|Stalag VII A: Oral history|
Stalag VII A MoosburgBy Flight Officer John H. Chaffin
February 8 to April 29, 1945
February 8. Last night was the most miserable night I've spent since we left Sagen and I am sick this morning for the first time since we left. The five of us had room to stretch out; although we did have to lie on our sides close together. As I expected, it was so hot and stuffy here in this barn. I believe that is why I was sick.
I awakened at 0500 this morning with a touch of diarrhea. I managed to get out of the barn but then, when I came back to our spot on the floor, I was violently sick. Fortunately a Klim can (powdered milk) was handy. It has been a beautiful day; however, and being out in the sun has fixed me up.
It is not possible for me to describe, in anyway, our condition here so that a reader can picture it as it really is. Try to picture six men, dirty, unshaven and tired, all sitting on a blanket together; eating out of cans, cups and plates. Their food is cold corned beef or spam on brown bread and margarine. Crowd in on all sides of them five hundred others looking just the same; put them in a poorly lighted and dirty straw strewn barn and you will have a faint conception of us at meal time. Here and there, you will see one mixing milk or chocolate in a Klim can or cup. If you looked in at the right moment you would hear one fellow reading the day's O.K.W. (German radio) report for we are all vitally interested in the war situation.
If you should look around outside, you would see men sorting out their belongings; others, you would notice either strolling or loafing in the sun. The most predominant sight; however, would be four extremely long lines. At the head of two of these lines you can see two slow running spouts of water. Crowded around one would be a half dozen men washing and filling diver's types of containers.
At the head of the other two lines you will find the foulest abort (toilet) imaginable. One of these, - the shorter - led up to four small holes cut in the floor and it is over one of these that one squats and defecates. I won't attempt to describe the filth around these holes.
At the head of the other line is a somewhat more sanitary toilet - at least there is a seat. Eighteen hundred men are forced to get their water from either of the two water lines and to answer nature's calls through one of the other lines.
But do not be mistaken about the mental attitude of these men. These are probably the worst conditions any of them have ever been under and still they can joke about it. The last mail any of us had was dated no earlier than last November (over two months) and we know nothing about what has happened at home to loved ones but you see no evidence of depression or "the blues" or, in the language of soldiers, "the red-ass!" Most of us think that the war cannot last much longer and I am sure that after we get settled in a regular camp we will have better living conditions.
From my observations, I believe that the Germans will give us enough to eat. It may not be prepared as well as we had back at Sagen but it will be adequate for us not to starve. Last night they gave us a one quarter loaf of bread and a small piece of liverwurst per man. Today they gave us a table spoonful of sugar; one sixth loaf of bread and about one large spoonful of kraut per man - also another small chunk of wurst. At noon, we got a fair helping of very good soup made from potatoes, barley, split peas, a very small bit of meat for flavor and, I think, there was a little corn and onions in it. It tasted delicious.
As to be expected, you can hear rumors about almost anything here. Mainly they concern what will be done with us. They are supposed to start moving us into another lager tomorrow.
This afternoon we were honored with a concert by the Stalag VII A Enlisted Men's P.O.W. band. The band was made up of English, Canadian and American soldiers. It is a good band with a couple of good vocalists and everyone enjoyed their performance.
Another disappointing day - February 9. We had hoped that most of us could be moved on over to the camp, but the Germans say it isn't ready. A few men started out late this evening; however, so possibly tomorrow they will move more of us out. Even if all of us can't go tomorrow, it will at least relieve the congestion here.
There is a great deal of sickness among us. At least fifty percent have diarrhea and are sick at their stomach. I think it is mainly due to eating from dirty plates and cups, and with dirty knives and forks. That can't be helped. We have no hot water for washing them and even cold water is so inconvenient to get that most guys just wash their things once a day.
At noon we were given some of the vilest soup I have ever seen or tasted. It appeared to be made of scrubby little carrots, kohlrabi, turnips, dried cabbage and the rest of it was impossible to identify. Most of the men threw theirs away but I ate mine on the assumption that it was food and probably would not hurt me.
I was invited by Geiger to make a fourth in a bridge game this morning. He is a psychologist whom I met while in Sagen. While we were there, he explained Culbertson's "Asking Bids" to me. He is a very intelligent fellow; easy to meet and talk with and he knows Culbertson from "A to Z." He is not too good at playing the hands; however.
I played with a fellow named Gluck against Geiger and his partner. (Guy named "Rekless") Gluck is also very likable and he and Rekless are both very good bridge players.
Gluck and I got along fine. Without even talking over our respective bidding systems and signals, we got along as if we had played together a great deal. Though we played a defensive game for most of the three rubbers, we it well enough and made enough game bids (two of them; not vulnerable) we managed to win by seven hundred fifty points. I enjoyed the game as much as any bridge game I ever played.
We were given a Red Cross parcel per six men tonight along with a German issue of cooked spuds, bread and margarine. My little group of six is going to share everything in the parcel rather than split it up as Robbie, Bob, E.E., Cornel and those fellows did. We had no trouble at all and all got a little of the meat, chocolate, sugar, milk and other things in the parcel. The other guys, on the other hand, had arguments about how to divide their parcel into six parts first and then they had to draw cards for first (and subsequent) choices from the six piles.
