A Brief History of Stalag Luft III Escaper, 1LT Alvin Vogtle. By Katie Kirtley
Copyright 2015 by Katie Kirtley. All rights reserved.
Katie Kirtley is Alvin Vogtle’s granddaughter and a writer living in Chicago, Illinois.
I’d just like to start by saying what a privilege it is to be here and what a joy it has been to research my grandfather’s WWII experiences. My grandfather, Alvin Vogtle, died in 1994 when I was only 16; and I regret that I never sat down and talked to him about his experiences. He really didn’t like to talk about himself– he was modest and, despite his high profile position at Southern Company, he wasn’t someone who sought the limelight or ever wanted to draw attention to himself. He rarely spoke about his war experiences, so my doing this research has been somewhat like piecing together a puzzle. I’ve had the joy of interviewing and getting to know those friends and family members of his who are still living. I was even able to track down an ex-POW in California, Bob Rivers, who flew with Alvin, was captured by the Germans with him, and then roomed with him for a time in prison camp. Not only has my research been fascinating, but it has connected me to people from Alvin’s life whom I might never have known otherwise, and I feel I’ve gotten to know him better in the process.
I read an interview that Alvin gave to The Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1983 wherein he downplays the idea that his war experiences helped shape his leadership style and strengths. “I don’t think it had any effect at all,” he says. “It was just an experience and a harrowing one at that. But it’s one you get over if you apply yourself.” In the same article, he referred to his 68-page memoir (that his boss made him write when he got home from the war) as “a simple statement of fact.” Although he was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for his valor, Alvin never thought of himself as a hero; but he was—and is—to me. Each of his five escape attempts, not to mention his three foiled escape plans, could be a 20-minute talk and presentation in itself so, for the sake of time, I have abbreviated his story in order to give more detail about those parts that I think will interest you most.
Alvin joined the United States Army Air Force Reserve shortly after graduating from the University of Alabama’s law school in 1941. He already had extensive flying experience, having learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training program established by President Roosevelt in 1939. According to friends, he flew whenever he got the chance and loved it. His younger brother, Jesse, noted that Alvin’s personality suited flying: [quote] “He was always quick, wanted to be free, and didn’t want to be pinned down; and that fit into the Air Corps mold. He was in control of his own destiny and the plane, and I’m sure he preferred that over a lot of other military service.” [unquote] Alvin joined the 52nd Fighter Group, 4th Fighter Squadron, at Florence, South Carolina, in February of ’42 and was nicknamed “Sammy” by his fellow fliers—as in “Sammy from Alabamy.” In July, Alvin’s squadron began training in Northern Ireland in the British Supermarine Spitfire under the tutelage of experienced British pilots. After flying six combat missions, the squadron moved to England in September and made fighter sweeps over France, preparing for a sustained air offensive against Germany.
While stationed in England, Bob Rivers remembers that he and Alvin were ordered to report to London for an afternoon. Here they were told they had been selected as Code Users or “CUs” and would be trained to encode secret messages into their letters home. This form of espionage was a vital part of the U.S. government’s recently established MIS-X or Military Intelligence Service-X. MIS-X was so covert that even Congress and U.S. military leadership knew nothing of its existence. The CUs’ encoded letters were plucked from thousands of other soldiers’ letters in the censoring department’s office in New York and sent to MIS-X headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. There, fourteen cryptanalysts would steam open the letters, decode them, and then slip them back into the postal system for normal delivery. The decoded messages were given to the head of MIS-X with one copy going to the Pentagon via normal delivery. The Code User himself had no idea how or by whom that message would be intercepted, only that somehow it would reach the proper authorities in the U.S. Government. Alvin never talked about his code use, but his friends and family recall funny sounding phrases in his letters and suspected something was up. You can see here an excerpt from one of his letters with the sentence that reads: “My same quite red proboscis though—worse after March ‘cause heat leaves a trade mark.” Letters laced with odd phrases such as this one certainly mystified unaware recipients.
