Sgt. Donald Kirby Interview by Greg Hatton
from Stories My Father Never Told Me
We went up to Maine and then flew on to Goosebay, Labrador. Our destination was Northern Ireland and then Prestwick, Scotland. On the way we stopped in Reykavik, Iceland and moved on to the Orkneys Islands. ItÕs a group of islands in the Northern British Isles.
The trip over was an experience in itself and we ended up staying in the Stromness a couple of days. That first night, one of our guys got a little wacky - it seemed like he was overcome by emotion because his daughter was just fixing to get born. It made for a long night, especially since we had to sleep in an old brick hut that was just like sleeping in the open. Remember, this is way up on the North Sea, in winter. We got them old Scotch blankets - made of wool, covered ourselves up, and made the best of it. When we finally took off for Prestwick, Scotland, nobody looked back.
After we landed in England, we were assigned to the 452nd Bomb Group. It was an all B-17 Group located in a village called Deopham Green, right close to Norwich. Now you've got to realize something about those of us who were there in 1943: there was a certain amount of pride or vanity. Whatever you want to call it, when you want somebody to think a little more of you than what you are.
We all wanted to be in England before 1943 was over. You had a certain status if you were there early. I always wanted to hurry up and get "into it" because something made me feel like the war could end before I got there!
Well, we got there in time....and stayed there....and waited. Our trouble was, we didn't have a full combat crew. Sweeny, the engineer, had gotten into a fix back in the States. We had a furlough. On his way back to camp, Sweeny got into a big fight with an officer, who wanted to put him off the train for drinking. He got Court-Marshaled and they gave him six months; he lost all his rank. Another crewman, Strayhorne, had fouled up somehow and they both came to England under guard. That left us short a couple of guys, for almost six weeks. Clyde Tinker and I used to fly with the 100th BG. We were determined to get into it.
You might have heard of the 100th Bomb Group - they got wiped out several times. The way I heard: there was a gentlemen's agreement between the Germans and us, that if your place was in trouble, you put your wheels down. The story goes that one gunner, after the wheels came down on his plane, fired on his German escort. He shot that fighter down which was a no-no.
The next day, old Lord Haw-Haw was on the air and he said "we're going to take care of the 100th Bomb Group; they could do it - any time they wanted to. There wasn't no stopping them.
The fact is, that getting shot down didn't mean that you were inefficient in any way. It just meant that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's all it meant. You were up there and like as not, you were a sitting duck!
We got shot down on the 8th of February, and the target was Frankfort. This was the second raid on that target; we had been there on the 4th. It was the buildup to what they were calling, "The Big Week". At the briefings they told us "Don't any of you expect to get home - we don't know how many of you are going to make it, so don't even think about it."
We got knocked down by fighters and they were "Abbeville-Boys". That was Goering's pet-squadron - in order to belong to it, you had to be something else. It was only six miles to the channels, but we couldn't go no further. We had battled them all the way back from Frankfort - it was in and out of the clouds - then we'd make a run for it and boy... They'd nail our butts. We were filling their monthly quota.
I was radio man, but we've got a flexible gun mounted in a skylight above us. It looks back out over the airplane and covers the tail. When I looked up through the plexiglass, they were all yellow noses. Another thing -
Coming back from the mission, we had to pass over Paris and they had a flak school there! That's where they teach this stuff! There's this guy shooting up at you. He's not saying - "I'll shoot this one or that one because he's got the best pilot or whatever..." He just shoots and that white smoke goes up there and you get in its way.... Well, you get blown up and that's that. Even if you were flying single engine fighter aircraft, your ability might not enter into it. But on a bomb run.... even if the flak is so heavy you can walk on it, you stay in that formation.
When fighters come to shoot you down, you gunners can shoot back and get some of them off you. In the end though, itÕs still a case of being in the right place at the right time or not.
You talk about luck.... take Strayhorne: He got his arm shot off to the nub that day and we had to put a tourniquet on him. Then we just threw him out; he actually survived and was in Camp for a short while. At Luft six, they made one repatriation while we were there. He came back because the doctors couldn't cut any farther up on this shoulder. He came back, went to University of Georgia, and ended up getting a heck of a job. He'd been a college boy and he made good. You'd be surprised how the good Lord takes care of you.
We had another guy flying with us - Gillman. He got excited when we got attacked. Now that was funny, because he'd been a marine and was over in the Panamanian incident in 1937 - He'd been in China and walked the Great Wall. Done everything.... Then when the war started, he came back in and he was a hell of a good soldier; a popular guy. On that day, he just came back up by us, Amidships, and sat down - just quit. That's when my friend, Clyde Tinker got involved.
I walked back along the catwalk and ran into them. Of course, I'm shot in the face and bleeding all over. I was all swollen up when Rosenthal, the other Gunner came in and patched me up. After he poured sulphur on me and I come to, he asked me if I wanted a shot and I said "No, thanks".
So there's tinker standing over Gillman and he says "Get-up! Get-up or I'll shoot you!" - I ran over and told him - "Now you can't shoot him, damn it!" Old Tink, says "The hell I can't."
Gillman just sat there - it's one thing, I would have said he'd never do in all his life - but it happened just that way. When we were up at Heydekrug I used to have to talk to him. He grew himself a great big beard and completely isolated himself, over in a corner of the camp.
