My World War II POW Experience - Part 4
Learning the POW Lifestyle
As told by Walter J. Nachtwey
Stalag Luft III with notations of where the cookhouse was, Walter Nachtwey’s barracks, and the “appell” (French word for roll call) area where prisoner counts were taken multiple times a day.
We continue on with Walter J. Nachtwey’s story of when he was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. In Part 4, Walter shares his many memories of living at Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp. At first, the lifestyle was repulsive, but after months of getting used to it, Walter and his fellow captives adjusted and learned to play the hand they were dealt.
We had a system set up in camp – the X, Y, and Z system. If condition X was set, we were supposed to go back to our barracks, shut the blackout shutters, and wait for further instructions. Condition Y was to do the same thing, only get whatever surreptitious equipment you could to be used as weapons. Condition Z was to take as many Goons as you could along with you. You’d probably die, but we were to try to get them too.
The only time we had to use this system was condition X. That was when the British tried to tunnel out. After they had been discovered and about 80 guys had gotten out, the Germans had a “lockdown.” They made all of us go back into the barracks and lock it up tight.
There were rules we had to abide by. One of the rules was that if there was an air raid near the camp, we were to go into the barracks, close the doors and the wooden blackout shutters, even in the daytime, and just stay there.
On Easter Sunday morning of 1944, there was an air raid. There were B-17s flying real low and level. We had always flown up really high – oh maybe 5 miles up - to where you could hardly see the planes. However, at this point in the war, the Germans were not quite as controlling of the air as they had been earlier in the war.
All the guys went into the barracks, except for those in the cookhouse (where they made the hot water). One of the guys left the cookhouse door open, and he crouched down looking up at the planes. One of the guards on the outside of the perimeter could see this GI looking out. He put his gun up on the barbed wire, and “blam” – right through the mouth. This caused quite an uproar. Our Colonel Goodrich called in the German Captain and his Colonel Gladowitz, who was the commandant for the entire camp. Gladowitz came in sweating, mopping his brow, and, oh, he was so sorry.
Our senior Allied officers wanted to see the German who had done the shooting so that they would remember and recognize him later. So they brought him in. He was wearing a black armband. They wore that when the Allies had liquidated their family. So this German that did the shooting lost all of his family due to the war. I suppose in his own mind, he was vindicated a little bit.
Condition X was used only one time when British prisoners tried to tunnel out. That event is known as the “Great Escape” due to the large number of prisoners that made it out of the camp. Of the 76 that escaped, 73 were re-captured, 41 of whom were executed on orders of Adolf Hitler.
Anyway, the guy was breaking the rules – he didn’t have the door shut. Gladowitz didn’t think it was proper that the guy should have been shot – he wasn’t attempting to escape or anything.
I understand that they shot a guy in another compound that went “wire happy,” and tried to climb the barbed wire fence and escape. Inside the 10-foot wire fence that went around the whole camp, they had a danger area that was marked off by a low fence (about 10 feet inside the barbed wire). If you stepped into that area, the guards in the tower could shoot you, without asking any questions. The towers were situated so they could see all around the grounds. They were way up there (I’m not sure how tall they were), and each one had a big searchlight on it. Plus, the guards also used binoculars.
Guys would still try to get out. They tried to clip through the wire at night or even in the daytime. They would have somebody start a fight down at one end of the camp, and all the guards would be watching that; then other guys would try to cut through the fence real quick. They’d get shot at, but I don’t know that anybody was killed doing that.
We had a couple of wounded men in our combine. Vince Bliley had a broken hip and used a crutch. This happened when he dropped out of a tree in which his parachute was hung up.
Jim Quenin had both of his hips broken just below the joints. This was the result of Jim landing on and crashing through a slate rooftop. He hung there in the attic of that house until the people who lived there discovered him. Both of his legs were busted up pretty bad, and the Germans weren’t able to help him. We had to bathe him and bring food to him. I tried to hypnotize him once and told him it didn’t hurt anymore. He said it didn’t, but I think he was just saying that. He couldn’t walk at all; he kind of pulled himself around on his crutches.
Vince eventually got better. However, Jim “Jake” Quenin was one of the few people that I knew of that was repatriated and sent back to the States through the Red Cross in Switzerland in exchange for a German prisoner.
Jake was a second lieutenant like me and we had gone all the way through training together. He was a co-pilot, Bliley was the navigator, and their pilot was First Lieutenant K. L. Brown. They were all on the same crew, and they were shot down on the same raid I was. They were in a different flying group, but that’s the way guys got together.
I made good friends with all of these fellas, because we thought alike, and we “cottoned” to one another. You spend every day, day in and day out, with the same bunch of guys; you get to know each other pretty well. We’ve been friends ever since.
A poem by a camp resident encapsulates the experience of everyone there.
