Saturday, October 17, 2009

Tale of a Prisoner of War: The Irv Rothman Story

Irv Rothman and I talking about his WWII experiences, Dallas, Texas, October 8, 2009. (Photo by Drix DeGuy)
Irving Rothman, POW#777, 95th Bomb Group Reunion, October 2009. (Photo by Rob Morris)

Irving Rothman looks thin and fit as he bustles behind the bar at the Red Feather Club on the seventh floor of the Marriott Solana in Fort Worth at this year’s 95th Bomb Group reunion. He and his family have been tending the donations-only bar at the 95th Bomb Group reunions for years now, bringing a vast store of good booze to keep the attendees happy and the talk flowing in the late evenings after the Fireside chats. Irv’s wife, Nina, is a para-Rabbinical and conducts the religious events at each reunion. Irv’s son and daughter-in-law also pitch in behind the bar, pouring drinks and making sure everybody is happy.
But sit down with Irv, as I did, and listen to his story, and you will see, from time to time, his eyes fill with tears and his voice catch as he remembers his wartime experiences, especially his months as a Prisoner of War in Germany.
Irv starts out by giving me his service number, 1532991, and his Prisoner of War number, 777. He has them both imprinted in his brain and in his heart.
Irv was a young engineer/top turret gunner on the J.E. Foley crew, B-17 #25918, better known as Heavenly Daze, when a January 11, 1944 bombing mission to Brunswick went bad. “We were bombing Brunswick, I believe a ball bearing factory,” he recalls. “We’d lost all power to our turrets, so I left my post in the top turret and went down to fire the nose gun. We had a runaway prop on the Number Two engine, and our plane fell out of formation. By the time we got it fixed, there were three Me 109s having fun with us. Those pilots knew we didn’t have any working turrets and they stayed in our blind spots. I couldn’t get a gun on them.” The three Me 109s poured lead into Heavenly Daze as the crew fired what guns they could bring to bear on the attackers.
“Minutes later, Keefer, the copilot, kicked out the escape hatch in the nose and yelled ‘Get the fuck out!’ My parachute was up in the cockpit, so I went and grabbed it. Then I tried to get over the catwalk in the bomb bay to check out the guys in the back of the plane. The fire was so bad that I couldn’t make it through. I figured maybe they’d already jumped so I jumped out the bomb bay.
“I was in a slow spin, and I couldn’t remember for the life of me how to stop the spin. Finally, I put my arms out in front of me and that helped. I landed in a field, a textbook parachute landing, but it just happened, it wasn’t skill. I sat up, and the first thing I saw were a farmer’s wooden shoes. ‘Good’, I thought, ‘I must be in Holland’. I’d learned all about how the Dutch wore wooden shoes. But I hadn’t known that German farmers also wore them!
A civilian cop came and got me and took me to a barn. Here, he took my coveralls. I was wearing my blue electric ‘Bunny Suit’. He pointed his gun at me and told me to march.
We went into a village. As we walked the cop yelled ‘Babi Killer’, and ‘American Luftgangster’ and ‘Juden’. Well, I knew enough German to know what Juden meant. When we got to his house, he took the chrome-plated chain off his dog and chained my hands behind my back. Then he told me to go stand in the corner, facing the wall.
He then had his friends come look at me. He didn’t think I spoke German so they spoke freely in front of me.
“’I have an American luftgangster here. See what he looks like,’ the cop told people. The people who came by cussed me out.
“Well, I’d had my coffee that morning and I had to get rid of it. I had a translation card in my pocket and found the line for ‘I got to go’, and he took me to a haystack.
“At nightfall, the Luftwaffe came and got me. One of my officers was also with them. Then we met up with James Foley, our pilot, who had been the last man out of the plane. He’d bailed out at very low altitude but survived.
“They took us by truck to Frankfurt-am-Main. The Dulag interrogation center was located there. They normally kept guys there for a week but there were so many American flyers to process that I was only there five days. We’d lost sixty bombers that day, that’s six hundred men.
“The only person I saw during that time was the jailer, twice a day, when he took me to go to the latrine. My cell was about as long as the bed, with an equal amount of space to walk next to the bed. There was a window up by the ceiling so I had a little light. After five days, an interrogator sat me down and told me he knew everything about me already. The only thing he didn’t know was that I’d been to Bremen twice. He only knew of one mission. That was the only thing he didn’t know about me. This interrogator, a major, said he’d lived in New York and knew Governor Lehman when he was governor of New York.
“’I want you to know that we are not persecuting the Jews,’ the major said. ‘That is all American propaganda.’ I knew better. All I gave him was my name, rank and serial number.
“The next day, they loaded us on a streetcar and took us to the railroad station. There were three or four of us and a guard to protect us. Mainly, he was there to protect us from the civilians. The city had been heavily bombed.
“The train took us to Hydekrug, East Prussia. This was an established POW camp, and we were the first Americans to get there. They put us in the British compound. It was well-established. We got our food parcels every week. We had books, musical instruments, Red Cross uniforms and blankets. In all, it was very livable. We were there close to a year.
“Then something bad happened. We heard the rumble of German artillery. They evacuated us by train to Memel, now known as Dnask. We got on an old tub and they jammed us into the hold so tight that there wasn’t enough room to move. There was no sanitation, only a bucket at the top of the ladder. The whole voyage, I was afraid of getting sunk.
