7 wrz 2016

Visit to Poland by Descendants of US Army Officers held POW in Oflag 64

I am the son of a prisoner of war who served two years two months and 10 days with the best of the best, his fellow prisoners. I am forever indebted to all of my brothers and sisters who have shared the same experience and grown up together. We are all bonded by the years our dads spent as the "guest of the Germans" (daddy would have referred to it that way) in beautiful Szubin, Poland. A land unto its own, for the people were so kind to Americans and so helpful to their survival. We are all truly grateful.

George Patton ‘Pat’ Waters, son of Lt. Col. John Knight Waters

On September 3rd members of the Oflag 64 Association, descendants of US Army officers who were held POW in the largest US ground force officers' prison camp in Europe arrived in Poland for a week’s visit. Although their primary goal was to visit the former camp site where their fathers were held prisoner, they wished to commemorate the sacrifice of Polish soldiers with a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, as well as a second wreath-laying to honor the suffering of Polish civilians of all faiths and the various nationalities held POW in Szubin. They also held meetings regarding the creation of a Hall of Remembrance and a Language Lab at the former camp site. 

The first US Army officers brought to this camp were taken prisoner in February 1943, after the Battle of Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia and arrived in Szubin in June of 1943.  Among them were two officers who had been taken under duress to Katyń in May 1943. They were Lt. Colonel John H. Van Vliet, Jr. and Captain Donald B. Stewart, who upon their return to the oflag advised Washington D. C., via coded letters, of the truth about Katyń. 

Others included the future General John Waters, Lt. Craig Campbell (aide-de-camp to General Eisenhower) and Larry Allen, an Associated Press correspondent and winner of the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting. Prisoners continued to arrive after D-Day and the camp reached some 1,500 men by January 1945. The camp was the site of what was planned to be the largest escape ever planned – which was scuttled by plans for Operation Overlord (D-Day).

Although some of the POWs arrived in Oflag 64 in June 1943 (Waters, Van Vliet, Stewart), others arrived later, and represented in the visiting group were descendants of both POW groups:
  • 2nd Lt George A. Cobb, taken prisoner on February 12, 1944 in Anzio Italy (at the Battle of the Factory);
  • 2nd Lt Reid F. Ellsworth, taken prisoner on January 24, 1944 in Italy, escaped from the January 1945 march and headed east through Poland, made it out through Odessa;
  • Lt Col Nathaniel R. Hoskot, taken prisoner on June 6, 1944, repatriated on compassionate exchange on January 7, 1945;
  • 1st Lt Robert T. Thompson, taken prisoner on September 22, 1944; on January 21, 1945 marched out of Szubin, reached Oflag XIII-B at Hammelburg on March 10, 1945;
  • Lt Col John K. Waters, who was the son-in-law of Gen. George S. Patton, and later was nominated general, taken prisoner on February 14, 1943 at Kasserine Pass, North Africa, on January 21, 1945 marched out of Szubin, reached Oflag XIII-B at Hammelburg on March 10, 1945.

From left to right: 2nd Lt George A. Cobb, 2nd Lt Reid F. Ellsworth, Lt Col Nathaniel R. Hoskot, 
1st Lt Robert T. Thompson, Lt Col John K. Waters

The members of the group included Elodie Ellsworth Caldwell and Janet Ellsworth; Tom Cobb; Anne Hoskot Kreutzer and Tom Kreutzer; Marlene Thompson McAllister and Nancy Thompson Wyatt with Taylor McAllister; and George Patton “Pat” Waters. The group’s travel was coordinated by Krystyna Piórkowska, historical researcher and author of “English-speaking Witnesses to Katyn Recent Research”.

The group have also visited the Katyn Museum and Museum of the Uprising in Warsaw, as well as Częstochowa, Auschwitz, Wieliczka and the Wawel Royal Castle in Cracow. 

* * *

Their visit to Szubin began at the Railroad Station through which almost all POWs were brought by train. Red Cross parcels were regularly picked up by some of them from this Railroad Station as well. After that they met with the Director of the Regional Museum, Kamila Czechowska, and visited the Muzeum Ziemi Szubińskiej to view the exhibition about WWII times in Szubin County and the general history of POW camps in Szubin. From the Regional Museum the group took a walk to the Main Square of Szubin to take a group picture in front of the statue of the pelican wounding its breast to feed its chicks – the coat of arms of Szubin. By the way they also visited the buildings of the former printing house in which the camp newspaper "The Oflag 64 Item" was printed. They were welcomed by Marek Kapsa, the grandson of Józef Kapsa, who was the founder and primary owner of the print house where Willi Kricks printed ‘The Item’. Later, the group toured the Old Town of Szubin and visited the ruins of the knights' medieval castle from the XIV century, as well as the Church Of Saint Martin The Bishop founded at the same time. After that they went to the Szubin cemetery to see the place where POWs who died in POW camp, including Capt. Richard H. Torrence of Oflag 64, were buried during WWII. They also saw the place where the movie theater ‘Balten-Lichtspiele’ was, where POWs were allowed to attend for a short time, under guard, to see German movies.

