The Shoe Leather Express – Day 86 Liberation Day!

(Posted: February 25, 2012)

The following is found on pages 30-33 of Joe O’Donnell’s “The Shoe Leather Express – Book I”

“May 2, 1945 Gudow:

Unknown to us, our liberation was but hours away.  Our usual get-up time was 5 o’clock in the morning.  Many of us would be out earlier scouring the farm for extras.  If you could sneak between the guards, you may have raw eggs for breakfast, or, if you could locate the potato storage bin, you were in for a 2 or 3 day supply.

Rumors, although many times unfounded, were now seeming to be a reality.  The Germans issued canned sardines, and seconds if you desired.  The canned sardines in oval cans with oil or tomato sauce were the same ones found in the U.S.A.

Our last command by the German guards was to pack up and walk down the farm lane to the main road and there we were liberated by the British 8th Army, “The Royal Dragoons.”  James Hunter Cox decided he would no longer walk, even to liberation.  He acquired the farmer’s horse and rode to liberation with the irate farmer, on the run behind Cox, firing obscene gestures and language at him.  Cox reined his mighty steed and beckoned me to mount behind him.  I convinced Cox to dismount since our liberation point was only another 500 yards ahead and the irate farmer was only 50 yards behind.

At approximately 11:50 A.M. on May 2, 1945, we were liberated.  A British command car, with numerous tanks arrear, welcomed us back to freedom.  After the tumultuous cheering and welcoming had cleared, the British were appalled because the German guards were still carrying the weapons and we had made no attempt to disarm them.  We never gave a thought to disarming them.  If they hadn’t used them for 86 daysa while in command, then why should they use them now, since now, they were the prisoners of war and not us.  The tables were turned.

The British pointed in a southwesterly direction and directed us to our next destination, a small town called Buchen, 15 kilometers away.  A final impression of the end to our ordeal was a German guard seated with his back against a tree eating knockwurst and rye bread.  I was half tempted to share his lunch with him but I had a change of heart, knowing better fare would be awaiting us at Buchen.  A 2 kilometer walk proved that better and more nourishing fare was to be had in the form of fresh milk and cheese.  It did not take long for the now ex-POWs to sniff out a dairy and the klim cans, that once contained powdered milk, were now filled with fresh milk.  One of the more enterprising ex-POWs was passing out large chunks of cheese from a 50 lb. wheel of cheese.  One large gulp of milk and one large chunk of cheese was one of the most satisfying feelings we had encountered in a long time.  The white lines of milk streaming down both sides of our cheeks was a delightful sign that the word glutton would again become a part of our vocabularly; but most of all there was a picture that no artist could capture, and that was the elation in the eyes of each ex-POW.

Buchen is a small farming town situated on a canal and 14 kilometers north of Lauenburg.  Here at Buchen we saw the first signs of World War II from the ground.  The British had 30 German POWs, probably our guards, lined up with arms folded over their heads in the typical surrender pose.  Each POW was stripped of all of his personal belongings and these personal belongings, along with his military gear, were thrown in a nearby pile.  From this pile we collected our first souvenirs.  My booty consisted of a military map of Germany and a German canteen and kit.

The British started to use force on the German POWs to emphasize their authority.  I questioned the use of this force used by a British Officer, particularly on one young German POW that was soon to be separated from his girlfriend or wife.  The British Officer told me that this treatment was quite mild as compared to the treatment given to some of the German POWs captured by the Americans.  The British Officer said, “Your Blokes hung two of them upside down in a well.”

A modern red brick house was to be our lodging place for that evening.  The house was unoccupied but completely furnished, fully intact, except for one corner of the house that had been removed by a British tank that was unable to maneuver a sharp turn on a narrow street.  The beds were made as though the occupants had not anticipated any interruption of their daily routine. The first-come, first-serve basis of selection was in effect.  Cox and I were late arrivals and the only available sleeping spaceleft was the living room floor; the living room floor proved to be 100% better than any of our previous lodgings.  Of course, we still had our little blood sucking traveling companions with us, lice.  The damage to the house was far less than the damage we created by our presence.  It was probably a lot less expensive to repair the damaged corner of the house than to have the house fumigated.  A hot cup of tea, a hearty bowl of soup and some biscuits made our liberation day.  Anxiety and anticipation of tomorrow’s expectations would cushion our bodies from the hard floor.  This was like Christmas Eve, on May 2, 1945.

