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Hitler's Hell: How American Soldiers Lived (And Died) in Nazi Prison Camps

February 25, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Nazi Prisons82nd AirborneMilitary HistoryWorld War IICharlie Lefchik

Hitler's Hell: How American Soldiers Lived (And Died) in Nazi Prison Camps

Taken prisoner shortly after D-Day, 82nd Airborne paratrooper Charlie Lefchik vividly remembers the cramped freight cars that transported Americans to camps in Germany.

The large number of Allied prisoners being funneled south to Rennes, France, following the D-Day invasion swelled the German transit camp to capacity so the decision was made to transport the men to permanent locations inside Germany. They had been captured from all points of the Normandy battlefield and marched 100 miles in the four weeks that followed.

Scores of POWs converged at the Brittany rail hub. The men were assembled into groups of 40 and led to wooden freight train cars. Their farewell ration from the Germans was a slice of wurst and a piece of cheese along with a small loaf of bread that required special instructions from their captors. “Drei tage,” they were told in German, “drei tage.” The message was not lost on the POWs. Make the bread last three days.

“There were hundreds of us, and it took some time to get all of us loaded, which made it a pretty long train,” explained Charlie Lefchik, a 24-year-old American who was captured by German forces on June 10, 1944. “Being already used to hunger, we figured that we could make the three days easily. But it turned out we were in those boxcars a lot longer than that.”

The train pulled away from Rennes just before dark on July 5 headed east, making progress only at night because of daylight patrols by Allied fighter planes. At morning the boxcars were dropped at a train siding, and at dusk the engine would return to move the cars to another location. The men were given water, wurst, and cheese once a day, and on the fourth day received the promised loaf of bread. With it came the same advice from the Germans: drei tage. The men’s cycle of misery continued for 23 days.

“One time during those 23 days we were put on a siding at dawn, and our train never moved for about a week,” Lefchik said. “For two days during that time they didn’t give us any water, and thirst is much worse than hunger. Being July, it didn’t take long for us to start dehydrating. During one of those nights it rained some, and one of the guys wiggled out a canteen cup between the bars and barbed wire over the small window opening in the corner of the car and caught some rain from the roof.”

The POWs found themselves locked inside a slow-moving French railroad car called the 40 and 8, a relic from World War I so named because it could ferry 40 soldiers or eight horses into battle. Originally built to haul farm produce, the narrow gauge boxcar measured 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, about one-third the size of a typical American boxcar. It became notorious in U.S. Army lore from doughboys a war earlier who thought it pure torture standing inside one, loaded with gear, while being moved to the front. They, however, were not required to sleep in it.

“We slept with 20 men on each side of the boxcar, but you had to sleep on your side to make room for 20 men,” Lefchik said. “If you slept on your back, you took the place of two men, which crowded that side of the car. We slept with our heads against the wall, and we overlapped our legs in the middle of the car.”

The Germans furnished the 40 and 8 with a can placed in the center of the car surrounded with straw. Lefchik said prisoners were allowed to empty it once a day. “The can was used for relieving ourselves and any waste matter if we had any since we hardly had anything to eat for so long.”

The loaves of bread continued every fourth day for another three weeks. Their caged torment finally ended on July 28 when the train reached its destination near Chalons in eastern France. The POWs had traveled nearly 700 miles by rail, averaging just 30 miles a day. They all suffered from the crippling effects of muscular atrophy as a result of physical inactivity.

 

“When we got off those boxcars we were so weak from lack of food and exercise that we had to lift our legs to get over the rails,” Lefchik said. “That’s when I noticed how thin I was. I could touch both of my middle fingers together under my thighs, and I could touch my thumbs at the top of my thighs with space in between.”

Lefchik’s hard luck ticket on the 40 and 8 was punched at 2:30 amon June 6, when he jumped into Normandy with the 82nd Airborne Division as a private in H Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Many planeloads of men in the final wave of D-Day landings touched ground miles away from their targeted areas because of thickening clouds and a spirited defensive effort on the part of alerted German gunners. Of the six U.S. airborne regiments to take part in Operation Overlord, the 507th PIR suffered the highest number of killed, wounded, or captured, including Colonel George V. Millett, Jr., its commanding officer, who was taken prisoner on June 9. It has been said that of the 78 busloads of regimental soldiers taken to their airbase at Barkeston Heath and Fulbeck prior to takeoff on June 5, only eight busloads of men returned from combat one month later. The tragic misdrop was Lefchik’s first parachute jump into combat, his 16th and final one of the war.

 

“I was surprised how well I could see the shapes of trees in the dark and the poles that were set up to keep gliders from landing,” explained Lefchik, who landed in a seemingly tranquil area of the region dotted with farms, fields, woods, and apple orchards. “I kept searching the ground for signs of the enemy, but there was none. I met up with some other guys, and we decided to stay put in some trees until daylight so we could find out where we were and what to do.”

Lefchick said an eerie haze covered the low ground at dawn on D-Day when they spotted a column of U.S. troops framed against the skyline on higher ground south of their position. “Watching them trudging along I suddenly recognized them as some of the men from my company, so I ran to join them as fast as my legs would let me.”

The group moved toward the sound of gunfire and found more men from their unit who had ambushed an enemy supply detachment, capturing eight Germans along with two vehicles that were riddled with bullets. “The trucks contained bread and jars of jellies. The bread was gray in color and very solid, different from the kind we knew. But with jelly it wasn’t too bad, and it curbed our appetite.”

Ahead of the men stretched a field blanketed by waist-high grass and weeds. “We were near the edge of the woods, and a German was coming down the slope from the right in a running crouch almost hidden by the grass. I raised my rifle and fired. Two other shots blended with mine, and the man dropped out of sight. We didn’t know if he was really hit or not, and if he was hit whose shot found its mark. That was the first time in my life that I shot at a human being.”

Toward evening on D-Day, Lefchik was ordered to an outpost on some higher ground along a hedgerow to watch for enemy activity. “I was there for about an hour when my lieutenant came by with five other troopers, and he told me to follow them. We followed a hedgerow to where it ended at the woods and scrambled up an embankment and followed another hedgerow to where it ended at an open field. I was bringing up the rear, and after going about 30 yards I saw an object up ahead in the field only a few feet from the hedgerow. It was a German soldier lying partially on his right side, no helmet, and the left rear part of his head was blown off. Directly across from him, half dug in and cowering in the hedgerow, were two German soldiers, blood on their faces and bloody hands held high. You could see the terror in their eyes as they pleaded with each of us as we passed by, ‘Nien. Nien.’ We kept going, figuring there was no danger from them in their condition.”