I have previously written several articles about the WWII Black March, the march of prisoners of war of Stalag Luft IV across Germany in the winter of 1945. Today, I want to explain a very important aspect of that march, the Combine.
But first, as a refresher to the Black March itself, please refer to this previous post. It is the proclamation entered into the Congressional Record on May 8, 1995 by WWII veteran, Congressman John William Warner.
Congressman Warner was approached by three WWII veterans who were on the march and who brought this piece of WWII history to his attention – Cpl. Bob McVicker of Alexandria, Virginia; S. Sgt. Ralph Pippens of Alexandria, Louisiana; and Sgt. Arthur Duchesneau of Daytona Beach, Florida. Rep. Warner wanted to tell their story and raise awareness of what the Stalag Luft IV prisoners endured on this little-known march in pursuit of freedom.
The proclamation explains that McVicker, Pippens, and Duchesneau each survived, “mostly because of the efforts of the other two – American crewmates compassionately and selflessly helping buddies in need.” This statement is the definition of a Black March “Combine.”
In WWII, my dad, George Edwin Farrar, was a waist gunner in the 384th Bomb Group based in Grafton Underwood, England. His B-17 went down on September 28, 1944 and after a lengthy hospital stay, he was put in Stalag Luft IV. On February 6, 1945, he was one of the prisoners from Stalag Luft IV who were marched out of the camp in several columns accompanied by German guards armed with rifles, and guard dogs. For Dad, the Black March lasted the full eighty-six days, covering approximately five-hundred miles.
From an old letter, I determined that the two men closest to my dad in the prison camp and on the Black March were the author of the letter, British airman Laurie Newbold, and American airman Cecil McWhorter.
Newbold’s letter adds much to what I know about who shared my father’s WWII experiences, especially these two sentences.
Have you ever come across any more of Room 12. Old Mac Whorter lives down south at East Bernstadt, N London, Kentucky but I forgot that your states are as big as England.
In my research of my father during WWII, it is not enough to know who the members of my father’s air crew were. Although Dad’s WWII experience was shared with the other men of the John Buslee crew, 544th Bomb Squad, and the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, he had a connection that went beyond the usual military camaraderie of an air crew. He had a connection with two men with whom he had not served in the 384th, Laurie Newbold and Cecil McWhorter, on whom his life depended in that eighty-six day span of time he called “The March.”
Joseph O’Donnell, another Stalag Luft IV prisoner on the Black March, wrote a book about the march. In The Shoe Leather Express, O’Donnell explains how the prisoners joined forces in small groups in order to help each other survive. These small groups of two to four Kriegies (short for Kriegesgefangenen, which is the German word for prisoner of war) were created out of necessity, for survival. Joe wrote:
A combine usually consisted of three Kriegies, sometimes two, sometimes four, but the most logical number combination was three. Further explanation will confirm the logic of three men versus two or four men. Of all the reasons for a three man combine, there is no one reason to justify this combination, there are many reasons. As stated before, we each had two blankets, and with a combination of three Kriegies this gave us six blankets. After our arrival at a barn we would stake a claim to an area in the barn according to our arrival. First-in claimed the advantageous areas, usually near an exit.
Since we shared our food, it was imperative that we should stick together; but we usually marched in columns of fours and it always presented a problem at the end of a [day’s] march, when the guards would count off 150 or 200 Kriegies for one barn. This would usually split a combine. One hell of a lot of shuffling went on to get the combine together again. When trading, bartering or stealing detail; the other two would construct our bed of straw for the night. Our bed of straw was covered with the three German blankets, two lengthwise and one across the bottom and tucked in. The three GI blankets would cover us along with our GI overcoats.
The mention of trading, bartering, and stealing references the fact that the men had very little food and clean water on the road. They often attempted to supplement their meager rations by trading items like the watch my father traded for a loaf of bread, or stealing potatoes or chickens from the farmers in whose barns they slept.
The combines walked together, all day, every day, sometimes as far as twenty miles in one day. They shared food and ate together. They slept together and shared body heat in the unheated barns and under the stars in the sub-freezing temperatures of the winter of 1945. When one felt weak, the others helped him put one foot in front of the other, to take one more step, to keep up with the column. Falling behind the group meant the risk of being shot and left for dead beside the road as the group trudged forward. The combine gave the men someone to lean on in more ways than one.
How many men died on the march is not known. It is truly a miracle that any of them survived. They were covered in lice, were afflicted with dysentery and other diseases, and were close to the point of starvation. They have been described as walking skeletons. Thoughts of home and the support of each other must have kept them going.
But when it was all over, when Liberation Day came, the combines were split apart for good. Each man went his separate way, returning to his country and his family, to pick up with life as though his eighty-six day struggle for survival was all a bad dream. Laurie Newbold wrote:
I never saw you again after the day we were liberated. I understand that nearly all your boys stopped the first night at Boizenburg but most of the RAF went straight on to Luneburg & I got there that night. From there I went to Emsdetten near Holland & then flew to England in a Lanc [possible abbreviation for Lancaster bomber].
Well George I expect I could write all night about the past but most of that’s best forgotten, don’t you think.
Is the past and that piece of history best forgotten? When I read pages from Joe O’Donnell’s Shoe Leather Express and read Laurie Newbold’s letter, their words trouble me. They unsettle me. It disturbs me deeply to know these things that my father endured. Things that he himself could not or would not tell me. I understand, at least I think I do, why he wouldn’t divulge these things. I was too young. I was too innocent. He did not want to burden me or anyone else with this horrible knowledge.
My father was right in not telling me. I should not know these things because as I’ve learned, now that I know them, I cannot un-know them. They rattle around in my head and pop to the surface at unexpected moments. These things that were a part of him, they are now a part of me. Not to the extent they were for him, of course, because he actually lived them and I only learned them. I cannot imagine the way the horrific memories crashed upon his shore of existence every single moment of every single day of the remainder of his life.
These are things that no being should ever have to endure. But at that time in history there were people who looked much like the rest of us, who underneath that layer of human-like skin were not human at all, but monsters.
When I was young, monsters lived under my bed and in my closet. I had to take a long-jump into and out of bed so the monster wouldn’t grab my feet and pull me under into a certain horrible death. I had to jump back when I opened the closet door so the monster inside couldn’t grab me and drag me in.
My monsters vanished over time. They probably tired of not being able to catch me and moved on to the bed and closet of another child. But my father’s monsters never left. He died thirty-seven years after his time in the prison camp and Black March were over. Dying was the only way to end the war for him and banish his monsters.
Joe O’Donnell inadvertently used the word “concubine” to define the groups of marching prisoners in the text of The Shoe Leather Express rather than the word “combine.” I have published Joe’s passages substituting the word “combine,” which Joe points out in a correction at the top of the Table of Contents page. He states: “CORRECTION. The word ‘concubine’ was misused, it should be ‘combine.’
The Preface and first two chapters of Joseph O’Donnell’s The Shoe Leather Express may be read courtesy of Joseph O’Donnell and Gregory Hatton here.
To be continued with more information about Cecil McWhorter and Laurie Newbold and my search for their relatives…
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018