German Prison Of War
Camp World War II
(This report was written by a high school student
30 years ago)
The contents of this paper was obtained through a
personal interview with Dr. Robert H. Ahrens, a veterinarian from Jewell,
Iowa, through records kept by him while in the German prison camp and
through a book, written by Flight Sgt. Budgen and published after returning
to the United States.
As a member of the 15th Air Force Italy, 2nd Lt. Ahrens
had flown twenty-two missions as a co-pilot in a B-24 before he was shot
down by German fighter planes over Austria on June 26, 1944. The day he was
shot down was the last day the Germans were able to put up a large air
offensive. Both sides suffered great losses in the day’s air battle. In Lt.
Ahrens’ squadron of ten planes, only one returned to the air base in Italy.
Lt. Ahrens flew as a member of a crew of ten. During
the attack on his plane, six crew members were killed, all from the rear
section of the plane. Lt. Ahrens’ air regulator was shattered by enemy fire
thus making breathing virtually impossible. One engine was out near Lt.
Ahrens and as he tried to fan the engine it exploded into flames, burning
his hands and face. He then bailed from the plane. Shortly after he bailed
out, the plane exploded, sending parts of the aircraft speeding past him as
he drifted to the ground.
After being picked up by the Germans, he was taken to a
hospital in Austria where he was treated for his burns. Following his one
month stay there, he was transported to an interrogation center in
Oberursel, Germany. For two and a half days he was kept in solitary
confinement while under interrogation. An interesting note here; Lt. Ahrens,
after having several sessions with the German Sergeant, asked the Sergeant
how he could speak English so fluently. His reply was that he had probably
spent more years in America than Lt. Ahrens had.
The Germans had obtained a very accurate file on Lt.
Ahrens. Their intelligence had somehow gotten local Jewell, Iowa papers
which told about Lt. Ahrens and his background.
After his stay in Wetzler, Lt. Ahrens was moved to
Stalag Luft I, Barth, Germany. There were about 3,000 men¾all
officers¾in this prison camp. About
all that was required of the men in this camp was to report for roll call
twice a day. They were not required to do any type of manual labor.
Lt. Ahrens was placed in Room 6, Block 9 of North
Compound #2. The barracks each contained room for about twenty men. Their
triple-decker bunks lined the walls. A table and benches sat in the middle
of the room with the kitchenette¾a
stove¾in the corner. They also had
two cabinets in the room.
Since all that was required of the men was two roll
calls a day, it was left pretty much up to the POWs as to how they were to
entertain themselves. The typical day consisted of chess in the morning,
cards in the afternoon and reading at night. The books for reading were
obtained from the library which was contained within the prison camp. The
POWs also had ball games, boxing matches and other sports activities in
which they could participate. Walking also became a favorite pastime of many
of the men.
The Germans were pretty humane in the way they handled
their prisoners. There were several escape attempts; however none of them
succeeded. Lt. Ahrens stated that about the only aspect of camp life in
which the Germans were hard on the Americans was in its food. There was very
little meat given and some of the food wasn’t of top quality. A couple of
instances would be the “Jerry cheese” which the POWs used for asphyxiating
rats and the margarine which was used for fuel in lamps. The Red Cross
helped out with the food, sending food parcels containing spam, corned beef,
salmon, meat pate, margarine, powdered milk, “K” ration biscuits, jam or
peanut butter, prunes or raisins, “D” ration chocolate, cheese, coffee,
sugar cubes, cigarettes, soap and vitamin tablets.
While in the prison camp, the prisoners remained well
informed on the war by way of an underground news service. A radio was
hidden in the camp from which the war news was obtained. A sheet was then
typed up and passed around the camp at night. They also received a German
version of the news but this often went unread.
Reflecting back to this experience in Stalag Luft I,
Dr. Ahrens remembers a lot of fun. Instances that particularly stick out in
his mind were some of the costumes used at roll call and the bragging and
betting that took place in the barracks. One room in particular sticks out
in Dr. Ahrens’ mind for their ingenuity in roll call dress. The men in this
room would take papers and make cowboy or chorus girl outfits and then hurry
out to roll call in them.
The Americans loved it but the Germans couldn’t quite
figure out how the Americans could have so much fun in a prison camp.
Because of their underground news service, the
Americans knew pretty much when they would be liberated. The Germans also
knew and, about five days before the Russians came from the east, the
Germans pulled out of the camp. The prisoners had their own chain of command
and organized the digging of trenches and the like in case the camp was
strafed. When the Russians came to liberate the prisoners, they were drunk
and wild. They couldn’t understand how the Americans could be so organized
and why they didn’t want to completely demolish the camp. Also, a few days
after the Russians came through, Russian families came in wagons, looting.
Lt. Ahrens was freed on May 1, 1945. He was flown from
a German airfield to France for processing and from their he returned to the
United States by troop carrier.
After talking with Dr. Ahrens about his imprisonment. I
could tell that, even though about 30 years had passed since he was in the
prison camp, the events were still very much alive in his mind and had had a
very real and lasting impact upon his life.