There were two Jewish boys in our combine also. Both of their names were Joe - Joe Brooks and Joe Rose. They used to kid each other about their “Jewishness.” I suppose it was typical for them – I think their families knew each other.
And there was “Shorty” Schreffler (the fellow I talked to who told me that the townspeople wanted to hang us from the lamppost). There was Sid Mortenson. He was sort of a dandy, kind of a skinny guy from North Dakota. There was T. B. Kelly from Chicago, and Artie Bellmyer – a New Yorker, with a typical New York accent. We all got along together real well.
Mortenson was the cook for our outfit. With the little bit he had to work with, he could concoct some pretty good stuff. It was tasty to us. Of course, anything was tasty to us then. We constantly thought about food, and constantly got very little of it. We lost quite a lot of weight. Some of the guys in other combines couldn’t take it at all, and one guy sort of went nuts because of dwelling on food all the time. We used to talk together about the stuff we would have when we got liberated – if we ever got liberated.
This was in the middle of the war, and the end was not yet in sight. That was one of the worst things that I can think of – we didn’t know what was going to happen from one moment to the next. We didn’t know the political German mind. We were semi-aware of what was going on in those death camps – although they didn’t call them death camps at the time. We heard about them from a couple of guys who’d been there by mistake.
Apparently, the Gestapo and the SS had picked up some American fliers, but didn’t know who they were. They were taken to one of the death camps – I think it was Dachau. They were there for a couple of months, until they were found to be Air Force. There were about a dozen of them, and these guys had seen what happens in the death camps.
The other people at that camp were mostly political prisoners of all nationalities. As far as being only all Jewish – that was baloney. These guys said that only about half of the prisoners were Jewish. The others were a mixture of whatever denomination, and anybody who was against Nazism. Most thinking people were, but they were afraid to let the ruling people know about it. We didn’t know how many people were there, but we knew there were quite a few. These guys told us what had been done to them during the short period of time they were there. And you could tell just by looking at them that they and been “put upon” by whomever had them captive.
According to Nachtwey, some U.S. Army Air Corps prisoners ended up in Dachau concentration camp for a couple of months before the German air force claimed them for its own camp system and they were settled at Stalag Luft III.
In the camp itself, we lived from day to day, or hour to hour. We had to be counted – it was called “appell.” Three times a day we went out to a big cleared area that was like a football field without the football equipment. We’d line up in sort of a box formation. There was a German who would walk in front of us, and a man who would walk behind our column of troops, and they would count in German, “Ein, Zwei...” and they would say how many they had counted.
Usually in our block, it was 70 and some. They then would report to a German sergeant who would take the total count, add it up, and then go over to where our senior officer and the German senior officer were, to take the report for the whole compound. If it matched, we were Okay. (This had to include people who had gone to the hospital. Nobody wanted to go to the hospital because if they didn’t come back, we were just told they died of pneumonia - I don’t think they really had pneumonia.)
After appell, we’d go back in and the guys would go get hot water and maybe we’d have “a spot of tea.” Then we‘d take some of this German bread and cut it in real thin slices. The inside of it wasn’t quite done – it was sort of soggy. We’d let it sit awhile until it would harden, and that was our “Melba toast.” So we’d have Melba toast and a spot of tea. This would last us for the morning, until noon, and then we’d have something else - maybe some kohlrabi, I don’t know. Anyway, we managed. We lost a lot of weight.
We’d try to exercise a bit by walking around the compound, which was about as big as two city blocks, maybe a little bigger. That was our compound. There were five compounds in the camp, and each one held about 1,500 or 2,000 men. You were only allowed to move around in your own compound though.
Each was separated from the others by a double barbed wire 10-foot-high fence with Goon towers. In about the length of one block, there were three guard towers all the way around. Each compound had the guard towers around it. They had a lot of guards.
These guards were not the first line troops – not the fighting men. Those were either on the eastern or western front. These were older men (probably farmers) maybe from Upper Silesia, or somewhere. Or perhaps they were people recovering from battle fatigue, or wounds, but still ambulatory – a lot of old guys. We’d get to know them pretty well.
Drawing of tunnel “Harry,” which was one of several dug from inside Stalag Luft III. Courtesy Smashinglists.com
In the camp itself, we had what we called “ferrets.” They were unarmed guards that would walk around with a flashlight or some of them would have a small side arm – maybe a pistol. They would walk around inside, mix with the troops, and snoop. That’s why they were called ferrets. They were ferreting out trouble – anything that they might hold against us and report. They looked for tunnels, or for instruments that we weren’t supposed to have but that we would get surreptitiously – like a camera.
How do you get a camera into a place like this, when you’re strip-searched thoroughly when you go in, and everything that is sent to you, or comes in is thoroughly searched? A piece of chocolate, or American cigarettes, or silk stockings, or something like that is irresistible – especially to a guard with kids at home, or a girlfriend. This kind of stuff went on.
