|Entrance to Stalag-IVB, near Mühlberg, Brandenburg, Germany|
Author: LutzBruno, Wikimedia Commons
After surviving the 400 mile journey on foot and by crowded unsanitary freight car, Frank Strukel arrived at the gates of Stammlager or "Main Camp" IV-B. The GIs were all too familiar with these camps, known exclusively by their shortened names: Stalag IV-B.
Stalag IV-B was located just east of the Elbe River about thirty miles north of Dresden. Covering 74 acres, it was one of the largest German POW camps, opened in September 1939 to house Polish soldiers captured at the beginning of the war in Europe. Following the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, the camp was built to house 10,000 prisoners. By the time Frank arrived, 22,000 men were imprisoned there.
Processing prisoners had long become routine for the German guards working at the camps. CSM Thomas C. Ballowe of Company K, 423rd Infantry had arrived the week before Frank:
"That was the most desolate area that you've ever seen. There was a big field that [we] had to walk across to get to the entrance to the compound at Mühlberg, IV-B. It was a cold, cold night, but a clear night, just as cold and clear as can be. We were still freezing to death. As we processed in, if you had anything you wanted to declare, any valuables, any money, which I did, [you declared it.] As we processed in we went to this delousing station and that was an ordeal, too. First time I'd ever taken a shower and the shower was scalding hot. As we came out of the shower there was a guy standing there with a needle and he shot us in the chest, right in the breast. Being a kid and at a time like that in such a state of confusion, I was never really sure what that was for. It seemed to me they were shooting everyone with the same syringe, the same needle. When they hit me in my chest, and the damn blood just flew, I was still wet from the taking a shower. They then ran us out of this room and it's freezing in this room and it seemed to me like they had an exhaust fan or something on to blow you. We didn't have a towel or nothing to dry. We put our clothes on and from there they marched us on to our barracks."
PFC Stanley Lambert of Company I, 275th Infantry, was fighting with Frank in the same area of France when he was captured. He too was sent to Stalag IV-B.
"Very early in our stay we were processed through a shower and delousing unit common to German prisons. These bare brick and stone structures had a waiting room where we completely disrobed, leaving our boots stashed in the room, but tying our garments all in one bundle to be sent through a steam delouser. Two things were luxurious about the whole procedure. One was the hot shower where we could observe our flattening bellies but still muscular limbs, and let the warm streams of water splatter over our blue, frost-bitten feet. The other was picking up our bundles of steaming clothes after shivering stark naked for a half hour in the waiting room. It was fortunate that one did not know until later how similar the procedure was to the gas chamber execution of the Jews."
All prisoners were then fingerprinted, photographed, and issued metal Kriegsgefangene dog tags with their new six-figure Stalag IV-B identification number. Their names and identification numbers were entered into a large ledger, from which report of their imprisonment would be made eventually to American authorities. Before your name entered that ledger you were presumed dead or missing in action. The prisoners were then marched to their new homes.
Most prisoners were amazed at the size of the camp, with row after row of long, narrow, drab barracks-like structures along many perpendicular "streets". Each of the barracks was fitted with wooden bunks crammed end to end and piled four high to the ceiling. The British soldiers, some imprisoned for as long as two to three years before Frank's arrival, had learned to make the Stalag their home and looked at the huge influx of Americans during the winter of 1944/1945 as unwanted refuse. As the starving, frozen, bedraggled soldiers made their way into the camps, many of the British would trade food scraps for any valuables they may have brought in with them, taking advantage of the hunger gnawing at the American GIs. Most of the upper bunks had long been taken by the British POWs, leaving the Americans to lower bunks that essentially no longer existed, the wooden slats having been burnt as firewood long before.
The regulation issuance of two blankets was reduced to one as the camp filled that winter, until there were none to issue. The only clothes the men wore were those they brought in with them. Showering was allowed once weekly: thirty second of hot water followed by thirty seconds of cold. Clothes could be rinsed at the same time if it were allowed by the guard on duty. By far, the biggest cruelty that beset the soldiers was the perpetual state of hunger. Meals were often just black bread and watered down soup the prisoners called "dishwater soup," and on a rare occasionally, a potato. American Red Cross parcels came infrequently and mostly had to be shared amongst several men. The food was heavenly, but soldiers also learned to improvise a great number of tools and cookware from the tins in which they arrived. The cigarettes, when not smoked to curb the appetite, were used as camp currency.
|Contents of an American Red Cross parcel|
PFC Stanley Lambert again:
"The most vivid memories of our barracks were the nights in them. There was just room for all the exhausted men to lie down in the unheated building. We lay in groups of three to preserve warmth, and arranged outer garments and old German shelter halves over and under us. We were only beginning to learn from the British the fine art of improvising in a prison hut. Very soon we learned to pull our tortured feet close to us because some dysentery victim was always staggering through the darkness toward the door, trampling over frostbitten and trench-foot-afflicted feet. I believe I have known no pain greater than that suffered for ten minutes following the mauling of one's frozen feet by a stampeding, dystenteried POW."
Many of the British soldiers imprisoned for years did help the Americans acclimate to their new surroundings. Said one British officer to a newly-arrived American, "Keep your body moving or you will die."
PFC Stanley Lambert was shipped out of Stalag IV-B just two weeks after his arrival for yet another German prisoner-of-war camp. Many other soldiers experienced the same fate. Although one of the largest prisoner camps in the German's possession, Stalag IV-B was grossly overcrowded, and it served more as a way-station for many thousands of POWs. Frank Strukel was one of these men whose stay here was short. He too would be one of the men plucked at random from the camp and sent to a much more dismal fate.