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COLUMN ONE

A Book 60 Years Overdue

Bill Ferguson last saw his wartime diary at a German prison camp in 1945. This spring, the journal was returned -- with quite a backstory.

June 02, 2005|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Sgt. Bill Ferguson nestled down into his bed of hay, cold and hungry as usual.

He doodled a bit on the pages of his war journal. Then he turned to where he kept the black-and-white photographs of Doris, his young bride back home in Toronto. It was what he did every night for years, before hiding the journal away.

It was April 16, 1945. Ferguson was among 80 or so prisoners of war holed up on a farm in Wildetaube, on the German side of the Czechoslovakian border. The Germans had marched them there from the notorious Stalag IX-C prison camp, fleeing the advance of the Allies.

There were 200 of them when they started 10 weeks earlier. But the winter's cold, rampant infections, starvation and escapes had taken their toll. Throughout bone-chilling days and nights, Ferguson kept the journal safely hidden inside the lining of his coat. It slapped against his thigh with every step.

Now they were bunked down for a few days inside a barn, getting some rest and scavenging for any scrap of food. Rumors had been flying for days about the Americans' imminent arrival.

Ferguson could hear loud artillery all around. The night before, several of their German guards had bailed out. There was great excitement in the camp. But he tried to keep his emotions under control. He had heard this before.

Suddenly, the little Cockney soldier everyone called Churchill came running into the barn, a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes thrust high in his hand. "The Americans are here!" he shouted.

It was true. GIs waiting outside loaded the jubilant POWs into Jeeps and drove them off for showers and hot meals. After three years of deprivation, Ferguson was free.

When he arrived back in Toronto a month later, Doris was the one who brought it up. "Where's that journal you've been writing me about?" she asked.

Ferguson stared blankly at his wife.

In his mind, he saw himself placing the book high in the rafters just before Churchill came banging through the barn. That was the last time he saw it.

A Soldier's Story

It wasn't really a classic war diary. There were no accounts of battles and soldiers' late-night thoughts.

Ferguson had been badly wounded and taken captive his first day of combat.

His journal was more a repository of lists, poems and souvenirs documenting life inside the sprawling POW camp in central Germany.

It was too dangerous to write about important things, like what prisoners were hearing about the Allies' advance, or how they were being treated by their Nazi guards.

Instead, he transcribed notices posted by their German guards or the stringent list of rules they had to follow.

One page contained the names of all the bugle calls, some with secret meanings unknown to the guards, played by POW musicians. Another detailed the camp's meager daily rations of meat, potatoes, turnips and bread.

Talented fellow POWs filled some pages with ink drawings. Another soldier made a beautiful watercolor portrait of Ferguson.

When he could get them, Ferguson stuck German newspaper clippings about the war inside the log. At the back of the journal, Ferguson pasted photographs of soldiers imprisoned with him and of friends and relatives back home.

And, of course, the shots of Doris. Oh! She was beautiful, with blond curls and her funny, wide grin.

His favorite was the one where she was in shorts on the beach, looking flirtatiously into the camera.

The journal, handsome with a red maple leaf on the cover, was one of several sent by the Toronto YMCA to raise the spirits of Canadian soldiers.

The Red Cross brought them to the camp.

But for Ferguson, looking at the snaps of Doris, of his family, of the vacation home where they had spent many happy days, was always bittersweet.

Always the things he didn't have, and might never have again.

He had joined the Royal Regiment of Canada in a surge of patriotism after Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Soon, he left his family's construction business and his wife of one year for intensive training in England.

His introduction to combat was fateful.

He was among 6,100 troops taking part in the Allies' August 1942 raid on Dieppe, a heavily fortified port on the northern coast of Nazi-occupied France.

Casualties that day were so high that it went down as one of the greatest Allied debacles of World War II.

As commandos scrambled onto shore at dawn, German soldiers ensconced in high bluffs raked them with machine gun fire, rockets and other firepower. Of the nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers who took part in the raid, 3,367 were killed, wounded or taken captive.

Seven of the 11 men under Ferguson's command were killed as they attempted to plant a 3-inch mortar on the beach. Shot through the chest, Ferguson passed out. He came to when a German soldier tugged at a compass hanging from his neck.

Though badly wounded, Ferguson dragged himself up a 12-foot ladder over the cliffs and into a waiting transport. Anyone unable to do so was left behind to die, he said.

"You will do a lot of things when there is a guy with a machine gun behind you," he said.

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