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It was in late September of 1974, that I was with my father (S./Sgt. Hyman Hatton- waist gunner, Ofenstein crew 392ndBG) in a hospital room. He was recovering from multiple amputations of his legs. As he lay on his back, smoke from his cigarette curled up past sightless eyes. He was 54 years old then and had come home from the war with severe injuries to his back, chronic arthritis and suffered the effects of prolonged malnutrition.
As we grew up, we watched his body succumb to the crushing progress of disability. Getting him to work was a family affair, but also an object lesson in what a person can do if he has to. He was constantly compensating and overcoming physical decline with hard work and wit. Our family prospered and it seemed as though the candle would burn forever.
Breaking through the silence of that moment, I blurted out: "Dad, you've got to tell me how you've done so much with your life? " I'm not sure what I expected him to say, but I was unprepared for the simplicity of his answer: "Just lucky, I guess!" We had a good family and mom had always been there for him. When he first came back, she'd helped him learn to walk again; they'd built a good life together. "I never had much choice about the things I've had to do".
He spoke about being a young man but I didn't understand what he was getting at. The answers were coming between the lines. I thought back to a day when I was 4 years old and had asked him: "Daddy, why can't you stand up straight?" He answered: "Someone hit me in the back with a rifle butt. " It was incomprehensible to me at that time. Why would anyone want to do such thing?
It's been 56 years since the Hydekrug Run, and the question is still valid.
Hydekrug, East Prussia - as isolated and remote a place as you could find. Only a few miles off the Baltic Coast (in what is now Lithuania), it was flat, swampy and wooded. The winters were long and the icy winds swept over it. Stalag Luft 6 was built on a sandy spot 2 miles southeast of the town. There were ten, single story, brick barracks and 12 wooden huts. Access to the camp was over an unpaved road through the woods. The town itself was situated between Tilset and the seaport of Memel. Lagar A was opened in June 1943 by British NCO's transferred from Sagan. They were joined, in October, by NCO's from Barth (who moved into Lagar K).
The British had come to the camp with solid leadership and extensive experience in camp organization; as well as escape operations. The first Americans arrived in February of 1944 and Lagar E was to be their home. Frank Paules remembered:
"About 80 of us first came up to Luft 6. There was a contingent of British already there and the leader was Dixie Dean. He welcomed us. It was colder than hell and everybody was hungry after the long train ride. We were locked up and I asked if anybody could speak German. Bill Krebs stood up and we banged on the bars. When a guard came, we said, "According to the Geneva Conventions, you're supposed to give us blankets and food!" They hadn't given us anything and it was February. A little while later, they came with two blankets for each guy and some food. The guys said to me "OK you're the camp leader". When there got to be about a thousand guys, we had an election.
The Commandant in charge was Oberst Hermann Von Hoerback, an old line Prussian army officer. He was very strict but basically fair. He did not commit any acts of cruelty. According to the Geneva Conventions the commander and his staff would only deal with one person, The SAO or the Vertraunsmann. They called us out every morning and it was "Guten morgen Herr Oberst"… "Guten morgen Herr Paules" - (there was a general by that name and he seemed to get a kick out of that).
Before long, we had a camp council that consisted of all the elected barracks leaders, and myself. It was agreed that we'd put up matters for discussion, but the ultimate responsibility rested with me. The camp secretary was Joseph Harrison and Carter Lunsford was my adjutant. Bill Krebs was our interpreter and handled security. Two of our most important jobs were: Distribution of food parcels and communications. Right from the start, food and warm clothing were serious problems. The British and Canadians shared their Red Cross parcels with us until ours started coming in. That's how we made out.
The Red Cross reps and protecting powers were the ones who were supposed to see the Geneva Conventions were carried out. Mr. Berg and Mr. Soderberg came in May, right before we got our first parcels. We didn't need a lot of protecting yet (although two men had been shot at Luft 6: Sgt. G. Walker, during an escape and S./Sgt. W. Nies while crossing the "Parade Grounds")
The events of March and April 1944 put the Kai Bosch on us trying to escape. After the SS shot those 50 officers at Luft III, they came up to Luft six, called up out and told us about it. Before this, digging tunnels was kind of a pastime. They knew we were digging them but probably figured it kept us busy. At that point, the SS and the Gestapo probably began to have more to do with running the camps. By the time we got to Luft IV, things were really different for us, what they were saying was: "There's no more of this crap, where you guys run things, we're gonna run it all."
