Chapter 12: A POW At Last
Chapter 12: A POW At Last
I met my new room mates when I entered my assigned bunk room in Block 104, Stalag Luft III in Sagan. It was evening and I was exhausted and hungry. The first thing I really noticed was my bunk. Yes, a real bed. Wooden bunks built stacked in twos, eight in a room not much larger than a college dorm. But it was a bed! With a mattress! Well, yes, the mattress was made of straw and I would soon discover like the rest that the straw made a cozy home for thousands of little critters, many of which had an appetite for human blood. But it was a bed and I had not seen a bed of my own since August 13, nine weeks earlier.
I shook hands with my six new roommates and just couldn’t get used to how they looked. I mean, they looked like real human beings. Certainly not overly fed, but they were clean, shaven, and did not smell of the filth of diarrhea and dysentery. Most noticeably, they didn’t have that empty, sunken, defeated stare that we had become accustomed to seeing on every face including our own at Buchenwald. Extreme hunger combined with hopeless despair and animalistic treatment quickly saps one of the very essence of what it means to be a human being, and unless you have experienced that degree of physical and emotional suffering it is hard to imagine it in others. But it is instantly recognizable in another face once you have suffered in this way. It is hard for me to imagine anyone going through Buchenwald and not coming out with an almost infinite level of empathy and sensitivity to those who suffer to the extremes in body, mind and soul.
They looked back at me as they warmly welcomed me and shook my hand and as they did I recognized their quietly fearful, questioning look. “What is that we see in you?” they seemed to say. It frightened me a little to think that I too had lost a sense of the meaning of being human and it was something they immediately saw. I wondered for a moment, if I would ever get the spark of real life back in my eyes.
Four of my roommates were Polish and two were Americans. All, of course, were flyers and all officers I believe. Stalag Luft III was built specifically for Allied air officers and there were relatively few enlisted men. That included most of the enlisted men that were with us in Buchenwald who were sent to other Luftwaffe POW camps. The Kriegie log from South Camp showed that on October 21, twenty five sergeants from Buchenwald arrived in camp so at least some of the enlisted men were assigned to the camp. Stalag Luft III was intended by the Germans to be a show camp in its enlightened treatment of Allied POWs and in many ways it lived up to that attempt. To us it seemed like a country club. But after the well publicized mass escape and the subsequent cold blooded murder of the officers, Stalag Luft III became much more well known in the US and the Allied nations as one of the greatest examples of the German leadership flaunting the Geneva Convention and the established rules of treating enemy combatants.
It is one of my great regrets from these days that I do not recall the names of my new roommates and lost all contact with them after the war. I attribute this mostly to the decision I made after the war, for reasons I will explain later, to not talk about my experiences and assign the whole of my war experiences to the dustbin of my memory. I do remember my roommates very fondly and with deep gratitude, which again will be explained later. The Poles spoke passable English and they had been fighting with the RAF when they were shot down. One was a fighter pilot and the other three were bomber crews. The Polish flyers had been there almost from the time the camp was built in early 1942. I think they had been prisoners before the construction of this camp because as I recall they had been POWs for almost four years. The Kriegie life had become just their way of living. POWs called themselves “Kriegies” after the German word for Prisoner of War kriegsgefangener which proved to burdensome to pronounce.
The two Americans were both fighter pilots, P-47 jockeys as I recall. All of us immediately had a bond that comes with being pilots and having stories to share about harrowing and humorous experiences. But the time for story telling would come later. In the meantime I was starving and tired to my very skeleton and I was given some of their spare food generously that first night. I was careful and only ate a little. Many of my fellow Buchenwalders were not so careful and grew sick off the generosity of their block and roommates in the next few days. It is now well known that it is a big mistake to give a starving person a lot of food and particularly rich food because it will further disrupt the digestive system. Many who survived Buchenwald and the other death and work camps died in the days following liberation until their food intake was strictly controlled by medical staff who were part of the liberation force. It is sad to think of this additional suffering and death caused by the very people who wished nothing more but to help them and ease their starving bodies.
