For the last eight months I had been flying heavy bombers out of England, but all our raids so far had been day raids. Our American brand of bombing was to hit pinpoint targets in Nazi Germany; that type of bombing necessarily called for day-time bombing. On April 22, 1944, the Americans fishing with the 8th Air Force pulled a night raid over Hamm, Germany.
Our crew made our first run over the marshalling yards of Hamm at 9:27 P.M. The haze of on-coming night made the target so indistinct that the bombardier had to circle the town and come in for our second run on the target. A whole squadron of Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts hit us from above. Our right wing was on fire and the danger of the ship's exploding was imminent. For the first several minutes confusion reigned among a well-disciplined air crew. We were unaccustomed to flying at night; to seeing the multi-colored flak burst around us; and to shooting back at enemy planes that we could not see. Six of our sergeant-gunners bailed out immediately (No word has ever been received of the fate of those six gunners). First, I knew only too well, that to bail out over the target we had just bombed would be sheer suicide. Reichmarshall Goering had sold the German people on the idea that we American fliers were not soldiers in the true sense of the word — that instead of fighting on the ground, we dropped our cowardly bombs on women and children. After months and months of this kind of indoctrination, I felt that flying officers would not be accorded the rights of prisoners-of‑war if we fell into civilian hands. Second, and the less significant reason, was the fact that I was a commissioned officer. It was a sort of p280unwritten law among flying personnel that while going to a target and actually dropping the bombs, you were fighting for Uncle Sam; coming back, however, you were fighting for yourself. This highly intangible thing called patriotism did not even enter the picture.
My sole concern was to get our crippled Liberator back to England. The prospect was doubtful. Our gunners had bailed out, leaving us without any means of fighting back; the navigator's master compass was blasted to shreds by shrapnel; and our wing was burning through. Our only hope was to take the B‑24 up to •20,000 feet; the scarcity of oxygen at that altitude would put the fire out.
For the next two hours we flew along at what seemed to be a snail's pace. Over Ostend, Belgium, the wing broke half into.º This threw the plane into a tight spiral spin. The last sensation of the plane I had was the topsy-turvy instrument panel. Every gadget was doing a loop-to‑loop. I could tell by the sound of the engines' "winding‑up" that there was no chance of levelling the ship out.
I knew we were at 20,000 feet. I had taken the plane up that high because the oxygen was so scarce that a fire would not burn. It dawned on me for the first time that there is not enough oxygen at that altitude to maintain human life. My immediate problem was to pull a delayed parachute jump of •10,000 feet. There is not an abundance of oxygen at that altitude, but probably enough to keep me alive I thought until I hit the ground. This literally meant that I had to fall •two miles through space before I could pull the rip cord and watch the canopy blossom out.
I did not voluntarily jump. The centrifugal force catapulted me out. Looking back at it, I was thrown clear of those whirling props on all four engines. Although there were a thousand thoughts flashing through my mind, the one thing that forced its way into the conscious foreground of my thinking was an excruciating physical pain. I thought for a minute that my back was broken, or maybe on fire. I tried to manipulate myself around to the point I could see, but my hands would not work. At 20,000 feet, falling through space at •more than a mile a minute, I started to vomit. I can p281recall vividly that green digestive juice flying back in my face. After having dropped for what seemed to be an eternity, I pulled the rip cord. I had on a regulation chest-pack chute. As the canopy started to come out, I was hit solidly in the face by one thousand white nylon stockings. That pain was superficial. The real pain was in my back. I never saw my parachute blossom out. I felt an impact that seemed to have dismembered me. But then, all was black and free of pain.
The next thing I remembered was an old Belgian peasant woman smearing lard on my face. She was crying softly. I had landed in a clump of trees. The initial jolt of the parachute's opening had torn off both shoes, my .45 automatic, and my helmet that was buckled under my chin. I tried to sit up. Although I gave the command to my back muscles, they would not respond. The paramount fear I had was that my back was broken.
Two men came out with an oxcart. One of the men buried my parachute. The other man and woman loaded me into the little cart. The peasant woman had Herculean strength. I was so tall that my feet dangled out the end of the wagon. That constant jerking and straining on my back was too much for the human body to stand. Once again, nature turned on her safety valve. I blacked out for the second time.
