Nov. 6, 2006
'From the time I leapt from the airplane, I had one thing in mind, and that was survival.'
Ball bearings. Besides his wife of 57 years, and his four children and six grandchildren, they are admittedly, the passion of Delano’s Walter Grotz.
He collects them some as big as bowling balls and others so small they make you wonder how it could possibly be a ball bearing at all. And he uses them in the upright wooden spinning wheels he handcrafts and in the antique clock that hangs on the wall of the Delano house he built in 1948.
Grotz, who retired as postmaster for Delano in 1981, can tell you about the ball bearings that were used on submarines, and about the German factory that specialized in producing them during World War II.
Germany and World War II. Grotz knows both well. The authentic silverware, armband and patch, all symboled with a Nazi swastika; the Purple Heart he received, and the two original Western Union telegrams addressed to his mother are all reminders of his time spent in Europe as a Tech. Sgt. in the Army Air Corp, during Hitler’s reign.
Grotz entered the Army June 21, 1943, and in September 1944, stepped off the luxury cruise liner Maruitannia in Liverpool, England as a flight engineer in the 445th Bomb Group, 703rd Squadron.
After his arrival in Liverpool, Grotz was headed to a new location, but he remembers his orders were suddenly changed. He, and the other eight members of the crew that flew B-24 Bombers, were now headed to Tibenham Airfield, outside Norwich, England, where they were to replace the crews lost days earlier, when 30 planes from the 445th Bomb Group were shot down over Kassel, Germany in the highest single-day loss for any group of the 8th Air Force.
“I could tell when they briefed us, this would be no milk run,” Grotz said.
Grotz remembers going, with fellow Delano resident, Richard Labovsky, to see Jimmy Stewart, who was the commander of the squadron, speak.
“He told us he would count us when we came back,” Grotz remembers Stewart saying. “He didn’t have to count me, because I wasn’t coming back.”
Grotz was shot down over Germany Nov. 26, 1944, and was taken prisoner by German Nazis.
The following is Grotz’s first-person account:
In the air
. . . On the morning of Nov. 26, 1944, we flew from Tibenham Airfield, outside of Norwich, England, on a B-24J Bomber. We headed for Germany to bomb an oil refinery at Misberg, which was east of Hanover, Germany.
At approximately 26,000 feet, we started descending towards the target and we were intercepted by Focke-Wulf 190s.
“It was just like being in a tin shed and someone took a handful of rocks and threw it at the shed,” he said, describing the sound of the bullets hitting the B-24.
We took a number of hits on the first pass, which started a fire in the vicinity of number two engine. It is believed the main fuel lines were severed in the leading edge of the wing. This burning gasoline ran down the dihedral of the wing and started a fire in the bomb bay area.
Crewmen and myself were stationed at our gun positions (I was a flight engineer on the plane but also acted as a gunner). I tried to call the front of the plane but the intercom was apparently damaged, and I could not communicate with the full front of the plane.
The next thing I heard was a bailout bell, so I put on my parachute, opened the rear hatch and bailed out.
I estimated the elevation to be 22,000 feet, so I tried to delay pulling the ripcord to slow down my forward motion. When I pulled the ripcord, I experienced quite a jolt throughout my body.
Shortly after, a Focke-Wulf 190 circled me several times. I was afraid he would either strafe me with his machine guns or dive on my blossomed parachute. We had been briefed that this was happening with regularity, but it did not happen at this time.
It was approximately noon at the time of bailout, and it took me about one-half hour to float down before reaching the ground.
From the time I leapt from the airplane, I had one thing in mind, and that was survival.
The weather was clear, and I could see a number of people coming from a small town into this open, plowed field. I was getting ready to hit the ground, when I landed into a dead furrow, against my left leg, injuring it.
On the ground
I was pulled to my feet by two youths I later learned were Hitler Youths. Then, a man in a green uniform came and started beating me with the butt of his gun. He repeated this a number of times. Then, a tall man in a blue uniform came and pulled him away. The two started arguing in German, and the man in the blue uniform struck the man in the green uniform, knocking him down. The man in the blue uniform came to me and spoke in English, saying, ‘You’ll be alright, now. I’ll take care of you.’
“For you, the war is over,” Grotz remembers the man in the blue suit saying. “I knew what he meant was they were going to be in charge.”
I learned, later, the man in the blue uniform was a German officer in the Luftwaffe.
A prisoner of war
The two Hitler Youths led me down the street of the small town, and I had to walk with a limp because of my injury. The townspeople were lined up along the street, and were yelling and jeering. The youth led me to a building, which was apparently a small military office, where there was an officer sitting behind a big desk.
