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Letters to Loretta: The American POWs are finally saved from the Nazis

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US POWs escape from WWII camp
Editor’s Note: Sandboxx News presents a World War II series by Kaitlin Oster on the power of hope, letters, and love in seeing us through the terrors and agony of war. You can listen to Kaitlin’s radio interview about the series here, or visit her website here.

Harold woke up in the chilly haze to shouting that was quickly followed by two rapid gunshots. A man from a different prisoner group had made an escape attempt in the pre-dawn hours. He was discovered and shot without question and without a chance to surrender to the armed guards. It was an unfortunate case, Harold knew, but at the same time, he felt unfazed by the sounds, by the death. He felt hollow, and that scared him. The gunshots themselves didn’t even frighten him, no more than the barking dogs, the biting cold, and the hunger; hunger was more of a companion than any other single person he had encountered in camp over two years.

His emptiness was only satiated by the thought of returning home to Loretta and his family. As he imagined her, waiting for him at Jamaica Station in New York, he touched her letters that he had kept in his breast pocket. It was a miracle that they survived as long as they had, especially with the infrequency that he received them. Harold sat up in the dark, surrounded by the other piles of men carefully separated into groups of three, then groups of several dozen, then groups of several hundred. All gathered up and divided like a deck of cards – he just wanted to be home.

The American POWs’ journey continues

German POWs after the liberation of Paris, August 1944. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The POWs were rounded and ordered to continue on their journey. Harold grabbed the food that was left from the night before, and the other men took packs and kindling wood to start another fire later on in the evening. It began to rain several hours into the march and the men were ordered to take shelter under a tree line or in a nearby barn. They dispersed without order to escape the downpour. One man, trampled and injured, lay face-down in the mud; his other two companions hurried over to him to help him up.

“What? Suddenly the lot of ya are savages? All it took was a little rain?” one of the two men hollered at the passing soldiers as he lifted the injured POW from the ground.

Harold walked on with caution after witnessing the scene. There was limited space for so many men to find shelter. The men scattered without rhyme or reason, and to avoid any more chaos Harold walked to the far side of a barn where he found an overturned carriage used to transport hay bales. He threw his food underneath it and crawled on his hands and knees through the mud to escape the rain. His two companions found shelter under a large tree about 20 feet away. The slow drumming of rain fell on the wooden carriage and Harold felt himself slowly drift off to sleep.

Related: Operation Rype: That time when American agents wanted to hijack a Nazi train and blow up everything on its path

He woke up to more yelling. It was nothing unusual – guards attacking out-of-bounds prisoners. Especially out in the open, he knew there were no rules. Something was different this time, though, Harold soon realized. The yelling was in English. He heard men yelling in English and he heard the sounds of engines. Then… was it Russian? It wasn’t German, that much he knew. Harold peered out from under his carriage and saw the prisoners standing around in no particular order, and just beyond them he saw Russian soldiers — clean-cut and free. Free. This is it, he thought to himself. Harold felt his blood pressure rise in excitement. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears.

He crawled out from under the carriage as fast as he could – as if he might have been forgotten by the soldiers.

After 18 days of marching, the Soviet troops overtook and captured the SS who were guarding the 4,000 American POWs. On May 3, Harold was liberated. Transportation was arranged and he – along with the countless other American captives – was transported to France where he planned to gorge himself on food, receive medical attention, and finally write home to his girl to tell her he was coming home.

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Kaitlin Oster