Chapter 6: Cattle Car to Hell
Chapter 6: Cattle Car to Hell
In the first hours of that train ride out of Paris, the last train out of Paris before the city was liberated, we found out how well we had done in disrupting French transportation. Everywhere along the route there was disruption from the strafing, bombing and efforts of the Resistance. The train ride was not one smooth journey from Paris to Germany, but a constant series of stops, starts, jerks, waiting, and starting up again. All the time we were jammed together into a filthy, sweaty, fearful mass of humanity. Every stop and jerking startup shoved us into each other all over again, jarring nerves and threatening what little sense of brotherhood we had together. Hatred and anger germinate quickly in such conditions. This was the enemy we were fighting, this was the enemy’s way. This was the respect they showed to their fellow human beings. If we ever had the chance to go up in our beautiful flying weapons again, we would do so with so much more meaning, determination and animosity.
On one of the frequent stops in the few miles outside of Paris, we were allowed out of the cars. It was hours into our ride and the one five gallon bucket had quickly filled and overflowed so we were allowed to relieve ourselves along side the tracks. Though I did not see the cars of women who were also let out, others who witnessed said they had stripped to their underwear because of the heat and crowded conditions and were forced to answer nature’s call in the same way men were. At first, it was humiliating and shameful. But, we quickly got desensitized and in the days ahead, it was just one more part of our life. Every moment was an experience in degradation and horror, urinating or defecating in these conditions just one more of many.
While we experienced the starts and stops of the cattle car, a young man on a bicycle was riding as fast as he could with urgent orders for the Resistance leaders in the town of Nanteuil-Saacy. With a train full of Resistance leaders from Paris, the Resistance was determined to do all they could to stop what they were certain would be a massacre of their fellow patriots, friends and family members. The few brave members of the Resistance quickly did the necessary job in the cover of the evening darkness. With the precious explosives they had received either from the Allied air drops or from filching it from the occupiers, they nearly destroyed the railroad bridge over the Marne river. But there were only a few of them and they had neither the weapons nor the manpower to overwhelm the guards charged with bringing us into the dark heart of Germany. So they waited, impatiently no doubt, for reinforcements to arrive from Paris or the surrounding villages.
We had no idea, of course, that this rescue effort was going on. But we knew something was up. With halting, jerking progress nighttime came and we pulled into a long tunnel. Before emerging from the other end we came to a metal-grinding and squealing stop. Now what, we thought?
We stood quietly on the tracks with the shouts of the guards around us and we could hear them running around barking orders and answering each other’s questions. But, in just a few minutes a new terror and threat to our fragile lives emerged. The train’s big engine kept running and spewing clouds of thick black smoke which now quickly filled the tunnel which was already unbearably hot and virtually airless. We started coughing and wheezing and taking in big gulps of the fouled air trying to get enough oxygen into our bodies. Now cries of anguish and fear from the frightened passengers mixed in with the shouts from the guards.
“We’re going to die here!” some shouted as if the SS guards could care about that. I tilted my head back and fought between trying to keep the thick smoke out of my lungs and filling them up with what little useful air was available. It kept getting thicker and hotter and more frightening. I looked at the faces around me and saw fear and panic. No, I thought, I didn’t come all the way from the farm in Ferndale, all the way through flight school, survive forty-three missions over enemy territory, get shot down just too die of suffocation in some stupid French tunnel. Yet, my lungs told me unless I and my fellow passengers got some air soon we would indeed die soon. Again I prayed, thinking of my family, a future taken from me, the sorrow of those who loved me. Tears from the stinging smoke were running down our faces, mixing with the sweat that still poured from us, greasing our unwelcome contact with each other. Now the cars did sound like cattle cars on the way to the slaughter house with bawling and crying and screaming and curses. A few began to collapse and those around them tried to make just a bit more room so they had a path to what little air was above them. I kept quiet but my head was spinning as I kept coughing and coughing and when not coughing sucking in that black death as hard as I could.
It was nearly two hours of fear and panic and suffocation before we heard the doors of cars near us pushed open on the metal slides. Now the shouts of panic were mixed with urgent and hopeful cries: “Get out!” “Hurry!” “Push!” Soon our door slid open and the men in our car began to pile out, falling, gasping, tumbling, yelling. The tunnel was filled with the black smoke as much as the blackness of tunnel darkness but we could immediately feel that there was more air now that we were on the ground and not contained in the 40 by 8.
