As American prisoners of war, they marched for miles across enemy territory during that bitingly cold winter of 1945. They were packed into boxcars, only to be bombed and strafed by their fellow American airmen. One worked in a German mine under a cruel overseer who packed a pickax handle and a rubber hose. Another was a navigator on a B-17 bomber that crashed into the North Sea.
But for all of them, hunger was the worst enemy. “We were starving,” says Murray Stein, who entered the army at 210 pounds and, upon his rescue, weighed 146 pounds. “I used to dream about strawberry ice cream and milkshakes. I’d think, ‘When I get home, I’m going to get in a bathtub filled with scoops of ice cream.’ ”
Stein is the organizer of an elite, ever-shrinking squad: ex-POWs who speak to schoolchildren and college students about the human cost of war. The five men share a bond forged by the threat of death almost 70 years ago – decades before they met in a support group for POWs at the West Palm Beach VA Center.
“When you’re a prisoner, you don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be. We all know that terrible feeling of ‘When is it going to end?’ ” says Stein, an 87-year-old Boynton Beach resident who will appear at two Memorial Day ceremonies on Monday. “These four men became my family.”
Harold Smith, Lake Worth
POW: Three months
“There are really very few people who you can call real friends,” says Harold Smith, an 89-year-old resident of Lake Worth. “These men are real friends.”
As bombardier on a B-17, Smith was on his 23rd mission over Northern Italy when anti-aircraft fire struck his plane on Feb. 16, 1945. “I turned around and saw the navigator putting his chute on,” Smith recalls. “The navigator told me to open the escape hatch, and without even thinking, I jumped. I pulled the cord, and I saw the other planes going home, and there was an empty feeling to that.”
Smith landed in a tree, disconnected his chute and fell 20 feet to the ground. “There I was, and I figured I would go to Switzerland.” He walked four hours in the snow before two Germans captured him. Solitary confinement, interrogations, forced marches and roughly three months of captivity followed, until Gen. George S. Patton and the Third Army liberated the POW camp where Smith was held.
When he returned to the United States, “I had nightmares, and all the things that go with it,” he says. “But in order to get to where I wanted to get to, I couldn’t build on my experiences. I couldn’t be a bombardier anymore.”
Smith kept his memories of the war to himself as he built a successful career in retail. He was president of two major national retail chains and had his own consulting firm. “It ended up with no one knowing that I was in the service.”
But when he found the group of former POWs in 2000, he finally had “a feeling of belonging to a group that I never had before,” says Smith.
Morton Brooks, Boynton Beach
POW: Three months
For 50 years, Morton Brooks also buried the past.
He was 19 years old when his infantry unit was captured near Hatten, France, in January 1945. They were transported deep in Germany, first to Stalag 9B near Frankfurt, and later to Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald.
Living conditions were subhuman. Two men to a bunk, with bunks stacked to the ceiling. A small potbelly stove, useless without fuel. A slit trench for a toilet, and the barracks full of men with dysentery.
Breakfast was chicory boiled in water. Dinner was turnip greens boiled in water – and a loaf of black bread to be shared by eight men. “We learned after the war that 50 percent of it was sawdust,” Brooks says.
For 10 to 12 hours a day, he and his fellow prisoners dug tunnels into a rocky mountainside, removing cart after cart of rubble. “The overseer in my mine shaft was just brutal,” says the 87-year-old, a retired psychologist who lives in Boynton Beach. “If someone collapsed, his view of it was the person was malingering.”
In early April 1945, the Germans began a forced march of the Berga prisoners, attempting to flee the approaching Americans. Three weeks into the march, the U.S. Armored 11th Division liberated the skeletal men.
Brooks weighed 75 pounds, his veins too shriveled for a blood transfusion, the skin rubbed off his toes from so many days of walking. He spent eight months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers before his December 1945 discharge.
“I knew I wanted to come back home. As I tell the students, my mother would’ve killed me if I didn’t come back,” Brooks says. “You just had to keep your thoughts on staying alive. Those who said they couldn’t take it, they didn’t. They passed away.”
For years, he had nightmares. “I figured that’s the way it was supposed to be. I really didn’t know,” he says.
But the POW group has helped. “It’s wonderful to have fellows with similar types of experiences who felt comfortable relating to one another.”
Edward Horn, Palm Beach Gardens
POW: 11 months
Edward Horn’s first 22 missions went according to plan. The 23rd did not.
As he piloted his Martin B-26 Marauder over France on May 28, 1944, the bomber was hit. He and the five other men aboard bailed out. Two died. Two were taken in by the French resistance. Horn and one other were captured by the Germans. For the next 11 months, Horn was held in four different camps, including Stalag Luft III, the setting for the movie “The Great Escape.”
“I was very fortunate. Hermann Goring had been a World War I ace, and he convinced Hitler to give him control of all the airmen,” says Horn, an 87-year-year-old who lives in Palm Beach Gardens. “It was a pretty good deal compared to what other GIs went through when they were captured.”
The men received Red Cross parcels and food from the Luftwaffe, and they were able to build a movie theater in their camp and take lessons in engineering and German from each other.
In January 1945, the Russians began moving in. “We thought we were going to be liberated by the Russians, but instead, the Germans got us up in the middle of the night and marched all of us out into the freezing weather,” says Horn.
Ten thousand men. 37 miles. Little rest, little food. “Some tried to escape, and some were shot,” Horn says.
And then, 60 or 70 prisoners at a time were shoved into cattle cars meant to hold no more than 40 men. “They locked us in with a guard, and we were all suffering from diarrhea and other problems.”
