My Observations as a WWII POW by Richard Klema
My Observations as a WWII POW in Stalags VII-A, III-B and III-A
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My Observations as a WWII POW by Richard Klema
1943 to 1945 | Germany
December 5, 1942, we loaded on ships in Liverpool, and joined the convoy for Africa. The convoy was huge with ships as far as you could see in any direction. We didn’t have any problems in the convoy. We went through the Straits of Gibraltar and got a good look at it from the ship.
We docked and unloaded at Oran, Algeria, Africa. Our pleasure reuniting with the company was very disheartening. We were told that our battalion of three companies was to make the invasion at Oran Our battalion was to take the harbor and city of Oran, Algeria. The Free French had the harbor chained. Two boats rammed the chain and broke through but in the harbor they were met with murderous fire. The boats were blown to bits and sank After it was over, only nine men out of about 500 did not need medical attention The company that I was in, G Company, had only seven men after we reorganized. The rest of the battalion fared a little better.
Our vehicles were spaced about 200 yards apart in the bivouac area where we regrouped and got replacements Some had very little instructions and training. After we regrouped and the replacements were completed, we started for the front in Tunisia. We would bivouac during the day and drive at night. Our blackout lights were tail lights inseted in the body so they could not be seen from the air, and a half-inch plate of steel that was hinged over the windshield with a 1" by 3" slot to look out of for both driver and sergeant.
When we got close to the Tunisian border, we bivouacked in an olive orchard. We didn’t do much except pull guard and do maintenance on our vehicles and weapons. Our platoon was on a roving patrol one night and ran into and jumped a road block, which was a small tree across the road. It was dark when we hit something. It was a billy goat. The Arab was going around saying, “Poor Billy, Poor Billy.” When we got back, we had a sack of dates hooked on our bumper.
While we were bivouacked, we were issued cocoa to smear over our face, neck, and hands, so we wouldn’t be spotted from the air so easily. As we moved to attack, our company was the rear guard for the echelon due to our replacements from the invasion at Oran, Algeria. We hit resistance at Faid Pass. Our company was pulled off rear echelon guard and ordered to break through, so our platoon was the point. We were pushing our tracks as hard as they would go but the road led to a washout over a dry creek bed. The Lieutenant’s half track hit a land mine and it blew the front wheels off the track. Before the dust cleared away and we knew what was happening, the half track in from of me and my half track were piled up and at a dead stop. The half track behind me and the rest of the company were stopped about a mile back. It was late evening and dark and the tracer bullets looked like thousands of falling stars across the sky. We piled out and took shelter along the shadows of the creek bank. Lt. Lea had us count off. I was number 22. He said that we didn’t have enough manpower to fight our way out, and for us to come out with our hands up. There were 31 of us and only one that was wounded, surrounded by literally hundreds of Germans.
The German Colonel was from Philadelphia and told us that when Roosevelt and Churchill won the war, he would get to the States before we would. We were kept in a little building, with a concrete floor, for the rest of the night. It was cold and in the morning we were loaded on trucks and taken to Tunis, Tunisia, Africa. The highway to Tunis took us by their airport. All the way there was mile after mile of military equipment and at the airport the planes were bringing in lots more. My heart sank low. How could we ever win the war when they had so much equipment? In Tunis, we were kept in a building with a small courtyard. We hadn’t eaten since we were captured two days earlier, so we were very hungry. The Germans gave us bean soup with camel meat. The beans were large, dry beans. We split some open and there were little black bugs in them, so we quit splitting them open and ate them as they were protein.
We were each called in for an interview, but I was not interrogated. The Germans knew all about us, our organization, where we came from, etc. After a few days I realized what had happened, and my spirit sank even lower. I felt like we had let our country down and I felt ashamed. I was really depressed and I wondered how the people back home would feel toward those of us who were prisoners of war. When about a week or ten days had passed, we were loaded on J.U. 88's and flown to Palermo and on to Naples. They flew about 100 feet off the ground so they wouldn’t be so apt to be attacked by fighter planes. Nothing happened. After talking to other prisoners, my spirits came up. Quite a few P.O.W.s had been briefed on being P.O.W.s, but we had not.
