|Cover Story||September 30th, 2010|
by lyle e davis
History has a habit of getting buried deep within history books and sometimes the books get dusty from lack of use.
We aim to remedy that by bringing front and center some of the stories that may have been forgotten, or seldom told.
There’s lots to tell in recent history, stories of great endurance, of great bravery, ingenuity, and great reward, at least emotionally.
What follows are long hidden stories of what it was like to be a prisoner of war during WWII in the infamous Stalag Luft III. To some of you, Stalag Luft III may ring a bell. It should.
It was the POW camp upon which the movie, “The Great Escape,” was based. Here are the stories of some of the men who experienced life, if you could call it that, in this now famous camp.
Read, remember, and offer a salute to those brave souls who fought for our country. And you younger readers? Read, and learn!
For the average World War II flier who ended up at Stalag Luft III -- the prison camp for downed airmen run by the Luftwaffe -- his last mission became the Longest Mission. Typically, his mission began before dawn at an airfield somewhere in England, North Africa, or Italy. It ended months or years later with the liberation of Stalag VIIA on April 29, 1945.
"Stories My Father Never Told Me"
The Berlin mission cost the 392nd Bomb Group, eight of eighteen crews. Of thirty-two officers flying on those crews, only seven survived combat. They were all sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Germany. What a startling difference there was, between the final moments of the Ofenstein and Kamenitsa officers. The San Antone Rose took heavy damage during the initial fighter attack. Her pilot and co-pilot remained at the controls long enough to give the gunners time to get out. A burst of flak threw the aircraft into a flat spin; only the navigator, Dave Purner, narrowly escaped from the burning B-24. Although hampered by shrapnel wounds to his foot, he and Arthur Smith were able to evade capture for a short while. They were manhandled by an angry mob, before being turned over to the Luftwaffe. Purner entered kriegie life alone, shattered from the security of his crewmates.
They reached a sprawling camp, holding some 2000 Allied and 3000 American fliers. Opened in April of 1942, it was the hub of the prison system, with regular visits by Protecting Powers and Red Cross representatives. All mail was received at Luft 3 and censored before being sent on to other camps. The Germans, under the experienced command of Colonel von Lineiner, generally lived up to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Their American opposites were led by Col. Delmar Spivey and the compounds were run by a Senior American Officer, with a seasoned staff. Each compound had its' own intelligence and security operations, mailroom, kitchen, dispensary, as well as lagar and room fuhrers. The continuity with regular military organization encouraged the Germans to let the prisoners handle their own affairs.
West Compound was opened on April 27, with Col. Darr Alkire (a bomber pilot with experience at Dulag Luft) in command. It was the largest and last built, with seventeen barracks, a cookhouse, theater, and showers. Each barracks had thirteen rooms with three tiers of bunks. With the population doubling between April and November, 250 guys were locked and shuttered up all night, in cold and drafty barracks. The whole day has been spent looking for something to do, to get your mind off the gnawing hunger. Guys around you are just as likely to be irritable and hostile, as they are to be generous or understanding. Nobody's had a bath, and digestive systems are in a collective state of disrepair; sleeping men are reliving the horrors of their missions and are restless beyond sleep.
MIS reports July 15 1944: The camp is situated in pine woods area at Sagan, 168 kilometers southeast of Berlin...Three of the camps' six compounds are occupied by Americans (3363 AF officers), three by RAF officers. Each compound is divided into fifteen buildings or blocks; Barracks are one story, wooden hutments, resembling old CCC barracks.
Lt. George Graham, 392 BG, co-pilot Kaminitsa crew, down 29 April 44
It was Tuesday when I got out of the cooler and it was Thursday when we left for Stalag Luft III. A group of enlisted men left on Wednesday, our crew among them, for their camp up on the Baltic Sea. We, about 100 of us, left about 4 PM on Thursday 5/4/44 in a prison car from the same town (Oberusel) which meant another chance for the populace to crane their necks at us again. We were provisioned with 1/3 of a Red-Cross parcel each.
Thursday night, all day Friday, and Friday night we were shuffled back and forth over Germany. Saturday morning, I arrived at Sagan, which is about l2O kms. southeast of Berlin. The camp was located a mile south of the town. We were searched again and had to take a shower. We were given a complete outfit while our own clothes were taken out for delousing. The new outfits consisted of a pair of pants (which had to be returned when our own were returned) 2 shirts, 2 undershorts, 2 undershirts, 3 pairs of socks, 1 face towel, 1 bath towel, toothbrush, razor, soap dish, comb and belt. We were assigned a room in one of the barracks.
When we first got to Luft III, they took us out into a field. There was lots of commotion and nobody could hear what was going on. When things settled down, the American Colonel in charge of the camp chewed us up one side and down the other: "You guys are in here because you screwed up! You must have done something wrong or you wouldn't be here!" The funny thing was, nobody said: "What are you doing here?"
I'II tell you one thing, though: He knew what he was talking about, because in December of 1944, he saw the handwriting on the wall. He put out an order that everybody in that compound would walk ten laps around the perimeter. We started out knee deep in snow and ice. You should have seen us the next morning at roll call. There were guys, literally crawling. They were aching ... they were hurting. They were using muscles they hadn't used in months. When they finally moved us in January, it was the only thing that saved us.
