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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stalag Luft III


by lyle e davis

History has a habit of getting buried deep within history books and sometimes the books get dusty from lack of use.

We aim to remedy that by bringing front and center some of the stories that may have been forgotten, or seldom told.

There’s lots to tell in recent history, stories of great endurance, of great bravery, ingenuity, and great reward, at least emotionally.

What follows are long hidden stories of what it was like to be a prisoner of war during WWII in the infamous Stalag Luft III. To some of you, Stalag Luft III may ring a bell. It should.

It was the POW camp upon which the movie, “The Great Escape,” was based. Here are the stories of some of the men who experienced life, if you could call it that, in this now famous camp.

Read, remember, and offer a salute to those brave souls who fought for our country. And you younger readers? Read, and learn!


"For you the war is over." That was the almost universal greeting to shot-down American airmen when they fell into the hands of the German enemy, a statement as far from the truth as any lie concocted by the Third Reich's propaganda machine. The war was not over for the new POW; it just became a different war, a war not without its own brutal casualties.

For the average World War II flier who ended up at Stalag Luft III -- the prison camp for downed airmen run by the Luftwaffe -- his last mission became the Longest Mission. Typically, his mission began before dawn at an airfield somewhere in England, North Africa, or Italy. It ended months or years later with the liberation of Stalag VIIA on April 29, 1945.
While at Stalag Luft III, his mission continued unabated, but not his role. He went from flier to prisoner of war in a matter of minutes. His new task was to contribute to the war effort as a Kriege, from the German term for prisoner of war, Kriegsgefangener.

"Stories My Father Never Told Me"
by Greg Hatton

The Berlin mission cost the 392nd Bomb Group, eight of eighteen crews. Of thirty-two officers flying on those crews, only seven survived combat. They were all sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Germany. What a startling difference there was, between the final moments of the Ofenstein and Kamenitsa officers. The San Antone Rose took heavy damage during the initial fighter attack. Her pilot and co-pilot remained at the controls long enough to give the gunners time to get out. A burst of flak threw the aircraft into a flat spin; only the navigator, Dave Purner, narrowly escaped from the burning B-24. Although hampered by shrapnel wounds to his foot, he and Arthur Smith were able to evade capture for a short while. They were manhandled by an angry mob, before being turned over to the Luftwaffe. Purner entered kriegie life alone, shattered from the security of his crewmates.

That same burst of flak sealed the fate of aircraft #371, flown by Bill Kamenitsa and George Graham. The San Antone Rose was shoved up and over Kamenitsa's wing; as she fell earthward, she tore away ten feet of their starboard wing. The crew took a quick vote and decided to remain with the ship, confident in Graham and Kamenitsa's abilities. Graham had racked up hundred's of hours of flight time on sub-patrol. Bill Kamenitsa was at home in the cockpit of B-24's, B-17's and A-20's. Through the Grace of God, they brought #371 down with only the loss of the navigator, bombardier and radioman. The crew was captured as a group, somewhat shaken, but intact. After their stint at Dulag Luft, Kaminitsa and Graham moved on, together until the evacuation of Nuremberg.

They reached a sprawling camp, holding some 2000 Allied and 3000 American fliers. Opened in April of 1942, it was the hub of the prison system, with regular visits by Protecting Powers and Red Cross representatives. All mail was received at Luft 3 and censored before being sent on to other camps. The Germans, under the experienced command of Colonel von Lineiner, generally lived up to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Their American opposites were led by Col. Delmar Spivey and the compounds were run by a Senior American Officer, with a seasoned staff. Each compound had its' own intelligence and security operations, mailroom, kitchen, dispensary, as well as lagar and room fuhrers. The continuity with regular military organization encouraged the Germans to let the prisoners handle their own affairs.

West Compound was opened on April 27, with Col. Darr Alkire (a bomber pilot with experience at Dulag Luft) in command. It was the largest and last built, with seventeen barracks, a cookhouse, theater, and showers. Each barracks had thirteen rooms with three tiers of bunks. With the population doubling between April and November, 250 guys were locked and shuttered up all night, in cold and drafty barracks. The whole day has been spent looking for something to do, to get your mind off the gnawing hunger. Guys around you are just as likely to be irritable and hostile, as they are to be generous or understanding. Nobody's had a bath, and digestive systems are in a collective state of disrepair; sleeping men are reliving the horrors of their missions and are restless beyond sleep.

MIS reports July 15 1944: The camp is situated in pine woods area at Sagan, 168 kilometers southeast of Berlin...Three of the camps' six compounds are occupied by Americans (3363 AF officers), three by RAF officers. Each compound is divided into fifteen buildings or blocks; Barracks are one story, wooden hutments, resembling old CCC barracks.

Lt. George Graham, 392 BG, co-pilot Kaminitsa crew, down 29 April 44

It was Tuesday when I got out of the cooler and it was Thursday when we left for Stalag Luft III. A group of enlisted men left on Wednesday, our crew among them, for their camp up on the Baltic Sea. We, about 100 of us, left about 4 PM on Thursday 5/4/44 in a prison car from the same town (Oberusel) which meant another chance for the populace to crane their necks at us again. We were provisioned with 1/3 of a Red-Cross parcel each.

Thursday night, all day Friday, and Friday night we were shuffled back and forth over Germany. Saturday morning, I arrived at Sagan, which is about l2O kms. southeast of Berlin. The camp was located a mile south of the town. We were searched again and had to take a shower. We were given a complete outfit while our own clothes were taken out for delousing. The new outfits consisted of a pair of pants (which had to be returned when our own were returned) 2 shirts, 2 undershorts, 2 undershirts, 3 pairs of socks, 1 face towel, 1 bath towel, toothbrush, razor, soap dish, comb and belt. We were assigned a room in one of the barracks.

When we first got to Luft III, they took us out into a field. There was lots of commotion and nobody could hear what was going on. When things settled down, the American Colonel in charge of the camp chewed us up one side and down the other: "You guys are in here because you screwed up! You must have done something wrong or you wouldn't be here!" The funny thing was, nobody said: "What are you doing here?"

I'II tell you one thing, though: He knew what he was talking about, because in December of 1944, he saw the handwriting on the wall. He put out an order that everybody in that compound would walk ten laps around the perimeter. We started out knee deep in snow and ice. You should have seen us the next morning at roll call. There were guys, literally crawling. They were aching ... they were hurting. They were using muscles they hadn't used in months. When they finally moved us in January, it was the only thing that saved us.

Kamy cooked for us for six months, and we shared the K.P. ... the dirty work. Later, we broke up into three man combines. We had fifteen men in a room and each of the 3-man combines cooked for a week. One guy cooked and the other two did the clean-up. Our room had five triple decker bunks and a little potbelly stove ... that's where we did our toasting. In the room next door, we had a charcoal-wood burning cook stove. That's where we made our regular meals.

There's more . . . much more, in this week's cover story. To read the rest of our cover story, as well as the Chuckles and our feature columns, go here:

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