And so with our other articles of wear. Because of the intense cold, sometimes clothes didn't get washed, or only one article at a time was laundered. It was a common sight to see someone doing his laundry with his great coat on. I mention all this to indicate that personal hygiene was important, although at times a chore and a problem.
At first the Center Compound of Stalag Luft III was a mixture of Allied air officers from all over the world. But as more and more Americans were shot down and captured, (because of massive day-light bombing raids), the camp became over crowded and the other Allied airmen were moved to a new compound, leaving only Americans in the Center Compound.
At this time, Colonel Delmar Spivey became the senior American officer and organized the camp according to American military regulations. Beards were banished, Saturday morning inspections were instituted, and, all-in-all, the entire camp and personnel were spruced up.
Life in camp settled down to a routine with little variation. We were awakened at 6:00 a.m. for roll call, followed by breakfast, consisting usually of barley mush with milk and sugar, and coffee. A few minutes were usually devoted to sweeping, cleaning and bed making before we took our first laps around the perimeter. Then, time for personal needs and grooming before we participated in other activities such as sports, library, classes in our Kriegie University, more perimeter laps, or “sack time.
Around noon each combine would assemble for lunch of toasted German sour bread, coffee, and possibly, a piece of cheese or chocolate.
The day then continued with more laps, sports, and/or other activities such as clothes washing, shower parades, gardening, and anything else we could devise to lessen the boredom. Other diversions would occasionally break up the day's monotony such as special news broadcasts over the P.A. system, theatrical or band productions, and mail call. I received my first letter from home on April 1, 1944, eight months after I had been shot down.
Between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m., we again stood for roll call, usually followed by more laps and preparation for our evening meal. Each combine cooked its own food on a common stove at the end of the barrack. Combines took turns using the stove. Items that took longer to cook, such as boiled potatoes, required cooperation.
Dinner or supper was the “big” meal of the day. Usually it consisted of potatoes, bread, spam, or corned beef, and cabbage, kohlrabis, beets, or sauerkraut, and coffee, depending upon what our supply was. The meal was never bountiful, but adequate, although we saved up for a big “bash” on special occasions, such as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and the Fourth of July.
After our evening meal, we usually took more laps, (except when darkness had settled in and we were locked into our barracks), played board games or cards, read, conversed, or just stretched out on our bunks. At some point in the evening “Johnny Walker,” or clandestine news from the BBC, was read, bringing us up-to-date on the war effort and other world news, security permitting.
Sports activities were pretty well organized with each barracks fielding a team for softball, tag football, soccer, basketball, and track. In the summer we used the central pool, or reservoir in case of fire, for swimming. In winter we used it for ice-skating. All athletic supplies were courtesy of the International Red Cross.
All activities were subject to the weather and time of year, but the above were the major ones, dominated by meals, mail call, news, sleep and day dreaming of home and loved ones.
By now all the days had begun to merge one into the other until it became difficult to separate one from the other.
We celebrated holidays with a food bash from items especially saved for the occasion. Thanksgiving day was typical-An extra ration of potatoes all around with baked Spam, boiled cabbage, German bread with ersatz (imitation) honey, hot chocolate, and raisin pie, or chocolate cake, or both. Doesn't sound very great on paper but at the time it was a real feast; mainly, I suppose, because we could eat until we were full.
Raisin pie was made with dried fruit from the American food parcels. The crust was made from ground up graham crackers, margarine, and Klim mixed together and made into a dough. The dough was rolled out and layered onto a flat tin pan (hand made). Strangely, and I'm not a raisin pie buff, it tasted great (at the time).
Chocolate cake was made from ground up Canadian (hard) biscuits mixed with grated chocolate D-bars and sugar, powdered eggs from the English parcels, leavened with tooth powder also from the English parcels which consisted mainly of baking soda (never mind the clove flavor) and salt. A batter was made, using Klim whipped into a milk solution, placed into a pan and baked until done. This was a real treat-but later when we were liberated at Stalag VIIA in Moosburg, a piece was offered to one of our liberators who promptly spat it out and looked at us as though we were crazy.
The grater (or grinder) that we used was also hand made. It consisted of A Klim can with top and bottom. The flat sides were punctured with a multitude of nail holes from the inside out so that the sharp edges protruded outward. Then an axle and a handle were attached and suspended so the drum could be rotated, A hard cracker pushed against the rotating drum would be ground into a coarse flour.
The holiday meals would usually be preceded by some activity such as a Fourth of July parade and ball game, a band concert by our own Kriegie musicians, or a drama presented in our Kriegie theater.
On New Year's Eve of 1943/44 I was in the theater enjoying a band concert when the air raid alert sounded and all the lights were turned off. Suddenly we felt the earth shaking followed by a low steady rumbling as bombs exploded on Berlin about 65 miles to the north-the first raid on Berlin of the war. Almost instantly we realized what was happening and a tremendous shout of joy erupted from the audience. What a start for the New Year!