By this time, we were going down in a spin and I tried my best to get off the wall. Centrifugal force is just terrible. Now, that's something you live with in your sleep sometimes. You're saying to yourself: "I can't get up - I've got to get upÓ Man, you can't get up to save your ass - but somehow, finally you ease out of it.
Gillman had pulled his chute inside the plane. A little while later Rosenthal went out and his chute never opened. It was a pretty precarious situation in there, but somehow a few of us got out. They rounded us up and we ended up in a hospital in Paris.
The situation was that we were getting interrogated by some German Officer. It was one of those bright rooms with the rows of french windows and we're standing in front of his desk. There are other prisoners around and we're all in bad shape. It seemed to me, he knew a lot about me and I wondered if someone had cracked - he knew plenty.
He seemed to be a nice guy - he talked nice anyway. When we got settled in there, he asks me: "How come you over here to bomb us?" About that time, I was telling him: "Well, you and the Japanese are Allies. Japan came over and bombed us - and the Japs are your friends...Ó well, he didn't like that one bit.
He says "We're not friends! - We didn't bomb you!" But I answered him back: "You are now. You're both on the same side, sir!" By God, he didn't want to be classified with them. He just didn't want to be a bad guy! Finally, he said something else and I could see this wasn't going anywhere. I'd been hit and I needed medical attention so they brought a bunch of us into the operating rooms.
I was with Ray Lentz, my Ball Turret Gunner. He had the whole back of his leg all shot up. When you're in the Ball Turret you've got armor plate behind you to protect your body from flak. But that just means that if you get hit it'll bounce off and spray all over your legs. Now they were operating on both of us at this point.
The German medics were asking Ray: "If you name is Lentz; then how come you are over here fighting the Fatherland?" Old Ray was using his head - trying to keep things low key. "Well, I got drafted and I had to go."
I was sitting across the room from him. At a slow boil. Usually I'm a level headed sort of guy - but there was suffering all around us and perhaps the shock of the dayÕs events started getting to me. There was a wounded officer - I called him "Purdy" and he was laying on the floor out near the door. It was cold. Now, mind you, and this guy's bleeding from some wounds inside his coveralls. Blood was running out from the bottom of his hands and he was getting whiter all the time. Just laying there..... dying.
I kept yelling to the orderlies: "Hey, do something - this guy's really sick!" Nobody even listened! Man, I was just so upset. Finally, things come to a head.
I was on the operating table. Across from Ray, and they were poking around in my mouth for some shrapnel. They'd been fiddling with it for some time and they weren't even done yet! Something snapped in me and I yelled over to Ray: "Dammit - why don't you tell him the truth! That you've come over here just to blow the living shit out of him and his stinking country!"
Well - you can bet the shit hit the fan and that medic just about started to raise hell. His voice got higher and he started to sputter all this German stuff. The nurses were nuns. I guess because they all had black habits on with a white collar. They were all scurrying about, murmuring and looking over at me: "Get him out of here, quick."
Now this piece of metal in my mouth was about the size of a stick of chewing gum and it took several days to get it worked out of my cheek. But in the meantime, they hurried me out of the infirmary and my jaw was all locked up, so I couldn't talk much.
Probably was a good thing too. I know them German records probably have it down about the guy who was wounded at such and such a place - and what a pain in the ass he was.
When we got up to Heydekrug the camp was pretty new and we had to make do without much. Our area was all fenced and we were free to roam around. There was 4 stone barracks with an alley between each of them and the rooms had one window and a door opening into the alley. There wasn't much inside but our bunks, a table, and a stone stove. Out room was F-G and I was still with Tinker. Old Van (Don Vanderveldon ) was our barracks leader. He had been in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The space between the barracks was pretty wide - maybe 20 r 30 feet, and then it was a long straight shot up towards the latrine. Me and Tink would walk up out of F5 to get our exercise and head down the alley between E and F towards the quadrangle. I know it had to be good 275 ft. across because one day I hit a softball over the fence, back behind the latrine of course. That stopped our game for a couple of days until one of the guards got good and ready to go between the wires to get the ball. That's the way things worked in the prison camp.
The main road went back to a ten-hole latrine, where the water and hose were - They had showers in there but we only used them twice in six months. You could go in and wash but it was like when I went to elementary school, back in the twenties. There was a short piece of iron pipe coming up about two feet off the ground with a slow trickle - that was for you to drink or wash in. Mind you now, it was winter and there was no hot water. That, you had to make for yourself back up in your barracks.
Mom and Pop sent me some long underwear. They were for me, which I'm over six feet, but I divided them up with my buddy Clyde. Hell, he was about five feet eight inches. So they were a bit long on him. What they sent me was white, so I had to go down to that old pipe and at least try to rinse them out now and again. I hated to do it, but I had to. That Tinker.... I can't recollect if he ever did wash his, I know I threatened to write home about him!
In the morning we'd have to fall out for appell and they'd line us up for the count. There were times when the weather was good and we'd try to screw the Germans up on the count. But really it didn't always work to our advantage. One of their favorite tricks was to get us all outside and say: "Well - we're going to have to leave you here." So we'd stay out there for a good couple of hours and it was colder than Hell by the time they came back.
One time, this Greenfield or Charlie Miller set us up. There was a little guard house out where the goons would stay and they'd come back with their counts. Somebody sneaked in there and stole their picture of Adolf and threw it in the latrine. That made people laugh.
