When we came home, we were still 24 or 25 years old. We got home and it was all an experience. You've had a rough time in the Army, but somehow you were enjoying this stuff. We didn't know our lives hung in the balance, every time we took off in training. We didn't realize that it was always that way; and it will be that way with generation after generation; no matter what war. When they tell you;" One out of five of you aren't going to come back"...It's not going to be your crew. It will be one of the other planes:" Not me! Too bad fellas; one of you isn't coming back". You never figure you're going into this stuff.
When we come back home, what we remember is the fun things; what a clown this certain guy was or the way we made those German guards sputter, the sawdust bread and blood sausage...laughing at Hitler's order's:" All American prisoners will be shot"...UP YOURS! The rough part gets blocked out of your mind; the missions, the forced marches...but it's always there.
When I get out of solitary at Dulag Luft, I walk out to the transit camp and get some kind of clothes issue. The Red Cross supplies us with GI shoes, an RAF blouse and some pants. It seems to me that Kennett and Hatton were there. If we'd have looked ahead, we could have got some talking done; but it's all just spinning around in your head. Tomorrow..well what's next? We'll find the time... right now you want to get your stomach filled and settle your nerves down. The big question was:" What the hell they gonna do with ya???"
I left Dulag Luft on May 3, 1944. A group of us were lined up in front of this barracks and we were told to jump up on the tailgate of these trucks and get in. Hatton and Kennett were leaning in the doorway waving good-by:" I'll see you guys later!"
We pull up to the rail yards and six box cars are attached to this train...old 40 and 8's from WW1. One hundred and fifty of us pile into the cars; twenty five POW's and eight guards in each. The doors slam closed and you can see bullet holes through the sides of the car. There's new wood on the roof, so it doesn't take much to figure out these cars have been strafed. It took us four days to go from Frankfort to Krems, Austria...Stalag 17B.
It's beautiful country, just south of the Alps and north of the Danube. There's a castle there at Durnstein. The guards would point it out to us and say:" Richard the Lion-Hearted" It's where he was held prisoner.
Stalag 17B had been built around 1940 and it had been a concentration camp for Polish prisoners. Our camp was made up of 4,300 American Airmen. There were 15,000 on the other side of the fence, in the international compounds. They were mostly Russians, a few French, British and Italians.
When I first got there, I was lucky enough to find three guys from my hometown, Brockton, Mass. Rule Stevenson, Peter Lupica and Clayton Taylor were old time " flea bitten" kriegies. It was quite a surprise to find them there, since they had been flying out of Italy.
Our camp was kept mostly busy by digging tunnels; they were everywhere. The one that crossed our barracks went under the roving guards fence and into the Russians' compound. We did a lot of trading with them, and you could almost do it hand to hand across the fence. The main tunnel was on the other was on the other side of the camp. That was being built under the barracks that were closest to the outside fence; it was bordered by a sloping hillside and a small grove of trees which had our cemetery, Marble Orchard. They were going to try for a mass break, like the one at Stalag Luft 3.We heard that when the Austrians went to clear away the camp, after the War, their bulldozers were dropping down into all those tunnels...spread out as they were.
The barracks had these little porches, like a doghouse that you enter through; then you pass through the back door into the place. It's summertime, so nobody's stealing wood, but by wintertime, most of it's been ripped down for firewood.
There's a guy at this entrance sitting on a chair, with a Red Cross accordion "squeeze box". Forty three hundred guys have been saving liver pate' cans for months, from all the Red Cross parcels. They made a flexible gooseneck hose out of them. I don't know how many feet it ran, but it goes through the porch, into the tunnel. Somehow, they cut a hole in the bottom of the bellows and this guy sits there just pumping air down to the guys scraping away like woodchucks.
Getting rid of the dirt was a problem. The camp leaders squawked to the Geneva Convention people:" We've got to have gardens". So they send us seeds and implements to plant vegetables. On any given day there are guys digging around, making gardens with raised beds; in truth, for dumping the excess sand hidden in drawstring bags inside his pantleg. Can you imagine guys in midsummer, wearing overcoats and baggy pants, walking all around the garden and kicking up little clouds of dust here and there?
We had a Protecting Powers visit at 17B, in the early spring but there was a long stretch between visits. When he finally arrived, he came in an American car. It was quite a thrill to see. The fellows told me that he drove a Duesenberg or a Mercedes, before. Evidently, one of the things that kept him from showing up on time was that his car had been damaged in a bombing raid. Since he was a neutral and American bombers had inconvenienced him, the U.S. government presented him with a 1942 Ford. Imagine seeing that thing rolling into camp... and we understood he was much happier with his Ford than his Deusenberg.
