Fate Takes A Hand
For a nine-week period that most felt was an eternity, 82 United States Air Force personnel, along with 86 other Allied fliers, experienced what had become the lives of European Jews. Most were shot down over France during the summer of 1944, taken in by the resistance and eventually betrayed.
When Bill Gibson’s plane was hit by cannon fire, for example, he bailed out. Only then did he discover that he had only clipped on one side of his parachute. He began spinning around and landed on the roof of a little farmhouse. The pilot of his plane noisily landed nearby on a box of empty wine bottles. The two men ran off until they found somewhere to sleep. They woke up to a tremendous roar and saw three Focke-Wulf 190s no more than 50 feet above their heads. “We’d fallen asleep at the end of a main runway of a German fighter base,” Gibson recalled.
A farmer picked Gibson and the pilot up and hid them in a one-horse cart and took them to his home. He turned them over to the resistance, which eventually put them in a hotel in Paris to be transferred to Spain.
One day a man who claimed to be an American came and asked suspicious-sounding questions that they refused to answer. He then met them in a large black car. The pilot and Gibson sat in the front. Two other airmen sat in the back with another man. “They drove us down the Champs Elysées,” Gibson said. “I saw a building ahead with two swastikas. Then I felt something in my side, and looked down and saw it was a .45 automatic. The driver said: ‘Sorry boys, German police. You’re our prisoners.’”
Sometimes fate took a hand. Ed Carte was on his 22nd bombing raid. It was an easy target, a marshaling yard outside Paris. His plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and became engulfed in flames. He clamped on a parachute, but hesitated when he got to the escape hatch. His navigator kicked him out.
When Carte landed, he gathered up his chute and ran. He found another member of the crew and the two of them fled the scene of the crash. They were running one in front of the other to avoid ambushes. Carte was behind when he came to a fork in the road. The other crewman was out of sight. Carte called out to him, but received no answer.
Carte then had two choices: the road to the right or to the left. He chose to go to the right. Later, Carte learned his comrade had gone to the left, hid with the French underground for three months and was liberated by the Americans. Carte was less fortunate. He was captured by the Gestapo.
Many Allied airmen were captured in civilian clothes, but others were either in uniform or still in possession of their dog tags. The Nazis had no doubt as to their identities. But their military status had by then ceased to be relevant.
In May 1944, Hitler decided that enemy airmen who were shot down should be executed without court martial if they had attacked downed German airmen, public transport trains or civilians. Airmen found guilty of the above offenses were considered “Terrorfliegers” (terror fliers). German civilians were also encouraged to lynch captured pilots. Those airmen who were turned over to the authorities were subject to “special treatment” at the hands of the SD (the intelligence service of the SS), that is, to be killed. The German Foreign Office objected that the shooting of prisoners of war was contrary to international law. It suggested that enemy airmen be informed on capture that they were not regarded as prisoners of war but as criminals, and would therefore not be handed over to the authorities responsible for POWs, but to prosecutors. Hitler’s decree was subsequently enforced inconsistently. Nazi Party fanatics and local police carried out sporadic lynchings, but the Luftwaffe did not pass the order down the chain of command.
The Allied airmen captured around Paris were taken to Fresnes Prison in the city, where they were incarcerated with other “criminals.” Most of the POWs were not severely mistreated in prison, though some were beaten or placed in solitary confinement. Around midnight on August 15, all the prisoners in Fresnes – including 168 Allied airmen – were put in old 40 and 8 boxcars (so named because they were designed for 40 men or 8 horses) that were originally used in World War I to carry troops to the front. The prisoners had no idea where they were going beyond that they were heading for Germany.
