On February 6, 1945, the 10,000 POWs of Stalag Luft IV received their marching orders to move out. They were told it would take several days. It lasted 86, with the men covering nearly 600 miles. Prisoners were pressed onward at a grueling pace. Many soon came down with dysentery, diphtheria, pneumonia, typhus, trench foot, and tuberculosis. Frostbite resulted in the loss of limbs, toes, and fingers.
Major Leslie Caplan, one of the few doctors who endured the death march, recalled, “Some men drank from the ditches that others had used as latrines. Dysentery made bowel movements frequent, bloody, and uncontrollable. Men were forced to sleep on ground covered with feces of those who had passed before them … Our sanitation approached medieval standards, and the inevitable result was disease, suffering, and death.”
Doctor Caplan tried desperately to get medical supplies from the Germans but was turned down. “I had no stethoscope,” he later wrote, so to examine someone, he “would kneel by the patient, expose his chest, scrape off the lice, then place my ear directly on his chest and listen.”
Often referred to as “luftgangsters” or “terror fliegers,” the air crews of the Allied air forces were not popular among the civilian population who resided in the cities. Many were marked for death if they crashed in an area where the populace was hostile toward them. Some crew members were summarily executed if snared by SS troopers or angry mobs of people for delivering such destruction to their homes.
During the march, however, the farms that dotted the countryside had not been on the receiving end of such destruction. Although it was forbidden to trade with the farmers, many guards ignored the rule and looked the other way, allowing the marchers to barter for food. Items such as watches, rings, cigarette lighters, and even chocolate were given up.
Men had to procure their own food, and there were scant supplies in the war-torn German countryside. Although they could be shot by their guards, the marchers took to stealing farm animals such as pigs and chickens. However, such livestock was scarce. Occasionally some Red Cross packages, if they were not already pilfered by the guards, arrived for them. The hunger became so intense that some POWs started eating uncooked rats they had captured.
Sometimes barns, such as the one Steve Stupak was wounded in, were used to find refuge from the winter weather. Although it was warmer, the lice and fleas were everywhere. Also, animal and human feces, plus the hundreds of unwashed bodies, littered the inside of the structures and made the stench unbearable. Some preferred to remain outside and brave the elements.
It is estimated that 1,300 men perished on the Death March. Carrol F. Dillon, author of A Domain of Heroes, wrote, “No records were kept, hence only a few cases are documented. When the men dropped by the wayside or were sent off somewhere supposedly to a hospital, their buddies never heard from them again. The survivors believe that there were many that died on the Death March. Certainly a much greater number died then we are aware of.”
This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.