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Children of former World War II POWs re-enact their fathers' 1945 forced march
At the beginning of 1945, the Soviet Red Army was massing more than 2 million men and 4,500 tanks in Poland for the offensive that would take them to the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin, the seat of German Nazi power.
The German Wehrmacht, thwarted in its winter offensive in the Ardennes Forest known as the Battle of the Bulge, was putting young boys and old men into fighting units. They were no match for the veteran Russian troops that were threatening the borders of Hitler's Third Reich.
In far Eastern Germany, an area that is now in Poland, about 10,000 Allied airmen, including Capt. Edward Bender of Cape Girardeau, were living on coarse black bread, meager rations of barley soup and the contents of Red Cross packages sent to prisoners of war. Life in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, now known as Zagan, was a routine of cold days and nights where news of Allied advances was passed by word of mouth from those lucky enough to catch a few moments of Western radio broadcasts on a clandestine set.
Then on the evening of Jan. 27, 1945, the prisoners were told they must leave the camp because the Germans did not want them to be liberated by the advancing Russians, who were driving toward the Oder River just days after liberating Warsaw.
Bender, like his fellow prisoners or "kriegies" -- short for kriegsgefangenen -- gathered up their belongings and were marched out of the camp into the bitterly cold countryside. They marched south and west, covering 35 miles in 27 hours with only brief rest periods and a four-hour stop in barns and stables.
Bender, now 90, recalls that he left the camp fairly well prepared for the journey. He had a backpack made from an old shirt, a couple of suits of long-johns, trousers, a blouse, an overcoat and a stocking cap. Supplies were being pulled on a makeshift sled. During the four-hour stop, prisoners took turns guarding the sled. But during Bender's turn, he left his watch to help a fellow prisoner and when he returned, the goods had been rifled by German civilian refugees and he saw his overcoat and Red Cross food parcel on the seat of a horse-drawn wagon.
There was nothing he could do, Bender recalled Friday in an interview in a room at his Cape Girardeau home where the walls tell the story of World War II air power and his personal mementos recall his part in the struggle. "A guard told me that if there was trouble with the civilians there would be one loser," he said.
Bender, with the help of his wife of 57 years, Kay, and his daughters, Trinity Lutheran School principal Diane Maurer and Miriam Bender Larson of Knoxville, Tenn., has chronicled his wartime experiences in a book that is in the final stages of publication. Titled "Lest They Forget Freedom's Price: Memoirs of a World War II Bomber Pilot," the cover features Bender's photo and fingerprint from the official German document registering his POW status.
And to honor their father, Maurer and Larson next week will travel to Zagan for a re-enactment of the 50-mile march that took the kriegies to a railhead at Spremberg. They will join about a dozen other "Kriegie Kids," most far older than their fathers at the time of the march.
Maurer will explain her journey to her students this week in assemblies that Bender will attend, and post reports of the trek on the Internet.
"I am going for the experience, so I can put actual pictures to the stories I have heard over the years," Maurer said.
The re-enactors will endure some of the hardships their fathers encountered. Silesia in January is few people's idea of a vacation paradise. But stragglers won't be left beside the road, nights will be spent in hotels, not unheated barns, and there will be a heated motorcoach nearby with good food for those who are unable to march the entire route.
Maurer said she began walking as a training exercise in the summer and the recent cold weather has given her a taste of what to expect. She tries taking walks from the Lutheran School to her home near Cape Rock Drive at least daily. Some days, she said, she walks both ways.
Edward Bender worked for the Cape Girardeau Post Office at the corner of Broadway and Fountain Street when, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. He had tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps before the attack, because he expected to be drafted anyway.
But Army doctors had rejected him as a candidate to be an airman because of a slow heartbeat.
On Dec. 8, 1941, he told his supervisor that he planned to join the Navy and was walking upstairs at the post office building to the recruiting station when he saw a group of men in their skivvies being given physical examinations. Bender said he asked the doctor about the group and was told they were being screened for the Air Corps. He mentioned his slow heartbeat.
Told to run downstairs and back up again -- there were 24 steps to the street -- Bender's heart rate was 63 when he returned. "The doctor said 'that's all right,'" Bender recalled. "'Take off your clothes and get in line.'"
By the end of January, Bender was in Arizona at Higley Field. Training continued over the next year at bases in California, Utah and Washington. Assigned to pilot B-17s, at the time the world's largest heavy bomber, Bender became an instructor. He trained five classes of new airmen before his assignment to England as part of the 457th Bomber Group.
On his 13th mission, he and the crew of 11 were forced to bail out over Normandy, France, when an engine caught fire as Bender switched fuel tanks. He came down in a training area teeming with young SS soldiers. Five of the crew found refuge with French resistance fighters and made their way back to England. Bender was reunited with his ball turret gunner and sent first to an interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany, before being placed in the Sagan camp.
He arrived in April 1944, about a month after the mass breakout made famous in the 1963 film "The Great Escape."
Fuel for heat and cooking came from tree stumps pulled laboriously from the ground. The Germans provided them a hunk of bad black bread -- prisoners joked harshly that it was mainly sawdust -- and a half-cup of soup. With their Red Cross food parcels, the prisoners were "trying to feed 15 men on a half a can of corned beef and two or three bad potatoes," Bender said. "I went in weighing 160 pounds and came out weighing 114."
"Too cold to snow"
The weather during the forced march from Stalag Luft III is remembered as some of the coldest of the 20th century in that region. "I remember the guards said it was too cold to snow," Bender said.
At Muskau, two-thirds of the way through the march, Bender was housed in a pottery factory and glad to see the ovens were working. "It is the first time I had been warm for five days," he said.
For the final weeks of the war, Bender was sent first to a camp in Nuremberg, then transferred to Moosburg, where he was finally liberated by the U.S. Third Army commanded by Gen. George S. Patton.
Guards defending the camp surrendered when the Allies demanded, "OK,, Fritz, throw out your guns. For you, the war is over." Those words, familiar to every Allied prisoner but usually coming from a German, were music.
The thing he remembers most, Bender said, is the food he was given by his liberators. "It was an issue of British gray bread," he said. "It tasted wonderful."
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