Chapter 11: Rescue
Chapter 11: Rescue
My shirt was getting shorter and shorter. The days were also getting shorter, darker and colder. We could now imagine what early morning appell in our filthy pajama-like prison uniforms would feel like, barefoot and in the snow. Like my fellows and the other 80 some thousand prisoners here in Buchenwald, the lack of nourishment had sapped my body of strength. I was now down to under 120 pounds from my normal at this time of my life of 155 pounds. I would get to 113 pounds before leaving. I was now one of those empty human sacks, with eyes staring out lifelessly behind deep sockets with sunken cheeks and the filthy striped uniform sagging over my skeleton.
But I and 165 others in our group of 168 were still alive. Two had died in the prison’s dangerous hospital. They were British flyer Philip Hemmens and Lt. Levitt Clinton Beck. Beck was a fellow American fighter pilot who had been shot down and was held by the French underground for several months before being betrayed by the same “Jacque” who had betrayed most of our group into Gestapo hands. In off times during his fighting career and then during his months of captivity, Beck wrote of his experiences as a fighter pilot and the manuscript along with a number of letters to his mother were miraculously shepherded through the French and Red Cross bureaucracy and received by his family. The manuscript was published under the title “Fighter Pilot” and is still in print and available. Several others of our group were in the hospital at one time or another including Joseph Sonshine and Roy Allen. Allen, a B-17 pilot became well known in the last few years for his experiences which were featured in a 2004 History Channel documentary called “Shot From the Sky.” I was one of the survivors interviewed for that documentary.
Beck died in the main hospital from pneumonia. Allen also suffered from pneumonia and got to the infirmary before Beck. Fortunately, because when Beck came there was no more room in the infirmary and the move to the main hospital, intended for SS use, was in effect a death sentence. Not that recovering in the infirmary was a piece of cake. Allen reports that the main kapo would come through and decide who had been there too long or who he taken a dislike to and would nod at them, saying “crematorium.” They would usually be given a pill or a needle and would be dead in a couple of hours. Others were not so fortunate. Allen reports seeing (p. 69) patients dumped in a barrel of ice cold water, then wrapped in a rubber sheet and left to die. Pneumonia was certain after such treatment and a suffocating death was not long in coming.
As weak as I was, I was still on my feet. Life was now more or less routine. Appell at five in the morning. Supposed “coffee” in the morning, cabbage and worm soup with bread at noon, “coffee” again in the evening. Two appells a day—sometimes only for an hour or so each time, sometimes for hours standing in the cold. Sometimes “entertained” by the whipping block and other times by hangings at the front of appell square.
Roy Allen reports seeing the scaffold with six nooses used continually for disposing of Russian prisoners of war. But we would find out later that the Germans had devised a far more efficient means of disposing of their Russian prisoners. And it was in this case in particular that Buchenwald went beyond a work camp for criminals and political prisoners to a true death camp. In a building that had previously been a horse stable outside the main fence to the west of the main camp they created an execution facility. (BR 238) The murderers had devised a way to quickly dispose of the prisoners by having them undress in an outer room and told they were going to be disinfected in a bath. The naked men were led into a small room with a radio blaring loudly to cover the sounds of the execution. They were placed against a wall with a small hole in the back and a sliding platform that came down flat on their head. This aligned the hole directly in line with the prisoner’s neck and a rifle held by an executioner in the next room was shot directly into the back of the neck. The prisoner was then dragged from the room into a waiting truck for the ride to the crematorium. The showers in the room were turned on to wash the blood away and the next prisoner was brought in. Soon this was not fast enough and groups of the unfortunates were brought into the sound proof room and shot with pistols. Five hundred Russian soldiers a day were killed between the work hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
While we continued to hope that Lamason or someone would find a way out of this situation, as the days dragged into weeks our hope became harder and harder to cling to. It became almost impossible after receiving word first on September 10 of the execution of the 16 British and French officers caught as spies, and then of most of the rest of them on October 5. Our days were spent quietly, spent often playing bridge with homemade cards made from scraps of cardboard, with our thoughts focused much of the time on the pain accompanying starvation. It is hard to take your mind off food when you are continually hungry. Hope and hunger do battle in this environment, with extreme hunger and fear picking away at what little hope remains to keep spirits alive. I do not think I ever really gave up hope but there were times when it seemed futile to hope and I felt ready to go to the next world. In those times, thoughts about home, about my mother and brother and sisters plus all that wonderful food kept me wanting to see yet another day. But the pain of realizing that they had no idea where I was or whether I was alive or not, and would likely never know what happened to me often times was greater than the pain of my body screaming out for nourishment.
