Passion Pit Crew
Front (L-R) Jack Bartoli, Navigator; Irwin Stovroff, Bombardier; John Milliken, Pilot
Back: Darrel Larsen, Engineer; Martin Richard, Radio; William Manierre, Co-Pilot; Kenneth Beckwith, Gunner; Morris Larkin, Tail Gunner.
In the 1990’s, I met my Uncle Darrel Larsen, who was army air corp in WWII. He told me of his story. This is part of a site that is his Navigator, Irvin Stovoroff has written.. They were also part of what was called, “The Black March” which was the European equivalent to “The Battan March”… Just as grueling, but ‘cold’ instead of hot and humid.
“Within a week’s time we were taken to a major Interrogation center outside of Frankfort, Germany. I think it was called Wetzler. We were separated and placed in solitaire, and individually taken out for continued interrogations. The German officer, my Interrogator, asked me questions I could not and would not answer. I gave him the usual name, rank and serial number, and told him that was all I had to give, and knew very little else. On my third trip with him, he said, ” I know who you are and what you are (meaning Jewish). He told me he could save my life, then proceeded to name my father, mother, brother, sister, the grammar school I had attended, even the name of a former girl friend. He then said he lived on Ashland Avenue, next to the girl I was dating pre-war. He had lived on the next street — Claremont Avenue in Buffalo, New York. He said he remembered being in class with my older sister, and then he informed me that I had been his newspaper boy!! He had come to Germany to be with his grandmother, and stayed. He again said he would help me, and he put a question mark on my records next to religion.
After solitaire at Dulag Luft, I like all others were packed into a boxcar for a 3 day transport to Stalag Luft I. Our train was strafed by Allied fighters because the Germans did not put POW markings on the train. We were also left in the marshalling yards in Berlin during a bombing raid.
Later in Stalag Luft #1, on January 19, 1945, I was separated from the main compound of prisoners because I was Jewish. I know the reason we were not killed was because of the courageous speeches of Col. Zemke and Col. Spicer, who warned the German commander that if any American officers were harmed, they would be held responsible. Col. Spicer was put in solitaire and sentenced to death for his speech. He survived until the end of the war.
When I finally got home after VE Day, I went to where this German traitor lived, but his parents had moved.
After the Dulag Luft (interrogation), I later found myself with my co-pilot Bill Manierre in a large room. Bill pointed out a beat up and dirty POW who was staring at us. Did I know who it was? I looked at the man and said ‘no’. Bill said, ‘he must know you’ and I replied, ‘I can’t figure out who he is.’
Suddenly Bill exclaimed, “My God! THAT’S MY BROTHER.” His brother immediately recognized Bill, and they met and embraced.
The Germans were flabbergasted when they found out this was happening. Major Cy Manierre was a West Point graduate who had been dropped into France, and was working with the French Underground when captured and tortured. He told Bill and me to repeat his story, that he was a member of the Air Corps, had been shot down and picked up by the French Underground. If the Germans knew the truth, he could have been shot as a spy. They believed him, and he was sent to the same camp as Bill and I. Their mother received two telegrams on the same day, 1:00 AM, 1:00 PM on both sons – Missing in Action. “fact is greater than fiction.”
Stovroff is now a volunteer National Service Officer at West Palm Beach VA Center, working only with ex-POWs to help get pensions and compensations. He has met six ex-POWs that were in his camp. And stranger than fiction, his next door neighbor in Florida was in the same barracks as Stovroff when he was in Stalag Luft #1 “segregated”. This man’s family owned KATZ DELICATESSEN in New York whose slogan was “Send a Salami to a Soldier In the Army.”
As follows is a chapter excerpt from Pappy’s War – An B-17 Gunner’s World War II Memoir by John “Pappy” Paris. John was a member of the Lt. Robert Folger crew, a B-17 crew in the 398th Bomb Group, 600th Squadron based in Nuthampstead, England. The Folger crew was shot down on 7 July 1944 on a mission to Leipzig, Germany and John was became a POW in Stalagluft 4. John’s best recollection is that the Black March began on the 5th or 6th of February 1945. He was in the first group to leave Stalagluft 4.
The Black March! I choose this title. Some went so far as to call it the Death March. Many were marked for life, while others died along the way. I prefer to reserve that infamous title for my comrades who suffered the obscenities of the Japanese bayonet on the infamous Bataan “Death March.” The dirt roads were rutted, water filled, and with a crust of dirty ice on top. At first the guards tried to keep us in military formations. They were sick, lame and as out of shape as we were and carrying equally heavy packs. In addition, they were required to carry along their heavy rifles or burp guns. As a consequence, they soon grew weary and forgot all about military discipline and let us struggle along as best we could.
