The Berlin mission cost the 392nd Bomb Group, eight of eighteen crews. Of thirty-two officers flying on those crews, only seven survived combat. They were all sent to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan, Germany. What a startling difference there was, between the final moments of theOfenstein and Kamenitsa officers. The San Antone Rose took heavy damage during the initial fighter attack. Her pilot and co-pilot remained at the controls long enough to give the gunners time to get out. A burst of flak threw the aircraft into a flat spin; only the navigator, Dave Purner, narrowly escaped from the burning B-24. Although hampered by shrapnel wounds to his foot, he and Arthur Smith were able to evade capture for a short while. They were manhandled by an angry mob, before being turned over to the Luftwaffe. Purner entered kriegie life alone, shattered from the security of his crewmates.
That same burst of flak sealed the fate of aircraft #371, flown by Bill Kamenitsa and George Graham. The San Antone Rose was shoved up and over Kamenitsa's wing; as she fell earthward, she tore away ten feet of their starboard wing. The crew took a quick vote and decided to remain with the ship, confident in Graham and Kamenitsa's abilities. Graham had racked up hundred's of hours of flight time on sub-patrol. Bill Kamenitsa was at home in the cockpit of B-24's, B-17's and A-20's. Through the Grace of God, they brought #371 down with only the loss of the navigator, bombardier and radioman. The crew was captured as a group, somewhat shaken, but intact. After their stint at Dulag Luft, Kaminitsa and Graham moved on, together until the evacuation of Nuremberg.
They reached a sprawling camp, holding some 2000 Allied and 3000 American fliers. Opened in April of 1942, it was the hub of the prison system, with regular visits by Protecting Powers and Red Cross representatives. All mail was received at Luft 3 and censored before being sent on to other camps. The Germans, under the experienced command of Colonel von Lineiner, generally lived up to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Their American opposites were led by Col. Delmar Spivey and the compounds were run by a Senior American Officer, with a seasoned staff. Each compound had its' own intelligence and security operations, mailroom, kitchen, dispensary, as well as lagar and room fuhrers. The continuity with regular military organization encouraged the Germans to let the prisoners handle their own affairs.
West Compound was opened on April 27, with Col. Darr Alkire (a bomber pilot with experience at Dulag Luft) in command. It was the largest and last built, with seventeen barracks, a cookhouse, theater, and showers. Each barracks had thirteen rooms with three tiers of bunks. With the population doubling between April and November, 250 guys were locked and shuttered up all night, in cold and drafty barracks. The whole day has been spent looking for something to do, to get your mind off the gnawing hunger. Guys around you are just as likely to be irritable and hostile, as they are to be generous or understanding. Nobody's had a bath, and digestive systems are in a collective state of disrepair; sleeping men are reliving the horrors of their missions and are restless beyond sleep.
MIS reports July 15 1944 :The camp is situated in pine woods area at Sagan, 168 kilometers southeast of Berlin...Three of the camps' six compounds are occupied by Americans (3363 AF officers), three by RAF officers. Each compound is divided into fifteen buildings or blocks; Barracks are one story, wooden hutments, resembling old CCC barracks...
It was Tuesday when I got out of the cooler and it was Thursday when we left for Stalag Luft 3. A group of enlisted men left on Wednesday, our crew among them, for their camp up on the Baltic Sea. We, about 100 of us, left about 4 PM on Thursday 5/4/44 in a prison car from the same town (Oberusel) which meant another chance for the populace to crane their necks at us again. We were provisioned with 1/3 of a Red-Cross parcel each.
Thursday night, all day Friday, and Friday night we were shuffled back and forth over Germany. Saturday morning, I arrived at Sagan, which is about l2O kms. southeast of Berlin. The camp was located a mile south of the town. We were searched again and had to take a shower. We were given a complete outfit while our own clothes were taken out for delousing. The new outfits consisted of a pair of pants (which had to be returned when our own were returned) 2 shirts, 2 undershorts, 2 undershirts, 3 pairs of socks, 1 face towel, 1 bath towel, toothbrush, razor, soap dish, comb and belt. We were assigned a room in one of the barracks.
