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The Light at the End of the Tunnel — Surviving a Nazi POW Camp

Fredrick Irving’s plane was shot down over Magyarovar, Hungary during World War II. Right after hitting the ground, three Hungarian farmers tried several times to execute him; on the final attempt, it was only the intervention of German soldiers, who wanted Irving as a POW, that saved him. He was then interrogated by an American who had switched to the German side and who already had a lengthy dossier on Irving, thanks to German sleeper agents in the U.S. who collected information on American citizens. Irving then spent nine months in the same German POW camp where the “Great Escape” had taken place just months before.

In early 1945, the POWS were ordered to vacate the camp after they refused to fight in a counter-offensive against the approaching Soviet troops. Once he was finally liberated after months of starvation, brutality, and brutal cold he weighed less than 100 pounds. Irving let nothing stand in his way to survive, but at the same time, he did not lose his humanity.

Irving later joined the Foreign Service; he says he did so because “I felt that I had to play a part in trying to prevent another war, to try to negotiate, instead of fighting a war.” He wrote about his war experience in November 2010 in a memoir for his grandchildren.

Read about a POW in a Japanese camp,  U.S. diplomats who were held by the Nazis, and other Moments dealing with World War II.

 

“I had a queer feeling about the mission”

IRVING:  When the prisoners of war were liberated, the Army told us not to talk about our experience in captivity, not even to our spouses. I ignored that advice, and never hesitated to talk about it when asked, but I did not write about it. Now that I am almost 90 years old, I am putting my experience on paper so that future generations learn about this aspect of war.

I was the Navigator on a 10-man (four officers, six enlisted men) long distance B-24, four-engine bomber, flying out of Venosa, Italy….

On the morning of August 07, 1944, when we were assigned to bomb the synthetic oil fields of Blechhammer, Germany… I had a queer feeling about both the mission and the condition of the plane.

We were briefed by Air Force Intelligence that the target was poorly protected by German anti-aircraft guns and that it would be a “milk run” (i.e., an easy mission). Having been on four Ploiesti, Romania oil field raids, and knowing how important oil was to the German war machine, I could not believe that any German oil field raid would be a “milk run”….

Intelligence was quite wrong. There was heavy ground fire over the target and German fighter planes were waiting for us. We were hit by anti-aircraft ground fire; one engine caught on fire; and we began to lose altitude….

Before that, however, I was glad to have had the foresight to drop the bombs…. If I had not done so, a hit by a German fighter plane, which came soon, would have caused our plane to explode, instantly killing all of us….

Our co-pilot was hit in his thigh and our tail gunner (age 20) was killed, but not before he shot down two German fighters…. We suddenly encountered more German fighter planes. They shot out another engine. The pilot gave the order to bail out….

I fell about 3,000 feet before I realized that my parachute was not opening. The automatic open-flap had been shellacked shut. I ripped it open with my hands….

I landed on my neck with a heavy and painful thud. The grass was too short to hide my chute, so I crawled with it to a nearby bush.…Four Hungarian farmers on the ground had gotten to the bush first and peppered it with gunfire. Had I gotten to the bush first you can guess what would have happened to me….

“They tried to hang me three times”

After being captured by the farmers, and not knowing what they were talking about, I soon got the idea when they brought me to a large tree and put a heavy rope around my neck. They tried to hang me three times.

The first time they failed to tie my hands and my feet. I kicked myself loose. The second time they tied my feet but not my hands. As they strung me up, I pushed them away. The third time they tied my hands and my feet and started to pull the rope. It was very tight around my neck.

I was told my feet were just about being lifted from the ground when two German soldiers appeared, claimed me as their prisoner for interrogation, and made them release me. I was also later told that the Hungarians became frightened that I was not dead when I was cut down because they thought some supernatural being interceded and saved me.

While all this was going on, other farmers found three of our gunners. They and I were then herded into a shed with only a narrow slit for air and light, and crawling with bugs. The nose gunner and one other were crying. In order to calm them down, I decided that we should play tic-tac-toe against a wall, using the blood of the insects as ink.

Then, to my surprise, and strictly against all military rules and common sense, I discovered that the nose gunner had with him a small address book full of names. I ordered that we chew and swallow the pages.

The next morning we were taken out of that shack. The enlisted men were led elsewhere. It wasn’t until the end of the war when I next saw them. I was herded out with a rifle sticking in my back and directed to a stone wall. I was made to stand at attention against that wall and they took an ID photo of me. I was then told that I would be shot. I do not know exactly what happened next, other than I was still alive.

