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Ossian Arthur Seipel's Memoirs


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Chapter 4

Sagan


    A short trip after leaving the dulag, we arrived at a high wire fenced stockade filled with a few wooden warehouse buildings and a lot of large tents.  This place was run by a group of British sergeants under the direction of the Germans.   Here the officers and enlisted men were separated and sent to various permanent camps.  Our destination was Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Germany.  Our transportation were the famous French forty and eight freight cars.

 

Lt Ossian Seipel's dog tag
2nd Lt Ossian Arthur Seipel's dog tag issued by the German. Kgf stands for Krieggefangener (POW in German) -  Photo Lynn Dobyanski

    A couple of days later we arrived at Stalag Luft III.  The literal translation is “Camp Air Three”.  The original Luft III was located in lower Silesia in Sagan, a small town on the Bobr River, a tributary of the Oder, about ninety miles southeast of Berlin, and seventy miles northwest of Breslau, Poland.  Stalag Luft III was made up of five individual camps, each confining about 2000 prisoners.  The center camp, which was for Americans, was the smallest and oldest.  The east camp was mostly British and was separated from the center camp by a ten foot high wooden fence and the usual twin wire fences, ten feet high and about six feet apart with coiled barbed wire in between.  All the camps were surrounded by the same type fences and guard towers or goon boxes that were spaced around the perimeter of the camps so that the lights from one would meet the light from the next, leaving no darkened space a man could hide in.  A trip wire about a foot high and running about thirty feet inside the fence, warned of a thirty foot wide “verboten zone” which if entered without permission would invite a bullet in the head.

    To the west of the center compound was an area for German guards and their headquarters.  They had sixteen barracks and various other buildings, so you can see it was a sizable group.  The usual fences and “verboten zones” were there, on our side of the wire, but there was no wooden fence, so you could see when the guards had female company visit them.  The Germans used women, who could read English, to act as censors and they were also housed in this “Kommandanantur”.  In the summer these women enjoyed sun bathing where they could be seen by the kriegies, who lined up along the fence and stared.  When General Vanaman arrived, he talked the Germans in to confining their sun bathing to the other side of their barracks, out of our sight.  The women still made it a point to strut past our viewing area as often as they could, they seemed to like being mentally undressed by the hundreds of their hooting and hollering audience.  West of the German area was the north camp, for the RAF, and the south and west camps for more Americans.  North of the west camp was an area where they stored the Red Cross parcels.  North of the center camp was the Vorlager, containing barracks for some Russian prisoners, clothing supply, coal shed, infirmary, cooler (solitary) and bath house which would have been nice if we could have used it.  South of the center and east camp was a cleared area of about fifty yards and then a pine forest.

    Knox and I were assigned to the center camp, barracks 5A, combined B.  We were photographed and issued POW dog tags.  We also received two thin German blankets, a mattress cover and pillow slip filled with excelsior, a spoon, a fork, a knife, all with the swastika emblem on the handle, a bowl and a small German linen towel.  This was our new home.  We were kriegies, short for kriegsgefangenen, prisoner of war.  The older kriegies milled around looking for some one that they might know.  The arrival of a new group of kriegies was called a “purge”.  I have no idea why, but it was.

    When we got to our barracks it was a large building with a kitchen???? at each end and a room for the barracks chief at one end, across from the so-called kitchen.   At the other end across from the kitchen was a latrine to be used only at night after lock in.  The latrine consisted of a large bucket and a kriegie made urinal trough draining through a hole in the floor to the outside.  The rest of the building was divided in half by a wall, making two large rooms, each about 30 feet by 65 feet and each with a Nuremberg stove for heat.  The open space was further divided by arranging five triple decked bunks to form a wall of sleepers around a central space with an entry way to a common hall which ran the length of the building.  The combine was the basic unit of this military organization.  A table with benches attached, like a picnic table, was used for eating, preparing meals, playing cards or doing any work that you may want to do.  There were seven combines in each large room.  Each combine was made up of at least fourteen men.  Add to that the barracks commander and his aides.  All told there must have been close to two hundred men per barracks.

    Combine B was home to Tom Ledgerwood, Howard Day, Ted Snyder, Joe Columbo, Don Murry, Luther Lau, Freal Knox, Tracy Beagle, a guy named Brock, me and four other guys who’s names I can’t recall at this time.  Tom was the ranking officer so he was the combine chief.