Kriegies also began to grow weary and discard things along the road side. The first items to go were books and musical instruments, followed by cans of powdered milk which were heavy and difficult to process. Our roommates tried to stay together but soon gave that up because everyone seemed to struggle along better at his own pace. By noon the straps of my heavy pack were painfully cutting into my shoulders. Radio and I stayed together and gave each other what assistance we could when needed. We knew we could depend upon each other and that made our misery more bearable. Some men dropped out by the side of the road the first day but guards and dogs at the end of the column soon got them moving again. Some of the men with ill-fitting shoes were getting blisters on their blisters. The guards appeared nervous and spurred us on until we surely walked the full thirty kilometers that first day. This was a day of that torturous march that will remain forever in my memory although it merged in with many days of equal or greater torture that followed. Dark thick woods were all around us, when I was near the end of my endurance and was sure that I could not take another step the guards at last turned us into a dense stand of trees on one side of the road and said “schlafen hier” (sleep here).
Radio and I scraped snow from a small level patch of ground that we were able to locate. We then laid out two of our thin blankets on the ground, stretched out on them and drew the other two over us. The cold from the ground soon came up through the blankets, so we turned at frequent intervals. My feet soon felt like they were frozen so I would get up and stomp around until the feeling would return. Dozing now and then, somehow I made it through the long cold night.
All of the kriegies had gone the full day without water. Our kriegie doctor that, fortunately, was marching along with us, advised us not to eat snow. He stated that the Kommandant had promised to obtain water for us the next morning. We came to a farm later the next morning and each of us received a klim can of foul tasting water. Food stuff began appearing along the road side. Some of the men were near collapse or perhaps they started more heavily laden than I. Radio and I ate as much of this discarded food including dry powdered milk as we could stuff down. This was one day on that awful march that we at least walked with a full stomach.
Our Kommandant and the guards were very nervous as they did not relish being cut off and captured by the Russians, so they prodded us on. It became pure misery to put one foot in front of the other. The pack straps cut into me and there was a constant pain between my shoulders. As always in life, I could look around me and see someone else a lot worse off than I. The marching kriegies were allowed a short break every two hours. The rest was welcome but it became more and more difficult for me to get up and get going after each respite. Late that afternoon, the guards shouted, “Vier kilometers,” meaning four more kilometers to go. This evening we were divided up into groups and marched into separate farmyards of several large farms.
The farmers fattened their hogs with potatoes and these were cooked in large iron kettles out side over an open fire. The hogs were long gone for the war effort, I would imagine, but the potatoes and the pot were still available. Nitrogen, being one of the principal ingredients of explosives was, as you can imagine, in short supply. The German farmers having no nitrogen available for fertilizer resorted to using human excrement. This was easily obtained from the many outside toilets prevalent in Germany at this time. The main problem was that they did not wash the potatoes for us. They just handled them the same as they did when they fed their hogs, by throwing them into the pot dirt and all. This dirt contaminated with excrement from the outhouses gave us dysentery and we suffered from this malady for the remainder of the Black March. It is a wonder we did not contract a more dangerous disease as a result of them following this dangerous practice.
It was our good luck to have an excellent captured doctor marching along with us. The poor fellow did not have any drugstore type medicine but was good at recommending natural remedies such as the charcoal he prescribed for our dysentery. I am reasonably certain that this prescription saved my life along with countless other kriegies. We were able to make this medicine from fires that we kindled along the way. A handful of charcoal stuffed into my mouth was not a very pleasant medicine to take, but the alternative was surely worse. The sick and lame guards that started this march with us were as bad or worse off than most of us kriegies. Several gave up along the road and would sit down along the wayside and go no farther. Some of our kriegies who thought that they too could go no further fell out and lay along the road beside the guards. I never found out what happened to them, perhaps they joined later lagers or were possibly shot. The Jerry guards had little compassion for us and were quick to swing a rifle butt.
The first weeks of the march saw all of us suffering from diarrhea and dysentery. Many had colds and some had symptoms of pneumonia. When I felt that I could go no further, I would tell myself that each foot I put in front of the other brought me one step closer to home. Had I been marching east instead of west I am not sure I could have endured. In addition to my exhaustion and dysentery was the racking pain in my shoulders. The sixth day of the Black March was the turning point for me. All day long I faced a cold wind, with alternate onslaughts of sleet and icy rain. That night they put me in a cold and drafty barn with no food, just a few nibbles from my dwindling rations. The constant dampness never gave me an opportunity to dry out. There were so many kriegies packed into a small barn that I was unable to stretch out but was compelled to sleep doubled up like a pretzel. With dysentery prevalent men were pushing and shoving each other in the dark trying to make it to or back from the temporary toilets through the long night. On the following morning the sun was out even though it was clear and cold. I marched with the sun on my back and soon I felt dry and refreshed. I came to the conclusion that my body was able to endure many times greater punishment than I once had thought possible. If my will continues strong I shall be able to suffer unbelievable hardships and survive.
There were great explosions up ahead of us and large caliber shells were rumbling overhead. The Kommandant continually traveled up and down the column and cajoled the guards to keep us moving. Along the road he was stopping and conferring with all the Kraut soldiers he met. He did not seem to be getting much useful information. There was much confusion and lots of rumors but in a modern war with tanks on the loose no one really knew where the Russians were. It was the next morning when I detected the unmistakable smell of salt water. It could only be the Baltic Sea. I knew we were marching north west and that meant we were nearing a peninsula that led out toward Swinemunde. How did I know this? I can assure you that my knowledge of German geography had greatly improved since my incarceration.
