Prisoner Of The Reich
William C. 'Bill' Urryís Experience as a POW in Nazi Germany
Recounted by his grandson Justin Urry
In the summer of 1998 I was golfing at Bear Lake, Utah
with my grandfather Bill Urry. There was a foursome playing directly behind us
and one of its members was none other than NBA basketball legend Danny Ainge. We
were standing in the middle of the fairway when Danny teed off and his ball
landed about 10 yards behind where grandpa was about to hit his second shot. We
waited for Danny to come looking for his ball and as he approached something
happened that surprised me at the time. Instead of just gawking at the tall
slender superstar, my grandpa, in a tone of voice that suggested a relationship
based more on friendship than hero worship simply asked, "is this your ball
Danny?" I've wondered since then why Grandpa never asked Mr. Ainge for his
autograph. Here was a man who is a hero to hundreds of young Mormon boys if not
millions of aspiring young NBA players and yet Grandpa treated him like just
another human being; no more worthy of respect and adulation than anyone else.
It wasn't until a couple of years later that I realized why . . .
On April first Lt. Bill Urry celebrated his
twenty-third birthday. It was the first birthday he had ever spent outside of
the United States. As part of the 612th squadron attached to the 401st bombing
group of the U. S. Eighth Air Force he was stationed in Deenethorpe, England,
about 90 miles north of London. By mid-April 1944 he had flown on six successful
bombing raids over Germany already---so successful in fact, his bomb group had
earned the distinction of having the second-best bombing accuracy rating in the
entire Eighth Air Force. Now, on April 11 Bill would commence mission number
seven---hopefully it would be lucky number seven.
A diminutive man---about five feet three inches tall,
Lieutenant Urry made up in toughness what he lacked in stature. He had grown up
in Ogden, Utah, born to Mormon parents who loved him. But his father often took
his fiery temper out on his children. Maybe it was because of his childhood that
Lieutenant Urry had developed such a strong will and fierce determination. Then
again, maybe it was just part of his genetic make-up---after all, no Urry has
ever been accused of being anything less than stubborn. In any case it was a
trait that would be tested in the months ahead, though at the time even he had
no inkling of what lie ahead.
Because of his short stature Bill never had the
opportunity to become a pilot when he volunteered to serve his country so he
became a bombardier instead; a man whose position was arguably the most
important after the pilot's. As the title implies, the bombardier was
responsible for releasing the bombs on the intended target. His accuracy could
affect the effectiveness of the enemy at making war and thus the outcome of the
war itself. The lives of civilians were at stake too, for if the bombardier hit
the wrong target, like a city suburb instead of a factory, hundreds, if not
thousands of innocent German citizens would die.
And it wasn't difficult to miss a target. A
miscalculation by inches aboard the plane translated into a miss by miles on the
ground. But Lt. Urry had endured months of rigorous training and thanks in large
part to new technology like the Norden bombsight, he could brag, like his fellow
bombardiers did, that he could "drop a bomb in a pickle barrel."
Besides the bombardier and pilot the ten-man Boeing
B-17 crew consisted of a co-pilot, a navigator, an engineer, two waist gunners,
a ball turret gunner, a tail-gunner and a radio operator. Except for the pilot
and co-pilot, every crew member manned a .50 caliber Browning machine gun. The
result of all this was that the Flying Fortresses, or Forts as the airmen called
them, were everything their name suggested.
April 11 was a Maximum Effort day when all available
planes would be sent out. For Lieutenant Urry the day started at 0400 hours with
runners waking the airmen up by announcing that they had 30 minutes to eat
before briefing started. After breakfast, the airmen were briefed on the
essential details of the mission. Here Bill and his crew discovered that today's
target would be Politz, Germany. Politz was a key target because of its oil
refinery. The Allies plan was to destroy industries that fuelled Germany's
ability to make war (industries like oil refineries, ball bearing plants, steel
mills and others), hoping that by doing so they could bring the war to a
grinding halt. After about an hour of briefing the men synchronized their
watches and went to prepare the plane for take-off. Usually by about 0700 the
planes and their crews were ready to go.
To an observer on the ground the behemoth Forts would
have resembled oversized buzzards circling newly discovered carrion as they spiraled
upward above the air base, waiting for still other B-17s to join them until the
entire squadron of eighteen planes was in formation. Once the squadron was
formed, they would join up with other squadrons to form groups, the groups
teaming up to form wings. Finally the entire wing would start en masse toward
the target deep inside the German Reich. Thousands of airplanes as far as the
eye could see with no other goal than to destroy the forces of evil---it must
have inspired feelings of honour and duty and patriotism in the hearts of all
those privileged enough to participate in such a scene.
