The march

Whittier, CA

My father, Merle Warner, was a waist gunner on a B-17 with the 401BG615BS during WWII. From May 1944 to July 7, 1944, he flew 16 missions including one on the morning of June 6 over the beaches of Normandy. He was shot down on his 16th mission and was a POW in Stalag Luft IV from July until February 1945, when he and thousands of other POWs became part of what became known as the Black March. These POWs marched through Germany under extreme conditions from early February until the end of the war in late April. My dad, along with others, survived because of the teamwork and friendship that started in camp and lasted for a lifetime. My dad was in the American Legion post in Lodi, Calif., and I belong to Post 51 in Whittier, Calif.

"On Feb. 6, 1945, we began our march out of camp which would eventually lead us into the American lines. The Russian army was fast approaching our camp from the east. The Germans feared being captured by the Russians as they were known to be ruthless and would kill anyone who stood in their way. The night before we had heard rumors that the Germans (guards and all) would leave and we would be left behind. The next morning we were told we were all leaving and to get ready to march. The wounded and those unable to walk had been taken out several days before and taken by train to Stalag Luft I. We never knew why we were marched out and not left behind. (In later years, when talking with my engineer George Moore, who was one of those moved to Stalag Luft I, he had what he thought was the answer. At Stalag Luft I, after the German guards left the camp they went rummaging through the headquarters. They came across an order from Hitler to execute all prisoners. He assumed the German army decided not to carry out the order, left them behind and headed for the American lines to surrender. Stalag Luft I was taken by the Russian army. The American prisoners were released and flown back to a base in England on a B-17.)

Before leaving camp we were each given a Red Cross food package. Also every two men received one loaf of bread. At that time, we heard we would be going to another campsite which would take almost a week to travel to. Little did we realize that we would be on the march a total of 80 days.
I left camp with the clothes I was wearing plus an extra shirt, a blanket and an overcoat. I used the extra shirt to make a knapsack which I put on my back to carry the Red Cross food package and my bread ration. The first three days it rained a lot and we slept in an open field getting soaked. When we got further inland, we were put in big barns at night. The first part of the march, our feet got so sore and full of blisters we could hardly stand it.

When we rested at night, I wasn't sure I could get up the next morning and be able to walk. There were about 500 of us in each group, and when the guards and dogs came along the next morning to line us up we ignored the pain and started walking. We knew what the dogs could do and didn't want them turned loose on us. We walked over 20 miles a day. When it rained hard, I pulled the collar of my overcoat up and held it tight around my neck to try to keep the water out. By the end of the day I was soaked through and through. I remember being dry by morning, so the straw I laid on must have absorbed all the moisture.

We marched from Jydekrug West to Ulzen. We went through the following towns: Belgard, Dorfhagen, Roman, Swinemunde, Waren, Anklam, Eldena, Heiddorf, Himberg and Beversen. Then we were taken by train to Atengredow Stalag XI A east of Magnaburg.

We spent three days and nights standing locked in cattle cars being shipped by train from Ulzen to a camp near Magdeberg. Shortly after being locked in I remember hearing the air raid sirens howling. I looked out through a tiny hole and saw two of our B-26 bombers coming straight at us. I said a prayer, thinking this was how I was going to die. My prayer was answered. The planes flew right over the train without dropping any bombs. We were packed in so tight that only one or two of us could squat to relieve ourselves at the same time. If we started to doze and slide down those next to us helped us upright again. BY THE TIME WE REACHED OUR DESTINATION THE STENCH WAS AWFUL. We could not always control our bodily functions. For this three-day trip there was only an 8"x8" window for ventilation.

From there we marched toward Austria - going through Lowberg, Gorzke, Benken, Belzig, Dahnsdorf, Neimegh, Marazihna, Shornsfeld, Seyde, Jessen, Annabert, Dimmarsch, Sollichow, Kaine and Bitterfield. While on the march, whenever possible, we slept in barns or other large buildings. We existed on black bread and boiled potatoes, and very little of that.