Behind his back was a big picture of Hitler.
“Wherever you would go, there was a picture of Hitler or a swastika,” Grotz said of Germany at the time.
The two youths put me in front of his officer, and they came to attention, saluted and clicked their boots, saying, ‘Heil Hitler.’
They completely searched me. In one of my pockets, I had a rosary, which one of the Germans held up, said something in German, and they all laughed. The man making the comment kept my rosary.
All the information I gave them was my name, rank, and serial number.
They put me in a chair and I was to face the wall. A few minutes later, they brought in the other two crew members that were in the back of the plane, first Foster, and then Diamond.
Foster was bleeding under his chin, and told me he bailed out without buckling his leg straps, and the main buckle slipped from his chest to under his chin. He rode down holding the buckle under his chin.
Then, Diamond came in, and I could see he was in great pain. He said he, too, bailed out without his leg straps buckled, wrenching his back pretty bad.
Then they loaded the three of us in a small car, and drove us about 20-30 miles to an airfield. There, they put us in locked single cells with a barred window high up. In the room was a wooden bed, no mattress, and one cotton blanket.
In about an hour, fear finally struck me, and I began to tremble, and my heart began a very fast beat.
“I found out one thing, you have to think about fear before it hits you,” Grotz said of fear.
I did not sleep all through the night, because of fear and trembling. I could hear airplanes starting and running up their engines, like fighters taking off from the runway, all throughout the night.
In the morning, they gave me one piece of very dark bread with margarine and a drink similar to Postum. Nothing at noon, and then a repeat of the same for the evening meal.
After two days, they moved me into another cell, and, in this cell was Benson, my crew top turret gunner.
When he saw me, he was very shocked, because he thought I was dead.
I had taken two parachutes with me as instructed at a briefing the night before putting one of the parachutes in the front of the plane and one in the back of the plane. Benson did not know about this when he bailed out.
Benson also told me at this time that he had tapped the pilot on the shoulder, as well as the radio operator, Dykstra. (Benson) pointed to the fire in the bomb bay, and proceeded to bail out. He said the bomb bay doors were open, and the bombs were still in their racks. (The bombs were released by sisley, the nose turret gunner, before he bailed out. We did not learn until after the war that the pilot and co-pilot had gone down with the plane.)
After a few days, Benson and I were taken from our cells, put on a bus, and taken to a railroad station in Hanover, Germany.
The guard at the train station told us to face the wall at all times, because the residents of Hanover were angered at all the allied airmen, because of the recent bombings of Hanover.
We were put on a number of trains throughout the day.
Waiting at the next to the last train stop, we stood on the platform outside, where it was snowing and cold. All I had was a lightweight cloth flight jacket. The guard inside said he would take us inside the railroad station where it was warmer, and, again, we were to face the wall.
“The Germans signed the Geneva Convention, just like the United States,” Grotz said when asked about his treatment by the German guards. “They lived up to the convention.”
Grotz said it was a different story for the Russian prisoners, because their government did not sign the Geneva Convention.
“The Germans treated the Russian prisoners worse than yard dogs,” he said. “And the Russians would treat the Germans the same way.”
In a short time, a tall man in a black leather trench coat came up to the guard in charge and started talking to him, and the next thing you know they were shouting at one another, and the man in black took out a pad and pencil, as if to write something down. At that point, the guard in charge told us we all had to go back outside, and we did, standing in the cold and snow until our train arrived.
Helping a comrade
We were taken off the train that night near Frankfurt, at a place that was called Bad Hamburg. This was the location of the interrogation center for airmen, known as Oberursel.
One of our group of 34 was badly burned and unable to walk. The smell from his burned flesh was almost unbearable, so nobody wanted to carry him. I told my crew member, Dykstra, that someone had to help him, so the two of us did. We carried him from the train depot to the interrogation center, about one-half mile.
He was burned on his head and face, and his nose and ears were burned off. He had one hand and one foot burned.
“‘I was right behind you guys and we took one in the bomb bay. I was in the upper gun turret,’” Grotz said of the burned soldiers’ story.
The first thing the Germans did at the interrogation center was take care of the wounded, so that was the last we saw of the man we carried.
A neighborly enemy
One morning, they took me out of the room to the office of a member of the Luftwaffe. His English was excellent and he said he lived in St. Paul, Minn. for a number of years, and he knew my home area very well.
He had picked up this information from my dog tag.
He told me how great Germany was, and that Germany would win the war because they had jet airplanes.
After that, they took me back to my room, and after a short time, I was released to a room with other prisoners, and was now waiting to be shipped to a camp, which turned out to be Dulag Luft, a transient camp.