“We were packed so thickly on the train that there was no possibility of lying down to sleep or rest,” recalled Staff Sergeant Thomas Richey. About 80-90 people were packed in cars that could fit no more than 35 comfortably. It was unbearably hot, with little ventilation. Only 10 or 15 could sit at once. None of the soldiers had wounds, but some civilians were sick, including some who had typhus. A few of the women were pregnant. It was unbearably hot with only a single slit for ventilation. The latrine consisted of a pail that was emptied no more than twice during the entire trip. The only food was a half loaf of bread and some jam and an occasional drink of water. Many people passed out from sheer exhaustion and the trauma of having SS guards shooting over them. The guards would throw “heavy missiles in our midst and use every device and method to keep us terrified and awake,” said Richey.
At one point the prisoners were taken out of the boxcars because a bridge was blown out. Most cars were stuck in a tunnel, the smoke and lack of fresh air making many men feel faint. The prisoners spent the day marching around the bridge to take another train. Officers and NCOs were forced to carry the Germans’ kits and supplies about three miles. Several men were beaten along the way.
Later in the trip, several men escaped. The Germans had threatened to shoot five people for every one that escaped. They ordered 35 men out of a boxcar. A French boy, about 17-years-old, was near the window. One guard shot him through the hand. The Germans took him out of the car and ordered him to walk toward the river. While he was walking, they opened fire and killed him. They stepped up and pumped several more shots into his body. Five of the 35 men were ordered to dig a grave. The prisoners were allowed to return to the train, but the Germans stripped everyone in the boxcar from which the men had escaped. They were kept naked for 24 hours.
The train ride was wretched. Some people died in the suffocating conditions. “All of us were glad to get out at Buchenwald,” Park Chapman recalls. “Of course, we didn’t know it was a civilian concentration camp.”
The transport that left Paris carried 1,650 prisoners, including the 168 POWs. About 850 of the passengers were women who were sent to Ravensbrück; some eventually came to Buchenwald as “volunteers” for the brothel. The rest arrived at Buchenwald around noon on August 20, 1944. Fewer than 300 would go home to France.
The POWs were classified as Polizeihiftling – political prisoners – and their orders said they were not to be transferred to another camp. Of the 82 Americans, 40 were officers and 42 enlisted men. At least one of these men was Jewish, but no effort was made to identify Jews, and the prisoners never discussed it among themselves.
When the prisoners left the train, they walked through the camp gate and saw naked people coming out of the building to which they were being led. “We thought that won’t happen to us,” Jim Hastin recalled. Inside the building, the prisoners were shaved from head to toe. “If a guy had a big moustache, the clippers went right across his mouth. There were no disinfecting or sanitary measures. After five days on the train, you can imagine the condition of us, with diarrhea and the other problems we had.”
The men were then stripped, and their clothes and personal effects were taken from them. They were given about a two-minute shower, and then handed a dish-size towel for every two men. Prisoners then marched up a few steps and were told to straddle a bucket while a man hit them with a mop under each arm and in the crack of their behinds to disinfect them. “You walked two or three steps,” Hastin recalled, “and it felt like someone had put turpentine on you or really lit you up.” The Germans then issued each man a thin pongee shirt and light denim pants, which were taken from Jewish prisoners who had been exterminated. The shirt had a red triangle with the letter “A” over their hearts to signify they were political prisoners. A black number was stenciled on a piece of white tape stuck to their pants. The survivors remember their numbers to this day. The POWs’ shoes were taken away. They were not returned until about two weeks before they were released. When they left the camp, their clothes were also returned, but not their other personal possessions like wedding rings and cigarette lighters.
The Germans had originally told the men they were being sent to a labor camp. The POWs did not know anything about Buchenwald. “When we first saw the condition of prisoners, we started worrying,” said Hastin. Hastin had injured his foot when he landed in his parachute and walked with a cane. An SS officer took the cane away and hit him across the back. “There are no cripples here,” he said.