I hate seeing our group split up but it is understandable. Some of the fellows are greedy and feel that they may get shorted and they are just a little hard to get along with when things are a little close. Those traits I had noticed about the time we went on half parcels back in Sagen. That is why I'm glad to be with the five fellows that I'm with.
February 10 and still another night to be spent under these crowded conditions. The Germans say they will start moving us tomorrow at nine o'clock and keep it up until we are all moved.
An interesting event of the day was the arrival of two Red Cross men. They were very upset about what they saw. The Germans tried to explain but I don't think their explanations set too well. Colonel Puritan really gave them a sad story. I hope it helps.
It is a little better now that we have more or less settled down. The wash lines are no longer so long nor are those leading to the latrines. The Germans brought in a large water boiler and our sergeants are in charge of it. They furnish enough hot water for our brew even though there is a line to go through. We get enough to eat and can get some sleep. The whole situation is still deplorable and degrading but we can manage. We are glad that our families, wives and sweethearts do not know what we are having to endure. There is still a great deal of sickness (diarrhea) but even that has come to be joked about. In the middle of a card game one of the players will get up and say, "I'll be right back." We just sit back and wait. We know his problem.
About the only way we have found to relieve this problem is to go without eating anything for twenty-four hours but that is so difficult when you are already hungry all of the time.
Well, the Germans have kept their promise. Early this morning (February 11) we started moving out. Our block was sent out at five o'clock this evening. We were third from the last so I'm sure everyone except the sick were moved on to this new lager. We all had to be searched first. The Germans are strange. The search was a mere formality; the guard taking only a minute to look through each man's belongings. After we were searched, we were sent in groups of sixty to a building in another section. There we had to fill out two forms giving our address, date and place of birth and date and time of being shot down. Granack refused to give them the latter information, nor would he sign the forms so they took him back - where I was not sure but later on they gave up on him and sent him on with the rest of us.
After the forms were filled in, we were taken to another building for delousing. Here we got to take a long hot shower while our clothes were treated. My first bath in three weeks - it was delicious. After my shower, I paid a Polish P.O.W to cut my hair. (ten cigarettes) He had regular barber tools, including electric clippers and seemed to know his trade. It took him only a few minutes but he did a fair job. The feel of an electric clipper buzzing up my neck seemed strange after almost eighteen months of having my hair cut with hand tools.
The greatest let down of all came when we were marched on to our quarters. All of us expected them to be bad but none of us was prepared for what we found.
The barrack - concrete building - was dirty and poorly lighted. The beds are triple deck wooden bunks with straw ticks the same as we had at Luft III but they have them together in groups of four and only about three feet of space between groups along the side. There is a hallway about fifteen feet wide down the middle of the room.
Two hundred men are housed in one room that is about one hundred feet by forty feet. That is compressed even more by two rooms on one side of the big room and they take up about one sixth of the total space. The rooms are just a space someone partitioned off, using the wooden Red Cross parcel boxes for lumber.
We are supposed to get one Red Cross parcel per twelve men for six days a week. The Germans give us hot soup at noon and usually enough hot water in the morning for a cup per man. At night they issue bread, sugar, margarine and, sometimes, meat. The amounts are the same as I've mentioned before.
There are no facilities for cooking, so, for the present we will eat our Red Cross food cold. We are to be given a communal kitchen; however, where our food will be cooked. It will not be too good because they will have to prepare for four thousand officers and I know not how many Enlisted Men. It will be better than the existing conditions; however. Some of the fellows have made tiny burners with a can and margarine which puts out a flame like a candle and over this they heat Klim cans of water for brew.
I am writing all of this last on February 12 as I was too tired to write last night. It is the last "diary" entry record of our evacuation from Stalag Luft III that I will make because I consider our journey as ended. There are still rumors about moving in a week or two to an Oflag but who knows? We are not used to this treatment nor these conditions so it all seems pretty bad. It is a degrading way for humans, and especially Officers, to be treated in the face of the regulations which are supposed to govern our treatment and the supposed respect due us as Officers of the U.S. Army Air Corps. I think we will live through it; however, and I can stand it. Some day it will be over and it doesn't help now to worry about the poor food, the living quarters and now news from home. What we have is sufficient to keep us alive.
Following is a poem that was written by a Stalag Luft III P.O.W. that tells something of being a Prisoner of War.
COMRADES TO FREEDOMNOTES WRITTEN JUST BEFORE FEBRUARY 16, 1945
Note: The following are notes written on various bits of paper between February 12 and February 15. The dates were not otherwise recorded.
For almost a week now we have been out of Red Cross parcels. The last issue was last Saturday. At that time no one knew then whether or not we would start getting them again. There are rumors that the Red Cross authorities are seeking permission from Berlin to run their own trucks, loaded with parcels in Switzerland, and come into Moosburg. We are all afraid that this would take several weeks; however and in the meantime we are going to get really hungry.
