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A Ranger Who Led the Way!

Honoring George Kopanda, 1st Ranger Battalion "A" Co

3rd Ranger Battalion "F" Co
A more elite soldier who arrived by land or sea ... 

 

 

Behind German Lines: The WWII Prison Escapes of SGT George Kopanda

2003, Rob Kopanda

 

In memory of S/Sgt George C. Kopanda, 1st and 3rd Ranger Battalions
Who served in 5 campaigns, including successful campaigns in North Africa and Sicily; was captured in Cisterna, Italy; escaped German POW camps on three occasions; was finally liberated after 18 months by the British 2nd Army.

                                                                                   

The following is a summarized version of the memoirs of my father, who fought valiantly in various campaigns in Tunisia, Northern Africa, and Italy prior to his capture.

At dawn on January 30, 1944, the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger Battalions were advancing up a canal from the perimeter of the Anzio beachhead towards Cisterna, Italy, with the intention of attacking the town. Instead of encountering the expected scattered resistance, they met with an overpowering force of  German soldiers, well-equipped with grenades, machine guns, artillery and mortars. Germans surrounded wounded soldiers and threatened to kill them if our soldiers continued firing their weapons. Many of the Rangers were killed in battle or wanted to die fighting, and eventually all of them were taken (history has it that all but 6 Rangers were either captured or killed).  

 

George Kopanda at camp in Italy

(photo courtesy Ranger Kopanda's sons)

 

The following day they were taken by truck to Rome, where they were mocked and spit on by Italian citizens. This may have been just a display staged for the occupation forces; my father noticed one woman crying and an Italian police officer making a "V" sign while scratching his head. From Rome they were taken to a nearby camp, then to Latrina, followed by a grueling three day trip to Mossberg, Germany, and finally shipped by train to Stalag 2B in Hammerstein, Germany. Food rations given to the prisoners were meager, and their tight quarters were accompanied by overflowing buckets of excrements.

 

Although most of the prisoners were noncoms, they were made to work since they had no identification to prove their status. My father and a fellow companion, Louis Wojcik,  volunteered to work on a farm as they heard it was much easier to escape from than the prison compound. It was actually a peat bog, where the peat was processed and dried to be used as fuel. While filling a hopper (similar to a concrete mixer) with the black muck, they occasionally would "accidentally" include a brick or a stone, which would make the engine spit, sputter and stop. In my father's words, "God knows how many times (the guard) wanted to shoot us, right there and then!"

 

His first escape took place with Lou appropriately on July 4, 1944. With the assistance of a wrench and wire cutters, they made their way out of a barred window (one of the bars was held with nuts and bolts) and under a barbed-wire fence on a night when there was no guard on duty for a long period of time. The men traveled by night and slept in wooded areas at dawn. After seven adventurous days, my father began to exhibit symptoms of malaria, well known to the Rangers from a mosquito-infested swamp in Corleone, Sicily. Too weak to walk, he suggested that Lou continue on his journey; however, Lou selflessly opted to make contact with someone and turn himself in as well. Some Polish farm workers brought the men via a horse-drawn wagon to a German woman who owned the farm. She was distraught with the leadership of the war, and broke down while mentioning that she lost her husband and three sons on the Russian front. The men were well-fed and treated kindly, and then turned into the local constable. On the ride back to the POW camp, Lou also contacted malaria. After they recovered, both men had to serve 10 days in solitary confinement, standard for a first escape attempt.

 

My father's second escape attempt was planned with two other Rangers, Joe Phillips and Frank Cancelieri. They prepared themselves by studying various maps of the area, most of which were smuggled into camp. The gear which they carried, provided by their camp sergeant Robert Ehalt, included a makeshift escape backpack, a 1/4" compass made to fit up a nostril, a watch,  and an onion-paper map of the Danzig (Poland) area, which provided information such as the location of elevated trains and the docking area of Swedish ships. The men made trades with other POWs in order that all three of them would be scheduled for a work camp, which in this case was a farm with a dairy. Here they found that a civilian guard (Volkstrom) awakened prisoners who served as milkers at 3 a.m. He was known to unlock the outside gate, and then unlock a barred basement gate and leave the keys in the lock. The milkers said there were no other guards posted outside of the gate at this hour. He was never seen carrying a flashlight, attributed to a shortage of batteries and the need for them on the front; he also did not smoke, and would therefore have no need for matches.

 

The plan, then, was to loosen a light bulb in the quarters that the civilian guard would first enter, where the 3 men would be waiting crouched between beds in full gear. The light bulb would remain intact in the milker's quarters so as to not arouse suspicion; however, the milkers would take longer than usual to awaken, providing their escaping comrades with additional time to make their move. Sweat rolled down their faces when the time came and the guard flicked the light switch to no avail; fortunately, though, all went as planned, and they were soon on their way to freedom!

 

Beset with the knowledge that they would soon be hunted, the men traversed over 80 kilometers before finding a suitable area to rest. One man would stand guard while the other two slept for an hour. Their water supply was usually drawn from a pond, pool or rainwater, or boggy area, and their food supply was generally enriched by digging into the ground of farms for items such as raw potatoes, rutabagas, and cabbage. My father noted how the sound of wind blowing through various trees could remarkably inspire the senses, and often would compose a poem or song.

