Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life
Quentin Richard Petersen
I really don't remember much that happened right after the traumatic bowel movement with which I ended the last memoir, THE MARCH.
I do not recall living in a tent at any time in Stalag VII-A so I must have been in some barrack at all times. The first was probably the Transit lager at the northwest corner of the camp.
From that point forward I simply remember changing barracks several times during the following month. Perhaps the goons were trying to get nationalities together.
The Geneva Convention rules for the treatment of POW's permit captors to use enlisted prisoners on work details called, "kommandos." Most enlisted American kriegies were assigned to kommandos at some time during their imprisonment. However, these same rules forbade using commissioned officers to do labor.
This distinction had its good and bad effects. Kommandos offered the opportunity to leave the prison camp sometimes and supplement their diet formally or informally. Individual kommandos could be cruel or aid the enemy's war potential. If work was not permitted, existence was boring, desocialized and led to the poor physical condition of the body.
In any event, one day during this month occupants of my barrack were given a chance to go on a firewood-gathering kommando. I grabbed at the chance, swore in writing that I would not attempt escape, and was sent off, out of direct observation by Goons, to gather firewood!
While gathering, I happened onto a farm where the first woman I had seen in eight months was working. I spoke to her in broken German, asking for food, of course. I returned to the camp with one egg and precious little firewood!
Groups that used to be in rooms together in Luft III still kept in pretty much the same groupings now called "combines." These were preserved, in good measure, to continue cooking and eating together, but also for various levels of emotional support.
We'll have to see if anything comes back to me from that month before March 10, which was my 21st birthday and the day we went from no Red Cross parcels back to half-parcels. We slept in blocks of 12 beds. Pappy and I lay side by side on bottom bunks, where we could hear the scurrying rats through the night.
That night, I remember, the Mormon combine had come around with their well displayed cabinets of goods for sale. Chocolate (D-bars), cigarettes, and clothing were the common currency of the camp, but they would take just about anything on consignment. Being non-smokers they had a particular advantage in this trade.
Anyway, I knew that it was going to be a bad night as the fleas were especially active. I tried to tie string about my wrists and ankles to keep them from getting inside, but it was hopeless.
As had happened in Greece Pappy, though he slept inches from me, was untouched by a flea. Biochemistry, I guess.
For 400 men these barracks had one water outlet and one pump in a room that divided the building in half. There were no inside toilets. The barracks doors were locked at night. Wait until morning to get to the abort!
But there would be no choice for this kriegie as violent diarrhea struck. I had to lie in my shit as the fleas feasted and wonder how I would ever survive. I was wearing the only clothes I owned.
Repeating what Joe Klaas said in his book, "Maybe I've died and I've gone to Hell." Not an implausible interpretation to consider, having happened on this 21st birthday.
Certainly, my birthday "celebration" could not have helped my physical condition, but for what specific reason I went on sick call on March 22nd I cannot remember. I do recall that the orderly was shocked at my temperature. I really think it was a mistake of some sort, but I was sent directly to the lazarett with a diagnosis of pneumonia.
In books describing Stalag VII-A I have read that admission to this hospital was equivalent to a death sentence. During the two weeks I was there I saw nothing worse than I saw in our barrack. Indeed, I enjoyed being in a somewhat cleaner, warmer spot for a spell. I repeat, I must have been sent there by error.
Although I had some experiences in the hospital that I want to record, I would first like to acknowledge what my friends' back in the barracks did in my absence. I still have the handwritten note they sent to me on Palm Sunday but it did not scan well. Thus, I will print it out as I did the Christmas poem in the STALAG LUFT III memoir.
I'm sure I don't need to explain why I remain touched to tears when rereading this message.
In this hospital ward of perhaps 20-30 beds were two patients who were medical officers with the Scottish forces who had been captured at Dunkirk in June of 1940! That's five years in the bag! Captain D. J. MacRae, from Ross-Shire Scotland had tuberculosis and Captain G. M. Gorrie, whose home was in Ayrshire, Scotland managed to stay in the hospital as a faux-patient in order to care for him.
Gorrie had escaped once earlier in the war and had done sabotage work with the underground. This was another reason he wanted to remain sequestered in a hospital.
MacRae was a bagpipe player. He had only the mouthpiece, but he played it incessantly!
