Alcide "Jim" Champagne
WHO WOULD EVER GUESS
THAT IT WOULD TURN OUT THIS WAY
By Alcide "Jim" Champagne
Copyright © 1995 by A. Jim Champagne
All rights reserved.
It all began on the early morning of February 25, 1944 when our B-24 Bomber crew entered the plane, No. 42-7746, that we were to fly this day at our home base in Manduria, Italy. We were members of the 15th U. S. Army Air Force, 450th Bomb Group, and 722nd Bomb Squadron. When we entered this plane we were met by the line mechanics of this plane that we were flying today and was told by them that the number 4 engine 12/13 AMPS which again was only one half, the outboard engine in the right side as one sits in the pilot's seat had only 30 pounds of oil pressure, which is only half of the normal engine oil pressure of 60 pounds. We were also told that the generators of 2 engines were only outputting 12/13 AMPS, which again was only about one half the normal engine generator AMPS output of 25 AMPS of each engine generator. Since the plane had 4 engines we had 4 engine generators on board.
We Fly Today
The pilot asked me, the flight engineer about these sub normal problems and I replied that I did not believe that we would not even reach the target for today. Since we had amongst us others including a fill-in tail gunner, fill-in gunners or other air crew members "filled-in" for our own regular air crew members that could not fly today's mission because of being in the hospital, in sick bay, or otherwise unable to fly today's mission. Herb N. Wilch, was also a flight engineer from another flight crew was then next asked by our pilot about the condition of the aircraft and he just shrugged his shoulders. Since this was an "ALL OUT" mission, meaning all planes that could get off the ground would take off. So the pilot said get into your positions and we prepared to fly.
Off Into The Wild Blue Yonder
Our mission today was the Prufening Aircraft Factory in the Regensburg, Germany area some many 600 or so miles northerly in southern Germany from our home base in southern Italy. It was one of our longest missions. Our flight path was an elongated oval one up through Yugoslavia, over Austria into Germany to today's target and hopefully a return back to Manduria in southern Italy by again flying over southern Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and across the Adriatic Sea, as it turned out we were not fortunate this day.
So, off we go, taking off in early morn and forming our formation over Italy. We flew northeasterly across the Adriatic Sea into Yugoslavia, Then northward up Yugoslavia and shortly after crossing the border into Austria, or there about we lost our number 4 engine. The propeller on this dead engine could not be "feathered" meaning to put it in a position that it would have the least resistance to the air and locked into a stopped position. It became a "runaway prop" which is a dangerous thing to have as some "runaway" propellers have been known to come off of it's shaft that they are on and cut through the flight cockpit. We were losing speed and altitude, the pilot decided to turn back and head for home. He told the bombardier, Lt. J.C. McClure to drop his bombs in a field or river, and asked the navigator, Lt. Edward J. Nisiobincki for a heading to take us back home. As the crews flight engineer I was called from my normal top turret gun position, during a mission by the pilot to see if I could feather the propeller. I could not because we must have lost all of the oil, which is needed to do this, or this was just another problem with this plane. Certainly not one of our lucky mission days.
We were hit by anti air craft guns, (flak guns), from the ground and when this attack was over we were shortly thereafter attacked by a flight of Messerschmidts 109s the pilot, Lt. Willis Retzlaff must of called Mac the Bombardier up to take my gun position because I saw him crawl up into the top turret gun position and start to shoot the twin 50 caliber machine guns at that gun position. Well needless to say the enemy fighters finished us off, the plane became just too uncontrollable and was losing altitude, and the number 4 engine was on fire and perhaps the gas tanks just behind it too. The pilot gave the "Bailout" signal and everybody grabbed for their chest packs (parachutes) to snap on to their parachute harness. That is everybody but the pilot and co-pilot who had back or seat packs, I don't remember which. Everybody started to dive out of the nearest opening that they could fit through. Everybody got out and all of their 10 respective parachutes all opened up. We all became separated. This was around 11:30 or noon time at a positioned fixed at about 46 degrees - 15 minutes North Latitude and 14 degrees - 15 minutes East Longitude in northern Yugoslavia.
I jumped out after the Bombardier, Lt. J.C. McClure, he had no first name, only an initial, we called him Mac from the front end compartment just behind the cockpit area. It was my first parachute jump and I "free fell" meaning that I did not pull my ripcord after the count of 5 as we were instructed to in case we had to bailout. I waited instead until I could distinguish the branches and tree limbs very clearly before I pulled my ripcord. I believe that we had been flying at 10,000 feet or near that altitude when we bailed out. To make matters even worse, I was heading straight for the roof of a country building, so I "slipped" my chute, meaning that I pulled on the shroud lines of one side of my parachute to miss the roof. Well I hit the ground pretty darn hard because I hit the ground before my parachute filled out again after slipping it. In doing so I broke one or more bones in my left arch, confirmed in 1945 by the VA. To this day, some 50 years later, I have a bony protrusion on top of my left arch from it, a definite remembrance of the occasion. As I was coming down I noticed that our B-24 bomber was making a gradual turn to the right, almost a horseshoe turn or "U" turn before it hit the ground. I heard or saw no explosion.
