(This is Part Two of a series on West Union’s Grover Swearingen and his experiences in World War II. Part Two is the story of Swearingen’s imprisonment in a German prison camp.)
While carrying out a bombing mission over the Ruhr Valley region in western Germany on Sept. 9, 1944, Grover Swearingen and his crew mates were forced to bail out of their B-17 Bomber after it was engulfed in an intense anti-aircraft barrage over the city of Dusseldorf.
The Allied bombing missions had inflicted an immense amount of damage on the Ruhr Valley region. All of the towns and cities in the area had been heavily bombed throughout the war.
From July 1944 to January 1945 an estimated 14,000 German civilians were killed from bombings every month in this area of Germany. It was into this carnage that Swearingen and his crew mates parachuted.
After his inauspicious landing in a tree and subsequent capture by German soldiers, Swearingen was taken to Luedenscheid, a thousand year old mountainous town in the Ruhr Valley.
Locked up in a second story room, he waited, wondering what his captors would do next. A German soldier entered the room and asked if he were British or American. “I told him I was an American, and he told me, that for me, the war was over.”
The next morning Swearingen was taken by truck to Dortmund. He was put in a 6 x 8 cell with one high window. A single light bulb hung 10 feet above the floor, casting a cold light into the dim cell. A solid impassable steel door stood between him and freedom. On one of the walls of his austere cell he discovered a simple inscription, “Bruno Latici September 9.” The B-17 pilot had been there the day before Swearingen arrived.
The next day a train would take him and his two German guards to the nearby Dulag Luft for interrogation.
The Dulag Luft was a transit camp for Air Force prisoners captured by the Germans. Its purpose was to collect information from newly captured airmen before sending them on to their permanent camps. By the end of the war nearly 8,000 air force servicemen were being held in these prison camps.
The Dulag Luft sat on the outskirts of Oberuso, a thousand year old German town of half-timbered Bavarian buildings that, like all the towns and cities in the Ruhr Valley, had been severely hammered by Allied bombers. Almost all captured American and British airmen passed through Oberuso as they were interrogated and processed into the German POW camp system at the Dulag Luft.
The train took them to
Frankfort where they disembarked. They had to walk through the town where RAF bombs had fallen the night before. Swearingen was surrounded and threatened by the outraged townspeople. “The guards actually held their guns on the people to keep them back,” Swearingen recalled.
When they reached the camp, he was stripped, his clothing was searched, and he was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained for four days, living on a bread and water diet. After four days he was taken to the interrogation center where he was questioned by a German officer.
“I gave him my name, rank, and serial number, and told him that was all I had to say.” He raved, ranted, and cussed in German for a while, then speaking English, he called me a murderer, “You’ve killed innocent women and children with your bombing,” he accused. “Then, he told me our navigator had broken over and told him everything, but I didn’t believe him.”
Swearingen had been in the camp just over a week when he and several hundred airmen were herded onto a train. “We were placed 60 men to a railroad car. There was barely room to stand, let alone lie down to sleep.”
For four days and nights the train traveled eastward. The prisoners had only one Red Cross parcel, and a bucket in the corner that served as a bathroom, but no food and no water.
They arrived at Gross Tychow, Pomerania (now Poland) on Sept. 21. The train pulled into the station at Keifheide and the prisoners were disembarked and forced to run two miles to the camp. “It was the first sight I had of what would be my home for the next five months,” Swearingen recalled.
The camp was set in a forest clearing about one and half miles square. The forest was a tangle of dense foliage and underbrush that served as the last bulwark against anyone attempting to escape the camp.
There were two barbed wire fences 10 feet high completely surrounding the camp. Between the two fences was another fence of rolled barbed wire. The area from the fence to the edge of the forest was left clear making it necessary for anyone attempting escape to traverse it in full view of the guards. Fifty feet inside the fences was a warning wire. A prisoner could expect to be shot first and questioned later if he stepped past the wire. Additionally, posted at close intervals around the camp, were towers which were equipped with several powerful spotlights and machine guns.
The camp was a dismal place. The prisoners lived in rough wooden barracks, slept on bunks with straw-filled burlap sacks on wooden slats. Food and other rations were meager.
There were no bunks in the barracks to which Swearingen and 19 other prisoners were assigned. From September through January he and the other airmen slept on the hard, wooden floor.