The next morning at 4:30 I awakened. I was lying on some dry hay in what I thought was a barn. I later learned it was a room adjoining the kitchen. Even though it was late April, I was still uncomfortably cold. The farmers had hay piled around my stockinged feet but none over the rest of me. I reached down to pull some hay over my chest. That was a mistake. The catch in my back forced the breath out of my lungs. I lay back down. Shortly thereafter, I had an insatiable desire for a cigarette. I could use my right hand but my left hand was useless. With my right hand I took the cigarettes from my shirt pocket. My matches were in my pants' pocket. The attempt to get to those matches was an ordeal. I put the unsmoked cigarette back in place.
At the advent of dawn the peasant woman came in with a glass of lukewarm milk. She tilted my head to facilitate my p282drinking it. After a violent grunt brought on by the movement of my back, she lay my head back down. Lying with my head level with the floor she proceeded to pour the milk into my mouth. Some went in; a lot of it trickled down my chin and over the corners of my mouth. This was a practice my benefactress kept up for weeks to come. I shall never forget that nauseating odor of a "sour baby" that lingered on my person.
About fifteen minutes later my "Belgian angel" brought in my breakfast. It consisted of salt pork, one egg fried very hard, and an oblong piece of brown bread. The pork was good except for the scarcity of lean meat; the egg, palatable; and the bread, like baked sawdust. I had eaten brown bread in the States before, but it was smooth and even-textured. This Belgian bread was very porous. I could not masticate it thoroughly because it cut my gums and the roof of my mouth. As I look back on my war experience, what a "creampuff" I was at this particular moment. We finished breakfast in silence.
I had in my possession at the time about $35 in Belgian currency; about $50 in German marks; and about $50 in French money. This was part of my "escape kit" so thoughtfully provided by Uncle Sam. The medical portion of the escape kit had a vial of morphine, a chocolate bar, needle, thread, compass, and buttons. The escape kit was made up for the express purpose of facilitating a "grounded-eagle's' escape from occupied territory. In my shirt pocket were three pictures (regulation passport pictures) of myself dressed in French garb. I remember that I went without a haircut for six weeks and a shave for two days before the pictures were taken. I had on a rumpled shirt and a civilian coat. The Intelligence Officer made it quite clear to us that these photographs were supposed to approximate a nondescript French peasant.
I gave all the money I had to the Belgian woman. She took it without comment — almost as if she were expecting it. At eleven o'clock that morning the local doctor called on me. He examined my back with his hands. In broken English he told me that my back was not broken but he thought I must have torn the floating ribs loose from the spine. He p283told me to lie very sit. For the next four weeks I followed his orders explicitly. I do not believe that I moved an eyelash. Of course, the is an exaggeration. There were a few times I had to move. For example: late that afternoon I had to prepare for my toilet needs. I knew that this little operation was going to be delicate under the best conditions, but I did not realize it would be as difficult as it turned out. I called the Belgian frauº and explained my needs as best I could. She left and immediately came back with a large enamel pot. I saw one of those things at a rural hotel at Mena, Arkansas. Those people called it a "slop jar." I was looking for a bed pan. She unloosened my belt, unzipped my pants and shorts, and pulled them down to my knees. While lying there, thinking about my status as a man being violated, the husky farm woman grabbed me in the small of the back and tried to lift me up on that receptacle which, in the States, is a "slop jar." The pain was unendurable. I could feel the warm tears flowing down my cheeks; my eyes seemed to focus independently of each other. I grabbed the vial of morphine and pushed the hypodermic needle through part of my shirt tail that cover the fleshy part of my thigh.
After what seemed like hours, that wonderful drug took effect. Every moment the pain lessened; the jerky breathing became more smooth; I started to breathe through my nose again.
My toilet needs were still unsatisfied. I had been about 32 hours and there are physical limitations as to how much the colon will hold. I could feel the warm waste product make its gradual descent but there was no muscle I could command to halt its downward journey. I did not care; I was free of pain.
From that unfortunate experience on, the Belgian woman improvised a bed pan — it was a wooden mixing bowl. This served the purpose admirably.
