By Wes Franklin
Francis “Kelly” Parkinson points
to the barracks he lived in while confined in a German prisoner
of war camp during World War II and depicted in the colored
drawing above. The drawing was made by a fellow POW at the camp.
Staff Sgt. Francis “Kelly”
Parkinson uttered a quiet expletive and figured he was probably a
No one in his battalion of the 106th
Infantry Division was anywhere close to
being prepared for the sight that lay before them as they topped a
rise that foggy winter morning in rural Belgium. Waiting quietly in
the meadow below were row after row of German Panzer tanks, lined up
track-to-track and all aiming at Parkinson and the rest of the GIs.
Armed with only their M-1 Garands and a few Browning Automatic
Rifles, the U.S. battalion had no artillery or air support.
The Nazis fired up their Panzers and let the Americans have it.
It was tank versus rifle.
“I knew something was very wrong with this picture,” Parkinson
related many decades later.
Parkinson survived German tanks, internment in a prisoner of war
camp and, later, a daring escape to tell his story last week to a
gathering of the Ozarks Property Rights Congress, Far Southwest
Chapter, at a former one-room schoolhouse in Bethpage, McDonald
Today, Parkinson lives in Bella Vista, Ark. But in December 1944 he
was straight from the tough streets of Chicago.
Three days before stumbling headlong into the German Panzers,
Parkinson and the other men of the 106th Division had been shelled
out of their pre-existing bunkers in the Schnee Eifel sector, as the
Germans let loose an offensive later known as the Battle of the
By the morning of Dec. 19, 1944 Parkinson and his buddies had gone
three days without food or water, and the battalion’s withdrawal was
beginning to turn into one mass mob movement of exhausted men.
Most of the officers and soldiers in the unit lacked field combat
experience and so no scouts were sent forward to sound off warnings
in case of enemy presence.
“We were green, just as green as grass,” Parkinson said.
The battalion was more or less following a wagon rut through the
snowy Belgian countryside when it topped a hill and walked square
into the waiting enemy tanks.
After a short, desperate show of resistance, Parkinson’s entire
The American prisoners were marched 21 miles and herded into stock
pens where they spent the night hugging the rails of the pens so as
not to get sucked into the muck.
Early the next morning, the GIs were prodded into train boxcars for
the trip to Germany and confinement in POW camps.
“It was 60 guys with diarrhea locked into one boxcar for six days —
wow,” Parkinson said.
And they still hadn’t eaten anything but snow, the nitrogen in which
having caused the loose
On the second or third day of the miserable journey, Parkinson heard
the hum of an airplane over the rattle of the rails, and it seemed
to be diving in closer.
Then bullets came piercing through the wooden sides of the cars. Men
The Allied pilot didn’t know that the Nazi train was carrying POWs
because the cars weren’t marked on top like they were supposed to
be. He made two passes and strafed the train from front to rear on
both sides before knocking out the engine.
In his own boxcar, three back from the coal car, Parkinson had
managed not to get hit. Others weren’t so lucky.
“About six guys caught it — bingo,” he said, snapping his fingers.
“But there was nothing we could do for them.”
Parkinson finally arrived at what would be his home for the next
several months — Stalag IV-B,
located just east of the Elbe River and about 30 miles north of
Covering 75 acres, the POW camp was one of the largest in Germany
during World War II. When Parkinson arrived with the rest of the
7,500 American prisoners, there were already about 11,000 Allied
soldiers of all nationalities confined there.
“If you want to imagine what the Tower of Babel sounded like, that’s
what it was,” Parkinson said. “There were about 10 different
languages being spoken there.”
He soon got a feel of things.
Though the Germans fed most of the prisoners (excepting the
Russians) on a more or less regular basis, by that stage of the war
it was mostly thin soup and morsels of bad bread.
After the D-Day invasion the previous June, Red Cross packages only
trickled into the camp, as the Allies relentlessly bombed German
To supplement their meager rations, the prisoners horded what aid
packages made it through and developed an actual market system. Gold
rings and watches and cigarettes were the currency.
“Tobacco was number 1,” Parkinson said. “Money didn’t mean a thing.
You might as well use it as rolling paper.”
Even tobacco became scarce after a time and Parkinson, a heavy pipe
smoker, began lighting up English tea that came inside the British
Red Cross packets.
“Between the garbage the Germans were feeding us and the Red Cross
packages, it wasn’t too bad,” Parkinson said. “Still, if you wanted
to lose weight, being there (in the camp) was a good way to do it.
We were subsisting, but that was about it.”