After I landed I got rid of the parachute and it's harness and asked the people who came out of the house to see what was going on where was Zagreb, Yugoslavia located so I could orient myself, I even pointed it out on an escape map for them. I also asked where I could find some of Tito's Partisans. It was like talking to a stone wall, no answer. While I was looking for a walking stick to support my injured left foot the ball turret gunner, Sgt. Ben L. Klinshaw came up the path and met up with me. I told Ben that he better keep right on going as I had trouble walking and did not have much mobility, but he insisted on staying with me.
Well we had not moved very far in a southerly direction when we were surrounded by a party of Germans, at least I thought they were. What a shock to be captured. Wowie!!! What a feeling. They searched us and took everything but the clothes on our backs and shoes. They then stood us up against the wall of a windowless side of a building, then 3 of the German soldiers set up machine guns on small tripods with a German laying down behind each of these machine guns pointed at us and cocked them ready to fire while the rest of the patrol pointed their rifles at us. Ben L. Klinshaw asked me if they were going to shoot us right here and now. I replied that because of the severe pain that I had from my injured left foot that I didn't really care if they did or not, well you can see that they did not by now. There had been reports of bailed out airmen being shot at as they neared or reached the ground. If the soldiers weren't around at times the unfortunate airmen also could and had been pitched forked to death. It must have been around 3:00 or 3:30PM when they captured us.
After some of the Germans looked the area over for more of us and asked questions of the near by residents, only 1 ramshackle home was there, they marched us down what appeared to be a big hill, it seemed to take about an hour to get to the road by a small stream in the valley where a covered army truck was waiting for us. What a painful trip that was for me, Ben and I were put into the rear of the truck. We were told to get into the back of the truck with some guards and taken to a jail in a nearby northeast Yugoslavia town called Bjovar in the province of Slovenia, Yugoslavia. We were put each in a cell separated by a cell. We stayed that night and through the next night. I was served something-called food in a pie plate or dog dish that was not at all appetizing, something very watery, I only ate the dark bread.
On The Go
On the second morning we were herded out of the cells and it was at this time that I noticed the nose gunner, Sgt. William J. Booth was also there, he must of been captured before us as I did not hear him being brought into the jail after we got there. I have since learned that our B-24 came to rest in Stickna, Slovenia, and northern Yugoslavia without exploding upon hitting the ground. This by a copy of a letter passed on to me by the bombardier's son from a person from Slovenia, Yugoslavia, I have already mentioned that J.C. McClure the bombardier passed on in 1988 in New Mexico. I later learned that the other 7 air crew members were fortunate enough to have met up with some of Tito's partisans and in the course of 65 days or so were funneled back to the southern end of Yugoslavia where they were picked up by a plane and returned back to Italy, lucky guys, indeed.
We were handed over to a Luftwaffe (German Airforce), guard who marched us off to the local railroad station, because of my injured left foot I could not walk fast enough to get there in time before the train left. The German guard carried me on his shoulder, to the station which was not too far away. We boarded a passenger train and we ended up in a 2-bench compartment that the benches were made of wood and quite hard to sit on for any length of time. We traveled northerly to Linz, Austria where we debarked from the train.
As we walked to what turned out to be a jail that appeared to be near an airport of some kind the guard pointed out to us the damage that the American bombers had done to the vicinity, there were bomb craters all over the place, the bombers had done a great job. We were set out into individual cells again and fed the same lousy food and I only ate the bread again. My injured left foot by this time was huge, I had the lacing off of the shoe and I don't believe that I could of taken the shoe off without cutting it. No medical attention was given to it yet for the injured left foot.
The next morning we again were gathered and again installed into a 2 bench compartment on a passenger train. This trip took about a day and a half or perhaps 2 days as I remember it. There were quite a few German soldiers and some pretty girls dressed up in ski outfits with skis apparently going to ski on the German side of the Alps Mountain. We traveled westward for some day and a half and after many stops we ended up in Frankfurt, Germany. I seem to remember that we rode a trolley car in this city. Afterwards while walking in the streets we were stoned by some very angry women apparently on their way to work as it was in the early morning of about 02-30-44. They called us a bunch of angry names that I could not make out, but it got so bad that our German guard had to pull his revolver on them to make them stop throwing stones at us, it worked they finally stop the stone throwing and name calling at us.
We eventually were marched to a debriefing center camp for captured airmen called Dulag Luft in Frankfurt on the Main in Germany and turned over to the Camp there. The Germans asked me such questions as to what Bomb Group and Bomb Squadron I came from. Where my home base, (Manduria Italy) was, where I trained in the States, who was our commanding officer and similar questions. We had been trained to only give our name, rank and serial number and to answer no other questions that might be asked of us. So I only gave them my name, rank and serial number, period.