    The first few weeks we “new kriegies” were treated with suspicion, being asked questions about almost everything, to see if we were really who we said we were and were from where we said we were from.  When they found out I was in the class of 43-J, they thought that was a lie ‘cause they hadn’t run across anyone that new yet.  When I said I was from Chicago Heights, some took that to be Chicago, until they found a guy who was from Thornton, Illinois.  They brought him to see me and after a lot of questions about high school and some of the other schools in the South Suburban League, he verified that I was really from there.  I wasn’t unique as far as they were concerned.  Everyone was a German until proven to be who we said we were.

    Tom Ledgerwood, our combine chief, checked to see what we needed in the way of clothes and forwarded that on to the camp supply officer.  Those of us who lacked some necessities were furnished with them.  I got a pair of shoes, a little tight, but better than nothing.  I also got a suntan shirt and a pair of suntan pants.  It was my summer uniform.  Just having shoes lifted my spirits as much as anything  could under these circumstances.   

    The center camp consisted of about a dozen barracks or blocks, four aborts or latrines, a cook house, (a building, half the size of a barracks, with two huge cooking vats and a boiler for hot water), a laundry, and a theater building (the size of a barracks building but arranged by the kriegies to resemble a theater, with stage and dressing rooms).  All the buildings were constructed very poorly and all looked the same.  The theater also included the living quarters for the Senior Allied Officer (SAO).  The aborts were big outhouses.  Wooden benches with holes spaced about five feet apart over a really big trench.  The benches could accommodate about fifteen guys at a time.  They threw lye into the trench to keep the smell down, but it was still there.  Periodically they had to be pumped out by the “Schitzen Panzer Fuhrere” who would drive a team of horses, pulling a huge wooden tank wagon (the honey wagon) to each abort and with a small gasoline driven pump, remove a load of waste and haul it off to, who knows where.

    In the laundry building there was a long trough like cement sink running down the middle with a water line suspended about head high along the entire length of it.  Spaced about five feet apart pipes dropped down from it about two feet with faucets at the ends.  This is where we could wash ourselves, our clothes and any thing else that needed washing.  The water was cold all year long.  There was a boiler to heat some of the water, but the fuel ration was so small it was used for cooking and heat in the blocks instead of heating water for bathing.

    The center camp and the east camp were the oldest ones and were originally for RAF and RCAF.  After we got into the war,  Americans were housed with the Brits until the Germans built more camps and split up the prisoners according to their countries.  I can’t talk about any of the other compounds ‘cause I never got to see any of them.  I can imagine that life was the same in them as it was in the center one.  The Germans learned from the way the Brits formed their own combines, and in the newer camps they built the barracks with individual rooms for the combines.

    There was a fire pool located in the midst of the barracks area.  It was a sunken brick pool about thirty feet square and maybe five feet deep, filled with water to be used in case of a fire.  Around the perimeter of the camp, just inside the trip wire was where the kriegies could go to be alone with their thoughts, or jog to keep in shape, or to talk without fear of eavesdroppers.  It was about three quarters  of a mile around the perimeter and it was always occupied by someone.

    In order to have some sort of control over the 2000 high keyed combat airmen, suddenly reduced to life in a cramped environment behind barbed wire, required more than the training afforded by the Army Air Corps.  Colonel Delmar Spivey, the Senior American Officer, (replaced by General Vanaman in late July) was the camp commander and under him was his headquarters staff and the barracks chiefs.

    Even under control of the German Luftwaffe the camp was run like a military base by American officers.  There was an officer in charge of every job that had to be done.  The intelligence committee was a secret committee and was only referred to as “Big X” and his next in command “Little X”.  All escape plans had to be approved by “Big X”, but there weren’t too many approved, since a lot of them were wishful ideas that hadn’t been given too much thought.  If one was considered good enough, it was given the attention and help of the whole camp, but coordinated through “Big X”.  After the big escape by the Brits in March, escape was no longer a game, and could result in a bullet in the head.

    I remembered my bar compass that I got through the searches so far, and I made Ledgerwood aware of it.  He passed the word on to the X committee and they called me in for interrogation.  They just wanted to know how I could have gotten it through without being discovered.  They laughed about the dirty handkerchief, but suggested it was a pretty smart move, since it did get through.

