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Tom Easterling « North Carolina's WWII ExperienceNorth Carolina's WWII Experience

Tom Easterling

Hometown: Rockingham, NC
Branch of Service:
Air Force, 9th Air Force
Location of Service:
Europe

Tom Eastling enlisted in the Air Force in 1942 when he was 18 years old. Below is an excerpt from his book , Ticket to Hell co-written with R. Frank Hargood, describing his capture and POW experience.

INSIDE HELL– MANNHEIM VERSION

“The strongest, most generous…proudest…virtue is true courage.”  Montaigne (1580)

The scene at Mannheim on 17 December 44 remains vivid in Tom’s mind.  “Upon arrival over the target, we could see immediately that this would be a picnic.  Hundreds of trains, thousands of boxcars, setting there about a half-mile wide and stretching nearly 3 miles long, all loaded with ammunition, tanks, equipment, and all kinds of military supplies waiting for these uninvited guests.  We peeled off in pairs to dive bomb.  Then we came back around for individual strafing runs.  Explosions and fires were raging throughout the marshaling area.  I made several passes, as did the other members of the flight.  Even though the flak was heavy, none of the planes received any serious damage.  I had just enough ammunition for one more pass and a little left to get home in case I was bounced by German fighters on the way.  I chose a small area where there wasn’t much damage and came down a hill just high enough to clear the power poles, then leveled out in a small clearing.  I was at boxcar height and facing it–a perfect position!  I opened fire, watching the bullets from my eight 50-caliber guns ripping holes in the side of the boxcar.  One burst, then let up for half a second for the gun barrels to cool.  Then another burst.  Then the whole world seemed to explode.  Train wheels, track, all kinds of junk went flying into the air.  I couldn’t get over the top without running directly into it.  There seemed to be a hole through the center where the explosion had thrown everything outward.  Quickly, I decided to fly through that hole.  If I hurry, maybe, just maybe, I can get through before it closes.

“But now I’m already inside the explosion.  For a moment, what a glorious place!  Bright red, vivid orange, luminous yellow, all kinds of bright and beautiful colors surround me.  Farther out in the circle, millions of sparklers are dancing.  But this is a short-lived picture.  Unexpectedly, the thermal raises my plane like an elevator up into the debris that I was attempting to avoid.  Holes are coming in my plane everywhere.  But that is overshadowed by a huge piece of metal as big as the side of a house, directly in front of me with no hope to get around it.  Everything is in slow motion.  I can actually see pieces of metal moving around and going through my wing, leaving a 2-foot hole in my right wing.  This big piece of metal is coming slowly, slowly; it’s on edge now.  Instantly, I shoot past it and watch as it neatly slices off about 3 feet of my left wing.  My plane breaks out of the explosion into clear air at about 200 feet.  I discover that well-camouflaged fuel storage tanks alongside the tracks had also exploded, explaining the source of the big piece of metal which had just performed surgery on the left wing of my plane.

“I still have speed and am climbing.  My engine is running, even though it sounds like a dozen men beating on it with sledge hammers.  Oil is coming out and running along the fuselage and beginning to cover the canopy on the right side.  The plane is vibrating violently and control is poor.  A very sloppy stick.  My instrument panel is gone.  But I can still tell that I am climbing slowly.  A voice crackles through my radio.  ‘Moe, you’re trailing heavy smoke.  Get out of that thing; you may explode at any time.’  It was the voice of Norman Schulie and he was right, considering that I was sitting on top of an L-shape, 350-gallon fuel tank.  But I had no desire to be on the ground in Germany.  Every foot I could fly would be one foot less that I would have to walk.  What will the crew chief think about my bringing him the worst beat-up plane that he has ever seen?  My canopy is now completely covered with oil, except for one little space on the back left side.  I’m looking through this at my tail when it is hit by flak and flies off.

“So, this is it!  I jettison my canopy and I am completely surrounded by flak.  I’m a sitting duck and they’re finishing me off.  Maybe I can make it to the mountains which are about 10 miles ahead.  I’ll have a better chance to escape in the wooded mountain area.  The hot oil is running down my back and taking the skin off the arms of my leather flight jacket.  I release my safety straps and raise up to see if I can see the mountains.  An 88 mm. shell explodes directly under the nose of the plane, picking it up.  I see the tips of the propeller fully stop turning.  That forces the decision.  It is time to get out.  I have ridden my last foot.  I dive toward the right wing.  But at that exact instant the plane noses down and falls off to the right side, slamming me against the fuselage.  I’m stuck there.  I push frantically but I’m still stuck.  Looking to the left, I see the apparently bigger than normal tail, looming like an impossible barrier.  Looking to the right, I see the ground and it is coming up fast through the oil and flames that are licking up over my face and body.  With my goggles vibrating violently over my face, impairing my vision, I reach up with one hand and snap the heavy elastic bands pulling them loose……I probably would have gone into the ground in this position had it not been for the GRACE OF GOD.   HE PROVIDED ME WITH A VISION…..and that vision was a steel cable, like those used to support power poles.  It is anchored in the floor at the base of the control stick.  It comes out of the cockpit, wraps around my body twice, goes back into the cockpit and the other end is anchored also.  When I saw this I knew that the force holding me to the fusladge was greater than I had previously thought,  and  I need more strength than I can get from my arms alone.  So, pulling my legs up between me and the fuselage and with time enough for only one more effort, this is truly a case of do or die.  With all my strength, I push, steadily push, and see that the cable is beginning to break.  Then one strand breaks and begins to unravel.  Another strand breaks and unravels.  I push hard, harder, and bang; I’m tumbling through the air.  Reaching quickly across my chest for my rip cord, my right hand hits something.  Looking down, I see that it is being blocked by an object.  I see dried mud on the bottom of a galosh that is laying on my chest.  It is my left foot.  Grabbing the toe with my left hand and the heel with my right hand, I toss it outward.  Then I pull my ripcord.