For the next three weeks I lay very quietly. The only person that ever saw me was my Belgian farm woman, and even she did not come in unless it was absolutely necessary. I was feeling much better. I could lie on my side and bend my knees now. Of course, I was a miserable piece of humanity. I had not shaved, nor bathed, nor washed my teeth in p284over three weeks. The peasant woman did not use toilet tissue. But the most disconcerting thing about my predicament was that putrid smell of sour milk that I carried with me. Late that afternoon, the farm woman came in with a long straight-razor and a broken mirror. I looked at myself. What I had not known was the flash oxygen-burn I had on my face. That must have been the reason my "Belgian angel" was smearing lard on my face when I waked up from the parachute jump. Thank Heavens! It was a minor burn; the skin had already started to peel off. It took me a half-hour to manipulate that straight razor, but eventually I managed a shave. My teeth were still unbrushed.
On the 24th day, about 10 o'clock at night, I had two male visitors. They were the same two men who had brought me here. I was told to dress in some old clothes they had with them: hob-nail shoes (I was hoping for some sabots: it is so much more adventurous than hob-nail shoes), a patched coat, corduroy britches, and a cap. My long-legged underwear took the place of a shirt. They told me we were going to France. I asked my good Samaritan her name and address but she refused rather emphatically. I did this to repay her when the water was over. I later found out that if I were caught, the Gestapo might force me to tell of her helping me. If I did not know, I could not possibly tell.
For the next three successive nights we travelled by oxcart. In the daytime we would put up in barns. They always managed to get me to a house before it got light and leave after it was dark. I never knew where I had been.
On the third night out, my friends turned me over to the French underground. My passport pictures were inspected; my Air Force chronometer, ring, and St. Christopher medallion were taken from me; I was given a clean shave and loaded into the front seat of a vegetable truck all in the course of a half-hour.
As far as I could tell, we travelled the main thoroughfares. By four o'clock that afternoon, we were in the outskirts of Paris.
I stayed in Paris for three days. The French underground explained that American "flying planes" would land on the outskirts of Paris and take me back to England. I p285knew this to be false. The 8th Air Force just does not send scarce fighting planes into occupied territory to pick up 1st lieutenants. Nevertheless, I waited.
On the third day, the middle-aged woman with whom I was staying prepared a formal dinner for me and two English sergeants who had just arrived. Everyone laughed when I asked for milk instead of wine. It is not that I was prude. On the contrary, I like good liquor but I detest wine. The rest of the meal still had its claws on, and its limp head curled on the plate. My housekeeper cut off the chicken's head and started sucking it. That slurping noise she made when the chicken's eyes were approached came near to making me regurgitate. Fortunately, I did not.
At 10:20 that night the two English gunners and myself boarded a train for South France. We were told that we were going to cross the Pyrenees into Spain.
At 12:15 the following day our train stopped at . Instead of the usual French police checking passports, there were German soldiers, immaculately dressed in solid black uniforms and highly polished boots. I later found out these uniformed-guards were the Gestapo. I knew my escape was foiled.
When I was called to the table, the corporal in charge asked me some questions. I did not know what the question was, or whether it phrased in French or German. He started to shout when I did not answer. In desperation, I told him in English that I did not understand him. With a sardonic expression on his face, the corporal replied, "Ah! An American."
I was hustled off to Gestapo headquarters. Instead of being locked up, I was taken into the captain's office for immediate interrogation. Up to now, my association with the Gestapo had been surprisingly pleasant. I was unpleasantly surprised by the captain's bearing: He was a young man, probably thirty-five; immaculately dressed; clean finger nails, cropped hair, and very erect. The most sinister thing about him was the skull and crossbones between his eyes. I later found out that the skull and cross-bones was the p286official insignia of the Gestapo.
The captain asked me what I was doing in France. I told him briefly and showed him my precious identification tags (dog tags). He was not satisfied. He wanted to know my squadron, group, field, type of aircraft I was flying, what type bombsight, etc. I explained to him that under the international rules of war, I was supposed to give my name, rank, and serial number. He picked up a pair of leather gauntlets lying on his desk and hit me a back-hand blow across the mouth. It split my lower lip in the middle, but did not do any serious damage except that it broke a front tooth off. With unexpected calm, he said: "Do you think for one minute that I would be treating you this way if I thought you were an American officer."
For the next fifteen minutes he talked to his assistant in German. No questions were referred to me. I tried to stop my lip bleeding, and to pick out the crumbles of tooth left in my mouth.
The corporal came over, took me by the arm, and escorted me to the stockade.
