THE STORY OF THE WAR EXPERIENCE OF J.C.F KASTEN IV (HANS) DURRING (sic.) WORLD WAR II
In 1941 November, a small Japanese fleet headed by admiral Kimura on the flagship "Siritoko" arrived for a several day visit to Hawaii. The Japanese consul gave a reception for the admiral and his top officers. I attended the reception and soon the admiral who by the way spoke not one word of English, but his aide educated in the U.S, acted as interpreter. The admiral and I became very friendly for the simple reason that he wore a long Japanese type mustache that extended down to his chin on both sides of his mouth. I, on the other hand, wore a German type mustache with the ends waxed upward.
We became so friendly by the end of the reception the he invited me on board the flagship for breakfast on deck the following mourning (sic.) during which he presented me with a beautiful numbered Japanese print which I treasure to this day.
While I breakfasted on board with the admiral, I believe all the other men of the fleet scattered all over the island of Oahu with their cameras photographing every possible angle.
Only a couple of weeks later I sailed out of Pearl Harbor on board the U.S.S Chaumant, Destined (sic.) for the Philippines. All of us on board were being sent by the Hawaiian Dredging Co. for a project in the P.I. Our ship was one of several in the first convoy in the Pacific under the protection of the navy ship, the U.S.S Republic.
We were underway a matter of only days when we received the radio message that Pearl Harbor was under attack. This brought about an immediate change of our course and heading due south to the Fiji Islands where we had to take on water and other needs. After a short stay we proceeded to Brisbone Australia (sic.) where we arrived on Christmas Eve. There we stayed for about a week and then were taken by a chartered train to Sidney (sic.) where after a speech by the US ambassador we were put aboard a troop transport ship that had just discharged a full complement of US soldiers.
When we pulled out of Sidney Harbor, we were assembled by the ships captain who informed us we were at war and as all the troops had been discharged in Sidney, it would be necessary for us to man all the guns on board which included several canons fore and aft and anti aircraft guns on the four comers - fore and aft, port and starboard of the boat deck. I volunteered for the port, aft antiaircraft gun and my friend Gus Figaredo joined me to feed the ammo belts. This gun was a two manjob. In the middle of the Tasman Sea, a misguided Japanese plane dropped bombs in our vicinity and one of them landed on the deck below us and the next thing I new I came to in the ships hospital covered with blood and 16 stitches in my forehead. A fragment of shrapnel had found me in just the right spot. We then proceeded to Wellington New Zealand for repairs.
From Wellington we returned to San Diego from where our destination was changed to American Samoa, from where I eventually returned to the U.S. to volunteer for the army which I accomplished in September 1943.
I was sent to Fort Sheridan (North of Chicago). After induction I was sent by train to the transportation corps camp at Camp Ploche (sic.) out of New Orleans. In the middle of training there I unexpectedly found myself transferred to the O.C.S. training school as a teacher. When I found that I was to be permanently assigned there I had to see my former commanding officer to be transferred back to my original unit because I did not volunteer for the army to become a teacher.
Eventually our unit was shipped over seas on the S.S George Washingtonthe troop ship. On arrival in Northern England we were put to work in the rail yards, moving cargo. I soon found
that there was corruption going on by moving a box car of goods onto a siding and the contents black marketed by our own N.C.O's. I told my buddy John Kopczinski who had been with me all through training that I couldn't go along with this kind of business and I would ask for a transfer to the infantry. John said he would join me and we went to see our company commander to ask for the transfer. He thought we were crazy and tried to dissuade us. We were then transferred to Tidworth Barracks near South Hampton where we were put through very tough infantry training. I turned out to be the best marksman in the company and received weekend passes to visit nearby South Hampton. Always managed to wrangle a pass for John.
