KRIEGIES - The Experiences of American Prisoners of War

Capture and forced marches

After the initial shock of becoming prisoners of war, the captured GI's were quickly marched to the interior of Germany. This forced march took them through the village of Prüm and later to Gerolstein, Germany. Here the men were hoarded into boxcars which would eventually bring them to a POW camp.

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Boxcars

A set of WWII vintage German boxcars is preserved at Camp Westerbork, the Netherlands. It is in cars like these that the captured men of the 106th were transported to the POW camps. Photo by Webmaster.

At the railway station in Gerolstein, Germany most of the prisoners of war were put in box cars. These were the so-called 40 and 8's, a military designation the French army used for the transport indicating that they were able to carry forty men or eight horses. In December 1944 each of these boxcars carried almost 100 men of the 106th and 28th Divisions, crammed together in a small space. There was no toilet, so a pour soul had to volunteer his steel helmet or blanket, which was then emptied through the small window or a crack in the door. The interior of the cars was cold, damp and smelled terrible. Fresh horse manure and a thin layer os straw covered the floors. Because the cars were so packed, not all the men could sit down at the same time. Most took turns on this long uncomfortable trip to the interior of the German Reich.

Life as a Kriegie

American and British prisoners of war prepare rations after their liberation from Stalag VII-A in Moosburg, Germany. The GI on the left opens a Red Cross parcel. (Author's Archives / Signal Corps)

In most cases the life as a prisoner of war did not resemble the typical Hollywood stereotypes portrayed in films like Stalag 17, The Great Escape or tv-series like Hogan's Heroes. Life in a POW camp was generally a dull and trying experience, both physically as mentally. 

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Life savers - Red Cross Parcels

The Red Cross food package was considered to be a life saver to many Allied Prisoners of War. On the left is a box for POW Medical Kits. These two original boxes are in the Webmaster's Collection. 

Red Cross Parcels

The third Geneva Convention signed in 1929 had established comprehensive rules for the treatment of prisoners of war.  

The nearly 1.4 million U.S. and Allied prisoners of war in Germany and elsewhere were probably the most grateful beneficiaries of Red Cross services during the war. Many of them returned home alive because of the more than 27 million parcels prepared and shipped by the American red Cross to the International Committee of the Red Cross for distribution in the prison camps.

Some 13,500 volunteers assembled the packages in packing centers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis. Most were food packages of a uniform size (10"x10"x4.5") and weight (11 pounds) that contained such nonperishable items as prunes, raisins, liver pate, coffee, corned beef, sugar, dried milk, oleomargarine, biscuits, orange concentrate, cheese, canned salmon or tuna fish, chocolate bars, cigarettes, and soap. Other packages consisted of medical supplies, clothing, toilet articles, and seeds and gardening materials. Prisoners regularly received packages in the European camps but not in the Pacific theater due to the lack of Japanese cooperation.

Red Cross parcels kept the Allied prisoners of war going during World War Two. Not only were the food and cigarettes welcome, but the parcels provided for many of the needs of the prisoners, as a lively barter system developed between the men and between the prisoners and their guards. By the end of the war, the Red Cross parcels contained better food and cigarettes than the Luftwaffe guards were able to get themselves. Many a clandestine radio part or other important survival or escape item was obtained by bribing guards with parcel contents.  The Klim cans could be made into anything from plates to small bellows-furnaces by the ingenious kriegies. Parts of cans were melted down and re-cast.



POW's recieving their Red Cross food parcels.(USNA)

Each country supplied parcels for its troops. The British parcels were slightly different, as were the Canadian, as the list below shows.

 

Stalag IX-A Ziegenhain, Germany

One of the remaining barracks of the former Stalag IX-A in Trutzhain (Ziegenhain), Germany. Most of the camp buildings were preserved due to their use as housing in the immediate post-war era. Stalag IX-A became a Civil Internment Camp (CIC),  a Displaced Persons (DP) camp and later a suburban housing project of the larger Ziegenhain community. (Photo by Webmaster)

OFLAG XIII-B Hammelburg, Germany

American officers who had been captured in the Ardennes were sent to two main officer camps or Offizierslager (Oflags). Oflag 64 was a camp in Altenburgrund, Prussia (Szubin, Poland) which had been established as an officers camp since 1942. Here many officers of the 106th Division arrived by way of Stalag IV-B, Mühlberg an der Elbe. Officers who had been initially sent to Stalag IX-B in Bad Orb, Germany were transferred to Hammelburg in early January 1945. At Trüppenubenungsplatz Hammelburg, a German army camp, only a permanent compound for American enlisted men existed, known as Stalag XIII-C. The only officers present were Yugoslavian officers, captured in 1941. When five-hundred American officers arrived at Hammelburg on 11 January 1945 they were placed in several stone barracks, vacated by the Serbians. This compound became known as Oflag XIII-B.

As the senior American officer, Colonel Charles C. Cavender bartered with the Yugoslavian prisoners for a few hundred Red Cross parcels. At the time the Hammelburg camp was not known by the Red Cross as holding American prisoners, so only German rations were provided to the POW's. Throughout their stay, many American officers formed close friendships with their Yugoslavian counterparts and men of both nations frequently conversed near the common perimeter fence separating their two compounds, in a blind spot between two barracks. Here many friendships were forged which would last for long after the end of the war.

Video - Liberation of Oflag XIII-B, Hammelburg (6 April 1945)

Raid on Hammelburg by Task Force Baum (26-28 March 1945)

The history of the Hammelburg Raid and the men of Task Force Baum are nowadays part of the classic stories of the Second World War. In March of 1945, Lieutenant-General George S Patton Jr commanded the Third US Army. He ordered a special Task Force of the 4th Armored Division to penetrate the German front lines and capture the POW Camp of Hammelburg, better known as Oflag XIIIB. Patton's own son in law, Lieutenant-Colonel John K Waters was a POW at Oflag XIIIB, after being captured early in the war at Kasserine in North Africa.


The man who was eventually to lead the operation was Captain Abraham J Baum. He was already a decorated soldier having received two Silver Star Medals and two Bronze Star Medals. The starting point for the special operation was to be a small bridgehead at the opposite bank of the Main River near Aschaffenburg. After intense and unexpected combat with German Volkssturm personnel, the column of Task Force Baum finally reached Oflag XIIIB on March 27th, 1945. The Task Force had battled through 80 kilometers of enemy terrain.


When the Camp was finally liberated, the armored column of Task Force Baum ran into heavy German opposition and was destroyed. The POW's which accompagnied the tanks were forced back into captivity, along with the members of Baum's group. Lt.-Colonel John K. Waters had been wounded when the surrender of the camp was discussed and was evacuated. Although the raid had failed, many men succeeded in escaping. Among them was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas P Kelly Jr of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion. Along with Captain Aloysius Menke of A-Battery and another officer he reached the American lines and was evacuated to the United States.

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