The Shoe Leather Express – Joseph P. O’Donnell POW1414

Rest in Peace, Joe O’Donnell

(Posted: September 24, 2014)

I’m deeply saddened to say that my mentor, my hero and very special friend, Joe O’Donnell, passed away this morning, September 23, 2014.  He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.  Much of the content of this web site pertains to Sgt. Joseph P. O’Donnell and his “Shoe Leather Express” books.

May you Rest In Peace, Joe.

Joseph P. O’Donnell, POW 1414 Receives Award of Appreciation

(Posted: February 4, 2013)
Former B-17 Ball Turret Gunner and Prisoner of War, Joseph P. O’Donnell, recently received an Award of Appreciation at the Leadership School at McGuire Air Force Base.  He started two WWII Museums at McGuire and has donated his books to the library and Leadership School.  Joe speaks at the school about 3 times a year.   He has published a series of books  – “The Shoe Leather Express.”  They are detailed accounts of POW experiences in WWII.  Joe was a POW in Stalag Luft IV.  He, and thousands of others, were evacuated from the camp on February 6, 1945, on foot in one of the coldest winters on record.  Their march would last 86 days and would cover approximately 600 miles.  It is difficult to imagine how one could survive the hardships that were endured during this march.  Excerpts from these books can be found on this web site.  The links are: and


(Posted: July 15, 2012)

My friend, Joe O’Donnell, is a poet.  If you’ve read any of the posts regarding his “The Shoe Leather Express” books, you would already be aware of this.  Following is a poem that he sent to me in 2008 with the Subject line:  A Friend . . . . . .


When your trials and tribulations turn to dire despair.

Just look over your shoulder, I’ll be there.

When your storm clouds gather and your weather is not fair.

Just look over your shoulder, I’ll be there.

And when your straight and narrow road has a sudden bend.

Just look beside you, I am your friend.

by Joseph P. ODonnell’

This verse is a treasure!!!  Joe ODonnell has been the greatest of friends.  Whenever I had a question – a question that I was no longer able to ask my Father – Joe was there; always!!  What better person to ask than a former B-17 Ball Turret Gunner and POW.  He always had time for me and he never made me feel that any of my questions were foolish.  It began as Joe being a great source of information but I found that we could talk about everything.  He was more than a mentor; he became “a friend.”   Through our correspondence I grew to know and love his wife, Dot.  I had the good fortune to travel to New Jersey in 2007 to finally meet the two of them.  Joe is “a friend” in every sense of the word.

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.”

The Shoe Leather Express – Day 85

(Posted: February 22, 2012)

The following on page 30 of Joe O’Donnell’s  The Shoe Leather Express – Book 1:

“May 1, 1945 Zarrentin

Our arrival at Zarrentin was just one more day of sleeping in a barn and sifting through and around the farm for any signs of food.  We were told that a cow would be slaughtered for us for food, and much to our surprise, the farmer actually slaughtered one of his cows, but the anticipated delight of a feast of fresh meat was short lived.  We were ordered to move out immediately, while the farmer was still in the process of dressing the cow.  Not to be deprived of fresh meat, I confiscated the cow’s heart in belief that this portion of meat would carry with less spoilage than other portions.  Why?  I don’t know!  I placed this bloody heart in a cardboard carton and prepared to move out.

Escape was still the utmost concern of every “Kriegie” and any opportunity should be taken advantage of to escape.  Of course, it was impossible for everyone to make an escape attempt at the same time, but it might be possible for one or two to make an attempt.  But on this day – not knowing our liberation was a day off, more than 20 Kriegies decided to remain in the barn, burrowing beneath tons of hay, hoping the German guards would overlook their absence and leave the farm without them.  This method of escape always failed and only delayed our departure, for if 500 Kriegies came into a farm, 500 must be counted to leave.  So a head count was taken and 20 showed up missing.  the German guards had a very simple method of retrieving the missing Kriegies.  They ordered them to come out of the barn, otherwise they would shoot into the hay.  Verbal orders were ignored, but with the first round of machine gun fire, the roll call was completed and we were on our way with 20 “Kriegies” spitting hay and much wiser for the abortive attempt to escape.

