POWs at Stalag Luft III await new arrivals.
“Kriegie Kids” Re-enactment March – 2009
Historians have always walked figuratively in others’ footsteps, but for the sons and daughters of prisoners of war of Stalag Luft III, they recently had the chance to literally walk in very meaningful historic footsteps. In 2009, the self-proclaimed “Krieige Kids,” now all in their fifties and sixties, marched to honor the loved ones of whom they were so proud. Still living POWs, who had originally made that march six decades ago, for the most part were a bit puzzled as to why this group would want to make the trek. The pain and misery those men endured was still frozen into their collective psyche. To the Kriegie Kids, there was no question. It did not even have to be discussed. We all knew why we were there. It was something we had to do.
March route showing German names of towns where the POWs marched
Growing up and being raised by the former POWs imprisoned in the camp in Lower Silesia, we had all heard the same stories. Some fathers talked more than others. We heard the same kriegie terms, knew the wartime songs and learned the lessons of wasting nothing from men who had been so deprived during their captivity. We eagerly shared with each other even the most minute details that had been told to us that perhaps another son or daughter had not heard. We researched the march route, converting the now Polish town names from the former German names, knew the times spent on the road and the distances to where the men stopped, and we knew what awaited them on the box cars in Spremberg. Some of us had already lost our fathers. Some were lucky enough to still have theirs. Regardless, we all wanted to walk on the same cobblestones they had, pass the same tall snow-frosted pines that they had that lined the route, and get a feel for the sheer distance they had walked under the most trying of circumstances.
Our group represented the same cross-section of America that populated the camp so long ago. Only a few of us had previously met, but from the minute we all flew into Berlin from every corner of the U.S., we shared an instantaneous bond. Once more, no words of explanation or justification needed to be spoken. It was simply understood why we needed to do this.
We spent the night in Berlin to acclimate and took time to tour the city. I remember standing in the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Church there, left as a memorial to the destruction of war. I stood with Becky Lawson, another daughter of a bombardier, whose father had been shot down the same day as my father. Gazing upward to the blackened and broken steeple seeing the damage WWII bombs had done and hearing German voices speaking around us, it was a moment to reflect upon for two bombardiers’ daughters.
After our stay in Berlin, we next moved into Poland and Stalag Luft III, where we spent two days at the camp. We walked among the broken bits of brick and porcelain and sought out the individual compounds where our fathers had lived. When we identified that small patch of sacred ground–the very spot where “our” barrack had stood, we paused to quietly remember. After pictures were taken, we scoured the ground there to pick up small rocks, shards of crockery and broken pieces of foundation that we could bring home. All these pieces marked a significant chapter in our fathers’ lives. Broken bricks that would be worthless to anyone else were the gold we had come for. We gave little thought to the fact that whole bricks would add significantly to the weight of our luggage with the new Draconian weight limits imposed by the airlines. Whole bricks came home with us too.
At North Compound where Lt. General A.P. Clark, Senior American Officer, had lived with Roger Bushell, the mastermind of the Great Escape, the area was the best preserved of all. We could see the outer perimeter of Barrack #104, where notable men had lived and dug Tunnel Harry. The tunnel was clearly marked all the way to the exit in the woods.
The sight of the fire pool in South Compound took me back to the raucous 4th of July celebration sixty-six years before. Rowdy American POWs, whom the Germans long-suspected were helping the RAF with tunneling, invaded North to have some fun with their British counterparts. Announcing, “Arise, arise, the British are coming,” American POW Jerry Sage had awakened British POW Roger Bushell that day. What followed was an all-day celebration, fueled by kriegie “home brew,” created for the occasion with stored up raisins from Red Cross parcels. The Germans could not fully understand the significance of the revelry. On that day, many senior British officers and senior American officers were tossed unceremoniously into the fire pool in the camp.
North Compound had also been the home of the feisty escape artist, legless British fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, who had been marched out of the camp through a gauntlet of German guards, when the frustrated kommandant threw him out of the camp. It was General Clark who inherited Bader’s bunk. Ghosts have a way of lingering in such places.