Eventually we connected with the main road leading into Swinemunde. I could catch glimpses salt water on both sides of us now. We passed the guns; they were firing towards the southeast. They were big coastal guns that had been turned around from their seaward facing positions for this task. We passed a grubby-looking company of Kraut soldiers digging trenches beside the road. It appeared that they were setting up a roadblock, so they must have been expecting the Russians before long. These krauts were obviously a tough group of soldiers that appeared to have had been out in the field for months. The Russians would have their hands full digging this bunch out of their holes.
We were beginning to see considerable civilian traffic on this road. The Aryan refugees were fleeing the Mongol hordes. Many of the straggling refugees appeared as cold and hungry as we. They were driven, not by guards but by fear of being overrun by the Russians. The Russians had been treated quite badly when the German army was winning, now it was the Germans turn to suffer the wrath of the conquering Russians. The refugees were pulling and pushing their worldly goods in every type of conveyance one could imagine. Among them were goat carts, dog carts, and many baby carriages pushed by hand. The people were heavily clothed to ward off the bitter cold; some even wore potato sacks over their heads with holes cut for their eyes. I saw many French, Polish, and Ukrainian slave laborers that must have worked for these refugees, accompanying their former masters. These people seemed to be in as much fear of being captured by the Ruskies as their masters. Many were camped along the roadside after dark with inviting fires burning brightly.
Marching us day after day with little food and fretful rest, our Kommandat decreed that we must march through the night in order that we might make connections with a ferry that would take us across the Oder Lagun at Swinemunde. Some of the men were getting desperate and talked of mutiny. I was so exhausted that I did not even want to think about it. Besides, we were headed in the direction of home and I did not relish being taken by the Russians either. The column plodded on and on through that long, endless, and murderous night like a giant, mindless, mile-long-thousand-legger. My legs were numb up past my knees: a help really, for I could feel no pain in them. It was a different story with my back, the straps cut in deeper and the pain spread through my shoulders. The agony I suffered that night beggars description. Some men, apparently friendless, fell along the flanks of the march to face an unknown fate. Others zombie-like with glazed eyes were being steered or led down the road by their friends. A pair in particular sticks in my memory. One of the poor fellows had a rag covering his eyes. Was it an infection or the result of a rifle blow? He was holding onto his companion who had one of his feet wrapped in dirty rags and limped along aided by a crutch fashioned from a broken limb. They were making their way down that long road taking care of each other; those boys were surely going to make it.
Some of the men were near insane from fatigue and thirst. We had not had water for over twenty four hours. In spite of being admonished not to eat snow, the only options that I had were the dirty ice mixed with animal dung in the ruts of the road or the occasional piles of remaining snow in shady spots. Eating the snow seemed to me the better of the two evils so I ate it. The horde of prisoners finally staggered onto the ferry dock long after daylight, and not a minute too soon either. The ferry had taken on a load of boxcars and was now full of rolling stock. We were just in time to board it, for I am sure it would not have waited for us. They quickly marched us onto the ferry and wedged us between the freight cars. Then to the great relief of our Kommandant, it crossed over the Lagun.
The hungry kriegies immediately began to rifle the laden cars. All that we found that was edible was one freight car loaded with turnips. They looked darn good to me, so I ate all I could hold and filled up my back pack that was now near empty. After crossing our Kommandant seemed to be relieved. Perhaps he felt safe once we were across thinking the Russians would never cross this Lagun that was only a few kilometers east of Berlin. Our column met several truppe of Volkstrum marching toward the front. These units were composed of old men and young boys. That was being used primarily for taking the place of rear area soldiers better able to fight. Some were wearing rag-tag uniforms of an earlier epoch and most were carrying bolt-action rifles with long bayonets. Now I know the true meaning of the word “Cannon Fodder.” Was Hitler planning to stop the Russian Juggernaut with these raw recruits? I could only feel pity for them.
Unlike farms back home, in this part of Germany several farms were usually located adjacent to each other making up little communities. This resulted in several barns being located more or less together in a small area. At one of these farm communities we were stopped and the Kommandant informed us that we would have the next day to rest. Melting snow mixed with a great amount of manure in these farmyards and trod by our many feet soon turned them into quagmires.
I overheard a Kriegie ask, “Did you ever see so much shit in all your life?”
Another answered, “Oh, that’s how they tell how rich you are over here.”
We were evidently on a millionaire’s farm. The workers on these farms were “slave laborers,” usually French or Poles, but rarely both nationalities at the same farm. Russians might be present but they were always given the manure shovel job or assigned to some similar disagreeable task. Among the different laborers, Poles were the friendliest and invariably wanted to know if one of us knew their cousin Joe in Chicago or Cleveland.
