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. Frankly, I was in awe of him 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 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. For some reason, I thought back to a day when I was 4 years old and I 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 45 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 on a spur line that was part of a single track railway between Tilset and the seaport of Memel. Lagar A was opened in June 1943 by British NCO's transferred from Sagan. In October, they were joined by NCO's from Barth, who moved into Lagar K. The British had come to the camp with solid leadership. Their staff had developed extensive experience in camp organization as well as escape operations. The 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. (MIS reports claim treatment of POW’s was "correct") 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. (MIS reports on Luft 6 state: German rations are poor. The potato allowance has been reduced to 300 grams and fresh vegetables are unknown. Red Cross stocks have not been replenished. Two hot meals are prepared daily in each compound kitchen. Crowding obviates the possibility of individual preparation of food.)
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 (two men ad 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."
The 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, "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 Aircorp 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 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 took about 4 hours and there were 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 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 commadeered 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 Hole 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 the 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. They got off in groups of 500 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 greyblue uniforms; they formed a double line and herded the group up the road into the town. The pace was brisk, but orderly, and townspeople began to appear. Men with dogs were close at hand. as the column began to stretch out over the 3 km to the camp. Those back at the siding were standing in the blazing midday sun for almost an hour. Before long, young Kreigesmarines with fixed bayonets, SS guards and more Luftwaffe men showed up and began to line up on the flanks of the column.
Suddenly, a short, redheaded captain appeared with white uniform and cap. He jumped up on the loading platform and started yelling. "Macht schnell!" "Quick march." Clyde Tinker was shackled to Don Kirby and he 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 ankle to ankle and wrist to wrist, but really my legs were free. I could see the fellows ahead of us who had started out already. 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 it started out that some of us weren't running and I wasn't going to if the rest weren't. Pretty soon, dogs came up and the 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 and 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 him 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 hand side 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 and 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 and the guards were 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."
Hy Hatton was 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 continues: "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, and off we went. All along that run, we had our own guard giving us a real workout on the back and shoulders. Finally we got to the entrance of the camp and I laid Hatton down. There were some guys there who grabbed hold of him. It was kind of like running a race. The guys from the head of the column were waiting there for us, cheering us on. I think the whole thing took us an hour."
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 their 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. 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 spoke up the attitude of many ex-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 days 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."
The National Archives has a collection of documents left behind by an army of investigators who fanned out across Europe and America in the years immediately after WW2. The affidavits, evidence and trail briefs in Record Groups 153 and 242 are the record of their attempt to document prison camp conditions and wrong doing, by the captors of Allied prisoners. I became aware of them while researching a violation of the Geneva Conventions, called "The Hydekrug Run&".
Among the many volumes is an interview taken in August of 1945, of Sgt. Carl Mead, US Army Air Corps. He had been a prisoner of the Germans at Stalag Luft 6, Hydekrug, in what is now Lithuania. There is a small handwritten notation in the lower corner of the page: "Four men escaped from Luft 6, March 11, 1944; one named Lamarca&". In 1985, I located Sgt. Mead in Georgia. He had not been part of the escape and remembered little about the incident. One of his remarks has echoed for ten years: "I was at the end of the column as we marched out. I was the last man to leave the camp and I could see our guards scavenging through the barracks. I remember thinking to myself, "Boy, we sure made some history here!" "
Sgt. Mead´s observation was based on the assumption that history is the record of extraordinary events and circumstances. From January to July 1944, he had witnessed a duel of two ideologies, facing each other daily, in the isolation of the Baltic forest. The downed airmen of the RAF and Army Air Corps had the wits; their Luftwaffe captors had the wire. Surely, what he had witnessed during his stay at Stalag Luft 6 would qualify them for mention by journalists and historians. Yet, his page was but one of ten thousand in RG 153. It took me the better part of a decade to unfold the remarkable footnote about the escape of four American PW's.
What could have been history got lost in the astounding flow of events that swept up the Heydekrug Sergeants during the balance of 1944-45. Records about most American escapes don't exist. In order to document events like this, one must leave behind the tidy piles of paper, in the archives. Herotodus, telling the story of the Spartans at Thermophylae surely faced the same passage of time and workings of memory. He had to read into the pattern of events and let precision give way to perception.
The basic premise faced by every airman who fell out of the sky, during WWII was: "You're on your own, soldier!&" It's worth remembering their efforts.
My investigation into events occurring at Luft VI, led me to Record Group 242 and eventually to Carter Lunsford of Milford, Connecticut. He served as adjutant to Frank Paules (camp leader). In the gravel voice and clipped tones of a New Englander, he explained to me how things worked up at Luft 6.
"Luft VI" was a new camp, but the RAF had been there for several months before we arrived. Our trainload of eighty prisoners was the first American contingent to come in. The British were fascinated with us when we got there and put us in a blockhouse along with their guys.
In our training, they hadn't given us much information about what we were supposed to do as prisoners of war. We knew that we could only give our name rank and serial number, and they had told us that it was our duty as soldiers to try to escape. Dixie Deans was the British camp leader. He gave us the whole rundown. Those RAF boys had been down for several years and they knew what it was all about. Dixie himself was quite a smart boy and had the camp really well organized. He explained to us how the camps were operated: How to stay away from the perimeters where the guards were; How to elect men to the office of camp leader and barracks leader and so forth; how to set up people to handle education, a library, sports and so forth. Most importantly, how to deal with the Germans to get food, medical attention, clothing and mail.
The British were very well organized for escapes and we got a lot of our information from them. Once a man was picked out, he went to school. They spoke nothing but German to him, right in the camp. He was interrogated entirely in German, so that when he got outside, he'd be prepared.
At Luft 6, Col. Von Hoerman was our Commandant. He was a very fine Prussian gentleman officer. Very stern, very strict, but very fair. He abided by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Our lager Fuhrer was Major Heinrich, the adjutant of the camp. He was the guy we dealt with on a daily basis. This guy was like Col. Klink in Hogan's Heroes, and in fact, looked like him. One of our guards was a young guy, Feldwebel Schroeder. He's the one we got our radio parts stuff from. We worked through him if we needed anything. He was a smart guy and knew how to play both sides, . . . and keep his nose clean.
We had tunnels and escapes going on almost as soon as we got settled. One group of four guys cut their way out and went down through a drainage ditch that ran around the perimeter of the camp. We protected their disappearance for well over a month. Feldwebel Schroeder came in and told us that half the German officers thought we had men out and half thought the men were still in camp. We had them that confused.
I used to stand and take the count at parade, twice a day. I knew just when the men were going to start jumping around to mess up the count. I could see them doing it, because I knew what to look for. The Germans would be counting and finish up one barracks. I'd see several guys get down and quickly scoot over into the next line. The Germans never caught us and the count would always turn up right; but we did have some close calls.
