General route of forced march April 1945
In April, 1945, as Soviet forces approached from the east, the Germans forced all non-Russian prisoners who were able to walk to evacuate Stalag XVII B and march west along the Danube River toward the German border and the approaching American army. The prisoners on the forced march were divided into groups of 500 men each, each group guarded only by a handful of Volksturm soldiers (mostly old and unfit local conscripts). The Americans left first, followed by the French, and then the rest of the non-Russian prisoners. About 300 prisoners who were too sick to move stayed in the camp with a few German guards. The thousands of other prisoners in work details (Arbeitskommandos) outside the camp were simply set free and given the choice to stay or go with the others to the west. Several thousand chose to stay. The evacuation routes generally went west along the north side of the Danube River, crossed to the south side at Linz and ended in the Weilhart forest west of Braunau (Hitler's birthplace).
The 300 mile march took 18 days to complete; the malnourished and exhausted POWs were forced to walk about 10-25 miles each day. The weather along the way was generally cold, wet and miserable. It was one of the worst winters in the region in decades. POWs often had to sleep outside without cover. The malnourished, tired prisoners had little to eat along the way; some risked their lives at night to sneak away and look for food. Prisoners caught trying to escape, or those who could not keep up with their groups were sometimes shot by the guards and left where they fell.
The march was extremely hard on the prisoners, who were already weak and suffering from malnutrition and various diseases. It was a constant fight for survival against the combination of the German guards and Mother Nature. The winter was the worst in decades, and most prisoners had to sleep out in the open on the frozen, snow-covered ground. Most prisoners were given only a cup of hot water for each meal, and were forced to forage for nuts, roots and the occasional egg or vegetable stolen from a villager's farm. Prisoners who could not keep up the pace or tried to escape were shot or left to die. It was common to see one prisoner carrying another man until he was strong enough to keep going on his own. For many prisoners, what began as a forced march turned into a death march.
On Thursday, May 3rd, 1945, the prisoners of Stalag XVII B who had survived the difficult march west were liberated by American troops on their way east to meet the Russians. Most of the prisoners stayed there in the Weilharts forest area until 12 May 1945, when they were taken to the airport in Pocking. From there, the prisoners were transported back to their respective countries.Some of the prisoners, however -- including my father -- gathered in small bands of 20 - 50 men and decided to fight their way further west back to the main American bases. On the day the war offically ended, my father was still fighting German troops who had not yet been informed of their country's surrender.
In April, 1945, American ground forces were advancing quickly into Austria. On 2 May 1945, the prisoners of Stalag XVII B who had survived the forced march were liberated by the American army, on its way to Berlin. Meanwhile, Soviet forces were moving west to Berlin. The German guards who had forced their prisoners to walk across Austria now became prisoners themselves. Some of the guards -- especially those who had treated the POWs badly -- were beaten or killed. Most of the American prisoners stayed in the Weilhart forest area until 12 May 1945, when they were transported back to France.
Here is a description of one of the routes of the American prisoners, M/Sgt Frank Gadwa:
Several times during the month of March 1945 the 4500 American Prisoners of War at Stalag XVII B near Krems, Austria were told that we would soon be leaving XVII B. Thus far we are still here. We know from clandestine radio news we have received that the German army is being relentlessly driven west by the Russian armies. The Germans do not want to be taken prisoner by the Russians. On this day the 28th of March, 1945 the weather is wet and cold. There has been little or no heat in our or any of the barracks. We are hoping that Spring will arrive early and provide us with some warmth.
Sunday - April 8, 1945
Today, according to Jerry (all Germans are called Jerries) we will be leaving Stalag XVII B. Reason for this evacuation is (according to Jerry) because the Russian army is advancing into Austria, being now about 60 miles from Krems. We have been told to pack up only what we can carry. We were also told not to attempt to escape as any who did would be shot. The same fate would be met by anyone keeping a ledger of our march west. We have never been told what our particular destination might be. Will keep a note on the time we leave and how far we go.
Evening - April 8 - 8:00 PM
We marched about 16 KM or from 11:00 AM until 7:00 PM. We've had no food since the piece of bread at breakfast. George Latta from Oklahoma and I are combine partners. We'll share everything on this march as we have for the past nearly two years. We are each carrying about a 50-60 lb. pack. Tonight Jerry had us make camp on a hillside high up in the mountains. Had a piece of bread and coffee for supper. We're sleeping under the stars. It's colder than hell. I have one GI blanket and one Jerry blanket (thin cotton). George has the same.
