World War II prisoner of war camp - Stalag Luft I


World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I 

A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I


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The Greatest Generation Reunites

by Verne Woods

Verne walked away  away from Stalag Luft I before the B-17s arrived to evacuate everyone. Just one of his 15 roommates joined him on the trip to the British Lines.    Tom Brokaw's  "The Greatest Generation Speaks" book recently led to him finding that roommate after 50 years.

Let me tell of an occurrence, still ongoing, that began several weeks ago. It started when a friend living in Pittsburgh sent me an E-Mail asking if I'd known a Miguel Encinias in Stalag Luft I. My Pittsburgh friend had just finished reading Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation Speaks" in which Encinias, a fighter pilot who'd been shot down over Italy, is profiled. The book in which his story is told is a sequel to Brokaw's earlier best seller, "The Greatest Generation."

I wrote back to tell my friend that Stalag Luft I contained some 9000 British, Canadian and American airmen, that there were 1500 men in my compound, North Compound I, that there were 120 men in my barracks and 16 men in my room. Mike Encinias, I said, was one of those 16. I then went on to tell him of a quite memorable episode involving Mike that occurred in the wake of our camp's liberation.

After the Russians swept through the area on May 1, 1945, the camp had only limited contact with American authorities for the next several days. We became fearful that the Russians might have some ulterior motive in delaying our evacuation. (Years later I was to learn that this was indeed the case. The Russians told the American authorities that they planned to march all the Stalag Luft I prisoners to the Black Sea port of Odessa where they would evacuated by ship.) On the fifth night after our liberation, my 15 roommates and I, lounging on our bunks in the dark, took up the question: "Should we leave the camp and walk to the British lines 100 miles to the West?"

But simply walking out of the camp wasn't that straight forward. On the first day of the camp's liberation, following our wild foray into town and surrounding countryside, several POWs had been killed either by the Russians or German civilians. As a consequence, our camp commander, Colonel Zemke, had forbidden anyone to leave the camp and had, in fact, placed American guards, armed with German rifles from the camp arsenal, in the towers to assure that no one left.

So in addressing the question of whether or not we should leave for the British lines, we had to take into consideration the possibility of being shot by our own guards. We all decided that there was no chance at all that one of our own POWs would shoot a fellow POW. Anyway, we probably wouldn't be seen at night because there was no electricity and thus the tower searchlights weren't operating. After we'd all agreed that we should walk out the next question was "when?"

I spoke up. Right now, I said. There was silence. Only one person was willing to join me. It was Mike Encinias who said let's go. There was no one else. I was sure someone else in the room would join us as we packed food and possessions in a bundle getting ready to leave. But no one did. We bid everyone a quick, unceremonious good-bye and walked out of the camp unchallenged through a big gap that the POWS had made in the fence on that first day of liberation.

We reached the British lines two days later without incident and were flown to England the next day. Mike and I were living it up in London for a week before the difficulties with the Russians were resolved and B-17s from the 91st Bomb Group were flown in to evacuate the prisoners of Stalag Luft I. During that time together in London I came to know Mike quite well -- better, in fact, than I had known him during those 17 months of obliged intimacy. Later, after the war, when my wife and I were attending the University of Iowa under the GI bill, Mike visited us there in Iowa City. I scanned a picture of Mike taken during that Iowa visit and E-mailed it to my friend in Pittsburgh.

Miquel Encinas - 1948

Miquel Encinias - 1948

Then I immediately went to the bookstore and bought "The Greatest Generation Speaks." In it, I learned that Mike had remained in the Air Force, had flown 65 missions in P-51s and F-86's during the Korean War. There, he was again shot down but was rescued by helicopter and thus avoided being captured again.  Later, he went on to fly still more combat missions in Viet Nam. I also learned that Mike had returned to college and had earned a Ph.D. After retiring from the Air Force, he has worked to improve conditions in the New Mexico Hispanic community.

When I finished reading about him in the Brokaw book, I tried to find his E-mail address but without success. So I sent a postage letter to a Miquel Encinias in Albuquerque, NM, hoping that this would be the Mike Encinias who had been my Stalag Luft I roommate. Viola! Miguel Encinias was indeed Mike Encinias.  Several days after posting my letter the phone rang and it was Mike from New Mexico. We talked for two hours. I learned that he is on the World War II Memorial Commission (the Commission planning the WWII memorial which will have a place beside the Viet Nam memorial on the Washington Mall) and that when the Commission has its next meeting  he will use that occasion to visit my wife and me here in Massachusetts.

Onie Woods with Mike and Jeannine Encinas
Reunited after 53 years.  Mike and his wife Jeannine came to visit Verne and Onie Woods in August 2001.

 L to R:  Mike Encinas, Onie Woods and Jeannine Encinas

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