Edgar Jurist interview by Greg Hatton
When I first got to Luft VI, Heydekrug, I was over in "E" barracks. Later, I ended up in Barracks 15, which was a little hut at the near end of the compound( fairly close to the gate and cookhouse).The Krauts decided to put us troublemakers in there(about 8-10 of us).
The way things were set up, "E" compound was American,” A" compound was English and "K" compound was Canadian. The Brits were right next to us in "A" and "K" was across the lane, about fourteen feet wide with barbed wire on both sides. The lane led out between their compounds into the Vorlager. This area held five small buildings; the hospital, the cooler and the Red Cross stores. The main gate out of the camp was in the center of the fence, along the Vorlager. The whole space was flat, sandy and sparsely covered with tundra grass.
I'd been shot down on the March 6 raid to Berlin, and got to Heydekrug with several of my crew about mid-March of 1944.At this time, all sorts of escape activities were in progress at the camp. There were tunnels being dug, and both the British and Americans had made successful break-outs above ground. It didn't take me long to get involved and by the 29th of April, I was ready to make my own attempt. My partner was George Walker.
The various committees we had, in the camp, were supposed to be secret, as far as escapes and security was concerned. Plans were submitted and approved, disapproved or changed.
Walker may have been involved with them, as a mapmaker, but I'm not sure about that. I had met him in camp, just as I had many other people. He was a big, heavy set guy; tall, with dark hair. Walker’s home town was Spartanburg, South Carolina, and he spoke with a real southern drawl.
As I remember it, George approached me first. I was a barracks leader. We’d meet, to get away from the rest of the crowd, on the edge of the “playing" field. Sitting there in the scrub grass and looking out over the field, we started talking about escapes; How...When...Where?
I spoke some Russian and some French, so we decided to head up north through Estonia and Latvia, into Russia. My family was from there, and in fact, my dad was a Russian translator and liaison officer for the Air Corps up in Fairbanks, Alaska (At the same time I was in prison camp, half way around the world!).
The plan was really brilliant... genius up to a point. When parcels came in, a group of American prisoners were permitted to go through the gates, from the American lager into the Vorlager, and over to the Red Cross supply building. They would pack a wooden, flatbed cart and pull it out, loaded with big, empty Red Cross boxes. Six P.O.W.'s were authorized to pull this wagon out and dump the empty boxes in the area behind the Red Cross supply house. They could return with fresh supplies. A deliberate accumulation of empty boxes was stacked up.
It seemed that six guys went out, but there were actually, seven. A little guy by the name of Robinson, who was a ball turret gunner, got into one of the boxes inside the camp. When they arrived at the Red-Cross shack, the Guards were deliberately distracted. While their attention was on this commotion, Walker, who was a big guy, jumped away at the moment of distraction. He hid down between the boxes. Robinson was back on the wagon in a box, so he leapt off, and took Walker's place. Six guys pulled the wagon out and six guys pulled the wagon in.
On the second run out from camp, I was up front, pulling the wagon. Robinson was back in a box. We went over to the shed, created another distraction... and I hopped behind the empty crates. Again, Robinson leapt off the wagon, and he took my place. The Krauts counted six prisoners and they returned to the compound.
That left George Walker and me hidden in the Vorlager. We wore what was left over from our G.I. issue; a leather jacket and some pants, a sweater and homemade cap, some kriegie had knit. We were P.O.W.’s, so civilian clothes weren't allowed. In fact there was a big, black market in A-2 jackets. The Red Cross hadn't come through with much clothing yet.
Now there's one thing that was fantastic... the Red Cross would send in balls of yarn and Knitting needles. Then our guys would knit like crazy, making sweaters and hats. What a thing, to see tough G.I.'s sitting around talking and watching a ball game, while they made scarves.
George and I were not really covered... just standing behind the shed, surrounded by those empty boxes; neither of us were small guys, either. The back of the shed was quite broad; at least twenty feet wide. The boxes had been piled up to one side of the building, deliberately, to help us out.
Waiting for nightfall, we had spoken seldom, and in hushed quiet tones. There were guards all around us in the Vorlager and occasionally I would nudge him and point at them. During the afternoon, we stayed in absolute stillness. It was devastating to feel each minute go by, and be trapped within your own thoughts. Late in the afternoon, it started to grow chilly and the sun slipped away. As the searchlights came on, the guys in camp returned to their barracks for evening meals...then we really felt alone out there. Walker was getting jumpy.
I'd say we were behind that shed from two or three in the afternoon, until late that night... well after midnight. We were bidding our time, but you couldn't sleep under those conditions. It’s not so much the cold, but the fact that you're alert to a point where it's painful. Every sound is a nerve-wracking, horrifying possibility of being discovered, and maybe being shot.
