Band of daughters
Two strangers unite to retrace their enigmatic fathers’ march across Europe as POWs in WWII.
One autumn day in 2015, Ellen Hartman brought her father’s credentials to the National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, the site of a Civil War POW camp in south Georgia. Nearly 20 years after her father had died, Ellen was looking for clues to what exactly he had endured in World War II. A museum library employee dug around and emerged with something that would begin to answer questions that had troubled Ellen all her life.
Have I found a book for you, she said. This lady’s father was in the same POW camp as yours.
“On the Wings of Dawn” was the 2012 self-published book by Laura Edge, a Michigan educator turned WWII history buff. Ellen bought a copy on eBay, read it over the winter and emailed the author on Feb. 6, the 71st anniversary of the day their fathers, alongside thousands of fellow American and allied prisoners, began a forced march through Europe, a wartime atrocity of unthinkable hardship that had all but slipped through history’s cracks.
A flurry of email exchanges ensued between Ellen, a longtime Atlantan, and this stranger in Michigan. One day Ellen floated an idea: She wanted to peel back the layers on the subject her father never talked about by going to Europe and tracing the steps of what’s been called The Black March. And she wanted another POW daughter to join her.
Laura was on board.
Some 200 emails and countless hours of research and planning later, the women — virtual strangers — packed their bags and embarked on the trip of a lifetime.
Not that there wasn’t a little anxiety. Laura’s friends prayed in church that her companion from Atlanta wasn’t a psychopath. Ellen’s husband Mike Moran took pleasure in busting his wife’s chops, predicting a European journey full of incompatibility and clashes.
I bet she’s a chain-smoker, a nondrinker and an incessant talker, Mike joked.
Wearing her father’s dog tags around her neck, Ellen boarded a plane in Amsterdam and met her traveling companion for the first time in the flesh. In many ways they were a walking contrast to one another. Ellen is a spunky, talkative 64-year-old career woman who’s swapped her hobby of running marathons for a women’s cooking group. At 69, Laura is a head taller and exceedingly polite, shorthaired and smiling. She exudes an academic air that suits her fervor for all things WWII.
Both women soon learned they shared a fondness for good food and wine — and for fawning over their grandchildren. To Ellen’s delight, her compatriot didn’t smoke.
They landed in Berlin, rented an Opel sedan and drove 186 miles to Tychowo in northwest Poland — the first of an eventual 1,300 miles of back roads and autobahns they would traverse in seven days.
2. Damaged patriots
Long before Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was identified as a mental health condition, Ellen’s father Joe Weaver would awake from violent nightmares, thrusting his fists through the walls, still fighting the Germans.
After serving as a technical sergeant in the Army Air Forces, he’d returned to Mississippi weak and skinny with dysentery. But he soon recovered and enrolled at Mississippi State University, where his prowess at Jitterbug dancing helped woo his wife, Kathryn. Together they welcomed two daughters — Ellen was their youngest — and settled on a 150-acre farm near Starkville.
Growing up, Ellen never asked her father about his claustrophobia (he panicked on elevators), his incessant shower-taking (at least twice a day), his disdain for straying far from home, or the fist-sized scar on his back. As her mother often stressed, some things simply came from the war, and it was understood that Dad didn’t talk about them. Ellen recalls her father as being loving but walled off by the painful experiences of his past, a puzzle with mostly missing pieces. It was clear to her at an early age the root of his troubles was the war.
Not all of the emotional shrapnel from Joe’s war experience was necessarily negative. He had no tolerance for mean people, advising his daughter to live by his mantra: Kill people with kindness.
That mindset had repercussions for Joe. The owner of an Amoco gas station, he let a group of Freedom Riders use a white restroom in the 1950s because the blacks-only facilities were out of service. In response, the station was bombed – most likely by the Ku Klux Klan – and the family dog was killed. In hateful phone calls, men threatened to kidnap Ellen and her sister.
The one thing that always brought solace to Joe was flying. He built a runway on the farm, bought a Cessna 150 and taught Ellen to fly. She flew herself to college at Ole Miss, where she earned a journalism degree. In 1974, she moved to Atlanta to begin a fruitful career in public relations, working for MARTA, Coca-Cola and other companies before founding her own firm six years ago. She married twice, had two daughters and helped raise three other children.
In 1996, Joe was undergoing open-heart surgery when he contracted a staph infection that would kill him at age 72, a few months before his 50th wedding anniversary.
Ellen had always wanted to ask her father about his time in the service. All she knew was family lore, things her mother offhandedly mentioned. She’d never thought to sit down with Joe and ask, What happened over there?
And now she couldn’t.
Eight hundred miles north of Starkville, in the automotive boomtown that was 1950s Detroit, a young Laura was repeatedly warned by her elders: Don’t make a lot of noise. You’ll make Dad nervous.
