North Dakota POWs in Germany
Stalag Luft 3 was a German prisoner of war camp in use from March of ‘42 through January of 1945. This camp was operated by the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, for Allied flight officers shot down over German occupied Europe. Early in the war it housed primarily British personnel, but as the war went on, thousands of Americans were also interned there.
In the spring of 1944, Stalag Luft 3 was the site of the famous escape where 75 prisoners left through an elaborate tunnel system. All but three of the escapees were eventually captured. This event was later dramatized in the 1963 movie, “The Great Escape,” with an ensemble cast of stars that included Steve McQueen and James Garner.
In January of 1945, with the Russians approaching from the east, the camp was abruptly evacuated. The prisoners were told to take only what they could carry, and they started marching out of the complex just before midnight on January 27th during a snow storm. Eleven thousand prisoners walked 34 miles before they were allowed to stop. After resting for several hours, they marched the remaining 16 miles to Spremburg, Germany.
The march was very hard on the prisoners and many suffered from the cold and frostbite. It was also difficult for the German guards, who were older and unfit for regular military service. Several of the guards gave their heavy rifles to the prisoners to carry. From Spremburg they traveled by train to Stalag 7A near Moosburg. On this date, in 1945, all the prisoners from Stalag Luft 3 made it to Stalag 7A. Among those who arrived were a number of North Dakotans, including George Ott, from New England; Rudy Froeschle, from Hazen; Harold Halstead, from Beach; and future North Dakota Lt. Governor Ernest Sands, from Minot.
Conditions in Stalag 7A were very bad and overcrowded. The camp was originally designed for 10,000, but by April, 1945, it held over 80 thousand, represented by all the countries of the Allied Forces, most of whom were from France and the Soviet Union.
Relief for the prisoners finally came in late April when they were liberated by the 14th Armored Division attached to Patton’s 3rd Army. American internees were sent to Camp Lucky Strike in France for processing, then it was all-aboard for the return home.
Dakota Datebook by Scott Nelson
Sources: Personal interviews with George Ott and Ernest Sands. Books, "The Last Escape" and "The Wooden Horse"