This got me thrown into solitary confinement to make me answer their questions, this was repeated on a daily basis. This lasted about a week or so because I would not answer any of the questions that they wanted answers to besides my name, rank and serial number. Solitary confinement was a small room about 6 feet by 4 feet with one tiny window that I could not see out of because it was too high. The food that was still terrible and apparently was what was to be our standard fare from now on was a couple slices of a very dark and heavy bread along with what the Germans called Ersatz coffee, it was pretty awful. This we received at breakfast and evenings. At noontime we received watery soup that had very little amounts of cabbage leaves or small pieces of Kohlrabi in it. Kohlrabi was vegetable that I would place in the turnip family, tasteless as far as I was concerned about it. In all of my time as a prisoner of war of the Germans I never remember the Germans feeding us any protein such as meat except for the meat that was in the American Red Cross Food Parcels that we received very infrequently.
After about a week of solitary confinement I was released from it and then told by a German that spoke very good English with no accent who claimed that he went to college in the Chicago, Illinois area, what My Bomb Group and Squadron was and the answers to all of the other questions that they had been trying to get me to answer. Even where we trained in the states. I was given a Red Cross Capture parcel that contained amongst things such articles as a pair of pajamas, tooth brush, tooth paste, soap a razor and other things I no longer remember now. The Germans also took my American Army issue boots and gave me in return a cheaply made pair of 6 inch high shoes in return. It was at this later time that they finally looked at my left foot and only placed an "ACE" type bandage on it.
A Long Trip In Box Cars
I believe that I was at this debriefing camp about a week to 10 days or so. Eventually I and my captured air crewmen and others were placed into boxcars, we were quite crowded actually and finally the train moved off to where, I did not know at this time, more uncertainty. Along this 7 to 10 day trip we encountered a bombing raid while we were in a rail yard. The Germans locked us all up in the boxcars and they headed for the bomb shelter. We were lucky our rail yard was not the target today so we received no damage, just a lot of noise and ground shaking. A couple of places along the trip we were allowed to get off and relieve ourselves, other times it was a problem. Finally we reached our destination, a place called Hydekrug then. It was near a place now called Pravdinski (Friedland) just over the border in what is now Lithuania, near 21 degrees east and 54 degrees North.
Stalag Luft VI
This was Stalag Luft VI my first Prisoner of War camp. There were other American airmen here when I arrived. We were constantly called out for roll calls at 5:30/6:00AM and at the same time in the evenings and at any other times the Germans so desired to. It was a shock to be captured, to go the debriefing, solitary confinement and now to be penned in a small compound to boot like a bunch of cattle. An analogy must be like cattle penned up for the slaughter.
The barracks must of been of a standard German design as these and others later were all the same, about 130 feet long, by 40 feet wide. Each barrack contained about 10 smaller rooms all entered into from a center hallway. There were 2 washrooms, without running water, just basins, (always cold), and a 2-seat pit outhouse type latrine. Each room was about 15 feet by 20 feet and it was suppose to accommodate 16 Prisoners of War with 8 wooden 3 wooden slat double bunk beds and we slept on paper mattresses filled with straw, not very comfortable. Just like a luxury hotel, oh yeah! Famous last words. I should also mention that there was a guard tower about every 50/75 feet around the compounds with a large spotlight and a machine gun to shoot first and ask questions last. Inside of the main fence about 8 to 10 feet in was a single wire about 15 or 18 inches high that no one was to step inside of or they would be shot on the spot, and questions asked later.
There was someplace within the 4 compounds where one could go for "sick call", but upon hearing how the medical facilities were so inadequate, with lack of medical supplies, no doctor, no nurse, I never attempted to go there. I tried my best to stay as healthy as I could on the starvation diet the Germans fed us. The Germans guards did not seem to fare much better than we did yet as a whole they were quite stocky. Probably from the disruption to their rail facilities by the bombings by the Americans and English. We all knew that their railroad system was in bad disrepair, because this was one of the reasons that we POWs did not receive a Red Cross Food Parcel each week as the system was set up to do and another reason may have been that the Germans were eating them because of their own short supply of food.
Eventually some International Swedish group came and visited the camp and made sure we would receive cards, books to read, some musical instruments for the musical inclined. We were allowed to write 1 card and 1 victory type letter home a month. We could receive as much mail as was sent to us supposedly, but not much mail was received by anyone. Life came to standstill for us with very little hope that we might get free again. One never really knows what freedom is until it is taken away from them. A lesson I really did not wish to learn this way.
After awhile we received the promised paper back books, cards, musical instruments, etc. through the help of the International Swedish group and International Red Cross. I did a lot of reading as most of us did. Some of the musicians in our POW camp formed a nice band and played concerts of good old American music and the there were some theatrical skits played by some of the guys on a makeshift stage. The musicians played some great American music and there were some pretty darn good skits with some of the guys acting as women, well we had no women to play these parts, you know.
I spent most of my walking around the compound, read some books, learned to play bridge and pinochle card games, though I have since forgotten how to play them now. While at this Stalag Luft VI I did run into a fellow I knew from home, George, D., he used to be a semi-pro baseball pitcher back home. That was now finished for him as he had been shot in the muscle just above the elbow in his pitching arm and it was a nasty looking healed wound, he became a Postal letter carrier after he arrived back home. We had quite a few reminiscences about our prisoner of war experiences. I also met a friend from a neighboring town by the name of Francis D., his family use to run an ice cream and sandwich stand that I use to go to before the war. They had great ice cream and gave generous servings too.