“We got to the port at Stettin. Here, they handcuffed men together in pairs. I was handcuffed to Sol Sussman, my bunk mate. They took us to a place called Gross Teychow. On the way, I talked to one of the German guards. He had lost his only son, his wife, his daughter, pretty much his whole family, in bombing raids. He said to us, ‘Boys, it’s not your fault. It’s that corporal in Berlin. You’re only doing what you have to do’.
When we arrived at the station, there were German Marines there with dogs. They had lined up on either side of the road leading into the woods. Every so often along either side of the road was a mounted machine gun. They were trying to get us to run off the path so they could shoot us as escapees. We had no idea what was at the end of the road. Was there a camp? Was there a hole they were going to dump us into? We didn’t know.
“They made us run. We had no idea how far we’d have to go. Was it a mile? Ten miles? We ran. Sol went down. I pulled him up and we ran on. Thankfully, there was a camp at the end of the road.
“After we were in the vorlager for three days, they put us in the camp. I was one of the lucky ones. I was put in a normal barracks. A lot of the prisoners had to live in ‘dog houses’, small huts that held eight men that were so small you couldn’t even stand up in them. At this point in the war, we were losing so many men that the Germans couldn’t build the camps fast enough.
“After a while, we heard the heavy artillery again. It was time to leave. They put some of us on a train to Stalag Luft III. The rest of us marched. They told us the march would take three days. Before we left, we took extra clothing and cut it up to make pockets, and we sowed the pockets onto our pants to carry stuff for the trip. Some of us also had made knit caps out of extra sweaters, using a toothbrush handle as a knitting needle. They didn’t look good, but they helped keep us warm.
“The first couple of nights, we had barns to sleep in. After that, nothing. Most of this is a blur to me. We slept on the ground. Two men, back to back, for warmth. It was the coldest winter in Germany in fifty years.
“I marched with the slow marchers. This group left earlier in the mornings and the men who were unable to march slowly, were put in wagons. These were farm wagons, with steep sides. Only the men on the edges could lean against the sides. The men in the middle had to stand. Can you imagine that? These wagons had no springs. You would feel every bump, every pebble. The Germans would requisition horses from local farmers, and then return them the next day and get new ones. When we were unable to get horses, men were harnessed to the wagons and men pulled them. We lost between five and ten percent of our men on that march.
“We finally arrived at the Elbe River. We never traveled on the main roads because they needed those for troop movement. A doctor showed up. His name was Dr. Cantor, and he was a POW as well. We had two guys who had swollen feet as big as footballs. The doctor had me administer the chloroform and he cut holes in these men’s feet and wrapped the slices with gauze bandages so they could drain.
“On the march, either you couldn’t go at all or you went all the time. Dysentery was the worst. The diarrhea drained your body and killed you. We had no medicine for it. So we made charcoal, and ground it up into a fine powder, and then we ate it. It was terrible.” Irv’s eyes fill with tears. He raises his hands to imitate a man eating out of cupped hands. “Men eating dust. Dust. To stay alive.”
“We got to Stalag 11-B. This was an international camp. There were a lot of American soldiers there who had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge. They put us in a huge tent with straw on the floor.
“While I was there, I celebrated my 21st birthday. I was there from March 29 to April 16, 1945. We hadn’t had a bath or shaved in weeks. I tried to rub the dirt off my face after breaking a hole in the ice, but it didn’t come off.
“Finally, on April 16, a tank pulled up to the camp. It was a British tank. A guy got out and told us, ‘Sorry, guys, we can’t get your out for about three days.’ That was fine by me. They took us to Halle, and we were deloused. They gave us C-rations, which are essentially just a rich stew. If we ate more than one cup of it, we got violently sick. Our bodies were not used to the rich food.
“From there, we were flown to Brussels by the British. The deloused us again, we were able to take a bath, and they issued us clean British uniforms. This included Eisenhower jackets, the kind General Eisenhower wore, and they were really sharp. After they gave us a medical checkup, they took us by train to Namur, where we were turned over to the Americans. They took back our British clothes. I really wanted to keep that Eisenhower jacket but they took it back.
“We then went to Camp Lucky Strike. We had another round of checkups. While I stood in line, a doctor shoved a thermometer in my mouth and told me to get out of line. All I wanted to do was go home, but he insisted, and it turned out I possibly had the beginnings of rheumatic fever. They checked me into the hospital for rheumatic fever and malnutrition, and put me on a series of penicillin shots.
“Finally, they book me on the ship John Erickson and I came home.”
“We lost two guys in the camp. One guy went nuts and climbed the wire. They shot him. The other incident was strange. We were locked into the barracks at night and the only thing we had to go to the bathroom was a five gallon milk can for sixty men. Naturally, we tried not to use it if we could help it. One kid had to go to the bathroom pretty badly, and that morning, the guards had unlocked the doors twenty minutes early. The kid didn’t know and he went out of the barracks to go to the bathroom. The guards shot him. And then, they would not let anyone go out and help this guy until it was time to come out. By that time, he’d bled to death.
“My experiences are with me, every day. They have colored my life, but they have not controlled my life. Life just has to go on.”

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