The stockade was a madhouse. My first misgiving was the total lack of military prisoners-of‑war. All the people interned in the stockade were political prisoners. When the guard led me through the gate, he deserted me. I did not know what to do or where to go, and I just stood there. One woman was nursing a small baby. Another woman was squatting down near a small fire. Others were gathered in small groups. For the first time, the seriousness of my predicament dawned upon me. I did not belong here. I was an American officer, and as such, had a military right not to be subjected to this squalor. That was, of course, if the Gestapo looked upon me as a legitimate prisoner-of‑war instead of a spy. For about two hours I wandered around the camp. It was a huge affair, devoid of organization or symmetry. The other inmates were eating, but I was not offered anything to eat. I did without lunch that day. I tried to start a conversation, but the people either did not want to talk or did not want to understand me. I was alone among the close quarters of a thousand people.
p287 Late that afternoon I was approached by a uniformed corporal. I was to be shipped to the St. Gilles Prison in Brussels, Belgium, the following morning. He took me to an individual room in what seemed like a commissary. There was no bed, nor water, nor food; only a straw paliasse on the floor. In five minutes, the corporal came back with a half-loaf of French bread and a cake of some foul-smelling cheese. In addition, he gave me three cigarettes — that was the gesture I had been waiting for ". . . a prisoner-of‑war shall receive three cigarettes per day . . ." I ate the bread and cheese in silence; I lay down on the paliasse; I smoked a cigarette. The first big hurdle was over. From now on I would be accorded the rights of an American officer taken captive; or so I thought at the time.
The following day around noon I was put on a train for Belgium. I had two soldiers, privates of the Luftwaffe, guarding me. When we arrived at the station the guards did a superfluous thing. I was handcuffed to each of them. I thought this act was for the benefit of the French, but those handcuffs stayed on until 52 hours later when we reached St. Gilles prison in Brussels. The trip was uneventful. The guards did not talk and neither did I. On the second day out I asked them for a cigarette and they both laughed. It seemed that cigarettes were a luxury and such a lowly person as myself asking for one was ridiculous. What happened was, however, the Gestapo had given my quota of cigarettes to the guards. The guards forgot to give them to me. I waited for them to throw a butt down but they always put them back into their pocket. I surely did want a cigarette.
I stayed in Brussels for two nights. My cellmates were two old men, deeply religious. One of them kept gazing at the ceiling in a prayer-like coma. After a very short time, this began to get on my nerves. I felt that a religious fanatic was just as an abnormal personality as was Hitler or Goering.
At one o'clock the following morning I was awakened by the guard. He had with him two days ration of black bread and some blood sausage. He thrust them at me and in a low, guttural voice said, "Rouse! Rouse! You go to Berlin to be executed."
p288 Since I slept with my clothes on, it was no problem to dress. I put the black bread in my coat pocket. The blood sausage, instead of being firm and compact like bologna, was mushy. Nevertheless, I carried the lifeless mass with me. An underlying fear gripped me. What did the guard mean by my "being executed"? After all, no one knew that I was captured. The Germans could very easily put me before a firing squad and the American Army would be none the wiser.
Mechanically I walked to the truck in front of the prison. I started to get in the cab, but was rudely grabbed by the scruff of the neck and hustled to the rear of the truck. Unconsciously both fists doubled‑up. The guard, seeing this, turned his rifle around to the butt-end. Before I know what was happening, I felt a thud behind my right ear. My knees crumpled burning me but the guard did not let me hit the ground. The blow did not knock me out, but I was left in an indecisive, groggy state. My head was pulsating with intermittent pain and relief. Oddly enough, I was not angry. I had learned my lesson and the price was not unreasonable. It still hurt my ego, however, to be hit by these "krauts."
At the train, a young private of twenty-five took over. He was in the Luftwaffe but was not a flying soldier. The private held me in some esteem because I was a flier. It seemed there was an esprit-de‑corps among fliers of all nations. He took my food ration (such as it was) and put it in his knapsack. From then on, we ate together. He had identical rations. At every meal he would give me a cigarette. He did not smoke with me. The first day I thought he was a non-smoker, but later learned it was because he had no cigarettes. From then on we both smoked my three cigarettes. Mine was solely an ulterior motive. I wanted the protection this young German could offer me. It paid off.