By October of ‘42, the Allies’ plan to invade North Africa was taking shape. The raid began on November 8th with forces at Algiers, Casablanca and Oran. Alvin was stationed in Oran, flying patrol duty and doing some escort work. On January 2nd 1943, Alvin, Bob Rivers and their flight leader, Jim Garvey, were sent to Orleansville to set up camp. That evening, they received an order to transport a secret message to Bone, Algeria, that could not be transmitted by wire or telephone because of its secret nature. Although handicapped by a lack of facilities, Garvey decided they would fly anyway using “dead reckoning.” They calculated their position based on a wind speed estimate of 20mph, but once they were in the air, a storm blew in and the tail wind increased to about 70mph. Since the men had no weather gauge or radio navigation and were flying above cloud cover, their journey became quite risky. After Alvin noticed that he was flying on his reserve fuel, he radioed this to Garvey and the men began looking for a hole in the clouds through which to descend and determine their location. They found a hole and dove through it to about 800 feet, but as they leveled off a mass of flank batteries opened fire. They were right over a German airfield at Bizerte. In order to escape, they pushed their planes full throttle, causing them to deplete their fuel tanks.
With flak puffs following him some distance over the hills, Alvin circled a large farm field and landed fast, wheels down. He struck a ditch, the impact of which tore his plane in half, but thankfully, the cockpit was still intact. Bruised and shaken, Alvin joined Garvey who had landed safely a half-mile to the north, and the two struck out walking west. A half hour later, 40 Germans led by officers on horseback approached, confiscated the men’s knives and pistols, and led them to a nearby field post where they received first aid and a nip of whiskey. The captured fliers were now prisoners of war and likely heard the well-worn, oft-repeated phrase, “Fur you, da var ist ofer.”
The men were taken on a weapon carrier to an interrogation house in Tunis where they met up with Lt. Rivers. They remained there in solitary confinement for 3 days before being transferred to Italy via Palermo, Naples and Rome. It was in Rome, Rivers recalls, that Alvin first attempted escape. The men were walking through the market and, when their guard turned around momentarily, Alvin said “Let’s get out of here!” They took off running but were quickly apprehended for they had no idea where to go and were conspicuous in their American uniforms and leather jackets. They were transported by rail to Frankfurt-on-Main, where they stayed overnight in the train station. While the Luftwaffe guard slept, Alvin managed to steal and destroy the papers that the guard had confiscated from them upon their capture. The following morning, they took a streetcar to the village of Ober Ursel, the location of Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe interrogation center for the Western theater of operations. After the Americans were searched, they were placed in solitary confinement in “the Cooler,” a U-shaped building with some 240 solitary cells. Here Alvin received very little food—each day just a few slices of black bread, a bowl of thin soup, and ersatz tea made of a mixture of carrots, hay, and parched grain. He was subjected to an extensive interrogation conducted by skilled men who all spoke perfect English, having lived for extended periods in Allied countries. The interrogators’ clever tactics often left the captive unwittingly disclosing information, but Alvin had been briefed on this sort of behavior and responded only with his name, rank, and serial number. This response greatly annoyed his interrogator, who left him in his cell with the parting words that he would be very hungry before he left Dulag Luft. Alvin remained in solitary for 21 days and was later moved with eighty other Allied officers to a more permanent POW camp, Oflag XXI-B.
Oflag was located in Schubin, Poland, and was run by the German Army. Their handling of prisoners was quite different from that of the Luftwaffe. Oflag had become a Royal Air Force camp in late 1942 and elaborate escape plans by the British were already underway. The largest operation that took place during the Americans’ two-month stay there was a tunnel break from the athletic field latrine in March 1943. Thirty-five officers (none of them Americans) escaped through this tunnel and, though most were recaptured, several were never heard from again.
The atmosphere of avid escape activity was certainly a welcome setting for Alvin, who wrote in his journal that as soon as he arrived at Oflag, he was determined to get out. In his first escape attempt from a POW camp, Alvin and a Captain Jack Oliver devised a plan to cut through the perimeter fence at a blind spot in the wire where they could crawl through without being seen by the guard. After four days, the men had cut through to the last fence and planned to break out that night; but that afternoon, the Germans ordered a check of the wire, discovered the passageway, and the plan was foiled.