One time, a new bunch of kriegies came in and were moving the men into their barracks. The Germans were all over the place and they started to make a surprise count. They told us: "Everybody out so we can make a count!" I said to myself:" Oh man, we haven't any protection here!" The missing men were from barracks F, which was adjacent but separated by an open lane about 15 yards wide. I knew I had to do something in hurry!
I ran into E block and grabbed four of the new PW's and said: " Look . . . You've got to fill in for the count over there. This count's going to be all screwed up, anyhow! There's too much going on here for them to get it right. " We started across the alley and this Major Heinrich, who had three soldiers with him, spotted us running. He yelled for us to stop and came tearing across the compound with those guards. Of course we came to a quick stop!
They called for an interpreter and Schroeder showed up. He was a big help. Heinrich wanted to know: "What are you doing out here? Why aren't you in the barracks?" I said:" I'm the assistant camp leader and I'm bringing these men back over where they belong. They're just in block E to see their friends who've just come in. " All the while these guards are standing with their guns leveled at us and I can see Schroeder carrying on with the Major:" Yes, yes, he's bringing them here and so forth . . . everything is in order. " Finally, He shouts at us:" All right, get in there, and don't let me see another guy on this street!"
We fell in with the rest of the guys from Block F and of course the count came out right! The fellows who'd escaped had been gone for some time, and eventually the Germans did what was called a corral count. This is where you all get out into one big group, then they pass you two at a time past a guard. We did that for two or three days. Finally the British gave us the word " Hey, look this has gone far enough. Just forget the count. They may have your people anyway!" It was always cat and mouse with the guards and us."
Long before I could follow the lead on four men out, I learned of the tragic escape attempt by T/Sgt. Edgar Jurist and George Walker in the spring of 1944. Since he was a resident of the nearby Hudson River town of Nyack, I made it my business to seek him out. Jurist seemed a gracious and successful man of the world, and he gave me vivid descriptions of camp life. According to him, if ever there was an opportunity, some PW was ready to get up and go. There is a legend about the kriegie who tried to make his escape by hiding in a snowball. His buddies rolled him up and left him near the barbed wire fence. That night, it got so cold that the snowball froze over. The next morning, his friends had to come break him out of it!
As he spun tales about the British escapes, and the first American attempts at tunneling, it was easy to see how one could get caught up in it all. T/Sgt. Jurist shared with me the realities of creeping, exposed and alone across the frozen Baltic tundra; trapped within the wire, hoping to avoid the guards and dogs and searchlights. I'll always be haunted by my meetings with him.
"I got to Heydekrug with some of my crew about March of 1944. All sorts of escape techniques were being attempted. There were few real successes although some of them were brilliantly devised. We had a tunnel that was attempted under the shithouse. That was a devastating thing, because the latrine was nothing more than a concrete trench. The Kriegies smashed their way through the wall of the trench, working in teams. They were headed towards the barbed wire right behind it. The distance to cover was quite short, so they were well on their way to succeeding. One problem was, of course, what do you do with the dirt? Between the barracks, we were permitted to build a basketball court. As the dirt was dug, a guy would come over to the area and dump it; the ball players would run over and stamp it down, right away. Another problem is the engineering; how do you shore the tunnel up? We only had six slats under our straw sacks. Each of us would donate one to the escape committee, who'd split them up for use as shoring.
In this case, another engineering problem was maintaining a correct heading and depth. At some point, as they neared the fence, they were only a foot or two from the surface. One day, a Russian prisoner was walking around back there behind the latrine, cleaning up. It had rained the night before and he fell through. That Russian was paralyzed with fear! As he went down, he started crying and screaming and carrying on. The place was full of Krauts in no time at all. It's a shame, all that work done for nothing.
The only successful break I know of from the American compound at Hydekrug, and involved Harvey Elwood Gann. He went out with a guy named Lamarca. I know of this because Gann and I escaped later, when they evacuated Luft 4. After the guys were recaptured, they landed back in my barracks; that's how I met Gann.
That attempt was in the early spring of 1944, but after March, escape was no longer a sport. When the Great Escape took place down at Sagan, the Germans called us all together at Appell and counted us. The Commandant was an elegant S. O. B. ; He was always dressed in these long leather coats. He shouted out in German and Bill Krebs translated into English, as he told about the escape. "That's not going to happen here! Henceforth everyone will be shot.&""
For several years, I had maintained contact with Lloyd Nordstom and Loren Fink. Along with George Walker, they formed the nucleus of the Escape Committee. "Doc&" Nordstrom was forty at the time of his capture. I met Nordstrom as a golf playing, 86 year old Californian. Now 91, he feels the limits of his movement and memory. Although he deferred to Mr. Fink on the story of the main escape, he did recall that the trench on the south perimeter had been used at least one other time. With two men down in there and him watching from a window in the mess hall, a German officer unexpectedly returned to the compound and foiled the attempt.
His younger associate, Mr. Loren Fink was raised in Nebraska and Oregon. Now 74, he is a retired machinist living in Florida. In 1944, he was a 24 year old Tech Sergeant. Loren had barely survived the Second Schweinfurt Raid in October of 1943. Sgt.'s Nordstrom and Fink had been instructed as "Code Operators"; an elite cadre of airmen whose duty was to communicate with the US Government by writing letters home in a secret code and to handle camp security.
"I knew two of the guys who went out of Heydekrug, Stapleton and Gann. One of the fellows was from Pennsylvania and his dad was a blacksmith. He knew the trade so he made the wire cutters out of some iron from the window shutters. We pooled rations together and they made some kind of compressed food bar out of it.
I worked with Lloyd Nordstrom on the escape committee. I got shot down on the second Schweinfurt raid and spent three months with a broken hip before I even got to camp. I was in real bad shape, but I did as much as I could. Our job was to listen to the ones that wanted to escape, and if the plan were workable, the whole committee would try to help them. Walker was our map man and watching these others go, got to him. Not long after Stapleton and Gann escaped, he said he wanted to go out. He'd made maps for others . . . now it was his turn to try. It didn't end well for him.
Those four guys hid on the dark side of a building that was not far away from the drainage ditch. Maybe it was the mess hall. From there, they could get down into it where the lights would shine over them. I really don't know just when and how they got out. A lot of that information was kept secret because, if too many people knew, it could have been disastrous. Only those involved knew the whole plan.
I was told that they were captured after three days. Everyone in his or her barracks did the covering. The Germans would count the men in the front line, then someone would slip down and scoot over and be counted twice. We stood out there for hours in that count fooling around. We didn't know that they had been caught. Finally the Commandant said: "We count you all here, but we know you're not. We've got four of you in the cooler!&" Of course that brought everything to a halt. When they did come in, they told us they'd been on bread and water in another place. They claimed the Germans' told them: " You had a good try, now maybe we see you again!" Later it got to where you didn't dare do that; you'd get shot for just thinking about it!
