Seventy-five years ago in the month of March 1945, the POW’s of Stalag Luft IV continued their forced march across Germany which they had begun the previous month on February 6. Traveling on foot with very little food was so very difficult that when they saw an opportunity to travel by rail, it was seen to be a welcome relief. Instead, it turned out to be likely one of the most horrific parts of their journey.
For these men who completed the march and eventually gained their liberation and freedom, nightmares of this time in their lives would likely include these few days of the eighty-six day total when they were loaded into 40 x 8 boxcars for a short journey deep into hell.
Joseph P. O’Donnell, the Stalag Luft IV POW who recorded his experience and that of fellow POW’s in the Shoe Leather Express books, included many individual stories of the boxcars in both the first book in the series, The Evacuation of Kriegsgefangenen Lager Stalag Luft IV Deutschland Germany, and the second book, The Shoe Leather Express – Book II -Luftgangsters Marching Across Germany.
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Joe O’Donnell wrote of his personal experience that on Day 51, March 28, 1945, his group arrived at the town of Ebstorf, a small town west of the Elbe River. At 3 PM, he was loaded onto a 40 x 8 boxcar with sixty-four other POW’s. A 40 x 8 boxcar is a train or rail car that is designed to carry forty men or 8 head of cattle.
They, and other groups of sixty or more POW’s, were jammed into the cars and the doors locked shut. Although the sick were allowed to lie down, and there were many sick, the remainder of the men had to take turns standing and sitting as there was not room for all to sit at the same time.
At first, the men were relieved that they would be able to ride rather than walk to their next destination, but relief soon turned to horror when they realized that the boxcars were more dangerous than the road. The boxcars did not move for more than ten hours except for occasional movements of 100 to 200 yards back and forth from their original position.
The boxcars had no markings on them, nothing that allied aircraft could see from the air, to indicate they were filled with allied POW’s. Aerial activity in the area was considerable and train movements were prime targets of allied aircraft. O’Donnell considered their confinement in the boxcars to be an intentional plan of the Germans to have the POW’s killed by the strafings and bombings from their own aircraft.
Aside from the fear of the POW’s inside the boxcars, the conditions inside were unbearable as the men had nowhere to urinate or defecate other than the boxcar floor, although some were able to break through holes in the floor for the purpose. On top of this, many were stricken with chronic dysentery.
After forty hours of confinement in the boxcars, the trains moved out toward Fallingbostel on March 30, 1945, for a thirty-mile journey. The men were not allowed out of the boxcars or provided with drinking water for the entire trip.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, page 22
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Bob Richards, Jr. (8th AF, 392nd BG, 577th Bomb Squadron) from Hanover, Pennsylvania, and John Hargrove (445th BG, 702nd Bomb Squadron) from Delran, New Jersey, noted in their personal journals that they were loaded into the 40 x 8 boxcars also on March 28, but in Hohenbunftorf, and traveled to Uelsen. However, they reported that only fifty men were confined in each car in which they spent two days and nights.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, page 35
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Walter V. Lawrence (8th AF, 44th BG, 506th Bomb Squadron) was on the March 28 train ride to Fallingbostel in the 40 x 8 boxcars.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, pages 39/40
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Lawrence “Larry” S. Moses (8th AF, 452nd BG, 728th Bomb Squadron) reported in his log that he left Uelzen by 40 x 8 boxcars on March 28, 1945 and arrived at Altengrabow, Stalag IIA, on March 30. (Although his date chart indicates he left Hohenbonstorf on the 28th, arrived Uelzen the same day, left Uelzen on the 29th, and arrived Altengrabow on the 30th).
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, pages 43/44
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Louis Wayne Dirickson (9th AF, 409th BG (Light), 643rd Bomb Squadron):
3/28/45 – Walked 7 kilometers to Ebstorf and 1 1/2 kilometers to the train station. Loaded into boxcars (60/car) at 1:30 P.M. we were given 3/8 loaf of bread and 1/5 of a 3/4 lb. of margarine for three days.
3/29/45 – Sat all night in the boxcars, all of today and part of the evening, without moving an inch. Jerries gave us 2 buckets of water for 60 men and nothing to eat. Started moving at 11 P.M.
