National Archives has a collection of documents left behind by an army of
investigators who fanned out across Europe and
the many volumes is an interview taken in August of 1945, of Sgt. Carl Mead, US
Army Air Corps. He had been a prisoner of the Germans at Stalag Luft 6,
Hydekrug, in what is now
Sgt. Mead´s observation was based on the assumption that history is the record of extraordinary events and circumstances. From January to July 1944, he had witnessed a duel of two ideologies, facing each other daily, in the isolation of the Baltic forest. The downed airmen of the RAF and Army Air Corps had the wits; their Luftwaffe captors had the wire. Surely, what he had witnessed during his stay at Stalag Luft 6 would qualify them for mention by journalists and historians. Yet, his page was but one of ten thousand in RG 153. It took me the better part of a decade to unfold the remarkable footnote about the escape of four American PW´s.
What could have been history got lost in the astounding flow of events that swept up the Heydekrug Sergeants during the balance of 1944-45. Records about most American escapes don´t exist. In order to document events like this, one must leave behind the tidy piles of paper, in the archives. Herotodus, telling the story of the Spartans at Thermophylae surely faced the same passage of time and workings of memory. He had to read into the pattern of events and let precision give way to perception.
The basic premise faced by every airman who fell out of the sky, during WWII was: “You´re on your own, soldier!” It´s worth remembering their efforts.
investigation into events occurring at Luft VI, led me to Record Group 242 and
eventually to Carter Lunsford of
"Luft VI was a new camp, but the RAF had been there for several months before we arrived. Our trainload of eighty prisoners was the first American contingent to come in. The British were fascinated with us when we got there and put us in a blockhouse along with their guys.
our training, they hadn't given us much information about what we were supposed
to do as prisoners of war. We knew that we could only give our name rank and
serial number, and they had told us that it was our duty as soldiers to try to
escape. Dixie Deans was the British camp leader. He gave us the whole rundown.
Those RAF boys had been down for several years and they knew what it was all
The British were very well organized for escapes and we got a lot of our information from them. Once a man was picked out, he went to school. They spoke nothing but German to him, right in the camp. He was interrogated entirely in German, so that when he got outside, he´d be prepared.
At Luft 6, Col. Von Hoerman was our Commandant. He was a very fine Prussian gentleman officer. Very stern, very strict, but very fair. He abided by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Our lager Fuhrer was Major Heinrich, the adjutant of the camp. He was the guy we dealt with on a daily basis. This guy was like Col. Klink in Hogan's Heroes, and in fact, looked like him. One of our guards was a young guy, Feldwebel Schroeder. He's the one we got our radio parts stuff from. We worked through him if we needed anything. He was a smart guy and knew how to play both sides, . . . and keep his nose clean.
We had tunnels and escapes going on almost as soon as we got settled. One group of four guys cut their way out and went down through a drainage ditch that ran around the perimeter of the camp. We protected their disappearance for well over a month. Feldwebel Schroeder came in and told us that half the German officers thought we had men out and half thought the men were still in camp. We had them that confused.
I used to stand and take the count at parade, twice a day. I knew just when the men were going to start jumping around to mess up the count. I could see them doing it, because I knew what to look for. The Germans would be counting and finish up one barracks. I´d see several guys get down and quickly scoot over into the next line. The Germans never caught us and the count would always turn up right; but we did have some close calls.
One time, a new bunch of kriegies came in and were moving the men into their barracks. The Germans were all over the place and they started to make a surprise count. They told us: “Everybody out so we can make a count!" I said to myself:" Oh man, we haven't any protection here!" The missing men were from barracks F, which was adjacent but separated by an open lane about 15 yards wide. I knew I had to do something in hurry!
I ran into E block and grabbed four of the new PW's and said: " Look . . . You've got to fill in for the count over there. This count's going to be all screwed up, anyhow! There's too much going on here for them to get it right. " We started across the alley and this Major Heinrich, who had three soldiers with him, spotted us running. He yelled for us to stop and came tearing across the compound with those guards. Of course we came to a quick stop!
