Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – “Hold of Boat”

(Posted: July 8, 2011)

I had no idea what this meticulous drawing might be of until I showed it to other ex-POWs. They thought it to be the hold of the boat that my father and hundreds of others were transported in from Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug to Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow on July 15, 1944. It was apparent and inevitable to the men that they would be evacuated from Stalag Luft VI as they were in the path of the Russian’s as they advanced the front. The gunfire could be heard in the distance. The men had secretly been preparing for their exit fashioning backpacks out of shirts and trying to hoard any food items possible for their next venture into the unknown. Food had never been plentiful and holes were poked by the German guards in the cans to make sure that the prisoners didn’t hoard them for a planned escape.

One could never be free of fear of what the future held in store. No one could plan for the ambiguous journey faced by all. Could this be it – could they be on the road to imminent execution? They had to wonder every day if it would be the day that they would die. And now they were on the move to where? Would they be exterminated? The threat of the loss of life was constantly looming. They were well aware of the execution of 50 POW’s who had escaped from Stalag Luft III in Sagan. Warnings had been issued to deter any future escape attempts and the treatment of the POW’s would take a turn for the worse. The guards in charge of the escapees from Sagan were punished and the guards now wanted to make sure they did not have to face any punishment because of any prisoner’s escape. They would teach the POW’s who was boss. The elected “Man of Confidence” would no longer have a voice in governing the camp.

The route of the inmates began at the train station where the men were loaded into the infamous 40 and 8 boxcars and were taken to the Port of Memel in two different groups. One group of Americans was loaded into the hold of the old coal cargo ship Masuren and the British and the remaining Americans were transported in the Insteberg. I cannot be positive which old steamer that my father would have to board. I know that it is stated in his notebook that he left camp on July 15th and I have read conflicting reports as to which boat left on which date. What I do believe is that the conditions were no better in one than the other and the men were subjected to the same hardships. They did not depart from the port too many hours apart and they experienced the same discomfort and concerns regarding the possibility of the boats triggering mine explosions from the mines that were known to have been dropped in those waters.

The men descended into the dark dismal hold down a ladder. They were on top of each other. They would cry that there was no more room but the guards kept herding them down on top of the others. A single bucket was lowered for their waste which could not accommodate the numbers and it was believed that the same bucket was lowered with water. Consequently, they were given no food or drinkable water during the boat ride. Many of the men became sick and all were subjected to the heat and stench of the crowded bunkers. It has been told that on board one of these boats one of the severely depressed prisoners who could no longer tolerate the extreme conditions jumped overboard and was immediately shot by the guards. I’ve no way of knowing if my father would have witnessed this tragic end to the life of one who was obviously mentally disturbed and driven to such a suicidal act by the present situation and fear of the future. The deplorable conditions and brutal treatment of the prisoners who were transported so inhumanely from Heydekrug was additional physical and mental torture for this group of men who at this stage were enduring treatment as less than animals. This Baltic cruise took two arduous days before they would arrive at the port of Swinemunde.

Surely dad would not have been able to sketch this finely detailed picture while cramped in the overcrowded miserable atmosphere engulfed with dysentery and lice infestation. I imagine that staring for two days at this space would imbed the image in your mind and that is what appears to have occurred in my father’s case.

This transfer by boat of the prisoners from Stalag Luft VI to Stalag Luft IV is one of the very notable incidents experienced by this particular group of POW’s. The very presence of this sketch in dad’s notebook is indicative of this.

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  40. Dave Yatsko says:

    Very interesting. My father, John Yatsko, was one of the POW’s that survived that boat ride from Heydekrug. One of the more interesting stories is what happened after the POW’s landed at Swinemunde. Picard, the Stalag Luft IV commandant, forced the POW’s to “run” from the port to the compound handcuffed to 2 or 3 other POW’s through a forest. Dad didn’t know this but later I found out that the Germans had machine gun nests hidden in the forest hoping some POW’s would try to escape so they could kill them and not have to care for them at the camp. So far I’ve not had any indication that any POW’s tried to escape. If a malnourished, tired or weak POW would go down, he would take his buddies with them and the guards would sic dogs on them to bite them. If that didn’t work then the guards would poke them with bayonets, forcing them to get up and continue the run. Dad would always say “You can beat an American to within an inch of his life, give him a minute to recuperate and he will make a joke out of it”. He used this event as an example. When Dad went down, he said there was a dog about an inch from his face and the guard was hitting the dog with the butt of his gun trying to get the dog to bite my Dad. Dad got up and finished the run to the camp without getting bitten. The POW’s flopped to the ground and after a few minutes when they got to the camp and one of Dad’s buddies caught his breath and said to Dad, “Hey, Yats, why didn’t you bite that son-of-a-bitch dog in the face?!!!” That got a few giggles out of the men.

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  41. Remember History says:

    Thank you for your interesting comment about your Father’s experience in this infamous transfer of our Dad’s from Stalag Luft VI to Stalag Luft IV. It’s incredible that your Father survived that run up the road without getting bitten! Their perseverance and endurance is amazing! I have never heard of any escape attempts during that “Heydekrug Run” either. I was told by one of my POW friends, Oscar “Mick” Wagelie, that he credited Frank Paules, their Camp Leader, with saving many lives that day as he encouraged the prisoners to stay on the road and not try to escape. He knew that there were hidden machine gun nests in the forest. My friend also told me that he believed there were many dog bites and bayonet wounds that remained untreated and that there was also one death due to the injuries inflicted.

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