Day before yesterday - another rumor. This time the story is that seventy car loads of parcels had arrived here. This was a real boost to our moral and immediately all thought turned to a "gash" (extra) issue of full parcels and a big "bash." Hell's bells. We may be back on full parcel status. Last night we were sobered a little by a "true" report of the parcel situation. Only eight of the carloads were destined for this camp. That is enough for two weeks at half rations. Of the eight cars, only one was loaded with American parcels. All the others are said to be British.
Tonight we got our parcel issue. It was one per four men. As yet no one knows whether this is a back issue but we were all happy to get these. Most of us used our last bit of Red Cross food today and would have been existing on German rations only after tomorrow.
The parcels also mean more cigarettes but not many since the English parcels do not have any tobacco. Most of us are almost out now. I had almost two packages left and got one more tonight. That will not last more than another week. Maybe the war will end by then; tough, so I'm not worrying about it except to save my butts.
FEBRUARY 16-27 NOTES
We have been in this small compound almost a week now. Everyone is more or less settled and have started making little things which make life here a little more tolerable.
To me, one of the most remarkable items I have seen built by Kriegies is a small one stage blower cooking stove. Some of these little burners, made with tin cans, bed boards and make shift tools are gems of handicraft, and the actually work.
It is difficult to describe these blowers in a way that will give a true picture of them, but I shall try. A Klim can is used for a fire box. It is fitted with a tiny grate and an opening in the bottom for an air funnel. The air funnel, which varies in size and length, is on an average about six inches long. It leads from the bottom of the fire box to a fan housing, which is another Klim can. The fan is made of strips of tin and is driven by a wheel and belt arrangement at about a twelve to one ratio.
Fuel for the burners is small pieces of wood and/or little lumps of coal. A piece of coal the size of a man's fist and two sticks of wood eight inches long and one inch in diameter will cook a fair meal for twelve men. The secret is that the burner creates a very hot fire in a small space, just like an old fashioned blacksmith's forge. There is very little loss of heat between the fire box and the food being cooked.
Conservation of fuel is of the utmost importance because we get so very little from the Germans. Every three days they issue coal and peat. The issue amounts to not more than fifty briquettes for the camp. This is far from sufficient to make feasible the burning of it in either the heating stove or the cooking stoves. These are both large brick lined affairs and require a large amount of fuel to heat; when we get our coal it is divided among the tiers for use in private blowers.
We get little bundles of wood at night through the barter system. This trading is through the Enlisted Men here who work in town. They get wood, bread and other foods; knives and tools from the civilians in town and we buy it from them. Legal tender is cigarettes and the prices on everything is controlled and kept in hand by those in charge of the buying. Not everyone is allowed to buy. Were this not enforced, the prices would soon be out of hand because of the natural American extravagance and greed. Those with the most cigarettes would take all of the wood and food and we who do not have many would be out of luck.
One may wonder how this sort of thing can go on in a POW camp without detection. It does not! Everyone knows that the trading goes on and the German officers make no effort to curb it. This way we get things we need without their providing them - They say that they can't provide such things as sufficient coal. - The posterns are bought off for a couple of cigarettes and they turn around and watch for the officers for us instead of vice-versa, as should be.
In the lager across from our west fence, are quartered British Indian troops. A guard walks up and down along this fence to keep us from talking to these Hindus but he, like all the other guards, can be bought. Most of the Indians are Mohammadens and are forbidden to eat some meats. They sack up the cans of meat from their Red Cross parcels and throw it over the fence to us for cigarettes. The guard has to pick up the sack and make the exchange because of the thirty foot space of verboten ground on our side of the fence.
The Indian prisoners seem to be happy living under the worst possible Kriegie conditions here at VII A. Every morning, early, they are all out taking calisthenics - individually and in groups of two or three. They do this with a great deal of zest and spirit as if they enjoyed it. Late in the evening one of them will play songs on a pipe, which sounds something like a flute, and others dance. This dance is a few strutting, hopping steps accompanied with moving of hands from hips to over the head; all in time with the music. Sometime they stand in one spot and whirl in circles, coming to a brief stop after each revolution. Some wave strips of cloth in their hands while they dance.
Among the thousands of POWs in this camp are men of many different nationalities. There are besides us and the British airmen the Indians, French Moroccan colored troops; Frenchmen taken before France capitulated, British troops taken at, and before, Dunkirk, in Africa, Italy and on the Western Front. There are Poles, Chechs and Russians here in vast numbers. All of these are from all the branches of service - infantry, tank corps, airborne troops, paratroops, motorized troops and medical corps men. I believe that the only Air Force enlisted men here are the sergeants who came from Luft III with us. We are the only officers aside from a few medical corps men.
The fact that we are the first large number of Officers here has brought us special consideration and attention from the Wermacht, who control this camp. This is no privilege. It is because of this that we are confined to a small lager and not allowed to walk about the main camp. When we are moved from one place to another, they always send a large number of guards with us and take every precaution to see that we do not make contact with the EM They are afraid that one of us will change places with an E.M. and organize the whole camp. Since we have been here, new machine gun nests and guard towers have been erected all over the place. The Germans realize and respect the American ability to obtain from no where almost anything he needs and they also know the corruptness of their own guards.