Depending on the German's to feed us was a big mistake. They couldn't feed themselves, let alone 4300 Americans. I remember one time we came up for our chow, they had some kind of soup. It comes in and it was supposed to be spinach. We get our tin cans full, bring it back to eat...everybody's trying to eat it, but you can. !It's like crabgrass that's stewed in water, but it's tough as nylon...it won't break with your spoon or your teeth. Just impossible to eat, you think it's going to cut your thorax if you swallow it. One hundred and forty seven guys and everybody agrees:" To hell with this, we're dumping it in the latrine!"
We take this bucket of swill, still steaming hot, over to the shit house. The privy is a straight " Parson's bench " style with 40 holes; ten on each side wall and twenty back to back in the middle of the building. We had a horse drawn " honey wagon" with a Russian detail that would come and pump it out. To keep the stench down, we used cardboard from the Red Cross parcels to make seat covers. The crease on the box would become the hinge. There's one over every hole in the privy, to keep it airtight.
One or two guys are always answering nature's call, and that day was no different. Sure enough, there's a fellow using the privy down at the end of the first line of holes. We come in with this steaming bucket, flip the cover off the hole closest to the door, start pouring that stuff down and let out a cheer. We close the cover and just about start walking away, when this fellow suddenly pops up:" YOWWW!" The steam is running around the boards, looking for a way out!
There was always some time when you'd have to make a run to the latrine. With our diet and living conditions, diaherria was fairly common. For that reason, everyone in the camp had to smoke. If a guy came down with the runs, he'd come into that pitch dark latrine and have to find an opening quickly. If you're on a hole, then you'd be puffing away like a firefly, so that nobody would come and sit on top of you. Everybody's smoking.
Maybe the Russians didn't show up to pump us out, so the stuff's getting higher and higher. To see how much clearance you've got, you have to light a match near the cover and look down inside. Going from hole to hole, the match is burning down pretty close to your finger, so what do you do. That's right, drop the match.
Well, cripes, there's all that methane trapped in there. The whole thing goes whoomp! It's burning like hell and the guy runs back to the barracks:" Fire! Fire! Save our shit house!" Everybody's got to go out and keep it from burning to the ground.
The latrines are made of brick, but they're all lined with wood. Austria gets chilly along about November and we need firewood for cooking. Joe Corrin and I would walk out with our overcoats on, which go down to our knees. We'd walk into the latrine; I'd stand up on the seats and look out through the top window ( there's no glass in them). Then Joe would pull like a bastard to get a board off. It might only come half a ways off; so the two of us would grab hold of the bottom, and just use brute strength until some of the rusty nails let loose. Crack...what a noise...Brrrmmpp...just like a rifle shot and sure to bring unwanted attention. We take those broken strips of board and shove them up our overcoats. Back to the barracks, we're goose-stepping! The funny thing was that we'd cut it up into shavings; precious little scraps of fuel to heat us up or boil water.
It was the end of March, just before we left camp; from out of nowhere comes eight P-38's. We see them come near the camp, they circle us like sea gulls or vultures. The, four of them come down and line up abreast...wing tip to wing tip.
We're up on a hill about three miles from the village of Krems. Back in '44, when we first came off the boxcars, we noticed these oil storage tanks near the rail line. Now that's some target! These guys drop down to the deck and use full flaps; on their firing pass, it looks like they're hang gliding. Their nose cannons are just lobbing 37 mm shells into those tanks...boom, boom, boom. All that black smoke is coming up from the valley and then p-38's are climbing to form a circle. Four more planes drop in, full flaps, to make their run for the target. It was like putting a rifle in a sling to get perfect shooting. They reformed and wheeled around to pass over our camp; they wave their wings as they fly over and then off into the wild blue yonder!
The next day, we're out in the compound, and a lone P-51 circles the perimeter of the camp. We're going nuts; waving arms, cheering, yea...yea! Once around the camp, he drops down, cuts across the compound from left to right, and makes a run on the guard towers. As we watch, one of the German guards takes his rifle and fires a shot at the P-51, as it passes over. Just outside the fence, a Hauptmann from the camp, comes out of his slit trench. He's got a cane and a wooden leg. The officer struts over to the guard tower and raps that cane against the structure; whack...whack! He's hollering at the guard like he's going to get the firing squad. The guard comes down and this guy's yelling to beat the band:" What are you doing? Are you crazy? Leave him alone...that's just an airplane flying by; it's like swatting a hornet! Don't bother him!"
