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Steve Loper

The ring Steve Loper made in Stalag IIA

Steve Loper

 

Served : North Africa.

POW No. : 20394

Camps : P.G. 66, Stalag IIA and B, Stalag Luft III.

 

My story begins February 14, 1943. I became a prisoner of war, being captured by forces under the command of General Erwin Rommel near Fiad Pass and the village of Zidi Bouzid in central Tunisia. From that moment on, until the end of the big war, life became a matter of making the most of a bad situation and trying to survive.

 

Capture came quickly being bombed and straffed by Stukas and Messerschmitt 109's for a couple of hours prior to the time panther tanks showed up. We were quickly disarmed and told to start marching. There were 50 or 60 in our group, being herded along by a single panther tank and half a dozen guards. We marched for several hours stopping for the night near a German headquarters. The next day we were trucked to a large airport near the city of Tunis. We were given a ration of soup, bread and cheese. We may have been served camel meat as there were camel heads and hooves in the sump pit.

 

The airport was very busy with transports and fighter planes taking off and landing. After a long wait we were hurriedly led to a loading area where we were ordered to board a Ju 52 transport. Shortly we (I stuck with the men from my outfit) were air born for the 40 to 50 minute flight to Sicily. There were many transports in the air flying low over the water. Me 109 fighter planes flew higher over the transports. There were about 16 POWs on our transport.

 

The next two weeks were spent in a camp near Palermo run by the Italian military. It was a bad place, wet and depressing. The food was very scant and unappetizing. Almost everyone came down with dysentery. We spent the days carrying rock to make a cobblestone roadway.

 

Eventually we were put aboard a passenger train and headed toward the city of Palermo and the straights of Messena. When the train arrived at the docks at the straights of Messena, the air raid siren sounded. Bombs started falling all around. One just missed a tank car loaded with benzene. A German guard used his foot to push a small incendiary bomb into the water. We ran into buildings on the dock for protection. Eventually the train was pulled aboard the ferry boat and we were on our way to the town of Capua, Italy. The train passed through the City of Pompei where I traded my high school class ring for four loaves of bread and 50 lira. I shared the bread with my buddies but don't know what happened to the 50 lira. Soon the train arrived at our camp, Campo P. G. 66 near the city of Capua, not too far from Naples. This would be our home for the next five months. Everyone was depressed and our future did not look too bright. I developed a fever, apparently from a wound I received during the bombing back in Palermo and an infection had set in on my back. The area turned a dark color. A German doctor removed debris from the wound and the area was dressed and treated with sulfa drugs.

 

The Italian guards were always singing opera as they walked guard at night. We said they were afraid of the dark. Occasionally, the Germans came to the camp to get POWs to work on the docks in Naples. We would volunteer hoping to get a chance to escape, or be taken in by friendly Italians. On one occasion one of the POWs jumped from the truck and started picking fruit near a home. A man ran out of his house with his shotgun in his hand. The German guard immediately pulled out his Lugar pistol. I thought for a moment we would witness a shootout but the Italian backed down.

 

Mt. Vesuvius was in plain view of our camp. It was majestic. Steam would release from the top and clouds would form in the afternoon. In August, 1943 Mussolini tried to abdicate his position as head of the Italian government. We had hopes of being freed; however, the Germans rounded everyone up and all POWs were put aboard a train and told they were being moved to Germany. Each box car held about 40 men. The floors were covered with wheat straw. There was just enough room for everyone to sit down. Each car had a 20 liter bucket to use as a latrine. After a day or so the bucket overflowed and became very messy and smelly. The train stopped two or three times each day for fuel and water for the boilers. On some stops we were given an opportunity to empty the "honey" bucket. On some of the stops we were given barley soup and bread and water. On about the fifth day northward we reached the Alps Mountains and went through the Brenner Pass. We would peek through cracks to see beautiful mountains and valleys. On the eighth day of our journey we arrived at Stalag IIB in the northern part of central Germany.

 

After arriving at Stalag IIB, we went through delousing and were given "kriegsgefangene" dog tags. My number was 20394. Stalag IIB was a depressing and desolate place. The barracks were dreary and dark with poor ventilation and rows of straw covered bunks stacked four beds high. There were scant facilities for personal hygiene or privacy. The smell of death was everywhere. Stalag IIB, for me, was the most depressing place and times I experienced in all of WW2.