Parkinson became pals with many of the British prisoners who had
been captured the year before in the failed Market Garden campaign,
as they played cribbage, a game he happened to enjoy. He also liked
And so he settled into his circumstances. The Germans assembled the
prisoners early each morning for a head count and the rest of the
day Parkinson spent exercising and playing cribbage with the English
Parkinson and the other POWs got one cold shower a month, during
which time they also scrubbed out their uniforms.
No one was sent to the camp infirmary unless they were very bad off.
The Russians didn’t receive any medical treatment whatsoever.
One day ran into another, every day the same as the one before. The
endless boredom could be deceiving, however.
“It was survival, period — there’s no other word to use for it,”
Parkinson stated. “If you let down your guard, you had it, you
bought the farm.”
As winter turned into spring, the prisoners nightly picked up the
BBC on carefully hidden radios. It didn’t take a genius to figure
out the Allies were winning the war. And getting closer to the camp.
One day in April, Parkinson was playing cribbage with some British
soldiers around a table in one of the barracks when he heard a sound
he recognized: The buzz of an American fighter plane.
Based on his last experience with “friendly planes,” he should have
The American pilot opened up with his machine guns on the enclosed
camp, making no less than three passes and criss-crossing it with
Parkinson’s English cribbage partner, sitting directly across from
him, caught a bullet square in the middle of his back.
“He never knew what hit him,” Parkinson said. “He was just across
the table from me. How lucky can you be, huh? After that, everyone
hated Americans. And all because some punk kid in an airplane wanted
to shoot at something.”
Six days later, Parkinson heard a commotion in the courtyard. He
stepped out of his barracks and witnessed the French prisoners
running down the street shouting “Liberté! Liberté!”
“The ‘Frogs’ were going nuts,” he said.
Someone told him the war in Europe was over. Sure enough, he looked
up and there were no Germans in the guard towers. The French and
prisoners of other nationalities rushed to one of the camp’s gates
and tried to break it down. Parkinson eased back into his barracks.
“When the mob is going one way, you just go another and you’ll be a
lot better off,” Parkinson said. “I figured ‘let the Frogs get
Then three Russian soldiers came riding up bareback on horses. The
French were still pushing against the front gate when the Russians
dismounted. Parkinson peaked outside just in time to see the Soviets
fire their submachine guns over the heads of the prisoners.
“That scared everybody,” Parkinson said. “We didn’t know what was
A truckload of Russians pulled up and piled out. Entering the camp,
the Soviets took armed positions on the guard towers, pointing their
machine guns at the POWs below.
“I said wait a minute — they’re on our side and the war is over.
What the hell is going on here?
Are we at war with Russia?” Parkinson recalled.
The next morning, a long convoy of U.S. army trucks pulled up in
front of the camp to transport the American prisoners out. But the
Russians wouldn’t let them go. The trucks returned empty to the
Almost a week later, the Soviets trucked the American POWs,
Parkinson included, to another confinement camp in Reese, Germany.
“I was getting touchy, getting pretty stir crazy, after spending
months inside a prison camp and now this,” Parkinson said. “I’m no
hero — I’m Joe Chicken — but this was surviving time.”
After several days he noticed that one truck pulled into the camp
daily, loaded down with Red Cross packages that were covered by a
canvas. When the truck unloaded, the canvas would simply be left in
the bed of the truck. Where the truck normally parked, one side of
it was always out of sight from the nearest guard tower. Parkinson
saw his chance.
The next morning, he took it.
“I told the boys ‘adios! Wish me luck!’ and I sauntered on down to
the truck,” he related.
Making sure none of the Russian guards were looking, he put his foot
in the stirrup on the side of the truck and hauled himself over into
the bed, quickly slipping unnoticed under the tarp. A surprise was
“There were six other guys under there!” Parkinson laughed. “One of
them whispered to me ‘you son of a b****, if we get caught I’m going
to kill you!”
Parkinson said he was praying as the truck drove toward the gate,
asking for a little Divine help in getting the vehicle out of the
Soviet camp. Maybe someone was listening. The truck pulled out of
the gate without raising any suspicion about its new cargo and
eventually rolled right through to the American lines.
Parkinson was now free after more than five months confinement as a
prisoner of war under both the Germans and the Russians.
About two weeks later, the rest of the Americans were released by
the Soviets, who may have initially thought the U.S. Army would
drive right in and invade Russia after defeating Nazi Germany.
How Parkinson finally got back to the States, via some adventurous
shenanigans, is another story in itself.
But, for him personally, nothing probably tops the one just told.
Because one great escape is enough for any man.
“It was an adventure,” Parkinson sighed.
Wes Franklin, Neosho Daily
News - Neosho,MO,USA