To me it was senseless... you werenÕt proving anything. Actually the only thing you were going to do was get a lot of guys hurt. When the goons found it floating in the back of the latrine, we had to stand outside in that awful cold for a little while.
When rations got passed out, there wasn't much to it. When the Germans came around with these bread wagons, they passed the stuff out and it would be only so many loaves into each barracks. Then someone would figure out how many you and start to divide it up are. Sawdust bread it was, although up at Heydekrug it had some barley in it. The most you'd get at any one time would be about one sixth of a loaf. It might have been good for you, if you had something to go along with that. For us it was Kohrabis or Kartofelin (potatoes).
What really got you was that they issued the biggest damn spoon! Hell - one good spoonful and you were done with your ration. I always thought: "Hell - look at that spoon - maybe they're going to give us something to eat!"
There were trees outside the compound and when you were taking your walk, you might look out there and think about better times. As it was, we had to get our own programs going with the little that we had. There was supposed to be a garden. But I don't think I ever ate anything from it. As you walked up towards the quadrangle there was a shanty that they used for a "Gym" or if they wanted to have some kind of church service.
In the summer, Padre Jackson would stop by pretty regular. He was the English Chaplain and I remember he'd say: "Anyone who wants to come to church today, just come around and meet me by the barracks."
We'd just sit on the ground and listen to him talk. It would pick up your spirits because those English had been in the can for years already. He'd got captured early in the war and had the privilege of going home. He gave that up to stay with the P.O.W.s it seems that earlier on. He'd got in trouble for stealing a loaf of bread, and had been prosecuted for it. In some way that led him to being a Padre!
We tried to do what we could to keep up our moral. There were guys taking classes, they put on plays. And we organized a Sports League. We had a Camp paper that wrote it up like it's really something - but people shouldn't think we had all that much going. There were some good athletes there, like Barker and Hamm and Pappas, and Augie Donnatelli, (He went on to become the head National League Umpire in the Big Leagues.) - But you've got to keep this thing in perspective. We remember these games fondly. But it was just to have something to focus on in the middle of all this misery.
When we first got up to Heydekrug, there were a lot of nights when you'd think to yourself: "I might be here for the rest of my life. I might easily be here!" We were down before
D-Day, and there wasn't even Allies on the Continent. We were up at the far end of things, too! I don't know how we could think it would be over soon, when France was still occupied, and there were Germans everywhere. So, you get to thinking: "I don't want to spend my life being cooped up."
That's how I got hooked up with Sandy Cerneglia. He was a tough little Italian guy from down in New Jersey and he was forever cooking up schemes. We'd talk it over and he'd say "Kirby, I got to get out of here. I've got to get out of here." There wasn't any situation we were in, that he couldn't see some way to "Get outta here." Up at six, on the boat over to Stettin, behind the wire at Kiefeheide - he was always on the lookout for an opportunity; and it finally came, when we were on the road in February. Sandy was a guy who couldn't stand being cooped up, and I happened to go along with him. There's guys who I can understand, when they got into prison camp said; "I'm going to stay right here and do everything they say. And I'm going to get home." But it kept our moral up to think about escaping.
In the meantime, sports were my thing. Aside from football and baseball, one of the biggest sporting events was these boxing matches. This led up to the grand finale on the fourth of July. It was the Americans against the British and Canadians. Now, heading up the alley toward the quadrangle was this shanty I spoke about. That's where we trained. There was no heat, no light and just a bare wood floor. The only way you kept warm was to just go at it; and as far as the thing to hit, why it was just a sack full of rags and sand. There was no light bag to work out with and that meant you just stood there and plowed into it.
Steve Swidirski was "the Masked Marvel" from Cleveland. He's the one who helped me learn to fight. Steve was the guy with the winning record on our side of the fence and he wanted to work out with a bigger guy. That would make it easier for him to train. I wasn't that good, but with his help, I was getting to where I could pick my spots.
Instead of having to swing so many times, I cut down on my punches and I learned combinations. My brothers, back in Columbus, were a bunch of tough Irish kids, and they first taught me how to jab. That's what gave me a shot at this business. Now the fellows here were saying: "We'll show you how to make a series of punches - a jab, a right cross and then come back with a left hook." Well, doing it every day and not having any distractions, it started to come naturally. In three months, I could cross that right, and buddy when it hit, it hit.
We were up in the shanty and I was working out with the Masked Marvel. We were sparring, so he ducked down to get away from my body punch - when boom! I socked him with my right hand. There he went, his butt bounced around a couple of times. We looked at each other and I stood there and I said, "Well - I didn't know that was going to happen!" Boy, when you know you can do these things you get that much more confidence. Of course, I didn't know what I was going to face.
Gene Boyceberry was French Canadian. He was big. He'd gone through all the elimination fights and had everybody convinced that he was the best. Gene was going to be my big test.
My good buddy Tinker had been watching me and he drags me over to the promoter of these fights, George, and got who'd won the gold belt in 1937. Old Tink says to him "Kirby can lick him". So they said to me "Go in there and try it." Well as big as he was, if he hit you, as hard as he could, it wouldn't hurt you. So I moved in the finals.
The boxing ring was out on the edge of the quadrangle, over near the fence, so that the English could see it as well as the Americans. They had seats out there all around the ring and there were rows of Germans watching us; they got a kick out of the whole thing. It was July 4th, 1944 and boy, everybody was out there hooting for "American Day".
