Saturday, April 5, 2014

Frank, Part XII: Liberation

Soldiers of the 87th Infantry move through Plauen

Frank Strukel's final days as a prisoner of war were spent in Plauen, working for whomever signed him out from his German guards for the day and extracted as much physical labor from him as his body would muster. Plauen had entered the twentieth century with a boom in population and economic growth, mostly in the textile industry. A growing urban community with a population of  nearly 120,000, the city embraced the National Socialist German Workers' Party under Adolf Hitler, and boasted the first local chapter outside Bavaria in 1921. Kurt Gruber, a law student from Plauen, reorganized the Hitler Youth program in 1929 and made Plauen its district headquarters until 1931. By 1930, the Hitler Youth organization had enlisted over 25,000 boys fourteen years old and upward. Plauen was definitely a city dedicated to Hitler's success in the war.

At the onset of war, the textile plants of Plauen had been converted to factories and warehouses that manufactured a wide variety of war-related materials, including Panzer tanks; as well as stored large amounts of ammunition, food rations, and weapons. The Allied forces were well aware of this, and as the war neared its end, the Americans targeted Plauen unmercifully with air attacks to destroy these facilities. On 16 January 1945, thirty-six United States Air Force B-17s dropped over 98 tons of explosives on Plauen resulting in 132 fatalities. A month later, 110 planes dropped a devastating 325 tons of explosives on the city killing nearly 400. It is not known if Frank was housed in Plauen or was moved by railroad back and forth to Stalag IV-F in Hartmannsdorf, but it is likely he feared for his life as much from his fellow countrymen in the air as he did from his captors on land.

Bombing of Plauen began in earnest on 3 March 1945. The city was hit eleven times in thirty-eight days by both the United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force. Over 5,000 tons of explosives dropped on Plauen resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 people, and the destruction of almost 75% of the city. Sustained attacks throughout 8-10 April 1945 reduced the city to rubble.

Seeing imminent defeat in March 1945, German soldiers ordered the evacuation of many small labor camps and forced prisoners to hurriedly march to a number of other distant camp destinations, hoping to outrun the advancing Soviet army on land and the British and American army in the air. A good number of these starved and weakened prisoners died during this final forced death march. Some were executed by their captors in a final display of German superiority and control. The war was coming to an end, and the Nazi military hold in and around Plauen was in disarray.

Maurice Rainville of Company B, 275th Infantry, who was a part of "Task Force Herren" with Frank at the time of his arrival in France, remembers this time when he too was imprisoned in Plauen.
"About the first week of April they marched us out into the countryside. The guards were completely panicked. A couple of us slipped away from the guards and hid in a farm barn. Within days we were spotted by elements of the division with an acorn patch, I think the 82nd. After they picked us up they took us to a field aid station, then flew us to Rheims and then to Nancy to the 240th General Hospital where I was about 1½ months before they sent me to LeHavre and then home."
Whether Frank was also able to slip away amidst the confusion surrounding the intense bombing on 10 April 1945, is unknown. But as the 87th Infantry Division's 334th Field Artillery Battalion moved into Plauen on 16 April 1945 with an overland assault, Frank was still in the vicinity. Tom Stafford of Company L, 347th Infantry Regiment participated in the capture of Plauen on that day.
"Most of the buildings we observed as we moved deeper into Plauen had been severely damaged, many with only a few walls remaining; others were totally destroyed. The majority of the city's streets, many with gaping bomb craters, were nearly impassable; although the infantry and accompanying tanks were able to move through them after encountering light resistance from the German troops defending the city."
Whether Frank welcomed his liberators with open arms or whether they found him bedraggled and weakened amongst the ruins of Plauen the following day, we will never know, but on 17 April 1945, Private Frank L. Strukel, Army Serial Number 35539330, POW Number 319198, was at last returned to military control of the United States of America.

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