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April 29th, 2010

The Day The War Ended

From an email this morning from my Dad, reprinted with his permission:

April 29, 1945, was a red letter day in history.

On that day Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin.

The corpse of Benito Mussolini was strung up by the feet in a public square in Milan.

Stalag VIIA was liberated by the 14th Armored Division of the Third Army.

And Bob Hermann and I had eggs for breakfast.

The last item was the most important for us at the onset. The eggs were the first we had seen in the shell since leaving the States three years earlier.

As the month of April crept on, we knew the war was drawing to a close. We could hear the distant artillery pieces, and each day they drew closer. We saw American aircraft fly daily unchallenged overhead and felt RAF bombs rumble the ground beneath us at night. One day we witnessed endless formations of B-17 and B-24s sweep in over Munich, 25 miles to the south of us, and pour out their bombs at the trailing edge of a smoke waterfall laid out by the lead planes into the hapless city. (Kurt Vonnegut, a 19 year-old POW at the time, witnessed the horror from the ground within a city under bombs, and later recorded the details in Slaughter House Five. You can read the trauma of that day in every book he ever wrote.)

But we, of course, could not see the tragedies in the city from our grandstand view at Stalag VIlA. We saw only the invincible might of our side, its ownership of the skies all over the enemy's land, and our imminent return to freedom. So we cheered.

The barbed wire enclosing our compound of Stalag VIIA had become more of a barrier to the approaching war than a prevention of escape. With little daring, German-speaking prisoners like Bob could come and go through the wire almost at will, trading and foraging the countryside for farm produce with items from our Red Cross parcels and personal troves. The night of April 28-29 Bob had made a brilliant trade of a few cigarettes for a couple of eggs.

The morning of the 29th, we squatted at the edge of a slit trench frying our eggs over our kriegie burner, a device made of tin cans that could concentrate heat to cooking temperature from scraps of twigs, paper, dried grass, and wood shavings. It was a slow process, and suddenly we were distracted by a pair of American P-51s streaking over the camp, grandstanding with a show of flight-school aerobatics.

After several passes, they broke off the show and dived to buzzing-level, loosing machine gun fire at a target beyond the wire. They did not fire at our guards in their watchtowers, nor did the guards fire on them.
Toward the center of the camp Gene Daniel, the Protestant chaplain, was setting up a table in front of a small building for open air Sunday services, and his flock had begun gathering. Inside a room set aside as his clinic, Doc Cox, a navigator turned medic, was setting out his instruments for morning sick call. Outside the main gate, kriegies Dick Schrupp and John Bennett waited, clutching cameras that had been smuggled into the camp. Colonel Bub Clark had sent them out to record the historic event. He knew what was going to happen.

Shortly after they arrived outside the gate, Schrupp and Bennett were surprised to see two cars marked with red crosses drive up. Out stepped American Colonel Goode and RAF Group Captain Kellett, the camp's ranking POWs. The advancing American army had refused a German offer of a cease-fire around the camp. They were intermediaries.

"You guys better hunt a hole, because the war is going to start," Goode told them.

As Bob and I began to savor the smell of our frying eggs, we heard the unmistakable sound of bullets zinging close overhead, We immediately tumbled into the trench. I held on to my tin can frying pan and, clinging to the side of the trench with arm outstretched above me, I held the pan over the fire. Crouched at the bottom of our trench while bullets whizzed by above us, we gulped down our eggs. When the firing let up, we ran for the nearest barracks, bent low to the ground, to find safety within the masonry walls of the wash room.

At the aborted church services Chaplain Daniel’s flock scattered for shelter, but not before several were hit. Machine gun bullets ripped through Doc Cox’s clinic room, drawing a neat line of holes on the inside walls. Doc dove out the window and ducked into a nearby slit trench.

Eventually the firing died down around the camp and moved on to Moosburg. We came out of the buildings and looked toward the city. All eyes were drawn to a church steeple on a hill in town. A swastika flag was flying from a pole next to it, and heavy gunfire was coming from an opening in the steeple.

Suddenly there was an explosion and black cloud at the opening, and the firing ceased. Almost immediately the swastika flag came down. Rapidly and majestically the Stars and Stripes went up.

“Sonovabitch!” Bob half-whispered, over and over. But he was not swearing. Tears were flowing down his cheeks. My sleeves were soaked as I wiped my own face.

At that instant, the war in Europe was over for us.

(Later, my dad writes:

For the 50th Anniversary, I put together a piece for a special edition of the Mooseburger Zeitung of April 29, 1995, made up of excerpts from the memoirs of the kriegies cited in this piece, but not mine. This one was written just for this occasion, the 65th.

You're welcome to use any of my stuff. I reprinted the original a few years ago in a booklet called "Stories from Der Klarion", the newsletter I used to do for the Former Prisoners of War of Stalag Luft III.)

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