The Germans arrived once a day with thin soup and dense black bread, baked with 20 percent sawdust.
William Paschal, then 19, offered his medic’s helmet. A scant serving of soup was poured inside. He scooped the liquid to his lips with a spoon he carved from a broken board.
The first day of his capture — Jan. 8, 1945 — the Germans refused him food. Hunger tore at his belly, Paschal said, recalling imprisonment at Stalag IX-B after he was captured in France.
It’s not the kind when your belly rumbles if you miss a meal, he said. Real hunger. Ravenous hunger.
After a few days of meager meals, his body adjusted. The gnawing eased.
But he never forgot.
“The prisoners of war always had a history of being very hungry,” said Paschal, now 86, as he sat in his Wichita home. He was liberated on April 13, 1945, at 95 pounds — down from a healthy 135 for his 5-foot, 7-inch frame.
“That’s something you don’t forget.”
Decades-old memories of unceasing hunger and survival in WWII German prison camps prompted a group of Kansas men and women to help put food in the hands of families who might otherwise starve. For the past four years, Air Capital Ex-POWs has donated $500 annually to the Kansas Food Bank, which last year distributed 11.5 million pounds of food across 85 Kansas counties.
This year, as many Kansans continue to face hardships brought on by layoffs and a down economy, the chapter plans to donate more: at least $1,000.
The veterans say the contribution is a small but necessary combatant to keeping fellow Kansans from going without food like they did years ago.
“We were starved. We know what hunger is,” said John Mock, commander of the chapter which serves about 40 WWII veterans, their wives and widows living in south-central Kansas. It’s one of the last still operating in the state.
“We don’t want nobody else to go hungry if we can help it,” he said.
‘One of the worst experiences’
Air Force Staff Sgt. Walter Lawrence , a active member of the ex-POWs, was shot down while flying 21,000 feet over Germany on June 29, 1944.
Six men died when the B-24 bomber exploded. Lawrence — a waist gunner — and two others survived. The Germans captured him immediately.
He spent about seven months in Stalag Luft IV, a German war camp in Poland. Sometimes Lawrence got jam and margarine with a meager slice of the black bread and soup or small bowls of barley. Once a month the Red Cross delivered parcels of powered milk, cheese, soda crackers and small jars of instant tea or coffee and jelly or jam for prisoners to share.
“We fared fairly well at the camp,” said Lawrence, now 88, of Arkansas City. “We were certainly not getting enough to eat. Rations were very poor.”
But on Feb. 6, 1945, the Germans — fearful of Russian capture — forced prisoners on a six-week march in frigid conditions more than 500 miles along the Baltic Sea.
The soldiers, many plagued with dysentery and illness, scavenged for food along the trail.
“Quite often we could have some potato at night” if they found a barn, Lawrence said. Or sugar beets or carrots, “which was a real treat.”
When GIs liberated Lawrence on April 16, 1945, the 6-foot-tall soldier had lost 40 pounds, down from 180.
“Human suffering,” he said, then paused to consider why he donates to the Kansas Food Bank.
“If you’ve been through some things, you realize some of the things others have been through. And it gives us a little more insight into how other people feel when they don’t have enough to eat or to keep warm, even.”
Later, he said, “It’s one of the worst experiences I have had.”
The money donated to the food bank comes from the pockets of a handful of ex-POWs and their wives or widows who attend the chapter’s monthly meetings, held on the first Friday of each month at Mike’s Steakhouse in Wichita.
About four years ago, the veterans decided to start giving away a portion of their growing treasury. Hunger-relief organizations were the obvious choice, chapter members agreed.
Immediately, the Kansas Food Bank started received yearly checks of $500.
That might not sound like a lot to the typical Kansan shopping at the grocery store. But in the hands of Kansas Food Bank staff, the sum buys at least $1,500 worth of food, programs manager Larry Gunkel said.
He opened a cardboard box designated for laid-off workers as he gave Paschal and his wife Marjorie a brief tour of the Food Bank last week. Its contents — boxed and canned non-perishables like pasta and baking mixes — feed a few meals to a family of three, he said.
Each costs $23 to fill.
“A lot of this food can be eaten without heat,” Gunkel said, handing the Paschals cans of fruit, soup and beans. “Many of these people may not have access to a microwave” — like the prisoners of war.
Air Capital Ex-POWs presented a $500 check to the Kansas Food Bank in early August and plans to give a similar contribution again in December, members said.
“We got enough money,” Mock said. “Christmastime is a good time to give money anyway.”
For Mock, 87, recalling near-starvation is powerful. But so is the memory of his rescue and the first days of his recovery.
After months of black bread and thin soup — often with stringy horse meat or bugs — Mock made quick work of a coffee cup full of sweet, sliced peaches brought by a nurse. American troops rescued him and 276 others on March 28, 1945, after they escaped from locked boxcars. He was safe in a field hospital, freshly bathed and clean shaven, his lice-ridden clothes heaped on the floor.
Mock called himself a “walking skeleton”: 6 feet tall and 105 pounds, down from 165.
“I could touch my finger and thumb around my arm,” he said, pointing to his bicep.
Within days, he was flown to a hospital in Reims, France, where nurses dressed him in red and told him to stay in bed. They brought trays of food three times a day, plus milk and crackers at 9 p.m. No seconds allowed.
Five days later, Mock swiped blue clothes after seeing a chow line of soldiers in blues.
Red clothes were reserved for those in bed. Men in blue ate in the mess hall, he explained. And ate until they were stuffed.
“The Jell-O, the fruit, the pies — all of the good stuff,” Mock said, grinning.
Starved, Mock wore his red clothes and ate in bed, then quickly changed to blue in the bathroom before heading to the mess hall for more.
When the nurse caught Mock, she told him: We are not serving you in bed anymore.
Mock chuckled, remembering the caper.
“That’s when we finally started to gain weight.”