Our NCO's had a wealth of talented and able men who were mature in terms of discipline and the way command things worked. We had a man in our camp from the University of Kentucky basketball team, boxers from all of the United Kingdom- and America and baseball was a regular event. The sports program was well developed at Hydekrug. In fact, that's how we got the camp radio. They sent it to us packed in the softball equipment and when it arrived I had to get it back before someone hit it over the fence. In June, we knew of the invasion before the Germans. They had broadcast on the loud speaker how they had hurled the allies back into the sea. Tom McHale and Bob Doherty ran the camp paper and they had quite a scoop that day. Tom sent guys all around the barracks to make the announcement. I had to remind him that we were still at war.
Changes were coming and Bob Doherty describes them:
"Our last issue was dated June 24, 1944. By then the camp was bustling with preparations for the 4th of July gala. Orchestras were rehearsing and singers were vocalizing without mercy. This activity was all on the surface, everybody knew that the Russians were driving through the front in a new summer offensive. They had a column heading right for East Prussia. The Germans didn't want us to know that an evacuation was imminent, so they went as far as Konigsberg to get our costumes. Anything to make us think things were normal. We in turn posted stooges at every barracks door to aid our activities. Outside prisoners played ball. Inside, men sewed shirts into carrying cases and expanded their food combines. In the Vorlager, men detailed to unload freight cars, used every trick in the book to leave canned food unpunctured. When they showed up in the barracks for distribution, they were promptly commandeered for the evacuation."
Don Kirby was an avid sports man. He was among the first to get to Luft 6 and like others, he welcomed the coming of the warm weather. He used the sports program to condition himself and overcome the ravages of battle and winter. Baseball was his game but he wound up on the American ticket for "The International Bouts" in June and July: "These fights were to keep up our morale and we had a pretty good rivalry going with the English. A good many of the fellows on both sides of the defense had bet their rations and cigarettes on the fights. This added to the sporting interest, but there was a lot on the line. The winning side would get a real boost to their stocks if the evacuation came soon.
I trained for weeks with Steve Swidirski, (known as the Masked Marvel) and I had a hard time keeping in shape on half rations and sawdust bread. It was a hot day in July when they called us out into the middle of the ring. The ref said, "Touch gloves and come out fighting. " My opponent was an Aussie named Perry and he was experienced. When I put my glove out there . . . boom. . . he hit me! It makes me mad when somebody takes advantage of a situation, and that's what I need to get going! It felt good to win that day. Just after this, we broke camp."
The camp evacuation was in several phases; eleven hundred Army Air Corp and 900 RAF-NCO's were taken by rail to the Baltic Port of Memel. The main group of 1000 Americans left the camp in the late afternoon (about 1500 hrs) on Friday, 14, July 1944. This group boarded the Masuren, a captured Russian vessel. The second group was mostly English with less than 100 Americans, who left the next day. They were reportedly on the Insteberg of German registry. This was Saturday, 15 July and they could have left in the early daylight hours. The last group to leave was an all British contingent from Lagar A. (They left 3 escapees behind hidden under the floor of the wash house) Three thousand more went by train from Hydekrug to Thorn. They eventually ended up at Stalag 357, Fallingbostel. The lead group from Lagar E marched 2 miles to the train. It was a 4 hour ride to Memel, with over 50 men in most cars. A paratrooper, Alan King, had found his way from Stalag VII and Stalag IIB before getting to six:
"This routine was getting familiar. I had sewed some shoulder straps to a British duffelbag before I left camp. It was filled with clothes and food. We got another Canadian parcel on the way out the gate and I had a rolled up blanket under my arm. That was all my worldly possessions. I can recall seeing truckloads of old men dressed in WWI uniforms as we marched down to the train station at Heydekrug. We boarded boxcars for a half-day ride, standing, to Memel. There we boarded a ship and were put down in the hold. The toilet was a big bucket let up and down on a rope from the upper deck. Hunger, by this time, was a way of life, so I didn't eat or drink anything!"
