Joseph P. O’Donnell, POW 1414

(Joseph P. O’Donnell, POW 1414 served in Stepperone, Italy (Foggia) for the 815th Bomb Squadron of the 483rd Bomb Group of the 15th Air Corps as a ball turret gunner on a B-17.  He was shot down on May 10, 1944, near Vienna, Austria being one of the eight survivors on his crew.  He evaded capture for approximately 24 hours and was captured near a German radar post station outside of Vienna.)  The following is taken from information provided to me by Joe O’Donnell. . . . . . . . .

On February 16, 1943, Joe responded to President Roosevelt’s invitation to join the war effort of the U.S. to defeat Nazi Germany.  He comments that he set out to defend the principles of Democracy armed with nothing, except youth, which was the case of so many of our young men. 

On that fateful day, May 10, 1944, Joe’s aircraft received 2 direct hits by anti-aircraft artillery on the #1 and #2 engines after they released their bombs on the target which was an aircraft factory in Wiener Neustad (Vienna), Austria.

Joe, like my Father, was a ball turret gunner and one of the main concerns about his position was the fact that his parachute could not be worn in the ball turret position.  It was stored above and to the right of the ball turret escape door.  He tells of the immediate concerns facing him as the ball turret gunner on the Flying Fortress.  The first concern was that the electrical and mechanical systems were not damaged in the hit.  Secondly, that the parachute was in its place and thirdly, that the oxygen life system was in the ball turret as delay in bailing out would result in a condition called “Anoxia,” the lack of oxygen.

The co-pilot gave the prepare-to-bailout order and seconds later continued with the final order to bailout.  Fortunately for Joe, the electrical and mechanical systems were operating in the ball turret eliminating one concern.  The #1 and #2 engines, however, were totally inoperative and on fire.  With the bomb bay doors open, acting as a draft, the fire spread quickly into the bomb bay. 

Joe found that the escape release pin on what should have been his exit door, the right waist door, was corroded in a locked position.  This unfortunate circumstance resulted in the death of the right waist gunner on his ship.  Joe was sent tumbling forward when there was a sudden lurch of the aircraft and he faced a wall of flames in the bomb bay area where he exited his B-17 at an elevation of about 20,000 feet.  Not realizing that he was at such a high altitude, he released the rip cord.  Needing oxygen, he blacked out due to the anoxia effect.

In one of my discussions with Joe about bailing out he said that there was a saying that you “do not pull your rip cord until you can distinguish the difference between a cow and a horse on the ground.”  He, however, in the state that he was in, could not see the ground. 

One of Joe’s vivid memories is of an instance in his descent when he was oscillating from side to side so much so that he feared that the parachute would collapse.  When he came to from the anoxia he saw a German FW 109 fighter circulating around him several times and then the plane veered off into the distance.  That puzzled Joe and years after the War he learned that this was a practice of the fighters in allowing the prop-wash from their engines to collapse the parachutes.  It was lucky for this red-headed boy from Riverside, New Jersey, and for us who know him, that the pilot flew away before he was successful in such an attempt or I would not know and be telling this story. 

Joe recalls seeing trees, rocks and mountains in his rapid descent and one lesson that entered his mind from his training is that if one is going to land in trees, it’s important to keep your legs crossed.  He did this and missed the trees but slid backwards into a briar patch.  Bloodied by the briars and trembling from the excitement of landing and having no broken bones, he touched down relatively unscathed other than the pain in his neck and back suffered from his abrupt landing.  Joe hurriedly buried his parachute and within moments, exhausted from what he had just experienced and feeling apprehensive of what was in store, he drifted into a peaceful sleep. 

Joe was awakened by the piercing voices of children bringing him to the reality of the dangerous world into which he had entered moments before.  It was evident from the reaction and the looks on the faces of the three boys and three girls who greeted him that he was in a precarious situation.  They appeared to be about 8 to 12 years in age and their repeated shouts of “Gestapo! Gestapo!” clearly indicated the necessity for Joe to vacate the premises.  The oldest boy spoke some English.  Joe asked if he could direct him to the underground and he replied “Nein, Men Schutzstaffel, Schutzstaffel.”  (Note: S.S. – the black uniformed elite guard much despised and feared).  Joe offered a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes of which each child took two.  They returned the cigarettes along with a couple of two dinner-type bread rolls.  Joe lit a cigarette.  He recalls thinking at the time about an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes which stated that “Lucky Strike Green has gone to war.”  The pack used to be green and the one Joe was holding was white.

