War is hell
May 6, 2005
Before the passing of that unique generation who lived, fought and survived the European phase of the Second World War, it seemed incumbent to attempt to chronicle the composite experiences of a few of us who ended the conflict as prisoners of war.
The emphasis in these recollections focuses on the esoteric, the infantile and the humor that was perhaps the single-most influential factor assuring our sanity and ataxia.
This epistle in no way attempts to disparage or mitigate the traumatic effects of combat or incarceration. Those memories are cast in bronze. The reminiscences of the lighter moments is a way to perhaps blot out some of the bleaker ones.
Dec. 19, 1944
Surrounded and surrendered
The first time we were apprised of a “change of status” was when a German officer demanded, in perfect Oxford English, that we bloody hell better get in line. I asked our corporal standing nearby what was going on, and was advised that our colonel had surrendered the entire field hospital to a German panzer division which had us surrounded. I had no alternate plan.
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The ironic twist to this sudden change in our tactical position was that no one seemed to know exactly what country we were in at the time of our capture. The Germans were uncommunicative.
While assigned to a rear echelon R&R position in France, and hoping for a few days in gay Paree, we were alerted to move back up to the line to stop a breakthrough in the Ardennes. Since most of us didn’t know Ardennes from Aardvark, we figured we were either in France, Belgium or Luxembourg. We sure as hell knew we were in a war.
It’s a long way to Temporary
We had loaded the wounded into our trucks and the Germans pointed the group, riding and walking, toward what we deduced was the Fatherland.
At the first stop of any duration, a few clever fellows decided that one way to delay this adventure was to crawl under the trucks and remove the oil drain plugs. This ingenious manifestation of American know-how resulted in the engines seizing up and the able-bodied among us were directed to carry the others. Hernias frequently popped up, so to speak. No purple hearts were awarded.
At first this motley column wended its way into the Reich during daylight hours, sleeping, when possible, at night. After a couple of disastrous strafing raids by our Air Force brethren, however, the high command (a bitter and battle-weary German sergeant) decided we would rest by day and walk by night. So we stumbled generally eastward.
The group became smaller as wounded were shipped off to unknown destinations and others were split off to end up in various prison camps. A few managed to make good on the constant plans for escape. Eventually, we were so far from any known allied forces that escape was chancy, and fewer of us attempted. We passed near Malmedy, and the news of that massacre of a group of medics dampened a few exit plans.
Christmas by the numbers
A small group of us ended up in the village of Wittlich where, as medics, we were detached to work in a hospital staffed by Catholic nuns. The hospital was marked with Red Cross emblems, but the area was also used as a parking lot for about 10 Tiger tanks.
On Christmas Day 1944, a group of B-25 bombers saw a target of opportunity and proceeded to drop a few 250-pound bombs. During the melee, three of us decided to depart the premises. We succeeded in getting slightly buried by a bomb dropped on our escape route. After digging ourselves out, and hearing distant artillery fire, we crawled in a ditch half full of water and snow to a grove of trees about 300 yards away. Upon arriving, we were greeted by a bedraggled and stoic German who thought it only fitting that we should crawl back from whence we had come. This was not the “Great Escape” we had envisioned.
In retaliation for the unwarranted bombing of the hospital by the allied air force, the few Germans assigned to guard us, who by then had been dipping into the Wassail bowls, decided a firing squad would be in order for the six P.O.W.s who were still mobile. Citing the Geneva Convention, the Bible, the Marquis of Queensbury, or even Roberts Rules of Order didn’t seem to impress our self-appointed firing squad. One of them proceeded to count, obviously to 10, and at the half-way mark, (funf, a word that is imbedded in memory), a reasonably sober German officer stopped the debacle and we went back to work. The drama of that moment was best remembered by one of our group who said, with a nervous laugh, “The dumb bastards probably couldn’t count to 10 anyway.” Gallows humor.
While moving the wounded Germans to the basement from the damaged upper floors, a African American sergeant, who had the misfortune of driving one of our trucks to Bastogne and I, were loading patients into litters when one of the guards picked up a wounded German from the bed to place him on the litter. The patient was obviously incontinent among other things, and the guard had placed his hand in the wrong place. As he brought it up to confirm by smell what he already knew, I said, “Go ahead you Kraut bastard, eat it.”
