This is Gary Turbak's recently published "Death March Across Germany" in the VFW Magazine. Assertions are made by Turbak, regarding the number of casuaties. We present it here for your thoughtful consideration. -- Greg Hatton
In honor of National POW Day -- April 9 -- VFW presents the virtually unknown story of the American airmen who, in 1945, marched 600 miles in 86 days during one of the cruelist winters on record.
Say the phrase "death march," and most Americans respond with a single word: Bataan. When Japanese troops overran the Philippines in 1942, they forced thousands of GIs and Filipino soldiers to march across 60 miles of the Bataan Peninsula in tropical heat with little or no food and water. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos died in the five-10 day trek that came to be called the Bataan Death March, one of the greatest atrocities ever perpetrated against American fighting men.
But there was another death march inflicted upon American POWs during World War II -- a journey that stretched hundreds of miles and lasted nearly three months. It was an odyssey undertaken in the heart of a terrible German winter fraught with sickness, death and cruelty. Though experienced by thousands of GIs, it was all but forgotten by their countrymen.
By early 1945, the war was going badly for the Germans, with Allied forces poised to overrun Hitler's homeland. As the Russian army approached from the east, the Germans decided to move the occupants of certain POW camps, called stalags, farther west.
Every American POW who experienced this evacuation has his own unique tale of misery, but none is more gripping than the incredible death march made by the men of Stalag Luft IV. ("Luft" means "air" in German, and it designated a camp holding mostly Allied airmen.)
Stalag Luft IV -- in eastern Prussia, part of what is now Poland -- held an estimated 9,000-10,000 POWs. The food was lousy, but it did exist, and the Red Cross parcels that arrived with some regularity contained enough additional nourishment to keep most of the men fairly healthy. Soap was abundant.
The prisoners, almost exclusively NCOs and other enlisted personnel (including some Canadian and British airmen), were not made to work. Some medical care was available. Clothing was adequate. "Life in the camp was at least tolerable," recalls former POW Joe O'Donnell. "Compared to the march, it was a snap."
In late January, the Stalag Luft IV airmen could see the distant flash of artillery fire, which meant an advancing front -- and probably their liberation -- were not far away. Then came the evacuation order and the departure of sick and wounded prisoners by train. More men went by rail a few days later. Finally, on Feb. 6, the remaining POWs set out on foot. No one knows for sure, but they probably numbered about 6,000.
GIs were given access to stored Red Cross parcels, a tremendous windfall of food and other essentials, and many men started out bearing heavy loads. After a few miles, however, the roadside became littered with items too heavy -- or seemingly too unimportant -- to carry. After all, their captors had told them the march would last only three days.
German guards divided the POWs into groups of 250 to 300, not all of which traveled the same route or at the same pace. The result was a diverging, converging living river of men that flowed slowly but predictably west and [later] south.
During the day, the prisoners marched four or five abreast, and at night were herded into nearby barns. With luck, a bed consisted of straw on a barn floor. Sometimes, however, the Germans withheld clean straw, saying the men would contaminate it and make it unfit for livestock use. On occasion, so many men crowded into a barn that some had to sleep standing up. And if no barn was available,
Water (often contaminated) was generally available, but the Germans provided little food. GIs usually scrounged their own meals -- and the firewood to cook them -- often finding no more than a potato or kohlrabi to boil. On the irregular occasions when Red Cross parcels arrived, the GIs traded cigarettes and other items to guards and civilians for delicacies like eggs and milk.
Some men resorted to stealing from pigs the feed that had been thrown to them and to grazing like cows on roadside grass. A handful of stolen grain, eaten while marching, provided many a mid-day meal.
The acquisition of a chicken generated great excitement, but the little meat available more likely came from a farmer's cat or dog. T.D. Cooke tells of appropriating a goose and a rabbit from one farm: "We couldn't cook either one for about three days, and then we could only get it warm, but we ate both right down to the bones -- then we ate the bones." Some men were even driven to eat uncooked rats.
Physician Leslie Caplan, one of the few officers on the trek, later calculated that the rations provided by the Germans provided 770 mostly carbohydrate calories daily, and Red Cross parcels, when they were available, added perhaps 500-600 more.
Troops often marched all day with little or no mid-day food, water or rest. Adding to the misery was one of Germany's coldest winters ever. Snow piled knee-deep at times, and temperatures plunged well below zero. Under these conditions, virtually all the marchers grew gaunt and weak.
Virtually every POW became infected with lice. On sunny days, the men stripped to the waist and took turns removing the tiny livestock from one another. "I had no stethoscope," Caplan later wrote, "so [to examine someone] I would kneel by the patient, expose his chest, scrape off the lice, then place my ear directly on his chest and listen."
Diseases -- pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis and others -- ran rampant, but the most ubiquitous medical problem was dysentery, often acquired by drinking contaminated water.
"Some men drank from ditches that others had used as latrines," recalled Caplan. Dysentery made bowel movements frequent, bloody and uncontrollable. Men were often forced to sleep on ground covered with the feces of those who passed before them. Desperate for relief, they chewed on charcoal embers from the evening cooking fires. Some men welcomed the frequent foodless days because it made the dysentery less severe.
Blisters, abscesses and frostbite also became epidemic. Injuries often turned gangrenous. Medical care remained essentially nonexistent. "As a medical experience, the march was nightmarish," Caplan wrote. "Our sanitation approached medieval standards, and the inevitable result was disease, suffering and death."
The Germans sometimes provided a wagon for the sick, but there was never enough room. When a GI collapsed and could not march, he was put on the wagon and the least-sick rider had to get off. Severely ill GIs were sometimes delivered to hospitals passed en route -- and usually never seen again. Straggling marchers were sometimes escorted by guards into the woods and executed. "Often, there was a shot, and the German guard came back to the formation alone," recalls Karl Haeuser.