Here, my flight boots were taken from me, and I was issued regular US Army shoes. The only sizes they had were two sizes larger than what I normally wore.
Stalag Luft IV
We stayed here about five days, and were then shipped out again by train in 40-by-8 boxcars. We were on this train about three days, and we came to the town of Gross Tychow. From there we had to walk about three miles to the POW camp, Stalag Luft IV.
The campsite was built to house 10,000 POWs, but was not fully completed, and, when I was there, it housed 8,000 POWs. Most were Americans, but there was a section that held British and Australian airmen.
In the camp, we were put into rooms, which were designed for about 18, and we had 24 men in them. There were two tables and bunks two high around the outside walls so some of us had to sleep on the floors.
We did have mattresses filled with shredded paper. We had one German blanket and one US Army blanket issued to us by the Red Cross.
The food in camp consisted of dark brown, heavy bread, about a half loaf per week. Some of the bread had a 1937 date stamped on the bottom.
We were also given one Red Cross parcel per week. Breakfast sometimes consisted of barley soup (water and pearl barley). In the evenings, we were given about a soup-bowl of boiled potatoes with bully beef parcel, which was most welcomed.
Since I was a technical sergeant, I was not required to work, but we did fall out to be counted once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon, and stood outside until the count was correct.
That day, Feb. 6, 1944, as we left camp, we were each given one Red Cross parcel. We marched out past the railroad station, and onto the open road. As this point I could feel the pain from my earlier leg injury, and that pain remained with me all through the march.
We were always watched over by armed German guards, and one of them carried a tripod-mounded machine gun. I noticed, after about a week, the machine gun was gone, and I surmised it was because of the weight of the gun.
There were four columns that marched out of the camp, and each of them had their own guards, and at the end of each column was a guard with two German Shepherd war dogs. Anyone who lagged behind was attacked by these dogs, and many POWs suffered this experience. (After the war, our dog guard was detained for war crimes.)
We marched all day, about 20 miles. The road was wet and muddy, and a great deal of horse manure was mixed with the mud. Later that day, I could feel my feet getting wet because my shoes absorbed the water from the mud. By late afternoon, when we stopped, my feet were numb, cold and wet.
The next morning, we were counted and, again, we marched. This was routine day-after-day.
On the 10th of February, my 20th birthday, I met a crew member, Donald Dykstra, and we decided to stick together. We marched all that day and into the night. At the end of the day’s march, we were turned into an open field and told that this was where we would spend the night.
This march continued the same way same routine all during February and most of March.
Throughout the time, we slept in open fields and barns. Since it was wintertime, it often snowed or rained and the sun barely shone.
The last week in March we were put on a train in 40-by-8 boxcars. We were packed in so tight that nobody could do anything but stand. After about a one-hour train ride, we were taken to Stalag XI B, Camp #357, just outside Fallingbostel, where we stayed for about a week.
I recall April 1 was Easter Sunday, and we were able to attend Easter services.
While (at Stalag XI B) were marched out one day to what we now know as a gas chamber, and we were ordered to take off all our clothes, and place them in bundles. We were told we were going to have a shower.
At this point, I became aware of how much weight I had lost. My stomach was sunken in and my ribs were showing. I had lost a considerable amount of weight, but everyone else seemed to be in the same condition.
I noticed while showering that water came out of only half the shower heads. Our clothing was put through an oven and heated to kill the lice, which we were all infested with.
Upon leaving the building, I saw huge piles of shoes and clothing, but did not know the circumstances from where they came.
. . . In a few days, we were told to get ready to march again. This was April 3, 1945.
While we were in line, ready to march, one of the guards told us we were going to Lübeck, on the Baltic Sea, and here, we would be put on ships, and taken to Norway.
On the night of April 15, we had been in a barn for several hours and I heard a low-flying airplane go over. The next thing I heard was bombs exploding. Then, I heard machine gun fire from the airplane, as he strafed the barn we occupied. I saw a small spot of fire in the roof of the barn. We were all ordered by the guards to get out of the barn.
We were marched about a quarter of a mile and told to stay in the ditch. It was then that I learned there were a number of wounded as a result of the air attack.
The next morning, we could see two bomb craters in the yard from the previous night’s bombing. They were about 100 feet from where we were in the barn that set afire.
I also learned in the morning that one POW had been killed, and 26 were wounded. That afternoon, we buried our dead comrade, who was British.
On the morning of May 1, the weather was cold and snowy, and we marched on the muddy road a very long time before a break. It was this time that my morale hit its lowest point. I had told Dykstra and Potts that I just couldn’t go on anymore, but they encouraged me to keep on going, and I did.
