Chapter 15 Death March

Chapter 15: Death March

The BBC said it was the coldest winter in the twentieth century. The clandestine radio hidden somewhere in the North compound was a lifeline of information. Sure, the Germans provided plenty of newspapers and war updates to the prisoners in Stalag Luft III but, of course, it sugar coated the increasingly desperate situation they found themselves in late in 1944. So we counted on the BBC to keep us informed. I had no idea where the radio was but runners would go from barracks to barracks repeating the story as exactly as they could.

For a while there, right around Christmas, things were looking pretty bleak. From the German newspaper accounts and the BBC news, we could piece together the great progress the Russians were making in pushing the Wehrmacht out of Russia, back into Poland and toward Berlin. We could also follow pretty well the progress being made by the Allies pushing toward the Rhine river. Patton’s Third Army looked unstoppable and we figured they’d be in Berlin before Christmas, the war would be over and we’d all be going home. But, as Christmas approached, our hopes faded. Clearly something had gone wrong in the west. The BBC tried to make the best of it, but the German newspapers made it sound like they were pushing the Allies right back to the English Channel. In the meantime, the air got bitterly cold, the winds kicked up, snow became a part of our lives and the Russians kept pounding on, pushing the Germans further and further back from their defensive lines in eastern Poland.

We did our best to keep warm. The cookstove was now the most popular place in camp. Standing in rows for appell in the freezing cold with our limited winter clothing became an increasingly agonizing ordeal. Still, I thought about those we left behind in Buchenwald. The cold would be as bitter in the dark beech forest, but wetter even. And they had no winter clothes at all, nothing to keep them warm. Most did not have shoes. And while we were hungry—always very hungry—they were starving. We had the cookstove, even if for a short while—they were allowed no fires at all. While my bunkmates and almost everyone else in camp complained bitterly of our conditions, those of us who had escaped from Buchenwald could not share the bitterness. We knew that we were lucky. It’s strange to feel lucky in such an unfortunate place surrounded by people who are enduring the worse misery they have ever experienced in life.

As the new year came, the stories both from the BBC and the German sources once again began to change. The Allies called it The Battle of the Bulge. The Germans talked about forming new impenetrable defensive lines to keep the war mongers out of the homeland. But we could not be completely ecstatic about the progress that now looked as if it could only end in the complete defeat of the Third Reich. The conversations around in the bunkhouse and around the cookstove now centered on opinions about our fate. What would our captors do? The prevailing opinion was that they would leave us to the Russians whom it was increasingly clear would arrive to rescue us before Patton or Monty. Some said, no, they would not want to just let us go. We were valuable as hostages and Hitler may use us to negotiate a separate end to the war with the US and England so he could turn his full remaining forces to face the Russian threat from the east. Others said that with how desperate things were for them the last thing they would want to do is have to worry about keeping us around, feeding us. We would just be taken out and shot or better yet, send up a few of the Heinkels they had left and bomb the camp just as the Russians arrived.

What did I think? What would be would be. Sounds fatalistic, I suppose. But I felt that if I was to die in this seemingly endless war, why was it not in the plane crash? Or why wasn’t I taken out and shot like the two who had tried to help me in France? Or like so many others held in Fresnes? Why did I survive Buchenwald? Many thousands didn’t. Did they love their lives any less than I did? Did their families not count as much as mine? Was and is my life worth more than theirs? What would be would be. Perhaps I would end up as bomb dust underneath this frozen German or Polish dirt. Maybe even put in a makeshift Russian uniform and marched into battle as cannon fodder protecting the Russian troops. Or maybe I’d go home and go find a quiet life with my family and friends. Maybe. What would be would be.

One possibility, which I considered reasonably likely given my exposure to German transportation methods, was they would put us on a cattle car and haul us to another camp away from danger. And, if they couldn’t rustle up the cars, they might just march us. March us en masse in this freezing, snowy, bitter winter. We prepared as best we could. We tried to make the best of the ice and cold by playing hockey during the day. Hockey wasn’t my game—just couldn’t quite get the hang of the ankle thing, but I enjoyed rooting for my team. But at night, we started to prepare for a move. We needed to take as much food as we could with us because my experience with the German passenger rail system was that the dining car was not accessible to those packed into cattle cars. My roommates and I started working on how we would survive a long march or cattle car ride in this bitter cold. We had already done all we could to make our clothes and blankets warm. Sewing blankets together to make sleeping bags, using newspapers for extra insulation, but these measures wouldn’t do us a lot of good on a freezing march in sub-zero weather.

