At times our sense of the lives of POWs is colored by the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.” The POWs depicted in this series, which ran from 1965-1971, were a powerful group of men who helped in the war effort and seemed to be having fun as they regularly outsmarted their German captors.
Lester K. Edsall’s (Sidney, Ohio) experience as a POW during World War II was unlike Hogan’s, and he describes it in I WAS NO HERO BUT…which he self-published in 1987.
When Edsall reported for service in July of 1942 he “had no notions of heroism” and “was not passionately patriotic.” After the requisite training, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army on Feb. 22, 1943.
Move forward with me to Nov. 13, 1944, the first birthday of Edsall’s daughter, Karen. He surrendered his companies to the 11th Panzer Division rather than have them killed in their vulnerable position in “a circle of light” where the Germans from the cover of darkness could “pick off each foxhole.”
Accustomed to 3,500 to 4,500 calories a day, he found himself existing on 750 a day or less of bread and ersatz, a coffee substitute made of roasted and ground grain or acorns. He was always hungry.
The postcard to his wife, Edith, announcing his capture was sent Nov. 23, 1944, and arrived Feb. 28, 1945.
Edsall writes of being cold, of sleeping on boards with no straw or floor covering, of being transported in box cars that were so crowded that no one could move, of being stripped and deloused, of Red Cross parcels of food intended for one man being used for five or six, of being in solitary confinement and reading graffiti on the wall that said, “Be not dismayed, solitude brings greater joy at liberation.”
On Jan. 8, 1945, the senior officer at the camp where he was being held at Szubin, Oflag 64 in Poland, announced they were moving out on foot. They left the morning of Jan. 21 on a “rough, cold march on snowy, drifting roads” and traveled 21 kilometers. That evening six men and he shared a stall with five calves and were warm though they had no food.
The next morning many were unable to go on and were returned to Oflag 64. Edsall had been a prisoner for a short time and was still relatively strong, so he tried to stay toward the front of the column and didn’t witness the reports of German guards “trying to prod and intimidate the stragglers to keep moving and using gun butts to batter them and threats of shooting them.”
Another day Edsall walked 23 kilometers with a third of a pound of margarine as his food ration. Some days rations were better with a stolen hog or a few morsels given them by those they passed along the way. At times a half loaf of bread was the ration for two days. At one point it was two loaves of bread and one-half pound of oleo for ten days of marching. Edsall began to be “obsessed with the thought of chocolate cake. It seems that chocolate cake was what dreams are made of.” His account of his imprisonment is filled with page after page of descriptions of food that became available or descriptions of hunger, cold and misery.
When Edsall saw a road sign indicating Berlin was 171 kilometers away, he felt that “many hardships were still ahead.”
And they were: Weather so cold that his shoes froze on his feet. When feelings of pity arose, “Then in the very depths of despair, you might see a lifeless body, frozen stiff, lying alongside the road. It was stripped of overcoats or clothing and always with boots missing. You would say, ‘Hey, things could be a lot worse for me.’”
Once the Russian troops advanced to take over the last camp in which Edsall was imprisoned, Luckenwalde, he became extremely apprehensive. On May 6 Allied trucks came to the camp to pick up prisoners, but Russians sent them away as Americans were not to be on that side of the Elbe River.
With that event and another, Edsall decided, “It was quite clear in my mind of the intentions and character of our so-called friends, so I decided to escape.”
He knew that he needed to be one of the first to escape, because the Russians would be more alert once those attempts began. He ran and was fired upon but not hit and headed in a westerly direction, avoiding main highways and Germans as well as Russians. He joined with other ex-prisoners and finally reached American vehicles.
It’s difficult to accept that the Russians would be treating their allies in this way, but Edsall maintains, “The Russians were unhappy about any U.S. vehicles violating their territory, because they wanted all the glory of liberating Berlin and the surrounding territory.”
Edsall writes, “So the feeling of anxiety remained until the trucks returned back across a pontoon bridge on the Elbe, and we were once again under Allied control. Tears of joy streamed down our faces as we realized the feeling of liberation and freedom. Never again would any of us be complacent about the wonderful word ‘freedom.’”
Note: Go online to YouTube Miami Valley Veterans Voices-Lt. Lester Edsall for Edsall’s account.
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