CHAPTER EIGHT

The Black March Begins

As Addison was grieving the loss of his squadron members, Paul Lynch was about to embark on a three-month walking odyssey of almost 500 miles that could have taken his life. Paul could have perished from the winter elements, disease, violence or even starvation. Survivors of this event coined a name for what they experienced: “The Black March.”1 The Black March was unique in the history of Allied airmen prisoners of World War II in the European Theater. At 25%, the mortality rate of the marchers nearly equaled on a percentage basis the rate incurred on The Bataan Death March in the Philippines.2

There were other POW camps where Allied airmen were forced to march, most notably Stalag Luft III near Sagan with its 10,300 British and American occupants.3 All POW marchers suffered an ordeal of one sort or another, but on a comparison basis, the prisoners of Stalag Luft IV—the Black Marchers—got it the worst. Their distance on foot was tenfold more.

By early February 1945 the Nazis were losing badly. The main Soviet spearhead was nearing Berlin, having bypassed the northern coastal part of Poland near the German border where Paul and his fellow POWs were confined. It was simply a matter of time before Soviet forces arrived at Stalag Luft IV and there was nothing the Nazis could do to prevent it. The Red Army soldiers who broke the siege of Leningrad in January 1944 were moving along the Baltic coast and these soldiers were highly motivated to play a part in the demise of the Third Reich.

On February 11, 1945, in anticipation of victory, an agreement was struck at the Yalta Conference between the Allied powers. The Americans and the British very much wanted help in the war against Japan, and at Yalta Stalin agreed that “. . . two or three months after Germany has surrendered and the war in Europe is terminated, the Soviet Union shall enter into war against Japan on the side of the Allies.”4

A Yalta side agreement between the U.S. and Soviets regarding POWs would prove controversial in its implementation and have personal consequences for Paul. At this juncture, however, Paul could not know what transpired in diplomatic circles. The agreement preamble on the subject of repatriation stated:

The Government of the United States of America on the one hand and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the other hand, wishing to make arrangements for the care and repatriation of United States citizens freed by forces operating under Soviet command and for Soviet citizens freed by forces operating under United States command, have agreed . . .5

The Nazis, although pressed and desperate, were not ready to allow any “repatriation.” The POWs at Stalag Luft IV represented “bargaining chips” (Paul’s words). To permit these POWs to be swooped up by the Soviets would be to lose control over something the British and Americans might well negotiate for. At this late date in the war the Nazis still hoped for a separate armistice with the West. The Associated Press reported the following regarding the beginning of The Black March and other POW marches:

NAZIS HERD U.S. CAPTIVES

OUT OF RUSSIAN’S PATH

RED CROSS REPORTS MOST TRANSFERRALS

BEING MADE ON FOOT

WASHINGTON, FEB 15 (AP).—Great numbers of American and Allied prisoners of war, whom the Germans are transferring out of the path of Russian armies, are making the trip on foot. Reporting this tonight, the American Red Cross said the Geneva Convention permits prisoners to make maximum daily marches of up to twelve and a half miles unless longer ones are necessary to reach food and shelter.6

Paul initially reflected that the first week of the march was not very interesting from the perspective of storytelling. When he learned, however, that the events of that first week determined, in many instances, whether a marcher would live or die, he reconsidered his opinion. The first week was the most critical one.

On May 8, 1995, fifty years after VE Day, Senator John Warner read into the Congressional Record a tribute to the Americans who made the forced march from Stalag Luft IV:

The 86-day march was by all accounts savage, men who for months, and in some cases years, had been denied proper nutrition, personal hygiene, medical care, were forced to do something that would be difficult for well nourished, healthy, and appropriately trained infantry soldiers to accomplish.