They called for an interpreter and Schroeder showed up. He was a big help. Heinrich wanted to know: "What are you doing out here? Why aren't you in the barracks?" I said:" I'm the assistant camp leader and I'm bringing these men back over where they belong. They're just in block E to see their friends who've just come in. " All the while these guards are standing with their guns leveled at us and I can see Schroeder carrying on with the Major:" Yes, yes, he´s bringing them here and so forth . . . everything is in order. " Finally, He shouts at us:" All right, get in there, and don't let me see another guy on this street!"
We fell in with the rest of the guys from Block F and of course the count came out right! The fellows who'd escaped had been gone for some time, and eventually the Germans did what was called a corral count. This is where you all get out into one big group, then they pass you two at a time past a guard. We did that for two or three days. Finally the British gave us the word " Hey, look this has gone far enough. Just forget the count. They may have your people anyway!" It was always cat and mouse with the guards and us."
before I could follow the lead on four men out, I learned of the tragic escape
attempt by T/Sgt. Edgar Jurist and George Walker in the spring of 1944. Since
he was a resident of the nearby Hudson River town of
As he spun tales about the British escapes, and the first American attempts at tunneling, it was easy to see how one could get caught up in it all. T/Sgt. Jurist shared with me the realities of creeping, exposed and alone across the frozen Baltic tundra; trapped within the wire, hoping to avoid the guards and dogs and searchlights. I´ll always be haunted by my meetings with him.
"I got to Heydekrug with some of my crew about March of 1944. All sorts of escape techniques were being attempted. There were few real successes although some of them were brilliantly devised. We had a tunnel that was attempted under the shithouse. That was a devastating thing, because the latrine was nothing more than a concrete trench. The Kriegies smashed their way through the wall of the trench, working in teams. They were headed towards the barbed wire right behind it. The distance to cover was quite short, so they were well on their way to succeeding. One problem was, of course, what do you do with the dirt? Between the barracks, we were permitted to build a basketball court. As the dirt was dug, a guy would come over to the area and dump it; the ball players would run over and stamp it down, right away. Another problem is the engineering; how do you shore the tunnel up? We only had six slats under our straw sacks. Each of us would donate one to the escape committee, who´d split them up for use as shoring.
In this case, another engineering problem was maintaining a correct heading and depth. At some point, as they neared the fence, they were only a foot or two from the surface. One day, a Russian prisoner was walking around back there behind the latrine, cleaning up. It had rained the night before and he fell through. That Russian was paralyzed with fear! As he went down, he started crying and screaming and carrying on. The place was full of Krauts in no time at all. It's a shame, all that work done for nothing.
The only successful break I know of from the American compound at Hydekrug, and involved Harvey Elwood Gann. He went out with a guy named Lamarca. I know of this because Gann and I escaped later, when they evacuated Luft 4. After the guys were recaptured, they landed back in my barracks; that´s how I met Gann.
That attempt was in the early spring of 1944, but after March, escape was no longer a sport. When the Great Escape took place down at Sagan, the Germans called us all together at Appell and counted us. The Commandant was an elegant S. O. B. ; He was always dressed in these long leather coats. He shouted out in German and Bill Krebs translated into English, as he told about the escape. “That´s not going to happen here! Henceforth everyone will be shot.”"
For several years, I had maintained contact with Lloyd Nordstom and Loren Fink. Along with George Walker, they formed the nucleus of the Escape Committee. “Doc” Nordstrom was forty at the time of his capture. I met Nordstrom as a golf playing, 86 year old Californian. Now 91, he feels the limits of his movement and memory. Although he deferred to Mr. Fink on the story of the main escape, he did recall that the trench on the south perimeter had been used at least one other time. With two men down in there and him watching from a window in the mess hall, a German officer unexpectedly returned to the compound and foiled the attempt.
younger associate, Mr. Loren Fink was raised in
knew two of the guys who went out of Heydekrug, Stapleton and Gann. One of the
fellows was from
worked with Lloyd Nordstrom on the escape committee. I got shot down on the
Those four guys hid on the dark side of a building that was not far away from the drainage ditch. Maybe it was the mess hall. From there, they could get down into it where the lights would shine over them. I really don't know just when and how they got out. A lot of that information was kept secret because, if too many people knew, it could have been disastrous. Only those involved knew the whole plan.