Finishing his cigarette, Joe buried the butt so there would be no trace of his presence.  He took an inventory of his materials needed for survival.  He possessed an escape kit, one-half pack of cigarettes and two rolls.  The contents in the escape kit were needle and thread, one concentrated chocolate bar, two compasses ½ inch in diameter, a rubber water bag, one pack of pills for purifying water, one pack of crackers, three silk maps and a pack of what was supposed to be forty “one dollar bills.”

 Joe selected the map that he needed to determine the route of escape.  He thought that the route that he chose was simple and he proceeded south.  He should have headed southeast as he had 1000 miles to cover and was heading in the wrong direction.  The trek that he chose to freedom began with a short jaunt downhill to a clear mountain stream from which Joe filled his rubber bag with water and dropped a purifying tablet in it.  He proceeded uphill at which time the fatigue set in and he was ready to rest when he noticed a sandy trail and thought it safe to proceed because of the dense foliage on either side.  He came to a bend in the road taking him directly beneath a large lookout tower.  He anticipated machine gun fire that he felt would certainly take place with him now a sitting duck but it appeared that the tower was unmanned.  He hurriedly escaped to the safety of the underbrush. 

He climbed uphill through an area of gnarled and twisted oak branches hindering his forward progress with him having, at times, to crawl on his hands and knees.  There were pine trees in the distance that could be seen from the less dense areas of oak.  He proceeded forward mostly on his hands and knees because of the mass of branches and came to a gradually-sloped ravine.  Feeling that he was in a secure area with good cover and being exhausted mentally and physically, Joe plopped down and closed his eyes. 

There was a chopping sound and in the distance Joe could see a man who was sectioning a newly-felled tree.  Feeling that if he could see the axe man, then he, too, could be seen by him, so he had to make the decision whether to circumvent the ravine, a difficult uphill task, or continue straight ahead and downhill with possible detection.  He figured he’d proceed straight ahead, but with caution. 

It was a close call when two deer appeared nibbling on shoots of the scrub oak and one decided to take off attracting the attention of the woodsman, but then the woodsman continued with his job at hand.  Attempting to send the second deer away in the general direction of the first, Joe threw a handful of sand and stones.  The woodsman looked up again and saw a startled deer but didn’t notice an American airman plotting to the opposite side of the ravine. 

It was easier traveling, now all downhill with farmland and recently plowed fields ahead.  Darkness was upon him and Joe looked for a suitable place to bed down for the night.  He sat with his feet propped against a tree and took a sip of water and ate half of one of the rolls that he obtained from his encounter with the children.  Falling asleep from exhaustion, Joe was awakened from drops of rain and tried to curl up realizing that due to his neck and back injury from his abrupt stop earlier, this was not possible.  He spent the night sitting up, propped against the tree. 

Upon awakening, it took a while to stand up.  The warmth of the sun made it possible for Joe to remove his jacket and fur lined flying boots.  The boots were wet from the sweat inside and soaked from the rain on the outside.  Breakfast consisted of water and a wafer-like cracker of grain and cereals.  Joe then moved on downhill.

Joe had another decision, whether he should risk crossing the freshly plowed field he was approaching or if he should backtrack.  He chose to cross the field which would save several miles of backtracking.  In approximately 100 yards, if he was lucky, he’d be back in the woods.  As luck would have it, as he stepped into the field, a low flying German JU-88 flew over obviously noticing this young airman.  Joe first dove for cover and then made a 50 yard run to the woods where an unarmed soldier was waiting for him.  When asked if he was a comrade the soldier responded “Ya ya” but Joe noticed the Eagle with the Swastika in its talons.  The German soldier motioned for Joe to follow him.  Joe’s time as an evader was up but at least he had been free for one day in enemy territory. 