The Senate tribute suggested that 9,500 suffered the ordeal “on the march.” Another account placed the number at approximately 8,000,7 and still another, “more than 6,000.” Accepting any of these figures as accurate, the number of men involved was considerable. The “more than 6,000” figure came from a 1997 Air Force Magazine article that explained that in early 1945, “Some 3,000 of the POWs [at Stalag Luft IV] who were not physically able to walk were sent by train to Stalag Luft I, a camp farther west. ”8

This Air Force Magazine article also opined that the forced march was “. . . an event of mass heroism that has been neglected by history.” This claim is fairly accurate. There are many Internet sites and some published books that contain individual accounts of the march, but it has not received the notoriety proportional to the ordeal that these men were forced to suffer. The Senate commemoration seems to confirm this fact, stating: “Unfortunately, the story . . . is not well known.”

Senator Warner’s tribute said that the travail ended on April 26 in Halle, Germany, when the marchers were liberated by the U.S. 104th Infantry Division. Research indicates, however, that the march did not conclude in as orderly a manner as Senator Warner stated. Although the 104th liberated a major column of marchers, there were other columns that it did not liberate.9 Owing to inadequate roads and varying circumstances, not all POWs had taken the same route through Germany. Moreover, in Paul’s specific case, because of a fateful decision he and three others made, liberation would come at the hands of a Soviet patrol on April 24. Paul’s “march” would not halt, however, until May 12 in Riesa, Germany, four days after V-E Day.

Asked if little food, much filth and no doctors about summed-up The Black March, Paul responded acerbically: “There was also the winter.” Paul was asked to comment upon a statement appearing in the Congressional record attributed to Major Leslie Caplan, M.D., the same officer who gave testimony against the commandant of Stalag Luft IV and himself a survivor of The Black March:

It was a march of great hardship. We marched long distances in bitter weather and on starvation rations. We lived in filth and slept in open fields or barns. Clothing, medical facilities and sanitary facilities were utterly inadequate. Hundreds of men suffered from malnutrition, dysentery, tuberculosis, and other diseases.

“I don’t think I ever slept in the open,” Paul observed. “I was always in a barn somewhere and usually you could take your blankets and combine them with somebody else’s to stay warmer. Some of the barns had straw that could be used,” he added, pointing out that straw would insulate for additional warmth.

Paul explained that by early February he and the other POWs at Stalag Luft IV sensed that a move of some sort was coming. “There were rumors about the Russians getting closer,” he said. “I figured we’d be packed into trains but that didn’t happen.”

The announcement that there would be a march was made on February 6, 1945 at morning formation. Commandant Bombach spoke from a raised platform and without a microphone. “He just told [us] what was going to happen and that was the end of it,” Paul indicated. “He spoke good English, he was clear.”

Reflecting back on that morning, Paul continued: “There were about 200 to 300 men on the quadrangle which included 100 or so from my barracks. The ones that couldn’t make the walk just sat there.” Referring to those who stood, he added: “I don’t think anybody looked forward to it [the march]. We took it as a matter of course.” He then asked: “What could be done about it? We didn’t know what was coming up and we were apprehensive.” Paul volunteered: “We would have just as soon seen the Russians come in.”

With respect to the approach of the Red Army, Bombach had been truthful to the POWs. He told them that this was the reason for the march, and also that there was a lack of rail transportation. Paul and the other POWs had seen no signs of the Soviets. “We were in the country,” he said, referring to the fact that it was still and peaceful. “There were no warplane flyovers or the rumbling of far away explosions.”

Paul stated that most of the men from his barracks made the march. The POWs in Paul’s group, already dressed in winter gear, moved directly out of the lager without returning to their barracks.

“We moved out and they were left behind,” Paul said, referring to the POWs who had sat on the ground. He added: “I never knew what they [the Germans] did with them. The Germans didn’t say what was happening.” No representatives of the International Red Cross were present.

When Paul learned that approximately one-third of the 9,500 POWs at Stalag Luft IV ended-up being removed by train owing to medical reasons, he chuckled and quipped: “I guess I should have been lame.”

“It wasn’t nasty,” Paul remembered, referring to the weather that first day. “Not severely cold, just a normal winter day. We were fairly close to the main gate, but I could not see what was going on in other sections of the camp.”