When the time finally came for us to make our move, away from the boxes, Walker wanted to blow. He didn't want to go. "Let's not do it. Look at those guards walking outside the perimeter! This is crazy...We haven't got a chance!"
By this time, I was all tensed up and ready. Any change in plans would have been disastrous. There was no way to get back into the compound. We would have to wait there until the morning to surrender in broad daylight... and hope the German's would take us back in. I wouldn't hear of it. "We're here, we can't go back...We have the wire cutters with us and the maps, it’s all right. We can make it!"
The fellows in the compound thought it was a done deed and they were all set to cover for us. The escape committee had thought that, psychologically, this plan had a good chance for success. They figured the Germans would never expect an escape attempt through the barbed wire... ten feet from their barracks. That was the key to the whole thing.
It had come down to one guard in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was the only flaw in the plan. The theory was that our guard was to go around the camp. He should have passed a certain station and kept going around the perimeter... maybe a total of five or six city blocks. This particular guard kept going back and forth in front of the gate. With all the tower lights on, he was getting adapted to, and could see everything.
There were rather marvelous, but complicated arrangements made inside our lager, to cover the escape. Every morning at appell, we were strictly counted... and I mean strictly counted, by our guards. Now here was a situation where the Germans would know that American prisoners had been caught trying to escape, yet the next morning, everyone would be present and accounted for. Fantastic! How could they do it?
In order to confuse the Krauts on the count, they arranged a very clever way to fool them. As each group was counted, a distraction was made. POW's were standing in groups of four rows, with maybe 60 or 70 guys in each group. One guy would slip away from the back of the ranks and run into the front of the barracks. Then they'd slip out and get back on line again. It’s unbelievable, but that's what they did, on several occasions.
The boxes were piled up some six or seven feet high, so we pushed them aside, got down and started crawling. I went out and George was right behind me. We headed towards the first line of barbed wire, beyond which lay more coiled barbed wire and a ditch. Then came another fence. It was going to be a hell of a time, once we cut the first wire, because we had to go through those obstacles and up the other side. That would put us in the flats by the front gate and the German barracks. It was grueling work to have to inch forward and stop; but we kept going until we were about 25 feet from the trench.
About that time, George was behind me and we were down on our bellies. We had no camouflage... no paint on our faces... nothing. Inside the Vorlager, the Red Cross sheds, the hospital and a confinement cell, were just dark shapes behind us. A guard was pacing back and forth, just outside the fence, and the lights were sweeping the area. My face was so close to the ground that every gust of wind, whipped dust at me and I had to turn my head away.
We waited until the light was shining away from us and then moved a few feet forward. The search light swept back across the Vorlager. By this time, the sentry was very familiar with and attuned to the rhythm of the night.
He went out about sixty yards from the main entrance, not quite as far as the corner tower, and then turned back again. You could see those German barracks clearly from where we were huddled; it was just outside those gates. The escape committee had said: "They'll never dream that we would try to escape right through their back yard! “ It was a gamble.
The guard passed by; He looked in. He looked right at us. It was a sandy area... the soil in that part of Prussia, just had marsh grass on it, so we had very little cover. The whole idea was to do this quietly. As we crept along, we just had to time our movements to the guard and the lights. If he'd have gone around the perimeter, the way he was supposed to... we would have had twenty minutes or more to move.
So, the Kraut guard was walking forward, when suddenly he tensed and spun around. As if to say: " ah ha!!” We just froze. He got upset, the way all Krauts did, screaming and shouting: “Raus... Raus...Raus!!! “The minute he started to scream, I told Walker: "Don't F___ing move! Otherwise we're dead. Just lie still... Don't Move!!!"
That son of a bitch fires. Shot right at us, not over our heads. At that point, I got up on my knees and in mixed German I said: Schiesen nichts !! Kamerraden... Don't shoot...Don't shoot!".
The bastard shot again, so we hugged the ground. I got up and shouted, and then the lights went on all over. In the commotion, I lost track of the first guard, but he fired again.
"Where can we go... what's he shooting for? " we asked ourselves. It was pure panic. I told Walker: “Lay down, don't move, George." To this day, in my mind, in my memories, my nightmares come alive, because I said “DON’T MOVE!".
George was behind me, laying flat. Sure enough, the main gate opens up and the dogs come in. They're the one's who really found us. Behind them came the hund- posterns, the dog guards. Those dogs were vicious and dedicated to one guy; if he got sick or something, the dogs had to be shot. So, they found us and started tearing at us. After some time, a guard comes up on us - I could only see his boots and legs standing beside us... nothing more. All around were screaming and barking and more soldiers coming into the Vorlager.
The guys in the Canadian barracks were hollering in English behind us, but they were separated from us by the barbed wire; they could see everything happening to us, because the lights from the towers had us pinpointed.