Our next destination, and how far we would walk, was unknown.  We left late in the morning and arrived at the next farm late in the afternoon.  This would indicate that we walked about 8 kilometers to the outskirts of the small town of Gudow.  Again, we were rejected by the farmer to sleep in his barn because we were covered with lice and would contaminate his barn.  His objections were overruled by the German officer in command and we would bed down for the night.

I still had this bloody cow’s heart in the cardboard box, and without cooking facilities, but upon an unusual request by the Germans for two Kriegies that had any cooking experience, I put my skinny frame within two feet of the German guard and 10 minutes later I was stoking a fire under a boiler lined with 50 lbs. of unpeeled potatoes and one bloody cow’s heart.  My cooking partner and I feasted on boiled potatoes and the cow’s heart, sharing the heart with others.  After three to four vats of boiled potatoes, we bedded down for the night.”

The Shoe Leather Express – THE BUTTER CAPER

(Posted: February 20, 2012)

THE BUTTER CAPER – Found on Page 28 and 29 of The Shoe Leather Express Book 1

We arrived at our next destination in total darkness and estimated ten-hour march, with nothing to eat except some morsels from our depleted Red Cross parcel or a small chunk of stale, hardened, black bread; to expect any food from our captors at this time of the night would be ludicrous.  We were starving and exhausted, but still had something to be thankful for – we were not wet and freezing.

We encountered a unique and different type of sleeping environment since our usual country farm and barn or on the ground sleeping place changed.  We were now in close proximity to a large town.  We marched through the streets and entered through an iron gated stone archway into a cobbled stone courtyard.  Cobblestones are always wet and make walking very difficult.  Our sleeping quarters were stables and the odor of recently departed equine inhabitants was readily detected.  Before we could finish making our straw beds, we were told that there was food available and to form a line outside the stable.  Within 30 seconds, we were ready and waiting.  We expected more potatoes, but in the dim light of the guards shaded flashlights we could see a huge wooden wagon with yellowish blocks suggesting a possibility of cheese.  Our elation soon diminished.  Although the first bite into the yellow brick proved differently.  We all had a pound of rancid butter!  We ate it and suffered for it later. 

Price, Mays and I were still combines.  Prentice H. Price was a Mississippi boy whose ambition before, during and after the war was to become a minister.  I wrote a poem in my Log Book about all of the POWs in Room #9, Barracks #3, Stalag Luft IV.  It’s called “Kriegie Characters:” and the little ditty about Price was: 

Prentice H. Price is a character,

The Golden Gate he’s seekin’.

He’s usually reading the Bible

‘Cause he’s the room’s chief Deacon. 

It may be corny, but to this day I can recall each of the thirty-three POWs in Room #9.  After we received our pound of rancid butter, Price approached Mays and I and told us that he had been praying for food during the entire days’ march and continued praying for food even when it seemed hopeless.  Then he said his prayers were answered; even though rancid butter was his reward, he still kept the faith.  He then admitted that he took an extra pound of the rancid butter that would have deprived another POW of his share.  He said he was going back to return the butter, but we tried to convince him that his taking the butter was actually helping a fellow POW.  There had been more than enough to go around.  After some of the POWs had tasted the butter many more could have had seconds.  Price returned the butter to the wagon.  I guess the moral of the story is, “Don’t steal rancid butter.”

The Shoe Leather Express – In Deutschland Dairyland

(Posted: February 14, 2012)

“In Deutschland Dairyland” can be found on page 28 of Joe O’Donnell’s “The Shoe Leather Express – Book 1:

“Hurry up and wait.” is a service connected cliche, and was a standard cliche practiced in all branches of the military services of the United States.  That is an erroneous statement.  A truer statement; “Hurry up and wait,” was a standard practice in all military services throughout the world, including the German command in charge of the American Prisoners of War.

