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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
On January 28, 1944, 1500 Americans were sent to Barth (Stalag Luft 1). T/Sgt. William Schilds was made the transport leader. Lt. Boges was the medical officer. On the 2nd of February, 1500 Americans were sent to Nurnburg, with T/Sgt. Guider in charge. Capt. Kingston was the medical officer. On the 6th of February,the remaining 5700 Americans left camp.
Telegram from American Legation, Bern - Switzerland to Secretary of State...February 28,1945:
"Northern Line of March: About 100,000 prisoners are moving along the northern German coast to the west. The great mass of prisoners are now resting in the area between Anklas, New Brandenburg, Deumin and Swinemunde. The rear guard is still on the roads west of Danzig, between Stolp and Lauenburg. The prisoners will continue their march westward until they reach the region of Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck. The southern edge of this group reaches to Schwerin and Oustrow. The prisoners, German officers and guards are eating the same rations ; which consist of approximately one quart of hot water and three potatoes daily, plus 200 grams of bread every four to five days ( when available). The prisoners are selling everything they have, in order to obtain food, but with little success. Eighty percent of them are suffering from dysentery, which is apparently contagious ...The information in this telegram...was obtained by Schirmer, personally."
The thing that really saved our lives, just before we went out on that Black March ...we received carloads of food, shoes and clothing. Without this, we could not have survived that awful period of 80 days through the ice and snow. Before we left camp, a couple of the guys came to me and said they wanted to stay behind and wait for the Russians. After we left, they hid under the barracks and did get liberated. Only thing was, they were sent back to Russia, and it was a long time before they got home. In fact, after the march out from Luft 4, about 200 guys just disappeared. Some went back to Italy or England to see their girlfriends or what not. Others just did not want their families to see them.
On the march out of Luft 4, we picked up a contingent of American Army officers at a German hospital; they marched with us. One of them was Col. Alger, a very fine man who stayed at the head of the column with my aids. This allowed me to fall back to the rear and look out for casualties. We had to protect the guys in the back from getting batted on the head by the guards, if they were too slow. We marched on foot, from the lager to Swinemunde, across the islands into the New Brandenburg area; from there on to the Ludwicklust and Hanover area.
There were 5000 Americans left on the march and those were split into two columns. Three thousand went to Fallingbostal, and 2000 marched to Valzin. I was with the latter group. We were transported for 100 kilometers and moved to Lager 11 A at AltonGrabow...put in tents for 14 days...then evacuated on the 14th of April, and marched on foot to Annaberg. There we were put in an aircraft factory for five days. We marched across to Trossin, then Korna; rested one day and the column marched into Bitterfeld. It was there we were liberated by the soldiers of the 104th Division. There were few physical abuses on the trip, due to personal contact, but there was starvation and forcing the sick to march (when that meant endangering their lives). Two men, to my knowledge, died of pneumonia, exhaustion and starvation. They are S./Sgt. William J. Palmer. He died of pneumonia at Briggon, Mecklinberg, on the 26th of February 1945; after having marched for several days. It was very cold at night. S/Sgt. John C. Clark died of pneumonia on March 18,1945 in a hospital at Lubs ( S.E. of Schwerin). He died five minutes after arriving at the hospital. He had been taken from a barn, over a distance of 30 kilometers, in an open horse drawn cart. After the death of Sgt. Palmer, I protested to the commandant, Col Bombach, that he and Capt. Zommer ( the doctor) would be held responsible for that death and any future deaths that might occur on the march. When drugs or medical equipment were given to us by the German doctor, they were small portions of the Red Cross supplies that had been taken from us...the Red Cross had reason to suspect that Col. Bombach disposed of parcels that were supposed to go to their representatives. Major Zallman was in charge of the column at the time the two men died. The only one who helped us was a Sgt. Schwitzer, who had lived in the States. He did some good things for us. Col. Bombach, Capt. Pickhardt and Sgt. Fahnard ( along with the rest of the Abwher), as well as the Lager officers Wolf and Weinert, remained in charge until our column reached Alton-Grabow. We were turned over to Wehrmacht officers and men, who remained in control of us until we were met by Americans. (From MIS report)
At one point, late in March, Col. Bombach came to me and said he wanted to turn over the guards weapons to us. I told him: "No Dice!" We didn't want the Russians overtaking us with arms. If they wanted to overtake the Germans, well good!! But, we didn't want to be liberated by them. Soon after, we crossed the Elbe ( it was the 26th of April and a great day for us). We were free men! The night before, we got a message to let us know that the American Army was coming the next day. I got all the leaders together in the cellar: " We've come this far now...I don't want any mishaps. Let's keep our men together and not have any funny stuff. Get them settled down, and we'll get out of this in one piece." The next day, we had to cross a bridge and there was an American Colonel sanding there, waiting for us. As our weary column crossed the bridge, I went back and forth among our men: "All right boys! Let's straighten up and look good. Damn it! we're not going to slouch our way over!" So, they did it proudly, and I think we looked pretty good that morning. I went back to the head of the column, as we crossed that bridge and brought our guys up to attention. I saluted the Colonel and said: " Two thousand American prisoners, sir!" I couldn't resist it, and to this day, I still get a kick out of remembering.