I was told that they were captured after three days. Everyone in his or her barracks did the covering. The Germans would count the men in the front line, then someone would slip down and scoot over and be counted twice. We stood out there for hours in that count fooling around. We didn't know that they had been caught. Finally the Commandant said: "We count you all here, but we know you're not. We've got four of you in the cooler!” Of course that brought everything to a halt. When they did come in, they told us they'd been on bread and water in another place. They claimed the Germans' told them: " You had a good try, now maybe we see you again!" Later it got to where you didn't dare do that; you'd get shot for just thinking about it!
Aside from Jurist and Walker, there was two English guys who got out from our compound. I remember them because I had their uniforms in my bed for a while. They dressed in German Uniforms, they could speak fluent German, they had all the cards they needed and everything was up to date. The British had traded for this stuff or made it up. They showed their passes and those two just walked to the gate and marched out in broad daylight. I was told that they made it back. The British had been prisoners a long time before we got there . . . some as much as three years. Their organization was really worked out to the tops. When I was over with them, they showed me how to work on an escape committee; how to go about trading with the Germans. Of course you were at a disadvantage if you couldn't speak fluent German. They actually had men going out for the purpose of planning a way to escape. They'd make maps, find contacts and then come back into camp . . . just like they got out . . . right through the main gate.
had a lot of the maps that
It was built into you from when you first got trained; one of your priorities was to try to escape. A lot of fellows did take off in 1945, when they were on the Long March; but the best thing really was to stay with the bunch. A lot of our guys were killed by civilians and left by the side of the road.
So many of these things just set up there in your mind, until somebody says something, then you remember. After 50 years, you forget a lot. Evidently a lot of them add to the stories too! And of course, many things you never heard of before, and you don't know if it's even true. One things for sure. Those four guys went out. They didn't stay out, but they did get out!"
located and began a correspondence with Harvey Gann, of
"Bob Hansen was the tail gunner on White Fang, the ship I was flying on the day we got shot down. I thought I was the only guy out. Forty-six years later, he called me! I thought it was some prankster being nasty. All my life, I´ve been telling people that I´m the only one out of my plane, and how fortunate I was. I ‘m glad he got out too, but it just shows you, about these things.
my last mission, I was in the ball turret of “White Fang” as a replacement
gunner. We were flying B-24´s with the 15th Air Force, out of
got to Stalag Luft VI around January 28th and as near as I can tell, I was one
of the first Americans in that camp. They put me in with the British. When I
found out that
Would you believe, that at the same time, the guards on the outside of the American compound, are doing the same thing. They´d get to the middle and reverse- almost like a machine. It was like a gate opening and closing; it seemed ridiculous. The south end of the compound had our parade grounds, then the mess hall and behind that, drainage ditch. We decided to go out through the wire, down there.
At first, it was only the two of us going; then Stapleton and Rowton came in at the very end. To be honest, I forget exactly how that took place. We did see the escape committee. At first, they didn´t think the plan was too hot, but they wouldn´t stop us.
The plan was very simple. We tried to get a good view of the search lights at night, while we were locked in. The ditch was deep enough to give us cover, so we planned to go along the ditch as far as we could. The next thing we had to figure, was how to cut the wire, as fast and in the simplest way. You have to prop up the barbed wire entanglement with some sticks, so you can crawl underneath it. We were given cutters and some maps. There was supposed to be some kind of contact, outside the camp. As near as I can picture it, there was a little grove of woods where we were to meet. For some reason, we never made contact.
