The long, awful march from Stalag Luft IV

stalag luft IV evac                                                                                POWs being evacuated from Stalag Luft IV, early 1945 (Source:

By George Morris

The sound of an approaching army — especially a mechanized one — is impossible to miss, particularly when it is engaged with its enemy. In January 1945, Allied prisoners of Stalag Luft IV heard the Soviet army driving westward through Poland.

“We could hear the gunfire, the cannons,” said Russell McRae, a Baton Rouge resident. “We could see the flashes at night. We knew we were going to get overrun, and we thought we’d be liberated.”

They would — some of them, anyway. But not for a long time, and not by the Soviets.

After shipping out the weakest and sickest on train cars, the German captors put the remaining 6,000 prisoners, mostly American airmen — in groups of 250 to 300 and marched out of the camp. The temperature, said Sam Moreland of Prairieville, was 10 below zero. They’d been told their travels would last three days, Moreland said.

Three days? Only in their dreams.

In a harrowing journey, the prisoners were forced on foot for hundreds of miles through a crumbling Third Reich before finally being liberated by American forces in late April and early May. An unknown number perished along the way, and those who survived recall the unremitting misery.

“I thought I’d died and went to hell,” Moreland said.

McRae and Moreland both were radio operators on B-24 bombers operating out of Italy, and both were shot down over Austria. McRae was captured in February 1944 and originally was imprisoned at Stalag Luft VI near Lithuania before being sent to Stalag Luft IV in July. When he arrived, prisoners were goaded by bayonets and guard dogs for the last two miles after getting off the train.

Moreland arrived three months later to a crowded camp. Prisoners were fed potatoes, cabbage, occasional horse meat and black bread that contained sawdust to make it more filling. They occasionally received Red Cross packages and split the contents — typically powdered milk, Spam, a chocolate bar, raisins, cigarettes — with four or more of their comrades.

“The food was terrible in the camp,” Moreland said. “Some of it I called green death or black hell. We would get potatoes. Sometimes we would get cabbage and it would have sticks and everything in it, and we would eat that. It was enough to keep us going.”

Conditions on the march were considerably worse. Dr. Leslie Caplan, a doctor who was imprisoned at Stalag Luft IV, estimated that prisoners received less than 800 calories of food per day. Prisoners scrounged what they could in the countryside.

“I’ve eaten hog food. It was dehydrated sugar beets,” Moreland said.

“You’d eat that stuff and your stomach would start cramping,” McRae said.

“I don’t know how much food value it had, but it did fill you up,” Moreland said. “Another place I ate grass. We had absolutely nothing to eat. I cooked it, boiled it, but I couldn’t swallow it, so I drank the juice. That was the bitterest stuff I ever put in my mouth.”

Sanitation was nonexistent, and prisoners drank whatever water they could find. Dysentery was rampant. They slept in barns when they could find them — often so crowded that not all the men could lie down — and out in the open when they couldn’t. One night, following a rainstorm, Moreland slept on the row of a plowed field as water collected in the furrows beside him.

“I’ll tell you, if I’d have had to go another night, I don’t think I would have made it. Your body can only have so much energy to heat something, and it couldn’t heat that mud,” he said.

The prisoners did not all travel along the same roads, but formed a mass of humanity that zig-zagged its way generally southwest from near the Baltic Sea. McRae and Moreland did not know each other at the time, but they’ve compared notes and figure they were part of the same group for much of the march. They were kept moving, never spending more than a night or two in the same place.

“The worst thing on the march was the exposure to the elements,” McRae said. “We never saw a heated building or anything. We didn’t get any baths. One time they let us jump in a river in the middle of the winter. That was the only time we even got to rinse off.”

“It was a quick one,” Moreland said.

The march seemed to have no point other than to keep the prisoners from being liberated as Germany collapsed from both sides. They passed by launch sites for rockets aimed at England, and Moreland said at one point his group was marched to what he believes was a death camp; he doesn’t know which one. They stayed outside it for two or three hours before being marched off.

“I didn’t realize what it was,” he said. “I never will forget — cold, hungry, and I never saw so many smokestacks in my life. Some of them had black smoke coming out of them. They were oblong. They were about 6 feet high. I figured, ‘Well, they’ve got heat, and they must have food.’ The strange thing is I didn’t see one person.”

McRae was liberated on April 26; Moreland doesn’t know the date. McRae said his group was marched to a furnace and ordered to strip naked and throw all their clothes in the furnace. They bathed and were deloused, and the next day those clothes were destroyed.