That was a great moment for all of us, after 15 months behind barbed wire and eighty days on the road. That night, we were in a little town, roaming the streets. Wouldn't you know, a young MP stops us and asks: " What's the password?" We just stopped cold in our tracks and after a moment, one guy says to him: " How the hell do we know what the password is? We just got here, damn it!" We found a Rathskellar and tumbled down the stairs. Still plenty of Beer and Schnapps left, so we had ourselves a hell of a party that night. Making up new kriegie passwords, just in case anyone else wanted to know. (interview by Greg Hatton)
When we left on the March, lager D was composed mainly of the original number of Stalag Luft 6 people; it was close to 2000 men. Most of us ended up at Bitterfeld. They split us up into groups and I had charge of between six and eight hundred men. It had the responsibility to see that food got distributed properly. All the Germans did was give us bulk; so many liters of potatoes,so many kilos of bread. It was my job to see that every man got his share... which was a hell of a hard job ! As Frank once said: " There's nothing worse than a hungry man!" I remember when we first started out, it was quite an ordeal walking through the snow. We'd walk for an hour, then the Germans would give us a break. We had all manner of things wrapped around us... for example, I had an extra pair of pants that I used for a knapsack. We'd walk for an hour more, then just fall right down on the snow! You got so tired and achy, that you just lay there, the Germans got us up again. This went on for weeks, until the spring thaw. You remember going through a village in the early morning, after having spent the night in a barn or out on the ground, in some field. There might be some farmhouse nearby and you could smell the bacon cooking...Oh Jeez! All you'd had for breakfast would be a little cup of ersatz coffee and a piece of bread. If you were lucky, maybe a few potatoes would come your way for lunch. If you were very, very lucky and they went to a place that had them, you could get a few Red Cross Parcels.
Eating every day was by no means certain, so the guys tried to trade for food when they could. You could trade for anything with cigarettes or powdered coffee, but you didn't always get the chance. I had a guy named Arnold Stoney looking after me on the March. When I was out dickering with the Germans for food or trying to get the guys settled for the night, he would find a place for me to sleep, set up my bed and so forth. He was an excellent scrounger. One time, when we were really down, I gave up my wrist watch. It was the last thing I had to trade, and I said: " Alright Stoney, see what you can get with this!" He came back with a pretty good load of stuff, and that carried us through for a little while longer. Even with so many days out on the road, and so many years gone by, there are moments that you never forget. Several weeks after we had left 4, we came to a town with a railroad depot and some Red Cross Parcels awaited us there. The Germans assigned a guard and a Russian Prisoner along with a wagon and two horses.I had to go with them to pick up forty-odd cartons. The Russian and I had to load the wagons and it was damn heavy work. On the way down, of course, I sat in the back with the German guard, a man in his mid-forties. He had been in World War One, and he talked about his life; you'd be surprised how you can pick up a language. He said it was very difficult marching, carrying a loaded pack and his rifle... it was hard on his legs. He said: " If I only had a walking stick!" On the way back, as we're sitting on top of all these food parcels, the wagon went by an old bush. He stopped the wagon, jumped down and handed me his rifle. As he cut himself a branch, he said:"Ahh, this is what I wanted!" We took off again, with me still holding his rifle on the back of the wagon, and him marching behind with his stick. Not long afterwards, the guys had all moved out, except for one sick fellow. The Germans said:" Alright, you can put him on a wagon, but you have to load up the food stores,first." It was a rainy, sleety day and I loaded the whole damn wagon by myself with those heavy parcels. Jeez, I loaded and loaded! What a misery. Finally, I finished and we put the sick guy up on top. I guess I felt sorry for the horses, because I ended up walking behind the wagon in the rain and mud.
