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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
World War II was ending with more of a whimper than a Waterloo for the Anglo-American forces in Europe. The Battle of Berlin was shaping up just 60 miles to the south of where I stood, but, by design, the American and British forces were to have no part in that carnage. I was unaware that Roosevelt and Churchill had ceded this piece of real estate to Stalin. What I did know was that I was a prisoner of the Germans in an area where three warring armies were converging, that thousands probably would die in the next few days, and that if I did not want to be counted in that number, it would not hurt to do a little advance planning.
Although the Oder River was 50 miles to the east, the intense shelling of the Russian artillery was deafening and had been for days. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the targets of that fearsome barrage. German survivors later told me that a major purpose of that bombardment had been to make them keep their heads down while the Russian engineers built bridges, during the night, just a few inches below the surface of the recently thawed river.
When the real attack came, they said, any German soldier who dared look up saw Russian tanks crossing the river as though skimming on the surface, followed by hordes of infantry who seemed to be walking on water. The German main line of resistance simply crumbled, and the Russians were across the Oder, in force. Their last obstacle before Berlin, in the spring of 1945, was gone.
Meanwhile, back at Stalag IIA, near Neubrandenburg and its satellite slave labor camps, known as Kommandos , we prisoners were told that we were being evacuated at dusk. We should drop our picks and shovels, go back to our barracks, gather what possessions we could carry, and get ready to move out. We knew from that order that the Russians were indeed across the Oder. We were glad but couldn’t help feeling apprehensive.
Later that evening I, along with about 200 other POWs who had spent the past four months at Kommando 64/VI, bade farewell to the place where we had been employed building roadblocks in the snow and gouging tank traps and ambuscades from the frozen earth of the bleak, featureless Baltic plain. We were marched to a nearby assembly area where all the prisoners in the region were being gathered. Ultimately, there were about 3,000 women slave laborers—mostly Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs, and assorted other Europeans, primarily Eastern but a smattering from the West—and perhaps 3,000 American men, who had spent the last months of the war in the comparative luxury of Stalag IIA; a few hundred Frenchmen, who had been given their parole and had been allowed to work in town unguarded; and several hundred Americans, who, like me, had been held as slave laborers in the Kommandos satellite to Stalag IIA.
During that spring night, as we relaxed on the hillside, my thoughts turned to picnicking. All we lacked was fried chicken and deviled eggs. (Hungry men fantasize about food, not women.) Then we all had ringside seats for the fireworks display as the first Russian tanks entered the town square through its picturesque medieval gates. Shellfire from the tanks quickly set some ancient, desiccated wooden structures ablaze, and the fire spread almost instantaneously throughout the town. In the flickering orange light of the burning buildings, I could make out Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth)—the last reserves still available to the once-mighty Wehrmacht—moving forward with their puny rifles. The tanks, which were not the main body but only a reconnaissance in force, swept through the token resistance, swatting the armed children aside like so many gnats, never once pausing as they continued ahead to work mischief on the German rear.
After the Russian tanks departed, we settled down for the night. Each group of us had a different plan for the next day. Most of the Slav women wanted to go east, toward their former homes. The Americans and the French wanted to head west toward the Elbe River and the advancing American and British armies. So did most of the Germans, who knew that to be captured by the Russians meant life imprisonment at hard labor. The handful of Slav men in our ranks generally opted for the American side, rather than the Russian, presumably because it was known that the Russians did not look kindly upon those who had surrendered rather than fight to the death.
Sleeping that night under the spring sky was an indescribable joy. It was the first time in about six months that I hadn’t had to sleep behind barbed wire, under guard, or in an unbelievably crowded boxcar with locked doors and no sanitary facilities. When I awoke, it actually seemed possible to smell the dawn. But before I let myself get too carried away, it seemed wise to review my current circumstances and how I could best avoid occupying one of those unmarked graves along the roadside.
For the time being, the most prudent course of action seemed to be to stay with this crowd as it moved west. To use a now vastly overworked word that nobody had heard then, there was real synergy in our group. The former camp guards wanted to get to the Elbe as much as we did. I congratulated myself on having learned German; I was able to provide communication between us.
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.