Monday - April 9, 1945
Got up at 7:00 AM. What a cold night that was. Probably a lot more in store for us. Had a piece of hard bread and coffee for breakfast. Started marching at 9:00 AM. We walked all day. Camped on another hillside about 7:30 PM. They tell us we marched 23 KM today. Had a cup of potato soup and a piece of bread for supper. The bread is cut 18 slices to the loaf which makes each slice about 1/4" thick. The bread is dark in color and has sawdust in it. About 9:00 PM George had made up a place to sleep. George has three blisters on his feet. Hope they do not bother him in the days ahead.
Tuesday - April 10,1945
Laying over today. It's a good deal. Had a cup of barley soup and one half slice of bread. Guess Jerry is trying to starve us. Is it any wonder we hate them so much. We readjusted our packs so as to be ready in the morning. We try to delay them as much as possible but their machine guns are great persuaders. Turned in about 8:00 PM.
Wednesday - April 11, 1945
We were roused at 7:15 AM. We slept fairly well in spite of the cold and dampness. To tired to worry about anything. Had a cup of coffee (no bread or barley). Started marching around 9:00 AM. Traded one French cigarette for an apple. We marched till 6:30 PM. Made camp between two streams. We washed and bathed as best we could in the cold water. Barley soup and slice of bread for supper. The bread slices are getting thinner (20 men to a loaf). The barley from which the soup is made is the same kind of rolled barley we used to feed our rabbits when I was a kid. Today I traded a small bar of soap and two cigarettes for two eggs, three onions and 5 potatoes. Went to bed about 8:55 PM after taking a bath in a creek. That had to be the coldest bath I've ever had. The S.S. (black uniformed storm troopers) walked around the area in which we are camped. We walked 24-30 KM today according to our Jerry guards.
Thursday - April 12, 1945
Got up at 6:15 AM after a very cold night. Hot water for breakfast. No bread. It is starting to rain. Started walking at 8:30 AM. Traded one cigarette for one egg and a small piece of Blut (Blood Sausage). We marched in the rain all day. Jerry says we walked 23-30 KM today. Had a boiled potato and a raw potato for supper. The egg broke in George's pocket. Tonight some of us will get to sleep in a large barn. This is the first dry covered sleeping place we've had. Saw Red McClintock from Cosmopolis, Wa. and his group today. They are ok. Gene Archer dropped out. He's very sick. Hope the Germans take care of him. Don't bet on it. Went to bed at 9:00 PM.
Friday - April 13, 1945
Out of the hay at 6:45 AM. Bread and coffee (cold) for breakfast. Had a good nights sleep. That hay felt like a beauty rest mattress. It is still raining. Started walking at 8:45-9:00 AM. Traded a cigarette for two slides of bread. George's feet are giving him a hard time. Wish there was something I could do for him. We are marching toward the Danube River. The going is rough. Hit the Danube R. at 2:00 PM. It is very swift and green or gray. They must be colored blind to call it the Blue Danube or maybe it's blue at a different time of the year. We followed the river until 5:30 PM. Stopped overnight near a very small village called Sormingstein. They tell us we walked 27-30 KM today. Had thin potato soup for supper. Stole some corn from a barn and boiled it and ate it. Everyone is very hungry. We got to sleep in another barn tonight. George and I are up in a hay loft. At least it's dry. We hope to sleep warm tonight. Turned in around 9:00 PM.
Saturday - April 14, 1945
Laying over here today. Too many guys are not feeling well. Many have colds and/or flu. Jerry gave us soup (carrots boiled in water) hardtack and a small amount of what looks like cottage cheese. Walked around the area. No trading. Too many S.S. troops are around. Rested a good share of the day. George is giving his feet a break by leaving his shoes off and lounging in the hay.
Sunday - April 15, 1945
Out of the hay at 6:30 AM. Slice of bread with water for breakfast. Started marching at 8:00 AM. Looks like it will be nice today. Traded two cigarettes for a piece of bread. Stopped marching around 4:30 PM after covering 20-25 KM. Barley mush and a slice of bread for supper. Might get to sleep in a barn again tonight. Nope - no luck. Our bed is the ground and we get to look up at the stars.
Monday - April 16, 1945
Up at 6:40 AM. Water, a slice of bread and a few kernels of corn for breakfast. Started marching at 8:00 AM. Seeing lots of refugees from Vienna today. The weather is fair to nice this AM. We're marching on the road to Linz, Austria. No stopping until 4:15 PM. We're sleeping in bomb craters and under the stars. Russian Air Force is bombing a distant part of Linz. Hope they don't get close to us. Had a Wonder Stew for supper. They tell us we walked 26-32 KM today. Everyone is hungry and cold and we're wondering how much further west we are going.