Of course Bill was one of those participants so he took
his seat in the nose of the plane and when the rest of the crew was settled in
the plane taxied down the runway. The mission had begun.
In the beginning the mission went right as planned. The
bombers crossed the Channel without incident and even got as far as western
Germany having only faced light Flak. Flak was the German name for anti-aircraft
fire and the Fliegerabwehrkanonen (Flak guns) were vicious. So vicious,
in fact that by war's end they were responsible for destroying more planes than
Luftwaffe fighter planes ever did. The guns fired 200 pound shells that exploded
at a predetermined altitude, sending thousands of shards of metal in all
directions. It was capable of ripping through the aluminium body of the Fortress
and indeed had cut some bombers completely in half. Then, as the plane got
nearer its target, the flak got heavier. The pilot, Lt. Frank Kuhl had to
manoeuvre the plane with quick, jerky movements to avoid the deadly bursts. The
bumpy ride made the B-17 a most uncomfortable place.
Meanwhile, in the comfort of her living room in Ogden,
Bill's mother Stella was sitting in her chair when her lamp burst into pieces.
Immediately her thoughts turned to her son. Her intuition told her something bad
had just happened.
As it turned out, something bad had happened. As the
Flak got heavier, it became more and more difficult to dodge. And now there was
the added danger of German fighter planes---Focke Wolf 190's---which had begun
circling up. Suddenly one of the Fort's engines burst into bright orange and
yellow flames, probably hit by the Flak. Fortunately getting an engine shot out
was not enough to make a plane crash. In fact a large part of the Fort's
reputation was built on the fact that it could suffer heavy damage and still
fly. But if the fire reached the main fuel line the plane would explode into a
fiery ball in a matter of seconds. Kuhl made the decision--the crew was going to
turn around and try to make it back to England.
If continuing the mission was dangerous, turning back
was not any less so; the crew would have to face the same anti-aircraft fire
they had just flown through. But they got as far as Hanover okay. Then, the
plane was hit again. This time Kuhl was hit in the arm by the shrapnel. Lt. Urry
looked back from his position in the nose of the plane to see the injured pilot
and rushed back to help. Getting a bandage from somewhere he commenced bandaging
Kuhl's wounds. While still in the process of bandaging, Bill heard his co-pilot
2nd. Lt. Edward Czupryk tell the crew to prepare to bail out. The plane was
going to blow up. With that Bill left the bandaging, went to the midsection of
the plane and opened the bomb bay doors. Once he had them open, he and Czupryk
grabbed Kuhl and pushed him out and watched his parachute open. Then Bill jumped
free from plane. Being the second one out, Bill could only hope the others would
make it out before the plane blew up. He found out later that one crew member
did not make it. Sometime during the ordeal Sgt. Ray Dziadzia, the ball turret
gunner had been killed defending his plane and his fellow crew members.
The first feelings Bill felt as he drifted down were
feelings of relief. He felt happy his parachute had opened. Such feelings did
not last long, for they were replaced by fear. What was going to happen now?
Would he be killed? Would he be tortured? Would he live to see the end of the
war? Suddenly his entire future was in the hands of the enemy.
When he landed on the German soil, angry civilians
wielding pitchforks and shouting threats and hurling such accusations as
"Baby Killer" and "Murderer" immediately surrounded Bill. Of
all the hazards faced by a captured airman, this type of situation was the most
dangerous. Whereas soldiers and armies were bound to honour the rules of war as
spelled out by international gatherings such as the Geneva Convention (which
prohibited mistreatment of prisoners), civilians were not. So if captured by a
soldier, an airman was relatively safe; but capture by civilians was another
matter altogether. Indeed, some civilian crowds became angry enough that they
actually killed their captives. Lt. Urry knew this and for that reason he
wondered what might be his fate at the hands of his captors. Indeed, Bill
admitted later that this was the only time during his ordeal that he truly
feared for his life.
Fortunately, his fears were allayed. Not long after his
encounter with the citizens of the Reich, he was handed over to Nazi soldiers
who placed him on a crowded train full of other prisoners headed for a
processing centre near Frankfurt. The train stopped, the cars were opened and
Bill found himself in a small town called Oberusel. Here was the site of what
the Germans called Auswertestelle West meaning Evaluation Centre West.
The more common name however was Dulag Luft.
Dulag Luft was an interrogation centre where every
airman shot down over Germany was evaluated. In 1944 the monthly average of
prisoners processed was about 2000 which meant that on any given day there might
have been anywhere from 100 to 300 prisoners at Dulag Luft.