I was most worried about lack of food. I had regained perhaps fifteen pounds of the fifty I had lost. But I had not fully recovered my strength and I knew too painfully well what the lack of energy from starvation can do to you. And it would be that much worse completely exposed to the elements and dead tired from long marching. So we decided to build a little sled so we could carry plenty of food. Of course, we also had to save up the food which we did by rationing as much as we could without losing strength. We used some slats from the bed to build a frame and make the runners. We used some old raggy clothes to cover over the small boxes and tins of food we would drag.

The Germans told us nothing of their plans, so the rumors mounted. On January 27 we knew things could not last much longer. We could now hear the heavy “crumph” of artillery to the east. The Russians were indeed coming. Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev’s army was only 16 miles away. At his 4:30 p.m. staff meeting on January 27, the Leader of the Third Reich made a decision: the Allied officers and men held in Stalag Luft III would be moved out of way of the advancing Soviets and placed in another camp deeper inside Germany. Further use of them as hostages or a final decision to dispose of them could be postponed. Of course, no one bothered to tell us what the dictator decided about us. When we heard the distant rolling thunder of the battle just to the east, our anxiety increased. Something would happen. Soon. We just had no idea what.

The first of the 10,000 men held in Stalag Luft III to move out were in the South Compound. Their Commanding Officer, Colonel Charles Goodrich, interrupted a kriegie production of the play “You Can’t Take It With You,” by announcing loudly, “The goons have given us 30 minutes to be at the front gate. Get your stuff together and line up!” At nine o’clock the 2000 men were ordered to line up and prepare to move out. For two hours they waited in the icy wind. They began to move out at 11:00 p.m. The West Camp followed at 12:30 a.m. North Camp, including me, was ordered out at 3:45 a.m. and East Camp at 6:00 a.m. As we left camp I looked behind and saw a fire burning through the blowing snow. It was my barracks. Block 104 was in flames.

The book “The Longest Mission,” published by the association of former prisoners of Stalag Luft III says they burned the barracks I called home in protest of the 50 men who were murdered after trying to escape through the tunnel that started here. But I am certain it was to hide the evidence that another tunnel was being constructed from the very building that had fooled the German guards before. I’m guessing someone didn’t want that tunnel discovered and those of us who were living there hunted down in our next camp, hauled out and shot.

It was bitter cold out almost every day during this late January. Stepping out of the bunk into the strong northern wind, being hit in the face by a million stinging pellets of icy snow, and sucking in my breath as the frozen air torched my lung tissue I felt a sense of dread and fear that brought my Buchenwald days quickly to mind. Oh no, I thought, here we go again. I just hope I can make it. I’m sure the same thought was on many of those dark, slumped over figures ahead and behind me who hunkered down against the ice-filled wind. It was nearly 20 degrees below zero with a fierce wind and icy snow. It would get down to 28 degrees below zero before we would see any sign of daylight.

The first hours were the easiest. We still thought it might not be too far to our destination wherever that might be. We were freezing, but such misery had to be temporary. It had to be, because if it was not we would die in it, and then, even then, the misery would be temporary. We had put on two layers of pants, and as many pairs of socks as we could and still get our shoes on. We wore one pair of shorts and took another with us, stuffed in a pocket. That way we could change underwear when we stopped, letting the other one dry out from the sweat it would accumulate during the hard march. It felt great to be out of the camp. Sure, we were still prisoners and German guards marched along with us, hunched over against the wind, trying to squeeze their bodies deep inside their clothes just as we were. But, it didn’t feel as much like being a prisoner when you are walking along the narrow country roads of western Poland or eastern Germany.

My roommates and I pulled the sled behind us. Jim Hastin was in our larger group but I wasn’t with him any time during the march. We had put as much food on our makeshift sled as we could scavenge and hoard, but it wasn’t very heavy. It was just clumsy, very clumsy. We took turns, two of us at a time pulling it through the rough, frozen tracks in the snow. But the snow kept coming down and now there was at least six inches on the ground. Deeper and deeper furrows were being cut with the edges becoming as sharp and unyielding as iron in the 28 degree below temperature.  Our delight with ourselves having made a passable sled and carrying with us provisions that would take us through any circumstance we thought the Germans could throw at us began to turn into questioning and then dread. The sled sapped our energy and we had so little left to spare.