We examined the crumbling foundations of the compound theatres where we knew our fathers had passed many hours sitting upon wooden Red Cross parcel box seats watching amateur POW productions that were surprisingly professional. Peter Butterworth, who became a famous British actor after the war, had gotten his start here. U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach had taken his first law courses in “Kriegie Kollege” here. Our fathers had spent lonely Christmases here in the company of other lonely men and lonely German guards, all forced to remain apart from their families at such a holy time of the year. True to the American spirit, we knew our fathers’ voices rang out with hearty carols they brought with them in memories from home. The Messiah had been beautifully performed here.
It was here, too, in January, 1945, where many got the announcement that their departure was imminent. Colonel Charles Goodrich, senior American officer from South Compound, had clomped down the center aisle wearing wooden shoes. He interrupted with great irony a production of “You Can’t Take It With You,” to send the audience back to their barracks to prepare to evacuate the camp upon Hitler’s immediate order, signaling the start of The Forced March. Although the men suspected such an order was coming, they had constantly discussed the departure among themselves, asking in hushed tones, “They’d never move us at night—-would they?”
But they did move at night in a line of ten thousand men stretching for twenty miles—into the freezing snow that swirled around them, and over the course of several days, dressed in mismatched kriegie attire, underfed and in varying states of health, they tramped for fifty-two miles to board the fetid boxcars in Spremberg. For three days and four nights their limits were tested in the over-crowded cars. Some men (West Compound) were diverted to Nurnberg before eventually walking to Moosburg, where other compounds of Stalag Luft III had already arrived. The Wehrmacht camp in Moosburg, Germany, Stalag VIIA, originally constructed to hold 10,000 men, held over 100,000 by the time liberation day, April 29th, 1945, arrived, thanks to General George Patton’s Third Army, 14th Armored Division, ironically nick-named “The Liberators.” The beloved American flag was run up the camp and city flag poles that day.
Carrying our memories and thoughts of our fathers and strapping on brilliant headlamps to illuminate the black Silesian night, it was soon our turn to start the trek. Some in our group wore military greatcoats and Army issue caps and blankets. George Bruckert, a WWII re-enactor, marched in full kit. Old medals, wings, dog tags tarnished with age, pins and American flags were taken on the march. Army Air Corps olive-drab shirts made before the trip and emblazoned with our fathers’ faces gave some information on each man and were standard marching gear. On this march, we carried our fathers close to our hearts.
On January 27th, 1945, the sixty-fourth anniversary of the snowy and frigid night that the prisoners were evacuated from the camp, our group of sixteen left at 11 p.m., just as South Compound had done. We huddled together in the cold, clear, night for a prayer, asking that God walk with us and protect us as He had our fathers. Each marcher mentioned the loved one he or she wished to remember and then the group set off down the same icy road out of the camp where our fathers had departed. The ground was still frozen in the woods, and a few inches of residual snow slowed our eager steps. Ominous signs of wild boar footprints were visible indicating that the dangerous animal inhabited the deserted camp where the thousands of prisoners and their guards had lived.
Just as our fathers had done, we broke into a rousing chorus of Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder, which then led to the Australian marching song that the RAF had taught our fathers, I’ve Got Sixpence. It had been a long time since those lyrics had floated on the crisp night air and drifted through the stately pine forests our fathers had marched through, but we sang with the same enthusiasm and gusto that they had, as they thrilled to the fact they were finally on the other side of barbed wire. Out of the camp proper, the air was cold, but the road was fairly clear.
One advantage that the former prisoners had that we did not was age. Most were in their twenties and a few in their early thirties when they participated in the march. The march was in complete violation of the Geneva Conventions. Whereas our fathers had the advantage of youth, we “children” had the advantage of Advil. Sore knees, feet and legs were a necessary evil that we all expected when we made the commitment to march. As though a heaven-sent gift from our fathers, the weather suddenly warmed just before our arrival in Germany. It had been -11 degrees just the week before with falling snow. But our group did not experience snow until we reached Spremberg, where a light, celebratory, dusting fell on the town square outside our hotel.