On the fourth day out we arrived at Berlin. An air raid was in progress. I was taken to an air-raid shelter with everyone else on the train. The shelter was my idea of hell personified. Little kids were crying loudly; old women, softly. Everyone was shoving and pushing and ill-sorted. I was left at the very entrance. Momentarily, I thought this rather odd, but very soon the logic behind it caught up with me. p289An came up to me with an up-raised umbrella. With all the force his feeble limbs could muster, he hit me across the head with his improvised weapon. It did not hurt particularly, but it was humiliating. I turned to look at him but saw the claw-like fingers of an attractive woman coming toward my face. Her painted lips were snarled like an angry dog. My guard shoved her away. Frustrated in her first attempt, the young woman gurgled low in her throat, unloosened the phlegm therein, and spat full force in my face. The heavy, gelatinous spit stuck to my face in a ball.
I was terrified. These people were mad. Everything seemed to close in on me. The Luftwaffe guard backed me into a corner and pulled his carbine up to firing position. The ironic thing about the situation was that the gun was pointed against his own people. He was protecting me against that angry mob. Presently, two more uniformed Germans came to our rescue. The mob was held at bay while the guard took me out on the streets, into the falling bombs.
The street was calm and quiet with the exception of the sirens wailing. The German guard was noticeably upset, as if to to me for the animal behavior of his people. We walked back to our stranded train.
The train stayed in the marshalling yards for five more days. The British had bombed out some track in the near vicinity and we were waiting for repairs. The guard took me over to a small restaurant. We went around to the back door. The entrepreneur brought us some barley soup. It was hot and humid. It might be good with some cream and sugar, but as the Germans say, these commodities were verboten. The barley tasted like granulated oatmeal, sans salt, sugar, and cream. This was our lunch meal only. Our breakfast and dinner consisted of one piece of black bread and one ounce of hog lard. As hungry as I was, and as nutritional I know the lard to be, it would not go down. The guard ate it with gusto. One night we had an added treat. The restaurant gave us two small fish, head, fins, et al. These looked like sardines. They were not cooked; they were not pickled; they were raw. The guard, like our college boys who eat goldfish, picked it up by the tail and let it "ooze" down. I could feel the hair-like fins strike my p290esophagus.
Five days after we arrived in Berlin, we departed. I was not executed. Johann, the Luftwaffe private, informed me I was going to Frankfurt to be interrogated. For the next four days of our funereal route, I ate bread and lard, no barley. At one station, the stationmaster gave us a synthetic apple-jelly sandwich.
We arrived in Frankfurt. Johann gave my papers to the stationmaster. Very stiffly he said "Auf Wiedersehen,"º and was gone. My new guard marched me •eleven miles to the interrogation center. I got awfully weak before we reached our destination.
Upon arrival at the massive, barbed wire enclosure, I was searched for contraband and then de-loused. The hair was shaved from my arm pits, pubic region, and abdomen with a pair of hand clippers. A white-powdered insecticide was sprayed on me from top to foot.
Immediately after, the guards took me, to borrow their terminology, to the "cooler." That word was a misnomer. It was really a heat room. The temperature was held at even 100°F. and the humidity was very low. I was handed a long questionnaire phrased in English. Handing me the paper, he politely said, "When that questionnaire is completed, you shall be free to go to your American encampment. In the meantime, you shall not be fed, nor have the heat extinguished until you do."
I stayed in the "cooler" for two days facing that questionnaire. I could not answer the revealing questions it asked for. The paradoxical thing about this means of obtaining information was it was cloaked under the name of the Red Cross. For example: The Red Cross, in notifying my mother of my status as a prisoner-of‑war, needed to know what type of aircraft I was flying, how many we had in our group, where that group was located, etc. I had made up my mind not to give this information to the Germans; however, I had only gone two days without food. If it came to the acid test of my starving or answering that questionnaire — I wondered.
The second night an oberlieutenant came to my cell. In very fluent English he asked if I had completed the p291form. In a low, pleading voice, I mumbled, "Surely, lieutenant, you can't expect us to answer that?" To my surprise, he chuckled.
"Will you write the information down if I tell it to you, Lt. Sands?"
"Naturally," I said.