Christmases ('43 and '44) were celebrated with great anticipation (our hope was to be home by Christmas). We saved our food from Thanksgiving on for a great feast on the joyous day. Mock Christmas trees were made and adorned with colored paper ribbons, paper chains, and icicles made of twisted metal strips from Klim cans. The rest of the combine was decorated in a similar manner; we tried to be as festive as we could be.
And of course the day was dominated by a fabulous feast-extending even to raisin wine secretively brewed by some ingenious Kriegies. The wine plus an extra ration of Red Cross parcels really made the day.
On Christmas Eve the Germans turned off the searchlights and removed the sentries from the postern boxes. We were free to visit our friends in the other barracks until 12:30 a.m. when all camp lights were turned off. We were on parole for twenty-four hours, an arrangement previously made by the German Kommandant and our command. It was great to be free of constant surveillance, but confinement was still an irritant that had to be endured.
Mail call was probably the highlight of any day, especially if you were a recipient. Although I was shot down on August 21, 1943 it was not until April 1, 1944 that I received my first mail-several letters from my sweetheart and wife, Joyce. That was a real red-letter day for me; I read and reread them over and over, and tucked them under my pillow at night. Nothing was more eventful than mail from home.
German newspapers were sporadically distributed and we could follow the progress of the war somewhat, although from a German perspective. News of a “strategic retreat to reduce the size of the front” could be interpreted as a general retreat in whatever sector was the subject of the report.
We also had Kriegie newspapers that were handprinted and posted on the camp bulletin board. Camp events and interests covered included music, drama, sports, bridge tournaments, new recipes, and coming events. Other news was gleaned from new “purges” (new POWs) concerning the war, the home front, big league baseball, latest song hits (Mairsy doats, doesy doats, and little lamsy divy) and any other item of interest. Letters from home kept us up to date on the family front: births, marriages, who joined the “Mink Coat” club (Kriegies whose wives had invested in expensive furs). All these things were reported in the weekly paper and read avidly by all the Kriegies.
Rumors were also a big part of a POW's daily life. Often it was difficult to sort out fact from fiction. But they did help fill out the day's inevitable conjecture about the end of the war and what it might be like when we returned to our homes and families.
In the Fall of 1944, I was allowed outside the wire for several hours of “freedom.” On a rotating basis the Germans would take fifteen or twenty prisoners for a walk, under parole, through the surrounding forest and countryside. On the day my turn came, we were assembled at the front gate, read our parole responsibilities and possible penalties for violation, and then walked out under light guard. It was a beautiful day with lots of sun and warmth.
My first feeling on being outside the camp was of tremendous relief at being out of confinement. My impulse was to run, not away, but to run for joy; to leap and frolic and shout. These emotions were suppressed but nonetheless real as I took in the full impact of not being under the heavy surveillance of the past fourteen months.
We strolled through the woods and an occasional meadow, and finally along the bank of a small stream. Eventually, we came to the outskirts of a small community, possibly Sagan, where we stopped at a little cafe with an outside patio dining area. Here we were served a sandwich of some kind of sausage and rye bread as well as a glass of beer. What an unexpected treat!
Then it was time to return to camp. The guards continued to be unobtrusive as we made our way back, and we chatted among ourselves about the things we usually talked about-home, the war, rumors, and most of all about FOOD!
As we neared the camp we became aware of a heavy smell that hung in the air and which became heavier the closer we came to the compound. It was the smell of too many men living in too small an area-a smell of fetid material and human waste. The odor was almost overpowering. No wonder the camp was located four or five miles from the populated area, in the midst of a heavy forest.
Soon we would again be used to the foul air-our senses would be quickly inured to the offense-but we would long remember the sweet fragrance of the outside air that we enjoyed in our brief respite from confinement.
During summer, sports dominated much of our lives. Almost everyone was involved in some activity. Softball was my main athletic outlet. Teams were organized in each barracks with a team representing each block (half a barracks) and playing in a regular scheduled series of games leading to a playoff. My block (56B) reached the “World Series” but lost to 55A four games to three.
Soon the winter of 1944/45 stormed in on us with its cold, snow, and short, cloudy days. We stayed inside as much as possible, huddled around the large, furnace-like ceramic tile stove, or crowded into the small kitchen area seeking any extra warmth we could find.
Morning appels were held in the dark because dawn on the shortest days wasn't until around 8:30 a.m. while sunset was around 4 in the afternoon. Venus was visible in mid-afternoon, around 3 p.m., and all our activities switched to more indoor things because of the obtrusive cold and shortened days.
Card playing, especially contract bridge, became the vogue as we were locked into our barracks for longer periods of time. It was not unusual for games to start early in the day and continue until lights out at ten. And then continue most of the night through conversation, “If you'd only played your ten of spades, we could have...”-day after day after day. To this day I refuse to play bridge. After the war I couldn't tolerate potatoes for about ten years-finally I did accept them back into my diet-but bridge, NEVER!