    Any dealings with the Germans was limited to just a few men who were fluent in German and could bargain with them for contraband stuff like a camera, film or just about anything that might be needed by the X committee.  The main objective of the SAO was to keep the morale as high as possible.  We were required to shave everyday.  There was an inspection every Saturday after appel, (roll call).

    The YMCA had been furnishing sporting equipment to the camps for some time and everyone was encouraged to take part in some activity.  They also furnished band instruments for those who played, and a swing band was formed.  It was really good and kept us that much more in touch with home.  Various organizations furnished books and magazines, but the magazines were censored especially well by the Germans so that they weren’t much good.  We did get some German magazines and newspapers when the news was good for the Germans.  They also broadcast German news every so often.

    All the barracks had shallow trenches under and running the length of the building.  These were used by the German guards called ferrets, and distinguished from the other guards by their blue colored fatigues.  They listened in on any conversations in the barracks.  The ferrets carried long steel prods with which they investigated any cracks in the floors, cracked masonry or concrete that might indicate a possible tunnel.

    I was a new, low ranking kriegie who didn’t qualify for any special jobs, and I wasn’t in the know about what was going on around camp.  I just did what I was told and that’s what the majority of us did.  Life was pretty boring, so you jumped at the chance to do anything that was suggested.  Acting as a lookout was one job I could do.  Each block had at least a dozen guys who spent an hour a day looking out the kitchen window and keeping a record of any Germans who came to the area.  When you consider that each block was doing that and someone was doing the same thing from the aborts and the cook house and theater, you realize that when all these reports were given to the X committee they had a pretty good idea of where the Germans were at all times.  They could predict where the goons (guards) and ferrets (snoops) would be at any given time, and which work places or factories would be subject to a shut down.  Anyone noticing a German entering a block, would shout “Tally ho” and that was picked up and passed on to any of the kriegies doing committee work.  It got so the Germans would yell “Tally ho” when they walked through the door, and keep it up as he passed down the hall, past all the combines.

    Somewhere in camp was a radio that was kept in pieces and put together only when it was safe to do so, in order to get the news from the BBC (British Broadcasting Company).  Just before the evening meal a couple nights a week someone would come around to visit each block and relate the news or “soup”.  It was done at meal time to lessen the curiosity of the goons.  It was usually quite different from the news given over the German radio.  We kept a map of Europe on the wall in the kitchen to show the eastern and western fronts as broadcast over German radio.  It was kept by tying string along a line of pins at known points along the front.  After getting the BBC news, the block commander would make a bee line to the kitchen to make the comparison by putting up a different colored string along the points described in the BBC news.  The difference was always much better for us.  One of the ferrets got curious about the pin holes in the map and knew that we were getting news from outside.  The result was a search.

    The whole center camp was rousted out of the barracks and made to stand in formation while the ferrets probed and prodded all over the camp looking for the radio.  At times when we had these special counts we usually made it a lot more difficult for the Hauptman to get his count straight by moving over a row or two.  It took a number of counts and the assistance of a couple of rifle platoons to get us settled down.  They never found the radio but they did find some hoarded dried milk and sugar.  We became accustomed to these unannounced searches since they happened at least once a week.  It was an inconvenience to us, but it was also a way of getting to the Germans.

    The day began when one of the German guards lifted the wooden bar from the door so it could be opened.  Soon a whistle sounded, the wake up call, or first call for appel.  At the second call everybody ambled out to the parade ground and the designated spot for their block, where they lined up in rows five men deep and waited for the German lager officer and unter officer.  When the Germans marched up to the block to make their count, the block captain called his men to attention and the Germans, Hauptman in front and unter officer in the rear, counted off each row of five until they tallied with the block count.  The number was written on a piece of paper and yelled to the lager officer, who also recorded the number.  When all blocks had been accounted for, the lager officer gave the OK to the SAO who in turn dismissed the appel.  Two thousand men broke ranks and headed in all directions, another day of waiting had begun.