Throughout the ordeal, marchers hung together, helping each other. They quickly developed a buddy system in which two to four men ate and slept together and looked out for one another. Many survivors credit their combine (as these groups were called) with saving their lives. When the Germans produced a wagon for carrying the sick but no horse to pull it, weary GIs stepped into the yokes.
At night, aching and tired men carried their dysenteric comrades to the latrine. "Even beyond our combine buddy system, everyone tried to help everyone else," says O'Donnell.
The death march was not without its lighter moments, however. John Kempf tells of two POWs who ran, against a guard's wishes, to the bottom of a muddy slope to grab a choice piece of firewood. In pursuing them, the irate guard slipped and jammed his rifle barrel into the mud -- just before the weapon discharged, splitting the barrel wide open.
On another occasion, POW Clair Miller traded a chocolate bar from a Red Cross package to a German woman for two loaves of bread. She probably had no way of translating the label on the chocolate that read Ex-Lax.
Day after torturous day, the shoe leather express continued. In late March, weary GIs arrived at their supposed destination, two stalags near Fallingbostel in north-central Germany. The camp's sights and smells -- of food and smoke from warm stoves -- set up this bizarre situation: POWs inside the camps wanted to get out, and the weary, starving men from Stalag Luft IV wanted desperately to get in.
And for a time, they did, with some of the men taking their first shower in nearly two months as part of a delousing regimen. But these camps were already crowded, and there were no quarters for the marchers. Permanent residents received regular meals, but transients were forced to fend for themselves, much as they had done on the road. O'Donnell recalls following a Russian prisoner around, picking up the discarded kohlrabi skins the man threw to the ground.
After only about a week, even this respite ended. With British and American troops approaching, guards mustered the men from Stalag Luft IV out of the camp (which was liberated a few days later) and set them to marching again. Incredibly, they doubled back on their earlier route, covering many miles a second time. For several more weeks, the great march continued as a kind of black comedy that saw the weary GIs herded first in one direction, then another, depending on the position of advancing Allied forces.
Eventually, however, the long-awaited liberation came -- in various ways. Some GIs escaped and hid out until they could find an Allied unit. Three such airmen even stole a twin-engine plane and flew to France. One POW appropriated a farmer's horse and rode toward approaching U.S. forces -- with the steed's irate owner not far behind.
Other GIs had the relative misfortune to be "liberated" by the Russians, which sometimes meant additional days of confinement at Soviet hands. Most of the POWs, however, simply marched into the glorious presence of American or British forces.
Although these GIs had anticipated deliverance, their bliss was without bounds. "We were elated beyond words," says O'Donnell. "It was a tremendous joy."
Finally, in spring 1945, the hideous march was over. From beginning to end it spanned 86 days and an estimated 600 miles. Many survivors went from 150 pounds or so to perhaps 90 and suffered injuries and illnesses that plagued them their entire lives. Worst of all, several hundred American soldiers (possibly as many as 1,300) died on this pointless pilgrimage to nowhere. The overall measure of misery remains incalculable.
Though often overlooked by history, the death march across Germany ranks as one of the most outrageous cruelties ever committed against American fighting men. Fittingly, a memorial to these soldiers now stands on the Polish ground where Stalag Luft IV once stood.
© GARY TURBAK, 1999. Gary is a free-lance writer based in Montana. This article is posted with written permission from Turbak.
Editor's Note: Joe O'Donnell, a vet of the German death march and consultant for "Death March Across Germany", has compiled and self-published five volumes about Stalag Luft IV and the death march. For information, contact O'Donnell at 609-585-1346.
Also, thank you to Karl Haeuser of Cayucos, Calif., for bringing this long neglected story to our attention.
Much has been made of and written about the forced marches, and I can only report on what happened to me and those around me, and on what I have learned as a result of a great amount of follow-up research and conversations. Some of my comments here will be on events and conditions much reported on before, and I make them knowing some of them will not please those who have written difficult-to-believe accounts of their and others experiences on similar, but much shorter duration marches.
This movement of allied prisoners across Germany and occupied areas taken by a great number of small groups and lasting various lengths of time has been called The Death March, or the Black, or Bread March. I have read accounts of hundreds of Americans that died around the writer, and feel that if all the numbers of the dead in the accounts of the event that have been published in the Ex-POW Bulletin during its history were combined, one would end up with a total of many thousands. Actually, of the over 90,000 of us known to have been held by the Germans, a total of 1,121 are positively known to have died while in captivity. Balancing this small death rate is the statistical probability that if that number of us held there had not been captured, but continued in combat, even with the number of missions limiting such time for flyers, a larger number of us would no doubt have been killed. Of those almost 8,000 of us who started at Luft IV, only 6 are absolutely known to have died on the march. None died in the group I was in, and although it occasionally changed members when one overtook another, I never heard anyone mention anyone's death. To call my group's walk across Germany guarded by non-hostile members of, first the Luftwaffe, and finally the Volkstrum a Death March, denigrates the terrible ordeal of those POWs who endured the Bataan Death March in the Pacific.
