World War II Airmen remember captivity -- POW series

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Leo Brown
  • 442nd Fighter Wing public affairs
Part IV:  Airmen recount forced march, liberation

Note: This is the conclusion of a four-part series about Airmen in World War II who were captured by the German military.

By January 1945, Adolf Hitler's "Thousand-year Reich" was nearing its end, after lasting just 12 years. As American, British and Canadian troops pushed into western Germany, the Soviet Union's Red Army rolled into eastern Germany, sending a flood of military and civilian refugees scurrying west.

Among those trying to avoid the Communist forces were the Luftwaffe guards at Stalag Luft III, which housed roughly 10,000 Allied Airmen. In late January, as Soviet troops neared the prison camp, the Airmen were told one night by their captors to pack what they could and immediately head west.

"We had four hours to get stuff together and then we started marching," said retired Lt. Col. Fred Frey. "Before the forced march, we had Red Cross parcels stored up in the camp, so the guys loaded themselves down with cans, the crazy fools. They used their pillows to tie it around their necks and all they did was drain their energy. They ended up throwing cans away. I didn't do that. I took what I was going to eat and stayed light.

"We left about 10 or 11 that night," he said. "We were marching in snow almost six inches deep. It was bitterly cold. You wouldn't believe it -- you wouldn't believe it. I'll never forget that damn march."

"We had to sleep where we could," said Colonel Frey, who buddied up on the march with the son of a churchman.

"Little Georgie Ziegler, that little son of a bishop. His father was a bishop in the Episcopalian Church in the Laramie Diocese in Wyoming and I used to call him a son of a bishop.

"The first day (of the march) we wound up in a barn and slept on the floor and in the haylofts. I kept George warm and kept him covered with my body. He was just shivering," recalled Colonel Frey, his eyes watering.

"I don't know how many men we lost," said Charles Woehrle, a first lieutenant at the time. "Some just laid down and froze to death. That was the lowest point of the whole thing."

Colonel Frey said the prisoners marched for three or four days, ending up at the town of Spremburg. From there, they took "40 and eights," boxcars designed for forty men or eight horses, to the town of Moosburg, where Stalag Luft VII-A was located.

"There were 50 or 60 of us in these boxcars," said Hal Halstead, a second lieutenant at the time. "Everyone had dysentery. Everyone was throwing up. It was a very bad ride. You could hear our bombers overhead. We'd be in a certain city, in the train marshalling yards and you could hear them."

The prisoners made their way south toward Moosburg, in southeastern Germany and once they arrived at SL VII-A, they played a waiting game that ended April 29, 1945, one day before Hitler committed suicide in Berlin.

"One day, we were sitting outside and we heard some rumbling," Lieutenant Woehrle said. "We asked the British and some South Africans what was going on. One of them said, 'I think it's a rear-guard action.'

"We could see things moving and they were Sherman tanks covered with sandbags," he said. "Then we saw a big plume of smoke hitting the platz (town square) in Moosburg. We were (on high ground) and we could look right into the village. There was a big flagpole there with the swastika flying. All of a sudden, we noticed that the guard had left the guardhouse.

"Some of the German guards had taken off," said Homer Reynolds, a technical sergeant at the time. "But some wouldn't give up. I have pictures of two or three of them who were killed."

"Then we saw a command car coming in and we saw the swastika coming down, and up went a flag four times bigger and it took the breeze," Lieutenant Woeherle said. "It was the American flag. We were hanging on the fence and we were in tears. A little Scotsman was to my left and he said to me, 'Laddie, I don't want to sound unpatriotic, but that's the bloodiest finest flag I've ever seen,' and tears were running down his cheeks, and then we knew it was over."

The vacuum left by the retreating Germans was quickly filled by American GIs, as Sherman tanks rolled into the prison camp.

"One of the tank drivers had come into the camp and he was from Topeka (Kan.)," Sergeant Reynolds said. "He gave me a v-mail (victory mail) and I made it out to my folks and sent it. I told them I'd be home by my birthday and sure enough I got home by my birthday."

As U.S. troops poured in, one "liberator," bearing stars on his helmet and sporting pearl-handled revolvers, drew a lot of attention.

"In comes a Sherman tank and the hatch opens and someone threw out K-rations. I caught some bread and jam, and shortly after that, in comes General George Patton (the Third Army commander) in his jeep with his helmet and scarf on, his ivory six-shooters on each side. And he was just like a mother hen to us. He was sympathetic and wonderful, and he said, 'We're going to get ready to get you out of here in the next couple of days.'"

Food was such a preoccupation at Moosburg for the prisoners, as it was at SL III, that some Airmen weren't above having a case of "sticky fingers."

"I had the honor of stealing K-rats out of Patton's jeep," said Bill Whitney, a second lieutenant at the time. "He couldn't help but laugh. He just laughed about it and said, 'We've got to get you guys out of here and get you back to some food.' I recall that's what his comment was."

Other Airmen made games out of their slim culinary supplies.

"One time at Moosburg, we decided to have a parcel eating contest," Lieutenant Halstead said. "Two rather heavy chow hounds were pitted against each other. They had to eat a Red Cross parcel in 24 hours, with the exception of the soap and cigarettes, obviously. In that parcel was a pound of powdered milk, a pound of sugar, a pound of margarine, a pound of corned beef and two D-bar chocolate bars.

"They elected to bake them into big, greasy chocolate-chip cookies and one chap almost made it to the end, and his handlers were saying, 'Come on, eat it, eat it, eat it,' and tears were in his eyes and he couldn't swallow it. And we'd watch this like the World Series. It was a big event to us," he said.

Today, the Airmen of Stalag Luft III share these and many other memories every two years at their reunions. Naturally, the veterans' experiences of being shot down, captured and liberated bring up many deep emotions in themselves and they have been left with many indelible memories.

"It's hard to understand the love you have for another kriegie," said veteran Bob Weinberg.

When asked at the reunion in Kansas City in April if he remembered his "kriegie" (prisoner of war) number, veteran Ernie Thorp didn't miss a beat.

"You betcha," he said. "7288. You bet, oh yeah. My social security number? I'd say, 'Gosh, I don't know. I've got to look it up.' But I remember my kriegie number. You betcha. Yes, sir."

Out of their experiences have come a handful of strange friendships. Some veterans said they were able to track down Luftwaffe Major Gustav Simoleit and Oberfeldwebel (Master Sergeant) Hermann Glemnitz, two of their captors at SL III and invited them to attend the veterans' 1965 gathering, marking the 20th anniversary of their liberation.

One of the attendees at the Kansas City reunion was Hanns Scharff, the son of a Luftwaffe interrogator at Dulag Luft. Mister Scharff was welcomed with open arms by the veterans and their families, as was his father, who attended at least one reunion before his death in 1992.

"It was always great for my dad to meet his former prisoners," said Mister Scharff of Los Angeles. "He was a little disparaging to bomber pilots and he called them bus drivers, but he enjoyed meeting all of them."