The pilot chute pops out.  It seems like a long time for that chute to travel 3 feet until the main chute begins to come out between my legs.  I’m falling upside down with my back toward the ground, looking up toward my legs.  Slowly, very slowly, the chute slithers out.  My left foot is dangling about, trying to get entangled in the shroud lines.  With my right foot I kick it away.  The chute is almost all the way out, in a long string  now.  I see a terrific explosion off to my right and feel the conusion as my plane hits the ground.  Is there enough time for the chute to fluff out and open fully, or will I go into the ground in this position as Bob Dwyer did near Stuttgart?  No.  The chute opens with a terrific jerk.  It flips me over and my left leg continues like an elastic band and then recoils in the same way.  Looking down, I can see the bone as it drives its way through the skin.  During this entire scenario, the Germans are still firing at me with 20-mm. and 40-mm. anti-aircraft guns.  Now I can also hear burp guns and rifle fire.  I hit the ground with tremendous force.  As I am being dragged by the wind which has caught up in my parachute, there is created a picture for the painter’s brush:  A trail of bright red blood across a field of freshly fallen snow.

Someone was jumping a ditch and running toward me with a rifle.  I attempted to stand on my right leg but discovered it was broken also.  I leaned back, then placed myself on my elbows, reached inside my jacket pocket for my 45 automatic pistol.  I had no desire to be taken by the Germans, to be tortured, or to be strung up on a utility pole for all to see.  I had seven rounds in my .45 service automatic pistol.  This was ample for the three people who were coming toward me.  I knew there was only one thing for me to do.  To relax momentarily, regain my composure, and get ready for the next episode which was about to begin.  Then I licked the flight information off the back of my left hand.

Not being able to find my 45 was probably one of the luckest things that ever happened to me.  I reached into one side of my jacket; it wasn’t there.  I reached into the other pocket and it wasn’t there either.  Both my 45 and my escape kit were gone.  Perhaps both had come out when my parachute opened and I was in an inverted position.  I think it was the 45 that hit me in the face across my mouth and broke three of my front teeth.  But, at any rate, I couldn’t find it.  Almost immediately after making this alarming discovery, I could feel someone tugging on my parachute from behind.  .  Almost immediately there was a large group of people, about 30 to 40 civilians.  They were having a battle among themselves to see who could get my gear.  One was pulling on my left foot.  Another was pulling on my right foot, taking off my galoshes and my shoes.  Another was pulling at my left hand which was already swollen quite large.  I was wearing my high school ring.  Someone was trying to get it.  To do so, he had to strip skin and flesh to pull it off.  That was the last I saw of the ring.  The crowd took almost everything I had at this point.  My left trouser leg was split all the way up to my hip.  The other trouser leg was torn open from the knee to the ankle and also up the thigh.  My trousers were of very little use to anyone, so that was the only thing that I had left.  When the crowd saw that my legs were broken, that’s where they wanted to kick me more than any other place.  They had sticks that were used as beating rods.  I was quite certain that I wouldn’t last very long with these angry civilians.

“In a little bit, five SS troops arrived, wearing their coal-black uniforms with skull and crossbones on their caps and the big, red swastikas on their arms.  See Appendix page 197.  They yelled at the civilians and with their rifles pushed them back.  But the civilians didn’t want to back off.  So the SS troups put their bayonets onto the ends of their rifles and pushed the crowd back.  They acted as if they would harm someone if the crowd did not back off of me.  The crowd moved back.  This was the first time that I really had some liking for SS troops.  But I knew they were saving me for their own purposes, and not for mine.  I stayed there lying in the field with 4-6 inches of snow on the ground and with light snow continuing to fall. (And for the readers who are not familiar with the weather conditions in the winter of 1944.  It was the coldest in 50 years.)     After a brief period, an oxcart pulled up nearby.  So they took me, trying to pick me up by the heels and shoulders, straddling my legs.  But with the broken legs, I was not holding together too well, so they had to get a third guard to bear some of the weight between the shoulders and the legs to put me in the cart.  This was a two-wheel cart, big wheels.  There were two guards in the cart with me. r.  Even so, the civilians threw rocks and sticks into the cart where I was lying.

So we went into the small town of Speyar.  We went into the center of town and they took me off of the cart.  They laid me down right in the Square in the middle of town.  The town bell was ringing–ding dong, ding dong–and someone came out of the building.  I believe he was the mayor.  I could hear someone call him ‘Burgermeister.’  By this time the whole Square was full of people, like a big celebration.  He started talking and the people started talking.  Then the people started yelling.  Then they got quiet and he made a speech.  Then everyone got quiet.  A group of SS troops were beside me and the boot of one man was next to my head.  This man took out his Luger, putting it next to my temple.  Then in English, he said, ‘You are a murderer of women and children.  Heaven is not for you; it is Hell.’  I knew at this instant that this would probably be where I would end, lying here in the midst of this German town.  I thought,  ‘Lord, I am in your hands.  Look after me’.  About this time the Burgermeister yelled something in German and the big SS trooper removed the Luger from my head and returned it to his holster.  People started leaving the Square and in a short time the only people remaining with the prisoner were the SS troops and a few regular soldiers.  They brought the oxcart back again and darkness had begun to cover the sky.  They put me in the cart and we started up a hill.  We went around a corner and up a narrow alley.  There were only two of us, the driver and the prisoner.  There may have been two troops following us.

I looked up and saw a rope with a noose on it, hanging from a 4×4 that extended from a building.  As we approached it, it was coming directly over the oxcart.  I wondered if this is what they were going to do, rather than shoot me in the middle of town with everybody watching.  For who knows what reason, they sent everyone away.  Now they were taking me up an alley to hang me.

In the building where Tom was placed on one side of a bare room, there were two guards with chairs for each.  They brought Tom’s parachute along.  This building apparently was a school building.  There was a chalkboard on the wall.  This “classroom” is where Tom and his guards spent the night.