Joe tells how the German guard led the way and he followed and it seemed that it should have been the other way around making him suspicious.  Armed with a walking stick, Joe contemplated that a good solid whack on the guard’s head would give him time to head to the wooded area that he had been seeking.  The choice was made, which was certainly the wisest, to just keep a safe distance to the rear of this guard. 

The long walk, to wherever would be their destination, was once again uphill.  Since he had previously removed his soaked flight boots, Joe was walking in the felt shoes which created a problem in sticking in the muddy field they were crossing.  They finally had to be removed leaving him to walk barefooted by the time the walk ended. 

Joe kept his head when once again he could have attempted an escape because of the line of trees that he saw at the top of a knoll.  The possibility of a successful attempt would have been slim to nil. 

At the top of the knoll, there were twelve eager German soldiers armed with rifles who would be satisfied to handle their prisoner dead or alive.  The twelve men came to attention with a command from an unarmed guard.  The unarmed soldier was a corporal.  He dismissed the riflemen and took charge himself, leading Joe to a large barn that had been converted to an Aircraft Radar Station, which accounts for the abandoned lookout tower.  In English, as he led Joe to the second floor, the corporal explained the same story that was told to other prisoners by the English speaking Germans that they had worked in the United States, came to Germany for a visit and were forced to join the German Military.  The facility where Joe was being held was spotless according to him. 

Joe tells of being seated on a long picnic-style bench at a long table with the German corporal directly across from him.  The corporal slammed his Luger type pistol on the table within Joe’s reach and began the interrogation.  Giving only name, rank and serial number when questioned about his age infuriated the corporal into a sudden right hand chop to Joe’s left ear sending him forcefully to the floor.  Dazed, shocked and frightened, Joe climbed back up into his chair noticing that the expression of anger had left the German’s face and he picked up his Luger returning it to its holster.  Joe realized that the corporal was enticing him by putting the gun within his reach and he would have been shot immediately by one of the twelve backup rifles had he made any attempt to grab it.  Because of the inward bleeding in his left ear, it is likely that the Luger played the leading part in the “Karate Chop.” 

Surprisingly, Joe was asked by the German Corporal if he was hungry and with his positive response he was given a huge portion of beef stew topping a huge mound of mashed potatoes.  As he was sampling this palatable dish, he was surprised by a firm grasp on his wrist by the German Corporal; he proposed that he give him his three silk maps from his escape kit.  Joe told him if he wanted the maps he could take them and he said he had to turn all material over to the interrogation center.  Joe told him he’d give him the maps if he would escort him to the edge of the woods and leave him.  The German said that it would be a foolish move as once he crossed the Hungarian border into Hungary, he was a prime candidate for the gallows or a pitchfork attack from an angry farmer. 

Joe’s interrogation continued with the so called friendly atmosphere being replaced by a strict and steadfast corporal.  The roll that Joe was given by the children upon his arrival in this dangerous world became a major problem as well as the number of dollars being 39 rather than the allotted 40 in the escape kit.  The German Corporal concluded that Joe bought the rolls and that under these circumstances he was a spy and would be shot.  Someone in the US was pilfering a dollar out of each escape kit.  Joe told the corporal that he could have the three maps and he replied that he would not be shot.  Transportation was waiting to take Joe to a processing center for prisoners of war.

Journey to Frankfurt

Joe was escorted down to a main road leading to Wiener Neustad.  The German Corporal refused his offer of cigarettes for an attempt to escape.  When Joe told him he felt sorry for him, the Corporal asked why and Joe told him because Germany was losing the war.  It was obvious the guard knew this without saying a word. 

Reaching the main road, Joe was placed in a truck with a driver and a guard and he told the guard that there was no need to guard him as there would be no escape attempted.  The guard said it was necessary to guard him from the civilians whose towns had been bombed resulting in the loss of family members. 

Entering Wiener Neustad, Joe viewed the aftermath of the destruction of the aircraft factory.  He was taken to a one-story building with all of the windows boarded up.  He was directed through a maze of hallways to a large room that appeared to be the main interrogation center.  He was prodded along with the point of the bayonet in his back.  He was searched and stripped of all personal possessions.  He recalls the right knee of his fatigues being torn and hearing a series of giggles among the young female typists.  He felt like telling them not to be too cheerful for their future was doomed and one day they would beg to have his torn fatigue pants.  He suppressed the urge when interrogation commenced and astonishingly name, rank and serial number was all that was required.  Again he was directed at bayonet point down the same maze of hallways to the outside. 

