The singing started just before dawn in Stalag Luft 1.
Bud Gates heard the voices, first one and then 1,000 and by the time he realized what they were singing, it was not the sound but the words that seized his throat.
They were singing the “Star Spangled Banner” - an act punishable by execution. Itching with lice, starved to 112 pounds, Gates drew his 6-foot frame up and began to sing.
Two days before the war in Europe officially ended, it ended in Stalag Luft 1.
In the final weeks of the European war, thousands of American prisoners were freed: in Stalag Luft 1 by the Russians, Stalag 17 by the Americans, some by the prisoners themselves.
Hundreds were liberated along roadsides where they’d been frantically marched between advancing fronts, sleeping in ditches, eating boiled dandelion greens, dodging the dogs and bayonets of their guards.
More Americans were captured by the Germans in World War II than in any war before or since. News clips of their liberation show young men stumbling in the sunlight, their faces tautly thin and very, very old.
“We fought two wars,” said Jack Jones, national junior vice commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War. “The first was for the freedom of the U.S.; the second was to keep ourselves and our buddies alive.”
At least 1,121 Americans died while being held by the Germans. Of the nearly 92,000 American prisoners who survived, more than half are still alive today. Here are some of their stories.
In a B-17 over Belgium, the bullets ripped through Don Falk’s hands and down his side just before the cockpit exploded in his face.
On the ground, a Belgian boy watched the Lucky Lady II catch fire and explode and, miraculously, an airman float to earth. He was burned, bleeding and unconscious.
Falk doesn’t remember pulling his rip cord. When he awoke, it trailed from his ruined hand.
The American flier was rescued by the Resistance, but he was turned over to the Germans because of his injuries. He was unable to stand, and his face was so blistered that he was blind in both eyes.
At a prison hospital in Brussels, Belgium, staff used newspapers to pack his wounds. There were no painkillers. They cut and boiled the long sour grass in the courtyard for his soup.
German nurses would not feed him. As gangrene overtook his wounded arm and leg, the rotting smell kept them from entering Falk’s room. French and Belgian night nurses cared for him. He learned he was to be operated on by the “Butcher,” known for amputating the damaged limbs of prisoners.
Instead, another German doctor took over. Working without anesthetic, he cut away huge slices of Falk’s rotting arm and leg. Without anesthetic, the surgeon operated to restore circulation to the limbs, cutting into Falk’s back, breaking a rib and severing a nerve.
He patched a hole in Falk’s hand using skin from his severed index finger, topped with rubber cement. He used silver wire to hold the bones in Falk’s hand together, and as soon as they were healed, he removed it. “Silver wire was like gold,” Falk said.
Five months after his July 30, 1943, crash, Falk was to be transfered to a prison camp. The escorting soldier prodded him, bayoneting him in the back. The infuriated German doctor took over again.
It was then that Falk learned the doctor, who smuggled him canned milk, kept the Gestapo from interrogating him and spoke perfect English, had been trained at Johns Hopkins University.
By Christmas, Falk was at Stalag Luft 1. When he arrived at the camp near the Baltic Sea, it held 75 American fliers. By the time he left in September 1944, there were 7,500.
A month later, in October 1944, Bud Gates of Spokane also would be imprisoned there. By then, inmates had an underground newspaper and escape committees, although vicious dogs, barbed wire and endless roll calls discouraged attempts to flee.
Twenty men lived in a small uninsulated room in bunks three layers high, with a single blanket apiece. Five lumps of coal a week were given for cooking and heat. Less than a loaf of bread a day had to be split 20 ways, with a tablespoon of potatoes or wormy barley for supper.
Falk, though, was going home. He and 62 other Americans were shipped to Sweden and traded for captured Germans. The men were so badly injured they no longer were considered capable of fighting again.
On V-E Day, Falk was in Spokane recovering from plastic surgery. For him, the war ended when his troop ship turned into New York harbor and the terribly injured soldiers stood to salute the Statue of Liberty.
“When you see that and think of what it stands for, you say whatever I’ve done was worth the price.”
The room barely held a double bed and small table. But for 9 1/2 months in 1944, it held Paul Alsin and two other American GIs hiding in an Italian farmhouse.
Captured in Tunisia in March 1943, the infantry sergeant spent six months in Italian prisoner of war camps, starving on unpalatable stews, cramped by dysentery, under constant air barrage.