After putting Tom in one corner of the room, the guards got in the opposite corner.  As Tom surveyed the scene, he spotted his first aid kit fastened onto his parachute harness.  He knew that among its supplies was some morphine.  He tried to get the guards to let him have that kit.  He was in pretty severe pain.  They understood Tom’s request because one of the guards took the first aid kit off of the parachute.  Tom thought he was going to give the kit to him.  Instead, the guard threw the kit in the opposite corner and laughed about it.  Tom continued to try to persuade the guards to let him have the kit.  Finally, one came over to him.  The guard picked up his foot, placing it right over Tom’s head.  Tom was looking straight up at the hobnails in that boot.  He didn’t want those nails coming down into his face.  The guard made a motion like he was going to plant his foot right in the middle of Tom’s face and Tom turned his head as fast as he could.  Then the guard walked back over to the opposite corner of the room.  Tom didn’t ask for the first aid kit any more.

After abandoning his quest for the first aid kit, Tom said, “I passed out from pain and was in and out for the rest of that night.  I would be unconscious for awhile and awake for awhile.  I was hurting pretty bad by that time.  I had swelling almost all over me.  The back of my head was bleeding and my ear was torn loose.  My face had several cuts and my lips were bruised and cut.  Some weeks later I found out I had a bullet wound.  A bullet had gone through my left knee also.  My leg and knee would bend in any direction.  The knee would bend side to side or up and down in any way.  The leaders apparently were all pulled loose.  Someone came the next morning with a stretcher.  The stretcher was a lot more comfortable for transportation than the way that had been used initially in the back of the oxcart.”

In the darkness of early morning, Tom’s guards moved him out of the building.  He was placed in the back of a flatbed truck and taken about 7 miles to a small opening in a hillside.  After Tom was placed on a table, his trousers and shorts were removed.  This is the third week in December and he is in his birthday suit in an opening in a hillside, lying on a table.  Some medical attendant had pushed, pulled, gouged for purposes that Tom couldn’t fathom.  Then Tom was carried out of this examination place into a tunnel.  There he was placed on the floor on one side of the walkway.  This 8-foot wide tunnel was lined on both sides with injured German troops.  There were white-coated people moving up and down the tunnel giving medicine/shots.  Tom was lying there completely nude and the temperature was freezing or close to it.    This passage-way is perhaps 7 feet high and there are icicles hanging all along the ceiling and down the walls.   Water is dripping from these icicles, and splashing onto Tom’s nude body.

From all these injured troops, Tom knew there had been some heavy movements, accounting for all those trains caught in the Mannheim railyard.  Tom was really cold, partially from shock, but largely from being naked in a frigid place.  Then he was  perspiring.  An officer came along and noticed Tom.  He said, “Are you hot?”  Tom said, “No, I’m not.”  The German asked, “Well, why are you sweating?”  Tom replied, “Because I’m suffering.  I’m hurting real bad.”  The officer laughed.  A couple of Germans turned around and he pointed at me and said, “Schwitzen sie! (sweat).”  They all laughed, except Tom.

Tom had ongoing reminders of his cold surroundings.  Icicles on the ceiling; icicles on the walls.  The melting drops from the ceiling splashed on his nude body.  People were passing up and down the tunnel, warmly dressed.  The German injured were all covered with blankets and wore caps to keep their heads warm.  Tom was shivering; his skin was quivering, and was suffering from hyperthermia.  He heard a swish, swish sound coming down the tunnel.  It got louder.  He could see the reflections of people in shapes on the walls.  This seemed like a big person.  It was a woman in a black outfit with a white hood, all black and white.  Tom guessed she was probably part of the German Gestapo, maybe SS.  But the SS had a lot of red on their uniforms and she didn’t have any red.  She passed, shining her flashlight around.  Then she turned her light on Tom.  She stopped and just stood there.  She was moving the beam of light up and down Tom’s body.  Tom wondered what this was all about.  Well, she turned and went back in the direction from which she had come.  In about five to ten minutes, she came back.  Tom could hear the swish, swishing of her skirt as she approached.  She stopped beside Tom and put a blanket over him.  Tom later commented, “Those people who know anything about German equipment–planes, tanks, whatever they had–know that it was good equipment.  I can vouch they had good blankets also.  She tucked that blanket around me and of course I got warm.  I really did appreciate that.  I suppose she probably saved my life. I was in the state of HYPHERMEA at that time.  I didn’t know who she was or what she was.  A small town like Rockingham probably didn’t have any Catholics.  At least, if there were any, I had never seen one.  Years later I learned that this good Samaritan was a Catholic nun.”

The stay in this tunnel lasted for what Tom described as being “…a very long time.”  But he was feeling better, warm at least on the top side.  Lying on the canvas cot was cold on the bottom, but, as Tom said, “…that’s a lot better than being cold all over.”

Eventually, the Germans began moving these injured troops out in the late afternoon.  Along with eight to ten wounded Germans, they loaded Tom on another flat bed truck.  They were taken four to five miles to a railroad track where a train was waiting.  Whenever there was a change in location and personnel, the patient was moved onto a stretcher belonging to the new unit.  Each outfit kept its own equipment.  Picking Tom up by the ankles and shoulders inflicted pain that shot throughout his body.  Pain originated in his left leg where the jagged bone cut into the flesh.  Tom suffered excruciatingly with each shift from stretcher to stretcher.

The train that was used to haul these patients was a regular passenger train with the seats removed.  Stretchers were lined along each side of the cars.  Loading the train took several hours.  The train moved relatively slowly, but there still was a lot of rocking movement sideways and there were occasional bumps encountered.  Hitting a bump or experiencing the rocking motion sent sharp pains rippling through Tom’s body.  He tried holding his bones together to keep them from moving around very much.  Eventually he found that tucking his blanket under his left knee relieved a lot of pain when he could elevate it five or six inches.  The train was fairly warm and the car provided protection from the wind and elements.