This somehow struck my fellow countrymen as extremely hilarious and he fell to the floor howling with laughter. The Germans, who probably had never seen a black man up close, and obviously unsure whether he was epileptic, apoplectic or catatonic left the room at full gallop. We never saw those two guards again. The sergeant was the subject of awe and curiosity as long as I was around him. He should have been a battalion.
Chicago and fire
The next town we stopped in for any length of time was Bitburg, which boasted a penitentiary where we thought we might be lodged. No such luck. A low-level strafing and bombing raid changed our military occupational specialty to “firefighters.”
Forming a bucket brigade, we were futilely trying to put out incendiary blazes with small buckets of water. One of our group called it pissing against the wind. During this totally disorganized exercise, I had taken shelter in a doorway during a strafing run and heard, from another doorway across the street, a litany of profanity that would have made a Bos’n blush. I looked over and saw an SS sergeant hunkered in an archway, shaking his fist at the planes and swearing a blue streak in very colorful American. When the raid ended, I ducked across the street and asked him where he had learned such eloquent speech. It turned out he was raised on the south side of Chicago. He was visiting the Fatherland with his parents and got caught up in the Hitler hysteria. From him I borrowed the title of this epistle.
A wayside inn
Our nocturnal strolls took us next to Limburg. This was a real live P.O.W. camp, Stalag XII. We were treated to our first taste of the German version of ablution. This consisted of stripping to the buff (the temperature was about 20 degrees colder than a meat locker), being dusted lightly with delousing powder after a bracing ice-cold shower, and then being checked by a German medic for hidden machine pistols or something. It was January in Germany, inside and out. Interrogation followed with the questions and answers provided by the interrogator. They knew more about us than we did.
After a few days of R&R, consisting of lining up and being counted, and a daily repast of what appeared to be bread and a watery soup, we were escorted to a rail siding.
It was obvious this rolling stock was not designed by Pullman or Union Pacific. They weren’t up to cattle car standards. Of course our options were limited. Things went downhill after that.
Trains were obviously excellent targets, and the allied air force was bound and determined to change Hitler’s railroad timetables, the U.S. by day and the British by night.
Once in a railroad yard near Berlin we were ordered in and out of the boxcars so often it would have resembled an old Keystone Cops movie if the carnage hadn’t been so ghastly. After a week of this German version of the Orient Express, we arrived at what we hoped was our final destination, Neubrandenburg, Stalag II-A. Compared to our previous accommodations, this place was the YMCA. At least we could lie down after standing for eight days.
Our concierge was a charming chap named Cpl. Mueller who sported a Hitler mustache and a sadistic disposition to match. We never found out how he had screwed up so badly to be assigned to guard duty in a multi-national P.O.W. camp as isolated as this one, but it must have been on the Russian front. According to the Germans, they sent you there instead of the stockade or a court marshal.
The camp housed (joke) Russians, Poles, Serbs, Greeks, French, British and Americans, at least. The Russians were at the bottom of the social ladder as far as our hosts were concerned, and were relegated to the “honey wagon” detail. This entailed emptying the waste buckets which served each barracks as our “loo,” as the Limeys say. The Germans, and especially Mueller, had a hate-fear relationship with the Russians, and it was not unrequited.
During this time, I had developed a couple of boils on the back of my neck which had become quite painful. The one doctor in camp was a Serbian, who later admitted he hadn’t finished med school, but did an adequate job with the help of us medics. He agreed that the mess on my neck should be lanced, but, by much translation from a Serb to German to French to English, made the observation that ” a clean neck, like a watched pot, never boils.” Considering my lengthy unbathed condition for the previous three weeks, I accepted the criticism (but not his lancing) stoically.
Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage
However, barbed wire and machine pistols are reasonably effective deterrents to wanderlust. The feeling of impotence and frustration at being “hors de combat” was generally masked or forgotten by the insistence of hunger pangs and cold.
Survival, at first, was not a major concern, and daily challenges such as trading for food, keeping off work details and individual comfort were predominant priorities. Cigarettes, the medium of exchange, were pegged at $1 each and were a prized commodity. At that price kicking the habit was no problem. The few Red Cross parcels that were allowed kept the cigarettes a precious but not extinct monetary unit.
The days dwindle down
We had a radio stashed in the pulpit of the camp chapel, and news reports from BBC indicated that perhaps we were going to see the end of the stupidity before the end of summer. Our main concern was that the advancing Russians didn’t know that this lovely oasis was a P.O.W. camp, not a German bastion to be bombarded into submission. The fears proved prophetic.
