AN 18-DAY MARCH
By Lisa Ann March, ‘95
As spring settled, tender new shoots of grass peeked through the winter-worn soil of northern Austria. It was early April in 1945. The air was crisp and cool and damp with rain and late snow.
The Russian advance was forcing the Nazis to evacuate their prisoner-of-war camps. In the rural community outside Krems, Austria, was Stalag 17b, where Ray T. Matheny spent his 19th and 20th birthdays. He was a flight engineer on a B-17 bomber shot down over Germany. By that April he had been a prisoner for 15 months.
The prisoners Stalag 17b were taken out on foot and marched away from the collapsing eastern front to the tenuous western front. "We were all sick and weakened from poor food," recalls Matheny, '60, now a BYU professor of anthropology. "There were people who couldn't march with us and we just left them behind."
Their trek lasted 18 days. They carried everything they had, "which wasn't very much," says Matheny, on their backs. They were fed every other day by townspeople along the way. The food wasn't good. "We smelled this awful smell drifting up and it was our food, alright. It had rotted," Matheny remembers of one occasion. "But when you're starving, it doesn't make any difference, you're going to eat it."
The soldiers foraged for whatever supplement they could find along the way. Matheny found new dandelions and cooked them up with a few raisins he had hoarded in his pocket. Cooking the toxins out of dandelions was a boyhood trick he picked up in Watts, Calif. It became sustaining.
As the prisoners neared the town of Mauthausen, Austria, they noticed gray ash covering the countryside. The air smelled greasy and dirty. "When we got to the town, the people came running out of their houses and told us what was going on in Mauthausen," says Matheny.
There was a concentration camp there. "They told us about the gas chambers, they told us about the ovens, they told us about the rock quarry where they work people to death. They were confessing."
Matheny saw the quarry as they were marched out of town. People carried boulders on their backs in sacks, up steps rudely cut out of the side of the pit. "There was no need in this world to make people carry those rocks on their backs up that quarry. You could only do it once or twice before you were finished. . . .
"We were really horrified by all this, and we really didn't understand--it didn't register with us what it all meant," says Matheny.
As they were marched out of Mauthausen, they encountered another group being marched into town. They were Hungarian Jews, about 3,000 men and boys. Some of the American prisoners with Matheny could speak Hungarian and discovered the Jews had been marching from Hungary for more than two weeks. They had been fed nothing. They were gaunt and pale. They were also dying. Bodies lay along the road and in the fields. When Matheny's group passed the Jews, they were hunched over in a field, eating the tender shoots of grass.
"This one man, I remember, he was on his knees and his hands on the ground. He looked up and he turned his head and there were green grass leaves in his mouth hanging down." Matheny pauses and swallows. "How can you treat people like this?"
The Hungarian-speaking prisoners in Matheny's group told the Jews about Mauthausen. It was more than they could bear. They seemed to snap and began milling around in delirium. The Nazi guards couldn't control them. The prisoners of war kept marching. They heard a pistol pop, then another, then another. Before long they heard machine guns, relentlessly blasting. Then they heard nothing.
"We had and still have these awful guilt feelings. It's very, very hard to describe," Matheny says. "Why didn't we overpower those guards and save those Jews?" But they didn't know. It would still be a few weeks before Allied troops really discovered the concentration camps and years before anyone knew the full extent of the atrocities.
The soldiers marched on to Braunau, Bavaria, on the edge of the Western Front, where they were set up in camps. They camped for 10 days in the spring drizzle, unable to maintain a fire with the wet, green wood. They were cold and sick and miserable.
"Finally, late in the afternoon, a captain in the U.S. Army drives up in a jeep and gathers us around and says, 'Alright you guys, you're free,'" says Matheny. And that was it.
Matheny was free from his captors, but never from his memories. "It's in my genes. I can't get rid of any of this. It haunts me all of the time."
More information on Stalag 17b: http://www.b24.net/pow/stalag17.htm