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The other Great Escape

Donald Drum was honored for his years of service in World War II. (Photo by Brooke Erickson)1 / 2
This is a display case holding a collection of honors and images from Donald Drum's military service.2 / 2

Donald Drum of Alexandria served in the Army during World War II. He has never shared his story until now.

The raw experience he went through is a testament of the horrors of war and to those who've served our country.

Drum was enlisted in the Army on November 20, 1942. He was in training at Fort Snelling for three months before he was called to duty.

In February 1943, Drum landed on Omaha Beach in France. From the minute he stepped off the plane, he could smell the blood in the air. Bodies were floating in the water, mortar shells and grenades were exploding everywhere.

A few weeks after being in France, Drum was assigned to be part of a 20-man team that was sent to Germany. When they arrived, they made camp and Drum and team members went on a mission to scan the land near their base.

"We came to a large hill and two of us were sent to climb it to see what was on the other side," he recalled. "When I and the other man got to the top, we saw a river. On the other side was another hill and on top of that you could see houses or buildings. All of a sudden, mortar shells were landing all around us and shots were being fired. We realized on the other side of the river it was German territory."

Drum and the other man retreated back to the bottom of the hill to find their team had retreated to base. Drum could hear the Germans closing in.

He then made the decision to build a trench because he knew they needed to take cover; their lives depended on it. The other man followed his lead and together, they built a trench.

When the Germans approached, Drum knew there was no time to run and had to think fast. With emotions flying around and his heart racing, he decided on the best decision he could think of.

"Comrade!" Drum yelled, hoping they wouldn't shoot them on the spot. They ceased fire and captured Drum and the other solider. He isn't sure why they didn't just kill them but he was happy to still have the chance to live.

They were taken to a boat to cross the river to get back to German territory. By this time, Americans had reached the river and were shooting at the German boat.

"The American soldiers had no idea they had captured us, but we were on that boat," Drum said. "Mortar shells and grenades were hitting the boat. It started sinking."

They made it close to shore and were able to get off the boat and get to land. Drum remembers bodies of water and many hills but by this time there was no way to find out his location. Most of his time being captured, Drum was not aware of where he was.

When they finally arrived at a prisoner of war camp, Drum was stripped of his American uniform and sent to the bunk rooms. He was separated from his friend and to this day doesn't know what happened to him.

As time went on, Drum became weaker. They were barely fed and malnutrition was responsible for many deaths. When they were fed, they received potatoes and bread. The rotten potatoes were made with horse bones to give them flavor. The bread was made with sawdust so it would not mold.

"The bread was so hard you could drive over it and it wouldn't dent," Drum said.

The Germans stripped the prisoners down, put them into a tank and told them to walk on the dough to mash the sawdust into it. That was their supper.

"One of the things that would get me through was dreaming of food," Drum said. "I would wake up in the middle of the night chewing because I was dreaming of all the food I loved."

The first camp made Drum realize there was a low chance of surviving. Every day, he'd see bodies being buried. He never will forget the smell in the air or what he would do for a breath of fresh air.

From conversations around the camp, Drum learned that half a mile down the road was another camp where Jewish prisoners were being held.

"It was a killing camp," he said. "They would put them into showers and gas them. Every day I would see another wagon go by with all these bodies. I was so young and I saw so much."

Drum was passed from camp to camp. It was hard to keep track of where he had been because he was growing so weak from malnutrition. He figured he was moved between camps for more than a year and a half.

Soon they were moving more often, staying at abandoned farms. At one of the farms, there were close to 100 men who were held up in a hay loft. When the Germans were ready to move on, other prisoners realized Drum wouldn't survive if he kept moving. They made a plan while working in the potato fields to hide him in the dirt.

He hid there for two days and finally decided it was safe to come out.

"When I got out of the dirt, more German troops were approaching. They spotted me before I reached the barn. They were yelling about some horses and they opened fire on me. I ran into the barn and hit the ground while shots were whistling by my head. All of a sudden, it stopped. I couldn't believe it. They were moving on. Then I realized other troops were approaching. It was the Russian troops. I found a place to hide, not sure how they would react."

When the Russians got to the barn, they found Drum. "Americano!" Drum was yelling. One of the Russians went to grab his own gun. "I thought he was going to shoot me."

Instead, he pointed the gun in the air, shot it twice and they all began to dance and shout for joy. "They were so happy to have found me and so was I," he said.

From there, he was moved from checkpoint to checkpoint. It was a long journey back and not all of those they ran into were as kind as the first group of Russians.

Drum made his way across the Rhine River and then the English Channel until he finally reached England and was hospitalized.

"They fed me bread, soft bread. I was so amazed I had never seen bread so soft. I couldn't eat it; I just kept touching it and looking at it. I was so happy to have something so nice." To this day, Drum's favorite thing is soft bread. It reminds him he made it through.

When he returned to Alexandria, he met his future wife, Bertha, and they had three sons. He was never able to talk about his experience because of the painful memories.

Finally, after 60 years, he was ready to share. For his courageous service, he received the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals.

One of the most amazing things about his journey and a secret he still keeps to this day, is how he kept his compass and dog tags through all those camps.

He still has them.

Drum is just one example of the sacrifices those who serve in the Armed Forces make for our country. They're the reason we have freedom. They should inspire us to be grateful for what we have. While we celebrate Veterans Day, remember those who have sacrificed so much for our country.