Initially, the men were forced to sleep outside in a yard paved with large granite stones. It was freezing, but the POWs had only one blanket for every five men. They slept belly to butt to keep warm. One guy would say “turn over” and everyone would reverse positions. “The guy on the end whose butt was exposed had to be the first one to turn, and we had to turn one at a time. You rolled from your right side to your left side. And the next guy did the same so he could keep his belly warm and your butt warm. It was like a large sleeping bag,” recalled Hastin.
At first, the weather was relatively warm, but it later rained for nine straight days. This meant the men had to sleep in wet clothes on the damp ground. Since they had no shoes, many men cut their feet, which then became infected. “Feet and legs swelled up to where you could not distinguish an ankle from the rest of the leg,” Francois Deuteuil recalled. “They had to be assisted to the urinals and the roll calls.”
During the last week it snowed and the temperature dropped to five or ten degrees above zero. Sometimes the men had to stand outdoors for up to seven hours, barefoot, at attention, while the entire camp was counted during the roll calls conducted at 5 a.m. and 6 p.m. Some POWs found or stole shoes of some sort. The value of such things became clear to Arthur Kinnis when he gave a Frenchman who had been a millionaire the extra pair of clogs he had. The man broke into tears.
The latrine was about fifty feet away. It had no seats, just a railing. The pit was not screened or covered on the sides. It had only a roof. This trench, with room for no more than 15 people, was used by all the prisoners – numbering in the thousands – in the compound. It was a source of filth and disease, which drained into some barracks. The POWs, when they were barefoot, had to wade through mud and urine to use it. According to one POW, Frederick Carr, dead bodies were put in the latrine until they could be carted away and cremated. “Dead bodies were in the latrine all the time,” he said. A faucet outside the latrine provided drinking water.
After about two weeks, the soldiers were moved to the Kleinelager, Block 58, an old horse barn that served as a barracks. It had been formerly occupied by 500 gypsy children, ages two to twelve, who disappeared one day. Later, the POWs were told they had been exterminated.
About 68 Americans slept in a space 20 feet by 7 feet. When Congressional investigators toured Buchenwald, they figured out the space in the bunks was about 35 cubic feet per man whereas the minimum prescribed for health by U.S. Army regulations was 600 cubic feet. “It was impossible for everyone to lay straight on their backs.” Five men slept in a four-tier bunk that was large enough for only two.
The barracks had no mattresses, only one thin blanket full of vermin. They also had no heat. Initially, two blankets were available for every three men, but they stole additional ones until each man had one blanket.
“If you had to go to the john, which was 9-10 times per night, you’d slide out and run like hell and then slip back in.” Most of the men had lost control of their bladders and wet themselves. Park Chapman remembers suffering from dysentery and having to pull his shirt between his legs to make a kind of bag, and then duck-waddling to the latrine. “I just released my shirt tail and then tore it off up to my naval and dropped it. I didn’t poop on the barracks floor. I was scared they’d run me out of the barracks.”
Breakfast consisted of about one-third loaf of black bread and one-twentieth of a pound of margarine issued at 5 a.m. Arthur Kinnis said he could not stomach the bread at first and would light a fire to burn the wood out of it. The Nazis stopped that practice. At 11 a.m., the POWs had to pick up their lunch. Only about two-thirds of the men were fit enough to carry soup, which was served in a barrel that took four men to haul. Each man was given one liter of soup made of dehydrated vegetables that were always wormy. The prisoners called this the “green death.” At about 4 p.m. ersatz coffee was served. It was usually cold because it came from the kitchen on the other side of the camp. Twice a week, they were given a small ration of potatoes and once a week a small piece of bologna. Some days the men got three or four glasses of water, others only one glass.
The men had to make their own wooden spoons. At first, they did not have enough bowls and had to share. Two or three men would eat out of the same wooden pot, which was seldom washed.
Most of the time, Hastin said, they spent picking fleas and killing lice. Since they were always hungry, their conversations tended to revolve around food. Someone made a deck of cards, but the Germans would beat the prisoners if the guards caught them playing. The senior officers protested more than once about their imprisonment. Each time, however, Stratton Appleman said, they were told that “we were Luftwaffe gangsters and were lucky to be treated as well as we were.”
