The Shoe Leather Express-Book 1

The Shoe Leather Express – “The Rabbit”

(Posted: January 23, 2012)

From Pages 17 & 18 of Joseph P. O’Donnell’s “The Shoe Leather Express” Book 1 . . . .

“The constant necessity to supplement our meager Red Cross Parcel supplies forced us to commit some acts that were dangerous and detrimental to our health and well being. As stated before, the role of the combine was the detail of seek and search for food, either by trading with the locals, or by confiscation (stealing). The latter was the predominate measure.

The farmer was raising some prize rabbits, and not realizing the starved condition of his unwanted POW guests, left the rabbit hutch unguarded. Knowing several daring and risky moves would have to be accomplished to gain access to the hutch by the POWs, several obstacles had to be overcome before the POW could assure himself of a pot of rabbit stew. One obstacle was the ever present guards; the second was the distance the rabbit hutch was located from the barn.

On rare occasions, we would spend more than one night at a barn, and this was one of those rare occasions. The POW’s thinking was that by dawn they would be well on their way to the next barn before the farmer noticed anything unusual about the number of rabbits he once had. To accomplish the risky task of transferring a rabbit from a hutch to a stew pot required the participation of several Kriegies under the veil of darkness. Several Kriegies asked permission to go to the toilet, but when outside they split in two different directions. This confused the guard, and by the time the guard had regained control of his post, another Kriegie had one rabbit with a broken neck safely stashed away beneath a pile of straw.

The next morning our inner alarm clocks and the guards failed to awaken us. The Germans knew that the rest of the day would be overcast with periods of heavy rain. Knowing what the weather conditions would be, they let us sleep in and delayed roll call until several hours after daybreak. We were then informed that we would not march that day. The Kriegies knew they had to dispose of the rabbit and the best way was to follow the original plan for rabbit stew. But instead of stew for supper, it was stew for brunch. The fire was ready, the pot was ready with all the ingredients – rabbit, potatoes, onions, and several greens of unknown origin. In about one hour, a lot of empty bellies would be bursting with satisfaction.

Before the hour was up and the evidence could be consumed, the farmer had counted his rabbits. Finding one missing, he put two and two together and called the guards and Captain Leslie Caplan to conduct a search, starting with the pots over the fires. Captain Caplan asked the guards for permission to persuade the guilty Kriegies to come forward. Permission was granted, but no one came forward. In the initial confusion, the stew pot was removed from the fire to cool. That way, the odor of cooked onions would be minimized, and it also allowed the stew pot to be passed from one group to the next. The stew pot was eventually detected and the Kriegies were requested to remove the lid. The guards knew they were getting closer to solving the mystery of the missing rabbit; but, much to their surprise, when the lid removed, all they saw was two undershirts and four pair of socks soaking in warm water.

I never knew whether the undershirts and socks were clean, but it was one of the best damned tasting rabbit stews. The chef was complimented for that something extra that no one could detect.

On one other occasion I was personally involved with the stew pot, but this involved a Hedgehog. A Hedgehog is similar to a porcupine and is native to Germany. The Hedgehog stew was bland tasting, probably needed salt. I wonder no, how many German farmers realized what happened to their canine and feline pets after the Kriegies left their farms.

That afternoon was clear, and at times the sun broke through the clouds and gave us a chance to warm ourselves and this was an opportune time to remove our shirts and try to kill some of those dirty little bastardly lice. It was impossible to rid ourselves entirely of these little bastards but it gave us some satisfaction of knowing there would be a few thousand less.

Our guards had asked for three volunteers to go on a wood gathering detail. I and two other POWs volunteered, after learning our reward would be a hot meal prepared by the farmer’s wife and served in the kitchen using real knives, forks and dishes. We left the barnyard in a horse drawn wagon with one guard and the farmer. We headed out of town, traveled about two miles to a patch of woods, we passed another wagon headed back towards town loaded with bundles of branches and three POWs riding on top of the branches. The branches had to be tied in bundles and it was quite an effort for us to lift the bundles on to the wagon, but working as a team we managed to load the wagon and headed back to the farm with visions of a hot meal and a full stomach. Our meal was delayed for about an hour and a half. We were informed that our work detail was not only to gather wood but to saw and stack as much wood as possible in one hour. The one hour limitation was due to the German electric rationing. From four to five every day the electric was turned on, and also for one hour in the morning. I believe we gave the farmer a good hour’s work, and he seemed appreciative of our efforts. We made every effort to maintain our presence as near to the farmhouse as the guards would allow. Finally just before dark, around 6 o’clock, we were summoned to the back part of the farmhouse. We followed the guard through a cow barn where we were allowed to wash our face and hands at the water hand pump that was used for watering the cows. We entered the kitchen from the cow barn. The kitchen was immaculate; our footsteps were immediately removed from the kitchen floor with mop and pail by the farmer’s wife.

No one talked, not the guard, the farmer, his wife, or us. We did not talk to one another for fear that a time limit was placed on us and we would be unable to finish our meal. The food was delicious (under any circumstances) and there was plenty of it, but to this day I cannot recall what the meal consisted of. Many days would pass before we would again have that satisfying feeling of a full stomach.”