Guards were shouting orders again and we were led back toward the entrance of the tunnel. We walked quickly as we could feel each step took us closer to clean, unfouled air. Finally, we came out into the dark of midnight or the early morning hours and sucked into our tortured lungs that rich air of the French countryside. Everywhere there was coughing and moaning but the horrible panic was gone. We could at least breathe.
We had no idea what had halted our progress through the tunnel. Years later we would hear from a fellow Allied flyer, John Watson who also lived near Art and myself in Surrey, British Columbia, that he was on a passenger train that had left Paris about the same time our freight train did. His train was behind ours and had stopped just outside the tunnel entrance while we were fighting for every breath inside. He wrote to Stan Booker, one of our group: “The train stopped at the mouth of a tunnel, a long tunnel, and we were marched through by torchlight and gunpoint. In this tunnel was a train of cattle trucks closely guarded by SS Goons and full of people. It was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.”
But Dante’s picture of hell had a sign that said “Abandon All Hope” and suddenly, we once again had hope. We could breathe and slowly the thick smoke that coated our lungs was being coughed out. A battle against time was going on between the guards and the Resistance fighters who were watching nearby. The Resistance was waiting for help to arrive so that could use their few and precious weapons against the guards who held us, and the guards were quickly organizing us for a march that would put us on another train and secure them and us against an attack they felt certain would come at any moment.
Their hurry and concern was made clear in the barking orders they gave. Many men in our car were ordered to pick up the heavy packs of equipment that the Germans were carrying on the train. Those packs contained their weapons, food, ammunition, clothing, etc. Packs of 60 or more pounds were placed on the sweaty backs of our men while others were pulled aside as hostages.
“We will shoot everyone of these if anyone tries to escape,” the guards warned. We knew they were serious. They kept the hostages directly in front of their pointed rifles throughout the march, and no one decided that an escape attempt was worth taking the lives of dozens of fellow prisoners. So we marched into the dark night, along a narrow roadway that went around a steep hill. It was a long march, I couldn’t tell at the time, but later found it was about six kilometers or about four miles. I was not burdened down with a heavy pack of enemy material (??), but the march was tiring and the August heat lingered well into the night time. Still, it was so wonderful to be out of that tunnel and off that overcrowded train, that I hoped we could march all the way into Germany rather than getting on another train.
While we marched, the Resistance fighters watched from the top of the hill. Tears streamed down their faces as they watched helplessly as those they had been asked to rescue tramped further and further from freedom. “Wait,” they must have begged us under their breaths, “Stall, do anything to slow this down.” But we marched on, oblivious to how we were losing our last real chance of rescue before facing a fate worse than anything we could possibly imagine.
In the now dim light of very early morning we could see ahead another train. There were sounds of disappointment and despair as we now could see that the train that waited for us was another train of the dreaded 40 by 8 cattle cars. Somehow I had dared to hope that it would be a passenger train or at least a train with boxcars that might be more comfortable and dignified than a cattle train. The packs were taken off the exhausted men who carried them, the hostages returned with relief to their compatriots, and once again we were pushed with shouts and harsh orders back into the cars. Once again, we were overcome with the stench of unwashed bodies and soon again the stench of an open bucket toilet. The train jerked forward with moans, scraping metal, and the journey began again.
One man on that train had his heart lifted during the march in the dark. Pierre Lefaucheux, the Paris Resistance leader, discovered that his wife was following the train on her bicycle. The stop in the tunnel allowed her to catch up. In the confusion of the getting off the train and marching around the mountain near the Marne river, she found her husband among the prisoners and was able to hug him and give him reassurances of her determination to rescue him. Now, as we once again picked up speed toward Germany, she was on her bicycle again following behind.
Life, such as it was, settled back into a routine of jerky starts, long waits, occasional opportunities to get off the train to perform our natural functions and then load back on. One car near us had been given a hammer to work on some minor repairs but they took this opportunity to loosen some floor boards in their car. They returned the hammer knowing that now they could open up the floorboards enough to escape from underneath the train. They decided the safest time to do that with the least chance of detection was while the train was underway. One by one, the men on that train slipped out, sliding onto the ground under the train and letting all the cars following pass over them. Then, they picked themselves up and ran. But, at one of the stops, an alert guard noticed that there was some luggage from one of the men far down the track. Each car was immediately searched and the loose floorboard discovered. The guards were beside themselves with anger.