When we first got to Luft 3, they took us out into a field. There was lots of commotion and nobody could hear what was going on. When things settled down, the American Colonel in charge of the camp chewed us up one side and down the other: "You guys are in here because you screwed up! You must have done something wrong or you wouldn't be here!" The funny thing was, nobody said: "What are you doing here?".
I'II tell you one thing, though: He knew what he was talking about, because in December of 1944, he saw the handwriting on the wall. He put out an order that everybody in that compound would walk ten laps around the perimeter. We started out knee deep in snow and ice. You should have seen us the next morning at roll call. There were guys, literally crawling. They were aching ...they were hurting. They were using muscles they hadn't used in months. When they finally moved us in January, it was the only thing that saved us.
Kamy cooked for us for six months, and we shared the K.P. ...the dirty work. Later, we broke up into three man combines. We had fifteen men in a room and each of the 3-man combines cooked for a week. One guy cooked and the other two did the clear-up. Our room had five triple decker bunks and a little potbelly stove... that's where we did our toasting. In the room next door, we had a charcoal-wood burning cook stove. That's where we made our regular meals.
It took four weeks for my folks to find out I was a P.O.W!. The army told them I was missing in action about the second week in May; but two weeks later they got a personal message, that I was alive and well and living in Germany.
The Germans would broadcast a list of captured airmen, every night. People on the East Coast would listen and then mail cards to families all over the country. My mom and dad got about a dozen of them saying: "Your son, William T. Kamenitsa, army serial #... is being held by the Germans. He's alive and a POW". It took a while for the federal government to catch up with the hams.
George, my co-pilot, and I were sent to Stalag Luft 3.The three other guys ( Heater, Krejci and Guillot) all went over to Stalag 17B. There was about 150 miles between us; we went north and they went south. At the time, we had no idea where they all went. It was as if we were all on different islands... and we might never see each other again!
At Sagan, it was an established camp: supposedly, Georing's showcase camp for airmen...but it was no picnic. Fifteen of us lived in a room about 10 feet by 12 feet. We had five triple-deckers in that room. In one corner, there was a little wood or charcoal burning stove.
I think the most difficult thing about prison camp was the lack of enough food. One meal might be just two lousy potatoes all day; and no hot water at other times. Soup is what they wanted to call it, but it was just warm water by another name. There wasn't any coffee unless you had a Red Cross parcel. Then it was warm water again, for breakfast (the only thing it was good for was shaving)...unless you had scrounged something to dump into it.
Weeks and months would go by and we'd get no parcels. The Germans would tell us: "Nothing came through. Your planes just bombed the railway station and the train coming in. Sorry! You've bombed your own food!"
I'II tell you though... that black sawdust bread they gave us started tasting damn good after 6 months in captivity. If you toasted it up...boy, it was quite unique. There were, however, some things you never got used to: blood sausage and fish heads. Oh my God! They'd bring that stuff down and pass it around...well nobody would touch it. Open the kettle and there's those fish eyes starring up at you...the smell alone would put hair on your teeth.
Technically, we were in Herman Goering's special camp. He took pride in it and we were living high on the hog as far as prisoners of war were concerned. The Germans at our camp obeyed the Geneva Conventions; just to the letter and no more...but maybe a tad better than other places.
We used to have a hidden radio to listen to the BBC. They would get some guys together, who would memorize what they had heard, then bring it back to the rest of us. There was one fellow in our barracks, Pittman, who had been a language student. He would listen to the German broadcasts, write it down on a pad in Spanish, then read it to us in English.
More information about the outside would come in with newly arrived Kriegies. They'd bring us up to date, so we always knew what was going on... more so than the Germans. It was a funny thing with them. It seemed their armies were always making a " strategic withdrawal"... never a retreat!