The distances walked certainly varied by groups and the length of time they walked, and no portion of the experience has been more argued or exaggerated. I have read reports that claimed the writer had walked as much as a thousand miles. Cecil Brown, my closest companion on the walk kept notes of each of our 57 days of walking and the distances covered. His calculations were based on the roadside kilometer markers we passed, plus some estimates when none were present. His result is 931 kilometers, or 580 miles. Several years ago, using 1/50,000 scale maps of the area (46 sheets required) and tracing our route over them with a precise cartographic instrument, I arrived at 470 miles. I will settle for the difference, 525 miles, as being a reasonable estimate. The shortest one-day distance was 5 kilometers and the longest 30. The latter was while we skirted the German rocket testing area at Pennemuende on the Baltic coast. Before we began our walk, we knew the end for both Germany and our time as prisoners was not far off. A clandestine radio somewhere in the camp furnished us daily news from BBC, so we knew how the fronts in the west and east were moving. If the radio was taken on the march, it was not with my group, and even if it had been, the lack of accessible power sources would have almost negated its usability. So while on the road our morale and expectations were kept up by things like: the movement of civilians west and German troops east; questions to the guards that would frequently get answers like "Ask Eisenhower, he will be here soon"; and in the last few weeks, the large amount of unopposed American and British air action. As a result, our morale and spirits remained much higher than they could have possibly been had the event taken place before the invasion of the continent. I think a sense of relief and even a sort of elation overcame our fear that anything other than our liberation could finally happen.
As noted, we were far from the only groups on the roads. Often we were paralleling or even mixed in with German civilians, elderly people, women and children fleeing west ahead of the advancing Soviet troops. They were walking, and pushing or pulling carts and wagons containing the only possessions they had; frequently old people and infants were also on the wagons. One afternoon, I pushed a woman's pram with an infant in it. Her possessions were in the pram, or tied to it, and she was carrying a child that would periodically walk for maybe a quarter of a mile before having to be picked up and carried again. We POWs had no idea of the existence of the concentration camps, so the plight of this woman and her children brought home to me the downside of war more than any single thing I had encountered previously. I have often thought about her and the children since them, and wondered about their fates.
As to general conditions for us on the march that I feel pertain to any group starting at Stalag Luft IV:
Sanitation was just a word. By any normal standards, we were already filthy when we started the march. We were in the same dirty clothes we had worn for months and there had been no opportunity to shower or fully bathe for months prior to starting. Nor was there any chance of doing so during the march. No one had the energy to attempt to do anything about it and could not have cared less, as everyone was as bad off as he was. No one I knew of ever entered a heated room during this period, so outer garments were never removed until the last few weeks and we were into spring. When liberated, we were unbelievably filthy, all had lice and many had scabies. In addition to the clothes he was wearing, each man had one thin German-issued blanket, so when sleeping in the open we huddled in pairs for additional warmth. In barns, simply being out of the weather and on hay made this unnecessary. Handling toilet needs was as primitive as can be imagined with the absence of any kind of paper adding to our sanitation problems.
The weather and the temperatures greatly affected us until April. It has been called the coldest winter Germany had during the war, and with us inadequately clothed and shod, it caused us problems. I have read and heard some extreme estimates of the low temperatures we encountered and the resultant cases of frostbitten feet. While I can't argue with the possibility of cold-induced medical conditions, I do question the temperatures that have been given as causing them.
Food was absolutely inadequate. When liberated, many men were showing signs of edema to their extremities -- an early symptom of starvation. And I have often wondered how much longer the move would have had to last before real starvation began to cause casualties. The food consisted of what the Germans accompanying and guarding us managed to acquire in quantity enough to amount to anything when distributed, and then it was generally limited to small rations of potatoes, a rare small portion of watery soup, bread and occasional varied items from Red Cross parcels. Brown's log shows we were given bread 29 times during the 86 days period. On three occasions, the issue was a loaf per man and the others ranged from as much as 1/4 to 1/15. When in the big tent, we were given approximately 12 oz. of very thin carrot soup daily. Mostly in bits and pieces, we each received the equivalent of six and one half Red Cross parcels during the entire period. We added to this by bartering scarce cigarettes and other Red Cross items with German civilians and foreign nationals working on farms, and by scrounging, thievery of vegetables stored in mounds in the fields and even foraging for edible wild plants. We went to sleep hungry, awoke that way and stayed that way during the day. Most conversations quickly evolved into talk about food, often including the impossibly large and varied contents of the meals we were going to eat when we got home, frequently even including the details of preparing each item. I feel I held my weight of about 160 lbs. while in the two Stalag Lufts. When I weighed myself after liberation and a couple of good meals of Army chow hat I managed to keep down, I hit 121. Had we remained in Luft IV with the routine and ration situations unchanged during those 86 days, we would have been given about the same amount of bread, more Red Cross food, and a greatly increased German ration. And except for two roll calls a day, one could be (and some were) a complete bed potato and bum up many, many fewer calories. If our long walk required a name, one might be tempted to title it the "Misery Walk" and not be wrong. If feel however -- and remember this story addresses things as I sag; and currently see them -- that the absolute knowledge that the big end was very near tempered the misery, hunger and even the uncertainties about the period between any current time and the end.
Liberation! As noted earlier, it finally came when we were surrendered to our forces. Knowing it was getting closer each day was probably the main thing that sustained us during our almost three-month-long migration. Just the word itself denotes freedom, but it must be long and hopefully awaited, anticipated and then finally realized for it to have its full, almost indescribable meaning. Liberation. The good guys came and took you away from the bad guys! Your country had the will and its military had the initiative, the guts and the ability to kick butt and win! To get you and all the marbles.
The events above took place almost fifty-five years ago. Following them and a short break from the military, I re-enlisted, and for three years was a crew member on B-36's, B-29's and B-50's. From that I switched to a new career in the Air Force devoted to training in survival, evasion and escape, and coping with captivity. In this capacity, I attended many training programs, worked with thousands of flying personnel and climbed mountains, traveled on glaciers, rafted and paddled on rivers, hunted and fished, built and lived in igloos on Arctic Sea ice, trekked many hundreds off miles through forests in many parts of the world, attended interrogation schools in two countries and played interrogator as well as POW in many US military and NATO training exercises worldwide. I even spent four more years in Germany. Today, I look back on all of it, including captivity, as one great adventure and learning experience. The enjoyment I find in looking back is tempered however by the knowledge that many who have been POWs never lived to either look back on it, or enjoy subsequent experiences.