Someone pulled the dogs away, and Walker made a move. I didn't know what was happening; I was trying to understand. Walker moved and got up. And ... HE WAS KILLED...on the spot!
He fell over on me. By this time there were fourteen to sixteen other guards who'd come in. The one, who first came in with the dogs, was the guy who shot Walker. I'll tell you why he did it, too. That Kraut thought I was dead. He must have figured: My God, look what we've got here! These prisoners are trying to escape, now one of them is shot." He wouldn't have done it out of malice, but I think he was trying to cover up. He thought I was killed by shots from the perimeter guard and figured:" This one's dead and maybe there's going to be an investigation!" It was cold blooded murder.
We were caught; there was nothing we could do...here we are still inside the prison, and he's shooting at us.
The camp was being run by this Col. Von Hoermann, who was very strict. It was not controlled by the Abwhere, who ran the second camp we went to. They were deadly! This Von Hoermann was a by-the-rules officer, but he had no control over certain real serious Nazi influences in the camp.
They took me to solitary confinement, and then I was shuffled back and forth between the little prison and the officers Quarters, where they interrogated me. They could not figure out how we got from the American compound through all the checkpoints, into the Vorlager. They had a German officer who spoke very good English, and he did the interpreting. It was a serious breach of their security, and he kept hammering away at me.
Obviously, I wasn't going to tell them our ideas. It had taken two trips to get George and me in there, and a lot of fellows had risked their lives for us. The Krauts interrogated me, but they did not abuse me. I made up some Mickey Mouse story for them, but the interrogating officer could see through this. He dismissed me and I was sent back with two guards, along this dirt road just outside the camp. Those two bastards wanted me to try to escape, but after what I'd been through, I didn't want any part of their "help".
They put me into solitary, on bread and water for days. I had a tiny window to watch things going on, and I remember looking out on a Monday, thinking, "Wow, this is May Day, and here I am in this cell!” That would have been May 1, 1944.
There was an old man, a guard we later nicknamed “Pop”
who kept me alive. One day, he opens the door a crack, gives me some bread and rations, and then closes the door again. When I got out, they put me in Barracks 15 for the " bad boys ".Pop used to come and visit and he'd say : I come to see my boy's. He brings us things... whatever he could. Then we'd grab hold of him, take his gun and he'd begin to scream: " Nein... nein..nein!" We'd throw his stuff all around the room; I don't know why, but he loved us.
Finally they took me out and showed me George Walker's grave. From there, I went to the hospital, where I met incredible British guys who were creating amazing escape materials and sending them out. The British actually had men leaving the camp on a regular basis. One of their famous escapees was named Townsend-Coles; he went out of the camp and never came back.
Another chap was a real pistol, named Lehman. This S.O.B. was in and out of the compounds like water; once he even showed up dressed as a goon, blue cover-alls and all. We had guys called "readers”, who came periodically to the barracks. Immediately, someone was posted to the doors and windows to see that the Germans wouldn't disturb us. The reader would have the latest news from the secret radio (a receiver, not a transmitter). On this particular day, no sooner was he in the room, than the door opens with a bang! Our guys didn't even have a chance to get to the windows; this Kraut walks in and slams the door behind him. A moment passed before someone shouted: "its O.K. Don't worry about him." It was Lehman, in disguise, wearing a German uniform.
A couple of us recognized him, but that's the way he operated. It seemed he could go in and out of that place whenever he wanted to. I always wondered what happened to him. He and Townsend -Coles were memorable characters.
All sorts of escape techniques were attempted... but they were all hollow. There were few real successes. Some of them were brilliantly devised, but impractical .The process was too difficult to handle. 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. In order to get into that trench, you had to wade into it; but the Kriegies did it. They smashed their way through the wall of the trench, working in teams... a half hour at a time. 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. That court was getting higher and higher all the time.
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 real mass break I know of, from the American compound at Hydekrug, involved Harvey Elwood Gann. He went out with a guy named Stapleton and a POW named Lamarcha. I know of this because Gann and I escaped later, when they evacuated Kiefeheide. On this particular incident, they got out for 3 or 4 days. They went into a deep woods, and set up camp for the night. They built a tiny fire, so nobody could see it. Guess where they were? Right over a German High Tech underground installation. The Germans came up and grabbed them all. They guys landed back at barracks 15.
That attempt happened in the early spring of 1944, but after March, escape was no longer a sport, as I found out. After the Great Escape took place down at Sagan, the Germans called us all together. At Appell they counted us. The Commandant of Hydekrug 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."
The British compound was run by Dixie Deans. One time he invited our band to come over and play for them; we had a terrific jazz band. I used to play the double base and I remember another fellow, Vince Romano...he was the sax man. Anyway, they wanted us to make a lot of noise... and we were a noisy outfit.