The morale in the camp was for the most part, very high, but everyone gets that " will it ever end" feeling now and then, needless to say. In spite of the recreational facilities, camp life is very dull and monotonous. It is very easy to become bitter and hard to get along with.
I believe the greatest morale booster is a letter from home. Perhaps never will letters mean so much to these men as they do now, while they are prisoners. Home is a dream, and a letter brings it back to reality.
Unfortunately, it takes from three to five months for the first letter from home to reach the camp, but once the long silence is broken, the letters seem to come in quite regular, in most cases...they are vital.
The camp looked impregnable. A high wire fence surrounded the buildings and tough looking armed guards were everywhere. A few feet inside the fence was a low strand of wire- the warning wire. Under the local ground rules, the guards were permitted to shoot any American who crossed the wire in an attempt for extra bases.
It seemed incredible that a man could get out of that camp alive. Yet many Americans did get beyond those walls and the methods they used deserve a high place under the general heading of American ingenuity.
One afternoon, shortly after I arrived at Sagan, I was standing out near the warning wire... As I glanced around me, I saw a German workman come walking from between two buildings. Over his shoulder was slung a ladder. Suddenly, I began to feel giddy, but not from a lack of food. The " workman" was really a disguised American flier... and when he reached the warning wire, he paused and nodded briefly to a bored German guard nearby.
It was an effort to keep my eyes averted; every American in that area went about his business, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening. When I finally took another peek, the lieutenant had reached the outer fence.
Quickly, he propped the ladder against the fence, then began to climb toward the top. From the guard towers, the Germans watched curiously through the sights of their machine guns...With a pair of pliers, he began to test each strand as if searching for a break in the wire. At last he reached the top... then deliberately turned and waved to one of the guards. Casually, the American lifted the ladder, then placed it outside the fence. On the way down... he paused to examine the wire. You'd have thought he was tuning a concert piano for Oscar Levant, the way he'd tap a wire, then bend down to listen. Reaching the ground, he put the ladder over his shoulder, then sauntered down the street. Not a gun was fired in his direction; unfortunately the escape was short lived when the lieutenant was recognized and brought back into camp.
The Germans were furious. They stormed into the area and the guards swarmed through the barracks... wrecking beds... stealing cigarettes and Red Cross canned goods... (trying to find) where the ladder and work uniform had come from.
For them, the escape, brief though it was, meant humiliation. But for the Americans, it was a great moral victory... At Sagan, men were united by a single emotion: Good old rip- roaring anger. The Germans had their arrogant guards, their guns, and their high fences. Yet in the face of these odds, the Americans refused to be cowed into submission.
Your body could be conquered, but why allow the Germans to conquer your soul? ...you could fight back matching German intimidation with American ingenuity... It gave you something to talk about while you hoarded food and made plans. If you failed, rack one up for the Germans. But if you succeeded, you had the knowledge that hundreds of Americans would grow drunk on your success. You had to think of American Morale.
The Stump and the Klarion were competitive Sunday newspapers of the West compound, if you could call them newspapers. By civilian standards they looked like little more than glorified notice sheets...At the outset, our paper was a single 14 by 18-inch sheet, but it soon grew to six 14 by 25-inch pages. These were posted every Sunday noon on a beaverboard partition space set aside as a " News Room" and remained on exhibit for a week. The Stalag Stump was exhibited nearby in the same manner.
A colorful three-foot permanent masthead...depicted an American Eagle, perched on a kriegie broom inside the compound, which was surrounded by barbed wire. An iron ball and chain checking its flight, the eagle was looking to the heavens above.
The first page...in the center of the board, contained such news as could be gathered within the confines of the camp...To the left of this was a "news and views" page...a sports page... and a comic page. To the right ...was a feature page and " Our Happy Home" in which news from the various blocks appeared...