From the outside it did not look like much---four
wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire. There were no guard turrets nor other
security measures around the perimeter besides the barbed wire. One of the
barracks was the administrative headquarters, one housed the interrogation
offices and the other two buildings consisted of cells (about 200 all told)
where new POWs were held in solitary confinement. After being strip searched,
Lt. Urry was placed into one of these cells and given a meal of black bread and
jam with "ersatz" coffee to wash it down
The cells were anything but comfortable. About eight
feet high by five feet wide and twelve feet long, they contained a cot, one
chair, a table and an electric bell with which the prisoners could call the
guards. That was it. There was a reason for such Spartan quarters and it was
psychological. The Germans hoped to make the airmen "crack" by making
them spend a few nights alone with their thoughts.
Apart from the occasional graffiti occasionally found
on the cell walls, Bill had nothing to read and nothing to listen to or look at.
Every day or two the German captors would take him out of his cell to the
interrogation barracks. There were a couple of ways to get the airmen to talk.
Early in the war the Nazi's tried intimidation. The threat of starvation or
beatings was usually the preferred method of do this. If that did not work, the
Germans would tell their prisoners that they did not believe the airmen were
really airmen and they should prove they were by divulging details about
missions, technology or Air Force strength. By the time Bill was captured,
however, the Germans had realized they were really getting nowhere with such
tactics and they began trying friendlier approaches.
The most popular "friendly" way of extracting
information from the airmen was through the use of a questionnaire which started
with questions about the prisoner's name, rank and serial number, which the
prisoners were required by international law to give. But the questions got
progressively more detailed, asking about the mission, markings on the airman's
plane, etc. Most POWs, however, had been trained well for this situation so they
only gave their name, rank and serial number, as was the case with Lt. Urry.
Stalag Luft One
All told Bill, spent about six days at Dulag Luft and
then he was sent, once more by rail, to his final destination. The journey was a
tiresome five days long. When the train came to a stop, Bill and the prisoners
with him were marched two miles to Stalag Luft One.
Stalag Luft One was situated in Northeast Germany on
the Baltic Sea near Poland. When it first opened in 1942 its two compounds were
designed to hold only a few hundred prisoners. By April 1944 the camp's
population had swelled to over 3000 inmates, which had necessitated the opening
of a new compound. It was into this compound (named North 1) that Bill was
placed. He did not know it at the time but, of the three existing compounds,
North was the best one. It had formerly housed members of the Hitler Youth and
as a result contained a communal mess hall, indoor latrines and running water;
things the other compounds lacked to one degree or another.
Though North 1 was the best compound at Stalag Luft 1,
it was by no means a five-star hotel. Looking at the outside, one would first
notice the barbed wire---lots of it. Barbed wire surrounded the entire camp and
then there was a second fence around each separate compound, thus forming
double-layered obstacle. In between the layers coils of barbed wire were placed
so if a prisoner did manage to cut through the first layer, he would be
confronted by a dangerous tangled mess, prohibiting him from reaching the outer
At strategic points along the wire walls guard towers
were placed so the Germans could keep an eye on the goings on of the camp.
Spotlights on the towers helped the guards see into the dark corners of the
camp. Inside the compound there were wooden barracks (about 9) where the POWs
were housed. Each barracks was raised up on wooden blocks about two feet above
ground. This served the practical purpose of allowing the guards to observe
whether the inmates were trying to escape the camp by tunnelling. It also aided
the occasional "ferret" (prisoner slang for a guard who spied on the
POWs). Ferrets could crawl beneath the barracks at night to listen the POW
conversations in hopes of discovering valuable information about the enemy.
It is difficult to say what went through Bill's mind or
what he felt the first time laid eyes on the menacing wire structure that would
be his home, he has largely forgotten the emotions of that day. But it is not
unreasonable to suppose his experience was similar to that of others who wrote
of their experiences. The account of Colonel Hubert "Hub" Zemke offers
My first sight of Stalag Luft Oneís guard towers and
high fences silhouetted against the darkening sky induced a strange feeling of
relief. While having no desire to be imprisoned, I reasoned that for the first
time since my unintended arrival on German soil I was free of uncertainty. Here
I would probably see out the rest of the war
We can also deduce, based on contemporary accounts, the
process Bill went through upon his arrival. The first thing Bill would have had
to experience was fingerprinting and photographing. First he was stripped and
deloused, then he was issued his clothes, toiletries and a Kriegsgefangenen
(prisoner of war) number. Next he had his picture taken. Finally he was given a
small blue notebook with a pencil for use as a diary and then was shown his
room. In his room were some two and three-man bunks made of wood where the
prisoners slept. The mattresses were burlap filled with straw or wood chips and
they came with a single wool blanket. The room also contained a small,
inadequate coal stove for heating purposes. It was not much to look at but it
would be his home for who knew how long, so after getting to know his roommates,
an almost certainly overwhelmed Lt. Urry found his bunk and settled in for his
The next day Bill became acquainted with the routines
of camp life. The first thing was morning appell or roll call. At 0630
the prisoners would line up on the parade grounds of their compound to be
counted by their guards. Appell was an efficient way for the German staff to
keep track of their captives and to discover airmen who might be missing as a
result of an escape attempt. While the Kriegies were busy counting off, guards
searched barracks for evidence of tunnelling and in vain for hidden radios which
were forbidden by camp regulations.
