|Stalag VII A: Oral history|
Part I: Alone, Apprehensive and Afraid
Events Experienced Before Settlement at Stalag Luft III ABy Flight Officer John H. Chaffin
OCTOBER 11: At about 1900 a Luftwaffe Oberfeldwebble came for me. I was put in a truck, which was loaded with pieces of equipment taken from wrecked Fortresses, and taken for a long ride to another civilian jail. At this place, they picked up three American sergeants who were shot down the day before. From there we had another long drive to a Luftwaffe airfield. At the Luftwaffe base, I was put in a cell for the night with another American officer who turned out to be a co-pilot from my squadron. We were given some cabbage and potatoes to eat and a guard brought me something to soak my injured ankle in. By then my whole foot was a dark purple - almost black - and swollen.
OCTOBER 12: For our breakfast this morning we had a cup of weak coffee and two slices of bread. For dinner they gave us another large bowl of potatoes and boiled cabbage. (I never liked cabbage before but this tasted good).
Late in the morning we were marched over to the office of the base C.O. for interrogation. I was very surprised to see Kelly, my tail gunner, with the rest of the prisoners. He told me that the other gunners got out OK. The interrogation didn't amount to much and did not last but about five minutes. My escape kit was open on the officer's desk and they had eaten the chocolate and were smoking the cigarettes.
After I was questioned, they, perceiving that I had only one shoe, gave me a pair of winter flying boots (American). These had evidently been taken from a crashed plane. They had a large closet (about ten feet wide and fifteen feet long) that was almost filled with equipment taken from downed B-17 airplanes.
After lunch all of us were taken to the train to start our trip to the main interrogation station at Frankfurt. There were eight of us and three guards. Most of these fellows were from my squadron. We rode until about 1800 when, for some unknown reason our guards decided that was far enough for one day. They marched us from the train station through a large city to an old prison where mostly Russian POWs were held. It was a big stone building and the cells were stone with concrete floors and solid steel doors. It seemed to be very old as it was dark and damp. We were to spend the night there.
OCTOBER 13: - A few German officers came around to our cells to see us this morning. One of them could speak English after a fashion and asked a few asinine questions such as "How many planes are the Americans flying against Germany." He assumed a blustering attitude when I refused to answer. Shortly after noon we marched back to the station to continue our trip. The rest of the day was pen on the train and was uneventful. I could not help but feel a little sorry for one of the guards; however for as we passed through fairly large cities which had received heavy bomb damage - whole sections of gutted buildings could be seen from the train - he would just shake his head and make little "clucking" sounds. (Sherman was certainly correct!)
We arrived in Frankfurt at about 1900 and, after an hours wait, we took another short train ride to a suburb of the city. From there we marched about two miles to the interrogation center. It was here that I had my only concern about our safety. We had bombed Frankfurt rather heavily and the civilians were unhappy. About fifteen or twenty men and women (well dressed) gathered around us and were making hissing sounds and spitting at us. We just had one little corporal as an escort/guard and I had very little confidence that he could control the little mob if they decided to attack us. The did not; however, and made the wake without further incident.
It was after 2200 when we reached this place so all they did was take our names, search us and put us in our cells - solitary confinement. The room was cold; the bed made of wood and covered with a straw tick and two thin blankets, but I was tired and soon went to sleep. The only person in the group that I knew was our tail gunner, Kelly. He was standing in line with me when it came my turn to be taken in for questioning. I was afraid they would take my Flying School graduation ring from me so I slipped it to Kelly as I went in. He managed to slip it back to me after I came out. That was the last time I ever saw him.
OCTOBER 14: - From my first day in solitary, I knew that it was unpleasant. I managed to break the lock on my window. This was a great help for I could watch what was going on outside and in this way keep my mind occupied. (The windows were glass but had been painted on the outside so that you could not see through them.
In the afternoon on this day, an interrogation officer came to see me. He was very pleasant and friendly and gave me a cigarette even though I refused to reveal anything other than my name, rank and serial number. He tried to convince me that his questions were not important - that after so many years of war they knew all about our Air Corps and that our Army knew all about them. - The questions were "to identify me so that I could be sent to the proper camp." (I was not wearing insignia nor did I have my dog tags)
The food was just enough to keep one going. For breakfast, I had two slices of bread and a cup of vile tea which I guessed was sassafras. For dinner, I had a bowl of broth and a cup of tea; for supper, I got two more slices of bread and more tea. The first time that I ate the black bread, I threw away the crust which was hard and burned, but I soon got so that I ate every crumb and wished for more.
OCTOBER 15: - On my second day here I struck up a conversation with the occupants of the cells on either side of me. This wasn't too good though for talking through a wall is difficult to say the least. Besides, we had been warned about not talking to anyone that we could not identify so there was not much that we could say to a voice beyond the wall. I was moved to another cell this morning for some unknown reason.
On this day, I was taken over to an office to be questioned by a Hauptman, the chief interrogation officer. At first he was mild mannered but as I still refused to give the names of my crew members and my organization, he threw off his pleasant ways and made threats. He said something about having to stay there until some one identified me and also something about the Gestapo. I remained obstinate so I was sent back to my cell.
They really work on one's mind. They hint at turning me over to the Gestapo; once when he suggested that they had no way of identifying me since I had no dog-tags or insignia I involuntarily glanced at the name plate on my A-2 jacket. He saw this and immediately responded, Oh that does not mean anything, you could have borrowed that jacket from John Chaffin back at Horam." Horam is the little English village where the 95th Bomb Group is located. I wondered how he knew that.
Another time during the interview he said, I'll bet that if old 'D.T.s McKnight were in your place he would not be so stubborn." Again I wondered how he knew that Major McKnight was our squadron commander up until a couple of weeks before. I thought to myself that he might appreciate my bringing him up to date and that our squadron commander was now Captain Cozens. Instead I asked, "What do you mean by 'D.T.s McKnight?"
