Chapter 10: Filth and Worse
Chapter 10: Filth and Worse
After the excitement of the air raid died down, life settled into some form of normalcy in the area of Little Camp we called home. We ended up sleeping on the open, rocky ground for two weeks. At first it was very hot and the evenings were cool and comfortable but as we headed into September, the night chill became more of a problem. We wondered if we were expected to spend the cold winter sleeping outside with no cover, only a thin blanket between three of us. We had little to no contact with other prisoners as most sections were separated from each other with fences.
It was in the early days of our stay that Colonel Lamason, our Commanding Officer, made contact with Wing Commander F. F. Edward “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas. Destined to become one of the most famous and honored English war heroes whose exploits were featured in the book and movie titled “The White Rabbit,” Yeo-Thomas was in held in Buchenwald along with 36 British officers from SOE, or Special Operations Executive. This was a secret service and spy operation of the British and Yeo-Thomas and his fellow officers had been captured behind enemy lines in civilian clothes actively working with the Resistance to aid them in their fight against the occupiers. In fact, Yeo-Thomas made one of the greatest contributions to the war effort when after his first jump into France and return to England he sought and was given an audience with Churchill. Yeo-Thomas convinced the war leader to provide the French Resistance with the support and materials they needed to carry on the very dangerous but damaging fight against the occupiers of their native land.
After his capture, Yeo-Thomas was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Paris, the same place where I was interrogated. He, however, was subjected to the most brutal torture because they knew he had extensive knowledge of the French Resistance organization. For four days they beat him, subjected him to near drowning in ice cold water with his feet and hand tied to such a degree that artificial respiration was used several times to revive him. His interrogators also employed one of their favorite tortures—electric shocks applied to his genitals. But he never broke and made two unsuccessful attempts to escape after he was sent to Compiegne prison, despite nearly losing his left arm from blood poisoning caused by the torture and his chains. They then sent him to Fresnes, also where I was held, and he arrived in Buchenwald from Fresnes just four days before we did. Yeo-Thomas was an absolute fighter and kept up non-stop efforts to escape. Shortly after arriving in Buchenwald, this courageous and hyperactive young man made contact with the main prison leaders of the camp who were anti-fascist communists, and found out about the arrival of our group of Allied flyers. Stan Booker, one of our group, reported that Captain Christopher Burney and Wing Commander Yeo-Thomas both came into our camp and talked with Col. Lamason. Burney was also a captured SOE officer and spent 18 months in Fresnes and another 18 months in Buchenwald, surviving with the help of other prisoners by hiding out in Block 46.
It was through this contact in the weeks ahead that Col. Lamason discovered some very important and very disturbing information. The British and French special operatives knew that they were scheduled for execution. In fact, it was likely in the first few days that Col. Lamason talked to the Yeo-Thomas and Burney that 16 of the British officers were called to the main gate. The men were housed in Admission Block 17 and a call without warning to the gate meant either interrogation and torture or death. On September 10, just twenty days after our arrival, the call came and the men were led into the crematorium which also contained a room with meat hooks installed against the walls. The ropes were tied tightly around their necks and they were lifted onto the meat hooks to die. From there it was just a few short steps to the crematorium. Yeo-Thomas and Burney knew that their time was limited. But somehow, they also had information about our fate.
Somehow they knew that the instructions to the SS in Buchenwald from headquarters in Berlin was the same for us as it was for the SOE officers. (Booker, p. 215) The justification for our planned murder came from the bureaucratic designation of our group not as enemy combatants but as “terrorfliegers” or terrorist airmen. On about May 20, 1944 Hitler decided (p. 158) that there were certain conditions under which American and English airmen who were shot down would be shot dead without court martial. These included firing at German airmen in parachutes, attacking German planes that had made emergency landings, attacking any public transportation, and any low level attack on individuals. By this designation, and according to the unique logic of the German Fuehrer, we deserved the death penalty. But there were other possible reasons for this sentence as well. Prisoners of war who had escaped and were recaptured were subject to summary execution. But, when this happened, the authorities carrying out the order were to keep no record of their recapture so for official purposes the dead prisoners would be considered lost after their escape. What strikes one in these legal and bureaucratic maneuverings is the almost insane effort to keep some sense of order and even moral justification while carrying out the most inhuman, immoral and illegal activities.
