© copyright Marcel Bollag, 2000, 2009
Marcel Bollag was born in Switzerland and came to the United States as a child. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division, and was captured by the Germans after parachuting into Normandy on D-Day. He wrote this account of his escape while the war was still going on.
I herewith want to give a picture of what happened to me since D-Day to July 19th, when I returned to the American lines. Many items have to be left out as they might give away information which would help some other soldier escape at some future date.
I am a paratrooper attached to the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. Let us go back a few weeks when we were sitting out in an airport somewhere in England all equipped and ready to take off to one of the most important and decisive assaults on the continent of Europe. The morale of the troopers is always excellent. We had movies every night, sports during the day, and the meals were excellent. Then finally came the day everybody had been waiting for – June 6th, 1944.
There was no excitement during Monday, June 5. The usual rush to "chow." I guess those Air Corps boys never forget the troopers. We ran to the chow line like wild people; a lot of noise and pushing around. Monday night, June 5th, I had my last G.I. chow for many days to come.
After supper we got our equipment ready and then were taken to the planes. The weather was beautiful, sunshine, no wind, just perfect for a parachute jump. I laid down my equipment in the plane and then went outside to get some fresh air. There was plenty of time yet for the takeoff was scheduled for midnight.
There were 19 fellows on our stick. My number was 16. At about 10:30 p.m. we put our equipment on; a rather difficult affair. I must have weighed at least 300 pounds with all the ammunition, grenades, etc.
We then loaded up into the planes and waited. In the Army you always wait. This is the old game, and we had been waiting plenty for this invasion.
Finally, at about 11:30 p.m., the motors of the planes started rolling and then I began to realize that this time it was going to be the real thing. We cleared the field at about midnight, we being the last plane in that particular formation.
I looked through the window and I could see a long row of planes – a real wonderful sight. Very soon afterwards we all went to sleep. I guess the nerves were just overtired.
The next thing I remember was the time we received orders to take off our Mae West [life jacket], which was a rather hard thing to do. Shortly afterwards we hit land and got orders to stand and hook up, a command which is well-known to us.
All of a sudden the flak came up real heavy. Our plane bounced up and down and took off from the formation to the left. I knew then that we were alone; no other plane was near us.
We flew straight through the Peninsula and soon hit the east coast. The pilot turned around and headed inland again. Flak came up very heavy and knocked out our jump light. The pilot then ordered us to jump by telephone.
We got ready to leave the door. I had never been so glad to jump out before than this particular time. Our plane was hit rather heavily by machine gun fire. The bullets bounced off left and right of the door but I got out. The opening shock was not bad at all. Maybe my thoughts were somewhere else. I looked around to see where I was. Machine guns were shooting at me, but I didn’t get hit.
I landed 200 feet away from a house, which I found out later to be a German command post. The landing itself was rather good. I hit an electric wire with my arm, which did not hurt badly. I then came down on the road. I felt a little relieved.
Immediately I slipped back on the side of the road near a hedgerow. My parachute was across the hedgerow in the next field. I started cutting myself out of the harness. By that time the machine guns were hammering away. One cannot mistake those machine guns as being German. You hear a short burst, "brrrrr, brrrrr, brrrrr."
I crept along the hedgerow in the opposite direction of the house. Every time I moved, the "Jerries" opened up on me with machine guns and machine pistols. I also heard a few rifle shots, which didn’t bother me much. What I was most interested in was to find some troopers from my plane and try to assemble somehow. So I advanced very slowly. I came to a corner of a field when the machine gun bullets began flying too close for comfort. I also heard two Germans shout at each other back there. I reached for one of my hand grenades and threw it over the bush into the machine gun nest. Also, we had been told to fire only if necessary. I realized I was on my own and had better make sure the way was clear. This gun kept silent from then on. I never went to check, but continued on my way.
So far I had not met a single American – a rather disgusting situation.
The Germans moved in closer on me from all sides. I tried to find a real good hideout, but it was beginning to be daylight. I could not cross the road to my left as that side was full of Germans. I could not climb over the hedgerow for the fields were covered with machine gun fire and nests. It was almost daylight and I believe the Germans must have spotted me right then. From my right a machine gun opened up. From behind I heard rifle fire, and about three "Heinies" appeared in front of me on the road and sprayed their Schmeisser machine pistol.
