|Stalag VII A: Oral history|
"Be kind to your web footed friends,
Sung to the tune of "Three Cheers for the Red, White, and Blue," GIs marched to this little ditty during World War II. Because of its brevity, it didn't make much of a marching song. It was more of a protest to close-order drill than anything else. John Philip Sousa would have been chagrined.
One sweltering midnight in July of 1943, along with hundreds of other GIs, I stepped down off a troop train onto the rail siding at Amarillo Army Air Base, Texas. Tired and sweaty, none of us had had a decent night's sleep, much less a shower, since leaving St. Petersburg, Florida, five days before.
A cadre Sergeant shouted at us, "Fall in! Riiiiiight face! Forrrrrrd harch!"
With barracks bags swung over our shoulders, we trudged through the night toward distant lights of the barracks compound. All we wanted to do was climb into the sack and sleep for two days. After about a quarter of a mile, I guess the Sergeant wasn't happy with our attitude, and shouted. "Everybody sing!"
So we struck up "Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends." Apparently the Sergeant never heard it before, and wasn't satisfied with it's abrupt ending. So he shouted again, "Everyone sing."
Again we sang "Web Footed Friends," but with even less enthusiasm than the first time, so he gave up on us. I guess he expected something stout-hearted, like "Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder," but we just weren't in the mood.
Now I fast forward my story sixteen months to early November, 1944. In a small German town a few days after a Focke-Wulf fighter plane shot down our B-17, two German guards held five of my crew mates and me in a storage shed in a small town, for the night. I awoke about midnight to the sound of singing. My buddies woke up too, and we scrambled to a small window overlooking the street to see what the music was all about.
We saw about a hundred German soldiers marching four abreast down the village street. In the darkness they were mere shadows, but their steel helmets and shouldered rifles reflected the half-moon light. Their hobnail boots clanked in perfect unison on the cobblestone street, while they sang what sounded like an heroic chorus from Götterdammerung. And they sang it in dramatic three part harmony. Their lusty voices sent a chill down my spine. Richard Wagner would have been proud.
What a show. These guys, I thought, had to be just as tired as we were that midnight back in Amarillo, but they were singing with gusto.
When their voices faded into the night, I turned to my buddies and said, "Hey guys, how about a rousing rendition of 'Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends'?" I think John Philip Sousa would have chuckled.
Name, Rank and Serial Number
The short but muscular Luftwaffe guard with a Luger on his hip pushed me into the empty cell. Then the heavy wooden door slammed shut with a resounding bang that reverberated between the concrete block walls. Then silence.
The air in the cell was quite cool had a musty smell. I estimated it to be about six feet wide and ten feet long. The ceiling was about ten feet above the floor and both were concrete. Near the ceiling, in the wall opposite the door, a one foot square barred window provided the room's only light. A small eye-level hole in the door provided a view of inmates from the corridor. Against one wall stood an iron cot with a ticking covered mattress and a folded German Army blanket.
It was Saturday, November 11th, 1944, just nine days after a FW-190 shot down my B-17 near the Holland-German border during World War II. My crew members and I had just been placed in solitary confinement at the POW interrogation center in Frankfurt Germany.
The guard was a short but muscular man with a Luger pistol on his hip. Just before I was directed into my cell, I asked him if I could have something to eat, but he acted as though he didn't understand English. The guards understood English very well, I learned later, but had been instructed to not communicate with prisoners.
When that door slammed behind me my first thought was, I wonder how long I'll be here. It was about five in the evening and I really did wonder about food. It had been sporadic at best these last few days. I wondered why I was in solitary confinement - the Viking's punishment, I read recently. Of course what the Germans wanted was to break me down, to get me to tell everything I knew about my outfit, the 95th Bomb Group. Then I thought, well this will be a good chance to just sit and think about things.
So I stretched out on the cot, which wasn't all that uncomfortable, looked up at the little window, and saw nothing but the bottom of slate grey clouds. There was a drizzling rain outside, and I soon fell asleep. When I woke up in the middle of the night I wondered where I was. Then I realized I was all alone in that silent cell. And I began to think about my folks and Theresa back home, a million miles away. It didn't seem real. And then I drifted off again.