New kriegies were our principle source of news from the outside world. Every time a new " purge" entered the compound, hordes of old-timers would surge around them to ask millions of questions...Many of the items we printed proved to be false, but we had no way of checking. It was made clear that any news from the States wasn't vouched for and should be taken for what it was worth...
Local news of front page significance concerned such things as a new musical show to be put on by the kriegies; the arrival of new instruments or other equipment from the YMCA; the announcement of a coming movie, four of which arrived through the YMCA; or an interview with Brig. Gen. Arthur Vanaman, the only Air Forces general to be shot down over Germany and live.
One of the two front page art features was a portrait... of the man who had done the most for the compound that week...The other drawing... featured a different state each month...
One of the most difficult enterprises the Klarion undertook was the running of a poll each week on various topics, the results of which appeared on the "News and Views" page...Block correspondents circulated through the rooms to obtain answers, which were sometimes hard to get, because cynicism ran high in the compound.
In November 1944, our poll showed that the kriegies thought the war would be over by April 1... Another poll showed that an overwhelming majority of the men wanted to join a new veteran’s organization with no ties to WW1 groups. Still another elected Ingrid Bergman "Klim Klan" queen of the West compound...But our most significant poll was run in January 1945, when our food supply was running low....Col. Darr H. Alkire...wanted to find out of the men would rather spread out the parcels or go on as usual. Ordinarily we received a parcel a week, but for months this had been cut to half a parcel per man. While one fourth parcels would have assured us of something to eat for twice as long, it would have meant a very lean diet. The Klarion ran a poll of the entire compound and had the results to Col. Alkire in slightly over two hours. The men decided, by a wide margin, to stay on half parcels. The Col. and his staff accepted their decision and we remained on that ration until our sudden move from Sagan a few weeks later.
At the very bottom of "news and views" there was a cartoon strip called Block Busters drawn by Bob Nearby, a gunner. Drawn in pencil and colored with water colors, it depicted typical humorous incidents in a kriegies life.
Day follows day in dull monotony, The sun hangs heavy in the changeless sky; Dust devils eddy down the sandy road.
The long, drab rows of huts lie mute within the shadows of the all encircling wire- And this is life.
The hours silent to eternity, The days stretch into weeks, the weeks to years;
Time ages, yet the features do not change; Time sweeps along on feet that never move- Feet fettered by the wire's weightless bond, with night comes sleep.
And sleep brings dreams to flaunt these timeless days, And life runs sweetly as it did before- Bright eyes, sweet lips, cool drinks, good food, soft beds-
The thousand fantasies of vanished peace- Till morning light returns with hopeless hope.
Boredom became our biggest enemy, for with it came apathy and a lowering of morale. Fortunately the comradeship precluded the latter developing, and a way of overcoming the condition was to involve oneself in the many activities around the camp. Not the least of these was the theater in West camp, constructed by Russian POW's under the surveillance of the German guards...in June 1944, their work was finished and the theater opened for Sunday evening " sing- songs". A theater group was formed by some of the men who had experience- and many others with scant experience but unlimited enthusiasm. From their efforts was created a schedule of entertainment that contributed in a considerable degree to the high morale of the camp as a whole.
Some musical instruments arrived later through the efforts of the YMCA. Our first orchestra was formed and christened the Flying Syncopaters. It was a great success and many men with musical ability volunteered their services. They held rehearsals every day and our music-starved prisoners would sit around outside the building just to listen to them practicing.
All through the rest of that year, there were various musical performances and stage productions, leading up to the Christmas performance that was to be our swan song. Five weeks later, the camp would be evacuated...
