For POWs, liberation and food a dream-come-true

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

Last in a series

   Weak and half-starved, Wright Swanay arrived at Stalag-7A in Moosburg, Germany, after 19 days of marching. His buddy, Sonny Mottern, finally made it there too. But after their brief encounter on the road to the prisoner-of-war camp, neither of the Carter County men could find each other again once inside.
   Stalag-7A was surrounded by barbed wire, which to Mottern looked 16 feet high.
   "The prison barracks were so full when we got there, we just slept where we could," Swanay said. He has a picture which appeared in a magazine that shows emaciated POWs behind the wire, sitting on bales of straw. In the background stands Swanay himself, thin and shirtless.
   "They were bringing all of the POWs in to the same camp," according to Mottern. "About 10,000 Americans, besides up to 20,000 to 30,000 other nationalities."
   Fortunately for them, Gen. George Patton's army and liberation were only days away.
   Inside the camp, there was nowhere to go. "We just milled around," Swanay said, and talked and dreamed of what they were going to do when they were free.
   According to Mottern, no one talked about women. "Sex was never mentioned. We all talked about what we were going to cook up when we got home. My recipe was chocolate hot cakes. I'd never seen one, but I wanted me one."
   One soldier made a list of every candy bar he could think of, according to Swanay. "He'd come up and he'd hand you the list and say, 'Look that over and if you think of a candy bar that ain't on that list ...' Well, I didn't want to read that, all of them candy bars.
   "He'd talk about Jimmy's Chicken Shack right outside of St. Louis -- all of the chicken you could eat for $1.25. 'When I get home, I'm going to go to Jimmy's Chicken and eat all of his chicken.' That's all he'd talk about: Food."
   Swanay tried not to think about it, but he'd catch himself thinking, "What time is it back home? It's 12 o'clock. Mom's putting dinner on the table. Of course, Sonny's mom and my mom were both good cooks.
   "You'd think about what all they had on the table. You didn't want to think about it, but you couldn't help it. Ham and eggs for breakfast, biscuits and gravy -- you'd drive yourself crazy.
   "When we got home, they fixed my first meal and it was a mountain of food. I could just eat the tops off a pile of mashed potatoes. My stomach had shrunk and wouldn't hold it. And they'd say, 'Eat, eat, eat.' I said, 'I can't, I can't.' They didn't understand. They thought I thought it was no good or something," Swanay said.
   Not only were the POWs half-starved, they were also covered with lice, crabs and other insects.
   Mottern said, "One boy told me he could see them under his pants a crawling. I had them all over me. They sprayed us just like they would a bunch of flies when we got liberated."
   Swanay had two showers during the 10 months he was a prisoner of war. "I hadn't ever heard about the gas chambers. I didn't know about them or I'd have been scared to death to take a shower," he said.
   During the 132 days Mottern spent as a POW, he also had two showers. "Both of them were in cold water. I had no soap, had no towels, and had to put back on the same lousy clothes -- and it was the dead of winter," he said.
   After liberation, Swanay, Mottern and other POWs were sent to Paris, France. Still wearing the same clothes he had not changed in nearly a year, Swanay was sent to a walled tent. "But before you went in you pulled everything off, threw it in a pile, and went in naked. They showered you off, deloused you, sprayed you, and when you came out on the other side there was a table with fresh clothes," he said.
   Mottern had to go through the delousing twice, he said. "It would about choke you."
   While in Moosburg, Hitler gave the order for his elite guard, the SS troops, to kill all POWs in the camp. "The Air Force had destroyed the German cities and in retaliation, he just wanted us all shot," Swanay said.
   But luck was on their side. Mottern said, "We were fortunate enough that the only thing that was left was soldiers that were real old people. They fought the SS troops -- big strong men that looked like giants -- outside the camp and held them off long enough for Patton to come in and liberate us. Patton was so close with the Army, we could hear them." The German SS troops had to move out.
   It was April 29, 1945. Swanay remembers that day well.
   "They hadn't counted us that morning. When we got up there were no Germans in the camp, just the guards in the guard tower.
   "We were just kind of killing time, wondering what was going on. All of the sudden we heard shots from outside into the camp. They hit the parade ground where they counted us. That was the first inkling we knew that something was going on.
   "We hit the ground and hid behind anything we could. Pretty soon we heard the tanks coming. We looked up and we could see the American tanks in the distance. The battle for the town didn't take long because the Germans had left already. Patton's tanks didn't hardly stop. They just kept going," Swanay said.
   One of the tanks crashed through the barbed wire and it wasn't long until the German flag came down and the American flag went up.
   "That's a sight we replayed in our minds a million times," Mottern said.
   "We cried and cheered and hugged each other. We were free!" Swanay said.
   "It was the happiest day of my life," Mottern said. Swanay agreed.
   When the American flag went up, the German guards left their guns in the tower, crawled down and surrendered. Gen. Patton entered the camp. He stood up in the Jeep he was riding and addressed the POWs. Swanay was standing just behind him and could hear him well.
   "He said, 'We're going to get you home. We're going to get you some clean clothes and we're going to get you some hot food. The country owes you a debt that it can never repay.'
   "And then he started talking about the Germans, and it was 'GD' this and 'GD' that: 'We're going to get the GD SOBs that done this to you!' Then he toured the camp and looked all around. I never saw him after that," Swanay said.
   Mottern was not close enough to hear Patton, he said, "but of course, everybody saw his pearl-handle pistols."
   Afterward, the POWs were free to move out into town. Mottern and Swanay stayed behind. "A few went out and looked for souvenirs, but I didn't," Swanay said. "I just wanted to get out and get home."
   He had a brother in Patton's army. "I didn't know if he was dead or alive, but I knew if he was close, he would come looking for me -- and he did," Swanay said.
   "I stood there three days just waiting, standing there looking, watching the GIs come in. Two hours after I left the camp [for France], my brother showed up looking for me. We didn't see each other for two years.
   "I often thought what a wonderful reunion it would have been if he had come while I was there waiting," Swanay said.