    Back in the combine the stooges took the “kein-trink-wassers” (“not drinking water” pitcher because they were made of lead) to the cook house to be filled with hot water for the morning coffee.  There was always a line, so a good stooge was there when they opened up.  He’d usually leave right from appel to get in line, then some one would bring him the pitcher.  It was quite a race since all combines were doing the same thing.  Breakfast consisted of a weak cup of “nescafe” and a thin slice of the goon bread, the sawdust variety, some mornings we could even have a thin coating of jam on it.

    Combine rosters were made up choosing some one to be cook, which was the most important job.  Some combines chose a different cook each week, but we were lucky to have a man who liked to cook.  Ted Snyder was our permanent cook.  His family owned some restaurants in Los Angeles, so he was an ideal choice.  The stooges who did all the potato peeling, dish washing, aided the cook in getting the fire going  and keeping it going through our time at the stove were assigned and rotated every day.  It was a belittling “go fer” job.  The roster was made up by cutting cards.  The results were posted on the food locker.  Everyone was supposed to check it every day, but that wasn’t necessary.  Everyone knew when his and everybody else’s turn was, so no one could forget.

    There were kriegies who had been teachers before they got in the war, and some who were involved in business or just knowledgeable about some one thing, who turned out to be available to teach other kriegies.  They founded what was called Sagan University.  Anyone who wanted to attend could sign up and attend meetings, or classes, usually in the library or in the professors block.  It was something to do.

    There was an acting group who planned, rehearsed and put on plays for the whole camp.  It took a lot of time and work and afforded the kriegies a chance to buy cloth and theatrical supplies that might otherwise have been considered contraband.  Much of the stuff purchased was used by the X committee to make items of clothing or whatever for a possible escape.  A group of kriegies discovered sewing civilian clothes wasn’t seen as verboten if it was for a play.

    The YMCA and many other organizations furnished books for the use of the prisoners.  The popular ones were always in demand and you had to get on a waiting list to get one for a couple of days.

    We were asked to do things to aid the X committee, but not always allowed to know just what the project was.  Periodically we had to sacrifice one of our bed slats.  We each started out with eight 1” x 5” x 24” slats to support our palliasse, (excelsior filled sack that we slept on).  It was my job to split some of the slats into three narrower slats.  Out of the fourteen slats from our combine I split five of them into fifteen narrower ones, and each man could replace the five inch one with a 1 1/2” one.  We drew cards to see who got the extra one.  Nine full sized slats were available to the X committee for tunnel shoring.  In the time I was at Committee all of my original slats had been replaced by the 1 1/2” ones.

    There was a lot of time spent playing cards.  I even tried to learn to play bridge, but couldn’t quite get the hang of it.  It was probably a good thing, ‘cause most of the bridge players got into fights over the way one or the other played.  Poker was popular, but you could only play if you had the cigarettes to use for money.  The non smokers did all right, and had a lot to bet with, but guys like me had to make a choice.  Usually the habit won.

    I was able to salvage some scraps of wood from the slat work and did spend a lot of time carving.  A knife from a German mess kit did fine for a short time and then it had to be sharpened often, on a piece of sand stone that passed between the combines as needed.

    Toilet paper was one item not given much importance, but when you’re used to having it, it is crucial.  The German issue of one 4” x 4” square sheet per man per day was not enough.  The Red Cross sent a shipment of American TP which was rationed by the SAO to four sheets per day per man.  We did learn that newspaper when cut into 4” squares and crumpled between the hands for a while softened it pretty well.

    The Red Cross also furnished us with all the clothes we had except for the clothes we wore when captured.  In order to keep every one clean it was necessary to use borrowed clothes when you had to wash your own.  The block commander had an extra pair of pants, shirts and socks to be used by anyone who really had to wash his own.  The waiting line was long.

    The black sawdust bread tasted a little better toasted, but you had to fight a crowd of other stooges to get near enough to the stove in the kitchen to hold the thin slices against the metal to warm it.  Back at the combine the slices of bread were set out on the table and everyone gathered around to watch the spreading of the jam.  A good cook could spread the jam thick enough to cover the bread but not thick enough to prevent you from seeing the bread through it.  We’d draw cards to see who picked his piece first and the guy that spread the jam usually got the last pick.  That was the way everything was split.  If food of any sort was to be divided into fourteen parts, cards were drawn for first pick and on down the line until the guy that divided it got the last pick.