Diarrhea was a very troublesome condition which most of us suffered throughout our time as prisoners. This became worse during the march. It was due in part to the lack of food and the living conditions. The only food we were given was boiled potatoes or kohlrabis, when available from the farms where we stopped to spend the night. The kohlrabi was especially distasteful. This unusual vegetable, which resembled a turnip in appearance, was what the farmers fed to their animals. They were very fibrous in texture and had no flavor.

When we spent the night in a barn it was a problem to get outside in a hurry when we felt an attack of diarrhea coming on. To get outside to the slit trenches to relieve ourselves we headed for the light coming from the door. We crawled on our hands and knees feeling our way past our fellow prisoners. When an occasional cry came out, 'What are you doing?' we said, 'I gotta go!' With that no more was said. On our way back we crawled down the narrow trail in the middle until we got close to where we started from. I called out 'Rex - where are you?' As he answered, I followed his voice to find my spot.

When we had a few days' layover at a big farm, we were able to get some milk. We were held in a barn and five or six of us were allowed out at a time to sit in the sun beside the barn. A guard was walking back and forth across the front side of the barn. From where I was sitting I could see the farmer pouring milk in cans in the milkhouse. We put our heads together and tried to come up with a way of getting some of it to drink. One of us sat at the corner of the barn to watch the guard. As the guard went back away from us, our man would signal and one of us took our water drinking can and ran to the milkhouse. We took the lid off the cans, dipped our can in, filled it with milk and waited for the signal that it was safe to run back. After we had our fill, we passed the milk to those inside the barn by making a funnel out of a piece of paper we found and poured it through. There was always someone on the inside with a can ready to catch it. We had quite a relay going running back and forth - as one ran over, the other came back.

We emptied the three or four 10-gallon cans that were there. Later, we watched through the knot holes inside the barn as the farmer drove up with his wagon to take the milk to town. He really got excited when he lifted the cans and realized they were empty! He took off for the house yelling and waving his arms. In a few minutes, the captain and all the guards came out. We were all ordered out and lined up. After they counted us, we were told we could get shot for stealing. They couldn't prove we did it so they just ordered us to start marching. The risk was worth it because the milk tasted so good!

One day as we passed through a small village. I spotted some bread on the windowsill of one of the homes. I told my buddies to be prepared to grab the bread while we distracted the guard. I fell back in the ranks to where the guard was and had one of the men fake a stumble, fall against him and knock him to the ground. We ended up with three loaves of fresh baked bread. I moved back up toward the front and got a chunk of bread as it was passed out to the fellows. As we were heading out of town, we heard the woman running out of the house screaming. By the time they got our column stopped, the bread had been eaten and there was no evidence that we had taken it. It sure tasted good!

On one of our layovers, staying in a barn, we were boiling barley to get it soft so we could eat it. We had scraped it off the harvester that was in the barn. We could see chickens in a pen behind the barn. We thought about how we could get a couple to eat without being seen by the guards and also what we would do with the feathers so there wouldn't be any evidence left. We were allowed to walk around outside between the buildings so when the guards were not looking, two of our men reached in the pen, grabbed a couple and wrung their necks before they could squawk. Two others decided to skin them. We buried the skin (feathers and all) in a hole inside the barn. I found a steel pot, filled it with water and took it outside to our fire so we could boil them. Before we were able to even get the water hot, the guards came along and ordered us to move out.

I hid one of the chickens in my backpack and my buddy Burton put the other in his. We marched until late that night and were locked into another barn so we weren't able to build a fire to cook our chickens. We left early the next morning and marched all day. Later that day before we even had a chance to think about cooking the chicken we could smell a foul odor coming from our backpacks. At our next "barn" stop we buried the chickens and with it our hopes of having a chicken dinner. Too many of our men were already having a problem with diarrhea, so we didn't dare risk eating it. The thought of eating it raw entered our minds, but we didn't ever try it.