In mid-April of ‘43, the Americans at Oflag were moved to the newly completed North Compound at Stalag Luft III, an Air Force officers’ camp located near the town of Sagan, in what was then occupied Poland. On the train ride there, the men were locked in cars for three days without water or food. Many had dysentery; and, although there was a hole in the floor of the car, the men were too weak to get to it. Thus, their arrival at Luft III was somewhat of a welcome relief, and the prisoners found the camp conditions to be relatively good. Control of the Luftwaffe camps was greatly influenced by Nazi officer and WWI ace fighter pilot Hermann Göring who believed that the air force was a superior service and that captured airmen should be treated according to rules of the Geneva Convention.
The entrance of this group of Americans on April 17th marked the beginning of what many prisoners later called the “Golden Era” at Luft III. As one prisoner recalls, “There was plenty of living space, plenty of food, and plenty of recreational and athletic activity.” There was also plenty of escape activity. Tom, Dick and Harry, the escape tunnels memorialized in the movie The Great Escape, were well under way when the Americans arrived; and, although they were a minority in the primarily British North Compound, they were soon fully integrated into the camp’s escape systems. Roger Bushell, whom you may remember as the character in the movie played by Richard Attenborough, served as “Big X,” or head of the Escape Committee. Under his direction, the organization grew from a clearance office with limited facilities to a well-oiled machine of “departments” all working together to assist and equip qualified escapees.
Alvin quickly became immersed in escape work, obsessing over a way out for himself, as well as aiding the communal effort. He was discovered to be particularly adept at scrounging needed materials. Recognizing Alvin’s talent, his good friend General Albert P. Clark, who was “Big S” or head of X security, appointed Alvin head of the Procurement Committee. Alvin and his helpers were so successful that they were dubbed “Sammy and his Forty Thieves.” Lloyd Shoemaker in his book The Escape Factory tells of a few of these exploits:
[quote] On one occasion, Alvin stood watching a group of German civilian workmen building a concrete slab. Fellow committee member Major David Jones passed by and paused to comment on how handy a sack of cement would be in preparing a tunnel entry. Fifteen minutes later, as Jones was sitting in his cubicle, Vogtle entered, carrying a heavy object concealed within a blanket. Without a grunt, he placed the bundle on the floor, removed the blanket, and walked away without saying a word, leaving a bag of cement in front of Jones. Alvin’s camp colleagues believed there was nothing he couldn’t obtain and his activities in this capacity elicited amazement as well as gratitude for the lives he was saving. [end quote]
In May of ’43, one of Alvin’s close friends from his Auburn University days, Winston Garth, arrived at Luft III. Garth remembered that as he approached camp, some prisoners had gathered at the gate to see the new arrivals and he heard someone “laughing like hell.” He looked up to see his old friend Alvin, snickering at him in brotherly welcome. As Winston recalled, “The first thing he said to me was ‘Winston, we can get out of this place.’”
Alvin spent entire days watching the camp to discover some sort of exit. Eventually, he determined that the trash cart would be his best option. Driven by an elderly German guard, the cart entered camp regularly, was loaded by British orderlies with garbage and ashes, and then driven out. Alvin took his idea to Bushell, who discussed it with him at length and gave his permission. Another officer had come up with a similar idea, so the two decided to cooperate. The plan was to slip out of camp in the truck and, once out, jump off and walk south toward Czechoslovakia where they hoped to connect with the Czech underground.
Alvin made himself a civilian cap from the bottom of some old trousers. He crafted a compass from a bottle top, bits of glass, wire, cardboard, a phonograph needle, and a pointer cut out of a razor blade. He obtained maps from the X organization and a small ID paper stating that he was a Spanish farm worker. On the morning of July 2nd, a group of British officers diverted the driver while Alvin and his companion, 1st Lt. Russell Wilkins, climbed in. Between the first and second gates, the truck paused and a guard climbed up on the side of the wagon and began plunging a long, thin metal sticker into the ashes. The sticker passed completely through Wilkins’ leg and he was pulled out of the wagon. Alvin was struck several times, but only pinched since he had buried himself considerably deeper than Wilkins. The wagon drove on and, once it was out of sight of the gate, Alvin drew himself to the edge and dropped off. Immediately he realized he had landed right in front of a German civilian. The two made eye contact, the civilian greatly surprised, and Alvin took off running into a dense wood north of the camp. “It seemed to me that someone was right behind me,” he later wrote, “but when I stopped to watch and listen, I discovered that it was only my heart beating.”