The next thing we knew, we were on board a landing craft heading for "Omaha Beach". The landing there as everybody knows now was a bloody mess and I do mean "bloody" . We were being shelled while we were still on the water. The confusion and death toll was very high. (Saw the movie Saving Private Ryan as a guest of the U.S. ambassador). Seeing the movie, the first 15 minutes were so real that I was seriously affected for 3 days. That movie tells it all about our landing on Omaha Beach. On landing, we were mostly pinned down with our men lying dead all around us. Today, for the life of me, I still don't remember how we made it up the cliffs. It was a real nightmare.
We then fought our way forward for innumerable days until we encountered the town of Schmidt. The battle was extreme and our unit was finally pulled out for a rest, after sitting in fox holes in muck and snow up to our knees. The so called rest area was on a ridge over looking the Our River and not too far from the town ofClerveaux. The night of the "Battle of the Bulge" started for us Christmas Eve when the Germans came swarming over a small bridge spanning the Our River just at the bottom of the ridge on which we were camped. We were subjected to intense mortar fire and we rushed out of our bivoac to do battle in the middle of the night. I was manning the B.A.R (browning automatic riffle) which was equivalent to a small portable machine gun. It required two men one to just carry all the ammo. When I volunteered to carry the B.A.R., my friend since basic training, John Kopczinski volunteered to carry the ammo. We were not engaged in firing for more than an hour when John was hit by two bullets which completely paralyzed him and was the last man to be evacuated. Shortly after that we were over run by far superior numbers. Our unit was disarmed, lined up and the Germans started marching us away. In the confusion and it being in the middle of the night, I did a quick u-turn and marched away in the direction I thought was our company head quarters. I had never been back that far before. I found the headquarters or rather they found me when I was walking down the street. The first sargent (sic.) took me to the second liutenant (sic.) company commander who was in the basement hiding in the potato cellar. The first thing he asked me was : "Can you speak German?" when I answered, "fluently" , he said "you stay here so when they capture us you can talk to them." I answered that I had just escaped from them and that staying there just to be captured again was not my intension. The first sargent and I returned upstairs and just as we reached the first floor, the Germans bust in through the front door. As the Germans crashed in all our soldiers in the area raised their hands and shouted we surrender we surrender. The first sargent and I jumped out a window and started across the fields to where the sargent knew battalion headquarters was located in the town of Clerveaux. I hadn't a clue where that was bnt we finally reached the old castle on the hill in the center of town. We reported our situation to battalion, were given weapons and food and assigned to positions in the upper floors of the castle to continue the battle. I had plenty of ammo and a clear view of the road coming down the hill past the cemetery into town. It was not long before tiger tanks appeared coming down the hill road and supporting troops appeared running through the cemetery we opened fire and continued this all day against endless targets. As the castle we were in was the only obstacle to the Germans, the tiger tanks made the castle their main target.
There were 62 of us firing from the castle with 88's shells raining down on us. We finally ran out of ammunition and food. When we checked with headquarters we found that they had all pulled out leaving only our group apparently to cover their retreat. There was a command car parked in the court yard of the castle and when we decided that we had no choice but to surrender one of the men threw a phosphorus grenade into the car. The result of this was to set the whole castle on fire. For we 62 men, the game was up. The first thing we did was to release a number of German prisoners being held in the cellar. Then we with a white cloth marched out the main gate. My third time of being captured in so short a time.
The first night of our capture I spent digging graves in an apple orchard for the Germans we had killed before our capture. For our grave digging work we were given one cup of ersatz coffee which tasted terrible especially as I don't like coffee of any sort.
We then started our 7 days march to Germany without food or waterate snow when it was available. Many men died enrote (sic.) from wounds, fatigue and hunger. One night in a small town the only building large enough to accommodate us was the local church. After we were established in the church the German guards organized several teams of prisoners to collect tubs of ersatz coffee which had been arranged for us in advanced of our arrival. I was with one team as interpreter plus a German guard. Something I will never forget is that while arranging for the men to pick up the tub, the lady of the house slipped a large sandwich into my pocket (while doing this act of mercy she informed me that she had an uncle in Texas) I will be forever grateful to the uncle in Texas. That sandwich to a starving man was equivalent to a bar of gold today. That night I slept on the alter (sic.), the only space left and as I have no religion I had no qualms.