In recent years, some have compared Stalag Luft IV to the Bataan Death March that followed the surrender of U.S. Army forces in the Philippines in 1942. Hundreds of diseased and malnourished soldiers died on that march, which lasted for a week or more, and 10,650 died in Japanese captivity before the war ended, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although articles printed in Veterans of Foreign Wars and Air Force Association publications estimate more than 1,000 died in the Stalag Luft IV march, such figures may be inflated. The VA lists the total number of American POWs from the Army and Air Corps who died in captivity in Europe as 1,121. There is no official count of those who died on the march, said Leonard Rose, executive director of the Indiana Chapter of American Ex-Prisoners of War, who has produced a Web site about the march.

“I’ve been trying to find out for 60 years,” said Rose, who was on the march. “You would be with guys one day and not the next.”

But no one questions how awful it was. “It was terrible,” McRae said. “You can’t describe it. You had to be there.”

15 thoughts on “The long, awful march from Stalag Luft IV

  1. Reblogged this on Writing of Kayleen Reusser-Home and commented:
    Many people have heard of the Bataan Death March. I’ve interviewed two sons of an American Army officer who died as a part of that group. This is a separate Death March that took place in Germany. Sad that so many suffered at the hands of cruel people. May it never happen again! Thank a vet today for his/her service!


    1. My father staff
      sargent Aldo N. Lenarduzzi, was also a p o w at luft # 4 and was on the march death march with you. He was a radio / operator – waist gunner on a B-24 flying out of Spinazola , Italy. He was finally liberated in April of 45 at a town called Follingbostel !!!!!
      He unfortunately died at 73 years of age in 1996 ; and was the finest man I ever had the pleasure to experience !!!!!!!!!!!!!!


      1. Thanks for your note. Since I know only one other Lenarduzzi, are you any relation to Mike Lenarduzzi, who was a professional hockey goalie, briefly in the NHL? He played for a minor league team in Baton Rouge about 15 or so years ago and still lives here.


  2. Thank you for sharing this. My grandfather Dalford “Bob” Mathews was a pow at stalag luft IV and on that march. Also a resident of Baton Rouge. Let us never forget!


  3. My father was a POW in Stalag iv. He was also in the death march. He talked little about his ten months as a POW but did mention Big Stoop, the Guard.
    A few years after the war he had stomach surgery due to ulcers.
    He retired in 1962 as MSGT Lester W Tuning. Unfortunately he died in 1970;way to young.
    Never forget. Thank you


  4. My Father, Willam Danley, just past away this year at the age of 98. He left behind a memo and I believe he
    in that terrible march. He was cut off and captured during the battle of the bulge and ended up at Stalag 2B from there he was moved to Stalag 4 close to the Czechoslovakian border. From there they were Marched back to France…


  5. My uncle Lester Sanders was a prisoner at Luft IV and was in the march. He didn’t talk much though the years about it but we all knew he was a POW. Before he passed I was able to visit him and he told my wife and me about his experiences. He told of Big Stoop being a very cruel man. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have a day to day journal from my great uncle who was on this exact March. An incredible story. I can’t imagine what these men went through. I would love contact with someone to discuss these events and get more information. His plane was shot down over Italy bombing a fiat plant.


  7. My Dad, S/Sgt Gunnar Sand, was at Stalag Luft IV. He was in Lager C, Barracks 20. Leonard Rose helped me find out so much. How these men survived is a testament to courage, fortitude, and ‘putting one foot in front of the other’.


  8. Thank you for providing a place to learn about Stalag IV and the march. I had never heard about it until late in his life, my Uncle, Sgt (?) Lester Eugene Sanders finally opened up to his family to tell his story just before he passed away. He wrote some stories from his life and among them is some account of his experience. I was also able to visit him over a weekend weeks before he passed. He recounted with lots of emotion and difficulty the story. All my life, I knew my uncle had been shot down and spent some time in a POW camp. We knew he landed in a tree, injuring his back and knee and was soon captured. Beyond that, he never opened up about anything. There was a family story that had been told often about a family dinner on his return. Someone had brought a dish that evidently my uncle did not care for. His mom chided that person for the dish. When my uncle heard this, he pulled my grandmother aside and said, “it is ok. Don’t worry about it. I will eat whatever anyone brought and enjoy it.” I feel so glad that his nieces, nephews and son were able to finally get him to tell of this awful event in his life and regret not doing it sooner. He told of hiding the fact that he was injured and not seeing a reported doctor in the camp for fear of reprisals from on especially cruel guard they called “Big Stu.” At one-point Big Stu smacked a Jewish prisoner across the room and when my uncle tried to help him, Big Stu smacked my uncle across his ear bursting his eardrum. He asked my uncle if he wanted any more to which of course he said no thank you. I have seen is some other sites mention of Big Stu. It is amazing how these brave men just buried these experiences for so long. My uncle was about 5’6″ 160lbs when he was shot down and less than a year later, after the march he was down to barely over 100lbs on repatriation.


    1. Thanks for telling me about your uncle. That forced march isn’t well-known, but it was a horrible experience for those on it. I firmly believe the guards did it to save themselves from the Soviet Army.


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