The familiar morning “Rouse, Rouse” from our guards was earlier than usual.  Arising before dawn, and arranging our gear in semi-darkness, was a common practice; but arising in total darkness and preparing for our day’s march led to total confusion and expectations of a long arduous march.  Our morning roll call was held in total darkness; therefore, with a little help from us, confusing the guards in their count.  The count was either ten POWs too many or one or ten POWs missing.  The frustrated guards, realizing their failures in attempting to get an accurate roll call count, allowed us to return to the barn to await daylight.  We were promised a ration of boiled potatoes if our next roll call was accurate on the first count.

Fortunately our return inside the barn, and the now semi-darkness and the delay in our departure, permitted us to deploy our seek and search for food.  The barn was situated on a side of a hill with our sleeping area at ground level; beneath us was a cellar-like area with one side accessible to the outside through huge doors.  This was the dairy heartland of Germany and we were confined to a large dairy farm.  The cows below us provided our first fresh milk in a long, long time.  With some difficulty, we lowered a buddy to the cow area, and the milking began, with due consideration to the cows being not to milk one cow dry, which would lead the farmer to think that one cow was not producing its quota and would end up in the butcher shop.

The next roll call was flawless, every head in place, and the standing count and the sick count inside the barn matched the guards’ roster.  We now eagerly awaited our potato ration; but again, our departure was delayed – the potatoes were not ready.  This further delay gave us the opportunity to partially strip down and proceed to pick and crush those lousy little grey bastards.  The delay also gave us the opportunity to witness Hitler’s edict to create a pure Aryan Race.  A buxom blonde Fraulein and two German officers entered an adjacent barn and sometime later reappeared at the hayloft opening, and each with a chessy-cat grin on their faces.  We returned our sentiments with the all-American salute; the middle finger extended beyond a clenched fist.

The potato ration was ready; we formed two lines and were allotted two large boiled potatoes.  These potatoes came directly from a vat of boiling water.  We had to turn our knit helmet liner caps inside out and use the cap to receive the potatoes.  We were not permitted to eat the potatoes at a standstill, we had to form into columns and move out.

The Shoe Leather Express – April 15, 1945 PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT DIED

(Posted: February 13, 2012)

When I read the following pages 26-27 from Joe O’Donnell’s “The Shoe Leather Express – Book 1,” it prompted me to check the calendars that were drawn in my Father’s POW notebooks.  I wondered if he marked April 15th, 1945, differently than any other days and I am adding the page to this post to show you what I found:


*Notice how my Father has April 15, 1945, circled.  I have read that the German guards were amazed that the prisoners knew of the death of their President.  The POWs wore black armbands.  They had hidden radios in the camps which helped them to get the accurate information rather than the German propaganda.  However, Joe O’Donnell, and the thousands of POWs who evacuated Stalag Luft IV on foot February 6, 1945, were on the move and didn’t have access to the news as they did in Camp.

Joe writes . . . . . .


Somewhere in Germany, at another barn;  One hundred yards from the barn were two large potato mounds, covered with straw and dirt.  Bribes of two cigarettes to the guard would allow a Kriegie to go to the mounds and fill his shirt with potatoes.  Lacking cigarettes, I tried to bribe the guard with a religious medal with my Air Corp, serial number and name engraved on the back.  The guard would not accept the medal and I was not allowed to get to the potato mounds.  I finally got my opportunity to sneak to the potato mound, undetected by the guards.  I extended my arm into the hole in the potato mound, retrieved my bounty of potatoes and returned to the safety of the barn.  I still have my religious medal.

The German guards sympathetically announced the death of President F. D. Roosevelt.  The announcement of President Roosevelt’s death was made during a rest period on our march.  There was a special and positive comradeship that existed among the POWs and the sad news of our President’s death kicked off an unexplainable magnetic desire to group together against adversity.  During the rest break, we were allowed sour milk, if we wanted it, also we were allowed some black strap molasses.  We accepted each.  Mixing the sour milk and molasses together made a palatable drink.