“Each prisoner had one blanket, so four of us slept together with two blankets on the the floor and two over top,” he explained. Each man got one brick of coal per day, which was usually used up by 5 p.m. “It was a record cold winter in Germany that year, our blankets would be frozen to the floor every morning.”
In 1944 a Red Cross report was released decrying the conditions under which the prisoners were forced to live. Swearingen explained, “There were no bathing facilities, no showers for eight months. We could use water to wash our hands and face, but if the German soldiers caught you bathing, they’d take your clothing for several hours.”
Beyond the severe physical discomfort the prisoners faced, there loomed always the affliction of uncertainty. Not knowing when the war would end, or if they would be killed by the guards, left the prisoners in a state of constant anxiety.
They were locked in their barracks from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. German police dogs prowled the compound throughout the night.
“We had to bang on the door if we needed to go to the latrine,” Swearingen explained.
The putrid latrine pits were drained by Russian POW’s and spread on the surrounding fields. The foul odor hung in the air around the camp.
Food was a daily ration of bread (that was part flour, part straw and sawdust), margarine, boiled potatoes, thin soup, dehydrated sauerkraut, rutabaga, and meat (usually horse meat).
The occasional Red Cross parcel would be divided between two to six men. “The German soldiers would punch holes in the cans so the food would spoil if not eaten quickly,” Swearingen said, “We used cigarettes to bribe the guards who were always walking around watching our every move.”
The Red Cross parcels would frequently have false bottoms in which radio parts were secreted into the POW camp. “We put the parts together and then we could get radio broadcasts from the BBC in London.”
One particular guard the prisoners called the “Ferret,” who made the same rounds every day, became the means for passing news throughout the camp, though he didn’t know.
“Prisoners would write the news on a small piece of paper and slip into the Ferret’s belt. When he moved on to the next compound, they’d pull it out and read it, then slip it back into his belt. At the last compound, they read it and then destroyed it.”
The prisoners used cigarettes to bribe the guards for simple necessities that made their lives more tolerable.
“We weren’t beate
n or tortured unless we provoked the guards,” Swearingen said, but there were guards the POW’s had to be wary of. An SS officer who took perverse pleasure in withholding water from the prisoners and inflicting whatever random acts of cruelty he could was especially despised by the airmen.
Swearingen describes one particular guard, “We called him Big Stoop. He was 6’9” and weighed 275 pounds, he had very large hands and he’d try to slip up behind a POW and hit him on the side of the head, trying to bust his eardrum. We were always on the look out for him, so when he started to swing the unlucky guy could move his head to avoid a full blow.”
Twice a day the prisoners were forced to stand in prison yard while the guards counted them.
“We were lined up five deep each morning and evening, if the weather wasn’t too bad we’d move around to mess up their count, and they’d have to start over. If the weather was very cold they’d make us stand outside for an hour or more.”
Swearingen recounted an episode involving another guard. “One of the guards was very short, his rifle was almost as tall as he was. One day he slipped and fell on the ice, we laughed, and when he got up he started swinging the rifle by the barrel. One of the swings got me on the arm and another on my back. Several more guys got hit before his temper calmed down. None of the other guards tried to stop him, they just laughed at his antics.”
The primitive conditions forced the prisoners to be innovative in their struggles to survive. One POW named Shorty made a knitting needle from a toothbrush. “I had two sweaters and no hat,” Swearingen explained, so Shorty made my second sweater into a hat, and I still have that hat.”
Shut away for long periods of time the POW’s had to cope with long hours of boredom.
Swearingen busied himself unraveling the threads of shoelaces which he used to make a design on a handkerchief that was later donated to the 390th bomb Museum.
An airman from West Virginia received a mandolin. Music provided some release from the unrelenting tension of the camp. “He could play any song you wanted to hear on that mandolin,” Swearingen recalled. “He’d always say, ‘We’re hillbillies, ain’t we Spike (my nickname), and I always agreed with him.”
Bob Brown, the waist gunner on Swearingen’s B-17, was also a POW in the same camp. “Bob and I would meet and walk around the compound 20 times, twice a day, regardless of the weather. We didn’t know it then, but those walks kept us in shape for what was to come.”
The last week of January the Germans finally got around to installing bunks and straw mattresses in Swearingen’s barracks. “We were off the floor, and glad of it, but that didn’t last for long.”
(Grover Swearingen’s story will continue with Part Three in the Nov. 18 issue of The People’s Defender.)