|Stalag VII A: Oral history|
Excerpts from Sharon J. Nicholson's book Through Hell And Back, due to be published soon
E-mails by Sharon J. Nicholson, Oak Harbor, WA, USA, to Moosburg Online, November, December 2006
Reproduction kindly permitted
Through Hell And Back
By Sharon J. Nicholson
My uncle Cameron Garrett served our country as a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator bomber. This remarkable aircraft was the largest heavy bomber in the United States arsenal during WWII. More B-24s were built than any other aircraft in history. It is estimated that the B-24 Liberators dropped 635,000 tons of bombs, and destroyed more than 4,000 enemy aircraft. Each was armed with ten .50 caliber guns. He was one of the less than 7% of the world's population that are still a primary source of information about WWII.
The real story is about the men who flew the B-24s over enemy lines. My uncle saw military action from Tunisia, Manduria, Italy, over Austria, Germany, and Czechoslovakia as the tail gunner in a minimum of two B-24 Liberators: the Passionate Pirate and Sleepytime Gal. He served in the 15th Army Air Force, 720th Bomb Squadron, and 450th Bomb Group for twenty-five missions under the commanders General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Major General James H. Doolittle.
My uncle was one of only four of the ten-man crew who survived the impact of the German flak during a mission over Brenner Pass. At that time, he weighed around 160 pounds. There were many camps throughout Germany accommodating flying personal prisoners who were known as "Kriegies", a contraction for the German word "Kriegsgefangenen" meaning prisoner of war.
He was separated from the officers of the crew and marched to Nuremburg, Stalag XIII-D in Dec.1944 and in April 1945 a second ninety-mile death march to Moosburg, Stalag VII-A. He was one of more than 110,000 POWs held in Stalag VII-A until Combat Team A of the 14th Armored Division disarmed the unresisting guards and the camp was liberated. At that time, he weighed about ninety pounds at the most. My aunt has requested that their privacy be respected within the text.
His personal memoirs are the backbone of my writing. I was able to locate pictures of his plane flying in formation and photos of American prisoners of war taken at Nuremburg and Moosburg. I found several resources; including the web site for the 450th Bomb Group. The heart of this story is honest and true. Many of the passages in this text are taken directly from his diary written before his health failed. My research has been only to verify dates, locations, prison conditions, commanders and the attributes of the B-24 Liberator plane.
He was awarded: 1) WWII Victory Medal, 2) Defense Meritorious Medal, 3) Europe, Africa, Middle East Campaign, 4) Gunnery-Marksman-Carbine-Pistol, 5) Air Medal, 6) American Campaign Medal, and 7) Prisoner of War.
Thursday, April 12 - Friday, April 13, 1945
We had arrived at Stalag VII, well most of us. Numerous POWs had died during the march to Moosburg. One of the German officers, told us that we should feel fortunate. "You are lucky that you are not in the boxcars that your planes are bombing, yeah?" And then he laughed.
Approaching Moosburg, Stalag VII at the end of the long march through the last village, German youth ran through our columns to hit us with sticks and rocks, then turned and spit. Our guards were joined with the "home army" of Germany - the men too old young and boys too young to fight on the front. Suddenly the German guards stood a little taller, more arrogant and abusive.
We were ordered into a large area where we were commanded to put up large tents. At the first opportunity we all tried to hit the fresh water spouts in the area. There wasn't a one of us who didn't want to strip down in the cold air and rinse off the stench of our own filth. Three large tents, and rows of straw on the hard ground. No other accommodations were provided. We were lucky if we still had the two lice ridden blankets that we had carried from Nuremburg.
The citizens of Moosburg: Russian, Italian, French, British, American, Indian, Greeks, Serbians, Poles, and Colored men were just as crowded, just as miserable and sick with diseases as we had left in Nuremburg. The guards were no longer crippled old men. These guards had a cruel attitude, better guns, and more German shepherd dogs pulling on the handlers' leashes. The German officers were quicker to demonstrate their brutish nature on a weaken prisoner for entertainment. The radio blared out the supposed heroics of the German Army continuously. It seemed improbable to sleep in these conditions.