 

Within three days after arrival at Stalag IIB, the German commandant said all POWs except non-commissioned officers would be required to work for the Fatherland. There were approximately 50 with technical ratings in the group including me. He said we were not non-commissioned officers and would be sent out on work details, farms, factories or both. All POWs with technical ratings were called outside the barracks and lined up in rows of threes. A spokesman for the group told the commandant we were non-commissioned officers and were not required to work as so stated under the Articles of the Geneva Convention. The German commandant said "You will 'arbeiten". Everyone shouted "nix arbeiten!" Someone hollered "Attention". Everyone stood up straight and came to attention. Then someone else, unknown to me, started singing God Bless America. We all sang along with whoever it was. We then sang The Star Spangled Banner. The commandant, a haupman, I think, could stand it no longer and ordered more guards to come to the compound. He then gave them an order to "fix bayonets". He then gave them orders to charge the formation of POWs. The guards did move toward the formation of the POWs "goosing" a few, but fortunately not seriously hurting anyone. We all dispersed swiftly, I might add, and went into the barracks.

 

While at Stalag IIB representatives of the International Red Cross came to inspect the camp to see if it was in compliance with the mandates of the Geneva Convention. The Germans hastily cleaned and scrubbed the barracks and made sure everyone had a good blanket and new straw in their bunks. A male vocalist sang several songs acapella. He was short of stature, but had a booming tenor voice. The only song that I can remember is "On the Road to Mandalay". I remember it went something like, "On the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder over Camron Bay." I never heard a tenor voice before. It was nice. I liked it.

 

This experience left me with a deep sense of loyalty and love for my country and my comrades. The hope of returning home was vague and seemed a long way in the future. I went to the barracks, isolated myself and cried. It was a most depressing time for me. The commandant said "no arbeitin" "no essen". I thought to myself, "I may have to work for the Germans to survive". If so," I guess I'll do it".

 

But to my surprise two days later we were called outside and told some of us were being sent to Stalag Luft III which was near Sagen, Germany. I said to myself that "it would have to be better than where we are now". So next day we went back into the box cars. We went through a suburb of Berlin which had a lot of damage from bombing. Later that afternoon we arrived at our destination, Stalag Luft III.

 

Stalag Luft III was much better, well organized, much cleaner with showers and the "kartoffels" were a bit larger and the "suppa" thicker. I developed a dental cavity which was restored by a British dentist. Security was also much greater as many high ranking officers were interned there. 2,500 or so air force personnel occupied the camp including Major General Vanaman and Brigadier General Spivey. I think we were supposed to be orderlies for the officers, but they did not want us around as we might breach their security. BBC news was read in each barracks daily and this was usually good for morale. It gave us hope the war would soon come to an end.

 

The officers were always trying to escape by digging tunnels under the perimeter fence. In the American compound three tunnels were dug while I was there. They were named Tom, Dick and Harry. In the British and Canadian compound a tunnel was successfully completed in the fall of 1944 and 76 escaped before the tunnel was found. Himmler gave the orders to execute the first half that were captured. Hitler wanted all that were caught executed. I remember 10 or 12 being returned to camp. They were put into solitary confinement. The episode was later made into a motion picture titled "The Great Escape" starring Steve McQueen. As the air war intensified over Germany, the compound filled to over-capacity. To make more room for the airman the Germans decided to move all enlisted personnel to other camps.

 

We again got into the boxcars, this time being sent to Stalag IIA located in Frankfurt on Oder. I joined some of the men from my outfit, the First Field Artillery Observation Battalion. I remember Mansel Merchant, Roney Bailey and Charles Gibson being there. The camp was not as bad as some, especially Stalag IIB. We could walk around the inside perimeter and exercise. It was located on the banks of a canal so we could watch the various types of watercraft going by. I learned to play chess there. It was a good way to while away the time. We were supposed to be paid one Deutschmark per day. Nothing was available to buy except toothpaste. I eventually obtained a 2 Deutschmark coin to make a ring. The metal was soft and malleable so I hammered the perimeter of the coin with a stone, spreading it until it was about 1/8th inch wide. When it was the right diameter I used a small pen knife to slowly cut out the center until it was the correct size. The swastika was plainly visible on the inside surface. I still have the ring as a war memento. One of the fellows in camp was good at making things. He would take a bit of wood, a powdered milk can and create a small heater or stove using the milk can to make a bellows or fan. When it was rotated, it was excellent for heating water or a can of stew from the Red Cross parcels. (More about the Red Cross and food parcels later.)

