The Arthmur Thomasson Saga
by - Charlie Senn
|The sound of may aviation motors
disturbed the peace of the central countryside of England very early in
the morning of December first, 1943. Around the little town of
Grafton-Underwood, 90 miles northwest of London, lay the extensive
revetments, parking areas and storage facilities of the 384th bomb
Here, in camouflaged support facilities, hundreds of highly skilled mechanics and other maintenance personnel had been busy in the long, weary hours before the fog-enshrouded dawn. Every big B-17 bomber had been refueled and serviced. Motors, tires, instruments, signal equipment, parachutes, and first aid kits had all been carefully checked. The latest available weather information had been obtained. Now, as one of the famous fogs of England began slowly to clear away, trucks began to arrive bringing the crews of the planes which were to go out on a mission that day.
There would be ten crewmen to every plane; these included a pilot, a co-pilot, radio operator, navigator, bombardier, two waist-gunners, a top-turret gunner, a ball-turret gunner, and a tail gunner. Soon, with all crewmen at their posts, the planes of the various bomber squadrons that made up the 384th bomber group began to leave their revetment areas and move cautiously to the main runways. Down these long runways, the departing planes sped with ever-increasing speed until their wheels left the ground and the big planes became air-borne. Then the planes of the various squadrons climbed above the clouds, formed v-shaped formations, and headed eastward, toward Europe. Now, to all squadrons an announcement was made; the target area of this day's raid was Luxemburg. This announcement caused no surprise. The old, medieval Duch of Luxemburg was smaller than most American counties; but this little country had been an independent nation before Hitler and his ruthless Nazis invaded the Duchy and took it over.
Now, because of its important communication system and its flourishing heavy industries, Luxembury had become a target for many massive air raids; the British bombed at night and the Americans struck during the daylight hours. The big planes of the 547th bomb squadron roared eastward across the North Sea with all crewmen alert at their places. Far below, half-hidden by clouds, the towns, railways, cathedrals, and forests of Belgium, France, and Germany seemed to slide past as if under the spell of some powerful magician.
At the point where three countries met was Luxemburg. Here, in recent months, may gallant airmen, American, British, and Germans, had lost their lives. Aboard one of the planes of bomber squadron 384, Arthmur Thomasson, a top turret gunner from Newberry, S.C., stood by his twin-barreled fifty caliber machine gun and looked for the appearance of Nazi fighter planes; they soon came, with heavy machine guns blazing. Bullet holes suddenly appeared in the sides of the American plane. Up forward, for one terrible moment, the pilot flew his plane in a straight line in an effort to assist the bombardier in releasing his bombs at precisely the right place. This move was successful; the heavy load of bombs fell from the bomb racks, plunged past the wide-open bomb-bay doors, and vanished amid flurries of smoke far below.
In that flaming, horror-ridden world below there was a terrific explosion. Pieces of flying debris flew past the American plane's windows. But quite near, at hand, there were several other explosions, and one of these shook the bit plane violently. The big bomber began to lose altitude quickly. Then the voice of the pilot was heard, ordering everyone out at once. The five crewmen and the five gunners quickly responded to the order; the men jumped from the still-open bomb-bay doors
Arthmur Thomasson jumped, then counted to six before pulling the ripcord of his parachute; this was to prevent the parachute from opening prematurely and becoming entangled with the falling plane. The parachute opened with a jerk. The you American looked about, hoping to see his descending comrades. To his relief, Arthmur saw nine parachutes descending above an open field. So, apparently, all the other crewmen were safe. Then Arthmur looked directly below him. To his horror he saw angry flames, vast clouds of smoke, and a fearfully devastated area.
"If someone were to tear up my town like that I'd be ready to kill him," thought the young airman. "This is the end of me." Five minutes later, on the ground, an infuriated mob seized the young American and began beating him to death. Then a Luxemburg policeman hastened up and told the mob to quit. The angry people drew back slightly. But it was quite obvious that the mob would like to seize the prisoner again and finish killing him.