Two others in the ward were mature Jews who had escaped Nazi Europe (one from a concentration camp!) joined the British army and were subsequently captured in Greece. They were thus treated as any British POW.
M. O. Gruner had been fed glass in his camp and was still suffering. He not infrequently insisted I eat his food ration, "because [his] stomach hurt." I was skinny and young and I think that that motivated his generosity. Though I had an address for him in the New Jew Quarter in Palestine, I lost written touch with him soon after the war.
Salman Levinson, who had also been very kind to me, had been the head of distribution for MGM in Rumania until the Nazis took over. He escaped to Palestine and enlisted in the British army from there. He returned to Palestine after the war to find that his wife had divorced him and his children were no longer considered themselves members of his family. This man, who must have been quite a wealthy businessman in Rumania, finally got work as a hospital orderly in Palestine. My trials were over, but his were just starting. We corresponded for some years. Peggy and I were able to help him some in reestablishing his life.
Another patient in the ward was a Sikh Indian, who had gotten real pneumonia from insisting on daily bathing, as his religion demanded. Other Sikhs were permitted to come into the hospital to care for him and I got to know S. Gurkabish of Rawalpindi, Punjab better than the patient. We corresponded for some years. He taught me some about his religion, which tries to combine Hindus and Mohammedans into a single brotherhood.
The hospital ward (Room #29 according to the address on Wyllis' note) had one table, perhaps 4 x 8 feet, that was surrounded by the patient's double bunks and was used for eating and other activities.
One day a person with pleurisy was brought into the room and laid on his back on the uncovered table. With no anesthetic, a large-gauge needle was inserted into the left side of his chest. The needle was fastened with tubing to a mechanical pump operated by a left-to-right motion which, over about a half-hour, propelled approximately a pint of pus from his pleura into a tray on the table. I remember him as being quite stoic. After the procedure the table was wiped off and we sat down to dinner!
Spring had come while I was away and the weather had moderated rewardingly. I took up walking the perimeter track again and on April 12 received a shout from a guard in a goon-box, "Roosevelt kaput!"
By this time it was very clear that Germany had lost the war. There would be no more counterattacks. How the end would play out was not so clear, however. The biggest problem for us was food. Episodically a truck would enter the compound and dump a load of rotting potatoes or rutabagas on the ground. Our own people would have to see to their division and distribution but it was not enough. Distribution of some bread continued.
I learned that individuals in the Sonderbaracken (special barracks), which held condemned prisoners, had food that they were willing to trade for items of American uniforms. These prisoners were Eastern European or Soviet troops who had behaved criminally. Upon liberation they wanted to disguise themselves as Americans long enough to avoid being returned to Russia. Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were likely to be shot as deserters.
It was possible to get through the barbed-wire fences separating our compound from theirs and, by some process or other, I was chosen to effect some of these trades. Members of my combine gave me clothing with which to negotiate. Neckties were said to be especially valuable. Anyway, I went.
I have never before or since felt so vulnerable, so physically threatened by other strong, ugly, smelly men. I was terrified but, once there, there was no way to back out! I realized (hello?) that they could kill me for the articles I brought to trade and be none the worse off as they were already under death sentences! They had lots of Red Cross parcel food (which they certainly had stolen from the German stores) and my investors in the second-hand clothing business felt well rewarded. I refused to go again, however! I found an easier way to deal!
Someone showed me a way to actually breach the fence around the exterior of the camp. To escape the camp would be completely possible, and completely stupid. There was a war going on out there with people shooting one another!
No, the attraction was the living quarters of French forced labor groups. These people, too, wanted clothing. They, however, had kitchens and cooked meals for themselves! The biggest drawback to the operation was that it had to be done at night. I made several food expeditions and was even given some dessert on one visit! American fighter planes were over us every day; artillery could be heard. Clearly, the end was near.
Rumors of every sort were floating. It is now pretty well established that negotiations between the sides took place on the night of April 28. The SS was willing to peacefully surrender the camp in return for securing several Esir River bridges that would lead them back to more secure lines. Several high-ranking prisoners were escorted to the site of the negotiations and remained throughout the night. When the discussions broke down they were told to get back to camp and keep down, for the attack would begin the next morning. Joe Kriegie, of course, knew nothing of this.
