My World War II POW Experience - Part 3
Capture and Life in Stalag Luft III
As told by Walter J. Nachtwey
Walter J. Nachtwey
This month, we resume with Part 3 of the late Walter J. Nachtwey’s recollections of his time served in the German prisoner of war camp after his B-17 was shot down during a World War II mission. Walter bailed-out of the burning B-17 and was able to hide out for a day before getting picked up by German soldiers. After being interrogated, Walter was taken to Stalag Luft III, which would become his home for two years.
They took the stuff from my pockets – my jackknife and my dog tags. They gave me back one of my dog tags with the chain. They kept all my emergency escape equipment, with the malted milk balls and stuff. That was really something to them!
They put me in a cell with a kid who had an American shirt, trousers, and shoes on – no jacket or hat. I talked to him, but he didn’t talk back to me. He had Buck-sergeant stripes on (that’s one step above a corporal).
Anyway, after awhile, he told me he was shot down. He told me his name, but he didn’t tell me his outfit. I guess he thought I was a plant, and I thought that maybe he was a plant too. So we were both suspicious of one another. He said he had been there about two days. I asked him what the hell they were going to do with us, but he didn’t know.
They took me into another room. There was a guy sitting behind a desk, and a couple of soldiers were standing beside him. He wanted to know which organization I was with and some other questions. I said, “Yes, I am with the Americans. Yes, I am an aviator. No, I won’t say anything but my name, rank, and serial number.”
So back I went to the cell. Then I heard that the kid in there with me was with the 100th Group and his pilot’s name was Cy Morrison. I knew the guy – I had met him and understand that he went to the University of Michigan. He knew Ruth Potter (Walt’s first cousin), who had also gone there.
About two days later, they loaded us, along with a bunch of other guys, on a truck that was guarded by a soldier with a machine gun. All along the corridor of the stockade, cells held guys who had been picked up in the area in the Ruhr valley and around Dusseldorf. They were held there until there were enough of us to move. They took us through the city that was pretty much flattened. The buildings were bombed thoroughly. What the industry there was, I don’t know - probably aircraft parts and maybe it was a center for shipping.
A view of Dusseldorf, Germany, after a strategic bombing in 1943, which destroyed many of the city’s buildings.
Photo courtesy of Beechwood Photography
They took us to a big railroad station, and unloaded us onto the platform. Immediately, there was a crowd of people, maybe a hundred or so – and they were shaking their fists, yelling, and spitting at us. Some of these people in the crowd were wounded and were being helped by others. There were arms in bloody slings, and so on. Of course, they hated us. I saw a tech sergeant that I knew, and having been raised in Pennsylvania, he knew German pretty well. I asked, “Hey Shorty, what are they saying?” He told me, “They want to hang us from the light pole over there.” The German guards with the machine guns had them pointed at the people – not at us. The crowd was working up a lather, wanting to get at us.
We were loaded onto the train, and after the train switched back and forth some, eventually we got going. There were British, Canadians, Australians, and Americans – and the coach was full. There must have been about 75 or 100 guys crowded in there. Guys were sitting in the aisle. It was an old train with wicker seats, like our old streetcars had. I managed to squeeze myself up on one of those luggage racks rather than stand up or sit down with my back against the door.
It took us the better part of that day, and they offloaded us in a sort of countryside area. One of the Goons could speak English, and he said everybody had to take all their clothes off and put them on some racks to get the bugs off, and we were going to have to take a shower. They closed the rack doors, and we could hear steam whistling in there. In the open shower area, they squirted water on us. Inside the shower house area, there were rather large pictures of the kinds of bugs that were supposedly all over us: lice, “cooties,” fleas, bedbugs, and so forth. I don’t know if there were any on us, but that’s what they were supposed to be getting rid of.
After that was done, we went outside. It was June, and the temperature wasn’t bad. There we were, bare-ass naked, waiting for our clothes. There were about 100 guys of all nationalities. After our clothes were done, they were warm and it felt real good to put them on. They marched us down a path and into a compound with a 10-foot-high barbed wire fence, in double rows. The double gates opened, and we had to go in. Already in the compound were a bunch of British guys.
The next day, in another train, they took us to another place, down near Frankfurt am Main. That was where they had the interrogation center. They off-loaded us there, and brought us into a building with cells. There were windows with the outside covered so that you couldn’t see anything, but light was allowed to come in over the top. The doors were real thick, and there was a little peephole with a cover on the outside of it.
There were some 2-by-4s on the side, with a bag stuffed with straw on it. This served as a mattress. We later learned to call it a “paillets.” There was no blanket. This was at Frankfurt. This was their “solitary.” There was one guy in a cell for interrogation purposes. If you had to go to the toilet, you’d make a lot of noise, bang on the door, and if the guard felt like it, he’d take you down the hall to the “head.”
In the cell there was a wash stand and a little table about a foot and a half square with a bowl and a pitcher of water. That was what we were to wash with. I lay down on the bunk, and started to mark how many days had passed. I didn’t know how long this would go on.