Kamy cooked for us for six months, and we shared the K.P. ... the dirty work. Later, we broke up into three man combines. We had fifteen men in a room and each of the 3-man combines cooked for a week. One guy cooked and the other two did the clean-up. Our room had five triple decker bunks and a little potbelly stove ... that's where we did our toasting. In the room next door, we had a charcoal-wood burning cook stove. That's where we made our regular meals.
Lt. William Kamenitsa (Ohio) pilot, 392 BG down 29 April 44
It took four weeks for my folks to find out I was a P.O.W! The army told them I was missing in action about the second week in May; but two weeks later they got a personal message, that I was alive and well and living in Germany.
The Germans would broadcast a list of captured airmen, every night. People on the East Coast would listen and then mail cards to families all over the country. My mom and dad got about a dozen of them saying: "Your son, William T. Kamenitsa, army serial #... is being held by the Germans. He's alive and a POW." It took a while for the federal government to catch up with the hams.
George, my co-pilot, and I were sent to Stalag Luft III.The three other guys ( Heater, Krejci and Guillot) all went over to Stalag 17B. There was about 150 miles between us; we went north and they went south. At the time, we had no idea where they all went. It was as if we were all on different islands ... and we might never see each other again!
At Sagan, it was an established camp: supposedly, Goering's showcase camp for airmen ... but it was no picnic. Fifteen of us lived in a room about 10 feet by 12 feet. We had five triple-deckers in that room. In one corner, there was a little wood or charcoal burning stove.
I think the most difficult thing about prison camp was the lack of enough food. One meal might be just two lousy potatoes all day; and no hot water at other times. Soup is what they wanted to call it, but it was just warm water by another name. There wasn't any coffee unless you had a Red Cross parcel. Then it was warm water again, for breakfast (the only thing it was good for was shaving)...unless you had scrounged something to dump into it.
Weeks and months would go by and we'd get no parcels. The Germans would tell us: "Nothing came through. Your planes just bombed the railway station and the train coming in. Sorry! You've bombed your own food!"
I'II tell you though ... that black sawdust bread they gave us started tasting damn good after six months in captivity. If you toasted it up ... boy, it was quite unique. There were, however, some things you never got used to: blood sausage and fish heads. Oh my God! They'd bring that stuff down and pass it around ... well, nobody would touch it. Open the kettle and there's those fish eyes starring up at you ... the smell alone would put hair on your teeth.
Technically, we were in Herman Goering's special camp. He took pride in it and we were living high on the hog as far as prisoners of war were concerned. The Germans at our camp obeyed the Geneva Conventions; just to the letter and no more ... but maybe a tad better than other places.
We used to have a hidden radio to listen to the BBC. They would get some guys together, who would memorize what they had heard, then bring it back to the rest of us. There was one fellow in our barracks, Pittman, who had been a language student. He would listen to the German broadcasts, write it down on a pad in Spanish, then read it to us in English.
More information about the outside would come in with newly arrived Kriegies. They'd bring us up to date, so we always knew what was going on ... more so than the Germans. It was a funny thing with them. It seemed their armies were always making a "strategic withdrawal"... never a retreat!
Capt. Ragnaur Barlaug
The morale in the camp was for the most part, very high, but everyone gets that " will it ever end" feeling now and then, needless to say. In spite of the recreational facilities, camp life is very dull and monotonous. It is very easy to become bitter and hard to get along with.
I believe the greatest morale booster is a letter from home. Perhaps never will letters mean so much to these men as they do now, while they are prisoners. Home is a dream, and a letter brings it back to reality.
Unfortunately, it takes from three to five months for the first letter from home to reach the camp, but once the long silence is broken, the letters seem to come in quite regular, in most cases ... they are vital.
The camp looked impregnable. A high wire fence surrounded the buildings and tough looking armed guards were everywhere. A few feet inside the fence was a low strand of wire- the warning wire. Under the local ground rules, the guards were permitted to shoot any American who crossed the wire in an attempt for extra bases.
It seemed incredible that a man could get out of that camp alive. Yet many Americans did get beyond those walls and the methods they used deserve a high place under the general heading of American ingenuity.
One afternoon, shortly after I arrived at Sagan, I was standing out near the warning wire ... As I glanced around me, I saw a German workman come walking from between two buildings. Over his shoulder was slung a ladder. Suddenly, I began to feel giddy, but not from a lack of food. The "workman" was really a disguised American flier ... and when he reached the warning wire, he paused and nodded briefly to a bored German guard nearby.
It was an effort to keep my eyes averted; every American in that area went about his business, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. When I finally took another peek, the lieutenant had reached the outer fence.
