On the ground in Germany the POWs’ Black March progressed, “Four of us decided that we had had enough and would escape at the earliest opportunity,” Paul said. Asked if the fear of execution played a part in the decision to flee, Paul’s response was unequivocal: “No. Several of us were watching and we hadn’t seen any SS men in quite a while. Also we were going into the territory where the Germans had evacuated because of the advancing Russians. It was kind of a no man’s land.”
At this late juncture in the war it was still possible for Hitler to order the killing of POWs, but whether such an order would or could be carried out was another matter. Hitler did not accept Goebbels February recommendation to execute all of the Western Allied airmen, but apparently he did order that captured U.S. and British air officers be exposed as hostages (i.e., used as human shields) “in downtown target areas of Berlin and other major cities” to deter the further bombing of these sites.1 This draconian order was not carried out due largely to the fact that there was no barbed wire available with which to pen-up the POW officers. Still, even at this late date, and as mentally unstable as Hitler was, he could have changed course and issued a general execution order.
The three men who accompanied Paul on the breakaway were not part of a group that he marched with regularly. “We couldn’t see any future in just traveling back and forth. There was no system or reason for what we were doing. It probably wasn’t a good decision, but we made it.” Paul stated that the lack of food was an important consideration; that the Red Cross packages were no longer coming through.
The decision to slip away on April 22 had been spontaneous, that is, not planned in advance. The column of POWs halted for a break and the guards had gone to the front of the line, “probably to drink coffee,” Paul opined. He and the three others—men not well known to him—seized the moment to slip quietly into the woods. “It was a risky thing to do,” Paul acknowledged, adding that the German guards at this juncture may have been in the same circumstance as the POWs, that is, hungry, exhausted and discouraged. He did not know what food was available to them. “They were older,” he emphasized again. “It was a struggle for them to keep up.” Undoubtedly these guards probably also feared an encounter with a Soviet patrol. They were on the wrong side of the Elbe River, after all. How might they escape?
Paul pointed out that more than four men could have possibly escaped that day, but that his little group of four was a manageable number. “One can’t hide, say, 30 men,” he observed. There were rumors to the effect that other POWs had previously escaped from his column, but he did not know this.
“Our opportunity came with the mid-morning break as we were next to a patch of woods and the guards were not paying the slightest attention to us,” Paul said. “We made our break and kept going until we felt safe from pursuit. After that we just wandered south looking for a farm and food.”
“We traveled in daylight,” Paul related, responding to a question whether he and the others hunkered down in the deep woods until darkness set in. “We wanted to find shelter and locate food. We looked for a farmhouse. We were also afraid of being pursued.” He chuckled and then added: “But I don’t think we were. I don’t think they even missed us.” During this late and very chaotic period of the war it is doubtful that the guards followed up on missing POWs, or even took periodic head counts. The hopelessness of the situation for them had to be very much on their minds.
“We knew we were travelling south because of where the sun came up in the morning and went down in the evening, so we knew what general direction we were heading. We had no map, it was just guesswork.” They headed south because there was little alternative. As much as they would like to have advanced in a westerly direction towards where they thought the Americans might be, the Elbe River blocked such a route to American controlled areas. Although they didn’t know it, the Allied powers had agreed to meet at the Elbe. “We didn’t have any idea where they [the Americans] were,” Paul emphasized. “From day to day, we didn’t get any reports.”
One of the major waterways in central Europe, 1,000 feet wide in places, Paul and his escaper companions would have needed a boat or a bridge to cross the Elbe, and obviously at the end ofWorld War II neither was accessible. There exist film records of thousands of Germans, both military and civilian, desperately struggling on hand and foot to cross over this river on wrecked and even partly submerged bridges, to put the river between themselves and the advancing Soviets. These damaged bridges were populated choke points. To get to one Paul and his companions would have had to expose themselves to many enemy combatants, including SS units. They had been wise to keep a distance between themselves and the Elbe.