Alvin made his way south, traveling by night and hiding during the day. He steered by the stars, avoiding main roads and towns, and eventually made his way approximately 55 miles south of the camp. He came close to being spotted several times, but was able to avoid capture and eventually reached the Jizera Mountains, a range close to the Czech border. The mountainsides were too sheer to traverse on foot so Alvin crossed three peaks by way of the trees, drawing himself from one branch to another. As he crested the last peak, he could see the town of Reichensberg, only 10 miles from the border.
He made his way to the border, crossed into Czechoslovakia and walked to the town of Bakov, where he sought help from a young woman. This woman—a traitor—arranged for a one-eyed postman on a bicycle to lead Alvin to the post office, ostensibly for food, but actually to turn him over to the police.
Alvin was taken to Jungbunzlau political prison and placed in solitary confinement for eleven days. He was then moved to a cell he shared with a Yugoslav worker who had escaped from his work camp. Alvin remained there another twelve days and received harsh treatment, but was not treated as badly as many other prisoners. He later told his sister, Sybil, that he could hear a prisoner in the cell next to him being horribly beaten and he would never forget that as long as he lived. Eventually, guards from Luft III arrived and returned him to camp where he was thrown into “the Cooler” for 14 days. He was 30 pounds lighter and had sore feet having walked about 150 miles overall; but he had been in Czechoslovakia for a month and free for ten days.
About the time Alvin was getting out of the Cooler, the Americans were being moved from North Compound to the newly finished South Compound. The Germans had grown more suspicious of escape activity and felt it best to separate the Americans and the British. By October, Alvin was already planning his next escape, this one with Lt. John D. Lewis from Goldsboro, N.C. Inside the camp’s barbed wire perimeter, there was a thirty-foot stretch of pure white sand between the outer fence and the guardrail. Alvin and Lewis got burlap sacking, covered it with Klim (the sticky condensed milk provided in the British food rations), and sprinkled sand on top of that. They planned to disguise themselves with this cover so as to appear to be a part of the sandy terrain, meanwhile crawling and cutting their way through the barbed wire fences.
The two men left the barracks between ten o’clock and midnight and slowly worked their way across the sand. Lewis carried the cutters and led the way with Alvin close behind. While Lewis crawled up to the wire, Alvin hid behind him in a low spot in the sand about halfway between the wire and guardrail. The searchlights continually flashed over them, but their disguises seemed to be working well for the guards hadn’t spotted them. Lewis began to cut the wire of the first fence and, as Alvin later wrote, the noise seemed deafening to him. Shortly thereafter, a strolling guard outside the wire heard the noise and came running, turning his flashlight on Lewis. He lowered his rifle to shoot when Lewis held his arms up in surrender. The alarm sounded and a guard with dogs was sent. Alvin still had not been spotted, and he continued to lie still under his burlap as the guard dogs ran right past him. After about a half hour, the excitement died down. Lewis was hauled off to the Cooler, and Alvin wormed his way back to the block from which he had started, knocked on the window, and scurried inside.
A few months later in January ’44, Alvin had come up with another escape plan. This one involved his posing as a civilian and slipping out of the vorlager, an area of camp where parcels were delivered and picked up. Alvin planned to dress in civilian clothes under a greatcoat. He would join a team of twenty men to pick up parcels and, on the way back to camp, would shed his coat and walk casually away from the group. His hope was that the guard would not notice him until he was several yards away and would think him a civilian passing by. One of the members of the party, however, a real character known as Harold “Shorty” Spire, had recently returned from his own escape to Vienna. When the group arrived at the parcel room, one of the German guards immediately recognized Shorty and advised the other guards to watch the group closely. This they did with great efficiency and the plan came to naught.