May 3, 1945 dawned bright and sunny.  After a restful sleep and a hot breakfast and a road to freedom, we were now under the allied military control and would again have to abide by the rules and regulations of GI control.  Of course, we would not and did not.  A British officer drew a map on the side of a wagon.  He told us a canal barge was wedged across the canal and we would be able to cross the canal at that point.  All bridges were destroyed either by the retreating Germans or the advancing Allies.  After crossing the canal, Cox and I headed toward our final destination which was 30 to 40 kilometers more to travel on the “Shoe Leather Express.”  I decided that was too far to walk since we were now in allied territory and well behind the front lines.  I told Cox that I would not walk another step and if the Americans wanted me back in the Army, they would have to come and get me.  The only walking I had planned for the future was walking to the mess hall.  Cox agreed with me and the two of us lay down by the roadside and waited for transportation.  At first we thought our decision was made in haste.  We were on a dirt road that intersected with another dirt road and it appeared that we may have to spend the night out in the open, for there was no traffic whatsoever.  But after a half hour of restful bliss, a British truck came by and offered us transportation.  the British driver told us that he would take us to our destination but with one condition, and that condition was that both truck windows were to remain open for the entire trip.  We had not showered or shaved for 26 days.  It was obvious to Cox and me that the driver would have preferred that we rode in the back of the truck; he lit a cigarette, he did not inhale, but he did blow three large puffs of smoke into the cab.  The driver offered Cox and me a cigarette.  He then thrust his head through the open window for fresh air and then pushed the accelerator pedal to the floor and sped down the dirt road, heading in the general direction of Hanover, Germany.

The collecting area, arranged by the Allies to receive the influx of the now ex-Prisoners of War, was a former German officers’ training academy.  The huge two-storied modern brick barracks surrounded a paved parade area.  Cox and I gave the British truck driver a half-hearted salute; the truck driver returned our salute in the same half-hearted manner.  We entered the parade area and we were instructed to immediately find a room and a bed in any barracks and report to a supply room for a complete change of uniform, then for a hot shower and a shave, get de-loused, and then to the mess hall for a light meal, and then on to the barber shop for a haircut.  Our short walk across the parade area was accompanied by the usual army expletives from the ex-Prisoner of War who had arrived earlier in the week; it proved that a hot shower and a good meal is a great elixir.

Since we were liberated by the British, fed and clothed by the British, and under the jurisdiction of the British, we considered ourselves as still free lance and only responsible to the discipline that is required to maintain order and respect to our liberators.  Of course the rules and regulations were not enforced to any harsh degree, unless warranted.  There were some occasions when some over-zealous Prisoner of War would fire one of the stockpiled German rifles in the air; this act was frowned upon by the British and all of the ex-Prisoners of War.  We did not want a telegram sent to our families saying “Killed by a fellow ex-Prisoner of War.”  Again, since we were liberated by the British, we were issued British uniforms.  Our tattered, filthy, lice-ridden GI uniforms were piled in the center of the parade yard and set afire.  We waved goodbye to those lousy little grey, bloodsucking bastards.

May 4, 1945:  We were transported by truck to the outskirts of Celle or Soltrau (?) on the Aller River, Northwest of Hanover, Germany.  At Celle we camped out in tents but we were well fed, clean and awaiting transportation to Camp Lucky Strike in France.  We were instructed to remain “on the ready to move at a moment’s notice.”  That evening, two British trucks moved between the tents, and a British soldier announced that limited transportation was available.  I was the last ex-Prisoner of War to board the second truck.  Jim Cox was still with me.  When we arrived at a makeshift airfield, the first truck was unloaded and the ex-POWs boarded a C-47.  The plane was ready to take off and we thought we would return to tent city for another night, but a British soldier announced that there was room for one more.  I made that flight and waved goodbye to Jim Cox.  After we were airborne, the pilot announced that we would not go to Camp Lucky Strike in France; instead we would fly directly to England.  The war, except for the signing of the unconditional surrender by the Germans, was over.

We arrived in England, somewhere around Oxford, about 9:00 PM that evening.  One of the hangars was set up to receive us.  We were given a delousing spray in our hair, armpits and crotch.  With this humiliating exercise out of the way, we were then seated at an informal table and given tea and cookies.  Each ex-Prisoner of War received individual, sympathetic, and concerned attention from the British.  They asked questions and were very attentive and cooperative.  They gave us that warm feeling that, again, we were human.  After our welcome to England, we boarded buses to a hospital in the country.  We again showered and were told that the mess hall was open and would remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that we could eat all we wanted, whenever we wanted; but we were cautioned to take food in small amounts for a period of time and not to overeat.  The menu that night was creamed chicken, mashed potatoes, salt and pepper, milk, tea, coffee, hot white bread, fruit, salad, etc.  We over-ate and were sick, but what a delightful way to be sick.  We returned to the hospital ward, put on clean pajamas, crawled between clean, sweet-smelling sheets, pulled the blankets over our heads, the lights went out and, without scratching, freezing, thirsting, starving, walking, aching and dying, we said a prayer of thanks and went off to sleep.

A two-week stay at the hospital was sufficient time to fatten our bodies and then we were released to the American command as healthy American soldiers, fit for duty.  I do not recall, at any time, from the day we were liberated (May 2, 1945) until our return to the United States, ever stepping on a scale to be weighed.   I question this.  I feel it was an intentional act by the Armed Services as a deterent to make future claims for physical disabilities that may accrue in later years.  Today, after 38 years, this has proven to be true.  From the Oxford Hospital, we were shipped to London to await debarkation to the United States.  Two weeks in London and we were off on an L.S.T. to America and an Honorable Discharge; October, 1945.”

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