Shortly after daylight, I was awakened by the sound of a key in the door, and it squeaked open. I looked around and the guard was signaling me to come out into the corridor. Out already, I thought? No, my guard directed me into the latrine, and when I came back to my cell there was a bowl of some sort of porridge and a spoon on my cot. The guard indicated that I should put the bowl on the floor by the door when I finished eating, then he slammed the door shut again and turned the key in the lock. Through the door I could hear him repeat the same routine for my fellow prisoners down the corridor. Latrine break and food came again at about five that afternoon, but it seemed like there was never enough food.
Nights were spent sleeping, but in the daytime, other than exercising, there was simply nothing to do. There was absolutely nothing in that cell but that cot, my clothing, and me; no reading or writing material of any kind.
On the second day I discovered, to my delight, that if I shouted loud enough my B-17 crew mate Vincent Lauricella, who I noticed on the first day was put in the cell next to mine, could hear me; and if I put my ear against the wall when he shouted, I could just barely hear him. About the only thing we "talked" about was food.
He would shout, "I'd like to have some breaded veal cutlets and strawberry ice cream for dessert."
To which I would respond, "I want steak and eggs with apple pie for dessert." Somehow I had this vision of a big T-bone steak with a couple of fried eggs, sunny side up, sitting on the plate beside it. We also talked about the lack of anything to read, but for the most part our conversations were pretty dull.
On the third day while I was shouting to Vinny through the wall the guard opened my door and told me, in German, but in no uncertain terms, to stop the shouting. I guess the sound went through the wooden door a lot easier than the concrete block wall. I was pretty disgusted with the whole arrangement by then and as he was closing the door I took the opportunity to say to him, "Fuck you."
That's when I learned that he understood English, at least those words, because he came back into the cell and with an angry look on his face asked me what I said, at least I assume that's what he asked. I quickly changed the subject and said I wanted a book to read, hoping that the word "book" and the other word sounded enough alike for him to believe me. He pretended not to understand even after I gestured by holding my palms up like I was holding a book. I then told him I wanted to see an "Offizier" (officer). But he ignored that and backed out of the cell. This time the door really closed with a bang. I guess Vinny got the same reprimand, because we didn't communicate through the wall any more.
I discovered on the very first day that I could pass a lot of time by doing mathematical problems in my head. For example, I calculated the number of feet from the earth to the moon because I knew that it was about 240,000 miles to the moon and there are 5280 feet in a mile. I'm sure I couldn't do that now without a pencil and paper, but in the silence of that cell I could totally concentrate on the problem.
I also prayed a lot, at least a lot more than I ever had before or since. I prayed that mom, dad, Rich and Theresa were OK, and I prayed that there would never be another war. And I thought about that a lot too. Obviously, my first prayer was the only one to be answered.
There was no break in that very simple routine until the fourth day. At probably ten o'clock in the morning, the guard opened my cell door and motioned me to follow him. He directed me to the end of the corridor, through a locked door, then down another corridor, through another locked door, and into what was obviously an office building corridor.
After we passed a few doors the guard knocked on one of them. A voice from the inside of the office said, "Einzug" (enter). My guard opened the door and directed me in. There was a large mahogany desk placed in front of a big curtained window with warm sunshine flowing through it. Behind the desk was a smiling German Luftwafte officer wearing an immaculate uniform. He was a well built fellow, rather good looking, and appeared to be about 50. His light brown hair was combed straight back. Compared to me, the man was a movie star, like Paul Douglas in Nazi uniform.
I must have looked like a bum. I had a five day beard, and a wrinkled olive drab uniform that I hadn't been out of since the day we were shot down. When we were first captured the guards took everything away from us except our clothes and one dog tag. I didn't even have a pocket comb. But I wasn't concerned about what I looked like, my only concern was getting out of that place.
As I walked into his office, he stepped around his desk, walked up to me with his hand extended, and in excellent English said, "Ah, Sergeant Livingstone, please sit down." He shook my hand firmly and gave me fatherly pat on the shoulder. Then he walked back around his desk again and sat down again, all the while with a warm smile on his face. After offering me a cigarette, he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a printed form of some sort and picked up a fountain pen.