In Italy, we got one Red Cross parcel for five men, only once, so we were hungry. We were in Naples about a month and then were sent to Moosburg, Austria, in boxcars. The boxcars were called 40 or 8, meaning forty men or eight horses. However, they put 72 of us in a boxcar. We were really packed.
As I recall the train stopped twice in the three day trip to Moosburg so we could relieve ourselves. Some of the men who had pocket knives cut holes around the bottom of the boxcar doors, so we could relieve ourselves. One stop was on the Italian side of the Brenner Pass. We were left out for a couple of hours so military trains could go pass. In the marshalling yards at Munich, several boxcars were broken open and the men scattered. They were all rounded up except one, who got across Lake Constance into Switzerland. He went into a railroad station and looked at a map. He was picked up and turned back to the Germans, because they were paid for any prisoner turned in.
At Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Austria, we met English and Australians, who had been prisoners for up to five years. The Germans gave us some rutabaga tops soup and a 1/5 loaf of bread a day. The bread was made with sawdust in it. We got a Red Cross parcel one or two a week at Stalag VII-A. I was losing weight rapidly and ended up losing nearly 50% of my body weight. We were deloused, had a place to clean up and washed our clothes. For delousing, they gave us about one minute to soap up and about a minute and a half to rinse off. They had a French doctor give us a tetanus shot in our left breast.
After about a month we were told to get our possessions together and were loaded in boxcars again. This was a shorter trip than the one from Italy. If it weren’t for the sidetracking of the military trains, it would have been a day. It lasted about a couple of days and the trip ended at Stalag III-B at Furstenberg-on-Oder.
At Stalag III-B, there were four American compounds with three barracks and a latrine for each compound. The compound was fenced, with eight strands of barbed wire on top and at an angle. At the back were watchtowers with floodlights and a machine gun in each tower. The Oder Canal was about a stone’s throw behind the compound. Behind the fence and watchtowers was a path the German civilians used to walk into town. The Germans believed Americans were six feet tall gangsters with guns on their hips. The civilians walking to town would stop and look at us, and some would carry on a conversation.
The barracks were about 250 feet long divided in the middle with a washroom about 20 feet wide. The washroom had two concrete bars with a tile half circle trough or wash basin. The water pipes came up from the floor on each end of the bars and over the top of the wash basin. There were five spigots on each side of them so about ten or twelve men could be at each bar at the same time. The water was real cold. We would sharpen our razor blades by working them back and forth inside a glass. At each end of the barracks was a night stool at the foyer entrance. There were air raid shelters in the sand for each compound.
The food was a cup of rutabaga tops soup and a 1/5 loaf of bread a day. The bread was made with sawdust or wood pulp. The recipe for sawdust bread appears at the end of my story. I lost about 60 pounds of weight. The bunks were two wide, three high, and two deep so there were 12 in a section.
After nearly a year, we started getting Red Cross parcels. They consisted of a can of powdered milk, a package of dried fruit, a can of spam, corn beef, liver pate, a can of crackers, two packs of cigarettes or tobacco, a can of margarine, a chocolate bar, a bar of soap, and a couple of items that I don’t remember. We were allowed to write two V-mail letters a week.
The Germans made one big compound for the Americans. Other nationalities were in other parts of the Stalag. We had the Russians on one side of us and the French on the other side. Red Cross parcels kept coming. After we got Red Cross parcels for some time the Germans asked us if we wanted the soup. Horse meat was put in later. We got to the point where we didn’t want the German soup but we took it anyway and gave it to the Russians. The Germans warned us that the Russians would eat too much and cause bloating and death but tThe Russians had already turned to cannibalism.
The Americans soon found their way around. You could trade cigarettes or candy bars for about anything. Some Americans could speak German or French or other languages and the other nationalities had some who could speak English. The men grouped together from two to six and pooled their Red Cross parcels for trading and convenience. I had a friend, Anglo Spinelli, who was a photographer for the Air Force. In Africa he ran out of film. He was given some prisoners to take back for interrogation and ran into a tank battle. The Germans captured him. After we got Red Cross parcels for awhile, he found his way around and got some cameras. He took pictures of camp, and sent me a book of 33 original pictures in 1946. Most of the pictures in this story were provided by him. I still have the book of pictures. He has 14 pictures in the Halls of Congress, 14 in the Smithsonian Museum, and had 14 published in Life magazine. The Americans made some crystal sets and traded candy and cigarettes for radios so we knew what was going on.
