Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Washington Terrace Part 2: Survival

In Part 1 of this mini-series about Washington Terrace, Ella, who lived on the street, was found murdered a few miles away. As a reminder, this mini-series is about a little street in Manhattan that was built off the regular street grid.

In the same year that Ella was found murdered, 1907, a young man arrived in New York City as a newcomer from Norway. This story is about the survival of his son, Arthur Wigeland.

Arthur and his older brother Hans grew up on Washington Terrace. Their home was likely a lively place with the two brothers, their parents, two cousins from Norway, and three more boarders - also from Norway - all in one apartment.

Arthur spent his childhood, from the 1920s until he enlisted in WWII, living in this row of houses,
shown here as they appear in 2017. Photo by blog author.

When World War II broke out, Hans and Arthur both enlisted in the Army. Hans was a musician and he ended up playing in an Army artillery band. Arthur, age 21, had a job selling advertising for The New York Times when he enlisted as a private.

Arthur Wigeland. New York Times Studios.

Arthur reported for duty with the Army at Fort Jay on Governor’s Island. The small island is in the upper bay of New York Harbor, just off the southern tip of Manhattan. A United States military post since the beginning of our country’s independence, it was a place for troops to muster before heading overseas during WWII.

Manhattan and Governor's Island. Fort Jay is on the lower left side of the photo,
the structure surrounded by open land.
Plane Flying above Governor's Island, 1935, unknown photographer. 
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Arthur headed to Western Europe with the Armored Field Artillery Battalion, and his job was Forward Observer in a tank. 

Captured


In January 1945 Arthur was riding with a small group of tanks in Belgium when he was surrounded by Germans.

Arthur was in Belgium at tail end of the Battle of the Bulge. The battle began a month before, in December 1944, when the Nazis were in a desperate situation, and Hitler launched an all-out attack against the Allies. It was the largest battle on the western front, and it was brutal.

Arthur’s tank was attacked and the driver was killed. Arthur and several others found an abandoned house as shelter, but it didn’t offer them lasting protection. They fought the Nazis from the house but soon succumbed. 

Arthur had been fighting in the war for almost  three years when he was taken prisoner. Whatever bravery he pulled from himself to fight during those years, he would need to pull out even more to survive as a P.O.W. in a German stalag, a prison camp for enlisted troops.

After capturing the soldiers in Belgium, the Germans marched the prisoners to Limburg, Germany. They passed through small towns, and one veteran who survived the march recalled townspeople throwing apple cores at the prisoners to watch them dive for the cores and fight each other over a small bite of food.

The soldiers marched for days and days without adequate meals – often without any food at all. Escapees were shot on the spot.

Stalag XII


Their destination was Stalag XII. The place had served for years as a staging camp where newly-captured prisoners were sent before being disbursed to other places like work camps. As temporary housing for the prisoners, the conditions were stark to the extreme, devoid of anything to make the place habitable.

By the time Arthur arrived in 1944, Stalag XII housed P.O.W.s long-term, though the conditions remained inhumane.

Stalag XII. Photo from Indianamilitary.org

Stalag XII had no lights, no heat, no beds, no blankets. The men slept on the ground – which was cobblestone for those in tents – with lice-filled straw. I’m sure you can imagine the state of the latrines without my description, and many men suffered dysentery. 

Conditions, however, would get worse. 

In March 1944, the Allies progressed closer and closer, and the Nazis loaded the P.O.W.s from Stalag XII onto railway boxcars to move them toward Berlin. The men were so crowded that there was only room for them to stand, body-to-body, though in some cars they were able to rotate rest times when men could sit while others stood waiting their turn. 

The boxcars full of prisoners sat on the tracks for 36 hours. And then they were strafed.

Strafe comes from the German verb strafen, which means to punish. In WWI, the word strafe entered the English language through the Brits when they heard the German phrase, “Gott strafe England,” meaning, “May God punish England,” and strafe was used to describe any type of attack. 

In WW2, however, the word strafe meant, specifically, attacking the ground from machine-gun fire from a plane flying above.

