T/Sgt. Bob Doherty and Mischief Maker II: A Tale of Endurance
(If you missed Part 1, click here.)
By William F. Hanna
“All of us prisoners of war heard one repetitive refrain from the Germans . . . They would say, ‘For you the war is over.’ And that was pure B.S.”
Within minutes of jumping from the dying Mischief Maker II, Sgt. Bob Doherty and three crewmates were being interrogated by a Wehrmacht captain inside the Waterloo garrison. The German, who had once worked for the Railway Express Company in Buffalo, New York, took great pleasure in reciting a travelogue of his American adventures, but all Doherty and his friends contributed was their name, rank and serial number. Jumping from a plane at low altitude onto frozen ground practically guarantees injury, and the four prisoners were nursing theirs. As the shock and trauma of capture subsided, they could only wonder what would happen next.
Sgt. Doherty’s ordeal as a prisoner of war took him first from Waterloo, Belgium to Stalag Luft VI, near Heydekrug, East Prussia (present-day Lithuania). Located on the Baltic Sea, this was the northernmost POW camp within the German Reich. Large numbers of American prisoners had begun arriving there in February 1944 and within weeks the camp held approximately 9,000 inmates.
Life in a German POW camp was never easy. The food and medical care were usually inadequate, prisoners’ housing was cold, crowded and uncomfortable, and mail from home — if it arrived at all — took months to reach the G.I. And yet, one of the most interesting stories of the war was how the ingenuity and adaptability of the prisoners made life behind the wire bearable. That’s the way it was at Stalag Luft VI, where inmates organized sports teams as well as drama clubs and musical groups. Volunteer POWs taught courses in everything from banking to foreign languages, and a 6,000-volume library offered reading material.
Among the many prisoner-generated amenities was the camp newspaper, with Bob Doherty as its co-editor. It was in this capacity that he learned in July 1944 that the Russian army was pushing steadily westward and would soon overrun Stalag Luft VI. Word spread quickly through the barracks that the camp was to be evacuated.
The Germans moved rapidly. American POWs were transported by train to the port of Memel. The four-hour train ride in crowded, filthy boxcars was only a prelude of what was to come. In Memel, the GIs were herded aboard two steamships for a tortuous crossing of the Baltic Sea. Doherty remembered the two-day ordeal as a “terrible voyage,” made worse by the inhumanity of the German guards. Years later he said: “I remember in the hold of that ship, it was unbelievable. It was July, the heat was deplorable. They put a tarpaulin over the damn hold so that you couldn’t get any air. Then they would occasionally bring the tarpaulin back and put down buckets so that you could put cigarettes [for them] in the buckets. So the buckets would go up and they would come down again with water — hopefully they’d come down with water.”
Packed into the ship well below the water line, the prisoners were ever-mindful that a torpedo striking the vessel would quickly end their lives. But even then, Sgt. Doherty said, “You always count your blessings.” It could always be worse: “And I remember as bad as I felt . . . I saw one guy was hanging . . . on the inverted hull of the ship there with two rings, which evidently were meant to fasten cargo. And he had his two arms through those rings, like a crucified Christ, and he had an abcessed tooth. And his face was up — and he was in complete agony. And you just felt — stop feeling sorry for yourself!! Look at him! And there was always another him!”
Upon arrival at the German port of Swinemunde (in present-day Poland) on July 18, 1944, the prisoners were loaded into boxcars and taken to a small farming village deep in the forest between Gross Tychow and Kiefheide, about 25 miles from the Baltic. “We knew something was up,” said Doherty, “because we were being shackled, handcuffed.”
Watching the proceedings was the German commander of the guard, Captain Walther Pickhardt. In an episode that no man would ever forget, the prisoners were about to be force marched to Stalag Luft IV. Each man was shackled, wrist and ankle, to a fellow prisoner. Meanwhile Pickhardt’s men had placed machine guns at 50-yard intervals on both sides of the road. Also present were several young Kriegsmarine cadets, each restraining a snarling Alsatian hound held on a short leash. On command, the prisoners were told to run the gauntlet between the machine guns, and as they began, the lunging dogs were turned loose.
In his postwar life, Sgt. Doherty took up poetry, and in one verse he describes the awfulness of that moment:
Oh God, don’t make me bawl,
I know war’s war,
but this takes all.
Who could ever be so vile,
to prod with bayonets the while.
And threaten any sound,
with the fury of Alsatian hounds.
Many prisoners, already weak and exhausted from the journey, couldn’t keep pace with the forced march. If a man fell, it was up to the man shackled to him to coax, drag, pull or carry his partner, because if they stopped, the guards would beat them with rifle butts or prod them with bayonets. And in the din of curses and screams, there were the young cadets with the vicious dogs. Doherty immortalized them in verse:
Who could ever be so cruel,
kids who ought to be in school.
Brats who take their sport of us,
as we make our exodus,
from one plateau of Dante’s Hell,
to this new Silesian Cell.*
Years later he was still moved by what he saw from his fellow prisoners, most especially the “heroism that was unsung.” “Brother carried brother,” he said, and all suffered alike.
To the POWs this nightmare became known as The Great Race, or the Hydekrug Run, and they believed its purpose was to torment them into trying to bolt so that the German guards could shoot them down. But not one prisoner tried to escape, and Doherty estimated that there were about 150 cases of dog bite, as well as bayonet wounds, broken legs and other painful injuries. “If there were no deaths,” he said, “there were many crippling experiences, both mental and physical.”
Stalag Luft IV kept the American prisoners in German custody but it couldn’t stop the advancing Allied forces. Throughout the remainder of the summer and well into the autumn, American, British, Canadian, Free French and other forces pushed the beleaguered Germans eastward while the Russians drove westward. The Ardennes Campaign of mid- December 1944 into January 1945 only delayed the inevitable.
With the Russians advancing from the east and the Reich collapsing around them, Sgt. Doherty and tens of thousands of other POWs were on the move again. During the first week of February 1945, 6,000 Allied prisoners departed Stalag Luft IV, and over the next month, traveling mostly on foot, they suffered from the cruelty of both the German guards and the European winter. Doherty’s contingent arrived first at Stalag XIII B in Weiden, Bavaria, 35 miles west of the Czech border, and from there it was on to Stalag 7A, Germany’s largest POW camp, just north of Moosburg. Inside that compound he joined 76,000 Allied prisoners representing 27 different nationalities. It was at Moosburg on April 29, 1945, after 14 months as a prisoner of war, that Sgt. Doherty was liberated by Gen. George S. Patton’s 14th Armored Division.
Home again, Bob Doherty made the most of a long life. He graduated from Providence College with honors in 1949 and shortly afterward took a teaching job at his alma mater, Monsignor James Coyle High School in Taunton Massachusetts. In 1954, he began a 35-year career in the electronics/defense industry, working for several large companies as a materials manager.
Military history — including his own — played an important part in Mr. Doherty’s life. Highly decorated for his service in World War II, he served during the Korean War as a Master Sergeant in the 320th Military Police Battalion, Taunton’s Army Reserve unit. In later years he became a well-known poet and author, writing frequently on military subjects. He published four books, including two volumes of poetry as well as numerous articles and book reviews. In 1995, after working as an associate producer on the POW documentary “Behind the Wire,” he won a prestigious Telly Award, recognizing outstanding video and television content.
While experts acknowledged Mr. Doherty as a literate and experienced authority on the subject of air combat, his friends appreciated him as a man of wisdom and humor. He was 84-years old when he died in August 2008.
* This passage is taken from Mr. Doherty’s 1992 book of poetry, entitled When Grandpa Flew in World War II.