We were left outside of the barracks, near the mess hall, after lock up. Getting into the ditch was the whole crux of the matter and we proceeded very cautiously. This whole part of the escape is very vague in my mind, but those lights were going over us constantly, as you can imagine. It was about 20 yards from the mess hall to the trench and about another twenty yards to the fence from there, although at the time it seemed like a hundred miles.
remember being in an open space and getting caught by the spotlight; we lay
perfectly flat while that light was on us. Boy, that makes you feel quite a
chill; of course it was actually very cold that night.
we were out, I definitely remember drinking from streams. The funny part of it
was, one of my friends was relieving himself,
upstream, while I was drinking. We made a joke about it afterwards. For food,
we´d raid those German food lockers, with the little roofs sticking up. . . root cellars. We busted into a couple of these
things. At night we stayed in barns. One time
we were out in the open the whole time, traveling cross-country. I think we
were lucky to make ten or fifteen miles a day. At times it was woodsy and at
times there was just open farmland. Considering we were only twenty-year-olds, I ‘d say we were pretty cool about the escape. Believe me,
cutting through the wire, I was scared to death; but outside of that we stuck
together and went right straight ahead. I really give credit to
I was growing up, I was definitely a city guy, and so was Tom Stapleton. He was
I don´t remember coming into contact with any people along the way. Recently, Mo told me that the name of the town we got caught in, was Jabarkis. We had stopped at a Lithuanian household and the farmer took us in, at the risk of his family´s lives. They fed us, gave us their beds and everything else. I´ll never forget them as long as I live; God loves them. My feet were very cold, so I put them near a fire. Holy Father in Heaven! I got complete and total pain. My toes and heels had been frozen and I didn´t know it. I literally cried with tears running down my face. I was in agony. Mo looks at me and says:” “Rough?” I said,” Hey, what do you think?” The next morning, we left there.
and I have discussed our capture and even we disagree. I never talked with
anyone about this for 45 years. It´s almost like having amnesia and then having
a flashback. I recall a Catholic Priest and him having to turn us in, because
the German´s might have taken reprisals against the people, for housing us.
Police work is not generally viewed as scholarly. However, consider Harvey Gann´s many years as a detective, spent looking for the pattern of events. I´m sure this helped as he assembled and documented his memoirs. One of his letters to me mentioned, Sgt. Frank Miller. I was able to contact him at his home in the heart of Penn Dutch country. Mr. Miller´s name came from Gann´s notebook, but ironically, the two had never met. Written fifty years ago, Sgt. Miller´s notebook provided one of the few pieces of written documentation, that I was able to find.
"I stood in for Jake Rowton at roll call during their escape. I'd go from one barracks to the other and when they called out his name I'd go " Here!" I was in E-4 and he might have been from next door. It was only a few day's that I took Rowton's place and it happened very soon after I got there.
Stapleton was on my crew. We were with the 379th Bomb Group flying B-17's out
Whoever was in charge of these things, asked if anyone wanted to help in this escape. They wanted someone to take the part of Jake Rowton, and duck from one line-up to the other. I said, " I'll do it!” I must have known him, but I have a list of the guys in our room and he wasn't one of them. Funny thing is I always thought they tunneled out.
My diary says I came in on February 14, 1944 and my notes say: "February 15- Satch (we called Stapleton, Satchmo) and three others took off. I covered for jake, one of the boys. They were loose for seven days, then escaped from another jail and were loose for three days . . . had quite a time and almost made it to a Swedish boat". I made those notes at the time and this was one of 19 pages.
of us had made it out of our plane but by the time I was checking in 1988, for
our crew reunion, Stapleton had passed away. I remember Tom; he was a cut up, a
real live wire and a lot of fun. Tom was a good-looking fellow, but rather on
the small side because that's who they picked to get into the ball turret. We
had met and trained down in
Speaking to Mrs. Irene Stapleton was very much like the experience I had asking my Mom about my father. Stored away for so long, the stories had pulled together like Turkish Taffy. Although they were someone else´s experience, they were sewn into the fabric of her memory. During our conversation, four years of Tom Stapleton's life came out as one block.