Since we have been here, all of us have become more food conscious than ever before in our lives. To listen to the conversations, one would think that we were close to starvation rations. Actually it is not too bad.
Every morning at 0715 we get a cup of hot water for coffee. This is brought in metal pitchers from one of the two large camp kitchens. At noon we get a cup of hot soup which tastes good under our present condition. This soup is usually made of sauerkraut, dried cabbage, khalrabi, carrots, potatoes, barley, grits and a little meat. These vegetables are cooked in various combinations. The worst part about the soup is that they put far too much margarine in it and when it cools off it is almost unpalatable because of the cold grease.
At night we get our bread issue of one seventh loaf per man; and one level spoonful of sugar per man. Twice a week we get a small piece of either blood sausage, liver wurst or baloney and two or three times a week we get a small piece of cheese - usually limburger. It has been our practice to eat this cheese as an evening snack. Once up on a time I would not have touched a piece of limburger but now I take my small ration, get off to myself where I will not be disturbed, and slowly eat - savoring every bite - the dreadfully smelling stuff.
At four o'clock in the afternoon we are given boiled potatoes which go to make up the bulk of our evening meal. The potatoes are just barely warm when we get them and by the time the rotten spots are cut out they are cold. We have no salt and cannot spare butter for them but so far we have been able to make them palatable by cooking a thin gravy which makes them taste better besides warming them. (Many of the men could not, or would not, eat the potato peelings. All the fellows in my group were willing to eat the peelings so we regularly collected extra peelings from others and mixed them with our own potato ration.)
We get one half Red Cross parcel per man a week here. This furnishes a little meat and our deserts. I make a prune or raisin desert every day for this evening meal. It is simple and easily made and tastes good. I first mix three fourths can of powdered milk, twelve spoons of sugar and one half spoon of coffee with enough water to make a thick paste. This is beaten until it is smooth as cream and then mixed with raisins or prunes. Prunes work best because they can be pitted, soaked and mashed with a fork into a pulp which mixes well with the milk.
There are still a few men sick with diarrhea but most of us have recovered and are normal again. I believe that when we first got the soup and water, it was cooked and brought o us in dirty containers which resulted in such a widespread sickness. The food seems to be much cleaner now.
For a few days here in this lager, the sanitary conditions were terrible because of all the illness. Our only latrine facilitates forty people at once and there are twelve hundred of us. One can imagine the difficulties when one realizes that at least fifty percent of us were ill with diarrhea at the same time. To make our situation even more unbearable, the Germans did not clean out the tank below the latrine for several days. The tank filled and flooded the latrine floor. In protest we went on a strike the next day and refused to fall in for appell. They ordered us out of the barracks so we went outside but we refused to fall in when they gave that order. Almost immediately they got a truck in and started pumping the tank dry. After about four hours of standing around, Colonel Puritan decided that we had won our point so we fell in for the count. The truck continued to run until the latrine was clean and the Kommandant said that those responsible for not cleaning it would be punished.
How could we get by with such actions? It is because of the corruptness of this place. The Colonel knew that two German inspecting Generals would be here on to inspect the camp. He also knows that they would not be pleased to find the camp in a state of turmoil. The Kommandant would not be too happy about that either because it might result in a closer inspection into the camp affairs in general. Things here cannot bear much uncovering so he was more than anxious to get everything straightened out.
Another of our troubles is bed bugs. All of our beds are infested with them and with fleas. The powder we were given for them is useless. On February 21 our block (33) and block 34 were moved back to the north lager while our barracks were fumigated. The gas had no more effect than the powder however, and we still have our bugs.
No one minded the move over to the other lager in spite of the troubles which go with moving in a place like this.
We moved out at ten o'clock in the morning to some tents in another area where we were to stay until two o'clock. While we were in the tents, the air raid alarm sounded. I have heard since that the bombers hit Munich and Nuremberg and were over the camp. We saw P-38s and P-51s. They were on a low level mission and the few of us who got a hole in the tent to look through saw them making passes at something about three miles from here. It was quite a thrill to see so plainly our own fighters.
After the raid, which lasted almost three hours, we moved on over to the North lager. Here, we got our regular days ration of food and were quartered in a clean barrack. There were not beds but we all got a straw tick and two German blankets to go with our Red Cross blanket. We put the ticks side by side and made one large bed for nine and a smaller one for the other three. There was ample room for comfortable sleeping and we stayed warm.
The best part of the North lager was the boiler that the Germans had brought in while we were there before. This provided plenty of hot brew water for everyone. It is surprising how a hot cup of coffee - even warm nescafe - can cheer one up and make troubles of the moment seem less important. Another good feature of the North lager was cleanliness. There the area is cleaner and our barrack was well lighted and was fairly clean. Here in our regular lager the barracks are drab, poorly lighted and it is almost impossible to keep them clean under our crowded conditions. The floors are damp and probably will not dry out until summer as we can't heat the barrack. It is hard to keep cheerful and not feel blue when the surroundings are dismal and dark, when you haven't enough food to satisfy hunger and when you have had no mail for months.
