|Stalag VII A: Oral history|
© Renita Foster
He Signaled Freedom with Old Glory
By Renita Foster
"Freedom is more than being able to leave home; it's also being able to go home."Saturday, April 28th 1945 brought nothing but rain all day and night, drowning away any rescue hopes so desperately held by the "kriegies" (short for the German word, kriegsgefangen meaning prisoners of war), at Stalag VII-A located near Moosburg, Germany.
Incarcerated in Stalag VII-A, the last POW camp to be liberated by the Americans, was bomber pilot, Martin Allain. The 23-year-old 1st Lt. became German prisoner of war #122 when his B-26 bomber was shot down over North Africa in January, 1943. After being captured by Arabs and turned over to German soldiers, Allain was sent back to Germany where he was interrogated and held in solitary confinement.
During an initial search, Allain cleverly hid under his tongue, a sacred heart medal, given to him by his mother. It was the first of two prized possessions he would guard with his life during his years as a prisoner of war.
"My mother presented Martin with the medal that first Sunday in December of 1941," said Allain's sister, Net Garon. "Everyone gathered together that day to spend as much time with him as possible before he reported for flight training. It was just a few hours later we learned about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which made us feel all the worse."
While serving as a security officer at his initial POW camp in Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Poland, Allain received his next treasure; a huge American flag smuggled into the compound to be displayed for identification, should the constantly prayed for Allied planes appear. For safe keeping, Allain immediately sewed the flag between two German blankets.
The renewed threat of the Russian winter offensive in January 1945 caused the Germans to evacuate Stalag Luft III kriegies. When the order came, Allain was determined to keep the sacred icon he'd been entrusted with and quickly grabbed the blankets for a six day forced march in horrendous weather and sub-zero temperatures from Poland to Germany, arriving at Moosburg in early February.
"I don't think at the time Martin knew just how significant that flag would become," said Lila, who became Allain's wife a few months before he left for overseas in 1942. "He simply felt it was his responsibility to make sure it was available if needed."
It was Allain's medal and flag providing him solace during the next three months when Stalag VII-A brought nothing but unbearable cold and hunger. The winding down of World War II had forced POWs to be sent from other camps to Moosburg. A facility designed to house 3,000 prisoners now swelled to a total estimated 30,000 to 100,000. The overcrowding meant little food and no hot water for cooking or washing. As a result, the straw beds were infested with lice and fleas. The outdoor latrines, one for about every 2,000 men, had eventually overflowed, promoting further disease among the kriegies. The Germans refused to clean them until the parade ground, where the kriegies assembled for roll call, became affected.
The brightest moment for Allain was discovering an abandoned kitten he was determined to help survive. The darkest was returning to the barracks after work detail one afternoon to find nothing left but its skin.
The next morning, Sunday, April 29, the Moosburg kriegies awakened to brilliant sunshine, restoring their belief freedom just might be near. "McGuffy," the code name for the BBC (British Broadcasting Company), heard by kriegies over hidden radios had announced General Patton's 3rd Army was northeast of Munich. This startling revelation sent many prisoners scurrying to examine their secret maps, confirming Moosburg was indeed close to that area. As the morning progressed, so did excitement in the camp. Men grouped together, whispering, planning, and praying this just might be the day.
The kriegies heard the long awaited, soul stirring signs of freedom before seeing them. Just over the horizon was the unmistakable chugging sound of a Piper Cub. As the observation craft every combat soldier knew so well came gliding over the Bavarian evergreens, it began wagging its wings over the camp as thousands of voices boomed up to greet it. The powerful engines of two P 51s followed the Cub, enhancing the already spectacular scene with victory rolls over barracks and tents for the exhilarated POWS.
And then the most revered sound of all; one holding thousands of kriegie eyes and ears spellbound with anticipation that seemed to last as long as the war itself; the deep rumble of diesel tanks approaching from beyond the surrounding hills. From the second they were spotted to their arrival at the main gate, the rescue machines were literally drowned out by the deafening kriegie jubilation.
It was the 14th Armored Division, storming the main gate of Moosburg that late Sunday morning. To this day, its veterans claim the cheering of captured servicemen being liberated, "is the most moving sound we've ever heard."