"Very well. You are 1st Lt. John E. Sands. Your army serial number, O‑678470. You were stationed with the 471 Bomb Squadron, 379th Air Group, Wendling, England. You were shot down in a B‑24 over Hamm, Germany, April 22, 1944. Your technical training was taken at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas, and at Davis-Monthan Field, Tucson, Arizona."
I quit writing and looked in astonishment at the Intelligence Officer before me. How did he ever find out? I handed him his pencil after putting down my name, rank, and serial number.
"I'm sorry, lieutenant, I can't even verify your findings. I have written my name, rank, and serial number. Under the international rules of war, Geneva Conference of 1927, that is the only information I am obligated to give."
Again he chuckled and replied, "Very well, Mr. Sands." Before departing he told me that I was to be his guest at the Officers Club that night. He implied, or either I inferred, that this kind of loyalty was an exception among our American fliers. I know this to be false. I was strongly convinced that not a single commissioned officer that ever came through this interrogation center had imparted vital information and as far as my being his guest at the Officers Club, I know they would try to fill me with cognac, bait me with German prostitutes, and pump me for information. They did.
The Luftwaffe Club was a massive, elaborate affair. I must have made a most picture in my hob-nailed shoes, battered coat, and ill-kempt appearance in that room of immaculate German officers: I stood as erect as my mending back would permit and walked abreast of the oberlieutenant, not one step behind.
As was expected, the first stop was at the bar. My host ordered two shots of straight cognac. I declined, knowing p292full well what liquor would do to my thoroughly empty stomach in addition to my emaciated condition. The oberlieutenant tried to be friendly in his gentle persuasion but you could sense he was highly irritated. That having failed, my host introduced me to one of his girl friends. She was attractive, but my urge was to satiate those hunger pangs. I did get the remnants of a pack of cigarettes off the woman. In disgust, the oberlieutenant beckoned a sergeant to return me to the stockade. I never saw him again.
It was 9:15 when I got back to my cell. "Damn his soul," I thought, "I am still hungry." The cigarettes did a little in alleviating my hunger but they made me dizzy.
The next morning around four o'clock I was put on a train; this time, it was a boxcar. When thirty or forty men besides myself were crammed into that small boxcar, I grew apprehensive. More and more men, mostly Europeans, were piled in — 67 men in a small car designatedº to house 40 men. There was no place to sit down. The body stench of these foreign soldiers was repulsive. We were let out one time every twenty-four hours for our ration of black bread and cheese. This lasted for six days. I reached my destination: Lindbirgh, Estonia.a
At the station a pudgy German major was calling for a Lt. Sands. I identified myself. "You are to march these men to the barracks. You are the only officer present. My corporal will show you where to go." My God, what a task. Sixty-seven men of probably sixty-seven different nationalities and I was supposed to drill them. I yelled very loudly "Attention." I could see three British sergeants respond. The other sixty-four probably wondered what I was shouting about. In about fifteen minutes, with the help of my British sergeants, I had them lined up in the direction they were supposed to go. I commanded, "Forward, March." Evidently they understood the command to march because they all followed me. Everything was running smoothly for about the first fifty steps and then we had to go around a building. I commanded, 'Left Column, March." Those men marched in every conceivable direction. Everything was confusion. The German major came up, puffing, swearing, and red in the face. "You an American Officer?" p293"Bah!" That was the shortest tour of duty I have ever held as squadron commander. I was relieved of my command by a German private.
After the bulgy German commandant cooled off, he looked me up again, "Lt. Sands," he drawled in a guttural fashion, "you are the senior officer in this camp. You will distribute the food supplies, check the every morning and night, and act as my liaison officer." I snapped to attention and gave him a rigid salute. He did not even condescend to acknowledge it. I did not like this arrogant man.
Late that afternoon, the German commandant brought 18 Red Cross food parcels to distribute. I had 288 prisoners-of‑war, of every creed and nationality. That meant each man was entitled to 1/16 of a Red Cross parcel. Trying to make those hungry PW's understand that a can of Spam and a sack of rice was supposed to be split sixteen ways was a Herculean task. I lined the men up in groups of sixteen. I gave one parcel for every group. No sooner had I given the first group their parcel than the leader grabbed the entire box and started in a dead run for his barracks. One of his group caught him, and sixteen men, teeth bared and arms swinging, started a rough and tumble fight. I saw one Russian PW grab a bar of soap and start to run. While this fracas was going on, the other fifteen groups behind me broke ranks and started for the central food supply. I could see them stare at me, eyes like those of a famished beast centered on American Red Cross parcels. I could not stop the oncoming men. The English sergeants and I looked on. Men were cursing and fighting and scrambling for precious food. I left those "maddogs" and walked back to my room.