The POWs tried to behave like an army unit. This gave them a degree of security. Also, they kept to themselves and did their best to block out what they saw around them. But they could not. Even today, 47 years later, survivors break down when they recall the horrors they witnessed. “I’m like an old Jew who cries when he talks about the concentration camps,” said West Virginia survivor Park Chapman. These American soldiers were in no way prepared for what they were to see.
“When we first arrived,” recalled Frederick Carr, “we noticed one group being given a few loaves of bread and they would fight, actually chew one another, to get their ration of bread.” The POWs saw other inmates kicked and beaten. Some prisoners were blind, others could not speak, still others were missing limbs. They were all scrawny with gaunt eyes. The flesh was rotting away. “It was a shock to see so many emaciated forms,” Arthur Kinnis said in an interview. “We were told by a Frenchman the only way out was up the chimney.”
The POWs did not see anyone go into the crematoria, but they knew the ovens were working day and night. “The foul smell got into your nostrils, but you got used to it,” Chapman recalled. The only people who were witnesses were those who worked in the ovens, but after four months they too went “up the chimney.”
At one point, 1,700 Polish Jews were brought into the camp. They were walking skeletons. The POWs took up a collection for them when they heard they were being sent to Auschwitz. Another time, a Polish Jew was hung and his body kept dangling for four days outside their barracks.
On October 5, 300 Jews arrived from salt mines where they had been doing forced labor. They were being sent to Auschwitz. “They appeared utterly devoid of hope. Their faces bore signs of the deepest sorrow. Many had tears in their eyes. They were packed into the same boxcars in which they had arrived, so many in each boxcar, they must stand for the duration of their trip – probably their last.”
“People you knew disappeared regularly,” Chapman said. “I met a husband and brother who were with me in Paris. They disappeared. Another man, a Frenchman who had worked in the American Embassy in Paris, was designated for a transport. He gave me his gold wedding ring and told me to give it to his wife if I survived.”
Bill Gibson recalled seeing the guards let their dogs loose on a prisoner whom they chewed to pieces. Another former prisoner said the guards used to give a command and their dogs would snarl and leap for your face. The guard would pull them away at the last minute and then laugh like a maniac. “They were sadists, absolutely brutish,” he said.
On another occasion, a Pole who had collaborated with the guards was beaten to death by the prisoners and thrown into the latrine. Chapman did not want to look. “I didn’t want to see anyone kicked to death. I was also afraid the Germans would kill those involved. They did nothing. I think they wanted to let the man die.”
The POWs who survived Buchenwald swear they saw shrunken heads and lamp shades with human tattoos in the camp “museum.” Russian POWs had eagles tattooed on their chests. One Russian told William Powell that the commandant’s wife, Ilse Koch, thought that they made good decorations for lamp shades and had the tattoos cut off their chests.
Some POWs were beaten, but, by and large, they were not physically abused by the guards. The man in charge of the Allies’ barracks, a man named Bach, roughed the men up a bit, but “didn’t treat us Allied prisoners nearly as bad as he did the regular civilian political prisoners,” Carr testified. Another guard, known to be particularly vicious, was called “Big Stoop.” He carried around a two-by-four that he used to beat prisoners. The POWs made a point of avoiding him.
One grotesque feature of the camp was a brothel. Women from Ravensbrück – a concentration camp for women – and elsewhere in Europe “volunteered” for this duty to stay alive. The Germans also used the girls for experiments. Even more bizarre was the movie theater. Chapman remembers seeing a film while he was in Buchenwald. Other men remember an orchestra that played “while some of these hideous goddamn tortures were going on.”