After this exhausting and harsh treatment by the guards during which I helped where ever I couldreasoning with the guards against beating our men, we arrived at a rail yard and were crammed into box cars which had previously held horses. We had to live with the filthy hay and manure left behind. When we were finally on the way I organized my half of the box car so that the men could take turns sitting and standing. We were packed so tightly that one man had died standing up and couldn't even fall down.
One of the stops was in the rail yards of Limberg which unfortunately was the target of the allied bombers. Two of our cars were hit with a number of very gruesome deathsblown apart. After more desperate train travel we arrived at the town of Bad Orb where we were finally able to leave the stench of the box cars. We were all put in marching order and started up the mountain road to a place called "Wegsheide". Before the war this was a very large summer camp for children all over Germany. We soon learned that it was now converted into a large P.O.W camp holding thousands of international prisoners, Russians, Serbs, French, we Americans whose numbers were increasing everyday. We were eventually 4,000 P.O.Ws moved into a group of 15 barracks. The first problem was inventorying the prisoners and issuing metal numbered prison tags. My number was 23400.
After we were established in the 15 buildings we were instructed to have each building elect a leader. I was elected for my building. Then these 15 men had to elect an overall leader. I was the unlucky one to be elected with the title of "Hauptvertrauensman" or "Chief Man of Confidence". This was for the confidence of our men not the Germans.
Each building had only one faucet, no heat, broken windows and an out door latrine where you had to sit and balance yourself on a pole. A very dangerous maneuver over an open pit of you know what. The kitchen was run by Russians and the food was worse than terrible. We soon managed to have our own men operate the kitchen which was at best far worse than today's refugee camps in the far East. We had only what they gave us to work with, bread with undissolved lumps of sawdust, soup with undistinguishable ingredients - tasted like hell but we had to put something in our stomachs. As a result most of the men had diarrhea, dissintary (sic.) plus many other ailments, malnutrition being the main one affecting all of us.
Shortly after our arrival all the officers and noncoms were transferred elsewhere, leaving only two Chaplin's (sic.), Neal and Hurly. One was catholic and the other protestant. Also a dental officer who had only the most primative equiptment at his disposal. With the departure of all the N.C.O's and officers I as a P.F.C assumed the position of a general or at least a full colonel.
As soon as possible I organized our own M.P brigade, a list of interpreters and selected my own assistants, Joe Littell and Ernst Sinner. Joe was the son of Bishop Littell of New York City learned German in school in Germany he subsequently wrote his life story which contained two chapters of our German P.O.W experience. Ernst Sinner was actually born in Germany but had immigrated to the U. S at an' early age and of coarse spoke German.
Life in the camp ran fairly well all evils considered. There were, needless to say, deaths in the camp all of which had to be buried almost naked as their clothing was distribute to men who were captured without wearing sufficient clothes. There was a lot of bartering between our men and the Russian prisoners separated by only 5 foot wide walkway with barb wire on both sides. The swindles were frequent. One that I wont forget is the GI who threw a cigarette packet across the passage way in exchange for a watch thrown at the same time. The cigarette package was empty and the watch had no works inside.
Most of the time all was quiet until one night two of our men got out of the barracks, entered the kitchen to steal food. They were discovered by two German guards who were almost butchered by the two P.O.W's. In the morning when the crime was discovered the German commandant announced that there would be no further food for all the prisoners until the perpetrators were turned over to them. This was a question of additional starvation deaths or finding the culprits. This was accomplished in short order by our own investigator. Surprisingly the two men were not executed.