When we moved into a new area the bartering would begin. Unfortunately the slave laborers would have little to trade; sometimes they would come up with a fresh egg or a piece of sausage. With so many men and all of us clamoring for a trade, there would be little enough to go around and the prices would soon go out of sight. We might start out trading a bar of soap or a pack of cigarettes for a loaf of black bread. After being there a while, the price would soon go up to half a loaf only, that is, if there was any thing edible left. The Russians were tough in a trade and usually did not have anything much of value. The French were somehow getting our Red Cross food parcels. Therefore they did not have much interest in our soap and cigarettes. They invariably had better clothing and food than the other slave laborers to trade. Living up to their nasty reputation however they would hold out for watches and rings. Radio and I, not having any valuables, would just have to go hungry. A lot of our boys had been turned in by the French for a small reward paid by the Germans. I always got the impression that the French were completely without scruples and were on whichever side was winning at the moment. After the war, every Frenchman that I ever met had been in the Underground, but I wondered where they were when our airmen were shot down over France.
We were again fed boiled potatoes at this farm. Radio and I stood in line for a couple of hours and we received three small golf ball size potatoes for our efforts. The sun came out for a while in the afternoon, upon finding a sheltered spot out of the cold wind. Not wanting to miss an opportunity and with nothing better to do, Radio and I peeled off our clothes and crushed body lice between our fingernails. This rest did me a world of good and another wonder, my cough had gone away. Perhaps it was all the fresh air that I had been exposed to of late.
The column continued walking westward, twenty-five or thirty kilometers every day. One day was about as miserable as the next, I was always hungry, and usually thirsty as well. One great improvement came our way; the Kommandant commandeered a team of horses and a wagon to haul the sick. Our Doctor walked next to the sick wagon and did the best he could. Some that were not so sick but merely tired and weak like the rest of us were always trying to hitch a ride on the wagon. Doctor had little sympathy for them and rightly so, with so many kriegies that were in such terrible shape. Some hardly able to stand would hang on to the wagon and be pulled along by the team. Several Kriegies died along the way. The guards would choose a burial party and they would bury them in a local German cemetery. If no cemetery was at hand, then they would haul the bodies along as permitted by the freezing weather until we came to one.
One night a few Kriegies escaped. The next morning our Kommandant threatened us, that if any others escaped, he would line us up and shoot every tenth man. Our lager leader came around afterward and advised us that if anyone wanted to escape that he was free to do so. As the ratio were about twenty prisoners to each guard. He promised that if the Germans tried to carry out this threat, the kriegies would simply rush them. This little trek through the woods must have given our lager leader a shot in his backbone. Radio and I discussed escape but decided that as long as we were headed west it was pointless. Frequent cold rain added to our miseries. Once it rained all day long and to add to our misery, that evening we bedded down in a swamp. The ground was too wet to lie down on so Radio and I located a fallen log and sat on that with our backs to each other. We then pulled the wet blankets over our heads and thus spent a miserable night.
One day we marched into Germany’s second largest municipality, the great metropolis of Hamburg on the Elbe. The wreckage of this once-magnificent city was indescribable. People were living in the rubble but still retained enough hate in them to come out to the street to shout insults at us, such as, Luftgansters and Terrorfliegers. We were inured to this kind of reaction by now and paid them scant attention. In spite of all the bombing, they were still busily assembling submarines beside the Elbe River. The air raid sirens sounded as we marched along through the devastation. Our guards were nervous and tried to hurry us along but there just was not much energy left in us.
B17 bombers appeared off in the distance, so close and yet so far away. It was a dreamlike experience for I was squinting at them through a fog of fatigue. This was my first time to see them from this prospective and It certainly was an awesome experience. There were a thousand planes flying in formation at thirty thousand feet. The entire earth seemed to vibrate with their passing and they were leaving great clouds of condensation behind them. Perhaps they were on their way to Berlin again. I could just feel the fear and dread they must be experiencing, for by now they probably could see that deadly wall of flak up ahead that they must soon fly through.
Leaving Hamburg we crossed the Elbe on a rickety, braced-up bridge that had absorbed multiple bomb hits. Plodding along, I was just like an old mule with an ear of corn held out in front of me, as long as they pointed me westward I could keep putting one foot in front of the other. One day was like the next, I was often cold and always hungry. We became expert at scrounging food. To preserve their potatoes, the farmers buried them in pits and mounded them over with dirt. We became so adept at stealing food that by distracting the guards we could rob a potato mound while they were guarding it and with equal dexterity we could filch grain from storage bins in the barns. I was ever alert to any possible edible materials. Diarrhea would suddenly become acute if I was passing a barley or turnip field. Guards had little patience with us and were quick to wield a rifle butt.