This small group of Americans hoped they might be in no-man’s land, that is, a completely empty area between opposing armies. With each passing hour on the move—seeing no human activity whatsoever—that impression grew. “It was completely evacuated,” Paul said about his rural surroundings. “The Germans in the area did not want to get captured by the Russians.”
“Some of us had canteens and others, metal containers,” Paul remembered. “We were careful not to drink out of streams, only well water.”
Asked if they had been spotted, would they be recognized as escaped American POWs, Paul replied: “Not necessarily. We wore old [U.S.] Army uniforms without any insignias.” Paul elaborated that the Germans could only recognize him as a POW when he marched in a long, guarded, column. “In a small group,” he said, referring to himself and his companions, “we might have passed as displaced persons.” To drive his point home, Paul added: “Later, the Russians did not know who we were.”
As an aside, the Luftwaffe guards could have easily and inexpensively avoided this potential recognition issue by simply painting a large letter “K” (for Kriegsgefangener) on the backs of POW greatcoats, but this was not done.
“It was cold but we did not encounter storms those first days,” Paul continued. Avoiding roads, the band of four “crossed fields and went through woods.” Paul added: “I do not recall seeing many roads.”
Cognizant that their slow movement could make them an easier target for an enemy rifleman, the POW escapees nevertheless lacked the energy to cross an open field on the run. They were bone tired and weak. Coming out of a woods, they stopped and surveyed an open area as best they could. The men were also fully aware of what would happen to them if they ran into an SS patrol.
Paul did not know any of the names of the men that he was with or even where they hailed from in the United States. “We were only concerned about making the right moves,” he said, indicating that the conversations he had with the other Americans were business-like. “We did not want to be discovered or tracked down. Also, again, we were after food. We decided things together.”
“About evening we came to an abandoned house and barn,” Paul related. “There seemed to be no prospects there on first look until we heard a hen in the barn. We peeked in and there she was. We had to corner her in the barn or she would outrun us. Very detailed plans were made to capture that hen. We all took our positions armed with sticks and began to close in. She made her break for the open door and the fellow at that position got her with one swipe. One of the fellows found some small carrots, some kohlrabi in back of the barn and a few cull potatoes in the cellar of the house. They all went together with the chicken into an old bucket we found in the barn. That night we had chicken soup for dinner. How lucky we were!”
Paul and the others had been so elated with finding food that they forgot to check for booby traps on the premises. The house was “old and with four or five rooms,” Paul said. “It wasn’t big and was not furnished,” he continued, suggesting that the previous occupants had had enough time to cart out their belongings.
The four men felt secure enough to maintain an outside fire for a period after nightfall. That night they slept in the house on the floor, thankful to have a roof overhead; they did not bother to set up a guard-watch. “We were pooped,” Paul said. After a decent night’s rest, the men had the remains of the soup for breakfast and moved on.
Paul elucidated that the four of them felt the need to do something affirmative in order to make contact with friendly forces. Reflecting, he added: “Considering the direction we moved in it is doubtful we would have encountered Americans.” He also explained, however, that he and his companions did not give up hope that the U.S. Army might find them. Later Paul would opine: “We had no grand plan. We were impatient youth who managed to luck out. The Russians or the SS could have shot us all.”
“That afternoon we came to a bombed-out brick building so we looked around inside and found that it had been a Focke Wulf factory as parts and plans were scattered all around. Across the road from the factory were two large fuel tanks that seemed to be intact. We decided to sleep in the area that night.”
The factory was three or four stories high and made of brick. Part of the factory had been destroyed and the windows had been blown out. The long side might have been a hundred yards in length. They entered it from the narrow side. “There were no pulleys or machinery to speak of but rather a lot of discarded [airplane] parts,” Paul remembered. “Partially built wings and fuselages, mostly damaged, but we could recognize Fw-190s.”