One morning the two Chaplin's came to me with a problem which they explained that one of our men told them he had been forsaken by God and wanted to die. I explained to the Chaplin's that it was a church problemtheirs, as I am an Atheist. They insisted that I had to accompany them to see this man. When I appeared beside his bunk his response was as before, "I have been forsaken by God and I want to die". I took from his wallet a picture of his family which I held up to his face and harshly told him, "You're family is expecting you back and if you haven't the guts to live for yourself you have to live for them." his only reply was as before "I have been forsaken by God and I want to die". Two days later he died as well as two others for the same reason.
The next big event was my being summoned again to the commandants office to be told there was a delegation coming from the Swiss red cross to check out the conditions of the camp and its inmates. I was then told very specifically what I could and couldn't tell them. The following day these two gentlemen arrived/we sat down to talk and the first thing I asked was, "will what I have to say be entirely in confidence." They assured me, "Absolutely" . We conferred for two and a half hours after which they took me down to the commandants office where six of us sat around the table and those S.O.B's of the red cross opened their little black book and started from page one and recited everything I had narrated "in confidence". From the looks of the faces of the Germans I could foretell my fate.
The following morning I was summoned to a small second floor conference room. There were 8 chairs and in front of one of the chairs was a loaf of bread - very obviously a bribe for something coming. When we were all seated the senior officer started, "Kasten, we want the names of all the Jews in the American camp." Without any hesitation I pushed the loaf of bread to the center of the table and stated, "We are all Americans, we don't differentiate by religion." This infuriated them so, that they jerked me out of my chair, started slamming me around and then hurled me down the strait (sic.) flight of steps from the second floor to the street. I lay in the street for a while to determine if any bones were broken because it was an extremely rough trip. I was finally able to stand up, badly bruised but nothing broken as far as I could determine then. I made my painful way back to our sector, immediately summoned my 15 leaders to whom I narrated my experience with the red cross followed by the German brutality.
When I finished I instructed all the men to return to their barracks and repeat the whole storry (sic.) with my final instructions, "Something is bound to happen and soon and that none of the men should admit to being Jewish." I was emphatic on this point. Sure enough, that afternoon the entire guard contingent ordered us all out on the parade ground. 4,000 men with the 15 leaders in front and I with my 2 assistants in the fore. The liItenant stood on a small platform and with no more ado, announced, "alle juden ein schritt vorwerts". (All Jews take one step forward). Because of my morning instructions no one moved. This infuriated the officer to an extent that he jumped down from his platform, grabbed a rifle from one of the guards and rushed towards me. I was convinced he was going to shoot me but instead holding the barrel he swung the rifle like Babe Ruth and with all his strength crashed the butt against my chest. I flew backwards about 15 feet and fell on the ground I couldn't breathe I thought I was done for. While I lay there completely out of it the guards went down the lines of our men and pulled out all those who "looked Jewish". These totaled only 80 men and apparently they had a quota of 350 men to send elsewhere so they included all the trouble makers and as a last thrust he said, "Kasten, du auch unt deine assitenten." (Kasten, you and your two assistants also.) This was my payment for the Red cross affair and my morning refusal regarding our Jewish troops. They told us we were going to work on a farm.
We were crammed into box cars as beforeno food or water4 days to the town, "Berga an der Elster". On arrival I was greeted by the officer Lt. Hack with the cheerful full words, "we know all about you Kasten". So once again I was nailed in advance. Berga was a slave labor concentration camp. Totally against Geneva Convention rules for prisoners of war to be encarcarated in such a place. The Jewish men selected Goldstein as their leader but the Germans told them a Jew could not hold that position so automatically I became the leader as a carry over from Stalag 9B.
