Death March Across Germany By Gary Turbak Say the phrase "Death March", and most Americans respond with a single word: Bataan. When Japanese troops over ran the Phillipines in 1942, they forced thousands of GIs and Filipino soldiers to march across 60 miles of Bataan Penninsula in tropical heat with little or no food and water. Hundreds of Americans and thousands of Filipinos died in the five - ten trek that came to be called the Battan Death March, one of the greatest atrocities ever perpetrated against American fighting men. But there was another Death March inflicted upon American POWs during World War II - a journey that stretched hundreds of miles and lasted nearly three months. It was an odessey undertaken in the heart of a terrible German winter fraught with sickness, death and cruelty. Though experienced by thousands of GIs it was all but forgotten by their countrymen. STALAG IN POLAND By early 1945, the war was going badly for the Germans, with Allied Forces poised to over run Hitler's homeland. As the Russian Army approached from the east, the Germans decided to move the occupants of certain POW camp, called Stalags, farther west. Every American POW who experienced this evacuation has his own unique tale of misery, but none is more gripping than the incredible Death March made by the men of Stalag Luft IV. ("Luft means "air" in German, and it designated a campairmen.) Stalag Luft IV -- in eastern Prussia, part of what is now Poland -- held an estimated 9,000 - 10,000 POWs. The food was lousy, but it did exist, and the Red cross Parcels that arrived with some regularity contained enough additional nourishment to keep most of the men fairly healthy. Soup was abundant. The prisoners, almost exclusively NCOs and other enlisted personnel, (including some Canadian and British airmen), were not made to work. Some medical care was available. Clothing was adequate. "Life in the camp was at least tolerable," recalls former POW Joe O"Donnell. "Compared to the march, it was a snap." In late January 1945, the Stalag Luft IV airmen could see the distant flash of the artillery fire, which meant an advanceing front - and probably their liberation - were not far away. Then came the evacuation order and the departure of sick and wounded prisoners by train. More men went by rail a few days later. Finally, on February 6, 1945 the remaining POWs set out on foot. No one knows for sure, but they probably numbered about 6,000. GIs were given access to stored Red Cross parcels, A tremendous windfall of food and other essentials, and many men started out bearing heavy loads. After a few miles, however, the roadside became littered with items too heavy -- or seemily to unimportant -- to carry. After all, their captors had told them the march would last only three days. German guards divided the POWs into groups of 250 to 300, not all of which traveled the same route or at the same pace. The result was a diverging, converging living river of men that flowed slowly but predictably west and (later) south. During the day, most prisoners marched four or five abreast, and at night were herded into nearby barns. With luck, a bed consisted of straw on a barn floor. Some times, however, the Germans withheld clean straw, saying the men would contaminate it and make it unfit for livestock use. On occasion, so many men crowded into a barn that some had to sleep standing up. And if no barn was available, they bivouacked in a field or forest. EATING RAW RATS Water (often contaminated) was generally available, but the Germans provided little food. GIs usually scrounged their own meals --and the firewood to cook them -- often finding no more than a potato or kohlrabi to boil. On the irregular occasions when Red Cross parcels arrived the GIs traded cigarettes and other items to guards and civilians for delacacies like eggs and milk. Some men resorted to stealing from pigs the feed that had been thrown to them and to grazing like cows on roadside grass. A handfull of stolen grain, eaten while marching, provided many a mid-day meal. The acquisition of a chicken generated great excitement, but the little meat available more likely came from a farmer's cat or dog. T.D. Cooke tells of appropriating a goose and a rabbit from one farm. "We couldn't cook either one for about three days, and then we could only get it warm, but we ate both right down to the bones -- then we ate the bones. "Some even driven to eat uncooked rats. Physician Leslie Caplan, one of the few officers on the trek, later calculated that the rations provided by the Germans provided 770 mostly carbohydrate calories daily, and the Red Cross parcels, when they were available, added perhaps 500 to 600 more calories. Troops often marched all day with little or no mid-day food, water or rest. Adding to the misery was one of Germany's coldest winters ever. Snow piled knee-deep at times, and temperatures plunged well below zero. Under these conditions, virtually all marchers grew gaunt and weak. Virtually every POW became infected with lice. On sunny days, the men stripped to heir waist and took turns removing the tiny livestock from one another. "I had no stethoscope," Caplan later wrote, "so [to examine someone] I would kneel by the patient, expose his chest, scrape off the lice, then place my ear directly on his chest and listen." RAMPANT DYSENTERY