We are under these conditions and they bring out the ugly side of people's personality. Here are supposed to be the cream of American youth - Officers and Gentlemen of the U.S.A.A.C. (by an Act of Congress) and this makes it even harder to understand the greed and selfish petty bickering that goes on. Do gentlemen stand and watch, with suspicion, the division of food and walk away muttering about being cheated when the next fellow gets one eighth of an inch more soup in a small cup than he got? And what kind of a man is he who will stand and carefully measure with his eye the amount of jam on each of twelve slices of bread before he picks one up. Those twelve slices have a total of six ounces of jam divided as equally as possible. The other eleven men who share them are supposed to be close friends from many months of living together in the closest possible association.
Those things may be natural for men when they are hungry. I don't know. I do know that it is one of the things about this life that I will be happy to get away from. Sometimes close association is not conducive to friendship because it is too revealing and it is not always best to know your "friends" too well.
If we stay here longer, things will only get worse. Yesterday - February 26 - we were informed that we had only enough Red Cross parcels to last this week. After that we will have to make the German rations do. We will have no spam or corned beef or coffee or deserts; no cigarettes nor soap. We will be far hungrier than we are now.
As usual there are a lot of rumors floating around. Some say that the Red Cross men, who visited here two weeks ago, were aware of the food situation and would see that we got parcels. Another is that we are supposed to move to our original destination in the next few days. It doesn't help to worry about it for if we run out - we run out! If we move - we move! No one knows today what will happen tomorrow. The war could even end and we would be on our way home.
A FRIENDPAROLE WALK
Note: Prisoners of War can sometimes give their parole, which means that they promise not to try to escape. In exchange the guardians grant the POW permission to move about unescorted. The United States Army forbids the giving of parole. As the end of the war seems to be near, the Germans have started trying to build up a little good will. They have set up "Parole Walks" for groups of five or six American POWs. A guard takes them from the camp for a walk about the country side. The guard is unarmed and serves as guide only. About three such walks were arranged by the Germans and for some reason I was selected for the last of them.
Today I spent what will probably be my most pleasant day in Germany. After eighteen months of Kriegie camp life, I was given one day on parole and taken for a long walk. It was an experience that few of us can have and I feel that I was very fortunate in getting to go.
This morning (March 28) at eight thirty, I went to the camp office along with five other fellows to sign our paroles. From there we went to Colonel Salesman's office for a briefing on what to expect while on our outing. He asked us to dress neatly as possible; to do no bartering and told us how much we should pay for our meal. We were to be ready by nine forty-five.
I reported back to the camp office at nine forty-five; not too happy about the day. It was pouring down rain and there was no sign of a let-up. I had borrowed Cornell's greens, (slacks) Chapin's battle-jacket, Jones' cap and Ling's belt. Dressed up for the first time in so long made mefeel like a new man and now it looked as if our walk was to be called off. Our guard was in the office waiting; however, and said that if we wanted to go, he was willing. The other fellows and I wasted no time in assuring him that we wanted to go so at ten thirty we started out.
We walked about seven miles due northwest of the camp to a little village called Bergen. The hour and forty-five minute walk was a wet muddy one and our overcoats were soaked when we reached the farm which was our destination.
This farm house was a very large place built of stone. On room was a small beer tavern and it was into this place we were shown by the owner.
Soon after we arrived, the woman, who lived there, had a good fire going in a coal stove and was serving us with good beer and the most delicious chicken noodle soup I have ever tasted. With the soup, we had big thick slices of fresh rye bread which was more like eating cake than bread.
After our soup, we were served family style, a good portion of roast pork, boiled potatoes and red cabbage. I do not know how the cabbage was prepared except that it was boiled; purple in color and tasted better than any cabbage or kraut than I have ever eaten before. With our lunch we had more rye bread. When we finished eating, we were brought another stein of beer and more bread, (which we had asked for). It was about one thirty then.
About two thirty we were served rolls, which were similar to the hot rolls we have in the States, coffee and delicious fried fritters. The fritters were very thin pieces of dough fried in deep fat and then sprinkled with sugar.
Around three forty-five, we started making preparations to leave. We had one more stein of beer, which left me so full I was uncomfortable. Earlier in the afternoon, we had given the proprietor four packages of cigarettes and a package of tea as payment for the food. Just before we left she gave us one and one half loaves of bread; six fresh eggs and a big bowl of cottage cheese for ten British cigarettes, two bars of soap and a package of tea. The bread amounted to a big piece for each of us. As the loves were round and about sixteen inches in diameter, the portion for each was about the size of a man's fist. At the last minute a peasant, whom the guard had located for us, came in with seventeen apples and twenty four onions which we bought for ten British cigarettes. At four thirty we started back to the camp.