We also existed on the clothes on our backs and shoes on our feet. No personal hygiene items. The only item I carried with me was the tiny pocket-size New Testament that arrived in the Red Cross package I was given when I was first captured.

One morning as we were resting beside the road, a group of British POWs passed through our column. There must have been several hundred of them. I can still remember hearing their heels click in unison as they marched three or four abreast through our group to the tune of their bagpipe music. They were the ones who told us our president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had died.

As we continued our march that day, the road we were on ran parallel to a railroad track. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, we heard airplane engines. We had just come out of a wooded area into the open countryside. Looking up, to our amazement, we saw two of our P-51 fighters coming on the deck toward us - firing! Thinking we were the target, it scared the hell out of us and we dove into the ditch beside the road. The shell casings from the ammunition were dropping all around us. Then when we heard return firing from the ground, we stuck our heads up to see what was going on.

It was then that we realized there was a 40m quad gun mounted on a flat car behind the engine of the train on the track. With the first pass, the fighters destroyed the train engine. When the fighters made their second pass, they destroyed the entire length of train. This incident scared us so bad that we just laid in the ditch some 10 to 15 minutes until the guards came and ordered us out to continue marching.

About this time Rex and I found that our socks had rotted and were actually stuck to the skin of our feet. He carefully peeled my socks off my feet and I did the same for him. This left us with open sores which had already become infected. We had rock salt with us which we had taken from a cattle barn along the march. We crushed it and had used it to heal other sores we had along the way, and now used it to put on the sores of our feet. When we had to put our shoes on to continue the march, it was very painful!

We spent that night in an old factory building where ME210 airplane wings were assembled. Some of them were still on the assembly line. We spent two days in this area, which was surrounded by a 6' chain link fence. By this time, the clothes we were wearing had become full of lice (especially the seams). This was becoming irritating, to say the least! We spent most of our time sitting in the sun to stay warm and trying to pick the lice out of our clothes, where they were multiplying in abundance. We kept doing this all along the march whenever we had a chance.

The morning of the second day we heard the air raid alarms go off. We looked up and saw a formation of "our" A-20 twin engine bombers coming toward us. They were only about 8,000 feet above us. Their bomb-bay doors were open and the bombs were coming down! With that, all of us, guards included, high-tailed it over the fence and headed for the cemetery on the other side and dove beside the tombstones for protection. This gave us another good scare! Fortunately, no one was hurt. That afternoon as we continued our march, we saw what their target area was: nearby there was an area in the woods where drums of fuel were stored.

After an overnight rest, we began our march around 2 o'clock in the afternoon. After dark, we began to see front-line German troops and tanks. At the intersections of the main roads, we could see them digging foxholes and fortifications to try to stop the Russian army that was closing in behind us. As we crossed the pontoon bridges, we could see the Germans placing explosives on them to stop the Russian advance. We were being pushed to keep walking even though we were getting extremely tired.

Sometime during the middle of the night the German soldiers alongside the road pointed ahead and in English exclaimed 'The American lines are 15 kilometers. down the road!' With that good news, we somehow got renewed strength to keep walking. Further down the road, another group of German soldiers told us the same thing. About 2 o'clock in the morning, we arrived at a small village. We stopped and spent the rest of the night there. It was either because our guards were as tired as we were or that they didn't want to enter the American lines in the dark. We spent the next day and part of the second day in the village. Apparently, from there the Germans went ahead and made the arrangements for us to enter the American lines.

It's impossible to describe the emotions and feelings that came over me as we crossed over the Elb River at Bitterfield, Germany, to freedom on April 26, 1945. We were liberated by the 104th Division - Timberwolfs - of the U.S. Army. It was in the afternoon when we arrived and we spent the night in a schoolhouse right on the front lines. My weight had dropped to 90 pounds. They apologized for giving us K-rations to eat (small individual concentrated meals). We were overjoyed to have anything at all as we had existed on so little for so long.