During this period of time-winter-I learned to “play” chess, truly a wonderful game full of challenges and intricate moves that could take a lifetime to master. My mentor was Lt. Max Rickles of Rochester, New York and bombardier/navigator on my crew. Max was not only a brilliant chess master but was brilliant and talented in many other ways as well. He would oftentimes play a dozen games at a time with other men in the block, moving from game to game and making his moves-only to win all of them. This was not “show-off” on his part but a way of passing time in an entertaining way for all of us. At times he would play several games at a time with his back turned, making his moves by telling us what to move for him and remembering the positions of our men as we told him what our moves were. I don't remember him losing any of these games either. Really, a great guy.
During these nights, with the doors closed and windows shuttered the air within the barracks would become quite stale, especially with tobacco smoke that hung heavily in the air almost blurring out the light from the 100 watt bulbs suspended in each combine. When lights were out at ten it was a great relief to open up the shuttered windows so the fresh air could rush in and clear away the smell and haze-although the outside air might be 10, 15, or 20° below zero.
Keeping warm at night was a problem. Most of the time during the winter we slept with our clothes on; except, of course, for our shoes. The Germans issued each new man two flannel blankets, except those of us who came up from the Italian POW camps. We “Italians” had been issued a large heavy woolen blanket in Italy and we brought them along with us. Doubled over they were great during the cold of winter.
Lying in our bunks at night trying to keep warm, we were aware of all the noises of the night as they drifted in through the open windows. The air was so cold and still that even very light noises carried for long distances. We could, for example, hear the perimeter guards shuffling through the snow and exchanging a few words as they met at the end of their posts. Or we could hear the guards in the postern boxes coughing and sniffling, or even talking to themselves as they complained about the cold.
More dramatic perhaps were the early morning sounds as way off in the distance we could just faintly hear the singing voices of marching German soldiers as they approached the camp to relieve the night crew. The sound carried for long distances, undistorted by either distance or intervening sound. The singing gradually came closer and closer until it was just outside our compound and then gradually faded away in other directions as the soldiers continued their march. The singing was of good quality with many solos and bass and tenor parts.
Sounds seem minor but they were an important part of our lives: aircraft, rifle shots, warnings, bombings, and even the wildlife sounds from the surrounding forest. I remember well the first time I ever heard a nightingale and, especially, the cuckoo bird. Small things or events really seemed to impinge on our minds.
Sunday church services were held irregularly because we didn't always have a chaplain in the camp. One chaplain, Padre Murdo MacDonald, would occasionally visit our camp from the South Compound (under German guard) and always held services to an overflow crowd.
Padre Mac was a British paratrooper captured at Tobruk, North Africa, early in the war. He had been a minister before the war on his home island off the coast of Scotland. He was probably Episcopalian but I never really knew because he never said and his services were nondenominational. I remember him especially for his Scottish burr, the depth of his message and its inspiration of hope, promise, and positive outlook. His intellect and humor were much appreciated by all the Kriegies of Center Compound. And he was a great philosopher.
Colonel Delmar Spivey was the senior American officer most of the time that I was in Stalag Luft III. He was a big, rugged man. He took command shortly after the British were separated into their own compound. Prior to this the senior British officer was in command, and the inner discipline of the camp was rather sad. But with Spivey in charge things changed rapidly and radically. Saturday morning inspections were instituted, haircuts were mandatory, shaving was compulsory, military courtesy observed, and in general we became a more military and disciplined group. Morale became stronger as a result.
Sometime in September or October of 1944 an American general in the Air Corps was captured and interned with us at Stalag Luft III, Center Compound. I've forgotten his name but not the stories built up around him. Physically, and compared to Col. Spivey, he was a small man. Possibly 5 foot 5 inches tall and rather roly-poly, he would have made a great Santa Claus. Officially he was shot down over Aachen, Germany, as he was making a reconnaissance flight in a P-38, a twin boomed fighter known as the Lightning. The other story is that he was purposely dropped into Germany to become the senior American officer in the prison camps during the closing months of the war.
One of the great stories (at least to us Kriegies) built up around the general concerned the packages of raisins from American Red Cross parcels. Most combines tried to save these for emergency rations or other uses such as being combined with D-bars for escape purposes, or even for the making of Kriegie wine. When a new prisoner was brought into a combine he became a full partner in whatever food the group had. The general was often seen walking around the perimeter with his combine members (light and full colonels) and occasionally dipping his hand into his pocket and popping something into his mouth-raisins, of course. It wasn't until almost all the saved packages had been eaten that the others discovered where their emergency rations had gone. The “little general”, as he was affectionately called, hadn't lost noticeable weight in contrast to the rest of us. Rank has its privileges.