Another vivid image is the damn louse infestation in our clothes. We were only allowed a 2 minute cold shower about every 2 weeks or so or at the German Camp commander's whim. Our wardrobe was mostly what we wore every day. Some of us thought that perhaps the Germans had infested the straw with the louse that we had used to fill the paper mattresses that we slept on in the 3 wooden slat double bunks. The louse seem to get more active at nights when we tried to sleep and made sleep difficult most times with their nightly races on our bodies.. Believe me, there were times when I thought I or any of us would ever be free again, we were such a log way from the Allied Lines just over the border in what is now Lithuania, but was then called East Prussia, part of Germany. There was a whole lot of despondence amongst us in this unfamiliar circumstance, I'm sure that is easily to understand.
The Germans use to lock us up at sundown in our respective barracks and shuttered all of the windows too. After that the Germans would allow a bunch of big police dogs roam the compound all night long. We were called out at daybreak for roll calls, and then again around 5 or 6 PM or anytime that the Germans may suspect that we doing something wrong in the barracks such as contraband or digging tunnels. The Germans made sure that we never got too comfortable as if that was possible under these horrible conditions of life.
Evacuation To Memel Lithuania, (Baltic Sea Port)
After hearing the big guns of the Russian Army as they pressed on Westward on their march to Germany which was in mid July of 1944 the Germans grouped us together, marched us out of camp to a railroad siding and again we POWs were jammed into box cars. This trip took us northerly to the Baltic Sea port of Memel, now called Klapedia. We emptied out of the horrendous boxcars and were then jammed like sardines into the hold of what appeared to be a coal boat/ship. We were not allowed on deck, they gave us no food during the trip, only a pail or so of water a day and a couple of pails for sanitary reasons. I doubt that anyone other than an Ex-POW can understand conditions like these.
A Baltic Sea Cruise
This was a very uncomfortable sea voyage that went westward not too far out from shore. A lot of us had thoughts that maybe we would be bombed by our own bombers or torpedoed by one of our own subs that may be cruising around the Baltic Sea at that time. No one knew where we were going or when we would reach wherever we were going. Who knows the German's could have taken us out into the Baltic Sea and sunk us all. It was a 3 1/2-day trip that ended up at Swinemunde, Germany, where Germany and Poland now meet at the Baltic Sea coast. We disembarked from the hold of this very uncomfortable smelly ship and we were promptly handcuffed into pairs, I with my nose gunner. William J Booth and we were soon loaded again into box cars, I'd like to get $1.00 for every mile I rode in jammed box cars by the Germans We traveled back Eastward to a railroad station then called Keifhyde during World War II, I don't know what it is called now. It is in northern Poland, 35 or so miles south of the Baltic Sea.
Forced Run To Stalag Luft IV
Guess what met us as we unloaded from the uncomfortable boxcars? An angry bunch of young German Marines with bayonets fixed to the end of each of their rifles, and if that was not enough, they also had a bunch of police dogs on leaches. They were led by a big red headed German Officer that we all called "Big Red". They forced ran us to our next POW camp some 2 miles or so away with shouts of "luft gangsters" and a bunch of other ungrateful names that I now forget some 50 years later. Mind you that we were still handcuffed together in pairs and if someone did not run fast enough for these crazy (Can't think of another name) young German Marines one would either get pricked by the pointed end of a bayonet, hit in the back with the gun stock of one of the young angry young German Marine's gun or bit by one of the police dogs. It has been documented that on one of these handcuffed in pairs forced runs one poor Prisoner of War came into our new POW Camp with over 50 wounds on his body from this type of forced run. Mind you that none of us were in the best of health either. This POW camp was called Stalag Luft IV located at Grosstychow, in what is now northern Poland at about 53 degrees-45 minutes North and 16 degrees-10 minutes East, about 25/30 miles south of the Baltic Sea.
Stalag Luft IV
When we first arrived at this Luft IV camp we were put into tents and slept on the ground for a few days until the had a place for us in one of the main compounds of the camp. This POW camp, Luft IV, was still in the process of construction. Finally I was placed in the "D: Compound and given a bunk in one of the rooms of it's barracks. It was constructed similar to barracks that we left at Stalag Luft VI in Lithuania, 16 to each room. We arrived here about July 20, 1944 as best as I can recollect now. The food situation did not improve and in the latter stages at this POW camp the food situation became worst. We rarely received the American Red Cross Food Parcel now and at times had to split one package with up to 7 POWs, which is really not easy to do. I will list the contents at the end of this narrative for you.