It was here that we heard for the first time that our Commander in Chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt had died suddenly "back home" on April 12th. I'm sure the Allied Forces on the "outside" were just as shocked as we were. Many of the POWs from many nations shared our grief over his death. The Germans heckled those who openly wept. German music blared continuously from the speakers throughout the camp. They were brutish and obnoxious until rumors ran ramped through their ranks. Suddenly an increased number of Red Cross bundles mysteriously appeared. Not in the camp, but outside the barbed wire fences where no prisoner could get to them. Several tried to find a way to get at the bundles, but ended up as targets for the dogs. The German guards thought this was a great joke on every starving POW on the inside of hell.
"We will not capitulate - no, never! We may only be destroyed, but if we are, we shall drag a world with us - world in flames." Adolf Hitler
It didn't take long for the rumors to spread through the camp, and the panic in the eyes of the Germans indicated that at least some of them had to be true. "Western Germany must had been taking a beating and scrambling to retreat." " The Canadians had cut all but one of the enemy's escape routes from the Netherlands." "The British drive was hammering on Hamburg and Bremen." "The American Ninth Army was only sixty-three miles from Berlin." " The Red Army was being supported by the British Air Forces." "Germany was being hacked to pieces." "Blood and Guts, General George S. Patton, himself was rumored to be on his way with the Third Army." If only any them were true, we'd have hope.
Suddenly the daily bowl of soup had a few more potatoes, and the swill the Germans referred to, as coffee was served daily. The most retched of the emaciated and diseased POWs were getting medical attention. The Red Cross packages suddenly arrived like presents from Santa on Christmas morning. We had soap, and were allowed to shower and shave. Some of the prisoners were getting year-old letters from home. Blankets, toiletries and clothing mysteriously appeared. We cheered more often when seeing our reconnaissance squadrons fly over. They often took an extra pass over the camp to the sound of loud cheers.
While others talked constantly about "getting out of the camp" There were those who would have sold their souls to the Germans for an extra loaf of brown bread or extra privileges. Now the same POWs were shouting obscenities at the flustered Germans. Even some of our own American soldiers were behaving in a manner that was unbecoming to an officer.
I preferred to be a loner in the yard or the barracks. I trusted no one, nor did I trust the rumors. So I couldn't believe there would be an emanate end to this Hell. Around here it was hard to trust a relationship. Friends could betray you, or disappear. I was losing my mind and my faith. This mental war going on in my head with God only fed my anger and frustration. Where was the love promised to the faithful? Logic told me it was the way of war: young men aged too rapidly in war, their faith waffles back and forth between the desperate fear, prayers and the angry litanies of cursing the name of God. I couldn't let go and trust in the Lord. After all had he not failed me?
When I was the angriest, I couldn't shake the little Sunday school songs I had learned from my head: "Jesus Loves Me", "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "The B-I-B-L-E". Subconsciously I would end up whistling or humming these tunes. To my surprise others would join in, and the mantra would swell until the men tired of the temporary distraction. I truly think that I was going off the deep end.
When I slept the nightmare had become diluted with memories of my childhood. I remembered the spring days back in Nebraska when Donner and I picked wildflowers for our mother. Those were happier days, mother used to laugh when we ran through the clean white sheets hanging on a line from the front porch roof to the roof of the chicken coop. She never seemed to mind that our hand prints made it onto the beds. Our favorite game had been hide-n-seek and she took the time to play along when the afternoon cooled and before she fixed dinner. Our job was to prime and pump the well water into an old rusty iron bathtub for the cows and horse to drink. We thought it was a privilege.
I remembered one hot Sunday morning, Donner and I took off our church clothes and went skinny-dipping in the iron bathtub. Mom was madder than a wet hen, but that was one of the few times Dad laughed so hard he got the hiccups. He couldn't stop them, they were loud and hard. Then Mom started to laugh at Dad's predicament. We all relaxed. Then Mom surprised us all when she suggested fixing a picnic basket and riding the wagon up into the hills. Those were happy days: potato salad, cold fried chicken, home canned pickles, glasses of fresh rich milk from the dairy tin pail, and cool watermelon.
