My World War II POW Experience - Part 5
March or Die
As told by Walter J. Nachtwey
In Part 5 of Walter J. Nachtwey’s story of when he was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II, life at the camp was somewhat normal but melancholy. The prisoners put on plays and sang, but holiday songs caused their thoughts to weigh heavily on their families as they were still far away. Then in January of 1945 as the Russian Army closed in, the camp was evacuated, and they were sent on a days-long march where survival was now the only goal.
In winter it would be so cold in bed at night that when I woke up in the morning I wouldn’t be able to feel my legs. I’d pinch them real hard to see if they were there. They worked okay—they’d bend, but I couldn’t feel them. You’d lie in bed in the fetal position with all your clothes on and cover up completely. They issued us two sorts of threadbare blankets.
The rooms were sort of small, and with eight guys who hadn’t washed real well for several months at a time, the smell must have been pretty bad. We didn’t notice each other, but I imagine if somebody came in from the outside, they’d probably notice. Guys would be smoking, and before the lights were out, the room would be filled with cigarette smoke. After lights out, we’d use the lamps we made with butter oil, and they smoked quite profusely.
To keep busy we’d play cards, or lie in our bunks and read. I liked to read, but the bad lighting made my eyes tired. The bunks were three or sometimes four levels high. The only light was in the middle of the room, and the bunks were around it.
In the morning during appel, one of the guards would come in and call out, “Raus! Raus!” He’d bang on the doors and the beds to wake us up. But when he came into our barracks the first time, he said, “Was ist los?” at the noise old Wally was making. He had never heard anything like it! I guess I snored really loud back then, too. The guys never complained about it, but they did mention it a few times.
In the camp there were guys who had an interest in the arts—poets, artists, and thespians. These guys got together, and the Germans let us build a double barracks made with a sloping floor. The guys made chairs out of the Red Cross packing crates that the parcels came in. At one end of the barracks we built a stage with a backdrop and curtain. The International YMCA helped out with a lot of supplies. We had two pianos, piano accordions—some of those guys were masters at playing the accordion—and all different kinds of horns and instruments.
Layout of Stalag Luft III and a typical barracks. Courtesy: Nachtwey family.
There was one guy who had been a professor of music at some university. He came around a couple of months before Christmas asking who wanted to join the Catholic choir, or the glee club. So I joined the choir along with about 15 or 20 other guys.
Our choir leader was really organized. He’d take each group separately. I can still remember the bass section of “Adeste Fideles.” He had us singing four-part harmony. Ninety-nine percent of the guys didn’t know how to read music. So he’d say, “Now this is the way it goes.” Each section had to memorize their portion of the song. Then he’d bring two sections together, and then add another, until he had the whole choir together.
We got to be pretty good at it. We even got so good at it that we put on a show for the Ober command of the Wehrmacht—the big wheels from around the area. All the Prussian types with their fancy suits. They sat in the front row and we were up there in the best we had, which were the GI coats that were issued to us. So we got up and sang Christmas carols for them. We sang the international ones like “O Tannenbaum.” They knew what we were singing.
We were kind of lucky to be in an Air Force camp and to be officers. Our senior Allied officer was a two-star general. He had been out of Washington with the 8th Air Force. He wanted to see how combat was, with regard to gunnery. He got shot down and was taken prisoner. He had been the military attaché to Berlin before the war and knew all the top brass—Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering. He was in our camp, and maybe we got special treatment because of it.
This was supposed to be a “show camp.” It was supposed to be an example for a good camp. If ours was the example of a good camp, I would hate to have seen the bottom-of-the-line camp. I’m sure it wasn’t anything like I imagine the camps over here were for the German prisoners. That’s why all the Germans came to the United States after the war.
On November 20, the Germans issued food parcels that had been shipped to our camp through the International Red Cross. They were special “Christmas” food parcels containing a one-pound can of turkey, canned cranberry sauce, and even plum pudding. The eight men in our combine would have to divide two such parcels for Christmas dinner.
At Christmas of ’44, we still didn’t know when the heck the war was going to end. You could hear guys sniffling in their bunks at night because we all wanted to be home for the holidays. I remember on Christmas Eve that year, lights out, lying in bed, and all of a sudden we heard Christmas hymns. Apparently the guys in the quartet got permission to go around the camp and sing Christmas carols in front of each of the barracks. That was really great, but it made everybody cry.
Royal Air Force prisoners marching down a road as they were relocated westward away from the Soviet advance in January 1945. Courtesy: www.214squadron.org.uk.
Then in January of ’45, for about two days and nights, we had been hearing this rumble that sounded like thunder off in the distance. Our camp was located about 90 kilometers southeast of Berlin. We knew that the Russians had been moving in big steps at that time.
The German papers would say that their troops had made a strategic withdrawal. That was the German propaganda—it meant that they were turning and running. The Russians were on their heels and were bombarding Berlin. That had been the rumbling we heard.
One night we were in the theater watching a play that the thespians were putting on. I think it was one of Shakespeare’s plays. It was sort of professionally done. Our commander, Colonel Goodrich, got up on the stage and said, “Stop the play! I’ve got an announcement. You’ve got 30 minutes to get ready, and we’re all moving out. Be at the main gate at ‘such and such’ a time. What you have with you is what you can take along.” He didn’t know where we were going or what was going to happen to us.
