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In this team picture taken on the first day of practice in 1942, Don Pfotenhauer is sixth from left in the back row. His number (14) is only partially visible. Mark Hoskins is wearing No. 42 in the second row. In many cases, the Badgers' practice jerseys didn't match up with their game numbers. 

 

 

Mark Hoskins, from Lancaster, Wisconsin, and Dave Schreiner’s friend since childhood, was a starting halfback and the co-captain of the 1942 Badgers. He ended up a B-17 co-pilot in Europe and was slated to move over to the left-hand seat after a mission on June 27, 1944.

 

Don Pfotenhauer was a sophomore reserve halfback from Escanaba, Michigan. He was a sergeant with a machine gun unit and one of several Badgers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

 

This is adapted material from Third Down and a War to Go

 

                                                      *   *   *

LANCASTER—Lieut. Mark Hadley Hoskins, star right halfback on the 1942 Wisconsin football team, is missing in action over Hungary, the war department today notified his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Hoskins, Lancaster.

 

Lieut. Hoskins, pilot of a Flying Fortress, had been based in Italy. The message said he had been missing since June 27.

 

Lieut. Hoskins and a fellow townsman, Dave Schreiner, now in the South Pacific with the Marines, made grid history at the university and were known as the “Touchdown Twins” after they made good as sophomores.

-- Wisconsin State Journal, 1944

 

The word soon came, however, that Hoskins had been able to bail out after German fire struck his plane, and after hiding out on a Hungarian farm, he was captured on the ground, wound up in the notorious Stalag Luft III, the “Great Escape” camp.


The camp had five compounds. Hoskins was in the South Compound, used for American officers and largely populated by airplane crews. Opened in September 1943, it was the last part of the camp constructed and was the most secure. Each barracks, with the floor raised off the ground to discourage tunneling, had fifteen rooms. When Hoskins arrived, about eight Americans were bunking in each room. Later the number  was as high as fifteen.


The Germans told Hoskins and other new arrivals that they would treat escape attempts harshly, and it wasn’t bluster. After a mass escape by 76 British, Dutch, and Norwegian prisoners from the North Compound on March 27, 1944, most had been recaptured—and fifty had been shot.


 Five hundred prisoners had pitched in to dig three tunnels, which they named Tom, Dick, and Harry, and Harry was the one used for the flight.

 

As Hoskins quickly discovered, despite the executions, the Americans in the South Compound continued their attempts to construct an escape tunnel of their own.

                                

                      *   *   *

 

At the outset of the Battle of the Bulge, the Americans came under heavy German fire and suffered significant casualties. Former Badger Don Pfotenhauer’s unit eventually found itself surrounded. As the men went to sleep one night early in the battle, “our officers told us to pray and think of our loved ones at home,” Pfotenhauer wrote. “We didn’t know who would be alive tomorrow at that time.”


The next morning, Pfotenhauer’s two remaining guns opened fire on the Germans. “I could see them drop and we must’ve hit 15 or 20 of them,” he wrote. Both the company commander and a major “left us there, and the rest of the officers ran around like lost ducks, [except for] one who tried to organize our mortars to fire on the tanks.” But there wasn’t enough ammunition, equipment, or men. The odds were too great, the result inevitable. A corporal raised a white flag.

 

 “We broke up our rifles, machine guns, glasses, compasses, and mortars, but I forgot to destroy my hunting knife, and the damn Jerries got it,” Pfotenhauer wrote.


The Germans forced the Americans to march out.


"I thought of my loved ones at home,” Pfotenhauer wrote. “How would they take it? Would they be ashamed of me? Would they be able to stand up to the shock when I would be reported MIA? When I thought of them, tears came to my eyes.”

 

 *  *  *


At Stalag Luft III, Mark Hoskins discovered the South Compound was a society unto itself, with the American officers governing. The Germans held roll call twice a day, and other than that the prisoners largely were on their own. The officers ordained that no breakout could be attempted without approval from the escape committee, also known as the “X Committee.”


After the failed escape attempt in spring 1944 by British, Dutch, and Norwegian prisoners, the American officers ruled that German-speaking soldiers would be at the front of the line in any mass American escape attempts, because they would have the most chance of surviving on the run. Anyone wanting to try an individual escape through the fence was supposed to seek permission from the X Committee, and if approved, he would be given maps, money, and wire cutters.


The head escape officer (code-named “Big X”) at Stalag Luft III was Lieutenant Colonel Albert P. Clark of the 31st Fighter Group. Clark had been a POW since his plane was shot down over France in July 1942. Hoskins and all the later-arriving pilots were in awe of him, both because of his status and, more importantly, because he was instrumental in the Americans’ largely surreptitious organization.