Still we shuffled forward. Step by step by crunching, slipping step. At first we walked four or five abreast, talking sometimes. But the wind sucked the air out of our lungs and we soon slid slowly into an interminable line of single file, hunched over, dog tired, frozen men. Step by step by step. The line snaked for miles through the ice-encased country side. Light came, creeping up slowly, but it brought no heat or comfort. I looked up a little, hoping for just a sense of warmth but all I could see was a fuzzy gray streak of only slightly lighter clouds. A full blown blizzard was blowing the pellets sideways, everything a dirty, gray-white with an occasional hint of a dark, lonely house or small out buildings. Instead of cheering us, we could see more clearly the misery of those around us, see the interminable line of exhausted, struggling men, and the stark emptiness of the small farm hovels surrounded by dense patches of forest.

We were given a couple of ten minute rests and we would drop to the side of the road, right where we were. We had to struggle to get the energy to find a piece of chocolate, a few crackers dug out from our sled which was becoming increasingly wobbly from its rough ride through the icy path. We huddled close together and questioned whether the sled was worth the effort. It was taking precious energy, tiring us more than the cold and unending march alone. But, there was no time to find another way to pack our precious food so, when the order came to “Raus!” we continued dragging it through the crust behind us.

It was probably mid-way through the afternoon when I saw my first body lying in the snow. It  was clear by now that some were not going to continue the march. It is probable that the Germans shot some of those who could not carry on, but others were picked up by a German horse-pulled wagon. It was not just the prisoners who found themselves exhausted of energy and spirit. The German guards, many of them older men, also suffered in the merciless cold, wind and snow. Their rifles hung across the shoulders, no longer at the ready. The disparity between prisoner and guard disappeared in these inhuman conditions. Now we were all just men forced against our will to endure conditions that would test even the strongest to the limit.

Escape was very easy under the circumstances and the word went out from the officers that we were authorized to escape if we found the opportunity. Opportunity? There were few guards around and they looked as if they had neither the motivation nor the energy to lift their heavy rifles to point them at us. Now we were just fellow human beings struggling together to stay alive long enough to get to the next rest. A few did make the attempt but soon found there was no place to go in the empty, snow covered landscape. They joined back up again to share the fate with the rest of us.

“The Longest Mission,” a Stalag Luft III memorial publication, reported the death of one of the young officers from South Camp. It was related by British Paratroop Chaplain Murdo MacDonald: “On the second night out, Lieutenant Jenkins, an All-American football player decided to die. I heard the summons passed along the straggling line: ‘Padre Mac, you’re wanted.’ Retracing my footsteps, I found Jenkins on his back in the snow. He insisted on giving me what remained of his scanty rations. I stayed with him until he died, closed his eyes and ran to catch up with the main column, three miles away. The summons came again and again.”

A small snow covered mound along side the road. A dirt pile, a pile of rags? No, another American, or English, or Canadian flyer. Dead? Barely alive and soon to be dead? Who knows. Once a young man, eager for adventure, full of confidence and joy of living, pushing throttles, swooping around the clouds, fearing, loving, breathing, laughing. Now a snow covered mound, or was it just a pile of dirt? Would that be me soon? Would I just be lump to step over or around? Another snow covered obstacle? Would someone bury me in this tiny field? Would a marker ever find its way over my rotting bones, or would a starving farm dog haul what was left of me into that dark woods over there? Would my mother and brother and sisters come some day to try and find what was left of me on this forsaken piece of earth?

On we marched, trudged, step by painful step. The road meandered it seemed without purpose or design, sometimes passing through small villages of a few pitiful houses. Sometimes it would go uphill, making the effort to put one foot in front of the other an act of sheer willpower. The snow froze our brains, froze time, froze our snot and breath to our lips and each step was an act of courage and tenacity, each hour an eternity.

