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.

These first few days as POW's were a rough awakening for the GI's. German troops took overshoes, gloves, watches and whatever else they desired.

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.

Friendly fire - Bombing raid at Limburg

On the evening of 23 December 1944 the train carrying several hundred POW's rolled into the railyards outside Limburg an der Lahn, Germany. Unknown to them, the RAF had scheduled a raid targeting the marshelling yards. At around six o'clock the Mosquito bombers engaged their targets. Strong winds over the target area carried the smoke flairs away from the rail yards and into the nearby Stalag XII-A. Several bombs were dropped on the compound. A direct hit on one of the barracks killed approximately 60 American officers, among whom were 35 of the 106th Division. Bombs also dropped around the boxcars but my some miracle most of the men were unhurt. The only casualties were men who broke free from the cars and who were killed by the concussion of bomb blasts while trying to take cover.

We had about forty casualties on the train. Several of the cars broke open and the men rushed out into an open field running for an air raid shelter. A bomb lit in the field and caused a number of deaths and a larger number of wounded. I found a hole near the train and dived into it, finding myself on top of an American and a German soldier. Nationality didn't seem to make much difference.

2nd Lieutenant Richard B. Parker

Anti-Tank Company, 422nd Infantry Regiment
POW at Stalag IV-B and Oflag 64

Friendly fire - Strafing incidents

On several occasions the unmarked trains carrying prisoners of war were strafed by Allied fighter planes. One known incident occurred at Dockweiler, Germany on 24 December 1944. Two P-47 Thunderbolts engaged ground targets and came upon a trainload of prisoners of the 106th Division, heading to Stalag IV-B. The POW's were able to get out of the boxcars and signalled their identity to their attackers by forming the letters PW in the snow. The aircraft acknowledged the signal and left the area. Several men were killed however by the strafing, when .50 caliber projectiles pierced the wooden boxcars.

The strafing incident was realistically portrayed in the 2002 MGM production 'Hart's War', starring Bruce Willis and Colin Farell. The scene can be viewed below through a Youtube link. The rest of the film is ficticious.

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. 

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

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. 

The third Geneva Convention - signed in 1929 - had established comprehensive rules for the treatment of prisoners of war.   The nearly 1.4 million Allied prisoners of war were 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.


For the benefit of US prisoners, some 13,500 American Red Cross volunteers assembled the packages in centers in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis. Most of these were food packages of a uniform size (10"x10"x4.5") and weight (about 11 pounds) that contained 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 usually received packages in the European camps although the Germans were known to keep the items from distribution in the later years of the war, when the food situation inside Germany became critical.


Red Cross parcels definitely kept the Allied prisoners of war going during WWII. 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. 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 often melted down and re-cast.

Our food parcels consisted of vitamin "C" tablets, dried milk, three packets of "M & M's", two small boxes, four in a box of cigarettes, a small roll of toilet paper and a tin of meat. The clothing parcel had clean underwear, sox, pants and a shirt, some even had a sweater. I didn't receive any of the clothes parcels and only two of the food parcels in my four months as a POW.

Cpl. John F. Gatens

Battery "A", 589th Field Artillery Battalion
POW at Stalag XII-A and X-B

THE CAMPS

Stalag IX-B Bad Orb, Germany

The disused railway station at Bad Orb, photographed in the summer of 2016. The building is currently a restaurant. Here the arduous boxcar ride ended for the POW's who found a 'home' in Stalag IX-B. (Photo by Webmaster)

We arrived at a town called Bad Orb. We crawled out of the cars and lined up for the long march which took us up to Stalag IX-B on top of the mountain. I remember how the civilians stood at the curb and watched us. We were not exactly in a parade mood or mode. What shocked me was the way the youngsters would pick up a rock or bottle or anything they could get loose enough to throw at us. I guess we were spoiled by the attitude of the civilians on the station platforms. We were not very popular around this town. 

Cpl. Durward B. Frampton
Cannon Company, 422nd Infantry Regiment
POW at Stalag IX-B and IX-A

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.

Oflag XIII B was unforgiving. The German guards killed more than one prisoner for being out of barracks. The bitter cold of winter, miserable sanitation, lack of medicine, and poor diet led to sickness that claimed more lives. A fair number of us Kriegies began to suffer from a form of dysentery. Day by day I became weaker and thinner and more languid from the interruptions in sleep and hurried trips to the latrine.

Chaplain Paul W. Cavanaugh
422nd Infantry Regiment

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, some men succeeded in escaping. Among them was Lt. Col. Thomas P. Kelly Jr., commander of the 589th Field Artillery Battalion. Along with Captain Al Menke and Lt. Col. William Scales he was succesful in reaching the American battle lines and was finally evacuated to the United States.

By morning the Germans had encircled the Task Force with tanks, 88mm anti-tank guns and infantry. At daybreak when the Task Force started to move, a fierce, but short battle took place. Every vehicle of the Task Force was destroyed. Except for three or four men who sneaked some fifty miles to American lines, all U.S. soldiers were killed, wounded, captured, or recaptured. Task force Baum was gone forever. 

2nd Lt. Lloyd M. Jones

Company "G", 423rd Infantry Regiment
POW at Stalag IX-B, Oflag XIII-B and Stalag VII-A

This photograph shows infantrymen of the 14th Armored Division near the destroyed bridge across the Main river in Gemünden, Germany. The M4A3E8 Sherman was one of the vehicles of Task Force Baum, which was destroyed there on 27 March 1945 during the fighting for the village. (Photo NARA)

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