With the drab blanket of night already folded over the bleak Polish countryside, Colonel Paul Goode walked into one of the prison barracks of Oflag 64 in Szubin, Poland at 5 p.m. on the afternoon of January 20, 1945.
“Listen up,” began the ranking American officer in the camp as men sat up on their bunks or turned from the small stove in the middle of the room. “We’re moving out tomorrow. That’s all I know. So dispose of everything you don’t want to carry. Don’t bother to ask anything, this is all I can tell you. Moving west. Good luck to all of you.”
In that bitter winter of 1945 approximately 53 per cent of all American POWs in German camps were moved westward, as the total number of American, Belgian, British, French, Norwegian, Polish, and Yugoslav prisoners evacuated from camps in eastern Germany and Poland exceeded 300,000.
Since his capture in Italy the previous September in the Po Valley north of Florence, U.S. Army Lieutenant Isham Reavis had been moved several times to different POW camps. Now, as the Soviet Red Army maintained its relentless advance west pushing Germany toward ultimate defeat, Reavis and 1290 other American POWs held in Oflag 64 were to begin a march meant to take them 400 miles from Szubin, Poland to Luckenwalde, Germany south of Berlin.
As the days of marching wore on and their strength ebbed, the distance they managed to cover each day lessened. Men also began dying in numbers. Food and water were in short supply, and since they were marching through open countryside, they slept without shelter, as well. Isham, who stood 6’ 1 1/2” tall and weighed a lean 149 pounds upon enlistment, had been pared down to less than 130 after five months in German captivity.
On the ninth night out from Szubin, the men from Oflag 64 were still in an open expanse, having walked perhaps four or five miles through the course of the day. But it didn’t seem to Reavis like they had traveled at all. Rather, it was as if the earth itself was maintaining some cruel glacial pace beneath their feet leaving them perpetually in the same incomprehensible position at day’s end.
That night out in the middle of nowhere, with an equal nowhere ahead, Isham found fellow prisoner Lt. Billy Ferenz turning like a dog in search of a spot to lie down.
“Nobody lays down tonight,” Reavis warned him. “Honest, I don’t care how tired you think you are. If you lay down here you will never get back up again. You’ll die. That’s all there is to it.”
Isham narrowed his eyes to flints to underscore the seriousness of his message.
“So we’ll just take turns,” he went on. “I’ll hold you so you can sleep. And when I can’t hold you any longer, you’ll hold me.”
And that is the way they spent that long, frigid night together, heads on one another’s shoulders like teenagers slow-dancing at the high school prom. Men all around them did the same, their only music the over-taxed beat of their hearts, and the hacking coughs born of failing systems.
They didn’t sleep, but they didn’t die, either. And when the gray dawn finally brought another impersonal day – not even a crease along the white expanse in the distance – Isham said to Billy, “This is it. Today we go. Let the sons of bitches shoot us if they want, but I can’t put up with this any longer.”
And thus the decision made. They had set a challenge for themselves, and it seemed to energize them. As they walked that day they watched, though there was nothing to see. The emptiness was total, but many men who had been with them before were now dead. Several had died the previous night. Graves were dug, prayers read, and bodies buried. It had become a cruel ritual, and in their condition the best they could manage for their fallen mates were shallow sanctuaries as the frozen ground gave way only grudgingly to their weakened efforts. This day, however, Reavis and Ferenz were no longer prisoners. They saw themselves as officers again, men with purpose, control, a mission.
Late in the day they came to an old camp. Actually, only one small building remained, and that was in a bad state. There were three rooms in the place, each about eight feet by ten, empty but for the window facing front. But at least it was shelter. Billy and Isham went into that little shack that night as the snow had turned to sleet, and as they sat around a small stove drying their socks and shoes the men started talking about escape.
“Well, if we are gonna do it, let’s do it now while it’s raining and the dogs won’t be able to trace us,” Billy suggested.
“I agree,” Isham said quietly draping a sock over the stove. “I’m staying when they leave tomorrow. This is our chance.”
“Where can you hide?” wondered Billy.
“There’s some old lumber in the corner,” Isham said turning his head to a location farthest from the doorway. “I’ll take it, and put it on top of me. It’s not much. But this has to be it.”
Bill hesitated for a second only.
“Okay,” he finally nodded. “I’m with you.”
With their minds made up, they actually slept fairly well compared to the previous days.