In his memoir 33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III, Clark wrote that the Germans had tightened up considerably in the summer of 1944. The Germans, he wrote, suddenly placed limits on stockpiling food from Red Cross shipments and began harassing the prisoners more often with needless roll calls and inventories of their possessions. Life at Stalag Luft III, never a picnic, was getting even tougher.


In addition to the barracks, the American compound had a separate theater building where prisoners could gather, put on shows, or stage other activities to pass the time. The Germans had allowed the prisoners to build it themselves, and the construction took place from October 1943 to February 1944. The prisoners made the building’s four hundred seats from Red Cross boxes. By the time Hoskins was a POW, five months after the theater was completed, the Americans, under the supervision of the X Committee, had started to tunnel from the building and under the nearby fence. The tunneling, undertaken in shifts, was painstaking and perilous work, and everyone was painfully aware of the failed British-led escape attempt—and the retribution.


“The soil there was quite sandy,” Hoskins recalled years later. “As they would dig, they would protect the integrity of the tunnel by putting boards along the roof and the sides. You had bunkboards in your bunk, and each month or so they’d come along with a requisition of so many boards from this one room. We were sleeping with fewer and fewer boards all the time. Our mattresses were filled with wood shavings and sawdust, so it was more uncomfortable all the time.”


One tricky part of the process was getting rid of sand and dirt from the tunnels. Prisoners started “projects” above ground just to create an excuse for having loose soil exposed so they could mix in dirt from the tunnel. The ostensible goal, of course, was to eventually provide a means of escape, but more realistically—given the slow progress under the conditions and the  previous mass escape attempt—the project was a way for the prisoners to preserve their own sense of collective defiance and hope.

 

For Hoskins, day-to-day life in camp was a fight against boredom and malnutrition. Men in each room drew cook duty for a week at a time, and they were assigned “stooges,” or helpers, in one- or two-day stints. The cooks for all fifteen rooms in a barracks had to take turns using the single tiny stove, primarily working with food from the International Red Cross.

 

The prisoners learned to make cakes from ground-up crackers, and the Germans contributed bread—horrible bread—and a soup that wasn’t much more than gruel. Occasionally, the Germans would taunt the prisoners by presenting the soup with a cow’s head still in the pot. The weekly Red Cross parcel for each prisoner included one can of powdered milk, Spam, corned beef, liver paste, salmon, cheese, margarine, biscuits, instant coffee, jam, and prunes  or raisins, plus one small box of sugar, two chocolate bars, two bars of soap, and five packs of cigarettes. The diet added up to stubborn cases of dysentery, severe weight loss, and other problems.


Barter and bribery fueled the camp’s underground economy. Prisoners took unwanted portions of parcels from the Red Cross or from home to the compound’s trading post, where they bartered mainly for clothes, food, cigarettes, and reading material.

 

The Americans followed BBC war news on a homemade radio. “They got the radio by working on the guards,” Hoskins said. “As soon as you could get something on a guard, you’d have them by the balls. You’d give them a cigarette, and they weren’t supposed to take cigarettes. You’d get them to take one, then another the next day. You could always hold that over them, tell their superiors. So they were able to get things like parts of radios. This was a vast group of guys with different skills. We had radio people who could make their own radios if they got the works.”


(Cigarettes were so significant as barter, the Germans finally ruled in late August that each room could have no more than 500 cigarettes per man on hand. The rest had to be in a central pool. It was a way to discourage the bribery.)


The other way to assemble a radio, Hoskins recalled, was to have a prisoner get one part in a Red Cross parcel and another prisoner receive another part in a different parcel. Slowly the men would accumulate enough parts.


“The bread the Germans issued was unlike any bread that you ever saw,” Hoskins said. “There was a lot of sawdust in it. Well, the prisoners with the radio would hollow out this bread and keep their radio in there. Every noon this one guy would turn on the BBC for news. . . . There would be eight or ten runners who would take that news by word of mouth to the different barracks. So we could follow it quite well. We knew what was going on.”

 

 In the camp’s camouflaged language, the men called the radio the “canary” and the war news “soup.”

 

On September 11, the Germans ruled that each prisoner would now receive only half of a Red Cross parcel. Two weeks later, the Germans handed out literature emphasizing that they followed the rules of war set forth by The Hague Convention but insinuating that the dastardly Allied tactics were making the Germans doubt the wisdom of their civility. The implication: The executions of the British prisoners after their capture would be the order of the day if other prisoners followed their lead. One flyer, reprinted in the yearbook-style volume Clipped Wings, declared, “Stay in the camp where you will be safe! Breaking out of it now is a damned dangerous act. The chances of preserving your life are almost nil! All police and military guards have been given the most strict orders to shoot on sight all suspected persons. Escaping from prison camps has ceased to be a sport!”