Like Ellen, she was the daughter of a kind, reserved father. Larry Witt was a former technical sergeant in the Army Air Forces who kept an unsentimental distance from her and thus remained a mystery.
Trained in metallurgy, Larry worked in Ford Motor Company’s scientific research laboratories and would eventually hold several patents. But the way that young children scream and dart around made him uneasy. And he had two recurring dreams that frequently woke him in a state of sweaty panic. In one dream, he was running nonstop but couldn’t find his way. In the other he was being forced to use a filthy bathroom.
Laura attended Eastern Michigan University, graduating with a degree in social work, and married a grad student. They moved to California and Massachusetts before returning to suburban Detroit. After having two sons, she switched careers to education and retired as an elementary school principal in 2009.
Along the way she developed a fascination with World War II history and spent many summers researching the war. She decided to write a book and began gathering military records and interviewing a range of veterans. Larry was now well into his 80s, so time was of the essence. She finally sat down with her father and one of his old crewmates, and for the first time heard him open up.
Laura’s father died in 2010 at age 86 and never saw the finished book. But she took comfort in knowing that, unlike many of her “next generation” counterparts, she had succeeded in breaking her father’s 60-year silence.
3. Instant celebrities
Giddy as teenagers, the road-tripping sexagenarians settled into their roles. Ellen drove and Laura was the navigator, assisted by phone calls to her husband, who punched in satellite coordinates online in the wee Michigan hours.
They were united in a passion for not only knowing the truth about their fathers but experiencing it as much as they could. Their personalities clicked right away.
At Tychowo, the women walked 2.7 miles along a sandy, tree-lined path covered in blue forget-me-nots to the ruins of Stalag Luft IV, where both men were imprisoned. A massive camp, it held several thousand allied prisoners, mostly Americans.
Before he died, Laura’s father told her about arriving at this place, of the armed guards, snarling police dogs and a crazed, red-haired German captain waving a gun and shouting orders Larry didn’t understand.
The daughters’ arrival was dramatically different.
Ellen and Laura were treated like celebrities by town dignitaries who had been alerted to the women’s journey. They were given flowers, and candles were lit in honor of their fathers at memorials. Zygmunt Wujek, a sculptor who created a memorial at the prison gates and train station, treated the daughters to a tour of his studio and home.
The next morning, Ellen and Laura were whisked to a palace for a meeting with the region’s governor, Pawel Michalak. A Polish newspaper covered the event, proclaiming in a front-page headline, “American Ladies Follow the Tracks of History.” Ever the PR pro, Ellen doled out her business cards, gave hugs and expressed gratitude to their hosts that the sacrifices of the American military had not been forgotten.
The travelers were amazed to learn that every Feb. 6, the day the forced march began is memorialized. Bands play, dignitaries and schoolchildren give speeches and participants engage in a ceremonial walk from the prison to the train station. The town’s collective sentiment is captured at the base of one Wujek sculpture en route to the camp, where an inscription wishes “eternal glory” to the servicemen “who administered justice and brought us to the dawn of freedom.”
4. Horrors of war
Ellen’s dad, Joe Weaver, had never left Mississippi until he began studies at The Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C. in 1942. He hated the place so much he quit and joined the Army in October that year.
Once overseas, the baby-faced, 20-year-old radio operator and mechanical gunner survived a crash landing during flight training in Northern Ireland, which is where Ellen believes her father incurred the large gash on his back. But it was his 52nd mission — bombing fuel dumps in France in August 1944 with the 554th Bomb Squadron, 386th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force — that would cost Joe his freedom. His B-26 was struck by flak and wouldn’t make it back across the English Channel. Joe watched as crewmates frantically readied their parachutes.
Laura’s dad, Larry Witt, quit his apprenticeship at Ford Motor Company and enlisted three months after Joe. A 19-year-old engineer on a B-17 with the 338th Bomb Squadron, 96th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, Larry’s plane was hit over Germany during his seventh mission. When it was struck, he rushed toward the weapons bay of a fiery aircraft that half his crewmates would not escape.
In that era, Army brass considered skydiving as a training exercise too dangerous. So for both airmen, the first parachute jumps of their lives were from burning airplanes into enemy-controlled territory. Both were quickly captured and eventually transported to Stalag Luft IV in Poland. En route, Joe endured days on train cars so crowded (and filthy with human waste) he couldn’t sit down. Ellen suspects this is the root of his claustrophobia and lifelong obsession with cleanliness.
Larry was among the first transports to arrive at the prison camp when it opened in May 1944. Joe arrived sometime later, and to their daughters’ knowledge, the two airmen never crossed paths among the 8,000 captured allies segregated into four compounds.
