(This is the conclusion to a four-part story on World War II veteran and Fuquay-Varina resident Lewis Cockerill.)
Life as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 4 in Poland was a miserable and tedious existence for the thousands of Allied military personnel contained behind its barbed wire fences.
The food was awful, the barracks sparse and the weather generally awful. The German guards, fortunately, were usually tolerable.
“The guards were not too bad,” said Fuquay-Varina resident Lewis Cockerill, who spent nearly seven months at the camp as prisoner. “We had what we called a goon squad that would come into the camp periodically. The main thing they were doing is trying to keep us from storing up food and looking for anything that might indicate we were trying to escape.”
The Germans made it very clear that any escape attempts would not be tolerated. As soon as a prisoner arrived he was told by a German officer that according to international law they could not be shot until they were warned three times.
“Then they told us, ‘That is your three times, right there,” said Cockerill.
Some of the prisoners broke down under the strain.
“We had a couple of fellas that kind of lost it,” said Cockerill. “We had one fella go over and start shaking the fence and the guard in the guard tower shot him.”
But for the most part, the prisoners forged a bond with one another that helped them survive the many months of captivity.
“You’d be surprised how you adjust to it,” said Cockerill. “We made a society and the fellas were honest and decent.”
One of the biggest treats the prisoners anticipated were the International Red Cross packages filled with various food items and cigarettes.
Those cigarettes would become important currency among both the prisoners and the guards. Some men would even sell their food for cigarettes, which was a great deal for non-smokers like Cockerill.
“We would only get a few of (the Red Cross packages) and we’d have to share them among five or six guys,” said Cockerill. “They would have cigarettes in them and they became as good as money. I would buy from others some of their Red Cross food. I even bought a hunk of bratwurst from a guard for a pack of cigarettes.”
As the weeks and months passed, the prisoners’ society continued to evolve.
“We were resourceful,” said Cockerill. “We had one fella who set up a barber shop and we’d pay him two cigarettes for a haircut. We had a group in our compound who met once a week for Bible study.
“There were those who put on stage shows, a chaplain who would hold services and a medical officer in a different compound would come by if there was a need for him. I don’t remember many people dying from illnesses. There was a lightning strike on a building and that killed a couple of prisoners.”
The British prisoners in the neighboring compound may have been the most resourceful of all.
Whenever any airmen arrived at the camp still in possession of their heated flight suits, the British would pull out all the wires and make crystal radios.
The British would listen to BBC news reports and pass on the information to the rest of the camp.
“Every day a group from each compound went out to the front of the camp to get supplies,” said Cockerill. “The British would write the news from the BBC report and hand it to our compound leader. He would bring it back and make copies of it for each barracks.
“At nighttime, when we got locked into our barracks, we would assemble around our barracks leader and he would read the news. So, we knew what was happening because of the British airmen.”
Cockerill and his buddies also proved resourceful in their own way.
“There were some interesting experiences,” said Cockerill with a laugh. “We had one fella called Whitey who saved up the raisins from the Red Cross parcels. He made himself some wine and got dead drunk. There were lots of those kinds of things. There were as many stories as there were men.”
At night, the men would share their stories about home and all the wonderful things that awaited them back in America.
“You had 16 men in the barracks and you would hear all kinds of talk,” said Cockerill. “They would share tales, saying they were going to go home and make themselves a Milky Way pie or some such stuff.”
Since he couldn’t go home and eat good food, Cockerill tried to create his own tasty treats.
“I baked a cake while I was in camp,” said Cockerill. “We had C-ration crackers and I pulverized them. I took powdered milk to mix with it and D-ration chocolate to flavor it. I made a batter out of it and put it in a can. I lowered it into (the small barracks stove), which wasn’t much heat. It wasn’t bad. The only problem was that I didn’t have anything to make it rise.”
While Cockerill succeeded with his cake, he struggled a bit trying to make a different kind of holiday treat.
“I made ice cream at Christmastime,” said Cockerill. “I mixed up some cherry preserves and powdered milk and took cubed sugar and pulverized it. I put all of it in a can and buried it in the snow. I would go out every once in awhile to stir it so it wouldn’t become too ice like. It didn’t taste too bad.”
In the months ahead, his cake and ice cream would have been considered an absolute delicacy.
Time to go
Peeking out through the cracks in their wooden barracks, the prisoners could clearly see the artillery flashes on the distant horizon and every night they seemed to get a little closer and a little brighter.
The Russians were advancing through Poland from the east and would soon sweep away all resistance in their path.
The Germans finally decided to evacuate the camp on Feb. 6, 1945. For the next 86 days, approximately 8,000 Allied prisoners were led on the “Black March.”
“We took what we had, which wasn’t anything except a blanket and maybe some leftover food,” said Cockerill.
The prisoners walked in groups of 500 across Germany.
“We walked nearly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles),” said Cockerill.
The horrible trek through freezing conditions would leave hundreds of prisoners dead and thousands more terribly ill and malnourished.
“The reason they moved us out is that we could hear the guns of the Russian army moving through Poland,” said Cockerill. “They were marching us away from it. When we got close to the Western Front, they marched us back. We crossed the Elbe River both ways on that march.
“We slept on the ground, we slept in barns, we got animal lice. A big rat even bit me one night. The first night on the road we were put in a barn and it was already dark when we got there. You had 500 men in that barn looking for a place to lie down.”
Food on the march was mostly potatoes and moldy bread. They also would receive the same mix of potatoes and decaying vegetables that were fed to livestock.
“The (potatoes) still had the jackets on them and they were so soft that you would grab one and it would squash in your hand,” said Cockerill.
It didn’t take long for diseases to start spreading like wildfire among the men.