Carter Lunsford had been at the head of the column with Bill Krebs as interpreter and some of the security staff:
"I remember walking from the train to the dockside. The Masuren was a rusty old coalboat that had been comaderred by the Germans. It still had the hammer and sickle on the funnel. I know we were in for a time of it when they gathered our packs and bags and just dumped them down into the hold of the ship. There was a single ladder and we all had to climb down it and find a place. It was dark, the heat was unbearable, and we had a heck of a time trying to sort out those belongings. We were physically stuffed in there like sardines. We had some sick men with us and one fellow was mentally unstable. On the first day out we had been able to go up on deck to relieve ourselves and get some air. At some point, this poor fellow jumped overboard, the doctor yelled out, "He's krank! he's krank!" but before we could do anything, they shot him."
Hy Hatton was one of the last to board and his diary held a brief account:
"After reaching Memel, we were placed in the aft hold of a freighter that contained several thousand prisoners. So many were loaded into the hold, that we were three deep on the floor. It was impossible to reach food, sleeping was out of the question and there was no means for relief. We were aboard that freighter for 56 hours. When we reached the dock, we were unloaded and then placed in crowded boxcars again."
The ship crossed the treacherous Baltic waters all day Saturday the 15th and Sunday, the 16 of July. The men had to find a way to cope with this impossible situation. Don Kirby remembered the start of the journey:
"There was one guy in there that was an all around musician, Delgado, and he started us off on this singing bit. The guys were getting a little panicky. Boy, you knew the air was full of planes that just might come down on you anytime. The only opening up there was where the ladder went through the hatch cover. One RAF man claimed he had thrown down the minefields where we had to go. He said there were hundreds of 'em around. On each side of the boat, we had seen these booms made out of wire that stuck out and could catch mines. Every once in a while you'd hear something bang up against the hull or scrape alongside. You'd say to yourself "Here it comes!" Cramps in our legs and bowels were becoming real problems."
Sometime in the early morning hours of Monday July 17, the first boat docked at Swinemunde, The time was approximately 6:00 a. m. Back in Heydekrug, the second group of British and Americans had remained overnight and Tom McHale described the closing camp:
"We were permitted to take only what we could carry. This meant selecting and discarding even some of our few POW possessions. We had moved out in two groups because of restricted rail transport and Frank Paules had asked me to stay behind. Relays of Germans had come into our deserted camp; first Luftwaffe guards and then Wehrmacht guards from a nearby post. They scavenged abandon barracks, picking up what the POW's had left. Here were members of the so-called master race mopping up behind American POWs. We marched out into the Vorlagar to pick up 2 Red Cross parcels for the trip and there was a large contingent of Russians: We proceeded to Memel by rail and there, several thousand of us were put into the hold of a coal boat for the two day trip across the Baltic. This was probably the marine equivalent of "The Black of Calcutta".
The second group arrived in Swinemunde in the afternoon of Monday, July 17. The Insteberg docked, the men were unloaded and were immediately marched to awaiting boxcars. The men from Masuren had spent the whole of one day, aboard their 40& 8's on a railroad siding - right along the dockside. Swinemunde was a busy naval seaport and Carter Lunsford described the scene:
"The doors to the boxcars were open and we could see all the activities around us. It was a welcome rest, after the misery of the last two days. The siding was right beside a German battle cruiser, The Prinz Eugene. We watched all day long as the German sailors practiced their battle drills and they piped officers on and off the ship. Water was scarce and it was hot in there, but I had a flask and we shared it. At some point in the late afternoon, Feldwebel Helmut Shroeder came to each car in its turn. He was the interpreter from Luft 6 and by all accounts, a good man. He told us that the guards from Luft IV were coming to take charge and that we were all to be put in chains."
The prisoners were shackled in twos, hand and foot. The cars carried as many as 55 men as well as guards, for this trip which was to last until approximately one o'clock p.m. (1300 hrs) on July 18, 1944. Hy Hatton was with the wounded prisoners who were not all required to wear chains. Some of the prisoners were forced to remove their shoes and belts.
Don Kirby and Clyde Tinker had found a way out:
"When we pulled up at that siding we were there for quite a while. They made the mistake of putting chains on us then leaving us alone. Back in those days, there was always some American who could do things he wasn't supposed to do. We had a guy with us who could get some of those shackles off, so our arms were still linked, but our legs were free. We set it up so it looked OK, but we could get em off if we needed to. That's the only thing that made the Run Up The Road survivable."