At this moment a big, steel-helmeted German soldier strode forward and shouted for the mob to move backward and say back. The people moved back several yards and remained back. The soldier stood beside the policeman and remained on guard. Presently, a German army truck arrived. The soldier signaled for it to stop. Then he told the American prisoner to climb aboard. Arthmur Thomasson had not realized that he was seriously hurt; but now he discovered that he was somewhat crippled.
Then, three Germans sprang from the truck, picked up the injured American as if he were a baby doll and placed him safely aboard the truck. The truck took the injured prisoner to a big, brick building with iron bars. Obviously this building, before the wars, had been a municipal jail. Several other captured allied airmen were already there, including Arthmur's nine comrades from the destroyed bomber.
"Boy," said the pilot, "I never expected to see you again! When I looked around and saw that one of the parachutes was falling into the town, I thought, "they would kill that poor fellow, whoever he is."
Only the rescue efforts of the Luxemburg policeman and the German soldier had saved Arthmur's life. A German language calendar showed that this day was December first, 1943. About an hour later a German doctor arrived at the prison. This good physician carefully examined and treated every wounded man among the prisoners. A few days later all the captured allied airmen were put aboard trucks and taken to a railway station. There was another careful head-count. Then the captives were put aboard ordinary freight cars.
Soon, under heavy guard, the train was moving eastward into Germany. A long, very, and uncomfortable railway journey across Texas-sized Germany and into adjacent Austria followed. Several times during this journey there were air-raid alarms as British planes by night and American planes by day attacked Hitler's communication lines and Nazi munitions factories. This weary and perilous journey finally ended near the village of Ems, in northwestern Austria.
Here, near Ems stood the notorious Stalag 17-B, which was supposedly the largest prisoner of war camp on the earth. At this point, near the city of Krems, Austria, north of the great river Danube, the Germans had created a vast encampment of chain-link wire, barbed wire, guard towers, and huge, wooden barracks. In one big, well-guarded enclosure many thousands of Americans were housed; in an adjacent prison compound were thousands of British; many of these "Limies" had been prisoners since the allied evacuation of Dunkirk.
In another huge compound were tens of thousands of captured Russians. Other compounds were filled with Poles, Frenchmen, Italians, Gypsies, and Greeks. Of all this vast multitude of prisoners it seemed that the British, the Australians, and the Americans received the best treatment. Prisoners from America and Britain were permitted to receive International Red Cross packages occasionally. However, the Soviet Union had refused to sign an International Red Cross agreement; for this reason, no Russian prisoners even received Red Cross packages.
The soap, candy, and other small luxuries in the Red Cross packages helped make more endurable the lives of the prisoners who received them. Occasionally, in compassion, the British and Americans tried to share some of their Red Cross goodies with their Russian neighbors, beyond the chain-link fences. Once an American threw a bar of soap across the fence. A starving Russian soldier seized the little package and quickly bit deeply into the soap, thinking that it was candy. Little pieces of hard candy were often thrown to the Russians by British and Americans who received Red Cross packages.
But such terrible fights took place because of such compassionate gestures of friendship that the British and Americans soon felt obliged to quit throwing candy or other goodies to their Russian friends. It was almost unbelievable that strong, manly human beings would injure and nearly kill one another in murderous fights over a few pieces of hard candy. This was a terrible warning about what can happen when strong, intelligent, well-balanced human beings have been reduced to sub-human levels by long, continued brutality, and famine.
But even the prisoners who received the best treatment were having a difficult time as they attempted to survive the appalling condition in this gigantic but poorly supplied prisoner of war camp. A time came when the stable food of daily existence was watery cabbage soup. In central Europe, for centuries, cabbage had been a leading food crop. The use of sauer-kraut, made from cabbage, had ended the ravages of a terrible nutritional disease known as scurvy, which had caused such heavy loss of life in Middle Ages.