Turning more serious, but still with warmth in his voice, he said, "Sergeant Livingstone, I must apologize for the conditions here, but I assure you that you will be going to a very comfortable Red Cross camp with all you flight crew very soon - just as soon as we fill out this form."
Well, I thought, you could have asked me to help you with your damned form when I arrived here four days ago. I also remembered our instructions: if you're captured, don't tell them anything but your name, rank, and serial number. I noticed that my extra dog tag was lying right there on his desk.
"First of all, Sergeant Livingstone, your full name
He smiled again, this time with a little expression of
superiority, "That's alright, we know you were in the 95th
Bomb Group." Of course they did. It was in block numbers
eight feet tall on the tail of our "big-ass bird". The
Focke-Wulf pilot who shot us down couldn't have helped seeing
He proceeded to ask other questions related to military strength of the 95th Bomb Group, and to warn me that I was going to have to stay in that six by ten cell until I helped him fill out that form. But I continued to refuse to answer his questions.
Finally, after about twenty minutes, he pushed a buzzer on his desk and the guard came back into the room. The officer said something to him in German and off-handedly gestured for me to follow the guard out and back to my cell.
Just as I reached the door, I stopped and turned and said to the officer, "Could you tell me who won the presidential election in the United States?" I had been shot on the day after election day, November 1st, 1944, and we hadn't heard any election news by the time we took off on our bombing mission early on the morning of November 2nd. Franklin D. Roosevelt was running against Thomas E. Dewey.
He looked up from his desk and with a spark of interest
said, "Roosevelt won."
Then his frown of impatience returned and he said, "We'll talk about it next time." I'm sure he felt he had wasted enough time on me and he had a lot of other interrogations to do that day.
Two days later I was escorted back to the same interrogation officer. This time he was quite curt. He asked me all the questions for which he had no answers, and again warned me that I wouldn't be transferred to the "very nice" prison camp until I helped him fill out his form. This interview lasted only about five minutes. Nothing was said about President Roosevelt.
That afternoon all of my crew mates and I were shipped out to the "very nice" camp. But that's another story.
The Train Trip
In the winter of 1944-1945, during World War II, I was a POW at Stalag Luft IV POW camp near Stettin Poland, located in a forested area near the Polish-German border, not far from the Baltic Sea. I was there for about two months when, in the last week of December, we heard artillery guns as the war between the Germans and the Russians moved closer to the German-Polish border.
On December 30th the word came down we would be evacuated from Stettin the following day, the destination to be another prison camp, Stalag XIII near Nuremberg, 300 miles to the southwest. Early the next morning our German guards issued each of us a Red Cross food parcel. With the crunch of frozen snow under our feet, we marched out of Stalag Luft IV to a nearby railroad siding where we climbed into rickety old boxcars.
A thin layer of straw lay on the rough wooden floor of our boxcar, but it did little to make us comfortable or warm. A five-gallon bucket provided our toilet. We were permitted to empty it only once a day. The Gerrys locked twenty-five of us in each car. Small by American standards, European boxcars measured only about 25 feet long, and about 7 feet wide. When we sat all sat down with our backs against the side walls and our legs extended, our feet would meet in the center -- sole to sole. For the most part, that's how we traveled, sitting on the floor side by side, occupying every bit of the floor space. To go to the bucket, for example, we had to step over and between a floor full of legs and feet. No one moved around much.
Wind whistled right through the boxcar's many cracks and small openings, but its sturdy sides prevented any breakouts. Not that anyone would be foolish enough to set out on his own in the dead of a north Poland winter. We each had two German Army blankets in which we were bundled all of the time because the temperature was never above freezing, at least for the first few days. I remember those blankets smelled like straw, especially when they got a little damp. But the smell that I'm sure we all remember the best (or should I say the worst) is that of the bucket/latrine.
We subsisted on the Red Cross food parcels issued before we left Stettin because on the train trip we received no German food. All of the food in the parcels could be eaten without cooking, and was supposed to last one person one week. As it turned out our train trip lasted ten days, but we expended so little energy sitting in the boxcar that the one parcel was enough. Once a day the German guards gave us each half of a one-pound coffee can of water. Water was precious, and nobody washed. The train started and stopped a lot on the trip; sometimes the train sat on a rail siding for a couple of days.