A week later, more Red Cross parcels arrived. This time, there were sixteen parcels, meaning one parcel for eighteen men. I had learned my lesson the previous week. I lined up my English friends and we personally divided every parcel. We cooked the rice; cut a 4 ounce can of Spam into 18 parts; gave each man 5 cigarettes; and 2 blocksº (approximately an inch square of 1/18 of an inch thick) to every man. We ran into difficulty when we tried to p294divide a can of pork and beans 18 ways. We did it however.
On the 17th day at roll call, three PW's were missing. That imbecilic major asked me where they were, as if I knew. He told me in no uncertain terms that our Red Cross food parcels would be held up until I accounted for them. Needless to state, we did not receive any more food parcels. I stayed in Estonia five weeks — I had 2/17 of one food parcel. Our diet consisted of 1/10 of a loaf of bread per day and one bowl of barley soup at the lunch hour. I was getting hungry and undernourished. The insatiable desire for food itself was intense, but the thought of having my resistance to disease lowered because of the lack of food and being exposed to heaven-knows-what from these semi-barbarians under my command, was sickening.
In the summer of 1944, the Russian Army started its advance to the West. Evidently the German command foresaw this, because the PW commandant told me to get my men in readiness to move. I got the 288 men assembled but as far as putting over the point that we were going to move, that was a failure. They stood around like dumb cattle la day long waiting for orders from me to dismiss them. I was waiting for orders myself. In desperation, I went to the commandant's office. No one was there. The trip was fruitful, however, because I saw at least fifty Red Cross food parcels stacked in the corner. I opened two parcels and took all the soap and cigarettes and ascorbic acid tablets I could find. These items were easy to conceal and invaluable when it came to bartering with the natives. All told, I had ten packs of American cigarettes and four bars of soap.
Around nine o'clock that night we got orders to march. We marched 27 kilometers the first night. My back was hurting so that I had to step with my left foot and drag the right foot up even with it. The German major noticed this and let me ride the provision wagon at the end of the column.
The trip from Lindbirgh, Estonia, to Sagan, Germany,º took us seventeen days. It was the happiest days I spent as a prisoner-of‑war. My first job was to make friends p295with the wagon driver. I gave him a pack of cigarettes and a bar of soap. He literally gushed with gratitude. At every hamlet we would stop and barter for cheese and meat. I got a scrawny chicken for ¼ bar of soap. My terms were inflexible; one cigarette for one loaf of bread; two cigarettes for three eggs; one cigarette for a pint of milk; and one ounce of soap for a chicken.
The wagon driver and I ate like kings. Sitting beside him on the wagon seat, I learned the essential German words for bartering purposes. Every night we would catch up with the marching column and distribute the rations for the following day — 1/10 of a loaf of bread and one ounce of cheese. I was having so much good fortune in trading with the natives that I gave each of the British sergeants a pack of cigarettes.
On the 17th day out, I was deposited at the entrance to a giant barbed wire stockade. The first person I met was an American colonel. This was a relief to have someone else in charge. I later learned that this stockade was Stalag Luft III, the central camp for American and British flying officers.
The camp was well organized. I got a bath of two minutes duration every week. I ate in a combine of eight men, all Americans. I read books, I played softball and bridge, and even got to see a motion picture once a month. The only disconcerting factor in this camp was the lack of food. Red Cross parcels came through, but were not regular.
For three months I stayed at Sagan. I developed and nurtured a close friendship for the other Americans in my combine. We shared everything equally and divided every task equally. We amused ourselves by elaborating on our lives and ambitions. This combine was a continuous source of satisfaction.
