When we landed there were hundreds of people watching, some of them were friendly, others were not. Some of them handed us cigarettes, which we took and others threw cigarettes on the ground in front of us which we just stepped on.
We were put on a train to Georgia. It took us two days to get there. I was in Georgia from the summer of 1944 to March 1946. During this time I was in a prisoner of war camp, first at Fort Benning and then at Americus. We were kept busy working for various farmers in the area.
The weather from spring until fall was hot and humid. You were sweating just lying on your bed with your briefs on. When there was a thunderstorm the deep ditch around each barrack soon filled with water.
One of the first jobs, I was assigned to with about seventy other prisoners, was to burn perfectly good items plundered from German old folks’ homes, hospitals and private enterprises. There were medical supplies, towels, linens and other items, but since they were stamped with the institution’s or owner’s name, the Americans didn’t dare to sell or distribute them. There was so much to burn, that it took us two full days. What a waste!
During the first two months in Georgia, I was sometimes very weak with chest pains and breathlessness. If the guards took me to the hospital, the doctor would refuse to examine me because he said I was just faking it. If I collapsed at work, the other prisoners would pick me up and put me in the shade. There was nothing else they could do for me. This problem was most likely the result of my experience of coming up from the submarine from a depth of over seventy meters. Eventually I got over it and, on the whole, remained fit during my time in Georgia.
Another job we were assigned to, was to load a freight train. Shortly after we arrived, someone shouted, “Don’t start!” I didn’t know why we shouldn’t start, but the word got around that the boxes we were
loading were full of rifles. One of the men had dropped a box from the platform to find out what it contained and discovered the rifles. We were supposed to load weapons and ammunition! According to the Geneva Convention a prisoner of war should not be used to manufacture or transport war material, nor to do anything to help the war effort of the captors. We all refused to work. They threatened us with all kinds of threats, but nobody moved, standing there until noon. They took us back to camp. There wasn’t much to do in the camp, so we kept ourselves busy as best as we could. Some of the men played soccer.
Then five of us were assigned to work in the garden of an officer in Fort Benning. We cut the grass, pulled the weeds and so forth. It was a good job. At lunch time we had our lunch on the lawn and two little children came along and we played with them. The girl was probably three years old and the boy was about four.
Suddenly we heard a loud scream. A woman came running out onto the porch of the house screaming hysterically and waving her arms in the air. We couldn’t figure out what her problem was. It wasn’t long, however, before her husband, the officer, arrived and took her into the house. After a while he came out and apologized for the scene. He explained that he knew we meant no harm to his children, but that there were some people who reacted hysterically at the idea of enemy soldiers playing with their children.
We went to this place only once, and then we had nothing to do again for a few weeks. Some of us had jobs, others didn’t. One day we all went on strike and everybody refused to work. I don’t exactly know what happened, but apparently one of the American soldiers had taken something out of our kitchen which he shouldn’t have. So we went on strike; all those who had jobs refused to work.
The commandant threatened us by surrounding the camp with tanks. He gave us twenty-four hours to change our minds. Just before the deadline, he spoke to us over the public address system saying, “You have two hours before the troops and tanks will move in”. In the meantime, our men had stashed rocks and pieces of coal all around the
camp in case we needed to fight back. When the time was up, the troops came in and we started to throw rocks and coal, which they threw back. They didn’t shoot because the Red Cross could come and cause trouble.
The fighting went on for a day and a half, back and forth. They took two of our barracks, but the rest remained in our hands. Finally the camp commandant addressed us again and suggested that we talk instead of fight. Some of our leaders went to talk with him and after a few hours they settled the matter. The troops and the tanks moved out
and our kitchen was restored to its original state and the trouble was over for the time being. The same kind of thing happened twice in our camp. This was in 1944.
Together with about two hundred and fifty men I was transferred to a place called Americus, Georgia, several miles east of Fort Benning. We were still attached to the main camp in Fort Benning, but were sent to this sort of annex camp where we were put up in tents. It was a nice area with fields and forests.
To start with, we were given instructions about some basic habits we needed to develop, such as checking our bedding before going to bed each night to make sure there were no scorpions in it.