"Part 1 Capture and the Camps" available upon request from Greg Hatton
This article by John Frisbee, co-authored by Col. George Gudderly, chronicles the Black March and it's casualties. Col. Gudderly survived the March and went on to a successful career in the Air Force. Instrumental in the effort to place a monument at the location of Luft IV, he regularly writes and lectures on the subject.
During the winter of 1944-45, 6,000 Air Force noncoms took part in an event of mass heroism that has been neglected by history. Most Americans know, in at least a general way, about the Bataan Death March that took place in the Philippines during April 1942. Few have even heard of an equally grim march of Allied POWs in northern Germany, during the winter of 1945, (the most severe winter Europe had suffered in many years). The march started at Stalag Luft IV in German Pomerania (now part of Poland), a POW camp for US and British aircrew men.
Early in 1945, as the Soviet forces continued to advance after their breakout at Leningrad, the Germans decided to evacuate Stalag Luft IV. Some 1500 of the POWs, who were not physically able to walk, were sent by train to Stalag Luft I… On Feb. 6, with little notice, more than 6,000 US and British airmen began a forced march to the west in subzero weather, for which they were not adequately clothed or shod.
Conditions on the march were shocking. There was a total lack of sanitary facilities. Coupled with that was a completely inadequate diet of about 700 calories per day, contrasted to the 3,500 provided by the US military services. Red Cross food parcels added additional calories when and if the Germans decided to distribute them. As a result of the unsanitary conditions and a near starvation diet, disease became rampant; typhus fever spread by body lice, dysentery that was suffered in some degree by everyone, pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, and other diseases. A major problem was frostbite that in many cases resulted in the amputation of extremities. At night, the men slept on frozen ground or, where available, in barns or any other shelter that could be found.
They decided to move us to Munich, Germany (that was on April 4th). They were marching us ( as I understand it, there were about 9,000 prisoners) down this road, three abreast. Just before we left , Smitty and I talked it over. "Now, this will probably be a good time to escape. We don't know how soon the war's going to be over or anything." Smitty says: "Yeah, I think you're right." I said: "If we see a chance, let's go!" So he says: "OK, I'II stay behind you. If we see a chance and you think it's OK, then I'II be right behind you!" I said: "Okay!"
The five Allied doctors on the march were provided almost no medicines or help by the Germans. Those doctors, and a British chaplain, stood high in the ranks of the many heroes of the march. After walking all day with frequent pauses to care for stragglers, they spent the night caring for the ill, then marched again the next day. When no medication was available, their encouragement and good humor helped many a man who was on the verge of giving up.
Acts of heroism were virtually universal. The stronger helped the weaker. Those fortunate enough to have a coat shared it with others. Sometimes the Germans provided farm wagons for those unable to walk. There seldom were horses available, so teams of POWs pulled the wagons through the snow. Captain (Dr.) Caplan, in his testimony to the War Crimes Commission, described it as "a domain of heroes."
I met one of those guys who flew the P-47's over us on that march. He told me, that their orders were to: "Fly over Germany and shoot anything that moves". They didn't know that we were prisoners of war; they just thought that we were German troops going towards the front. When I was sitting up there on the side of the hill, I could see guys hooking towels together...anything that was white! They went out into the field and made a big "POW" sign.
The range of talents and experience among the men was almost unlimited. Those with medical experience helped the doctors. Others proved to be talented traders, swapping the contents of Red Cross parcels with local civilians for eggs and other food. The price for being caught at this was instant death on both sides of the deal. A few less Nazified guards could be bribed with cigarettes to round up small amounts of local food.
I had a little something to eat. I carried with me the crackers and grape jam in those little cans that come in the Red Cross packages. The guards hadn't punched ours with a bayonet, the way they usually do. I also had a D-Bar and two boxes of Domino sugar. That sugar will keep you going for quite a while. I stopped one night and dug out some potatoes that were in a farmer's field. They buried them over there, under big mounds, and I could dig down and get some. That night I had an interesting experience. It scared the hell out of me.
In a few instances, when Allied air attacks killed a cow or horse in the fields, the animal was butchered expertly to supplement the meager rations. In every way possible, the men took care of each other in an almost universal display of compassion. Accounts of personal heroism are legion.
Soon, a bunch of Germans came running out of this building, maybe fifty yards away. They were coming right towards me! I'm thinking: "Oh shoot, they got me!" Well, they come up and start to climb those mounds and get down inside. I lay there as they went along this little path right by me. It was pitch black and I could see them against the sky as I looked up, but nobody saw me.
Because of war damage, the inadequacy of the roads, and the flow of battle, not all the POWs followed the same route west. It became a meandering passage over the northern part of Germany. As winter drew to a close, suffering from the cold abated. When the sound of Allied artillery grew closer, the German guards were less harsh in their treatment of POWs.
The march finally came to an end when the main element of the column encountered Allied forces east of Hamburg on May 2, 1945. They had covered more than 600 miles in 87 never-to-be-forgotten days. Of those who started on the march, about 1,500 perished from disease, starvation, or at the hands of German guards while attempting to escape. In terms of percentage of mortality, it came very close to the Bataan Death March. The heroism of these men stands as a legacy to Air Force crewmen and deserves to be recognized.
In 1992, the American survivors of the march funded and dedicated a memorial at the former site of Stalag Luft IV in Poland, the starting place of a march that is an important part of Air Force history. It should be widely recognized and its many heroes honored for their valor.
