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A BAD COUPLE OF WEEKS

A Continuing Memoir


Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life

Quentin Richard Petersen

Following a troubled night's sleep, Bennett and I were driven to an unannounced destination in a car which, soon after our departure, came to our B-24 wreck. It had struck a built-up section of the road. Our hosts stopped and let us look at, but not approach, the plane. We were told that there were no bodies in it.

We continued to a "village?" and were locked in a dirt-floored cellar, which opened onto a field. There were one or two floors above it. This was one of the worst nights of my life, as fleas covered my body, each bite swelling to the size of a quarter, and itching beyond toleration. I was screaming all night, in spite of orders to "schlafen." In the morning one of the guards, who had been the back field, gave me some ointment for my swollen and bloody arms and legs. I had one more adventure with fleas, deep in Germany, on my 21st birthday!

The next day trucks carrying parts of our aircraft accompanied our vehicle. That night, we stayed in pretty fancy (compared to where we had been) place adjoining an airfield. We had a nice dinner with an officer in a large room, facing an enormous swastika banner on an end wall. Pappy and I discussed stealing a plane and flying back to Vis. That night we may even have had separate bedrooms! On a 1996 visit to Greece it was determined that this air base must have been in Larissa.

I would guess that it was on about this day that my mother was informed that I was missing in action by a form telegram like the one below. At one point I had the original, but what happened to it?

The following day we were introduced to our guards (one for each of us) who were given instructions by the officer. He then told us in English exactly what he had told them, including that they had been given cigarettes for our use! It was probably here that Fox and Merrill, two captured gunners from our crew, joined us with their two guards.

Somehow we got to Thessaloniki and went directly to the train station where we waited on polished wooden benches for many hours. Clayton Merrill was quite sick and tried to lie down on one of the benches. In retrospect, I recognize that he was in the early stages of malaria. While sitting at his side I tired of brushing mosquitoes from him and myself and inertly watched an anopheles mosquito (readily identified from prior training films) bite me on my left forearm.

Remarkably, on a 1996 visit to Greece I found the unchanged Thessaloniki train station and sat once again on the same polished bench!

The following day and night were spent in a typical European passenger-compartment with our guards. It was a very crowded place and a guard went with us each time we went to the toilet. At night I tried to sleep on the luggage rack above the seats. It did not work. On this trip I had my first of two episodes of really terrible thirst. We had only the canteen I retained from our capture. We agreed to ration the water in it between us, but at night I felt Bennett reach behind me and drink my share of the water. I never confronted him with my knowledge of his awful behavior during our incarceration or our meetings after the war. Shit happens, and we all have different limits of toleration.

We traveled in this fashion to Budapest, arriving there on August 23rd. As we left the train, civilians throwing stones and spitting attacked our guards and us. I think the guards were more frightened than we, as we really didn't understand the risk. We walked through the city to a downtown police station.

During this walk I observed what I had only seen in Life magazine pictures before, individuals with yellow stars sewed to their clothes. They were also walking purposely down the street!

Some nuts-and-bolts interrogation was done at this police station. Our guards were dismissed and we were driven to the Federal Penitentiary (Hszablyai Prison) in an open-sided police van. As we entered the prison it appeared that it held civilian prisoners as well as Terrorfliegers. At the prison we were put directly into solitary confinement cells for a couple of days.

By this time V-mail letters of this sort were being returned to my friends.

This period was extremely stressful. For the first time since capture I broke into tears, violent sobbing! Other memories of time in that cell are sketchy. The first was probably being fed by having a tray passed through a slot in the door of the cell. In that door was also a little hole which a guard could open (one could hear it) and see what I was doing. The food was a piece of black bread, the center of which was pasty-soft. I didn't eat much of it but I started using the soft center to sculpt some chess pieces.

In the solitary cell there was one high, barred window. I discovered that I could stand on the stool in the cell and see "outside." I saw a boy, about ten years old, and called to him. He answered but, of course, I had no idea what he said. But, he didn't seem angry. I think I talked to him a second time.

I pushed my luck too far, though. As I finished each one, I carried my chess pieces up to the window ledge and put it out in the sun to bake. The guard saw me through the peephole, came into the cell to see what I was doing. He knocked the pieces to the ground (three or four stories) and took the stool. No more little boy!

The solitary-confinement period was a softening-up preparation for "the interrogation." It was done by an enlisted man, I believe, and was probably classical in nature. I went through the "name, rank and serial-number" jazz for about 15 minutes. He then said that he was just trying to help inform my mother that I was safe and that he already knew the answers to his questions. He then proceeded to tell me personal details about my family which none of my crew could possibly have known. These details included the name of my mother's second husband, the ranks and locations of my brother (Major, USAAF, Puerto Rico) and brother-in-law (Lt. Jr. Grade, US Navy, Corpus Christi), which got us out of the "name, rank and serial-number" mode. But, he really had no agenda and there was nothing I could profitably tell him.

