An American Slave in Nazi Germany
by John W. Reifenrath
B Company 423 Infantry 106th Infantry Division
John was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was imprisoned in the Stalag 9B POW camp. He was later sent to Berga am Elster. John wrote his story March 26, 1997. Footnotes were added to further explain or clarify his story. The editing was done by Pete House, the historian of the Stalag 9A, 9B, 13B and Berga ex-POW association.
On February 8, 1945, 350 American prisoners were sent from Bad Orb to a slave labor camp at Berga Am Elster.(1) They included the American Jewish soldiers as well as those of us from my barracks and others that the Germans thought they might have trouble with.(2) We were marched down to the rail yards in the town of Bad Orb where we were loaded into the "40 & 8" box cars. This time we were more comfortable that our first box car ride. Our trip was four days long but a good part of the time was spent in waiting for the railroads tracks to be repaired from the damage caused by Allied bombs. For the trip we received one red cross food package to be shared by two men. Charles Carter and I shared one box.(3)
Upon arrival at Berga we were marched to newly constructed barracks on a hill about a mile from the town. There were four barracks. The barracks were surrounded by barb wire fences and guard towers. The barracks were one story wooden buildings with two large rooms and a common entry way. Most of each room was taken up by wooden bunks. They were double bunks with corn shuck mattresses and stacked three high.
At night we were locked in and had to use the wooden boxes provided for latrines which leaked some or overflowed. They had to be empted each morning into the outdoor slit trench latrine. Those who got this job were ones who tried to escape, were caught stealing or were unlucky enough to be picked by the guards. There was electricity in the barracks and I think just one light bulb in each half which was on all night. The compound outside the barracks was well lighted.
After we had been there for a while our medics were allowed to set up a dispensary in half of the last barracks.(4) Those who were deemed sick were allowed to go there. We turned over whatever we had in the way of medical supplies. In my case it only a first aid pack with bandages and sulfa powder.
A doctor was brought up from town periodically to look at the sick. At sick call many lined up who were not really sick and the doctor after seeing some who were not sick stopped and went back to town. Those who were sick and could not line up quick enough did not get to be seen. After this happened the sergeant(5) decided he would say who could see the doctor. Thus some sick men who Metz decided were not sick died. Dave Young(6) in my barracks was not able to fall out for work one morning and Metz pulled him out of his bunk and threw a bucket of cold water on him. He died a couple of minutes later with what we though was diphtheria.
We were divided into two work shifts, one for 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and one from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. I was in the 6 a.m. shift. We were marched down the hill to the tunnel site and were assigned to the various tunnels to work with German civilians.
The first group to work was from the barracks nearest to the gate. This barracks included all of those of Jewish faith. They worked the 2:00 p.m. shift. When they came in at 10:30 p.m. they said it was terrible and that we should refuse to go out for our 6:00 a.m. shift. We felt that we were not is a position that we could refuse and did go our for our first shift. I must admit that my first march to the tunnel site was with a great deal of concern. We had heard that the civilians had been bobmed out of Aachen and had lost homes and families. My buddy Charles Carter and I together with several others were assigned to tunnel number 12. At first we had to fallout at 5:30 for our shift. As it became harder to get men out for work as the days went by, we had to fall out earlier and earlier.
At the end of our first shift we had to wait until almost 2:45 for the guards who would take us back up the hill after bringing down the 2:00 p.m. shift. We learned that this group had gone on strike. Some refused to leave the barracks and some hid under the barracks. Guards with fixed bayonets and police dogs got everyone out to come down to work although late.
I guess that those of us in tunnel 12 were more fortunate than those in other tunnels. Perhaps because I had grown up in Cripple Creek,(7) Colorado which was in a hard rock gold mining area, I knew what the work was like although I had never worked underground. I believe that the civilians with whom we worked were more humane that those in some of the tunnels. Until they had a cut in their rations some would give us a part of their sandwich. We had no food or water during our eight hour shift.
The tunnels were being driven into a bluff along the Elster River. As I remember it there were 17 tunnels numbered 1 to 18 with no number 13. They were 8 to 10 feet wide and about the same height. When we started working they were in about 150 feet. The rock was very hard and had to be drilled and blasted. Ties and rails were laid for the tram cars to run on to carry the broken rock out and dump it. The track ran out of the tunnel about one hundred feet toward the river to a turn table. We had to push the cars to the turn table and then turn them 900 to the left to match up with track that ran parallel to the river and on to where they were dumped.
We were fortunate in our tunnel that there was a compressed air operated loader (mucking machine) and we had to load the rock that the machine couldn't reach. There was an air duct that brought outside air into the tunnel. When our tunnel was in about 200 feet it began to turn to the left. They began to make the ceiling higher. Shortly after this we were pulled out of the tunnels to work outside. With half of the tunnels turning to the left and half to the right they would meet and make one large room.