What Paul could not see was that the German guards had emptied the camp one lager at a time and within a lager, one or two barracks at a time. The German design was to send POWs off in separate groupings of approximately 200 each to avoid critical massing. Paul indicated that during the entirety of the march he never saw 6,000 marchers or anywhere near that number. If there were to be a POW rebellion, it would be a small one, that is, localized and more manageable for the Germans.

The evacuation of the camp was accomplished in a day—30 columns on the move, give or take. One of the things that did help that day and for a few days thereafter was the presence of a medical professional. “The Germans appointed a British pharmacist as the medical officer,” Paul noted. He was given free movement among the marchers.”

“As we were leaving, we passed by tables holding Red Cross packages and we could take all we could carry,” Paul said. “This presented a problem because too much weight would be difficult to carry for a long distance. The Germans solved this by marching us by the boxes at a fast walk. My turn came and I saw those Hershey bars. They are light and easy to carry, lots of energy and they are good. I scooped up 8 or 10 bars and wrapped them in some of my clothing as I thought how good these would be along the march.” Paul offered that he and the others would have liked to have had an opportunity to think about what food items to select, but this was not to be. “They didn’t scream at us,” he recollected, referring to the guards, “but the line was moving.” The Germans emphasized that this food might be needed for several days and maybe even up to a week; some POWs grabbed more food than they could carry—including heavy cans.

The area in Poland where the march started was latitude 53.56° N— approximately the same as Goose Bay, Canada where the Bishop Crew had briefly stopped. Paul described Goose Bay the previous October, when he landed there in transit, as a place of cold and “never ending snow.” Being early February now, Paul was really in a place of never ending snow. The first day may not have been particularly harsh, but many of the days that followed were. A survivor of the march stated: “Many days the weather did not get above zero.”10 Other accounts confirmed frequent sub-zero weather.11

“Gloves were available,” Paul said. “But I don’t remember anything about what kind of hat I wore,” he continued, “but I must have had something.” Paul wore a heavy wool uniform and greatcoat, carried a blanket roll (with the aid of a shoulder strap) and had this to say about his boots: “They were G.I. styled high-tops like the ones we got in basic training. Tough.”

It was not long after the march started that Paul appreciated the significance of having well-fitting boots. “I suspect,” he opined, referring to when the boots had been issued to the POWs at Dulag Luft, “that some of the boots weren’t the size that the individual needed because they probably ran out . . . so they [the Germans] just substituted something else.”

Tightly fitting or loosely fitting boots, uncomfortable as they might be, would not present a medical problem in the confines of a prison camp. On the march, however, blisters would develop and split open and the skin underneath would continue to rub. Exposed and traumatized flesh would become dirty and without proper medical treatment eventually infected. Medications were lacking on the march.

Paul’s feet never blistered. He had been blessed with good luck.

The men were issued two wool blankets that they carried as their bedrolls. “I had a tin cup,” Paul said, “and may have had a knife and fork, also, I can’t remember.” He estimated the total weight that he carried was maybe 20 pounds or a little more. Per a number of accounts of Black Marchers, hauling more weight than that in the form of food wrapped in blankets proved to be an excruciating challenge. With only his Hershey bars Paul was in good shape weight-wise. “Really, it wasn’t a problem,” he observed. “I just threw it over my shoulders and went.” Paul also confirmed that the overcoat he had been issued was heavy, long and warm, and that the blanket roll had no tumpline—that is, a relief strap worn around the forehead to shift the weight off one’s shoulder onto the spine.

Other than trying to keep Paul’s group of200 or so reasonably together and away from other groups, the German guards were not concerned about a marching order. There were six guards per group and they did not have dogs with them. “The guards were quite old men,” Paul said, “and replaced often.” At the onset, simply because it happened that way, Paul marched near the front of his column.

Paul finished the first day exhausted, thirsty and hungry, having completed 15 miles. He decided not to eat a Hershey bar, even though he was ravenous to do so; no, best to keep the bars for the long haul he told himself—to preserve what little food he had for future consumption or trading, as the case might be. Using his tin cup, he drank large quantities of ersatz “coffee” made of boiled well water with dissolved lard or grease that passed for butter.