Very rapidly things went from bad to worse. The Germans had the slave laborors digging 17 tunnels into the mountains along the bank of the Elster River. This was to be a factory safe from allied bombing. The agony of it all soon became evident. We had to get up while it was still dark, march to the mines to dig the tunnels without food or water and 12 hours breathing stone dust and hauling out carts loaded with stone. The men started dying of exhaustion, malnutrition, and extremely harsh treatment. (I should insert here a notice regarding the famous documentary film maker, Charles Guggenheim, completed just before his death a film titled, "Berga - Soldiers of another war" that tells the whole sorted story of Berga I am also in this documentary shown nation wide on PBS starting May 28th 2003 ) I requested a meeting with Lt. Hack accompanied by my assistant Joe Littell. We made our point about the Geneva Convention rules and that one day he would have to answer for his actions. His answer was, "You were brought here to work and that's what you will do". He capped this statement with a further, "Kasten, we know all about you. Let me see your ID tags". I pulled my dog tags out of my shirt and Hack took hold of it and read, "Johann Carl Friedrich Kasten. You are a German and you have come here to destroy the third Reich. You know Kasten, there is only one thing worse than a Jew. Do you know what that is?" (I didn't answer) "It's a traitor who betrays his country and you are a traitor. Incidentally we have something special for you. We have just received 2 new dogs that are trained to tear you apart and tomorrow we are going to turn you lose to see if they could get you." With that happy thought he dismissed us.
On returning to the barracks I informed Joe and Ernst that I was going to attempt an escape that
night. They immediately said they would go with me. I told them flatly no because I figured that I had about a 1% chance of making it without being shot. They were so insistent that I finally gave in. before the barracks were locked for the night the three of us were lying under the upper end of the building with barely enough room to squeeze out. Among the meager supplies we took along
I had six sticks of dynamite with the necessary blasting caps which some of our men who were working in the mines near the dynamite I persuaded to steal the sticks one by one "just in case". (At this point I should mention that after the war Joe Littell wrote a book titled, "A lifetime in every moment" which tells the story in detail of this eventful night). When we figured it was late enough, we wriggled up to the barb wire fence where two of us pulled the wire right and left and Joe squeezed through. Then Joe and I pulled for Ernst to get out. I was halfway through when the guard approached on his regular rounds. I thought if he shoots and hits the dynamite they would only find small pieces of us. We were lying in the shadow of the building cast by the two down hill spotlights. The two up hill lights were outsheer luck. The guard stopped within 10 feet in front of us turned around and started back againunbelievable. As we three lay outside of the fence deciding what to do, suddenly there was an air raid alarm and all the lights went out but it also brought all the guards out. They had been in a brightly lighted room consequently somewhat blinded in the dark as we ran though them and away - free at last.
We traveled by night sleeping in the snow in the woods during the day . We existed on sugar beets which we dug out of the mounds which the farmers made to feed their cattle during the winter. This was accompanied by eating snow. Greeting occasional travelers at night with a, "Heil Hitler". I shaved off my beard and we cut off all of the American brass buttons of Ernst and Joe's coat. My coat was a reversible white on the outside and olive on the inside so I had no worries. After several days of this strenuous routine, we arrived at a small town and decided we needed a change of venue. We entered an inn and tried to get a room. The innkeepers comment was, "are you crazy? Since the bombing we even have people sleeping in the hallways. Try the inn up the street." Next stop the inn up the street. Same story so we decided to sit at a table and ordered three beers to look les conspicuous. This is where things began to unwind when a German officer sitting near by began looking at us suspiciously (ever since then Joe claims it was his fault because he used incorrect German) we decided to leave. Before we reached the door the officer caught up with us and asked to see our papers. I became very arrogant and asked, "Who are you that we have to show you our papers?" he then changed his tune and said, "I understand you're looking for a room. The innkeeper down the street is a friend of mine maybe I can help you." We had to go along with that especially as he was armed and walked behind us as soon as we were in the first inn, he turned on us again, "Now let me