Joe was urged forward with the fixed bayonet down the cobble-stoned road.  He and the guard were the only individuals on the road when he heard someone call out “Joe O’Donnell, watch out for the hook (shots)” from the second floor of a bombed building.  Joe noticed a group of Americans, an estimated 200, who were there as a result of the May 10, 1944, air raid on Wiener Neustad.  Joe was reunited with 7 of his crew members; two did not survive.  Pilot Lt. Ray Scranton and right waist gunner Sgt. Horace Stewart were killed in action. 

Traveling over the same railroad tracks that they had bombed several days ago, the prisoners were taken by a train containing wooden benches for seats to the train station in Vienna.  They were surrounded by a huge hostile crowd of civilians who knew they were airmen and violently vented their anger luckily without weapons.  They kicked, punched and spit at the group of prisoners.  The guards double-timed the prisoners to the waiting 40 and 8 boxcars, the WWI vintage railway cars, at the far end of the station and at this time it was welcoming to be distanced from the angry civilians.

One POW in the group foolishly began to hum the Blue Danube Waltz and two others started to waltz.  This act enraged the guards who began jamming the prisoners into the boxcars, packing them to overflowing.  They were immediately on their way to Frankfurt on Main for interrogation and processing having to ride standing up with 60 men in a car. 

The train ride to Frankfurt was without food, water, or toilet facilities and the guards rarely let anyone leave the train when it was delayed. 

After a period of interrogation in Frankfurt, Joe’s group continued in the box cars in the same unsanitary conditions – no food, water or toilet facilities (a small can was used as a toilet) – for a four day ride to the Kiefheide Railway Station (now Podborsko). 

Stalag Luft IV

They were brutally marched on the road to the POW Camp that would be their new home for an unknown period of time.  Joe recalls being forcefully marched on the road to Stalag Luft IV weak and exhausted from the train ride, having been deprived of food and water for days.  If anyone fell a group of German Naval Marines would beat or bayonet them.  Joe has memories of helping to treat numerous bayonet wounds on a fellow POW.  The German guards would not provide any medical supplies to assist in the treatment. 

Joe learned that the Camp Commander Walter Pickhardt authorized the abusive treatment of the prisoners.  It was rumored that he just returned from a leave of duty due to the deaths of his wife and children during a bombing raid.  He apparently felt that the brutal treatment was justified. 

At the time Joe arrived in Camp the conditions were tolerable with the Red Cross parcels delivered regularly; however, after a few months there was one parcel for every four prisoners. 

The treatment of the POWs deteriorated as the Allied bombing raids increased and eventually the distribution of the Red Cross parcels stopped completely.  The explanation that the Germans gave was that the allied raids destroyed the German Railway System.  (This was not true as when the camp was evacuated away from the advancing Russians, they were led past a warehouse that was fully stocked with Red Cross parcels.)

The barracks rooms, which were designed to accommodate sixteen occupants, were overloaded with as many as thirty men.  Eventually the wash room was converted into living space to accommodate the additional POWs, many who were brought with the group my Father was in from Stalag Luft VI. 

Until the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, Joe remembers that the camp was fairly administered and there wouldn’t be problems if you lived within the rules.  As a result of the Great Escape, officers became extremely concerned that there would be an escape from Stalag Luft IV so they became increasingly strict and more abusive toward the POWs.

One of the unforgettable guards, nicknamed “Big Stoop” by the POWs, was about 6’ 4” and 250 pounds with very huge hands.  Big Stoop seemed to enjoy sneaking behind prisoners and double slapping their ears at times rupturing their ear drums.  Joe also heard that this extremely unpopular guard also removed his belt striking a prisoner with such force that his head was split open.

The older German guards, most likely drawn from the reserves, were more sympathetic to the plight of the prisoners.