Before the visitors finally reached the site of the former POW camp, they met with the President of the Council, Remigiusz Kasprzak, the Mayor of Szubin, Artur Michalak and Vice Mayor of Szubin, Krystyna Sichel, to discuss the city’s plans to create a Hall of Remembrance in one of the original remaining barracks.

After that the guests walked in the direction of the former camp to stop at the Flame Memorial for a  brief ceremony to commemorate the Polish civilians, and the Polish, French, and Commonwealth of Nations POWs, as well as the Americans who were held POW in the camp at various times. They laid a wreath at the memorial to honor their fathers and all POWs who were held there in the previous camps known as Stalag XXIB and Oflag XXIB.

Oflag 64 represents a very personal place in my life. My father, George Cobb, was captured on February 12, 1944 at Anzio Beach, Italy and was at Oflag 64 until the march from the camp in January 1945. He remained in the service, fought in Korea and retired as a major.  He died at the age of 49, I had just turned 16. Like most veterans, my father rarely spoke about his experience in the wars that he fought or the time he spent as a POW. The one time he did speak about any of his experiences was to express his appreciation for the kindnesses and help he received from the Polish citizens after his escape from the march in January 1945, and as he walked his way through the countryside. (…) we know that many Polish citizens put their own lives in jeopardy during the war as they assisted POWs with escapes and shared what little food they had.  We, as descendants of American POWs are very grateful for the sacrifices of your forefathers and would like to say thank you Poland, then and now, for your support and continued interest.

Excerpt from presentation by Tom Cobb

Their visit culminated with a tour of the remaining Camp Complex – the former camp hospital, the former Brig, the Chapel, the Commandant’s house, and most importantly the ‘White House’ where the senior officers were held. They then entered the MOAS (Home for At Risk Youth) where the majority of the barracks were previously located. Their host there was Wiesław Guziński, Director of MOAS. There they viewed the scale model of Oflag 64 built by the residents of MOAS under the supervision of their teachers, Tomasz Kmieć and Mieczysław Luchowski. The woods, located near the camp site where the Jewish Cemetery was before the war, were visited as well. At the Jewish cemetery the mass execution of Polish citizens of the pre-war County of Szubin occurred. These were Poles who were incarcerated in 1939 in the internment camp for civilians (Ilag, an abbreviation of the German word Internierungslager für Zivilpersonen) which was located in the same buildings which later became the POW camp. Afterwards they journeyed to the location of the Sierniki Farmhouse, where their fathers spent the first night after being marched out of the camp on January 21, 1945 and from where many of them escaped from the Germans. At the former POW camp site they were guided by Mariusz Winiecki, a local resident and historian of the Camp Complex. 

Another of the goals of the visit was to support the US Embassy’s plan to create a Language Lab, to be located at MOAS but also available to the local community. This is a furtherance of the Oflag’s educational program of schooling the POWs in various areas, including languages.  Involved in this project is Col Warren Barlow, Office Chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation U.S. of the US Embassy.

* * *

The history of the Oflag 64 Association dates back directly to post-war times. There was a core group of men, former POWs of Oflag 64, who organized and planned reunions for a number of years, with the first Oflag 64 reunion being held in 1946 in Newark, New Jersey just a year after the war ended. Originally they were held for the Kriegies and their wives and generally for the same purpose as they are held today. The men and their families became very close and formed lasting friendships. Not until 1986 were they held yearly. Previous to that there was a span of several years between them. As time has passed, reunions have also been attended by children of Kriegies and sometimes friends. Unfortunately, as the years have gone by most of the Kriegies have also passed away. Out of the original approximately 1,500 Kriegies who were in captivity at Oflag 64, there are about 50 Kriegies still living, each over 95 years of age.

When their reunions finally come to an end due to the passing of the Kriegies, association members will continue to honor them on their Oflag 64 Association website. They will continue producing a quarterly newsletter entitled The Post Oflag 64 Item, loosely patterned after the original camp newspaper, The Item, designed to keep everyone informed as it did in previous years. Currently it is mailed in hardcopy format to all living Kriegies and their spouses, or widows of deceased Kriegies, while other association members receive notice that a digital version has been posted electronically to the www.oflag64.us website.

Over time, because of reunions or other get togethers, members of the Oflag 64 Association have become like family.  Even though they’re spread across the entire United States, they have bonded with each other and continue to enjoy each other’s company at reunions and wherever they meet. Many have developed close relationships, just as their Kriegy fathers and grandfathers did in earlier times, and keep in touch with each other on a regular basis. They maintain an email list which helps keep them connected with news and information when it is provided by others.

Photos by Mieczysław Luchowski, Mariusz Winiecki

More photos at the website of:

Muzeum Ziemi Szubińskiej and szubin.pl

More Press Coverage:

TVP Bydgoszcz

Radio PIK

Gazeta Pomorska

© Mariusz Winiecki