Bill Krebs and Frank Paules were in a house that I passed along the way. Later, Bill told me that they could see me coming and just watched me. There was a fire going and it was warm and comfortable in there. Bill asked Frank:" Why don't you go out and bring Carter in here for a moment?" Frank said: "No, Bill. He's got to do this by himself! He's got to show fortitude!" So they let me walk by.I never got to thank him properly for that cold and miserable walk! Liberation came on April 26th at Bitterfeld. They transferred us to the twin cities of Halle and Liepzig. They put me in charge of a mess hall. Now, I'd never been in charge of a mess hall before in my life, but I guess they didn't know what to do with us. We were close to 2500 PW's and the 104th Division said:" Look, you've been one of the leaders ... you run the mess hall. We'll get you the food and you'll operate it, until we get organized and find out what we're going to do with you"..It was several weeks before they got their staff together and had a regular outfit run things.
Military Intelligence had been looking for us because we were one of the first groups to be liberated. Bill Krebs and myself were at camp Lucky Strike when they found us. They grabbed a hold of us and sent us to Paris, where we spent a week. Then, they flew us back to Washington to be debriefed at the Pentagon. From there we were sent to a secret area where all our escape material, coded messages and the radio had originated. They would not tell us where it was located or the name, but we would meet the men who had engineered the whole affair. After being driven to the location, we had a moment to lay out in the shade underneath some trees, near these big brick Army barracks. It was June of 1945 and the place was somewhere near Ft. Belvoir. They were waiting for us, so we went in and met the officers and enlisted men of what I now know to be Fort Hunt, Virginia. It was completely destroyed after the war, including all records, files and artifacts. We were the first kriegies to return there and it was a most rewarding and joyous meeting. Bill and I talked about P.O.W. life, how the escape material was received, how it was used and especially about the tiny camp radio.
During our march through Germany, after we left Luft IV, I carried the radio that Fort Hunt had sent us, in the lining of my flight jacket. We listened to the War news wherever we were put up for the night, until the radio wore out. That was in the first two weeks of April, 1945 and we were all mixed together in a big tent camp at Alten-Grabow. Even though we couldn't repair it, I had planned to bring it home with me as a souvenir, to give to my father. He was an engineer at Raytheon up in Massachusetts. After talking a while, one of the MIS guys said:" We understand that one of you may still have the radio we sent you." The radio was outside in my bag, and because they were so enthusiastic and dedicated to their work, I went out and returned with it. You should have seen them! They passed it from hand to hand and kept saying:" Think of it! This is what we made and it's come back to us." I told them," O.K. You keep it." They said:" We're going to put it in our museum." I never saw it or heard about that place again.
In camp we learned how to do all manner of things, in situations you know nothing about. The bottom line was that, if you put your heart and effort into it, you could make a go of it. I think a lot of us carried that back into our personal and business lives. Nothing is impossible. I still have my PW number tag hanging from the letter I received, when I got the Bronze Star. I look at that every once in a while, when I think things are tough.
By early February 1945, the Russians were approaching the Stalag Luft IV area on the drive that eventually took them to Berlin and victory. We were given a few days notice that most of us (by then approximately 8,000 Americans and the several hundred RAF personnel) would be moved by foot to another camp a few days to the west. The sick and injured were to be moved by train to Stalag Luft 1 at Barth, Germany. Thankfully, some of us had spent many hours while in Luft IV walking around the outside perimeter of the compound. We had done it primarily to relieve boredom and with maybe a slight intention of keeping in shape. This activity was to pay tremendous dividends. We departed the camp on February 6 in groups of approximately 200, and with the departure, captivity conditions changed drastically. Myself, and the group I started with and that stayed more or less intact, spent 86 days on the road and walked, route step and under guard, 57 of them. When not moving, we stayed in barns or outdoors infields or roadsides, took a 165 mile trip packed into boxcars, and at its conclusion spent 12 days in a huge tent in a corner of Stammlager XI-A near Altengrabow, a camp that seemed to hold captives of all western nationalities. After this break, we resumed walking and continued doing so until liberated at Bitterfeld on April 26, following negotiations the previous evening between the Wehrmacht Captain in charge of all the groups of POWs in that area, and representatives of the 104th US Infantry Division. At the time, American forces were approximately 15-20 miles to the west of us and Soviet forces about the same distance to the East. It probably took very little thinking on the part of the Captain to decide whom he should surrender to.
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, in journals and on the internet 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.