It was a beautiful hot day. But felt some jitters because I realized that good many of the fellows in the barracks had bet food and cigarettes on our fights. I would venture to say that most of 'em were betting on the Bearded Marvel because of the fact that they knew what he could do. Steve Swidirski was facing an Englishman named Tracey, who was good. Fact is, he floored Steve right away to start the fight, but couldn't go the distance.
I was facing "Aussie Perry" and I was questionable. Folks were almost sure that Perry was going to take me. He'd been around long enough to fight everyone and he'd won every match. We were betting the English we could beat them and there was a lot on the line.
When they were ready to begin the heavyweight fight, they called us both into the middle of the ring and said: "OK - Touch gloves and come out fighting. "When I put my glove out there, he hit me! Boom! Instead of shaking hands.... Boom!
Well, Brother that's exactly what I needed! It made me mad. He shouldn't have done that, because before that I was going to have a boxing match.
Once I got going, I found out that guy didn't mind doing the hitting. But he didn't like it at all when he was on the receiving end of things. I can tell you it felt good to win, that day!
It didn't take but a week or two to pass, before we cleared out that place. One day we were there, and the next day we weren't. The Germans put us on boxcars heading to Memel on the Coast - not much happened on the way out but when we reached the port, the trouble began for us.
One after another, they stuffed us down in the hold of that coal boat, until no more of us could fit. Then they stuffed the rest of us down there, anyway. I remember looking around and thinking: "Boy, the Russians probably have control of the skies and here we go on this boat going down the middle of the Baltic Sea." One R.A.F. man said he had thrown down the mine fields around where we had to go - He knew how many hundreds were around this place or that; we were heading for Swinemunde and Stettin where the German Navy had their fleet.
On each side of the boat you could see these booms with wire nets that could catch these mines. After we put out to sea, there were some tense moments when you'd hear something bang up against the hull or scrape alongside. You'd say - "Oh Shit - Here it comes!" But it never happened of course.
The tension was pretty high. We were all cramped in together so that we had to take turns sitting up and laying down. Some guys got to go up on deck to relieve themselves and other guys just used a bucket they threw down at us. There was no water and it was mostly dark down in the hold of that rusty old boat. The only opening up there was where the ladder went up through the hatch. All the rest of the time it was covered up. There was this one guy, Delgado, who was an all-around musician, and he started us off on this singing bit, because the guys were getting a little panicky. We had to endure this for several days.
I was with Clyde Tinker and Sandy Cerniglia and Mondo Bongiononi. We stuck together pretty much throughout the trip and afterward, like I said. Sandy wasn't much for being cooped up. Right from the minute we were loaded into the hold, he had it in his mind that this was a good time to "make a break for it". There weren't that many guards and they were on deck not down in the hold. The way we had it figured: "I'll just run up over here, when the boat starts moving, and then I'll swing around and grab that ladder and escape!" It was burned into his mind that he could escape, but by George, he had the odds against him. We were in the Baltic Sea, and the ocean doesn't get much more unfriendly. The seas were so strong, that you'd look out and the horizon was above you. There wasn't any room for fancy maneuvers down in the hold with 1500 men stacked three deep!
There was one fellow, Getsey, from around Marion, Ohio, who managed to jump overboard. He had probably figured "I'm not going through this" and over he went. Between the guards and the Baltic Sea it was over for him pretty quick.
After we got to Swinemunde, they put us into boxcars and it was a lot like out trip when we first came up from Paris to Heydekrug. That was, of course, a much worse trip, because I was shot down over the coast of France and it was eight or nine days from Frankfort up to Lithuania.... and my bowels never moved. When we left the boxcars, finally up at Keifeheide, I was in misery. After this run up the road and all that followed, I found this English Doctor, Pollack, and I said to him: "Doc - I cannot move my bowels." He turned to me, smiled and said: "Pal, just join the crowd!" I swear, he made three of us bend over and drop our drawers. He reached right up our hind quarters and saved the day. It wasn't a joke the, but I thought he ought to get a medal for duty above and beyond the call of duty.
When we first pulled up at that train station in Keifeheide, we were there for quite a while, unloading and what not. We had been hand cuffed hand and feet, and there was shackles on our legs. Some of the fellows had to give up their boots. That was a mistake, making us put them on in the boxcars.
Now back in them days, there was always some American, who could do things he wasn't supposed to do. One guy took a wire and helped us work those shackles free. Clyde Tinker and I were still chained arm to arm, but we were fortunate enough to get our feet unshackled. We set it us, so that, if the guards came around to look at us, we could close them up again. Clyde wasn't in good shape and that's what made the run up the road survivable.
Our new camp was Luft IV and the place was called Gross Tychow, but Keifeheide was the station near the camp. I would say that it was early afternoon when they began herding us through the town and up the road to camp. I wasn't in the first group to leave, so there were some fellows up ahead of us who had started out already. Most of us were wrist to wrist and ankle to ankle, although my shackles were dangling from my leg. As we started out, we still had our little Red Cross packs or suitcases of whatever we could carry - it was all that we owned, and not much at that.
We were coming through this town and there was kind of turn in the road - People were standing right up against the buildings - and there wasn't any sidewalk, as I remember it. All of a sudden, this Pickard fellow gets up on a platform, like they have in a rail station to unload baggage. He was standing up there screaming and you could tell he was nutty as fruitcake.