Dulag Luft was the Luftwaffe Aircrew Interrogation Center near Frankfurt am Main. Allied airmen, like the one pictured, were delivered to the Dulag Luft immediately after capture for interrogation by German soldiers. Photo courtesy of http://www.b24.net
The next day a guard came and got me. He took me to the end of the hall where there was an office and left me there. There was a German, clearly an officer with the insignia he wore, and he saluted me! He said, “I am Major ----- (I forget what his name was). I have to question you. Have a chair, have a cigarette; these are American cigarettes.” The name of the cigarettes was “West Pointer.”
I said, “No, thanks.” I thought maybe they were doped or something. He put them down, but took one and lit it for himself. So I took about five of them, lit one for myself, and stuffed the rest in my pocket. He didn’t say anything about that.
Again he said, “I have to question you. We know quite a bit about you.”
I answered, “Well you have my dog tag with my name, rank, serial number, religion, and blood type.”
He said, “But we need more information, so we can put you in with your friends – with Captain Dollarheide, Lt. Egnor, and Lt. Wacha.” I thought, “Now what the hell?” I hadn’t told them any of those names. I didn’t know what had happened to any of those guys.
Then he took a folder, and here was our squadron insignia on the folder! He opened it, and was reading the names of my crew. There was one thing he didn’t know, and that was where I took a cross-country trip with the Group commander from Wendover Field, Utah, to El Paso, Texas. He knew pretty much everything else. So then I said, “I suppose you can tell all that from newspapers back home. When I went into service, where I was stationed, when I graduated from training, and all that stuff.”
In fact, he showed me a glossy picture (8-by-10) of Colonel Preston at the briefing after the raid I was shot down on, pointing to the target. Wait a minute! Where did he get that?! That only happened five days ago. Well, we had the “Free Irish” working in England, and they were, in many instances, sympathizing with the Germans. I don’t know how they‘d get a picture like that otherwise, but anything is possible.
They were infiltrating, and we were doing the same thing to them. We broke the Japanese top-secret code, and that’s how we won some of the battles over there.
They took me back to my cell, and would keep bringing me back to the office. One time he said, “You know that we can shoot you.”
I said, “Well, it would probably get back to somebody. But you’ve got the guns; you can do anything you want. Not according to the Geneva Convention though.” (See – I thought I was being real smart.)
He said, “I’m not going to tell the Geneva Convention! If you tell us what altitude you were flying at...”
I said, “You’ve no doubt got my parachute by now, and it has my name stenciled on it, so you know I was a crew member on a certain airplane.”
He said, “How do you pronounce that name?”
I answered, “You mean you can’t pronounce my name? Well, you’ve got a squarer head than I have.” I asked him how he learned to speak English so well. He told me that before the war he had driven a laundry truck in Philadelphia.
I asked him why he was back in Germany. He told me that his folks had gotten sick, and had sent for him. Then when he arrived to see them, he wasn’t allowed to leave. I said, “Yeah, you were promised the world with a ribbon around it.”
He answered “Well, we won’t talk about politics.” So we didn’t talk about politics.
After that, I was taken to another guy who had a Red Cross on his lapels. He had a strong German accent, and said, “I have to get some information from you so we can notify your folks that you’re a prisoner of war. What was your group?
I said, “You don’t need to know that! I can give you information about where my folks are living in Wisconsin. There are lots of Germans living there – especially around Milwaukee.” (He was no more Red Cross than the man in the moon was!). I said, “Eventually they’ll get to know where I am.”
So they released me from this solitary building into a compound that was run by the British POWs, who had been there quite awhile already. The first thing they did was to offer me “a spot of tea.” So I had a spot of tea and met different guys. There were some American captains from different outfits, and lieutenants were a dime a dozen. I saw Jack Schmidt – he was from my squadron. He had been shot down (I think in the raid after mine) only a day or two after me. He said he knew there were orders for me to be promoted to first lieutenant. But they canceled the order, because I hadn’t returned from the flight. So I was still a second lieutenant. I’ll say it was a bummer. I could have gotten first lieutenant pay all the while I was a prisoner, had that promotion gone through. He didn’t get his promotion either.
They moved us by train to the little town of Sagan. That’s where Stalag Luft III was. They brought us into the British compound there. There were guys from different groups – ol’ T. B. Kelley and K. L. Brown. We got to be good friends, and we cooked meals together. The south area of the compound where I finally wound up was just being worked on then. It was September 1943 when the south compound was finished and all the American airmen were moved there.