All that day we kept moving, a snow dusted line that seemed to have no beginning and no end. The sky darkened again, and the chill became more bitter. Would they march us until we all dropped? Is this their way of killing us? But finally, after dark and after marching through the first night and all that day, we came to a village and were told to find shelter. My roommates and I, still dragging the splintered sled, found an empty theatre in a village only a little larger than some we had passed. Collapsing on the floor of the theatre I was immensely grateful to have made it this far. We had been marching almost without stopping for about 27 hours. I didn’t know it then, but we had trudged and stumbled over thirty miles. What I did know was that I had little strength left. The exhaustion became a kind of pain where it seemed difficult to even have the energy to draw breath. It was cold in the empty theatre, rows of seats aimed at a tall wooden stage framed by a large arch. Entertainment? I did not have the energy to imagine what kind of song, or dance or music filled the now frigid, empty building. It was out of the wind, out of the blowing snow and we were not marching, we were laying down, backs against the heavy wood covering the walls.

We dug some of the rations out of the sled and ate them without heat and with little talk. One thing we did talk about was the sled. After not much discussion, we decided that we would not drag the stupid thing one more foot. Instead, I took a ragged old shirt and fashioned it into a kind of knapsack. I would throw that over my back and carry what few tins of food I could manage in that. The others did the same and what we couldn’t carry was left for others. We knew by now that we would die of cold and exhaustion before starvation could ever catch us. And if we feared the pain of extreme hunger, we now knew that the pain in our lungs, our feet, our frozen hands, fingers and noses would make any hunger pangs seem inconsequential. With that, we dropped into an exhausted, uneasy half sleep.

Morning came and while it was noticeably warmer, the snow was still blowing about and occasionally coming down in fresh showers. Guards, themselves showing signs of exhaustion, rousted us up and the long line of hunched over trudging men again began to snake its way through the country side. The rest had done me good, but at the same time I felt more than I ever had before that my strength was nowhere near what it had been before Buchenwald. I knew I was strong and could work along with any strong farmhand in the county. But the men walking with me had not lost a good part of their body weight, and not been starved to where the body was robbing nutrients from vital organs and bones. Still, I thought, keep one foot in front of the other, what would be would be, keep it going, think of nothing, no plans, no hopes, just one foot in front of the other. Then one foot in front of the other.

The kilometers slowly passed by. There was no sun, just a bit of a brighter spot in the dirty gray clouds low on the southern horizon. Still, it seemed to be warming just a little. During most of the day I struggled to keep up, struggled to keep pace with my roommates. I was frustrated that it seemed to be getting harder just to put one painful foot in front of the other. But toward late afternoon I started feeling better. I only vaguely remember it now, just a growing warmth and with it a growing sense of well being. Something deep inside me seemed to be saying, I was going to be OK, I was going home, and it would feel so good. I could just lie down soon, and it would be OK. What started as a surprising sense of acceptance and peace slowly began turning to a kind of euphoria. The snow and cold and wind seemed to fill me with a kind of joy and anticipation. I can remember it, but I remember feeling it as if I was far away and experiencing it happening to someone else. It seemed the sky was lightening and yet it wasn’t. It didn’t seem so hard now. I could go on like this forever. Forever and ever.

And then everything went dark. I didn’t realize it at the time but what I was experiencing was the euphoria that usually precedes death from hypothermia and exhaustion. My body was indeed shutting down and by some strange and perhaps Providential mechanism I was being prepared to die. I collapsed in the snow, dead to the world. If it were not for my two American roommates, my fear of being left to die along a nearly deserted Polish country road would have been realized. But, even though they too were not far from collapse, and with strength and self-sacrificing love that still brings tears to my eyes, they picked me up. With the little strength they had left they dragged me, a dead weight, completely unconscious, for a quarter of a mile to the next village—a smallish town called Bad Muskau. The town, a winter resort that today sits on the river that separates Germany from Poland, had a small makeshift hospital and that is where I found myself when I finally woke up.

For many years, my greatest pain and regret of those days as a young man caught in a giant struggle on a continent far from home was that my crash might have killed innocent people in the house and that my attempt to escape might have cost the lives of two young French farmers. When I discovered that neither fear was correct, I was left with one deep regret. And that is that I did not stay in touch with those two American pilots who saved my life. The depth of meaning of what they did for me, quite possibly putting their own lives at risk to save mine, becomes more clear to me as the years accumulate. Yes, I thanked them, of course I did. But now, these many years later, if they are still alive I want them to know that with all my heart I have never forgotten their sacrifice and great gift to me.