 

A variety of close encounters accompanied the fugitive Rangers. At one point they were shot at while traveling at night. On another occasion they encountered a Russian prisoner of war who worked alongside Polish farm laborers, and to whom they could communicate through a combination of broken Polish, German, and pantomime. He brought water and sandwiches for the men, and introduced them to another Russian POW trustee and a Polish farm worker. A plan was devised to acquire a couple of revolvers and for the men to make a break for the Russian front. Unfortunately, the 2nd trustee was thought to be caught with the guns in Danzig, and did not return.

 

A favored mode of travel for the men was to hop a train. On the first occasion, one of the men tripped and fell on a rail switch as they attempted to board a moving freight train. Following this incident, they were able to board a passenger train and, before anyone else entered the car, they locked themselves in the bathroom under the justified assumption that other passengers would think it was in use or out of order. This ride took them about 50 kilometers to a railroad yard, abandoned after dark due to bombing raids. They then found passage on the gondola of a freight train, loaded with logs to twice its height. When this train came to a stop, they climbed down to get a sense of what was going on, and Joe found himself in a scuffle with what appeared to be a soldier. Joe knocked the guard down, and the men ran past what appeared to be a control tower; still being pursued, they made their way into the countryside and eventually back to a set of railroad tracks.

 

Their escapades came to an abrupt end when they found themselves walking past a dimly-lit police station with an armed soldier standing guard. He was, like the Ranger escapees, caught off guard and took a shot at Joe's hip. Fortunately, the gun misfired; however, they were taken inside and stripped, searched, interrogated and "booked." This time they were sent to the discipline barracks of Stalag 20B in Williamsburg rather than their base camp due to their escape activities. The British prisoners of war at this camp were well-seasoned escape veterans and knew all the angles. These British soldiers spoke of where a hundred men escaped and how they were apprehended. They developed the art of raising flowers to make ink for passports, currency, ration cards, and just about every conceivable type of document. Tailors developed skills so good that they could duplicate Hitler's own uniform. They selflessly pooled their resources, and had access to equipment and supplies through trustees who worked in town. My father suggested that they should have been commended highly because of the number of soldiers and Gestapo that had to be taken away from their duties to keep an eye on them.

 

My father and his traveling buddies were actually happy to see the German guards that arrived to take them back to base camp, if for no other reason than to be free of the miniscule mites that dropped from the ceilings every night, leaving them with swollen hands and faces, as well as unforgettable misery. Frank and my father were required to serve 21 days in solitary confinement for escaping twice, and another 21 days for changing their names and numbers.

 

The concrete building which served as their residence during confinement consisted of 25 cells, each eight feet by ten feet with one barred window that was a foot square and a wooden bunker without a mattress. A double barbed-wire fence surrounded the compound. The inmates consisted of five American GIs as well as soldiers from Belgium, France, Serbia, and Poland. According to Geneva convention, prisoners confined to these cells were required to have 1/2 hour of exercise in the morning and in the afternoon. To meet this requirement, the German guards would have the men walk in a circle on the side of the compound.

 

Occasionally during the course of their walks, men in the adjacent regular compound would toss chocolate bars or packages of cigarettes (staples during WWII) to the confined prisoners. Eventually the guards caught on and reported the incidents to the Sergeant of the Guard. He would then search all men before they re-entered solitary confinement. At one point my father threw two packs of cigarettes and a chocolate bar on his desk, raised his arms to show he was not hiding any contraband, and told the Sergeant of the Guard to take them since he would find them anyway. Although this guard had a reputation as a zealous, mean and ruthless soldier, for some reason he softened and explained philosophically how he was simply taking orders from his superiors. My father saw this as an ideal time to make him a proposition: he would get the officer a carton of cigarettes a day in exchange for some food for the men in solitary. These would come from extra supplies accumulated by the American camp sergeant, including weekly parcels unavailable to those who were in confinement, and they were considered superior to the ersatz German cigarettes. The Sergeant of the Guard agreed to this lucrative deal as long as his superiors were unaware of the activities, and if another carton was included for the night guards who necessarily would be involved with the plan. 

                                                                                      

At 10:00 each evening, Joe would come with a gallon pot of stew-like soup and an armload of goodies, along with the cigarettes for the guards; with the assistance of a guard, my father would then distribute a bowl of the soup and a pack of cigarettes (a chocolate bar or gum for those that did not smoke) to each man in confinement, regardless of nationality. This routine continued until their release. Since my father and Frank became known to the guards as a result of this activity, a guard would occasionally knock on their cell doors and offer to trade items, such as white bread (difficult to procure at that time) or fresh fruits, for a pack of American cigarettes. In his words, "Here we were, in solitary confinement, and practically eating better than the bulk of the Germans!"

 

The final escape came towards the end of the war, when the POWs were being evacuated from Stalag 10B in Sandbostel. Believing that the Germans were going to walk them towards Denmark, my father, along with Staff Sgt. Richard Thompson, Staff Sgt. Howard Hedenstad & Private John Rosendahl, jumped into a nearby wooded area while being lead ten yards behind a German guard. The men journeyed for a period of eight days across the countryside, and got as far as the German artillery positions when they were turned in by a German farmer. They were then brought to Stalag 100, where they were liberated by the British 2nd Army after a period of 10 days.

 

From left to right, Howard Hedenstad, Bill Phillips (not to be confused withJoe Phillips, who is in the story), George Kopanda, liberated at Stalag 100 by the British 2nd Army

(photo courtesy Ranger Kopanda's sons)

 

Honored by sons Rich, Bill, & Rob Kopanda

April 2003  

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