During the closing months of 1944, the bed boards we had been issued had dwindled down to a bare minimum and sleeping became almost like a trapeze act. To improvise and supplement we were able to bring in the steel strapping that reinforced the large Red Cross crates. This we threaded between the bed sides and tacked down with nails scrounged from the walls of the barracks or wherever else we could find them. So many nails were removed from the buildings that we often joked about removing the “key nail” which would allow the whole building to collapse.
We knew about “D” Day in Europe within a few hours of its happening. To the camp at large, the news came over the German radio (a loud speaker was attached to the cookhouse for general listening) and there was much excitement over the news. A few hours later the event was confirmed by our own “Johnny Walker”, our BBC news source, which gave more details of a positive kind. From that day on we were able to follow the progress of the war on our maps and knew that Germany's days were numbered.
In the meantime we also followed the progress on the Russian front as the tide of the war there stabilized and reversed from the days of Stalingrad on. There was a lot of rooting for “Uncle Joe” and his boys, especially when there were dramatic changes on our plotting maps.
By late December 1944, the Russians were coming closer and closer to our camp. Our discussions turned more and more toward them as our ultimate fate. Early in January of 1945 the Red drive appeared to have stalled out as they prepared to cross a major river or even to regroup before another big push. Our hopes for an early liberation were put on hold temporarily. Then the weather turned bitter cold with deep snow covering the ground. Daily activity was at a minimum as we huddled around stoves to keep warm.
A rumor arose that the Germans might evacuate the camp ahead of the Russians by marching us to the west, closer to the Allied lines. The word was passed down that this was a strong possibility and that we should make preparations for the eventuality. Much sewing and improvising took place as Kriegies planned for the next few days, especially as we began to hear the roar of artillery to the east, faintly at first but increasingly louder as each day passed.
My combine improvised back packs from whatever materials we could find or scrounge, sewed newspapers into the linings of coats, and rolled blankets into horseshoe shapes to be filled with personal belongings, food and clothing and carried slung over the shoulder. We also built a sled of our few remaining bedboards, to be pulled by a rope. What a fortunate venture the sled turned out to be.
On January 29 the Russians were reported within 20 kilometers of Stalag Luft III. Late that evening word came down that we should be prepared to evacuate within three hours. Packs were readied and final preparations were hastily made. The weather had worsened with a strong wind from the west driving snow before it: the temperature hovered around 35° below zero-blizzard conditions.
I had “scrounged” a large wine bottle that we used in the combine as a rolling pin. I cleaned it up and fitted a woolen sock over it along with a light rope. Slung over my shoulder and under my heavy coat, it would serve as a water canteen.
Around three in the morning we were assembled outside with all our equipment, roll was taken, and we were marched past the vorlager where the Red Cross parcels were stored. We were allowed to take as many as we could carry. Our combine's sled would carry a dozen for all of us plus we each took one to carry in our individual packs and for immediate consumption.
We marched west into the face of the blizzard. The temperature was in the mid-thirties-below zero. About every fifty minutes we halted for a ten-minute rest. At first we treated our situation as an adventure, with lots of laughing, chatter, and even some horseplay. But as the day wore on and the cold and wind continued we tired and settled down to just putting one foot in front of the other.
Exhaustion set in as we plodded along; even the guards were affected as they carried their field packs and rifles. These were old men probably in their late sixties and early seventies, and certainly not used to carrying such heavy loads. As the day wore on they started complaining to themselves audibly, “Muter! Muter! Muter!” At the time we thought they were saying, "Mother! Mother! Mother!". Years later I learned they were saying "Tired! Tired! Tired!".
At times a Kriegie could be seen carrying a rifle for one of these old men as they struggled through the snow. And the guard closest to me even put his pack on our sled. Adversity makes strange bedfellows.
We were under orders not to attempt escape during this ordeal so as not to jeopardize our lives or those of our fellow Kriegies.
Occasionally someone would drop out of the column because of exhaustion or frost bitten feet. At the rear was a horse drawn supply wagon. The stragglers were put aboard and given a ride, but because of pride almost all refused to give in to the pressure and exhaustion.
One of our rallying points was the story about our senior American officer. Offered a ride in a German staff car, he replied he would accept if they provided transportation for the other 2500 prisoners. If the general could stand the hardship, so could we.
Many of the men dipped snow with their hands and put it into their mouths, as there was no other source of water. Later they became violently ill with diarrhea and vomiting because the snow was contaminated. Fortunately I had my bottle of water which I used sparingly and thus did not have to resort to the snow.
Much of our travel was along minor roads usually hedged in by forests. Occasionally we would emerge into open farm country and as we went over a rise we could look ahead and see another column of Kriegies in the distance snaking along the same route.
Apparently our compound was the last in the march. When we looked backward we could see a stream of refugees following along. They would be pushing baby carriages or pulling small wagons loaded with their personal belongings including furniture and bedding, children, and old people. They were fleeing just in advance of the oncoming Russian army.