Radio and I had long since resigned ourselves to our miserable conditions. We suffered a daily routine of fretful sleep, severe cold and near starvation. Once as we were sitting along the roadside in desolate despair, crawling with lice, our clothing in rags, encrusted with mud, and filth. I became acutely aware of my companion’s wretched condition. Like me, he was reduced to a gaunt skeleton. His body was scabbed and unwashed, and his matted hair was tangled and mixed with his greasy beard. His armpits exuded a foul stench from months of sweat and his crotch was festooned with odorous dingleberrys. Radio was once a proud airman, who had walked the earth with pride and self-esteem. He relieves himself on the sidewalks or along the roadsides now, having no more privacy than that given to a common cur.. Suffering dysentery, one of our most popular pastimes, (not enjoying the pastoral scenery as you might think) was scanning the byways for a likely leaf or a clutch of soft straw that we might be able to wipe our sore asses with. Such are the ways of war!
The column continued marching west for a couple of weeks after we passed through Hamburg. Then one day we were herded into a barn yard and told that the next day would be a day of rest. There was much excitement among the guards! The sick and lame were being drafted back into the war again. They thought that because of their ailments and disabilities suffered that they would never have to fight again. Wrong, they had just received orders to leave for the Eastern Front! A ragtag formation of Volkstrum (People’s Army), marched in to take their place.
Cannon fire was becoming more pronounced now, this time coming from the west. Rumors and wishful thinking was that English tanks would be showing up any day now and set us free. No such luck, the very next morning our new Volkstrum guards lined us up in the barn yard and marched us out to the road. There, to our great chagrin, they turned us to the east and we found ourselves retracing our previous route of march. The rumors flew up and down the long line of kriegies all that day. It was obvious to me that we were being marched back into central Germany. For turning us back, I was sure the Krauts could have but one reason. The BBCs news reports were full of stories about the Redoubt Hitler was establishing in southern Germany. Radio and I were in agreement that we most likely would be marched down near the redoubt area and be held there as hostages.
It was an unusually long hard march that day as we struggled nearly thirty kilometers back down that long road. It was easy for me to see that the Volkstrum had a much harder day of it than we. Youth will out, most of the poor fellows all were forty years older than I. Even if we had not been eating very well, we certainly had been getting our exercise. It was no problem at all for us to wear out these old guys. Hitler was surely scraping the bottom of his manpower barrel.
Radio and I agreed that considering the poor condition of the Volkstrum we would never have a better opportunity to make our get away. We resolved to attempt our break out this very night. It was nearing darkness by the time they finally steered us into a roadside barn. Soon after they doled out our piteous ration of dirty potatoes, we were locked inside the barn for the night. Radio and I made our way to the rear of the structure and began working loose some boards that were level with the ground. We were soon joined by a kriegie we had become acquainted with in our stay at Stalag-Luft IV. He was a nice fellow and the thing I remembered most about him was his dread of facing his father when he returned home to report that he was shot down on his first mission. Splash had lost his roommate somewhere along the way and had picked up a new one on this march. Radio and I did not know the new man that we later dubbed “Spook.” Splash informed us that they were aware of what we were doing and had decided that they would go along with us. Radio and I explained that they were not included in our plans and that we thought two kriegies would have a much better chance to make it through to the English lines. Four men would decrease our odds, as in this case it definitely would be a crowd. This made a lot of sense to us but they just would not take no for an answer so we reluctantly included them in our undertaking. Before lockup, we had taken note of a large tree that we would use as a rendezvous point about two hundred yards from the barn. Soon after dark we removed the now loosened boards and made our exit. We left through the small opening one at a time, and carefully slipped past a member of the Volkstrum guard leaning against the barnyard fence. We soon met up safely at the chosen tree.
At last, after fifty long days on the Black March we were at liberty but far from being home free. The Kommandant had recently informed us that all escaped prisoners would be shot immediately upon recapture. That statement made sense because at this point in the war the Germans would not be inclined to spend much time on troublesome prisoners. Therefore capture was to be avoided at all costs. It just made more sense for me to risk my life in a try for freedom, rather than to remain passively with the march. The way things were going, sooner or later, we would starve, be shot or die of one of the many pestilences so common in wars. There was always the possibility of execution with a madman like Hitler in charge and so many willing to do his bidding. Suppose one day, when he is sure to see the end coming, he just ups and orders all prisoners shot?
We were thinking that they might send a tracking party to look for us when we were missed at the morning roll call. Therefore it was imperative that we put a great distance behind us. For the third time we walked down that long road that we had just marched in on. For two reasons, if they trailed us with dogs, the scent would be confusing for them and also the English Cannon fire was off in that direction. A short while before daybreak, we noticed a flicker of light up ahead, just a brief flash, like a cigarette being lit. Radio went on ahead to investigate while the rest of us took a sorely-needed break. He soon returned with the news that soldiers were manning a roadblock ahead. This post was probably not just especially to catch prison escapees like us but more than likely to pick up deserters from their own army. A lot of Krauts were finally beginning to see the light and had decided that it was time to go home. Sometime later we learned that there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in effect in all of Germany. There were roadblocks all over wherever Germany was in control to catch anyone traveling without a pass. We left the road at this point and at some distance into the woods came upon an area with thick underbrush. It was near daybreak and being completely exhausted we decided to lay up here until nightfall and get some sorely needed rest.
