My World War II POW Experience - Part 6
As told by Walter J. Nachtwey
One of the camps American POWs went to after evacuating Stalag Luft III, but before being handed over to Allied forces, was Moosburg - a location so filthy and overcrowded that disease became rampant. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
We conclude the story of Walter J. Nachtwey’s experience as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II. The long march from Stalag Luft III ended at a larger camp with prisoners from many nations. Months later, liberation came quietly at first, then dramatically as none other than General George S. Patton crashed through the gate with a tank. Adjustment to freedom was another story—from real food to the reception at home which was surprising.
Finally, we were marched into what must have been a training area for the Luftwaffe. There were big buildings with windows. German soldiers were leaning out the windows, waving at us. The whole column of prisoners, probably 10,000 men, came into what they must have used as a parade ground. They moved us around in ever-decreasing circles until we were all in this parade area.
From there they took some of us aboard a train. I was in that group. They moved us down to Moosburg, which was near Frankfurt. I don’t know where they took the other guys, but eventually, after several months, most of them also came to Moosburg.
Moosburg was a huge prison camp in Bavaria. Even before we arrived, it had already been an older camp and had held all kinds of prisoners from everywhere. There were some guys there from countries I had never even heard of. There were rag heads from the Middle East, Australians, Scotsmen, Americans, Canadians, and in one area, there were Russian political prisoners. This is where we stayed for almost half a year.
Shortly prior to liberation, from February to April 1945, 100,000 POWs marched in various locations across Europe. The march was part of Germany’s effort to avoid the liberating armies of Russia and the United States, which stormed prisoner camps and seized Nazi captives all over the Eastern Front. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
This camp was one of the most putrid places I have ever seen. There were so many guys, a good portion of which had dysentery or pneumonia. The latrines were already full. They didn’t have any system to move it away or pump it out.
They didn’t have any trains to bring in food. Where would they get food? The only place that had it would be Switzerland, and even those trains wouldn’t be able to get through unless they were sure it was safe. The Germans, against the Geneva Convention rules, would have a train of boxcars or flatcars with a Red Cross painted on it, and when our planes would fly over, they’d open them up and there would be guns inside. That was playing dirty.
Lieutenant General Gottlob Berger, member of the SS, or Nazi police, placed in charge of all German POWs from 1944 to 1945. Berger did little to prevent the deaths of several million Russian prisoners, but he worked hard to shield Western prisoners from the excessive cruelty. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
At one point, the SS came into our camp to the barracks full of German guards. A bunch of guards had already gone by then. The SS wanted the guards of our camp to help fight the oncoming American “devils.” But our guards were old farmers who knew that the war was soon over for them. They only wanted to go back to their farms in Upper Silesia, but these SS types were fanatics. So they started throwing German grenades into the barracks where their own troops were. They had a little battle going among themselves. After that, the SS left and we didn’t see them again.
After quite some time, the first Americans, sort of an advanced guard, came in through the opened gates of the camp. They had military Jeeps with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on them. They looked tougher than hell, with hand grenades hanging on them saying, “Where are the Germans?” Any Germans that were left were either dead or were now prisoners.
Looking out a window at camp after the liberation. Notice the shell hole in the opposite barracks from an American tank. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
Then, in April or May of ’45, the American tank troops were coming from one direction, and the Russians were coming from the other way. In the southern part of the town the two sides met in a pincer movement. All the Germans surrendered—the war was over for them now. Patton’s tank smashed right through the gate of Moosburg camp. He was sitting on top of one of his tanks.
It was similar to when MacArthur came walking through the waves in the Pacific. He had to do it a couple of times for the cameras. Patton had pearl-handled .45s, cowboy-type pistols instead of the GI automatics, and a chrome-plated helmet instead of the olive-drab ones. The tank was at once inundated with POWs all over it, sitting on top of it. You can’t see the top of the tank in pictures that were taken; all you can see are the guns sticking out and guys all over the place.
General Patton visited Moosburg on April 30, 1945. His 14th Armored Division liberated the camp. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
One of the guys in camp had made a flag out of different materials and colored red, white, and blue. He had hidden it for about a year until then. Up went that flag. There were tears of joy!
That was the day! It didn’t sink in that this was the end of what had begun almost two years ago! It seemed sort of unreal at the time. I was in the barracks cutting potatoes and keeping my head down because bullets had been flying around.
Patton’s soldiers immediately set up a field kitchen and baked bread. They issued some of this bread to all of us. But I couldn’t stand to eat it because it seemed so rich after what I had gotten used to eating. I threw up. So I went back to eating the sawdust bread for a while longer. That new bread was so white! I couldn’t get over that. Nothing in Germany was white! And it was so soft. It felt like angel food cake. And they had real coffee brewing. It smelled so good.
About two days after Patton and the Russians arrived, we were loaded onto a whole slew of U.S. military trucks, big ones with canvas covering the back.
They moved us to an airfield where there were DC-3’s waiting. These were twin-engine passenger planes—the kind that were used to pull gliders or the parachute troops jumped from. They loaded us onto these and sent us to the Port of Le Havre where an airfield was cleared for us. They had field kitchens set up and man! How we ate! I must have put on about 80 pounds. It was so good—stew, pie, ice cream—real food!
These close quarters were where 12 men resided for up to 5 years. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
The Germans that were there were now our prisoners, and they were supposed to get the same food we did. Our colonel said, “Okay, the law says that they are to get the same food as we do. So, do you see that big tureen over there?” Into that tureen went the same food as we had—but all mixed together. Stew, pie, potatoes, ice cream. It didn’t make you feel good, but you knew they were getting a heck of a lot better food than the German civilians. Their own people were starving to death. Some were eating dead horses that had been lying there for a week or more.
It took a couple of days, but eventually they loaded us onto ships. I was loaded onto a ship that had been Hitler’s yacht that was actually a huge steamship. I can’t remember the name of it. They took us home to America. Some ships stopped in England, and some guys went back to their outfits. Of course the war was over now. My air group, the 379th, was scheduled to go to Japan.
A view down the entry shaft to tunnel to Harry shows the deepness of the escape route (30 feet). Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Academy.
I remember coming across the ocean. We were billeted down in the hold where they had these bunks that came out from the wall. Of the group that I was with, I was the only one that got seasick—and I was the only one that had spent four years in the Navy! I’d get green in the face and have to go topside where I could get some fresh air and see the horizon.
When we POWs got back to the States, they treated us about the same way they did the guys that came home from Vietnam, I think. There were no bands playing for us, even though we came home in groups, aboard ship. They knew who we were. It just didn’t seem like the war was over for us.
There was no celebration. We just celebrated inside ourselves.