“One thing I will say about the Germans,” said Cockerill. “If a man got sick, and there was dysentery and some other problems, they would requisition a farm wagon and put him in the wagon. They would follow behind our formation.”
There were days during the march that the prisoners walked as much as 20 miles, each man toting some potatoes. Occasionally, they were given raw vegetables and the guards would allow them to build small fires to cook them.
But even the fires couldn’t cook away the nauseating condition of the food.
“I was cooking peas one time and these weevils started coming out,” said Cockerill. “I would skim them off the top but more would come out. Finally, I got to the point where I just ate them.”
Cockerill carried one change of clothes and a small blanket with him during the march. In mid-March, he took a small can of water and a rag and gave himself a quick sponge bath.
He still remembers that day very clearly because it was the only time between Feb. 6 and May 2 that he was able to clean himself.
“That was the only time I had my clothes off and the only time I had a bath,” said Cockerill. “So, by May 2 I had a matted beard, my hair was filthy and I had animal lice.”
Adding just one more touch of hell to their lives, the prisoners were sometimes straffed by Allied planes who mistook the long columns of prisoners for German soldiers.
Despite everything – the rampant diseases, bug-ridden food, constant walking and terrible weather – Cockerill never allowed himself to lose hope or faith.
“You took it in stride like everything else that had happened,” said Cockerill. “I don’t think I ever went to sleep at night and worried if I wouldn’t wake up the next day or freeze to death. Things just happened and you gave into it.”
The day the prisoners had been dreaming about for months finally arrived on May 2. The liberation, however, wasn’t quite what they expected.
The men were being held in a temporary camp on the east side of the Elbe River near Laurinburg, Germany. Although it was May, there was still a dusting of snow on the ground.
“The guards came in and took two or three prisoners and walked them to an advanced unit of the British army,” said Cockerill. “A little while later a British half-track arrived with British soldiers. The guards all surrendered and piled their weapons.
“Then they said to us, ‘Fellas, the way out is that way.’ That was all the instructions we got.”
Believing their ordeal was ended, the prisoners discovered they still had to walk 40 miles west to reach the Allied camp.
This journey, however, proved to be a bit more enjoyable.
“We passed a plant that was processing cheese,” said Cockerill. “Somebody went in and came out with a big wheel of not full cured cheese. It got passed around to all of us.”
Cockerill also spotted a farmhouse during the walk and approached it hoping to find something to drink.
“There were some Polish people there who were forced labor and there was a dairy can of milk,” said Cockerill. “Not knowing Polish, I just said, ‘Drink’ and a woman pointed to the can. So, I took my can dipped it in. It was raw milk but I drank a lot of that growing up on the farm.”
The milk was delicious and refreshing. But before Cockerill could become too content he realized that he wasn’t the only one who enjoyed drinking right from the dairy can.
“I looked over and there was this little dog that had milk on his ears,” said Cockerill. “I just laughed to myself about it.”
With no desire to walk the full 40 miles to their destination, the prisoners began looking for any ride they could find.
Cockerill’s group found an old truck abandoned alongside the road and the men began piling in it.
“Something was wrong with the steering and we were going down the road (sideways),” said Cockerill. “The first time we stopped I got out of that thing.”
Another group found a car similar to a Roadster.
“So many men were hanging on to it by the time I got there that all I could do was put my toes of one foot on the back bumper and just hold on with my hands,” said Cockerill. “I did that until I just about gave out.”
The prisoners finally found the perfect ride when they reached a nearby town.
“The British MPs were directing traffic,” said Cockerill. “Just as we got to the town square a truck drove up full of German POWs. They just left the truck there. So one of the guys went over to the MP and asked, ‘Would you like us to get this truck out of here for you?’ So, we all got in it and crossed the Elbe River over a pontoon bridge. There was a line of trucks waiting to go across the other way. The war wasn’t over yet and they were moving supplies.”
Cockerill’s group reached the Allied camp and then waited for several days before being flown to Brussels on May 8 – the day the war in Europe officially ended.
“It turned into a city of celebration,” said Cockerill.
Cockerill eventually returned home to Virginia before taking advantage of the wonderful educational opportunities presented by the G.I. Bill.
A deeply religious man, Cockerill attended Indiana Weslyen University in preparation for a life in the ministry. But while taking some teaching jobs to supplement his income, Cockerill found a passion for education.
He received a master’s degree in education from Longwood University and then earned a doctorate at Duke University. He worked as a dean at both Mt. Olive College and Coastal Carolina before retiring as an administrator in the Maryland State University system.
He and his late wife, Charlotte, were married 39 years and raised a son and a daughter.
Although Cockerill never suffered from nightmares or flashbacks, thoughts of those war days have never been very far from his mind.
“I think about those years a lot,” said Cockerill. “But I never saw a man die. I never had a buddy that was beside me killed or blown apart. I got shot at but it never hit me or anybody near me. I had some hardships but I didn’t spend but two days in combat.
“Yes, there were a whole lot of things that went wrong. I never would have chosen to spend 11 months (as a POW) but I don’t see it as something that was taken away from. It has given me something. God has been good to me.”
As a man of strong faith, Cockerill believes that maybe everything that happened to him was part of a bigger plan.
“We should have never flown (that bombing mission) and we should never have been assigned to that airplane,” said Cockerill. “We should never have crossed the English Channel after we had engine problems. But not one of us got killed. As a religious person, it makes you wonder if this was the way it was supposed to be for us.”
And as a man of education, Cockerill feels strong that his experiences have taught him well about the true senselessness and tragedy of war.
“I think one of the worst things human society tolerates is war,” said Cockerill. “Nobody wins a war. How many millions dead did we lose in World War II? It doesn’t make any human sense.”