I should mention that most German POW camps were constructed with usually 4 compounds for captured prisoners of war. They also was normally another fenced in area from the compounds where the German guards slept and food and supplies were stored called a Vorlager. Treatment was the same, we were constantly told that the Germans were wining the war, when actually we all new differently as both in Luft VI and here in Luft IV radios had been constructed from a bunch of assorted parts by some of the more radio knowledgeable prisoners. We were constantly being told the state of the war from the BBS radio broadcasts from England being received on these small radios and whispered to each POW. Some of the parts for the radios were acquired by some judicious trading of some of the articles from our American Red Cross Food Parcels, whenever we received them infrequently with some of the not so loyal German guards. They liked our cigarettes, soap and meats amongst other items. Also Christmas 1944 was not a happy occasion, though the Germans did give each of us prisoners of war an American Red Cross Food Parcel made up just for Christmas with some Christmas food articles in it such as Smoked Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, some Christmas Candy, there may have more, but I can't remember more.
In this POW camp I remember one day when a German electrician who was working on one of the camp light poles in a corner of our compound was electrocuted. We all laughed, clapped and hollered for joy until we were all locked up in our barracks for the rest of the day. Another time the Germans set up a straw gun target in the center of our "D" compound and the guards in the Gun Towers began shooting at it with their powerful machine guns. WOW! There were bullets ricocheting off of the barracks walls outside, most POWs ran into their barracks as I did. This was probably another form of German cruelty and what they had in mind anyway. I also remember another time when there was a dogfight off to the left of us, (fighter planes in combat), and a German fighter plane was shot down in flames. It created a big explosion upon hitting the ground, there was a big column of black smoke from it and you could hear the bullets exploding in the fire. I don't remember seeing a parachute from that downed plane, so the German pilot must have perished in the crash.
As the camp became crowded the Germans built some smaller buildings that they put captured English fliers into, we called them "dog houses", but they were bigger than real doghouses. We had a pretty good electrical storm one-day with some very sharp local lightning bolts and very loud thunder claps too. Some of the lightning struck one of these "Dog Houses" that some English fliers were living in and a couple were electrocuted from this severe local storm and it wounded others in the close by area.
I believe that I received one or two letters, no more than 4 from home while at this Luft IV, I also received a box of either 8 or 10 cartons of cigarettes from my father too. These came in real handy as smoke would fill up the empty feelings in my stomach, it diminished the hunger pains that I had. I now understand that other letters and parcels had been sent to me, but I never received them. Perhaps because of the poor condition of the German rail system by now from the constant bombing by the Americans and English.
The Americans would bomb during the daylight and the English would bomb at night. So you can imagine what the destruction must have been. Railroad marshaling yards were prime targets, as well as plane factories, ball bearing factories and oil refineries. I believe that the Polesti Oil Refineries in Romania were bombed at least 17 times by the Americans throughout the war, until the Russians over-ran them.
As more captured airmen were brought into Luft IV we started to get quite crowded. Where each room in the POW barracks which were designed to hold 16 men, there were now up to 24 to men in each room near the end. Every time a bomber went down due to enemy fire it meant 10 more men, as that was the size of each crew. We had to sleep 3 to each bunk, some on the table and benches and the rest on the floor. We took turns by alternating where we slept each night so that every body had the same equal hardships. That is being crowded, believe me, it certainly was no picnic or a camping trip, as some would lead you to believe either. This is probably why I still hate crowds more than 51 years later. Then in January of 1945 we began to hear the big artillery of the Russians again as their march westward was getting close again. Flashes of the artillery could be seen through the cracks in the window shutters at night. We were hoping that they would over-run the camp so that we could be free again after so long a time. Wouldn't that of been nice? Well, again maybe not so nice as I have heard that there are still American Prisoners of War that the Russians received and were not heard from again???
The Forced Death March
Around the first part of February of 1945 word was passed around the POW camp that we would be marching out of this Luft IV POW camp soon and everybody was to get all of their worldly possessions together, which was not much, for the march and to take only what each person could safely carry. That was no problem for me as I had very little that I owned at that time. Most of us took a spare shirt, we only had a couple, and folded over the bottom of it and sewed it across there to close off that end of the shirt. Then we took each sleeve cuff and sewed it to the bottom of the shirt on each side to make a crude backpack. Some even sewed some of the buttoned areas to hold the shirt closed, leaving 2 to 3 buttons at top as they were so that they may be unloosened or opened as the need be to take items out or place items into this crude back-pack. It made a functional back-pack for what little of value that each owned during this horrible march that turned out to be 81 days long.
On February 6, 1945 in the dead of winter we were told to gather our things and to get into a 4 rows wide columns of about 2,00 to 2,500 prisoners of war. We then marched out to the Vorlager and each received an American Red Cross Food Parcel each, see the Germans had the American Red Cross Food Parcel all the time, but they did not hand them out to each of us weekly as they should have. We broke apart the food parcel and put the individual items in our backpacks, some were still exchanging items for other items with the POWs, and this was a common practice in POW camp. You wouldn't believe it, but some POWs were still fussy of what they ate even after being incarcerated for so long. Not me, I learned early on that I better eat all of what I received if I wished to endure this horrific experience and possible have a chance at freedom. IN POW camps some of these food parcel items were of great value for trading use with the German guards.