Joe recalls that there were deaths in Stalag Luft IV resulting from bayonet wounds, shootings, lightning strike and pneumonia. He specifically remembers hearing on June 21, 1944, that Aubrey Teague was scheduled to give a fellow prisoner a haircut in a different barracks. He forgot the scissors and returned to his barracks to retrieve them. He was shot when exiting through the window. It was apparently not known or understood by Teague that an order was recently issued restricting use of the barracks window to get in or out of the building. This rule was enacted to prevent prisoners from fleeing the barracks with contraband during a surprise inspection.

Aubrey Teague was buried with a ceremony conducted by the Germans which Joe felt was an attempt to cover up the incident.

Joe mentions the famous black bread that the Germans gave the POWs to share. I guess when you’re starving anything tastes good. The bread was made of rye grain, sliced sugar beet, tree flour or saw dust and mixed leaves and straw. From Joe’s experience with this black bread he states that they also saw bits of glass and sand. After a while Joe states that you got used to it and everyone wanted their fair share regardless of some of the ingredients.

Breakfast consisted of the bread and hot water and sometimes mentholated tea. The noon meal was a watery soup and one loaf of the black bread for four, sometimes more, men. They took turns slicing the bread and the person who cut the bread was the last one to get his choice of the slice of bread. They made homemade cards and placed the bread on the cards. The person whose card matched the card on the bread got that slice. Suppertime was boiled potatoes. When they were fortunate enough to have the Red Cross parcels they would mix different concoctions with the mashed potatoes. Joe tells of a type of soda crackers that would swell up and expand when they’d soak it in water. They had a little stove and would get two or three coal dust bricks and fry the crackers on the stove.

As far as recreation goes, it consisted of supplies that the prisoners made themselves. Joe gives examples of making a deck of cards out of cardboard creating a deck about six inches high and the deck having to be shuffled three or four at a time because of the size. He remembers them making a softball out of worn out flying boots. The rubber rings inside the lid of the powdered coffee in the Red Cross parcels were collected from all the barracks. They’d get string from sweaters or anything they could find and they’d cut the flying boots making a softball. They asked the Germans if they could go into the forest and cut a sapling to make a bat but they weren’t allowed out of the camp but the Germans cut one for them. The Germans brought the POWs a four-inch pine log about six feet long. They made one of the heaviest bats imaginable and, during their first game with their new equipment, the ball exploded on the first pitch from being hit with the heavy bat.

Joe recalls each barracks group getting an issue of a small piece of cheese wrapped in a type of foil paper. When they opened it, it was full of holes and maggots. He remembered when he was young, that the ears of corn from nearby farms would have worms in them and his mother used to put the corn in a pail of water. The worms would then swim up to the top and they’d skim them off. In remembering this, Joe tried it with the cheese and it worked. Those who gave their cheese up after seeing the maggots were now scrambling to get their piece of cheese back. Soon there was a big line of guys at the water pump to wash their cheese off.

In late September, the prisoners were issued GI clothing through the YMCA consisting of pants, coats, gloves, scarves to prepare for winter. What they didn’t have was shoes as the shoes they’d been given earlier fell apart when the soles got wet.

As Joe remembers, they got word that the camp was to be evacuated and they should prepare to be moved to another camp which was a three-day walk. This news prompted the POWs to walk around the compound daily to strengthen their leg muscles. He also tells of their creating backpacks out of an old shirt by sewing up the shirttails and attaching the sleeves to the sides of the shirt.

Unlike my Father who left camp on January 29, 1945, en route to Stalag Luft I by a 10-day box car ride, the group that Joe was in left the camp on February 6, 1944.

The Shoe Leather Express 

This march out of Stalag Luft IV has been named “The Shoe Leather Express.”  Joe has written a series of “The Shoe Leather Express” books that detail many different experiences that the POWs in WWII endured. 

Shoes were finally issued to the POWs a few days before the camp evacuation; however, each man would be handed a pair of shoes whether it was their size or not.  They were then to go around and trade for their correct size.  Joe tells that he was issued a pair of size 9 shoes which was a half size too small.  He had no one to trade with because 9 ½ was a common size so he was leaving camp wearing shoes that were too small.