I rolled into bed that first night with some food in my empty stomach, into what seemed at the time a feather-soft mattress, and in the company of fellow flyers. I crawled into my bunk with my new warm German-issued winter clothes and slept like a teenager. We were guarded now by Luftwaffe guards instead of SS guards and while the change was not obvious in our induction into camp, it would soon become obvious in how we were treated and the relationships between guards and prisoners. For the first time in two months I did not have to worry about someone’s feces-sodden foot coming down on my head in the middle of the night. Nor did I have to worry any longer about running out of shirt to deal with my continuing dysentery discomfort. I slept very well indeed.
My new routine of life as a Kriegie began the next morning. It became obvious quite quickly that while my roommates were sympathetic to my condition, they did not believe what I told them about Buchenwald. The same was happening all around the camp as my fellow Buchenwalders related the tales of what they had seen and experienced. It was simply beyond what the POWs could conceive of, in part because they too were living as prisoners under German care and in contrast to what they heard from us, their life was reasonably acceptable, even comfortable to some degree. It didn’t make sense, given the complete ignorance of essentially all the world at that time of what human beings were capable of in their treatment of fellow human beings in that special creation known as a concentration camp. It didn’t square with anything they knew of German treatment or of life itself and so we all had a hard time getting anyone to believe us. The log entry of the POWs in South camp said in parentheses about those arriving from Buchenwald: “Kriegies learned that things were rougher all over.” Perhaps part of the reason for the disbelief is that the POWs did really think that their experience of hunger and discomfort was about as bad as it could get and resisted the idea that their situation was pretty good compared to others. This disbelief was deeply frustrating to many of our group and the bitterness that is still felt by some about this is clear in the way they have relayed the stories of their introduction into the various camps where they were sent.
This same disbelief continued for me and for many others much beyond the initial days at Stalag Luft III. The Air Force officers who debriefed me on my discharge similarly doubted my account, as did some I spoke to at home after the war. It has not been the burden to me that it was to some but I can remember feeling frustrated that after having gone through all that and then come to this place, a real POW camp, that what we said should be counted for so little. It took days of the Kriegies getting together who had talked to individual members of our group alone before they began to accept that this was not some big conspiracy that we had hatched to deceive them. Certainly our starving physical condition did much to convince them, as did the sickness many of our group suffered as a result of eating too much immediately after arriving. The sheer filthiness of our bodies, despite the clean clothes we had been provided, gave further evidence.
Freezing cold showers were once a week. I can’t recall when my first one was but washing over two months of fear, sweat, feces, and the grime of traveling and living in such close proximity to other prisoners felt like a baptism. Now I began to feel whole again, a human being worthy of the company of other human beings.
I was wakened that first morning with the word “Appell!” That at least was familiar to me. We dressed quickly and headed for Appell Platz, the roll call square where all prisoners from that section of the camp were marched and stood at attention until everyone was accounted for. As in Buchenwald, the twice a day roll call was the primary means by which the German guards determined that there had been no escapes. If the numbers weren’t right for whatever reason, we stood there until everyone was accounted for. If the numbers were off in the morning appell, it was usually because some Kriegie was sleeping soundly and his roommates had neglected to pull him from out of the covers in their own haste for appell. Sometimes the count took hours, the same as in Buchenwald. Now at least we had warmer clothes and we did not have machine guns pointing at us nor a gallows to look at.
Stalag Luft III was divided into five separate camps of about 2000 each. The entire camp was 60 acres and held about 10,000 prisoners. There were five sections, North camp, South camp, East camp, Center camp and West camp plus a large German headquarters area and guard quarters area that was at least as large as the North camp where I was located. Barbed wire fencing prevented crossing from one camp to the other so each was largely run as an independent POW camp. There was a fairly large open area of about fifteen acres between South camp and North camp. Block 104 was in the middle and at the northernmost boundary of the entire camp which is one reason it was selected by the escape planners for the primary escape tunnel. From under the stove in my barracks, it was over three hundred feet, the length of a football field, underneath the barbed wire and guard towers into the woods to the north. The tunnel ended up a little short of the word which proved to be a key factor in the discovery of the escaping prisoners. Jim Hastin was housed nearby in block 112 while Art Kinnis ended up in West camp.