"You gentlemen are going to run from here to that camp." So I heard some of the guys saying: "Aw shoot - I ain't gonna do it!" Then he said, "Well, we'll see that you do it!" So it started out that some of us weren't running. I wasn't going to run if the rest weren't going to run. Pretty soon these dogs come up with the guards showing their bayonets.
Now, we were running from there and Clyde was not really up to it. He'd been under a doctor's care and there was a strap around his shoulder and neck. That worked tight around his neck and he passed out. Clyde went down and I took the pack off him and just dropped it.
All this time, the dogs and guards were nudging us along so I started carrying him over my left shoulder. Old Tink started to breathe a little easier. The dogs started to move in on us. Well, I realized I'm not going to make it with all this stuff I got. I see this German guard off to the left hand side and he's running along making noise - trying to impress this captain. As I dropped my bag, I swung it down like a cross body block in front of him.
Cripes! His gun went up in the air and he went over - Boy, Oh Boy - We moved right out of there - a little faster and farther up the line so we could blend into the crowd.
Just about that time, we were inside the town and I can remember the narrow little streets kind of curved around. There was some kind of brick buildings. I never will understand how a guy can be going through all this and still be looking around. It was as though I was just watching it all happen. There are times that I've gone places and I can still see that brick road and the people lined up on both sides of us. They were just yelling at you and cursing and spitting. The dogs were at you and the guard were jabbing us in the back. Funny though, every now and then I'd see a face that looked like they felt kind of sorry for us... But I tell you..... not enough of them.
About that time, we came across an obstruction in the road - a puddle that we had to go around. There was still this soldier laying in the middle of the road. He was out of it and the guards were coming up and the dogs were sniffing around his legs. I looked over at my buddy Clyde. Now this stuff happened in a hurry - You had to make a decision fast. Just like an umpire in a baseball game - you haven't got time to stand there and figure this out. I said "Tink - can you walk a little?" Well, he said "Yeah", and he tried to help himself as best he could.
We went over and picked him up. My right arm was full of Tinker. Now the soldier (Hy Hatton) wasn't very big and I was glad of that. I half carried and half dragged him, so off we went. I'd say that run took us about a half hour to make it up to the camp and when we finally got to the entrance, I laid Hatton down. Some of the guys grabbed hold of him; it was kind of like the end of a running race. The first ones were waiting for us - standing there cheering us on. They wouldn't let anyone go into the camp at this time, so we were just sprawled out in the field in front of the gate. I never saw much of that fellow Hatton again.
All along that run, we had our own guard giving us a real workout on the back. You know how the stock of a good gun is. That stock has a big old piece of metal on it. When you hit somebody with that it hurts. I mean wham! Now I didn't know if he stuck me or the metal broke - but I wound up with some kind of mean slice. I didn't find out until about two weeks later - that's the first time I took off my shirt. The thing was all caked with blood, but I didn't want to tell anybody.
The guards at the camp were all worked up to begin with, but the ones that brought us up here, were all madder then get out - about some guard getting splattered back down on the road. They wanted us to line up and see who was who. They were looking for the P.O.W. who knocked over a guard - but they must have described Hatton's hair. They were looking for a darker complected fellow with black hair. "Black Hair", they shouted out. The Feldwebel wanted to know who caused such a commotion, so we all said "keep quiet". The guards came up with the dogs, sniffed around and looked us over pretty good.
Many of us had these knit caps someone had made in camp. They looked like a Swiss hat. Well, I took that off, and my hair wasn't too long - but they were looking for a curly, black haired guy! Now, Hatton had that kind of hair, but they werenÕt worried about him. They wanted the guy who turned the guard bottoms up. Boy, one Kraut came over and looked me over. You could tell he was almost positive. But, he couldn't be quite sure. He came up and looked and looked while I just stayed stone still. That lasted for quite a while. But they finally let up on it and continued with the rest of their nasty business. "You're not going into the regular camp", is what they told us.
The rest of the afternoon was spent sorting things out and trying to set up a big tent. But that fell down, and we ended up just sleeping under the big canvas. We just pulled it up over us and slept on the ground. I never went to see anybody about my back. I figured they might have been saying: "if anybody shows up here hurting, why just ask him how and where he got hit". I would say, in my life, there were no episodes to compare with that run up the road.
When we got settled inside the wire, they kept us in a king of tent thing in between the barracks. That was from August until almost October or November. Then they shipped us over into a regular barracks, in "D" compound. There was no more free visiting and a lot of our sports organization broke up. We got split up into different compounds and the ground wasn't fit for any real activities.
Our area was the last one completed and the assembly area, the center of the compound, was just sand and rough gravel. It was like arctic tundra and wasn't even level. I think the other compounds were set up a little better, at least you could run without sinking up to your boots. It was harder to keep in shape at IV and we were pretty spent after that evacuation. It was harder to keep moral up. We and Cerniglia started to work on an escape plan. At one time we figured to hide in this cellar where they kept the Kohlrabies. We were going to make a break for it after dark; of course, we kept that plan on ice.
Now, we had a "Big Stoop" with us and he was something else. He was a big goon who was maybe seven feet tall. Looked like Primo Carnera and was all mean. He had hurt my friend Tinker and one time we came close to a confrontation. One of "Stoops" favorite things was to grab a hold of your hand and play like he was just joking - then twist up your thumb or something.