The Hauptman replied, "Oh, you know. - Old Delirium Tremems McKnight,." and smiled at me.
I thought "How did he know that David T. McKnight was a heavy drinker?' But I had never heard him referred to as delirium tremens.
OCTOBER 16: - I was left to myself all this day except when the guards brought my food. Most of the day I took sitting up exercises to keep warm. There was an electric heating unit in the cell but they wouldn't turn it on.
I managed to pry my window open as I had done in the first cell and once, while looking out, I saw Thomas, our radio man, being taken over for interrogation. It was my first knowledge of anyone besides Tom Kelly and myself being there. Seeing him gave me quite a thrill.
OCTOBER 17: - My last day of solitary. I was questioned again late in the afternoon and told them what they wanted. It was useless not too for he showed me a list of my crews names, rank and positions - even including Forney whohad gone with us as an observer. Again the Hauptman was so clever. He had this large book and looking at it and then at me he said, "you don't have to tell us these things. Let me see., Oh, yes, here you are. - 95 Bomb Group; 335 Bomb Squadron - John Chaffin, Flight Officer."
After that the Hauptman excused himself, left the book lying open on the desk and stepped out of the room. He knew full well that I would look at it. I was amazed at the thick collection of personnel orders and copies of other types of military memos that I saw there. (Personnel orders are the orders issued at the time one graduates from an officer school - Pilot, Navigator, Bombardier or other - and contains the names of every man in the class. They are required to be presented to the base commander where ever one goes throughout his military career) The German spies working in the United States collected such data and forwarded it to Germany.
I am not sure how he got the names of all my crew members because I did not know the names of the four gunners who had replaced the four of our original crew after they had gone AWOL and taken off flying status.
After I was questioned this last time, they let me have a shower and a shave. I was in dire need of both and the hot water felt wonderful. That evening I was moved over to another part of the camp. Here, I was with other POWs and could talk to them. Many, I knew well. I met one fellow who told me that he had been with Fowler, Guiteras and Forney and that they were OK. Things began to look much better.
OCTOBER 18: - We were moved to Dulag Luft today. It is a transition camp in Frankfurt. Here, I met Thomas as well as a number of old friends, and learned that the rest of our enlisted men were OK and had gone on to their POW camp. Food here was a great deal better than what I had subsisted on the past few days. They also gave me a GI Overcoat, pair of socks, wool underwear and a package of French cigarettes which, though terrible things, at least satisfied, to an extent, the desire for smoking. After none at all for over a week they were exceedingly welcome.
OCTOBER 19: - A new bunch of prisoners came in today and Fowler, Guiteras and Forney were among them. I was tickled to see them and hear their tales. Chuch was positive that Broman followed me out of the ship so we figured he was down safely at least.
OCTOBER 20: We left Dulag on this day for our permanent camp at Sagen, Germany. (90 miles southeast of Berlin). We were taken to the station in a trolley car. That night was spent on the train even though it didn't pull out until 0700 the next day. There were 45 of us in the car, which was really a box car with windows, (within bars) and hard wooden seats. It was much too crowded but I stretched out on the floor and got a little sleep.
OCTOBER 21: - The whole day and night was spend in our car. Countless experiences of bombing missions were retold as well as jokes. Everyone was in high spirits and the guards even joined in the bull sessions before the day was over. Two different times when our train stopped the guards stole apples from a car on the adjoining track and passed them to us.
OCTOBER 22: - We arrived in Sagen about 0700 on this day and from the train we marched to Stalag Luft III. Here we were searched again, had our picture and finger prints taken and then were sent on into the compound to join old friends. Gage, Lee and Caldwell were in the crowd waiting at the gate and Gage called out, "Chaffin, we've been waiting for you". (Gage had flown several missions with us when Fowler was sick. Lee and Caldwell were the pilots on his crew and a boy named Bail was their Bombardier. Lee and Caldwell could not fly formation well enough and had asked to be assigned to other crews. Bail's crew was lost over the North Sea on July 26. Lee went down in July and Caldwell and Gage flying with Ransom went down September 6.)
Fowler, Forney and I went to the center compound and Guiteras the South camp. Inside the compound we were assigned to Barracks 43 which is where Lee, Caldwell, and Gage were quartered. Fowler and I were assigned to Lee's combine along with Gage and Caldwell. Forney was put in a combine right across the aisle from us. (A "combine" was the POW word for both a group of POWs ranging from twelve to fifteen and also to the space in the barracks in which the group lived. The "space" was formed by the arrangement of three-tiered bunks arranged on three sides to from a square with the fourth side formed by an outside wall. Altogether the space was about twelve by sixteen feet and within it the men, all their possessions, a table and benches and a small cabinet - hanging on the wall - was home for twelve to fifteen men. It was cozy.)
The men were friendly and besides my former Quonset hut mates and crew members I found many fellows that I knew in flying school or through phase training or in England.
My first thoughts were: - It should not be unpleasant here, from first appearances. How long will it be before Mom and Dad here that I am now a POW and how long will it be before I get mail. Ruth? Now that I would not be coming home as soon as I had expected, would she wait for me?
Note: These day-to-day events were written soon after arriving at Stalag Luft III as I remembered them and somewhat tempered by concern for security matters. - i.e. I was afraid to write a very detailed description of the interrogation process because I had no way of knowing that the Germans would never even glance at my record book. A couple of weeks after I arrived in Stalag Luft III I traded my fur-line flying boots (the ones given to me by the Germans at the fighter base) for a "War Log" book in which I kept my notes about Prisoner of War experiences.
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