Once there had been a time when big ships were often found adrift at sea with their entire crews dead of scurvy and with their gums grown down over their teeth. The increased use of cabbage, and especially of sauerkraut, had ended the nightmarish ravages of scurvy while earning for the Germans the nickname, "Krauts." But thin, watery cabbage soup and almost nothing else, cannot keep people strong and in good health. Arthmur Thomasson realized that he was slowly starving to death; his weight fell almost to 100 pounds. Allied planes frequently raided the surrounding area. But the huge prison camp itself was never hit. Wild rumors about the progress of the war were eagerly repeated. Once such rumor said that the Russian army was rapidly advancing from the east; this story seemed too good to be true. However, in the dark ours preceding dawn, one dreary night, bugles blew throughout the huge camp. All prisoners immediately fell out fro a head-count in front of their barracks. Then everyone was ordered to hurry back into the barracks, collect all hi possessions and fall out again as soon as possible. Then, company by company, all prisoners were marched hastily to the gate facing the nearby highway. The grim, steel-helmeted guards opened the heavy steel gates.
In growing surprise the thousands of prisoners marched out and stood in formation beside the highway. After a time an enormous convoy of German army trucks appeared. Then men were crammed into those trucks like sardines. The big convoy started westward, away from the on-coming Russians. For several hours the convoy proceeded westward, through the gloriously beautiful countryside side of Austria. Ahead a pine forest loomed on both sides of the highway.
Suddenly there was a terrible cry of "Air-raid! Air-raid!" The German truck drivers began to slow down. But before the vehicles could be stopped many of them had been blasted into the air. Planes came over the treetops on one side of the highway, duped their bombs into the road, then almost instantly vanished beyond the trees on the other side of the road. It was quite impossible to see the attacking aircraft well enough for identification. The planes were probably Russian; the Russian army was near at hand.
Shocked and dazed prisoners fell into the road ditch; others sought shelter in the adjacent woods. When the raid ended the German guards searched the neighboring forest and forced all prisoners to return to the highway. There all the trucks of the big convoy lay burning. All prisoners who were till able to walk were ordered to begin marching westward, into the sunset.
What happened to many badly wounded and those who had become unable to walk is even now uncertain. Day after day the terrible march continued. In late afternoon the guards would begin looking for shelters. Prisoners slept in barns, in schools in storage sheds, and in churches. But, almost always there would be many hundreds for whom no nighttime shelter could be found. These unfortunate men would be obliged to sleep out in the open fields or in the forest. Then the guards themselves would remain outdoors all night so that they could prevent the prisoners from escaping.
The great river Danube was reached and crossed from north to south. Beyond the river the line of march once more became westward. The weary troops reached a point where there was a small POW camp, which was full of Jewish captives. These helpless people were being butchered by their Nazi guards. Thin, frail, emaciated captives, with the word "Jude" stitched to their worn-out uniforms, were being herded by the guards to the road and shot. As every man fell, his body toppled into the road-ditch.
At this late hour of the war, with world opinion already against the, the Nazis were still ruthlessly murdering their Jewish victims. The march ended late one afternoon in a forested area on the banks of the Ins River. Nearby was the town of Brenneau, where Adolph Hitler had been born. It was very cold in the forest that night. Guards and prisoners alike passed the night in misery while wild rumors excited both fear and hope. On the third day in the forest near Brenneau, there was a sudden appearance of three American jeeps. This was part of General Patton's swiftly advancing army. The German guards made no attempt to resist; they began bringing their weapons and piling them against a tree. Then an officer stood up in one of the jeeps: "Men," he said, "You are no longer prisoners of war. You are once more soldiers of the United States of American." After months and years of almost unbearable suffering that had taken may lives, Stalag 17_B, the world's largest prisoner of war camp, had become part of history.
Arthmur Thomasson of Newberry, S.C. had such dreadful memories of his experiences in this notorious prisoner of war camp that he would never willingly speak of it. Only once. while enduring severe pain following radical heart surgery, did his gallant veteran tell the tragic story of Stalag 17-B.
This account of that terrible story is a tribute to the memory of a brave soldier who served his country well when an entire world seemed to be aflame, more than fifty years ago.