One time on Christmas, when we had just what little stuff we could put together all set out, he walked in our barracks and turned over the whole dinner table. Some guy had a couple of little cans of jam and some special food we'd been saving.
There's time in your life when you just say, "Now, I'm not going along with this anymore - I'm not putting up with this shit no more!" We were in the barracks and I was laying up on my bunk. Just simmering about something. Tinker was below me and the word had just spread "Big Stoop is coming". I was on my back with my forearm over my face and one arm just dangling over the side of the bunk. Tink said to me: "Kirby, get your hand up or Stoop will grab it."
I don't know what was in me that day, but I felt ornery. I said to myself, "If he does grab it, I'm going to hit the S.O.B. with everything in this place." There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to do it. Tinker whispered "Come on, get it up." But I let that thing hang down there.
Now here comes that goon. He's sitting around with a couple of Kriegies over there and the time is just passing. I felt his glance sweep over towards me a couple of times, but I just lay there. Whether he just didn't care or he said "Leave him be, he's got a right to just hang around", I don't know. Maybe the good Lord was on my side that day. At any rate, he just walked on by. But if he'd made a move on me, so help me God. I would have done him in. Of course, I'd have gotten shot.
We did have some funerals at Luft IV. One fellow just kept walking towards the warning wire and everybody was yelling at him. The closer he got, the louder we yelled. Until boom! The guards blew him out of his saddle. There was another fellow up at Kiefeheide. You werenÕt supposed to go out the window. But he went out that window and did something, so they shot him too. We had another situation up there at IV, where they had guys sleeping in "Dog Houses". They were small units built like oversized huts. I think there was Canadians in them and lightning struck and killed every one of them. It was right next to the barbed wire and you could see whenever there was an electrical storm, St. Elmo's fire just hopping all up and down that wire.
We packed up the camp and headed out on the 6th of February of 1945. The ones that was wounded or sick got on a train, a week before. The rest of us walked. When we came out of Kiefeheide that first day, we walked about 20 kilometers. Things were well organized and we stayed at a little place called an Arbeiten Camp. That was a labor camp where the people worked, but it was a qualified prison area. It had two big fences and was full of Polish workers. I remember it was a Polish guy that Sandy hit over the head with a bucket. What a hectic thing this was.
Cerniglia and I decided this was our chance to make a break for it. The Russians would be closing in soon and if we could get away from the column we could head for the front lines.
Right off in back was a barn or stable. We were supposed to sleep in the barns. Well, Sandy and I went into the barn and we were going to try to steal some milk. This Polish guy came in and he caught Sandy, so he hit him and ran back over to me. He said: "Now, we can get outtalk here! We can go up here by this barn, and I checked it out. We'll have to jump this fence and get in between the two rows. Then we'll find a way to climb the outer fence. Because we can't get out any other way."
In the barn, there was a loft that would help us on our first jump. Unfortunately, that would put us between the two fences in the same area as the German Guard House. Needless to say, none of us POW's were supposed to be anywhere near there. So we made the jump and so help me God--we're getting across and its dark--that's really the only thing we've got going for us. That and the fact that the guard who's supposed to be watching us is the same one who's been marching us all day long. He had to be really tired. Because I know we were!
It's only a few yards over to the German barracks and the lights from a doorway and windows are shining out into the area. It's getting dicey now. If one of them had stepped out the door and caught us, he could have done anything--there was no cover and nowhere to run.
Well, that's just what happened. The door opened and all that bright light reached out--but stopped just a few feet before it got to us. Here's where we're standing and right there is the edge of that shadow, down in front of us. We just stood there; listened to that "Jawohl-Jawohl" all that horseshit-just froze.
Then, they closed the door a little and we proceeded to get to the outer fence. This one was a honey---because it went straight up, and then bent back, at you. We really had to carry ourselves up enough to get high up there, hen throw an overcoat on top of the wire and roll down. It would tear everything up on you!
No sooner did we get over this obstacle, then boy--all hell broke loose. I don't know why we got the idea that, just because we accomplished this, that we are free. Shit! We're running out and down this grade, when we hit a little creek. About this time somebody noticed us. Boy! Those little things started whistling! Whew-whew-whew! Turned out I wasn't near as tired as I thought I was. We run right through that creek. And it's COLD-COLD-COLD. We found ourselves in a heavily forested area, with pines so thick that you could hardly see through them. We said "Let's go up there and try to get some sleep". The ice is frozen all over our clothes, we've got no food, and there's only one thin "blanket" we've carried for the both of us to share. Things are looking "good", right. Then down comes this cold-assed rain. And we're saying: "Whoa--what the hell did we get into here?"
We tried a couple of barns, way out in the country, and we couldn't break in. They were all locked up. We were determined. Actually, we were desperate, and just pushed on through a few more towns. Sandy and I were having a hell of a time even just trying to survive. Two or three days passed.
We run across three old guys they called the Volksturm--that's the PeopleÕs Army. They were guarding the road we were on, and they had shotguns. They seen us and we had to face them--there wasn't any place for us to go!
"Ich bin begehen zu lazeretin!" We're telling them all this crap about us having to go to a hospital. "Ich bin krank" and all that. Well, they've got big old shotguns, and they're scared of us. There isnÕt anything worse than a guy with a shotgun, whoÕs scared of you. Sandy and I talked it over. We decided to make sure we know what they're talking about, and give them what they want. Nobody wants to make a mistake and say the wrong thing! Off we go...