The guys were stomping and the audience was stomping... but what was really going on was that the doggone Brits were building a tunnel under the stage! Here again, the tunnel was later discovered.
I went out on the "Black March" of February 1945, but I escaped from that almost as soon as it began. They stuck us in barns overnight. Harvey Gann and I made our minds up to escape. The first night out from the camp, we took off and slept in the woods, out in the snow. The next morning, we met some British POW's who were working on a farm there. They said the American prisoners had all left and were heading towards Belgard. We hit the road in broad daylight.
We were actually hitch-hiking. When a German truck gave us a lift, we told him, "The war is over. You guys have won the War!" They said, "Ja Ja Ja, come on, Where are you going?"
They dropped us off at a railway station near Belgard and we tried to figure out what to do next. Sweden seemed too far, and we were only a few hours away from the camp. A Gestapo agent saw us hanging around the station, and questioned us. He was in plain-clothes, so we hadn't paid much attention to him. Well, he zapped us into the guard house at the Adolph Hitler Cascern.
When soldiers were on leave, they were allowed to go to this YMCA like place. The Germans kept us in that place, and we had a hell of a time. The Krauts treated us very well. It was early February of 1945.I went to see the Commandant and told him: "We are under the impression that our people were back in our camp. We’d like to join them." It was pure bull, but you know.... they sent us back to the station, under guard, and we took the train back to the Luft IV. When we got off at Kiefeheide, we had to walk right back up that famous trail.
Gann and I were sure the Russians were in our camp. It was a temptation to try to knock off the guards with us, but we figured that the Russians would nail them when we got there. What a surprise we had comming. We broke out into the clearing, and the Nazi flag was still flying; the place was full of Germans. There were Russians there alright, but they weren't running the camp!
The following day, we marched out again with a bunch of wounded Polish and Russian kriegies. That was a bad march, and a lot of them went down; our leg and thigh muscles were swollen and hurt from walking. That night, the Krauts stuck us in some barns again, so Harvey and I decided to give it another try.
We kicked out a slat in the back of the barn, and went off into the woods. This time, we were afraid to make a fire, or do anything to
draw attention to us. It was bitter cold that night. The next day, we were alone in the woods, trying to figure out where we would go next.
Here comes this guy, walking through the woods... careless as can be... whistling a tune, as he went down the path. He’s wearing a French beret, so we take a chance and whistle at him. He turns around to check us out, and stares. We freeze! I figured: "oh my God Did we blow it?"
It turned out that he was one of nine French prisoners, who worked in a beautiful German hospital. The place was not far from Treptow, secreted in a deep, wooded area. The buildings were in a rectangle, with a park in the middle and built two stories high. The
Frenchman leads us right through a group of wounded officers, who were sitting around outside. We walked right between them, but they paid no attention to us. We’ve got this crummy tattered clothing on, and they know we're with this other French POW.
He takes us to one of the buildings, opens the door, but instead of going on the first or second floor... he opens a door going down to the cellar. We go down two stories, into a dungeon. That damn place was home to eleven Frenchmen. They had radio receivers hidden behind the stone walls of the foundation. There was food, wine, whatever.
Just imagine, there are guards and officers all around us, and were living the life of Riley down there. Of course, most of the guards are “shit-kickers" who were orderlies. Their job was to clean up after these wounded officers, and we were invisible to them.
Every night these Frenchmen would listen for messages from the BBC or Free French Radio. Gann and I knew exactly what was going on in the war. We ate very well, and we knew that one day soon, the Russians would be there. Up above, the Germans were preparing to abandon the place.
We heard a tremendous racket going on upstairs; evacuation had begun. Ambulance wagons were taking out wounded; trucks were being loaded with supplies and personnell. The word was that Russians had surrounded the area. Next thing you know, the place was empty.
Gann and I and the Frenchmen, spread out to see what we could find. There was and underground room, where they repaired the officers uniforms. Behind it there was a massive door with those huge antique hinges. I couldn't figure out what was behind it. We scrounged up a grenade, and blew off the doors. Behind was a wine cellar that you wouldn’t believe; Champagne, Cognac...19th century stuff that the German's had plundered from everywhere. It was amazing.
We found a couple of English POW'S in one of the wards, and began comparing notes with them. We’d hardly got to know each other before there was a great rumble outside. I ran to find out what it was, and there's this Russian tank...wow!
The turret opens up... and a bimbo pops up with boots and a skirt, up to here! With a machine-gun yet! COMRAD!.... she was tough, too. Those Russian woman had been M.P.'s on the front lines and there was no fooling around with them. She introduced us to the other guys in the tank, who wanted us to join them and go up to the front. I said " Screw that!"