POWs being evacuated from Stalag Luft IV, early 1945 (Source: http://www.dvrbs.com/camden-heroes/CamdenHeroes-FrankGramenzi.htm)
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.”