The entire camp was, of course, surrounded by electric barbed wire fencing with guard towers located about 100 yards from each other along the lines of the outer fence. When the guards were spooked, particularly during the frequent air raid sirens, they would sometimes fire directly into the barracks. A Corporal Miles from South camp was shot and killed in one of these unwarranted shootings. Ten yards inside the main perimeter fence was another single strand warning barbed wire fence. This represented the outer limits where we could walk because if you stepped inside that 30 yard separation, you would immediately attract the attention of the guards. And, given the right circumstances, this kind of attention could be fatal. So that thin strand of steel became the boundary of our existence; it was along this fence we would walk and run for exercise once our strength began to return. It was also where conversations could be held without fear of overhearing by the “ferrets,” the English-speaking guards who intermingled with the Kriegies in hopes of finding out about tunnels, escape attempts or other nefarious activities.
Of course, the best piece of news I discovered in that first day in POW camp was the food situation. I should make it clear that the food was probably the greatest item of complaint among all Kriegies, other than being behind barbed wire to begin with. And it is true that compared with the incredible riches of our daily fare which we all take for granted, the Kriegie food was pitiful. But compared to what we had become accustomed to, it couldn’t have been much better if it had been served by Mr. Hilton or Mr. Marriott themselves. The “goons” as the German guards were universally referred to by Kriegies, provided a weekly ration per prisoner of 1 loaf of army bread (now minus the sawdust); 400 grams of potatoes or other seasonal vegetables; flour (on occasion); some jam, a little meat; soup three times a week — usually barley, oatmeal or pea; 46 grams of cheese, 175 grams of sugar, 215 grams of Mare (??) and a little salt.
This was clearly not enough food to sustain very active young men mostly in their early twenties and so the life saver came in the form of Red Cross packages. One package per prisoner per week was delivered and only occasionally withheld by the guards as punishment. A Red Cross member would visit with the Kriegie officers occasionally to check on the treatment received including the distribution of these packages. There were three kinds of Red Cross packages: British, American and Canadian. The contents were somewhat different for each with the American and Canadian packages the most similar. For example, the British package came with one can of sardines while the Yanks and Canucks both got a can of spam. There was powdered or condensed milk, a little meat, a can of cheese, margarine, biscuits, 4 ounce can of coffee, 8 ounces of sugar, prunes or raisins, soap (two bars for the Americans and one bar each for British and Canadians—we won’t make any assumptions about that), and the American packages alone contained 5 packs of cigarettes. To a non-smoker like me, those cigarettes were the closest thing to hard currency. The division into British, Canadian or American Red Cross packages was somewhat random and the Kriegie military organization structure tried to level everything out but the most prized items, such as cigarettes, were always in high demand.
The Kriegies became very creative and innovative in how they used the various ingredients of these packages, along with the meager Reich rations, to create nutritious and appetizing meals. And when we arrived from Buchenwald, we were amazed at how generous our fellow prisoners were in sharing their hoarded treasures with us. It was clear we were starving and very weak from illness and malnutrition, and the meals they drummed up for us felt like we were getting first class treatment at the finest hotels in the good old US of A. As an example of creative cookery, it became common practice in all the huts that the stooges, as the cook’s helpers were called, ground up the crackers from the packages into a fine powder which made a passable cake when combined right with Red Cross tooth powder which contained salt and bicarbonate of soda. The chocolate was melted down for flavoring and chocolate cracker cake was a favorite dessert in camp. We all took turns being stooges and it meant a day of constant chores from carrying water in the precious water containers to be heated over the hut’s single cook stove, to brewing water for the Nescafe instant coffee or tea, to washing the bowls and spoons after meals.
Life rather quickly settled into new routines, routines that were filled with drudgery, boredom and often tension between the men, tightly packed and in circumstances they did not enjoy or appreciate. For me, and I’m guessing for most of us who came from Buchenwald, the drudgery and discomforts of camp life were always seen from the perspective of those days in the concentration camp. The difference was so great and so startling to us that as challenging as the circumstances in camp might be, they looked far much more like what one could expect from life in general in contrast to the life in Buchenwald.