The German army was now in full flight, and the road was congested. Panzers occasionally roared through, forcing everyone out of their way. In a unit of German infantry, obviously in a state of total exhaustion, one very young private asked me how much farther it was to the American lines. When I told him over 50 miles, the look on his face said that he did not think that he was good for that many more miles. I didn’t either.
There was one exception to this total rout. A young woman, wearing a camouflage uniform, riding a bicycle, with a Panzerfaust (a single-shot antitank rocket) slung over her shoulder, was bucking the retreating tide. She was headed toward the advancing Red Army to bag herself a tank. I would have liked to have had her on my side.
We came to a Tiger tank stuck in a traffic jam too dense for it to clear. Several German soldiers were sitting on the back, passing around a canteen. They invited us to join them. The canteen contained schnapps. We all had a sip, thanked our hosts, slid down off the Tiger, and resumed our way on foot.
A young woman on a bicycle, with a Panzerfaust slung over her shoulder, was headed toward the Red Army to bag herself a tank.
We soon came upon an ammunition dump going up: multiple explosions, sheets of flame interspersed with black smoke, projectiles flying through the air like skyrockets. A German officer, who had obviously been ordered to destroy the dump to keep it from falling into Russian hands, stood before the blaze in tears.
Three of us decided that it was increasingly obvious that the Russians were about to overtake us (thanks partially to that ox!) and that it would be safer for this to happen away from any signs of military activity. Accordingly, that night we three Americans stole away (no one would have cared, but at least we could tell our progeny that we had escaped) and went up a little side road about half a mile to where we came to a farm. In the barn we bedded ourselves down comfortably in the hay and waited for the Russians to come.
On awakening in the morning, we discovered that we were the objects of close attention. Two of the slave-labor girls on the farm had come upon us during their morning chores and were all atwitter, since they did not customarily find American soldiers sleeping in their barn. I explained why we were there, and they dashed into the farmhouse to spread the word. The owner was an accountant from Berlin named Herr Schulte. He, along with his Frau and some of their Berlin friends, had sought refuge on his farm to avoid the final battle, which was just beginning. They were delighted to see us because they thought (correctly, as it turned out) that we would provide them with some protection from the rape and rapine for which the Russian Army had become notorious.
The Schultes welcomed us into their house and made us feel quite at home. Herr Schulte stood in the window most of the time, with his field glasses and framed by lace curtains, looking for signs of Russians. After several hours he came from the curtains and explained that he had not seen Russians yet, but that some German refugees were stranded at the crossroads at the same place where we had left the main highway the night before. He told us that we should go rescue them and bring them to his house. Being young and dumb, it never occurred to me to ask why we should do it and not he and his friends. He provided my comrades and me with bicycles, which he explained could be used as wheelbarrows to help haul back the refugees’ luggage. So we took off down the road, happily riding our bicycles.
It was obvious that the Russians were almost on us; the day was loud with small-arms fire. About halfway to the crossroads, we came upon three German soldiers, one digging a foxhole and two writing what I suppose must have been last letters home to wives or mothers. The one digging looked up and asked, “Are you the point of the American attack?”
“No,” I replied, “We are POWs.”
“Why don’t you escape?” he asked.
“We don’t have to,” I replied. “The Russians will be here in about 10 minutes.” He accepted that impeccable logic and went back to his digging as we went on our way on our bicycles to the crossroads.
We reached our objective in a very few minutes. The refugees had indeed panicked at the sound of the gunfire and hadn’t a clue about what to do next. Furthermore, they were totally exhausted, having come all the way from Danzig on foot, with the Russians nipping at their heels every inch of the way. I told them to load their things on the bicycles, and we headed back, hoping to beat the Russians to the Schulte house.
There were four of them: a man and wife who appeared to be in their forties, a young girl of about 16 or 17, and a robust servant named Elisabet, who was in her twenties. The teenager, who was not related to any of them, was so far along in pregnancy that she looked as though she might deliver at any instant. She explained to me, on the way to the Schulte house, that her boyfriend had been on the Russian front and that she had not heard from him in several months. I refrained from telling her that she very probably never would again.
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.