The working conditions were bad for everyone in the tunnels. The drills were not the modern ones with a stream of water going down the center of the drill steel. The drills used made dust so thick that you could not see more that three feet when they were operated. Over time under these conditions lung could accumulate rock dust that could not be coughed up and could cause death.
Neither we or the civilians had miner's hard hats to protect our heads from falling rock. Those of us who had been able to keep our steel helmets and liners did have protection. We had to work in the clothes we were wearing when captured. We had no gloves or safety shoes. Little scratches or nicks would soon become sore and fester. When the weather got warmer, Carter made himself a pair of mitts from a piece of blanket. He sewed them together with the thin electrical wire that was used in detonating the dynamite.
We had to help with the drilling at times by sitting back to back on a plank that sloped up when the hole had to be drilled at an upward angle. We had to push against the civilian's back who was holding the drill. A few times I was on the drill.
In working with the civilians we learned that if we sort of kept in motion when there was work to be done things seemed to go along fairly well. When some of the "brass" came along the civilians scurried around looking busy and so did we.
One day a tram car on its way to be dumped got away from us and ran off the end of the track and down the dump. There was nothing said to us for letting it get away.
According to an ex-army corporal who was the tunnel boss of the first civilians we worked with, they did not like working int the tunnels either. We learned that they had three choices:
1. Work in the tunnels, or
2. Be put in the army and sent to the Russian front, or
3. Be sent to a concentration camp.
After four weeks the civilians in the tunnels had to change shifts. Those in our tunnel had to work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. We got the civilians that had worked with our 2:00 p.m. shift. The boss of this group of civilians was an older short man about 5 foot 4 with a short fuse. He would give a boot to the seat or a rap on the helmet. I got one boot and one helmet rap. I could not speak German but could get the gist of what he said and he began to tell me what he wanted done so I could pass it on.
I think that with the change of civilian workers the loading machine was pulled out of our tunnel. All of the loading of the tram cars had to be done by hand. This meant shoveling and picking up the large rocks by hand. It took two of us to pick up the larger rocks because we were getting weaker.
On the first or second day after the civilians changed shifts and while we were waiting to start work at 6:00 a.m., one of the civilians we had worked with was hanging around. He acted a little nervous and kept looking around. He came up to me and handed me a small apple. Then he took off at almost a run.
Now the the loading of the cars was done by hand, steel plates were sued for the blasted rock to fall on. These "mucking plates" were laid flat on the tunnel floor and pushed up against the rock face when the drilling was finished. After blasting we had to shovel the rock into the cars. The use of the plates made the shoveling much easier. It is easy to push a shovel under rock while the shovel is resting on the plate. It is hard if not almost impossible to try to push a shovel into the middle of a pile of rock. For some reason our men who worked the afternoon shift were pulled and put to work with us on early shift. They were spread among the tunnels. One man who came to our tunnel was trying to shovel into the middle of the rock pile. The tunnel boss grabbed the shovel from ham and showed him how to use the steel plate. In a few minutes he was back th the middle of the pile. This time the boss grabbed the shovel and swatted him on his backside with the flat of the shovel.
I had a wrist watch which was a high school graduation present on which the expandable wrist band had broken. I carried in my pocket. Our second boss had no watch and he would ask me for the time. At night I hung in on a nail by my head. I was on the top bunk next to the wall and slept with my head against the wall. I would fall asleep in an exhausted stupor for several hours. One night some fellow GI climbed up on the bunk without awaking either myself or my buddy Carter who was sleeping next to me and stole my watch. The tunnel boss was furious the nest day when he found out that it had been stolen. He stood outside the tunnel and stopped anyone who he thought might have my watch. A few days later someone took my GI sweater that I had hung just outside the tunnel. When the boss found that out he stood outside the tunnel and stopped everyone who had a GI sweater. Both had probably been traded for food or cigarettes.(8)
A week or so before Easter Sunday we were moved from the barracks on the hill down to barracks close to the tunnel site.(9)
We were separated from a compound of concentration camp prisoners from Buchanwald by a double wire fence. There was a large building in the compound that looked like it had been a warehouse or factory. These prisoners were used in various tasks outside the tunnels and were not allowed to have contact with us or the tunnel civilians. They were used to carry rails, ties and other materials. I don't believe that I saw them on the tunnel side of the river. SS soldiers guarded them.
It was amazing to me to see several of these political prisoners who were fat. They must have been doing a lucrative bartering business. That may have been where my watch and sweater went. They would hang around to try for a trade if guards were not close and would scurry off when a guard came along. I remember seeing one trying to stay out of sight under the wooden bridge that we crossed over the river to go to work.