Getting together and taking stock of our situation we agreed it would be better for us to keep off the roads, because we were quite near the front and the armies would surely be using them. We knew we were somewhere north of Hanover, because we had seen a bombing raid a few days ago that our guards had informed us was Hanover. By using dead reckoning and the sound of the cannon fire we decided that our line of march should be toward the northwest. We were sure the English would be cutting off and bypassing large numbers of enemy troops, hence our plan to walk toward the battle and avoid being trapped behind the lines along with the enemy troops. Those troops facing total defeat might derive some satisfaction out of disposing of a few escaped prisoners as per orders.
We organized our night marches so that alternate men would lead and the others would trail, with each man staying as far back as possible while keeping the man in front of him in sight. If the lead man stumbled into an enemy patrol or encampment and was caught, this would give those following a chance of not being discovered. This was a fine theory but failed to work in practice. Splash always veered to the right. Maybe one of his legs was shorter than the other. We would assign him a star to follow but soon he would be following one to his right. Splash had another handicap, but we were able to turn this to our advantage. We were in swampy country with many small streams to cross and he was a bit clumsy. When crossing a water obstacle the lead man would always know when Splash had reached it, hence his monicer, so he was relegated to bring up the rear. Now do not get the wrong idea, Splash is a fine gentleman and I consider it a privilege to know him, I am sure the rest of us carried excess baggage as well. Spook always saw enemy soldiers when he was leading. He scared the wits out of us several times, until we finally caught onto the fact that he was becoming “flak happy.” This was serious and it nearly got us into serious trouble a couple of times. (The hardships of our escape would be pointless if we did not get through alive) This earned him third position so that left Radio and I to lead.
Starving, we made every effort to scrounge food to keep up what little energy we had remaining, for by this time we were little more than skeletons with distended stomachs. Replenishment of our larder was every bit as important as eluding the Germans. Once we happened upon some domestic geese that had gone wild. One was very aggressive but wily enough that we could not catch her. It soon dawned upon me that she was trying to protect her nest, which I soon located. There we found a fine clutch of eggs that we devoured raw on the spot. We came to a farmhouse on the edge of the swamp. Taking this opportunity to reconnoiter, I left my companions nearby with instructions to create a distraction in case I ran afoul of the farmer or his dog. I soon located a mound of buried potatoes and quickly dug into it, stuffed my shirt full, and then beat a hasty retreat.
The only drinking water in the swampy country that we could locate had a green scum on it. Not having any chlorine or those handy little iodine tablets. Our only recourse was to boil every drop we drank, otherwise it was sure to make us sick. On our daily stops we would gather dry, dead sticks, prop up a couple of rocks and build a smokeless fire. It became our practice to boil our potatoes in extra water and drink the resulting boiled soup for our liquid ration. One night we happened upon a wild boar that charged us and barked or whatever wild boars do. After our experience with the goose, figuring she was protecting her brood, we immediately began looking around. Sure enough, we soon located a nest with four suckling piglets that appeared to be under two weeks old.
Excited over this bonanza, we decided to stop and spend the coming day at this spot. Now, our next problem was slaughtering the pigs. No volunteer stepped forward so we reverted to the drawing of straws. Poor Splash, being unlucky, drew the short straw. Armed with my pen knife, he proceeded to make a complete mess of things. For humane reasons, I relieved him of this vital task and reassigned him to the fire-making detail. My upbringing gave me some expertise in this critical operation. I proceeded to slit their throats, dress them, and skewer them on green sticks in preparation to roasting them over our small fire. We turned them until they reached a golden brown color. We then pulled the tender carcasses apart, sprinkled a bit of salt that we found remaining in one of our back packs on the meat. This, without a doubt, was the most delicious repast I have ever experienced or likely will ever again be privileged to enjoy.
One morning we became careless and found ourselves among a group of houses in a small village with daylight upon us. Quickly, we ducked into a ditch located near a small field next to the road. What to do? With the breaking of day the little village was beginning to come alive and if we moved around much we were sure to attract attention. It was decided that our only option was to cut some underbrush and pile it in a nearby ditch. Then crawl under it, sleep there for the day and leave with the coming of darkness. Suddenly! Radio and I noticed two uniformed men bicycling down the road that came past our field. We grabbed Spook and hit the ditch but Splash was too far away for us to get his attention. Hiding, we watched Splash finally take notice of the danger but far too late to duck. Looking around and seeing that we were out of sight, he kept his cool and continued cutting brush. Luckily for us, he was wearing an old blue Canadian flyer’s coat and a floppy unmilitary-looking cap. The two soldiers pulled up for a few minutes, apparently for a rest. They idly watched Splash cut brush for a few minutes, then remounted their bikes and pedaled on their way. The rest of our stay in the ditch was uneventful, except for a visit by a friendly neighborhood dog. We certainly had our thrill for that day.
The P-47s and P-51s were buzzing around like a swarm of angry hornets, so we presumed we were nearing the front. They seemed to be having trouble finding suitable targets. Suppose they found themselves low on gas and heavy with ammo and if one of them spotted us, he just might pick us as his target of opportunity. We spent the day not daring to show ourselves out in the open and even worried about the small fires that we kindled to boil our potatoes.