After dark, we went out into the street to sit and watch the stars and talk about our freedom. The soldier in charge of guarding the schoolhouse told us there was a curfew and that we weren't supposed to be out after dark. However, he added, "I can't force you to go back inside" and said he couldn't blame us for wanting to walk around - so he turned his back and ignored us. It was hard to sleep that night - we did a lot of talking about GOING HOME!

The next morning we and the clothes we were wearing were sprayed with DDT for lice. We opened our shirts and our pants and they "fogged" us with the powder. I can still feel the lice as they were racing to outrun the deadly powder!

I spent part of the day with some of my POW buddies looking in the area for any souvenirs we might find to bring home. We came across a pile of weapons that had been surrendered by the Germans as they marched into the American lines with us and were taken prisoners. An American soldier was standing there holding a Mauser rifle and a bayonet in a scabbard (case). I asked if I could have one and with that he handed them to me.

As we walked the area that day looking for something to eat, we came across a tank company. As we talked to them, we asked if they had any extra food. They said they were about to get ready to eat and invited us to get in line with them. Their meals were served from a cook shack on wheels. I can still remember how good it looked and tasted - our first hot meal - pork chops, mashed potatoes and WHITE bread. How we appreciated them sharing their meal with us! Even though the portions weren't that large, I was not able to eat all of it.

Late that afternoon, when we returned to the schoolhouse, we were told that we were going to move to an air base several miles behind the lines. There we were put into barracks that had beds to sleep in and were told we would be held there until further orders were received. As I recall, we were fed "C" rations there (concentrated food prepared by the cooks).

The next day, as some of our buddies were out scouting for food, they came across a warehouse full of canned goods. The MPs were guarding the front of the warehouse, but they found an opening in the back that they could sneak into. They came back with a couple of gallon-size cans. When we got them open, all of us made short work of the peaches inside. Our fingers and hands were our utensils. With so many of us - about 100 - sharing them, we wanted more. My buddy Don Fields and I decided to go back and see if we could get some more. We were warned to watch out for the MPs as we might get shot. We found the building and each of us got two cans. We tried to hide them inside our coats.

We were only partway back to our barracks when a jeep came along with a lieutenant at the wheel. He asked us what we had under our coats and we replied, 'nothing.' He told us to open our coats and when he saw the cans we had taken he said, 'You know, you could get shot for stealing!' He then told us to get into the jeep and drove us back to the barracks around a back way to avoid the MPs. When we got out, he warned us not to try it again. When we opened these cans, we found ourselves eating dry peanut butter. We heard that later an MP was stationed at the opening we had used to get into the warehouse. While there, I remember wandering through the hangers and admiring the number of 3' to 4' high tool chests filled with all sorts of hand tools.

The runways had been badly damaged from bombings. One day we heard a loud roar - as I looked up two German ME-109 fighters swooped down over the buildings and landed hard alongside the runway to avoid the potholes. They were trying to outrun the American P-51s that were on their tails. When the ME-109s landed, the P-51s pulled up and circled overhead to see what was happening. When the pilots of the German fighters emerged, they had their wives sitting behind them where a spare fuel tank had been. We learned they had been on the Russian front and were wanting to be taken prisoners by the Americans.

After several days we were told to get ready to leave. In an open field behind the barracks, C-47s began landing and we were loaded aboard and taken to Rhimes, France. There must have been 20 or 30 planes. Finally, I had my first shower since the march began! This base was equipped with large tented shower areas. We were told to throw our clothes into a pile - what a relief to get rid of the lice that were beginning to hatch out of the eggs that were hidden in the seams! We put our valuables in a box (rifle, bayonet and small Bible). Wearing just our dog tag identification, we went into the showers and scrubbed down with GI (government issue) soap. At the next tent, we were issued a complete set of new clothes and shoes. The shower felt so good but the next week I itched so bad - the layer of dirt and dry skin was no longer there and the new bare skin was very tender. Then we went to the 'mess' tent and were fed. It was already getting dark when we boarded the train and headed for Lucky Strike Base in France. We arrived there the next morning."

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