“The Shoe Leather Express” – Stalag Luft IV – Poems

(Posted: January 17, 2012)

One of the talents that stands out to me, not only in my Father’s notebooks, but in many of the books that I’ve read, such as Joe O’Donnell’s books, is poetry writing.  I never knew my Dad to write a poem during the years of growing up with my family nor after I left home.  It surprised me to see that poetry was one of Dad’s hidden talents. 

Following are poems, with authors unknown, that are listed on page 102 of “The Shoe Leather Express.”  “Over Nite Pass” was read in 2006 during the ceremony commemorating the POWs interned in Stalag Luft IV.  The prisoners could only dream of an “over nite pass.”  It was perhaps a diversion to write of memories or dreams taking the prisoners outside of the barbed wire for a brief time.


I knocked on the door of Angels

In the faint and starry light,

“Mam” a P.O.W. would like to have

A furlough overnight.

“But you had a pass last evening”

The lovely Captain said,

“And the night before, and the night before,

Don’t you like your wooden bed?”

“It isn’t the quarters, Captain”

And I saw the stars in her eyes

Blink and gently soften,

“You’re homesick, lad,” she sighed.

She took a fluff of cloud bank

And scribbled heavily

“Here is your pass, now travel fast,

And be back for reveille.”

So I boarded the train of slumber

And homeward I’d be gone

But I’d be back by the same track

When the bugler broke the dawn.



Black barbs of war that fetter me, and scowling towers

Only the least of me is hostage—mere limbs and voice

Which were imprisoned in one pattern or another anyway.

I was a veteran prisoner before you; these feet know well

The slavery of pattern—roads close followed;

The voice is trained to answer low in meekness

The overseeing tones of tyrant custom.

I am used to the black bread of dogma

And the tasteless water of convention, so you see

Black barbs and scowling towers, you do not chain me

No more than I am used to being chained.

I have learned well the articles of servitude

To which a man must submit his flesh,

Learned them so well indeed that they are role

And no longer interfere with that of me which is beyond the chain,

Forever reaching—forever free.


The Shoe Leather Express – Letters From the Home Front to WWII POWs

(Posted: January 14, 2012)

I’m getting a little ahead of myself in the entering of information from Joe O’Donnell’s “The Shoe Leather Express”-Book 1 but the following examples of excerpts from ‘Letters From the Home Front’ are something that I found incredible when I read them.  I remember these quotes also being read in 2006 at a Memorial Ceremony at the former Stalag Luft IV Camp area as part of the ceremony.  You just wonder what the reaction would be when the POW received these letters.  It’s no wonder that so many of the returning prisoners just put their experiences behind them the best they could and moved on with their lives without saying much about it.  Who, that wasn’t there, would even understand?  It seems that in some folks’ eyes, time spent in a POW Camp was more like a vacation to the prisoners.  You’ll see what I mean when you read the list.  According to these comments taken from actual letters, there were obviously many misconceptions concerning what these fellows were actually going through at the hands of their enemy.  The list is taken from page 103 in Joe’s first book and reads as follows:

  1.  An answer to a P.O.W. who was asking for a pair of slippers:  “What color would you like?”
  2. Letter from a P.O. W.’s fiancee:  “Darling I married your father, signed ‘Mother’.”
  3. The first letter a P.O.W. received from his fiancee:  “Dear Sgt. you were missing a month, so I got married.”
  4. Letter from a P.O.W.’s girlfriend giving him the air:  “I’d sooner marry a 1943 hero than a 1940 coward.”
  5. Letter received 1944:  “Darling I’m so glad you got shot down before flying became dangerous.”
  6. Letter in 1942:  “Sorry you got shot down so early in the war.”
  7. “I hope you are being true to me.”
  8. “Have you seen ‘Stage Door Canteen’ – I hope you won’t transfer your affections.  Take care of Andy when you’re out drinking.  Are the German girls good looking?  Can you buy beer or do they just sell wine?”
  9. Receiver of Red Cross sweater who wrote to donor thanking them and received this answer:  “Sorry you got it – it was meant for someone on active duty.”
  10. “Joe is at Stalag Luft 8-B.  I hope you stop in and see him.”
  11. A Mother wrote to her son that she was sending a pair of swim trunks as she understood that he could use them.
  12. “I’m saving my money, honey, please save yours.”

The Shoe Leather Express – Stalag Luft IV

(Posted: January 10, 2012)

 The following  articles “Remove Your Shoes” and ” “The Not So Great Escape,” from Joe O’Donnell’s first “The Shoe Leather Express” book, explain some examples of what these guys had to deal with and how they dealt.  They thought of ways during this time of misery to actually  create, if they dug really deep, a comfortable existence at times.  As a prisoner of war, a “comfortable existence” took on a whole new meaning.  A small, dry space in a barn was a luxury.  A clean area to relieve yourself was a mere dream.   How in the world were these men able to find humor at any time in their untenable conditions?  One wonders how they maintained their sanity or how they could dig deep enough to find positives.  Somehow, together they did it. 