Each compound held 10 unheated, wooden barracks, and each of those was packed with some 200 men. For months they slept on tables, floors — wherever they could squeeze — and used open-air latrines. There were no facilities for washing, no hot water, and clothing supplies were scant.
Seized with uncertainty, prisoners didn’t know if Germany would keep them as bargaining chips or ultimately dispose of them. While some guards were amenable, others were heinous. A hulking captor the prisoners nicknamed “Big Stoop” would slap his huge hands against POW heads to rupture their eardrums. The main staple in their allotted diet was “black bread” — comprised largely of sawdust, leaves and straw, often served hard and moldy.
Still, they made the best of their situation. The YMCA sent books, and the men established a lending library. They hosted a lighthearted minstrel show. With a few footballs, bats and baseballs, they formed teams and gathered for games, cheering on their favorite squads. But the lightheartedness wouldn’t last.
That Baltic winter was one of the most brutal on record. In late January, the prisoners could hear big guns in the east that signaled the Russians’ advance.
Fearing they’d be overtaken, the Germans evacuated the camp, forcing the weakened masses to march into subzero temperatures. The prisoners carried what possessions they could, mindful of the German machine guns. They were told the march would last less than a week. Instead it would drag on for 86 horrific days over 600 miles. Estimates as to how many ultimately died vary widely, but researchers have put the number of fatalities as high as 3,500.
Dubbed The Death March, The Black March, The Forgotten March, or more sarcastically, The Shoe Leather Express, it was an ordeal that, unlike the notorious Bataan Death March in the South Pacific, wasn’t thoroughly chronicled. Wracked with survivor’s guilt and shame, determined to move on with their lives, most of the marchers from Stalag Luft IV would either withhold their stories for decades or share them only with each other.
5. Paths unite
From Tychowo, Ellen and Laura drove 100 miles west to the Polish port city of Świnoujście, through which the march passed. Laura recalled her father telling her about sleeping outdoors here and waking up frozen to the ground.
Here they saw the enormous barns that provided shelter to the POWs. Some prisoners would raid a potato stock or steal chickens to supplement their scant diet of bread and occasional bowls of soup. Some men were so hungry they ate livestock feed and rats. Eaten up by lice, they tried in vain to burn the lice eggs from the seams of their clothing without igniting the garments.
Having written extensively about these barns in her book, Laura was struck by the immensity of the brick structures. “I’ve never had the right perspective,” she said. For the first time she could comprehend just how many prisoners it would take to pack them in.
“How did they do it? How could the human body endure?” Ellen kept asking.
She had a new appreciation for her father’s desire to sleep in pressed, “crispy” sheets, as he called them, and his lifelong love of beets, which lucky prisoners would unearth in frozen ground near the barns.
The daughters’ present-day experiences were filling yesteryear’s voids. They continued to trace the march, crossing the border into Germany.
In wide columns the men slogged along in groups of up to 300. Some marchers’ feet became so blistered they removed their boots and walked barefoot in snow and ice, suffering frostbite. They developed systems of digging trenches during stops to avoid traipsing through each other’s waste, but sickness spread. Clean water was nonexistent, and thousands were stricken with chronic dysentery. The few medical professionals among them recommended chewing on charcoal to feel better. Those too sick to march were either shot, left behind or loaded on sick wagons pulled by emaciated horses. Some froze to death; others starved.
The daughters drove on tree-lined roads through picturesque towns, where villagers either offered food and coffee to the prisoners or spit on them.
The route of the march was convoluted — going in circles at times. Captives began to separate. Some men boarded boxcars for another stalag near Hammerstein; others kept hoofing.
After about 42 days, Larry was too sick to trudge another step. He was loaded onto a farm wagon and taken to a makeshift hospital in a barn near Neubrandenburg, but he was turned away because it was in the throes of a typhus outbreak.
The site, now marked by a memorial bearing a large black cross, was the emotional breaking point for Laura. She imagined her father close to death and being turned away. She touched the cross as Ellen snapped photos.
Larry endured hallucinations and blackouts for three weeks, coming to at a railway station in Hamburg. He was taken to Stalag 357 in the town of Fallingbostel, where he began to regain his health. There, two American prisoners (Laura’s research suggests they were Tennessee country boys) shared with him a goose they’d captured and secretly cooked, quite possibly saving his life.
On April 16, 1945 – two months after the march began — a sea of prisoners cheered as British forces liberated Stalag 357. After nearly a year in captivity, Larry was so happy he hopped on a motorcycle and buzzed around the countryside. He spent a few days feasting with his pals on the bounties of local farms, then was trucked to a reparation center, flown to Belgium and was in New York by mid-May.
Because of Joe’s reluctance to talk, his path to liberation remains a mystery. Ellen knows her father withered to just 90 pounds as he continued to march to a camp in the German town of Gudow, which was also freed by the British.
