World War II Airmen remember captivity -- POW series

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Leo Brown
  • 442nd Fighter Wing public affairs
Part III:  Internment -- life at Stalag Luft III and witness to the "Great Escape"

Note: This is part three of four in a series documenting the experiences of American Airmen captured by the German military during World War II.

As the Allied air attacks on Adolf Hitler's "Fortress Europe" increased during World War II, so did the number of Airmen shot down and captured by the Germans. Fliers from the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries poured into Stalag Luft III and other Luftwaffe-run prison camps.

At one point, SL III's population peaked at roughly 10,000 "kriegies." Regardless of their home country, the Airmen found life as prisoners of war to be rife with hunger, health problems, uncertainty and boredom.

"From the interrogation center (Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt, Germany), I wound up in a group of 15 people," said retired Lt. Col. Fred Frey. "We were going through town to the railroad station, to the '40 and eights' (boxcars designed to carry 40 men or eight horses) to go to Stalag Luft III. I remember civilians throwing stones at us and the guards warning them to stop. One flier was hanging dead from his parachute from a telephone pole."

Colonel Frey said he arrived at the camp in eastern Germany via train in late October or early November of 1943, but he wasn't alone.

"I had acquired crabs," he said. "They get under the first layer of skin and it itches like hell. The little buggers look like crabs. I was scratching myself like crazy in the cars. Maybe I got them from the straw crap that was in the (rail) cars.

"I don't know how many of us were in the car, but we couldn't sit down," Colonel Frey said. "We had to take turns sitting so we could get some rest. If you had to go, you went in the corner. The car floors were covered with [excrement] and it took us three days and two nights to go from Frankfurt to Sagan (near Stalag Luft III). You should be able to do the trip in a day, but every time a troop train came through, we were shoved off to the side so the troops could get to the front. We got some bread, but if you kept it more than a day, it turned into cinderblock.

"We had to strip down when we got to Stalag Luft III," he said. "They didn't have any real ointment, so they put kerosene on the crabs. You know what kerosene is on raw skin? My Lord, I almost hit the ceiling. That hurt."

Trying to stay clean and healthy was not an easy chore. The prisoners slept on mattresses filled with wood shavings and sawdust, and they said hunger was a faithful companion.

"We were constantly hungry, particularly after we got put on half parcels," said Hal Halstead, who was a second lieutenant. "It was gnawing and very bad. I can't even describe it. I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

"What little food the Germans gave us, (including our) Red Cross parcels, we stretched out," said Halstead's fellow crew member Jim Gregory, also a second lieutenant.

"Every kriegie got the same amount of food, regardless of height or weight," Lieutenant Halstead said. "You could win one egg, and I won it one time. You could have it all to yourself. I elected to have mine hard boiled and all my fellow kriegies would watch me eat it."

"One of the tortures we'd impose on ourselves was we used to play a game, at least in our barracks, and we'd think up the names of all the candy bars," Lieutenant Gregory said. "Of course, whoever got stuck had to do the dishes. We had Hershey, Baby Ruth. This was torture."

"Many kriegies would make careful lists of recipes and they'd talk with other kriegies about them," Lieutenant Halstead said. "That's all they talked about."

"Such as how to bake a roast," Lieutenant Gregory added.

"It was torture," Lieutenant Halstead said.

"As frightening as some of the experiences were, that feeling of hunger was predominant over fear," Lieutenant Gregory said.

Homer Reynolds, a technical sergeant at the time, said he arrived at Stalag Luft III weighing 135 pounds. By the time he was liberated, he weighed 110 pounds.

"They'd give us one bowl of something at noon time (each day), some barley soup with maggots floating around on top" Sergeant Reynolds said. "You didn't turn any of that stuff down. They had liverwurst, too, once a month. But it was really blood-wurst. By the time they got it to you, it'd all turned back to blood, whatever was in it. We had rutabagas and turnips and cabbage. But you were hungry all the time."

While the Airmen slowly but surely adjusted to life "behind the wire," they were also starved for information about how the war was progressing. They said the German guards and German publications they were allowed showed that Germany was winning the war.

But Charles Woehrle, a first lieutenant, said the prisoners' spirits got a big boost one day when a new captive was spied wearing something unusual.

"One day, in walks a guy with a pair of coveralls we hadn't seen before," he said. "It was a heated (flight) suit. He had the wisdom of tearing off the connections at the ankles so the Germans didn't see them. In there were beautiful copper wires."

Before long, some Airmen came up with a recipe like none other, not for food, but for a radio. Starting with the basic ingredients of ingenuity, patience and determination, they mixed the copper wires with sulfur, silver linings from cigarette packs, resin from trees and other items, and before long, they had a homemade radio, from which they could pick up the British Broadcasting Corporation.

"It was a very involved thing, but it worked and we got the BBC," Lieutenant Woehrle said. "We had to be careful. (The radio) was hidden in an accordion bellows and (the Germans) never found it. It was an odd-looking thing. What I got from the BBC was that we were winning the war."

Although the captured Airmen were prisoners, their incarceration didn't keep them from doing what they could to tie up German forces that could have been employed on front lines.

Several escape attempts were made at SL III, sometimes in ones and twos, and sometimes in larger numbers. The most famous attempt, made on the night of March 24, 1944, became known as the ''Great Escape" and it was hoped that 250 Airmen would make it through a tunnel that went 30 feet down, more than 330 feet out and 30 feet back up.

Seventy-six fliers made their way through the tunnel, code-named "Harry." Seventy-three, however, were recaptured, but three made it to freedom. Of the 73, Hitler ordered that 50 be executed and the others returned to SL III or other camps.

Lieutenant Woehrle had the privilege of knowing some of the men involved with "the great escape."

"(Flight Lieutenant) Henri Picard (of Belgium) was my roommate," Lieutenant Woehrle said. "He was a very fine man. He did a nice caricature of me, which I still have. He got killed. He was quiet. He was so brilliant and so talented. (Flight Lieutenant Arnold) Christensen (of New Zealand) was the other roommate I lost on the 'great escape.'

"I knew (Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant) Tim (Walenn) and I used to watch him work with his identification cards," Lieutenant Woehrle said. "He was absolutely brilliant. He was a mild fellow. He loved birds and he could identify all the birds that came into the camp. In my log books, I have 11 names and addresses of those killed."

Lieutenants Picard, Christensen and Walenn were among the 50 executed.

Colonel Frey said some of the men he knew in his part of the camp also tried escaping, but the German guards, called "ferrets" by the prisoners, sniffed it out.

"They discovered our tunnel," Colonel Frey said. "We'd gone down about 20 feet and they took the 'honey wagons' (holding excrement), and dumped it in the tunnel. They covered it up with dirt and said, 'you won't use that again.' The ferrets are running around all the time. If they see a pattern increasing, they know something's going on."

Despite failed escape attempts, a shortage of food and an uncertain future, the Airmen persisted. As the war continued, the German fronts crumbled and Lieutenant Woehrle said one day in late January 1945 a strange sound was heard in the distance.

"We were hearing 'boom-booms' and we knew the Russians were coming from the east. We were in our (camp) theater and the senior officer came in and said, 'I just got word from the (German) kommandant that we're to be out of here in one half of an hour. Go get your stuff!'"

Within a short time, thousands of prisoners and their guards were tramping west through the nighttime cold, the ground covered with snow and slush. They were "free" of SL III, but they were still prisoners and they weren't sure where they were going or what the next day would bring.

The Airmen were marched and rode by train to Stalag VII-A in Moosberg, in southeast Germany. Their stories of their journey to SL VII-A and their liberation there in April of 1945 will be told in part four.