Part of the group proceeded to Stalag 7A in Moosburg, Germany, but Horn’s group was sent to Stalag 13D in Nuremberg. Says Horn, “It was just a horrible camp,” next to a railroad yard that was a prime target for the Eighth Air Force during the day and the Royal Air Force at night. To protect themselves from the Germans’ anti-aircraft fire, the prisoners “spent a lot of time in slit trenches with a board over our heads,” says Horn.
When the Americans moved in, the prisoners marched again, down to Stalag 7A. And, finally, freedom arrived in the form of Patton on April 29. “He said, ‘I bet you bastards are glad to see me,’ ” recalls Horn, who had lost 50 pounds.
After the war, Horn accepted a reserve commission with the Air Force, earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from Pennsylvania State University and worked for 30 years as an aeropropulsion engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“We have a closer bond with the POWs because of what we experienced than with just the ordinary veterans, but we still have a bond with them, too.”
Bill Jeffers, Greenacres
POW: Two-and-a-half months
Bill Jeffers still cries when he tells the story.
Now, he is 89 years old and lives in Greenacres. Then, on Feb. 16, 1945 (the same day, coincidentally, that his friend Harold Smith was captured), he was a 21-year-old navigator on a B-17 bomber.
“At that point in time, there was not much Luftwaffe activity in the air, but the flak was intense,” Jeffers says.
The B-17 crew dropped bombs on their target but lost two of their four engines. “We had to find our way back to England by ourselves. We couldn’t maintain our altitude or our speed.”
As the plane approached the coast of Holland, “We lost another engine. We knew at that point that we were not going to be able to go to England.”
Already over the North Sea, they turned south to head for Belgium, which had been liberated. They were still 10 miles offshore when the last engine went. “We had to ditch,” says Jeffers, as he begins to cry. “We damn near died.”
The plane broke apart when it hit the water, and although the B-17 carried two five-men life rafts, one wouldn’t deploy. Nine men had to carefully position themselves around the edge of a raft meant to hold five. Those who sat on the ends were luckier than those who perched on the middle. Those men, including Jeffers, were waist-deep in the cold North Sea.
But it was a clear, sunny afternoon. “We expected to see a rescue craft at any time,” Jeffers says.
Nobody showed. The sun went down. The men used the raft’s single paddle to move east, according to the stars. When fog rolled in, and they could no longer navigate celestially, they stopped paddling. “We were drifting, and we would not have made it till dawn. The hypothermia had set in.”
Suddenly, a white flare illuminated the sky. Then another. Then, a floodlight from a German shore installation swept over the raft. “Just by the grace of God, we drifted into the enemy’s hands,” Jeffers says. “We were glad to see them.”
The Germans ordered the Americans ashore, helped the men to shelter, fed them, removed their drenched clothes and gave them German uniforms. They allowed them to sleep, but the next morning, the prisoners awoke to the sound of a German officer berating his men “for the audacity of putting German uniforms on us,” says Jeffers, his voice breaking again. “He was really chewing him out, and we thought, ‘Boy, that’s so unfair’.”
The airmen were stripped again and given blankets to cover themselves — and nothing else for the next few days, even when being marched over snow.
On foot and in crowded boxcars, Horn and the others were transported to Stalag 13D, then Stalag 7A, which held 130,000 POWs by the end of the war.
Jeffers’ legs had become infected and it took him more than an hour just to stand up after lying on the floor. Following his liberation, he was airlifted to France and hospitalized for more than a month.
Back home, he completed his engineering degree at Virginia Tech, and worked at what was then the Esso Corporation (now ExxonMobil) and the Department of Defense.
“You’ve heard the expression ‘band of brothers’? We are a band of brothers. We all share a common experience being prisoners of the enemy,” Jeffers says. “We were very fortunate in that we were in the European theater and were prisoners of the Germans. The fellows who were prisoners of the Japanese or the North Koreans or in Vietnam, they had it far worse than we did.
“But we all were prisoners … and we understand each other very well. That’s how we are.”
Murray Stein, Boynton Beach
POW: Six months
Murray Stein, a tall man with a radio-perfect voice, grew up in Brooklyn and planned to major in music at the University of Chicago. But Uncle Sam called, and like so many in his generation, Stein answered willingly. “At 17 or 18, nobody wanted to be thought of as 4F, because the girls would look at you different,” he says.
As a mortar man in the 106th Infantry Division, which suffered the worst casualties of the Battle of the Bulge, Stein was wounded and captured after four days of fighting in Ardennes. He remained a prisoner almost six months, freed by American soldiers from Stalag 4B south of Berlin in June 1945.
He was discharged on Dec. 31 of that year. “When it was all said and done, I was still only 20 years old,” he says.
He married at 21 and became postmaster of Brooklyn. What he endured during the war didn’t haunt him till 10 years after his retirement.
But in the ex-POW group, he found a family of like-minded souls. “We know each others’ aches and pains,” Stein says of Harold and Bill, Ed and Morton.
And they know what it means to be blessed. “We’ve been privileged,” Stein says. “Every generation has its great young people. We were forced into it.”
POW Pledge of Allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the flag…
I am an American. I was a POW. I have served my country. I need no one to tell me what allegiance I owe to my flag… to my home…
Of the United States of America…
This is my country. I have fought for it. I have been imprisoned for it. I have died for it.
And to the republic for which it stands…
This flag stands for me, for love. My love for my family. My love for my friends. I did not forsake it when I was beaten, when I was starved, when I was killed…
One nation under God, indivisible…
I am one man. I have one country. I worship one God. Under God I was saved. Under God I have no fear…
With liberty and justice for all…
My allegiance is to Liberty, to Justice. My flag represents the best of myself, my effort, my home, my country. I will pledge allegiance to the flag. I will pledge under the love of God. It is my right. My privilege. My duty. I have earned it. Tell me not how. I have given you much. I am an ex-POW. Take nothing more from me.
I pledge allegiance to the flag.