398th Bomb Group

Story of Escape From Nazi Death March

Joseph P. Quinn
Radio Operator, Folger Crew 600th Squadron

Our ship for the mission to Liepzig on July 7, 1944 was called “ Agony Wagon II", a somewhat used and abused B-17 of questionable air worthiness.

Nevertheless, Lt. Robert Folger led our crew aboard and we took off for our ninth mission for the 600th Squadron.

Other members were Raymond Hopp, co- pilot; William Moses, navigator; Charles Busbee, bombardier; John Paris, engineer; Calvin Harvey, ball turret gunner; John Schneider, waist gunner; and Louis Zeller; tail gunner.

The target was an oil refinery at Liepzig and the 398th led the Division with Gen. William M. Gross commanding the massed formations from the right seat in Captain Gene Douglas' lead 600 aircraft.

In the deputy lead plane was Col. Frank P. Hunter, 398th CO, and pilot Norman Rudrud.

The flight to the target was more or less uneventful, but as expected the flak became intense as we approached the target. By the time we dropped our bombs and were turning for home we took a burst directly under the top turret platform. It started a fire in the bomb bay which Paris and I managed to extinguish.

But there were more problems. We went into a shallow dive with No.2 engine on fire and No. 2 was throwing oil. Folger hit the CO2 and feathered No.1 prop, but we continued to lose altitude. Folger said he was going to try for Sweden; but as we continued to lose altitude it became apparent that this was not much of an option. We bailed out at 12,000 feet.

We all landed safely near Halle and were quickly captured except Busbee and Schneider who managed to evade for five days. Hopp was shot by the Germans under the pretext that he tried to escape. Zeller, who identified Hopp's body, said he was shot in the chest.

After processing, we were transported to either Stalag Luft IV or the Oflag at Barth. During the next six months of confinement we all suffered variously under the PW regimen from hunger, home sickness, breakdowns in morale, bouts with depression and despair.

By early January, 1945 the Germans apparently were beginning to recognize their plight. Although the Russians were advancing from the east and the Allies from the west, they decided to hang on to the prisoners as "bargaining ploys". On February 6, 1945, they started us on a mass evacuation to the west.

I found myself outside the barbed wire for the first time since July, 1944, and together with John Paris and 10,000 other "Kregies", headed into never-never land. This was the beginning of what was to become known as the death march. It was to last 70 days and cover some 700 kilometers. During its course we were to suffer varying degrees of severe hunger, malnutrition, dysentery and other hardships.

We were accompanied by an Air Force flight surgeon named Captain Leslie Caplan, who was the real hero of this adventure. He saved the lives of countless men during the march, including mine. At one point I had suffered 17 attacks of diarrhea in 24 hours. He cured that with a simple remedy of spoonfuls of charcoal from a supply he made every day.

Many of the sick would be dropped off at German hospitals as the column made its way across the wintry countryside. Many died.

We finally reached our destination, Folling- bostel, near Hanover. After a few days the Jerries decided to start marching us back to were we came from.

Paris and I were both quite shook up at hearing this and we began discussing the possibility of escape. We agreed that any further marching was not for us and that we should make an attempt to get away.

We knew that the Allies, mainly British, were involved in a pincer move around Hanover and that if we could make our break at night we might get through the lines.

Back at Follingbostel we had traded some Red Cross cigarettes to some Russians for a small pocket knife, some dried greens and potatoes. We felt these would sustain us during our escape attempt, figuring wrongly that it would be only a couple of days, Actually, it took nine days!

We marched 20 kilometers that first day and we planned our escape. We also teamed up with two other men, Francis Heekin and George Robinson. Both were from Ohio.

That night we were housed in a large barn located on a small wooded knoll which provided us with a good view of our surroundings. We decided that we would all make a trip to the latrine around midnight and then head for a wooded area about 500 feet across an open field. Four of us going to the latrine at the same time should not cause any suspicion among the Germans, besides they were probably just as tired from the day's march as the rest of us.

We had learned from the guards that the Allies were less than 30miles away, so we took off in the direction of Hanover. We traveled by the stars, giving thanks for our youthful Boy Scout training.

What we did not know was that we chose the worst possible area of Germany to make our escape. It was known as the Luneberg Moors and consisted of swampland that had been partially drained for farming, and also as a hunting preserve. It was inhabited by sheep and cows. . and wild boars! It was a virtual wilderness.

That first night was an experiment in learning. We tired quickly and had to rest frequently. But we tried to put as much distance between us and the column as possible.

At dawn we looked for a place to hide for the day. Here and there in the Moors there were isolated areas of trees that would provide us with cover. We slept and rested and then started walking again after sunset. This was our general routine for nine days.

At about midnight the second night we left the trail in a heavy pine forest, crossed a small drainage ditch and ducked behind some bushes to rest. Minutes later a German patrol came by and they could have reached out and touched us we were so close. Thankfully, it was too dark. And we held our breaths!

The next night we cooked our dried greens and potatoes over a small fire and continued our walking, guided by artillery fire on the horizon. Distant searchlights provided some light to help us across the swamp.

Soon we came upon what seemed to be a farm building. It was too dark to know for sure, but we decided to explore as our food supply was running out and this might be a good opportunity to replenish it. Heekin fell into one of those interminable ditches as we approached the building. Finally, we got to the small door and peeked in. It was pitch black and finding anything in there would be a problem.

It was deathly quiet for a moment, then all of a sudden the most inhuman roar filled the room and we all panicked. A half mile down the road we stopped, rested, and came to the conclusion it had to have been a bull who vented his anger at the intrusion. We continued on our way, wiser but still hungry.