After appell, the prisoners washed up. Shower
facilities were woefully inadequate, especially as the war dragged on and more
prisoners flooded the camp, so they were not always an option. Often washing up
was done over a sink. But, the men did the best they could. Then it was off to
Breakfast, in Lt. Urry's compound was served in the
communal mess hall. Cooks there created meals from a daily ration provided by
the Germans consisting of barley mush, six potatoes , one-fifth loaf of bread,
some jam, butter, a small piece of meat , some dehydrated vegetables and a
little sugar. This was supplemented by parcels of food sent in by the
International Red Cross. The camp received one package per man per week
consisting of such things as Spam, powdered milk, cheese, soap, vitamin pills,
cigarettes and chocolate which were then pooled with the German rations.
In theory the food should have been enough to provide
adequate nourishment but quantity and quality are two very distinct things. Most
prisoner diaries allude to the fact that the potatoes were usually half-rotten,
the meat was horse meat, and the staple meal--the barley mush--was consistently
infested with weevil. New prisoners were often shocked to be given such horrible
provisions. Indeed, the barley became a measuring stick against which new POWs
were evaluated. "You could always tell the new guys, " Bill would
recall years later, "because they would refuse to eat it."
After breakfast the prisoners were left to their own
devices to entertain themselves. One of the worst problems a Kriegie had to deal
with was boredom. Most, like Lt. Urry chose to read books provided by the YMCA
to pass the time. (Bill read over one hundred books before he was liberated.
They were not always simple dime novels either. For example, he managed to
tackle five tragedies of Shakespeare, Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and
other hefty tomes.) A few took advantage of limited sporting facilities and
equipment (also provided by the YMCA) to play football, baseball, volleyball or
box. Those with musical or theatrical talents formed bands , to the delight of
the other Kriegies. They were good too. Indeed, of his camp's band, the
"Round the Benders," presumably named so because the prisoners hoped
the end of the war was "round the bend," Bill gushed, "We had
some very talented young men . . . and the Red Cross had sent in instruments and
these guys had formed a band and boy they had a band that was just like Glen
Miller's, boy I'm telling you, they could really play . . ." Then of course
one could always write letters home, too, although they were subject to heavy
censorship and rarely reached their destination. The guards encouraged all of
these activities because they kept the prisoners happy and peaceful and thus
easy to guard.
Still another diversion that was not viewed as
favourably was tunnelling. Despite the fact that it was easy for a guard to
observe any digging beneath the barracks, many Kriegies chose to dig anyway.
Sometimes they were able to disguise physical evidence of digging but the
Germans countered by burying microphones in the dirt and using simple
seismographs to detect excavation activity. The guards, however, realized that
tunnelling kept the men busy and fit so in the words of one of Bill's fellow
prisoners, "many tunnels were dug--most of them almost reached the fence
before they were 'accidentally' discovered."
A fair amount of economic activity took place during
free time as well. Indeed the prison had developed its own economy. Some guards
could easily be bribed with Red Cross items so the prisoners soon identified the
vulnerable guards and exchanged such things as cigarettes and chocolate bars for
radio parts, maps and other contraband. Prisoners could also trade items they
did not like for more preferred items. A point system was established and each
item was given a value. Cigarettes were worth 50 points, chocolate bars were 60,
as were raisins, milk, and crackers. Prunes were 40 points. Prisoners could use
the points to purchase the items they desired.
An interruption of all activities came with lunch,
where the Kriegies were given more of the rotten food. Afterwards the men had to
entertain themselves again until dinner. Of course, it goes without saying that
dinner was the same food as before.
Such was the POW's daily routine--agonizingly long at
best. One would imagine that with so much time on their hands the prisoners
would have taken some time to record the daily events of camp life in their
diaries. Some wrote pretty faithfully, but even the best chronicles are missing
months of entries. Most prisoners wrote occasionally, usually recording only
those events which they considered extraordinary. Some, like Bill, never kept a
diary at all. Not that they can be blamed. When one lives such a routine
existence it is hard to see the importance of that routine. Sadly, however, the
result is that a glimpse into the everyday life of the prisoners of the Reich is
Waiting on Winning
Part of the anxiety of life as a prisoner is not
knowing when you will be released. It goes without saying that when Bill was
shot down he had no idea when the war would be over and how long he would be in
prison. Certainly no Allied serviceman ever doubted that the Allies would win,
it was just a matter of when and at what cost. Not knowing this made it even
harder for a prisoner to wait his time. Luckily early in June something happened
that gave Bill and his comrades hope for an early end to the war.