Next thing you know, we're back in the local jail and a guard shows up. He takes us right back to those barns we just left. At first we thought we were still going to do well. It turned out that we had walked around for several days and wound up one day out of Luft IV. It was just us and the guards.
The guards left and I thought "Hell, we can stay in here and the Russians will be coming through, they can liberate us." They came alright; trouble was, they were captured Russians--POW's, like us. Worse yet, they were Mongols--no discipline at all. They hadn't been fed, for who knows how long; they looked and acted terrible. That first day, the Germans dumped some kartofels (potatoes) out on the ground. Where as ordinarily, the English and us might have lined up and everybody would get a potato-by the time we got lined up, the Mongols had eaten the whole lot.
By golly, the next day, it didn't happen that way. We were just as mean as they were. You see, they weren't near as big as we were, so everybody just shoved their way through. Except for one guy--he was a giant and I'm glad he wasn't in a fighting mood.
One night shortly after this episode, I met two guys who would later save my life. Two Englishmen who'd been captured at Dunkirk; Walter Terry and John Kirk. I got sick later on the march. And these guys knew what to do. They buried me in a pile of sheep manure. I had dysentery, I had typhoid, and everything else. I was just so sick, it was impossible for me to go on, so they buried me. Laying down, as I was, for warmth.
There are no lice in sheep manure--it would just draw the fever out of you. I'd lie there and drink hot water. I didn't even take off my shirt or my shoes.
After the episode of the escape and return to camp, we spent several more days until they got a gang of these Russian Mongols together. Otherwise, it was me and Cerniglia, John Cook and Walter Terry and a few odd English who had worked on the farm. All the Americans from Luft IV had gone on after that first night. The Russian Army was advancing and the Germans were gathering up everybody. Different groups were on the move.
We started to march again. Boy this was under different rules and regulations. They can't say, with five or six guys: "We're going to treat you different than all the rest". We actually did get different treatment than the Russians, believe it or not. The Germans didn't treat them worth nothing. I mean, every day we'd come out and there'd be some Russian who didn't make it. It was February and it was cold.
I don't know whether some had been hurt previously, but when we stopped in a barn overnight, at least one never left. The others would strip his clothes off and when we'd leave, the body would just remain behind. That happened every day.
You'd be walking along the road and someone behind you would decide:
"This is enough for me". He'd cut his wrist and fall down--then off he'd go, rolling down the embankment.
We had two big rivers to cross, the Oder and the Elbe. Always, there's a big problem involved. Maybe the bridge is out and you have to ford it. Maybe the pedestrian traffic is too great. It was a mess, and life wasn't any better on one side of the river than the other.
The way things worked was that, first, a German goes out on a bicycle and tries to find somebody who'll feed us and put us up for the night. More than once, they wouldn't let us. Maybe too many others had come through before us.
After we crossed that first big river, the Oder, we had a bad time. Nobody would give us a barn to sleep in, so we had to sleep right out in the open, across the road from this farm. It was another cold and rainy night so we tried to build a fire. Someone tried to scrounge some food to cook and we were looking forward to a little warmth at the end of a long day. No dice. The guards said: "Put out the fires. They might bomb the area".
75 days on that march and I never once got a Red Cross parcel, or anything in the way of rations. It was only what we could scrounge up. One time a horse was pulling a wagon and it dropped dead. Believe it or not, we cut that thing up right then and there. I tell you I ate that damn horse! You're supposed to let any animal you eat hang up and bleed out. Hell, we just cut it open and put that thing in a pot--boiled it up and... Well...I wasn't going to eat any of it, but I got to smelling that aroma and I said "Boy that smells good to me!" I just grabbed a hunk of that stuff! Another thing was that as you'd go along you'd drink from streams and wells--but if there was not water--by golly you bend down on your knees and drink out of water puddles, like the Russians did. There wasn't much choice right then.
I think we must have had some destination, but one by one, guys were dropping by the wayside. By the time it was over, we'd run out of Russians and just a handful of English, Scots and Polish left. When we left the camp at Kiefeheide it was me and Sandy Cerniglia, Mondo and Bongiovoni. That was for one day. Then me and Sandy started on our own march. Then I lost Sandy, somewhere along the way. He escaped again. He took off one night and started heading south. Eventually they picked him up and locked him up again in some local jail. This time the Germans were going to charge Sandy with being a spy. Just about that time, the outfit that we'd been with came by. He saw them and waved out the window at the guy who was leading the group--Chapman.
Right after Dulag Luft and a brief spell of solitary, we were taken over to a place where the Red Cross handed out stuff. Most of us lost our shoes on the bail-out, so we needed new ones. I got a pair of pants, a shirt, and an overcoat--2 sizes too large. I wanted it that way to keep me warm. I got asked for that constantly. Now they had to last, because there was never any re-issue of clothes. On this march there was a time I hadn't had my shoes off for 30 or 40 days. I was reaching down to untie them and I was afraid to take them off, because they were coming apart. There wasn't anything left holding them together. At the end, when I did remove those things, my feet looked like I had walked around barefoot in a filling station.
