Sunday, May 5, 2013


Applying similar logic with respect to the US prisoners, the Germans demanded that Colonel Thomas D. Drake, recently commander of the 168th Infantry Regiment, taken prisoner in North Africa no more than two months earlier, travel to Katyn.  However, they were not successful in this, as the Colonel refused to go.   Drake was held in Oflag VII B, located in Eichstätt, Bavaria, which British Lieutenant Peter Conder uniquely among other POW descriptions of their camps as:
“as near to paradise as possible in a prison camp"

The best known of the English-speaking witnesses to Katyn, Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet, Jr., was not the highest ranking US POW in the III Reich – and pursuant to the initial Nazi plans, he was not the person that was to be sent to Smolensk.
In the spring of 1943, the senior ranking US Army officer in German captivity was Colonel Thomas D. Drake – prisoner No. O-015384.  Drake was certainly a unique individual.  He was born in 1901 in a small coalmining community in West Virginia.  During the World War I he volunteered for army service, where he started as a private, and received the Distinguished Service Cross for his exploits during the war.  He then remained in military service, reaching the rank of an infantry colonel and assignment as regiment commander.  During battles in North Africa (starting in November of 1942), Colonel Drake commanded the 168th Infantry Regiment, which served as part of the 34th Big Red Infantry Division.  Drake was a zealous martinet, and in Tunisia his soldiers called him “Quack Quack”.  As regiment commander he was known for his brutality:
In Tunisia, Col Thomas Drake, of the US army, told his officers to kill any of their men who left the line without permission, adding: "Teach all personnel to hate the Germans, and to kill them at every opportunity. I will notify you when I want prisoners taken.”

Lt. Colonel Van Vliet, who at that time assumed command of the III battalion in Drake’s regiment, cordially detested his commander (and wrote about this to his family) and was not singular in this dislike.  In February of 1943, these two officers – together with over 1600 other US Army officers were taken prisoner by the Germans in the battle of Kasserine Pass.  This battle was the first major encounter of the US Army and concurrently it’s first major defeat, and is a battle still studied at the Army College.
Lt. Colonel John K. Waters (son-in-law of General Patton and a later US Army general, was taken prisoner together with Van Vliet and Stewart) reminisced about Colonel Drake in his “Oral History Project” interview.  Waters and Drake were taken to the oflag in Eichstätt; later, when the Germans opened what became the largest US Army Oflag in Szubin (Altburgund) which was numbered Oflag 64, they all were transferred there and Colonel Drake became POW commander of the Oflag.  At the beginning, in the camps where Americans were held, no military structure was observed; however, in Szubin – as Waters recollected, Drake rapidly organized the camp according to the Code of Military Conduct. Waters then proceeded to present as apt a recollection of Colonel Drake’s character as could be found anywhere.  When the camp latrines needed to be emptied out in order to clean them, the Germans demanded that the Americans clean their latrines, they received the following reply:
…These are officers and will be treated as officers…You have those Polish people, those Russian soldiers, they can clean the latrines….

Amazingly, General Waters did not see such remarks as reflecting poorly on his commanding officer, but saw them as a positive. 

Despite some later statements, it would appear that Drake was not accorded with great favor by all the officers under his command in the camp; what is particularly significant is the fact that Captain Stewart, testifying for over two hours before the Madden Committee (October 11, 1951) did not mention him once by name.
If the Germans were dealing with the Americans in an analogical manner to the way they were dealing with the British, it should have been Colonel Drake who should have gone to Katyn as the SAO.  Confirmation of this theory can be found in the history of the 34th Big Red Infantry history, where Drake confirmed that he received such orders but refused them:
The Germans came to him and told him that he was on an investigating committee…Lt. Col. Drake says he and other prisoner officers felt it was a complete ruse and refused.

It is highly surprising that the Germans did not manage to have an officer who was a POW to comply with their demand; an officer who could not claim age or reasons of health. Perhaps, we should ascribe the Germans failure to the character of the colonel, since according to Waters, Colonel Schneider, the German commander of Oflag 64:
                In plain language – he simply feared Drake.

These various descriptions of Drake, including his contemptuous remarks about Col. John H. Van Vliet, Jr. and Captain Donald B. Stewart, were confirmed by Drake in a letter he wrote in 1952.
© Krystyna Piórkowska