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“Just One More River To Cross”
The final hours of the war were every bit as perilous as all the other ones for this American POW
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
We stayed with the Schultes for a day or two while the Russians finished up in the neighborhood. The Red Army had stayed on the main roads while advancing, in order to make better time, and then took care of bypassed pockets of resistance later. Several Russian soldiers showed up, looking for booze, booty, and beauty, not necessarily in that order. Wristwatches were a favorite, and one soldier had 20 or 30 on each arm. We provided the Schultes some protection against rapine such as this, for which they were highly grateful.
Apparently, one of these Russian looters told his commander that there were American ex-POWs at that house because a drunk Russian officer rode up on a horse and demanded to see the Americans. He also demanded, and immediately got, a table and a chair. He sat at the table, slapped his pistol down on it, and proceeded to hold a court-martial for the three of us. Since I spoke a modicum of German, I came first.
The trial was comic, but not to the defendants. The officer asked questions in Russian to a former Polish slave laborer on the farm. The Pole could understand some Russian (I couldn’t) and knew some German, so he would render the question, as he interpreted it, into German. Then I would translate it into English as best I could. It is doubtful whether the final rendition bore much relation to the original one. Answers, of course, came back in the reverse order. Garbled, certainly, but lives (including mine) hung in the balance.
The Russian wanted to know the circumstances of our captures. I had heard that in the Russian army to get captured (rather than fight to the death) was to earn a one-way ticket to Siberia. Since I wanted to go the other way, I explained that I had been a machine gunner (I hadn’t been) at Aachen, (hadn’t been there either). Everyone knew of the fierce resistance that the Germans had put up at Aachen, so I pinned my hopes on that. I explained that the Germans kept coming as I mowed them down. The bodies piled up and up. Finally, there was a terrific explosion, and I came to in a German field hospital. That seemed to satisfy the Russian officer, and he turned to the next American.
Him I put in the Hürtgen Forest as a sniper sitting high up in a tree, picking off Germans until another violent explosion felled his tree and him. He awoke in a field prison.
A Russian sentry stood at the eastern end of the bridge. On the other side a U.S. Army jeep was waiting. Only one more guard to pass!
I invented a similar fabrication for the third one of us, and without another word the Russian officer got up from the table, returned his pistol to its holster, staggered to his horse, mounted, and rode away.
Not long after this unsettling event we showed our hostess our stash of cigarettes and gave her a pack of Chesterfields to go out and do some grocery shopping. At this stage household pets were beginning to show up on dinner tables. Cat was known as “roof rabbit.” Still, in this terrible environment, farm families generally were able to live in some comfort, particularly if they could get cigarettes. We had cigarettes.
Our hostess returned from her shopping expedition with sumptuous supplies: We had meat and vegetables for the first time in months, and bacon and eggs for breakfast. We supplied the coffee, which was not ersatz—for her, a tremendous treat. Even more so was washing her hands with real soap after dinner. After our meal her baby began to make unpleasant noises. She asked him, “ Willst du Peepee machen? ,” picked him up, and set him on a chamber pot. A few minutes later she returned and inquired, “ Peepee gemacht? ” and removed him from the pot. I decided that people are pretty much the same the world around.
The next morning, after breakfast, I told the Schulte entourage that we were leaving. They begged us not to, but I explained that we still had another war to fight and that we needed to get on with it. We wrote them testimonials telling how they had taken us in and provided for us. These, they hoped, would be useful in any crimes trials they might have to face. We stuffed our meager possessions, including our precious cigarettes, into our field-jacket backpacks and started down the road. They all turned out to see us off.
We immediately came to the place where the three German soldiers had been getting ready to greet the Russians. There were two new graves marked with improvised wooden crosses, each topped with a German helmet.
In the village we easily found the Russian HQ. We had expected them to provide transportation to our lines and provisions. No such luck! They just pointed in the general direction of the west and wished us the Russian equivalent of bon voyage. So we took off again the same way we got there: on foot.
It was immediately obvious that we had made a wise choice in taking a side road to safety rather than in trying to outrun the Red Army. The Russians shelled ferociously and indiscriminately in front of their advancing troops. In the first mile I counted 23 corpses, mostly former prisoners, probably from Stalag IIA. Some were wearing the vertical stripes of the Strafe Kompagnie , the prison within the prison for those who had violated prison rules. Some had been clawing at the earth with their fingers trying to get away from the shellfire. These poor bastards had survived even Strafe Kompagnie for years, only to be killed by friendly fire in the closing days of the war.