Saturday, March 29, 2014

Frank, Part VIII: Prisoner

American prisoners captured in Ardennes, 22 December 1944
Deutsches Bundesarchiv

Hidden through the bitterly cold night of 7 January 1945 with his deceased comrade, Gordon McDonald, Frank Strukel's mind was probably racing with ideas of escape. Gordon's death made it plainly obvious that the German's were watching the open battle fields closely for movement. Any attempts to run for the American lines would surely result in his death. So he sat. Trapped. And waited.

When morning came and the German soldiers began combing the fields for their fallen comrades, Frank's only option was to surrender. He was taken captive on the morning of 8 January 1945. There is no way of knowing how his captors treated him in the early days of his imprisonment. Reports from both sides - German and American - reveal tales of great compassion as well as horrific torture.  During the months of December 1944 and January 1945, German soldiers under the command of SS officer Joachim Peiper murdered nearly 400 of their American prisoners-of-war. The unfortunate reality is that knowledge of this behavior resulted in retaliation, as illustrated by written order from the headquarters of the 328th US Army Infantry Regiment on 21 December 1944: "No SS troops or paratroopers will be taken prisoner but will be shot on sight." But as the war on the southernmost point of the Western Front wore on in the coldest winter Europe had seen in decades, soldiers on both sides of the conflict were mostly tired, hungry, and scared. War had become "business as usual."

Frank relayed very few details of his war experiences, and as mentioned in a previous post, although his activities as a part of Company L can be deduced by the stories of his fellow soldiers, his experiences as a prisoner-of-war are unique. In addition to the death of his buddy Gordon, the only other story relayed later to his wife, and then to his daughter, would be that he was given a bucket every morning and sent onto the battlefield to remove rings, watches and valuables from deceased soldiers and bring them back to camp. This had to have occurred in the early days of his imprisonment, as he would be sent far from any front lines before long. It must have been cruel torture to confiscate the few precious items of value from his fellow soldiers that could hold indelible memories to families back home, only to have them become items of commerce amongst the German troops. Every morning, Frank's muscles quivering like a nervously trapped rabbit with an urge to run and escape likely churned in his guts, but common sense held him back. He could not outrun the bullets of the guns his captors kept trained upon him as he made his morning rounds.

The Battle of the Bulge was not a singular battle of World War II. It is a term used to describe a major German offensive campaign that began on 16 December 1944 and covered over 150 miles of battlefront in Germany, Belgium and France. Over 600,000 American soldiers were employed along these battle lines, and by its end on 25 January 1945, over 19,000 of them would be dead. Frank would be one of the over 25,000 men captured. The Germans were wholly unprepared to handle this incredibly large influx of prisoners. But as they were processed, questioned and released to higher command at the front lines, Frank and many, many other soldiers like him were sent to prison camps far to the northeast. The first part of this journey was done on foot.

Frank was first sent to one of the many holding areas throughout the Ardennes forest, but soon thereafter he would begin his march eastward into Germany. Soldiers describing their march into captivity recall being stunned by the number of POWs being herded along the roadway. One soldier called it "a river of men." Another stated that during his march up a long hill he "could see GIs clear to the top of the hill and as long a line down the hill in back of me."

Most men marched to their next destination day and night anywhere from four to eight days. Food was a luxury not granted to the prisoners. One soldier recalls getting a crust of bread and a tablespoon of molasses daily during his march. Another remembers being allowed by his captors to stop and pick sugar beets from fields near the road, while another ate rotten apples fallen to the ground in orchards the previous fall. Lucky soldiers received occasional servings of watered down kohlrabi soup or potato peel soup. Most relied on snow for water. As they left snowy terrain, they sucked the dew from the grass in the mornings. If sleep was granted, the prisoners were herded into abandoned barns or walled courtyards where they could be contained and watched. The ground was wet, cold, and muddy, and although hungry and exhausted, most men could not sleep. Many men collapsed from hunger and fatigue. Some guards allowed rest time for them to recover. Others shot and killed men who could not keep up. The heat from exertion caused soldiers to discard their overcoats and winter wear, but those who had the strength to carry them knew they would be necessary later.

The POWs destination was many of the functioning railway stations set to transport prisoners eastward to any of a number of prisoner camps. The men were herded onto the old "forty and eight" freight cars they knew so well from their initial transportation to the front lines before war become a bitter, cruel reality. This time though, the rule of "forty men" was clearly disregarded. Soldiers were packed usually sixty to eighty per car. Men stood shoulder-to-shoulder in rows. Movement was impossible. As one soldier describes, "if you picked your feet up from the ground, the pressure from the other guys' bodies would hold you up." Dysentery affected the majority of soldiers with bathroom amenities usually designated to a hole in the freight car's floor, or a helmet passed from man to man that could be emptied through the small upper window in each car... if it was not sealed shut. Occasionally an entire car was given one or two Red Cross food parcels to share. One soldier recalls being overjoyed at receiving half a cigarette and seven raisins.

At this stage of the journey the prisoners were at greater risk from their British allies than their German captors. Active bombing and machine-gunning of German rail yards was underway to limit transportation of goods to the front lines. Bullets came right through the cars killing many prisoners, their corpses held upright by the soldiers sandwiched around them. If a bombing took place, some German guards opened prisoner cars to allow men to scamper for cover, only to round them up later. Others were destroyed in their entirety taking dozens of soldier's lives with them.

The time spent compressed in the freight car depended on the integrity of the rail line used and the number of stops necessary to reroute trains or to repair war-torn tracks. During lulls in the trip, some soldiers were allowed to leave the cars and forage for food, while others stood in motionless, darkened silence waiting for the trip to resume to their destination.

For Frank, his destination would be Stalag IV-B near Mühlberg in Brandenburg, 400 miles from where he was captured.

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