Our marching as a unit back and forth from appell helped us to remember that we might be filthy, starving skeletons but we were still soldiers in the greatest unified military operation in the history of the world. We believed that while we might not see the day, we did not doubt that the outcome of this great struggle was certain and the world would be freed from the unbelievable nightmare of Nazi control that we ourselves were experiencing in the extreme.
I do not know exactly how our rescue came about. I do know that the Luftwaffe was aware that the SS held a group of Allied flyers and they were not happy about it. There were battles going on in Berlin for control of our group between the Luftwaffe and the SS leadership that we were not aware of. (Kinnis, p 159) We found out that the Luftwaffe knew about our existence while in Fresnes but they had lost track of us when they put us on the train with the other French resistance prisoners. They were trying to find us but it was far from certain whether it would be in time, and then, if they did find us, if they would be able to rescue us. Our execution was scheduled for October 24 as we found out later. If they did not find us before then and if they did not prevail on whoever would make the decision in Berlin to release us to Luftwaffe custody, it would be too late.
It might strike the reader of today as unusual that there would be Germans in Hitler’s military who would fight to save us from execution. The reason such a question would even occur is that we have come to see the history of this regime in terms of complete black and white. This is far from the truth. Even in Buchenwald, there was evidence of good people caught in overwhelming and horrible circumstances. Being a member even of the SS did not automatically make one a cruel and animalistic human being. Within Germany, even those fighting mightily for the German cause, did not abandon their morality, their ideas of right and wrong and their concern about doing things according to international law and the basic human ideas of how to treat people. The fact that a great many people did does not say so much about the German people but much more about our basic human condition. It is frightening to think about how close each of us is to leaving our moral nature behind in the circumstances of fear, hatred and hostility. It may surprise some but to this day I have no bitterness or anger or bad feelings about the German people or even the people who were responsible for my suffering.
There is no doubt in my mind that many in the Luftwaffe did not approve of the SS treatment of prisoners in general and particularly of their treatment of enemy flyers. In World War I there was a strong bond between pilots on both sides of the conflict so that Allied pilots mourned the death of Baron von Richthofen, the German ace and greatest pilot who had killed so many of their fellow pilots. That bond was largely gone in World War II but there still remained some of that fraternity of fellow flyers.
I am not certain if the Luftwaffe found out about us from the connections that Yeo-Thomas and Christopher Burney had, of if they found out through the contact made by Joesph Sonshine while he was in the infirmary. Sonshine was seriously ill with an abscess on his left elbow stemming from an injury he received while bailing out of his plane. His health was further weakened by diphtheria, malnutrition and a back injury. He reports (p 112) that while in the hospital he was visited by a Luftwaffe doctor. He was asked why he was in a concentration camp instead of a POW camp. One thing is certain, Col. Lamason never let an opportunity pass by where he didn’t make it clear that we strenuously objected to our treatment and that our tormentors were violating the Geneva Convention.
None of our group has been able to find out what happened in Berlin regarding our status. All we know is that one day, about October 12 and just a few days after the 21 English and French officers were shot, the camp received a visit by high ranking Luftwaffe officers. They were escorted to our barracks and there several in our group including Col. Lamason talked with them. The disgust they felt for their fellow German SS officers was clear. It was also certain that they did not approve of the way we were being treated and the conditions of the camp. They left and we felt some renewed hope, but even that was mixed with the realization that we remained in the hands of the SS and anything might happen. The Luftwaffe officers made no promises of rescue, but the fact that someone knew we were there and didn’t like the situation was encouraging to us. We almost dared hope again, but a Job kind of hope where you fear that too much hope will bring catastrophe on yourself.
On October 20 after morning appell SS guards appeared at our barracks and ordered us to gather our belongings and report to the warehouse building. Of course, this caused an immediate increase in our blood pressure as such a summons at Buchenwald was a virtual death sentence. I remembered again the warning we received when entering, that the only way we would leave this place was as smoke through the chimney—the smelly, dirty, horrible chimney that never stopped. We formed up outside our barracks, then marched as a unit, uncertain of our fate, but with the sense that finally one way or another it would be decided very soon.
