American soldiers joined their Polish counterparts in Zagan, Poland, for two days of festivities over the weekend commemorating the 75th anniversary of the daring escape from a prisoner-of-war camp located there during World War II.
Though 73 of the 76 men were recaptured after fleeing Stalag Luft III through 334 feet of tunnels on that late March 1944 night, the event has come to be known as the Great Escape and was hailed for causing the Wehrmacht to expend manpower hunting down the escapees.
It was the basis for a 1950 book “The Great Escape” by Australian fighter pilot Paul Brickhill and a 1963 Best Picture-nominated film adaptation that starred an ensemble cast, including Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson. It’s also been made into more than one video game.
The celebration, which took place at a POW museum where the camp once stood, included a 10K run, static displays of Polish and U.S. military equipment, tours of POW barracks and groups of living history re-enactors bringing the past alive for the soldiers, the military said in a statement.
The U.S. troops on hand — members of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division — were in Poland as part of a 9-month rotation to Europe to support Operation Atlantic Resolve, the ongoing mission to deter a resurgent Russia after that country’s 2014 annexation Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
The real “Great Escape,” attributed to British Royal Air Force pilot Roger Bushell, involved elements that sound more like the details of a movie.
The prisoners used thousands of floorboards to keep the tunnels 30 feet under the ground from caving. They forged German documents, made disguises and removed excess dirt from the tunnels — 200 tons of it — by scattering it in the prison yard through their pant legs, as in the film “The Shawshank Redemption.”
In one case, the prisoners bribed a mentally challenged guard with chocolate to get valuable information, reminiscent of the television series “Hogan’s Heroes,” set in a WWII POW camp. They got him to sign a receipt for the chocolate and used that to blackmail him into bringing in a camera and film.
The escape was conceived as an exodus of more than 200 prisoners, but German sentries spotted and shot the 77th man to emerge from the tunnel, cutting short the plan. In the end, only two Norwegians and a Dutchman made it to freedom.
The last of the men who made it out of the tunnel and survived, Dick Churchill, died last month at age 99, the BBC reported. He had been recaptured within three days of the escape.
Though based on the exploits of the real POWs, the film departs significantly from reality in some ways, such as including Americans among the escapees. Americans had helped build the tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, but in real life none were among those who made it out of Harry, the only tunnel actually used.
In the case of the 73 escapees, 50 officers were shot on Adolf Hitler’s orders. The Nazis initially said all 50 were killed while resisting capture or trying to escape again, but a military tribunal in 1947 found 18 Nazis guilty of war crimes for the executions.
“There was a lot of pain here,” said Bartolomeiej Danilowicz, a Polish living history re-enactor, quoted in the Army statement. “It’s a historic place, during World War II there was Nazi Germany here and now it’s amazing that we have the U.S. and Polish army here.”
© 2019 the Stars and Stripes
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