As we passed farmhouses, many of the German women were alongside the road with vats of hot water to dispense to the column of men. A mess cup (or any container) held out would be ladled full of hot water. As we moved on we could stir Klim, sugar, Nescafe, tea or whatever into the water to make an almost hot beverage. The Germans were not all unsympathetic to our plight.
At one small community (a store, filling station, and bar) a group of men were standing around watching us go by. One of them held out a container of beer as if he were offering it to us. I quickly held out my mess cup and he poured it full of what proved to be the best tasting beer I've ever had-probably so because of the conditions under which I received it.
Occasionally, we could hear a distant tremendous roar and feel the earth shaking. We wondered, of course, what was happening, and we never did find out for sure, but I believe it was caused by the launching of V2s targeted for London.
Passing through a forested area, we came upon a large group of German soldiers dressed in camouflage white and deployed throughout the woods. We passed so close that we could see the contempt in their faces but they said nothing and did not bother us in any way. Close by were large Greyhound-type buses, also camouflaged white, which transported them there and would be used to advance or evacuate them.
Once, crossing an autobahn (freeway), the supply wagon had great difficulty going up the grade due to the icy condition of the up ramp. The poor horses were slipping and sliding and almost falling as their driver whipped and yelled at them. A number of Kriegies got behind and pushed the wagon to the top of the grade, mainly from sympathy for the horses!
Late that day, after a journey of approximately thirty or thirty five miles, we reached the small town of Halle where we were to spend the night. We were to be accommodated in a large, old, stone church surrounded by a cemetery. As the church gradually filled with men, pushed as closely together as possible, it became apparent that it would not hold us all.
While the rest of us stood in the cold, snowy, icy street, a German woman was berating the German officer in charge for the inhumane treatment of the prisoners. In effect she told him that he should be ashamed; that she had two sons who were POWs; and she knew that they were being well treated by the Americans. He merely stood and shrugged off her complaints.
In the meantime, the Germans searched for accommodations for the two hundred of us who remained in the street. While this effort was underway the German officer, waving his arms, said in disgust that we could sleep in the street as far as he was concerned and angrily stomped off.
Eventually we were led down a path behind the church to a mausoleum, where we were to stay the night. This small building too was soon filled up. I spent the night crowded with others on a spiral staircase leading to a choir loft. The doors were closed and we had no problem settling down and falling asleep after the long exhausting day.
Sometime during the course of the night men who awakened and wanted to light cigarettes found that matches wouldn't light because there wasn't enough oxygen to support combustion. The guards immediately opened the doors and tragedy was averted.
Early in the morning we were assembled in the street in front of the church in preparation for the day's march. We were certainly a bedraggled group of prisoners, bleary eyed from lack of sleep and otherwise unshaven and unkempt. Many of the men were sick, vomiting or suffering other forms of gastric distress, probably as a result of consuming snow for the water content. Not everyone had a wine bottle full of drinking water as had I.
The church and the grounds were in sad shape as well. During the night prisoners had met their physical needs the only way they could, by squatting or retching right where they were.
While we stood in the street that morning, a young girl, possibly six or seven, walked by carrying a metal milk can that appeared to be full. Almost as a reflex, I held out my canteen cup and, with a little smile, she poured it full. I surmise she had gone to a nearby dairy outlet for the family's daily allotment of fresh milk which she now willingly shared with another human being-although he was the enemy and a captive. My mind's eye still vividly retains her image as a pretty, blue-eyed blonde six-year-old with a little smile. May God bless her.
Soon we were again “marching” through the countryside to an unknown destination. The day was a repetition of the previous day and nothing eventful happened. The weather was still extremely cold but the wind and snow had abated. Every hour or so we stopped to rest. Now we didn't bother to take off our packs but just fell back into the road embankment in exhaustion.
What a sight we must have been-exhausted, unkempt, in every conceivable type of military clothing; all with long great-coats with collars turned up to protect our ears from possible frostbite.
We ate on the move from Red Cross parcels, sharing with those who had run out of food. The Germans provided us only with their heavy dark bread and a slab of margarine. Probably they didn't have anything else, and anyway we represented quite a logistical problem for them. Stalag Luft III was composed of five compounds, each with approximately 2500 men, or over 12,000 prisoners-a logistical problem indeed.
Lack of water and personal hygiene continued to be our big problems. More and more of our ranks fell to the ills of dysentery. Most refused to fall out of file. They relied on others in their combines to carry their packs or offer a shoulder or arm for support as they struggled along. Fortunately, I did not succumb and was able to continue without help. However, I was now beginning to feel the effects of frostbite in my feet; a burning, itching numbness that made my progress uncomfortable to say the least.
