16 April, 2012

16 April 1945


438th AAA AW BN
APO 230 % Postmaster, N.Y.
16 April, 1945      0925

Hello Sweetheart –

Here I am again – or should I say – here I go again. You’re probably wondering how I can go so often and I can tell you, dear, that we can’t go much faster without hitting Target – Berlin. We’re really close now – and boy how these Germans hate us. They just never dreamed we’d ever get this far – and the way our trucks roll by in the thousands – makes their eyes pop. And our Army has toughened up, too, since we’ve seen with our own eyes – the atrocities these people were capable of.

Got two swell letters from you, darling, of 31 March and 2 April. Really loved both of them. Also – one from Verna. Honestly – sweetheart – have to stop now. I’m tired and dirty and want to wash up. I love you, sweetheart – and soon maybe I’ll be able to show you how much.

All my deepest love

Route of the Question Mark


(A) Nordhausen to (B) Helfta, Germany (40 miles)
12 April to 16 April 1945

April 16... Helfta. The large school-house where we lived. The enclosure with 53,000 German prisoners at the other end of town. The baseball games on the fine diamond. The memorial service for the President. Lieutenant Colonel [John J.] LANE was transferred to Group Hq here and Lieutenant Colonel [William A.] McWILLIAMS took over as new CO.

German PWs - Show down inspection for removal of weapons, knives, etc.
After this - Admitted to the cage
Helfta - April 1945

German PWs. This enclosure had 30,000 in it.
Officers in the foreground
Helfta - April 1945


about the Helfta POW Enclosure
The following excerpt comes from Lieutenant Colonel, USA (Retired) John B. Wong's book, "Battle Bridges, Combat River Crossings, WWII", published by Wong "on demand in cooperation with Trafford Publishing" and printed in Victoria, Canada in 2004. Wong served as commanding officer of Company C, 238th Engineer Combat Battalion during WWII and was in Helfta just after Greg was there.
The German POW count in the compound at Helfta varied from 40,000 to 60,000 persons, depending on the day of the headcount. A constant influx and outflow of POWs existed. They came and they went. They stood, forty to a truckload. Daily truck traffic included several dozen vehicles loaded with captured German rations. These rations consisted of a canned concoction that might have been a mixture of oat cereal, very little meat, and other ersatz materials. Included was a dark biscuit-like "iron" bread. Drinking water was brought from U.S. Army engineer sources.

The most prized possession of each individual POW was a container of some kind. A can, a pot, a pan, or a mess kit were items that were fought over vigorously. It was the cause of most disciplinary actions meted out by the POW officers, one of them a Major General of the Luftwaffe. The General was sent to the rear immediately after he was identified.

Fifteen were female POW personnel. Fourteen of them were uniformed nurses; one a Woman Auxiliary. I placed them in four pyramidal tents outside the POW compound near the Company CP. These women were placed on parole and accorded limited privileges. GI guards were posted around this tented area.

The POW compound was about one thousand yards in length and about five hundred yards in width. The rear of the enclosure was an enormous coal mining waste slate heap. Its vertical slope was as high as a twenty story building. These waste slag heaps were so large that they were shown on out 1/10,000 scale maps as prominent physical features equal to mountain terrain features. The two sides and front consisted of a fence constructed of three or more rolls of concertina barbed wire and some salvaged chain link fencing.  .30 caliber machine gun posts were placed at each corner covering the fence.  .50 caliber machine guns placed farther out across the roadway backed the .30s. Only one access was provided for the entire compound.

No US personnel were allowed inside the POW enclosure. This was an inflexible rule strictly adhered to by the guards. POW discipline was enforce by the POW officers.

The nearest row of civilian dwelling was across a narrow road fronting the eastern side of the camp. Our troops were quartered in these houses. The small village of Helfta sprawled to the southeast of the installation. A mental picture of a football stadium filled with people will serve to give an idea of the numbers of POW. These numbers could populated a fair sized town. The space was ample for the POWs. Feeding this population was not difficult with the use of captured food stocks. No shelter was provided. It was fortunate tht the weather was mild but drizzly.

Sanitation, especially the disposal of human wastes, was the most critical problem to be solved. Slit trenching was the only solution. The slit trenches that the POWs dug were probably the longest in the world. The first trench was excavated parallel to the west perimeter fence some eighteen inches wide and three feet deep the entire width of the compound. A new trench was excavated each day parallel to the one currently in use. The earth from the new trench was thrown into the old one as cover. The ditches were excavated with typical German pride and precision. This trenching was the POWs only physical activity. As the days passed a portion of the compound resembled a newly plowed pasture. During the life of the camp, miles and miles of slit trenches were excavated and covered over with soil. In spite of the extraordinary length of the trenches, the POWs had to wait impatiently for their turn on rare occasions. Fortunately no outbreak of disease of any kind occurred.

Nighttime required an increased vigilance from our GI guards. As dusk approached, following their evening meals, the POWs became restless. It was if the psyches of the individual POWs convalesced into one single entity. As with one voice, the POWs sang Wagnerian and other haunting Germanic songs. This music had a definite effect on the GIs on guard duty. Hearing this sad singing would cause our hackles to rise. The hair on our heads bristled, standing on end. It was chilling to hear these thousands of sad voices reverberating off the pitch black slag heap. As darkness fell the singing men would congregate in groups to continue with their separate tunes.

Following the singing, a handful of POWs, overcome with feeling, would attempt to escape by climbing the barbed wire. In most cases they headed in the direction of the POW nurses' tents. Our men had no choice but to open up on the would be escaping prisoners with the .30 caliber machine guns. Only a couple hundred, out of the thousands of men, attempting a pointless breakout would overrun our small guard force. During the first week an attempt to escape would be made each night by two or more POWs. The first night five tried to escape. Four were killed and one was wounded. The dead prisoners were left draped over the barbed wire concertinas, where they had been shot, as an object lesson to those remaining inside. Only later during the day were the bodies removed by Graves Registration for burial. I had conversations with the ranking German Colonel reminding him that the was would soon be over; that it was pointless to attempt to escape as the Russians were so very near. Where could they run?

No comments:

Post a Comment