Original British huts at Stalag Luft III, the prisoner of war camp where Walter spent two years in Sagan, Poland, during World War II. Photo credit: Imperial War Museum
If you’ve ever seen the movie The Great Escape, it was in this British compound where that actually took place. Their compound was about 50 feet from ours. We could see each other when we walked along our fence, and they walked along their fence. There were barbed wire entanglements and Goon towers in between our compounds. The Germans gave us raw potatoes, kohlrabi, a little cabbage – no meat – and military hard loaf bread made out of boiled oats and “wood flour” (sawdust). We had real “hard tack” too, but that came through the Red Cross parcels, from the British. That was a round cracker, about 4 inches in diameter and about 3/4-inch thick. Harder than hell – you couldn’t bite into it. So we would soak it overnight, and it would puff up like cracker material when it got soft. Then we’d try it.
We didn’t get any milk. They gave us some kind of margarine. I don’t know what it was made out of, but it looked like butter. Then, eventually, we got cans of real Canadian butter – the good stuff. We ate the margarine, and saved the butter because we could render that – get the oil out of it to put in the lamps that we built. We’d pool our rations together. We’d get 10 pounds of food parcels for two men a week, from the International Red Cross. This consisted of cans of Spam, boxes of Dominos sugar cubes, cans of cocoa, a couple of D-bars. These were government-issued chocolate bars, real hard - kind of like cooking chocolate, only semi-sweet. Then there might be crackers – from the British. We’d have coffee, and from the British, we’d get tea.
They’d have real weak rock salt. The Germans gave us rock salt, but when we’d pulverize it, it wasn’t very salty. We didn’t get any meat – oh, yeah- the Germans gave us blood sausage. Nobody ate it – well, some of the guys did. I don’t know how they could though. They called it German blood sausage, but I don’t know what it was made out of.
A copy of the International Red Cross’ food parcel list given to prisoners of different nationalities. Larger view
One time they brought a dead cow into our compound - one cow for 1,500 men. We had what was called a cookhouse. It wasn’t really a cookhouse – it was a place to make hot water. They’d give us a big pitcher, which we called a “kine.” Each combine of eight guys got a kine of hot water each morning. It read on the side, “Kine, drink wasser.” This meant don’t drink the water out of this jug, because of the lead content.
Each morning the Goons prepared this hot water because we didn’t have fuel or anything to cook with. Well, occasionally, somebody would go underneath the barracks and take down a 2-by-4 that was holding up the barracks. We’d chop that up into small bits and use it as fuel. We’d build burners out of tin cans with a makeshift fan, which would make a strong draft. We’d put the wood chips (or twigs) into these burners and heat up whatever we had.
Sometimes the Germans would give us a peck of charcoal briquettes for heating the whole barracks. In winter, you used all your clothes, the two blankets you had, and sometimes newspapers for warmth. The Germans would sometimes give us newspapers, but I couldn’t read them. We’d put those under our paillets on top of our bed boards. It got real cold! We would wear all our shirts and underwear that we had. I was lucky that Dad sent me a pair of long underwear and a jacket one time. That’s about all I got from him though.
Food parcels from the International Red Cross being distributed amongst POWS. Photo courtesy of http://www.b24.net.
Interjection by Olive Langlois (Walt’s sister): We sent food parcels every month. I worked at the local draft board, and they had perfect-sized boxes, according to what we were allowed to send. Dad packed every corner perfectly with coffee, chocolate, cigarettes, food that would ship, and so forth- every month!
Walt: We didn’t get any of them. Well, I got cigars one time, and an unlined jacket in a small box, and I got this underwear. I wrote to Margaret (sister) and said what we really needed was flea powder, and the censors blacked that out. It took a month for replies to get back and forth. She wondered what was blacked out, and I wrote that it was the stuff that we used on Unshklop (the family cat), to take care of his little friends. So the family figured that the little friends were fleas. If I could have gotten some flea powder, it would have been a godsend – even better than food. Those little buggers really came after me! The Red Cross wouldn’t allow flea powder, because the Germans didn’t have fleas. The Germans followed the Geneva Convention if it served their purpose, but if it didn’t, they disregarded it.
In the morning we put the hot water from the kine on top of some tea grounds. We’d make sheets of tin out of tin cans by splitting the cans and bending them over with a hammer. Then we would seam them together and tip up the edges to make them as waterproof as we could.
The potatoes that we’d get were usually rotten on the inside, so they were soft and spongy. We’d mash them. Sometimes we’d get some liver pate; small cans would come in the Red Cross parcel. We’d put that in with all of our mashed potatoes, stir it up, and if we could get it thick enough, we could image it was steak. That liver pate gave it a meat flavor.
An example of the contents in a standard World War II food parcel. Photo courtesy of Art.com
We even baked cake. We’d take biscuits and pound them until they were like flour. Then we’d use tooth powder to put in there, because it had soda in it, and it would make it rise. For cocoa, and many other things, we’d use what we called “klim.” This was powdered milk – klim was milk spelled backward. Klim came in cans, and after we used the milk, then we used the tin can, too.
Each barracks had one stove with an oven in it. There would be 200 guys trying to use the thing. We’d start early in the morning, and still be messing around late at night trying to get enough heat out of that peck of briquettes.