So Tom and the injured German troops were the occupants of one of the cars in this stretcher train.  In due time the housekeeping force began breaking out food rations.  Tom said, “Whatever it was looked pretty good to me.  But I wasn’t able to get any of it.”  The train traveled throughout the night in what Tom thought was an easterly direction.  When daylight came he recognized that the train had been going in a southerly direction.  Early in the morning the service troops came around with a piece of black bread with a sweet icing and a cup of something Tom assumed was coffee.  Although it was weak, Tom liked it a lot better than American coffee.  He couldn’t account for being included in the ration for the day.  He guessed, “Whoever was passing it out mistook me for one of the German troops.  Matter of fact, I got a refill of the liquid and it was really delicious.  This was the first time I had anything to eat or drink for the third day, I believe.  Shortly after breakfast, a tin can was passed around so the passengers could urinate.  This was a standard procedure to which I had been introduced back in the tunnel on the previous day.  Seems like when you are in pain, your organs either stop or slow down.”

About an hour after the meal the train slowed to a stop.  Then the guards started moving the litter patients out.  At that time the engineer began letting out the steam from the engine.  Tom surmised that the Germans had alerted the crew to the probability of enemy aircraft coming.  The steam was released so that the train would be more difficult to see.  Also, if the train was spotted and strafed when the boiler was empty it would not explode.  The wounded were carried to a cave which was about half the size of a football field.  The opening was about 3 feet high.  To get these stretchers into the cave with this low overhead required a lot of sliding on the bottom of the cave.  When the task was done, these wounded troops were packed almost solidly row-by-row.  The guards were working with flashlights.  When they left, there was only a little light that filtered in from the front of the cave.  This was an all-day cave-in.  Not long after the wounded had been put in the cave Tom could hear the recognizable tune of .50-caliber machine gun fire.  He said, “It sounded a lot worse on the ground than it did in the air.  Those planes were ripping something up very close to the cave.  I was hoping they weren’t going to get us.  I’m on the German side now.  I don’t want them bombing and strafing where we are!”

During this all-day lie-in in the cave, every couple of hours a tin can would be passed.  Tom’s description:  “The guy next to you would punch you and hand you a can.  You would relieve yourself and then pass it to the next man.  So these portable pots were going back and forth all day.

In the late afternoon, the wounded men were taken out of the cave and put back on the train.  The train then traveled throughout the night.  Because the cars were blacked out, nothing outside was visible except for an occasional glimpse of snow or ice on a tree near the tracks.  Early the next morning, the train stopped inside a tunnel.  Then the guards started unloading the wounded, lining the cots up beside the tracks.  Tom had found some positional relief, if he could keep his left leg elevated right at the knee.  Getting his blanket up around the knee gave him a lot of relief.

Tom was hoping that our Air Force pilots wouldn’t see steam coming out of that tunnel.  That would be a dead giveaway.  He gives the SOP:  “When you found a tunnel like that you tried to find if there was something in it.  If you saw steam coming out the ends, you just planted a bomb in there.  Apparently, the pilots on this mission didn’t see any tell-tale signs.  You could hear strafing and bombs not too far away, but not at this tunnel.”

After the planes were gone, the wounded were loaded on the train again and the train resumed its run.  The service troops came around with coffee and bread again, but word got out.  Someone pointed to Tom and said, “Amerikanische yabo fleiger” (American fighter-bomber flier).  Everyone looked at Tom and he knew his life was not going to be as “comfortable” as it had been.  He didn’t get any breakfast rations and all the troops looked at him very cautiously.

Tom lost track of the days and nights and how long he traveled.  He remembers stopping several times and the stretchers being unloaded for air raid precautions.  Eventually, the train arrived at some unknown place and Tom was the only one taken off.  Two large Germans took him to a small truck and he was driven two or three miles.  After passing through a gate, he was taken up two flights of stairs into a room with other people in it.  This room may have been 15′x30′ and it had bunks in it.  The bunks were arranged in both single and double-deck settings.  They were about 30″ wide and had a 6″ railing on each side.  There was a thin layer of straw in the bunks.

When the two Germans carrying Tom came to an empty bunk, they set one side of the stretcher on top of the 6″ railing, raised the other side of the stretcher and dumped Tom off.  He passed out.  For what length of time, he doesn’t know.  Then he came to momentarily, only to pass out again.  It was daylight, then it was dark.  It was dark, then daylight.  Tom lost all conception of time.  Finally, he recalls, “There were people moving around in the room sometimes.”  Ultimately, he discovered “…that I was lying on something up between my shoulders.  I wanted to get off of it.  Then I found that it was my left foot.  As soon as this became a reality, I knew I had to do something about that immediately.  I couldn’t stay in a position with my leg doubled up under my back.  It seemed that even when I moved my arms, pain would shoot throughout my body.  When I became conscious, I would ease my arms up a little, trying to get in a position where I could take hold of my left foot on which I was lying.  Between passing out and coming to, I finally got my hands on my foot and got in a position so that when I came to again I could give it a shove.  This bunk was not wide enough so I could swing it around to the side, because of the railing sticking up on each side.  I could not raise up either.  So I just had to push my foot as hard as I could and then I would pass out.  When I would come to, my hands were just like they had been before, so I would push some more.  I don’t know how long it took to get my leg out from under me.  I know it was several days, because it would be light, then it would be dark–then light and maybe light again.  Then dark and light and maybe dark and dark.  So I’m not sure how long.  But over a period of time I finally got my left leg straight in the bed.”

After Tom finally got his left leg straight in bed he passed out again.  When he came to he could see that the other wounded troops were not German.  He heard some talking which he recognized as French and Russian and some other languages which he could not identify.  He did recognize an Arabic tongue.  Ultimately, he learned that this room housed five Russians, three or four Arabs from North Africa, a French officer, a Ukrainian, and maybe a Pole.

Two Germans came into the room each morning to see if any of the wounded had died during the night.  If so, the corpse was removed.  Newly wounded arrived almost daily.  Some would live a day or two.  The Russians had been prisoners for about two years.  They were used to work on train tracks.  They had been strafed by “Amerikanische yabo fliegers.”  They had arrived in this facility a day or two before Tom got there.  They thought that he was the one who had strafed them while they were working on the German tracks.  One of these men died within a few days after Tom regained consciousness.  Because the Russians had the perception that Tom was directly responsible for their injuries, they didn’t have anything to do with him.