The Germans asked us if we wanted horse meat in the soup and we said yes. We assumed that the horses were killed on the battle front and due to the food shortage that the inspectors would pass anything. We did not eat it, but it made that much less food for the Germans.
A man told us his story. He was working his way through a diesel engineering school in Norfolk, Virginia. He went to the door of a Navy Captain who knew there was no diesel engineering school in Norfolk, Virginia. He said we should have seen him wiggle out of that one.
The Germans would do a shakedown of our barracks every once in awhile. One morning about 6:00 a.m. they came in force; about one German for each two or three Americans. They lined us up outside. They searched the compound until late evening when they finally found some of the weapons. The guns, machined pistols, revolvers, etc., were put on nails on the support timber, through the seats of the latrine. The Germans were sure happy when they found the guns, all but the Compound Commander’s weapon. One night a guy came through hollering, “Roll Call! Roll Call! We have a visitor in the compound.” We got up for roll call, but didn’t find the visitor. A few days later the Germans came in for a shakedown. We got to the point that when the Germans got us up for roll call we would say, “We’re krank, we’re krank” we are sick, we are sick. They would count us in bed. The guards got to the point where they would come through for roll call and would call out, “Roll Call, Roll Call, all is here,” and go on through without getting us up.
We would cover up for any American who would be gone from the compound. When they tried to count us, we would shuffle back and forth. After they tried to count us three or four times, they would say “All is here.” The Germans came in for another shakedown. They kept us out in the snow from 6:00 a.m. until after 8:00 p.m. when they found the men.
The Americans would bomb in the daytime and the English at night. At night they would drop flares around the camp, marking it off. Late at night it was pitch black outside and a heavy fog. The planes were low and droning. Someone came in and said, “You guys better get outside, the planes are really low.” The men that were awake told him to get out and to let us sleep. The English said it was too risky to bomb in the daytime, so the Americans did. About that time a a plane that had been hit but could probably get back to his base dropped his load about a mile and a half from camp. There was real confusion; men jumping off their bunks trying to get out, some kneeling and praying in the aisles and doorway, no one knew what was going on. We thought that the bombers had missed their target. The daylight raids were getting heavier and closer to us. The Americans had fighter escorts and were right over camp when the Germans challenged them. There was a dogfight, but it didn’t last long and the planes were gone. The German guards were in their foxholes. The Americans were out in the compound yard, watching and cheering. Afterward, some of the men got rocks, whitewashed them, and made a big P.O.W. sign in the center of the compound. As the ring around Germany became tighter and tighter, we followed the news with great detail. The Russians were getting closer and closer. The Germans wanted us to volunteer in their Army to fight against the Russians.
One morning the Germans came in and told us to pack up everything that we wanted to take and get ready to move out so we buried 24 radios in the sand. Late that afternoon we left on foot. That night we holed up on a dairy farm. I was in the hayloft. The next morning there was about 6 to 8 inches of now on the ground.
As we came to their security zones the S.S. troopers on horses would herd us through. They would not hesitate to run over you with a horse. One man stepped out of line to tie his shoe and was shot on the spot. That night we stopped on a pig farm. We ran the hogs out of the shelter and about ten of us slept in the hog shelter. My toenails on both feet had turned black and began to hurt due to frost bite. I taped my toenails up or wrapped them with cloth. My toenails did come off. I don't remember how many days we were out or where else we stayed.
We reached Stalag III-A at Luchenwald, which is about 15 miles southwest of Berlin. There we settled down to await the end of the war. There were all nationalities there. I met some English and Australians there that had been P.O.W.s five years or more. We weren’t there two weeks and Red Cross parcels came in which was the first the other P.O.W.s had ever seen. There were commissioned officers at Luchenwald. Up to this time we were segregated. Also the non-commissioned officers were segregated from privates because they could work privates.