Aside from Jurist and Walker, there was two English guys who got out from our compound. I remember them because I had their uniforms in my bed for a while. They dressed in German Uniforms, they could speak fluent German, they had all the cards they needed and everything was up to date. The British had traded for this stuff or made it up. They showed their passes and those two just walked to the gate and marched out in broad daylight. I was told that they made it back. The British had been prisoners a long time before we got there . . . some as much as three years. Their organization was really worked out to the tops. When I was over with them, they showed me how to work on an escape committee; how to go about trading with the Germans. Of course you were at a disadvantage if you couldn't speak fluent German. They actually had men going out for the purpose of planning a way to escape. They'd make maps, find contacts and then come back into camp . . . just like they got out . . . right through the main gate.
I had a lot of the maps that Walker made, when we were moved down to Schweinemunde from Memel. I had compasses that the different Americans were able to get into camp. I put them all together into the false bottom of a suitcase and packed it in tight so it wouldn't rattle or move. When they handcuffed us and run us through the dogs and bayonets into the new camp, everybody lost everything they had. We never got the escape kit into the new camp.
It was built into you from when you first got trained; one of your priorities was to try to escape. A lot of fellows did take off in 1945, when they were on the Long March; but the best thing really was to stay with the bunch. A lot of our guys were killed by civilians and left by the side of the road.
So many of these things just set up there in your mind, until somebody says something, then you remember. After 50 years, you forget a lot. Evidently a lot of them add to the stories too! And of course, many things you never heard of before, and you don't know if it's even true. One things for sure. Those four guys went out. They didn't stay out, but they did get out!"
I located and began a correspondence with Harvey Gann, of Lago Vista, Texas about three years after I learned of him. Mr. Gann had retired from the Austin Police force after 38 years. At the time, he was putting together his memoirs and confirmed his part in the escape. I shared some of my background research with him, and he informed me that the Fourth Man, was Jake Rowton. Mr. Gann also put me on to his crewmate; the airmen whose name first aroused my instincts for this story. I spoke with Charles Lamarca about the breakout and escape, a full ten years after seeing Sgt. Mead's testimony. Lamarca had put many miles and many more pleasant experiences between himself and Heydekrug. Originally from Cleveland, nearby Grange Falls is home now.
"Bob Hansen was the tail gunner on White Fang, the ship I was flying on the day we got shot down. I thought I was the only guy out. Forty-six years later, he called me! I thought it was some prankster being nasty. All my life, I've been telling people that I'm the only one out of my plane, and how fortunate I was. I "m glad he got out too, but it just shows you, about these things.
On my last mission, I was in the ball turret of "White Fang&" as a replacement gunner. We were flying B-24's with the 15th Air Force, out of Grotaglia, Italy. The mission was to Zar Harbor in Yugoslavia. That was January 14, 1944 and it was my fifth mission. My own crew went down two weeks later, on January 30th; Only Harvey Elwood Gann survived! That's fate for you.
I got to Stalag Luft VI around January 28th and as near as I can tell, I was one of the first Americans in that camp. They put me in with the British. When I found out that Harvey was in camp, we got together. Immediately, we looked at each other and he says: "I'd like to get the heck out of here. &" So, we began to observe everything that "s going on. We saw the way the guards are walking around the compound, on the outside of the double fence entanglement. We watched the machine gun towers, stationed on each corner of the compound. We watched how, with precision, the guards in the towers rotated their guns across the compound. The two gun towers would put their guns together, making crossfire towards the center of the compound. Then they would reverse and go back out.
Would you believe, that at the same time, the guards on the outside of the American compound, are doing the same thing. They'd get to the middle and reverse- almost like a machine. It was like a gate opening and closing; it seemed ridiculous. The south end of the compound had our parade grounds, then the mess hall and behind that, drainage ditch. We decided to go out through the wire, down there.
At first, it was only the two of us going; then Stapleton and Rowton came in at the very end. To be honest, I forget exactly how that took place. We did see the escape committee. At first, they didn't think the plan was too hot, but they wouldn't stop us.
The plan was very simple. We tried to get a good view of the search lights at night, while we were locked in. The ditch was deep enough to give us cover, so we planned to go along the ditch as far as we could. The next thing we had to figure, was how to cut the wire, as fast and in the simplest way. You have to prop up the barbed wire entanglement with some sticks, so you can crawl underneath it. We were given cutters and some maps. There was supposed to be some kind of contact, outside the camp. As near as I can picture it, there was a little grove of woods where we were to meet. For some reason, we never made contact.
We were left outside of the barracks, near the mess hall, after lock up. Getting into the ditch was the whole crux of the matter and we proceeded very cautiously. This whole part of the escape is very vague in my mind, but those lights were going over us constantly, as you can imagine. It was about 20 yards from the mess hall to the trench and about another twenty yards to the fence from there, although at the time it seemed like a hundred miles.
I remember being in an open space and getting caught by the spotlight; we lay perfectly flat while that light was on us. Boy, that makes you feel quite a chill; of course it was actually very cold that night. Harvey was the first one to get to the fence and start cutting. He cut once and I cut once and so forth until we got to the last stretch of barbed wire. Harvey cut that and again, he was the first one through. At the time, it seemed like an eternity; but I would say it took us an hour and a half to complete the escape. I know we were getting cold down in that damp and slushy ditch. The four of us got out, through the wire and away from camp. Thank God, there were no alarms. We made our way to the woods and then took a heading east, towards the Russian lines.
While we were out, I definitely remember drinking from streams. The funny part of it was, one of my friends was relieving himself, upstream, while I was drinking. We made a joke about it afterwards. For food, we'd raid those German food lockers, with the little roofs sticking up. . . root cellars. We busted into a couple of these things. At night we stayed in barns. One time Tom, Mo, Jake and myself were up in this hayloft smoking. We looked at each other and thought: "Dear God, we must be nuts. If one spark gets on this straw, we're gone!&"
Basically, we were out in the open the whole time, traveling cross-country. I think we were lucky to make ten or fifteen miles a day. At times it was woodsy and at times there was just open farmland. Considering we were only twenty-year-olds, I "d say we were pretty cool about the escape. Believe me, cutting through the wire, I was scared to death; but outside of that we stuck together and went right straight ahead. I really give credit to Harvey for keeping us all in line. I was only in camp for two weeks, so I didn't have much time to make new friends. I can only recall Edgar Jurist from our room of 24 guys. Maybe that's because when they brought us back, the Germans made a special little compound for all us escapee's (both British and Americans) or guys that got in trouble. Jurist ended up with us. That's how he and Mo Gann got hooked up.