The prisoners in the boxcars were strafed by Allied planes. The cars were not marked with “P.O.W.” as they should have been according to Geneva Convention rules. The Allies had no idea they were killing and wounding fellow countrymen. They thought they were bombarding enemy transport.

The German guards fled. Some reports say the guards opened the railcar doors before they left. Other reports say the prisoners broke free themselves. However the prisoners escaped, they did it while being strafed.

Shirts off their Backs


As the men ran or stumbled or fell out of the cars, leaders among them organized the group. A Scottish military chaplain arranged them into a formation with the hope that it would save their lives.

If the Germans didn’t label them properly as P.O.W.s, they would label themselves. The men were ordered to take off their shirts and bend over, using their bare bodies in the sun to spell out the letters P O W that could be read by the pilots above.  

Completely unarmed and defenseless under fire, they held the formation. The strafing continued. Men were hit, and one man broke formation to run away. Everyone else remained feet on ground, bodies bent over – except the wounded and two chaplains who performed last rites on the dying.

The P47 Thunderbird pilots stopped the attack when they realized the men were prisoners, and they dipped their plane wings in acknowledgement that the message was received. The pilots flew away, but still the men on the ground held position, half-dressed, mostly starved, in the elements, all afternoon. 

Arthur Wigeland from Washington Terrace was among them.

It seems like the next thing I should write is the Allies returned and the man were safe, but that’s not what happened. Instead, in the evening, the German guards returned. The prisoners couldn’t be moved by train, and at 1 o’clock in the morning, the prisoners were ordered to march.

But not Arthur. He didn’t march. He escaped that night, and he wasn’t the only one. 

Escape and Rescue


Another prisoner slipped away when the group started moving, and he found his way to a farmhouse. A woman there gave him coffee and food. The word was going around the town that the Americans would soon be in Limburg.

Meanwhile Arthur met up with some others who escaped and they hid in a house. There was no resident there to feed them, but they found apples in the cellar – the first food they had had in weeks.

After a couple of days, they recognized the sound of American tanks, and the men wept. 

The tanks were part of the “most powerful tank force ever assembled on the western front,” according to The New York Times report. The enemy had destroyed bridges and left rubble in the streets to block the way of the Allies, but the American bulldozers busted through the mess and the tanks rolled into Limburg at 3:45 in the afternoon of March 27, 1945. 

Allies advancing eastward through Germany. Limburg, where Stalag XII was located, is
circled in red by blog author. Berlin is to the northeast. Map from The New York Times, March 28, 1945.

Arthur and the other starving men came out of the house where they were hiding, and the American soldiers in the tanks tossed chocolate, K-rations, and cigarettes to them. 

Arthur had survived. He went home weighing 130 lbs on his 6’2” frame as one of the lucky ones. Maj. David Roberts told The New York Times the survivors of Stalag XII “were in a pitiful state of well-being.”

Arthur returned to the States around the time of the VE-Day celebrations. The war in Europe was over.

VE-Day celebration in Times Square. Photo from americanairpowermuseum.com

Back in New York City, the New York Times gave Arthur a position again in the ad department, and, over the years, he worked his way up in the advertising industry. 

Arthur left his childhood home on Washington Terrace to fight in a war. Almost twenty years to the day after his capture by the enemy in Belgium, he died in New Jersey at age 43 after a long illness. He left behind a wife, three children, five battle stars, a Purple Heart, and this story of his survival.


After covering murders in Part 1, and war in Part 2 of this mini-series, Part 3 will be about artwork on Washington Terrace.  


2 comments:

  1. This is important history. We have not had a general draft for so long, there are too many young people growing up without any sense about the sacrifices people made to allow us to live our relatively peaceful and, indeed, luxurious lives. And, with a little bit of luck, stories like this will not only give us a more reasonable sense of what sacrifices people in the past made for our present comfort, but also what people now in our armed forces, as well as some in government or voluntary organizations risk. The glories of war and the corruption of government are popular stories. The daily sacrifices of some dedicated people are--it seems to me--are not given the emphasis they deserve.

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  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, and I agree with you. I was moved by what I learned researching this story.

    I hope you will stop by here again.

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