We were in 4 men across columns in groups of about 2,000 prisoners in my column on being forced marched out of Luft IV, almost a year after being shot down on a bombing mission to Regensburg, Germany on 02-25-44. We were made to march on the left-hand side of the road while the German guards marched on the right hand side of the road in a straggling single file. We were never told where we were being forced marched to, naturally or for how long the march would be. Sometimes it seemed like we marched in circles at times. Of course we knew why we had to evacuate the Luft IV POW camp, because the Russians in their steady march westward were getting too close for comfort with their big artillery guns and the Germans were afraid of the Russians. There were some 12,000 plus prisoners of war in Luft IV I believe when we were forced marched out of there.
Well we marched most days except when the German guards did not know where to march us to next. We usually marched an average of 12 to 15 miles a day, but on some days we were forced marched as much as 22 to 26 or more miles a day. We started from our Luft IV POW camp in northern Poland and were marched in a westerly direction, though there were some southerly and northerly directions taken at times too. We slept in barns if lucky or on the ground, under the trees, in the snow, and in empty bombed out factories. The American Red Cross Food Parcel that we received when being forced marched out of Luft IV, the POW camp on 02- 06-45 did not last very long. Mostly we were fed boiled potatoes sometimes with a couple slices of black bread, sometimes with no bread. Other times watery soup with or without bread, or just black bread and some days almost nothing. Mind you, none of us were in very good shape to begin with anyway. Those of the prisoners of war that were in worse shape had been box cared up to Luft I in Barth, Germany, the lucky guys. No forced march for them.
We usually marched generally in a westward direction almost to Hamburg, Germany, from our POW camp back in northern Poland. Most of us went through dysentery from lack of clean drinking water, a lack of a suitable amount of proper food, frozen feet or toes, blistered feet, definitely a lot of cold exposure and sore feet for sure. For years after I was out of the service I had awful sweaty, smelly feet. Even when I changed shoes every day and showered more than once a day, Even after a shower, foot powder, clean socks and a different pair of shoes, my feet would be sweaty within 20 minutes. To this day I still have problems with fungus infection on my left foot. I guess that you could say that we marched on "guts" alone. Good, clean drinking water was very scarce, I remember eating a lot of snow when it was available, remember that we were forced marched beginning in the middle of winter right through into the spring of 1945. There were those prisoners of war that could not keep up with the forced marching column because of sickness, very badly blistered feet and other such ailments that were told to sit by the side of the road until a wagon came along to pick them up. Most if these prisoners of war that did sit on the side of the road were never heard of again as government records do show.
When we were put into barns for the night some of them were not very clean either as some of the other POW columns had been there before us and their problems with dysentery was very noticeable. Some of us that could, sneaked out at night at the farms to dig vegetables out of the 20/25 feet long, by 6/8 feet across and 4/5 feet high mounds that he German farmers stored their vegetable crops in. It wasn't easy, but it was possible if one was careful about it. As I have stated before the 81 day Forced March, our last 81 days in captivity, was of 479 actual miles marched along with a box car ride of 138 miles during the march. We marched to a town called *Uelzen which is little bit southeast of Hamburg, Germany where we boarded boxcars for a trip southerly to Stalag II-A at Altengrabow, Germany.
The 220 Kilometers or 138 miles from *Uelzen to **Altengrabow was by being jammed into boxcars again. The actual miles that we covered by marching on this forced march was 479 hard walked miles, not an easy task at best in the condition that we POWs were at this time and place.
A Brief Rest
At Altengrabow I was assigned to a large tent in a large POW camp of Allied Prisoners of War of all nations Allied with the United States. This was Stalag II-A and consisted of only large 10 men tents. I only saw 1 water pipe sticking out of the ground about 3 feet high with a faucet, though there may have been more. The bathroom was a long smelly slit trench, God forbid anyone unlucky enough to slip and fall into it. It sure would have been a "stinking" mess. This camp was in the vicinity of Magdenburg, Germany. There were a huge amount of POWs at this tent city camp. I remember receiving 1 American Red Cross Food Parcel at this camp. I also can remember trading the margarine, chocolate, Kraft cheese and powdered milk form my food parcel to some Gurkas in this camp for more meat. They were very strict vegetarians.
We Resume Death March
We resumed our forced march again on April 12, 1945 after a 13-day respite at this German POW tent city camp at Stalag II-A. Since there were no shower facilities here we were still a bunch of dirty POWs with the louse still running races all over our poor bodies driving us crazy. It was more of the same, march, march, march etc.. After another 4 or 5 days of forced marching the Germans billeted us in an empty pottery factory while they tried to make up their minds on the next move.
We were staying at this pottery factory in Annaburg when a low-level flight of American A-26 or B-26, (I can't tell the difference), flew right over us on what somebody said was Hitler's birthday. A funny thing happened when we noticed the bombers open their bomb bay doors while almost directly overhead, everybody, including the German guards, scattered for some kind of protection I ended up in a cemetery and laid down between 2 mounds over a burial plot for safety, not much safety, but the best that I could find at that hurried moment. It was almost momentarily that I heard the bombs go off very loudly. The target appeared to be 10 to 20 miles away, maybe even closer, but whatever they did bomb went up in huge flames with a lot of loud explosions. They must have got a direct hit, good for them, probably a fuel dump or an ammunition dump. It must have taken all of 4 hours or so before everybody was back together again. Maybe some hardy souls went off looking for freedom during this excitement, who knows.