Christmas day 1944 proved to be much happier than many a homesick kriegie had reason to expect, thanks to some forward thinking by the mail officer and a few others in his confidence. At evening roll call on 24 December, the men were waiting in orderly formation for dismissal after the count had been taken. Suddenly the sound of sleigh bells and a general clatter announced the arrival of a small wagon carrying Santa Claus. He came resplendent in a red and white suit, along with an attendant. Two men dressed as reindeer pulled the wagon. As all the prisoners waited hopefully, Santa made the rounds- tossing out bundles of mail to each group as he passed until everyone had a letter. Faces looked brighter and backs seemed a little straighter as the men returned to barracks. Santa had brought the spirit of Christmas to this lonely camp in the wilderness- where the burning light of hope occasionally grew dim. The mail officer had been persuaded to keep back a letter from each man over a period, to permit Santa's visit to become a reality. It was one of those never to be forgotten days at Sagan. Emotional still, (over) forty years later.
There was hardly a single camp in Germany without a room or barracks set aside for religious services. In many camps, special churches and chapels were built by prisoners themselves. The Protestant chapels were marked by simplicity, especially among the British, while the Catholic churches often bore witness to great religious artistry. Among the British prisoners, I found a more non-committal, uninterested view towards religion. A British Man of Confidence once told me that, in the beginning of prison internment, when they were first taken prisoner, about fifty percent or more of the inmates came to religious services; but as soon as the Red Cross parcels started to arrive, the rate of participation ...started to drop off to between ten and twenty percent...more or less the (average) to be found in most prisoner of war camps. In the American camps, prisoners of various denominations often worshipped together, in one religious unit, meeting evenings and Sundays. In the officers' camps, (participation) was sometimes over fifty percent.
I was the protestant minister in Center Compound, at Stalag Luft 3. There were other British ministers, and a Roman Catholic priest in there with us; but I was the only American Chaplain. I was captured in North Africa in February of 1943. The Germans sent me to three camps ( Capua, Italy; Stalag 7A, Mooseburg; Oflag IX A/Z ,Rotenburg) before they finally sent me to Sagan. That was around the beginning of 1944 and Col. Spivey was running things. My work was mainly with the men who were in Center compound, but I had permission to go into the other camps.
"As the months went by, more and more American Air Force officers were brought into Stalag Luft 3...South and Center Compounds were full, so the Germans built West Compound...For a while there was no chaplain for the new compound, so I went there some Sunday afternoons to conduct services. Before long an English Methodist chaplain whom I had known at Oflag IX A/Z was sent to West and so my visits there were less frequent."
Basically we tried to follow the Church calendar, when Easter and the other celebrations were coming along. I'm a Presbyterian and we're not as bound to preach from certain scriptures, as some of the other churches. The Book of Psalms was always a source of comfort to individuals and the 23rd Psalm was a favorite for everybody.
By this time the fellows had bibles supplied by the YMCA; but when I first got to Germany in March of 1943, they were pretty scarce. The first sermon I preached was down in Italy, when they first brought us over. The text was from Romans 8:28. I've used it often enough! That goes : And We Know that all things work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to His purpose." That was a famous text for the men to hold on to.
"Although I never doubted the Allies would eventually win, the Battle of the bulge was a major set-back in the timetable of the Allies and therefor a great disappointment to POW's. Christmas, 1944 and New Year's Day 1945 were low points in Kriegie morale. We arranged special Christmas services and celebrations. Many barracks had New Years Eve parties; yet a heavy cloud of frustration and homesickness hung over us.
All servicemen remember the jokes about getting the chaplain to punch their " T.S. Cards". Some chaplains humorously passed out cards with a number of the real and imaginary needs and complaints of servicemen printed and with spaces where the chaplain could punch the card, indicating that the need had been met...Good chaplains were able to help many men who came to them, for counsel and advice. The most provocative personal question ever asked me about POW life was: Who punches the chaplains ticket?... (One) is often without much spiritual support...in a POW camp."
This diary starts with his application for cadet training in February 1942, enlistment on April 4, 1942, arrival Wendling on March 24, 1944, shot down April 29th, 1944, captured May 1, 1944 and sent to Stalag Luft III. Forced march to Nuremberg in January 1945, then to Moosburg in March 1945 followed by the POW camp liberation by Gen. George Patton on April 29, 1945. This historical account ends with some vivid reflections of the POW life.