We four boys played in the cool stream until we were soaked. Neither Mom nor Dad yelled at us for fighting, splashing or for throwing mud balls. On the way home in the wagon, the four of us slept in the straw and dreamed of victories as all little boys seem to do. Mom and Dad cuddled up on the seat of the buckboard, and drove the team home in the sunset.
I was suddenly awakened by a heated argument between several of the guys assigned to the same tent. One of them had a metal shim in his hand that he had spent hours in shaping. The other wrapped a leather strap around his most aggressive right hand for defense. I don't know what possessed me. It was not my fight. I just jumped right out of my blankets and ran over to separate them. That surprised them long enough for four or five men to grab and pull them away. I let them both have it right between the eyes. Not with my fists, but my pent-up anger. I don't remember how many times I soiled the Lord's name. But I was mad as hell. When I yelled, "Why are we still alive when our friends had met their deaths with dignity trying to save their sorry ungrateful asses? Where in the hell is the honor in killing each other in here and make it easier for the Germans?" The room was silent, when I came to my senses or my anger was spent. I picked up my blankets and went back to bed. There was no more fighting in our barracks.
My clothes hung on me, as they did for every prisoner. Only the German guards seemed to be eating well enough to fill out their uniforms. We all long for news from the front, and as more POW's filed into Stalag VII on routine bases. We learned that the Red Army had indeed taken military possession of Hungary, Austria, Rumania, and Bulgaria earlier in the year and then headed toward Berlin. The Axes forces were crumbling, German people were renouncing their allegiance to Hitler, flags with swastikas were being torn down, burned, or drug through the streets. The very latest news was the Russians had taken Vienna. The Austrian flag replaced the swastika on the tower of the Town Hall in Vienna the very day after President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died.
The Russians had taken 130,000 German prisoners. The concept of this news stunned the whole camp including the Germans in control. There were stories of Veteran Cossack cavalrymen galloping into villages swinging sabers affectively against the Nazi troops. What we wouldn't have given to see that. Still the ultimate battle would be to take control of Hitler and Nazi Head Quarters in Berlin. This news put the Russian POW compound in near hysterics. They began celebrating the presumed victory, and the German guards held their rifles butts to their shoulders, aimed and ready to fire at the slightest provocation.
Many of the Russian POWs in their moment of glory, couldn't help taking a few verbal pot-shots at the American forces. Their pompous attitude sure incensed those of us who had flown over Berlin, Vienna, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to name a few making their conquest possible. German officers seemed to be packing up getting ready to leave, some were burning papers well into the nights. The unbelievable seemed almost believable at last.
News has reached us on the BBC radio and were verified on German broadcasts, that Major General Alexander Patch's Seventh Army had joined the Sixth Army Group and were ordered in the southeast areas of Germany. Retreating Germans were planning on staging a final defense in the Alps of Southeast Germany and Austria. The Third Division got there first and the retreating German forces met General George S. Patton's formidable force for their demise. The German units were now beleaguered and disorganized. Those that didn't fall back were killed.
When the news arrived, it was worth the wait. General George S. Patton's Third Army Division was taking every German village or German unit in its path with little resistance. Another rumor flew through the camp that the Americans were to be marched south as hostages in the surrender negotiations. A newly captured American major told us that arrangements were being made to take us home within the week. But rumors like that ripped at our souls. Those that had been prisoners for two, three or more years were crazy with hysteria. What if the major was merely an English speaking German ordered to mess with our minds. It had happened before. Then the Germans would organize the march south. Many of the men were frenzied and near hysterics at the possibility that Patton's Third Army would not get here in time.
On every clear spring day, we heard more American P-47s and P-51 fighter aircraft fly over. More and more pilots swooped down right over the camp and dipped a wing to give us hope and courage. You can't imagine the pride and gratitude that the prisoners felt when more that 500 B-17s flew over the compound on their way to bomb Munich. The drone of those fighter planes was nothing short of a symphony played to sooth our ravaged souls.