On the morning of June 6, General Dwight Eisenhower
gave the word to launch Operation Overlord---the invasion of France from the
beaches of Normandy. By the seventh, Allied forces had a strong foothold on the
continent. The Allies and the Germans realized they were there to stay and it
looked like the war could end soon.
Meanwhile, a few days later, Bill read about the
invasion of Normandy in the camp newsletter. The POWWOW, which stood for
"Prisoners Of War Waiting On Winning." Someone in West compound had
smuggled a radio into camp and was able to tune in to the BBC. Plus, German
radio broadcasts were being piped into the barracks by the Germans. These two
sources provided enough information about the war to allow the printing of the
POWWOW and so every night the one-page typed memo would be passed around the
camp detailing the movements of the Allies as well as general camp information.
So, in early June Lt. Urry was finally given hope that his days as a prisoner
would be short.
A month after D-day the American prisoners in camp
celebrated Independence Day. The camp band put on a concert that was well
attended and that was about the extent of the celebration. In fact the day was
so uneventful that many former POWs from Stalag Luft One do not remember
celebrating the day at all, including Bill Urry. It is really not surprising
that there was little celebration. Doing so would only serve to remind the
prisoners of their own lack of independence.
By September the Allies had gotten bogged down and the
Germans were counterattacking. But slowly and surely the Allies were moving
ahead. By late August an opportunity came for the Allies which could have
shortened the war considerably. The Allies had nearly surrounded a large part of
the German ground troops near Falaise, France. If they could encircle the
Germans troops, Hitler, faced with such a huge loss of men, might have been
forced to sue for peace. Or at least the Allies would have encountered
considerably less resistance in their march toward Berlin. All they needed to do
was cut off the gap through which the devastated Germans were fleeing. But it
never happened. There are conflicting historical accounts as to why. Some
suggest Field Marshal Bernard "Monty" Montgomery, commander of the
British forces was too slow to close his side of the gap. More likely, the ever
cautious Eisenhower felt it too risky an endeavour so he chose to maintain a
long front rather than try an encirclement. No matter the reason, the result was
that thousands of Germans were allowed to escape to fight another day---and the
war would continue to drag on. Meanwhile the Allied advance was having
unintended effects on the POWs at Stalag Luft One.
Before Falaise, the Kriegies were generally well fed,
all things considered. Up until that point they had been receiving enough food
to provide about 1200 to 1800 calories per day. Though not exactly satisfying,
it was not starvation. Then, in September Red Cross parcels began to dwindle. So
did the German rations. By October 1 the prisoners were down to about 800
calories, clearly not enough to satisfy the prisoner's hunger. Prisoner
conversations invariably revolved around food during this time. They would talk
about their favourite foods. They would describe to each other what they planned
to eat when they got back home. Prisoners who managed to keep a diary wrote
mostly of the food they ate. Men became obsessed with food.
October came and the situation continued. Finally, in
November a Red Cross shipment was received and the men got their normal rations
It is not known for sure why rations dropped off from
September through October. It might be reasonable to suppose it was because the
Germans were losing the war. As the Allies crept closer more and more German
supply lines were cut. Similarly, according to some accounts, the Germans
refused to mark the railroad cars carrying Red Cross parcels and the
Anglo-American bombers, thinking the cars carried weapons or troops consequently
destroyed them. Or, it could have been that the Germans were stealing the
supplies to feed their own people. Those who were imprisoned suspected a
conspiracy by the German guards to deprive the prisoners of food in order to
keep the prisoners docile. Most likely it was a combination of all these
factors. In any case, the Allied advance was making Bill's and his comrades
imprisonment much more difficult to bear.
By December it became more and more evident that the
war would be over soon. Allied bombers flew overhead nearly every day with
little opposition. Reports on German radio mentioned "strategic
withdrawals" which the Kriegies knew meant retreat. Then, just days before
Christmas the Germans surprised everyone by launching an offensive in the
Ardennes in Belgium. The Allies were caught by surprise in what became known as
the Battle of the Bulge and German forces nearly broke through the American
lines. The Allies managed to hold and eventually launched a counter offensive
but it was disheartening to the POWs to hear of yet another setback in the
December 25, 1944. The camp was overcrowded with
inmates. Some rooms that normally held 16 people now held about 20-22 men. There
was a blanket of snow on the ground and it was cold. The men stayed mostly
indoors where it was warm. Some got "cabin fever" from being indoors
so long. Tempers would flare as men tried to adjust to living with 20 others.