It was just two months later, on the blustery night of March 23rd/24th, that the Great Escape occurred from Tunnel Harry, which had been dug from Block 104. Many of the Americans, including Alvin, had worked closely with the British in North Compound, building the tunnels and participating in other X activities. The Americans’ move to South Camp in September had ensured that they could not escape in the tunnel that night and, although this was disappointing to Alvin at the time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Of the 76 men who escaped, only 3 made it to safety. Twenty-three were brutally imprisoned and the other 50 were shot on Hitler’s order to convey a message to other would-be escapers. This tragedy would pain Alvin for years to come for many of those killed had been his close friends.
After the tunnel escape, the Germans issued notices that prisoners entering designated danger zones would be “shot on sight.” Many prisoners became more conservative about planning to escape after these developments and weighed the risks and rewards. But Alvin remained undeterred, perhaps even a bit vengeful of his friends’ deaths, and by December ’44, he was scheming his next attempt.
[Side note: When the movie The Great Escape was released in 1963, Alvin was invited to a preview and interviewed by the local paper. Although he never acknowledged that any part of it was based on him, relatives recall that he had dinner with Steve McQueen to discuss the movie and McQueen’s character, Virgil Hilts, who was likely an amalgamation of a few men including Alvin.]
Alvin’s next escape attempt again involved Shorty Spire. Because they were both smaller in stature, they decided to try to escape in mailbags. The X organization approved the plan, but urged them to wait at least until March because of the cold weather. The plan was never enacted, however, because on January 27th, with Russian troops encroaching on the camp, all prisoners were evacuated. In one of the coldest winters to hit Europe in fifty years, the first two thousand men of South Compound began the long, ninety kilometer march, tramping through six inches of snow and twenty-degree winds. After two nights in Muskau and another night sleeping in barns, the prisoners arrived in Spremburg, a German army training station. Here they were packed sixty to seventy men into French “40 and 8” boxcars that had previously held livestock and had not been cleaned.
When the train stopped at Regensburg for water, the Senior American Officer issued orders to each boxcar that those men wishing to attempt escape, could. Alvin and John D. Lewis, of course, jumped at this chance. They climbed out of a window when the train was pulled into the station at Moosburg. Then they struck out due south, hoping to catch the train from Bad Aibling to Switzerland. They made their way south for ninety miles over the course of four nights until they were 10 kilometers from Bad Aibling. There the snow, rain and bitter cold forced them to take shelter in a barn. They hid under six feet of hay, laying their clothes out next to them to dry. To the men’s great misfortune, the following day was the one designated to clear out the hayloft. Children working in the barn began removing the hay from the stack under which Alvin and Lewis were hiding and running it through a binding machine. In Alvin’s words
[quote]: “Suddenly, the hay on the immediate top of our hiding place disappeared. John told me that the next move would probably reveal our location. Then a small hand reached in and removed the hay from our side. The child was a small Polish girl working for the Germans. She was terror-stricken and screamed at the top of her lungs. I immediately rose with chocolate and money in hand, but she had fled the premises. We scurried about, attempting to get all of our clothes on when suddenly several grown Germans burst into the hayloft with pitchforks. When they saw us they began laughing.” [end quote]
The head of the household, Herr Oetle, gave the men food and whiskey, but said he was obliged to turn them over to the police. He agreed to hide their compasses, maps and money until the war was over. I’m not sure if Alvin ever got those items back, but I do know that he kept up with Herr Oetle for many years after the war. In fact, my parents have two oil paintings in their house that were given to Alvin by Herr Oetle. The paintings depict landscapes of the area where the men were captured. After Herr Oetle reluctantly turned Alvin and Lewis in, the two were taken to the Hohenkirchen police station and returned to Moosburg, Stalag VII-A.
The conditions at VII-A were a far cry from the comparably cosseted Stalag Luft III.
Originally constructed to hold ten thousand men, VII-A now held eighty thousand. The Germans literally did not have enough food or fuel for the camp, and almost all services, nationalities, and ranks were crowded together. The welcome aspect of this crowded chaos for a prisoner like Alvin was that it provided more opportunities for escape. Winston Garth remembered that Alvin became elated when the Germans moved them to Moosburg. “He said ‘Hey Winston, this’ll be an easy place to get out of!’” Garth later recalled. “To me, the whole idea of escaping seemed ridiculous and impossible. I told Alvin, ‘I’ve got a wife back home… and besides, this war is about over.’ But to him, escape was an obsession.’”