Chris Christiansen, Protecting Powers delegate (from his book: Seven Years Among Prisoners of War; Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio 1994)
As early as March 1944, the camp commandants' had received instructions that in case of imminent invasion all POWs were to be evacuated from the border areas and the invasion zones. From September 1944 onward this evacuation claimed an incredible number of victims, and the closer the Allied armed forces came to the German borders, the more chaotic and undisciplined was the evacuation. I do not know just how many Allied POWS were killed in the process, but the number of British and Americans alone might be an indication: during the period from September 1944 through January 1945, the evacuations had claimed 1,987 victims, but during the last three months of the war that number increased to a total of 8,348. With so many dead among those who were relatively well treated and who-much more importantly, received Red Cross parcels with food for their daily meals, it can be assumed that the number of dead among the Russian POWs must have been considerably higher. About one hundred thousand POWs from the camps in Silesia were evacuated and marched through Saxony to Bavaria and Austria. Transportation by train had been planned, but had proved impossible because of the rapid Russian advance. Lack of winter clothes, food and quarters claimed many victims. Over-excited party members and nervous home guard (members of the "Volkssturm") decided the fate of the POWs in these last weeks of the war. The German High Command wanted to keep the POWs at any cost, to be able to negotiate more favorable peace terms, and it was therefore necessary to evacuate them under these most inhumane conditions instead of just leaving them to await the advancing Allied armies.
Greg Hatton's note: Doc Caplan's" testimony is widely revered among former Luft IV prisoners. It documents with crystal clarity, the hardships they endured.
Perpetuation of Testimony of Dr. Leslie Caplan (Formerly Major, MC, ASN 0-41343)
Minnesota Military District, The Armory, 500 So. 6th St. Minneapolis, 15, Minn.
Date: 31 December 1947
In the Presence of:
Lt. Col. William C. Hoffmann, AGD
Executive Officer, Minnesota Military
District, The Armory, 500 So. 6th St.
Minneapolis, I5, Minn.
Q. State your name, permanent home address, and occupation.
A. Leslie Caplan, Dr., 1728 Second Ave. So., Minneapolis, Minnesota; Resident Fellow in Psychiatry, University of Minnesota & Veterans Hospital, Minneapolis, Minn.
Q. State the date and place of your birth and of what country you are a citizen.
A. 8 March 1908, Steubenville, Ohio; citizen of the United States of America.
Q. State briefly your medical education and experience.
A. Ohio State University, B.A., 1933; MD 1936; University of Michigan Post Graduate work in Public Health; University of Minnesota Graduate School; one year general internship, Providence Hospital, Detroit, Michigan; 4 years general practice of medicine in Detroit, Michigan 1937-1941; 4 years Flight Surgeon, U.S. Army i941-1945.
Q. What is your marital status?
A. I am married.
Q. On what date did you return from overseas?
A. 29 June 1945.
Q. Were you a prisoner of war?
Q. At what places were you held and state the approximate dates?
A. Dernisch, Jugo-Slavia 13 October 1944 to 20 October 1944: Zagreb, Jugo-Slavia 27 October 1944 to 1 November 1944; Dulag Luft, Frankfort, Germany, 15 November 1944 to 22 November 1944; Stalag Luft #4 28 November 1944 to 6 February 1945; on forced march under jurisdiction of Stalag Luft #4 February 1945 to 30 March 1945; Fallingbostel Stalag II B March 30 1945 to April 6 1945; on forced march from 6 April 1945 to 2 May 1945.
Q. What unit were you with when captured?
A. 15th Air Force, 449 Bomb Group, 719th Squadron. I was Flight Surgeon for the 719th Squadron
Q. State what you know concerning the mistreatment of American prisoners of war at Stalag Luft #4.
A. The camp was opened about April 1944 and was an Air Force Camp. It was located at Gross Tychow about two miles from the Kiefheide railroad station. In the summer of 1944 the Russian offensive threatened Stalag Luft #6, 50 approximately 1000 Americans were placed on a ship for evacuation to Stalag Luft #4. Upon arrival at the railroad station, certain groups were forced to run the two miles to Stalag Luft #4 at the points of bayonets. Those who dropped behind were either bayoneted or were bitten on the legs by police dogs.
Q. Were these wounds serious enough to cause any deaths?
A. All were flesh wounds and no deaths were caused by the bayoneting.
Q. Did you see these men at the time of the bayoneting?
A. No. This happened prior to my arrival at Luft #4.
Q. Did you see any of the men who were bitten by dogs?
A. Yes, I personally saw the healed wounds on the legs of a fellow named Smith or Jones (I am not certain as to the name) who had been severely bitten. There were approximately fifty bites on each leg. It looked as though his legs had been hit with small buck shot. This man remained an invalid confined to his bed all the time I was at Luft #4.
Q. Do you know how many men were injured as a result of the bayonet runs?
A. I was told that about twenty men had been hospitalized as a result. Many other bayoneted men were not hospitalized due to limited medical facilities.
Q. Who told you of these incidents?
A. Captain Wilbur E. McKee, 1462 So. Seventh St., Louisville, Ky., who was Chief Camp Doctor. He should have some authentic records. Captain Henry E. Wysen, 346 E. Havenswood Ave., Youngstown, Ohio, also knew of the incidents. There were also two enlisted men who were elected by the soldiers as Camp leaders and known officially as "American Man of Confidence" who could give an account of the camp and of the bayoneting. The chief "American Man of Confidence" was camp leader and should have complete records of the incident. His name is Frank Paules, 101 Regent St., Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Francis A. Troy, Box 233, Edgerton, Wyoming, the other enlisted man, and "American Man of Confidence" should also verify the incidents. Both of these enlisted men were also on the forced march when Stalag Luft #4 was evacuated.