Tuesday - April 17, 1945
Up at 6:20 AM. Water and a piece of hardtack for breakfast. Started marching at 7:35 AM. We walked through the town of Mauthausen. There is a large concentration camp nearby. We're on a broad street heading west about 9:00 AM. Saw a lot of Jewish refugees. They were starving and were a terribly sorry site. George and I and a lot of other G.I.'s saw a lot of the refugees stumble and fall down. Jerry guards shot those who could not go on. A terrible sight. German soldiers were following along with horsedrawn wagons. They were throwing those who had been shot into the wagons. We counted 8 wagons -more reasons for hating these Jerrys. This was a horrible sight. A short distance out of town we walked by a concentration camp. This was a rough looking place. Men working in a rock quarry. Saw guards and prisoners whipping other prisoners with heavy leather belts. Also passed more wagons and Germans going along picking up bodies of dead people. No trading. Stopped marching at 5:00 PM. SS are close by. Corn soup for supper. We are told we only walked 26-30 KM today. Went to bed around 7:45 PM. Air raid alarm blew five times during the night. Flares dropped as well as some bombs - but not too close to us.
Wednesday - April 18, 1945
Up at 6:00 AM. Hardtack for breakfast. Started marching 7:00 AM. Marched through another city at 10:40 AM. No trouble with civilians other than dirty looks. We are again along the Danube. Russian POW's passed us. What a tragic sight. They are like walking skeletons. Stopped marching at 5:05 PM. Again, barley soup for supper. Made 19-24 KM today. It's raining again. We'll be sleeping under the stars in a flat pasture-like area. Ready for whatever sleep we might get by 8:45 PM.
Thursday - April 19, 1945
Up at 6:00 AM. Had to push George to wake him up. Again hardtack for breakfast. Started marching at 7:10 AM. Misty today. Passed a large airdrome - Me 109's-110's and Ju 88's etc. Hungarian pilots hollered at us. Saw two P-38's over the area. Stopped marching at 4:15 PM. Sleeping in a barn - long low cattle loafing area - lots of hay around. Better than sleeping under the stars. Made 21-25 KM today. Swiped some potatoes and dried carrots and boiled them for supper. Went to bed around 9:30 PM.
Friday - April 20, 1945
Up at 6:20 AM. Slice of bread and hot water for breakfast. Started marching at 7:15 AM. Marching through countryside today no trading - just up hill and down dale. Never stopped marching today until 6:05 PM. We're told we walked 28-32 KM today. My feet believe it. We are all very tired. Barley soup for supper. Members of Red Cross from Geneva caught up with us today. They said they would report our deplorable condition - also the great lack of food. Hope it does some good. It did. At about 9:00 PM two trucks with food parcels arrived. They also had blankets and clothing. Oh, for something to eat. Hit the sack at 9:30 PM - sleeping under the stars.
Saturday - April 21, 1945
Jerry says we are laying over here today so POWs can rest up. The Germans have been pushing the hell out of us. They keep saying "hurry up, Russki come".
Sunday - April 22, 1945
Red Cross food parcels arrived today. What a Godsend for us. We are all very hungry. Had bread and coffee for breakfast. Traded one cigarette for a little salt. Traded one pack of beat up French cigarettes for a half a loaf of bread. This bread was fresh home baked white
bread. George got a U.S. #10 food parcel and I got a French parcel of French biscuits. They look like dog food biscuits. They are very hard - yet quite tasty. Dip them in water so you can bite into them. From their hardness I'd say they must be nearly waterproof. Hit the sack around 8:00 PM. It is raining and we are sleeping under the stars. At 9:55 PM it is raining very hard. We are soaking wet - another miserable night.
Monday - April 23, 1945
Have lost track of time - day and dates. Am getting a cold but lots of guys are worse off than George and me. Up at 5:30 AM or I should say we've been up all night. Not much sleep. Started marching about 8:15 AM. Very windy - some rain. Guards say we'll probably have some snow. Heaven forbid. The mountains in the distance are the Swiss Alps. Went through the following towns at about the times indicated: Erloch at 9:05 AM - Riedenau at 10:10 AM - Petersham at 11:20 Am - Schule at 12:10 PM - Andrichforth at 1:45 PM - Aurolzmunster at 5:10 PM. Stopped here for supper and had corn and potato soup. Also one slice of bread. Sleeping in a barn tonight. Hope our clothes will dry out. We are all weary and tired. I can't hit that hay pile fast enough. Hit sack at 9:00 PM.