We ate no fresh fruits or vegetables, and we were aware of the ever-present danger of infection from the slightest scratch. In the semi-darkness of the boxcar it wasn't so noticeable, but when we completed our journey and came out into the sunlight I was appalled to see how men had infected sores on their hands, arms, and faces.
At about dusk of the third day the train entered the Berlin railroad complex. When the train came to a stop we figured we'd be there for the night. Everyone was asleep at about ten o'clock when the scream of air raid sirens jolted us awake. My heart pounded with fear, knowing that in that railroad yard we were sitting ducks for the RAF. At that point in the war, they always bombed German cities at night. We heard the drone of aircraft and the explosion of many bombs. Then we heard several huge nearby explosions that turned out to be the firing of an anti-aircraft gun. Everyone shook in their boots waiting for a direct hit. With the acrid smell of smoke and dust in the air, the raid seemed to last forever. But after about half an hour the thunder of the bombs stopped, the drone of the bombers was gone, and the "all-clear" siren sounded.
We slept very little after that, because for all we knew the bombing might start again any time. Fortunately it didn't, and just before dawn our train rumbled out of the train yard and into the lowlands south of Berlin.
After liberation, three months later, I learned the Eighth Air Force sent thousands of bombers to Berlin the day we left. It was the biggest air raid of the war. The railroad yard was demolished.
Another event is burned into my memory of that miserable train trip. After we passed through Berlin, one of the prisoners in the boxcar ahead of ours developed a fever and became quite ill. The one medic on the train had nothing to give him but aspirin. He died that night with an aspirin still undisclosed in his mouth. The following morning the train stopped in a peaceful countryside area and the man was carried on a makeshift stretcher to the top of a grassy hill about a hundred yards from the train track. Under a cold overcast sky, about a half dozen of his buddies buried him while the rest of us watched from the cracks in the side of the boxcars. It was a very sad time. There was a lot of frustration and anger.
I experienced many sad and as well as humorous incidents between November 2nd, 1944 and April 29th 1945, but The Train Trip lingers indelibly in my memory.
Friday the ThirteenthI remember waking up on the cool damp morning of Friday the 13th of April, 1945, wondering if we'd get any Red Cross food that day. That had been the rumor the night before. My muscles ached from having spent the night with nothing but a blanket and the rough board floor of the barn. It had rained all night and the barn smelled of livestock and wet hay. Fortunately I was dry because I had a spot near the center of the barn. Some of my fellow POWs who had to sleep near the walls weren't so lucky.
About 2,500 of us had been marching south from Nuremberg for eight days by now, and there would still be four more days before we arrived at our destination, a huge Prisoner of War camp at Moosburg, about 50 kilometers northeast of Munich. Our German guards were moving us south to keep us from being liberated by the advancing Allied forces.
We marched during the day, and spend the nights sleeping in big barns found in the small Bavarian farm villages along the route. We slept in the village of Pfeffenhausen on the night of April 12th, 1945.
As I sat there on the barn floor eating a piece of hard
German bread, one of my buddies walked up to me and asked,
"Hey Livingstone, your heard the latest rumor?"
Rumors fly in any military setting, but I got an empty feeling in my gut and somehow I knew this one was true. FDR had been elected to his fourth term on November 8th, 1944, just six days after my B-17 was shot down over the Belgium-German border.
I started thinking about home and my family. My dad had voted for Hoover in 1932, but after that he had always been a Roosevelt supporter. He truly admired the man. Dad must have been feeling very badly about then. The president was dead, and his eldest son was missing in action.
We marched out of Pfeffenhausen that morning in a sad drizzling rain. There was very little talk among my fellow prisoners as we slogged along the muddy country road. We were all thinking about the President and I'm sure they too were thinking about their loved ones and home.
At noon my group of about 500 prisoners came to a halt where the road curved around a low hill. Two POWs walked up the hill and I remember seeing their backs as they trudged through the knee-deep spring grass that made the Bavarian countryside so beautiful. One of them was carrying a bugle or trumpet. It had stopped raining by now but there was still a heavy slate-gray cloud cover. The chilled air was heavy with the smell of damp earth and grass.
