POW Makes The Great Escape

 

Written by Nathan Winfrey in the January 2009 Issue

Longtime Edmond resident Pendleton Woods spent his 21st birthday stuffed in a crowded German boxcar in the dead of winter, moving just a few miles at a time so trains carrying Nazi troops could pass. He was a prisoner of war, captured during a reconnaissance patrol behind enemy lines with seven other American soldiers on Dececember 10, 1944. Now he was on a six-day shuttle to the first of a series of prison camps where he would reside until his daring escape the
following spring.

Stalag XII-A was hell on earth. The prison building to which Woods was assigned had a large open room the size of a gymnasium, yet it was so crowded that the prisoners had to sleep overlapped like Lincoln Logs. The latrine in the adjacent room, which they had to crawl over sleeping bodies to reach, was rendered useless by frozen drain pipes and the foul prisoners’ waste pooled on the floor and seeped into the room in which
they slept.

During this time, the Americans were bombing during the daytime and the British were bombing at night, hoping to hit an air base neighboring the prison.

Somehow, the British misjudged their target the night before Christmas Eve and showered the prison camp with bombs. The windows of Woods’ building were blown out and the building next to his took a direct hit, killing 40 American prisoners. It took all day Christmas Eve for the dead and injured to be pulled from the rubble, but still, the prisoners found a way to celebrate the holiday. Someone in his barracks tied rags and colorful scraps of paper to a dead limb to serve as a Christmas tree and then, from another building in the prison camp, came a chorus of voices singing “Silent Night.” It wasn’t long before all the prisoners joined in the song and the beloved Christmas hymn could be heard from every corner of the camp.

Woods’ next home was Stalag III-A, in Luchenwalde, where at least prisoners were given proper beds. Two men were assigned to each narrow mattress with a blanket to share.

Food was regular but portions were meager. In the morning, the prisoners were served what the guards called “coffee,” but Woods is convinced it was boiled wood. For lunch, one-third of a canteen cup of colorabas. For dinner, a loaf of bread divided among 10 men.

In January, Woods was reassigned to a forced labor camp, and on the night of April 20, 1945—Hitler’s birthday—Woods saw his chance for escape. A fence succumbed to Russian artillery, and that was all the opportunity needed for Woods and about 50 other prisoners to make a break for it. “The guards weren’t worrying about us; everyone was worrying about themselves, so we just took off,” Woods says.

Woods says he harbors no resentment for the prison guards. Most of them were older and had grown up in a Hitler-free Germany. The ones who were dangerous were the young ones—the products of the hate-indoctrination of the Hitler Youth program. “Those travesties that you read about that they did were mainly carried out by those young ones who were trained to hate; they had been trained for those things,” he says.

The escapees experienced no German resistance   during their return to American lines. Later they discovered  that the Yalta Agreement with Russia held the American and British armies at the Elbe. The Russian army moved forward to capture Berlin. To stop the Russians, the German army  moved to the eastern front, leaving the way clear for the escapees heading west.


The war was near its end, and it took five days for the band of escapees to walk 125 miles, sleeping where they could and eating raw potatoes. At last, they reached an American division on the safe side of the Elbe River.

“We were nicely greeted and treated, and it was kind of a homecoming for us,” Woods says.

Woods was discharged from the Army later that year, but his experiences with war were far from over. In 1948 he graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in journalism and a ROTC military commission as a second lieutenant in 1948. Woods took a job with OG&E in Oklahoma City, editing its in-house publication, and then he joined the Oklahoma Army National Guard and became public information officer for the 45th Infantry Division. “We were the first national guard division to go to Korea,” he says. “I had the division newspaper, hosted war correspondents, and we were the first division of any kind in the army that had its own weekly radio and television programs. They were sent to Oklahoma stations.”

Woods’ “Voices of the 45th” radio program aired on KVOO in Tulsa and WKY in Oklahoma City, and when the television became a common household appliance, KVOO sent them a camera.

While in Korea, Woods visited a United Nations POW camp for North Korean and Chinese Communist POWs on Koji Island, this time on the free side of the fences. What he observed there was a stark contrast to what he’d experienced during his own imprisonment. In Germany, even though the conditions had been deplorable, at least there was solidarity among the POWs. Despite the Germans’ best efforts to break their ranks by separating officers and lower-ranking soldiers, everyone still found a way to act democratically and take care of each other. However, in the Koji Island prison camp, the North Korean and Chinese communist prisoners held raucous demonstrations and
kangaroo courts where they would use modified eating utensils to kill and maim their fellow prisoners. “In my POW experience, we worked together and shared with one another all the way through, even to the point, when we got away from the prison camp, we literally carried a person whose feet had been so badly frozen that he couldn’t walk,” Woods says, “To me, the difference is between how people grow up in a free society, helping one another, and a dictatorial society like they have there.”

On Woods’ first evening at the camp, he witnessed one of the demonstrations and heard them chanting, “Down with the American imperialists, down with capitalism, up with communism, hooray for Mao Tse-tung.”

The next morning, Woods saw a platoon of American soldiers digging holes for the bodies of POWs who had been killed by their fellow prisoners. “The smell was excruciating,” he says. Nearby, a large tent was packed with more than a hundred bodies. “When you’ve been in combat, whenever you see one or two bodies you relate in your mind the body and the soul and everything that once lay in that body, but when you see large numbers, it’s hard to relate them as individuals, because there are so many of them,” Woods says. “I took my hat off and said  to myself, ‘Why were these men killed?’ Had they spoken out against communism? Had they spoken up for freedom or had they refused to participate in a demonstration like the one I’d seen the night before? I thought, ‘Those men were heroes. They would have made great Americans’.”

Woods retired from the National Guard in 1983 as a colonel with 41 years of active and reserve service. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame in 2002. Currently on staff at Oklahoma Christian University, where he began an oral history program in 1969, collecting nearly 3,000 oral interviews of interviewees with first-hand knowledge of Oklahoma history. Woods also started a publication for the Oklahoma Historical Society, called Mistletoe Leaves, which he wrote and produced for 11 years. He authored and co-authored 16 books, ensuring his induction into the Oklahoma Hall of fame in 2007.

Among his many other honors and citations, Woods was one of five national recipients of the Spirit of ’76 Award for patriotic service, was selected for “President’s Points of Light,” received the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Medal of Honor from the Daughters of the American Revolution, the designation of December 18 as Pendleton Woods Day in Oklahoma, induction into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, and an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma Christian University. He was honored three years ago with an award commemorating his 70 years of service to the Boy Scouts of America.

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