But for this night there was peace amongst the POWs. The German guards, who were
generally indifferent, sometimes cruel, softened this night and gave their
captives extra coal for their stoves. They even gave the Kriegies a gift. Called
a tische bombe, it was, in the words of one prisoner, "a brightly coloured
cardboard box that contained funny little hats and whistles that popped up when
the lid was raised."
The Red Cross had issued a Christmas parcel so the men
had a fairly nice Christmas dinner. But there was no special Christmas
celebration that night. On a night that called for one, most celebrated the
occasion individually. Lt. Claude McCrocklin explained why: "Men in such
condition physically and psychologically did not easily burst into joy and
singing. That would come with liberation and freedom."
In January Red Cross parcels got cut off again and the
men were reduced to half parcels. Men began to lose weight rapidly. Furthermore,
the POWs had to suffer through the bitter cold Baltic weather. Each had only
been given one thin blanket for his bed and obviously that was not enough. So at
night the men would climb into bed and pile all their clothes on top of them to
try to gain much needed warmth.
Of course, under such circumstances, activity is kept
to a minimum. The prisoners were not getting enough calories to provide the
energy needed to play sports and do other strenuous activities so they read more
and played card games and chess or checkers.
February came and it was more of the same. Most men in
the camp had, by this time lost up to 50 pounds by now. On the thirteenth and
fourteenth the Kriegies received word that the Allies had bombed Dresden in an
attack that killed 135,000 people. It was a devastating blow to the Reich. But
Hitler still believed in his demented mind that the Germans would win. He
refused to permit retreat. And, perhaps most horrible of all, he stepped up the
number of exterminations at the Nazi concentration camps. It was not just
European Jews that were affected by this order, either.
At Stalag Luft One, Aaron Kupstow and other Jewish
soldiers were told to remain after roll call one morning. He tells the story
best in his own words:
After the others left we were marched through the camp
to another barracks and were told that was our new home. I was in a room with 13
others-and after talking a for a few minutes, we realized that we were all
Jewish. Checked with other rooms-the same thing. We then realized that this was
a Jewish barracks-we were in a distant corner of the camp, our own barbed wire,
and sort of isolated. Rumours started to spread that, during one night, we would
probably be marched out and sent to death camps and know one would know.
It turned out that the German commandant had issued a
list of names of Jewish prisoners to Colonel Zemke, informing him at the same
time that Geneva Convention rules allowed for the segregation of prisoners by
race. Zemke accepted the order only on the condition that the Jewish men would
be placed in the barracks next to his so he could keep an eye on them.
It is hard to imagine the anguish that would rack a
persons mind upon hearing they might be sent to their death because of their
race. It is just as difficult to imagine the insanity that must reign in a
persons mind who would do such a thing. But Hitler was that insane; that cruel.
And it was for that reason that Bill and his comrades had volunteered to help
destroy Hitler's armies. So it is not surprising that the prisoners could not
just sit idly by and watch their friends get taken away to their deaths. Colonel
Zemke sent a letter of protest to the Geneva Convention hoping it would be able
to intervene somehow.
Now it was March 3 and no Red Cross parcels were
distributed that day. Nor the next. In fact, the entire month would pass without
any parcels. Men were really beginning to starve. Some became so hungry that
they tried to dig whatever they could out of garbage cans. It got to the point
that Zemke had to assign "MPs" to guard the garbage cans to keep the
inmates from getting sick. Meanwhile, others were so weak they would nearly pass
out. Many men had to be helped to roll call. It was the nadir of the POW
experience at Stalag Luft One.
About this time, Bill and his buddies noticed a cat
running around the compound. They were so starved for food they seriously
contemplated eating it. They even hatched a plan for catching it so they could
roast it. But it disappeared before Bill or his buddies could get to it.
I turns out there was an American prisoner stationed in
West compound, Darlyle Watters, who had traded Red Cross supplies for a cat,
which he fed with Spam. Then some American sergeants from another prison camp
were transferred into Stalag Luft One. They were so hungry they caught the cat,
roasted it and ate it. In all likelihood, it was this cat that Bill and his
companions had plotted to kill.
