In the winter of 1944-1945 the Soviets rolled across Poland into Nazi Germany, driving westward. The ultimate goal was Berlin, but numerous prisoner-of-war camps (Stalags) lay in the path of the Russian juggernaut. Rather than allowing POWs to be freed by the Soviets, the Germans decided to evacuate most of the Allied personnel.
Among the thousands of men held in Stalag Luft Four near Gross Tychow (now in Poland) was an unheralded hero in an unlikely capacity. He was Captain Leslie Caplan, a 37-year-old Army Air Forces doctor.
Caplan was a flight surgeon in the 15th Air Force’s 449th Bomb Group based in Italy. Unlike most flight surgeons, he insisted on flying combat missions, including tough targets such as Ploesti, Romania, and his B-24 had been shot down near Vienna in October. The camp was incomplete when he arrived, and conditions quickly spun out of control. The conditions went from bad to worse to terrible: overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate food, and almost no medical supplies. He described the camp as “a domain of heroes, but from a medical standpoint it was a kingdom of illness.” Faced with “patients” suffering malnutrition—some ate rats--Caplan worked minor miracles keeping men alive with minimal medicine. He was one of just five Allied doctors present at “Luft Four” serving some 10,000 POWs.
There was another, more ominous aspect to Caplan’s captivity. He was Jewish. Nazi Germany’s murderous antisemitism was well known, prompting some POWs to obscure the “H” indicator on their dog tags, indicating Hebrew. Not Leslie Caplan. He bluntly told his captors of his heritage. For whatever reason, Caplan incurred no harm on that account. But things were bad enough for everyone. The weather turned bitterly cold, compounding the shortages of food, clothing, and heat.
On February 6 the Germans began evacuating Luft Four on a forced march to prevent thousands of airmen from being liberated. Caplan could have accompanied those too sick to walk being moved to Luft One by train. Instead he insisted on joining a group of some 2,500 sergeants, knowing the risks that lay ahead.
The Germans handed out Red Cross food parcels to the prisoners—presumably enough to last one man a week. However, in the harsh climate, food went fast among perennially hungry men. A B-17 gunner, teenaged Sergeant Bill Hess, said, “We went through the food in three or four days. After that we lived on boiled potatoes and whatever we could scrounge. I made a sugar beet last three days.”
Thus began a meandering forced march of nearly 500 miles to escape oncoming Russians. Men subsisted on fewer than 800 calories per day—one fourth the American average. Seven Americans in Caplan’s group died en route or in German hands but none died under his care.
Dr. Caplan was an innovator. To reduce the effects of dysentery he burned wood into blackened remnants, pulverized the charcoal, and mixed it with a potable liquid. The brew was ghastly to the taste but it worked—some men later said that it probably saved their lives.
Caplan’s group arrived at Stalag Eleven-B in northwestern Germany on March 30, remaining for a week. Then on April 6 the men were forced back on their trek, trudging another three weeks—in almost the opposite direction. The advancing Anglo-American armies convinced the captors to turn back eastward. Said one POW, “We covered a good bit of the same territory we just come over a month before. We doubled back for over 200 kilometers and it took 26 days.”
Dr. Caplan could have remained at Luft Eleven where his medical skills were needed, and he was offered decent quarters. But he chose to march on with his men.
While on the road the prisoners generally were held in barns. The conditions inevitably were crowded—sometimes there wasn’t enough room to lie down to sleep. But Doc Caplan continued advocating for his men, and on at least one occasion he convinced a German army doctor to tend a flier’s feet. The German, a captain who spoke fluent English, lacked anesthetics but lanced the sergeant’s suppurating sole, swabbed it out with alcohol, and bandaged it. The Eighth Air Force radioman, Sergeant Aldon Dryer, kept his foot and his life.
On May 2 the prisoners were liberated by the British near Hamburg. Leslie Caplan’s war was over.
Or so it seemed. Upon return “Stateside” Caplan was promoted to major but required treatment for tuberculosis. He recovered at Fitzsimons Hospital in Colorado, was decorated with the Legion of Merit, then left the Army to resumed his career. He underwent a residency in psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, where his future wife Arline was on her way to a psychology PhD. They married in 1947 and had two daughters. Leslie died in 1969 and Arline in 2002.
Caplan’s youngest daughter, Laura, is justly proud of her father. She has been active in POW organizations and compiled a stack of testimonials from prisoners who credited “Doc” with saving their lives. Her 2004 privately-published account, Domain of Heroes, contains dozens of those letters. Laura also maintains a web site with the daughter of another ex-POW, Barbed Wire Sister, http://barbedwiresister.blogspot.com/.
Caplan’s Legion of Merit was awarded in recognition of his exceptional work under harsh conditions, at risk of his life, lasting for months. Because his deeds were not considered in combat, the decoration was “for merit” rather than “for valor,” in keeping with regulations at the time. However, higher decorations had been presented to military personnel for actions in captivity. The army’s Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross—ranking only below the Medal of Honor—went to half a dozen men who escaped Japanese captivity. And two navy officers received the Medal of Honor for actions in enemy hands, one each in World War I and II. Additionally, four POWs received Medals of Honor for actions while held in Hanoi during the long Vietnam War.
Two Minnesota senators nominated Caplan for an upgrade of his Legion of Merit to a Medal of Honor, without success. The medal process is so politicized that high-level advocates are required, as when the late Senator Daniel Inoue and 19 other WW II veterans’ DSCs and Silver Stars were upgraded to “the big one” in 2000. The regulations limiting retroactive awards are routinely ignored, never moreso than when President Clinton presented the Medal of Honor for Teddy Roosevelt in 2001, 103 years after the Spanish-American War. In 1977 Jimmy Carter approved the Civil War MoH for Dr. Mary Walker, a contract surgeon who was not a member of the U.S. Army.
Leslie Caplan demonstrated far more than “merit” in the hands of the Germans. He consistently went above and beyond his duty, flying combat missions, voluntarily remaining with enlisted men, tending to them, advocating on their behalf with his captors at risk of his life, and saving lives against incredible odds.
If that isn’t valor, please tell me what is.