Sunday, February 01, 2009

End of the long march then cram them on box cars.

George Bruckert, Becky Lawson, and Val Burgess walking toward the entrance of the Wehrmacht Panzer maintenance grounds.

Val, Jim and George standing at Spremberg rail platform.

A string of 40 & 8 box cars waiting to be loaded with POWs at Spremberg rail yards.
Our dads had no idea where they were being taken. The two thousand POWs of Center Compound had been on the road for nine days by the time they trudged into the railway yard at the eastern edge of Spremberg, Germany. Somewhere along the line the men of East Compound had passed through them as they were resting on the side of the road. South, West and North compounds had already arrived in Spremberg, but were headed south on the rails. Not stopping at the train station, the long column of men of Center Compound was turned northward and taken to a German Wehrmacht Panzer maintenance and training facility and fed some soup. All the tanks were gone - probably fighting the Russians on the eastern front - but there was a small contingent of German soldiers left to control the facility. The POWs were then herded into the tank storage barns and rested for a couple hours. Rousted up again they were formed up into a long column once more and marched back down to the train station where a line of box cars was waiting. Crammed inside they endured four days of misery before arriving at Moosburg, Bavaria, at their final destination - Stalag VIIA.

Read more on the experience as related by my dad, Lt James Keeffe, on his experience in the box cars, beginning with an entry in his diary he kept by writing on the paper liner of cigarette packs:

Diary Entry

On the train, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. (4,5,6,7 Feb)

On Sunday we marched the 7 km into Spremberg, ate some barley soup at a Wehrmacht training garage and were then marched through the town to the railroad station where we were herded into French 40 Hommes and 8 Chevaux cars. This war, however, they’re putting 50 of us Kriegies into one boxcar with two guards. The ensuing three days were as close to Hell as I have yet been. It rained for two days -- the roof leaked -- most of the fellows were sick with dysentery, chilblaines, or bad colds. During the three day trip we received only 7/10 of a loaf of bread per man, and water was officially passed out only twice. At each stop we traded our cigarettes and soap for bread and water. No one slept, except for those who passed out from sheer exhaustion because there wasn’t room for more than half of us, had we all tried to lie down. We have lost all semblance to civilized beings. We’re filthy dirty, unshaved, and many of us have picked up lice and fleas. All the clean clothes we had are now filthy dirty…

(from a later interview of Lt. Keeffe)
Printed on the side of each box car was Hommes 40, Chevaux 8, which translates to “40 persons or 8 horses.” These things were dirty. The two guards who hopped up into our box car after cramming us inside had two apple boxes to sit on. We had a filthy floor.

After awhile, the train began to move, probably around 6 o’clock. It took a long time to deal with 2,000 people. We were on those box cars maybe three nights. It was really tough, because many guys were sick. It was dirty and it was filthy and cruddy.

When we all first got into the box car the guards sat by the door, which was a sliding door on the outside, and they swung their rifles in an arc and told us to stay back. We very rapidly arranged to have one third of the guys standing, one third of the guys sitting down with their legs spread and the next guy sitting in the open legs with his back on the chest of the fellow behind him. The last third, the sick guys, were able to lie down. We rotated standing and sitting every-so-often so that we wouldn’t cramp up too much.

All during the night and into the next day guys were vomiting and had diarrhea, and there wasn’t one bucket to be had. We told the guards to open the doors, to let some fresh air in and to at least let the sick guys get sick hanging outside. They took their rifles and swung them.
“Nein, nein nein! Streng verboten!" (No, no no! Strictly forbidden!)

One of the Kriegies spoke good German, and we had quickly formed a hierarchy. That’s one of the good things about having been military. This hierarchy resulted in the German-speaking American prisoner talking to the guards.

“You’re going to open the doors, and you’re going to throw those damn boxes out. You’re going to put those damn guns down, and you’re going to have the same amount of space as we do, which is not much. Or, you’re going to shoot us. Now, you have bolt action rifles, and we’ll let each of you get off two shots. That’s a total of four shots. We’ll even let you, with those four shots -- we’ll let you kill two. Four times two is eight, so at the most you’re going to be able to kill eight people. Then we’re going to take you apart ear by ear, joint by joint, eyeball by eyeball. And you’ve got one minute to decide what to do."

The two guards, upper middle-aged older guys, were pretty shook up with the force of words that came their way. They put their heads together and spoke quickly to each other. Then they pleaded with us and they started crying.

"Please don’t hurt us, we’re just following orders."

"We won’t hurt you, just open the damn door!"

With that, the two soldiers quickly unlatched the door and pushed it all the way open, and we threw their apple boxes out. They were then told to put their rifles down, and we got along just fine.

Over the next couple of days the train stopped two or three times, and we all got out and dropped our pants. It was quite a sight. Every time we stopped, all 2,000 of us got out of the train, and there were 2,000 of us crapping on Germany. At one rail yard we stopped and right along side us was a similar train. The engine and box cars were filled with German soldiers. We were allowed off, as usual, to relieve ourselves, and some of us exchanged stuff with the soldiers. We gave them some of our canned food, and they gave us some of their canned food. They were SS troops, probably headed toward the front somewhere.

One night, we stopped short of some big town, which may have been Nurnberg. During the night the English bombed the hell out of that town, and we could clearly hear the bomber stream come and go and the explosions of the tons of bombs that fell.

We spent three nights on that train in the box cars as it traveled through the country. Most every one of us was wrapped in our own individual miserable, cold, hungry, lonely world. I was absolutely the filthiest I had ever been in my life. The miles and hours of the constant noise of the box car moving down the rails, mixed with rain leaking through the cracks in the wood, other just-as-miserable men getting sick on themselves and others, all fed into the misery and turned those three days into a numb haze. Three days is an eternity under such conditions.

Traveling southwest the train eventually reached the city of Munich, and then it came back northeast to a town called Moosburg.

1 comment:

dave said...

Hope you are enjoying your journey Jim! looks quite cold... Dave