The walk back was not quite as unpleasant as the walk to the tavern. The rain had slowed to a drizzle and I had a very interesting talk with our guard. He and I walked together, alone, most of the time and talked about our countries and the British. He told me a lot about his life, his home and his parents. He promised to bring me some cigarette lighter fluid and gave me his address.
We arrived back in camp at six o'clock. After we divided our purchases, I took mine to the combine. It had been a wonderful outing and I had a lot to tell the other fellows. We all sliced up the bread and had it with a cracker and the cheese (from the farm) as a snack while I told them all that took place. My only regret was that I couldn't bring back enough of the things that I had enjoyed. The day cost me thirty-five cigarettes counting those which I smoked, and a bag of tea. I raffled off my egg for forty cigarettes so, besides a wonderful day, I made cigarettes.
ENDOWMENTAPRIL 17, 1945
(Last Notes Written)
Every day we expect the war to end. It seems impossible that Germany can continue fighting for another two weeks. How can they fight now that their whole industrial region has been occupied and Berlin itself is threatened on the east and on the West? Still it goes on; the days go by and we become more crowded with the passing of each one.
On April the tenth, the whole South and West camps of Stalag Luft III were moved from another section of this camp into our lager. It was supposed to be only a temporary arrangement for two days but nobody knows when they will move.
This latest move brings the number in this lager up from about two thousand men to nearly forty-five hundred. Many of the men are quartered in large tents; the barracks are more crowded than ever and still many others sleep outside on the ground.
To make a place for the "rank" of this new group, my block was broken up and placed in the other five blocks. Our combine, fortunately, was moved to the same block and we are still functioning as a twelve man unit. Six of us are in one end and six in the other of this block. LaSalle, Gwinn, Williams and I are together; sleeping on the floor. Grams and Robi aren't with us but managed to get bunks. The floor is no harder than a bunk; is smoother and doesn't have fleas.
I could never adequately describe the conditions here now. I can mention that we sleep on the floor with no space what-so-ever between our straw ticks; the space occupied by our beds plus about fourteen inches on each end is all we have. Here we keep our beds, clothes, food, personal effects and cooking and eating utensils. It is a little crowded.
So far the weather has been fine all but two or three days. That has made this all the more bearable. We can stay out of doors all day and, after a fashion, "camp out." We spread blankets and lay in the sun all day doing all of our cooking and eating right there. Our meals have been good considering the circumstances. On full parcels we manage to have nice things for our evening meal.
All of us have been gradually formed into two man teams for heating brew. LaSalle and I work together on a burner I made. He also helps me when I cook, which is almost every day. I fix a dessert almost every day and prepare the evening meal two or three times a week.
Moving all of us in together this way has at least given old friends a chance to meet again. Fowler and I saw Guiteras for the first time in almost eighteen months. He hadn't changed any or else we both changed the same.
As to be expected, rumors fly thick and fast about camp. Some deal with the latest allied advances, others with food parcels and still others with evacuation of this camp. It is my opinion that the Germans cannot move us again but many of the men believe they will. I think the job is too big; that there is no place to move us and that the Germans are not that concerned about us any more.
All the POWs in Germany, or almost all, have been moved into this area. The Enlisted Men who were here have been moved and their places filled with British officers and American Air Crew sergeants. In the compound next to ours are the British officers. They are men from New Zealand, Africa, Canada, Australia and England. Most of them have been in the bag three to four years.
Trade with these fellows has been very heavy ever since their arrival. They want our A2 and field jackets and we want their battle-jackets. I, however, have nothing of trading value.
For the past week the Germans have little or no attention to give our actions other than to count us each morning. We have torn down all the guard rail fences, two of the large fences and one slit trench. All of this was done to get fire wood. The barracks are slowly being striped of wood and the latrine has lost its two doors. These barracks have double floors which are separated by the floor joists. (About eight inches) The space between the floor boards is filled with gravel. This provides insulation. Someone discovered this arrangement and as a result the bottom layer has virtually all been pulled out. It is a dirty job since the space between the ground and the floor is only about two feet and, when the boards are pulled off, the dirt comes down.
Men converse and trade freely across the fences and that, for a time, was strictly verboten. The guards seem to think as we do that the war will be over next week. They want it to be over as much as we do. And this is the way it is for all of us as this war gradually comes to an end. We all wonder what is to become of us - in the short term and in the long term. We wonder about home - about family, wives or sweethearts. Are they all well? Have wives been faithful? - How many have had babies since we became Prisoners of War? How many Sweethearts have found someone else.
I, like the others, wonder about these things. It was two years ago this week that I was at home on my last leave before starting overseas. And I wonder. Are Mom and Dad well? Is Allan still at Harlingen or is he in combat? If so, where? And what about Ruth. In a few days, she will be nineteen. How much has she changed in two years? I can't imagine her not waiting for me but who knows anything for sure? Two years is a long time.
MOOSBURG AND THEN HOME
Note: Writing the preceding section took the last bit of paper that I could find for writing notes. The following was written two or three days after I returned to Grapevine June 10, 1945.