No one had dropped out. “No, not the first day,” Paul made clear. There had been foot problems, yes, but “the medic [the British pharmacist] was right there.”

There had been no preparation for this march at Stalag Luft IV and to go from an essentially warehoused existence to one involving hyper physical activity in the cold of winter with limited or even no nutrition was indeed a serious proposition in more than one way. In addition to physical health concerns there were psychological health concerns. By the evening of the first day, all of the marchers to some extent questioned what the future might hold for them. Some were in better shape physically and mentally than others, but no one was at ease about the situation.

That first night the guards made the POWs sleep head-to-head in long lines in a barn, Paul explained. “I didn’t awake until the morning call,” he said. “We were soon on the move and we kept moving most of the morning. Along about noon I decided I would try the first of my Hershey bars so I reached into my hiding place—they were gone! I was angry and very disappointed. It had to have been the fellow in the line just opposite me as none of the others could reach in without disturbing several sleepers. I was so tired I didn’t pay attention to who that was and probably so tired I didn’t feel him reach in and remove the bars. I watched for a Hershey bar-eater but never saw one. The first few days there was a great deal of food swapping on the march but not for me, I had lost my bargaining chips.”

A number of stories about The Black March tell of heroic behavior on the part of POWs towards each other, that is, the stronger helping the weaker. Here was something that was, well . . . different. “It happened,” Paul confirmed.

The British pharmacist made a huge contribution to Paul and many of the others during the short period of time that he assisted them. He advised the men to huddle together during the freezing cold nights and share blankets for increased body warmth. He also laid down the law about drinking only boiled well water and insisted that the men needed to drink plenty of it. Paul and the others had no canteens, and when marching the Germans did not supply water.

Soon after the march started—in a matter of a day or days—the British pharmacist was gone. “I figured he ended-up somewhere else in the line,” Paul said. “But I do not know this.” He added: “The German guards could not tell us, either.” For the rest of the march, practically the entire 500-mile distance, Paul and his fellow POWs were without the assistance of a medical professional.

The groups trudged on without flags or other visible signals that identified them as POWs. This did not matter though, Paul thought, “Again we were out in the countryside.” Paul saw no combat elements of the German Army or pre-made entrenchments; for all intents and purposes, in this area the war did not exist save for old men carrying long bolt-action rifles. “They did not get too close,” Paul noted about the guards, but every now and then one of them might initiate a conversation with the friendly question, “Where ist you from?”

Occasionally Paul would see other similar-sized POW groups walking ahead or behind him. “We could not communicate with these other groups,” Paul said. “They were too far away.”

It was on the second or third day, Paul could not remember which, that he first saw it happen: one of the fellows marching near him developed problems with his feet, and had to be taken to the back of the line. The pharmacist was not available to dress the wounds and there was nothing that could be done for him. “Several men began having trouble and I saw them drop back,” Paul remembered.

These men were never seen again; they were trapped in the deep countryside during winter. They lacked the ability to move and the Germans apparently did not have the means to help them. Blisters “caused a lot of problems,” Paul noted with characteristic understatement. There were no ambulances or motorized vehicles of any kind; nor did Paul ever see a horse-drawn cart that might be used to help POWs who could no longer walk (this does not mean that such a cart or carts did not exist). There was no Red Cross presence.

The second critical problem confronting the marchers pertained to drinking water. With no potable water available during the day, the POWs had no choice but to hydrate at day’s end and into the night and morning, and in this regard many did not have the good fortune like Paul to possess a life saving piece of equipment—a simple tin cup. The problem started the first night. Without a cup, thirsty men were unable to adequately hydrate themselves. Also, apparently a number of marchers—not necessarily in Paul’s group, but in the groups as a whole, either did not receive or didn’t heed the advice about drinking only boiled water.