I was lying on the ground, having my carbine ready. I fired three shots, then had a stoppage. I was still pulling my bolt back when two Germans were in front of me pulling me out of the ditch. The third Nazi covered me with his pistol from the rear.
The fight was over at that moment. They took my gun away and took me back on the road. I posed as though I were wounded and they believed it. In fact, they let me put my arm on their shoulder as I pointed out to them that my knee was hurt. Anyhow, we got along on the road and came to the house which was actually a German command post.
We entered the room and there I saw about 44 fellows from our formation sitting with their hands up. I knew right away what had happened – in fact, I was aware all the time that we had jumped into a German strongpoint.
Well, from then on things were not too good. I was stripped completely and they actually did not miss much. My jump suit was taken off, my shirt was ripped open, and my boots and pants were removed.
The Germans were amazed at our equipment, and we really had plenty. The K rations (candy, razor blades, soap, etc.) were rather welcomed in that house.
After they got through searching me, I was allowed to sit down; however, I had to keep my hands up. This got rather tiring after a few minutes. In the meantime, two wounded boys, also from our plane, were brought in and I heard the one German say that one of our soldiers was dying upstairs. We had three guards inside the house pointing their rifles with bayonets at us.
After the German officer left the house I could see the guards relax a little, so I started asking one of them if he spoke French. He said "Yes," and soon I could see that he was an Austrian. We had a very short conversation, out of which I managed to get a glass of beer for all of us. He told me also that we could put our arms down, but, of course, as soon as the door opened, "up they go." A typical German idea; just scared of the higher NCOs and officers. Between themselves the German guards were swearing – they thought it was rather rough to get up so early that morning and did not like the idea of this invasion.
Well, the time passed and they brought in one more man. Then suddenly a German corporal came running in the door all excited and pointing at me and saying in German, "I am going to shoot this man; he killed one of my best friends."
"No," said a German sergeant. "Don’t shoot him; he did not come out to play. He has only done his duty." This was a pleasant surprise for me.
Soon afterwards, the U.S. planes came over and it was then I saw the Heinies sure hate our Air Corps. They took us immediately into a dugout across the road. Of course, not to protect us, but merely because they were afraid to stay in the house themselves. We spent about an hour in there, always closely guarded. Afterwards, they marched us away.
We stopped at a regimental command post and then went on to a clearing station. I had almost nothing left – no helmet, no personal belongings at all except they had forgotten to take my watches and my rings. My personal wallet also had disappeared, and about three times I had asked them to give me back at least a couple of snapshots which they refused and made fun of. They liked my sister’s picture very much.
Arriving at the clearing station, I saw a truck, or better, what the Germans call a vehicle. Back in the States we would not keep something like that in the junk yards. It was a stolen French truck. We had to pile in, and then they brought two more wounded men. One of them was my own officer. Of course, no talking – and they really meant it. Once I tried to speak to the officer and the bayonet moved too close to suit me. It was a generally "screwed up" affair. The driver got lost, asked the way every two minutes, and finally it must have been close to noon when we arrived at a division command post. The wounded were then taken to some hospital and the rest of us were lined up in front of a wall. What now, I wondered. A rather big captain appeared at the door, looked at us, and then gave us back our pay books. Wallets and all other belongings were kept there.
Then they too us up to Valogne, a few kilometers to the north. We passed through the town and arrived at a prison camp shortly afterwards. We lined up in front of a building. A French Red Cross woman wanted to give us some milk but the Germans refused. Then we were put into the enclosure, an open field with barbed wire around it and machine guns in all corners.
So far we hadn’t eaten anything, and I was rather hungry. However, the "Heinies" did not worry about that.
A few minutes later, I was called into the house for interrogation. A second lieutenant was doing the job. He took me upstairs in his personal room and pointed out to me how well he lived, which, of course, did not interest me a bit. He then let me sit down, and asked me my name, rank and serial number.
"What outfit are you from, Sergeant?" he asked.
"I don’t have to tell you that," I answered.
"Yes, we know already the AA is the 82nd Airborne and the other thing is the 101st," he said.