With the exception of a few of the days on our migration from Sagen, our worst days as Kriegies were those at Moosburg. February 7 until liberation April 29, 1945. Eighty days when most of us were dirty, hungry, physically sick, and homesick. The single source of encouragement was that it seemed obvious that the war must be over almost any day.
Time was passed playing bridge, trying to find pieces of wood for cooking, talking about food and the best places in the States to go for Steak dinner, fish dinner, fried chicken, etc. Contrary to popular opinion, the strongest drive in young men is hunger; not sex. Every bull session turned into a discussion of some aspect of food. Perhaps part of the reason for this was not only were we hungry because of short rations, but also because at one time or another, each of us suffered with diarrhea. The only cure was to eat nothing for twenty four hours.
April 29, 1945
For two or three days now it has seemed that the war must end at any moment. There are many rumors and, at times, we can hear artillery fire in the distance. The latest rumor yesterday was that some of the guards were saying that we were about to change places - i.e. that we were soon to be the guards and they the POWs. The best rumor is that the C.O. of the local German Army unit met last night with the American C.O. and told him that he had to put up a token resistance. The American agreed and said the he would move in and attack at ten o'clock the next morning.
We thrive on rumors. There seems to be within all of us a great deal of optimism about the future that causes us to want to believe that things are going to be better soon. No matter how implausible the story might be, we will want to believe if it promises something we want. Confidence men have thrived on this aspect of our nature for centuries.
Regardless of the validity of the rumors, at ten o'clock on this day we were in the barracks playing cards and working on something for our noon meal. It was a beautiful sunshine filled spring morning. Suddenly we heard the sound of gunfire - machine gun fire! "Hey", says one of our guys (E.E. Grams) "that is an American machine gun; not a German gun." We all got up and went outside as fast as we could to see what was happening.
A large open field adjoined the camp on all sides but about a half a mile to the east was a woods; a mile to the west was the town of Moosburg. We could see the G.I.s running across the open area to the north of the camp. They were so far away that they looked almost like ants. They would run and then fall down for a moment and then jump up to run again. They moved from the wooded area toward Moosburg. We could hear sporadic rifle and machine gun fire.
At the eastern edge of the town was an old stone church building. The Germans had placed an artillery piece in the bell tower of the building. We could see the puffs of smoke from this gun as it was fired. Only two or three rounds were fired before the American troops called on a tank back in the woods for help. We could see the shells from the tank gun hit the stone tower - only a couple, and out came a white flag - The war was over at that moment for us!
The shooting stopped and within a half hour a tank, almost totally covered with soldiers, moved through the gate and into our camp. Casualties from the skirmish were reported to be one German shot in the leg and one G.I. with a sprained ankle.
Within two hours a Red Cross unit with coffee and doughnuts came into the camp and a little later, General Patton himself came for a short visit. He really did wear two pearl handled pistols on his hips. We had been "liberated" by the 14th armored division, a part of Patton's third army. This army had made history by racing through southern Germany and Bavaria - moving so fast at times that he out-distanced his supply forces.
Most of us, when captured and taken for the first time, before a German officer were told "For you the war is over." That was not really true until April 29, 1945. After months and years of captivity, what is the reaction ot the realization that finally it really was over?
The physical reaction is easy to define. - A few handshakes, a few cheers and then back to the old routine of POW life at Stalag VII A. We were told that we must remain in camp until arrangements were made to take us out. The German guards were replaced with G.I.s, but they made no effort to keep people behind the wire. Some fellows did leave for a few hours and went in to Moosburg where they committed acts that I'm sure were regretted later. (Taking personal property from civilians - an action called "liberating" the items.)
The emotional reaction is much more difficult to relate. There was a sense of relief, of course. I think; however, that after so many months of deliberately holding back emotions so that unfulfilled hopes were not too devastating, caused the development of an attitude of phlegmatic acceptance of whatever happens. A kind of shrug of the shoulders and, then, "what happens next?" attitude. I think about being in combat; about being shot at and surviving; about seeing ten guys flying next to us, on fire and going down over the North Sea. I think about having my own flying career ended when so near to completion of my missions and then the months as a POW. I think about the hunger, the cold, the fleas at night, the physical hardship, and the mental stress of no news from home for months. I wonder about Mama and Dad and about Allan. I wonder about Ruth. All of these thoughts together conditions one to holding excitement in check - perhaps a subconscious fear of disappointment. It is an attitude of "well hell, let's see what happens next."
What happened next was essentially life in a POW camp unchanged except for a vast improvement in food. This lasted until May 6, the day before the end of the war.
On May 6, we were taken by truck to a captured German airfield to be flown out of Germany to France. We spent the night there totally on our own. There were no quarters so we fixed our food individually and sorta "camped out." Another fellow and I walked a little way from the airfield and camped in a little pine forest.
There was a bomb damaged hanger on this field and inside were two damaged jet aircraft. We, who had been POWs for over a year, of course knew almost nothing about such aircraft. There had been rumors and one had flown over our camp a time or two but other than that we knew nothing about such airplanes. We were curious and did a lot of looking but fear of booby traps prevented our getting too close.