South Compound’s first stop had been on an overpass that crossed over the autobahn. That was nine-and-a-half-miles from Stalag Luft III. For the POWs, the wind picked up as they approached that overpass, and treasured letters, diaries, and written logs were burned there to keep warm. It was the coldest place South Compound had stopped. Many a cherished letter from home went up in smoke so desperate was the need for warmth. For us, our hotel sat just beyond that overpass, and we all arrived at 2:00 a.m. with bright red cheeks from the cold but a warm appreciation for that haven they never had.
One of the stops along the way for the Kriegie Kids was the barns in Lipna, formerly Selingersruh, where our fathers had stumbled, in order to sleep for a few hours. The dairy farm had been owned by a wealthy German count and his wife, and they gave the men hot water from the now-abandoned manor house. We toured what had been cow barns there, and we stood before the barns for a picture as we gathered behind a big American flag.
Out on the road again, we found that word had traveled through the Polish countryside that we were on our way. At one stop at the Polish equivalent of a convenience store, the man who owned it gave each marcher a small pack of tissues to carry along. Our stop at a Polish school, named after the allied POWs, resulted in a pre-planned tea party complete with fancy cakes. The children there sang in Polish for us, gave us pictures of their town and special t-shirts bearing the school logo. At a second Polish school, we were ushered in as the first Americans to ever visit that school. Some of us joined in an impromptu volleyball game in the gym, much to the students’ surprise and delight, and a bit of swing dancing in their music class. The graciousness and hospitable nature of the Polish people we met along the way will be long remembered.
A stop in Ilowa, which during the war was Halbau, found us at the Catholic Church where Center Compound had sought refuge. The tired men were crammed into the church, school, cemetery, and crypt upon arriving late in the afternoon. Some found no shelter at all and rested leaning on the side of the small church. Years later, former senior American officer of Center Compound, Major General Delmar Spivey, returned to the small church to place a plaque of thanksgiving there and donate a stained glass window.
The pace of our march varied. The stronger, more-seasoned, marchers led the way. Some of us straggled along behind, and gaps often allowed each of us to walk with another person on the trek for long stretches, virtually alone, through the winding roads and small villages of Poland and Germany. Songs and talk, punctuated by frequent picture taking at milestones kept us going. Everyone on the trip far exceeded their distance expectations. Many on the march walked the full fifty-two miles, which according to those keeping track was really fifty-eight miles with our frequent diversions. For some stretches, we were the modern-day Pied Pipers of Poland with dogs and kids following along. Nights in the hotels along the way allowed for comparison of blisters and aches and pains, but no one was deterred.
Finally, the marchers arrived in Spremberg where champagne and apple juice toasts at dinner celebrated the conclusion of the march. We met a German man outside our hotel the next day, who later met us at the train station where our fathers had boarded the 40 & 8 box cars that had only recently been vacated by livestock.
The building, which had been used for storage of cargo that was loaded onto the trains during the war, now sat abandoned. Unfortunately, our fathers had become part of that cargo. Our German friend, who was eleven at the time, remembered the thousands of RAF prisoners there, who stood out in the cold waiting to be forced into the cars. He told us many had no gloves and continually blew on their hands to give some warmth. He later gave to one of our group, Miriam Larson, a pocket watch that had belonged to a dear friend of his, who had been a German POW in the United States. In addition, he gave her a wooden carving of an eagle that his friend had made while a POW on American soil. It was important for him to give these things to her that had belonged to his now-deceased friend, and she told him she would find a place for them in an American POW museum so they could be displayed. Richard Calvert, from our group, gave the man his bright, orange, Alaska baseball cap, which evoked a broad German smile.