I don’t know if Col. Lamason knew the exact date of our planned execution at this time or not, but we would find out it was October 24, 1944. He never revealed any information about his knowledge of our fate to any of us that we knew about and it wasn’t until many years later with the work of Art Kinniss and Stan Booker, we became aware of what the good Colonel had kept from us. No doubt there was some German orderliness behind the schedule and the delays in executions of the English and French officers. On October 5, 1944, 21 more of the English and French officers were summoned and this time shot. That is all but one, a Captain Harry Poole known to the Gestapo by his French name Peuleve. He managed an unlikely and daring escape.
Of the 38 captured French and English officers, Yeo-Thomas was one of the very few to survive the ordeal. With the help of prisoners working the hospital, Yeo-Thomas took on the identity of a French prisoner who had died. With this switch the record showed that the Frenchman was still a prisoner but that Yeo-Thomas had died in the hospital. That is why his name and two others selected for the exchange were not on the list of those to be shot on October 5. The few remaining waited for their call to execution and one, Maurice Pertschuk, was hanged just a few days before the Allies liberated the camp. Captain Christopher Burney was one of four remaining English officers who survived to see liberation by hiding in an underground hiding place.
Col. Lamason told us about the execution of the 16 English officers on September 10 and life became even more grim. I kept thinking about what the guard had said when we first came into camp, about not leaving except as smoke through the chimney. When you are young, not quite 24 years old, all of life lays ahead and it is not easy to face the likelihood of death. That’s why they send young men and women to war; we think nothing bad can happen to us. Yes, its very possible to be scared but there is always this innate belief that everything is going to be alright. Now we weren’t so sure.
Our uncertainty and heavy dread grew along with our hunger and the long days in camp. Although we couldn’t see a lot of the other prisoners except in appell, the horrors of this place became more and more evident. We even occasionally saw a large group of children. A total of 877 boys were kept in the camp at this time. The youngest that had been registered was three and a half, but many of them were between seven and ten years old. The Jewish children had been taken away and shipped to other camps, there to receive the “final solution.” Those who remained were being kept there so the Germans could demonstrate the “protective custody” methods they undertook on behalf of the German people. Many of the prisoners we saw were starving and we too started to take on the gaunt, empty, desperate look that we saw on the faces when we walked into camp. Our daily ration of cabbage or turnip soup laced with worms and one piece of black rye/sawdust bread was supplemented by a couple of boiled potatoes usually once or twice a week. The bread would swell up in your mouth after chewing it for a bit and so it helped make you feel like you were actually eating something, even though it contained a lot of sawdust that contributed nothing and couldn’t be digested. The only other thing they provided was “coffee;” they called it coffee but it didn’t even come close to tasting like coffee. It was usually served twice a day in our tin bowls, about five in the morning before appell and then again in the evening. Although we tried to preserve our energy, I could feel my body using up all its reserves and starting to eat into my muscles.
Every day we saw bodies. Those who died during the night were taken out of their barracks and dumped outside the door so that kapos could pick them up and haul them to the crematorium. Frequently the bodies were stacked high outside the crematorium as the supply for its fires was greater than the capacity. Starvation was not the only cause of painful, agonizing death. Getting sideways with any kapo, or prison leader working for the SS and trying to stay on their good side, meant a severe beating or being sent to the punishment unit and work in the quarry. But it also often meant simply being beaten to death. Often the prisoner was simply kicked to death.
The punishment delivered on the whipping block visible to all of us during appell consisted of being bent naked over the block and being beaten on the back repeatedly with a cane. The prescription for this punishment called for it to be repeated after an interval of a few days, sometimes for an extended period of time. The treatment often left the prisoner in condition that required hospitalization and the peculiar treatment received in the hospital frequently meant death.
I never personally saw anyone killed, tortured or beaten to death. But several of our group did. And while I nor any of the other officers were ordered to do work in the camp, some of our enlisted group were forced to work in the quarry.
As I related earlier, many of us had become sick while on the train ride to Buchenwald. Nearly all of us suffered from dysentery, an infection of the gut caused by the filth all around us. The primary symptom of dysentery is diarrhea, but fever, severe cramps and vomiting are also often part of the fun. Not just diarrhea, but frequent diarrhea, and, pardon me, explosive, bloody diarrhea. That would be bad enough if it were not for the other conditions in place at the time, specifically the toilets.