When I was growing up, I was definitely a city guy, and so was Tom Stapleton. He was from Syracuse, New York, if I'm not mistaken. Mo was a country boy, but it was Jake Rowton who really seemed to know his way around in the woods. Do you want to laugh? Where I live in Bainbridge Township, I have a couple of acres, and right out back, maybe 200 feet behind my house is a woods. The main street can't be more than half a mile behind my house, and I get lost in those woods. I'm no good out there; on my own, I'd get lost with a compass.
I don't remember coming into contact with any people along the way. Recently, Mo told me that the name of the town we got caught in, was Jabarkis. We had stopped at a Lithuanian household and the farmer took us in, at the risk of his family's lives. They fed us, gave us their beds and everything else. I'll never forget them as long as I live; God loves them. My feet were very cold, so I put them near a fire. Holy Father in Heaven! I got complete and total pain. My toes and heels had been frozen and I didn't know it. I literally cried with tears running down my face. I was in agony. Mo looks at me and says:&" "Rough?&" I said,&" Hey, what do you think?&" The next morning, we left there.
Mo and I have discussed our capture and even we disagree. I never talked with anyone about this for 45 years. It's almost like having amnesia and then having a flashback. I recall a Catholic Priest and him having to turn us in, because the German's might have taken reprisals against the people, for housing us. Harvey does not agree; he says we were heading for town and going through this woods, when we got surrounded. Some children had seen us and turned us in. To be honest, I can't say."
Police work is not generally viewed as scholarly. However, consider Harvey Gann's many years as a detective, spent looking for the pattern of events. I'm sure this helped as he assembled and documented his memoirs. One of his letters to me mentioned, Sgt. Frank Miller. I was able to contact him at his home in the heart of Penn Dutch country. Mr. Miller's name came from Gann's notebook, but ironically, the two had never met. Written fifty years ago, Sgt. Miller's notebook provided one of the few pieces of written documentation, that I was able to find.
"I stood in for Jake Rowton at roll call during their escape. I'd go from one barracks to the other and when they called out his name I'd go " Here!" I was in E-4 and he might have been from next door. It was only a few day's that I took Rowton's place and it happened very soon after I got there.
Tom Stapleton was on my crew. We were with the 379th Bomb Group flying B-17's out of Kimbolton, England. He was the ball turret operator and I was the radioman. We went down at the end of January 1944. I didn't see Tom Stapleton after we got shot down. I didn't even know he was in camp, until I heard that he was gone, and had been picked up. In my book, I have the dates I got in to Heydekrug and the dates we left; from February 13 to July 15 was five months. We were on the Baltic Boatride on the 16th and 17th, then got into Luft 4.
Whoever was in charge of these things, asked if anyone wanted to help in this escape. They wanted someone to take the part of Jake Rowton, and duck from one line-up to the other. I said, " I'll do it!&" I must have known him, but I have a list of the guys in our room and he wasn't one of them. Funny thing is I always thought they tunneled out.
My diary says I came in on February 14, 1944 and my notes say: "February 15- Satch (we called Stapleton, Satchmo) and three others took off. I covered for jake, one of the boys. They were loose for seven days, then escaped from another jail and were loose for three days . . . had quite a time and almost made it to a Swedish boat". I made those notes at the time and this was one of 19 pages.
All of us had made it out of our plane but by the time I was checking in 1988, for our crew reunion, Stapleton had passed away. I remember Tom; he was a cut up, a real live wire and a lot of fun. Tom was a good-looking fellow, but rather on the small side because that's who they picked to get into the ball turret. We had met and trained down in Texas, then sailed on the Queen Elizabeth over to England. We were a substitute crew and flew a different plane each time out. On our first mission, we didn't make it back to the base; we crash-landed. Then, on our eighth mission, we got shot down again and still survived. We thought we were pretty lucky guys."
Speaking to Mrs. Irene Stapleton was very much like the experience I had asking my Mom about my father. Stored away for so long, the stories had pulled together like Turkish Taffy. Although they were someone else's experience, they were sewn into the fabric of her memory. During our conversation, four years of Tom Stapleton's life came out as one block.
"It's been a long time since I talked to anyone about this. My husband escaped three times. After they got out of camp, they were in a farmhouse in Lithuania and the family turned them in. The farmhouse was poor and it had a mud floor; and the family turned them in because the wife was about to have a baby. They were afraid if they got caught harboring POW's, they would be punished. Another time, I don't' know which, they got put in a civilian prison; I remember Tom saying Konigsberg. I know the four that escaped were Charlie Lamarca, Mo Gann, Ed Jurist and my husband, Tom Stapleton. One time they got dysentery by drinking from the streams. They forgot the people fertilized their fields with human manure.
My husband died twenty years ago; he was 53. Do you realize I have all the letters I ever got form him? All of them! but I only got two letters and two postcards in all the time he was a POW. My husband didn't have a diary and he never wrote these things down. He'd only tell it.
Tom was a tool and die maker. Before he went into the service, he worked for Curtis Wright. He left from Kenmore, NY into the service and then went down to Harlingen, Texas and Wink. I had known him about a year before he went in, and he was a happy go lucky guy. Afterwards he was a bundle of nerves. I know they were in Stalag Luft 6 and then Tom was in Stalag 1. That was strictly for officers, and it was after his escapes. They were liberated by the Russians, and that scared the hell out of him. I remember him saying that the Russians went to a farmhouse and just machine-gunned everything. Being a PW really stayed with him. In fact, we had two dogs and my husband named them both Heide, for Heydekrug. Stalag 17 really upset him very much. He must have seen it 16 times. He'd say:" that's wrong" and "that's right&" in the movie. . . you know, criticizing it.
I can recall my husband saying if they ever got caught, they were supposed to find a way to escape. He said anybody who escaped, they tried to cover for them at roll call in the morning. Now Tom didn't like to be confined, and I'm sure he didn't like to be told what to do. Even after we were married, he never liked to be told what to do. He was very intense about what he wanted and when he wanted to do it. Nobody could say: "Well we can't do that today. " If he wanted to do it, he'd go right ahead. He wasn't like that before he went in. My husband was a bundle of nerves when he came back. I mean he was still a happy go lucky guy inside and he did get along with other people and Tom wasn't a selfish person. But nobody could wake him up. We had three children and they couldn't go up and say:" Hey dad, wake up" when he was sleeping, because he'd swing. That's the first thing he'd do.
Now my husband was definitely a city guy, brought up in Syracuse; and I don't think he'd done much camping when he was a kid. He must have survived out there on shear will power. I know Mo Gann was the leader of the escape, and I think he and Jurist escaped completely. My father in law got a letter from him before Tom got back, wanting to know how he was doing and mentioned the escape. It said " I hope you're enjoying your freedom". Tom's father thought: " Oh, boy, now what's wrong!"