These prisoners wore the black and gray striped pants and jackets that were worn in all the concentration camps. Most of them were very thin and some very feeble. Some walked as if in a trance. We called it the "Zombie Walk". They walked as though they were robots. There was no expression in their eyes. To see one walking toward you you felt that if you did not step aside they would walk right over you.
Our food at first was more than we got at Bad Orb but it was not enough for the hard work we were doing. At first three of us had to share a loaf of the heavy dark bread. Later we were down to five men to a loaf. The soup had virtually no meat in it. Sometimes we got a bite of cheese or sausage or jam or margarine. These also became less as time went on. I remember a few times having oatmeal and potato soup. When we were on the hill a food detail of our men would take a cart down(10) to the town and pull it back up the hill with our food. I don't know where it was prepared, perhaps at the concentration camp compound.
We had elected one of our men in our barracks to be in charge and represent us. He found out how many men the Germans wanted for our shift each day and worked out a schedule that would have let each of us have a day off periodically. I was able to rest the first week. This arrangement was short lived and died from lack of cooperation.
We worked seven days a week but everyone had Easter Sunday off including the civilians. For Easter we got an extra ration of soup. That was a mistake because we were not used to that much food. It gave many of us diarrhea and cramps. I didn't eat all of mine and saved part. I got diarrhea and stomach cramps anyhow.
We were taken off the tunnel work before Easter and were put to work outside to carry materials around. I guess we were too weak do the tunnel work. I was put to work at night. I don't know if all of us worked only at night or if any of the Buchanwald prisoners worked at night. I think that it was the day after Easter that I got severe stomach cramps. I couldn't straighten up. Sergeant Metz began yelling at me but I couldn't understand him. He was angry and according to one of our men who did understand German he said he was going to have me shot.
I was taken into the compound where the prisoners form Buchanwald were. I thought that this was the end and almost didn't care, I was in so much pain. There were other GIs there. We all had to take off all our clothes which at that point didn't make me feel any better. However our clothes were put into a large box-like room within the big room we were in. The clothes were being heated to kill the body lice. I don't think it did much good because nothing was done to get the lice that was on our body. The prisoners in the compound did all of the work with our clothes, putting them in the "box" and then dumping them out in one big hot pile where we had to sort through to find our own. There was a prisoner there who was a doctor. He saw that I was in pain and sent one of the other prisoners to get something for me. He brought back a small bottle with and eyedropper cap. The doctor had him squirt a few drops into my mouth. Within a minute the cramps were gone.(11)
While we waited for our clothes, we talked to the doctor who spoke very good English. He said that the extra ration of soup was more than our stomachs could handle and was dumped into our intestines causing the problem. He said that the best thing to do was to eat only dry toast and stay in bed for a couple of days. I thought the chances of that were dim to nothing. He also said the Americans were getting close and that we were going to be moved. I asked him what was to happen to prisoners in the compound. He replied in a matter of fact voice as though he was talking about the weather, "Oh they will probably shoot us".(12)
Several Americans tried to escape. All were captured and brought back, except one.(13) All were captured and brought back, except one. He had a better chance of making good his escape because as I understood it, he had been born in Germany and had come to the U. S. when he was 18. He was fluent in German and knew his way around.(14) One escapee had been shot before he was brought back. He was left to lay by our barracks for a day. I presume that was done as a deterrent for anyone thinking about escaping.
Most of the days spent at Berga are just a blur of the same thing day after day. Some things have come to mind and stand out in my memory. As we were marched up the hill to our barracks one afternoon we saw older men being drilled to fight. They were not in uniform. They formed a skirmish line and charged an imaginary enemy to fall prone and aim their make believe stick guns.
On one other day we were going through Berga on our way to the hill when the air raid sirens sounded. We pressed up against buildings and doorways to watch a large number of fighter planes escorting a squadron of American bombers. Berga was not the bomb destination and they flew on. The fighter planes circling and crisscrossing left a white cobweb against the blue sky. We saw no German planes.
Another time I was sent out to the turntable to help turn the tram cars from the tunnel. While I was waiting there a German Major stopped to talk to me. He spoke very good English and said he had worked for five years before the war in Philadelphia and wanted to return after the war. I told him I was from Cripple Creek Colorado. He knew where it was and said that he had been there.
The blasting powder or dynamite that they used to blast the rock in the tunnels must not have been very reliable. Sometimes the blast would hardly break an rock. One day when all was ready to blast and the tools and tram car were pulled back out of danger the dynamite was detonated. There was a mighty roar and the tram car came rolling out of the tunnel past us at the side of the portal and trailing a large dust cloud. The fresh air duct into the tunnel was also collapsed. There was quite s spirited discussion among the Germans when the surprise was over.