There were no toilets. Instead there was a long concrete hole in the ground. It was about 20 feet long and about three feet wide. There was a little water running in the bottom but the sewage system at the camp had been built for 20,000 prisoners and when we were there over 80,000 called it home—most of them with dysentery. So the contents of the hole tended to accumulate even though it was about seven feet deep. The concrete hole was ringed around with a wall about two feet high and here is where we sat, leaning against a wooden rail that ran across the center of the pit. This “toilet” served a large number of prisoners from the blocks or barracks nearby including those of us “camping” in the open air.
I mentioned the explosive nature of our illness and this contributed significantly to the filth that surrounded us. There would be little warning for the eruption and all too often the results appeared before one had a chance to even sit down. This meant that to go to the “bathroom” we had to first wade through the muck. I am a farm boy from the Pacific Northwest and grew up taking care of a herd of big black and white Holstein dairy cows. Nowadays, these farms have lots of cement pads and farmers can keep the barns and the area surrounding the barns pretty clean. But in my day, the area outside the barn was nothing but dirt churned up by a herd of forty or so cows waiting to come in for feed and milking. It rains a lot in the northwest and the rain would turn this dirt, combined with the feces from all those impatient cows, into a special kind of smelly, sticky, clingy muck. It’s the closest I can come to describing what it was like to have to go the bathroom. And remember, most of us including me, had no shoes.
As soldiers, we did our best to keep at least one part of the toilet area clean. But, it was essentially hopeless. There were just too many sick men. For one of our group, getting through the muck to where he could sit down was only the beginning of his problems. While sitting there, leaning against the center rail, another prisoner in a great hurry approached the pit from the other side. He wheeled around to sit down but just a moment too late and the bloody, messy contents of his illness splattered all over the back of one of our flyers. There was a small faucet outside where we could rinse our feet or try to clean up a bit—remember—no showers or any bathing facilities at all. But the mess around the faucet did little to help in the clean up efforts.
An even worse experience happened to another of our group. While sitting on the wall on a dark night, he felt a tapping on his bottom from below. It was a Frenchman, a fellow prisoner who had the misfortune to fall into the seven foot hole and needed a hand up to get out. In this case, it was an accident; but it is well documented that demented German guards used this same setup to torture and kill prisoners.
As for me, I felt luckier than most. When we entered camp we were given our prison uniforms without regard to size and I happened to get probably the biggest prison shirt made. When I put it on over my relatively small frame, it looked ridiculous, but it proved to be a Godsend. Obviously, the Germans didn’t bother with providing us toilet paper or old Sears catalogs or even leaves. I discovered a very important use for all that extra fabric and with care and gratitude applied a little at a time after my too frequent trips to the concrete hole. By the time we left Buchenwald, my shirt had been reduced to a rag that covered my neck and shoulders but little else. Good thing our stay was not longer.
It was not that our German captors had no regard for our health. Buchenwald is well known as the center for medical experiments conducted on prisoners and it featured a remarkable collection of preserved body parts and skeletons used to advance German science and train physicians. The prisoners served as a “willing” source of “volunteers” for a wide range of medical experiments.
I still do not know to this day if I was a part of a medical experiment or just received the German idea of health care. But only a few days after we arrived we were ordered to a building. Such orders were met with great anxiety because it was now clear that our lives meant nothing and we remembered with painful clarity the prediction of the welcoming guard about how we would leave this place. We stood in line and again by the groans of the men ahead of me I knew that what was about to happen would not be pleasant. A large syringe was filled with a bright green liquid and as we stood in front of the guard, it was jammed directly into our chest. Then it was extracted and without changing needles or even wiping it on anything to clean it off, it was jammed into the chest of the next patient.
When the German stabbed me with it, the obviously dull needle hit a rib bone. I nearly buckled under the pain. He attempted to pull the needle out but it was now buried into bone and was stuck. He pulled and turned and the needle broke off from the syringe, sticking out of my chest. He grabbed a needle nose pliers, clamped onto the needle, put a strong arm on my shoulder and yanked the needle out, tossing it to the ground. He fixed another needle on and proceeded to jab that one viciously into my chest again, this time missing bone. The same needle went into the next guy and the next until I saw him break it again.