Many POWs’ lives were undoubtedly saved because they managed to avoid working. At one point, the Germans lined up the Allied prisoners and asked if any were plumbers, electricians or carpenters. No one said anything. A German officer walked up to one POW and asked: “What is your occupation?” He said: “I’m an officer in the U.S. Air Force.” He went to the next man and asked the same question and got the same answer. As he went down the line, he grew increasingly angry and began yelling. He started to reach for his weapon when he was called away by another German. When he came back, he said: “I never saw such a bunch of hobos, nobody with an occupation.” Earlier, Phil Lamason, the senior officer, had instructed the men not to say anything about what they did before the war.
The Germans wanted the POWs to work breaking up stones in the quarry. They threatened to take the POWs’ rations away and later to execute them. But the Allies refused to work and the Germans never carried out their threats.
One of the worst aspects of captivity was that the POWs knew their families were suffering. The U.S. Air Force had no idea where they were. To cite one example, Mrs. Robert Chalot received a letter on March 30, 1944, from the Commander of the Eighth Fighter Command saying that her son John had died. He suggested she take solace in knowing that “he went as a red-blooded man, his colors flying in honor; with his eyes fixed on a great ideal.” Four months later, Mrs. Chalot received a letter from the Adjutant General in the War Department to say that her son was missing. Then, in early October, the Adjutant General wrote again to say no further information had been received. On December 3, almost 9 months after she had been told her son had been killed, Mrs. Chalot received a telegram informing her that the International Red Cross had reported John as a POW. But that was not the end of the correspondence. A chaplain from the 355th Fighter Group wrote to the Chalots on March 6, 1945, almost exactly a year after he had first been reported missing, reaffirming that John was a POW and ingenuously adding that “we have every reason to believe our men, held prisoners, are receiving reasonable fair treatment.” No official ever told the Chalots their son had been in Buchenwald.
It would be misleading to suggest that the POWs were all heroic figures. They were not singing patriotic songs or defying the Germans (beyond their refusal to work). And, after several weeks in the camp, it was evident no one could be trusted. No POW dared leave anything around for fear it would be taken. On the other hand, other prisoners occasionally helped the POWs. A group of Danish priests, for example, shared food from their parcels. But the POWs quickly learned they were fighting for survival and few rules applied.
Among the dangers of the camp were the Allied forces, which bombed and strafed the area. A munitions factory was located near the camp and was frequently bombed. The POWs’ barracks was about a half mile from the factory, but others were as near as 200 yards.
When the Americans flew over, the SS ordered the POWs to lie on their stomachs and said if they raised their heads they would be shot. “The bomber pilots were trying to dig deeper into the ground,” Hastin said. “Later, we all dug in.” The Americans dropped leaflets and the prisoners were told if they so much as tried to take one they would be killed. One leaflet showed a picture of a POW camp in the States and said in German that this was the way prisoners were treated in America.
No Americans were killed or injured during the raid. As punishment, the appell (roll call) that usually took two hours was dragged out for six. And men had to be out of the barracks whether they were dead or alive. The latter would sometimes have to drag out the former to ensure the count was correct.
On August 24, between 1218 and 1234 hours, 129 B-17s from the Eighth Air Force bombed the Gustloff Munitions Works and the DAS Factory. The larger of the SS barracks was smashed and the place was still burning the next day. Two prisoners’ barracks and half of another in the other compound and the crematorium were burned by incendiary bombs. In the rush to get out of the buildings as the bombs exploded, many people were trampled to death. When the majority got outside, they rushed the gates to seek safety in the forest; SS guards machine-gunned and killed about 300. Approximately 150 SS guards and their dependents were killed and approximately 250 more were wounded; 315 prisoners (perhaps as many as 500) were killed and more than 1400 wounded in the raid.