The prisoners continued to use the theater virtually every night, which helped camouflage the ongoing tunneling. The events included plays, musicals, and reviews. The prisoners wrote a few of the shows and staged others after copying scripts from anthologies. Participants dressed in women’s clothes for the female roles. The productions included The Invisible Duke; Bishop’s Candlesticks; Veni, Vidi, Vici; Amazing Doctor Clitterhouse; You Can’t Take It with You; The Front Page; and  Room Service. Hoskins played a role in the musical Kiss and Tell, which included a band on stage. He also sang in the camp glee club, which practiced and performed in the theater.

 

★ ★ ★


On January 27, Hoskins was in the audience in the South Compound’s theater,  watching a prisoner production of You Can’t Take It with You. Suddenly, at  about 9:30 p.m., the South Compound’s senior American officer, Colonel Charles G. Goodrich, stepped onto the stage. He announced the Germans were evacuating  Stalag Luft III and said the prisoners had to be ready to march out momentarily.

 

(Hoskins remembered Goodrich saying they had an hour to get ready. In his memoirs, Albert P. Clark said Goodrich announced that they had a half-hour. Regardless, the  march didn’t begin until about ninety minutes following Goodrich’s announcement.)


Russian forces under Marshall G. K. Zhukov were only about twenty miles away. The Germans didn’t want the British and American officers freed to rejoin the fighting,  even though most of the men were emaciated. The evacuation of ten thousand prisoners, including two thousand Americans, began at 11 p.m. The prisoners  marched in the bitter cold through the night, dumping prized personal belongings—including letters from home—in the snow along the way in attempts to lighten their loads and increase the chances of survival. Many collapsed and had to be left behind to freeze to death.


The next morning, the prisoners finally were allowed to rest at the small town of Grosselten. They had walked about twenty miles. “We were at a place with some barns, and we slept in the hay,” Hoskins said. “They got us out the next day, and we traveled a good ways until we came to a town called Moskau. [An alternative spelling, including  in Clipped Wings, was Maskau.] They put us in a glass factory. The workers were all gone, but it was heated because of the fires from the glass machines. A friend of mine from my room slept that night on the floor of a glass furnace.”

 

 They resumed the march the next day and made it to Spremberg, a small German town that served as headquarters for a German tank unit. The prisoners were gathered in a square and encircled by tanks.

 

 “I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this is it,’” Hoskins said. “I thought they were going to use those tanks on us. But they just used them  to keep us from doing anything.”


The prisoners jumped and moved to keep from freezing. Then they were loaded onto trains. The cars were packed, and the stench was choking.


“Those cars were called ‘forty and eight,’” Hoskins said. “They were freight cars made to carry forty men or eight horses. They a lot more than that in each car. They must have marked ‘Red Cross’ on the top, or something like that, because they had notified the bombers we were on this train so they wouldn’t attack us. And they didn’t. 

 

There were a certain number of guards on the train, not one per car. The train would have to stop every three or four hours to let the men out to go to the bathroom. The trouble was there weren’t enough guards to open all the cars simultaneously. They’d start at one end of the train, and by the time they got to the other end, everybody was ready to go again. Here you’d be crapping in the snow and have to finish and have to hustle back in the car.”

 

On the third night of their journey, the prisoners arrived at Moosburg,n twenty-two miles northeast of Munich. The prisoners had to stay in the boxcars until the next morning, when they were moved to nearby Stalag

VII-A. Stalag VII-A made Stalag Luft III seem like the Waldorf-Astoria. It had been built to house 10,000. Eventually the camp held 110,000 prisoners, including 30,000 Americans. Tents were wedged between barracks, and most of the prisoners didn’t have beds and slept wherever they could find space. But news of Allied successes filtered into the camp, and the prisoners were hopeful they would be liberated—unless the Germans violated rules of war by staging mass executions.

 

One day, Hoskins sat on the steps outside his ramshackle barracks. A fellow Kriegie walked by, stopped, and did a double-take. “Mark?”

 

 It was was one of Hoskins’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity brothers, John Merrill, a B-26 pilot who had been shot down in early 1945 and moved around to several camps. He had arrived at Stalag VII-A the day before. “He had been a Kriegie longer than I had, and he was very thin,” Merrill recalled. “But he was the same old Mark.”

