Soldiers honored at ceremony

By By Arthur Raymond

By Arthur Raymond

An 86-day forced march through Eastern Europe in the dead of winter is just one of the atrocities Richard W. Burt suffered at the hands of the German army in the waning days of World War II.

“I weighed 141 pounds before I was captured…and 90 pounds when I was released,” Burt said.

Burt was the guest speaker at a day of remembrance for soldiers who spent time as prisoners of war or who were reported as missing in action. The memorial service was hosted Friday by the U’s chapter of the Arnold Air Society, a service group composed of members of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at the U.

Burt’s harrowing saga began on Nov. 16, 1944. He was a radio operator on a B-24 bomber team flying missions into Germany from a base in Italy. On that day, Burt was assigned to fill in on a team missing their regular operator.

“As I waved goodbye to my flight team, I had no way of knowing I would not see them again,” he said.

While the team was attempting to return to the base, one engine on their plane was disabled by a flak strike over their target in Germany and a second engine failed on their return flight. Burt and his fellow crew members were forced to parachute from the plane over Yugoslavia.

Burt was captured by Russian Cossacks, who were fighting for the German army, the day after his plane went down.

He was transferred to Stalag Luft IV, a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland. He spoke of the extreme conditions at the camp.

“One guy would go to the mess hall with a bucket. He’d come back with hot water, or maybe some turnip soup or a couple of potatoes,” Burt said. That bucket was the entire food ration for the 25 men in his barrack.

The entire camp was surrounded by a double electric fence and guard towers. A “warning” line inside the fence perimeter marked the boundary for prisoners.

Burt said that any prisoner who crossed this boundary would not be given a warning, “they’d just be shot.”

In Feb. 1945, Burt and the other prisoners at Stalag Luft IV were told they would be evacuating camp.

Burt said rumors in the camp where that Allied forces were approaching their location. Other rumors, which Burt said were later confirmed, indicated that the commanders of German POW camps were ordered to execute their prisoners. These officers, however, knew that “the war was lost” and that keeping the prisoners alive might very well save their lives.

The march began the day after the evacuation was announced. Burt and the other prisoners were forced to sleep outside in the cold winter. Burt said that on occasion, they would spend the night in barns “which felt like staying at the Ritz.” Most nights, however, were spent sleeping in the snow.

In addition to the extreme cold, snow and lack of food, the columns of prisoners were strafed (attacked by machine-gun fire) by British fighter pilots, who mistook the group for German soldiers.

On the 86th day of this odyssey, Burt said he saw a jeep approach his group with a German officer and a British officer in it. Burt and the other prisoners watched as the German officer formally offered his weapon to the British officer in an act of surrender.

Burt described his state at the moment of his liberation.

“I was sickened and weak and had been suffering from dysentery. I feared that, in some awful irony…I would have survived all that I had…just to die at the moment of freedom,” he said.

Burt concluded his presentation with slides of visits he made to Poland in 1987 and 2003. A small monument marks the site of Stalag Luft IV, now overgrown with the forest that surrounded it.

Burt and the other POWs in attendance were escorted by cadets to the Meditation Chapel at Memory Grove, accompanied by a troupe of bagpipers. A moment of silence was observed, and an honor guard of U Army and Air Force ROTC cadets ceremonially lowered the flag to half-mast in remembrance.

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Teresa Getten

The U chapter of the Arnold Air Society hosted a remembrance event Friday at Memory Grove for soldiers who spent time as prisoners of war or who were reported missing in action.