Farther down the road, we came to a Studebaker truck that seemed worth investigating. It was parked in front of a house in which two rather inebriated Russians were passing around a bottle of schnapps and terrifying two German women. The Russians invited us to partake, which we did. When the bottle emptied, as it shortly did, the Russians demanded more. The German ladies claimed that was all that they had. One of the Russians took out his cigarette lighter, ignited it, and held the flame inches below the bottom of the cottage’s curtains. More schnapps appeared as if by magic.
I had had nothing alcoholic to drink for months (except for that that nip on the Tiger) and had been on starvation rations, so the alcohol quickly went to my head. One of the Russian soldiers saw my plight. He cradled me in his arms, took me out to his truck, nestled me down on the barrels of fuel that were his cargo, and returned to his carousing. The trucks or tanks that were waiting for that fuel would obviously have to wait a little longer.
I was awakened later by a Russian soldier galloping down the road on a horse, shooting at the glass windowpanes of houses. My companions rejoined me, and we resumed our plodding toward the west.
Shortly, we caught up with a horse-drawn wagon and about a dozen French ex-POWs. I asked if we could join them and offered to provide cigarettes to pay for the rations needed for the trip. This offer was cheerfully accepted, so we threw our improvised backpacks on the wagon and moved out with them. We found that no more than two or three people at a time could ride so as not to unduly overburden that spavined horse. In fact he was so scrawny that he looked overburdened with no passengers aboard at all. and I had serious doubts whether he could make it to France. But he had one constant passenger, other than the driver: a prepubescent Italian girl. No one volunteered information on where she had come from or how or why. Apparently, she was just battlefield flotsam. But she always rode.
In the afternoon we were able to liberate a nice, fat little pig and two chickens that the Russians had overlooked. One of the Frenchmen proved to be an excellent chef. He bought some local vegetables with our cigarettes and served up an excellent pork and chicken ragout that night. With a bit of a local vintage.
After that fine dinner, I went for a stroll around the area and encountered a fortyish German peasant woman, rather stout and squat. She asked, hopefully, if the Americans were going to occupy the village. I told her we were not an occupying force but prisoners trying to get back to our lines. She then asked if I would take her daughter with us. She explained that the girl was 16 and had been repeatedly raped by the Russians and that she had to get her out of there. I told her that we would be leaving about seven o’clock in the morning, to have her daughter there and she could join forces with us. I didn’t ask our French hosts for permission because, after all, I had the cigarettes.
In the morning they both were there at the appointed time. Mother and daughter said a tearful farewell and hugged and kissed for probably the last time. One of the Frenchmen helped the bedraggled child onto the wagon. It was generally agreed that she should ride. I explained to the girl that from now on she was French. We passed many Russian soldiers along the way, and I told her to smile at them (it must have been hard) and to say, “ Bonjour, m’sieur .” She mastered her line, and no one ever called her into question.
One of the Frenchmen adopted her and looked after her until we finally reached the Elbe. I have no idea what happened after that, but I doubt she ever saw her mother again. And I was never certain that the Frenchman’s intentions were entirely honorable.
But again, I get ahead of myself. As we approached the Elbe, the German army was shedding its identity. The troops were ripping off their insignia and throwing them into the ditches alongside the road. Their efforts to look like civilians would not fool most people. But it couldn’t hurt and just might deceive some peasant from the Steppes.
As we breasted the hills overlooking the Elbe, a bridge crossing the river came into sight. Unlike most other bridges in Germany, this one had not been blown. A Russian sentry was posted at its eastern end. On the other side a U.S. Army jeep was waiting, presumably to pick up American stragglers. Freedom was in sight! Only one more guard to pass; just one more river to cross.
The Russians were sending the retreating German soldiers to one huge field (our former guards were probably already in it), the motorized vehicles the Germans had been riding (including the Tigers) to another, their draft animals to still another, and their bicycles to yet another. Accordingly, we made a swift reorganization. Our French leader, not wanting to lose his (dubious) transportation back to France, gave me the reins of the wagon and told me to take charge. When we reached the bridge across the Elbe, the Russian sentry told us to halt.
“ Was haben wir hier? ” he asked.
“Fifteen Frenchmen, two French girls, and three American POWs,” I replied in German.
He waved us forward. I flicked the reins across the horse’s withers and gave him an encouraging cluck. The wagon inched past the Russian sentry and onto the bridge.
From the back of the wagon wafted a chirky “ Bonjour, m’sieur .”