    After breakfast the stooges got their kein trink wasser and went back to the cook house for some hot water to wash the dishes.  After the stooge had washed the cups and spoons he had to set out the bowls for the issue of barley soup that was prepared about three times a week and issued about mid morning.  This was a bonus and usually meant that lunch would be limited to more toast and maybe marmalade and tea.

    After the barley break the stooge would get in line for the block broom, so he could sweep out the combine.

    Shaving posed a real problem for those with heavy beards, but for me it wasn’t so bad.  If you were lucky you might get some hot water from the cook house when they drained the water jackets around the cook pots, but that was the only good thing about being a stooge.  Most of the time I shaved using water at room temperature.  Standing in line for the cup of hot water in the shower room was at least a two hour operation.  Ice cold water from the faucets in the wash room served as the after shave skin conditioner.

    We were supposed to receive one Red Cross parcel per man per week to supplement the German rations.  It was reduced to half rations when I arrived.  As a result of this cut back in Red Cross food the cook was charged with preparing the most appetizing meals with the least amount of food and the world’s best imagination.  Ted Snyder was good at that.

    Food parcels came to us from the British, the Americans and the Canadians.  Total weight of the parcel was ten pounds.

    British parcels contained condensed milk, meat pate, vegetable soup, sardines, cheese, margarine, four biscuits, dry eggs, oatmeal, cocoa, tea, dried fruit, sugar, one chocolate bar and one bar of soap.

    American parcels contained powdered milk (Lkim), spam, corned beef, liver pate, salmon, margarine, K-ration biscuits, Nescafe, orange jam, prunes or raisins, 2 chocolate bars, 2 bars of soap and 5 packs of cigarettes.

    Canadian parcels contained powdered milk, spam, corned beef, salmon, cheese, butter, soda crackers, ground coffee, jam, dried prunes, sugar, 1 chocolate bar and 1 bar of soap.

    Two rooms shared the kitchen cook stove at one time.  All times were staggered from about 2:30 till about 8:30 PM, so the meals were also staggered.  The cooks had to coordinate their cooking habits to allow each other time in the oven as well as time on the stove top, which was only about 36” square.  It took a lot of shuffling of pots and pans.  If the meal was to include spam, the stooge had to divide two cans into fourteen identical pieces.

    Ted was especially good with desserts, this meant a lot of cracker grinding to pulverize the crackers to a fine flour like consistency.  Mixing the cracker flour with cocoa, margarine, sugar, water and a little Canadian tooth powder and a vigorous beating before putting it in the oven made a pretty fair imitation of a cake.  Someone had to stand guard over the meal as it was being cooked or your pans would be moved to the coolest part of the stove or the floor.  The cook and stooge doled out the food in equal shares to fourteen kriegie made plates under the watchful eyes of the rest of the combine.  The card drawing for 1st choice was conducted and the meal enjoyed.  Coffee was served with the cake followed by a cigarette and many compliments to the cook.  He had to be kept in a good mood.

    Summertime was not so bad if you could find something to keep your mind off the fact that you were a prisoner.  Baseball and volleyball occupied a lot of time.  I can’t remember the mosquitoes, but the flies bit like crazy.  Keeping clean was easier in the summer even if the showers were like ice water.  Some guys tried growing a garden, but most thumbs were not green at all.

    The Germans furnished a ration of briquettes (a form of compressed coal and oil, I think) to be used as fuel for the cook stove and also for the main block heaters.  In the winter the combine had to decide what needed the heat more, the food or the block.  Keeping warm was the number one priority and the kriegies got pretty ingenious at times.  Uniforms were remodeled for warmth.  Some who had GI overcoats cut the bottom half off and made hoods and gauntlets to go over the mittens.

    I didn’t have an overcoat, so I sewed my summer shirt into my A2 jacket as a lining and stuffed the space between shirt and jacket with paper.  It was bulky but it did keep the cold out or heat in.  Everyone took their two German blankets, which were very thin, and sewed them together with a couple of layers of paper in between.  Once they were quilted to keep the paper insulation in place they were pretty cozy.  To protect our feet we soaked our GI shoes in melted margarine, which was usually rancid by the time we got it anyway.  I made some ear muffs from a couple of worn out socks.