I had my shoulder patch taken off so he could not see what I was. So I said, "If you know already, what are you asking me for?" This kept him quiet and he gave up right then trying to get more information out of me. He told me about an uncle somewhere in Buffalo, New York, and then said I should go back to the camp. This was about 2 p.m., June 6th. We then sat down in the grass and watched more prisoners come in.
At about 3 o’clock a big formation of bombers came over Valogne and smashed the town to bits. It was very near to our enclosure. One plane was shot down and the pilot bailed out. A few minutes later he was amongst us. He was the first man to tell us about the successful invasion.
The rest of the afternoon we were laying around just waiting. At night we stayed in the open enclosure, a rather cold night without any blankets. Very little gun and artillery fire for the first day of the invasion. But I had big hopes to be recaptured by our incoming troops. So our morale was excellent.
June 7th, Wednesday: More troopers came in early in the morning. Breakfast, or whatever you may call it, was served at 8 a.m. consisting of the famous "knaekebrot." This is a hard-pressed biscuit (mostly sawdust in it). In order to eat it you must shake the "bugs" out of it first; they seem to have found a home. Well, if you are hungry, I guess anything tastes good.
The morning was beautiful. Once in a while an 88 would fly over our heads; otherwise it was quiet. The morning was spent just waiting around. Machine guns were set up in all corners – I guess just to impress us.
The noon meal consisted of "knaekebrot" again and a very small cup of coffee. At about 1 p.m. the Germans called out all prisoners from the 101st Airborne to get up and leave. I stayed on until 3 p.m. when all 82nd men were told to get up. We formed a column of four and were counted at least ten times. About 20 guards were put in charge of us, mostly Austrians, Czechs and Poles, as I soon found out. The master sergeant, a real Nazi who was in charge of this movement, told the guards in plain language that if any of us made a move they must shoot. Then we took off and marched through Valogne.
The Germans apparently had orders to march us through every possible village in order to show us off to the French people. The French were standing in their doors giving us a wink with their eyes. I could notice how happy they actually were to see us. We were marching along the main road toward Cherbourg. Everybody was in an excellent mood for we were very much encouraged to go north, trusting that the peninsula had been cut by our army and the Germans could not evacuate us anymore to Germany.
Every 50 minutes we would take a 10-minute break and get some water. I spoke to a German guard, a young Czech, trying to find out where we were going. He did not know himself or maybe he was scared to tell me. Soon one of the troopers started to pull his leg and one German on a bicycle offered him a ride, a rather nice gesture. A few seconds after this 20 more American soldiers tried to do the same. However, the Germans laughed at it.
At about 4:30 p.m. we stopped once more at a farmhouse to drink some water. I asked the woman in French for some milk and she ran to get a glass for me. When she returned, one of the guards received the glass and drank all the milk. The poor woman could not say a word. I thanked her just the same and she understood me. All along the way we had seen the German fortification terrifically strong. There were so many troops around that it was of no use to even try to escape. We would not have lasted an hour. So I marched on, always having in mind to "take off," but waiting for a better chance.
Our column arrived late in the afternoon at our destination, a prison camp at Tourlaville, right outside Cherbourg. The Heinies lined us up, and told us this was our last chance to get rid of our weapons if we had any at all. The German interpreter said, "We will treat you decently if you behave well. If not, we will ship you to a place where I can assure you you will not like it. If any of you try to escape, we shall shoot him at once and ten other men with him." This was a nice welcome, but we had big hopes of being freed soon by our troops. After all, I knew that we had to drive toward Cherbourg and capture it. So I decided to sit tight and wait.
Then they took us to our new homes. A barrack, 65 men in each, no air, no light – in other words, miserable. We stayed in there, played cards or talked about our future, which, of course, was a dark one at that moment. We ate something that night, but too little. Just a little bit of soup.
One more announcement was made in a rather ridiculous tone of voice. The Nazi said, "Every morning from 6:45 a.m. to 7 a.m. you better shake the fleas out of your clothes." Well, we went to sleep that night although I don’t think I succeeded in doing so for one minute. I was listening eagerly for artillery fire.