The next morning Wyllis and I were standing at the very barrack door pictured below as a P-51
did a very low chandelle turn. We remarked that the pilot must have done that because he knew that we were fliers down here. We entered our barrack and walked into the narrow aisle separating the 12-bed blocks, continuing our conversation. When I opened my mouth to
comment that I thought I had heard small-arms fire, my mouth was full of plaster and there was a hole in the wall. I pride myself on hitting the floor before Wyllis!
The P-51 had not been greeting fellow fliers. He had blown the attack klaxon!
A few minutes on the floor convinced me to make a dash for the slit trench lying to the west of the building and jump in. The behavior of others occupying this gift, dug five feet deep by kriegies of years past, was fascinating. Some were crying, some were laughing, some were cowering in a fetal position and others were trying to peek over the edge to see and report on the progress of tanks and other armor.
The photos of the camp seen in this section were taken in the summer of 1961. Most of the original buildings were gone by this time, but my barrack was among those converted to some new use with essentially no exterior change. Peggy asked how I could be sure it was the same one.
I stood her right where she had the view one sees above and asked her to go forward and pull aside the weed-tree. I asked her if there were a patched hole behind it about six feet up. Yessss!!! That was where the bullet came through to fill my mouth with plaster! Indeed, the shadow of that filled-in slit trench is still visible in the foreground!
But, back to April 29. After the shooting stopped we got out of the trench. There are as many different stories of what happened next, as there are ex-kriegies. My story I recall with brilliant clarity, so I have no hesitation in telling it as the absolutely true one!
The camp had the usual goon-boxes and gates. There was a main road that went from the main gate, due east by a number of barracks to a compound fenced off from the other living areas with an external strength double fence (which I had penetrated to reach the sonderbaracken some weeks earlier). This compound, like a miniature Stalag Luft, held only American flying officers. This area, in addition, had its own gate on the main camp road.
Three American tanks knocked down the already-ajar main gate and rumbled by buildings holding other nationalities, then knocked down the gates to this special compound before coming to a halt on the road where the westernmost barrack, my home, stood. The hatch of the lead tank popped open and up comes General George Patton. Ivory handled pistols, gleaming chromium helmet, and an immaculate Class A uniform covered with ribbons.
Contrary to other's reports, I observed no cheering. Instead, the fact that kriegies' lives had been lost because of his unwillingness to exchange our safety for a couple of bridges was not celebrated. It was a quiet, sullen group as I experienced it.
Bracketed by two Lieutenant Generals, each a half-pace behind, he walked around the (my!) building. He stopped at the fence separating us from the sonderbaracken to ask why bedding was hanging on the barbed wire. He was told it was to free them of lice and fleas. He asked, contemptuously, "these men are officers?"
A handful of us, studiously ignored, were following him as he circled the building. He stopped at a kriegie trying to toast some goon-bread on a kriegie-burner, which has to be operated in a seated position, and tried to intimidate him into standing and saluting! It didn't work. He stood there so long that the kriegie offered him the toast! He sniffed and strode back to his tank, which had been turned about, as had the other two, climbed into the tank, raised his right arm in a grand Hitlerian gesture and shouted, "Munich" and clanged the hatch down!
Rumble, rumble, rumble, and they took Munich that afternoon!
After describing eye-witness reports of Patton arriving at Stalag VII-A in (1) a spotless staff-car (2) a jeep, and (3) a tank, Arthur Durand, in his most scholarly, highly-researched and documented book about the subject, Stalag Luft III, The Secret Story, states in a closing footnote, "Unfortunately, there is little agreement among the prisoners about this event." I have a theory. There are enough similarities in the published eye-witness stories of this liberation to suggest that he probably entered (liberated) the camp several times, perhaps even on different days, each recorded by a different observer. Of my story I am certain, unless George C. Scott was in Mooseburg that day!
So now what happens? FUBAR, of course.. We were more closely contained by British troops left to keep us in the camp than we had been by the Germans during the past month.
I just had to get out, and left by the route which had gotten me to the French Labor Camp. Then I started walking. I remember coming to a destroyed bridge over the Esir which had a frail, wobbly walking bridge suspended over the span. I started over it and had a panic attack in the middle. Others on the span were German female civilians, but I was determined to go back! They all had to back up to let me off!
