Don Menard shows a letter and gifts he received in 2004 from Vasily Bezugly, a Soviet soldier who helped liberate Menard at Stalag Luft 1 near the end of World War II in Europe. (Photo used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)
By George Morris
After leaving a prisoner of war camp near the end of World War II, Don Menard never expected he’d get to know any of the Soviet soldiers who liberated him.
Yet, several years, that is exactly what he was able to do.
In 2001, Menard began corresponding with Vasily Bezugly, part of the Soviet force that liberated Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, on May 2, 1945, just days before Germany’s surrender ended the war.
“We talk about the weather,” Menard said. “We talk about what things we’ve been to. We talk about our health a lot.”
They also talked about the separate paths that took them to Barth, and the events that followed.
Menard enlisted in the Army from Lafayette, Louisiana, exactly a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor that sent the United States into the war. When inadequate depth perception kept him from becoming a pilot, and there were no training openings to become a navigator, his choices were bombardier or radio operator.
“I got to thinking, ‘What in the hell am I going to do with bombardier training if I live through this thing?'” said Menard, owner of Menard Electronics. “So, I chose radio, and I never was sorry I did, because it ended up feeding my family for all these years.”
That, however, was an abstraction on Oct. 28, 1944. The B-17 carrying Menard was hit by antiaircraft fire on a mission. Trying to reach Allied territory in Holland, the bomber was further damaged by ground fire, and the 10-man crew was forced to bail out.
Menard landed in a pear tree and, as he was cutting himself loose from the parachute, he fell and injured an ankle and hip. Despite this, Menard and other crewmen made a 17-mile march to a railway that ultimately would take them to prison camp.
The camp gave the airmen a sense of how their bombings were affecting the German populace. As they neared the Frankfurt train station, an air raid siren sounded. They faced the civilians’ wrath.
“It didn’t take them long to recognize we were flyboys, so they rushed us, crowded us,” Menard said. “The guards — we had seven guards for 10 people — it was all they could do to hold those people back.
“About that time a couple of young German pilots came in. One of them whistled and the other yelled a command. I don’t know what the hell it was, but you could hear a pin drop, and they left us alone. They let us get out.”
Menard eventually reached Stalag Luft 4 in Pomerania (now western Poland). There, the biggest problem was malnutrition.
“That was the worst winter they’d had in 100 years, terrible winter,” he said. “The transport had been systematically destroyed, and some of our supplementary food came from Red Cross parcels. … The ideal thing was everybody got a parcel a week. That never happened. The Germans hoarded them.
“That spring — February, March, April — we damn near starved to death. It was that bad.”
As the Soviet army approached from the east, the captors crammed about 1,500 prisoners, including Menard, into boxcars and sent them west. The conditions, which would have been rough even had the POWs been in good health, were nightmarish.
“You couldn’t sit, couldn’t stand, and about half of us had diarreah from dysentery,” Menard said. “They had a two-gallon bucket to take care of that. We had very little to eat. We had been handed some Red Cross parcels in the beginning, but we had to split them three or four ways. Out of a carton you’d have one good meal. We were down to 500 or 600 calories at the most.”
Thirst was a bigger problem. Prisoners in Menard’s boxcar ripped off part of the roof and took turns scooping snow for water. They spent five days in the boxcars before being let out for a toilet break in the middle of a town square. The trains carried them to Stalag Luft 1 near the Baltic Sea.
The Soviets, however, kept coming. Knowing the Germans would rather surrender to the British army, which was closing in from the west, the Allied prison commander talked his captors into leaving the camp in his hands.
“They would leave at night and he would not announce anything to the prisoners until they had left,” Menard said. “Sure enough, at midnight that night they left on horseback, in wheelbarrows, on foot — whatever transport they could find.”
The prisoners were technically free, but unarmed and needing help. Some prisoners who knew how to speak Russian and German sought and found the Soviet army, which didn’t know the camp was there. The liberators rounded up cattle, pigs and flour so the Americans could eat.
They were not, however, so accommodating when it came to letting the prisoners go home. Although and British lines were about 50 miles away, Menard said the Soviets, mistrustful of their allies, wanted to put the liberated POWs on trains and take them roughly 1,000 miles to the Black Sea port city Odessa, where they’d leave on ships.
The Allied prison commander negotiated a compromise: 300 airplanes made multiple trips to evacuate the prisoners. That decision speeded their trip and ultimately led to Menard and Bezugly finding each other.
By contacting a museum in Barth dedicated to the POW camp there, Menard learned that the airplane evacuation had been filmed. He called the National Archives and learned how he could obtain a videotape copy, and the archivist told him of a Russian man who also had been interested. That was Andrew, Bezugly’s grandson, whose email address the archivist provided. Menard made a copy of the tape and sent it to him. That began the correspondence, which Andrew translates for his grandfather.
“The tape moved me to tears,” Bezugly wrote.
Vasily Bezugly in his Soviet Army uniform during World War II.
Bezugly, who was born in Ukraine, was a mortar unit sergeant when the 44th Infantry Division reached Barth. His unit fought its way across Ukraine and Poland. By May, German resistance was collapsing when the division encountered scouts from Stalag Luft 1, Bezugly wrote.
Bezugly stayed in the army after the war and retired as a major. He and Menard write each other about twice a month. They had hoped to meet at a POW reunion in Barth in 2001. However, Menard’s wife fell ill and he had to cancel the trip.
Bezugly brought a box of gifts for Menard to the reunion. One of those who attended shipped it to him. It included a paratrooper’s beret, medals, a cigarette lighter, Russian chocolate bar and a medal Bezugly had made for Menard’s birthday. Menard had previous sent Bezugly some of his military group and squadron badges and ball caps with his squadron and bulldog logo.