Diseases -- pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis and others -- ran rampant, but the most ubiquitous medical problem was dysentery, often acquired by drinking contaminated water. "Some men drank from ditches that others had used as latrines," recalled Caplan. Dysenterey made bowel movements frequent, bloody and uncontrollable. Men were often forced to sleep on the ground covered with feces of those who passed before them. Desperate for relief, they chewed on charcoal embers from the evening cooking fires. Some men welcomed the frequent foodless days because it made the dysentery less severe. Blisters, abscesses, and frostbite also became epidemic. Injuries often turned gangerous. Medical care remained essentially nonexisdtent. "As a medical experience, the march was nightmarish," Caplan wrote "our sanitation approached medieval standards, and the inevitable result was disease, suffering and death. The Germans sometimes provided a wagon for the sick, but there was never enough room. When a GI collapsed and could not march, he was put on the wagon and the least - sick rider had to get off. Severely ill GIs were sometimes delivered to hospitals passed en route -- and usually never seen again. Straggling marchers were sometimes escorted, by guards into the woods and executed. "Often, there was a shot, and the German guard came back to the formation alone," recalls Karl Haeuser. Throughout the ordeal, marchers hung together, helping each other. They quickly developed a buddy system in which two to four men ate and slept together and looked for one another. Many survivors credit their combine (as these groups were called) with saving their lives. When the Germans produced a wagon for carrying the sick but no horse to pull it, weary GIs stepped into the yokes. At night, aching and tired men carried their dysenteric comrades to the latrine. "Even beyond our combine buddy system, everyone tried to help everyone else." says O'Donnell. The Death March was not without it's lighter moments, however. John Kempf tells of two POWs who ran, against a guard's wishes, to the bottom of a muddy slope to grab a choice piece of firewood'. In pursuing them, the irate guard slipped and jammmed his rifle barrel into the mud -- just before the weapon discharged, splitting the barrel wide open. On another occasion, POW Clair Miller traded a chocolate bar from a Red Cross package to a German woman for two loaves of bread. She probably had no way of translating the label on the chocolate that read Ex-Lax. BLACK COMEDY Day after torturous day, the shoe leather express continued. In late March, weary GIs arrived at their supposed destination, two stalags near Falling Bostel in north central Germany. The camp's sights and smells -- of food and smoke from warm stoves -- set up this bizarre situation: POWs inside the camps wanted to get out, and the weary, starving men from Stalag Luft IV wanted desperately to get in. And for a time, they did, with some of the men taking their first shower in nearly two months as part of a delousing regimen. But these camps were already crowded, and there were no quarters for the marchers. Permanent residents received regular meals, but transients were forced to fend for themselves, much as they had done on the road. O'Donnell recalls following a Russian prisoner around, picking up the discarded kohlrabi skins the man threw to the ground. After only about a week, even this respite ended. With British and American troops approaching, guards mustered the men from Stalag Luft IV out of camp (which was liberated a few days later) and set them to marching again. Incredibly, they doubled back on their earlier route, covering many miles a second time. For several more weeks, the great march continued as a kind of black comedy that saw the weary GIs herded first in one direction, then another, depending on the position of the advancing Allied forces. FINALLY FREEDOM Eventually, however, the long-awaited liberation came -- in various ways. Some GIs escaped and hid out until they could find an Allied unit. Three such airmen even stole a twin-engine plane and flew to France. One POW appropriated a farmer's horse and rode towards approaching U.S. forces -- with the steed's irate owner not far behind. Other GIs had the relative misfortune to be "liberated" by the Russians, which sometimes meant additional days of confinement at Soviet hands. Most of the POWs, however, simply marched into the glorious presence of American or British forces. Although these GIs had anticipated deliverence. their bliss was without bounds. "We were elated beyond words," says O'Donnell. "It was a tremendous joy." Finally, in the Spring of 1945, the hideous march was over. From beginning to end it spanned 86 days and we estimated 600 miles. Many survivors went from 150 pounds or so to perhaps 90 and suffered injuries and illnesses that plaque them their entire lives. Worst of all, several hundred American soldiers (possibly as many as 1,300) died on this pointless pilgrimage to nowhere. The overall measure of misery remains incalculable. Though often overlooked by history, the Death March across Germany ranks as one of the most outrageous cruelties ever committed against American fighting men. Fittingly, a memorial to these soldiers now stands on the Polish ground where Stalag Luft IV once stood.