By Brian Smith
BUHL, Idaho — A sleeve full of potatoes.
For 70 years, that story remained buried in the mind of Ervin Pickrel, an Army Air Corps radio operator who was taken prisoner during World War II. Those starchy hunks along with a can of meat were the genesis of Pickrel’s escape from “the Black March,” one of the most horrendous marches in war history.
Pickrel and thousands of other WWII prisoners of war were forced to march 600 miles across Germany over 86 days by Nazis hoping to skirt invading British and Russian forces.
Pickrel, 92, said he didn’t talk much about his traumatic experience in the march after the war. When Veterans Affairs doctors recently asked him about his war experiences, he said, he “got tied up in a knot” and was nauseated thinking back on it.
“Right now I’m quite a bit shaky after all these years,” he said. “I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.”
On his farm, Pickrel’s children heard bits and pieces. But Pickrel decided to open up more to his family after reading a Times-News article about Paul Kelly, an 88-year-old Twin Falls man who was part of the same march and held captive at the same prison — Stalag Luft IV.
This winter, the two former prisoners sat for four hours in Pickrel’s Buhl kitchen and discussed their experiences.
Pickrel said he was tied in knots again, even in the presence of someone who’d been through the same event.
Each time he retells the journey, Pickrel said, he gets more comfortable.
“I’ve done more this morning than I ever have,” he said after an interview of more than an hour. “It just ties you up in knots, and I don’t know why.”
Pickrel joined the military at 21. The Nebraska native was trained as a radio operator and served aboard a bomber, flying several missions and taking many close calls.
In Northern Ireland, his pilot couldn’t get the landing wheels down on the plane. The crew dropped the ball gunner in a lake and landed in a meadow. Like a plow, the gunner’s hole scooped up the sod and filled the back end of the plane with dirt, Pickrel said.
On his sixth mission, the plane was hit, and the crew was rescued from the English Channel.
On his 12th mission, he wasn’t as lucky. A few days after the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, Pickrel was on a bombing mission when his plane was hit. The crew bailed over northern France.
“You bet your life I wouldn’t want to do that again,” he said with a smile.
The plane’s navigator — a substitute on his last mission — was killed. Except for two waist gunners, the men were taken prisoner together. The two who escaped eventually ended up in German concentration camps, he said.
Pickrel landed in an open pasture, with nowhere to hide.
“I could see that old car coming down the hill and see that guard running down to see where I was going to land,” he said. “When I raised up, he cut loose with his little machine pistol. B-r-r-r-rapt. I just laid down flat because I didn’t have even a stick to fight with.”
Interrogated and stripped of his comfy heated flight jumper, Pickrel and the other captives were loaded on a railroad train and shipped across Germany. In Berlin, the car stopped, and air raid sirens blew.
“We figured, ‘Oh brother, here we are locked in those railroad cars.’ And the guards were scattering for cover. Those were the main (bombing) targets, those rail yards.”
They escaped unharmed, but it would not be the last time he and others were unsure of their fate.
“You were just kind of numb,” Pickrel said. “You just followed orders — you run off, and you’ll be shot.”
Life was grim in Compound A of Stalag Luft IV. He often thought of home and kept hoping for mail that never came. “You knew you were captured, and you just lived with it.”
The prisoners’ two main forms of entertainment were playing cards delivered by the Red Cross and walking around the perimeter of the compound.
Provisions were meager. Each morning he got a piece of bread and a cup of hot water. Most nights they’d be fed soup of boiled kohlrabi, a German turnip, which he now refuses to eat.
The Red Cross dropped off rare treats — coffee, canned meat, chocolate, crackers and, most precious, cigarettes.
“If you didn’t smoke, you could use those to bargain for food,” he said. “Those people who were hooked on cigarettes would trade their grandmother for a pack.”
He and a friend often summoned the strength to walk around the camp two or three times a day. That paid off when they were forced to march, he said.
“The guys who sat on their butts in the barracks the whole time, when they got out on the road their feet wouldn’t hold up.”
Eight months passed before Pickrel and the others were forced to march west to avoid Russian forces charging in from the east.
The long overcoat he was issued always was “flip-flopping around your feet.” Pickrel said he tried to cut a hole in it to button it away from his feet. His knife slipped and sliced his knuckle open.
“That’s my war wound,” he said, laughing.
The prisoners slept in crowded barns at night. Many soldiers had dysentery and no water other than what they were given to drink twice a day. Pickrel luckily avoided the disease. “if you pooped your pants, you still had to wear those damn pants.”
“The back end of my heels peeled off just from walking in the wet ground,” he recalled. “For 80 days, we didn’t have a change of shoes or clothes.”
The German guards had it almost as bad as the prisoners, he said. “You kind of felt sorry for them.”
“We stopped at noon one time, and the soldier lay on the ditch bank there, took his shoe off and he had a hole in the bottom like that,” Pickrel said, making a zero with his fingers. “He got a wad of grass and stuffed it down in his shoe to plug that hole up. I thought, ‘My God — what are you guys fighting for if you have to do things like that?”’
As they neared the end of their march, the exhausted prisoners could hear British guns in the distance. Their captors stopped. In a barn, the prisoners found a stash of potatoes.
“The guard was good enough to let us go in there and get a handful of potatoes,” he said. “We emptied that sucker quick. I got a sleeve full of potatoes, tied a knot in my shirt and filled it full.”
The next day, they started marching the prisoners east — the direction from which they had come. Pickrel, throwing up from all the potatoes he’d eaten, pulled his friend aside. They agreed he couldn’t walk anymore. They found the back of the line and stayed near a sick guard in worse shape. “When he wasn’t lookin’, we scooted across the line, into the trees and laid down,” Pickrel said.
The march trudged on, and they were alone. For a few days they hid in the trees, startled by deer that rattled the brush.
They joined some British soldiers, and the group hid while three Germans ominously carried a large machine gun up a creek. Not far behind, the British forces gave chase.
Pickrel said his rescuers were eager to feed and transport him. He was flown to Paris and deloused.
“The minute you stepped through the door, the guy was there with his spray gun full of DDT,” he said. “They just soaked you with DDT because you were covered in lice. … It’s a wonder it didn’t kill me.”
Returning to Idaho, Pickrel picked up farm life. He never thought about therapy and didn’t put in for veterans medical benefits until recently.
“I didn’t let it bother me. The kids always wanted me to write a book or something on it, but I never could do it.”
He said he didn’t suffer many ill effects from the war, though other soldiers, such as Kelly, struggled to readjust to society.
“For him, it’s just carry on,” said daughter Diane Clemens. “I think a lot of men were like that.”
Although he mostly avoided the subject, Pickrel did react one night when he and his wife, Velma, were playing cards. With news of the Iraq invasion on the television, Pickrel slammed his cards down and ran to the bathroom.
“He wasn’t like Ervin,” Velma said. “Ervin wouldn’t do that. We had never any trouble with that. . Around that time, we had heard of other veterans having flashbacks.”
Clemens said she feels fortunate to hear her father’s incredible story, as so many other veterans’ experiences were never told.
“I’m even learning more things today,” she said. “Like the potatoes in the sleeve — I’d not heard that one.”
“Yeah, well, we cleaned that poor old farmer out,” Pickrel said.
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com