It was bitterly cold, below zero, when the POWs evacuated camp on February 6, 1944.  They were taking everything they owned with them and they were all given a full Red Cross parcel; some were given two.  The Red Cross Parcel weighed eleven pounds and even eleven pounds was too much.  After they walked for about a half hour or so, they were allowed to rest up a bit.  They proceeded to take out all the items they thought they wouldn’t be able to use like soap and toilet paper and threw them away.  There were women in the field picking up sticks for fires and they thought this was like gold.

Around mid afternoon, the men stopped and entered barns.  In Germany, the barns are enormous.  Joe explains how they formed a combine of three or four fellows.  They’d fold their blankets and their food and one fellow would be out attempting to trade with the natives for eggs or anything else he could barter for.  Joe remembers picking up sticks so they could build a fire to cook on.

 The too-small shoes caused fourteen blisters to surface on Joe’s feet after only one day of the march.  These blisters soon turned into sores and were bleeding all the time.  He tried to wash his socks every chance he would get so he wouldn’t get infected.  Joe mentions that he still has a problem today with his feet as a result of the blisters never properly healing as well as the frostbite incurred from an improper connection of his heated suit to the felt boot on his right foot.  He has some discomfort in his toes.  He also tells that in the march it would rain and freeze and rain and freeze and you couldn’t take your shoes off while you were walking.  When they would reach a barn, they’d take their socks off and put them under themselves to help dry them out. 

(Joe comments now that if he didn’t go to the podiatrist at least every five weeks, he wouldn’t be able to walk.) 

The prisoners also had to endure the discomfort that having lice brought about. 

Joe has vivid memories of walking from daylight until dusk and sleeping in barns and sometimes fields or snow banks or wherever they could find a place.  On one particular day, February 14, 1944, the prisoners were roused out of a barn.  It was five o’clock in the morning and still dark.  They were given one big boiled potato and proceeded to march until eleven o’clock that evening to a place on the Baltic Sea called Swinemunde at the mouth of the Oder River.  There was a wooded area that was cleaned out and all that was left were the branches.  A group had been there ahead of them and everyone had dysentery.  When you have to go you have to go so no matter where they were, they just squatted and went where they were meaning that Joe’s group was stepping in that waste all night long. 

Joe’s camping experience as a young fellow helped him to get along in the woods.  He encouraged his combine to put some branches in a pile on the ground and to place their blankets over them.  Then they put branches alongside of themselves and crawled into the makeshift bed.  They pulled more branches over the top of them.  It was a drizzly rain that night and they woke up the next morning with the entire area covered in ice.  

Joe recalls crossing over into Germany proper at the mouth of the Oder River in a barge pulled by a tug boat.  The land they disembarked on was more of a marsh with no trees and a British fighter plane started to make a strafing run.  The men formed the letters POW waving and hollering and on the plane’s second run, he waggled his wings and flew off.

The German guards would go into small towns ahead of the prisoners and tell the people that the “Luftgangsters” were coming.  The guards would give the men a toilet break in the town and women and old men would spit at them, hit them and throw stones at them.  Joe also explains a time when a woman made believe that she was hitting the POWs with a cane if a guard came along, but when the guard disappeared, she pulled up her apron and gave them two loaves of bread. 

There were 10,000 men interned in Stalag Luft IV and they were evacuated in three groups.  There were 2000 men in Joe’s group.  He tells that after about fifty-three days on the road in the cold, miserable, rainy weather he came down with a sickness of some sort and just couldn’t make it anymore. He remembers sitting down on the side of the road when two fellows picked him up and said “Joe, we only got a little ways to go to be at a barn.”  We made it to the barn and they built fires and made hot coffee.  They covered him up pretty good and the next morning Joe felt better and was on the road again. 

It was a fact in regard to casualties that there were times when men would drop out, just as Joe almost did, and the column would pass.  You would hear shots and never see the person again.  Lucky for Joe that he was coerced to go the little ways needed to get to a barn.

 His blisters were getting worse with cleaning facilities extremely limited.  As time went on and the war progressed, things got worse for both the POWs and the guards and they were marched longer periods of time with less food.

They finally reached a town, Uelsen, where they were loaded into box cars for 33 hours; no food, no water, no sanitary facilites (not even a bucket).  Joe mentions how lucky that he was as his car must have had a shell enter the top and exit out the floor making a hole that could be utilized as their toilet.  It’s amazing what a person looks at as a luxury during extremely adverse conditions.