The Nazis produced 20,000 of these airplanes. With a 34-foot wingspan and a service ceiling of37,000 feet the Fw-190 could do over 400 mph and was regarded as the best piston driven fighter in the Nazi inventory.2 It would be irony indeed if the fighter planes that shot down The Wild Hare had been built at this manufacturing plant, the one that provided temporary shelter for Paul and his companions. The likelihood of this was slim however, as scores of such small manufacturing plants were disbursed throughout the Third Reich.
Paul confirmed that the plant was not in an industrial park, but rather surrounded by countryside. “It was by itself,” he said, referring to the plant and the fuel tanks across the road. “An open area.” The fuel tanks were “probably a couple hundred yards” away from the factory and not camouflaged. They were exposed to view and were metal colored; Paul could not venture a guess as to their capacity or size, other than to note that they were large.
“Early that evening we heard a rumbling sound from down the road. We slipped up behind a knoll and saw that the rumbling was from German Tiger tanks! We were quite concerned, as we did not want to be in the middle of a battle. Where would we go? We decided to stay as the Germans were moving away from us and toward the west.”
The tanks were “probably 300 yards” away when Paul and the others first saw them. “We didn’t know what it [the noise] was. We snuck out [of the building] and took a look. It was twilight but we could clearly recognize them.”
Paul recollected spotting “maybe four” tanks and he got a good look at them—he could clearly see the painted white crosses. “The hatches were buttoned down,” Paul observed, meaning there were no panzer crewmen visible. Moving in his general direction, the tanks did not carry soldiers on top and stayed on the road. “They were moving right along. In my opinion they were trying to get out of there as fast as they could. This was a retreat,” he observed. “We feared troops were following and we hid as fast as we could.”
“We didn’t go back into the building but rather found that knoll and also some nearby brush to hide behind.” Paul related as to how the tanks were spread out in a column maybe 50 yards apart on the road that passed between the factory and the fuel tanks. Asked if there was infantry anywhere, he replied: “No, thank goodness” and pointed out that the tanks were doing 20 or more miles per hour and that infantry would not be able to keep up. “We peeked over the knoll without being seen but I don’t think they would have stopped even if they spotted us, as they seemed intent on moving out,” Paul said. The tanks passed within “a couple hundred yards” of the POW escapees.
That Paul and the others correctly identified the German tank model there can be no doubt. The Nazi Tiger tank, with its long 88mm flak gun, massive 60-ton displacement and 21-foot length, was unique by World War II standards. Also, Paul’s estimate of the speed was close: the Tiger Tank had a maximum speed of 24 mph. In addition to its big weapon, a Tiger sported two machine guns.
The tanks probably used the twilight to escape; there was enough light to see a bit outside but too dark for Soviet air operations. At this end-stage of the war these panzer troopers had to have been desperate to get out. They were the last line of the Nazi defense.
The tanks passed close by but not so close that Paul could smell their exhaust fumes. Paul admitted to having the daylight scared out of him: “We were very concerned for what might be coming behind them. We didn’t know what was going on.” The escapers realized immediately that they were not in a no-man’s land as they had previously assumed. “We feared we might end up in a middle of a battle,” Paul repeated. “We spent the night outside, watching.” That night he told of no warming fire and little sleep. The need for food had been temporarily supplanted by the more immediate need for security. “We had canteens, but I can’t remember how full they were,” Paul said.
Asked if there was an agreed upon plan if enemy infantry showed up, Paul replied: “Not really. Run away.” He added: “We’d probably retreat back in the direction of the farmhouse.” Asked if there was anything in the factory that the escapees might use as a weapon, Paul replied: “If we possessed anything that looked like a weapon, it might cause us to get immediately shot.”
