German POWs and the Availability of Food

This article is the last of a five-part series published in conjunction with National POW/MIA Recognition Day 2018. Information in this article is provided courtesy of the Joseph A. Moller Library. Photo above shown courtesy of Wikipedia.


During WWII, captured airmen experienced fear, fleas, overcrowding, hypothermia, various gastrointestinal ailments, and intense boredom. A survey of the 390th Memorial Museum archive demonstrates that additionally, POWs endured the declining availability of food.

Red Cross Supplied POWs with Food

POWs were provided meager camp rations. The delivery of Red Cross food parcels provided some nutritional supplementation. In a summary of 390th POW experiences compiled in 1991, Mario Gerald Lo Bue provided a partial list of recipes that the men made from Red Cross food: raisin milk pie, chocolate bread cake, and chocolate cold pie special.

These culinary treats were created using variations of the standard D-ration chocolate bar, ground K-2 biscuits, raisins, milk and butter. To the POWS, this food was delicious.

Detail from the 390th Memorial Museum POW exhibit: Richard Sawyer explained that one Red Cross food parcel box was shared among six men, once per week.

Diminishing Red Cross Food Deliveries

Unfortunately, as time moved on Red Cross deliveries diminished.

Henry “Hank” Plume explained:

“Red Cross parcels had not been received for six weeks…but we planned a celebration for Easter Day. We saved bread trimmings by squaring-up the loaves. We grated these trimmings on the sides of tin cans punched with nail holes. From this “flour” we made a cake and covered it with “whipped cream” from powdered milk. Prune seed kernels decorated the top. The 24 men of Room 10 experience joy in this celebration. After near starvation; we were thankful.”

The Bakery Kings

When it came to bread crumbs, Frederick Gunther fared somewhat better. Gunther’s plane was hit by enemy FLAK after the completion of their bomb run on December 16, 1943. All of the crew bailed out without serious injury. After a week of interrogation and solitary confinement, they were transported to Stalag Luft I at Barth, where they were detained until the end of the European War.

About three months before the end of the war, the German command at Luft I notified the Gunther’s senior officers that the Germans would no longer give them bread if they did not supply the labor. After screening many volunteers, three men with some bakery experience were chosen. A problem arose when none of them could understand German.

“I had had several years of High School German and had been translating newspapers and radio broadcasts. Our colonel, who was in the room next to ours, asked me to join this bakery team. We were escorted by a German guard to town and back every day until we were evacuated to Camp Lucky Strike in May, 1945.”

Gunther and his fellow bakers were dubbed the “Bakery Kings”.

Forced Marches and Starvation

George Hartman described a different type of POW experience: the forced march of Germany. Hartman’s march began on February 2, 1945, in a snowstorm. The first part of his march lasted for 57 days.

Detail from the 390th Memorial Museum POW Exhibit: George Hartman describes his forced March across Germany, and the starvation diet provided to POWs.

“Food consisted mostly of potatoes and kohlrabies plus some German bread. We had water from barnyards. We could not have fires for heat or cooking.”

Finally, Hartman and the other POWs arrived at a prison camp in Fallingbostel, outside of Hanover.

“We were given a slow starvation diet. Each day the Germans would go out of the camp with a wagon full of caskets. Later, they came back with probably the same caskets so they could use them the next day.”

After about a week at this location, they could hear Canadian guns in the west. The Germans marched the POWs east for 27 days.

“Allied fighters strafed us. How did we make it? Faith in our families; and thoughts of food we were going to have when we got home.”

POW records belonging to Henry Gerards

Henry “Hank” Gerards was also marched during the winter. During this time, his letters to home were seized and Hank started writing letters to himself. Hank wrote repetitive lists of his favorite food, and he, too, reminded himself to eat a big steak as soon as he got home.

Henry “Hank” Gerards was shot down by fighters near Holzhausen on May 28, 1944. His entire crew survived and became POW. Hank’s family was notified that he had gone missing. As was protocol, the war office provided Hank’s family and the contact information for the families of the rest of his missing crew. His mother shared correspondence with the other mothers. Read about their correspondence here.

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