Camp evacuation from Luft 4 to Luft 1 January 1945
I guess you've heard what kind of trip it was, going up to Barth. We had a forced march and then they stuffed us into box cars that were overcrowded. On the box cars It took us eight days, stopping and going. I didn't know Hy Hatton at that time. They had one box car and one doctor for medical cases. So many guys got sick from the water they gave us to drink! I remember the doctor that treated me had a southern accent. What happened was, there were so many of us in the box car, that if you fell asleep, people fell asleep on top of you.
That's what happened to me; I lost the circulation in my legs and my boots got stuck! My feet were killing me because they swelled up and they had to take me on sick call. I finally got them to take me out, and they had to cut my shoes off; just to let my feet out and get my circulation back. While I was there, I watched that doctor operate on some guy who had shrapnel in his leg it had swelled and become infected. All he had to use, was a candle to sterilize a straight razor with. And that's what he operated with! They didn't stop the train to let us go, except once. They stopped the train and the guards were out. There was snow on both sides of the track. Finally they let us move our bowels, which we hadn't been able to do. Now here's this beautiful winter scene with all the white snow and all of a sudden it's all spotted up! Then back into the box cars again. The train took us right to Barth.
We didn't know it at the time, but this was strictly an officer's camp. They were now expanding it to accept us noncommissioned officers. They were going to start crowding us in. We didn't know they were segregating the Jewish officers in this camp. Later we found out it was unsuccessful.
Well, here we were new prisoners. We had just come from this other camp. We were on this terrible forced march and the 8 day ride on the box cars so crowded that not everyone could sleep at one time. It was awful you slept standing up! The Germans took us and assigned 40 men into each of these bare rooms. We were all young guys maybe 20 years old and you're saying to yourself "What's next. What's next?"
So, they take us into these bare rooms, the 40 of us. I was with your dad (Hy Hatton); at this point I had met him on the forced march into camp. We both knew we were Jewish, and we were worried about it. Don't think we weren't! We didn't know any of these other American airmen that we were with. The Germans told us to remain in this room and we knew the routine already we figured they would come in and tell us we'd have to fill straw into a mattress and use that to sleep on the floor. That's that we did in the other camp we called them "pally asses".
So anyway, there's 40 of us your dad and myself... Instead, after about an hour, here comes this typical German military sergeant. He's a big guy with a handlebar mustache, and there's two privates with him; their rifles on their shoulders, and he announces: "ACHTUNG". So, we all stand at attention and he says "I'm here for a specific purpose. I know there are some Jewish soldiers in the room and I'm going to count to three (3). I'd like them to take a step forward!"
Now I can't answer for Hy (Hatton), I can only account for what went on in my head. I'm saying to myself: "This is it baby! When I take that step forward, I'm finished! So I'm not taking any step forward. If they're too dumb to take a look at my dog tag and tell I'm Jewish, then I'm not telling them what to do!" So the sergeant goes: "Ein...Svei...Drie..." and nothing happens. Man, there's a deathly silence in the room. All of a sudden this sergeant starts to rant and rave in German and he says in English: "I know that there are Jewish soldiers in here. I'm going to count to three again. If nobody steps forward the soldiers will be ordered to open fire". The two privates aimed their guns into the middle of the group! So again, in my mind, I'm saying "Now this is too much! I mean, if I'm going to get it, there's no sense in everyone getting it."
The sergeant starts to count again: "ein...svei...drei...".As soon as he starts to say "drei", I start to take a step forward, and... MY GOD! I look around and there's forty men taking a step forward! All forty men taking a step forward! All forty without an order! Now here's American Airmen from all over the country. I never met any of them, except for Hy, and I had no pre-arranged signal with him. Every one of them, at the count of three, took that step forward. You could say, it was just American ingenuity! This sergeant became livid! He started to curse again in German. His face turned purple. The veins were sticking out on both sides of his neck. I'm sure that he'd never come across anything like that before.
In Luft 1, I took a job working in one of the German field kitchens, which was to heat up water, because they didn't give us any food to make. I used to heat the water, and that way I could steal a couple of extra lumps of coal we needed the extra hot water for Hy's back. Near the end of the war, they stopped giving us rations it was just before we got liberated. We were there from January until May and we started to get pretty weak. I was 220 lbs. when I entered the camps and 150 lbs when I was liberated. I would say they stopped sometime in April; although they still gave us a little food like kohlrabi, black brot and potatoes. Even before that, they stopped giving us our Red Cross parcels. The Germans were keeping them for themselves. Those parcels are really what kept us going. Oh, we got pretty hungry! In fact, when the Russians liberated us, we were pretty weak it was hard for some of us to get up and greet them!