After 5 days here in this pottery factory in Annaburg, Germany, didn't the Germans have one of those extermination oven installations here. Perhaps it was why we were kept in Annaburg while some crazy German higher up decided whether to burn us all up in those ghastly gas ovens or not. Anyway we were forced marched onwards. During the late months of this forced march we frequently saw American Fighters strafing targets of opportunity. I saw one American fighter strafe a railroad steam engine/locomotive that burst up into a huge cloud of parts and steam. Another day an American Fighter dropped down and looked us over and then come back and waved his wings at us. I felt glad about that. Our next stop was Prettin where we stayed 3 days I guess again for the Germans find out what to do with us, if they only asked us, we certainly could of told them to just keep marching us westward, but they obviously did not do so. All they would have to do was march a few more miles directly westward and we would have met the American Lines.
Then it was onward to Jessen for another 18.6 miles. There were rumors flying around that the Germans were attempting to make arrangements with the American Lines a short ways away to bring us to them, I certainly hoped so. Well sure enough when we marched off the next morning of April 26, 1945 we noticed that the German guards had no visible guns or arms that we could see. When they were asked about it they just smiled. We marched on for about 6/7 miles with all of us in an excited expectation. Guess what we met? At this point we were met by 2 or 3 U.S. Army canvas covered trucks with real life American GIs. We were a happy bunch, you better believe it, there were some moist eyes in the joy of this meeting with real Americans soldiers again. I believe that this happened near a town called then Bad Duben, Germany near the Elbe River.
FREEDOM AT LAST
The American GIs herded the German guards into the rear of the trucks and told us to march a short ways further and that we were free again. This turned out to be more than true as in about another mile or less we all crossed the Elbe River and were met by the 104th Timberwolves Tank Corps of the Wisconsin National Guard. They mentioned to me that their troops had been waiting for 2 weeks at their side of the Elbe River, the western side for the Russian Troops to meet. Orders were that they were not to cross the Elbe River and wait for the Russian Army.
I'll never forget April 26th for the rest of my life, one never really understands what freedom is until one has lost one's freedom as I had jumping from a burning B-24 Bomber into the hands of the German enemy. We Americans take for granted too much. This tank Corps were great hosts, they fed us their own rations, showed me and other POWs their tanks inside and out and how they had "beefed" up the front apron of their tanks by adding about 5/6 inches of cement with imbedded heavy steel rods for protection against the German big Artillery guns. They were really a great bunch of guys. It was in the town of Bittefeld, Germany where these great 104th Timberwolves Tank Corps of the Wisconsin National Guard were and we became free again. A great day for all of the POWs in my forced marched group. What happy bunch of guys now.
Either later that day or the next day, but I believe that it was the same April 26, 1945 after eating that we were trucked to nearby Halle, Germany where we threw all of our louse infested clothing, all of the clothing we had then onto a pile to be burned to get rid of the infested louse and louse. These former clothing made a great bonfire. We took a shower in what smelled like kerosene to kill what was left of the louse on our bodies and then had a luxurious hot shower, something that I had not been able to do in 426 days. Try wearing the same clothes for 81 days with no showers or change of clothing at all and see what it feels like, I'm sure that you will not enjoy the experience. After the great hot shower and some new American brand new Service uniforms we all felt great again.
We then embarked on a flight on a C-46 or C-47 plane I don't remember which, we flew to Reims, France. My memory is not too clear for this point in time, but I do believe that every POW in my group was allowed one short telephone call to one of their loved ones to let them know that we were once again under American control. I also believe that we slept over night in Reims, France too. The next day was another flight in a C-46 or C-47 to Rouen, France. From here we were trucked by canvas covered G. I. trucks to a huge camp of nothing but large 10 men tents.
Camp Lucky Strike. This place was noted as Camp Lucky Strike, it was a place where all former POWs and returned captured personnel were brought. I think there may have been another such camp called Camp Camel, but I'm not sure about this.
Since almost all but the most recent captured Americans had lost considerable body weight, I had lost almost a third of my weight, I was just skin and bones after that 81 days forced march of over 600 miles on very meager food rations. A medical person that was in my group stated that during our forced march we lived on 750/800 calories a day. When you compare that to the 3500-calorie a day diet of our U.S. Servicemen you can see that we were shorted quite a bit by the Germans. We were fed boiled chicken and told not to use condiments on it as our stomachs would not be able take it and that we would become sick. In the first place I don't like chicken to begin with, so you imagine how I felt about this.
There was a Red Cross women listed on the bulletin board that came from a town next to where I came from, I meant to look her up and see if she knew a friend that I knew that lived in her small country town. Well, I never got to so and never found out.