Tuesday - April 24, 1945
Up at 6:45 AM. Had a good sleep. French biscuits for breakfast. Uphill and down today. Little rain. Saw five young fawns this AM. Oh, for a steak. Lo and behold we stopped for a lunch break today. Didn't get anything to eat but had a good rest. Traded two cigarettes for eggs (2) and bread. Passed through the following town at the times shown: Eitzing at 9:35 AM - Gurten at 11:45 AM - Freiling at 1:30 PM - Geinberg at 2:40 PM - Durham at 3:05 PM - Altheim at 5:35 PM. Stopped at Altheim after making 22-25 KM today. Soup served at 11:00 PM. We were told soup would be late. It started to rain around 7:00 PM. Am going to rest until soup comes in. George stayed up. Soup came in about 11:00 PM. Got soup - watery barley - no bread. Jerry says we'll stay here for 1216 hours or maybe 24. We can all use a rest. Saved last nights soup for breakfast. Walked around the area today. Potato stew for supper. Bedtime at 7:35 PM.
Thursday - April 26, 1945
Got up at 6:50 AM. We repacked our bags. Started marching about 8:30 AM. Passed through these hamlets: St. Peter at 12:35 PM - Branau at 2:30 PM. We're told this is our destination. Made 29-32 KM today. Our guards have moved us into a wooded area. We're supposed to make our own shelter. Coffee and bread for supper. Hit sack about 9:00 PM.
Friday - April 27, 1945
Up at 6:00 AM. Built a bonfire. Coffee and French biscuit for breakfast. Starting making lean-to. Hermes, Weiss, George and I. After getting it half built, the Germans marked a road through it and we had to take our lean-to apart and move to a new site about 150' from the original. The water situation is bad. Have to carry the pails about 3/4 to 1 mile up a steep hill from the Inns River. Received 3 French parcels for 5 men today. Parcels not much good. Shack building going OK. No tools to work with. A jackknife, a stolen broken axe and a pick. Have lost a lot of weight, but so has everyone else. Oh, for something decent to eat. Hit sack about 9:30 PM.
Friday - April 27, 1945
Up at 7:30 AM. Biscuits and barley for breakfast. Hauled logs for lean-to. Boy, were they heavy. Won't have much to do tomorrow. Took a bath in the Inns River. Water cold as hell. Comes right off the Austrian Alps. A bunch of French and Russian prisoners came into our camp area. As usual, the French have all kinds of American food parcels - but no sharing. Just makes us a little more bitter. (Is that possible?) Wonder stew for supper with coffee and biscuits. Hit sack at 8:30 PM after a hard day.
Saturday - April 28, 1945
Up at 6:15 AM. It's raining hard. Hauled wood and water and got soaking wet. Peeled some bark from trees to be used on roof of lean-to. Jerry gave us some barley and salt today. Many of us have nearly lost all taste for salt. Hit sack about 8:30 PM. Everything wet but my bark shingles are holding out a good share of the rain.
Sunday - April 29, 1945
Up at 7:30 AM. No rain as yet. Looks as though it may clear up. Hung up blankets and clothes to dry. Gig and George hauling water today. Also hauled some wood. No work on lean-to today. No tools to work with. The lousy Jerry bastards won't give us a damn thing to help us have dry sleeping quarters. Most GIs are having a rough time of it. A lot of them are ill - no medical help available. Got acquainted with some British soldiers today. They too have been on a march. They are good fellows. Hit sack about 9:30 PM.
Monday - April 30, 1945
Up at 8:10 AM. Greek and I have to take a turn hauling water - also wood. After that, it was a day of sitting around a smoking bonfire and visiting with friends and neighbors. Hit sack about 7:00 PM.
Tuesday - May 1, 1945
Up at 7:00 AM. No work or chores today. Will try to dry our clothes. Later in the day Greek and I hauled water and split some logs using an old pick. We had to haul the logs today about a mile. Talk about hard work. Sure wish this war would end or we'd get some food. Hit sack about 7:30 PM.
Wednesday - May 2, 1945
Up at 8:45 AM. Will not do too much today except to haul some water. We've been told we'll be liberated by the Allies in two or three days. We hope this rumor has some truth to it. Had a gabfest with some English POWs. Went to bed about 8:30 PM.
Thursday - May 3, 1945
Up at 9:50 AM. This turned out to be a big day for all American POWs from XVII B. Saw US tanks today. Infantry Captain from US 3rd Army came into our camp today at 7:15 PM. He announced we were no longer POWs - from now on we were soldiers of the US Army and Air Force. What a happy day. We old Kriegies went wild. Don't know how soon we'll start moving to the good old US of A. Just hope it is soon. A German guard has told us we have walked almost 300 miles since leaving the camp at XVII B. Talked with some English POWs - had tea with them. Bedtime 11:30 PM.