Q. Do you know if the Commandant was responsible for the bayoneting and dog bites?
A. I did not know the Commandant and I do not know who was responsible. Captain Pickhardt, the officer in charge of the guards, is said to have incited the guards by telling them that American Airmen were gangsters who received a bonus for bombing German children and women. Most of the guards were older men and fairly reasonable, but other guards were pretty rough. "Big Stoop" was the most hated of the guards.
Q. For what reason was "Big Stoop" disliked?
A. He beat up on many of our men. He would cuff the men on the ears with an open hand sideway movement. This would cause pressure on the eardrums which sometimes punctured them.
Q. Could you give any specific incidents of such mistreatment by "Big Stoop"?
A. Yes. I treated some of the men whose eardrums had been ruptured by the cuffings administered by "Big Stoop".
Q. Can you describe "Big Stoop"?
A. He was about six feet, six inches tall, weight about 180 or 190 pounds, and was approximately fifty years old. His most outstanding characteristic was his large hands, which seemed out of proportion to those of a normal person.
Q. When you arrived at Stalag #4, were you subjected to the bayonet runs?
A. No. We were marched from the station to Luft #4, but not on the run. Some of the men were tired and we complained to "Big Stoop". He snarled at us, but personally went forward and slowed the column down.
Q. Did you have any duties assigned to you while a prisoner?
I was known as an Allied Medical Officer at Stalag #4 Camp Hospital and in charge of Section C while on the march.
Q. State what you know concerning the forced march from Stalag Luft #4?
A. In February 1945 the Russian Offensive threatened to engulf State Luft #4. On 6 February 1945 about 6,000 prisoners were ordered to leave the camp on foot after only a few hours notice. We left in three separate sections: A, C, and D. I marched with Section C which had approximately 2500 men. It was a march of great hardship. For 53 days we marched long distance in bitter weather and on starvation rations. We lived in filth and slept in open fields or barns. Clothing, medical facilities and sanitary facilities were utterly inadequate. Hundreds of men suffered from malnutrition, exposure, trench foot, exhaustion, dysentery, tuberculosis, and other diseases. No doubt many men are still suffering today as a result of that ordeal.
Q. Who was in charge of this march?
A. The commandant of Stalag Luft #4 was in charge of the three sections. Hauptman (Captain) Weinert was in charge of Section C that I marched with. All the elements of Stalag Luft #4 occupied a good bit of territory and there was frequent overlapping of the various sections.
Q. How much distance was covered in this march?
A. While under the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft #4, we covered an estimated 555 kilometers (330 miles). I kept a record, which I still have of distances covered, rations issued, sick men abandoned, and other pertinent data. This record is far from complete especially about records of the sick, but the record of rations and distances covered is complete.
Q. How much food was issued to the men on this march?
A. According to my records, during the 53 days of the march, the Germans issued us rations which I have since figured out contained a total of 770 calories per day. The German ration was mostly in potatoes and contained very little protein, far from enough to maintain strength and health. However, in addition we were issued Red Cross food which for the same 53 day period averaged 566 calories per day. This means that our caloric intake per day on the march amounted to 1336 calories. This is far less than the minimum required to maintain body weight, even without the physical strenuous activity we compelled to undergo in the long marches.
The area we marched through was rural and there were no food shortages there. We all felt that the German officers in our column could have obtained more supplies for us. They contended that the food we saw was needed elsewhere. They further contended that the reason we received so little Red Cross supplies was that the Allied Air Force (of which we were "Gangster members) had disrupted the German transportation that carried Red Cross supplies. This argument was disproved later when we continued our march under the jurisdiction of another prison camp; namely Stalag #IIB. This was during the last month of the war when German transportation was at its worst. Even so, we received a good ration of potatoes almost daily and received frequent issues of Red Cross, far more than we were given under the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft #4.
Q. What sort of shelter was provided during the 53 day march?
A. Mostly we slept in barns. We were usually herded into these barns so closely that it was impossible for all men to find room to lie down. It was not unusual for many men to stand all night or to be compelled to sleep outside because there was no room inside. Usually there was some straw for some of us to lie on but many had to lie in barn filth or in dampness. Very frequently there were large parts of the barn (usually drier and with more straw) that were denied to us. There seemed to be no good reason why we should have to sleep in barnyard filth or stand in a crowded barn while other sections of the barn were not used. The Germans sometimes gave no reason for this but at other times, it was made clear to us that if we slept in the clean straw its value to the animals would be less because we would make it dirty. At other times barns were denied to us because the Germans stated having PWs in the barn might cause a fire that would endanger the livestock. It was very obvious that the welfare of German cattle was placed above our welfare. On 14 February 1945 Section C of Stalag Luft #4 had marched approximately 35 kilometers. There were many stragglers and sick men who could barely keep up. That night the entire column slept in a cleared area in the woods near Schweinemunde. It had rained a good bit of the day and the ground was soggy, but it froze before morning. We slept on what was littered by the feces of dysenteric prisoners who had stayed there previously. There were many barns in the vicinity, but no effort was made to accommodate us there. There were hundreds of sick men in the column that night. I slept with one that was suffering from pneumonia.