On December 27, 1944, we were marched out of camp for an unknown destination. It was bitterly cold and the snow was knee deep. That first night out was chaotic. About 25 kilometers from camp, indecision came over the German guards. A few rifle shots were heard in the distance. Americans, as well as Germans, thought the Russian Army was intercepting us. The German guards started to strafe indiscriminately. p296All the Americans plunged in the snow. The ones who hit ground first were the least likely to be hit, and I managed to be first. My companions landed on top of me. One in particular was lying across my legs. I had a funny sensation, as if a rabbit were kicking my legs with his hind feet. I turned around to look. The man's heart was beating like a trip-hammer, so hard that I could feel it. His head was bleeding profusely where the German guard had clubbed him. The red blood oozing onto the white snow was an eerie picture to behold. I lay flat in the snow for fifteen or twenty minutes. My coat and face were frozen to the ground. With difficulty, I jerked loose my coat sleeves and pants. When I tried to disengage my face, I tore the skin off my nose and lips. However, I did not know this till four days later.
All night long we marched. My back was beginning to ache, but I dare not slacken up my movements. The Germans had told us they would shoot the first man who broke ranks. The next morning we were still marching. All that day we marched and marched. The following night, we came to a little hamlet. The German civilians were standing on the street corners giving us cups of hot water. Instead of bedding down for the night as we thought, the German commandant informed us that this was a forced march. All that night we marched and marched. The next day we passed through a small village. Two hundred of the men were quartered in a church but the rest of us still marched.
After marching for sixty-one consecutive hours, I was literally out of my mind. I could look out into the forest and see huge beautiful buildings with cozy fires; I saw a baseball game; I heard a symphonic concert, and numerous other visual images I cannot recapture. My unconscious mind told me to sleep but my conscious mind commanded me to keep walking. When we had marched for sixty-five hours, the Germans quartered us in a potteryworks. It was warm. After that trying ordeal I could not go to sleep. I lay awake in a somnambulistic state.
We rested for ten hours and then made another forced march. My back felt like it was on fire. This march only lasted thirty-one hours. My five combine-mates and myself p297were marching together. Off the side of the road we saw a dilapidated barn. It was snowing. Instead of following the main group, we decided to halt there. This was easily done, since there was one guard for every hundred prisoners. It was not the responsibility of the guard to keep up with his prisoners, but rather the responsibility of the prisoners to keep up with their guard.
In this barn, a scrawny horse neighed as we came in. What luck! The six of us grabbed the horse by the legs and threw him down on the ground. Then we piled all over his warm body. I had a choice position. I was housed between his two front legs and the horse's warm breath hit me on the neck. For a while, the horse did not know what the score was. Eventually he resigned himself to the fact that we were doing him a favor, for surely he must have been cold also.
During the coldest days of December and January we marched and marched. The German ration of food was irregular and bartering with the surly Germans in the heart of Nazidom was extremely difficult. For 43 consecutive days we marched. The days were cold and bleak and the nights bitterly cold. I picked up newspaper and cloth off the highway to pad the lining of my overcoat. This offered some protection against the piercing wind, but I was never warm in the intense coldness of that German winter. My toes were frostbitten — ugly and swollen. If I took my shoes off, I could not get them back on again. Altogether, this forced march in the dead of winter claimed many American lives.
On March 2, 1945, we finally arrived in western Germany — . It totally different from our encampment at Stalag Luft III. Here the food became more scarce. The German guards in this town of heated Nazism became more surly. Medicine and clothes were nonexistent. My days were spent in dreaming of good nutritious food and white clean sheets. The bedbugs, lice, and fleas made us partially sick. For diversion, I would pick the white off my .
We stayed in Nuremberg for two weeks. Word came down that General Patton's 3rd Army was on the move and p298the PWs were making another forced march across Germany. On the second day out, I laid up in a barn in the hopes that General Patton's forces would liberate me. This was futile. Patton bypassed the village. I was recaptured •twenty miles away. I stayed in the Russian camp for two weeks. Even to attempt to describe the degradation that prevailed in this camp would be superficial.
I was then attached to an American column of prisoners coming through the town. We were headed toward the Redoubt Area in Austria. Rumor had it that the SS men were going to hold us as hostages. I do not know, nor can I find out, the authenticity of this rumor. This march lasted for two months and two days.
In the summer of 1945, I was liberated by General Patton, near the Austrian boundary.
* Mr. Sands is Assistant Professor of Education at Arkansas State Teachers College. He is a native of south Arkansas. He did his graduate work at Peabody.
a Probably a German name for a place with a different Estonian name, or the author's garble, or both: at any rate I've been unable to find it. If you can identify the place, please drop me a line, of course.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
American History Notes
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 8 Jul 10