The second sweetest sound was the metallic music of the tank treads bounding over the hilltops surrounding Moosburg. All through the night we heard the sounds of loaded German trucks leaving the compound. They didn't get far before there was single explosion. No one could sleep; there was an unmistakable air of expectancy by every one of the 110,000 prisoners in Stalag VII. German SS troops moved under cover outside the city in an effort to set up a defensive perimeter against the attack of the Combat Command A.
Somewhere the German SS opened fire with small arms, the return volley comprised of heavy automatic weapons that dominated the confrontation. Having been ordered to stay in the barracks, we needed no encouragement to stay low and keep our helmets on. Approximately an hour later, an eerie silence perforated the explosive air. I held my breath when I felt the vibration in the ground when our army tanks hit the ridge overlooking the camp and headed our direction. Soon the sounds of the moving Sherman tanks could no longer be heard over the sounds of screaming, cheering, crying and the yelling in a dozen different languages.
The Sherman tanks of the Third Army came crashing through the fences of the compound. Every tank was immediately barraged by ragged, emaciated, filthy multitude of POWs. When the German flag at the top of the Moosburg church was lowered, the men were dedicated to yelling at the top of their lungs in jubilation. Just as quickly at it had begun, the entire masses were silent when "Old Glory" was hoisted to the top. The newly ex-POWs immediately came to attention, and saluted the American flag regardless of their nationality.
The 110,000 ex-POWs were intoxicated on life and their own euphoric thoughts on freedom. K-rations had been tossed out of the tanks like candy at a parade. We were so hungry that they tasted like a Thanksgiving feast to us. Men broke through the fences, not quite sure what they were going to do. The POWs had lost the ability to make reasonable decisions, and some found it difficult to do so. Freed prisoners took any mode of transportation they could find unattended. They laughed, cried, got drunk, stayed sober, dug for fresh vegetables in village gardens, took fresh clothes from laundry lines, closets and the evacuated houses in Moosburg. They found cellars filled with wine from France, cognac, schnapps, and champagne in the German officers' barracks. Some of the forgers traveled miles through the countryside in search of bounty and foods just because they could.
They did so at some risk, the same battery that had liberated us from Stalag VII had set up artillery in a field nearby. For hours pounding guns fired on distant targets, those of us stayed behind to marveled at this wonder. More tanks rolled in, followed by endless lines of infantrymen from Lt. Col. Bob Edward's Sixty-eighth Armored Infantry Battalion.
April 29, 1945, a day that over 110,000 men would never forget. The miracles kept coming. The Forty-seventh Tank Battalion took 2,000 German prisoners; the Ninety-fourth Reconnaissance Squadron took 2,000 more. The total for the American Fourteenth Armored Infantry Division of the U.S. Third Army captured a total of 12,000 German military personnel of all ranks. They had liberated seven prisoner of war camps. POWs and those released from slave labor camps crowded around the tanks, on the tanks, and in front of the tanks so closely that the tanks could hardly move. Refugees from all countries stretched out their arms just to touch the tanks that had so easily consumed, chewed and spit out the Germans. The American flag went up over Moosburg prison camp at 12:15 PM. Within a half hour the entire camp was filled with jeeps, tanks, and everyone anticipated the arrival of General George S. Patton.
May 1, 1945, dressed a fresh uniform and wearing his non military issue wide black leather belt with a grandly polished silver buckle, his famous ivory-handled six-guns stood the infamous General George S. Patton. Major General Albert C. Smith, commander of the Fourteenth Armored Infantry Division, and Major General James A. Van Fleet, III Corps Commander were at his side. There was no doubt in the minds of nearly 110,000 men, regardless of nationality, standing, sitting or on a Red Cross stretcher that didn't know which one was "Old Blood and Guts".
The cheering lasted as long as General Patton would stand for it. Like the orchestra leader that he was, when he dropped his arm there was immediate and complete silence. With a brief address to the ex-POWs and "Liberators" of the U.S. Third Army, General Patton led his entourage through the camp. Occasionally he stopped to talk with groups of American prisoners, though friendly to the men, ferocity, rage, and revulsion radiated from the General as he continued his inspection. Those of us who could stand, stood at attention.
