Above and Beyond POW NEWS
"No person has ever been honored
for what the Received. Honor has been the Reward for What they Gave."
You may have seen the Play, the Movie, or even the TV Series that was
supposed to be a sketch of Stalag 17-B. They were made for entertainment, but
I can say that much of the Play Stalag XVII was like it really was, and it
was written by the guys who where really there.
Some of us
landed on enemy territory in a parachute with German soldiers and
civilians pointing guns at us, and saying, “Luft
crashed and crawled out of their burning planes, others couldn’t get out
and burned with their plane. Many were shot to pieces before they even
reached the ground. Some made it to the ground only to be shot or hanged
by the enemy. The ones who did make it out alive were sent to what we
Interrogation Camp, a
place where most American and British airmen spent days or weeks while
they were being questioned by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) or the
Dulag Luft was
such a camp.
will never forget a large hand-carved wood sign over the entrance to Dulag Luft.
I was told it had been carved by
an English Flyer.
Although I was terrified
at the time, because I had no idea what to expect behind that gate - but I
couldn't help smiling when I read the words on the sign. First, I must
tell you that most flyers could easily recognize an English Spitfire
from a German Messerschmitt 109 - unless the nose of the
fighter was pointing at you...In that case, if you're not sure if it's a
friend or foe, don't hesitate, SHOOT!
The sign read,
told you it wasn’t a Spitfire.”
which defines the treatment and conduct of Prisoners of War (Japan and
Russia did not sign it) and in accordance with International Law, and the
U.S. Military, if taken prisoner, it is the soldier’s duty to give his
name, rank and serial number. Nothing more.
Almost every POW was amazed at how much
information the Germans already knew about each prisoner. Generally they
could tell us where we went to school, our home address, military
schools. At Dulag Luft, when asked, the American Airmen told their name,
rank and serial number. The German interrogators, however, generally
insisted that the prisoner give them more information. If he didn’t, he
was sent to solitary confinement for a few more days; then he was
questioned again. After a few weeks, we were given a POW dog tag and
shipped off to different prison camps. Officers went to Offlags,
Non-commissioned Officers were sent to Stalags in different areas of
Germany, Austria and Poland. As the war progressed, most airmen who were
Non-Commissioned Officers were sent to either Stalag XVII-B in Krems, Austria, 30
Kilometers from Vienna, or Stalg IV.
Stalag XVII-B consisted of several separate compounds. The
Russian , French, English, Serb, and the American Compound. No fraternization was
permitted between compounds. tall, double barbed wire fences surrounded
each compound, with a guard tower on each corner. Each guard tower was
manned by a German guard, 24-hours a day. They worked on four-hour shifts.
Each tower also had a 8-mm machine gun and a searchlight. The towers were
about twenty feet high wooden structures with a roof, an open railing, and
When the first
American airmen arrived, they inherited the dilapidated old, wooden
barracks that had housed Russian POWs. The three tier wooden bunks were
partly torn apart because the
Russians had used the wood to burn in the stoves in an effort to keep from
freezing in the winter. The straw mattresses were infested with fleas and
lice. Many Russians had died from various diseases and infections. This
was something that each new POW arriving had to learn to live with until,
gradually the Americans managed to make it livable.
Most Americans were
accustomed to eating fresh vegetables and meat. In prison camps, for
the most part, we lived on half rotten
rutabaga soup, day after day, and black bread that was literally made with
sawdust, and something like tea. Finally, when American Red Cross food
parcels started to arrive, we started to feel alive, again.
Naturally, it was
verboten to have
radios, but we found ways to make them. Some were crystal sets. We hid
them in many unbelievable places. Whenever they were found, someone would
spend 10 days in solitary. Some of the guys even made
a few real radios and we heard news from home via BBC (The
book by Richard Lewis, Hell Above and Hell Below, explains this very
The worse part of
prison life was those unending months before the invasion, because we knew
that we would never be free until the war was over. I can remember in
another camp where I was (VII-A) before Stalag XVII-B, people were dieing,
every day. We were slowly starving, infected with soars, impetigo, and
dysentery. I've heard some say that "There were times that I wished that I
was dead, and times when
I wondered if I was."
Most of us
found ways to keep our mind busy. Planning an escape, digging tunnels,
trading with other Compounds, writing, reading, playing Bridge (Yes,
Bridge. We had some big games, playing for food, cigarettes, etc).
Often, we would come up with some diabolical plan of escaping, something
daring, exciting, and impossible, or imagining clever ways to fool, or
embarrass one of the German Guards, like Scholtz (Yes, there really was a
guard by that name at Stalag XVII-B. He was a big, blundering, hot headed,
bulk of a man, who sometimes even tried to be our friend) ...Life in
prison camp was tougher for some, than it was for others. Winter, was the
worse time, especially the Holidays.
The greatest day of my
life was the day that we received word that the American invasion forces
had successfully landed in France. There wasn’t a dry eye on that day at
Stalag XVII-B. Now, we knew that some day
would be free and come home to America.
It was a year
later when we were force-marched out of that place that had been our home
for so long and across Austria. 4600 of us, in groups of 500 or more,
walked for days on end. We slept on the bare ground, once in pig sty; we
ran out of food, even water was scarce – but we didn’t care because we
where America was located. We had done our job. We had been shot out of
the sky, and taken prisoners -
we never surrendered!
We had opportunities to
make life a little easier for ourselves if we would cooperate with the
enemy. But we didn’t. The POWs at Stalag XVII-B made it very difficult for
the enemy, and somehow the Germans respected us for the way we conducted
ourselves. There were time that our patriotism helped keep us alive. I was
never more proud to be an American.
On the way, we passed
4000 Hungarian Jews in chains being dragged along the road by armed
guards. Every fifty yards or so was a dead man who had been shot because
he couldn’t keep up with the group.
When I asked our Historian,
if he remembered that episode, this was his reply:
“Yes, I remember it
very well. We were going one way and they were going the opposite. When
we all finally passed them I vividly remember the dead bodies strewn along
the road. They were so emaciated they were nothing but skin stretched
over a skeleton. I remember the yellow Star of David on most of them.
They were referred to as "political prisoners" They were not only Jews.
During the war a holocaust was the fire bombing of cities such as London
and Dresden. Holocaust, as it refers to persecution of the Jews, came
into our language later.”
Every man who was on that march who saw that
terrible site, realized then, more than ever, what we had fought for and
why so many of us had suffered, and why so many had died – for FREEDOM.
the next page for actual photos right after that march.)
Photos/Sketches by Ben Phelper