Joe recalls the train moving back and forth but never going anywhere and although there was a pump outside, they were never allowed to have any water.  After 33 hours of going nowhere, the group was marched to another camp.  They could smell the smoke and stink coming from the camp and it was ironic; the ones in the camp wanted to get out and Joe’s group wanted to get in.

They were put in a circus-like tent with some straw on the floor and that was their new home.  The food again was very limited.  This camp was an International Camp.  The food situation was so desperate that Joe remembers picking up skins that a Russian was dropping from kohlrabis or turnips that he was peeling and eating them.

One of the fellows next to Joe’s group could speak Russian so Joe wanted to use his watch to barter with the Russians.  He received 7 loaves of bread for his watch and found out that he really received 8 but the fellow who could speak Russian kept one for himself apparently in payment for his efforts.

Joe explains that his combine consisted of himself and Jim Cox and here he had 7 loaves of bread to share with Jim.  They moved out the next morning and had this heavy black bread to carry in his weakened condition.  He gave Jim half of the bread and bartered with the other POWs for other food.

During one part of the journey the men were put into a large barn and there were two enormous barracks.  It was at this time that Joe, Jim and Wilbur Green devised an escape plan.  They went up into the hayloft of another barn. At this time it was April and quite warm and they had on heavy overcoats.  Jim and Joe put their heads together and decided it was a bad plan; the Germans were taking them where they wanted to go and they didn’t have any food or water.  They rejoined the rest of the party but Wilbur stayed behind        .

Backing up to Stalag Luft IV when the men were issued clothing, they weren’t issued by size.  You were lucky to get what you got whether it was too big or too small.  It happened that Wilbur Green’s pants were about six inches too long so on the day they marched out of the camp he had cut the pants off and mistakenly cut them about four inches too short and they started to unravel throughout the days of the march.  So now on the day that Joe and Jim marched out of the barn “Greenie” stayed behind.  When Jim and Joe’s group arrived at the next farm, they were at the fence trying to barter with the natives for food.  They looked up when they heard commotion down the road and there came Wilbur with two guards and with his unraveling pants hanging down, he was dirty looking and covered with straw.  Joe and Jim asked him what happened and how he got caught and he told them that the guards saw them when they went into the barn and just waited for him to come out the next day so they could nail him. 

Another incident at that barn was when someone killed the farmer’s prize rabbits and he was going around to all of the fires trying to find out who did it.  Joe says that they found out that he was looking and so they took some socks that they had and threw them in the pot to cover up the rabbit so they got away with it.

He tells of a time at one of the barns when a young girl was carrying some kind of mush to feed the pigs and one of the fellas grabbed the bucket.  They always fed the sick first.  They cleaned out the bucket and returned it to the girl.  She was sitting on a bench and told the men through her tears “you are proud Americans and you steal food from the pigs.”  One of the men remarked that “the pigs ate yesterday and we didn’t.  The pigs will eat tomorrow and we won’t.”

The girl took the bucket back inside and in a few minutes the farmer and his wife came out – the farmer with a shotgun and his wife with the bucket.  The farmer was saying something in German to the effect of “now try to steal this.”  Joe and his friends looked to a window of the farmhouse where the curtains were spread apart and there was the young girl standing there making the “V” for victory sign.  Joe tells that it was at that point they knew that they had it made.

At Fallingsbostel, Stalag 11B, section 357, Joe’s group were told that they were going to get deloused and a hot shower.  About fifty of the guys were marched down to a small building.  They were told to strip down and put their clothes tied up in a pile.  The men had all heard about the concentration camps and were apprehensive about these “hot showers” but after the first group of ten went in and came out, they knew that they indeed were going to have a hot shower after all.

It didn’t take long after the showers and delousing of the clothes for the “little lousy bastards” to return.