Ex-POWs, ex-slave labors, ex-concentration camp inmates, soldiers and civilians, men and women of various nations of Europe wept, cheered, saluted, waved tear-stained rags, and shouted with unadulterated joy while they watched the troops paraded through the camp The infantrymen of the 68th Armored Battalion stoically marched in formation trying to move German POWs in columns of four men wide and a half mile long.
This is not a parade that can easily be visualized unless you were lucky enough to be there at the time. It felt to me like the furnaces of hell suddenly flickered for the last time in my heart. I had yet to learn that it wasn't my heart but my head that would not forget or forgive.
"I'm going to kill those sons of bitches for this!" General George S. Patton
I had to be a thousand feet from him, but I would recognize that walk of his anywhere. Tears flowed from my eyes, I tried to cry out to him but my dry throat would not respond. He turned and followed the general as the Gen. Patton changed directions. Pushing and shoving my way through the crowd proved unsuccessful. Too many others were just as anxious to be near the generals, in hopes of hearing a word or two cast in their direction. "God help me!" I pleaded.
Then it came to me, putting my two little fingers to my mouth I gave produced what called back home in Nebraska, "One hell of a horse whistle." Gen. Patton, being a cavalryman at heart, he stopped short, turned and a slight smile appeared momentarily. One of the lesser officers in the entourage drew the attention of the general, and he nodded his head in approval. When I saw him put his two fingers to his mouth, I knew I hadn't been mistaken when I saw my brother, Clint. His whistle was strong and true in response to mine. But he was confused looking into the massive milling crowd until I let out another whistle and another.
When the ex-POWs parted like the Red Sea for Moses, Clint ran toward me. I was not the only one bawling like a baby. It was the first time I ever saw Clint with tears in his eyes. Those around us wept for joy when Clint picked me up in his arms like a June bride. "God you smell good!" That's all I could think of to say. His response was equally tender, "You smell worse than horse shit and you look like hell!" He intended to put me down, but I was too exhausted now to stand. So, he carried me through the parting waves of cheering men. After introducing me to the three generals as his baby brother Cameron, they laughed and shook my hand gently. I think they were afraid they could crush my bony fingers. Clint requested to be dismissed, which was granted immediately by Patton himself. Then he carried me directly to his tent with his commander's blessing. I was too embarrassed to look directly at anyone, especially Patton, but I felt his eyes penetrate my shame as if I lay naked before him.
After reaching a tent, Clint casually laid me on a real army cot, and started heating water. Quietly he started removing my filthy rags, then tossed them outside the tent. I could not bear to look at the pain in his eyes. Clint fought back tears as he heated helmet after helmet of warm soapy water. Between washing the layers of grime, he tried unsuccessfully to entertain me with small talk. The antiseptic soap stung in the open sores on my body, but it was little price to pay for this bit of heaven.
Suddenly I felt extremely humiliated to know that I lay naked before my brother on his cot. I was feeling the same shame that our brother Donner must have felt when he was too weak with typhoid fever to wash. Clint and I had to wash his feverish, soiled and sweaty body. Clint tried to ignore the cadaverous condition of my body. I knew what he saw, for I had seen the walking dead in and outside of my own barracks, at the latrine, and fighting over Red Cross packages like dogs over a single bone. Suddenly I felt ashamed for my ingratitude, and I thanked God for the compassion in his touch and the love in my brother's eyes.
After a long silence, I had the courage to ask him about Donner, anticipating the worst Clint flashed me one of his rare wide smiles. Donner? "To hear him tell it, he's fathered one the handsomest nephews you're likely to meet, according to his last letter. Donner's working full time as a male nurse in the Veteran's Hospital and his discharge from the Army. Donner met a cute spunky blonde named Maggie, who was the head nurse in the emergency room in Seattle, Washington. She convinced him to go to nursing school after he recovered from his surgeries. Naturally I inquired about the surgeries.
He had been stationed up in Alaska, and spent enough time as a snow bound infantryman somewhere in the Aleutian Islands. Weather and constant freezing temperatures caused more casualties than the Japanese. Medics revived our brother after his feet froze. After spending an entire day under enemy fire in an ice filled trench, medics revived our brother when he feet were frozen. I don't know the details, but it was bad enough to get him out of the war and into the arms of a sweet little Army nurse. I have some photos of him up in Alaska in my pack somewhere.
