19 paź 2016

The Return-To-Szubin Reunion 1971

Very recently visiting members of the Oflag 64 Association, descendants of US Army officers who were held POW, gathered together with residents of Szubin in the front of the memorial to take a commemorative group picture. Forty-five years earlier their fathers, former prisoners of war at Oflag 64, took the opportunity to revisit Szubin for a commemorative group photograph as well.

Their first reunion in Szubin after the war was planned and discussed for several years and finally, on January 27th, 1971 the Reunion Committee consisting of John F. Slack, Charles G. Eberle and Frank W. Maxwell in the 2nd special edition of the Post Oflag 64 Item announced the Return-to-Szubin Reunion – “Remember the dates May 8-22, 1971” – they wrote – “It’s truly going to be the trip of a life time – so don’t miss that”.

During the two week-long journey to Europe, the highlight was just a few hours visit on the grounds of the former POW camp in which some of them stayed captive for more than 18 months. For the thirty former prisoners, it was an unforgettable exercise in nostalgia to see the scene of their captivity once again.

They arrived in Poland on a flight from New York to Warsaw via Copenhagen, and on Monday May 10th via Żalazowa Wola (birthplace of Chopin) they traveled to Poznan. The itinerary for Tuesday, May 11th was concise: “Leave the hotel after breakfast for excursion to Szubin – visit to former WWII campsite now marked by memorial. Lunch to be held in Bydgoszcz with local dignitaries”.

The group consisted of: Jim and Peggy Bancker, Frank and Tracy Diggs, Dan and Millie Lewandowski, Don and Cassie Waful, Charley and Emma Eberle, Brooks and Mae Kleber, Ed and ElizabethBatte, Ray and Eleanor Klinkenborg, Wright and Ellen Bryan, Lew and Janet Lowe, Gardner and Gert Simes, Joe and Sylvia Friedman, Bob and Gladys Thompson, Col and Mrs. Schaefer, Larry and Ash Phelan, Roy and Helen Chappell, Frank and Kay Maxwell, John and Mary Slack, Roy and Leilabeth Ihrie, Pete and Jane Graffagnino, Jim and Anne Fraser, Mae Goodlett, Erna Berzins, Amon Carter, Jack Rathbone, Irv Yarock, Len Vaden, Carl Hunsinger, Len Feldman, Ed Moschel, Tony Lumpkin, Bill Bingham and Emmet Shaughnessy.

POWs in picture as identified by Bill Sharpe: 1. Amon Carter, 2. Irv Yarock, 3. Leroy Ihrie, 4. Jim Bancker, 5. Jim Fraser, 6. Colonel Schaffer, 7. Peter Graffagnino, 8. Don Waful, 9. Roy Chappell, 10. ???, 11. Len Feldman, 12. ???, 13. Joe Friedman, 14. Frank Maxwell, 15. ???, 16.   ???, 17. Edward Batte, 18. John Slack, 19. Tony Lumpkin, 20. Gardner Simes?, 21. Ed Moschel, 22. Larry Phelan, 23. Frank Diggs, 24. Ray Klinkenborg, 25. Charlie Eberle, 26. Bob Thompson.

Among the (re)visiting group was Wright Bryan, the Ex-Atlanta Journal and NBC War Correspondent, who on June 6th, 1944 broadcasted the first report of the D-Day invasion after flying over Normandy with paratroopers, and after being captured by the German army on September 12th, 1944 became prisoner of war at Oflag 64 in Szubin Poland until “liberated” by the Russian army on January 21st, 1945.

After returning home he wrote: “As our bus approached Szubin, Kriegies who had marched out in January, 1945 began to sight landmarks they remembered. When we stopped at the gate of the school which had been our camp, everyone drew a long breath and headed towards spots they remembered best. Temporary barracks, high fences, barbed wire and look-out towers were gone, but permanent buildings which formed the nucleus of Oflag 64 (The White House, the hospital, the small chapel, The German commandant’s house) looked just as they had, except that springtime green instead of winter snow surrounded them. Most of us located quickly and showed our wives the very places we were once quartered. This was the most moving of my experiences, but others were numerous. Our committee’s placing a wreath on the monument erected by the Poles at the main gate to commemorate their resistance to Germans and the wartime use of these grounds, included an inscription honoring Americans who had been there”.

Charlie Eberle, John Slack and Frank Maxwell laying a large wreath of red roses at the village war memorial just outside the camp.

The Polish Radio reporter, Ryszard Jankowski, reported on the ceremony in his radio coverage: “The guests are coming to the obelisk, commemorating this place of martyrdom, which was erected as a tribute to the victims of WWII. After laying a wreath at the monument, they presented to the representative of the local community a commemorative plaque with an etched inscription as a token of gratitude to the Poles, who during very difficult times more than once showed their concern for the Allies imprisoned here”. It read: “Presented to our friends, the fine people of Szubin, Poland, to commemorate the return of the American prisoners of war”.