One Englishman was lying on the ground. He said: “My god, I’ve been hit.” Another prisoner asked him where and he said in the back. The SS had their guns trained on the prisoners. The unhurt man ran his hand along the downed prisoner’s back and found a piece of shrapnel about an inch-and-a-half thick sticking out of his shoulder blade. He grabbed the scorching hot metal and yanked it out. After the raid, the SS ordered all the POWs out of the barracks and told them to leave their possessions because they would not need them. “This was when the prisoners shook hands and said: ‘I guess this is it because they’re going to take us up and say we were killed in the bombing,’” Hastin recalled. “We gave what food we had away. Then as we were going out the gate, they said leave one man to watch your stuff. I don’t know who it was, but it was like a load was taken off.”
The prisoners were then ordered to extinguish the flames. One recalled a German saying: “You started the fire; you put it out.” The POWs were forced to fight the fires in their bare feet under the constant threat of detonating explosives. Many prisoners got burns on their feet from this duty. The POWs were told to take care of the prisoners who were injured in the factory, but the Germans gave them only crepe paper bandages and some iodine. “I don’t know how many were killed,” one POW testified. “We were told we have to look after these guys. There was no way we could do anything for them.”
The principal threats to the POWs were malnutrition and disease. Some civilians had been in the camp since 1936. All of them were unhealthy, many were unable to stand. The Allied prisoners had to mingle with the sick prisoners. Not surprisingly, at least 30 men were sick, the majority with pneumonia and pleurisy. Most of the other men had dysentery. They all lost 10-60 pounds. For the most part, sick POWs could expect no more than to have their scabs cut off with an unsterile pocketknife and to have their sores swabbed. The dentist claimed to have pulled out more teeth than anyone in the world. Before the war, the man had been a carpenter.
The men resisted medical treatment until they were so sick they could not get off the ground or had such a high fever they became delirious. The POWs did not want to go to the hospital because they believed they would never survive if they did. “We saw bodies stacked like cordwood from the hospital,” Kinnis recalled, “so we didn’t want to go to the hospital.” One POW, who was in the hospital, said he saw as many as a dozen people die every night. “I can still see the faces of these men lying there dying – skin and bones, their eyes glassy, mouths open. They were trying to cry out the names of their loved ones.”
Although most POWs avoided the hospital, they could not escape Nazi experimentation. None of the men know why, but they all received an inoculation of some “green stuff” in the left breast. The same needle was used until it broke off. At first the POWs thought the shots were for TB, but they began to have doubts when they learned about other experiments. The only immediate reaction was for the area where they were injected to turn black and blue, though some men now say their left breasts became larger afterward.
Two Allied soldiers died in Buchenwald, one British and one American. RAF officer Philip Hemmens died first, around September 14, of rheumatic fever. He had received practically no medical attention for seven days before he was put in the hospital. The next day he died. The Germans returned the body so the prisoners could conduct a funeral service for him, then he was cremated. The American, Lt. Levitt Beck, died of pneumonia, which may have been contracted during the first couple of weeks when they slept outside in the rain. He, too, was sick for about a week. A Harvard-educated Austrian doctor, a fellow prisoner, came down to the POWs’ barracks every day. He gave Beck some aspirin, which was about all the medicine he had to dispense, and took his temperature. The doctor said not to take Beck to the hospital because they were going to be transferred in a week. His condition worsened, however, and he was taken to the infirmary. Hastin remembered going to see Beck in the hospital. Beck told him: “Jim, I’m never going to get out of here alive. They piled seven corpses at the foot of my bed this morning.”
The fact that so few men died was probably because they were young and in good shape. Nevertheless, most felt they barely survived two months in a camp where some inmates lived, incredibly, for years.
The senior Allied officer, Phil Lamason, worked with two British spies, Yeo-Thomas and Christopher Burney, and the Communist Underground Committee to smuggle out a list of the Allied prisoners through a trusted Russian prisoner who worked at a nearby airfield. The Russian told a Luftwaffe officer that Allied airmen were at Buchenwald. Not long afterward, two officers from the Luftwaffe came to interrogate the POWs. They said they’d heard a rumor the Allies were there and had come to verify it. He said their transfer to the concentration camp was “all a mistake,” that they had lost track of the POWs after they left Paris. The German officers brought in a Red Cross form with blanks for their name, squadron, rank, serial number, religion and marital status. They were also asked where they were stationed, whether they owned a dog, their dog’s name, the type of aircraft they were flying, their mother’s name and whether they had siblings. “We were told we would be left in Buchenwald if we did not fill out the forms,” said Chapman.