And in that moment, when impassioned kriegies began climbing over tanks and celebrating their deliverance, Allain realized the destiny meant for the highly coveted flag he'd protected for so long.
"I was standing at the front gate," said Robert Hartman, an infantry platoon leader with the 78th Infantry Division before his capture the year before, "when Allain began shinnying up the German flagpole. Everyone knew immediately what he was going to do, and there was no doubt in our minds he would make it despite his malnourished appearance. I think when called upon, Americans just have tremendous esprit de corps to accomplish whatever they need to. And the recollection of this grimy, skinny but smiling GI tearing down the ugly swastika and replacing it with the beautiful Stars and Stripes has never wavered or grown dim. I've never seen this soldier before or since, but it's the kind of memory that only gets stronger with time."
As for the veteran Moosburg kriegies, the ones who had been imprisoned for more than three years and "sweated out" every major World War II event from North Africa to D-Day to Bastogne; the ones surviving for so long by making German rations edible and turning tin cans into tools and utensils; the ones who would not allow themselves to feel hope that day because of so many near-but-not-quite rescues; witnessing Allain's display of American patriotism at its best, was nothing short of miraculous.
"As hardened as they were, seeing that glorious Stars and Stripes sent tears rolling down their cheeks," said another former Moosburg POW, "and they were not ashamed to be seen crying. Being set free can do that to people when they have been behind barbed wire and don't know if they will ever see their families again." Like most soldiers who keep souvenirs from their Army adventures, Allain brought home the swastika flag, but left Old Glory at Moosburg.
"He liked to believe it stayed hanging on that flag pole long after he'd left," Lila Allain said, "as a reminder when freedom came to the prison that day. And I think it was just marvelous he had the foresight to keep it and accomplish something so remarkable with it."
Martin Allain, Jr. vividly remembers hearing the "flag story" as a youngster and can easily picture his father climbing up the pole. He also views it as a bunch of young men trying to keep their sanity with the flag incident reinforcing the sense of who they were. "Freedom didn't exist for so long for those POWs, and when that flag appeared, that's the moment they knew freedom really was theirs. And to this day it's a favorite family bedtime story. Especially the part where my father hid the flag between the blankets to keep the Germans from finding it"
Most Americans never learned of Allain's symbolic contribution to the end of World War II until a decade ago when former Moosburg kriegies wrote to columnist Ann Landers sharing that unforgettable Sunday. But Allain didn't identify himself as the flag raiser until nearly five years later.
"Martin became ill with leukemia and knew he was dying. That's when he told me he'd been putting it off long enough and said it was time to write," recalled Net Garon. "Ann Landers was a favorite column of his and he was very proud and pleased when he saw people still remembering that triumphant day."
Allain's response prompted an avalanche of mail and phone calls worldwide. And while he possessed the same kind of inner strength and desire to answer the treasured but overwhelming correspondence as he did the day he climbed the flagpole at Moosburg, the cancer would not permit it.
"So we simply gathered the family together and shared a truly gratifying experience in helping Martin read all the letters and answering calls from everywhere imaginable, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, "Garon said beaming at the memory. "He was so delighted and thrilled over all the wonderful people who let him know how much they cared."
When the Allains gathered once more to say their final farewell to Martin, it was standing room only for the man who had been blessed with a wife of over 50 years, 5 siblings, 3 children, and 7 grandchildren. There was an entire community who knew Dr. Allain as the beloved pediatrician "treating little ones with tenderness and love, whether their parents could afford it or not," like the handicapped children cared for by the Holy Angels School where he was on call for 28 years, 24 hours a day. And Allain was the friendly neighbor who religiously wore a coat and tie upon leaving his house, enjoyed farming and fishing, but for some reason didn't like riding in airplanes.
There was, undoubtedly, another presence at Allain's funeral, not physical but spiritual. An ethereal army of former Moosburgers who came to pay homage to their fellow kriegie and to remember the "grimy, skinny but smiling GI proudly raising the glorious Stars and Stripes" one long ago sunny Sunday morning; proclaiming the freedom they were born with and had fought so painfully hard to get back, was once again theirs.
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