“We saw more combat as prisoners than we ever saw in the field,” Alsin said. “Everywhere we went the gol-darn air force was shooting at us.”
When the Italians surrendered to the Allies, perhaps 4,000 prisoners held near the Adriatic walked out.
Many were recaptured quickly by Germans. Alsin and two others burrowed into a raspberry patch as tracers and bullets passed near.
A few mornings later, they awoke surrounded by an Italian family. A bounty was out on all POWs. But the Italians took them home.
Alsin never knew what had prompted the old couple and their three daughters to harbor the fugitives. He suspected the Catholic Church and the fact the family’s four sons all were in Allied and Axis prison camps.
“They didn’t know where they were, and they thought by taking care of us, the Lord would take care of them.”
The men lived behind shuttered windows in a small room above the kitchen, dropping through a trapdoor when it was safe. Even the old Italian’s brother did not know they were there.
When there was not enough food, the family insisted the Americans eat while the women stood in the corners eating bread soaked with olive oil.
“We never could break that habit,” Alsin said. “We told them in our country, women rated as important as the men.”
One day, they heard the “Beer Barrel Polka” and rushed to the window, certain the Allies had arrived. Midwesterners, they didn’t realize the polka was a popular German song until they saw German soldiers singing it.
They stayed hidden, playing cards, helping the family make sausage. When they had started living in the house, Alsin spoke no Italian. By the time it was safe to emerge, he could converse easily. In the village, he learned the family next door had harbored a deserting German.
As the Germans retreated, the GIs finally made it to the British lines. Alsin was shipped home and spent the rest of the war training soldiers.
He never revealed the family’s name, fearing that would risk their lives. “Those people were more intelligent, they had more ways to survive than we could dream of. We marveled at them, what they sacrificed for us.”
Today, the Spokane-Inland Empire American Ex-Prisoners of War group is one of state’s largest with 150 members, including wives. They also are survivors.
Commander Jones says there are universal experiences among those who were held in Europe. Many suffer irritable bowel syndrome, rotten teeth, ulcers, flashbacks and the pain of badly treated injuries.
Don Head’s feet go numb each winter because he spent his entire captivity in galoshes after he had lost his boots during the Battle of the Bulge. For him and others, “Lucky Strike” always will be the reintroduction camp for prisoners of war, not a cigarette.
Bud Gates, the B-17 pilot shot down outside Berlin, never has looked at the world the same since. “I just appreciate so much that I was born in this country.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, Gates and his wife, Peggy, will visit England. Don Head is attending POW functions. Patrick Bales, whose father, Walter, was a tailgunner captured in 1945, lighted a candle on April 29 for his dad. “His was a story of survival. I’m keeping his story alive.”
The urge to remember left Paul Alsin when he searched for his two buddies a few years ago and found they both were dead.
Don Falk marks the anniversary on Jan. 6, the day he married Virginia, who, he says, brought him back to life.
The couple walks each morning at NorthTown Mall. Falk’s steps are painfully tiny, his feet splayed, but his progress steady and sure. He has undergone five hip replacements to repair war injuries.
On the back of his swollen hands, black spears of shrapnel are visible just beneath the skin. They speckle his arms to his neck.
The Germans who traded him were right. The military didn’t want a pilot with ruined hands. When the airman returned, he had no job. He flew commercially at Felts Field, then was a civil service employee at Geiger and Fairchild Air Force Base. He retired four years ago at age 71 and upped his volunteering at Immanuel Baptist Church. He believes he was spared to help others.
He never picked up his medals and visited a veterans hospital just once - in an emergency - but was turned away. Later, Congress extended benefits to ex-prisoners of war, but Falk never went back.
Five years ago, the Belgian boy who had seen him fall to earth found him. Fifty years to the week when the plane had exploded, Laurent Saegeman brought Falk and his radio operator back to Tielrode, Belgium. More than 500 villagers, diplomats and Resistance veterans memorialized the five crewmen killed and the five taken prisoner.
A colonel with the U.S. Embassy said he’d never been in the presence of braver men. Said the Belgian mayor: “We will never forget what they did for the values of freedom and democracy, and we reap the fruits of their battle and devotion.”
They took Falk to the field where the wreckage had fallen, to a crude post kept for him for all those years.
“You don’t believe in freedom until you lose it,” Falk said. “Our people never have. But the Belgians, they know what it is, and 50 years later, that’s what they talk about.”