“Just One More River To Cross”

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Getting back to reality on that chilly hillside, I saw that the town still smoldered eerily in an orange glow and that a great many of the Eastern women had slipped away in the night. No one seemed to mind. Most of the remainder (including me)—German, French, Slav, and American—headed toward the west at first light. There was an unspoken agreement that the Germans would get us to the Elbe and then the Americans would get us all to safety in the Anglo-American zone. That is, of course, if we actually got there.

That first day out we passed a German forward artillery observer with field glasses, looking for likely targets. The Germans had apparently given up any thought of moving this gun again—it was huge—but planned to make good use of it while they could. As we drew near, the officer gave the order to fire. There was a ground-rattling explosion that hurt the ears, and an immense sheet of orange-red flame ballooned from the muzzle. This greeting from the Germans told us that the Russians clearly were not far behind.

We moved cohesively at first, but groups began to break off and go their separate ways. Soon there were only about 20 of our original party still together and 5 of the guards. The guards still carried their rifles, but these were only symbolic. Prisoners and guards alike knew from experience that unpleasant things tend to happen on the fringes of colliding armies, and we all were anxious to avoid gaining any further such knowledge. This flight had become a cooperative effort.

It was over a hundred miles from Neubrandenburg to the Elbe, and I had expected that we would make it in about three days. Indeed, we thought that the American-British armies would roll on over the river and meet us at least halfway and that we could travel in a more or less straight line. What we didn’t know was that Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin had agreed that all of northern Germany east of the Elbe would be in the Russian zone and that General Eisenhower had decided, now that the German army was decisively defeated, not to endanger the lives of his troops just to take ground that would have to be handed over to the Russians in a few weeks. He ordered his armies to stop at the Elbe in the north and called back the troops that had already crossed.

Had I known of this agreement, it might have dampened my enthusiasm for trying to push through to the American forces. But in our ignorance, we pressed onward to the west. Whenever we entered a new village, the guards would go into the Rathaus (that is, the town hall) to find which roads were still open and which had been cut by Russian forward elements. As often as not, we had to backtrack or take off on a tangent to avoid the Red Army units. Because of our stop-and-go crablike sidewise movements, we were not making much progress.

That spring night, as we relaxed on the hillside, we had ringside seats for the fireworks when the first Russian tanks entered the town

In one village the guards came out of the Rathaus to tell us that the war was over, that Germany had surrendered. Now we were the guards and they the prisoners. They handed us their rifles, and we proudly marched them to the next hamlet. After conferring with that Büergermeister , the guards reported that the previous report had been a false rumor: We were the prisoners again and they the guards. We gave them back the rifles and resumed our more or less westerly march.

This bizarre exchange of weapons must have happened on May 3, 1945. On that date, I learned much later, the German admiral Hans von Friedeburg arrived at Field Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters to surrender all the German troops in the north, including those opposing the Russians. Montgomery had no authority to accept the surrender of the troops facing his Soviet allies. Word of the approach leaked out, however, and caused premature celebrations. But the capitulation terms were revised and finally accepted on May 7; hostilities ceased at midnight on May 8. The war was over, and I was no longer a POW. But I get ahead of myself.

After giving the Germans back their rifles, we proceeded down the only road that was still open. Shortly we came upon a group of German soldiers gathered around an abandoned boxcar. Curious, we went to investigate. The car was full of Red Cross parcels that had been destined for American POWs. The Germans were issuing them as field rations. I objected strongly and told the officer in charge that this cargo belonged to American POWs. He replied that there was enough for all and suggested that we go into the nearby village, get a wagon, and come back and load it up. We followed this sound advice, located a serviceable wagon, but found no suitable animal to pull it. We liberated an ox, however, and hitched him up, returned to the boxcar, and loaded the wagon with Red Cross parcels. Our guards/prisoners/guards decided they could make better time without being encumbered with an ox, and we all shook hands and parted amiably. We headed westward.

That ox set an infuriatingly slow pace. Everyone was passing us; the Russians were certain to catch up at this rate. We decided to abandon our ox, take everything that was light and valuable, and set off on foot. We opened the parcels and took out the cigarettes (cigarettes were the standard currency of Germany at this time. Paper money was worthless; you could buy anything with cigarettes). We also took the soap because it had trading value, the instant coffee, some canned bacon, and some jam. Everything else we left for the other refugees who were crowding the road. We fashioned backpacks from our field jackets and started out again.