Words of thanks for the gift on behalf of the Szubin society were delivered by the Director of the Reform School, Mr. Alfons Jachalski: “On behalf of all citizens of the city of Szubin I’d like to warmly thank you for this kind gift. In the same manner, I would like to emphasize, that we always think highly about all those who always remember the tragedy that has befallen our country and other nations. We are always friends of those who stand by one another to fight against fascism. When you go back home I’d like to ask you to convey to your younger generations kind regards from the Polish nation. I hope they also will always fight for peace, in the same way as we do. So let there be peace for the whole world”.

Visitors in front of the hospital at Oflag 64, from left: Len Vaden, Bob Thompson, Ed Banker, then Ed Moschel then Billy Bingham, then ???, then Dr Graffagnino, then Leroy Ihrie, then Stacy Diggs.

The Associated Press article reporting the fresh impressions of the revisit was printed on May 12th, 1971 and later reprinted throughout the entire United States:

SZUBIN, Poland (AP) – ‘What the hell they done to my bedroom?’, ‘The cemetery has disappeared’, ‘Hardly any barbed wire left at all’. There were typical comments from 30 Americans who revisited their old Nazi Prison camp here Tuesday. All of them former Army officers, they journeyed with their wives from US to look at the place where they sat out the last years of World War II. With bright sunshine and friendly smiles from curious Polish villagers who gathered around them, Oflag 64 had changed a little since the Americans were last here. The camp, which housed about 1500 American war prisoners, is now a reform school for young boys. (…).

A five story cream painted building, which was the camp’s main blockhouse, is now used as bed lodgings for the young boys. The Americans remembered cold damp rooms, and mud-colored walls. As they walked down the old corridors, many of the ex-officers opened up the doors which used to be their rooms. There were no wooden bunks anymore, just neat rows of beds with gay-colored blankets. ‘What the hell they done to my bedroom?’ – boomed Larry Phelan – ‘There used to be a giant metal stove in the center and now it’s gone. It sure kept us warm on those freezing Polish winter nights’.

The story was the same in the mess hall, still used as a dining room by the school institute.‘There were no fresh linen table cloths and bright walls when we were here’ – recalled Amon Carter – ‘We just had wooden benches and the place was plain dirty’.

John Slack in the museum at Oflag 64 There was one room set aside as a museum and there were several military articles on exhibit.

Also the Polish Radio reporter talked to Amon Carter:

Reporter: ‘Of course you are not here for the first time; this is the second visit I hope’.
Amon Carter, Jr.: ‘No, I was….Yes, I was here for 20 months in 1944 and 1945 and we made many friends with our Polish friends and they were living under bad conditions but they tried making our lives more happy here in the camp.  They tried helping us and we’ve always liked the Polish people.  We have many good Polish people in America and we wanted to come back and say hello to our Polish friends.  There are 50 that are coming from Poznan.  There are 50 more.  There are 30 prisoners and some of them have their wives with them.  But the camp has changed and Szubin has many more people.  Szubin is growing’.

Reporter: ‘Would you like to have a look’?
Amon Carter, Jr.: ‘Oh, I will.  We dug a tunnel to try escaping and it collapsed.  It was up there.  That is a new building.  This was the hospital.  This was the, we called this the Weissenhaus (the White House), like where our President lives in Washington.  And we had a church and a cemetery over there.  That was the kitchen where we got our food.  We didn’t get very much, but when we got it, that’s where we got it.  And this was my friend at the railroad station.  I saw her twice a week and she was very helpful to all the Americans’.

During the interview, Mr. Carter introduced a lady from Szubin who worked at the Railroad Station and was very helpful to all the Americans. The lady introduced by Mr. Carter, was Eugenia Grecka.

Reporter: ‘Are you from here, ma'am?’
Eugenia Grecka: ‘Yes, and I still live here’.

Reporter: ‘As Mr. Carter has mentioned you were one of the few people, local residents of Szubin, who used to help them. What kind of help was it and were you in any danger because of it?’
Eugenia Grecka: ‘Everything we used to do for the POWs was at the risk of being shot, but we didn’t think about it at the time. We tried to support them emotionally. We tried in some way to be in touch with them to show that we sympathized with our American friends, to have an influence on their morale, to make them feel not so lonely here and in this way not to lose their spirit. We were happy when we were able to send them any message, for example about any progress in the direction of the end of the war. We tried to be helpful in case of escape attempts, because several times we were the witnesses of their unsuccessful efforts to get out of the barbed wire compound’.

Amon Carter, Jr. talking to Eugenia Grecka who befriended him while he was at Oflag 64 as a POW.

Eugenia Grecka gave Carter radio war news, which she got from BBC. Eugenia would write the news down and leave it in one of the station’s waste baskets. Carter picked it up every time he went down with his German guards to collect Red Cross parcels. Besides giving the Americans up-to-date war newsGrecka also passed them knives and forks to use as tunneling appliances ‘I would give them to Polish electricians who were allowed  every so often inside the camp’ – she said. Carter and Grecka remembered one moment when a German guard found a message she left in a station basket. ‘The German opened it and after reading through it he could be promoted for reporting me’– said Mrs. Grecka – ‘When I told him to go ahead he replied. Don’t worry I won’t be such a swine’. Said Carter – ‘He was just doing his job. I gave him few cigarettes. You got to be a good horse trader’.