The hospital, really a large room filled with beds in which lay moaning men in all kinds of agonies. Frostbite, exhaustion, intestinal illness, pneumonia—everything. But it was warm. I slept for 26 hours without waking. I have no idea if I received any food. Simply no memory. Others in my group had found shelter in various places in the town, many in a glass or tile factory in which there was plenty of heat from the still operating furnaces. But, after thirty hours or so of rest and finally getting a little warmth back in our bones, it was time to march again. The guards went through town telling the men to get their things together and start moving.

I would not stay back in the hospital. I pulled myself out of the bed and felt every bone and muscle complain as if I was 110 years old. But if my group was marching, I would march too. So we walked through the mostly quiet town, now joined more and more by German families who were also escaping from the Russians trailing closely behind us. That day we only marched 10 miles and rested again. I say only, but ten miles is a long walk for almost anyone. For us, half-starved, in freezing rain, wind and snow, and marching toward a very uncertain destination and destiny, there was nothing easy about it. The weather was warming but could hardly cheer us. Instead of biting, stinking snow pellets, the wind now carried with it slanted rain, soaking all our tattered clothes keeping us wet and chilled. And still we marched.

We marched three more days through the muck, rain and biting wind. But there were enough rest stops to keep us only mostly exhausted and not completely spent. Finally, we groaned our way into Spremberg, a mid-sized eastern German city over 100 kilometers, 65 miles from Sagan. It was February 5, six days since we left Sagan. We were in Spremberg only a short time, maybe an hour, before they began loading us onto cattle cars. The memories of the five days in the jammed car from Paris to Buchenwald filled me with dread and anger. But at least it was winter now and the close quarters would help keep us warm. But I thought about the claustrophobic tunnels, the fighters strafing everything that moved, the five gallon buckets for water and waste and I just wanted to throw up.

They began pushing us into the cattle cars which it soon became clear had recently been carrying cattle. I shoved in toward the middle expecting again that the Germans would keep shoving men into the cars until no amount of prodding, jabbing and yelling would make room for one more man. But only about fifty of us were jammed in our car and compared to the Paris to Buchenwald ride, this was almost comfortable.

No food was provided as I recall and once again the “toilet” ran over quickly. We leaned against each other and the constant close quarters jostling meant that real sleep or rest was impossible. The men were angry, overcrowded, desperately hungry and thirsty and completely uncertain about our fate. While I shared the frustration, I think the realization that if I was a cat I would be down to one or two lives made an impact on me. I’m not saying that the misery, pain or fear couldn’t and didn’t touch me, but there is only so much that can shake you to the core and I think I had reached that point. Waking up in the hospital realizing that were it not for the love—I can call it nothing else—of two men who themselves were suffering and near the end, gave me a perspective on life and living that has never really left me. When you truly understand you owe your existence and joys to others who had no real reason to sacrifice themselves for you, it is hard not be affected or changed for good.

The cattle train with 10,000 flyers trundled slowly through the German countryside. After three days it arrived in Nuremberg. Nuremberg. Where Hitler and his brown-shirted goons celebrated their rise to power. And where eventually, at least some of those responsible for the horrors that we and many others in the world were experiencing, would find some sort of justice.

We were marched from the train station to Stalag XIIID which had been built on part of the Nazi Party rallying grounds. The camp had been used for many purposes before and during the war. It held few American or English prisoners during the war because those were kept deeper into German territory in places like Sagan. So most inmates were from Russia or other parts of Europe. For whatever reason, when we entered the camp we knew we were no longer in Stalag Luft III. The filth of this camp was overwhelming, not just because of the incessant rainy mud. The barracks were filthy  and uncared for—very much unlike the neat and tidy condition of Stalag Luft III. I remember a broom we had to clean up had very few bristles left. Dirt, mud, garbage, and broken equipment and facilities were every where. I was asked is this what Buchenwald was like? Yes, except worse I said, and I know I wasn’t believed. But it was reminiscent of Buchenwald in toilet facilities, in cleanliness, in morale, and in food. But the train ride was over, and for today at least, we knew our fate.

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1 Comment

  1. Kathy Clement said,

    Reading this brought tears to my eyes because my father was also a POW and endured similar horrors during this death march. My father told me of many similar selfless acts of heroism where prisoners helped carry other prisoners along the way. My father had documented the events from the time he was shot down over northern Italy ,his capture and POW experiences from Stalag Luft III, Nuremburg, and Mooseburg, until his liberation by Gen. Patton. I am in the process of writing a book about his personal story. K.C.

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