According to the 1947 testimony of Major Caplan, the failure by the Germans to supply every POW marcher with a drinking cup was an oversight amounting to criminal negligence. The marchers who could not drink adequate amounts of boiled water during the nightly encampments consequently resorted, in desperation, to drinking tainted roadside water during the marches. The Germans enforced no rudimentary sanitation plans, such as calling for the marchers to urinate and defecate on say, only the left hand side of the road, and consequently the groundwater on both sides became contaminated. A number of marchers ended up drinking water contaminated by earlier marchers, and Major Caplan testified that many took ill and died of typhoid fever because of this oversight. This became a crisis within days of February 6.

Caplan also believed that potable water should have been provided en route by the Germans. Paul said about this: “We drank when we got to our destination and then we usually drank coffee because we did not know how pure the water was.” He added: “I wouldn’t have wanted to try this in the summer.”

The roads in Poland were dirt, Paul related, “but as we got nearer to Germany they were asphalt.” This didn’t matter, however, as in both countries the marchers proceeded over packed down, or rutted snow.

Paul confirmed that he never saw the camp commandant after that morning assembly. Bombach, undoubtedly aware of what the Red Army would do to him if he were captured, had gone ahead and caught a ferryboat in order to put more distance between himself and the Russians.12Although Paul never saw the commandant again, Bombach remained in command of The Black March for a period of 53 days after its start.

As the days of the first week wore on, the hardships increased. Some men started out carrying reading books and even small musical instruments, packed in the false hope that a modicum of enjoyment might be eked out along the way. Those had been tossed aside. Also those heavy tin cans— powdered milk for instance—got thrown away. “Anything not needed got quickly pitched,” Paul remembered.

The incessant cold of winter made its impact. There was wind chill to contend with and Paul remembered times when he shivered uncontrollably. Asked about the temperature and whether it was near or below zero degrees, Paul revealed a determination that he and others had quickly developed: “We didn’t pay much attention to the temperature,” Paul answered. “It was either cold or it wasn’t cold. We were more interested in where we were, where we were going and where the food was.”

The only break Paul and the others received during this period was, surprisingly, the sub-zero temperature. “We had mostly snow, very little rain,” Paul said. The snow could be flicked off, keeping Paul and his bedroll dry.

On the march there were no warming fires at intervals along the way, Paul noted. He also noted: “We didn’t have heavy socks.” Frostbite was a problem, and Paul both suffered from it and witnessed it seriously afflicting others. He explained that after one march his toes had turned color, but that the next day they were OK. “They did not turn black,” he said. Others were not so fortunate. “Lost toes were common,” he indicated. Asked if anything could be done for these stricken men, he replied: “No. We were on our own after the medical guy left.” If someone could not make the march in the morning, he would stay in the barn. Whether the Germans were able to assist him after the column left, Paul never knew.

In some groups there was a shortage of overcoats. A POW might wear a coat for an hour, then lend it out for an hour, then take it back and so forth. This was cited as an example of heroic behavior—and no doubt was. This sharing did not need to be done in Paul’s group, however. “Everyone had a coat,” he confirmed.

Paul explained that there was no set pattern for stopping the column for a rest break, but rather a stop was made whenever the guards felt like imbibing schnapps. “It’s their national drink,” he observed, “but not one shared with us.” In the evenings the guards bivouacked a short distance from the POWs. “It’s hard to tell what they ate because they were off to one side,” Paul recalled. “They had their own fire, and I think they had a lot of real bread,” which was something Paul and the other POWs longed for. Many of them were in their seventies,” Paul said about his captors, “probably retired military.” He reiterated that they were replaced often.

As the first week wore on Paul’s hunger pains increased but there was nothing he could do about it; he had not yet learned how to forage for farm food, but that would happen reasonably soon. His immediate hope was for a shipment of Red Cross parcels to find its way to him.

Paul did not remember any severe snowstorms or blizzards that first week but this was not the recollection of other Black Marchers. When asked if the visibility ever got so poor in Poland that that one might experience white out and get lost, Paul laughed. “We were always on a road,” he commented, indicating “No.” He added: “We hoped the guards knew where we were going. We weren’t always sure!”