The men were marched out of Fallingsbostel and were on their way back across the Elbe River for the second of three times that they would cross the Elbe.  They were headed back into Germany.  At one of the barns they stopped at, the German in charge said he was going to shoot a cow so they could have some meat.  As they cow was being butchered someone came along and said they needed to pack up and get ready to move.  Joe had an empty Red Cross box and as they went by the cow, he grabbed the heart because he thought it would keep longer.  They marched about ten miles to another barn and when they lined up, about fifty of them, the guard asked if any one of them could cook.  Joe stepped out immediately (he could cook a little because of camping experience) and he grabbed hold of Jim Cox and told him to “come on.”  Jim said he couldn’t cook but Joe told him whether he could cook or not he could eat so Jim came along.  They went into the part of the barn where there was a big boiler-type stove and they built a fire.  All they cooked was potatoes but Joe still had the cow’s heart.  He gave the heart to a slave labor girl who cooked it and brought it to them.  Jim and Joe had a slice of it and took the rest to sick bay.

It was May 2nd when the men were issued a big can of sardines and told they were going to march out again but this time they were to march down to the main road where they would be liberated.  As Joe was going down the road he heard some shouting and there was his buddy, Jim Cox, on one of the farmer’s horses.  He was being chased by the farmer with a pitchfork.  Joe stopped Jim and told him that he had another 100 yards to freedom so why risk his life now.  Jim listened to Joe and got off of the horse.

Soon after they reached the road, the British came up in their recon cars.  They were told to take the rifles from the Germans and it was ironic as Joe mentions that because the guards were elderly that there were times during the march that they would carry the guns for them.  He didn’t feel that they were any threat but just the same the rifles were taken from them.

As they passed through a small town they happened upon a cheese factory.  One of the men got in and came out with a wheel of cheese.  They put out these 5 gallon cans of milk on a platform and as the guys went by, each of them dipped their cans in to get a drink of milk to go with their slice of cheese.  What a treat!!

Backing up again to the beginning of the march out of Stalag Luft IV, Joe explains that the Red Cross parcels contained KLIM, milk spelled backwards, which was powdered milk.  The KLIM was in pint cans and beginning the march, each fellow carried three empty cans with them; one was for drinking water, one was for cooking and one was for getting food.  Imagine noise generated from the 2000 POWs walking down the road with their three tin cans hanging on their side!

The march was about 600 miles.  You measured from Gross Tychow, Stalag Luft IV, in a straight line.  That would probably be about 400 miles.  But when you take into consideration the fact that the men were marched to the Baltic, then marched southwest and then backtracked, circled around and right back to the barn that they had left that morning; that doesn’t show on any map.

Also, after they got to Stalag IIB, they were in the section of the camp called 357.  This was at Fallingsbostel.  They were there two or three days, maybe a week, and they moved them again across the Elbe River, heading east, then they turned and headed north.  They were 10 or 15 miles east of Hamburg, Germany, when they were liberated.

Joe remarks that when he went in the service he weighted 150 to 155 pounds and when he was freed, he was down to 120 to 123 pounds.  They had a way of measuring how thin they were getting.  They’d take their right hand and put it around their left wrist and see how far they could go up the arm.  The thinner you were, the farther you could go up the arm; maybe three or four inches.  Joe quips that he checks now and he can’t get his fingers around his left wrist unless he squeezes.

When asked what he remembers as his worst time, emotionally, Joe recalled when he sat down alongside the road in the march.  He had some sort of sickness; shaking, cold, damp, hungry; and he just couldn’t put up with it anymore.  But thanks to his buddies who picked him up, he kept going. 

Physically, Joe states that they were actually strafed.  That wasn’t anything emotional but he recalls it as a “save your ass” type of thing.  He mentions that twice there was an attempted strafing job by the British and the Americans but they recognized that they were Prisoners of War and they waved their wings and flew off.  There was one time when the Germans set up a tripod machine gun and started firing at the plane.  The fighter plane fired back and that’s when they dove into the barn.

Joe tells that he wasn’t taken to LeHavre, France, like the thousands of other liberated POWs were, but to an airfield in England.  They were given tea and biscuits and trucked off to a hospital in Oxford, England.  They were issued pajamas and clean sheets.  It was like a different world to him and they were told they could have anything they wanted to eat.  After the long period of starvation, they gorged themselves and, of course, all were sick.  They learned a lesson and the next morning had oatmeal, tea and toast.  Joe says they “really had it made.”