A troop who had his left foot blown off was brought into this room where Tom was.  Tom said, “It looked like he might have stepped on a mine.  It was off just above the ankle.  He was laid in a bunk on my right.  With only 12 inches between the bunks, I could have reached over to touch him.  He moaned and groaned and moaned and groaned continuously.  I could see that there was a dripping from his bunk that was familiar.  I had seen that kind of fluid when I was a boy at the County Home.  I thought, ‘Oh!  Oh!’  This fluid was green, yellow, and red, all mixed together.  I knew this was gangrene.  He moaned and groaned and moaned.  In three or four days he was dead.”

Tom was beginning to have longer periods of consciousness.  So he thought, “I should do some self inspection to see if I could actually find out what my problems are.  My left leg was at least four times as big as normal.  It was totally black with a texture about like cured leather.  On the underside there was a soft place.  One day one of the Russians, who cleaned up the room, mopped around and under the bunks.  As he mopped under my bed, I saw this same kind of fluid that had been under the next bed was now under mine.  The upstairs ‘wheels’ began to revolve.  I thought, ‘Look here; this won’t do.’  My leg was tight and tough, but the underside was kind of soft.  I raised up on one elbow and with the other hand I was able to start rubbing this soft spot.  I saw this corruption of bloody yellow-green discharge shoot out of a hole under my knee.  I immediately started rubbing down that leg.  The rubbing down seemed to be necessary almost from my crotch for the full length of the thigh.  As I rubbed it, the infection just shot out in streams and I rubbed and rubbed.  For a long time after that I spent most of my days and nights massaging my leg.  My teeth also needed attention.  I had some broken teeth and some loose ones, too.  So I massaged my gums.  I pushed my ear back against my head and held it there where it had been split.  But I continually massaged my leg.”

Tom tells about a Russian prisoner who became important in his battle to survive.  “This big Russian would go out at night.  I was awake most of the night and I would see him leave.  He would stay half an hour or so and then he would return.  I would see him in the darkness go around to almost all the wounded troops in that room.  He would go to one man, lean over him; then go to the next one and lean over him.  I never could figure out what this guy was doing.  Maybe he is really a German.  At this point you couldn’t trust anybody.  One night when he came in he came to my bunk and he placed his hand under my head and I found a little piece of bread.  Apparently, he was going out, finding bread, and dividing it among the troops in the room.  I don’t know why he had a change of attitude about the ‘Amerkanische yabo flieger,’  but now I was on his side.  The following night, he put a piece of newspaper under my head.  I KNEW IMMEDIATELY WHAT TO DO WITH THIS GERMAN LANGUAGE NEWSPAPER.  I rolled it up and ran it up into the hole under my knee.  Gosh, this newspaper probe probably went at least six inches into this hole in my leg.  I swabbed out the infected pocket.  This Russian Good Samaritan brought me newspaper every night .    So I would continue to probe this severely infected leg as the supply of newspapers was available.  The cleaning of this gun shot wound probably saved my life from the deadly GANGREEN.   MY MANY THANKS, TO A NAMELESS RUSSION GOOD SAMERITAN.  I also continued to rub my leg.  The massaging was an ongoing therapy.

“By this time I was getting a pretty good crop of lice on my head and chest.  I could run my fingernails across my chest and get them full of lice and eat them.  But I was careful not to eat them all.  After a few days, the guard brought a very thin bowl of broth.  This became a daily ration.  But I was fortunate to have thick hair on my chest and head.  So I could keep a good stand of lice growing as a supplementary source of protein.  Survival depended on the total use of ALL resources available.  In addition to the pain, one of the other stressful factors was uncertainty, not knowing what was going to happen and expecting the worst at any time.”

CHAPTER 8

SOME OF HELL’S ACCOMMODATIONS

“Often the test of courage is not to die but to live.”  Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803)

After about a month or six weeks, the Russian, who was supplying Tom with the newspaper he used for a probing swab of his infected left leg, went out in his usual fashion.  His routine involved going out for two or three nights, then he would miss a night or two.  But one night he went out and never returned.  Tom understood no Russian, French, or Arabic dialects.  No one else in the room spoke English.  From the body language and gestures Tom surmised that some ill fate had overtaken his Russian benefactor.

As soon as Tom got his legs straightened and had some degree of continuing consciousness, he tried to get some communication with his fellow prisoners.  By drawing a map and pronouncing the names of the countries, he was trying to learn his approximate geographical position.  From his memory of the time and general direction of travel, he believed that he was somewhere in southern Germany.  After some days of motions, sign language, and crude maps, he found from one of the Frenchmen that he was maybe 50 to 70 kilometers from Switzerland.  With this information, he said, “As silly as it may sound, I started making escape plans.  In broad terms, how can I get out of here and get to Switzerland?”

After being in this prison for two and a half months, Tom saw a fellow American prisoner.  He was put in an upper bunk on Tom’s left.  He arrived unconscious, so Tom didn’t know that he was an American when he arrived.  He moaned and groaned and made a lot of disturbing sounds.  Tom’s observations:  “I could see his right foot, but not his left foot.  He would continually rub that right foot on the sideboard of the bunk.  After a day, big chunks of flesh started falling off onto the floor, chunks half as big as your hand.  Finally, the whole side of his foot came off.  I knew what that was.  He had frozen feet.  It would be a miracle to survive that.  Somewhere along the way, he regained consciousness.  He was dark skinned, but not black.  I thought he could be an Arab by his color, but he didn’t have the facial structure of an Arab.  When I learned that he was an American, there was at least a glimmer of hope for some conversation.  But his English was terribly hard to understand.  He had a very heavy Spanish accent.  He came from some place in south Texas, just across the Mexican border.  That’s about all I found out about him before he died one night.”

After about three months in this prison ward, a Russian was placed in a bunk relatively close to Tom’s.  The Russian prisoners wore a black and white prison-stripe, pajama-looking outfit.  This prisoner lasted just a few days.  When the guards came to remove the body, Tom asked one of them to take off those clothes.  So the guard took the clothes off the corpse to give to Tom.  Now the American was becoming a prisoner of substance.  He had a blanket, courtesy of the German nun, and pajama-like garment, courtesy of the deceased Russian prisoner and a German guard.

