Memorial Day salute . . .

Another Forced March of World War II era

Location of Hitler’s ‘Stalag Luft IV’

GERMANY – When people say ‘Death March’ those of us who have reached a certain age automatically think of the 60-mile Bataan Death March in the Phillippines. This article may surprise a lot of people to learn that there were other death marches that came at a later date in the war, courtesy of the Nazi German forces. These too were killers of thousands of mostly American and British solders.  As Paul Harvey would have said: “And now, the rest of the story!”

My Mom and Dad retired in a Presbyterian facility, Westminster at Lake Ridge, in northern Virginia.  I was looking through the library there and found a self-published book by a WWII Army Air Corps pilot. His story was riveting. That was the first time I ever heard of these other death marches.

As WWII was coming to a close, the Germans saw the Russian troops advancing westward toward the German heartland. There were multiple POW camps in eastern Europe. The Germans decided to remove some 8,000 POWs to get them away from the on-coming enemy, rather than turn them over to the Russians. The destination of the Long March from Stalag Luft IV (in what is now Poland) was Hamburg, some 600 miles west.  

That northern evacuation route led along the Baltic Sea. There was much zigzagging, to escape the encroaching Soviet Red Army from the east. Also, a detour was made to the south to avoid Peenemunde — the top secret German research site for development of the V-1 Buzz Bombs and the V-2 rockets. The march started at the end of January1945, the coldest winter in Europe for many years, and lasted approximately 86 days.

Toward the end of April 1945, the Allies were advancing on Germany from the west. This caused the Germans to march those same prisoners eastward, adding to the miles the POWs had walked.  Some marched almost 1,000 miles, but all of the POWs marched at least 500 miles.

Frostbite, exposure, dysentery, lice, trench foot, pneumonia and malnutrition were ailments common to the prisoners. Typical rations included raw potatoes, a bottle of hot water, raw meat from cats and dogs, plus rats. Typical caloric intake was about 700 calories per day. With Red Cross food boxes, the total daily food intake came to about 1350 calories. 

All POWs were poorly fed by the Germans and a prisoner could expect to lose half of his capture weight. Clothing was largely what the prisoners had on when captured – certainly not what was needed for temperatures of minus 13 degrees F.  Some POWs were told to take only what they needed to keep warm. The Germans provided thin blankets to some POWs. 

Medicine was essentially non-existent. Some prisoners received medical care in the rural hospitals along the march route. There were a few American medical doctors as well as medical corpsmen who had been captured. When the POWs stopped marching at night, the exhausted doctors and corpsmen stayed up most of the nights tending to the ills of the POWs. The barns where they were stopped overnight were crowded so the prisoners often had to sleep standing upright. Other prisoners had to sleep outside.

German POWs housed in the U.S. fared much better than Allied POWs did in German hands.  One POW camp in Oklahoma housed some of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s troops. Some of those POWs were allowed to work on local farms and got to eat with the farm families. 

One group of artisans carved a wooden creche for the local town. Is it no wonder that quite a few of the prisoners didn’t go home until 1949?  For some 40 years after the war, many of the German prisoners returned to the Oklahoma town for reunions!

Remember our troops this Memorial Day. They may have lost toes to frostbite and limbs to gangrene, but they stand proudly for the American flag as it passes by in review.