The day finally ended after twelve hours on the road as we were herded into huge barns that were strewn with a heavy layer of straw. Totally exhausted, we took only a few moments to eat and then stretched out in the straw and dropped almost instantly off to sleep. Men were still sick and taking care of their needs, but whatever happened during the night, I was completely oblivious to it.
Morning did come after a long sleep and we gradually awakened and took stock of our surroundings. We began to realize it was now mid-morning and we had not been awakened for the start of the day's march. Rumor filtered down that we were to rest for the day. The rumor proved true. Units ahead of us were stacking up at the railhead at Spremberg as they awaited train transportation to the south.
It was great to stretch out in the straw and take off our outerwear as well as our thoroughly soaked shoes and socks. We rubbed our red, blistered feet and got the circulation moving all the way to our toes. My feet had indications of frostbite that concerned me a lot-but there was nothing I could do except rub them and try to keep them warm. A change to dry socks helped immensely.
Drying shoes was impossible but we tried rubbing them with the dry straw, which did seem to help a little.
Fires were too dangerous inside our huge barn-the largest I had ever seen, absolutely cavernous-and so we ate cold food. We washed it down with cold water from taps used to fill troughs for the animals that normally occupied the barn.
Most of us were content to stay where we were, but in mid-afternoon several of us took off on an exploring trip. The guards were still around but did not bother us as we moved out and away from the barn. They probably were also grateful for a day's rest and may have known we were under orders not to try an escape.
In a forested area close to the barn we came upon a good sized cabin, which proved to be the residence of the local forest service officer. Smoke was pouring out the chimneys and the door was open, so in we went and found that others had preceded us. In the kitchen big vats of water were boiling and fires were roaring in the fireplaces elsewhere in the house. We were offered hot water which we gratefully accepted and which felt wonderful going down. Later we went back to the barn to get Nescafe and Klim to mix with the water. What a treat! In the meantime we took off our shoes and tried drying them before the open fires.
At dusk we were herded back into the barn for another night in the straw. Sleep again came easily. The cold continued but our spirits had revived. At dawn we were rousted out by the guards, assembled on the road, and were soon on our way again. The same routine as the previous days but the weather had warmed considerably and the wind was not blowing.
At the end of the day, we arrived at the small town of Muscau which was just a mile or so from our destination of Spremberg. Muscau was the site of a brick factory that was still in production. The buildings were still warm from the day's work and even some of the kilns were still being fired. These were to be our quarters for the next day or so while a train was being assembled for us.
This was our first chance to fix some warm food, dry out our clothing, and even have a warm bath and a shave. What luxury! We slept wherever we could; on the floor, atop the kilns, wherever we could find room inside with the warmth.
The following day was spent at the same place because our train was not yet made up. Rumors, of course, were rampant, especially concerning our destination. Munich was the most popular guess but we were not sure. The weather had abated considerably and there were even indications of a thaw. Our food parcels were beginning to dwindle as we ate ravishingly for several days. Because of our appetites and the warming weather we had no further need for our sled and so it was abandoned.
Gradually we reorganized ourselves and prepared the best we could for the balance of our journey.
The following day we were reassembled by the Germans and marched several miles to the railway yard at Spremberg. We were then entrained aboard “goods wagons” (box cars), about forty-five men per car, which allowed half to sit while the rest stood. We alternated positions every hour.
Many of the men were still sick with dysentery and this presented a sanitation problem for all of us. The only solution was the use of empty Klim cans, passed forward to be dumped out at the opening at the end of the car.
We traveled for the rest of the day and night, stopping often on sidings to let other trains pass, but still locked in our goods wagons. We knew from past experience how to make maximum use of the room we had. We alternated often from sitting to standing to sitting again. Despite the extreme discomfort, we did manage to sleep.
The night was well below freezing and in the morning a long yellow icicle run almost the length of the car, created by the almost instantaneous freezing of our waste as it was tossed out of the train. Bizarre? But more to come.
Sometime the following morning we pulled into the covered railway station of Chemnitz in Czechoslovakia. We were allowed off the train to water down, relieve ourselves, and stretch our tired bodies. Several tracks away was a German troop train being loaded with soldiers headed for the western front. In the tradition of the German army these men were from the Chemnitz area and probably had been home on leave. Wives and parents, children and sweethearts saying their good-byes to their men.
As we squatted down amidst these tearful and emotional scenes, and as German soldiers hugged and kissed their children, wives, or sweethearts, we could easily have reached out and touched them. But we chose to ignore them and they, in turn, ignored us.
Soon, however, a little bartering was taking place. Cigarettes and chocolate for German field rations. Some of the soldiers were already entrained and they lowered their windows in order to join in on the trading. Our guards were the go-betweens. Prices were established by hand signals and a very active market was created. Apparently no one was cheated; can there be honor between enemies?
Suddenly the sirens went off-an air raid alert-and we were quickly herded aboard our train. With a sudden burst of speed, we were “out of there” and down the track several miles where a low cloud or fog hid us from attack.
