Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Generally when reading about Katyn and the English-speaking witnesses who were brought there, the authors present one or at most two names – and in fact they generally make it appear that there were only two of them, that they were US officers, and that they went there willingly.  The Polish POWs are not mentioned nor are the letters of protest sent to the Puissance Protectrice sent by the English-speaking witnesses mentioned.

This is why it is necessary to emphasize that not only were Polish POWs sent to view the exhumations in Katyn, and that the Wehrmacht, Division Azul as well as the French Charlemagne Division visited there, but that the group of English-speaking witnesses consisted of 8 men.
The best known of that group was Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet, Jr. – whose name became known as a result of three factors – primo, he was the senior of the two American officers, segundo that as senior officer he submitted a report to Army Intelligence and tercero that as a result of Julius Epstein’s work his name constantly appeared in the press.
Equally important to this history, and as was mentioned in an earlier post, the Germans were not prepared for the capture of over 1,600 US Army enlisted men and officers in mid-February 1943.  The battle is described by Colonel Waters as being a tragedy of errors, with people who lacked battle experience and were outmanned and out-weaponed by the Germans. This battle is still used as study material at the US Army War College. General Fredendall, commanding the battle, pursuant to various reports, purportedly never visited the site, and developed his plan using maps, which did not consider the difficult terrain
POW Lt. Col. Van Vliet was transported to Tunis, after which he was flown by plane to Capua near Naples, with the Germans flying in the Italians in Fokkers, and literally as the Italian infantry disembarked the POWs were brought onto the plane.
From Capua, the road led directly to Germany.  The Italian segment of the journey formed a particularly harsh impression on General Waters – not only because of the food provisions, but also because of how the Italian soldiers acted, including, compelling married men to forcibly remove wedding bands that had not been removed in many years.
Once in Germany, Lt. Col. Van Vliet was sent to Rothenburg am Fulda, Oflag IX A/Z (a sub camp (Zweiglager) of Oflag IX A/H, located in Spangenberg Castle). Until 1943, most of the prisoners in the camp were British officers, and once there Van Vliet found himself the Senior American Officer (SAO) in the camp. The newly arrived Americans owed a debt of gratitude to the British, the sad fact being that the US Army had done little – in this early period – to prepare their troops for possible capture – which was in contra-distinction to the English.
In recollecting the POWs in Hammelburg, in 1945, Walters once again emphasized that they were not prepared to be POWs: noting that they did not have radios, that they did not understand anything about POW life not the least concept.  He then praised the British once again saying that his group would have been in the same situation if not for the British when they were first taken prisoner. Since information about MIS-X was still classified in 1980 when Waters recollected these facts, it is possible that Waters wanted to defer attention about the issue of materials and equipment which were sent by MIS-X. However, the question of preparation is a different matter.
It was from the British soldiers, some of whom had already been imprisoned for three years, that the US troops learned much about ciphered correspondence, about contraband in POW packages or about preparing escapes, finally, they learned about organizing not only an official, but also an unofficial and secret POW camp hierarchy, which operated in a „parallel universe” invisible to the Germans.  From Britain, it was MI-9 which sent packages to their prisoners, where they found components for constructing radios, compasses, maps and other materials necessary for escapes.  In his oral history, this is how General Waters summarily described the US prisoners’ experience with the British:
We learned the entire prisoner of war game from them.
The fact that the POWs possessed radios, was obliquely dealt with by General Waters, since he discussed that the British were well organized without presenting details. Further on, he recalls that they were brought to Oflag 64 and presents a script in which the Americans, supplied by the British, marched out fully loaded with everything that they might need in their „unofficial” operations at the camp: they had been supplied with everything they could need – compasses, maps, rasps, with various items sown into the seams of their cloths, as he stated,
everything you could imagine... We even had a radio...
Van Vliet, in his ‘second’ or 1950 report, wrote that
At this time the German press began a big splurge on the KATYN case. So also did the German radio.
Although this sentence barely hints at it – the following sentence makes it totally clear that he was referring to a concealed radio that the British POWs must have built and were listening to.
                (note mention of this radio violates the certificate I had to sign upon being processed as a returned POW)  
Clearly, the powers that be did not want any discussion of MIS-X to occur, neither did they want it to be publicized that the POWs had learned of the Katyn Massacre from hidden radios, or, even more importantly that there was a clandestine underground POW organization in the Oflag.  There would be more secrets that neither Van Vliet or his companion, Captain Donald B. Stewart ever mentioned in this or other public forums.

It was during the late summer of 1942, while Van Vliet was already in England, that the US Army formed a special unit which was assigned responsibility not only for prisoner contact, but also aid and assistance.  This unit, formally named Department X of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS-X) was known as Box 1142, the Post Office Box in Alexandria, where mail was received. Their operations were actually located inside the perimeter of a POW camp in Fort Hunt.  Their scope of responsibility also included ensuring that US Army POWs received radio construction and escape materials in packages which were sent to them. 

© Krystyna Piórkowska