I recall, on this date, helping to push a cumbersome “sick” wagon because horses were not available.  (See Dr. Caplan’s “Death March Medic”).  Only the very sickx or dying were permitted on the wagon.  We took turns pushing or pulling the “sick” wagon, usually in groups of 20 or more POWs.  On many occasions, some of the POWs that should have been on the “sick” wagon made an effort to assist, but they realized that their attempts were futile.  They then would require a helping hand or a shoulder or two to lean on and someone else would share in carrying his shoulder pack.  These acts, by the sick POWs to willingly share in the hardships and knowing that they would be unable to continue for any distance, were part of that unexplainable magnetic desire.

Pushing and pulling the sick wagon down the farm lane and out onto the country road was a ponderous effort.  The four wheeled wagon was a vintage piece of farm equipment that had seen better days and was in dire need of repair.  The weathered, buckled and warped planking indicated that the wagon was of no further use to the farmer.  The rusted metal gussets and wheel rims showed signs of collapse, as did the POWs.  A green slimy moss-like substance covered the water logged floor of the wagon and mold fungi encrusted several small piles of rotted horse manure; a fetid-odor that we became accustomed to.

We encountered little difficulty in steering the wagon down the two-rutted farm lane, but we dismissed any idea of maintaining any true steerage on the country road.  The wagon balked at our attempts to stay on the road; a few drops of oil would have sufficed.  After 5 miles of pushing, pulling and trying to steer the sick wagon, we arrived at a small farm village.  Our problems were just beginning; cobblestones.  On our march across Germany, we had, on several occasions, marched through small farming towns and saw our first cobblestoned streets.  Through the centuries of travel, the cobblestones were rounded and very slippery, one of the POWs pulling the wagon slipped and fell beneath the wagon.  He missed being crushed to death by several inches.  Several small children walked beside us chanting, “T, Flieger,” “T, Flieger,” this was German slang for terror flier.  We were a sad looking bunch to be called “T, Fliegers.” 

Dr. Leslie Caplan requested medical treatment and hospitalization for the sick and dying POWs but he was adamantly refused.  That evening I was separated from the sick wagon and never saw the wagon or those sick and dying POWs again.  I can only surmise that they were left behind, eventually liberated by the Allies, or captured by the Russians and very likely the dying were permanently liberated.  Our group continued marching; we marched to another small town.  We arrived at a barn at night and again it was total confusion trying to find a place to bed down.

The night of April 15, 1945, was a night for prowling, the complete and total darkness was just what the Kriegies needed to secure some food.  “Tommy” Harry R. Thompson from Seminole, Florida, describes one of the raids.  “One thing I remember on the march was staying in a barn with no food or water (about 100 of us).  During this time there were only several guards around the barn.  Late that night 3 Kriegies got out of the barn, slipped past the guards and went into town, (in farmland Germany the farms are the small towns), the 3 Kriegies sniffed out some sausage and took same and returned to the barn. 

The following morning the 100 Kriegies were called out for formation and a German Captain (Red-headed) wanted to know who took the sausage.  The German Captain threatened to shoot every third Kriegie if he was not told who the thieves were.  No one said a word and no one was shot.  Tommy said he had to settle for some dried peas but they were so hard that it was almost impossible to chew them.  On that same day 3 Polish girls came to the barn with a pot of hot cabbage soup.  The guys were like animals trying to get the soup.  Not all of us had any of the soup and I remember the 3 girls crying.  Later the group moved out and marched through a Naval Installation, there were lots of German sailors and we marched by a submarine docked at the wharf.”

Louis Wayne Dirickson’s “log” confirms the April 15th raids.  “A farmer gave us some milk again this morning.  Left at 11:30 A.M. and walked 18 kilometers.  No spuds/no water.  Some of the boys had to sleep outside.  Two boys were caught in the farmer’s cellar and were told they would be shot unless all of the food was returned.  Everything came out O.K.”

A mischievous bunch of little devils.  We were as much of a problem to the Allies after our liberation as we were to the Germans during our captivity.”