It was January and the weather was freezing cold. There was a foot or two of snow on the ground, and a blizzard was blowing. We wore everything we had, and carried everything we could take. I had made a backpack out of the jacket that Dad had sent. I took the arms off and sewed up the bottom. I took a couple loaves of bread and a bunch of sugar cubes that we had been saving up.
We took mittens, hats, two or three shirts, and a big, heavy GI overcoat—whatever we had. What we didn’t wear, we rolled up in a couple of blankets and carried them across our shoulders like a Boy Scout.
Then they moved us out! There were over 10,000 guys in that camp. All of us got on the road and started walking. Sagan, the nearby town, was a sort of marshalling yard for their railroad, like Chicago. The railroad was alongside the town which had been bombed during the latter part of 1944. There was some sort of train traffic, I guess, but it wasn’t for carrying POWs. We were way on the bottom of the list.
We were in combine “A,” and I guess they moved us out in that order because we broke trail for the rest of the camp. The snow wasn’t heavy, but it was cold. You could keep warmer if you kept moving. In fact, with all the clothes we were wearing, we had to open up our coats at times. It was very windy, and I had made sort of a hood to wear. I don’t remember what I made that out of, but I had sewn it together with some of the threads from a pair of socks. I’m pretty sure that Dad had sent me a pair of chopping mitts, too.
We walked—I don’t know how many miles. The guards didn’t know exactly where we were going, so we just kept on walking. They tuckered out before some of us guys did. They were older men, and they were carrying big packs on their backs. And each carried a rifle. Some of us were big guys, and it got to the point where you’d see some of the prisoners help the guards out by carrying their rifle!
We walked through towns and past farmhouses the better part of the night. There were people heading in the other direction along the road, sometimes in the same path that we were walking. They were mostly old people, usually with horse-drawn carts.
Allied POW column passing through a town in January 1945. Courtesy: www.214squadron.org.uk.
Once in awhile as we were passing a farmhouse, the people would come out and yell something at the guards. The guards would holler back to them. The people were asking what was happening, and the guards would tell them that the Russians were coming. Then you’d see these people come out and throw things onto a cart. Some of them were old women carrying little kids. I don’t think they knew where they were going, just as long as it was away from here.
We put up that first night in sort of a huge collective farm with stalls that were open on the top. It kept us out of the wind. A bunch of guys would get in one of these stalls, hunker down together real close, and just try to keep warm. Your feet would get cold. I had two pairs of socks on, a pair of GI shoes, and a pair of rubber boots over that. I had on my long underwear, two pairs of GI trousers, a big heavy coat over that, and a “Radar O’Reilly” type hat—a knit hat that you could pull down over your ears with a little bill on it. I even had the hood I made, and it was still very cold!
We tried to get some sleep with the snow coming in the top. They let us rest for maybe half an hour, then you’d try to get up and sometimes your joints wouldn’t work until you finally got up and moved around. Then we moved on.
It was one foot ahead of the next! After awhile, it wasn’t walking anymore. It was shuffling. It was a real job just to put one foot ahead of the next. Some of the guys couldn’t—they had to be carried by others. I didn’t carry anybody, and nobody had to carry me. I can’t imagine how anyone could have; I know that I couldn’t. You had a rough enough time just carrying yourself!
If you got thirsty, you could scoop up a little snow and let it melt in your mouth. It didn’t seem to quench your thirst, though.
During the daytime, we would hide wherever we could and try to get some sleep. After dark, we would walk. This was because the 8th Air Force now had control of the skies. In one place, we saw what we called a “black widow,” which was an all-black American airplane. It came down off to one side of the railroad track, going slow and easy, back and forth like he was looking for something. He must have known who we were because he didn’t strafe us. He was probably looking for a transportation center or something that he could blow up.
The next morning, we put into a little town we had apparently gone by before. The Goons didn’t know where we were, so we made a circle and came through the same place again. This time we stayed in a church. It was an empty church; there weren’t any seats or pews. I don’t think it was a Catholic church. It was pretty well wrecked, but not bombed out—it still had a roof over the top.
All of us packed into this church. It was so packed you couldn’t walk through. Guys were lying all over the floor, sitting, or leaning against the walls, every which way. There were so many guys in there that it must have warmed up the place. I went up behind where the altar would have been, and there was a relatively clear spot. We all sort of passed out; we didn’t really sleep. It was such a relief just to stop and rest.
The next night, there was more walking, and we ended up at a factory where they were making glass. In one part of it, there was a big long room with shelves. They held all kinds of stemware and stuff like that. In the center of this building, there was a huge round furnace that must have been 12 feet wide and sort of domed on the top. The top of the dome was red hot! It exuded heat throughout the whole room. Just to get up next to this furnace felt like heaven!
Some of the guys didn’t make it that far. The Goons had a horse-drawn cart, and if a prisoner was so bad he couldn’t go any further, they’d try to make room for him on this cart. Half the cart was full of loaves of the hard military bread. If a prisoner was too weak to get up onto the cart, they’d just leave him there by the side of the road. The rest of us had to keep walking; then we’d hear a gun shot. I sort of assumed that the guy was dead. We didn’t go back to find out.