Later on that second day I was transported via cattle car to Budapest where there were about 15 other American prisoners. I was put in solitary confinement in a cell for almost three days without food and water. Loud church bells were ringing constantly, day and night. I had secreted between my fingers a tiny compass, but it was soon discovered, and I was beaten.

On the second day of solitary a supposedly another American POW was shoved into my cell. It was obvious that he was a German plant. He spoke perfect English and was dressed like a movie version of a glamorous pilot — leather jacket, white silk scarf, etc. We on a mission flew in comfortable sweatshirt clothing. He started to ask me about my plane, the equipment I had in the plane, and so on. He had gotten nothing from me, so he was yanked out.

“I was not going to give the enemy the satisfaction of dying”

On the day of my release from solitary, when I did not die from previous attempts to kill me, I was tied hands and feet, put in the back of an open truck and driven through the streets of Budapest for about an hour, with a loud speaker blaring “Death to the American gangster,” and bystanders were urged to throw rocks at me.

My captors thought surely I would die this time — a violent death. Again, I disappointed them. I was hurt so badly, however, that I had to be carried out of the truck. I was in a semi-conscious state.

The Hungarian guards did not care whether I needed some medical assistance after that experience. In fact, I felt that they wished I would die so that they would not have to bother with me anymore.

They “tossed” me into a large room where there were about 15 other Allied Air Force officer POWs. There were no beds. Every POW slept on the floor. The other POWs did not care either; they were in no better condition. For the next day or two, I did not know whether I was dead or alive. I suddenly came to life and decided I was not going to give the enemy the satisfaction of dying. I decided that I joined the Air Force to make the enemy miserable, and that is exactly what I was going to do from there on in!

A few days later, I was taken to be interrogated again, this time, to my surprise, my interrogator spoke perfect American English and looked like an American. He was wearing a German Major’s uniform.

To my question, he told me that he was an American. When I asked him the reason for becoming a traitor, he remarked that there were two reasons:  one, because the Germans were going to win, and two, because his father was in the first World War in the American Army, and the U.S. Government promised the veterans a bonus, but never gave it. This made him never to trust the American Government.

He further said that if his side loses, he will then change into an American uniform which he has hidden in his belongings and will be sent back to the United States with whatever group was heading home. The “stupid Americans,” he said, would not know that there was one soldier too many.

I told him that I have a good memory and at that very moment, I was memorizing his face and features. He laughed and then said, “Let’s get on with the interrogation, and by the way,” he was supposed to be asking me the questions, not the other way around.

Whatever he asked me, I gave him the standard answers, namely name, rank, and serial number. He said that he already knew a lot about me. He then told me from what high school and college I graduated, the name of the street where I lived, when my father died, when I received my wings, etc.!

When I asked him how he knew all of this, he said that sooner or later, the Germans knew that they would be fighting the Americans, so they were placing “sleepers” in lots of cities in the United States. These “sleepers” subscribed to lots of local newspapers. Then when something good happened to them, such as graduations, weddings, etc., it would appear in these papers.

They were particularly interested in flying personnel and made an index of them. He mentioned that my engineer was to be interrogated next. The interrogator was so pompous that I asked whether I could be present when he interrogated him. He agreed, saying that he would not learn anything from him that he did not already know, but he still had to go through the routine. He was bragging and I suspected that he was about to spring a surprise on me.

When my flight engineer came into the room, the interrogator asked him whether he recognized him. It turned out that the interrogator lived a few houses away from him in Long Island, New York! He then told my engineer all about him. I was, indeed, surprised.

“Everyone handles adversity differently”

My engineer and I were then escorted back to the separate rooms from where we came. The treatment that half hour was the most humane I received during the week since I was shot down. A colleague POW in the room, who was crying, told me that I should not get used to it. He told me the story of a colleague who recently left.

His B-24 was shot down near Budapest. His six gunners and co-pilot landed on a small island in the Danube. He and the rest of the crew landed on the mainland. The Hungarians decided to have some fun. They decided to pretend our men on the island were animals and to have a contest as to how many of his men could shoot and kill the most.

The pilot tried to stop them. He was horribly gun whipped. His men on the island ran around like animals. They eventually were slain, but not before being shot, purposely, on several parts of their body. They did not want the men to die too soon The Hungarian shooters then made the pilot row out to the island and retrieve the bodies. They spit on each of the dead bodies as they were brought ashore and they beat up the pilot again when he protested.