3/30/45 – Arrived at Station at 12 o’clock – walked 2 kilometers to Stalag XIB located at Fallingbostel – got inside the camp at 3 P.M. (100 men to a tent). Got a carrot and barley soup at 6 P.M. Darn good.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, page 49
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Dr. Leslie Caplan provided testimony to Lt. Col. William C. Hoffman of the War Crimes Office on December 31, 1947, stating:
At 1500 hours on 28 March 1945 a large number of our men were loaded on freight cars at Ebbsdorf, Germany. We were forced in at the rate of 60 men or more to a car. This was so crowded that there was not enough room for all men to sit at the same time. We remained in these jammed boxcars until 0030 hours March 30, 1945 when our train left Ebbsdorf. During this 33 hour period few men were allowed out of the cars for the cars were sealed shut most of the time. The suffering this caused was unnecessary for there was a pump with a good supply of water in the railroad yards a short distance from the train. At one time I was allowed to fetch some water for a few of our men who were suffering from dysentery. Many men had dysentery at the time and the hardship of being confined to the freight cars was aggravated by the filth and stench resulting from men who had to urinate and defecate inside the cars. We did not get off these freight cars until we reached Fallingbostel around noon of 30 March 1945 and then we marched to Stalag IIB. The freight cars we were transported in had no marking on them to indicate that they were occupied by helpless prisoners of war. There was considerable aerial activity in the area at the time and there was a good chance of being strafed.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, page 70
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Joseph P. O’Donnell, in a section named “Kriegie Land,” related an undated summarized log entry which followed his March 30, 1945 entry. I am not certain if this was O’Donnell’s personal log or that of another prisoner.
We boarded boxcars at Ebstorf. We got on at 3 o’clock P.M. 60 men to a car. We stayed in the car all that night, next day, that night, another day and night. I arrived here [Stalag XIB, Fallingbustel] the next day at 12 NOON.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book I, page 86
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Tom Farrow (8th AF, 384th BG, 547th Bomb Squadron), walking with fellow 384th-er Ray Jablonski, wrote,
On Tuesday, the 27th of March, our group, numbering about 400, was crowded into boxcars, about 100 to a car designed to hold 40. We were given a quarter loaf of bread and the doors were shut and locked. The train started immediately but only for that day. We were stopped all night, the next day and night. The car had very small windows at each end for ventilation but was not enough to overcome the stench of diarrhea and vomit that soon covered the floor. There was not enough room for everyone to sit down, so we sat with our knees drawn up with another P.O.W. leaning on our knees.
On Thursday evening we began moving slowly through the night, stopping on Good Friday morning. The doors were opened and everyone struggled out, gulping fresh air. I never knew completely about the casualties of the trip. Everyone in our car made it, but a least two in the next car had died. We were marched to a very large camp to a compound of Russian workers. Large tents had been erected but there were no beds or straw.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book II, page 32
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James W. McCloskey of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, wrote in his log that he was loaded in a boxcar (48 in each) on March 17, 1945, rode all day on March 18 and 19, was in Hamburg Station on March 20 and received 1/2 bread, 1/3 margerine, and wurst, then arrived at Fallingbostel, Stalag 357, on March 21.
~The Shoe Leather Express – Book II, page 86
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Harry Liniger (8th AF, 384th Bomb Group, 545th Bomb Squadron) boarded a train to Fallingbostel on March 28, 1945. I wrote about Harry’s experience almost five years ago and you can read it in its entirety here. Harry used a cigarette paper to record this piece of his POW history,
51 day on the road. Boarded train at 2PM March 28. Recd [received] 3/8 of a loaf of bread per man. 60 men on a car.
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I don’t know if all of the POW’s on the march from Stalag Luft IV had this same experience, but many of them were forced to endure a train ride through hell on the road to their liberation and freedom.
Upon capture, the Germans would tell their prisoners, “For you, the war is over.” I don’t think that statement was the least bit accurate. These men were living the war every single day, even in captivity. For these men, the war wasn’t over until their liberation and return to civilian life, and for some of them, the war would never end until the end of life itself.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2020