 

For the next few weeks, the two Phi Delts passed some of the time talking over old times—and fraternity brothers Dave Schreiner and Crazylegs Hirsch. Hoskins was frustrated because he knew little about how his pal, Schreiner, was faring in the Pacific. Allied air traffic in the area was heavy, mostly involving P-47 and P-51 fighters attacking German targets and B-17s heading to Munich. Artillery thundered in the distance. Red Cross parcels were temporarily delayed, so for a time the German gruel was the prisoners’ only sustenance.

 

 The Germans became more lackadaisical in their control of the prisoners, who could wander from compound to compound. In late April, the artillery barrages began flying over the camp, toward Moosburg.


 “I had never heard artillery close up before,” Hoskins said. “It was scary as hell, kind of a shriek or like a sheet being ripped.”


During the second night of overhead artillery, the prisoners heard German trucks leaving the camp. In the morning, most of the guards were gone.

 

On Sunday, April 29, some prisoners climbed onto the roofs of the buildings and watched American tanks closing in. They took cover during the ensuing one-hour battle outside the camp between the Americans and the remaining Germans. In mid-afternoon, tanks from the Army’s 47th Tank Battalion rolled into camp.

 

Another of Hoskins’s and Merrill’s fraternity brothers, Jack Dewitt, was outside the gates, with a unit held in reserve. Dewitt, in fact, was the former Phi Delta Theta  president from Lancaster who had been so instrumental in landing Hoskins and Dave Schreiner as pledges.

 

Dewitt knew his friend Hoskins was in there somewhere, and he started inside to look for him before reluctantly deciding it would be a long shot. He couldn’t take the chance of his unit being ordered to move while he was wandering.


Ten months after his mission to Budapest, Hoskins was liberated.


Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker the next day. And the day after that, General George S. Patton Jr. visited the Americans at Stalag VII-A.


“There was no place for us to go,” Hoskins said. So, after several more days at the camp, he and many of the prisoners were taken to Englestadt, about fifty miles away. “It took about three or days for the planes to come and get us,” he said.


“[At Englestadt] we went into a factory that manufactured alpine equipment for the German army. There were hundreds of thousands of skis there. We discovered that if you put the skis between two abutments, that would give you a place to sleep. So we slept on the skis for a couple of nights. Finally, the planes came.”

 

The planes took the men to Rheims, France, where they received much-needed medical attention. Hoskins weighed 135 pounds, down 55 from his playing (and flying) weight.


“We were given shots, and they started filling us with food.”


The war was over in Europe.

 

   


 Hoskins and his teammate Don Pfotenhauer could have compared prison camp experiences and found themselves nodding in recognition  of the similarities.


As the allies closed in on Stalag IX-A, where Pfotenhauer was interned, the Germans’ actions became even more bizarre. The camp authorities finally declared that if four hundred Americans volunteered to be marched farther east, presumably to be used as pawns in upcoming negotiations, the remainder could remain behind for likely liberation by the advancing U.S.

troops.


The healthiest felt it was their duty to volunteer, so Pfotenhauer did.

 

“We weren’t trying to be heroes,” he later wrote in his journal. Facing uncertainty, Pfotenhauer read Bible psalms the night before leaving.


The next day, March 29, when the Americans and their German escorts reached the closest road, the guards disappeared. An astounded Pfotenhauer and the other Americans were free. “We were so happy, we cried,” he wrote. After troops from the Third U.S. Army arrived on March 30, the Americans went back to Stalag IX-A, which the Germans had deserted. The tables  turned: German prisoners were brought there by U.S. troops, and Pfotenhauer didn’t mind being assigned guard duty. “I had a Jerry rifle [and] ammo, and was just waiting for one of them to make a break,” he wrote.

 

                                                               *   *   *


The liberated Mark Hoskins returned to the United States on a ship, landed in New York, and caught a train to Chicago, where he was reunited with his wife. Mary was ecstatic to see her husband. “I got there before the train came in, and it was terrific,” Mary recalled. She had known he had lost weight, but still she was shocked when she saw how thin he truly was.


She also had to break something to him: His brother, Charles, the best man at their wedding, had been killed in Luxembourg while serving with an infantry regiment with Patton’s Third Army. Like Mark, Charles had originally been reported as missing in action, but that report—in early 1945—was followed in a couple of weeks by confirmation that he was listed among those killed. Mark’s family had decided not to tell him about his brother’s death in a letter.


Mark met with his surviving brother, Billy, at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and he and Mary took the Zephyr to Dubuque, where they met up with his parents. Then Mark arrived in Lancaster, and he and Mary stayed at his parents’ home, by then the residential part of the city’s funeral home.

 

One of the first stops he made was to visit Dave Schreiner’s parents.