Boxcars and interrogation a way of life for POWs

Third in a series

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Sonny Mottern grew up in Elizabethton. He had never seen the Rhine River. Now, for the first time he was about to cross it. But it wasn't a sightseeing tour. He was headed for a prison camp in Frankfurt, Germany.
   Following his capture, Mottern and other members of his company, the 15th Infantry, 3rd Division, were interrogated time and again by the Germans. "But if you're in the infantry, all you know is as far as you can see," Mottern said. "We just told them our name, rank, and serial number. I told them, 'I don't even know who my captain was.' " He had only met his company 25 days before.
   "They housed us in a horse training barn. There were two of them, and they had 500 men in each one of those. We were pretty well crowded. They shoved us in there," Mottern said.
   He had been there nearly a month when Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in troops and tanks. It was a failed attempt at liberation. The POWs were herded onto boxcars and moved to another camp.
   "If you've seen the boxcar over at the Chamber of Commerce, they weren't much bigger than that. And they would stack from 75 to 100 men in it. If you were sitting down, you stayed down; if you were standing up, you stood up, because there wasn't no place to go. After a while, you'd just about fall down," Mottern said.
   "We laid all over each other," said Wright Swanay of Elizabethton, a bombardier in the 15th Air Force who also was captured. Swanay, too, spent his share of time in boxcars.
   "That was probably the worst part of the whole deal was the boxcars," Mottern said. "They had a 50 gallon drum sawed in two and that was the bathroom. We all had diarrhea. I started out sitting down in the boxcar, and after so many hours, the barrel started running over. When that train would jerk, here went about 3 inches of that stuff everywhere. It would slosh over my feet and after a while, here it would come back again."
   Mottern still chokes up when he talks about it. He paused to gather his composure. "It's a story that's hard to explain -- the kind of conditions, and you couldn't do anything about it," he said.
   "When we were in the boxcar they let us out to eat snow. We was in there three or seven days, and we didn't get no soup. When you were in camp you got about three little potatoes, a slice of sawdust bread, and watery soup. That's what they fed you. We were so weak. They always starved the prisoners so they wouldn't escape. They weren't able."
   Following his capture by Hungarian soldiers, Swanay was taken to Budapest, Hungary, and turned over to the Germans. He spent one night in a cell at what he believed to be a spy headquarters, then he and 15 to 20 other American flyers were put on a bus and transported across the Danube River to a penitentiary.
   "There they put me in solitary confinement. The bed and the floor were just full of bugs. At night you couldn't sleep because they just crawled all over you," Swanay said. Also in the cell was a bunk, table and chair, a small barrel for the bathroom, and a pail of water.
   "Every morning, the door would open and a hand would set a cup of soup in the floor and a biscuit. The soup was in a little ole cup about half full. The biscuit would have to last all day. At noon, another cup of soup would be shoved in," and then another in the evening. Contents of the soup were unknown.
   Periodically, Swanay would be taken down for interrogation. A guard stood behind him while a German officer fired questions. "They'd want to know name, rank, and serial number." Then the officer would ask, "And your unit?"
   "I don't have to tell you that," Swanay said. "I'm not supposed to tell you, or have to tell you, or required to tell you. Under the International Red Cross Geneva Convention Rules all I have to tell you is my name, rank and serial number."
   Swanay had two different interrogators while at the penitentiary. "One was very harsh and cruel. He threatened to have me shot. He threatened to leave me there. 'I'm going to put you back in that cell and never send for you again. You can just rot here. You've got no identity. The war is over. Nobody knows who you are. You'll be left here. You'll die here in this prison.'
   "Then they would take me back again and there would be a sympathetic one. 'Oh, I hate to see you, an American officer, unshaven, dirty, unkempt. Have a cigarette. Gum? Want some gum? Why don't you tell me what I want to know so I can send you to Germany where you can enjoy all the comforts and conveniences of the German prison camp for officers?'
   "You didn't know which one you'd see," Swanay said. He had been in solitary nearly 10 days, with nothing to occupy him but his own mind, when they sent for him again. It was the "mean" officer.
   "He asked me again: 'Name, rank and serial number?' Then he said, 'Your unit is the 459th bomb group, 756th squadron, commanding officer ...' He knew all that stuff and read it off to me. He knew what plane I was on and my position on the plane," Swanay said.
   "I was dumb. I said, 'How did you find out?'
   "He said, 'Ve have vays.' "
   Several days later, he and other American flyers were loaded onto a boxcar and hauled through Vienna, Prague, and some other large cities. "In Prague, the Czechoslovakian people were friendly to us. As we sat in the station waiting, they would come by and say, 'Good luck. Good luck.' And they would look at the German guards like they hated them.
   "In Vienna, we went through a German Red Cross soup line. It was right after the time they tried to kill Hitler with a bomb, the 20th of June." The woman who dished out Swanay's soup told him, without lifting her head, "Hitler's dead. Hitler's dead."
   "For a few days there they thought he was dead," Swanay said, "but he wasn't. They were wrong."
   Swanay was sent to Stalag Luft-3, a prison camp for airmen which later gained prominence in the Steve McQueen movie, "The Great Escape." He was assigned to a room with 10 men.
   "They gave me a bowl and spoon, a razor with a couple of blades, a stick of soap that did me the whole war. They took all of my clothes except my shoes, socks and underwear, and they gave me other clothes. I wound up with British pants, an American unlined jacket, a French overcoat from World War I, and an American GI shirt. I had good shoes because my commanding officer in Idaho had been through combat himself and he told us, 'Wear good shoes every time you fly in case you're captured.' "
   Swanay bought an extra pair just for flight missions. "It was the smartest thing I ever did, too. I never had foot trouble."
   You get used to the prison camp routine, he said. "The first thing when you got up in the morning, they'd all go out, each block separate, and they'd line us up in rows of five, with a German behind us and an officer in front. And he'd go 'Ein, zwei, drei ... and count the rank. When he got through, he'd multiply it by five. 'Ein hundert ein un swanseig,' 121 in German."
   The corporal would respond, "Ja wohl, Herr Hauptman."
   Hauptman then would turn and say to the POWs in English, "At ease, please."
   Through warm weather and freezing temperatures, the POWs stood while everyone in the camp was counted. "Often they'd miscount and they'd have to count us all over again," Swanay said. "We'd take turns hiding behind each other to shield us from the wind."
   Then it was back to the barracks for bread. "They would make little indentations on the front and count it, one slice for each meal. They'd slice it real thin so everybody would have a slice of bread. Sometimes with the Red Cross parcel you'd have some jelly or marmalade and coffee, or fake coffee. There was never enough food," he said.
   NEXT: A chance encounter