June 8th, Thursday: The windows were opened at about 7:30 a.m. We were glad to get the first fresh air. The fleas almost bit me to death. I found a French book on the floor and started reading it. Doors opened later on and we had our first German breakfast consisting of a piece of bread and a little coffee. It tasted good; however, we were extremely hungry. We were even allowed to wash our hands in groups of six, a great privilege in the Army. Then the interpreter came in and looked around. I felt good, so I asked him, "How is the war going?"
He smiled and said, "I am afraid I cannot answer that question." He was an Austrian fellow, quite a decent man. More troopers arrived this morning. I met two more boys from my plane, also some officers from my outfit. We were locked in the barrack in the morning. Morale was high among the troopers.
At noon they gave us some kind of meal, a famous German soup – that was all. The afternoon passed away very slowly. I watched through the window how the Nazis were setting up more machine guns toward the barrack. Then the interpreter came in and told us to write down our name, rank and serial number on a slip of paper and also our home address. We made it clear to him that we did not have to give him our address, according to the Geneva Convention, to which he replied, "This is for the Red Cross to inform your parents." We, of course, told him that there was no such thing and he seemed to be satisfied. In fact, he respected us quite a bit. The night passed away just like before – stuffy and no air, impossible to sleep.
June 9th, Friday: It was later than 9 a.m. when they finally opened the window shades, and then I saw what was going on. The officers had packed up their bags, put plenty of bread and food in those little horse-drawn carts, and were ready to leave. This was a good sign for us; we thought: "Well, we might try to get out by sea." How wrong I was I found out later on. Anyway, we felt rather hopeful.
Then a big surprise came. We were allowed to eat in the mess hall. I was sure the Germans meant to treat us good in order to get decent treatment themselves when our troops would capture them. The mess hall was nice, decorated with flowers, and Hitler’s picture was put up all over. The meal itself was not different from the usual one but we could get two helpings.
After the meal we returned to our barracks. Suddenly at 3 p.m. we had to line up in front of the barracks. Every prisoner received one-third of a loaf of bread with a little butter and we were told that this ration had to hold out for three meals. Then we were marched away from the prison camp through Tourlaville into Cherbourg. I really wondered what was going to happen to us. We marched through Cherbourg singing and whistling, "The Yanks are Coming." The German guards just looked at us. They could not understand it at all. However, my face became real long when we were marched up to a railroad track and I saw a train ready. There were no coaches but cattle cars. We were loaded into these cattle cars, about 40 to 45 men in each. Then the doors closed and I waited for the next thing to happen. My morale was terribly low. How could I ever get out of this car if it was going to take me to Germany? Well, I got myself into the corner and sat down in the straw. My friend John, a rigger from the 508th, sat next to me with a long face. Then I saw the ventilator of the car, a hole about two feet long and one and a half feet wide. I could open it and look through. I told John that I was going to jump through there and roll out as soon as it got dark. In the meantime, I was very interested in finding out where we were going. One fellow still had a map left so I borrowed it from him. Everytime we hit a station I tried to locate it on the map and, therefore, soon found out which way we were moving.
Well, the pleasure of this ride did not last too long. About one hour later the train stopped and everybody had to get off. This town was Bricquebec. The guards again marched us through the town, made sure all the people could see us, and took us south on a road. We marched about two kilometers and then passed a long German convoy which had stopped there and was filled with American paratroopers. I was amazed to see all the "boys." Every German I could spot had an American parachute scarf around his neck and was rather cheerful. I asked myself, "Has the invasion been successful?"
Our group of prisoners was marched to a side path and stopped there. I could then hear a German sergeant tell a corporal that the last half of us would be loaded into those trucks. When I heard it I immediately started out moving toward the front of the column together with my friend. This was not bucking the line exactly, but bucking the bullets which were to come. Anyhow, I managed to get away from a ride and, rather, walked instead. We marched about three more kilometers and then stopped near a big farm which had been transformed into a prisoners’ cage. There the Germans made the distinction between officers, NCOs and enlisted men. We (all NCOs) went into a barn. The officers upstairs could only reach their new home by help of a ladder. Of course, we were locked in good also.
As long as we had daylight we played some card games and discussed our possibilities. No chow that evening. We then tried to sleep a little.