It must of been April 28 or 29, 1945 when I arrived at Camp Lucky Strike, the huge "tent city" near the coast of France a short ways north of the port of Le Harve, France. It was about this time that I received a $50.00 advance on my back pay, I had not been paid since January 31, 1944, a long ways back to that pay day. When I was shot down on a bombing mission to Regensburg, Germany back on 02-25-44 I was a staff sergeant, you know, 3 stripes above with a rocker stripe below. I believe my monthly pay then consisted of base pay, plus 50% of that more for flying status, and another 20% on top of that for overseas duty or hazardous duty. If memory serves me correctly, I think I was receiving $204.00 a month as monthly pay before I was shot down.
I did get out on pass a couple of times while at this Camp Lucky Strike and went into the nearby small town, it was called Cany, France, I've never been able to find it on any map that I have run across. About all I did was look around and have a couple small glasses of wine. Since I did not like the boiled chicken that they fed us at Camp Lucky Strike I usually ambled off to the Red Cross Canteen and got some milk and doughnuts, these items I missed very much while I was a POW. I also loved Frappes, made of milk, flavoring and ice cream mixed up in a great cool, thick drink. I do not remember if any were available here though.
The Germans surrendered the war on May 7, 1945 while I was still in Camp Lucky Strike, but I can't seem to remember if there were any celebrations about it. I'm sure that there must have been, but I can't remember it now. I spent about a month or so here because on June 6, 1945 a group of us were transported by truck to the port of Le Harve, France and we boarded a Liberty type ship for the trip back to the good old United States at last.
Now after looking at an European map and scaling the movements that the Germans made me do it appears that I have traveled almost 2,500 miles in what use to be German occupied territories in one mode or another such as a long 81 day forced march, many miles jammed into box cars, also jammed like sardines in the hold of what appeared to be a coal carrying ship on the Baltic Sea, on passenger trains in 2 wooden bench compartments, forced running at the point of fixed bayonets and police dogs, hand cuffed in pairs, a and in the back of canvas covered German Army trucks. I was in northern Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany proper, Lithuania, the Baltic Sea, Poland and back again into Germany proper.
The American Red Cross Parcel
(Whenever we received them)
The AMERICAN RED CROSS FOOD PARCELS contained:
|1 can of Corned Beef
||1 can of Spam
||1 can of Salmon
||1 can of Liver Pate
||1 can of Powdered Milk
|1 can of Nescafe
||1 pc.of Margarine
||1 Bar of Soap
||1 Chocolate Bar
||1 Pc. of Cheese
|1 Pkg. of Raisins
||A Few Sugar Cubes
||1 Roll Toilet Paper
||1 or 2 Pkgs. of Cigarettes
|DULAG-Abbreviation for DURCHANGSLAGER
||A tranasit camp
|DULAG LUFT-Abbreviation for DURCHANGGSLUFTWAFFELAGER
||A transit camp for airmen.
||Home defense force
|LUFTLAGER-Abbreviation for LUFTWAFFELAGER
||A camp for airmen
||German Air Force
|MILAG-Abbreviation for MILITAERLAGER
||A camp for soldiers
|OFLAG - Abbreviation for OFFIZIERSLAGER
||Permanent for officiers
||Sour dough bread
||A dirty dog
||Special handling or treatment
|STALAG-Abbreviation for STAMMLAGER
||Permanent camp for non-coms or a private base from which labor detachments were sent out to do work for the Germans
||A camp entrance, waiting area
||A branch camp
A PRAYER by JOHN ROMINE,
National AM-EX-POW Chaplain
GRANT, O GOD, A SPECIAL UNDERSTANDING OF THIS INFORMATION, AND THE PLIGHT OF THE EX-PRISONERS OF WAR. MAY ALL WHO COME IN CONTACT WITH THIS ENLIGHTMENT IN ANY WAY, CONSIDER IT A VERY DEFINITE OPPURTUNITY TO BE A SPECIAL BLESSING TO THOSE WHO GAVE SO MUCH OF THEMSELVES WHEN OUR COUNTRY NEEDED THEM. NOW MAY WE REACH BEYOND OUR SELFISH SELVES AND IN SOME WAY BE OF HELP TO THOSE WHO CAN NOT HELP THEMSELVES. AS ALWAYS, WE PRAY FOR PEACE ON EARTH AND GOODWIL TOWARDS ALL MEN AND NATIONS, IN THEIR NAME. AMEN.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have really never told this story since I have returned from being a Prisoner Of War of the Germans in World War II. Yet this is not as detailed as it could be. It is as detailed as I wish to delve into, especially at this late date more than 50 years since it happened. I am sure that any other unfortunate Prisoners Of War will certainly understand this.....
A. Jim Champagne -- Dated 10-11-95
450th Bomb Group - 722nd Bomb Squadron
Flight Engineer & Top Turret Gunner
A map of my travels as a POW.
The route between points were not traveled in a straight line as noted on the map.
It only serves to show a "straight line" connection between two points.
The actual route was more curved and at times in circles too.
Tree dedicated to Jim Champagne in Cottontale Park, Manduria
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