As night closed in, the boxcars lumbered on towards their fate. The 2000 Hydekrug sergeants were unaware that on 17 July, the commander of Wehrkreise 6 (the military district from which Luft 6 took its name) had issued a field order to all concerned parties. Lt. Col Bombeck the commandant of Luft IV and Hauptman Richard Pickhardt (the Abwere officer) would have received new orders that Monday. "Recaptured, escaped POW's lose their rights and are to be returned to the Gestapo". The new camp had been opened in May. Bombeck and Pickhardt had a mutual contempt for American Airmen and the Geneva Convention. Neither was afraid to test the limits of their authority and this was in accordance with the rapid erosion of prisoner's rights within the POW system. Bombeck would seek to interfere in the control of the food supply and mail and he was openly contemptuous of both the protecting powers and prisoner welfare agencies. Pickhardt's Abwere officers and guards would become known for their individual cruelty and savage nighttime intrusions into the barracks. This was totally in line with the changes in the system after "The Great Escape" from Luft III. Until April of 1944, the Wehrmacht (armed forces) had been able to successfully promote treatment in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. Hitler's response to "The Great Escape" was immediate and irrevocable: "We must make an example". Agents of the SS and Gestapo liquidated 50 men.
Camp security and prisoner transfers were the responsibility of the abwere. Their chain of command extended to the German high command, but they worked closely with the other state mechanisms for organized violence. The fact that the July 17 orders came from military high command indicated that the new policy was accepted by those who previously had upheld the letter, if not he spirit of the Geneva Conventions. Madness was about to envelop the prisoners. It could have been the inspired act of cruel and vicious individuals, given too much power without restraint. It may have been a case of organized violence meant to break their will. There are no documents to tell us.
Kiefeheide was a small farming community close to the Polish frontier. Germans had only settled this far off and heavily wooded part of Pomerania for a few generations, but they were fiercely loyal to the Reich.
The long line of boxcars pulled slowly into the small station and the Heydekrug sergeants tumbled grateful from them. The 24-hour ride had been crowded but uneventful; everyone looked forward to removing their shackles. They were waiting for a chance to wash and eat and rest in their new quarters. Groups of 500 men jumped down and moved slowly along the dusty 100 yards to the train station. It was 1:30 p. m. on Tuesday, July 18, 1944. A group of Luftwaffe guards from IV approached in their grey--blue uniforms. Forming a double line, they herded the prisoners along the tracks towards the isolated station crossing. The pace was brisk, but orderly, and townspeople began to appear. Men with dogs were close at hand. The column began to stretch up a hilly path cut through the surrounding woods. Those back at the siding were standing in the blazing midday sun for almost an hour.
Before long, young Kreigesmarines arrived with fixed bayonets. SS guards and more Luftwaffe men showed up and began to shove into the flanks of the column. Suddenly, a short, redheaded German Captain arrived. He wore a distinctive white uniform and cap. As he jumped up on the loading platform and he screamed out:: "Macht schnell!"
Clyde Tinker was shackled to Don Kirby and was in bad shape:
"We were coming away from the station, when all the trouble started. We still had our packs and whatever we owned; we were chained ankle to ankle and wrist to wrist, but really my legs were free. I could see fellows ahead of us starting to run. Now this fellow Pickhardt, got up on the platform and you could tell he was nutty as a fruitcake. "You fellows are going to run from here to the camp!" I heard some guys saying, "We're not going to do it!" So at first, some of us were holding back. I wasn't going run, if the rest weren't. Real quick, the dogs came up and guards started shoving their bayonets at us. By now we were running, but Clyde wasn't in good shape. The strap around his shoulder and neck got too tight. He passed out, so down we went. I took the pack off him and just dropped it. All this time the guards were nudging us along and I started carrying Clyde over my left shoulder. He started to breathe a little easier, but by then the dogs started to come in after us.
I realized we weren't going to make it with all our stuff. Now there's this guard off to the left and he's running along making noises, trying to impress this captain. I just dropped my bag in front of him; it was just like a cross body block - well. . . cripes. . his gun went up in the air and he went over . . . boy oh boy, we moved right out of there, I can tell you that! People were lined up on both sides just yelling at you; cursing and spitting ! Every now and then you'd see a face that looked like, maybe, they felt sorry for us - but not enough of them! The dogs were at our arms and legs; the guards kept hitting us with their rifles. About that time, we came across an obstruction in the road; a puddle, that we'd have to go around.
There was a soldier lying in the middle of the road. He was out of it and a guard was coming up towards him. The dogs were tearing at his legs."