Grounds of the former POW camp, 1971 – the Reform School, for POWs it was the camp hospital.

The continuation of the Interview with Amon Carter Jr.:

Reporter: ‘Mr. Carter has already mentioned the famous flight (famous escape) by means of the sap (tunnel), which the POWs dug here. Do you remember the exact place where you dug (the tunnel)?
Carter: ‘It was over in that direction, but the barracks are all gone. Where we lived is destroyed. And there was another tunnel in here that the British built, but the other boys on the bus will know where the tunnel is. I did not dig it. My friends dug it, I think for one year. And the big problem was where to put the dirt. We had dirt up in the roof. We put it on the ground. But we never finished the tunnel because in other lagers, the Germans murdered about 50 air force officers. They shot them when they came out of the tunnel, so we knew we were winning the war [referring to The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan]. And it was best to stay in the camp. We only had one man who ever escaped. You say flight, we say escaped, from the camp and he is also from Teksasu [Texas]. And he is on the bus, Mr. Chappell, but he did not get very far. He got out of the camp and then they turned die Hunde or the dogs on him.

Reporter: ‘What are your most personal impressions standing here in the very place where you were a prisoner during the war?’
Carter: ‘With my friends? I have forgotten all the bad things.  You know time heals many wounds.  And I just remember there were many bad things, but I remember the good things only and this was 27 years ago, so you forget a lot, but I still have a fond memory in my heart for Szubin and the people of Poland.  I’m surprised that Szubin has more people than when I was here.  I think Szubin had maybe four or five thousand people. What is the population of Szubin now?’

Reporter: ‘Six and a half thousand’.
Carter:‘Well, it has grown’.

Reporter: ‘Yes, rebuilt as you see’.
Carter: ‘It must be a good place to live’.

Reporter: ‘Before the war, there were only three and a half thousand people living here, so it has doubled’
Carter: ‘Over there was the SS, the barracks, the Gestapo “Barracken” and Oberst Schneider, the Deutsch Kommandant, he lived over there’.

Reporter: ‘And where did you live?’
Carter: ‘I lived in this house and then in a barracks up there.  It is gone now.  I’m just one person and we have 30 others and everyone has got a different story’.

Grounds of the former POW camp, 1971 – for POWs: The White House and one-story building.

After returning home the former POWs shared details of their impression with the others:

“It was the best of times. It was positively the best of times! It was sensational, fantastic, beautiful,unbelievable unforgettableThe return-To-Szubin reunion was the super superlatives ever spoken! The consensus, It could never be duplicated!“

“Of course, the highlight of the tour was returning to Oflag 64 at Szubin. It took a few minutes to become acclimated after we arrived. It seemed to be different, yet it seemed the same. The guard towers and the barbed wire are gone, The Little Theater, the Tin Store, The “Russian“ barracks and all other wooden barracks are down. All other brick buildings still stand, but there have been some interior changes. For example room two in the White House has been partitioned to make three rooms. The one wooden structure remaining is the one opposite the White House entrance where the tailor shop and shoe repair were set up.We experienced one disappointment at Szubin. The authorities would not let us into the Little Chapel, which still stands behind the house where the German Commandant lived. They claimed they didn’t have a key. Every other building was open for us“. 

Grounds of the former POW camp, 1971 – public latrine and the chapel.

Frank Diggs wrote: “You wouldn’t believe what it’s like to return to Oflag 64, first of all, after 26 years. I think it was primarily the contrast between that day we marched out through the barbed wire gate during a snow blizzard with the Russian artillery sounding in the background, and beautiful Spring day which we drove back, in great comfort,  to the same camp – now a boy’s school with sort of campus atmosphere. The White House was still there, unchanged outside. So was the hospital, the chapel, many of the barracks, but without the barbed wire. Seeing the place again with your wife and fellow alumni was downright nostalgic“.

Gardner Simes: “Szubin was sad and moving, The atmosphere hasn’t changed in spite of no barbed wire“.

Jim Bancker: “Revisiting Szubin was of course, the highlight, and seeing the White House and four of the barracks still standing was thrilling for me and my wife. She now has seen in person what I have talked about so much“.

Tony Lumpkin: “One of the real pleasures was the return to Szubin and to see how little the camp has changed and to be able to see and be in the actual area where so many long days had been sweated out in the past“.

Don Waful: “My fifteen months at Oflag 64 in all its dimensions – emotionally, materially, spiritually, were of lasting significance in my life. To return to the scene and to share it with my wife, whoshared it with me then altho’ remotely, has been a moving experience“.

Excerpt from the VHS tape of the trip found by Marlene McAllister (daughter of the late Kriegy Robert Thompson) after going through her father’s papers.


My special thanks to Marlene Thompson McAllister, Nancy Thompson Wyatt and Taylor McAllister, daughters and granddaughter of 1st Lt Robert T. Thompson for providing photographs and the video footage for the article. Thanks also to Bill Sharpe for identifying the men in the picture.

© Mariusz Winiecki

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