Creeping along one very dark night, we began to hear unusual noises nearby, a sort of metallic clinking and a few guttural voices. Using extreme caution, I dashed forward to a hiding place and then each of my companions would follow. Then as I dashed to the next hiding place, wham, one of the loudest explosions that I have ever experienced in my life. Jumping what seemed to me ten feet into the air. (I am sure I can attribute some of the gray hair I have today to that fright). Apparently it was a large caliber cannon that Jerry decided to fire just as we were passing by. Needless to say, I was not of much use for the rest of that night.
Radio become thirsty and as we crossed a small stream in the dark the water appeared clear to him so he decided to chance a drink. Not wanting to take the risk and believing that I could make it until we would be able to boil water again, I passed up the tempting guzzle.
Walking through the deep darkness of those thick woods, we came upon some weird looking vehicles in the dark. Not wanting to chance meeting hostile occupants in the darkness and at the same time not wanting to pass up a possible food source. We decided to hide out and observe this mystery in the light of day. Daylight came and there was not a living person to be seen. Chancing a closer look, we found it to be an abandoned wagon train loaded with furniture and household goods. What a fortuitous windfall! Food and condiments were in abundance. We never had a clue as to what had become of the people and horses that had obviously once accompanied the heavily-laden wagons. Rifling through this bonanza, we discovered dried fruit, honey, some buckwheat flour, and a few pieces of hard sausage. Radio pulled a large frying pan and some other utensils from one of the wagons and mixed the flour and other great things he had located into a large pot of pancake batter. Splash and I built an appropriate fire. Splash greased the hot pan with sausage; he then poured in the batter and proceeded to cook a scrumptious stack of hot cakes. We thereupon covered the large buckwheat cakes with honey and marmalade and had ourselves a glorious feast. For desert we topped the whole thing off with dried fruit and a hot cup of ersatz coffee sweetened with honey. Radio became seriously ill with diarrhea and intestinal pains a short while later. I presumed it was from the “clear” water that he drank from that small stream. We looked around and discovered that Spook had disappeared. He had become very irrational during the past few days. The problem was, we had no idea in which direction to look for him. With Radio sick and Spook gone it began to appear that just when things were looking the brightest, our Great Escape was coming apart.
The wagon train was hidden in the woods near a main road. Sleeping near our cache, we were awakened by a noisy group of vehicles including tanks approaching late in the afternoon. We immediately grabbed our things and went into deep hiding. They picked a bivouac nearby and began parking. Then suddenly! I heard someone say “Back up Joe!” Was that ever music to my ears? I walked out to the road looking for the parking area. A Jeep came by and I flagged it down. Inside were a sergeant and a lieutenant from Montgomery’s “Desert rats”.
After almost a year of hardship and deprivation I was free. I had won the battle against the four horsemen. I had survived the record breaking sub-zero temperatures of the bitter Baltic winter of 1944-45. I was alive!
I directed my new-found friends to the wagon train to pick up my companions. The English soldiers were friendly but aloof. I had spent fifty days on the Black March and twenty-one more as an escapee. Filth-encrusted, and Louse-infested, I had not shaved or bathed since departing Stalag-Luft 1V. What I failed to realize was that I smelled to high heaven. They were kind enough just to let me share their Jeep with them. They took our gang to the parking area where we were reunited with Spook. One of their scouts had found him wandering down the road. The armored spearhead that we had linked up with had blown a bridge behind them in order to bottle up enemy troops that they had cut off. They planned to take a large town the next day or two up ahead where there was an airfield they hoped they would be able to use. Thus they could be re-supplied and we might get a chance to catch a ride back to England.
Their medical unit had set up a tent and was in business. I took Radio to the doctor for treatment. While there, I had the Doctor examine my eye. Something had seemed to be in my eye for the past two weeks. Radio had looked but was unable to find anything. The Doctor found that I had a cornea ulcer that he was able to start treating on the spot. This earned me a medical evacuation tag that would be good for a priority ride back to an English hospital.
The following morning I went through the English chow line twice and gorged myself. This was in spite of receiving well meant advice not to eat too much until my body got used to real food again. Radio and I were placed in a captured Mercedes half-track along with a “clean up” squad of the Desert Rats. In this vehicle we followed along behind the tanks as they rolled through several small towns. Surprisingly, one little town was leveled by high explosive shells. When I asked one of the men in the half-track the reason, he explained that a sniper had fired and wounded one of their men. That seemed to be a rather drastic reprisal to me. He explained that it was done because the news would precede them and towns people in the next towns not wanting their homes destroyed, would make sure no snipers were about. The Eight Army was an amazing outfit. I was dazzled by their spirit and enthusiasm. Some of their elan may have been due to their realization that after so many long years of hard fighting, victory was at last drawing near. The tank commanders all rode their tanks standing up in open turrets and the men in our half-track stood at the front of the half-track seemingly enjoying the scenery. I felt better setting down sort of behind the armor plate, I sure did not want to make it this far and be picked off by a sniper. I asked one man if he was not afraid and he said they would not know if a sniper was about unless they gave him a target. See what I mean?