Anyway after a couple months, she had to proposed marriage to him; he was too shy to ask for a date. She waited until he was able to get up and able to start physical therapy then she took him out on a date to the commissary. Maggie had said, "She was tired of waiting, and they were going to the court house for a marriage license before he was able to run away. All Donner could say was, 'Yes dear" when she handed him his crutches.
"When their baby was born, they baptized him Bryce Cameron Garrett. According his grandmother and grandfather he's very bright. Not like his Uncle Cameron who chose to fly around Europe in a B-24 until the Germans shot him down." He stopped there with his story, after reassuring me that Mom and Dad were fine too. The gentle scrubbing was like a massage that caressed each malnourished muscle. I knew he wanted me to eat before I fell asleep but I was too tired. I had eaten more the last two days than in the last month, my stomach was in a knot. So he fixed me some real coffee before I fell asleep.
Thursday, May 3, 1945
I had slept nearly thirty-six hours, only waking long enough to relieve myself. Clint shook me awake to tell me that he had to move out with Third Army at dawn. The first thing he said was the last I expected to hear. I had him repeat it for me. Adolf Hitler had died "fighting Bolshevists in Berlin", according to the Nazi radio from Hamburg. It took me awhile to process this news. It was even harder to believe that Berlin was falling to the Russians as we sat there on Clint's army cot. Stunned, I could think of nothing to say; the war in Europe would be over.
Clint and I talked for a while, and he told me of his adventures as he called them. His face fairly shined when he mentioned the name of General George S. Patton. Obviously the General was nothing short of a magician, who had turned a weary, wounded, hungry and rained soaked Third Army into fighting battering ram. General Patton drove that battering ram deep and directly into the heart of Germany and on into Czechoslovakia. Being flamboyant and highly effective, as a field commander had endeared him to most of his most of his men. It didn't matter to him that others thought of him as a dictator. Because of the courage of this American military tyrant, Europe was free and the destitute prisoners of war would be going home.
Then Clint told me he had made arrangements for me to be looked after by the Red Cross until I could be put on the next truck for Landshut. He gave me instructions where to write him and asked me if I was going to California. I said, "No", and he looked surprised when I told him I had to stop off in Illinois. "I hope to find my friend there on his farm." We hugged tightly as brothers should, and he left after I gave him the name and address in Illinois. He slipped a few pictures of Donner in my pocket before that long last hug.
Monday, May 7, 1945
We left Landshut this morning in a C-47 for Le Havre, France. We stopped for fuel in Belgium before flying on to Camp Lucky Strike north of Le Havre. It was a beautiful city in spite of the impact of the war. At the hospital I got my records, medical treatment, clothes that only hung on my skinny frame because they didn't make uniforms for six-foot skeletons. The nurses kept handing us candy bars and sweet rolls and cups of coffee loaded with cream and sugar.
Three weeks from the first day of our liberation from Hell, Stalag VII, I stepped aboard an U.S. Army transport ship from La Havre for England. I stayed in England until May 18, 1945. Then I was on a boat to America, God that was wonderful. We came in to Boston, Massachusetts's harbor, our nation's own cradle of liberty. Everywhere, England, France or the United States there were crowds of people cheering, throwing streamers, blowing kisses and celebrating for the pure joy of it. The marching bands played the old favorites by the big bands over the ringing of church bells. American flags waved through the air thick as migrating butterflies.
I spent a week in Boston visiting the sights, it was a world apart from any place that I had seen before. The Boston Harbor was teaming with beautiful ships with fancy riggings from foreign places. They were absolutely fascinating. Just one month ago today, Patton's Sherman tanks had set us free. That I should be sitting in here, having a glass of good old American beer here in America. Well, it was just too unbelievable.
Undoubtedly, our forces would be concentrating on ending the war in the Pacific soon. Tokyo had been laid waste by American bombers and it was still in flames. The Japanese still refused to surrender, but it seemed inevitable.
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