Squadron Leader Phil Lamason & the KLB Club

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I could have gone with any of 168 stories of the members of this club, but I decided to go with the highest ranking officer.

The KLB Club (initials for Konzentrationslager Buchenwald) was formed on 12 October 1944, and included the 168 allied airmen who were held prisoner at Buchenwald concentration camp between 20 August and 19 October 1944.166 airmen survived Buchenwald, while two died of sickness at the camp.

Buchenwald Gate

The “terror fliers” heads were shaved, they were denied shoes, and forced to sleep outside without shelter for about three weeks. They were given one thin blanket for three men.  They were assigned to a section of the camp called, “Little Camp,” which was a quarantine area.  Prisoners in the Little Camp received the least food and the harshest treatment.

After a short time, the men figured out who was the ranking officer of all the prisoners. Squadron Leader Phil Lamason, a Lancaster bomber pilot from New Zealand, was the most senior officer. Lamason called everyone together after their first meal together and made a speech, saying,

Phillip John Lamason DFC & Bar (15 September 1918 – 19 May 2012) was a pilot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) during the Second World War, who rose to prominence as the senior officer in charge of 168 Allied airmen taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany, in August 1944.

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Lamason’s Lancaster was shot down while attacking railway yards near Paris two days after D-Day. Two of his crew were killed; Lamason bailed out with the other four, three of whom eventually made it back to England. For seven weeks Lamason and his navigator were hidden by the French Resistance before they were betrayed to the Gestapo, who interrogated them at the infamous Fresnes prison near Paris. Lamason was wearing civilian clothes when he was captured and was therefore treated as a spy rather than as a prisoner of war.

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On August 15 1944, five days before Paris was liberated, Lamason and his navigator were taken in cattle trucks with a group of 168 other airmen to Buchenwald, a journey that took five days .

 

As the most senior officer, Lamason insisted on military discipline and bearing. He did not do this just to improve morale but also because he saw it as his responsibility to carry on his war duties despite the circumstances.

Once at Buchenwald, he risked his life on numerous occasions as he sought to obtain the men’s release and to smuggle news of their plight to the Luftwaffe — RAF prisoners of war were the responsibility of the Luftwaffe, not of the Gestapo.

By negotiating with the camp authorities he was able to secure extra blankets, clothes, clogs and food for the airmen. In October he learned that the Gestapo had ordered their execution, and he increased his efforts to secure the fliers’ release.

In late 1944 a rumor crossed inspector of day fighters Colonel Hannes Trautloft’s desk that a large number of Allied airmen were being held at Buchenwald. Trautloft decided to visit the camp and see for himself under the pretence of inspecting aerial bomb damage near the camp.

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Trautloft was about to leave the camp when captured US airman Bernard Scharf called out to him in fluent German from behind a fence. The SS guards tried to intervene, but Trautloft pointed out that he out-ranked them and made them stand back. Scharf explained that he was one of more than 160 allied airmen imprisoned at the camp and begged Trautloft to rescue him and the other airmen Trautloft’s adjutant also spoke to the group’s commanding officer, Phil Lamason.

Disturbed by the event, Trautloft returned to Berlin and began the process to have the airmen transferred out of Buchenwald. Seven days before their scheduled execution, the airmen were taken by train by the Luftwaffe to Stalag Luft III on 19 October 1944,where their shaven-headed, emaciated appearance shocked their fellow PoWs. One of Lamason’s colleagues described him as “a man of true grit, he was the wonderful unsung hero of Buchenwald”; most of the airmen who had been sent to that camp attributed their survival to his leadership and determination.

Nationalities of the 168 airmen
United States 82 American
United Kingdom 48 British
Canada 26 Canadian
Australia 9 Australian
New Zealand 2 New Zealander
Jamaica 1 Jamaican

00345664(this is not a picture of the actual men)
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Cowra breakout

The Cowra breakout occurred on 5 August 1944, when at least 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war attempted to escape from a prisoner of war camp near Cowra, in New South Wales, Australia. It was the largest prison escape of World War II, as well as one of the bloodiest. During the ensuing manhunt, 4 Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed. The remaining escapees were captured and imprisoned.

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By August 1944 there were 2,223 Japanese prisoners of war in Australia, including 544 merchant seamen. Of these 1,104 were housed in Camp B of No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound near Cowra, in the central west of New South Wales. They were guarded by the 22nd Garrison Battalion.

