Winter Scene, 1945

Our mild present winter recalled the memory of a contrasting one twenty years ago. At that time our enforced domicile was Barracks 8A, Oflag 64, the German prisoner-of-war camp at Sczubin, in what used to be the old Polish Corridor. The winter months at latitude of 54 degrees have some fairy tale qualities, but most of them are better appreciated outside the confines of barbed wire enclosures. When good weather prevailed, the days were crisp and clear, but remarkably short. Darkness persisted until well past nine in the mornings, and returned again by four in the afternoon. Snow was everywhere, and in the rural village setting near which we were penned there was a quiet beauty and hush that blanketed and obscured even the drab realities of a prison compound. The nights offered spectacular lightings of the dancing aurora borealis here at this proximity to arctic regions.

In late January of 1945 we were concerned less with the beauty of our surroundings than with the prospect of imminent liberation from our prolonged confinement. The German war effort was collapsing, and the eastern front had disintegrated before the Russian advance. The German garrison that was guarding the nearly 2000 American officers in Oflag 64 was increasingly apprehensive about its own safety since the foremost salient of the Russian push was aimed almost directly at our camp. Worry was evident on the faces of our captors, and their preoccupation resulted in considerable relaxation of camp routine and discipline. We kept an operational map of the European fronts posted on the bulletin board in the main administration building, and whereas earlier we had always been careful never to alter it except in conformity with official German releases, then we were openly changing the battle lines once or twice daily in accordance with the BBC bulletins received over our clandestine radios. The German guards and officers were frequent visitors to the board, apparently trusting our information more than their own news reports which inevitably proclaimed heroic battles and great German victories stemming the barbaric Russian advance.

As the Russians drew nearer and the sound of distant artillery could be heard for the first time there was great rejoicing within the camp. Within a few days we confidently expected to see the Russian tanks and vehicles appear, the camp gates opened, and our careers as prisoners ended. But for most of us it did not happen that way.

Twenty-four hours before the calculated arrival of our liberators, the German garrison, on orders from Wechrmacht headquarters, clamped down on discipline, assembled the prisoners, and announced that for our protection they were evacuating us to a safer camp near Berlin. Only the sick and incapacitated were to be left in the camp. With two German doctors supervising, the American doctors {there were over two dozen of us by this time) were instructed to hold sick calls and weed out all prisoners who were unfit to march.

In the hurried preparations for evacuation; there was great confusion and much indecision among the prisoners. Try to stay in the camp, or march out? Since the Russians were our great buddies at the time, all of us would have preferred to stay. But there was also the uncertainty, not only of what might be in store, but of a possible desperate German reaction and reprisal (they still had all the guns) if confronted with a general revolt and uprising of the prisoners. After surviving one to three years of prison camp existence there was a hesitation on the part of many of us to jeopardize our own personal survival by some heroic but premature resistance that could result in disaster. Especially with the end of the war in sight.

Many of the prisoners did choose to feign illness and turned up on the sick list. In the confusion, and in addition to the truly ill and bed-ridden {among whom was war correspondent Wright Bryan. managing editor of the Atlanta Journal), we were able to leave over one hundred "sick" officers in camp along with five or six doctors to care for them.

On the morning of January 21, the rest of us marched out. A holiday, picnic atmosphere prevailed as we assembled in the bitter cold and gray light of morning and started through the opened barbed-wire gates. The temperature was 16 below zero, and we were bundled up in all of the clothing we owned, layer on layer and of countess variety, to the limit of what could possibly be worn and still permit motion. Most of us had knapsacks or lugged wooden suitcases and, in addition, were slung with blanket rolls containing other possessions worn on our backs or in horse-collar fashion over a neck or shoulder. Some had fashioned makeshift sleds of tin can strips and wooden bed slats, which they pulled behind them., piled high with canned food and odds and ends. POW's are like pack rats, and everything we had ever saved, accumulated, scrounged, or made from scraps and empty food tins was draped on our coats or dangled from some pocket, belt or button.

We headed south initially, and the march (which for some of the group eventually covered 234 miles in sixty days) began briskly. Although we marched in platoon groups stretched out m long columns of two abreast, our appearance was anything but military, and certainly not in keeping with our status as gentlemen and officers. We were a ragged, attenuated horde straggling and shuffling along like an endless procession of decrepit refugees. The more literary among us were reminded of Tolstoy's description in War and Peace of the Napoleonic army's retreat from Moscow, except that in place of dejection and despair our mood was one of excitement and anticipation. The snow lay everywhere, three and four feet deep over the fields and valleys with drifts reaching as high as eight and nine feet. The heavy, blowing snowfall of the night before had ceased and the daylight was bright and clear under the hazy sun. The packed, dry snow on the uncleared rutted roads screeched audibly under the tread of hundreds of marching feet, and our disorderly, strung-out procession, contrasting darkly against the brilliant white, looked for all the world like an unending, disjointed serpent, emitting smoke from every pore, shrouded in the misty haze of the condensing vapors of our labored breathing.

But as we said, there was no despair, only excitement. Our hopes and spirits were high, and no searing, penetrating cold that stabbed with every breath and numbed our hands and feet, could change them. We were outside of our pen of barbed wire for the first time in months or years, on the open road, unconfined, and unmolested by the dejected and miserable armed guards who marched beside us. The scenery was ever changing. We had no real idea about where our icy feet were taking us. But there was joy and jubilation. We were on the move and somehow, headed home.

(c) The Doctor's Lounge, Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Bulletin, Vol XX, No. 1, 1965, p20

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