Alvin and Shorty Spire made their final escape to freedom by slipping out of camp dressed as British orderlies. On the morning of February 23rd 1945, fifteen British orderlies delivered hot water to the gate of the American compound. The guard placed himself squarely in the middle of the gate, facing out. Alvin sneaked up to a few inches from his back and when the guard turned his head right, Alvin slipped past him on the left. Shorty followed suit and the two hid among the other orderlies before joining the two thousand enlisted men who would be taken by train into Munich for work the following day.
The next day in Munich, Alvin and Shorty were placed in a group of ten and sent to the basement of a bombed apartment building to chop wood. Each time the guard looked away, Alvin made a hasty reconnaissance of the space and eventually discovered an open door partially concealed by a ten-foot barrier of debris. In a stroke of good luck, that afternoon a woman approached the guard for directions and distracted him. Alvin and Shorty bolted through the debris, out the door, and into the streets of Munich. Immediately the air raid siren blew, and they decided to run for it. They gained the outskirts of town; and, as they were crossing the street, a German soldier on bicycle yelled ‘Halt!’ The soldier questioned the men and Alvin lied to him that they were French workers going to Herr Pieber’s farm on the outskirts of Munich. (Pieber was the name of an Austrian guard at Stalag Luft III who took roll call every day and was well-liked among the prisoners.) The German guard suspiciously noted the men’s American shoes and British trousers, which they told him were furnished by the Red Cross. He demanded to see the contents of their bags, but seemed unaffected by the fact that their articles were packed in boxes made in the United States. He deduced that with so much chocolate, the men must be going to a party. Alvin and Shorty agreed. In their second stroke of good luck that day, the guard finally resigned with a sigh, “It makes no difference to me,” and rode away.
Alvin and Shorty took the highway going southwest and eventually made their way to Starnberg. Again they were approached by a local German policeman on a bicycle and again they told their story that they were Frenchmen searching for their friends in the Kommando lager. He escorted them to the lager and, as they entered, Alvin slipped in ahead and hurriedly whispered to the Frenchmen there that they were Americans. The Frenchmen played the part perfectly, embracing the men and shaking their hands heartily. The policeman was somewhat placated, but still determined that he must put them in the local jail for the night.
That night, Alvin and Shorty used a saw hidden in their belongings to cut the hinges of their cell door down to a quarter of an inch. They planned to saw through the final bit in the morning and break out, but this was never attempted because the following morning, the jail officer released them saying they would be transported by train to the lager at Planegg. In Planegg, Alvin and Shorty again pled their case as French workers and insisted that Pieber’s farm was only a few miles away. A German guard who was very old, bitterly anti-Nazi, and very talkative agreed to escort them. Alvin plied him with cigarettes while Shorty chatted with him in German. After walking aimlessly for nearly three hours, the men located a Herr Dudler’s farm, which they agreed was the farm they had meant. They persuaded the guard to let them go ahead and settle into their quarters before he alerted Herr Dudler to their presence in order to avert the charge of AWOL. The guard agreed and sat down under a tree while the men approached the farmhouse. As soon as they were a safe distance away, they took off running into the woods.
Alvin and Shorty made their way back to Starnberg where they bathed and shaved in a stream and prepared to walk. While waiting out an air raid, a large truck full of Frenchmen pulled up nearby. Alvin approached the men and told them that he and Shorty were Americans going to Switzerland. The Frenchmen fed them and then drove them to a spot five miles outside of the town of Weilheim. Here, they instructed Alvin and Shorty to hide in the adjacent woods until 6 p.m. at which time they should strike out on the highway toward Weilheim until they reached the railroad crossing. At approximately 7 p.m., three Frenchmen would appear and guide them from there.