We entered the storehouse building where the Germans with their typical orderliness and efficiency had neatly stored all the personal belongings of the prisoners. I couldn’t believe it when I was handed the clothes I had when I entered Buchenwald and had been shot down in. I even got my shoe with the torn off toe. It felt unbelievably good to see those clothes and that shoe again—perhaps it was a reminder that I had been through many close calls and that somehow I was still here. We were pretty certain that if they were going to cremate us, they wouldn’t bother to give us our clothes back only to take them away again. There were smiles on our skeletal faces—big smiles. I knew deep in my heart that my mother’s and family’s prayers were being heard and that I was being watched after by Someone far more powerful and more merciful than these Germans.
Still, we hardly dared breathe, hardly dared hope too much, even when we were marched back to the railroad station past the crematorium, past the main gate, past the bombed out factories. I saw again the emaciated faces, the hungry, empty stares. I looked back at them with a deeper understanding of their pain and suffering than I could have imagined having just two months earlier. We had been in this place exactly two months, and now it looked—dare we hope—that we were leaving, and not as smoke through the chimney.
We saw the now familiar “40 and 8” boxcars lined up behind the engine. Oh no, not this again, I thought. But this time they put only about 35 or 40 of us in each car. That seemed positively comfortable compared to the 95 who had been jammed into my car on the way into Buchenwald. As it turned out, we could have used a few more because unlike August, the weather had turned cold. Even though we had our own clothes back, we were chilled to the bone and needed to hang close to each other to keep warm enough on the two day boxcar ride.
But it was the typical German transportation treatment even though we had been freed from the nightmare of Buchenwald. Little to no food to ease our extreme hunger and now I was down to 113 pounds. A five gallon bucket for water and another five gallon bucket for a toilet. The air was close because the only ventilation came from those barbed wire covered areas at two corners—the same small hole that had cost that French boy his life over two months earlier. With forty men who had not showered or bathed in over two months and who endured the most filthy, foul conditions imaginable, the air quickly became hard to breathe. But I certainly would not complain, because once out of wind range of Buchenwald, the everlasting smell from the crematorium was finally behind me. So we grouped tightly together, sitting or standing in unison for warmth and support, and prepared for the long and uncertain ride ahead.
Our future was far from certain, but it is possible that there were few people in this war or perhaps any war who looked more forward to POW camp than our group. If that is indeed where we were heading, and it was our fondest hope, we were certain that conditions would be better where we were heading, particularly when we saw the disgust exhibited by the Luftwaffe officers on their visit. It seems ironic now, but the Luftwaffe men who accompanied as guards seemed our saviors. We wanted desperately to be free from the Gestapo and the SS and in the hands of men who still honored the brotherhood of fellow aviators despite the bloodiness and brutality of the conflict we were both engaged in. The continual fear of beatings, torture, death by disease and starvation, we began to think might be over. Even more important, we knew that once in POW camp, our families would know we existed; our units would receive word that we were no longer MIA but had been found. With the Luftwaffe finding us, I dared hope that my family would soon know that I was alive and have an inkling where I was. It slowly dawned on me that maybe there would be a reality to my life again. In the empty abyss that was Buchenwald, to a large degree I felt we had disappeared from the face of the earth. It seems a little like that question of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there is no one there to hear it. Were we really alive and part of this earthly existence if we completely disappeared? Does life matter or have any meaning if no evidence of your presence exists? Now we were freed from that. We were alive and filled with hope and a zest for life that had largely been missing for those two months. It was a little like a re-birth, like being born again, and that is how I felt and I’m certain my feelings were share by those who were with me on that train.
I would find out later how difficult those days were for my family. They received word by telegram that I was Missing In Action. I still have the telegram time stamped 3:25 p.m. on August 31, 1944 that my mother received at 1274 Northwest Road. But, then no word. Nothing. The longer that silence goes on, the more likely of course, that the flyer would not be found alive. There was a normal and expected time between capture and when the Red Cross would be informed of the arrival of the prisoner in POW camp. But in our case, that expected time passed without word from the Red Cross. The conclusion to be drawn was too obvious, and the longer the delay the more clear the result. Jim Hastin and I talked on the train about what receiving word of our situation would mean to our families. My heart felt lighter than I had ever thought possible—a strange sensation for someone heading to a place thought by most flyers to be worse than hell. If they only knew.