We again were allowed off the train and the men quickly resumed where they had left off. The rail line was on the side of a hill with an embankment on one side and a steep slope on the other. Snow was still on the ground and as soon as there were droppings, they steamed in the snow and rolled down the slope gathering speed and snow as they went. An incredible sight.
The alert was soon over and we continued on our journey southward. Guards were posted atop the cars facing forward; the doors on one side were open with a guard sitting with his legs over the side. We rode this way for several days and nights, passing through Nuremburg and Regensburg and finally into Munich.
From Munich we were shunted on the same train to Moosburg and Stalag VIIA. I had been there before when I first came up from Italy. This camp was only about twenty or twenty five kilometers north of Munich.
Stalag VIIA was a huge compound divided into a number of units. In it were confined several hundred thousand men from all over the world: Russians, Poles, French, Yugoslavs, South Africans, East Indians, Australians, Canadians, and Americans to name a few. The barracks again were of World War I vintage and were divided into two blocks just as at Sagan (Stalag Luft III).
After detraining, we were taken to a delousing station, searched, and then allowed to shower (we were apprehensive about this because we now knew about the gas chamber at Auschwitz and other concentration camps). We were then subjected to a “picture parade” for identification. Somehow several others and I were not properly accounted for and we were separated from the main group.
We few were taken to a huge tent area that was strewn with straw while the others were assigned to inner compounds and barracks. I was concerned about being separated from the others because my share of food was with my “combine”. It turned out okay because my tent mates shared with me over the next several days while things were being sorted out.
Conditions within the tent area were not very sanitary as there was no running water, the “bathroom” was only a straddle trench out in view of the whole wide world, and many of our number were still ill with vomiting and dysentery.
While in this area, we witnessed a small boy tumble into a fast moving stream. With a lot of waving and yelling, we were able to attract the attention of some villagers across the stream and indicate to them what had happened. Frantically, they made a search for the youngster but it was too late as he was washed downstream by the fast moving water and drowned. We watched the return of the body and the grief of his mother. We were saddened and we grieved over his loss just as the villagers and guards did. Even so-called enemies can share compassion over the death of a child and a grieving mother.
Several days later we were ushered into an inner compound to join our fellow prisoners. Unfortunately for me I was still separated from my combine buddies and had to rely on the generosity of others for food, which was very willingly and generously shared. By now we were also getting some German rations but of a very poor quality, barley soup in the morning and a cup of potato soup in the afternoon.
Because the potatoes had been in storage all winter they tended to be somewhat rotten. That, and the fact that they were prepared by Russian POWs who had little concept of sanitation, made them singularly unappetizing. They (the potatoes) were washed lightly, not peeled, and the rotting portions were not cut out. At first we couldn't eat them. As time went on and food became scarcer, we stifled our revulsion and ate them anyway, resorting to a darkened corner so as not to see them. Survival really is the first law of the jungle (Rudyard Kipling).
Some of our Red Cross food needed cooking, such as oatmeal and hot water for tea or coffee. No cooking facilities were provided, so some of our more ingenious Kriegies devised a simple, efficient stove that did the job. It consisted of a heating unit mounted on a bed board. Several vent holes were punched into a pound tin can for draft, wire pieces were stretched across about two inches from the bottom forming a grid and leaving a space at the bottom for fuel. A door was cut into the side so the firebox could be refueled. Another opening was made for the introduction of air from a blower shaped like the paddle wheel on a riverboat. With a pulley attached to a crank by a shoestring belt, a draft of forced air could be introduced into the firebox. The heat thus generated would boil water within a minute, the container of water being inserted into the original tin so that heat would be on the bottom and envelop the sides as well. Very efficient.
Fuel consisted of pieces of paper, little slivers of wood from the ground, and later, wood from the subflooring of our barracks. On occasion a small work party would be taken from the compound down to the riverside to collect twigs, branches, and any other possible fuel that we could find. Each of us would come back with a huge bundle of such material for distribution to the others.
A common sight would be a couple of POWs huddled over a burner, one cranking and the other stoking, as they boiled their oatmeal or heated water for coffee, tea, or Klim sweetened with lumps of sugar.
Sometime in April we heard of the passing of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt within hours of his death. We held a memorial ceremony (parade) in his honor and Colonel Greening presented a short eulogy. Harry S. Truman was quickly installed as president and the continuity of the government was assured. Certainly we were saddened by the president's death, but we were confident that his successor would prove capable, although most of us knew little about him.
Sanitation was always a problem. The barracks were divided into two with a common washroom between. In the center of the washroom was a pitcher pump operated by a long handle. The floor was concrete and sloped toward the center with a drain to siphon off excess water. To bathe, one man would squat under the spout while another would pump, then positions would be reversed. We also washed our clothes and shaved in this same area.