. . . Later that evening, the guards came in and told us, ‘Tomorrow, your comrades will come.’ We could then hear artillery being fired. This went on all night.
The next morning, two British solders on motorcycles came through, stopped for a short time, and said they were going to meet up with the Russians today. Shortly after, a fleet of British tanks rumbled through and never stopped. Then, some British Jeeps, having high German Army officers as prisoners, stopped and told us we were liberated.
Our German guards smashed their weapons, and took off over the fields. There was no effort made to stop them.
I stayed around the farm that day. Some of the other POWs went to Wittenberg on a looting spree.
On May 3, early in the morning, someone had lined up a farmer with a horse-drawn wagon to take us to Laurinburgh, where a POW receiving station had been set up by the British.
After riding in the wagon for two hours, we came upon some abandoned German vehicles. We stopped to investigate, and saw these trucks were loaded with medical and office supplies. Amongst the vehicles was a Netherlands school bus. I saw the key was left in the bus, so I got in and started it, and all the POWs in the horse-drawn wagon climbed aboard, and I drove it, asking British solders along the way how to get to Laurinburg.
We crossed (a pontoon bridge) and found our way to the POW receiving camp, run by the British.
The next morning, they loaded us up on big trucks and took us to the outskirts of an airfield, and told us we would be airlifted back to the Americans.
My fever and illness did not get any better, so I asked to be taken to a field clinic, which they did. . .I was moved to several different hospitals, and slowly got back to what I thought was normal. Then, I was taken to an airfield and flown to Liege, Belgium, and turned over to an American Hospital, where they found I still had a fever.
While at the hospital, I was debriefed by an American Army officer. From here, I was taken by train to Camp Lucky Strike in France, where I stayed for about a week. I was put aboard the Admiral Mayo, a Liberty ship, and set sail for the United States.
Notes from Grotz’s journey
Note: According to a published article by the German doctor who was put in charge at Stalag Luft IV, and later put in charge of the march, there were 3,000 POWs that perished during this march. As I recall, two or three horse-drawn wagons of POWs that could no longer march were taken away. To where, I do not know.
Note: Within the last two years, declassified information from the British government released a story of the ships that were anchored at the Port of Lübeck, on the Baltic Sea. The International Red Cross informed the British high command that there were four German luxury liners steamed up in the harbor, and were loaded with some 7,000 prisoners. The high command informed the RAF (Royal Air Force) of this information, but, as it was passed down through the chain of command, it was instead said that these ships contained German soldiers, destined for Norway, where they would continue fighting the war.
The RAF sent out typhoon fighters and sank the four ships, and strafed the survivors in the water. There were six survivors that made it ashore, and they were being held by the Germans when the British broke through. (This is where I was headed, and was just a few days march from the destination where the incident occurred.)
Note: The burned POW, I learned at a POW reunion in Dayton, Ohio, had a last name of Johnson. After returning to the United States, he became a medical doctor, and was practicing somewhere on the east coast of the United States.
Note: During the march, from Feb. 6 to May 2, we marched a distance of 520 miles.
Walter O. Grotz
Grotz said all but the pilot and co-pilot of his B-24 crew made it back to the United States alive. Today, Grotz and his nose gunner are the only two still living. Grotz said, of the 29 B-24s that took off that day, each carrying crews of nine or 10, just 34 men survived.
Grotz flew a total of five missions.
After returning to the United States, Grotz was honorably discharged from the Army Nov. 15, 1945.
He met his wife, Mary, in 1947, and the two were married in 1949.
In early October, Grotz, Mary and three other former POWs returned to Germany, and visited the site of Stalag Luft IV, which is in an area that is now a part of Poland, the city of Tychowko.
“I was flabbergasted and astounded that I could go back with him to see it after he had talked about it all these years,” said Mary. “It was really a pleasure.”
Grotz said the trees had regrown, and the only thing he really recognized was a fire pond that was stationed in the middle of the complex 62 years ago.
“The only thing I could recognize was this pond,” he said. “And the railroad station, something I could recognize. It hadn’t changed.”
While in Poland, Grotz was presented with a bronze bust of an American airman by the artist, Zygmund Wajek. The bust is being shipped to Grotz.
One thing Grotz brought back from his recent trip was a realization that the Polish citizens truly appreciate what the American soldiers did for them in World War II.
“I was very impressed with the Polish people, and how they enjoy freedom,” Grotz said from his kitchen table. “The morning we were pulling out, three guys came out to say good-bye. I’ve never seen a place so indebted to Americans.”