As far as I knew, my husband was never abused or beaten. If he was, he never told us about it. What he told us were the funny stories: Like if one person scratched, everybody had to get deloused. The Germans were afraid of disease, so they made sure they were always deloused. He came home with only the clothes on his back; and they were all brand new. The story goes, that if a crew didn't come back, they'd raid your locker. My husband had a pair of tailor mades while he was in England. He had a friend on another crew named Joe, and when that guy got shot down and came into camp, he was wearing my husband's clothes. When Tom confronted him, he says: "Well, I thought I'd just bring them back to you!&""
Like Tom Stapleton, Jake Rowton passed on before his time. Rise Wiggins, his daughter, is the family's historian. Although he kept no diary of his own, a worn and tattered notebook, left behind in the barracks at Luft 1, was the window to her dad's PW experience. Filled with drawings and poems, Jake Rowton thought it was worth hanging on to. He brought it all the way home to the Rocky Mountain foothills of northeastern Washington. The Rowton's were pioneers who came West in a covered wagon. Self-reliance was a part of his heritage. Jake was evidently the kind of fellow, who was ready to accept any challenge to his abilities, and maybe more afraid of failing, then of hardship.
"My dad grew up his whole life on a farm. He spent a lot of time on horseback, taking care of cows, out on the range. His grandparents had come over the prairie in a covered wagon and started the ranch in Molsen. Dad was the only son and had two sisters to take care of, so he had to be very responsible. After high school, he went to Washington State University. While he was there, the War broke out and he enlisted in the Air Force. We've got a picture of him with his guns and I know he was very proud of that. Of course, he grew up carrying a gun and hunting. He loved the outdoors and he was more comfortable there, than most.
We didn't know much about the things that happened to him as a prisoner. I guess it wasn't something he wanted to dwell on. Dad was very independent and it wouldn't have bothered him to take his chances or be in a risky situation."
Mo Gann's book, "Escape I Must&" was completed in 1995. Seeing the tale clearly laid out in print was a thrill. There were the fine details, such as the wire-cutters-made-from-a-hinge; and the broad strokes, such as their capture, imprisonment in the dungeons at Koenigsburg, and final bold escape. As gratifying as these revelations were, I could never know or record all the events of the escape. My focus had been forced to widen: What drove these men to take a gamble, on such a long shot, as an escape? What was the glue that held them together? Mr. Gann spoke about what his partners had looked for in each other.
"One of the things that was most disappointing in my contacts with other individuals was how far apart people's memories are. I was amazed that we had such different recollections. I know darn well, I put these things down as they were happening. Of course, every time we were caught, searched, or moved from one camp to the next, you'd lose them. I did however, make notes after I got to where I could keep them. I'm confident that they're correct. It's just that on some issues, we're at opposite ends of the pole.
To begin with, we plotted this whole thing together. Of course, I didn't know Rowton or Stapleton at first, but as we started making plans, they came in on it. Lamarca was on my original crew and got shot down about a week and a half before me. He was one of the first guys I met in camp, and we started right up; talking about how to escape as soon as we could. When the four of us got together, we more or less complimented each other as far as talents go and feeling we had the ability to do what we intended to do. We weighed our chances and figured we were all determined to get out. I didn't have any doubts about any of them. Stapleton, Lamarca, Rowton and myself were in camp less than a month, before we got out. From the date we got out, until we got back and they put us in solitary, it was 72 days.
I grew up around Del Valley, which is slightly south and east of Austin, maybe nine miles out in the country. A good deal of my growing up was spent outdoors. My daddy was a blacksmith and I worked with him. I was a country boy at heart. Jake Rowton was a real solid individual, a nice quiet guy. He wasn't quite as big as me, but he was wiry and had a lot of confidence about him. We had a lot in common, both of us having been around horses. I had no doubts about Jake's staying put and being with you when the time came. Tom Stapleton was a good-natured guy, but he was not as stout as the rest of us. Tom was a little on the small side and didn't have the physical strength. What really tied us all together was the belief that we could stay cool and not lose our nerve, out on the way out. Believe me, we were tested.
Being in the woods for days, was not the most difficult part of our experience. Getting through that fence was the real challenge. I'd been around barbed wire all my life, and it didn't intimidate me. Sneaking out there and making a passage through was tougher than I'd thought it would be; and those machine guns in the guard towers were for real. At one point, I got caught in the fence, just as the guard passed by. The others were back in the ditch, waiting to see what was going to happen. We were lucky to complete the task and not get shot. Once we were on our way, we all started having problems with our feet. It was constantly wet and cold because the countryside was covered with snow and ice. Once in a while, the bunch of us could hole up in a barn. Even then, you didn't have a lot to keep you warm. You'd try to buddy up at night. When you laid down, you'd have to squeeze up as close as you could together, and fight over who'd be in the middle, or take turnabout.
We got caught, and they sent us down to Konigsberg. It took us a while, but all four of us escaped from that place too!"
Fifteen hundred Americans were held at Luft 6. How many of them are aware of Stapleton, Gann, Rowton and Lamarca is anybody's guess. Probably not many. Then as now, the military works on a " need to know&" basis. All branches of the service regularly train their people in survival techniques, but the basic premise remains the same: "You're on your own&". I had pursued the story of the escapes from Heydekrug, as a way of illustrating the resourcefulness, organization and daring of Air Corps Sergeants. Penned up in the middle of a War, escape must have seemed terribly important to Lamarca and the others; worth risking everything. Fifty years later, only a few of those who participated remember the effort. Still, I think the Four Men Out could be more than just another enigmatic footnote, to a page of American History.
"The police chief of Jabarkis took us in a buggy, with a couple of guards, to Tilset (about halfway back to the camp). From Tilset, we went southwest to Konigsberg, East Prussia. We had come about 100 kilometers east and I guess they took us back towards a more secure area. The four of us were put in a subterranean prison. It seemed to me like it was a centuries old building with great big thick walls. I distinctly remember sitting in a room with Mo, and hearing these guys singing, " HI-LI, HI-LA, HI-LO&" and marching by on the cobblestones. I hate to say it, but the damn Germans sung pretty good, keeping time with those cleats on their boots.