Morning and evening appells defined our day. A bugle would sound for appell and I, being the early-rising farm boy, would usually be up with this first call and be one of the first in the hut to head to the room with the cookstove and eat a little breakfast of a thin slice of toast with a very thin layer of jam. The watered down Nescafe washed down the usually dry toast. By the time the margarine in the Red Cross packages got to us it was usually rancid which came in handy for greasing our shoes and helped waterproof them against the incessant puddles in the yard. A second bugle would sound and the men would tumble out of their bunks, grab some coffee and toast and head for appell platz with toast hanging from their mouths.
After appell, and after I had started to regain some strength from the generous food allotments we were given, I headed for the perimeter of the huts to get some exercise. I would jog or walk, in part depending on how cold it was. While the exercise wasn’t ordered, we all understood that we needed to be in fighting shape if the opportunity came to fight our way out of the camp or if we were forced to march in a camp evacuation. The perimeter walks also gave us opportunity to talk things over with new friends and to meet old ones like Jim Hastin whom I saw often on these walks. There was a washhouse in the camp where one could shower. While it was supposed to supply hot water, it seldom did and it is amazing how in the deep of a Polish winter just how cold water can be without freezing. Soap was available, thanks again to the Red Cross packages, and we would shave up slivers of soap to wash our clothes. Shaving was usually done either in the washhouse with the cold water, or, if one could finagle a little warm or hot waste water from the stooge, by using the klimtins as basins, one could shave in the bunk room. Klimtins were used for all kinds of purposes, including ingeniously as part of many escape plots. “Klim” is milk spelled backwards and klimtins were fashioned by remaking these condensed milk tins into all kinds of shapes for all kinds of purposes.
Some soup, usually made of barley, was provided by the Germans and prepared in the camp cookhouses. Like all German rations, it was controlled by the ration officer. The hut cook decided if the soup was to be eaten right away when it was delivered and still hot, usually about 10:30 in the morning, or if it would be reheated later using the very scarce fuel in the hut cookstove. Usually it was eaten after being brought by the ration officer. If the larder in the hut was “fat,” in other words it had reserves from the Red Cross packages, the soup might be made more palatable with some raisins, sugar and klim (condensed or powdered milk). The hut cooks were supposed to rotate like the stooges as we all took turns being stooges, but by mutual agreement those most talented in the kitchen usually ended up being cooks most of the time. It worked out fine for both as they enjoyed it, it filled their days and the praise and appreciation they received for their efforts provided sufficient reward—along with extra cigarettes. (Joe—were you a cook? Is this true of your camp as well?)
Noon meals were usually fish, cheese, Rose Mill pate, or sometimes just bread and tea depending on the state of the provisions at the time. The Germans punched holes in the cans or opened up the packages so they had to be used soon in order to help prevent the black market bartering including with guards which had a corrupting influence on the guards. Often the cheese was so moldy that a good portion of it had to be cut away. Bread too was often moldy. As for the cabbage, it was cooked to kill worms, which unlike in Buchenwald, did not make up a big portion of our protein allotment.
There was one cookstove for the hut so two rooms typically shared the cookstove at meals times at once. That meant two cooks and two stooges busy at work around the small wood stove. And it meant that the cookstove was busy between about 3 p.m. until about 7 p.m. with cooks from the individual rooms rotating in to cook the meals for their roommates. Wood for the stove was very scarce and anything that could be found that seemed extraneous and might burn was thrown in. The Germans provided “bricketts” of compressed wood as fuel, but it was far from adequate. So they also smartly provided a large stump puller for the prisoners. This was a crane-like device when properly powered by about ten sweating, strong men, could pull the pine stumps out of the ground. Stalag Luft III was constructed in a pine forest and the land cleared for the buildings and open areas. A few scattered pines still stood in the camp, but there were a number of stumps which were yanked out of the ground with this device then dragged to the doorways of the huts for use as fuel.
The evening meals would feature some form of meat, usually spam or corned beef, thinly and carefully sliced to avoid complaints from the continually hungry men. Potatoes and cabbage or kohlrabi added to the meal, which was usually topped off with some fancy dessert of the cook’s design using ground crackers, tooth powder, sugar and a little chocolate.