Some of the guards had immediately taken off down the tracks to try and recapture those who had escaped. There were six Frenchmen and one American who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force who had eased themselves out through the floorboard. We heard rifle shots off in the distance but as far we knew then and now, the escapees were successful. But things got very rough for those who were left in that car. They were pushed to one end of the car while the car was searched and the loose floorboard discovered. They were told they would all be shot. Everything was taken from them, all their clothing, food, water bucket, toilet bucket, everything. And the journey continued until the train stopped again. Then, everyone one of them completely naked, they were ordered to line up along side the train. Guards with machine gun rifles stood opposite them and we all waited for the shooting to begin. The men in that lineup knew that they were facing their last moments on earth. But, the order to shoot never came. Instead, they were ordered to answer nature’s call and then loaded back into the car, still naked as birth, with the order to stay away from the little openings at the ends of the cars.
Those windows offered not only a bit of a view of the passing countryside, they offered delicious gulps of fresh air somewhat free of the overwhelming odor in the rest of the car. Being able to get close to that window, look out and breathe deeply was a pleasure we tried to get as often as we could. Jim Hastin was at the window of our car when a shot rang out.
A seventeen year old French boy had put his hand out the window of the car with the loose floorboard. A guard, seeing the hand, had shot it. Screaming in pain and fear, the boy pulled his bloody hand in. The train came to another grinding stop and a Canadian flyer trained in first aid, Harry Bastable, yelled at the guards for medical help for the young man. Soon, the door to the car was unlocked and opened and the terrified boy was ordered off the train with his hands up, blood streaming down his arm from the gunshot wound in his hand. Guards surrounded him, asking if he was French or English. He answered and the officer nodded to the other guards. Two of them pointed at the bushy bank below the tracks, indicating that they wanted him to do down off the tracks. He scrambled down the brush covered bank and when he got to the bottom, he half turned as if to ask if this is where they wanted him. The guard motioned him on and the moment he turned to go on a shot rang out. The first shot hit him in the back pushing him forward, the second slammed into the back of his head. While quivering on the ground, three more shots were fired into the naked young boy to make certain of the final result. Two of our guys, Leo Grenon and an RAF flyer by the name of Rowe, we ordered out of the car and given spades. While the guards stood by and sickened prisoners such as Jim Hastin watched and told us what was going on, the two dug a shallow grave. The hole was just one spade deep when they were told it was good enough. The young man’s body was pushed into it and covered by the gravelly dirt of the railroad bank. Without further ceremony, or anything done to mark the final resting place of a life cut off far too soon, the men were put back into the car and the train started with another vicious jerk. But now, with a darkness, sorrow and gritty determination filling the passengers. This was serious, we knew. Life meant nothing to these animals who guarded us. Geneva Convention? We were far from its protection. No one knew where we were and the further we traveled east into the heart of the country which had darkened the whole world, the more hopeless our situation felt.
The train went on, stopping, starting, waiting. We talked some, slept in brief moments, our legs collapsing, elbows, shoulders, sweaty hairy heads poking us, banging us, armpits, hairy bodies, bony knees and continual stench and heat. Still we had some hope. Hope that the train would stop finally and we would be welcomed as fellow prisoners and flyers into a POW camp with a bed, with food, with some semblance of cleanliness, a little medical care and perhaps even some Red Cross packages. The Red Cross would get word to our families that we were safe and healthy and here for the duration of the war. As the days and nights wore on, that picture became brighter and brighter even as something in the back of my head felt like it might be too good to be true. Could facing POW with such anticipation be a fantasy? What a strange thing, but such it was on that endless train ride.
We crossed the Rhine at Strasburg and a day or so later traveled through the destroyed city of Frankfurt. The destruction from Allied bombing was almost complete. The center of the city had been laid waste and was just a blacked hole filled with rubble. Bare walls were standing as if they were grave markers, there was nothing left for them to hold up.
The next morning the train stopped and we got word that we had arrived. But where? The women were taken off the train. Many husbands and wives that were part of the Resistance, or thought to be, we arrested together and now they were allowed to find each other and say goodbye. The women were to be taken on a different train to Berlin, the men were to stay with this train. The heart rending goodbyes were permanent for most of them.
We were moved onto several different tracks before we started moving again and soon entered forested land. We passed some men working on the line wearing strange clothing, shirts and trousers with large blue and white stripes. Prisoners.
It was late afternoon, another sweltering mid-August day when the train stopped once more, this time for the last time. We were ordered out and lined up once more for the count. But we could tell that this was not just another stop on the way. The activity surrounding us with all the guards, the men working in those filthy blue and gray striped uniforms, the high fences with barbed wire, the dingy gray factory buildings, all told us that this is where we were headed. If this was POW camp, I had been fooling myself. Another pit of fear and doubt filled my very empty stomach as I looked around while standing in that line.