The German townspeople were quick to surrender; most of the buildings in the little towns we went through had white sheets hanging from every window. Some people think World War Two was caused by the Allies not going into Germany and finishing the job in the First World War. The German people always blamed their leaders for surrendering and never thought they had been beaten. There certainly should not be any doubt about it this time.
When we arrived at the town with the airport, I was told that the medical evacuation plane would not be ready to return to England for several hours. Free to roam in this newly captured town, with the townspeople trying to convince us that they hated Hitler all along and were forced by him to fight the war. I was like a kid turned loose in a candy store. Somehow Radio and I became separated. I met some newly-set-free Polish slave laborers and was invited to accompany them to a recently liberated beer hall; therefore I was distracted for awhile. Later while I was wandering around town, I came upon a barber shop. Not having any money but, brazen with a few beers under my belt. I knew also that help was only a shout away with all my new friends in those huge English tanks about. I demanded a shave and haircut. The barber was more than happy to give me the sorely-needed tonsorial service. Soon after this I saw Radio coming down the street, he and I had slept together for most of the past seventy days to keep from freezing to death and would you believe? He walked right past without recognizing me. Both of us were emaciated and weighed less than one hundred pounds, we were happy but surely looked the worse for wear.
Later, I hitched a ride on a C-47 medical plane that took me to a Royal Air Force hospital in England. After a quick inspection by my allies, they requested my clothing that had almost become a part of me. I assumed they wanted these articles for an exhibit in their War Museum. To my great disappointment they were cast into a nearby incinerator. After a luxurious interlude with a hot shower I was dusted from head to toe with DDT powder. Now finding that they had a naked American on their hands, they kindly issued me a Royal Air Force uniform.
Packing me off to the hospital they proceeded to ply me with high-protein food, with enthusiastic participation on my part. I promptly broke out with a severe case of hives that persisted until the raw eggs were withdrawn from my milk shakes. My weight shot up to one hundred and fifty pounds, more than I had ever weighed in my entire life. The rich food I had been eating must have gotten my hormones stirred up. Holy cow, I just locked eyes with that homely nurse’s aide that makes my bed. No doubt about it, I have been overseas much too long. Finding that I had no funds of my own, my benefactors granted me a twenty minute phone call home. What a thrill to hear Juanitas’s voice and to realize that my long ordeal was finally coming to an end. That it allowed me, at long last, to put my finger on the calendar and say with certainty, here on this date I shall be home.
Discharged from the hospital, I caught a ride on an empty U.S. Army C-54 transport plane deadheading west over the Atlantic. This magic carpet took me to Ireland, Iceland, Newfoundland, and finally to the good old U.S.A. The pilot pointed under the right wing and informed me that the coast of Maine was now sliding by below me. My great adventure would soon be over. Would I want to do it again? No, once will do me, thank you. I am here to tell my story due to good fortune that I gratefully recognize has filled in several inside straights on my behalf. Do I give God credit for saving my life? No, I am sure if there is a God and if he would have had anything to do with it. There were many of my comrades lost that were much more deserving to live than I.
However, the demons are still with me, every little noise and I am instantly alert. Each time I step outside I can feel the machine guns follow me from the towers. It’s even worse at night when I am visited by specters who ask, “Why are you alive, your friends are dead. They wanted to come home just as bad as you did.” Why did the plane not explode when the engine was afire as I saw a dozen others do? Why did the fighters concentrate on the group ahead? Only time can make these devils go away. It would take an understanding family to bring me back to a normal life.
While I was overseas putting my life on the line, making fifty dollars a month and sending half of that home to Juanita. I have to wonder if those draft deferred and four F men who stayed home and got the high paying jobs in the defense plants and often struck for more money. These same fellows now who are quick to tell me how rough they had it standing in line for a pound of coffee or few extra packs of cigarettes. Now these fellows apparently have all the good jobs. Are they going to step aside for someone like me that only knows how to shoot a machine gun? I know I was fighting for freedom but I am beginning to wonder. Was it for freedom to sleep in a hobo jungle?
However, I am not the same little guy who was not quite dry behind the ears when I went into the service three long years ago. I think of myself as much more tolerant now.
If someone says to me; “I can’t eat this or I will not touch that.”
There is someone who has never eaten a few boiled potato crumbs picked out of a handful of dirt. I just smile and know that this person has never really been hungry.
When they say; “I can’t stand this or I can’t do that.”
I can show you someone who has not crushed cooties between his thumb nails or ever been cracked with a rifle butt for stealing a half-rotten turnip.
As I landed at La Guardia the last standing walls of Berlin were crumbling around the few forsaken children and old men defending the Third Reich-an ironic legacy of the Master Race.
A Merriam Press Press Original Publication, 218 Beach Street, Bennington, VT, ISBN 1-57638-210-9. Search Merriam Press using search term Pappy’s War.
Uncle Darrel said he once owned The Wagon Wheel in Oxnard