They would trade a half loaf of military bread, which we didn’t consider very good, but it was food. We would trade half a loaf of their bread for five of our cigarettes. We had Lucky Strikes, Camels, Chesterfields, and the like. The German cigarettes tasted like I can image would be the scrapings of a horse barn or a cattle barn dried up with hay.
Our coffee was better than theirs was, too. German coffee was made out of chicory and ground acorn shells, and it didn’t taste anything like coffee. We were allowed to drink that, although we got real coffee in the International Red Cross parcels. They’d steal as much or more than we’d get. But what do you do about it? The Red Cross would say that they had sent so many parcels, and that many would not be distributed to the troops. The Germans would say that they would save it in case we didn’t get a shipment in.
British prisoners tend to gardens in Stalag Luft III. Courtesy joedresch.wordpress.com
Well, the rank and file of the Germans didn’t get any of this good stuff – that went to the big shots. This was all done underhanded. The whole system was crooked, of course, because it was so big that they couldn’t keep track of it all. They weren’t abiding by the Geneva Convention in the strict sense of the word. They’d give us enough to keep us going, and that was about it.
On the 4th of July we would save up and have what we called a “bash” – celebration. Of course, the British took a dim view of celebrating the 4th of July and the Germans, they couldn’t care less - they didn’t know what it was all about. Everybody, including the British, saved up for Christmas and Thanksgiving. This meant more chow for everyone.
We’d get parcels from the Australian Red Cross, the Canadian Red Cross, or the Free French. They’d have stuff in their parcels that we weren’t used to. For example, the French, I think, gave us a whole bunch of garlic. We didn’t have anything like pepper or salt – our food was real “blah”! Ol’ Mortenson took a whole one of those garlic cloves and mashed it up in our potato soup. MAN! Was that ever good! What a wonderful taste - instead of just plain blah. We should have used it more sparingly though. I imagine walking into our combine – it must have reeked of garlic. But it sure tasted good!
I remember one time they brought in a corpse of a little animal. You couldn’t tell what it was really. There was no head, no tail or feet. It had been skinned. All we saw was just a body and four legs. Nobody wanted to eat it. It was too big to be a rat. I don’t know if it was maybe a cat or a dog. So we volunteered to take it.
Walking along the fence line. An area leading up to the fence is marked by low stakes. Guards were allowed to shoot at prisoners inside this area. Courtesy Imperial War Museum
Mortenson disjointed the thing and put it in a sort of stockpot. We threw in some leftovers (actually, the only leftovers we had were potato peelings that we took from the dumpsite). We didn’t mind eating them after they were boiled – that’s where most of the nutrients are anyway. Beggars can’t be choosy, right?
Anything you could get your hands on, you tried to make use of it. Tin. Nails were at a premium. Little bits of wire. Anything you could possibly use that could be made into something. Like radios – they were real easy to make with two razor blades and a piece of lead from a pencil. That will make what was called “a cat’s whisker.” Kids were making them back in the States. You didn’t even need a battery. You had to have an earphone to hear though. It would cost us a whole pack of cigarettes to get one earphone. We would listen to the BBC.
Cigarettes were in big demand. When they’d get a cigarette, they didn’t just smoke it and flick the butt away. It was smoked right down to where it would hurt your lips. Then they would strip it and save whatever tobacco was left, and put that in a pipe and smoke it down to ashes. They were hungry for real tobacco. I imagine the big wheels in Berlin could get anything they wanted – but not here. That’s just the way it was.
We made our own booze out of the SunMaid raisins and prunes that sometimes came in the Red Cross parcels. We’d save these up, along with Domino sugar cubes. Each barracks had one light to a room. There was a frosted glass globe around the bulb. We would take the globe, which was about a foot in diameter, maybe a little more.
Even the basic necessities of life were visited by hardship in the camps, as evidenced by the rudimentary toilets used by the prisoners. Courtesy fotosmilitares.org
We put the raisins and prunes in the globe, along with the sugar cubes and some water, and then covered it with tarpaper. On the south side of the barracks where the sun would shine, we’d dig a hole in the ground, which was just sand, put the globe in there, and cover it up. The goons didn’t care – they knew what we were doing. They wouldn’t step on it and spoil it for us. After awhile it would start stinking. It would smell like a brewery – we could tell that it was working. So we called it brandy, which was about 18 percent by volume of alcohol.
It didn’t taste very good, but it sure made you feel good. That was our booze. We even set up a little store where a shot of this stuff would cost so many cigarettes or a d-bar so that a guy could take a shot of brandy. He’d buy it from our combine. During the holiday season, this was what made us cheerful, I suppose, or sad, or whatever. You know the way people are. Some of them were cheery; some wanted to fight; some of them were sad thinking about home and stuff like that.