T/sgt. Arch Nelson 392nd BG 576 sq.
Edited Excerpts from Turner Publishing “Stalag Luft IV”
Flying with the 392nd bomb group aboard a B24H, as radio gunner, I was manning the right waist gun position. It was Feb. 24, 1944, over Gotha Germany, and our plane was flying purple heart corner. We were attacked by German FW-190’s and Messerschmitt fighter planes.
After the first attack, our pilot lt. J.B. Patterson from Wellington, KS. was talking over the intercom, to co-Pilot W.L. Shelton from St. Louis MO. They were talking about the prop controls not working. During the first attack, the controls were damaged to the extent that, the props were in a “run-away” mode. Banking out of formation, and after dropping our bomb load in the target area, we were attacked again two or three times. Our plane was badly damaged and the hydraulic accumulator was hit and on fire. The plane became very unstable, with no word from the cockpit and no bail out bell. The waist closure was completely blown out by 20 mm shells and locked in the up position. The tail gunner and myself bailed out, thru the camera hatch.
The ground around Gotha was snow covered. We landed in a large field with about 3 feet of snow. I was picked up by the German home guard, in a horse drawn sled. My scarf was shredded from shell fragments and blood soaked from my neck wound. S/sgt. R.E. Luciand, the tail gunner, had a head wound. He and I were treated with iodine and paper bandages and moved to a German air base for 2 or 3 days. We were interrogated by the Gestapo. I was put in a small room, with several other Americans. This room had no windows or lights. Several days passed and then we were shipped up to Stalag Luft VI, up on the Baltic coast near Memel, East Prussia.
We were loaded into boxcars that were divided into two sections. One half for the German guards, one half for us. The whole ride, we were stacked in like cattle, then strafed and bombed along the way, at several train stations. The guards would lock us in and run for cover. We had very little food, and no water!! When we arrived at Luft 6, half-starved and sick, they gave us two paper blankets and a burlap sack of straw to lie on. Our beds were like sleeping on a ladder. Food rations were one Red Cross parcel, split among seven men, per month. Also, the Germans gave us one slice of bread per day, with a few boiled potatoes and watery soup. For breakfast, we got hot water or parched barely coffee. At times, while I was at Luft 6, we were locked inside the barracks. The guards in the surrounding towers, would fire machine guns into the POW compound. My barracks was hit with a barrage of machine gun fire. All we could do was lie down on the floor. Some of the POWs were hit with flying debris.
Dogs were turned loose in our compound at night. We were harassed time after time by the Germans. We would break up razor blades and put them in bread, hoping that the dogs would eat it. There were rumors that several of the dogs were found dead.
In July of 1944, the Russian drive was stepped up so the Germans marched us out of Luft VI to Memel, a port on the Baltic sea. We boarded onto a coal boat, for Swinemunde. They put us down into the hold with hundreds of other POWs. There was not enough room to sit or lie down; we were stacked in like cord wood.
This trip lasted for about 52 hours. They kept the hold half covered. Several of the POWs passed out, from lack of air; their condition weakened. They were lifted up by fellow pows until they could breathe again. The guards would send down a bucket on a rope, for toilet use and would send the same bucket down again with water for POW’s to drink. A large number of pows were heaving and sick from lack of air and the boat movement. To make matters worse, guards up on the deck would juggle hand grenades back and forth across the hold, to harass us. We were weak, tired and sick, when the boat docked at Swinemunde. Then, loaded into boxcars, the POWs left for Stalagluft IV, near Stargard.
We reached Gross Tychow on July 18, 1944, shackled together in twos. The boxcars of POWs were unloaded. Then, a red headed Nazi captain paraded up and down in front of the train. He was cursing in choice German words, after the pows unloaded and lined up. Most POW’s were carrying homemade knapsacks, with a little food and a few simple POW possessions. Our new guards were young marine cadets, 18 or 19 years old. As they began to escort us, we noticed they had fixed bayonets. We also noticed the presence of a number of dog men and black shirt SS men.
We began to march, then a lot shouting started. We were forced into a fast walk, then double timed. As the tempo of the shouting increased, complete with the barking and snarling dogs, we were forced into a run. POWs began to shed their coats; anything that would give them more freedom of movement. Those on the outside who lagged, were slashed with bayonets and beaten with rile butts. The red headed captain turned up as a ring leader and march fuhrer, shouting and cursing the POWs and urging the guards to greater brutality. He beat and slapped (with his own hands) some of the guards that were not brutal enough. Then a fresh relay of guards took up the chase. More bayonets and beating and dog biting took place. Arriving at the camp, the POWs were herded into the Vorlager. Many of them were slashed and badly beaten, many had been dog bites. Some had fallen by the wayside and had been carried along by their friends and companions. One AF man came in with 63 bayonet wounds.
We spent the first night in the outside lager, with no food or water. We were made to lay down on our stomach; told not raise our heads. The next day, we got a limited supply of water and some soup. When we were moved into the main camp, conditions there were overcrowded. From July to September, we gained little ground. In September, our Heydekrug group moved into our new lager; with t/sgt. Frank Paules as leader, and who was elected “Man of Confidence”. A few Red Cross parcels started to come in.
On Feb. 6, 1945, the big Russian drive was on, forcing the evacuation of our camp. Approximately, 4000 pows marched out of Gross Tychow. We marched first across east Pomerania and then were ferried across the Oder River at Stettin on Feb. 15. It was mostly along back roads, staying at small farms and villages. During the first 30 days of the trip, we were issued less than half a loaf of bread per man. We lived in barns and slept in fields. In the last days of the march, we were almost as far west as Hamburg. When western invaders began to threaten, we got more Red Cross parcels. With extra cigarettes, we traded with Poles and French as well as Germans on farms. We traded for bread and potatoes.
On March 29, POW’s were loaded onto a train and shipped to Altengrabow, between Magdeburg and Berlin. We stayed for about 10 days, in a big wire corral which was known as “gooks gulch”. This was the weirdest prisoner of war camp of all time. About 8000 POWs were crowded into circus tents, 100 to a tent. Milling together in this corral were bearded Sikhs, Hindus, Gurkhas, Senegalese, Nepalese, French, Scottish, English, Poles, and GI’s. The place looked like a circus and smelled like one! Food and sanitation were a big problem, as well as international relations. At night, most of the time, we watched the big RAF air raids around Magdeburg and berlin. Those big blockbusters that hit would shake us up since we slept on the ground. By day, AAF came over. There were air raids and sirens blowing every hour of the day and night! We could see P47s and P38s, as they strafed German transport to a standstill.
On the morning of April 26, 1945, we were met by two Americans jeeps on patrol. They went back and returned with GI’s driving trucks. POWs were loaded up and crossed the Elbe River at Bittefield, Germany. The American First Army, the 104th Division (the Timberwolves), were there. For us, the war was over. We were flown out of Germany to Camp Lucky Strike, France and then shipped back to the United States.