Toward morning, a low hanging mist made it difficult to locate an appropriate hiding place. We went into what we thought was the forest, but as the fog thinned, we began to discern buildings and houses. We were in the middle of a small village.

Cutting through the area was a shallow drainage ditch, so we decided to follow it. We also stopped here and there to pick up branches and debris to put over us for our daytime concealment.

As we were preparing to lie down, Frank spotted a bike rider coming toward our selected area. It was a German soldier, with a rifle across his back. Thinking fast, Frank continued to pick up branches, nodded his head and said "Gooten Tag." And prayed. The soldier grunted and kept going.

Day No. 5 was most interesting. While moving through an especially swampy area I managed to fall in and got good and soaked. We had discovered earlier that when this happened we could dry out rather well if we stripped to our long johns and lay down under blankets with a guy on either side. I know of no romance that developed from this activity.

Near dawn we began looking for a place to hide for the day. As we picked up and began to move out we remembered being startled by some kind of a large animal as it crashed off into the brush near our "drying out" site. In the early dawn we discovered we had bedded down right next to the lair of a wild boar! Nesting in the matted rushes were five little suckling baby boars.

Robinson suggested we kill one and cook it, which we did with the help of the knife we got from the Russian PW back at Folligbostel. It turned out to be a rather gruesome procedure, but we were desperate for food and had no choice. We took our "dinner" with us as we hunted for a hideout. We found what seemed to be a perfect spot on a knoll with a view of the swamp in three directions.

We had our boar for dinner and then decided to go back after the other four. We armed ourselves with clubs for fear we might encounter the irate mother. Luckily she was gone and we made quick work of the other four and returned to our hideout.

It was an excellent hideaway. Not only good cover and well screened, but also a small creek nearby for our drinking and cooking water.

A German patrol came by later and we thought they had smelled our fire. They cast glances in our direction, but continued on their way.

Later in the day we began suspecting that we must be close to the front lines. Somewhere be-hind us a German 88 popped off a round at some unseen target every 15 minutes or so. After a while we hardly noticed the periodic interruption and we decided to stay for a couple of more days.

We had plenty of boiled water, but soon the boar supply was gone. And besides, there was ever increasing military activity to suggest we had better move on. Off in the distance we watched a British Typhoon fighter shoot up a German supply train. And all the time this German 88 kept up his intermittent firing. We never found out what he was shooting at.

Before pushing off we had a meal of dried greens, potato skins... mixed with the brains of the piglets which tasted quite good!

We boiled some more water for drinking and took off. In a couple of hours we were walking down a dirt road toward a dark mass of trees. All of a sudden the world before us exploded as artillery shells came flying out of the woods. We hit the ditch but quick and just lay there help-less as the tracers and gun flashes put on a show for 20 minutes.

We decided it had to be Allied artillery, but also decided to wait for daylight to find out for sure. Soon we heard what we thought were truck motors, so Paris and Robinson decided to scout around. Heekin and I would serve as lookouts. Later Heekin also left to look around.

When he did not return I went looking. And I soon found the three sitting around eating Nestle chocolate and drinking wine! They had stumbled on a badly shot-up German supply wagon in a small cul-de-sac.

This apparently was the target of the artillery fire the evening before. Scattered around were many German field packs. In some of them they had found the chocolate and wine. We had a small but terrific party and decided to stay for a while and sort through the debris. We found some tea, bread, matches and articles of clothing. We were really living.

And then we came upon an abandoned Gypsy campsite, providing some food, clothing and cooking utensils. And best of all: mattresses!

We rested comfortably for a time, but unfortunately, Robinson and I both became quite ill.. I ran such a high fever I passed out.

Paris and Heekin decided we needed medical help, so they took off in hopes of finding the source of the truck sounds we had heard earlier. When I woke up Robinson was gone, gone also.

Soon I heard the rumble of an engine, and much to my consternation here came a German half-track! I got up to start running when I saw a Jeep behind it. And in it was Heekin. The driver was a British Army officer and a Tommy was driving the half-track. I was wearing only what was left of my long johns, but I jumped up and started waving my arms. I dressed quickly and joined them.

The British officer suggested we move out of these woods as there were still pockets of German soldiers in the area. As we drove down the road toward Celle, temporary HQ for the British army unit that found us, we picked up Robinson. He seemed to not have a care in the world, but obviously he was still "out of it" due to the fever. He remained to be treated by British medics.

Paris was sent on ahead to be treated for an infected cornea and I didn't see him again until after the war. Heekin and I tried without success to hook up with the Americans. After three days of chasing from one airfield to another we finally flagged down a British Dakota and talked the pilot into flying us to England. Soon we were over the White Cliffs of Dover and landing at a Scottish air base. Our ninth mission for the 398th was finally over after nine months!

We spent three weeks at a general hospital near Cambridge, a month in London, and then sailed for home on an LST.

Epilog (as of July 1990)
Quinn lives in Williamsville, NY; Paris in Lakeland FL; Moses in Lakewood, CO; Busbee in Dallas, TX; Harvey in Minneapolis, MN; and Zeller in St. Louis, MO. Folger and Schneider are deceased. Hopps died at the hands of a German soldier, reportedly a 15-year-old boy. Both Zeller and Paris have visited the Hopps grave at the Ardennes American Military Cemetery in Belgium where 46 members of the 398th are buried or listed on the Wall of the Missing.

Joe K. Mansell converted this article to digitized text for inclusion on the 398th Web Pages in January 2003.

Printed in Flak News Volume 5, Number 3, Page(s) 6-7, July 1990

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