It was quite a different experience to be in this small group instead of with the main gang on the march. We had the same guards all the way across and eventually I got to know one of them. Towards the end of the war he came up to me and told me it was almost finished. April first was Easter that year. He must have realized that the war was over--because he knew more about the battles that were going on. Us POW's had only one battle to worry about--survival.
Around the 16th of April I finally had some good luck. The right place at the right time, you know. We stumbled onto a spot where there was some fierce action. We were in a position where both sides were firing right over the top of us. We couldn't go forward or backward. I looked out into the field and there was this big piece of equipment and I said to myself: "Oh, Oh, Oh Boy--it's a German tank". Then there it was--that red, white and blue circle! What a sight! "It's English! Hell, that's an Englishman!"
Then again--You've got a problem. You don't just run out there and say: "Hey, I'm an American!" You've got almost two years in the bag and you don't want to get killed. So you hold up--they might think it's somebody else. The last of us left was Cooke and Terry, Little Franky, and a guy called Terry Alexander. These last two were American Infantry who'd just been recently captured.
We put our heads together and started to look for something white to put together. We wanted to make sure that tank didn't get away. Man, it was a hell of a position. You're thinking: "I don't want to get shot or do something stupid--in case he thinks I'm somebody else." I remember there's this little fence out there and just before this a little bird came over and shit all over me. Some guy told me "Hey--that's good luck!" I said to him: "Is that right?" Later on I got to thinking about it and it seemed to be so. After that bird shit on me, everything seemed to be going on alright.
Somehow, we got their attention. Slowly, very slowly, I go out and raise up this stick with some kind of white tied to it. I walked towards this tank and it came to a stop. The lid raised up on it. "Hey, I'm an American" "An American?" "Yeah". The rest of the guys called out their nationalities. The guy inside said: "I tell you what. If you want to go back, get up on top of this thing." I had some possessions in a sack, back in the bushes where we'd just come from. But I said "To Hell with it" and I hopped right up on top of the tank.
They went back to the lines and that's all. He dropped off and there was this English outfit, where everyone wanted to know who we were. There was a battle going on, so they didn't have any time to deal with us.
I'll tell you what they did do. They walked over to an old German couple's house and banged on the door. BAM-BAM-BAM! When the door opened it was: "This man's going to sleep in your bed tonight. Get out!" I started to say: "Oh Hell, you don't have to do that", but I didn't--I just stood there.
As soon as the Sergeant left I told those folks that I didn't want them put out. I said "I'll sleep out here in the front". I wasn't really worried about them bothering me.
My motto--back then--was "Buddy, if I made this--I can make anything!" It got me in a lot of trouble, but these folks were the last of my worries. I managed to get a little food and rest as the day went on, but that evening got lively. The Germans started a counterattack; I mean, they were shooting at us again!
I left the house and got in under a nearby tank. I asked one of the guys: "What are you shooting at, Pal?" He says: "Oh, I'm just firing away, Yank! Just letting them know you're here. Just letting them know you're here!" It was April 16, 1945.
Those of us left made our way back to the rear to some kind of aid station. A medic was coming around checking everybody and said "Who from this outfit and that outfit!" "OK. Bloke-American? Well you can't go back like that". He noticed how dirty I was. "You get out of them things and we'll burn them right up". Then they gave me a regular English outfit--the whole works; and it was a good looking get up. There was a red tam with new boots and I had a hell of a rank on me--everybody was saluting! A Sergeant in the British army is really something.
As soon as I got to Hospital in England I was the only American in there. Finally, they contacted an American Hospital--the 1292nd. I was taken there and I walked in with that English outfit. These guys at the desk looked up and said "You'll have to change your clothes". I said "I want this outfit". So he says "We'll see that you get it back". Damn--that was the last I seen of it. Some guy's got it at his house right now. He's probably showing it off to one of his friends: "Now here's a real good looking thing. I got this at such and such a place! Well, he got that off me!
When you come home from these things--some guys had the good sense to get a steady job. For me, sports were the best job a man could ever want. I got scholarships offered and I got to play pro ball. Thing was, I had to drink beer to go to sleep when I came back. I went out every night with the fellows, until I had enough to where I could lay down and fall asleep. I was rooming with them young guys and I'd have nightmares. The next day they'd say: "Hey--you scared us half to death. And kept us up to boot!"
I had a scholarship to go over to Washington and Jefferson in Pennsylvania. I was supposed to play football for Old Fats Henry. Before I went in the service I had played against him and I guess they wanted me when I came back. But baseball was my thing and all the time I was overseas I kept thinking: "I'm supposed to take Joe DiMaggio's place--and they arenÕt going to hold that spot forever!"
Another thing was, I figured I just couldn't sit in a classroom. I probably would have gotten up and wandered off somewhere--not being able to be cooped up again.
I would say there was no episode like that Run Up the Road. It will never be equaled in my memory. You never forget. Of course, getting shot down is riveted in your mind. You start a new life from then. You say to yourself: "If I made it through that, then somebody's taking care of me and I can do most anything." You go from one episode to another until you're starting a whole new life over and over and over again. You don't know how long this is going to last.
Prison camp affected me tremendously because I always thought I might want to be a policeman. I felt that if I did become one, I was going to be a good policeman. Someone who would help people instead of just being one who'd be out there busting guys up. I knew firsthand, that to mistreat someone who's under your case is about the worst thing you can do. I made up my mind I'd never be that way.