Finally the two men stopped and turned toward us. One of them was an officer and he said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, "I have been told, and I have no reason to not believe, that President Roosevelt died yesterday, April the 12th. The sergeant will play taps now, then we will have a few moments of silence."
The sergeant raised his horn on that gray-green midday and played the saddest song of remorse I've ever heard. The sound was clear and pure, and I'm sure it could be heard for miles around that little hillock. I wasn't the only one with tears running down my face.
When the sergeant finished playing taps we all stood silently with our heads bowed, and I heard the unabashed weeping of a soldier somewhere among us.
Then we marched on.
FreedomOn April 29th 1945, nine days before Germany surrendered to end World War II in Europe, spring rendered Bavaria beautiful. Fresh grass greened the smoothly rounded hills encircling the little town of Moosburg as far as the eye could see.
There in beautiful Bavaria, Stalag VII A, a German POW camp, adjoined the village of Moosburg, about 30 miles northeast of Munich. Confined in that last camp to be liberated by the advancing American armored divisions, we had heard the heavy guns of the allied advance for several days, and waited with great anticipation for the end of imprisonment and the beginning of freedom.
For me, it all started about six months before when a Focke Wulf 190 shot down my B-17 bomber over the German-Belgium border. In broad daylight, Wehrmacht soldiers captured our crew soon after we bailed out into a large plowed field. After evacuating a POW camp at Nuremberg, we finally marched into the Moosburg prison camp in the middle of April. Over 50,000 prisoners, or "kriegys" as we called ourselves (short for kriegsgefangener, or prisoner of war), of many nationalities "retreated", to Moosburg from all over Germany, Poland, and Austria as the Nazi regime shrunk to meet its inevitable demise.
At Moosburg we lived in tents on muddy ground, with not enough to eat, and although there was enough water to quench our thirst -- there was certainly not enough to bathe in. By this time in the war, the Germans fought disorganization as much as the enemy. For a week we heard the war approach from the north, while the German Army retreated past our prison camp to the south.
By April 27th, with the prison guard down to a skeleton crew, the Germans left an American officer in charge. Many prisoners went through the fence, when the guards weren't looking, and into Moosburg to see what it was like, but no one wanted to "escape." I didn't do that because I saw no reason to take a chance on getting shot so close to the end of the war.
The entry in my little diary for Saturday, April 28th, reads: "Rained all day and kind of drowned hopes of liberation. Kriegys walked at will, through, and in and out of the camp. Crazy war. Artillery all night."
The entry for Sunday, April 29th, reads: "Lots of strafing in vicinity and U.S. General Sherman tanks sighted on hills to northwest about eleven AM. Liaison plane flew over about noon. War really getting close. American flag flying over Moosburg at 12:45 PM. General Smith with the 14th Armored Division, 3rd Army, came into camp about two (PM). Everybody going nuts. Kriegys (mostly Russian) went out through fence and looted town. Everybody full of K and C rations. Shelling is still going on, but south of camp."
The sight of those camouflaged tanks rolling over those emerald green hills is etched in my mind, and the elation of the moment I'll never forget.
After that, my diary talks about how long it took to get out of the camp and out of Germany. One line for May 6th says, "Expect to be here all summer, ha, ha." We were liberated, but still in the prison camp. The main difference was the better food and my seventh shower in six months.
Finally on May 8th, we were up at 4:00 AM, piled into the back of GI trucks and rolled off toward Landshut, about 20 miles to the northeast. About ten miles beyond Landshut there lay a Luftwaffe base with a huge airport.
Upon arrival, my group of thirty men waited two and a half long boring hours while thousands of American and British ex- prisoners of war were shuttled out of Germany to Le Havre, France, in the stalwart old C-47s. Those two and a half hours seemed to last forever, but finally our turn came.
Ex-kriegys shot down over Germany all swore never to fly again without a parachute. Well, without parachutes on this trip, we simply belted ourselves down to aluminum benches along the sides of the plane. Bucking head winds, the four and a half hour flight was the roughest I'd ever made -- strictly white knuckle time for all of us.
After we landed in Le Havre, we learned that Germany had surrendered while we were in the air. What a great feeling. Now truly liberated, we were free at last.