We were assigned to various farms in the area to work in the fields. The farmers requested crews of various sizes and we were assigned according to these requests. In the morning we would line up with our lunch boxes in our hands to wait for the trucks. We were called by name to board the trucks and to work for the day. We had various jobs such as harvesting peanuts or corn.
The weather was hot and humid and the fields were dusty, and we were all very thirsty. Then a little black boy and girl came with a bucket of water and two mugs, neither of which was very clean. Since we were very thirsty we all drank using both mugs. When the famer saw this, he rode up on his horse to hit the little black kids with his whip, cursing them as he hit them. One of our group grabbed the farmer and almost knocked him off his horse. The guard interfered and warned us not to do this.
When we asked what the problem was, we were told that the black mug was for the black workers and the white mug was for the white workers. The farmer blamed the black kids for not telling us. Well, we told them that we wouldn’t tolerate the farmer’s behaviour and that we sided with the blacks; we were only prisoners of war after all and we were working in the fields alongside the black workers. We had a number of experiences like that, although the farmers who knew us, were a little
more careful in their behaviour when we were there. The farmer complained to the camp commandant about our behaviour, but the commandant sided with us and told the farmer that if he treated his black workers like that, he wouldn’t get any more prisoners working for him.
On another farm I was supposed to get some water for the work crew which was in a raised tank. I went up the ladder to look into the tank and saw that there were some dead rats swimming in the water. I told the guard, who also climbed up to take a look. He told the farmer about it and said that we couldn’t drink that water. The farmer said that this water was all that we would get. So the guard took us back to camp.
We were always ready to find a method to cool off in the heat. On one of the farms where we worked, there was a small lake. We asked the farmer if we could swim in it at lunch time and he gave his permission. Those of us who could swim, took a dip and found it very refreshing.
We even rigged up a diving board and jumped into the water from the board because the lake was deep even close to shore.
Close to the lake were a number of huts where the black workers lived. One very big young black man, when he saw us swimming around in the lake, thought he could do that too. So he came dancing down to the lake and jumped off the board into the lake, except he didn’t know how to swim. I had swam out quite a ways into the lake, because I was a good swimmer and enjoyed swimming. Suddenly everyone started to shout for me to help this black man because he was drowning. He thought we were standing in the water when we were swimming and thought he could do it too.
I went to help him, but he pulled me down with him until I shouted for one of the guys on shore to reach us with a long pole which was there.
We finally got the big guy on land and proceeded to pump the water out of his lungs. All the black people were cheering and laughing when the water came out. When we had him up, he went to his hut.
The farmer, who had been watching us with his binoculars, came along and asked who had pulled the black man out of the water. I said that I
was the one who brought him out with the help of several others. He shouted and swore at us; we should have let the guy drown so that the other blacks would learn not to swim in his lake. He told us that we could no longer swim in his lake. Well, we worked there for several more days and we made it a point to go swimming every day we were there. He shouted at us, but our guard didn’t stop us, so we continued,
just to show that we could do it.
One morning at about six o’clock (we always started at sunrise so that we wouldn’t have to work in the heat of the afternoon) we were driven to work in a truck. One of the black workers was with us on the truck. As we passed a field, we saw a small black boy out in the field harrowing the field with two mules. When the boy came closer, the farmer stopped the truck and went to hit him with his whip, because, he said, he wasn’t working fast enough. Two of our guys jumped off the truck and grabbed the farmer and took his whip away from him and threatened to beat him with it. The guards interfered again and everything calmed down for the time being.
As we drove on, the black man, who was on the truck with us, told us that it was his boy that had been whipped. We asked why he put up with it and he said that if he protested or reacted they would hang him the next day. We found it hard to believe that this could happen in 1944, but that’s how it was in Georgia at that time.
We also had some interesting experiences with snakes in Georgia. On a hot day we were walking along the road to our place of work, when we decided to stop at a small stream to go swimming. We took off our clothes and jumped into the water. We were enjoying our swim when several girls came along in a car and when they saw us in the water they stopped and watched us. We had no choice but to stay in the water because our clothes were on the bank and the girls were watching us. They recognized our dilemma, but they just stood there and giggled. To
make matters worse, half a dozen long snakes came swimming down the stream right towards us. We managed to stay out of their path, but it was a frightening experience.
