The year was 1942, and Lester Schrenk's parents didn't want him to enlist. They lived on a farm in Long Prairie, and Les was 19 years old. Nevertheless, he went ahead and joined the Army-Airforce (all one branch of the military then). He went to basic training, mechanic training, then gunner training, and one year later he was overseas, flying on missions in a B-17, as a ball turret gunner.
I interviewed Lester at his retirement home in Bloomington, on January 31. Curtis and I had played music for the residents there many times over the years. I asked the activities director if she knew of any residents who had a story to tell that might fit my grant project - people who had overcome great challenges in their lives. With no hesitation she said, "You have to talk to Lester Schrenk."
He and his wife Bernice invited me into their apartment, and I turned on the Zoom digital recorder. And Lester took me on the journey of his life, through World War II and beyond! He was on his tenth mission when the Germans hit the fuel tank of the right wing. There were great explosions and flames trailing 30 feet long. They were over the North Sea in February, and the pilot knew they would not survive baling out in that icy water. So he turned the plane around and headed back toward German occupied Denmark, 20 minutes away. He also put down his landing gear, a signal to the Germans that they were surrendering. Amazingly, the German pilot who had hit them "escorted" them back to land, without firing anymore.
Meanwhile, Lester had extracted himself from the "ball turret," the small plexiglass structure hanging from the belly of the plane, which was his gunning position. He strapped on his parachute. The minute they saw land below, they all baled out. At the same time, the destroyed wing blew off. All 10 men baled out, and all survived except the pilot, who unfortunately landed in a lake and drowned.
Dozens and dozens of Nazis were waiting for Lester, guns drawn, and they took him to be interrogated. Beatings were standard, but Lester gave only "name, rank, and serial number." He was sent to Stalag Luft 6, (Luft meant it was a POW camp specifically for airmen). Conditions there were very grim, with very little food. Russian Allied troops were closing in on this area, so the Germans decided to evacuate the camp to keep the POWs from being liberated. First they were jammed into boxcars, so tightly that they were forced to stand. Next they were loaded into a filthy coal ship, again so tightly that they had to stand. There was no food. Lester recalls getting one small sip of water on the ship.
Their destination was Stalag Luft 4, which was even worse than the last camp. There was very little food. Red Cross parcels meant for the men often were not delivered. Most days Lester got just one meal of watery soup. Some days there was a can of rotten fish. Any canned goods were often rotten. Lester and the other men ate it anyway, out of necessity. Again, the Russians were closing in, so they evacuated this camp of 10,000 men as well.
Lester's group of approximately 500 men marched out in February 1945. It was one of the coldest winters on record. Lester's American uniform had been taken when he was captured, and he was issued a hodgepodge of clothes, none of which was meant for cold winter wear. His shoes were from an English soldier, with holes, and very slick on the bottom. He had a thin jacket, and one thin blanket.
Lester wondered where their destination might be, but after several days of marching, he realized they were not really heading to any particular place. They were simply evading the Allies. The truth was there was no camp for them to go to. At night they slept on frozen ground, sometimes in a barn. Many times they marched on cobblestone roads, and the pain was excruciating on Lester's feet, as his shoes slid this way and that. Lester said when they did walk on dirt roads, it was a relief. His socks became worn away till all that was left was a ring of fabric around the top. Trench foot was common, from having wet feet. If one removed his shoes, the feet could swell and one might not be able to get shoes on again.
Les says they were already so weak when they started out, and conditions so terrible, that they just dragged along. Some days there was no food at all, some days they got only a cup of hot water. Some days they had watery soup, or frozen sugar beets they found on the road, that had fallen off a wagon, and everyone suffered from dysentery. Les said many times the diarrhea was so bad you would not have time to lower your pants to relieve yourself. No one had a change of clothes, or a way to wash. Conditions were positively filthy.
Since Lester's family was German, he knew how to speak the language somewhat, so he was forced to march up near the front so he could translate orders. When a man could not go on, a guard fell behind with him, and Lester heard a shot. It happened everyday. Some men froze to death at night. Lester said they used the "buddy system" for sleeping. Five or six men would sleep close to each other to conserve body heat, and double up their blankets. Some mornings the blanket underneath would be frozen to the ground.
Part way through the interview I looked into Lester's eyes and asked, "Was there ever a time you thought you wouldn't make it home alive?" Without missing a beat he said, "Oh no. I KNEW I'd get home. I knew what my parents were going through, and I had to get home for them." They hadn't heard anything from him since they left Stalag Luft 4.
Eighty-six days after they left the POW camp, the English Army liberated them. Lester found out later they had walked almost 800 miles. Some days they walked 10 miles, some days 15 or 20. This forced march came to be known as the German Death March. There were many groups marching through Germany and Poland. I was amazed I had never heard of it before. I asked Lester how many men died during this march, and he said no one knows, not even our government.
Lester made his way back to Long Prairie and his parents, and not too long after, married Bernice. In 1998, Lester got a computer and learned how to use the internet. His incentive was finding the German pilot that had shot them down. I asked why in the world he wanted to find him. He said to thank him. Thank him?
"I wanted to thank him, for not finishing us off," Les said. "Instead, he followed us back to Denmark, and saw us parachute out. Other Luftewaffe pilots would have just shot us out of the sky." Amazingly, with help from other internet "buddies," he found the pilot just a few years ago. His name was Hans Hermann Muller. With such a common name, it was difficult to search for him. Lester and Bernice traveled to Germany and met the pilot and his wife, and did thank him, in 2012. Now they are good friends.
When asked why he would want to meet the pilot, Les said, "If I hated him, would it hurt him? No, it would hurt me. It would make me a bitter person. It’s better to forgive and put the past behind you."
There is a documentary that Denmark TV made about their meeting in 2012. It's showing on Minnesota Public TV July 19 and 26. It's called "Mortal Enemies," and here's the times it will be on.
tpt MN - The Minnesota ChannelShowing statewide on all 6 PBS stations in MinnesotaChannel 2.2 by antenna in the Twin Cities; check listing for local cableSun Jul 19th @ 9:30 pmSun Jul 26th @ 3:30 amSun Jul 26th @ 9:30 amSun Jul 26th @ 3:30 pm
St Paul Pioneer Press ran a great article about Les on Memorial Day of this year. Here's a link to it - http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_28172819/minnesotan-les-schrenk-survived-wwii-now-he-knows
Lester's story touched me so deeply. I wondered how anyone could live through these things and come out not only alive but also stronger for it. The song I wrote about him is of course a very condensed version of the above story. I asked him what he'd like me to call his song. He said, "That line from the chorus, 'I Will Get Home,' would be just right!"