|Stalag VII A: Oral history
The Worst of DaysBy Flight Officer John H. Chaffin
Life as a Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft III between the fall of 1943 and January 27, 1945 was not really "bad." Our food, once we got used to the small amount and the sameness was adequate. We regularly received parcels of tobacco, and personal things from home along with mail from friends and loved ones. We had a pretty good library and a school with classes taught by knowledgeable POWs. One could study German, math (arithmetic up to calculus), literature, English and law.
In the summer time the temperature was moderate and we had several outside activities for diversion - softball, touch football, exercise programs, a track meet once, and walking. The winters were tough. Temperatures sometimes were well below zero and most of us at one time or the other suffered from Chilblains - a painful swelling of the toes and ball of the foot. This was due to the feet being at very low temperatures for a long time.
At night we argued, played bridge or chess or dominos, and we argued. Any positive statement by anyone on any subject was almost certain to evoke a rebuttal and a start a lengthy discussion. Twice every day we stood "appel" which meant that we gathered in a military formation with each barracks as a separate group to be counted by the German guards.
Some POWs worked at digging tunnels for escape from the compound but this never succeeded from my compound. (The British dug a successful tunnel from the North Compound and about one hundred of them escaped. All but three were captured and fifty of them were executed.) Other POWs were assigned monitoring duties to watch out for the German guards during times when certain unauthorized activities were taking place. A POW was on duty in a room from which the main gate could be observed and his duty was to record the entrance and exit of every German who came in to the camp. This was well known by the Germans and occasionally one of them in a friendly mood might stop by and tell the POW to mark his name off the list because he was then leaving.
The British POWs had built a clandestine radio from which they could receive news broadcasts from The British Broadcasting Company. This news, on small pieces of paper was smuggled from compound to compound and read in each of the barracks. We called such news "gin." Guards at each end of the barracks had to be posted during the time that "gin" was being read - daily!
We had artists and men who could speak German listen and copy news broadcasts over the German radio. They provided a loud speaker in the center of the compound for us. These men transcribed the news into English and posted a "Newspaper" on a central bulletin board.
Life was dull and the same day in and day out. We dreamed of home and the day when the war would end and we could go home. Our biggest concern was uncertainty. We really did not know what would eventually become of us nor when the time for going home might be. Back in every ones mind, also was the knowledge that we did not know what we would find when we did get home. We were all young men and everyone had a wife or sweetheart or fiancee back in the States. Would she - could she - be faithful for the many months and years of our absence?
Days passed and became weeks and then another month. Christmas came and then another Christmas and the war still went on. The Russian armies were moving or they had stopped. D day - The Invasion - came and we rejoiced in thinking that the end is now in sight and we were saddened by the knowledge that thousands of young men were dying to make that a reality.
Christmas, 1944 and the battle of the Bulge. No one talked about it. It was so cold and now it looked like the end that we thought was so near was still far off. Damn the Germans anyway!
On January 27, 1945 our situation changed drastically and we entered into what I have termed "The Worst of Days." From this date until our liberation April 29 we were no longer confident about our future. We were cold, hungry, sick and just down right miserable for eighty three long days. It was during this time that Adolph Hitler ordered the execution of all American and British Airmen in retaliation for the destruction of Dresden. Fortunately his officer corps refused to obey these orders.
January 27 started out to be a fairly nice day. The weather was bitterly cold but we had become somewhat used to that. We had built a great ice skating rink. Our hockey team had played and lost to the West camp team. The game was on our rink. Our guards were a downcast bunch afterwards because they had bet heavily on "their" team and lost. C'est la guerre! Best of all we had received, from the Germans, a large ration of ersatz honey and were looking forward to enjoying that. Oh, there had been rumors that the Germans might evacuate us from Stalag Luft III to keep us from being liberated by the Russian Army which was approaching at an impressive rate. No one really believed that would happen, however: -
Well, we learned how they could move us. The same way that armies for two or more millenniums moved - on our feet. At 2100 hours we were told to be ready to leave in two hours.
Note: All the following story(s) were recorded in my War Log book.
It took about an hour for us to get our packs ready. Now, of course, we did not have field packs. We made our packs from our blankets. The blanket was folded twice and then the articles to be carried were carefully placed in the center portion. It was then folded again and finally rolled into a long slender shape which could be draped over one shoulder and across the chest and tied together at the bottom. Actually better than a back pack.
In my bedroll I had a shirt, a pair of underwear, three pairs of socks, toilet articles, my log book, one towel, ten packs of cigarettes, two cans of meat, three-fourths loaf of bread and a box of crackers.