    Sometime, I think it was around the end of July, we got a new SAO.  It was a brigadier general named Vanaman.  I don’t know why he had been put in a position to be shot down, but he was, and now he was our SAO.  Word got out that, before the war he had been the American “Air Attache” to Berlin.  It must have been so, because many high ranking German Luftwaffe officers came to visit with him in his quarters, in the camp.  Life for the rest of us didn’t change too much, except the in camp military attitude was stressed even more.

    On Columbus Day, October 12th, I got my first letter from home.  It was from my mother and she raved about what a wonderful baby I had, but never once in the letter did she refer to it as he or she.  I had thought the baby was going to be born in July, so I was really glad to know that it was wonderful, and anxious to know what it was.  I got the telegram from Lois, via Switzerland, in November giving the name, sex, weight and now I could refer to it as her or she.  I got a letter from Lois in December with a picture taken at six weeks.  She looked like she was mad but she was my baby, and her picture made the rounds of a couple of combines.

    We were allowed to write two cards and a letter a month.  The cards were about 3.5” x 5” and the letters were about 5” x 12”, and you could only write on one side, the side with the twelve evenly spaced lines.  Any comments about life in the camp were blacked out if they sounded too pessimistic.  It was hard to write a letter that might pass censorship.

    The same day I got the letter from my mother about the baby we had a special appel.  Each kriegie had to march to appel with his knife, fork, spoon, bowl and towel to be checked by the guards.  A number of missing knives or knives that had been reworked to be used as a saw, prompted a search and another day of counts and recounts.

    I spent a lot of time watching the honey wagon, thinking that might be a good way out of the camp.  After he pumped out the waste, he put the four inch hose on the left side of the wagon and left, straight down the fence and out the back gate, which was manned by one guard.  The guard usually opened the gate and waved him on through.  On the right side of the wagon was a long tool box and a space large enough for a guy to lie between the box and the curve of the tank.  The arrival of a new “purge” attracted the attention of the guards in the goon boxes and everyone else.  I couldn’t let this chance go by, so I jumped up on the wagon and hid behind the tool box and covered myself with a small tarp.  The driver came back, and headed down to the gate.  I thought I was going to make it, but evidently one of the guards had seen me hide, so they stopped the wagon and I had the muzzle of a rifle shoved in my face.  I got down and waited with the guard for four other guards who escorted me to the cooler. 

    Two days in the cooler on bread and water with no bunk and no heat had a lasting effect on me.  I swore I’d never be cold or hungry again.  I needed food and a good place to sleep.  The chewing out I got from Colonel Spivey and on down to Sam Magee, the block chief, impressed me even more.  It was a stupid thing to do.  I knew it then, but I did it because I just had to give it a try.  If I had made it I don’t know what I would have done.  Being that deep in Germany and not knowing a word of German, it would have been impossible to reach allied forces.

    The Protecting powers, Swiss or Swedish, visited camp in early November.  They were representatives from neutral nations who were to check periodically to see that the rules of warfare as described in the Geneva Convention were being kept.  We had been given advanced notice and even had nice heavy weight blankets issued to us the morning of the visit.  As soon as the Protecting power was out of the area the blankets were collected and taken out of the camp.

    The German Commandant issued orders that there would be no hoarding of food.  One days rations was all that was allowed in camp at any one time.  If any more was found it would be confiscated.  This meant that all the stuff we had been saving for, escape, a rainy day or special bash, had to be eaten now.  The cooks had a field day.  We had a late birthday party for Lynn, in the combine, with cake and everything.  The block had a huge party and invited one and all to the party.  They even had a jazz band for entertainment and raisin brew for those who wanted a small sip of alcohol.

    When any food entered the camp in cans, the Germans punched holes in them so they couldn’t be saved and used for escape purposes.  We tried to seal the holes with melted wax or margarine but that just slowed the rotting process a little.  Once mixed, Eagle Brand milk, Klim and dried prunes made a delicious bite to eat and contained enough energy to keep a guy going for awhile.  Since it had been used it was not confiscated, so we made a lot of that.  Orders from the Reich required one empty Red Cross parcel with empty cans to be turned in before a new parcel was issued.