At this time a number of POW groups started taking different routes west; some were able to take the same ferryboat as the commandant; other groups, including Paul’s, marched around the body of water the boat crossed. The experiences of groups were different and their stories were often, and understandably, contradictory. Some POWs viewed the German guards in a harsh light; others, like Paul, had a less harsh assessment.

By the end of the first week a routine had set in. Arriving at a barn, the first order of business would be to start a fire to provide warmth and to boil drinking water. “We had the fires outside,” Paul explained. Also, “some of the barns had stoves that we used for warming.” Extreme caution was used inside straw-filled barns, however, not to use matches as flashlights.

Next, a detail would find an outside area to be used as a latrine. No trenches would be dug, the ground being frozen solid and the marchers having neither the strength nor the tools to dig in any event. Then would come the hours of sipping “steaming hot, freshly brewed German ersatz coffee,” Paul said, referring to the awful tasting butter-grease that kept him alive. Practically every account of The Black March mentions this beverage; some referred to it as “tea.” There was no ability for a Black Marcher to cleanse his body before bunking down; it was far too cold to remove any garments. At sleep time: “We teamed up when we got into a barn,” Paul indicated. “Four blankets are better than two.”

As thirsty as he got while on the move, Paul never succumbed to the temptation to eat snow or drink ground water. He did experience bouts of diarrhea or even dysentery, however—and he mentioned that all of the marchers did. Paul could not remember whether he experienced periods of fever and shakes but thought that he probably did. “There were days when there was not much incentive to go on, but one did.”

Paul explained that he made several friends during the march, one of whom was a musician from Missouri who played a number of instruments. “Early in the march . . . [he] began to have problems with his feet,” Paul said. “Every day he would tell us how they hurt and all of us urged him to keep plugging along. One day after a break he just refused to move. Several fellows helped him get to the back of the line. That was the last time we ever saw him. This happened to several others who had medical problems. In order to be fair to the Germans, these people may have been given some medical care. We will never know.”

Telling is the fact that Paul could not remember this man’s name or the names of any of his other friends on The Black March. Asked if he ever witnessed men crawling because they could not walk, Paul replied: “Almost,” and then reflected: “I think they would give up before they started crawling. They would sit there on the side of the road and we had to keep moving. [We’d] . . . help them and make them comfortable, and then there’d be a guard on you and you had to catch back up with your group.” The toughest part, per Paul, was never learning what happened to these men—not even to this day. Paul also had to question whether the men’s loved ones learned anything.

Paul explained that the guards did not threaten the POWs overtly with bayonets or nudge them with rifle butts. “The only thing is,” Paul said, “as long as you were helping the fellow [move along] they [the guards] didn’t bother you. But as soon as you got him settled, you were advised to get back in the column.”

Of the guards using their weapons to prod marchers along, Paul laughed: “They [the guards] were having trouble carrying the heavy rifles!” he joked. “I’m not sure the guards could have used the rifles on us.”

As Paul and the others in the column approached the German border they passed through Polish population centers and encountered refugees. At this late stage in World War II there were millions of desperate, displaced persons all over Europe; Paul would see quite a number of them. “Many of these people were not in better shape than we were,” Paul opined, and referred to these unfortunate people as “misplaced persons.” He described them as: “poorly clothed and without any means to buy things. They just wandered around.” He added: “War is not man’s greatest achievement.”

“We didn’t have any idea when we crossed into Germany,” Paul said, explaining that there was no remnant of the pre-war border such as a gatehouse, customs office or other identifying structures. Even the architecture remained unchanged. “There were no signs, border guards or anything,” Paul added. “When we finally saw some town signs printed in German we knew we had crossed over.” Paul joked: “We didn’t have a passport.”

He arrived in Swinemünde, a port city where there was a large Nazi naval base, on February 15. As the crow flies, the distance he had travelled from Stalag Luft IV was approximately 110 miles. His group had to travel around a large body of water, however, to get to this spot, and the actual distance he walked over a nine-day period was approximately 160 miles.