In my pockets, I had more cigarettes, three packs of pipe tobacco, two pipes, knife and fork, dried prunes, a few chocolate drops, my pictures, nine letters received that morning, (mailed before the first of December) handkerchief, a can of cheese, can of spam, can of corned beef, two decks of cards, (my Kem Cards that Mr. Keeling had sent me) comb, box of sugar, two cans of sardines and one pair of socks and a pair of leather gloves. I was wearing long underwear, two pair of socks (one heavy wool), pants and shirt, tie, two light wool sleeveless sweaters (one under my shirt) a jacket, knit wool cap, two scarves (one tied around my face), my R.A.F. great coat, and a pair of wool gloves. The other fellows were equipped similarly.
After everyone had packed, we ate as much of the remaining food as possible. Most of us ate a little too much and it is fortunate that we did not have to leave on schedule.
At 2300 we fell out on the parade ground ready to go only to be told that the time had been moved up. We didn't get word to fall out again for another five hours.
Between 2300 and 0400 we made changes in our packs, ate, rested and visited other blocks. Rumors flew about camp like wildfire. The "goons" were going through the blocks and being loaded down with food, cigarettes, etc. by the Kriegies. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits.
Now it was January 28 and at 0430 we fell out for the second time. This time it was the real thing. As to be expected, we were very slow in moving off. About 0530 we stopped at the Red Cross store room and each man received a food parcel. Most of this was thrown away and only the easily carried items were kept.
About 0600 we reached the West Camp gate where we waited until 0730 before starting our march. It was so very cold and the snow kept coming down hard at intervals.
After we finally were really started and on our way we marched in a south west direction to the small town of "Halbau." We arrived there at 1300. We had covered seventeen kilometers in five and one-half hours. Every hour the Germans let us stop and rest for about ten minutes. This meant just sitting down in the snow where you had been standing.
About 1530, we were marched to a big Church building where we were to spend the night. By then it was bitterly cold and snowing so hard that you could see only about twenty-five yards. Everyone was half frozen and anxious to get in out of the wind and snow. The Church was an old, beautiful stone structure. It was a large building but there were eighteen hundred of us and we filled it to maximum capacity. Men filled the pews and the space underneath all of them. We were crowded together as closely as possible and sleep was difficult. Fowler and I; however fixed a bed with our coats under a pew and spent a fairly comfortable night. I could not help but wonder about the hundreds of British POWs who were waiting outside behind us. My last glimpse of them through the falling snow impressed me as to how terribly cold they looked. (It turned out that they were taken to the gymnasium of the local school and spent a much better night in a heated building than we did)
Fowler and I had found our spot in the very top of the domed sanctuary. From this balcony we could look down on all of the POWs spread out over the main floor. At the front of the sanctuary in the pulpit area is where General Vanaman and Colonel Spivey and a Colonel from the West Camp put down their packs. I can never forget the image of this General stretched out on the steps and a full Colonel was there on each side; massaging his feet to try to restore some circulation. The old man could have been riding on a train; however, but he chose to walk with us.
Here under the pew I made a disappointing discovery. The only food that Fowler had brought with him was a box of sugar cubes and a small piece of cheese. He thought they would have provisions along the way to feed us. Now I had to divide what I had brought with him. He was still my Navigator and friend and I couldn't let him go hungry as long as I had something.
The next morning (January twenty-ninth) they had us start falling out for appel at 0600. I don't know where the Germans thought we might go if we walked away during the night but they are so methodical. We stood appel every morning in camp so we stand appel when on the march. It was still bitterly cold and getting lined up again was an unpleasant process. Finally at 0900 we were all out and on our way again. In spite of the poor food rations, I felt better than I did the day before. So far Fowler and I had shared one can of spam, one can of corned beef, one can of cheese, a two inch thick chunk of bread and two boxes of crackers. I had eaten my pocketful of prunes and chocolate drops during the march the day before.
We marched sixteen kilometers to the outskirts of a small village. Here our block and two others separated from the rest for the night. We had been given quarters in a barn that belonged to an old German woman.
This old woman has treated us far better than we should expect. There were almost five hundred of us and she kept us supplied with hot water and a place to get out of the cold for a few minutes to smoke. (Note: each "block" was a group of about two hundred men)
The barn is about fifty feet wide and one hundred eighty feet long which doesn't give much space for four hundred eighty men and all of their possessions. But we were out of the weather. The next morning (January 30) we were told that we would spend the day in this barn. - Why, I don't know but it has given me a chance to set down here in my War Log the details of our march so far. Last night, the twelve of us in our combine slept together in a big bed made from our blankets and coats. We were packed in so closely that we had to sleep all facing the same direction; lying on our right side like a dozen spoons in a drawer. It was impossible to turn over during the night. But we at least kept warm.