I was back in the States before I learned how the interrogator knew so much about my family. The Germans had a massive "clipping-service" which filed all of the "Our Boys In The Service" columns from newspapers across the country. When an American was captured they looked for his name in the file and if it was found they could tailor the interrogation about that information, all of it exactly like every other "Our Boys In The Service" column in the US&A!

After this I was taken to a large room to mill around with 30 or so men. It had one bucket for shit and piss in the corner. We got taken out to walk around a small, completely enclosed, courtyard track once a day.

Soon a Hauptmann (Captain) arrived at the door of the room and beckoned to me to come with him. I was sure he meant someone else, but is me he wanted! He was a stocky man, and told me that he had once lived in the US. He gave me a cigarette and left the pack on the table. He asked if I had any questions. I asked how the war was going. He pulled down a roller map of Europe that was on the wall and gave a pretty frank description of the way things seemed to be going for Germany -- badly. He asked how I was being treated and I told him.

At this point he said that there were so many fliers coming through that they were too crowded to give them what they needed. However, the Red Cross had received permission to take an occasional prisoner to one of their worker's homes for a decent dinner from time to time and asked if I would like to participate in this program. Wow, you bet!! He said he would take the necessary steps.

He then pulled out some drawings and documents and asked if I could help him with them.

The drawings were for the "Gee-box," a navigational radio triangulation system, clandestinely set up in the Balkans for an aircraft, carrying the box, to locate itself. I had been training on this system for about a week at the time we were shot down! He asked a number of general and specific questions about the drawings. I knew absolutely nothing about the drawings; I only knew how to use the G-box. I did not tell him I was a user, and he never asked. I responded to all his questions with my honest insistence that I did not know anything. Finally, I said, "I really don't know anything about the drawings but, even if I did, I would no more tell you than would you if you were my prisoner." With that he turned surly, grabbed back his cigarettes and sent me back to the large room. The reason I have gone into such detail about this episode will become clear shortly.

When large numbers of prisoners were shipped at one time, it was called a "purge." That is, when Hszablyai Prison, the interrogation center for Eastern Europe got filled, it was purged to make room for the newcomers. Rumors of upcoming purges to various prison camps were rampant.

On that day, when we went out for our walk around the track, I was relating this story to Pappy when another prisoner overtook us.


PRISONERS' ROUND         Vincent Van Gogh

This officer, Lt. Sorenson, said he had overheard my story and wanted me to know that some weeks previously, much the same thing had happened to him, minus the Gee-box questioning. He had, indeed, been taken out to dinner at a "Red Cross" house, which he described, in considerable detail. He also profiled the individuals present; one priest, one woman and one "interned" American male. The dinner was fine and well laced with wines. Then they brought out the Gee-box drawings and questions. The rich meal and wine had given him very bad GI's which he felt both kept him from getting drunk and got them to bring him back before they had any information. I didn't learn whether or not he had any information.

The bottom line for Lt. Sorenson was that two purges had gone out since his adventure and he had not been on either. He was getting very frightened!

When our purge left on the 28th, we were taken by truck to the other side of the Danube, up to a fairly high elevation, and let out at a large building which fit perfectly Sorenson's description of the "Red Cross" house where he had been interrogated on the Gee-box papers. Also, the priest, the woman and the "interned" American were present, all in German uniforms. We were at this building for some period of time, an hour at least, and not in any particular formation. This gave me a chance to wander about the house, checking Sorenson's room descriptions. When I opened one closed door I found a room with enormous stacks of US currency. It struck me as more than could have possibly been recovered from escape-kits. At this point I got frightened and rejoined the people waiting on the lawn.

At this location we were given Red Cross suitcases with a sweater, handkerchiefs, towel, soap, toothbrush sewing kit, and a number of other valued personal items before we got back on the trucks and were taken to the Railroad Station where we were loaded on boxcars for our trip north to Stalag Luft III. Sorenson was not in this purge either, nor did his name ever show up on the later purge lists that were regularly posted at Stalag Luft III.

Surprisingly, I remember few details of the boxcar trip north to Sagan, Poland other than that there was straw on the floor of my car. I cannot recall how long the trip took, or how many were in the car. We arrived in Sagan, on the 30th and were let out of the car, into Stalag Luft III, the following morning. When I try to recall details of the trip, the only images that enter my mind are those of a later, horrible box-car transport which I will describe in a subsequent memoir, THE MARCH.

Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life
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