In our little room, there was this huge door, with some sort of a bolt that slid over to keep the door shut. There was a window with a little screen, so they could look in. We took a wire off that screen, then made a loop in it. From time to time they took us out for exercise, so we had a chance to see what it looked like on the outside. Unfortunately, there was a guard stationed outside the door. Mo and I figured: "Too bad! We're never going to get out of here.&" When they took us out for exersize again, we noticed a tunnel-like passage going to the outside. It had little alcoves, so we figured, if we ever got into that, we could hide in those alcoves on the way out. We also noticed that at midday, our guard would be gone for ten minutes and nobody replaced him. That would be an ideal time to get out! One afternoon, when everything seemed right, we put our wire through the window, hooked the damn bolt and pulled it up. We walked right out and got into that crazy tunnel. Mo and I, looked at each other and thought:&" Wow. . . All these guards and it's so simple to get out.&" This was definitely not a place for prisoners of war, and who knows what they would have done if they'd discovered us. We got the hell out of there! I don't know how many days we were in that area, but the story ended by us camping on top of a hill. We thought we were pretty safe, so we made a fire to keep warm. Guess what? We were on top of a German high tech installation. Soldiers came storming up at us yelling "Achtung, Achtung&", and all that stuff. I figured I knew how to put up my hands real fast. I was scared stiff!
I was liberated by the Russians up at Luft 1. When I got home in June of 1945, I was married and discharged. A colonel in the U. S. Army came to talk to me about the escape. In my opinion, he was rather rude; of course it might not be so, because I was still quite upset from being a prisoner. He seemed arrogant. He was questioning me about my escape and told me I'd have to call him Colonel and all that. I told him: " Go to hell! ; I'm no longer a soldier! I'll respect your uniform, but don't talk to me, like I'm some little crap. I'm through with all that bull. &" He left and I never heard anything else about it; until 2 years ago when Harvey called.
Mo says we were out 72 days. I don't know. They say we were the only sergeants to get out of Luft 6 and Luft 4. To be honest, it's like having amnesia and then having flashbacks. And who really cares?"
In April of 1944, T/sgt. George Walker was killed by a guard while attempting to escape from prison camp in Germany. The epitaph for the WWII airmen from Spartanburg was pinned to the side of his barracks:
" In a little burial plot on the edge of a grove of young birch trees, six of his comrades laid to rest the body of T/Sgt George B. Walker. Thousands of miles from his native Carolina, the only touch of home was the simple American flag that draped his bier; and the sharp notes of Taps, that drifted across his grave in a chill wind, under the clear blue Baltic sky... just a stones throw from one of the guard towers of Stalag Luft 6."
Spring comes late to the Baltic coast of Lithuania, which shares the same latitude as Hudson's bay. For half a century, the remains of George Walker have rested beneath that rustling grove of birch trees, waiting to come home.
In April of 1994, Claude Watkins left Reston,Virginia with his son Kelly to see if he could locate the gravesite of Walker and two other Americans who died at the prison camp for captured Allied fliers. After landing in Germany, they took a Russian train through Poland and Belorus into the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius. The camp called Stalag Luft 6 was located in a part of Lithuania that had been annexed by Germany . Following the War, Lithuania was made part of the Soviet Union. Today it is again an independant country, and the town of Heydekrug is now Silute. In Vilnius, the Watrkins hired a car, driver and an interpreter , then headed west.
"Fifty years ago that I was a twenty two year old prisoner in Stalag Luft 6. When I returned on April 16th, I was 72. For almost two years, I had been trying to organize a nostalgia trip back to the area of our captivity. I wrote to the mayor of Silute, asking him about accommodations. I recieved a detailed reply from a journalist, Stasys Melinauskas, the local authority on the history of the prison camp.
We drove about 4 hours on the divided highway that stretches from Vilnius, to the port of Klaipeda on the Baltic coast. We passed through farmland and a few rare villages, and the condition of the highway is in sharp contrast to the roads through the villages; no doubt because the Soviet government maintained it for military purposes. About twenty miles out from Silute, I began to experience feelings of expectation and excitement. When we arrived at the site of what had been our camp, I experienced a shortness of breath. What hit me was, not so much that I was there again, but that 50 years ago, I never conceived I'd be back under such macabre or morbid circumstances.
Shortly after I heard from the journalist, I got a call from the Consul at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius. He had been contacted by an office of the Department of Defense, charged with POW/MIA affairs. While researching rumors of prisoners having been taken to the Soviet Union after Liberation, they discovered that the remains of three Americans, who died in Luft 6, had never been recovered. Most of us from the camp assumed that everyone had been brought home or relocated. Heydekrug was one of those few places that the Soviets would not let our authorities search.
We evacuated the camp in July 1944 and in 1945, the Russians converted the camp into a Gulag to hold Lithuanian political prisoners. They continued the operation until 1954, at which time they almost completely destroyed the camp.
The U.S. consul, together with some local officials, had visited the site but could not determine where our people where, and discovered that there were now several acres of unmarked individual and mass graves in the area. He knew of my contact with the mayor of Silute, that I was a former prisoner and lived in the Washington area. He asked me to contact an analyst with the DOD, POW/MIA office. I soon found myself part of the investigation into what happened to our men and the camp after we evacuated it. Now, 16 months later, I was trying to locate the northwest corner of the camp and find three unmarked graves."
Records indicated that George Walker had been shot on April 29th, 1944, while attempting to escape. Sgt.Walter Nies was shot by a guard on the morning of 28 May. A third man, T/Sgt. William Teaff, died of illness, on 10 July. The facts and the fates of these men were never in question and the Germans sent pictures of their funerals to the Red Cross. In the years following the War, the Soviets were asked to return the remains of two dozen Americans. They could not locate nine men, including the airmen from Luft 6. In 1953, the remains of these men were declared non-recoverable. Their names were memorialized in American Military Cemeteries in Holland and Luxembourg. What stood in the way was the Iron Curtain and paperwork that could pinpoint their locations.
"In the months prior to my trip, I had located several of the men who were on the burial details. Charles Whetstone and Armand Cournoyer were air crewmen with George Walker. Based on their recollections, they provided me with a diagram and general description of the site. I knew that the location was 100 yards from the northwest corner of the camp and the guard tower. The general location had been pointed out to me from where I worked in the German part of the camp, and my memory tracked with their information. Practically all that is left of the place today is what was the road in through the main gate and the perimeter road on the northeast side. The perimeter road turns to the left at the northwest corner, and that was the clue we needed, to get us into the area of the three graves. With a compass and a steel tape, my son and I worked our way, right to the edge of a copse of birch and oak trees.
There are many grave mounds, going in all directions, so it's uncomfortable to walk over. The Lithuanians have fenced of a good deal of it, erected monuments and adopted unmarked graves, which they care for. The place where our guys are buried is outside the fenced area; but the actual limits of the area would be difficult to determine. For the locals, it's not a memory that will just go away. There is a small, fast moving river at the back end of all this. The townspeople told me, that if the river rises a little, and cuts into its banks and it exposes bones."
For Armand Cournoyer, of Yarmouthport, Cape Cod, the matters of the War are private. For so many years, he's kept his focus on his family and his job, as a designer of printing equipment. Because of renewed interest on George Walkers fate, he has been asked to come to terms with bitter memories of his youth:
“I’m not gung ho about my PW memories, the way a lot of fellows are; but certain things do come back as you discuss it. I do remember some of the details about George Walker, because I was responsible for overseeing his burial. I acted as undertaker.