We did have some diversion though, when we were in the camps. One of the popular comic strips was L'il Abner. Sometimes, at night, when lights were out, there was nothing to do and nobody was sleeping anyway. The men in the barracks would take the place of different characters in Li'l Abner! We'd act out a whole story. Like we'd be roaring and laughing so hard that the Germans used to bank on our doors to shut us up they couldn't imagine what we were up to! Between the guards and us, it was like a game. Sometimes the guards would steal from our Red Cross packages, during inspections. We had to wait outside while they went through our stuff. So we'd wait until a can of instant powdered coffee was almost finished, then we'd fill it up again with stuff and spike it with cascara pills. Cascara, in those days was a laxative pill. We used to shave it down and grind it up. It was a brown color and would blend with the instant coffee. You'd always know who stole the coffee, because he'd be on sick call the next day. He couldn't get back at us; it was against German army regulations to steal.
One bar of soap from a Red Cross package was worth a week with a woman from town (for the guards). They'd steal that too, but sometimes we'd put razor blades in the soap for them. At Luft 4, We'd trade soap for radio parts. The guys would start with one part and then the guard would be hooked. If more parts were needed we could blackmail him for more because, really, trading was "verboten". They'd threaten him with exposure and he couldn't refuse. All the barracks were made on legs (they were never on the ground) and we finally found out why. They had made a crawl space so the Germans could come underneath the floor with a stethoscope and listen to us, for intelligence. What we used to do, was, we always had water boiling at night. If we could detect them under the barracks, we used to pour the water between the slats. Boy, some nights, shots would come flying up from there! I tell you, sometimes, we didn't expect to get home alive.
Anyway, that's basically what the background of the whole thing was. Like, if there was an air raid and we didn't get back into the barracks fast enough for the guards, they'd shoot at us. You know, it wasn't food, but security that worried us the most. I traded my food for cigarettes. We were afraid of getting bombed during air raids they had a flak school and an installation near the camp. Before we got liberated, the Germans started blowing up the installations we thought they might execute us. We found out later, they had gas chambers being built and they were going to gas us off if they had time before the Russian advance. If the Russians didn't liberate us when they did, we were dead!
When we were liberated, the officers told us not to leave camp. You're not going to tell a bunch of American GI's not to leave camp, after a year behind barbed wire! I'll tell you what happened to me! I went out of camp got a bicycle and drove into town to check out Barth. Come back, and there's two M.P.'s now they're going to lift me off the bike and then lock me up! Put me in the hoosegow! They're going to courts marshal me, they tell me. AWOL from prison camp!
Those Russians were a wild bunch. The first ones that came in were Mongolian troops. THEY WERE WILD!!! They were boozed up with Vodka and came in on motorcycles. Some of them were falling, breaking arms and legs...getting back on their motorcycles...and driving, I don't know how!
Stalag Luft I was a tremendous camp, there had to be thousands of guys there, and we all saw different things that day (May 1). Where I was, a tank came through the barbed wire and flattened it out. These big, six foot Cossacks were the M.P.'s. They were the guys that took over. They went into town (Barth) and got cattle to feed us (which was not good, because we all threw up...our stomachs couldn't take it).
Afterwards, they made us wait and wait until the allies had transportation (May 15) to take us to France to camp Lucky Strike and so on. These were the recuperation camps in Europe. Once we were in American hands, they must have taken Hy Hatton into the hospital. I came back on a troop ship, but they didn't stop in New York- the harbor was so full that they made us turn around and go down to Newport News, Virginia. Then we took a train back to New York.
It didn't take long to get back to the life of America. Yeah you wanted to get started you wanted to be part of civilian life. While I was still in uniform, I met Edith (my wife), I wanted to get married, to get a job so it didn't take long to get going. There's some things that are hard to tell somebody about, like the fun we had in the prison camps. In order to go steady with me, Edith (my wife) promised to let her friends meet the guy before she got serious with him. We had a double date at the Paramount to see Frank Sinatra.
So don't ask we're in a line and have to wait two hours to get in. We're talking and it turns out the other guy had been a P.O.W. at Stalag 17B. Here I was a P.O.W. from Stalag Luft IV and I so, we started in with the stories laughing and telling anecdotes about the prison camp life. Well...people gathered all around us listening to us talk. We could hear them in the background saying "DIDN"T THEY SAY THEY WERE IN A PRISON CAMP?"