About sun down a single JU-87 (Stuka dive bomber) came flying in out of the west at about 500 feet altitude. A turret of four fifty caliber machine guns was in the middle of the landing area. When the G.I.s saw the Stuka coming, they ran out to the turret and began firing at the airplane as it slowly flew across the field. The pilot, aware that he was being fired upon, let out a white scarf as a sign of surrender. He then circled the field and came back to land. A German major and his crew chief had heard that the war was over and came in to surrender. I thought they were very courageous. If it had been me, I think that I would have walked in with my hands up.
During the morning of May 7, we were loaded into DC-3 airplanes and flown to a base in France. Handling of thousands of former POWs at this place seemed to be a far from organized affair; although, matters were probably better controlled than it seemed to us. Around five o'clock in the evening we were ordered to form a line to go into a sanitizing procedure. Inside this facility we showered, our heads were dusted with insect powder and all of our clothes were fumigated. I was in this line all night; getting through about six the next morning. (May 8)
Other than spending the night in this manner, about the only things that I remember about this place was walking around the flight line and seeing aircraft which came into service after October 10, 1943 - especially the "Black Widow" night fighter, which looked like an enlarged P-38 and was painted solid black. Also, I spent a couple of hours with a young G.I going (very naively) from one office to another trying to find a bank draft or blank checks of some kind. He had a German automatic pistol and holster that I wanted to buy for $50.00. Of course we did not find any kind of check. I finally made one on a piece of paper which he accepted and later cashed at a bank in Ely, Minn. On May 8 we were taken to Camp Lucky Strike. As we rode through the towns and villages, cheering people lined the streets shouting that the war was over.
At Camp Lucky Strike we felt like we were back in the Army. We slept on Army cots in Army tents. Chow lines were very long but the food was good. It was served on G.I. metal plates and tin cups were used for hot coffee.
Near to our tent area was a barbed wire enclosed compound where there were German POWs. I visited with them. One young fellow that I talked with had been a member of an anti-aircraft gun crew located in Munster in October, 1943. Proves once more what a small world we live in.
One of my closest friends in prison camp was Hubert Gage, a navigator on the flight crew which shared our hut in England. Gage had flown five missions with us when Fowler was ill. His crew was shot down a month before we were and he was standing at the gate to greet me when I arrived at Stalag Luft III. When he was shot down I had written to his girl friend and told her something about what other crews saw when his plane was hit. It seemed very likely that he had gotten out safely. She and Mom became close friends as a result. Her name was Evelyn Chennault and she lived in Fort Worth.
Gage was a little older than most of us (27); had graduated from the University of Texas and been employed as an accountant by the Texas Corp. (Texaco) before getting into the Air Corps. He was far wiser in the ways of the world than this small town boy. We spent countless hours together in Stalag Luft III and I learned so much about human relationships from him. Gage was blessed with the gift of verbal persuasion ability. An example of this occurred on a two day leave that we spent in London.
Broman, Guiteras, Gage, Tom Caldwell and I had unsuccessfully tried to obtain rooms at the Cumberland Hotel - a top of the line hotel located near Hyde Park. After we were turned down and were out on the sidewalk discussing what to do, Gage told us to wait on him and went back inside to talk to the young lady at the reservation desk. He came back in a few minutes with two rooms for us. How did he do it? I have never known.
At Camp Lucky Strike, Gage argued that the Army had ten thousand of us to take home and they didn't care who went first. He wanted to go to Paris. I couldn't imagine how this was possible. Our clothes were old POW clothes; we had no money, no transportation and no knowledge of how to get around or where to find a place to stay, so I said no; that I wanted to go home.
Gage got another friend to go with him and I came on home. How did they manage? They caught a ride on an Army truck to the city; in Paris, they found an Army Finance Officer and talked him into a $200 advance on their back pay and then found a PX where they bought uniforms. They stayed a month. Every few days they went back to the Finance Officer for another $200. Gage was right. The Army didn't care who was first and who was last.
I was at Camp Lucky Strike for two weeks before boarding a Liberty ship for a fourteen day trip across the North Atlantic to New York. I remembered almost nothing about Lucky Strike and the trip across the ocean was uneventful. Most of the time the sky was overcast and it was too cold to stay out on the deck very long. We spent most of the time sleeping or playing bridge.
The ship docked in New York on June 5, 1945 - two years after I landed in Scotland. The trip to Scotland from Gander Newfoundland took twelve hours. The return from Le Havre to New York took fourteen days.
From the dock we went to Fort Dix in New Jersey. I was at Fort Dix only two days - just long enough to get a cash advance and purchase a uniform for the train trip to San Antonio. I called home the first night there and talked with Mama and Dad. When I asked Mom about Ruth, she was silent for a long moment and finally said "well, she has taken another boy's ring - Daddy didn't want me to tell you but I couldn't think of anything else to say." I didn't have anything else to say, either. The train left New York about six o'clock one evening and arrived in San Antonio in the morning two days later. I was at Fort Sam Houston only a couple of hours and then a bus trip to Dallas where Mom and Dad met me right where they had seen me off on April 25, 1943.
For me, the war was over!
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