I was with the 306th Bomb Group and flying as waist gunner. Our crew landed in England on November 11th, 1943, and we started flying immediately. Our outfit had made the famous Schweinfurt Raid, just before we got there. We got shot down on our fifth mission, which was on February 3, 1944. We were bombing the submarine dumps at Wilhelmshaven and got zapped on our way out. The pilot, Lt.. Wong, was heading for Sweden; but we never made it. I wound up bailing out into the ocean. We lost a few that days, like my buddy, Sikes. There was a lad from New York, Kells, who damn near drowned, but we revived him.
We had several replacements on our crew that day, and we had never seen one another before the mission. Of course, I didn't know what the new crew members looked like, because you are flying with those goggles and helmets on, and all the rest of the outfit. Whetstone and Walker were very unfamiliar to me; I met them in prison camp. In the back of my mind, I always picture him as Clark Gable; he was that type of an individual. Walker was a big man, but he had certain flamboyance about him. He wasn't like a small town guy. He appeared older than I, and perhaps for that reason, he was a little more of a man of the world. That's the way I remember him; of course our acquaintance was very limited.
The circumstances of his death were, that he was trying to escape during the night, and it was obvious, that he had been shot with his hands over his head. He had a flight jacket on and the bottom was unbuttoned. If he had his hands up, this would open the jacket. It was obvious he was shot without the bullet going through the jacket."
Charles Whetstone is a retired machinist living in a suburb of Corpus Christi, Texas. His good natured, delta charm masks the toughness of a survivor, a trait shared by many former prisoners of war. When contacted by Claude Watkins, Mr. Whetstone provided drawings of the camp, indicating Walker’s location. He was also one of the last persons to see George Walker.
“I was flying with Lt. Wong's crew as a replacement gunner, because my crew had been shot down previously. I had an accident and while I was in the hospital, they didn't come back. Then the next mission I went on, I didn’t come back. I have the Purple Heart for being killed in action... they made a mistake! Actually, I believe the Germans reported my death deliberately so as to stir things up back home.
We were hit by anti aircraft fire and had to bail out over the North Sea. It was February 3rd and it was real cold. When I got to shore, the Germans took me into the center of town and we waited for them to round up the rest of the fellows. There was this old Gendarme; he cussed me out to a fair ye well. They were the first words I heard in English, so I had to laugh. I don't know where he picked it up, but those people didn’t like us at all. It was lucky that we had a guard. You keep bombing someone and they're going to get after you!
They kept us in a civilian jail for a day or so, and then they shipped us out to Frankfurt, to Dulag Luft. It was their interrogation center. They put us all in solitary, and I don't recommend this to anyone You're in this pitch black room, you don't know if there's snakes in there or what...you don't hear any voices and its dead quiet for 24 hours. That gets to bearing on your mind real strong; it’s meant to do just that.
When you get out, they interrogate you; except they ended up telling us more things than we knew. Anyway, after about a week, the enlisted men were sent up to Stalag Luft 6, on a long train ride through East Prussia. It was a passenger train, but it was so cold, it was pathetic. When we finally got there, plenty of snow was still on the ground. The place was run by a bunch of British who been PW’s since the war began. Our barracks were made of brick, and they even had a nice big hearth in the center of the room...except we never got any coal to speak of, so we didn't have much heat. I'm from Arkansas originally, so I'd seen snow; but those nights were long and cold. I used to wrap newspaper around my legs and chest, and then put my shirt and britches on.
The main thing with the Germans was, they'd have to count us a couple of times a day. Generally, there'd be an error, so they'd do it over and over again. They called it Appell, and that's how we used to hide the fact that someone was missing. Guys would scoot in and out of the barracks to keep the count right.
Most of us took the escape business lightly, because if you think about it, we were a long way from home. The conditions were pretty rough, and those Germans were all real good friends. If they saw a stranger, they'd turn him in, right quick. If they watched you eat with a knife and fork, or saw you smoke a cigarette, it would be a dead giveaway.
My job on a tunnel project, that Walker was on, was to get rid of the dirt. We all had two Prince Albert Tobacco tins that we'd fill up with dirt, and carry out to the latrine. It was a ten hole affair and pretty soon, it had so much dirt in it, that it finally overflowed. As if that wasn't bad enough, we had a heavy rain and the day afterwards, the tunnel caved in on this Russian prisoner, who cleaned the latrines.
Although we had been on the same crew, we were new friends and Walker kept it quiet about trying to escape. I didn't know that he had tried, until after they came in and told us he'd been killed. He seemed so easy going and jolly... you liked to be around him; but I guess he couldn't stand it and wanted to escape.
Some of the guys took burlap bags and sewed together a flag. They made water colors from vegetable dyes and ink, and painted up a flag. That's what we used to cover him up with, because the Germans wouldn't give us a box. I was given information that he had escape maps and money, sewn into the lining of his britches. All that stuff was gone; I guess the Germans found it.
When I got to Camp Lucky Strike in 1945, I wrote these things down, before they slipped away from my memory. It seems like you'll never forget something like that, but as time goes by, you do. Right now, I can see it in my mind, just like it happened."
It is the essence of youth to think that stamina and courage can accomplish fantastic ends. There's no thought of compromise with the forces of history. Only one man can tell what drove George Walker to plan his daring escape, from the barbed wire of Luft 6. Even in his mid seventies, Ed Jurist was burly, dark-haired and dapper. A successful entrepreneur, his showroom in Nyack, New York exhibited his classic cars, speedboats and vintage aircraft. Late in 1991, he allowed a glimpse of what led them into those desperate pre-dawn hours of April 29, 1944.
"I'd been shot down on the March 6 raid to Berlin, and got to Heydekrug with several of my crew about mid March of 1944. At this time, all sorts of escape activities were in progress at the camp. There were tunnels being dug, and both the British and Americans had made successful break-outs above ground. It didn't take me long to get involved and by the 29th of April, I was ready to make my own attempt. My partner was George Walker.
Walker may have been involved with (the escape committee) as a mapmaker, but I'm not sure about that. I had met him in camp, just as I had many other people. He was a big, heavy set guy; tall with dark hair. Walker's home town was Spartanburg, South Carolina and he spoke with a real southern drawl.
As I remember it, George first approached me. To get away from the rest of the crowd, we'd meet on the edge of the "Playing field". Sitting there in the scrub grass and looking out over the field, we'd start talking about escapes: How? When? Where? I spoke some Russian and some French, so we decided to head up North through Estonia and Latvia into Russia."