Sunday April first was an important day. It was Easter
Sunday. As with Christmas, the day was a low-key affair. Indeed it was downright
unmemorable. There was a church service held, but it was a catholic service so
Bill did not attend. It was also Billís birthday. It must have been somewhat
depressing to observe a birthday in prison, knowing that a year ago he had been
free. Not all of the Kriegies, however, had lost their sense of humour and on
that day something happened to illustrate just that. It seems that a couple of
Kriegies had gotten into a heated debate over the Battle of the Bulge some
months earlier until one finally said to the other, "the war will be over
soon and we'll be out of here by March. Ill kiss your a-- if we're not." By
the end of March the war was still not over. So, as Bob Outman, a fellow POW
. . . on the morning of April First . . . after the
guards had finished their roll call count, our Colonels kept us at attention
instead of dismissing us. From the far side of the compound marched one
Principal with his Seconds carrying a basin of water, soap and towels. From the
near side came the other party. The two groups gave very dignified military
salutes to the Staff Officers. Then the "winner" dropped his pants and
bent over. His Seconds washed his a-- very thoroughly and the loser kissed it .
. . . Then everyone saluted again, did a precise about face and marched off. . .
. The guards and their officers were plainly dumbfounded.
Three days after this incident, something happened that
changed the daily routine of the prisoners in North compound. At 0400 the
prisoners were awakened to the sound of a fire alarm. They looked out of their
barracks windows to see their mess hall ablaze. Soon the prisoners formed a
bucket brigade in an effort to douse the flames. But it was too little too late.
Nobody ever knew for sure why the mess hall burned down. Some claimed they saw
men inside opening windows to fan the flames. Apparently the prisoners who were
assigned as mess hall cooks did not seem to be losing weight as rapidly as other
prisoners and it seems some prisoners sabotaged the mess hall in retaliation.
Sometime during this period, word got around that the
Germans were marching their prisoners East to avoid being overrun by the
Russians. The prisoners at Stalag Luft One were in no shape to march, and
moreover were too proud to march. Some of the leading prisoners got together to
form a secret commando unit called the "Field Force," consisting of
about 100 men. Each man was informed that if the Field Force was discovered he
would be shot, no questions asked but if they were forced to fight they would
likely all be killed anyway.
Meanwhile, Colonel Zemke met with the commandant and
informed him that if the prisoners were made to march, they would revolt. As
Bill put it, "Colonel Zemke told the Germans if they made us march, why,
we'd revolt. He said a few of us might be killed but all of the Germans would be
killed for sure." Needless to say, the prisoners never were forced to
As April drew to a close it became obvious to everyone
that for all intents and purposes the war was now over. Even Hitler knew. So he
decided to call it quits. But he was too proud to admit defeat and surrender to
the Allies, so after authorizing Alfred Jodl to seek terms of surrender, he
committed suicide by swallowing poison. Thus, the most evil totalitarian ruler
who ever lived met an ignominious, cowardly death.
Five days later, on April thirtieth, the men of Stalag
Luft One were still locked up. But as the morning dawned, the prisoners awoke to
the news that their guards had packed up and left in the middle of the night.
Kriegies were now occupying the towers. For many it was an emotional experience.
Gerald R. Smith wrote of the elation he and his fellow inmates felt that day:
As the dawn started to pierce the darkness on the
morning of May 1, I was at the window peering at the tower where the German
guard usually stood with his machine gun. As objects appeared I saw the dim
outline of a man in the tower and my hopes ebbed, but as I continued to watch it
became a clearer and different picture. There was no gun. There was no long
German uniform coat. There was a Kriegie hat on the man and a white arm band on
his right arm. It was one of our boys in the guards tower. It was the same in
all towers. Yelling and cheering, laughing and crying, we received the news from
the C.O. The Germans had left during the night, leaving the camp in the hands of
Colonel Hubert Zemke, our ranking American Officer.
Zemke released all of the available foodstuffs and the
men celebrated by gorging themselves on any food they could get their hands on.
Some of the men found a cow nearby and slaughtered it and Bill and some of the
others had steak that night.
Eventually the talk turned to speculation as to when
the Russians would arrive. Rumour had it they were only four kilometres away
from the camp. The men waited anxiously to be liberated by them. Zemke sent some
of his Field Force out to rendezvous with the Russians.
Night came, and for their own protection the men were
told to stay in their blacked-out barracks as they had every other night. Then,
at 2300 someone came on the loudspeaker to announce that the Russians had
arrived. The cheers that arose were so loud it became hard to hear the
loudspeaker at all. Men hugged, did a victory dance and cheered again. The men
were still celebrating when the news came that German radio had just admitted to
Hitler's suicide. The men cheered wildly again. The highlight of the celebration
came when the star-spangled banner started playing over the loudspeaker. The men
quickly stood at attention as their hearts swelled with gratitude and pride
toward their country and "there were tears in more than one mans eyes. Only
a prisoner of war could understand this feeling," said Gerald Smith.
The Russians were a hard bunch. Most POW accounts
describe them as a rag-tag army comprised mostly of Asians, probably Mongolian.