Q. What were the conditions on this march as regards drinking water?
A. Very poor. Our sources of water were unsanitary surface water and well water often of questionable sanitary quality. At times so little water was issued to us that men drank whatever they could. While there was snow on the ground, it was common for the men to eat snow whether it was dirty or not. At other times some men drank from ditches that others had used as latrines. I personally protested this condition many times. The German doctor from Stalag Luft #4 (Capt. Sommers or Sonners) agreed that the lack of sanitary water was the principal factor responsible for the dysentery that plagued our men. It would have been a simple matter to issue large amounts of boiled water which would have been safe regardless of its source. At times we were issued adequate amounts of boiled water but at other times, not enough safe water was available. We often appealed to be allowed to collect firewood and boil water ourselves in the many boilers that were standard equipment on almost every German farm. This appeal was granted irregularly. When it was granted the men lined up in the cold for hours to await the tedious distribution. Another factor that forced an unnecessary hardship on us was the fact that when we first left Stalag Luft #4, the men were not permitted to take along a drinking utensil. The first few issues of boiled water were therefore not widely distributed for there were no containers for the men to collect the water in. As time went on, each man collected a tin can from the Red Cross food supplies and this filthy container was the sole means of collecting water or the soup that was sometimes issued to us.
Q. What medical facilities were available on the march from Stalag Luft #4?
A. They were pitiful. From the very start large numbers of men began to fall behind. Blisters became infected and many men collapsed from hunger, fear, malnutrition, exhaustion, or disease. We organized groups of men to aid the hundreds of stragglers. It was common for men to drag themselves along in spite of intense suffering. Many men marched along with large abscesses on their feet or frostbite of extremities. Many others marched with temperatures as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I personally slept with men suffering from Erysipelas, Diphtheria, Pneumonia, Malaria, Dysentery and other diseases. The most common disease was dysentery for this was an inevitable consequence of the filth we lived in and the unsanitary water we drank. This was so common and so severe, that all ordinary rules of decency were meaningless. Hundreds of men on this march suffered so severely from dysentery that they lost control of their bowel movements because of severe cramps and soiled themselves. Wherever our column went, there was a trail of bloody movements and discarded underwear (which was sorely needed for warmth). At times the Germans gave us a few small farm wagons to carry our sick. The most these wagons ever accommodated was 35 men but we had hundreds of men on the verge of collapse. It was our practice to load the wagon. As a man would collapse he would be put on the wagon and some sick man on the wagon would be taken off the wagon to make way for his exhausted comrade. When our column would near a permanent PW camp we were never allowed to leave all of our sick. I do not know what happened to most of the sick men that were left at various places along the march.
Q. What medical supplies were issued to you by the Germans on the march from Stalag Luft #4?
A. Very few. When we left the camp we carried with us a small amount of medical supplies furnished us by the Red Cross. At times the Germans gave us pittance of drugs. They claimed they had none to spare. At various times, I asked for rations of salt. Salt is essential for the maintenance of body strength and of body fluids and minerals. This was particularly needed by our men because hundreds of them had lost tremendous amounts of body fluids and minerals as the result of dysentery. The only ration of salt that I have a record of or can recall was one small bag of salt weighing less than a pound. This was for about 2500 men. I feel there is no excuse for this inadequate ration of salt.
Q. To your knowledge, did any sick man die as a result of neglect by the Germans on the march from Stalag Luft #4?
A. Yes. The following named men died as a result of neglect. All of these men have been declared dead by the Casualty Branch of the Adjutant General's Office:
George W. Briggs S/Sgt.
John C. Clark S/Sgt.
Edward B. Coleman S/Sgt.
George F. Grover S/Sgt.
William Lloyd S/Sgt.
Harold H. Mack T/Sgt.
Robert M. Trapnell SISgt.
It is likely that there were other deaths that I do not know about.
Q. Did all these deaths occur while the men were directly under the control of Stalag Luft #4?
A. No. As I mentioned before, our sick men were left at various places and I never saw them again. Some of these men died after we were out of the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft 4.
Q. What were the circumstances which led to the deaths of these men?
A. At 0200 on 9 April 1945 at a barn in Wohlen, Germany, Sgt. George W. Briggs was suddenly overcome by violent shaking of the entire body and soon after he went into a coma. This patient was sent to a German hospital. We were then under the jurisdiction of POW Camp Stalag II B and they voluntarily sent this patient to a hospital. This is in marked contrast to the treatment received when we were under the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft 4 when every hospitalization was either refused or granted after a long series of waiting for guards, waiting for permission to see Capt. Weinert, and waiting his decision. In spite of the prompt hospitalization, this patient dies on 11 April 1945. No doubt this death was largely caused by being weakened on the first part of the march while under the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft 4. On 9 March 1945 while on the march in Germany, Capt. Sommers who was the German doctor for Stalag Luft 4, personally notified me that John C. Clark had died the previous night of pneumonia. He had not been hospitalized and had received very little medical care. I never saw this patient, but he was seen in a barn in the terminal stages of his illness by Capt. Pollack of the Royal Medical Corps who told me about it later on. On 13 April 1945 while on the march in Germany, Edward B. Coleman collapsed from severe abdominal pain and weakness. I made a diagnosis of an acute abdominal emergency superimposed on a previously weakened condition which was the result of malnutrition and dysentery. He was hospitalized but according to the records of the Adjutant General, he died 15 April 1945. He had had both legs amputated because of gangrene secondary to frostbite. He told me that S/Sgt Vincent Soddaro ASN 32804649 of Brooklyn, New York had also had both legs amputated because of gangrene and frostbite. Sgt. Edwards and Sgt. Soddaro had been in the same German hospital.