I went through solitary confinement. This was for the Jews and the Russians. On entering the door was a concrete floor slanting toward the center where a trough about 8 inches wide ran the full length of the building for the excretions. The rooms were about 4 feet wide, seven feet long, and the ceiling about 7 feet high, with a window about 18 inches square in the upper corner of the wall with no other light. A trough for excretions ran into the one in the hall. It sure smelled putrid. There was another building in back of the solitary confinement. It was for the men that had T.B., or were gravely sick, and the dead bodies were burned there. The Russian P.O.W.s made their own chapel in one end of a barracks. It was very nice, considering. It seemed to me that brute strength was what gave the Russian military man authority.
Around April 1, 1945, the German soldiers to give us their guns and be our prisoners. The German soldiers wanted to surrender to the American P.O.W.s. The German commander told us that if we gave their guns back that he would shell the camp. The ranking man at Stalag III-A was an English Colonel. He issued orders for us to walk guard around camp and keep everybody in. All we had for weapons were some chair legs. We didn't do a very good job, as the French and the G.I.’s went out and raided the German food warehouses. One of my buddies came back with a 100-pound sack of sugar.
One night I was on guard. Someone had a bunch of papers and put them in the stove. The fire flared up just as a plane was passing over and he opened fire and strafed the compound. It was a German plane, we could tell by the sound. No damage was done. One morning, about the middle of April, we saw German tanks dug in around the camp. We thought for sure that we would be in the middle of a battle.The next morning they were gone. The Russians came that morning, took their tanks, and tore the fences down. They said that we were free, that the wolf was gone. They said that as soon as their supplies caught up with them they would give us rations. They never came. Each Russian vehicle had a woman on it for first aid or medical. The Russian soldiers were like a wild animal, with no compassion for anyone. If one was coming down the street with a vehicle, you better get out of his way because he would not look out for you.
We were not too far from the American lines. An American convoy came in one day. An English Colonel, who was the ranking man in camp, got the idea to give American uniforms to other nationalities and load them on the trucks. The last two men on each side of the trucks were Americans. The first convoy got through, but the Russians turned the next one back. The other nationalities thought that the Russians would use them for slave labor. The next day, another American convoy came in. We were walking around the compound in shirt sleeves. It was cold and sixteen of us piled on the lead Jeep. We should have gone back for coats or jackets, but I wasn’t about to give up my spot. There were items that I would like to have brought back, but I wasn’t about to risk losing my spot. We were taken back to the American lines, given a blanket, and in a barracks for a night’s sleep. I was a free man for the first time in almost 2 ½ years.
The next morning we loaded on trucks taken through Maddeberg, Germany, to an airport. The rubble in some of the streets was as high as a three-story building. The roads were bulldozed over the rubble. We were flown to Rheims, France, where we were put in tents. In a few days we loaded on trucks and were taken to Camp Lucky Strike at LeHavre, France. We were put in tents and segregated by states to come back to the good old U.S.A. I did not have any addresses of my friends because we were from different states. We were offered leave time in London or Paris, but my choice was getting back to the U.S.A. as fast as I could. The area around LeHavre, France, port facilities were in total destruction. There was nothing standing in an area of two square miles of my estimation. There were gun barrels the size of sewer pipe twisted and bent. The pill boxes were steel reinforced concrete, about 30 inches thick on all sides with a window in front for the gun barrel to stick out. There were gun barrels lying around that were about 16 inches in diameter.
On June 1, 1945, we loaded on a liberty ship and headed for New York. All the P.O.W.s on this ship were from Kansas.
On June 15, 1945, we came into New York harbor. Words cannot express our feelings when we saw the Statue of Liberty. You should have heard the cheers when we saw that Grand Lady of Liberty come into view. When we got off the boat we wanted to kiss the ground. It was three years to the day that I got on a boat in New York harbor to the day I got on a boat in LeHavre, France, to come back to the U.S. As I look back I know that someone was watching over me throughout my ordeal.
I have a lot to be thankful for . . . this great Country we live in!