The escape committee figured that the Germans would never expect an attempt to go through the barbed wire near the front gate, ten feet from their barracks. The plan to was to do something bold and unexpected. Each day six prisoners were allowed to go through the gates from the American lager into the supply area and over to the Red Cross parcel building. They would pull out a wooden flatbed cart loaded with empty boxes, dump them and return with fresh supplies. A deliberate accumulation of empty boxes was stacked up.
"It seemed that six guys went out, but there were actually seven. A little guy named Robinson, who was a ball turret gunner, got into one of the boxes, inside the compound. When we arrived at the Red Cross shack, the guards were deliberately distracted. While their attention was on this commotion, Walker jumped away and hid down between the boxes. Robinson was back on the wagon in a box, so he leapt off and took Walker's place. Six guys pulled the wagon in and six guys pulled the wagon back.
On the second run from camp, I was up front, pulling the wagon. Robinson was in a box. We went over to the shed, created another distraction and I hopped behind the empty crates. Again Robinson leapt off the wagon, and he took my place. The Krauts counted six prisoners and they returned to the compound.
That left George and me hidden in the Vorlager. We wore what was left of our GI issue; our leather flight jackets and some pants, a sweater and a homemade cap, some kriegie had knit. We were not really covered...just standing behind the shed, surrounded by those empty boxes. There were guards all around us and occasionally I would nudge him and point at them. During the afternoon we stayed in absolute stillness. It was devastating to feel each minute go by, and be trapped within your own thoughts. Late in the afternoon it started to get chilly and the sun slipped away. As the searchlights came on, the guys in camp returned to their barracks, for evening meals. Then we really felt alone out there. Walker was getting jumpy.
I'd say we were behind that shed from two or three in the afternoon, until late that night, well after midnight. We were bidding our time, but you couldn't sleep under those conditions. It's not so much the cold, but the fact that you're alert to the point where it's painful. Every sound is a nerve -wracking, horrifying possibility of being discovered and maybe being shot. When the time came for us to make our move, away from the boxes, Walker wanted to blow. He didn't want to go: “Let’s not do it! Look at those guards walking outside the perimeter, this is crazy...We haven't got a chance!"
By this time I was all tensed up and ready. Any change in plans would have been disastrous. There was no way to get back into the compound. We would have had to wait until the morning to surrender, in broad daylight, and hope the Germans would take us back in. I wouldn't hear of it. “We’re here, we can't go back. We have the wire cutters with us and the maps; it's all right. We can make it!"
Timing is a critical element of success. On April 29th, the forces of history converged on the open sandy stretch before Jurist and Walker. During the first two weeks of April, Adolph Hitler shattered the long standing tradition that "honored" escape attempts as the "duty" of a captured soldier. The Great Escape had taken place on March 24, at Stalag Luft 3, another Airmen's camp. Hitler's reaction was: “We must set an example". Fifty British officers were recaptured and executed. The entire German system was on alert and the Nazi mechanisms for state terror were extended to Allied prisoners.
Precisely at the moment that Jurist and Walker were waiting for their chance to break out, the Abwehr was rounding up the British Escape Committee in the next compound. They had set up an incredible network; with men operating outside of camp... a British Sergeant had even made it home to England! Up to now, everything had seemed possible.
"We pushed the boxes aside, got down and started crawling. I went out and George was right behind me. We headed towards the first line of barbed wire. It was grueling work, but we kept going until we were about 25 feet from the trench in front of the main gate. The Red Cross sheds were just dark shapes behind us. A guard was pacing back and forth, just outside the fence, and the lights were sweeping the area. By this time the sentry was very familiar with, and attuned to the rhythm of the night.
As he passed by, he looked in. He looked right at us; it was a sandy area, so we had very little cover. Suddenly he tensed and spun around, as if to say " Ah -Ha". We just froze. He got upset, the way all the krauts did, screaming and shouting: Raus, Raus, and Raus!" The minute he started shouting, I told Walker: “Don’t F-ing move!" Otherwise were dead. Just lie still- Don't move!"
That son of a bitch fires. Shot right at us, not over out heads. At that point, I got up on my knees and in mixed German, I said: Schiesen nichts!!! Kameraden...don't Shoot! Don't Shoot!" George was behind me, laying flat. The bastard shot again, so we hugged the ground. "Where can we go...What's he shooting for?” We asked ourselves. It was pure panic. Sure enough, the main gate opens up and the dogs come in. They found us and started tearing at us. After some time, a guard comes up on us. I could only see his boots and legs standing beside us... nothing more. All around was screaming and barking and more soldiers coming into the Vorlager?
Someone pulled the dogs away, and Walker made a move. I didn't know what was happening; I was trying to understand. He got up and was killed, on the spot. The guy who shot Walker must have thought I was killed by shots from the perimeter guard. We were still inside the camp. He figured there would be an investigation! It was cold blooded murder."
Standing in that grove of birches, Claude Watkins was certain he was in the same spot that Whetstone and Cournoyer had stood, fifty years earlier.
“It occurred to me that something of a line existed from my first experiences as a PW to that moment. I did twenty years active duty with the Air Force and 18 more as a civilian with HQ Air Force. All but a few of those years, were devoted to matters of avoiding or surviving captivity. Returning to look for some of my fellow prisoners seemed like another natural step on that line; but it was really a tough call. In my judgment, it would be impossible to segregate only the American graves, from all the others.”
After WW II there were 78,000 individuals whose remains were not recovered (and 8500 "Unknown Soldiers"). During the five year period between 1946 and 1951, Graves Registration and Mortuary Affairs made an extraordinary effort to locate and identify all those who died in the War. Attempts were made to go into Eastern Europe, when it was possible .For each case, there is a file containing the board’s action about the recovery or lack of it. Their criteria was clear: Is the location based on fact or assumption? Whenever possible, the task is to disinter, identify and return the remains. Where identification is not possible, no marker should be placed.
That is the dilemma in the case of George Walker. It is possible to re-open a file, if new facts warrant it. With Claude Watkins' trip back to Heydekrug and inquiries by concerned parties, Mortuary Affairs will informally review the file. The resolution does not seem promising, but a Memorial Ceremony at the site is planned for September 18, 1993. Representatives of the Lithuanian and U.S. Air force, former PW’s, and the townspeople will participate.
Half a world away from his home, the Baltic wind still rustles the birches over three Americans. Perhaps the placing of a wreath will show that, although the men are out of sight, they're not yet, out of mind.
Malcolm Hinshaw - HEAVEN TO HELL - Malcolm Hinshaw's story about being shot down and a POW.
S/Sgt. Hyman Hatton - One of the best historical documents of life at a WWII POW camp.
James M. Ross - OUR TURN NEXT - The complete history of a WWII Crusader from induction to the missions he flew , to being shot down, to being captured, to life in 3 different POW camps and death march survivor, to liberation and discharge. This is the story for all educators to know the life of a WWII soldier.