see your paper." I became as arrogant as before and told him, "call the police, we will show them our papers." Unfortunately this is exactly what he did and very shortly we were confronted by two elderly policemen in their long green coats and shinny (sic.) black helmets plus ancient rifles. He very politely asked, "Bitte meine herren ihre papiere zeigen." The whole atmosphere changed when I answered, "Leider haben wir keine papiere." By this time a crowed started gathering around us. His next words were, "Keine papiere das ghet ya aber nicht. Hande hoh." (No papers, that is impossible hands up). The first guard handed his rifle to somebody while the other guard shakily pointed his rifle at us. Imagine the excitement when the guard pulled a stick of dynamite from my pocket and held it up in the air, and shouted, "Sprengstoff". (Dynamite). The second guard (both elderly) pointing his rifle at us began to shake so violently I was afraid he would accidentally pull the trigger. If the situation hadn't been so serious, it would have been a good Laurel and Hardy comedy. People started running franticly for the windows and doors anticipating a big explosion. The first guard ran out leaving his shaking companion holding his gun on us, "the sabateurs" when the guard came back, it was with a whole contingent of the Gestapo, the dreaded secret police. Joe and Ernst were hustled into one car with two of the Gestapo and I in the other car with 3 Gestapo I was the saboteur with the "sprengstoff'. We sped off to Gestapo headquarters where the interrogation started. I was the first and they stripped me while they all sat around a hot stove and I, standing there naked was almost freezing to death. I was wearing a fur jacket into the lining of which I had sown many papers from 9B. When they threw this on the table, I could hear the papers rattling but they noticed nothing. They eventually finished with me and shoved me into a cell in the basement. Joe and Ernst eventually joined me.
At 10 am the next morning we were all hauled upstairs again to be confronted by Lt. Hack with two guards. During my interrogation the night before they found my Salag 9B metal ID tag. So they contacted 9B who told them we had been sent to Berga. The call to Berga brought Lt. Hack who was angry to the nth degree because our escape had complicated his life considerably. He immediately did the rifle routine with a savage blow across my chest. I was in no condition to
with stand this and I flew backward against the wall and slid to the floor where upon the three of them using their rifle buts and boots to send me into unconsciousness. When they tired of beating me even after I lost consciousness Joe and Ernst had to carry me back to the cell in the basement.
At 5:00 pm we were hauled out of our cell again and shackled together. I was in the middle because I could barely stand up. We were then marched down the street to the railroad station. On the way, people spit on us and threw horse manure a very degrading experience. Our next stop was the punishment jail of Buchenwald, where we were unceremoniously shoved into solitary confinement cells. The big difference here was that Joe was given books to read while I, the saboteur was taken out of my cell every evening and given a very thorough beating and continuous interrogation. This continued until one evening the officer who was supervising my treatment suddenly said, "Also schluss damit, ershiessen" (finish with it shoot him). The execution to take place in 5 days. The 5 days was for added torture to know you would be dead shortly. But wonder of wonders, on the third day the German guards began to run away and shortly there after the US military arrived, cut the fence open and we had a great reunion.
I went into the town, liberated a Mercedes Bens (sic.) which the GI's filled with gas and gave me a case of C rations and I set off to search for Lt. Hack in all the camps where Gennan prisoners were being held. A futile search. I finally collapse (sic.) from exhaustion. My weight was only 96 pounds. I ended up in the large US army hospitalcamp Lucky Strike, near La Harve (sic.), France. Shortly after I was shipped back to the US. With the following reminders of the extremely harsh treatment I had received from the SS in Berga and Buchenwald, number one lost all but 6 of my teeth, number two I lost 50% of my hearing ability caused by continuous slamming of my ears, three, badly damaged a number of my vertebra which has caused among other things limitation of head movement left or right as well as up and down and frequently causes sever (sic.) long lasting heard aches, if during sleep I lie incorrectly or I must stand or sit for long periods. Number 4 numbness of both feet extending midway to my knees. Number 5 constipation necessitating laxatives for the past 58 years. Number 6 intermittent dysfunction of my eyes which was probably caused by constant blows to my head during imprisonment.THUS ENDS MY SAGA AS A P.O.W IN WORL WAR II