As she walked around Gudow, Ellen recalled the story Joe told her about the Brits confiscating possessions from his captors, throwing them in a pile and telling the Americans, Here are your first souvenirs from the war.
On the desk in her home office near Emory University, Ellen points to the souvenir her father chose: a Nazi helmet.
Next to it are souvenirs Ellen took herself. One is a cornerstone of a crumbling building at Stalag Luft IV.
The other, a sharp, rusty relic, Ellen holds in her hand: “This barbed wire held my dad.”
6. Gratitude endures
Two months after the daughters parted ways in Brussels, Ellen was eating a steak salad at Peachtree DeKalb Airport’s 57th Fighter Group Restaurant and rattling off the names of planes — Cessna 150, Piper Cherokee, a Low-Wing — as they landed. She’d brought her father to the restaurant in the ’80s, and he’d gotten a kick out of the aircrafts.
Over lunch Ellen reflected on her journey with Laura and the puzzle pieces that had finally come together.
“I can’t quit talking about it, and I can’t quit crying about it,” she said. “I’m so thrilled to honor my father and validate so many of the stories. Now I can share them with my family.”
Though Joe Weaver is 20 years gone, Ellen feels newly acquainted with a side of her father she never knew, and she has gained insight into his enigmatic ways. Her only regret is that she never sought out the details when Joe could have shared them firsthand.
Laura has gained a new-found appreciation for the hardships her father and the other POWs experienced.
“They were fighting for you and me, and our children and grandchildren,” she said. “The world would be very different if they didn’t persevere.”
Both women cite a highlight of the trip as something that happened toward the end.
They met Wim Jacobs, a 52-year-old carpenter, who has adopted eight graves at Ardennes American Cemetery and the American Cemetery of Henri-Chapelle in Belgium, including the final resting place of Larry’s tail-gunner. Despite the gulf of time between the war and now, Jacobs feels duty-bound to routinely festoon the graves in flowers and send photos to stateside descendants of the dead.
“Their fathers have done things for us that should never be forgotten,” Jacobs wrote in an email, “but what [Ellen and Laura] have undertaken should also never be forgotten.”
The trip wasn’t a one-off adventure either. Ellen traveled to Michigan in September, where she and Laura spent time with two surviving POWs. And the women plan to bring their European hosts to the U.S. where they will tour cities and sites key to the Stalag Luft IV POW story, including Savannah, where the 8th Air Force was activated in 1942.
Of all the lessons Ellen and Laura learned on their odyssey, the one that has impacted them the most is the realization that the problems they encounter in life, no matter how big and daunting, can be surmounted. Joe Weaver and Larry Witt had an understanding of human suffering that their daughters will never have to know. And for that, they can thank their dads.
ABOUT THE STORY
Last February, AJC editor Kevin Riley shared with me an email he received from Ellen Hartman. She had read Kevin’s Personal Journey tracing replacement soldier Eddie Sessions’ steps during World War II, and she was embarking on a similar journey, tracing her father’s steps as a POW. Freelancer writer Josh Green began his career interviewing veterans returning from post-9/11 combat zones, and he’s been fascinated by the psychological impact of war ever since. He jumped at the chance to tell Ellen’s story. The result is a sobering reminder of the hell our veterans endure during wartime, a story of the mysterious legacies reticent fathers leave behind and a celebration of the tenacious quality of two daughters’ love for their fathers.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction author who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughters. An Indiana native, Green’s newspaper journalism has won top awards in the Hoosier state and in Georgia, where he relocated to work for the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2007. Green is a contributing writer at Atlanta magazine and editor of Curbed Atlanta.
Resources for those looking for information on their World War II veteran
Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF)
Department of the Army
U.S. Army Human Resources Command
1600 Spearhead Division Avenue Dept 107
Fort Knox, Kentucky 40122-5504
Air Force Primary Source Materials (Unit Histories, Aircraft Record Cards)
Air Force Historical ResearchAgency
600 Chennault Circle
Montgomery, AL 36112-6424
Veterans Grave Sites
Department of Veterans Affairs: Gravesite Locator
American Battle Monuments Commission
National Archives: World War II Army Enlistment Records, created, 6/1/2002 - 9/30/2002, documenting the period ca. 1938 - 1946 - Record Group 64
National Archives: Records of World War II Prisoners of War, created, 1942 - 1947, documenting the period 12/7/1941 - 11/19/1946 - Record Group 389
Missing Aircrew Reports (MACR)
National Archives and Records Administration
Textual Reference Branch
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
World War II Memorial: Registry of Remembrances
American Air Museum in Britain:
Research Hints: http://www.americanairmuseum.com/research-hints-and-tips
Veteran Search: http://www.americanairmuseum.com/archive