It was Hy Hatton, only a few yards ahead of Kirby:
"I was in a group that was not handcuffed. When we reached Kiefeheide, we were unloaded from the trains. The commander of the new camp had assigned young sailors as our guard (said to be Kriegesmarines). They had fixed bayonets, which they used to cut off our packs so they could pillage the cigarettes and rations. Because of the injuries I incurred when I bailed out from the plane, I was unable to keep up with the men and fell down near a group of other POW's who were under guard. At the commanders instructions we were forced to get up and continue the march. Whenever I stumbled from pain, which was often, I was hit with the butt of a gun. Finally I could continue no longer and fell. I saw a guard charging towards me with his bayonet fixed, but I was unable to move." Don Kirby didn't have much time to consider the situation.His heroism was typical of the day: "I asked Clyde "Can you walk a little" and he said "Yeah"; I told him "We've got to go over there and pick this guy up". Now my right arm was full of Tinker, so I reached down with my free arm and picked up Hatton. He wasn't all that big of a guy, and I was glad of that. We half carried and half dragged him, then off we went. All along that run, we had our own guard giving us a real workout on the back and shoulders with his bayonet.
Finally we got to the entrance of the camp and I laid Hatton down. A few guys grabbed hold of him. It was kind of like running a race. The PW's at the head of the column were waiting there for us, cheering us on. I don't know if the whole thing took us an hour; but it's one we'll never forget!"
Hatton wasn't the only one to benefit from Don Kirby's great stamina that day. John Cavanaugh was another who was unable to keep up the pace: "Kirby was right there to help us along. He would stop near by you. If you couldn't move along fast enough, he'd give you a few minutes protection from the guards and the dogs. When you were ready, he'd half carry-and half drag you up the road a little farther."
By this time the scene at the station was near madness. Allen King describes it:
"The German Captain kept yelling and screaming and the young German sailors were jabbing and poking us with their bayonets. Each time they'd jab us, they'd yell out the name of a German city that had been bombed. "Eine fur Hamburg, Eine fur Koln!" It was a wild scene, packs were discarded along the road and they had to be hurled. We all thought we would be massacred!"
Hy Hatton never saw Don Kirby again, but his account continues:
"After we reached the camp, we were crowded into the Vorlagar and not permitted to go into the regular quarters for two days. We were kept out under miserable conditions. As it got dark there were a few tents up, but most of us were out in the open field exposed to the weather. At this camp, no medication other than first aid was available".
Perhaps 150 men made official reports of being wounded or bitten, but many more were just too exhausted or discouraged to seek help. Capt. Pollack (RMAC), an English doctor from Luft 6, had his hands full, for most, the journey was over. Frank Paules and the camp staff faced a chaotic scene. There was much to be done, but the commandant had turned a deaf ear to his pleas:
"I was carrying a pass from Luft 6, so that I could move from one Lagar to another. When the guards saw that, they took me in for interrogation. It was then that I met big stoop for the first time. The pass seemed to enrage them and they sent me down the line and beat me on the head and shoulders. I tried to protect myself, but there wasn't much I could do. I lay there for a while and finally managed to get outside to the Vorlagar. That night, they sent a guard to tell me that if I persisted in trying to be a camp leader they would turn me over to the Gestapo.
Lying there, I remembered what my father (a Lutheran minister) had told me. "If ever you're in real trouble, don't ask for it to be removed, ask for the courage to face it. " I went to sleep and the next morning, I went out without fear. It's not always your fault when you get knocked down, but it's your fault if you don't get up again. Not long afterwards, I was told by one of the friendlier guards, that the run up the road was really an attempt to have us escape. All along the woods, on each side, were German soldiers ready to open up on us. They wanted us to panic, so they could cut us down. I don't think they figured we could hold together like we did."
The mixture of fear and anger makes men unpredictable. If the Germans were tying to make a point, then the Americans had something to show them. Don Kirby spoke about anger: "There's times in your life when you just say - I'm not going along with this anymore! You just get so angry that you just reach down to your boot straps and give it every thing you've got!"
Alan King expressed the attitude of many former POW's:
"That experience was a sure cure for grippers. We all deal with life's inconveniences and problems, but then you think of lying on the barracks floor in agony from hunger and the 86 days days we spent, out on the road. You reach down and pull up your bootstraps.
Ruth Hatton had seen my dad reach down to his bootstraps for 29 years. She summed it up by saying, "He was a survivor. "