Oral History: Death March

Irvin Roberts
Prisoner of War
Witness to Death March

Irvin was born in 1921 in Richmond, Virginia.  He was drafted in 1942 and fought as part of the 52nd Battalion, 9th Armored Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured and spent the rest of the war in various prisoner-of-war camps. Here he discusses witnessing a death march while being moved to a different prison camp:

Transcript

Interviewer: …and they were taking you east? West? Where? Do you know which way, where you were going? 

Irvin Roberts: I was taken to a place, well, we ended up in a camp that wasn’t too far from a town that they were bombing. Far enough away, we could see the planes going over and dropping the bombs in that area. And, but when I got off the train, and you know these boxcars are not very tall, but when you jump to the ground you fell right flat on your face, you’re just so weak. 

I: Weak.

IR: It was amazing. 

I: Did you lose men in that boxcar?

IR: I beg your pardon?

I: Did men die in that…?

IR: Yes. Not in that particular one, but when we got off of it they were unloading bodies all the way up and down the line. 

I: So there were more boxcars of men. 

IR: And then that’s, in that town we registered with the international Red Cross.

I: You registered?

IR: Yeah, and then my family was notified that I was a prisoner of war; I wasn’t missing in action. 

I: I see, until then you were missing in action.

IR: Yeah, just missing in action. 

I: And is that where you encountered the death march? Where was that?

IR: No, I was moved from there to another regular prison camp and we’d get one Red Cross parcel a month, sometimes between two men, sometimes you got the whole box to yourself.  And there was cheeses in there, and hardtack, and cigarettes. 

I: So this was more of a prisoner of war camp?

IR: Yeah, this was a regular prisoner of war camp, first one I’d been at, and plenty of soldiers there. But occasionally you’d get a soup or something; it looked like it was a bean soup, all kinds of beans in it, and a lot of sauerkraut. 

I: So somewhat better treatment?

IR: Yeah, well, because there was military supplies that was brining that in. And it was probably further into Germany where they could bring it in. Because at the labor camp, many times they were supposed to bring it in and it wouldn’t show up for weeks. They couldn’t get through with it. 

I: So did they use you for labor out of this camp?

IR: No in this camp we just sit there. But things were getting kind of rough for the Germans, and so they moved us out. We marched out of it, and that’s when we encountered the other prisoners. They forced us off the road, on the opposite side of the road, and I know it was at least a mile and a half of prisoners, and you could see that they had been in a prison camp for some length of time. Small children, older people, they could barely walk. Some of them were on blankets being dragged. Pitiful, it brought tears to your eyes to see it; you really didn’t want to look at it. It was one of the worst sights I’ve ever seen in my life. 

I: A mile and a half of people.

IR: Just coming and going and begging. Little small children, and older people, why would they put that type of person in those prison camps?

I: You don’t know where they were being marched to. 

IR: Don’t know. They were being taken there because the British were coming into the area. They found our liberators there. 

I: So were they marching in the same direction you were?

IR: They were going the opposite direction.

I: The opposite direction.

IR: Yeah. They were taking them away from the lines where the British were so they couldn’t be liberated, and sent us up there. 

I: And how were those people dressed? You mentioned blankets. 

IR: Ragged, just barely clothed. A lot of them had rags wrapped around their feet.