The times in between these meals were spent pretty much as each person wished. There were endless card games—now with real cards instead of the homemade ones we used in Buchenwald. There was a theatre which was a popular activity for many of the men who were involved in acting, designing the sets, and mounting the production. There were musical bands and lots of sports activities. By the time we arrived in October, it was too cold for baseball and basketball, but a little football was played along with a lot of hockey. Ice skates had been provided by the Swedish government and the fire pool was flooded to make a rink. The skates had been confiscated for a while before I arrived because the Kriegies had found them useful in fashioning wire cutters and saw blades for release, but the Germans had been persuaded to return them and the games were going strong when I was there. Teams were organized—often between bombers and fighters—and tournaments held with results posted in the camp newsroom. It might have been the Superbowl for all the excitement generated by these events.
I tended to gravitate mostly to the library. We were very fortunate by the time I got to camp to have a remarkably well stocked library. Books of all types could be found there and many of us spent our time studying college-level subjects and reading all kinds of novels and non-fiction works. The library was usually one of the warmest places in the camp and the lounge chairs that had been fashioned from bed rails were in short supply, but there were tables with benches usually available. It was a warm, convivial place where quiet was usually maintained unlike the often rowdy, noisy gatherings in the huts or in groups gathered outside when it wasn’t too cold.
We were allowed to write letters home once a week and I usually wrote mine in the library. The restrictions were many. One piece of paper folded in the middle was all tha was allowed. And of course, we were not allowed to comment on much of anything. All letters were read by censors and there was not much point in sending a letter that had almost everything cut out of it. So I wrote the standard stuff, that I was doing great, missing them a lot, hungry but otherwise well, in good spirits, looking forward to coming home, asking about my sisters and brother and how everyone back home was doing. My letters finally made it home and after the relief of finding out on Thanksgiving Day, 1944 by telegram that I was alive and in a POW camp, I’m sure they provided some comfort to Mother and my whole family. But I never received a letter once during my captivity. It was a matter of timing. By the time any letters might have caught up to me, I had moved on.
One other activity helped fill my time. I was given orders or instructions by the group organized by the POW leaders. My job was simple. I was to hang around near the main gate and Luftwaffe administrative building for the North camp and keep a look out for guards or “ferrets” entering the camp. Ferrets were the German English speaking guards, out of uniform and in clothing similar to our own, sent in to listen in on conversations to detect escape attempts, bribery, and other nefarious activities we might be engaged in. My instructions were simple. If a German came into our camp, I was to nonchalantly give a signal to another kriege further in the camp and the signal would be passed down to whoever needed to know it so that whatever activity was going on could quickly be hidden and remain undetected. I was fairly new to the camp and that is probably why I was sent to cover the main gate area. The further you were away from where the activities were going on, the less likely you were to know what it was. Security, even among the inmates, was tight. This made even more sense to me when I later found out, after leaving the camp, that it was my own barracks hut that was the scene of the activity. And what was the activity? Nothing other than building another tunnel from the very same barracks that the famous “Great Escape” tunnel had originated. The kriegie planners had no doubt determined that the German would assume lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot and so Block 104 would be the least likely spot for another mass escape attempt. If this had been discovered, or if another attempt had been made, I hate to think of what the consequences might have been for me. But this activity, unknown in detail to me at the time, certainly demonstrated that Hitler’s attempt to break our spirit and make the Allied flyers think twice about escaping by murdering our fellow prisoners proved hopelessly naïve. We were fighters one and all and would be as long as we were given the air to breathe and the strength to carry on. I was proud later of my exceedingly small contribution to the continuing effort.
Our day ended with the late afternoon or evening appell. We ate our evening meal after the last appell in our room with the cook shuttling between the room with the cookstove and our room. The six of us ate our small dinner of diced kohlrabi, mashed potatoes, thin slice of spam eagerly. Then waited for the treat of cracker cake or some other dessert concoction. A little coffee by 10:30 and lights out with the blackout shutters covering the windows. Another day in Stalag Luft III was concluded, and one day soon melted into the next until nearly three months went by.