No one told us where we were headed. Finally, late afternoon on October 22, 1944 the train came to a grinding, huffing stop. After a while, the heavy wooded doors of the cattle car were pushed open and we could smell fresh air again. It was almost exactly two days after leaving Buchenwald and we had no idea where we were. Our starving bodies were cramped and stiff from the two days bouncing on the rough wooden floor and we gingerly jumped from the train, most of us sitting on the edge at the door to get off like old men rather than jumping with a springy bounce as we would if we were still the 24 year old boys that our ages said we were.
Now we could see a fence, guard towers, barracks buildings. But this was different. There was a different air about it, an orderliness, a sense of caring and purposefulness that was lacking in even the quickest glance at Buchenwald. We did not know what this was called but it sure as heck looked like POW camp. We were brought immediately into the main administrative building through the main gate. There again, everything seemed efficient, neat and orderly. We were handed a set of clothes and after removing them one last time, I said goodbye to my toeless shoe and never saw it again. What I wouldn’t give for that souvenir now. But the clothes we were given were winter clothes including a heavy wool coat and good high top shoes. This was not Buchenwald and my spirit felt lighter and lighter the more certain I became that this is where we would remain.
Indeed, we had arrived at Stalag Luft III, our home for the next half year. Built as a camp specifically for Air Force officers, Stalag Luft III was seen as a model POW camp. You wouldn’t get argument about that from us as it seemed we had checked into a Hilton after our time at Buchenwald. It was located in Sagan, about 70 miles as the crow flies southeast of Berlin. Sagan, is now the Polish city of Zagan.
After receiving our new clothes, we were immediately put in a line to have our identification photos taken. Again, the efficiency of the German systems amazes even during this time which was now getting to be late in a war that was suddenly going very badly for the Nazi regime. Still, the organization and detail never wavered. My photo was taken and my identification card was written up in neat German script with the photo attached. It showed my nice new and warm German-issued winter coat. It contains my mother’s name and city where she lived, “Bellingham, Wash.” It has my height, hair color and thirteen separate items of personal description. It also indicates that I arrived from “K. L. Buchenwald.” K.L for Konzentration Lager or Concentration Camp Buchenwald. How I would have loved to have this card in my possession later when being interrogated on two separate occasions on my release from active duty by Air Force officers who clearly did not believe my story about being held in Buchenwald. What is truly amazing is that I have this identification card today. That in itself is a testament to German order because when we were ordered out of Stalag Luft III with the Russian artillery audible in the distance, the Luftwaffe guards gathered up all our identification cards and carried them to our next destination. Then we were moved again, and again our identities came with us.
In April, 1945 we were liberated and one of my fellow Buchenwald prisoners went into the town of Moosberg which was the town nearest our final destination in German hands. For reasons I will never know he went into the Gestapo headquarters in the town and came across the files of POW identification cards. He grabbed some of these cards on his way out and carried them back with him home. 49 years later he set about finding out who those cards belonged to and if the owners were still alive. My card found its way through Jim Hastin back to me in Ferndale in 1993 and is now one of my most prized possessions.
After the administrative processing was done, we were accompanied to our new homes. Our Buchenwald group would not stay together. We were just assigned barracks rooms according to where they were openings. I was sent to the barrack identified as Block 104 in the North Camp. Jim Hastin was sent to Block 112—fairly close by and I would continue to see him often. As it turned out, Block 104 turned out to be the most famous barracks of the entire war in the most famous POW camp of this war and possibly any war—and certainly not because I lived there! It was in this very barracks, underneath the very stove on which I helped cook my meals for the next several months that the tunnel “Harry” started. This is the tunnel from which 76 Allied airmen escaped on March 24, 1944. “The Great Escape” as it became known is recognized as one of the most famous escape in history. It set a world record for mass escapes from a POW camp and was the subject of one of the most famous and loved movies in US movie history. Sadly, the story ended with only three of the 76 successfully eluding the massive manhunt that scoured the countryside around Sagan for days following the escape. On the direct orders of Adolph Hitler and to the shock and horror of not just the Allies, but the Luftwaffe as well, and in direct violation of the Geneva Convention, fifty of those who escaped including the leader Roger Bushell, were shot by the Gestapo. Their cremated remains were delivered back to the camp and were buried with full military honors in the camp cemetery.
Block 104 was my new home, and a very different place than Buchenwald. That night I settled into my own bunk, with an actual—albeit straw—mattress. I didn’t have to share with four other stinky fellows in a four foot wide wooden mattress-less sleeping box in quarters so tight that if any turned we all had to turn at once. And, best of all, there was real food! I swear I was the happiest and most content man in all of Germany.