The four men determined to stick together, that is, not split up no matter what. “We stayed in control,” Paul recollected, a tone of gratification in his voice. “We were very worried, but no one had a nervous breakdown. We remained quiet.” Paul said that none of the escapers fruitlessly whined and second-guessed their decision to escape, and no disagreements erupted. Paul prayed to God for deliverance that night and undoubtedly the others did also. “Yes, quite often,” Paul said about his prayers. The men supported each other by talking. There was no need to whisper. “It wasn’t necessary, no one was near,” he explained. This would be a night that Paul would always remember. No German troops appeared. The escape plan to the southeast remained intact.
“Next morning we were sitting along the bank by the old factory when we heard the sound of planes,” Paul remembered. “Three A-20 attack bombers were making a bombing run at about 2,000 ft. on those fuel tanks. I ran to the factory and flattened out by the back wall. Suddenly, I looked up and saw that the wall had no support and probably it would come down with a small blast so I ran as fast as I could to the nearest ditch and slid in. The bombs hit the tanks but no fuel explosion occurred. They were empty and probably contained diesel fuel at one time.”
“They were rockets,” Paul elucidated about the attack. “They weren’t big bombs.” When the planes appeared, “the other fellows scattered in different directions,” Paul explained. He indicated he was a couple hundred yards away from the explosions, but wasn’t positive about this distance. Asked about the number of rockets fired, he responded: “Two or three. Maybe one from each plane.” Paul did not cover his ears, but this did not present a problem for him. The ground shockwave was not that powerful, he recollected, and he reported that the wall that he originally took cover under remained standing. Paul and his companions were not injured and the attack was over quickly.
“I jumped up and waved to the planes as they circled back to see what damage had been done,” Paul said. “I don’t know that they saw me but if they did, it was my hope they might report the possibility of American soldiers in the area.”
Paul offered that he might not have been so enthusiastic in waving at the planes had he been aware that the pilots could have been (and probably were) Soviet. “I did not see markings,” he confessed, referring of course to national insignia. Paul was unaware at the time that the U.S. had supplied the Soviet Union with approximately 3,000 Douglas A-20 Havoc Bombers; he assumed when he saw these American-built aircraft that the pilots were also American. The A-20 was a twin-engine tactical bomber designed for low altitude bombing and strafing runs. The model had fixed forward cannons. One or more of these pilots circling back might have squeezed a trigger.
There was no question but that these pilots were competent. “They did hit those storage tanks,” Paul observed. “I saw it after the explosions.” The Soviet Air Force had 7,000 airplanes, most of them low-level air-to-ground attack models, not unlike the A-20, and they were effective against ground targets.
Paul and his companions had been lucky. First they had been lucky no German infantry showed up. Then they had been lucky at not being injured or killed when they “sat” in close proximity to a military target. That these storage tanks might be struck from the air by the Soviets was foreseeable, and those trained in infantry tactics would probably be alert to this danger and take defensive positions accordingly. Lastly, they had been lucky not to be strafed. From the air, how would a pilot or pilots know that a man with his arm waving on the ground might not be attempting to distract them while other men shot at them?
Would their luck hold?
After the planes left Paul and his companions decided to stay another day in the vicinity of the factory. “We didn’t have any real options,” Paul indicated. “We didn’t want to follow the trail west with those Tiger tanks, but there wasn’t any food here and that chicken soup had been eaten long ago. We had no maps and we really didn’t know where we were or which way to turn. We suspected that the Americans might be west of us, in the direction of the Tigers, but we had no assurance of that. We were getting very discouraged.”
The escapers made a good decision: “We just sat quietly and watched,” Paul said. They would sit peacefully in clear view and let the Red Army come to them.
“Mid-morning April 24th we spotted a lone figure coming up the road and we thought he was on a mule, and suddenly we realized it was a Russian soldier on a Mongolian Steppe horse. He didn’t look up or down but just plodded slowly until he went out of sight. We wondered if he even observed us. If he did, we didn’t worry him much. Well, the Russians were on the way so we decided to sit tight and see what happened.”