On Friday 4 August, in response to information that the Japanese were discussing a mass outbreak, notice was given that all Japanese prisoners below the rank of Lance Corporal would be transferred to the Hay Prisoner of War Camp. About 2 am on Saturday 5 August 1944 a prisoner ran shouting to the camp gates. Soon afterwards an unauthorised bugle was heard and prisoners, armed with knives and improvised clubs, rushed from their huts and began breaking through the wire fences. Sentries opened fire but several hundred prisoners escaped into open country, while others who remained set fire to the camp buildings.

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On the night of the breakout three Australian soldiers were killed and another three were wounded. Privates B.G. Hardy and R. Jones, who were overwhelmed while manning a machine gun post, were posthumously awarded the George Cross.

Cowra, a farming district, 314 km due west of Sydney, was the town nearest to No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound, a major POW camp, where 4,000 Axis military personnel and civilians were detained. The prisoners at Cowra also included 2,000 Italians, Koreans who had served in the Japanese military, and Indonesian civilians detained at the request of the Dutch East Indies government.

Although the POWs were treated in accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention,

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relations between the Japanese POWs and the guards were poor, due largely to significant cultural differences.A riot by Japanese POWs at Featherston prisoner of war camp in New Zealand, in February 1943, led to security being tightened at Cowra. Eventually the camp authorities installed several Vickers and Lewis machine guns to augment the rifles carried by the members of the Australian Militia’s 22nd Garrison Battalion, which was composed mostly of old or disabled veterans or young men considered physically unfit for frontline service.

In the first week of August 1944, a tip-off from an informer at Cowra led authorities to plan a move of all Japanese POWs at Cowra, except officers and NCOs, to another camp at Hay, New South Wales, some 400 km to the west. The Japanese were notified of the move on 4 August.

At about 2 a.m. a Japanese POW ran to the camp gates and shouted what seemed to be a warning to the sentries. Then a Japanese bugle sounded. A sentry fired a warning shot. More sentries fired as three mobs of prisoners, shouting “Banzai“, began breaking through the wire, one mob on the northern side, one on the western and one on the southern. They flung themselves across the wire with the help of blankets. They were armed with knives, baseball bats, clubs studded with nails and hooks, wire stilettos and garotting cords.

The bugler, Hajime Toyoshima, had been Australia’s first Japanese prisoner of the war.Soon afterwards, prisoners set most of the buildings in the Japanese compound on fire.

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Within minutes of the start of the breakout attempt, Privates Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones manned the No. 2 Vickers machine-gun and began firing into the first wave of escapees. They were soon overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers and killed. Before dying, Private Jones managed to remove and hide the gun’s bolt, rendering the gun useless. This prevented the prisoners from turning the machine gun against the guards.

Some 359 POWs escaped, while some others attempted or committed suicide, or were killed by their countrymen. Some of those who did escape also committed suicide to avoid recapture. All the survivors were recaptured within 10 days of their breakout.

During the escape and subsequent round-up of POWs, four Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese soldiers were killed and 108 prisoners were wounded. The leaders of the breakout ordered the escapees not to attack Australian civilians, and none were killed or injured.

The government conducted an official inquiry into the events. Its conclusions were read to the Australian House of Representatives by Prime Minister John Curtin on 8 September 1944. Among the findings were:

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  • Conditions at the camp were in accordance with the Geneva Conventions;
  • No complaints regarding treatment had been made by or on behalf of the Japanese before the incident, which appeared to have been the result of a premeditated and concerted plan;
  • The actions of the Australian garrison in resisting the attack averted a greater loss of life, and firing ceased as soon as they regained control;
  • Many of the dead had committed suicide or been killed by other prisoners, and many of the Japanese wounded had suffered self-inflicted wounds.[

Privates Hardy and Jones were posthumously awarded the George Cross as a result of their actions.

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Australia continued to operate No. 12 Camp until the last Japanese and Italian prisoners were repatriated in 1947.

Cowra maintains a significant Japanese war cemetery.

In addition, a commemorative Japanese garden was later built on Bellevue Hill to memorialize these events. The garden was designed by Ken Nakajima in the style of the Edo period.

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On the 5th of August 2014 Japanese and Australian survivors and descendants gathered in Cowra for a memorial service.