    It was suggested by the SAO that each kriegie get in shape and be as fit as possible in the event we should have to be moved.  It was a toss up trying to figure what the Germans would do.  Some thought we’d all be shot if the Russians got too close, others argued that they’d take us with them as hostages where ever they went, or for some other reason, which could mean just about anything you could imagine.  Laps around the perimeter were now mandatory, at least five a day, and physical training was also stressed.  The laps also allowed a guy to think about things that needed quiet, which wasn’t available in the block.  You could do a lot of thinking about what you left back home in five laps around the perimeter.


Blackout shutters were closed at dark and the entrances to the block were barred with 2 x 4s.  In the winter time darkness fell around four or four thirty.  The five three decked bunks seemed to close in, making the combine that much smaller.  The noise seemed to be louder once you were closed in.  My bunk was on the aisle side of the room away from the window, and it was the top one.  The air got pretty stale after a while, especially for the top bunks.  At lights out, along about midnight, we all got into our bunks.  Those nearest the window put on stocking caps or hoods to keep the cold out.  The last man to bed opened the window, pushed back the blackout shutters, and took a deep breath of fresh air before closing the window again to keep some of the cold out.  I used to try to be last man ‘cause that cold fresh air smelled great, and I had a chance to see the night watch with his dog making his rounds.  The dogs were either German Shepherds or Dobermans.  They never did bark, but when they looked at you leaning out of a window they showed their teeth and growled a warning, “one wrong move and you’ve had it”.

    The fires in the stoves went out within an hour or so and the icy winds found their way in through any of the many cracks in the walls, and around the windows.  There was usually a lot of talk while just laying there wondering if there would be a raid on Berlin tonight.

    Berlin was about ninety kilometers north of Sagan, so the block buster bombs dropped by the RAF could be felt pretty well.  Eventually someone would hear or feel the bombing and we’d lie there picturing the whole mission.  If the raid was south of Berlin it would cause the air raid warning in the camp to sound and all the floodlights and spot lights in the goon boxes, (raised guard towers, manned by a German soldier with a mounted machine gun), would be turned off.  When the lights were off the camp immediately filled with German soldiers ready for any escape attempt.  After the all clear the door would open and a few Germans would file through, just to check on us.

    When it finally got quiet you could let your mind wander back to the days at home.  I tried to imagine what Lois was doing and how she was handling things with the baby and the new responsibility she brought.  I could see her face when she laughed and I ached to see her again.  I vowed that if and when I got back with her I’d never leave her again.  I tried to imagine holding her, till I finally fell asleep.

    It really got cold in the winter.  The guards who manned the gates and had to be outside most of the time would wrap straw around their boots to help keep them from touching the snow, and that way they stayed dry.  They also wore “great coats” which had collars that came up as high as the top of their heads and extended to the ground.  Their mittens looked almost like boxing gloves.

    Someone in the combine wrangled a small branch of a fir tree from one of the guards so we had a Christmas tree.  We decorated it with the tin foil from cigarette packages and paper cutouts of stars and any other shape you wanted.  There were a lot of paper dolls.  We had a pretty good bash on Christmas day, including a cake.

    The other end of our block had a New Years party with singing and raisin brew.  We all attended and sampled the alcohol, in hopes that it might help to forget a little of where we were.  It didn’t.

    On January 27th about 9:30 PM we were told that we had to be ready to leave the camp in 30 minutes.  It was hard to believe that we were really going to get out.  We were going to march out and carry nothing but clothing.  Anyone attempting to escape would be shot.  Anyone falling out along the way would be shot.

    I gathered all I thought I could carry and made a bed roll pack to sling over my shoulder.  We emptied our food locker and proceeded to eat as much as we could.  I think everyone had some powdered milk, sugar and prune mixture in a can for just this kind of emergency.  Now we lay on our bunks waiting for the next word from the Germans.  We were assembled outside the barracks two or three times before we actually left camp.  We were allowed to go to the Red Cross Parcel building and take what we could carry.  It was amazing how many parcels were there, when they had been keeping us on half rations for months.  Some of the guys made sleds out of the bunk’s side rails nailed together with scrounged nails or tied together with torn strips of the mattress pacs.  Finally at about 3:00 AM on January 28th we left through the main gate."

Next
 

 

Chapter 1: Barksdale Field

Chapter 2: England

Chapter 3: Captivity

Chapter 4: Sagan

Chapter 5: The March

Chapter 6: Moosburg

Chapter 7: Liberation

 

 

 

 

 

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