Freedom is more than being able to leave home, it's also being able to go home.
First Time Out"Come on guys," Frankie Miranda said, "let's get goin'."
And with that, my POW buddies, Ken Norwood and Marvin Lindsay, and I followed Frankie out through a big hole in the fence -- a hole which appeared about an hour after the 14th Armored Division liberated us from Stalag VII A on the 29th day of April, 1945. It would be eight days before our evacuation to La Havre, France.
At first, we were a little concerned about the reaction of the townsfolk in the adjoining town of Moosburg, but by the third day, we realized we Kriegies (short for Kriegsgefangenen -- Prisoner of War) outnumbered them by about five to one, so had little to worry about. Later that day, we found we had more reason to worry about our own actions than those of the natives.
The walk from the Stalag VII A's perimeter fence to the little town took about ten minutes. Except for a few ex-POWs, we found the streets empty. Civilians boarded up their shops and holed up in their homes and apartments, with, I'm sure, considerable apprehension. Until the American tanks arrived, these people had seen none of the war. The nearby POW camp protected them from Allied bombing and the town remained undamaged. The place was quiet, except for a wagon full of drunken Russian ex-POWs who shouted and beat the horses pulling their wagon to make them run faster through the streets.
We decided to check out a small German garrison in the town. Not more than a half acre in size, it contained a two-story office building, some barracks, and a parking lot with a few German cars and light trucks. Inside the offices, we discovered, a filing cabinet containing the German "service record" cards of American POWs. Thanks to the German organizational mindset, and alphabetical filing, we found our own cards easily - I still have mine 55 years later.
In addition to the cards we found some car keys in a desk drawer. In the elation of the moment, we lifted the keys which belonged to the now nearly defunct Third Reich and took them out to the parking lot to see if they fit any of the cars. Sure enough, one key fit a little olive drab Volkswagen. With no one to stop us, naturally we decided to take it out for a spin, and we all piled in. None of us had ever seen, much less driven, a VW before, but Frankie had no trouble with it.
Our first thought was to see if we could find the nearby American Army camp set up just the day before. We'd heard from the grapevine there was a mess hall there. Food was foremost on the minds of all Kriegies and we figured a good meal awaited us. We found the camp with no trouble about five miles up a muddy road north of Moosburg, and drove up to a sentry. M-1 in hand, he waved us to a halt.
We explained our situation and asked him if he thought we could get something to eat at the mess hall. "Sure, no problem. Just follow this road straight ahead to the biggest tent - that's the mess hall. And good luck," he said, and waved us on.
Frankie parked the VW near the entry to the big tent which smelled of preservative on new canvas - probably the first time it had ever been used.
But the smell that put a smile our faces was that of fresh baked bread. Oh my! Plus, there lingered the wonderful smell of beef stew cooking. After six months of nothing but Red Cross parcel food, German sauerkraut, and in the last three days, K-Rations, there awaited what, for months, we had only dreamed about: real cooked GI chow.
When we found the mess sergeant and told him who we were, he said, "Great, sit down at a table, guys. I'll serve it to you personally." Now, that was a privilege. He laughed and said, "And you guys won't have to go on KP either!"
Well, did we ever feast. Everything, the stew, the bread, the milk, the veggies, the mashed potatoes, the butter, the fruit, even the pie and ice cream, were fantastic. We couldn't help stuffing ourselves. the mess sergeant stood by all the while and asked if he could bring us anything else.
Finally, so full we could hardly move, we thanked the sergeant profusely and staggered back to the VW for the drive back to Moosburg garrison. Happy a clams, we were stuffed to the gills. Now all we needed was a nice nap back at Stalag VII A. But, after about two miles down the muddy road, Frank said, "I can't wait, I gotta stop." Whereupon he slammed on the brakes, jumped out the door and threw up his entire meal. One look at him and the rest of us piled out of the car and did the same. With stomachs shriveled to the size of a peanut, I guess, we just couldn't handle a real meal.
But that's OK, Sarge, wherever you are, it was still the most welcome meal I ever had. And that includes my own sweet mamma's chicken and dumplings.
© Bill Livingstone
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