Another colleague was also crying. I was told his story of a different kind. He was a bombardier, also on a B-24. His plane was hit by flak from the ground and from German fighter aircraft. When the pilot gave the order to vacate the plane, he forgot to release the bombs before he parachuted out. German fighters hit the plane. The plane exploded, the six gunners who did not have a chance to leave the plane all died in the explosion. He realized what he failed to do. He kept calling himself a murderer and wanted to commit suicide. There was bedlam. The rest of the POWs in the room were trying to stop him.

I came across a third POW who was crying. He was praying to God, asking why God had let him be shot down. He told God that he went to church every Sunday, that he was a good Christian, etc. I am not much of a churchgoer, but I told him not to blame God. God did not do this to him; it was the enemy who did it, that he should be a good soldier, etc. He turned to me and about to hit me, and said that I should mind my own business — if he wanted to blame God, that was his business!

Maybe he was right. Everyone handles adversity differently. I certainly feel pain, but I suspect it was my upbringing that gives some people the impression that I don’t….

“If we try to escape we will be shot”

A few days passed when we were advised that we would be leaving for our permanent POW camp. We were herded into a box car that still smelled of the animals it previously held. Sixty persons were crowded into space meant for forty. The box car door was then locked. Some of us had to sit down; some had to stand up. I was one of the lucky ones. I had to stand up. We were headed for Sagan, Germany (on the Polish Plains), by rail, a trip of more than two days, via Vienna.

It was 24 hours before the train stopped. The box car was uncoupled. It was left standing all alone in the rail yard. There was an air raid going on by the American Air Force. Luckily, they bombed all around us, but not the box car. They obviously knew that we were in that car.

When we finally arrived at Stalag Luft III (pictured above), the flying officers’ POW camp, the Germans took the bread that we still had with us that we stole, and displayed the meanness that we were to experience the rest of our stay — if we try to escape we will be shot, if we misbehave, we will be shot, if we destroy property, we will be shot.

We will be fed daily enough to keep us alive, which they said was 700 calories a day. They did not mention that was counting the worms and bugs swimming in the soup.

We were then assigned to the compounds. There were three compounds:  North for British POWs; South and Central for American POWs. I was assigned to the North Compound, the British compound of the “Great Escape” [when prisoners dug tunnels to escape the camp in March 1944; 76 escaped; 73 were killed or recaptured]….The occupants were a Welsh Major, a Czech Major in a British uniform, a Scot Captain, two London Captains, and an Australian 1st Lieutenant.

For a month the British gave me the silent treatment, until I blasted them! They finally told me the reason. On their clandestine radio they were advised to beware of an American traitor who was a German “plant” coming in just about when I was coming in. The Germans were suspicious that a new escape was being planned, and that the group of men with whom I was assigned to live were the leaders of the new attempt. Likewise, since I was the only one of the new group of POWs assigned to the North Compound, the group of men with whom I was assigned to live thought that I was the German “plant”.

The German ration per POW twice a day was a slice of bread (50% sawdust), a teaspoon of jam, a cup of warm water called soup, I suppose, because there was usually something swimming around in it, and one small potato, half rotten. This was augmented by half of a 10 lb. American Red Cross food parcel per week (we shared the other half of the parcels with the British whose parcels were never received).

The 5 lbs. consisted of one pack of cigarettes, a 4-oz bar of dark chocolate, a 12-oz can of ground corned beef, and a 12-oz can of milk powder called “Klim”. Since I did not smoke, I traded my cigarettes for a bar of chocolate within the group. It was from this 5 lbs., despite its meagerness, we had to donate some to be held for a possible escape.

We attended roll call twice a day. It snowed in October and almost every day that month and since — or else it rained. The temperature was consistently below freezing from late September. The room temp was never higher than 50 F.

The New Escape Group 

The new Escape Group built a new tunnel in an ingenious place, which I shall describe shortly. We had a secret radio, a tailor shop, a printing press, a map making facility, and everything else required to make us appear to be German civilians. In addition to the food, each member had to give up four of his seven bed slats. How we were able to deceive our guards regarding the bed slats was through a magician’s “sleight of hand” trick which the British POWs taught us. Doing the latter went a long way toward each member of the group ultimately suffering from severe back pain.

The newest members’ duties started from the bottom. We each were assigned to watch a couple of barracks. When a German guard came nearby, we had to call out “goon in the block!” We did this for every building, whether something was going on in it or not.

When I was asked whether I wanted to join the Escape Group, I was told that they wanted to give me a free choice, but if I declined and said “No”, I would still be shot with my roommates. I replied that given the so-called “free” choice, I gladly will join.

Their reply was, “We thought you would see it our way.” They could not let anyone loose, knowing the information that I would pick up living with them.