We could tell that our German keepers were not ecstatic about sharing their real estate with the cossacks, and we began to observe some activity indicating that if the barbarians breached the gates, there would be rapid deployment by our stalwart captors to other regions.
We received word, again via BBC, about Roosevelt’s death. The most asked question was, “Who was Truman and where was he from and when did he get elected vice-president?” GI’s are the least informed of any group of human beings in civilized society.
Three days later, we obtained a German newspaper with three inch headlines, in red ink, proclaiming that the “number one gangster was dead.” Some of us had thought that the Germans would have run out of red ink by now. We had no idea what, if any, effect the change of command would have on our plight or the progress of the war.
In this atmosphere of lessened interest by our host in our welfare (but not our presence) a few of us decided that the camp commandant really had no need of his plump, somnolent cat. It didn’t appear to have a pedigree and was obviously much better fed than we. The ensuing fuss over the cat’s disappearance waned after a few days, perhaps due to the noises of war emanating from the East. I have partaken of rattlesnake meat, frog legs and squirrel. Fried cat would not qualify in any gourmet listings.
The Russians are coming
By now artillery fire was more noticeable each day, and finally shells were beginning to land near enough to our position to cause us to instigate some sort of deployment from our sumptuous suites. Foxholes were dug and plans made to move our patients out if things got too sticky. I was doing medic-orderly work in a makeshift ward with four amputees, so I was concerned that any evacuation, of me or them, would be tricky.
Before any major damage was inflicted on the hostelry, the Russians came roaring in and captured the joint. The few guards who had drawn the short straw and stayed behind to keep the inmates from leaving for the suburbs quickly capitulated, and suddenly, we thought, freedom rings. Wrong!
For some reason, which a lot of research has failed to uncover, our beloved Russian allies turned everyone out the gates except the British and Americans. Us, they kept. For three weeks.
Go to your room
I had heard of “confined to quarters,” but this was ridiculous. They had told us not to leave our barracks at night, but my non-ambulatory patients filled bedpans regardless of who the landlord was. So I went out the first night on a disposal mission (our honey-bucket squad had headed home) and was immediately silhouetted by a light and stopped by fire from an automatic weapon. Figuring these guys as allies were bad enough, and not wanting them as enemies, I jumped back inside. The utensils were retrieved by daylight. This curfew continued as long as our new hosts insisted on our presence, 21 days.
As a supposed aid to allied unity, on the second day, a Russian officer took a couple of us to the center of the compound to determine if any of the remaining German guards had been overly zealous. The consensus indicated Cpl. Mueller might be the one to be tried for malfeasance in office. When this had been determined to the Russians’ satisfaction, the officer drew Mueller’s bayonet from his scabbard and drove it through his midsection. He then wiped it on Mueller’s now inert body and handed it to me. Loosely translated, we figured he said, “Here, you Americans like souvenirs.” My first and last war crimes trial … Bolshevik version.
The bayonet hangs in my den, not to remind me of P.O.W. camp, but of the Russians. As the fellow said … with friends like them you don’t need any enemies.
Our new captors told us they would donate a cow a day for 500 men, and gave no indication of any other supplies or a prompt return to our lines, except to say “Nyet” to any requests for information. Over and over, “Nyet.”
When we heard the armistice had been signed, the relief and joy were unrestrained. Now we knew the Russkis would send us back to the U.S. and British control and end this foolishness.
We were wrong again.
We could get no satisfaction or information from our “allies.” Their orders were to keep us until told otherwise.
Their M.P.s, who patrolled the outer perimeters, were female, we were told. From a distance, three or four of them walking abreast looked like the Green Bay offensive line. Up close, they were just offensive. We called it “Organized Ugly.”
The food was sufficient for sustaining life, but we actually fared better under the Germans. A few determined souls, British and American, managed to elude our keepers with the idea of finding some friendlies who would come and bail us out of this Bolshevik Bastille. They must have made it because on May 17, 1945, the first contingent of American troops and ambulances showed up, and on May 18, we were returned to U.S. control.
Twelve months of training, six months in combat and five months in a prison camp, and I wasn’t old enough to buy a drink. Or vote.
It was a field hospital, staffed with real live American nurses, and nothing, except the food, ever looked better. She had green eyes and brown hair.
I asked her what her first name was.
She said, “Lieutenant.”
I was back.
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