 

The weather in that part of Germany was pleasant in summer with an average temperature of 50 to 60 degrees. Winters were cold with average daytime temperatures of 28 to 30 degrees, and nights about 18 to 20 degrees. Usually there was quite a bit of snow. By 1945, our old uniforms were getting pretty worn. My shoes had holes in the soles. My overcoat was pretty good so it kept me fairly warm. I still had a mechanical pencil in the hem of my coat that I hid there when I was captured.

 

February 1, 1945 brought great change for me and the rest of the POWs in Stalag IIA. The Russian Armed forces were approaching from the east and we could hear shelling from their artillery. This filled us with hope and joy as the war seemed to be nearing the big final battle. The Germans told us the prior day to be ready to evacuate the camp by 9 am and to take any food we might have with us. We left the camp heading west, crossing over the Oder River, heading we knew not where. The line of POWs stretched for about a mile. The weather was cloudy with occasional snow flurries. The roads were covered with packed snow and sometimes slippery. Guards with rifles were stationed every 30 or so yards and we were allowed a break every hour or so for a short rest. At night we stopped and slept in barns or hay stacks or wherever we could find shelter.

 

Being incarcerated for two years left many in poor physical condition and after one or two days some POW's were beginning to weaken. A wagon, drawn by a team of large horses was used to transport the ones that could not walk any further. No food was given to us on the entire march. We ate whatever we brought along with us from our Red Cross parcels.

 

Several days into the march we came to an area where fortifications were being constructed and we were told by an S. S. officer that if we stopped moving we would be shot. For some reason Sgt. Johnson, a paratrooper captured in Holland, became a victim of the S.S. by being shot through the head. Someone was kind enough to cover his face with their overcoat; we had to step over him as we moved onward.

 

There were many prisoners with striped uniforms or clothing working in the area. They were extremely emaciated. Others appeared to be walking skeletons. There were 50 or so laying dead. They appeared to have been worked until they died. A very young one of these prisoners came close to me and tried to talk to me in a language I did not understand. He was extremely emaciated with deep sunken eyes. An S. S. guard pushed him away with his rifle. These scenes were the most gruesome I experienced in all of WW2.

 

We kept moving westward. After eight days we arrived at our destination near the town of Luckenwalde. Russian prisoners had cleared the area of trees and erected tents as large as those used in a circus for us to be housed in. The tents gave us some shelter from the snow and cold. We used slit trenches to relieve ourselves (I don't remember what we used for toilet paper.) We had one or two water spigots for nearly two thousand men. The German ration was one daily ration of soup, usually barley, some potatoes, a slice of bread and cheese sometimes. The bread was very hard and coated with sawdust. It had a date on each loaf stating when it was baked, usually 1939. We slept on the ground inside the big tents side by side closely packed together (it reminded me of pigs sleeping together). Every so often someone would holler out "everybody turn" so we would all turn over on the opposite side. (It seemed that I always had a rock or tree root under my hip.)

 

My old G. I. issue shoes eventually fell apart. On one of them the sole and top separated completely so the top came up around my leg. It bounced up and down as I walked. After a day or so I obtained a new pair which I believe were made by Polish internees. The tops and the bottoms were fastened together with pliable strings of wood. All that I can remember about them is that they were very uncomfortable.

 

The Russian POWs had it worse then we did. They would hold up the dead when being counted to get another ration of bread. The dead were hauled out each morning in a wagon. They were buried in a large trench about seven feet wide and 6 or 7 feet deep. They were stacked in the trench like cord wood. When the trench was nearly filled with the dead it was covered over with soil. You could always tell when the Russian POWs were nearby as the air reeked with a putrid sickening odor. Some Russian POWs in the camp were tortured by being alternately exposed to heat and cold. Others were used in medical experiments.

