Today, September 15, is National POW/MIA Recognition Day in the U.S. – a time to set aside some time to learn about our nation’s former POWs and missing servicemen, and to honor those who continue to protect our freedom.
On the morning of February 6, 1945, they came around hollering in German to get out – fast. We all fell out and they marched us out. Each man was given one Red Cross package.
They marched us out of the compound that day in a column of threes; we didn’t know why. Our compound was the first one to leave.
They started us walking down the road. All day long we walked, until that night just before dark we came to a farm with a big barn. It was one of those communal farms. There must have been two or three thousand of us. They herded us into the barn and then closed the door. That’s it. You’re there for the night.
The next morning right at sun up, they shook us loose, got us outside, and we started walking again. This was in February, it was freezing cold. I guess just the walking kept us from freezing to death. For me, this “short hike” went on for more than 60 days. After the war, they called it the Black Hunger March, because the only food you got was the food you could scrounge. Every once in a while you got a steamed potato that had been steamed to feed the cattle. If we happened to be passing a farm that was doing that.
The German guards walked right alongside us. For the most part, they were not mean, they were not horrible. When you couldn’t walk anymore, the dogs would get you up and you would walk some more.
After a few days, the buddy system took over. Three men who marched together looked out for each other. My buddies were a cowboy from Utah named J.P. Red and a fellow from New York named Jack Gray. Whatever we could scrounge we shared.
I think everybody was sick. Everybody in the entire column had diarrhea or dysentery, or whatever you want to call it. The only time you were allowed to move to the side of the road was to “squat and squirt,” and when you did, it was complete with blood and everything else.
The days were pretty much all the same. Every night we wound up in a barn on a different farm. The day to remember in our march along the North Sea in the dead of winter was February 13th. On February 13th we started walking at daylight and marched through an area called Swinemünde. We crossed bridges and country roads, always away from people and towns. We marched all day long. Then it started to get dark and there’s no farm or barn in sight. All of a sudden they stopped the column near a big field, and they said, “here tonight.” They posted the guards around us, and wherever you fell is where you spent the night.
We woke up in the morning – it’s a wonder we all woke up – we woke up covered with snow. It had started to snow during the night. The only reason we didn’t freeze to death is that we were all laying down so close together, almost one on top of the other. Our body heat saved us. Anyway, we got through that night and they marched us off.
Some of the guards were sympathetic but could do nothing. They too were tired from marching alongside us. I must have looked real bad because one guard shared his ration with me, which I shared with my buddies.
We were having a scenic tour of northern Germany along the North Sea. There is one thing that I remember about the march that lifted our spirits. We had never gone through a town. Eventually, after about 30-40 days, I don’t remember exactly when, I think around the middle of March, we could see a town or village in front of us. We were coming to a more populated area, and the road we were on was going right though this town. We hadn’t had to do that yet.
As we got close to the town, someone from up front passed the word back – We march through town at attention. We all figured that when we walk through the town, and they know we are all flyers, we’re going to catch hell. So somebody up front had passed the word: we march through like soldiers.
As we approached the town, you could see the column start to straighten out – I have to tell you, I was proud to be an American. We were a ragged looking bunch, marching through at attention like soldiers. Nothing happened as we passed through town. The townspeople just stared at us.
By the end of March, the weather was better but most of us were not. The worst part was trying to walk with swollen feet. The guys who weren’t in as bad shape helped the others. Two men helped me because my both my feet and ankles were blown up like balloons. I was down to around 85 pounds and I felt awful.
Eventually, in early April, they stopped us at a different POW camp – Stalag XIB Fallingbostel. This was an old camp, originally a British Reprisal camp. This particular camp had all the British colonials that were captured at Dunkirk, and they had been there for three and a half years.
When they marched us all in, the British and South Africans came out and brought the two dozen or so of us who couldn’t walk any more into their barracks. The South African POWs took care of us. There was this Sergeant from Johannesburg who I called Sergeant Red because he had this big red beard. He brought me in and put me on his bunk, and then had the medics take a look at my feet.
Back before the march, I had sewed into the lining of my great coat as many packs of cigarettes as I could scrounge or barter for while I was in camp. I still had quite a few left. Cigarettes were never a problem, if you wanted to barter with a farmer, you could give him a cigarette for a carrot or two.
I pulled cigarettes out of my coat and passed them around to the British soldiers, which they appreciated because they hadn’t had any cigarettes in a long time.
The rest of the guys in our column were outside in a tent, and a few days later the word was the boys are marching out again. Sergeant Red said, “You aren’t going, you’re staying right here.” There were about two dozen of us Americans that the British wouldn’t let go because we would never have made it. They hid us until the rest of the column had moved out.