Despite not knowing for sure whether they had been spotted, the men sensed that maybe they had, and their spirits soared in anticipation. “Someone made the crack that the Russians had sent that fellow out to destroy those Tiger tanks; since we didn’t look like Tiger tanks he kept on going,” Paul related, chuckling at the memory.
Seeing the Russian horseman, it occurred to Paul that perhaps his frantic earlier hand waving at the airplanes had paid a dividend. “I expect the pilots probably reported that we did not look like [German] soldiers,” he opined proudly, and rightfully so.
Paul reported that he could not see if the rider had a radio, which would have appeared as a box-like contraption. “I didn’t even see a rifle,” he said, “but he must have had some weapon on him.”
“No, he just plodded along on the road,” Paul recollected. “He did not wave or signal in any manner.” Again, Paul and his companions had been fairly certain the rider had spotted them. They had seen the Soviet horseman clearly and there was no reason for him to have missed seeing them. The closest point of approach was a couple hundred yards—the same distance as with the Tiger tanks, only this time without concealment on the part of the POW escapees.
The Red Army was known to probe in this manner. A horse would be quieter than a motorized vehicle and give its rider some degree of extra speed if needed. More important, only one soldier’s life—the scout’s—would be at risk. In the movie Schindler’s Listthere is a scene somewhat like what Paul and his companions experienced. At war’s end, a solitary Soviet rider casually approaches hundreds of Jewish refugees, approximately half women, and announces that they are liberated. In the case of Paul and the others, the rider did not approach probably because the four men could still be part of a Nazi trick.
“Later that day we saw a patrol of Russian soldiers coming up the road,” Paul continued, “and we got a little tense because we might not be able to convince them we were Americans. If we ran they would become more suspicious so we just sat and waited. They came to investigate us but guns were not drawn and they didn’t seem too concerned. They understood the word “American” but not much else. We showed them our dog tags and they motioned us to follow, so we did.” The Soviet patrol consisted of only a handful of men, undoubtedly done this way to preclude the possibility of an ambush of a larger number of Red Army soldiers in an open area.
Thinking back on this moment of liberation on April 24, 1945, Paul expressed pride that he and his companions had decided to break away. “I found out, however, that the column we came from was liberated by the British several days later,” a fact that he learned many years after the war at a reunion of the 91st Bomb Group.
Asked if meeting the Red Army soldiers was a highly emotional thing for him, Paul reflected before responding. “No,” he said. “They were friendly yes, but . . . this was not like meeting . . . Americans.” Paul admitted that he did not know what the future might hold. When might he be repatriated? How would he and his companions get across the river? Paul was relieved to be finally out of the reach of the dreaded SS, but a new set of anxieties quickly arose.
The small Soviet patrol led the Americans through their battle line: “Soon we joined a larger group lead by a sergeant whose right hand had a thumb but no fingers,” Paul related. “We drew pictures in the dirt to let him know that we were fliers and had been shot down. Then we told him we were prisoners and had escaped from the Germans. We could see that he was very impressed by the escape. He stopped to tell all the Russian soldiers and they seemed to change their attitude.”
Paul clarified what he meant by change of attitude: “I think initially the soldiers who picked us up thought we were just more displaced persons. They did not appreciate the significance of our dog tags. When their sergeant explained we were shot down U.S. Army Air Forces members who escaped the Nazis, the men looked favorably upon us.”
Paul concluded the story of his liberation day: “The Russians asked what we wanted. Food of course! They offered us some very course, heavy bread. It didn’t even look good but we ate all that was offered and gave our ‘Thanks’ in return. Now I understood how the Russian soldiers could fight for so long. Two or three pounds of this bread, soaked by a bottle of vodka in the bottom of their stomachs, would last about a week.”
Asked if he and his fellow escapers were offered vodka, Paul replied, “No, but we sure saw them drink it.” Paul would see more of this excessive drinking in the weeks to come and also an evil that it facilitated.