|Friends and Enemies
My experiences and impressions of being held as a Prisoner of War are a strange combination of kindhearted contacts and inhumane behavior. From one day to the next, I didn't know what charitable gesture I would receive or what atrocity I would witness.
One morning, after climbing into a boxcar, to my surprise, one of the guards asked loudly if anyone present was from Peoria, Illinois. I volunteered the information that I was, but he said no more about it. When we were grouped into working teams in Munich later, I was not surprised to discover that I was in this particular guard's group. At an appropriate time, he came over to me and asked a number of questions about my life in Peoria, including where I worked. When I mentioned Caterpillar Tractor Company and Keystone Steel & Wire, he seemed to already know all about them. He also mentioned many other Peoria landmarks: the Public Library, Shrine Mosque, Commercial National Bank, and Glen Oak Park. He said he lived with an aunt on Bigelow Street in Peoria before the war, but had returned to Germany to straighten out some business when he was drafted and inducted into the German Army. He said that as soon as the war was over, he would be returning to Peoria to live. I never got the man's name, but it would have made for an interesting conversation if we had ever been able to get in touch once I had returned home. In contrast to that encounter, was a tragic event I experienced during a seemingly normal work day in town.
On April 9, 1945, we were working in the railroad yard in Munich, when we were caught in a plane raid by over a thousand U.S. B-17 bombers. Details of the raid are confirmed by newspaper clippings saved by the folks back home while I was a prisoner. Our guard in charge was a particularly cruel individual who would not let us take cover in a nearby air raid shelter. He said that the bombardiers were our "comrades" and wouldn't bomb their own countrymen. Luckily, none of us on the ground were harmed, as many bombs were dropping in our vicinity. Our fliers were not as fortunate however. I saw dozens of our planes get hit by the German anti-aircraft shelling. Some of the planes simply exploded when hit, with no chance for crew members to parachute out. Others had wings blown off, or were otherwise crippled, and only a few parachutes would emerge and quickly balloon out to dot the sky with white silk. I saw many of our brave Air Force personnel get killed that day. One of our bombers spiraled directly into the railroad tracks leading back to our camp, exploded into a ball of flame and twisted metal, and blocked our route to the stalag. We were held up many hours on a railroad siding while the track was cleared and repaired, and we didn't arrive in camp until past midnight. Even so, it was back to work the next day at 6:00am.
Could We Be Losing?
A number of factors contributed to doubts and low morale among the prisoners at Stalag VII-A. Often, after U.S. flyers completed a bombing mission and returned to bases in the west, we were astounded to see a new kind of German aircraft in the skies buzzing the camp with a very strange-looking, incredibly loud aircraft. The Germans told us this new plane was their secret weapon, chasing our guys out of the sky, and winning the war for the Nazis. The planes were unbelievably fast, emitted a long trail of smoke as they changed direction, and created a frightening noise that would roll across the camp in a way that reminded us of an extremely powerful clap of thunder. The Germans proudly called this new weapon a "jet" airplane, and it was something none of us had ever heard of before. What our captors didn't tell us, was that the jet airplane was now being used by both sides, and the German forces were being decimated by U.S. jets!
Unfortunately, the only news we received from the outside world while in camp was given to us by the Germans. A news report would be given to our barracks leader every evening, and he would read it aloud to us. The reports, naturally, always had the Germans winning on every front. We were constantly told of successful bombing raids of the Luftwaffe and the many conquests of the German army. We didn't believe it at first, but after hearing the same thing over and over for months, we began to fear that our forces were indeed losing the war. After all, when we were captured, we had been convinced that the conflict was going to be over in a short time, and when our captivity dragged into months, we began to have our doubts. For example, in early April, sometime after President Franklin Roosevelt's death, we were on a work detail in Munich when our German guard showed us the headlines of a newspaper that said FDR had committed suicide because the war was going so badly for the United States. We were inclined to believe it, because we hadn't received any news from the outside world for over seven months and had been fed German propaganda daily. To the best of my knowledge, there was no underground radio in camp, and we were totally isolated from all outside communication. We had no way of knowing what the world balance of power had become and, as new prisoners were brought into the camp, they were always isolated from the rest of us so we would have no contact with them to find out what was really happening out there. Also, more and more of our GIs were being brought into our prison camp every day, leading us to conclude our forces were taking a beating.