On Jan. 30, 1944, a German Me-109 shot down turret gunner Harvey Gann’s B-24 Liberator over northern Italy. Gann was the sole survivor. He spent much of the rest of the war in a series of prisoner-of-war camps, surviving to recount his experiences in the memoir Escape I Must!
My father came across Escape I Must! at a flea market booth in Fredericksburg, Texas. The person manning the booth was none other than Harvey Gann, selling autographed copies of his book. The memoir soon found its way into my hands — and I was struck in particular by Gann’s retelling of a particularly harsh and brutal prisoner transfer that may have been orchestrated as part of a failed execution plot by a German officer.
These prisoner transfers occurred several times during’s Gann captivity. (He also escaped four times, and was recaptured thrice.) In July 1944, Gann was held in Stalag Luft VI, a camp in the far northeast of East Prussia, now part of Lithuania. At the same time, Soviet forces were approaching as part of Operation Bagration, the massive Red Army offensive then devouring German Army Group Center.
On July 15, Gann and several hundred prisoners were shipped from Lithuania to the German town of Swinemuende in a crowded ship, and then sent by rail to Grosstychow before being marched three miles to the camp Stalag Luft IV along a wooded road. Here, on July 18, Gann learned how fanatical German officers could make enlisted German troops behave worse.
During the march, German Capt. Walter Pickhardt began excitedly yelling at the guards, who were German navy personnel, “telling the guards that we were the S.O.B.s and the bastards who had bombed their cities and killed their folks,” Gann wrote.
“Evidently he was trying to work them into a frenzy, for what purpose we could only guess. We saw many of the young guards turn from friendly to hostile as they listened to Hauptmann Pickhardt rave and rant for several minutes.”
Some guards jabbed at the prisoners with bayonets on their rifles as guard dogs snarled and snapped at the column, which accelerated into a run under the German guards’ blows and prods. Not all of the German marines were enthusiastic about their job.
“I remember seeing one of the marine guards take his bayonet off his rifle and throw it away,” Gann wrote. “I often wondered what kind of excuse he offered for losing his bayonet. I hope somehow he was rewarded for his act of compassion.”
Gann also noted some civilians along the road, “many of them yelling and shouting and jeering at us … But I saw several of them crying, obviously very disturbed by what they saw taking place.”
The Stalag Luft IV memorial in Gross Tychow, Poland. Photo via Wikimedia
The soldiers desperately tried not to fall behind. In Gann’s case, he was handcuffed to another soldier he only remembered as “James” — his last name — from Rome, Georgia.
“He had been shot down a few weeks prior to our camp’s evacuation. Fortunately for both of us he was uninjured and in good physical condition. I was relieved to know that he would be able to help keep up and even help me if I should tire out or fall. I felt sure he would be a good man to have along in any kind of tough situation. The one we were now enduring was about as tough as I could imagine.”
Gann suspected that Pickhardt’s brutality was an attempt to provoke the prisoners into fleeing. Gann noticed machine gun positions along the road along with photographers. If he and his fellow airmen and soldiers had attempted to escape into the woods, Pickhardt could have ordered the gunners to shoot, with the photographic evidence needed to justify the act to his own commanders.
“Any attempt on our part to break and run into the woods would have been a disaster for all of us.”
Ultimately, the prisoners stayed on course, although several dozen were injured during the forced run from beatings, bayonets and dog bites.
Gann and his handcuffed companion made it to their new camp unscathed, but exhausted. There, they spent the following months hungry, constantly thinking about food back home — and trying to pass the time with games, at one point cheering when a German Me-110 heavy fighter accidentally crashed nearby while doing high-speed, aerobatic maneuvers.
In February 1945, as Soviet forces closed in again, and the Germans ordered Gann and several other to conduct another forced march. This is when Gann and several soldiers dodged their captors and booked it, linking up with the Red Army, then moving on to Odessa by rail where they met a U.S. military detachment.
One of the fellow escaping Americans was Norris “Tex” Reynolds, a Texan with a gambling habit.
Pickhardt, the German officer, was later arrested by Allied forces, but was not tried as a war criminal due to a lack of evidence. Gann worked after the war as an Austin Police Department vice cop, and to his great surprise in 1961, raided an illegal poker game only to find his old buddy, Tex. “Say, Tex, it’s great to see you again!” Gann recalled. “How’ve you been? Sorry, but I’m going to have to take you in.”
Gann is 97 years old and, as of January 2018, still shows up at his booth in the Fredericksburg flea market.