We took turns having one of the beds having its full complement of seven slats. At night just before the guard shone his flashlight on a bed, we would very quickly “accidentally” knock the guard’s light askew and four slats would be shoved into the POW’s bed immediately, before the guards could see what was happening. The guards never caught on. We learned to do this with lightning speed.

“There will always be someone worse off than we are” 

My British roommates every so often displayed some humor to keep from going “stir crazy,” I suspected. One night when we had the lights in our room out (all two of them), our Leader suggested we sit up in the total darkness with a book in front of us as if we were reading it. When the German guard shone his flashlight in our faces, we looked startled as if to say, “Why are you interrupting our reading’?” The guard was really startled. Here were the POWs reading in the dark!

As time in the camp went on, except for being constantly hungry and cold, we were bored. As officers, unlike the enlisted personnel, the Geneva Convention would not allow our captors to make us work. We all wanted to work. It was a way of getting outside the camp, perhaps getting some extra food from the farmers or from whom we would have been forced to work.

All of us officer POWs could not imagine a worst manner of death than hunger. One day I discovered a pile of potato skins in the garbage. I collected them and what little fire I could muster, I heated the skins and ate them. I mentioned this new source of food to my starving colleagues. Result: That was the last of the potato skins in the trash. It was a race as to which POWs would get to them first.

I shared this information willingly. I was asked by many of my colleagues why did I do that; I could have had a pile of extra food all to myself if I kept quiet. My explanation:  My father died when he was 36. When he died my mother was 32, I was 4, and I was one of six children. The oldest was 12. We had to go on welfare, which, at that time, was considered degrading. My mother always said to us when we were growing up, that there will always be someone worse off than we are. Share, if it would make those someone feel better. I remembered what my mother said.

The attitude of our British colleagues against the Americans was getting hostile. We had since increased to about 100 total Americans living in the North Compound. It was as if they resented us. The British who were shot down very early in the war had been treated better by the Germans, especially when the Germans had many successes. They let the POWs receive lots of blankets, sports equipment, books, and food to be sent from home. The British POWs were generally well-supplied with equipment (except food, of course).

I suspected the cause of irritation was a clash of cultures. They never did share with us, and we did not have anything that we could share with them. Our Australian roommate was an extreme example. He was an unusually short person. He had accumulated seven woolly blankets from home. He was smothering in them in the winter’s worst weather in 30 years. He paid no attention to the pleas of any in the room for just a half hour under one of his blankets.

Our lack of sufficient food to sustain us was getting to be noticeable. I guess I weighed less than 100 lbs. by the end of 1944. Also, I started to have stomach problems, puffy cheeks, and a prominent belly.

In the early days of the war, the Germans let the British build a theater for plays they wanted to put on. After the failure of the “Great Escape” escape effort, the current committee decided to put the entrance to the tunnel in the theater, under the seat where the German Commander of the POW camp sat during performances. The Germans let the British have some loud musical instruments. When some loud actions in the tunnel had to take place, the plays had scenes that required loud noises. The Germans never caught on. The British POWs never lost their sense of humor.

A Long, Cold March 

Every day the Germans beamed a radio news program at us in English. Most of it was nonsense, such as German bombers annihilated New York City and it is now rubble, that they will next destroy Chicago and San Francisco, etc.

We were able to get the truth from our clandestine radio. However, on one day, near the end of January, I believe, both radios broadcast the same item: namely, the Soviet offensive in the East had started, and they were about 20 miles from us. All of us in camp dreamed of liberation. But it was not to be.

The Commandant issued a statement from Hitler directed toward us. He wanted us to join the German counter-offensive against the Soviets, saying that we had more to fear from the Soviets than from the Germans. We, of course, refused. We were then told by the Commandant, quoting Hitler, that he will never give us up to be in a situation where we may be recruited to bomb Germany again. We were ordered to vacate the camp within 30 minutes, and if we stalled, we would be shot.

We could only take what we could wear or carry. Everything was in chaos. We were each given a Red Cross food parcel by the Germans and were on our way. It was very cold, well below freezing, and the snow was thick. No one, not even our German guards, knew where we were going. All that we knew was that we were running from the Soviets. We were forced to march for 24 hours steadily. The first night four German guards, we were told, froze to death. The second day we had a blizzard that made it tough going. We were marching in circles until the Germans sighted a huge barn. They ordered us to stop for the night in that barn.

After four days we stopped at a French prison camp in Muskau, because the guards were collapsing. We stayed there for two days, I believe. My feet were so swollen that I did not dare take my shoes off. At Muskau there was a German medical dispensary.