been a long time since I talked to anyone about this. My husband escaped three
times. After they got out of camp, they were in a farmhouse in
My husband died twenty years ago; he was 53. Do you realize I have all the letters I ever got form him? All of them! but I only got two letters and two postcards in all the time he was a POW. My husband didn't have a diary and he never wrote these things down. He'd only tell it.
was a tool and die maker. Before he went into the service, he worked for Curtis
Wright. He left from
I can recall my husband saying if they ever got caught, they were supposed to find a way to escape. He said anybody who escaped, they tried to cover for them at roll call in the morning. Now Tom didn't like to be confined, and I'm sure he didn't like to be told what to do. Even after we were married, he never liked to be told what to do. He was very intense about what he wanted and when he wanted to do it. Nobody could say: "Well we can't do that today. " If he wanted to do it, he´d go right ahead. He wasn't like that before he went in. My husband was a bundle of nerves when he came back. I mean he was still a happy go lucky guy inside and he did get along with other people and Tom wasn't a selfish person. But nobody could wake him up. We had three children and they couldn't go up and say:" Hey dad, wake up" when he was sleeping, because he'd swing. That's the first thing he'd do.
my husband was definitely a city guy, brought up in
far as I knew, my husband was never abused or beaten. If he was, he never told
us about it. What he told us were the funny stories: Like if one person
scratched, everybody had to get deloused. The Germans were afraid of disease,
so they made sure they were always deloused. He came home with only the clothes
on his back; and they were all brand new. The story goes, that if a crew didn't
come back, they´d raid your locker. My husband had a
pair of tailor mades while he was in
Tom Stapleton, Jake Rowton passed on before his time. Rise Wiggins, his
daughter, is the family´s historian. Although he kept no diary of his own, a
worn and tattered notebook, left behind in the barracks at Luft 1, was the
window to her dad´s PW experience. Filled with drawings and poems, Jake Rowton
thought it was worth hanging on to. He brought it all the way home to the
dad grew up his whole life on a farm. He spent a lot of time on horseback,
taking care of cows, out on the range. His grandparents had come over the
prairie in a covered wagon and started the ranch in Molsen. Dad was the only
son and had two sisters to take care of, so he had to be very responsible.
After high school, he went to
We didn´t know much about the things that happened to him as a prisoner. I guess it wasn´t something he wanted to dwell on. Dad was very independent and it wouldn´t have bothered him to take his chances or be in a risky situation."
Mo Gann´s book, “Escape I Must” was completed in 1995. Seeing the tale clearly laid out in print was a thrill. There were the fine details, such as the wire-cutters-made-from-a-hinge; and the broad strokes, such as their capture, imprisonment in the dungeons at Koenigsburg, and final bold escape. As gratifying as these revelations were, I could never know or record all the events of the escape. My focus had been forced to widen: What drove these men to take a gamble, on such a long shot, as an escape? What was the glue that held them together? Mr. Gann spoke about what his partners had looked for in each other.
"One of the things that was most disappointing in my contacts with other individuals was how far apart people´s memories are. I was amazed that we had such different recollections. I know darn well, I put these things down as they were happening. Of course, every time we were caught, searched, or moved from one camp to the next, you´d lose them. I did however, make notes after I got to where I could keep them. I´m confident that they´re correct. It´s just that on some issues, we´re at opposite ends of the pole.