Major Caplan had been responsible for the well being of3,000 marchers but not Paul and his group. Caplan arrived at Swinemünde the day before Paul and, as stated, gave testimony before the Army JAG after the war. The question put to him during the inquiry was: “What sort of shelter was provided?” He answered:

On February 14, 1945 Section C of Stalag Luft #4 had marched approximately 35 kilometers [22 miles]. There were many stragglers and sick men who could barely keep up. That night the entire column slept in a cleared area in the woods near Schweinemunde. It had rained a good bit of the day and the ground was soggy, but it froze before morning. We had no shelter whatever and were not allowed to forage for firewood. The ground we slept on was littered by the feces of dysenteric prisoners who had stayed there previously. There were many barns in the vicinity, but no effort was made to accommodate us there. There were hundreds of sick men in the column that night. I slept with one that was suffering from pneumonia.

Paul was asked to comment on Caplan’s testimony, and also an account written after the war by a B-17 top turret gunner named John “Pappy” Paris. Paris, who ate snow because he had had nothing to drink for a period of 24 hours, wrote a compelling narrative relating to the same period of the march.

The first weeks of the march saw all of us sufferingfrom diarrhea and dysentery. Many had colds and some had symptoms of pneumonia. When I felt I could go no further, I would tell myself that each foot I put in front of the other brought me one step closer to home. Had I been marching east instead of west I am not sure I could have endured. In addition to my exhaustion and dysentery was the racking pain in my shoulders. The sixth day of the Black March was the turning point for me. All day long I faced a cold wind, with alternate onslaughts of sleet and icy rain. That night they put me in a cold and drafty barn with no food, just a few nibbles from my dwindling rations. The constant dampness never gave me an opportunity to dry out. There were so many kriegies [slang for the German word “kriegsgefangener,” meaning “warprisoner”] packed into a small barn that I was unable to stretch out but was compelled to sleep doubled up like a pretzel. . . On the following morning the sun was out even though it was clear and cold. I marched with the sun on my back and soon felt dry and refreshed. I came to the conclusion that my body was able to endure many times greater punishment than I once thought possible. If my will continues strong I shall be able to suffer unbelievable hardships and survive.13

Paul responded to each statement. “As I said, I can’t remember that there was any time that we had to sleep in the open. There was always some kind of a shelter, usually a barn. Yeah, it got packed, and actually it might have been better off that way.”

As regards Sergeant Paris’ plight, Paul observed: “It sounds like he had a lot worse time than I did.” When Paul said this, a listener could not but help think that Paul had made no mention that his food had been stolen the first night of the march.

Paul had no recollection of that sunny day at the end of the first week. He remembered finally receiving some food, however, in the form of Red Cross parcels. He also remembered something else: “I prayed to get home, and I got home.”

Asked what kept him going that first week, Paul responded, “It was the encouragement I got from my fellow prisoners. We shared each other’s feelings and had a common ground together. We were confident that the war would end and that Germany would not win, but we did not know when the end was going to come. We just had to hang in until the day of victory arrived.”

Paul came up with another reason why he survived: “As I think back, now,” he said, “I think that medic [the British pharmacist] who advised us what to do and what not to do had a big part in getting us through. In addition to the water, he also told us to sleep together and share blankets. This might not have occurred to us.”

Asked if he was upset with the Germans because so many POWs had perished from causes that could have arguably been prevented, Paul gave a thought-provoking response: “Looking at it from their side,” he expounded, “if you’re on the German side, you’re looking at an enemy. Why would they give special treatment to an enemy? The German guards as a group were quite friendly, as long as one did not challenge their authority, but the higher officials, well, they had a different attitude.”

Paul concluded, pointing out that yes, there had been a lack of supervision on the part of the Germans in the evacuation, but he questioned—was it that critically bad in a relative sense? “The Germans did some bad things,” he asserted, “and so did we.” Without being prompted, he offered as an example: “Look at the bombing of Dresden.”

Paul never smoked but he used the wrappers of Chesterfield Cigarette packs from Red Cross parcels to record the names of towns that he would pass through, writing them down as they appeared on road signs. Swinemünde was the first name he recorded.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!