Some reports from the studies done on Buchenwald after the war indicate that the Germans were inoculating prisoners to check the spread of typhus and other diseases. They may have done this because they were being overburdened with the dying and the crematorium simply couldn’t keep up. Other reports indicate that such injections of prisoners were used to test highly toxic and experimental drugs for so-called medical research. It is known that for many prisoners this “preventive medicine” resulted in their deaths and exit from Buchenwald via the smelly chimney.
My introduction to the German health care system did little to improve my morale. We were all struggling to keep our hopes and spirits up, but often it was a futile effort. There seemed so little reason for hope. We knew that our families, the Red Cross, our military nor anyone else who cared had the slightest idea where we were. Even the Luftwaffe or German Air Force, who should have been our caretakers didn’t know what happened to us. We heard them say later that they knew we were in Paris in Fresnes, but after we left there they lost track of us—a nearly fatal mistake for us. When it became known to us that 16 English officers had been strung up in the crematorium on meat hooks, our despair hit new lows. It was very hard not to think as one woke up in the morning that that day might be our last, that we would get the dreaded summons and perhaps be subjected to unendurable pain on our way out to the next world.
For two weeks we continued to spend most of our time including our sleeping time in that little open corner of the camp. I’m not certain if Col. Lamason’s protests finally took effect but we were finally told that we would move to a barracks. It was to be Block 54 in Little Camp, not far from where we had been staying. There was only one problem—Block 54 was already very full.
Each of the barracks would hold about 1000 prisoners. When I say “hold” I do not mean that there were sleeping accommodations or beds or bunks or anything like that. There were stacked wooden cubicles like you might see in a warehouse. Imagine three wooden crates stacked on top of each other. Each is eight feet long, four feet wide and four feet high. There are three stacked on top of each other. Each of these four foot by four foot spaces was the living and sleeping space for five (???) Fifteen men in a column twelve feet high and four feet wide. The barracks contained rows of these rough cubicles along both walls with a narrow center aisle—enough to hold about a thousand prisoners.
Our encouragement about finally getting a roof over our heads quickly turned to confusion. The barracks was full. The 877 kids kept in Buchenwald occupied Block 54 along with a few other prisoners. They were loud, active despite their extreme skinniness, and a lot of trouble. Many had come from Eastern Europe and had seen the most atrocious events for their young lives. And many clearly did not share the same ideas about stealing as we did. So we moved in and quickly found that anything left laying around, like our food bowls, or blankets, would almost instantly disappear.
(Joe—how did you sleep if they were there, or did the kids have to take to the floors?)
It wasn’t long before we couldn’t decide if living in the ridiculously overcrowded and tumultuous barracks was worse than braving the elements outside. No doubt Col. Lamason kept the prison leaders and German officers aware of our complaints and kept up a steady stream of protests against being treated as criminals or political prisoners instead of enemy combatants. Perhaps this helped our cause because after two and half days of sharing our living quarters with the children, they were ordered to take their meager belongings and leave.
We were finally left with something resemblance peace and quiet. The barracks had a wood stove and we discovered here that the sawdust bread could be made a little more palatable by sticking it against the hot stove until the wood in it smoldered and turned to charcoal. We also discovered something a little less pleasant. It did not take more than one night sleeping jammed together in our little cubicles to know that it was best to sleep on the top stack. The reason was simple. We slept with our heads sticking out toward the center aisle where there was a little air. There was no way to crawl up onto the upper “bunks” without stepping on the heads or shoulders or arms of the men on the lower bunks. It is one thing to have your head or face stepped on during the middle of the night, but when the reason for that journey out of the bunk was a quick trip to the concrete hole for the aforementioned purpose, that is quite another thing. Especially considering the condition of the area surrounding the concrete hole and the fact that the feet stepping on your head just came from there.
I did everything I could to get to the top bunk—and tried like crazy not to step on my sleeping buddies below.
While we were very relieved to have the nearly 900 kids moved to another barracks, we couldn’t help wonder what happened to them. When we didn’t see them at appell anymore we became very concerned. Word soon came back that they had indeed left Buchenwald—as smoke from that horrid chimney. Every last one of them.