Most POWs recognized the Germans were trying to elicit information they were not supposed to divulge. Hastin remembered filling out the form, but leaving everything blank except his name, rank and serial number. He said one POW had reminded him he could be court martialed for filling out the entire form.
Chapman also refused to fill out the form. “It had nothing to do with morality,” Chapman said of his decision. “It was just that I had done this once before – when the bogus British intelligence agent convinced me to fill out a form in Paris – and I was not about to make the same mistake twice.”
Afterward, Hastin and Chapman were taken to another building where more than a dozen other men who had refused to fill out the form were being held. Kirby Cowen understood German and said one Feldwebel had remarked: “These are the only soldiers in the whole bunch.”
Some men were frightened into giving the Germans what they wanted. After witnessing the horrors of concentration camp life, they undoubtedly took seriously the threat of remaining there. As it turned out, no one was punished and all of the POWs were later reunited. The POWs did not know if the Red Cross forms were genuine or merely a ruse. Apparently, the answer is the former, since several ex-POWs were able to obtain confirmation of their imprisonment in Buchenwald from the International Red Cross Tracing Service – more than forty years later.
Apparently, many political prisoners believed the POWs were in a special protected category. Eugene Weinstock wrote that when the Allies began to close in, it became clear the prisoners would be destroyed with the camp itself. “Only American and British war prisoners could hope for life,” he said, “since they were under the jurisdiction of the regular German Army rather than the SS murderers.”
The SS may have been reluctant to kill prisoners who were technically the responsibility of the army, but the POWs had no way of knowing this. Most had doubts they would ever get out of Buchenwald. No one knew where they were and the winter was approaching. In addition, the Germans had already murdered 37 British secret agents. Still, they did not realize how lucky they had been until nearly 40 years after the war. Then they learned their execution was scheduled for October 26. Lamason was the only one who knew. He did not tell his surviving comrades until the mid-80’s.
Chapman said he was not afraid to die, but did not want to do so in Buchenwald. “I had too many things left undone.” Nevertheless, he believes it was a miracle he survived.
On October 19, at 4 p.m., all but 13 (seven Americans) of the soldiers were removed from Buchenwald. Those who remained were hospitalized, but were bitter they had been left behind. Later, the 11 survivors were brought to the POW camp for airmen at Sagan, Luft III.
Those who left in the original group were in poor physical condition. “I left Buchenwald wrapped in crepe paper bandages from ankles to hips,” Chapman recalled. “I had hives from nerves and fleas and got infections from itching. The infection bored in and created holes so you could see the bone.”
Another POW remembered that SS troops lined the road with Schmeiser automatics as they left. “I don’t know where they thought we were going,” he said. “As if it was not obvious enough, they made a point of saying: ‘You’re still our prisoners.’ One Feldwebel from the Luftwaffe said in English that according to the Geneva Convention if we tried to escape, we’d be shot. It was so ludicrous because the Geneva Convention never applied inside that gate, but he was staring inside that gate saying it. I couldn’t believe it.”
When the POWs from Buchenwald arrived at Luft III on October 21, 1944, they were surprised to find the Allied officers there took great interest in their experiences. Earlier, 50 of the Sagan prisoners had been murdered following their “Great Escape.” This, combined with the revelations about the concentration camps, convinced the senior Allied officers they had to be prepared for anything.
Source: Excerpted from Mitchell Bard, Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps, (Westview Press: 1994).
Photo: Public domain. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gedenkstaette Buchenwald