This morning I washed my face, hands and teeth for the first time since we left. I used snow for water. (This is being written in the barn at Salingersruh)
January 31. We spent all of yesterday and last night at the barn. It was (and is) bitterly cold but we made the second night easier than the first. We had more straw for our bed and arranged it a little better. - Still sleeping body-to-body.
This morning we got up at 0500 to continue our march. It was difficult getting our things together in the dark but we managed somehow. - I came out with an extra blanket. ("goon" issue) By 0645 we were on our way but, because other blocks quartered ahead had to fill in, it was 0745 before we were through town. Standing in the cold is no fun.
At 1615 we reached Muskau - twenty-eight kilometers we marched today from Salingersruh! The march was hard and everyone felt it. The roads were covered in places with melting snow and in other places with slick ice. I got my first blister (on my right heel) and both feet ache tonight.
Here at Muskau, the Germans issued one fourth loaf of bread per man. The only other issue from them has been eight Red Cross parcels per block. Colonel Spivey just announced that this is all the rations that the "goons" have to give us and he doesn't know when they will get more. Right now we are quarter in a large stone masonry plant which is warm and well lighted. Spivey doesn't know when we will leave nor how. Fowler and I have our one-half block of cheese and fourteen lumps of sugar left. I don't know what we will do when it is gone, which will be tomorrow.
And now it is February. First day of the month. Still nobody knows what we will do next. Our food is very short and the "goons" haven't yet issued more. Colonel Spivey says that he doesn't believe we will starve. At my suggestion, we made soup for lunch (our combine). It was very good and, I think, an excellent way to stretch our food. In this soup, I put almost three spoonfuls of M & V, a spoon of liver pate', a one quarter inch slice of spam, eight bullion cubes, one package of soup mix and salt and pepper. It made eleven and one half cups (small) of soup. We used a fire place that we made of brick and a big stone jug which we picked up. Concerning tomorrow - no one knows anything.
It is February 2 and things are looking better now. We had barley issued at noon today and in a few minutes we will get one fifth of a Red Cross parcel per man. The Germans have also issued another one-half pound of margarine per man. Bob has traded for one loaf of bread and is to meet the fellow again to get five more loaves. The price is two bars of soap and fifteen packages of cigarettes but we can easily pay that for a half loaf of bread per man.
The barley was furnished to us as a result of old "Popeye's" beyond the call of duty efforts on our behalf. He got a bicycle somewhere and rode all over this town to get food for us. "Popeye" is a real soldier.
The latest info from the Colonel about our situation is good. We are to march tomorrow to a place eighteen kilometers from here. From there we take a train to Nuremnburg where they have a large camp ready. It is supposed to be a good camp. Maybe we can meet up with Guiteras there because they say that all the "Americans" will be together at this new place.
I feel fairly well now but this morning, when I got up, I really felt the effects of short rations - I felt tired and weak. Gage said he felt the same. I believe we will have a little more to eat from now on, though, so if we don't have to do too much walking, we will make it OK. My feet are in better shape now after a couple of days rest. I do hope that the roads aren't too bad. It has been warm the past two days and all the snow has melted.
It is the third of February and we have made an eighteen kilometer march today which brought us to the town of Graustien. There is no building in Graustien that is big enough to accommodate our thousands so we have been divided up into smaller groups. About fifty of us have been put up in a private citizen's barn. Our two days of rest and the weather turning milder has put us all in pretty good shape. We are no longer worried about having something to eat.
This barn is our most comfortable quarters to date. It is full of hay and we have almost enough room to stretch out. The owners are surprisingly nice to us. They have furnished all the hot water we need and even let us use a small room where we could get out of the cold and smoke. (Can't smoke in the barn, of course) After the past few days this is almost like a picnic. - It is interesting that when your life and living conditions have been so far down on the scale of comfort and happiness, down to the point of misery, it takes so little to cheer you up.
We built fires in the yard so that we could prepare a hot meal. I have acted as cook for our combine (all twelve of us are still together). I made up some very tasty sandwiches with two cans of corned beef, one can of liver pate', one can of cheese, two onions and a pound of margarine.
The most striking event of this day, to me, has been the bull session over "brew" in the little room where the boiler is located. We have bartered with the old German woman for turnips, carrots and we have talked about our situation. We had all the boiling hot "brew" water that we wanted and in spite of our being so filthy dirty it has been an almost pleasant ending to a "not-so-bad day."