The next morning the German guards began to assemble the prisoners out front. When the rest of the men dragged themselves outside into the snow and cold, Billy and Isham lagged behind. The Germans were in pretty bad shape themselves, and didn’t take the time to count heads as the men exited. Being out in the middle of nowhere there wasn’t any place to run, anyway. So Isham and Billy got down in the far corner, and pulled the lumber on top of them as best they could as everyone else departed.
The soft crunch of footfalls began to disappear in the distance when they heard the last of the Germans outside muttering as if they’d forgotten their own names. Reavis and Billy lay in the third room just waiting. At first all they heard were footsteps of a couple of men approaching the building on the far end away from their room. Then came the unmistakable sound of German grenades being activated. PAC! PAC! Next they heard the dull thuds, and muted rolling as two grenades landed in the first room.
Their bodies shuddered under the blasts as a cloud of smoke invaded their space through the numerous cracks in the walls. A few seconds later the staccato of machine gun fire ripped through the first room. If you’re there, you are dead, simple as that. The footsteps then moved to the second room right next to them. In went two more grenades. BOOM! BOOM! Again the room shook, and the menacing BRRRR!! of machine gun fire cut through the gray cloud, roiling thick in the broken enclosure. Part of the adjoining wall to their room collapsed from the blast. Billy and Isham could do nothing.
Their heads were low and facing away from one another as lay flattened along the cold wooden floorboards. The silence following the grenades and machine guns seemed to mock them. Their breath exited in tiny, hesitant plumes, the wooden floor cold against their cheeks. They were playing with us for sure, thought Isham, as he awaited his fate. The Germans knew they were in there. Had to know.
But there wasn’t much left to the German guards by this time, either. Hunger and cold and fatigue didn’t take sides in this passage. The guards had to walk and lay sleepless outdoors just like their charges did. The only difference was they carried the weapons. But even that advantage bore a price, as it required an attention that sapped their strength to a degree even more than it did the prisoners being watched.
Lieutenant Reavis had nearly been killed two or three times already. But as death approached he stopped facing it the same as when life was full and taken for granted. He didn’t forget about death, he just don’t acknowledge it. Yes, it was there. It was real. He’d had men die in his arms. But death is distant in the same way tomorrow seems distant when today is fresh in your hand. And even when it presses close and you can smell its bitter breath mingling coldly with your own, and you may even give it its regard, you go about what you do, and believe in the life that will follow. It may have been a shield of folly, but it was a shield nonetheless.
I felt the touch of Billy’s hand on mine. When you do something with someone, something hard to find reasons for other than you said you would do it, you grow very close to that person without need for words. I squeezed his hand in return. I’m sure he felt, like I did, that it would be our last conscious act. And at the time that would have been all right. You prepared yourself for this eventuality without realizing it in war. And the moment, in its way, was sublime. How many people can actually know the exact moment of their death? At least we knew where things stood. And there was a comfort in having anything concrete before you. Even death. At least it would be a release and a release of our own choosing. If we could have spoken there wouldn’t have been anything to say that would’ve communicated any more than that glasp of hands.
The silence grew, expanded, until finally it made Isham angry.
“Go on,” he thought. “Get it over with. Get it done, you bastards!”
At first he thought the German goons were just having some fun at their expense, like they just wanted to play with their emotions a while for a game to break their own monotony. But the silence hung like a solid weight. They could hear the hollow whistle of wind chasing over new eyes of wood cut by the grenades in the adjoining rooms. The smoke from the blasts curled around their room, and the metallic smell of spent powder crept into their nostrils. Then, nothing and more nothing. All silence. But this silence was different. This silence held more than emptiness. This was the silence of freedom.
They stayed there, down on their bellies breathing in shallow drafts, afraid that even their living would give them away. They stayed under those boards for about an hour before getting up tentatively to look around.
January 30, 1945 marked the twelfth anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power. It was also on that day that Heir Hitler, in his last speech to the German people, called for fanatical resistance by soldiers and civilians, predicting that “…in this struggle for survival it will not be inner Asia that will conquer, but the people that has defended Europe for centuries against the onslaughts from the East, the German nation…”
When Isham and Billy ventured outside, the white expanse was broken only by the smudged boot tracks wandering off into the distance. The men of Oflag 64 and the German guards had moved on. There wasn’t anyone in sight. Isham and Billy just sat there for a bit in the middle of nowhere pondering their freedom, if that’s what you could call it. Neither of them said a word. They only breathed. Then looked around and breathed some more.