One of our guards on the march kept uttering that when given the opportunity, he was going to kill us. We had to watch him closely. When this particular guard noticed the dispensary, he wanted to stop in there. He ordered two of us to take him there. I used to work at a pharmacy after high school hours. I noticed our chance to get rid of this guard.

In the dispensary I saw a bottle of Cascara Sagrada (a chocolate coated laxative pill that looked like M&Ms). I swiped it and then let the guard catch me putting it in my pocket. When he caught me, he asked me what it was. I told him “Choco1ate”. He demanded the bottle, poured a handful in his hand and swallowed all of it! That was the last we saw of him! For all I know, he is still squatting in a ditch going to the bathroom.

After two weeks we were still on the road, marching and sleeping in the snow. Still seeing red snow and knowing what that signified. One day we saw a column of American POWs coming down another road. Without permission from the Germans, but without their interference, we American POWs attached ourselves to the American column.

That was the same day the British POWS told us that on their secret radio they heard that President Roosevelt had died [April 12, 1945]. We Americans were stunned and saddened. The American and British POWS stopped to pray. The German guards cheered. We were ready to revolt against them. It was all we could do to control ourselves.

As the march continued, the British column going down one road and we another, we saw a lone American fighter plane overhead. We cheered, but then realized that he was strafing us. We immediately formed ourselves along the road spelling “USA POWs”. The plane made three passes over us, still strafing, despite the sign we made with our bodies. After the third pass, there was then silence. We were pleased to hear that he was shot down. The pilot probably did not know what the spelling meant.

On the march we saw a farm where there was a large pile of cabbages stored for the cows. We broke discipline and ran toward the farm. The German guards started shooting, but we still managed to get some cabbages. It was the first food we had in more than a day. I saw a chicken while I was escaping from the farm. I remembered someone telling me that if you sharply strike the rear of a hen, it will lay an egg. I tried it. It worked! But, unfortunately, I did not have a chance to eat it. It was that or get shot!

After about another 8 or 10 miles we arrived at Nuremberg (pictured below), which was our destination. There we were billeted in a large structure which was once a German Army barracks. We were so cold that we tore down our wooden bunks and burned them for heat. Within an hour there was not a bunk standing, but lots of smoke. We gave no thought to the possibility that we might have set the structure on fire, too.

“I replied that if I was dying I would take him with me”

I was so full of lice, that I undressed completely and showered outside under the open water faucet (cold water) which once was housed inside a wooden hut before we tore it down. The outside temperature was definitely well under freezing and the wind, fierce. Naturally, I soon came down with a high fever.

In another building there was a medical dispensary, solely for the Germans. I sneaked into it. I asked the doctor for medicine. He spoke perfect English.

He at first refused and tried to call the guards. I threatened him and told him that if he wanted to stay alive, he had better give me some medicine. I must have looked crazed, so he probably figured that I would do what I had threatened I would do. He said that I had pneumonia, that I was in such bad condition that it was a waste of scarce medicine to give me because I was dying.

I replied that if I was dying I would take him with me, so he better give me some anyway. He then gave me 10 aspirins. I let him go and sneaked back to the barracks. I nibbled the aspirins a little at a time. I recovered!

Our barracks where we were billeted was near the railroad hub (the marshalling yards). It was such an important transportation center that Americans bombed it by daylight and the British bombed it during the night, almost round the clock. The bombers must have known in which building we were billeted because they purposely avoided bombing that particular structure.

One night we stood in silence to honor a British bomber pilot whose aircraft was on fire. He died in his plane so as not to crash into our building. He could have parachuted out and saved himself, but he stayed in his burning plane in order to clear the building.

After two months at Nuremberg, we were suddenly given 30 minutes to pack up. We were leaving. An American Army unit had broken through the German line and was heading toward Nuremberg. The German High Command still refused to let flying officers be rescued.

It was now toward the end of March…. It was evident that the Americans and the British had command of the skies….

At Nuremberg about four or five POWs cracked under the constant day and night bombing. We protected them from being harmed by the German guards — and from themselves.

It was now mid-April 1945, when we arrived at Moosburg, about 20 miles away, and about 10 miles north of Munich. Located at Moosburg was a huge POW camp….

A few days after our arrival, the German Commander announced that the German High Command ordered him to have all POWs shot, but he refused to carry out the order. He further stated that the SS were headed to the camp to carry out the order and to kill him, too.

General Patton (pictured) also heard of this order. He deviated from his original route in order to intercept the SS. They met at Moosburg. A heavy battle took place at the camp that lasted two days. We dug trenches in which to lie to avoid the bullets that were flying overhead.

General Patton won the battle. We were liberated!