There were air raids in the area where Tom was confined.  These were almost daily routines.  Loud sirens, people scurrying around outside, German troops distinguished by the sounds of their hobnail boots impacting the cobblestone in the streets, and sometimes .50 caliber machine gun fire.  Tom reported, “Once in a while I would get a glimpse of a fighter out of the window.  One day I saw our group.  They were easy to spot with those highly visible orange tails.”

After about three months in this prison ward, several guards came in the room with a big sheet.  They spread the sheet on the floor.  In it were all kinds of odds and ends.  One of the German guards spoke English.  He said, “We are leaving here.  Take whatever is yours and then we’re going.”  None of these things belonged to Tom, but there was a large GI overcoat.  Since these overcoats were 100 percent wool, very thick and warm, Tom cast a covetous eye on it.  He figured that it had belonged to the GI who had frozen feet.  Since he would never need it, Tom claimed it.  He also saw some kind of pants.  They didn’t look like English, French, or Russian, but Tom didn’t care about their source.  He claimed those also.  So he now had trousers and an overcoat.  The Germans brought in a stretcher.  Tom was wearing his new possessions, plus his blanket and the pajama-type, Russian prisoner garb.  He was lifted to the stretcher and carried out of the building.

This move for Tom was quite an ordeal.  He was attended by two or three guards for 40 to 50 miles.  At that distance he would be handed over to another unit.  This meant being moved onto another stretcher.  In the prison confines he had finally reached a point of a reasonable amount of rest, as some natural healing was in process.  On the first two or three shifts from stretcher to stretcher he fared moderately well.  However, being lifted by the ankles and shoulders for these stretcher exchanges began to take its toll.  Tom’s log reveals, “I could feel myself coming apart.  After the first two or three transfers things got real bad.  I could feel the bone grinding around in the leg.”

These moves were made by oxcart and flatbed truck from town to town, picking up people along the way.  The Germans would get aboard and stomp around.  Tom would be lying in the truck and there would be 20-30 people squeezed into a space that should have been occupied by five.  Tom said, “I would get stepped on and pushed around.  Some of these Germans who found out who I was wanted to beat me and spit on me.  The guards were kept busy keeping people off of me.  I came to realize how these people felt and just accepted it, whatever they did.  Of course, there was nothing I could do about it anyway.  Any resistance would just make matters worse.”

Tom’s movement continued in a northward direction by a variety of carriers, including trains.  He tells of an experience in Esslingen, about 5 miles east of Stuttgart.  “About the time the train was pulling into the station, late in the afternoon, almost dark, the air raid sirens began to give their alarms.  The guards took me out of the box car and started somewhere.  People were running in all directions, heading for air raid shelters.  The guards dropped me and took off running.  In very short order the entire area was cleared.  No one could be seen.  They had all disappeared into holes like ants.  With the blast of the sirens I knew what to expect, but I was thinking, ‘I hope it’s not here.’

“Well, things started flying around.  I looked to see what I could do and saw a concrete bench about 15 or 20 feet from me.  I used my elbows to drag myself off the stretcher and over to that bench to get under it.  Almost as soon as I managed to get under it, a train wheel from the train on which I had been riding came down across the concrete bench under which I had just taken cover.  The bench cracked, but it held together.  Then there was some other debris that came down across the wheel.  All together, the wheel and the debris made a kind of little house for me.  Pieces were flying all over the place.  The train that was parked there was just blown to pieces.  Once the train was blown apart, I could see out into the sky.  There was flak flying up there.  This was a typical, all-night British raid.  It started around 20:00 or 21:00 and lasted almost until daylight.  There were planes being shot down in flames.  The German search lights seemed well synchronized with the anti-aircraft guns.  As soon as the lights would spot a plane, that plane would almost immediately get hit with flak.  This was some night.  There is quite a bit of difference being on the trigger end of a strafing run and lying in the target area under a concrete bench.”

In some less traumatic circumstances years later, Tom reflected on the demands of war and how he was conditioned to meet his changed situation.  “In thinking back over it, possibly one of the experiences that helped to adjust was the upper and lower class system in cadets.  Remember, you are a boss one time and a zombie the next go around.  It is hard to describe or imagine the total difference in being a fighter pilot and being a virtually helpless prisoner of war.  As a fighter pilot you have eight .50 caliber machine guns and you are in full control.  You have all that fire power one minute.  Then in three or four minutes, or a short period of time, you are lying on the ground, busted up, completely helpless, at the mercy of your enemy.  The change is so drastic so quickly, I can’t describe the feeling that you have during a change like that.  But like the upper-lower class system in cadets during WWII, this very short ride requires an abrupt change in perspective to survive.”

After the air raid at Esslingen was over, the all-clear signal was sounded.  People started coming out of the air-raid shelters.  Daylight was arriving and fires were burning everywhere.  Sirens from the firetrucks and ambulances punctured the air with their regular cadences.  Most people came out of their shelters, looked around, then went about their business.  In a relatively short time Tom noticed that only the emergency people were on the scene.  The guards arrived and threw the debris off the bench under which Tom had taken cover.  They recovered his stretcher which had some holes made by some kinds of missiles.  These were reminders for Tom to realize how lucky he had been to find the shelter which protected him.

The guards dragged him out from under the concrete bench where he had spent the night and put him on the stretcher.  Then they just stayed in the area for two or three hours.  Finally, they carried Tom down between some buildings on the opposite side of the railyard.  Ultimately, they got a truck for the continuation of their journey.  Then there was a three- or four-car train.  Tom got the cattle car, but there were no cattle in it.  The guards rode in one of the passenger cars.