We got up this morning (February 4) at 0630 and prepared for our march to Spermberg. Nobody minded this our last march, because it was only seven kilometers and the German guards had promised us a hot meal when we arrived.
In Spermberg, we were taken to a Wermacht regrouping base to wait until train boarding time. They gave us all of the hot barley soup that we could eat. It was very good.
We stayed on the base for about five hours and during this time we bartered with the German soldiers. They wanted cigarettes and we wanted bread and trinkets for souvenirs. - It is strange how when the situation permits men at war can discover that we are all alike and can be friends. It is also odd how Americans never give up their penchant for collecting souvenirs.
At 1500 we fell in and marched to the train depot. We expected to be put on box cars and no one was disappointed. They have stacked fifty of us into each car. The car capacity is supposed to be forty men or eight horses. (I saw a decal on the side of each car which read "forty hommes or eight equestrian." Now I knew, at last, what the 40/8 on my dads American Legion hat meant)
Our conditions can only be described as very miserable. The rumor is that we are going to Nurmberg where a camp has been prepared but no one knows for sure. The guards do not know. We are so crowded on this box car that one man must stand at all times. There simply is not room for everyone to sit down on the floor at the same time. I am fortunate. I got against a wall of the box car. My knees are pulled up and a man leans back against them in front of me. I can still enter these comments in my War Log however while there is still light and the train has not started moving.
Our train pulled out at 2225 last night. Most of us managed to get a little sleep even though we are very cramped. It is impossible to describe our situation. We were issued another seven tenths of a loaf of bread per man, a little more margarine and one fourth can of boiled sausage. This along with one half of a Red Cross parcel is supposed to last for two days. Our train made very little progress last night because it is side tracked for every other train moving. Most of the night our train sat on sidings.
It is February 6 and we are all dirtier than ever. We need shaves and a chance to just wash our hands - my hands are almost black - but otherwise we are in good shape. Our train got out of the heavy traffic area finally and made much better time. Early this morning we stopped at Zwickau. Here they brought coffee in large containers to each of our cars. It was poor stuff but it was hot and what we needed most. We had had nothing to drink since boarding the train.
Our train made good time most of the day and for awhile some guys thought we might reach Nurmberg by night. Some of the fellows thought that one reason for our speed was the air raids. During the night, there was an alarm given while we sat in the railroad marshalling yard in Chimitz. Immediately the train pulled out. As we pulled away from the city about fifteen minutes later we could see flashes behind us. The same thing happened at another stop very early this morning. The R.A.F. was busy last night.
February 7. We arrived in Moosburg about four o'clock this afternoon. I, as well as all the others, was very glad to get out of the damned box cars. Our life was becoming more miserable every minute.
By two o'clock this afternoon everyone was famished for want of water. The Germans had not provided any since yesterday morning when we got coffee and the refused to let us off the train in stations where we could get a drink ourselves. (Actually that would have been impossible for there are ten thousand of us. - Once yesterday, when the train stopped in some city, they let us off to stretch our legs. Immediately there was a long line of Kriegies a few yards off the tracks lined up, squatting down with bare bottoms showing. I was one of them. Some of us could not have waited much longer.)
We reached Munich at noon and, while we stopped there for about two hours, we all bargained for hot water - one cigarette per cup. To us that was cheap so a couple of German civilians were able to clean up and get more good cigarettes than they had probably seen in the past year.
I have gotten a little ahead of myself; however, so I had better go back to early this morning. We reached Augsburg shortly before daylight today. There we learned that Nurmberg had been bombed out. Up until now we had been traveling in a line running southwest from Spermberg but now we turned back east and headed to Munich.
From Munich we went to Moosburg, where Stalag VII A is located. This is an Enlisted Men's camp handled by the Wermacht but it is also, evidently, our destination. Rumor has it that we will be here only a short time until they get a new camp built at Nurmberg or some other place.
We were all deloused and searched before being moved into the regular lager. For tonight, and possibly tomorrow night, we will stay in a big barrack which is supposed to be E.M.'s quarters. The building is about one hundred seventy five feet long by about fifty feet wide and there are over five hundred of us packed into it. Gwinn, Landes, Fowler, La Salle and I have a space not quite the size of a GI blanket. I am not so worried about being cramped so much as I am being suffocated. The windows must be closed because of the blackout and this building was musty with dead air when we came in.
My entries in this War Log are barely legible because of the situations in which I have had to write and because of having to use a dull pointed, soft lead pencil. It may not even be very intelligent because of being to tired and miserable to concentrate very well. I think most of the details of our journey are recorded, however and that is what I wanted to accomplish.
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