Quickly, he propped the ladder against the fence, then began to climb toward the top. From the guard towers, the Germans watched curiously through the sights of their machine guns. With a pair of pliers, he began to test each strand as if searching for a break in the wire. At last he reached the top ... then deliberately turned and waved to one of the guards. Casually, the American lifted the ladder, then placed it outside the fence. On the way down ... he paused to examine the wire. You'd have thought he was tuning a concert piano for Oscar Levant, the way he'd tap a wire, then bend down to listen. Reaching the ground, he put the ladder over his shoulder, then sauntered down the street. Not a gun was fired in his direction; unfortunately the escape was short lived when the lieutenant was recognized and brought back into camp.
The Germans were furious. They stormed into the area and the guards swarmed through the barracks ... wrecking beds ... stealing cigarettes and Red Cross canned goods ... (trying to find) where the ladder and work uniform had come from.
For them, the escape, brief though it was, meant humiliation. But for the Americans, it was a great moral victory. At Sagan, men were united by a single emotion: Good old rip- roaring anger. The Germans had their arrogant guards, their guns, and their high fences. Yet in the face of these odds, the Americans refused to be cowed into submission.
Your body could be conquered, but why allow the Germans to conquer your soul? You could fight back matching German intimidation with American ingenuity. It gave you something to talk about while you hoarded food and made plans. If you failed, rack one up for the Germans. But if you succeeded, you had the knowledge that hundreds of Americans would grow drunk on your success. You had to think of American Morale.
Diary of Lt. David Purner
04-29-44 All out effort with 2000 bombers from the 8th and l5th Air Forces hitting Berlin in the biggest raid of the war. The Allies lost 60 bombers and 14 fighters on this raid. The 392nd lost 8 aircraft; 2 from each squadron. German fighters attacked our group as we were passing Hannover. They made two passes and had 8 of us going down at the same time. Our ship was damaged severely; 2 engines out, tail assembly gone, fires throughout the aircraft. Buzz had followed through on the fighters and I had to straighten the turret before I could get him out. He was okay and sat on an ammo box close to the nose wheel, waiting for bailout. I had been wounded in the left leg and foot and sat on the edge of the nosewheel door, just under my table. We fell out of formation immediately, losing altitude rapidly in a flat spin. We fell below the cloud cover and at about 1000 ft, the ship jerked into a tight spin. I slipped off the edge of the nosewheel door and wound up astraddle the nosewheel, sitting on the mudguard, over the wheel. The pilot had previously dropped the landing gear, which made bailout difficult. The slip stream ripped both pair of boots (fur lined & heated) off my feet and I was now in my sock feet. I knew all I had to do was lay back and fall off that wheel, but I just couldn't do it. The centrifugal force had pinned me against the side of the aircraft and couldn't move a muscle. I gave up and knew I was going in with the ship. Every time she went around I could see the trees getting closer. I estimate at about 500 ft there was an explosion and I felt myself free. I began to scratch with both hands for the ripcord on my chest pack and not finding it, I began to panic. I glanced up and saw my chute swinging wildly amidst billowing smoke and flying debris. I hit the ground without seeing it and after burying my chute I crawled out into the center of a big field and lay flat. I could see German troops scouring the woods. In a very short time I spotted Sgt. Smith and called to him. We lay together in that field and watched the 8th Air Force fly back to England. We decided to head for the Baltic and catch a boat for Sweden- wishful thinking. Sgt Smith and I evaded capture for the next three days; hiding during the day and traveling at night. My wounds were of great concern. I ripped the white lining from the cuffs and collar of my uniform shirt to use as bandages. I put chlorine pills in water and washed the wounds as best I could.
Arrived at Stalag Luft III and was placed in a POW "hospital," which was a POW barracks staffed by doctors who were POW's previously captured. They were using meager red cross supplies and doing the very best they could. My foot was elevated and saline compresses applied. After about 7 weeks my wounds had healed sufficiently to allow me to be placed in a regular POW barracks and assigned to a cooking combine. At this point we were fortunate to have a meager supply of red cross food parcels which were doled out at the rate of one eighth parcel per man per week; so by joining a combine of 8 men we could control a full parcel each week. By using water, we could make stews and stretch that food to the limit. Incidentally, this would be the last time we would have red cross food available. Just prior to my arrival there had been a mass escape attempt at Stalag Luft III -not very successful. Some 250 POWs were scheduled to go, but most of them were caught in the immediate area, some still in the tunnel; only three made it all the way home. It took a year to build the tunnel and make preparations. A motion picture was made concerning this and titled "The Great Escape." The Germans were furious and the Gestapo took over the camp. In reprisal they picked 47 field grade flying officers, lined them up and shot them; then brought their ashes back into camp. This was the Gestapo method of discouraging escape attempts.
To reflect a bit on the POW experience and life in a POW camp, let me say it is a very dehumanizing thing. I was reduced to the status of an animal struggling merely to survive. This became the name of the game; SURVIVAL. The will to survive can be a extremely motivating force. In the POW experience, as you lose control of your life, a feeling of utter helplessness sets in; then you suddenly become very bitter and a driving desire to survive engulfs you. I don't know that I could name the worst or the most demoralizing aspect of the POW experience, but I will try to enumerate a few and not necessarily in the order of their importance:
Editor’s Note: These are but a few of the many stories that came out of POW Camps during WWII and other battlegrounds. We’ll have other stories to publish in the future.