After the train had been traveling for about an hour it stopped.  This was a little one-room station that reminded Tom of a small western town.  The guards got out and came to get Tom.  They carried him to the station platform where they set the stretcher.  From the passenger cars they brought out two Americans who were still in their flight suits.  One was a captain; the other was a lieutenant.  The lieutenant was hobbling rather severely.  The captain was taken away up a hill.  The lieutenant sat down on the platform next to Tom and speculated that the captain was being interrogated.  The lieutenant was Bob Rudkin from Long Island, NY.  He was a P-51 pilot whose plane had caught fire.  The fire melted the fire wall and pieces of molten steel got onto Bob’s legs.  Part of his flesh was burned off his legs.  This was the first American with whom Tom had any real conversation in more than three months.  That was a positive morale boost for Tom.

After 15 to 30 minutes Tom was carried to a nearby small shed and placed against the back wall.  Rudkin was taken there also.  In a bit there were some children eating apples passing in front of the shed door.  The sight of those children eating apples turned on Tom’s juices.  Tom remarked, “That really whipped up my appetite.”  So an operational plan was devised.  Bob could speak a few words of German.  He would go to the front of the shed and tell the kids that there was an American fighter-bomber flier back here in the shed.  The children can see him for one apple each.  Bob thought this tactic had little opportunity for success.  Nevertheless, he did go to the front of the shed and told the children the great news.  So Bob attracted the children’s attention and announced, ‘Fur einen Apfel kannst du einen amerikanischen yabo flieger sehen’ (You can see an American fighter-bomber pilot for an apple.)  So one kid came into the shed, gave Bob an apple, came to the back of the shed to look at me, then he turned and left.  He must have told his friends.  In a little bit a stream of children bearing apples came to look at me.  There must have been an apple orchard close to the shed.  Some of these children came to look at me two or three times with an apple for each admission.”

The apple feast was almost an eating frenzy for Tom.  He had been subsisting on very sparse prisoner rations, mostly very thin soup, for about three months.  As mentioned earlier, his protein supplement was provided by eating his own body lice.  Tom tells of eating the stack of apples.  “We started eating those apples and I’m telling you that was one of the better things I’ve ever put my teeth into in all my life.  Bob had just been shot down the day before.  So an apple to him didn’t mean all that much.  Of course, he was hungry, but I don’t think he was hungry enough to eat just anything.  I even offered to swap him some of my lice for some of his apples, but he didn’t find any humor in the offer.  But we divided the apples and I ate apples.  He was eating them by taking two or three bites, leaving a big core and throwing it away.  I said, ‘Bob, don’t do that.  You’re going to need that.’  But he said, ‘Oh, no!’  I had eaten all I could of my apples and put my cores in my pockets.  That GI overcoat had big pockets, convenient in this case for storing a lot of apple cores.  I also had maybe four or five whole apples that I didn’t eat then.  My stomach had been stretched to its capacity.”

In a few hours another train came to this station and stopped.  The prisoners were reboarded and the train continued its run.  In less than 24 hours the prisoners were taken off the train and the guards escorted them from the station up a hill to a fence-enclosed prison.  These wounded men were taken into a four-story building where they were stripped.  They were deloused.  Then, as Tom relates the experience, “Someone helped me to take a shower.  Well, it felt pretty good really, but it hurt at the same time.  My beard had grown for three months; my hair was equally shabby.  Someone started trimming my hair and beard.  When the beard was short enough, the barber shaved me.  I thought these troops were going to put me in a tuxedo.  This was really first class.”

Somewhere between his shower and shave and his assignment to quarters, Tom encountered an Indian with a can of Spam.  As is widely known, for religious reasons Indians cannot eat beef, since cattle are sacred creatures.  Tom still had an apple and a fair supply of apple cores which he was able to swap for that can of Spam.  When he got to his room, he opened the Spam immediately.  He said, “I cut off a little bit, as it was so rich I couldn’t eat more than a tiny bit.  With the key can opener, I was able to open and close the can easily.  I rationed that Spam to make it last as long as possible.”

Tom was put on the second floor of this prison building with other wounded troops.  One of these was Bill Davis, from Baltimore, MD.  He had caught a piece of shrapnel that opened up his stomach.  Another was a captain who was a P-47 pilot.  When he had bailed out, he hit the tail of his plane and broke his shoulder.  He was not captured right away, so he was trying to get back to the front lines, but didn’t make it.  He carried his arm inside his shirt and his shoulder healed that way, so he wasn’t able to use his arm.  Bob Rudkin, with whom Tom had pulled the “Apple Caper,” was also in that room.  There was another man assigned to the room, but Tom does not remember details about him.

Living conditions improved.  The prisoners got two bowls of potato soup a day.  Tom could have a thin slice of Spam each day.  Two fellow prisoners were from the medical corp, so bandages were dressed.  However, while all these gains were appreciated, Tom was still having severe problems with his left leg.  Moving him from place to place had caused his broken bones to grind the flesh in his leg.  He was reaching a stage of near loss of consciousness from the pain.  So, he was giving serious consideration to amputating that leg.  He finally reached a decision.  He said, “Okay, let’s do it.”

On arrival at this prison, he was given a spoon.  The spoon was made out of a tin can and used for the daily ration of soup.  Tom’s would-be surgeon was a fellow prisoner.  He had a knife made out of a tin can.  Tom gives these details.  “This guy and I went up to a room with the idea that he was going to take off my leg.  He wouldn’t have to do much cutting since the bone was already broken.  All he’d have to do is to cut the flesh.  Then I found out he didn’t have much with which to work.  He turned chicken, saying he had never done anything like that before.  I don’t think he knew any more about first aid than I did.  It was real fortunate that he decided he didn’t want to do it.”

The prison camp where Tom was held had representatives of almost all the Allied troops.  However, the Russians were in a separate compound across the road some 300 yards away.  From several sources Tom was told that the Russians there numbered about 10,000.

Just outside the fence surrounding the compound holding Tom and all the other non-Russian prisoners in a small building was a kitchen for the camp.  That’s where the potatoes were peeled and cooked.  The cooked potatoes were sent somewhere to the German troops.  Then the peelings were boiled, strained, and the residual broth was the soup du jour for the prisoners.  That stack of peelings was almost the size of the kitchen.