The Shoe Leather Express – Avarice A’Plenty

(Posted: February 5, 2012)

From Page 23 of “The Shoe Leather Express” Book 1


Seven loaves of black bread; I felt now that I had elevated myself above and beyond the degree of animal degradation.  I had seven loaves of black bread and, with some cunning and skill in bartering, I could trade off three or four of the loaves of bread for other items of food that was available through the black market.  This time I would do the trading with the American prisoners of war that had made previous trades with the Russians.  But before any deals were to be made, Cox and I sat down and ate one loaf of bread.  A loaf of black bread is very dense; the main ingredient is sawdust and a calculated guess of the weight of a loaf of black bread is two and a half pounds.  I had twenty-one pounds of black bread.  I also had some discouraging news—we were to evacuate Stalag Luft XIB immediately.  The same old familiar “Rouse, Rouse.”  I now had nineteen pounds of bread for survival or for trading, but I also had one set back – I could not carry nineteen additional pounds.  I kept three loaves for Cox and me and the other three loaves were rationed out to the sick.  Was someone with me that I could not see?  Was someone asking me to share?  I believe that someone’s prayers, asking for food, were answered.

Before we moved out, we were told that a delousing program was mandatory and that we would participate, willingly or otherwise.  We were very suspicious of the otherwise and the mandatory.  We were forcibly marched out of the camp area to a small wooden building.  There we were given a command to strip down balls-naked, and told that our clothing would be deloused and we would be able to take a hot shower with soap.  We demanded and received permission to allow twelve POWs to enter the showers and exit before another twelve POWs would enter.  Permission was granted, our clothing was deloused and we got our first shower in 55 days.  The delousing was only temporary.  We were forced to evacuate this camp.  Two days later we were again encrusted by those dirty little grey bastards.

We evacuated Fallingbostel, or Stalag 357.  I never knew our exact location, but both camps were in close proximity to one another.  We were forced to evacuate Stalag Luft XIB on April 6, 1945.  Why?  One week later the camp was liberated by a British tank column that rolled up to the main gate.  The next 26 days were under the jurisdiction of Stalag XIB.  From Dr. Leslie Caplan’s Perpetuation of  Testimony, December 31, 1947, I quote, “On April 6, 1945, we again went on a forced march under the jurisdiction of Stalag Luft XIB.  Our first march had been in a general westerly direction, for the Germans were then running from the American and British forces.  Because of this, during the march under the jurisdiction of Stalag XIB, we doubled back and covered a good bit of the same territory we had just come over a month before.  We doubled back over 200 kilometers and it took 26 days before British forces liberated us.  During those 26 days we were accorded much better treatment.  We received a ration of potatoes daily, besides other food, including horsemeat.  We also had barns to sleep in, although the weather was much milder than when we had previously covered this same territory.  During these 26 days we received about 1235 calories daily from the Germans and an additional 1500 calories daily from the Red Cross, for a total caloric intake of about 2735 calories a day.  This is far more than we had in the same area from Stalag Luft IV.  I believe that if the officers of Stalag Luft IV had made an effort they too could have secured as much rations and shelter.”  Unquote.