Q. What other mistreatment did you suffer on the march from Stalag Luft 4?
A. There were beatings by the guards at times but it was a minor problem. At 1500 hours on 28 March 1945 a large number of our men were loaded on freight cars at Ebbsdorf, Gem We were forced in at the rate of 60 men or more to a car. This was so crowded that there was not enough room for all men to sit at the same time. We remained in these jammed boxcars until 0030 hours March 30, 1945 when our train left Ebbsdorf. During this 33 hour period few men were allowed out of the cars for the cars were sealed shut most of the time. The suffering this caused was unnecessary for there was a pump with a good supply of water in the railroad yards a short distance from the train. At one time I was allowed to fetch some water for a few of our men who were suffering from dysentery. Many men had dysentery at the time and the hardship of being confined to the freight cars was aggravated by the filth and stench resulting from men who had to urinate and defecate inside the cars. We did not get off these freight cars until we reached Fallingbostel around noon of 30 March 1945 and then we marched to Stalag 11B. The freight cars we were transported in had no marking on them to indicate that they were occupied by helpless prisoners of war. There was constant aerial activity in the area at the time and there was a good chance of being strafed.
Q. Was the suffering that resulted from the evacuation march from Stalag Luft 4 avoidable?
A. Certainly a large part of the suffering was avoidable. As I mentioned before, we marched through rural Germany and there was no lack of food there. There were always many large barns available that could have been used by us. There was always firewood available that could have been used to boil water and thus give us a supply of safe drinking water. There were many horses and wagons available that could have been used to transport our sick mer There were many men in our column who were exhausted and who could have been left for a rest at prison camps that we passed on the march.
On 30 March 1945 we left the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft 4 when we arrived at Stalag Luft On 6 April 1945 we again went on a forced march under the jurisdiction of Stalag 11B. Our first march had been in a general westerly direction for the Germans were then running from the Russians. The second march was in a general easterly direction for the Germans were running from the American and British forces. Because of this, during the march under the jurisdiction of Stalag 11B we doubled back and covered a good bit of the same territory we just come over a month before. We doubled back for over 200 kilometers and it took 26 days before British forces liberated us. During those 26 days we were accorded much better treatment. We received a ration of potatoes daily besides other food including horse meat. We always barns to sleep in although the weather was much milder than when we had previously cover this same territory. During these 26 days we received about 1235 calories daily from the Germans and an additional 1500 calories daily from the Red Cross for a total caloric intake. I believe that if the officers of Stalag Luft 4 had made an effort they too could have secured us as much rations and shelter.
Q. To what officers from Stalag Luft 4 did you complain?
A. I only saw the commandant of Stalag Luft 4 once on the entire march and I was not allowed to talk to him then. Mostly I complained to Capt. Weinert who was in charge of "C" column that I was with most of the time.
Q. Can you describe Capt. Weinert?
A. He was a little taller than average and well built. He was in his forties but looked much younger until he took his cap off and exposed his bald head. He was an Air Corps officer and was said to have been a prisoner of the Allies in North Africa and later repatriated for a physical disability. I never saw any certain evidence of such a disability. He rarely marched but rode in his own wagon. Some of the men said he had an arm injury but I never saw any definite evidence of this. Maybe this was because I only saw him on rather formal military occasions when he would stand or sit in a rigid manner almost as if he were at attention. I never saw him for long periods of time. He spoke excellent English but it was a favorite trick of his to act as if he did not understand English. Usually he spoke to me through an interpreter, but several times we spoke in English.
Q. Are there any other incidents that should be reported.
A. There is one other incident I would like to report. On 16 February 1945 we were on the road west of the Oder River in the general area of Schweinemunde. I was then marching with a party of several hundred of our stragglers who were tagging along behind our main column. We met a small group of other prisoners on the road. I was allowed to talk to these men briefly and obtained the following information: these men were from PW camp Stalag 2B, which had originally been at Hammerstein. They were all sick and had left their column to be taken to a hospital. On arrival at the hospital they were denied admission and continued the march with little or no rations. These men appeared to be on the verge of exhaustion. Two had obvious fevers with severe cough, which was probably pneumonia or tuberculosis. About 20 of these men were Americans. One had on a foreign uniform and I thought he was an Italian. There was a tall British sergeant with them. One of the men carried a small wooden chest with the name of "Joe McDaniels" or "Joe McWilliams" on it. He told me that he had been acting as Chaplain at Stalag 2B. Another man was a tall, slender fellow from Schenectady, New York. (After I was liberated I met an ex-prisoner from Stalag 2B who thought this fellow was J. Luckhurst of 864 Stanley, Schenectady, New York.) This fellow said he was suffering from recurrent malaria. These men were so weak they could scarcely stand. The German sergeant in charge of our small section at the time recognized their plight and got a Wehrmacht truck to take them to our next stop. We received no rations that night, but did get a small issue of hot water. The next day these men were placed on wagons and stayed with us. They again received no rations and again were sheltered in crowded barns. On 18 February 1945, I personally protested to Capt. Weinert about these men, although he had known about them previously. I pointed out that these men were exhausted and might soon die. I requested rations, rest, and hospitalization for them. Capt. Weinert said they were not his responsibility, inasmuch as they were not originally from Stalag Luft 4. I objected to this and stated that these men were now in our column and that he was responsible for their lives and health. He then agreed to leave these men behind. The next day, Capt. Weinert told me these men had been transferred to another command. I never saw the men again, but I heard a rumor that one of them had died.
Q. Do you have anything further to add?
Leslie Caplan, M.D.
State of Minnesota
County of Hennepin
I, Dr. Leslie Caplan, of lawful age, being duly sworn on oath, state that I have read the foregoing transcription of my interrogation and all answers contained therein are true to the best of my knowledge and belief.
Leslie Caplan, M.D.
Subscribed and sworn to before me, this 5 day of January 1948.
William C. Hoffmann
Lt. Colonel, AGD
I, William C. Hoffman, Lt. Col. Certify that Dr. Leslie Caplan personally appeared before me on December 31, 1947 and testified concerning war crimes; and that the foregoing is an accurate transcription of the answers given by him to the several questions set forth.
Lt. Col. William C. Hoffmann