Friday - May 4, 1945
I hope my dates are somewhat accurate but under the circumstances we've been under I'm not sure about it. Barley and bread for breakfast. More GI soldiers came into our area today. How good it is to see American soldiers. They lined up our Jerry guards and took all weapons away from them. They knocked a few of them about. Hope they kill them all. It's raining hard today, but no one seems to mind it. We are all wondering when we will start moving out. Rumors are thick and fast. GIs will bring us food soon. GI Infantry Colonel gave Jerry Colonel hell for letting us live like we have been. We all cheered like madmen. Kriegies out collecting food, cars, trucks, bikes, carts. Can't wait to start moving to USA. Hit sack about 11:00 PM.
Saturday - May 5, 1945
Up at 9:00 AM. Everything is wet but sun is shining. Went out with some English soldiers to collect food. Got plenty. Jig made pancakes, first we've had in nearly two years. They were very good even though we had no syrup. Ate all afternoon. We all got a full stomach plus stomach aches. Hauled wood and water. Rumors still flying about us moving out. Hit sack about 7:30 PM.
Sunday - May 6,1945
Up at 8:30 AM. Hotcakes, eggs and tea for breakfast. It's a great feeling not to see any Jerrys around yelling Raus, Appel etc. Not much rain today. We really know what "freedom" means. Today we were moved out of the woods into an aluminum plant in Branau. GI chow for supper (field rations). Hit sack about 11:00 PM.
Monday - May 7,1945
Up at 9:00 AM. GI field rations for breakfast. Moved into a different warehouse. George is not feeling too well. I told him dammit don't get sick on us now. Went into the city of Branau with Jig, Greek, Lew and Harry and Jack. Stayed in town all night. Slept on a feather bed. Woke up in the morning with a sore back. Guess we're too used to sleeping on the floor. Went back to the warehouse we're staying in at the aluminum factory. George is much better. Lights out about 11:00 PM.
Tuesday - May 8, 1945
Up at 5:45 AM. Tea for breakfast then out for 7:00AM roll call. Picked up a tool box and a set of taps and drills. They tell us we'll be leaving for France tomorrow. It's a most wonderful feeling to be free again. I hope Pete and Elmer are well and we'll all be home soon. Am looking forward to seeing them. It's official. We'll be leaving Branau tomorrow by plane. Word is we'll be going to Nancy, France, for delousing and health checks before sending us on to USA. Can't wait for that trip. Will end this diary here. It's been a long, long walk. My feet are still tingling. It would be nice to know what happened to and the whereabouts of some of the guys who took off on their own. I hope they are OK.
Postwar Addendum by Frank Gadwa:
I don't remember the day or date we left the aluminum factory at Branau. I do remember being moved by trucks to an airfield at a place called Pocking, Austria. The trip from Stalag XVIIB, Krems, Austria to Branau, Austria, was about 300 miles. In one issue of the National POW Bulletin, someone visited the old camp site and by car made the same trip that we walked in 1945. Distance by the car's odometer was 287 miles. Many times my family has heard me say that I'd like to make that trip again, only by automobile and under different circumstances. We really passed through some beautiful countryside. However, when you were as hungry as we were and as cold and wet, it's very hard to see beauty. We passed a great many religious shrines, some built into rock hillsides, others used natural greenery to enhance a statue, crosses or pictures of saints. The mountain waterfalls though not large were plentiful and many were close to the narrow road on which we walked. Any number of times we walked right by farm fields in which people were working. These people were the source of whatever trading (usually cigarettes - French, English, American) we did for a piece of bread, potatoes or an occasional egg. While we passed through or near many small villages, only two large cities saw our footprints - Linz and Mauthausen. It was in Linz that we slept or tried to sleep one night while Russian planes bombed the city. While we were some distance from the bombing, we could feel the concussions and see the bomb flashes as well as hear the anti-aircraft guns defending the city. No casualties were reported from our group. Just another near sleepless night. The sight of the Germans killing people in Mauthausen will, I'm sure, be remembered by all who witnessed such barbarism and cruelty. Nor will we forget the sight of guards whipping prisoners with heavy leather belts. When we reached Lucky Strike in France, of the 4,400 Kreigies who had left XVII B, only 4,000 were now accounted for. Many times since, I've wondered what happened to the missing 500 POWs. Perhaps some just voluntarily took off on their own - I hope none were shot as refugees. If some dropped out with sickness, as did Gene Archer from our group, I hope they received medical help and that they eventually made it to the USA. While in Lucky Strike dispensary, we were weighed and deloused. My weight was 147 lbs. - down from 195-200 lbs.
Auffanglager Weilhartforst. Weilhart's Forest and the new "camp" on arrival