To begin with, we plotted this whole thing together. Of course, I didn´t know Rowton or Stapleton at first, but as we started making plans, they came in on it. Lamarca was on my original crew and got shot down about a week and a half before me. He was one of the first guys I met in camp, and we started right up; talking about how to escape as soon as we could. When the four of us got together, we more or less complimented each other as far as talents go and feeling we had the ability to do what we intended to do. We weighed our chances and figured we were all determined to get out. I didn´t have any doubts about any of them. Stapleton, Lamarca, Rowton and myself were in camp less than a month, before we got out. From the date we got out, until we got back and they put us in solitary, it was 72 days.
grew up around Del Valley, which is slightly south and east of
Being in the woods for days, was not the most difficult part of our experience. Getting through that fence was the real challenge. I´d been around barbed wire all my life, and it didn´t intimidate me. Sneaking out there and making a passage through was tougher than I´d thought it would be; and those machine guns in the guard towers were for real. At one point, I got caught in the fence, just as the guard passed by. The others were back in the ditch, waiting to see what was going to happen. We were lucky to complete the task and not get shot. Once we were on our way, we all started having problems with our feet. It was constantly wet and cold because the countryside was covered with snow and ice. Once in a while, the bunch of us could hole up in a barn. Even then, you didn´t have a lot to keep you warm. You´d try to buddy up at night. When you laid down, you´d have to squeeze up as close as you could together, and fight over who´d be in the middle, or take turnabout.
got caught, and they sent us down to
Fifteen hundred Americans were held at Luft 6. How many of them are aware of Stapleton, Gann, Rowton and Lamarca is anybody´s guess. Probably not many. Then as now, the military works on a “ need to know” basis. All branches of the service regularly train their people in survival techniques, but the basic premise remains the same: “You´re on your own”. I had pursued the story of the escapes from Heydekrug, as a way of illustrating the resourcefulness, organization and daring of Air Corps Sergeants. Penned up in the middle of a War, escape must have seemed terribly important to Lamarca and the others; worth risking everything. Fifty years later, only a few of those who participated remember the effort. Still, I think the Four Men Out could be more than just another enigmatic footnote, to a page of American History.
police chief of Jabarkis took us in a buggy, with a couple of guards, to Tilset
(about halfway back to the camp). From Tilset, we went southwest to
In our little room, there was this huge door, with some sort of a bolt that slid over to keep the door shut. There was a window with a little screen, so they could look in. We took a wire off that screen, then made a loop in it. From time to time they took us out for exercise, so we had a chance to see what it looked like on the outside. Unfortunately, there was a guard stationed outside the door. Mo and I figured: “Too bad! We´re never going to get out of here.” When they took us out for exersize again, we noticed a tunnel-like passage going to the outside. It had little alcoves, so we figured, if we ever got into that, we could hide in those alcoves on the way out. We also noticed that at midday, our guard would be gone for ten minutes and nobody replaced him. That would be an ideal time to get out! One afternoon, when everything seemed right, we put our wire through the window, hooked the damn bolt and pulled it up. We walked right out and got into that crazy tunnel. Mo and I, looked at each other and thought:” Wow. . . All these guards and it´s so simple to get out.” This was definitely not a place for prisoners of war, and who knows what they would have done if they´d discovered us. We got the hell out of there! I don´t know how many days we were in that area, but the story ended by us camping on top of a hill. We thought we were pretty safe, so we made a fire to keep warm. Guess what? We were on top of a German high tech installation. Soldiers came storming up at us yelling “Achtung, Achtung”, and all that stuff. I figured I knew how to put up my hands real fast. I was scared stiff!
was liberated by the Russians up at Luft 1. When I got home in June of 1945, I
was married and discharged. A colonel in the U. S. Army came to talk to me
about the escape. In my opinion, he was rather rude; of course it might not be
so, because I was still quite upset from being a prisoner. He seemed arrogant.
He was questioning me about my escape and told me I´d have to call him Colonel
and all that. I told him: “ Go to hell! ; I´m no
longer a soldier! I´ll respect your uniform, but don´t talk to me, like I´m
some little crap. I´m through with all that bull. ” He
left and I never heard anything else about it; until 2 years ago when
Mo says we were out 72 days. I don´t know. They say we were the only sergeants to get out of Luft 6 and Luft 4. To be honest, it´s like having amnesia and then having flashbacks. And who really cares?"