Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life
Quentin Richard Petersen
The biting cold was certainly the harshest memory of the start of this test of survival. At least, they were apparently not going to execute us, though there were high-level discussions of using us as hostages. They must have thought, "we've got ten thousand flying officers here, there must be some way we can use them to our advantage!"
I included in the last memoir, a quotation from John Toland's, "The Last 100 days." Joe Klaas's novel built around this March is titled, "Maybe I'm Dead," which was not an absurd possibility for those who believed there was a hell. They had difficulty figuring out why this was happening to them.
The South compound marched from the Stalag Luft III front gate at about 11:30 pm on January 26, 1945.. It is generally recognized that the 2,000 officers of the South compound were pushed especially hard to make room for the 8,000 yet to come.
At the first stop bread was issued, as the horses could no longer pull the bread wagon. By the time the last compound left the camp it was 4:00 a.m. on the 28th and the column was already eight miles long.
When men fell from exhaustion or injury they were not, as the rumor had it, shot. Neither were they picked up on a sick-cart (another rumor) and carried on to the next destination. Rather, they were just left behind. We discussed, on the March, that freezing to death might not really be such a bad way to go.
But, at the extreme of rationalization Padre Daniels (whose signature is forged on the appel excuse pictured in the previous memoir) is quoted in two books about the March in his obscene question to men fallen and freezing to death, "Did you ever think that perhaps God is testing our faith?" Like He did with the six million tested in the concentration camp ovens?
Daylight came and our path could be followed by the trail of items thrown away to lighten the packs. Even the old German guards were discarding ammunition packs to lighten their loads. At 10:00 am after marching 25 miles in a howling blizzard we reached Grosselten where, after a couple of hours, and under Col. Jones' leadership, I joined many of my companions in the loft of a barn. My shoes were frozen and wet. But, I had to take them off.
We lay together in the straw like spoons, each fart raising edginess and shouts. I slept. The bad time was waking up. Stiff and sore in every muscle and facing the shoe problem and continued marching. A horrific anticipation! As I have suggested before, although I can remember these awful days, I do not recreate their emotional content. Good for me. Good for you.
We left the Grosselten barn at about 6:00 p.m. Etched in my memory are the German refugees streaming by our sorry, ragged line. People in carts pulled by horses, oxen, and old men, holding their entire household possessions (and tiny children) fleeing the approaching Russians with greater (justified) fear than we showed. I was bitten on the shoulder by one of the horses!
Even under these circumstances I felt genuine compassion for these losers.
On Monday, January 29th we arrived at the outskirts of Muskau just after midnight, having marched another 20 miles. The town was approached on a steep (so it seemed to me) hill and sitting by the road's side I saw one of my roommates from Block 131, 25-year-old Bertwald Johnson, who had given up.
Bert was a fighter pilot and had been badly burned at the time he was shot down. He was our most fragile Room #131 occupant. I went over and got him standing just as Rich Wanserski, our newest (and thus strongest) occupant of #131 came by. It's curious how we, without plan, stayed so physically close after we left Stalag Luft III.
Anyway, we got one of Bert's arms around my left (I actually remember) shoulder and his other around Rich's right and continued up the hill. All too soon, I ran out of steam and told Rich that I could barely move myself and would have to leave Bertwald with him, and went on alone.
Col. Jones had managed to get sitting space for about 800 men in a glass factory. The furnaces were somehow started and some heat was provided. As did many others, I immediately fell asleep.
When I awoke I realized at once that my blanket had been removed from my sitting body as I slept. I climbed up to the platform around the furnace, warmed myself and told Col. Jones, my old perimeter-walking friend, what had happened and asked him what he thought I should do.
For my entire life, I'll never forget his response, "I wouldn't leave here without a blanket!" I didn't take it from a sleeping man, but I did continue to keep my commitment to "take care of #1" and picked up another one lying free in the detritus the prisoners left on the floor of that factory.
When other compounds arrived from Luft III, we had to get out of the factory. At 10:00 am we were marched another 12 miles to Graunstein where we were again put in barns for the night.
We departed around 9:00 am and after about an hour's march arrived in Spremberg, a town which had been a kind of a West Point for German tank warfare and was served by a railway line.
We were issued very salty barley soup, which was the only food given us since the original bread-cart had broken down four days earlier. There was a water issue as well.
We were loaded on a freight train of boxcars at 50 kriegies per car. This "close packing" (actually a chemical term!) did not permit 50 men to lie down in any configuration. Leaders quickly emerged and set up standards by which 30 would sit and 20 lie down for timed shifts. The salty soup soon reflected itself, felt in my body as a devastating thirst. It was worse, even, than that I had suffered on the train to Budapest.
Of the tortures to which my body has been subjected to over the years, pain, hunger, physical paralysis, attack by insects, incontinence, thirst would certainly have to be judged the most unbearable!
Conditions in the boxcars were truly Stygian. At first we tried to urinate or defecate in Klim tins, but by the time the vomiting started we headed for the corners if we could get through. Kriegies died, locked with their companions, in these cars.
The train stopped once in the open countryside and the doors were opened. Corpses were removed. Prisoners were permitted to leave to stretch and relieve themselves. I was already painfully constipated and could make no sanitary use of this break.
The train arrived at Mooseberg at about 9:00 pm on February 2nd. We remained locked in the cars until 6:00 am the next morning at which time we were released into Stalag VII A.
My only concern for the next couple of days was getting relief from my unbelievably-painful constipation. I drank as much water as I could hold and strained at a slit trench which, mercifully, carried a log suspended above it on which one could sit. The following year I told my sister, who had just given birth to a child, that I was certain that my ordeal had to have been greater than hers! As I will relate in the Northwestern memoir, after the war the damage had to be surgically repaired.
For me, it was with that bowel movement that the March ended!
Although there are published photographs taken during the march, I have chosen to reproduce none in this memoir. No picture could do justice to the experience or to the men who did not survive it.