Another day I stayed off the river and walked in the countryside stopped at a farmhouse and dandled the little kids (the GIs had given us some candy) and found a healthy German male with them (hello?) On this walk I saw an American helmet lying on the ground with some other debris. I turned it over and there was half a head inside!
I picked up a fragment of this poor sod's Garand rifle stock and headed back to the safety of the camp as fast as I could. I would not leave the camp again.
There was plenty to do and see, however. I came across the guard-dog kennels where about 20 of these animals lay shot dead by the 14th Armored Division soldiers as they came through.
Then, in the process of looting the Headquarters Offices, all of the Personalkarte files were dumped. A friend recognized mine, brought it to me, and you see it as the final page of this memoir!
Finally, I made the promised return trip to the hospital to see how my friends were faring. Captain Gorrie had a bottle of brandy he had saved for this day and we all had a drink!
It was over a week before Army trucks drove us to Landshut to await C-47 cargo planes to pick us up. We had to wait there a couple of days and during that time a German plane came in, wings waggling, to surrender. After landing, the pilot took off his parachute. It was immediately torn up by the milling kriegies. I got a piece of the silk, which I still wear as a scarf occasionally, but my prize was the ripcord, which still hangs in my study! The flimsy plywood aircraft was torn into pieces. The foot-long piece of the wing I have kept has written on it, "Piece of wing of German aircraft which flew in for surrender on May 1945 at Landshut, Germany. Ex-prisoners, waiting for flights to France destroyed the plane. The occupants of the plane were not molested."
In C-47's we finally left Germany for a Recovered Allied Military Personnel (RAMP), Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre. The smell of the camp was that of wet canvas. To this day, when I smell wet canvas, I tell my wife that it smells like Le Havre.
All of the RAMP camps were named after cigarette brands. Here our identity was verified, we were given (ill-fitting) clothes, and we were started on a feeding program to accommodate our shrunken stomachs.
The idea was that, for a couple of days, we would get small amounts of bland food, followed by a couple more days on larger portions of more varied food. Finally, we would be on steak and potatoes plus anything else we wanted.
We finally got on an ocean liner that had been fitted with hammocks The ship had a PX where I bought a full box of chocolate bars. I ate them all and got so sick that I could never again eat chocolate.
We passed the Statue of Liberty on May 29, Exactly one month from the day of General Patton's visit!
I was taken from the dock to Camp Stockton and then to Fort Dix, quite near Trenton, where, after a quick physical exam I was given a 60-day leave!
I telephoned my mother and told her I would soon be home! Crossing the Delaware River bridge, a few miles from my home, the train broke down and we had to wait a couple of hours to get moving again. Once in Trenton I shared a cab with a couple of civilian men who asked me only if I had killed anyone.
My return was rewarding, but not that emotionally moving. Someone got Betty Anne to the house and she came up to the third floor for our private reunion hug. Not like ones in the movies, I'm afraid.
I was very uncomfortable at home and started traveling almost at once. I don't remember the order, or all the stops, but I had a reunion with Paul Regnier in Minnesota, with my brother in Illinois, and with former crew members in various locations.
I ended the up the summer in Atlantic City being classified as "fit for overseas duty!" Surely you jest! The Hiroshima bomb was dropped while I was there and I wrangled a Separation from Service; for an Officer, essentially a discharge.
Betty Anne and I maintained our boyfriend-girlfriend roles through the summer.
Our romantic relationship ended when, still on Terminal Leave, I returned to Antioch in September.
We remain good friends and continue to exchange chatty birthday letters each year.
So, for me, the war was over.
In addition to the recollections of this wartime period which I have shared in these memoirs, I brought home with me a number of things from my stay in Europe. I've reproduced copies of many of them in earlier memoirs.
I also retained a steno notebook in which I recorded addresses of my crew members, my Stalag Luft III roommates, VII-A hospital friends and the names of 106 records I wanted to buy when I got home!
Remarkably, two items that were in my pockets when I jumped were still in my possession! One was a saucy, leggy picture of Betty Anne which I had encased in Plexiglass when on my co-op job at Rohm and Haas. The other was a waterproof match container. It still contains two 55-year-old matches!