Alvin and Shorty obeyed and, as predicted, the Frenchmen rode up on bicycles about 7 p.m. Two of these Frenchmen escorted the men to a nearby civilian labor camp where they acquired complete civilian outfits for Alvin and Shorty. They also furnished them two tickets for the local train going to Schongau. All of them stayed together until that evening and then Alvin and Shorty bade their French guides farewell and boarded the train. Alvin was nervous on the train, surrounded by Russian-turned-German soldiers; but no one asked them to produce any passes and they made it to Schongau unscathed. Here they were to wait until 5 a.m. and catch a train to Landsberg, then Augsburg, then Ulm, then Singen. At Singen they were to go to the Hotel der Bahnhof and ask for Herr Borger, who would escort them across the border into Switzerland when they gave the proper countersign. (This escape route, also known as the Singen Line, was discovered by chance in 1940 by a Dutch POW and used throughout the war by escaped prisoners and Jewish refugees.)
Once at Schongau, Alvin worried about being caught on the train and decided to travel afoot. Shorty, overcome by fatigue, chose to stay on the train, so the men parted ways. Alvin followed the main roads, meeting no one, and eventually stole a bicycle and made his way to Immenstadt. He then walked south toward the German Swiss border. En route he had to swim five streams, the last with a barbed wire fence across it. Alvin assumed this fence marked the border and, once on the far bank, he scaled it. He got caught on the wire and tore his trousers from top to bottom, but luckily had a safety pin to hold his pant legs together. He saw signs designating that point as an international boundary, and then he spotted the town of Diepoldsau just a few hundred yards away, recognized because it was not obscured by blackout. He knew Diepoldsau was in Switzerland, but decided to go further inland before revealing himself.
Alvin proceeded due west until he struck a large river which he determined was the Rhine. He followed the river north until he saw a post sticking into the bank with an “S” on the western side and a “D” on the eastern side. He took the D to stand for Deutschland and feared he had ventured out of the bulge and back into Germany. He decided to take no chances. He would swim the Rhine. With clothes in hand, he began swimming until he struck the swift, deep, middle current of the river. Paralyzed with cold, he turned back and re-dressed. He then ran south along the banks looking for another way to cross when suddenly he came upon a welcome sight—a small, white rowboat. This simple rowboat would be his ticket to freedom! He pulled up the stake, adjusted the oar-locks, and paddled across the Rhine.
Venturing into a nearby lighted town, Alvin saw political posters that confirmed that he was in Switzerland. He knocked on the door of the only house showing a light and found that the men inside were local Swiss police. The men fed him and put him up for the night, and I imagine he slept deeply, knowing that his 26 grueling months as a POW were finally over. The following morning, March 3, 1945, Alvin was taken by express train to Berne where he was questioned and given some new G.I. clothing and a real Swiss meal. To his surprise, he found that Shorty also was in Berne and had entered near Singen just two days after Alvin had crossed the border. The reunited men were transported to Paris for interrogation and debriefing. After a week, a C-54 took them to New York and then to Washington, D.C. In Alvin’s words: “I don’t believe you really appreciate the United States until you have been away for a long, long time.”
In Washington, Alvin was greeted by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Alvin W. Vogtle Sr.; his youngest brother, Jesse; and his soon-to-be fianceé, my grandmother, Kathryn Drennen. The family had breakfast with Alvin and Shorty and, as Jesse recalls, Shorty had jaundice, probably contracted during his time as a prisoner, and was quite weak, but happy. Alvin was also weak, weighing only 111 pounds. In a letter to Kathryn sent soon after his escape, he remarks: “Please tell [Mother] to get all those good things to eat ready—I’m not as plump as I used to be.” In the same letter, he tells Kathryn “I hope you’ll arrange everything so we can be married as soon as I get home (assuming you’re not already married.)”
In the course of my research, I was told again and again that the driving force behind Alvin’s obsession with escape was that he had to get back to Kathryn before someone else snatched her up. My mother and her siblings remember his saying on numerous occasions that she was the reason for his repeated escape attempts. I suppose only love could drive someone as intelligent and reasonable as Alvin to ignore the increasingly dire consequences of escape and recapture. It’s common opinion among those I have interviewed that had Alvin been captured on that final escape, he would have been shot, and I wouldn’t be standing here today. But in typical Alvin fashion, he persevered and he got what he wanted. He got back to Kathryn. Not that she would have gotten away from him… she had promised him she would wait for him and she did. Jesse remembers that when the couple reunited, “Kathryn said, ‘You better kiss me, Alvin Vogtle.’ He was very shy, having been away for so long, but they quickly remedied that.” And the rest is a different history.