Now on the bus, our next stop was Dresden, a place where the box cars had passed only ten-to-twelve days before the fire bombing there and then we moved on to Nurnberg. Those whose fathers had been confined in West Compound made a stop as we were leaving Nurnberg to find any remains of the camp there where their fathers had been held. Then we continued on to Stalag VIIA in Moosburg, Germany.
We met with the press at a small museum there that had been especially opened for us that day. A display of the camp, as it had once been, sat on a large table in the museum, and artifacts made by the prisoners were displayed in glass cases there. One of our group, Jim Keeffe, found his father’s picture in a book at the museum, much to the delight of the curator there.
We walked into St. Kastulus Catholic Church, which sat on the edge of the camp. The church’s ancient twin steeples were always in sight of the prisoners, and at one time bright red flags emblazoned with the dreaded black swastika fluttered from the tall steeples. SS snipers had held out there in the final skirmish of the war before the camp was taken by U.S. troops. A P-51 pilot on liberation day was more than happy to shoot the flags off the steeples the men had come to know. The church was also the first stop for many a thankful liberated POW, who finally took comfort within its walls after escaping the barbed wire.
Our fathers’ memories of the now-modern places we visited would be far different than ours. They saw the bombed-out buildings and broken glass. They heard the screaming air raid sirens while they were locked in box cars, and they knew the abject fear of being strafed by fighter planes. They knew the danger of being in close proximity to angry German civilians, who were anxious to attack them, as well as relief when so many sympathetic Germans along the route rushed out to give them hot water and trade eggs for chocolate, cigarettes, and soap. Our POWs carried the heavy rifles of their older, unfit, German guards as the guards staggered to keep up in the deep snow on the side of the road to “guard” the columns.
On the road with thousands of freezing German refugees, mostly old women, men, and young children fleeing from the Russians, the POWs would forever ponder the destiny of such pitiful people. Our POWs offered the freezing and crying children bits of chocolate and warm gloves. The tired and hungry prisoners pushed broken-down refugee carts, pulled by emaciated horses struggling against frozen wheels out of ditches, and formerly vicious guard dogs now ran to the POWs for bits of food. It and odd arctic variation, it was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno, painted by the mad hand of Hitler—a mass of suffering humanity of all nationalities, all struggling against the unrelenting cold to survive. The POWs would remember their thirst, hunger, disease, lice, filthy conditions, and fear of the unknown as they were moved deeper into the Third Reich. Their lives depended on the arrival of the Russian and American troops, and that day finally came.
We can never truly duplicate our fathers’ experiences. We can, however, more-fully understand the distance they walked in the cold as they were hurriedly evacuated that night so long ago. We know how sore their feet became, how cold their cheeks were, and how important it was for them to depend upon their fellow POWs for the sake of morale and comfort. We did the same.
We had the advantage of hotels along the way, a bus if we needed it for back up, and decent meals each night. Where the men had carried Spam, raisins, sugar cubes, ersatz margarine and sour German brown bread, the Kriegie Kids depended on bandaids, bottled water, and changes of socks and shoes. Where the POWs traded cigarettes from Red Cross parcels along the way, we traded smiles with the Polish and German citizens we met. More importantly, we knew where we were going and what would be there when we arrived. The POWs did not.
We will all have special memories of our odyssey in Lower Silesia–snapshots in our minds that will last a lifetime. I will remember the Allied POW School in Poland and the pictures of the POWs, some on the march, permanently on display so that the students will never forget. The Poles let us take over their school and enjoyed the uproar our visit created. I’ll remember a little boy who stared curiously at the red, white, and blue pinwheel I carried. It was my gift to him, and as I spoke no Polish, I had to smile and blow on the curved segments, explaining to him “how it worked.”
But mostly, I will remember my fellow marchers, and I marvel at the thought that our frost-bitten fathers could never have imagined, as they trudged along in utter misery, that sixty-four years later their children would meet as a group and return to that place and time they knew so well and do it in their honor. History is not just dates in a book or places on a map. Neither is it simply a dry chronology marking epochs of time. History is about the people who lived it, and in our case, those who loved them.