LYNN, Mass. — Mitchell Ramonas still has nightmares about the Red Army soldier astride a white horse who drew down on him with a machine gun as Ramonas savored his first taste of freedom after spending 14 months in a German prisoner of war camp.
“He was a Mongolian trooper. I held up my hand — I thought he was going to shoot me,” Ramonas recalled.
The soldier did not fire and the Red Army did not lay claim to the thousands of British and American prisoners of war held in the camp near the Baltic Sea. Instead, Ramonas and other liberated men made their way to Western Europe and a return home.
German soldiers marched him and other captured Allied airmen into Stalag Luft 1, as the camp was called, in March 1944 after German fighters shot down the bomber Ramonas and nine other crew members were aboard during a raid over Germany.
The fighters swarmed the B-24 after one of its engines developed mechanical trouble, forcing the plane out of the massive bomber formation that gathered in the skies over England for an attack on Hitler’s Germany.
He cannot remember climbing out of the cramped ball gun suspended during flight from the bomber’s belly and struggling into a parachute before escaping the crippled airplane. When he reached the ground, angry Germans converged on Ramonas only to be driven off by soldiers who took him prisoner.
“They made me walk through the town and the people were throwing stones and branches,” he recalled.
An English-speaking German officer eventually interviewed Ramonas and dispatched him and other captured air crew members to Luft 1. The prisoners — 5,000 at one point during the camp’s existence — slept on straw mattresses in wood barracks buildings. Red Cross food packages initially fed the prisoners but meals soon reverted to barley porridge and bread made from potatoes and sawdust.
“On a good day we had horse meat,” Ramonas said.
The prisoners occupied themselves by playing board games or attempting in vain to beat a Canadian chess master who played blindfolded and took on eight challengers at once. Ramonas said several prisoners started tunneling beyond the camp perimeter, but the escape route did not see completion before the camp’s liberation.
German guards “treated us OK,” Ramonas said, but he recalled the one-word exchange with a sentry that prompted the German to smash him with a rifle butt.
“I got a couple of fractured ribs,” he said.
As the Russians closed in on the camp, the German guards fled and the prisoners, including Ramonas, took on the responsibility of keeping comrades from leaving Stalag Luft 1′s confines and wandering the still-dangerous German countryside alone or in small groups.
He was assigned to the camp gate on the day the Mongolian horseman threatened to shoot him.
“I still dream about it once in a while,” he said.
Ramonas, 89, shipped over to England in January 1944, to join thousands of other military personnel preparing for the assault on Nazi Germany.
“We were on the Queen Mary. They had so many guys they had them sleeping on the deck,” he said.
He helped raise a family after the war and worked as a floor installer. His son, Richard, still lives in Ramonas’ boyhood house. Ramonas returned to Europe five years ago and visited the site where only a plaque embedded in a boulder marks where the prison camp stood.
He was looking forward to the Veterans Appreciation Parade and the chance again to recall the war that shaped his youth.
“We were only kids. We knew we would win the war,” he said, “but we didn’t know what was going to happen to us.”