I have a profound respect for the late Dr. Leslie Caplan; but his statement for the caloric intake per day must have included the sour milk and rancid butter and the almost daily diet of potatoes and black bread; calories versus nutrition; a substantial diet of starches for 86 days may contain a substantial caloric intake, but has little or no value for a prolonged period of time—86 days.  We now had 26 more days of marching ahead of us and each day of marching became increasingly difficult.  The blisters on our feet never healed, they only moved to different places on our feet.  We made adjustments by stitching the holes in our socks, or on many occasions, marching without socks.  I had fourteen blisters, seven on each foot, that never healed or changed location and, for 3 to 4 years after liberation, several of the most severe blisters left a tender area.  The filth, wet, freezing cold and infection were contributing factors that are prevalent today as a reminder by a fungus that exists in the toenails. With knapsack and blanket roll in place, we marched out of Stalag Luft XIB and headed in an easterly direction.  We were now headed toward the Russians.  We crossed the Elbe River for the second time at Blickede.  Our first crossing of the Elbe River was at Domitz.  This was a bridge crossing.  The bridge was heavily fortified with anti-aircraft gun emplacements around and on the bridge.  Our second crossing of the Elbe River was a ride on a barge, towed by a tug boat.  Our point of embarkation was situated in such a position that we were vulnerable to strafing by the allies.  Our position was a wide open area on a peninsula that jutted out into the Elbe River.  A P-51 made several passes over us, and we made every gesture we could think of to alert the P-51 pilot that we were prisoners of war.  Time did not allow us to form a POW symbol.  The P-51 pilot, on his third pass, gave us a barrel roll and headed for the enemy targets.  After crossing the Elbe River, we headed east for 12 kilometers to Neuhas, then north for 33 kilometers to Wittenburg, 12 more kilometers west to Zarrentin and finally 8 kilometers to Gudow and liberation.  We made a 26 day march in a circle.  We could have been liberated at Fallingbostel, but for some reason, known only to our captors, we were set up as clay pigeons for some trigger-happy allied pilot.  I estimated our column consisted of 250 to 500 prisoners of war, give or take 1 or 2 (hundred).

“C” column was split into two sections at Ebstorf.  One section was shipped to Fallingbostel, Stalag XIB; the second section continued marching 6 miles south to Uelsen.  The second section boarded the 40 and 8 boxcars and was transported to Altengrabow, Stalag XIA.  Stalag XIA is 220 miles southwest of Uelsen between Magdeburg and Berlin.  This was a two day trip from March 28 to March 30, 1945.  It took 40 hours for the first section of “C” column to travel 30 miles, from Ebstorf to Fallingbostel, from March 28 to March 30, 1945.  The second section of “C” column and other prisoners of war, were evacuated from Stalag XIA on April 12, 1945.  They marched south for 106 miles and were liberated April 26, 1945, by the 104th Infantry Division, U.S. 1st Army.

The Shoe Leather Express – Seven Loaves of Black Bread

(Posted: January 28, 2012)

Pg. 22-23 The Shoe Leather Express – Book 1 . . . .

Survival at Stalag Luft XIB became increasingly difficult; the Red Cross Parcels were non-existent, which meant that we were totally dependent on the inconsistent ration of black bread and potatoes.  Food was available for the permanent party POWs, but we were in transit, and our food supply was what we were able to carry.  I recall the day back at Stalag Luft IV, when transient POWs arrived at Luft IV, and we made every effort to get food to them by wrapping whatever food we could afford to give in a paper or piece of cloth and throwing the packet over the fence, and in many instances, being shot at by the German guards.  This camp was different.  It lacked comradeship, fellowship, friendship and, most of all, sharing.  This camp was an international camp and the only means for survival was every man for himself.  I saw a French officer, impeccably dressed, clean shaven, and well fed, strutting about as though he were strolling along the streets of Paris anticipating the evening bounties.

It is difficult to describe as to what degree of degradation is necessary to transform a human into submitting to the tendencies of that of an animal.  I firmly believe that I had reached that degree of degradation.  My hunger let me submit myself to the shameful act of following a Russian prisoner of war around the camp; picking up from the ground Kohlrabi skins that were discarded by the Russian.  The kohlrabi is a kind of cabbage with an edible, bulbous stem that looks somewhat like a turnip; both the stems and root are edible and are eaten cooked or raw.  I made a decision; I would sell my watch.

James Hunter Cox and I were now in a two-man combine.  Mays and Price and I were separated at the boxcar episode back at Ebbstorf.  Cox hailed from Highland Park, Michigan.  I had mentioned to Cox that I had intentions of selling my watch.  Cox said he knew one of our fellow Kriegies that could speak Russian and probably could make a deal.  The Russian prisoners of war were on daily work details outside of the camp and they were in a position to barter with the local citizens.  Cox made the arrangements and I sold my watch for seven loaves of black bread.  The watch was never a necessity; the guards made sure we were always on time.