If it rained on the 5th and 6th of April in Neuremburg, the night of the 8th it rained in Krems, Austria; a westerly wind brought us the rain three days later. We left camp on April 8th, a Sunday. Easter had been on the 1st that year ( 1945);the following Saturday night, we got word that we're getting kicked out. They started a big fire to burn the junk we've got to leave behind. After making knapsacks and getting ready, the morning comes and we leave Stalag 17B.
It was a 25 kilometer march; we're north of the Danube going out of Krems and pass by that Castle at Durnstein. It's a fairly nice day and then they bed us down for the night. It's me and Joe Corrin. I had two army blankets and my few possessions that I'd been collecting for almost a year. Joe had two and our third combine buddy, Bill Chapman, had only one. We spread our blankets on the ground under an apple tree, but this being early spring, there's no leaves. The rain reached us that night and we weren't well prepared.
I wondered how we would survive this new test, out in the open. We're not infantry men, but we're loaded down with our possessions and each day we march along a little higher on these mountain trails. The only silver lining was that on April 7th, I had received my first parcel from home...three cartons of Camels. Now that was something beautiful for trading! We marched west.
It was still north of the Danube, as we approached the big city of Linz. The Germans decided to let us lay over one night. The plan was to go without any breaks, across the Danube, then through Linz center and out of town; it was being bombed every day. No breaks, just go until you get out of the target area. We get a day off, just to rest up for the journey. We set up in the loft of a barn. There's a road alongside the farmhouse, and across it is a little creek that runs into the Danube.
The Germans post some guards along the river bank about one hundred yards apart. They allow us to get in and wash, but you can't drink that warm, lousy looking stuff. I'm bent over washing when a bunk mate, Ordez, comes over beside me. He's kind of the sly gambler type, excellent poker player, quick and really observant.
Just then, a line of trucks roll down the dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust. As we stand there, a chicken crosses the road and disappears into it. In a flash, Ordez runs into the cloud of dust, picks up the bird, and then he's back again at the bank of the river. A guard has been sitting down on a rock by the river with his rifle. As the dust settles, he stands up and looks at us.
Ordez has this dead chicken stuffed down his shirt; he opens it and shows me:" Wow, it's a chicken!" I walked a few yards and looked up and down stream to check on the guards. He says:" I'm going to clean this chicken. You keep a sharp eye out for the goons." He starts plucking and shucking the feathers into the river. They start to drift down stream and I'm wondering how long the feathers are going to float. It was like an arrow pointing right back at us. It seemed the guard was getting suspicious of me standing there looking at him. I started to sweat a little and whispered over to Ordez:" Come on, get that chicken plucked, will you!" The guard starts walking over towards me, we're looking at each other, and I tell Ordez:" That goon's coming over here...you better finish up. " He balls the thing up, legs and all, tucks it into his shirt, and bends over to wash his face. We get the once over, but then the guy about faces and goes back to his rock.
Now we have another problem; One dead chicken and no place to cook him. We are allowed to build tiny little camp fires with twigs to heat water; but if they see anything like a pot with an egg in it...to hell with the Geneva Conventions; they probably would shoot us. You're not supposed to steal from the farmers. Somehow, we ended up in the hayloft with a half cooked chicken for dinner. We're tearing that thing apart, in the dark, and shoving bones under the hay so nobody would find them. We used to shiver about those things, but you'd hate to show it.
In the next village, they roll out a big wheel of cheese about a foot thick and four feet high. It's one of the few meals they issue to us; cut into wedges like Vermont Cheddar, maybe 500 guys all had dinner off that.
That night, just before it got dark, Chapman, Corrin and I are building our twig fire, boiling some water. There was a horse trough type of fountain, down in the village square and we'd drawn some water from it. Our Klim can cups were hanging on branches, waiting to be filled. There we were...three Poor Valley farmers huddled around that little fire...We look up and this SS trooper with a submachine gun, slung around his shoulder, had come over to inspect us. The guy's right out of a grade B movie, with his uniform and medals and black leather boots looming over us. He flips the cover off our little pot and those cold eyes look down inside the tin can. If ever there was an egg in there, three heads would be blown off. You can feel your spine tingling as he walks away and grunts. You feel so helpless, yet you feel so guilty to shiver and be afraid. That's what bother's you!