 

We made the tents in Luckenwalde our home from February 10, 1945 until the conflict in Europe was almost over. The Russian armed forces liberated the area in early to mid April on their big drive to Berlin. The German guards disappeared one night and the Russians came the next day. Everyone was so happy and excited and our thoughts turned to leaving the camp and hopefully going home. The next day some of us decided to leave the camp and go to the nearby town of Luckenwalde. Many Russian soldiers were there, many of them drunk on vodka. The German population seemed extremely frightened. Rape of German women and young girls was commonplace. The Russians were dismantling high tech factories. German soldiers were being rounded up to be shipped to Russia. As soon as we were identified as Americans by the Germans, they immediately welcomed us. We stayed in a large 3 story house which was occupied by two or three German families. Each of us selected a large bed with down covers. (The bed felt good and I slept a full 24 hours.)

 

After two days in town we went back to the camp and waited for the Russian and American forces to link up at the Elbe River. On the first or second day of May, 1945, six of us said goodbye to the camp at Luckenwalde and started walking westwardly. Our destination was the Elbe River. The same day we came upon an abandoned German military base. We collected a few souvenirs including two rifles and ammunition. We again continued our journey. At night we slept wherever there was shelter, mostly in abandoned houses. On one occasion a Russian officer gave us a voucher to obtain 4 loaves of bread at a German bakery. One day we rode on a farm wagon pulled by a tractor which had been confiscated from a German farm. The Russian driver was drunk on snaps and weaved back and forth. We were afraid, but we covered a lot of distance. We all drank vodka with other Russians and toasted both President Truman and Premier Stalin. One of the Russians wanted to exchange souvenirs, a mirror for a wrist watch. I did not think that was a fair trade, but he was drunk and we wanted to avoid any trouble. On the fourth day we reached the east bank of the Elbe River, it was May 6, 1945, I think.

 

After some hours of waiting we saw a small motor boat moving down stream. We waived and signaled and shouted in English. The boat turned and moved to the bank near us. The man operating the boat said, "Bon jour Monsieurs." He was French, captured in 1939 or 1940. About that time a young German soldier approached who appeared to be 16 or 17 years of age. He was crying and pleaded for us to let him come along with us. He said he was afraid of the Russians. We debated weather or not to shoot him. The vote was taken and it was decided he was not a Nazis and deserved to live. We soon convinced the Frenchman to take us across the river saying the Americans would pay him for his services. We all climbed into the boat and headed for the opposite shore. The river was probably 600 yards across. Our crossing was near the City of Torgau.

 

As I stepped from the boat unto the west shore of the Elbe my heart started to pound heavily. My breathing became very rapid. As hard as I tried, I could not control my emotions. My eyes watered up with tears. A great feeling of relief swept over me. As we started up the river bank I heard a voice in English; "Halt, who goes there". We all answered "American prisoners of war returning". The loud voice demanded, "advance and be recognized". We all moved further up the bank. We were near where an American soldier stood. He shouted, "Sergeant of the guard". Nearby were other soldiers. Close by there were two machine guns and several riflemen. The Sergeant arrived and said his lieutenant would arrange for transportation to take us to a base near Leipzig.

 

We went through a "delousing" station. Some got new uniforms; however they did not have my size, so I was stuck with the same old clothes with a thousand wrinkles and the same old shoes made by Polish prisoners. However, I did not care or complain. In a day we were on a C47 transport headed for Brest, France, and the good old U. S. A., the best country in the whole world.

 

ADDENDUM

 

The rations supplied by the Italian and German military to POW's were neither adequate in amount nor quality. In Italy it was soup and bread. In Germany it was potatoes, bread, soup, cheese and occasionally a bit of meat was added to the soup. In both countries there were no fresh fruit or vegetables. Calorie content was 700 to 800 calories daily and low in essential vitamins and minerals. The Germans boasted to the world through their propaganda that the POW's diet was well balanced and totaled 1500 calories, not so.

 

The POWs received a Red Cross parcel, usually weekly, which was most welcomed. It weighed 7 to 8 pounds. The contents usually were a can of powdered milk, a tin of corned beef or spam, sugar cubes, instant coffee, crackers, raisins or prunes, cheese, chocolate bar and a pack of cigarettes. It was a great supplement to the rations supplied by the axis governments. I don't think I would have survived the stress and meager diet in the POW camps if it were not for the Red Cross parcels. They also enforced the Articles of the Geneva Convention.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the American Red Cross and The International Red Cross for the food parcels and the camp inspection in Italy and Germany. I will forever be grateful to them.

 

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