Once, when we were harvesting peanuts, I had the responsibility of distributing the pitchforks for gathering the peanut plants into piles to dry. When all the men had their forks, the only one left for me was a very short-handled one, so that I had to stoop down to load the fork.
On one fork load which I threw on the pile, suddenly a snake was crawling up my arm. I instinctively swung my arm around to throw the snake off. Fortunately it was not poisonous.
One of the guards who accompanied us during the corn harvest was a practical joker. We each had a big bag slung over one shoulder into
which we would deposit the ears of corn as we picked them. There were also melons growing in the corn field. These had grown from seeds of the previous year when this was a melon field. This practical joking guard would pick a large melon and sneak up behind one of our guys and drop the melon into his bag. This would either make the guy fall backwards or at least give him a jolt. Then the guard would cackle with laughter.
One day one of our guys thought of a way to get back at the guard. There were little wild peas growing in the fields and when they were dry they rattled very nicely. So this guy picked some of these wild peas. Sneaking up behind the guard, he put three or four of these peapods into his rifle barrel. It so happened, that an officer came by and the guard had to salute him and report what was happening. The officer asked him about his rattling rifle barrel and the guard was quite embarrassed. Of course, when he questioned us, we knew nothing about it.
In 1945 when the war was over and Germany had unconditionally surrendered, our lives changed in some fairly radical ways. The Red Cross which was looking after our welfare during the war, was no longer there for us. The first day after Germany’s surrender, we were lined up and given a tongue lashing by one of the officers for our crime of killing millions of Jews. The fact that those of us in the camp were not involved in this atrocity was apparently irrelevant at this point.
Soon after this scolding, some trucks came and began to take all the food out of the kitchen and the storage rooms. We were also put to
work burying hundreds of pounds of meat which was designated for our dinners. We were put on starvation rations. At first the daily ration for each man was six slices of white bread with perhaps a few leaves of lettuce. The diet was varied, but always very sparse. For two days, for example, we were given nothing but grapefruit.
We found out later, that the order to put prisoners on starvation rations had come from the top. Some officers took it literally and others didn’t. In our case this regimen lasted for about two months. One of the American cooks, a New Yorker named Tony, used to come into our dining room and talk to us during meals. Now, with the new regulations, he couldn’t bring himself to come in, but we saw him standing in the doorway looking very upset and sometimes he wept for us. When he could get away with it, he would push some extra food into the room for us.
During this time, we were also made to work about twelve hours a day instead of the normal workday. Without the protection of the Red Cross we had no recourse but to do what we were told. Under these conditions many men collapsed and we all lost a lot of weight.
Some of our leaders decided that we should take turns collapsing, even though there were guys who were genuinely sick and were collapsing from lack of food and from the heat. When my turn came, I found it very difficult to put on an act that would be convincing. Some of my fellow prisoners had to keep urging me to fall down and allow myself to be taken back to the camp. We were at this time an hour and a half drive from the camp. It certainly was hot and humid and the work was hard, but I still couldn’t bring myself to putting on this act. However, there was another fellow, who had his turn at the same time as I. He fell down and started to groan and moan very convincingly. When one of the guards was assigned to take the two of us back to camp, I told my fellow prisoner that he should sit in the middle beside the driver and I would sit by the window because his acting was so much better than mine. And he kept up his act for the whole trip back to camp, moaning and lamenting, while I had to use all of my self control to keep from laughing
There were also times of entertainment for us. After the war, the soldiers guarding us were veterans of the battle line. One day we heard a loud voice shouting from one of the guard towers, “I”ll get you, you blankety blank ……….” And there was a rifle shot. We saw that an army captain, who was not popular with his own troops was coming into the camp and when the first shot rang out, he jumped behind a car.
When he moved out of his hiding place, another shot would send him running for cover again. Some of the other guards shouted at the shooter in the tower to quit, but he kept on shooting. There were about five shots fired before the other guards subdued their companion in the tower. In the meantime we had a good show and a good laugh.
Copyright © 2006/2007 Walter Schmietenknop. All rights reserved.