The adjacent sleeping quarters consisted of a number of wooden bunks tiered three high, side by side, and end to end; literally, a twelve-man bunk. It was cozy indeed. The only privacy or solitude was obtained by closing one's eyes and literally shutting out the rest of the surroundings, something I can still do today; just shut down and block out the world.
Outside was the latrine, a concrete box above ground with steps leading up to a room above. Inside was the usual trough and then toilets made of porcelain with lift up seats. We hadn't known luxury like this since we left the States!
Occasionally the “honey wagon” would arrive to pump out the accumulated material and take it to nearby fields for fertilizer. But on one occasion this did not happen and created such a problem for us that we had to resolve it even at the peril of our lives.
First the urine began to flow out onto the floor, over the threshold, and down the steps to a hollow on the back side. We used Klim cans (how useful they proved to be) as stepping stones to get to the toilets.
Protests to the Kommandant were in vain. Things got worse as the solid waste began to stack up (no pun intended) eventually rendering the “porcelain pots” unusable. Conditions were unimaginable. And again protest went unheeded.
Finally we resorted to the only tactic we had-we went on strike! We refused to go out for morning roll call although we were repeatedly warned of the dire consequences. Only when the “sheisen wagon” appeared would we consent to be counted. We were, after all, human beings and not animals.
Soon the Germans turned dogs loose in our barracks. With their snarling and snapping we were soon rousted out-but not to be counted. Although the Germans again and again ordered us into formation, we continued to defy them. The Germans would give the order to our commander, a full colonel, who in turn would relay it to us. We would ask if this were a German order or an American order. When he replied, “A German order” the showdown continued.
Finally a company of German riflemen came into the compound and herded us into a corner at bayonet point. Then lining up in formation in front of us they were given the command to raise their weapons, aim-and still we didn't cave in.
In a fit of rage accompanied by angry comments about the barbaric Americans, the German officer ordered his company to leave the compound. They promptly departed in military formation.
Not long afterwards the “honey panzers” arrived and the battle of the “Sheisen House” was over. Word was sent to the Kommandant that we were ready to be counted. In my humble opinion a medal should be awarded to this gallant group of men who defied the entire German army. Although without weapons, they were long on courage.
Winter began to turn to Spring, the snow turned to slush and gradually faded away. Clouds and fog turned to sunshine while the days grew longer and the weather turned warmer. Our morale was strong as the news of the war fronts became more and more favorable. We knew the end was near but there was more hardship to be endured.
Food became more and more critical as our supply was gradually cut off. The better the weather, the more missions our Air Force could fly, especially the P-51s, '38s, and '47s. Anything that moved during daylight hours was shot up and destroyed. Although the Germans still had food for us they had no way of getting it to us. Trains and trucks were literally blown away.
One day in late March, several P-38s buzzed our camp and did a slow roll on their way out. What a thrill as well as a morale booster. Soon the heavy, medium, and tactical bombers began to appear as they flew south and east to their targets. Munich was hard hit day after day, and we could hear the bombardment and feel the earth shake as the pounding went on.
The bomber stream would first appear around 8:30 in the morning, preceded by a heavy droning of engines that filled the sky with an ever increasing and constant roar.
Thousands of planes were dropping their loads on Munich. So many groups were headed for the target that some had to circle to await their turn. By 4:30 in the afternoon their job was done and soon the sky was empty as the planes returned to base. What a magnificent sight to watch as the planes went to their targets almost unopposed.
Gradually we could hear the sound of cannonading in the far distance. Day by day it grew louder and more incessant. On April 27, 1945, rifle fire began to occur on the outskirts of the camp. The guards gradually left their watchtowers and, with great precision and dignity, left their posts and retreated toward the east.
Just as gradually the American forces enveloped Stalag VIIA. A tank rammed the front gate and we were free. A guard was thrown up around us and we were told to stay put until further orders. The Allied forces couldn't afford to have 275,000 roaming around the countryside.
Food was brought in, deer were killed for our consumption, and life went on-we were still prisoners but now of the Allies!
Within several hours General Patton arrived. With arms akimbo and pearl handled revolvers at his side, he gave us a short congratulatory speech saying we would, with our cooperation, shortly be on our way home.
Dedicated to my Grandchildren:
Billy, Janet, Steve, John, and Katie Jones, and Joey Church
The author, Curtis Stephen Church, was born May 1, 1916, in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Washington in June 1941. He entered the Army Air Corps as an Aviation Cadet at Hamilton Field on December 15 of that year. After pilot training in Texas, he was assigned to the 441st Squadron, 320th Bomb Group flying the B-26, Martin Marauder. The events described in this account began on August 21, 1943, when he was shot down while flying his 46th mission.
Mr. Church is a retired New York Life Insurance Company executive and part-time high school teacher, living in Modesto, California and died on April 4, 2002 in Salinas, CA.
April 28, 1992
© Curtis S. Church 2004