Others tell of them being a mixture of many races. Some even claimed there were
quite a few women in the ranks. All agreed that whatever the Russian Armyís
makeup, they were hard people.
Prisoner accounts tell of the ruthless murders of
German civilians committed by the Russian soldiers. Then there were the rapes,
which, apparently the Russians believed were part of the spoils of war. The
German civilian women knew the Russian reputation for claiming such spoils and
consequently were terrified of them. Many did their best to hide from the
soldiers. Some sought the protection of nearby American or British POWs, which
sometimes led to disagreements between the Russians and the Kriegies. Indeed,
during the Billís entire stay, only one person had been killed under the watch
of the Germans. After the Russians came, however, some men were killed in
disagreements over German women.
There were other men (about five in all) who died
because they left the camp, wandered around and were killed by landmines and
other booby traps nearby. After that Colonel Zemke issued orders that the men
stay in the camp so no more men would be hurt or killed. For his part, Bill had
always stayed put and did not get into trouble. The POWs who stayed tore down
the fences, meanwhile and used the wood to burn in their cooking stoves. The
Russians provided fresh meat to the prisoners and the men ate heartily.
Unfortunately, the menís stomachs were not used to such fare and many
developed dysentery and other illnesses.
It was now May 4. The Kriegies were still at Stalag
Luft One but life was a little easier. The could listen to short-wave radio from
the States. They even picked up the Hit Parade, whose number one song at the
time was, appropriately enough, "Donít Fence Me In." The next day,
the men were entertained, not by radio but by the Russian equivalent of a USO
show. The Russians put on a ballet, sang and danced folk dances as part of the
show, much to the delight of the prisoners.
On May 7 Germany formally surrendered and the following day was declared V-E day or Victory in Europe day. But the men of Stalag Luft One were still stuck in their camp. Colonel Zemke had told them on the fourth that planes in England were being readied to pick up the prisoners but so far they had not arrived. Finally, on May 15, American B-17 landed on the airstrip nearby. The men grouped up and walked to the airfield and boarded the fully armed planes, whose engines never turned off. The Americans did not trust the Russians any more than they did the Germans so they got out as fast as they could. They flew low over Germany, observing the devastation the Allies had caused. They landed in Rheims, France, transferred to big C-47s and took off again for Le Havre and Camp Lucky Strike.
Camp Lucky Strike was a recuperation camp. There the
men were fed eggnog to help them gain the weight they had lost. They were
entertained with music and movies and other events. Then, one day, Bill and the
rest of the prisoners were surprised by a visit by General Eisenhower and his
entourage. He gave a speech that was not particularly memorable, telling the men
that although officers were entitled to first class travel, if they agreed to
crowd aboard troop ships they could get home sooner.
And he thanked the former POWs for their service,
saying, "Speaking for everyone in America, I want to express my gratitude
to you all in helping us defeat Germany. You men carried the ball for us and we
will not forget it."
A few days later Bill boarded a troop ship and was off
for America He landed at Fort Patrick Henry in Norfolk, Virginia and from there
he travelled by train to his home in Ogden. Bill was finally back home, free for
good from barbed wire. He does not remember the emotions he felt that day when
he got home, but it is not a far stretch to speculate that he was flooded by a
mixture of emotions. How would anyone feel upon seeing their family after being
imprisoned for 13 months in a foreign country? He must have felt love for his
family, love for his country, relief that he was finally home, and happiness.
Some former POWs tell how their lives were never the
same after their experience behind barbed wire. Some had a hard time adjusting
to freedom. Bill had noticed that his memory started to go after being
imprisoned for a while. Men who had once bee straight A students in college now
struggled to get Cs.
At first glance it might not seem that the men of
Stalag Luft One did anything heroic. Bill, for example, never dove onto a
grenade to save a buddy, he never took a bullet to save someone's life, he never
single-handedly annihilated a German force. But he did volunteer to fight the
greatest evil of his day. He was level-headed enough to survive being captured
by people who wanted him dead. And he sacrificed his health and his mental
capacities as a prisoner of the Reich.
Over fifty years later Bill would be golfing with his
sons and grandsons and he had a chance to meet NBA basketball legend Danny
Ainge. Strangely enough, instead of treating Danny as a hero, he treated him as
an equal. Later, when his family asked him why he did not get Mr. Aingeís
autograph, Bill just shrugged it off saying something to the effect that he did
not need any autographs from anyone. Maybe it was because Bill is naturally shy.
Or maybe he was too proud to ask. But, maybe, though he would never suggest it,
because of what he endured in a German prison camp, Bill belongs to that special
class of men we call heroes. And heroes donít ask each other for autographs.
RETURN TO THE URRY FAMILY
RETURN TO THE URRY FAMILY HISTORY