The “luxurious” slit trench where the POWs waited their turn to take a seat to relieve themselves hoping they’d get the spot that best suited their height.


The Shoe Leather Express – Stalag Luft IV: Day 35 – A Reflection

(Posted: January 7, 2012)

The following, to me, is one of the most powerful of Joe’s writings.  His detailed description is impressive.  It is as if I can relate to what he is saying; as if I know exactly what he is talking about but in different times, of course, and extremely different situations.  I recognize it in my life when I meet someone I’ve never met before and in our meeting they mention their age and I realize they are younger than me.  But I think to myself that they surely look so much older (I mean-don’t they?) until I look in the mirror!  And then it hits me just as the realization hit Joe when he wrote that he had 2000 mirrors; 2000 reflections.  Yes, I know what he’s saying  in recognition of myself in a similar, but  glaringly diverse, circumstance . . . .sle-12 

The Shoe Leather Express – Stalag Luft IV

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When the prisoners were preparing to evacuate the camp, Stalag Luft IV, it was thought that they would be on a 3-day march to their new home.  Three days in their weakened condition and in the severe winter weather would be bad enough but what they had to endure is unfathomable.  It is unimagineable for most of us today to walk for any length of time in winter conditions.  The faith, endurance and the strong will to survive would be the key as well as friend looking out for friend. 

NOTE:  A correction: The word “concubine” was misused.  It should be “combine.”






“The Shoe Leather Express” – Kriegsgefangenenlager Der Luftwaffe #4″

(Posted: January 5, 2012)

I learned throughout my research on the subject of how the prisoners did their best to keep in shape.  They were very limited you see, having to keep within the confines of the barbed wire that surrounded them.  It is mentioned in the page that follows  from “The Shoe Leather Express” that the men would walk the perimeter of their compound –  something that I know my Dad did to keep in the best physical condition that he could.  With rumors about the inevitable evacuation, it was anyone’s guess as to what that evacuation would entail for them.  Put yourself in their place if you can with no control whatsover over what the plan was for you.  The only control that you had was over how you would handle it.  You had to try to think positive; you had to feel that the end of your misery was in sight . . . . . . 


“The Shoe Leather Express” – The Preparation

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Imagine knowing that soon you would be evacuated from the Camp that you had been held captive for months.  Imagine that this evacuation would take place during winter in frigid temperatures.  You had been struggling against the cold and depravation inside your barracks as it was and now you knew that you would be moved out in your weakened condition.  You could hear the gunfire getting closer.  You knew that the Russians were advancing the front and that the Germans would not leave you behind to join them.  What would you take with you to persevere in such a state?  What preparations could you make from your meager belongings to assist you in what you were facing?  You will read in “The Preparation” the ingenuity and perseverance of the Prisoner of War.  It is difficult for us who have never lost our freedom to understand just how valuable that it is.  It is also difficult for us who have never been deprived of our life’s necessities, which were luxuries to the POW, to understand just how valuable the simplest possession becomes when you don’t even have the necessities that would be required to walk in the winter weather.  How could you be prepared to take what you will need to survive for who knows how long when you have so little to work with?  Only one who was there could come close to imagining what these men endured.  “The Preparation” gives us an idea of man’s perseverance when faced with and preparing for the most extreme hardships imagineable. . . . . .


I’d like to note, in the second page of “The Preparation,” which follows, that Joe includes notes from his “Log Book.”  Amazingly, two of the names that he mentions in his “Friday” notes are names that my Father has listed as room mates in his notebooks.  The names are” Siedel” and “Catone.”  For certain, Joe’s and my Father’s paths crossed and this proves it; however, my Father was destined to take a different route out of camp – a route that was a nightmare for him and those who traveled with him  but proved to be a shorter and a much better journey out of Stalag Luft IV which you will see in the future posts. . . . .


Preface – “The Shoe Leather Express – The Evacuation of Kriegsgefangenen Lager Stalag Luft IV Deutschland Germany”

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The preface of the first “The Shoe Leather Express” book explains the purpose of these important documentations.  It lays the groundwork for the incredible experiences that will be described.  Joe O’Donnell realized the importance of documentation and fortunate for us that he recorded this piece of history that it would have been much easier to try to forget.  Most did try to put it behind them and move on with their lives but their minds and hearts would surely never let them forget their role in WWII . .


“The Shoe Leather Express” – WWII POWs

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Joe O’Donnell’s “The Shoe Leather Express” books were my first book purchases when researching my Father’s WWII experience.  Joe is a well-known WWII POW and has been telling his story for years so that we would not forget the sacrifices that were made for us in WWII.  These books are a treasure trove of stories, sketches, poems, etc., and, having been given Joe’s permission, I plan to do my best to share as many of the stories as I can.  The term “The Shoe Leather Express” refers to the march out of the POW Camp, Stalag Luft IV, on February 6, 1945.  This has frequently been referred to as a “Death March” because of the extreme hardships that were endured during one of the worst winters in history.  You will read about this atrocity in my future posts under “The Shoe Leather Express – Joseph P. O’Donnell POW 1414.”   The following is the cover of the first book. . . .