When Tom arrived in this camp he was told to look out the window.  He raised himself to observe the normal, twice-a-day ritual for the meal service.  He describes the routine.  “They had these containers with handles on each side that the Russians used to carry their soup.  The container would carry maybe 20 gallons of soup.  The Russians would have a stick run through the containers’ handles.  One man would be on each side of the container to support the stick.  There would be 20-30 men on these meal details to take the soup back to their compound.  The meal transport detail was brought to the kitchen about an hour before the soup was ready for delivery.  The Russians would just stand there holding their containers.  There seemed to be a German guard for every Russian.  It looked like the Germans were just daring the Russians to do something while they were standing right beside this stack of potato peelings.  Well, the Germans would stand there and the Russians would be holding these large pails.  The daily scenario was almost like a rehearsed play with minor variations and probably large substitutions in the Russian roles.  The Germans would walk away and get in a huddle, conversing with their backs to the Russians.  When that happened, the Russians would make a dive for the potato peelings, grabbing them, eating them, stuffing them in their pockets and clothes, like savages.  About that time the noise of the melee would attract the Germans.  They would dash back to this frenzy, hit the Russians with the butts of their guns, kick them, make them take off their clothes, empty their pockets.  All this time the guards would be hitting them in their backs with gun barrels; blood would be flying.  One German appeared to have an artificial hand (an iron or hook hand).  Every time he hit someone the blood would really fly.  This wild fracas would continue until the soup was ready to pour.

“The Russians would come to the ladling spot and the soup would be poured right up to the container rim.  The soup bearers were told not to spill any.  So the Germans would watch the Russians very carefully.  These filled containers were very heavy, filled to the point of overflowing.  The Russians had already been beat up and they looked as though they were about starved.  So they were understandably very weak.  The bearers would go stumbling off with their loads.  If any of the soup got spilled, the Germans would then hit the bearers with rifle butts and kick them; then more soup would spill.  This would be cause for the guards to knock them down, which would make the whole container turn over.  This routine continued the whole time the Russians were carrying their soup back to the barracks.  When they got back to their compound they probably would not have the equivalent of three or four containers of soup.  Obviously, what was left was hardly adequate to feed 10,000 prisoners.”

In Tom’s compound there was an ongoing dialog of complaints about both the quantity and quality of food.  There were also complaints about living conditions and medical care.  But almost everything in war, as well as in any other time, is relative.  Tom comments, “As far as I was concerned, the food, the living conditions, the medical treatment, all these considerations were great improvements compared to the circumstances to which I had become accustomed.  I wasn’t complaining at all.  This was a step up in the word.  In fact, I thought I had moved into the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.”

Tom’s overall physical progress was pretty good, in spite of limited nourishment and no real medical attention.  Eating his soup from the spoon made out of a tin can posed one hazard.  The sharp edges could cut.  This meant that dining was a challenge to use the spoon very carefully.  His mouth had healed from the injuries suffered in getting out of the plane.  The scars on his face and neck had disappeared.  His left leg was close to normal size and color.  But his knee and leg still gave him troublesome pain.  He continued the massage therapy regularly, commenting, “That was about all you had to do all day, massage.”  He supplemented his two bowls of soup with a fourth of a slice of an inch of Spam which he cut into four pieces.  He still had four apples, so he would cut off a little slice of apple.  He said, “That was about all I could eat.  By the time I ate that with my bowl of soup I was full.  The Spam was getting mold on it, heavy mold.  But I figured the mold was probably good for me anyway; at least it couldn’t do any harm.  So, I was getting along pretty good.  I had a warm place to sleep.  The bunks had little, thin mattresses, which was a lot better than sleeping on boards with cracks in them.  I was getting along fine.”

As new prisoners came into the camp, news about the war and the home front was welcomed.  The most popular tune at home at this stage of the war was “Don’t Fence Me In,” according to at least one recent arrival at the camp.  He attempted a few renditions of the tune, much to the amusement of the older residents of the prison.

The front was moving closer to the camp.  This fact was realized when the prisoners could hear the big guns in the distance.  After dark, the gun flashes could be seen.  Estimates from the infantry and artillery prisoners put the fire in the 10- to 15-mile range.

In about a week, all the big, healthy guards were moved out.  Guarding the gates, old men and young boys took their places.  Some of the able-bodied prisoners would have had little difficulty overpowering these old men and young boys.  But the prison troops thought there was no need to do this.  With our forces so near at hand, food, medical supplies, and transportation would soon be available.  So the prisoners decided to wait.

In another week the French came in on a half-track vehicle.  Shortly before they arrived the old men and boys just dropped their guns and left.  The French didn’t try to capture them.  They opened the gate and said, “Viva la France; you’re free!”  Everybody hollered, “We’re free; we’re free!”  Then the French turned around and left.

At that time, the only thing that being free meant was that the gates were now open, instead of being closed.  The prisoners thought that the American forces would soon arrive.  After a day or two of waiting and no new arrivals changed the scene, some of the able bodied prisoners started leaving.  Tom estimates that most of the 3-4,000 Allied prisoners, excluding the Russians, were able bodied.  Some of these went out on scouting parties to see what could be found around the neighborhood and in the countryside.  They returned from a train they found about three miles away.  In a boxcar in that train were Red Cross parcels, so these scouts loaded carts and brought them back to the prison compound.  The prisoners started ripping into these parcels.  Everybody started eating and almost immediately everyone was getting sick.  Their stomachs couldn’t handle these rich foods.  Anyhow, these hungry prisoners would eat and get sick.  So the living quarters got in pretty bad shape in a hurry.  Tom was relatively cautious, and he was helped further by not being exceptionally hungry, because he had learned discipline by rationing his limited supplementary resources (apples and Spam).  However, he did eat some of the newly found goodies.  He, too, learned that the food was too rich to digest readily.  He got sick and even lost his earlier consumed ration of apples.  He lamented, “But it was hard not to eat this food because it looked so good and tasted good, too.”