A cow turned out to be the lucky token by which one Northborough resident and two other men hinged an escape from a German prisoner camp during WWII.
He's a farmer in real life, but in Germany, 1945, Kachadore "Kachie" Berberian pretended to be one to escape prison and slip out of enemy territory.
It was 1945, the war neared its end, and the Germans were close to surrender. But Berberian, weak and starving, got out amidst the bombing of the city of Dresden. The journey depicts winding, aimless months of scrounging, bartering, walking, ingenuity and luck that surely brought Berberian closer to death than he ever knew.
Berberian, a well-known and likable character in Northborough as the longtime owner of Berberian Farms, said he rarely shares the tale of his wartime trial.
At 87, with a gravelly voice and animated arms, he recounts the steps to freedom with remarkable accuracy and vividness. It confirmed why folks at quickly said, "You've got to track down to Kachie" when Northborough Patch mentioned talking with local war veterans.
The middle of three Berberian boys, the U.S. Army drafted him in March of 1944, and after weeks of training in Florida and Indiana, he was stationed in England. Thirty days in England brought him down the English Channel to the front lines in France, and then to Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge had just started. In the dense, vast Ardennes Forest in Germany, Berberian was surrounded by mayhem and uncertaintly in the darkness.
"On Dec. 16 of 1944, the Bulge started," said Berberian, "and in my division, within three days we lost half the division. That's how bad it was. My regiment was surrrendered, what was left of it, to the Germans. I had only spent 16 days on the line, and three in actual battle."
The next six months, he said, "was worse than being in combat."
For 30 days, Berberian was in a concentration camp with American and British soldiers. Every day, he was granted a tin cup with turnip skins, salt and pepper, for his one meal. Two men were assigned to each cot, so they had to take turns sleeping. After the 30 days, the Germans gathered groups of 60 men together for "working commandos," and they were all shipped to Dresden.
Crammed into tiny boxcars, they sat and slept upright, elbows curled to their sides, and used their helmets as bathroom facilities. It took a week to get to Dresden. One interaction in that dark boxcar sticks in Berberian's mind to this day.
"It was Christmas Eve day," he said. "It was at night and the train was moving and you could hear one guy crying and he said to somebody, 'If I only had a cigarette.' By chance, I managed to save a few cigarettes. I took one out and passed it down to the guy. He said that was the best Christmas present he ever got. You could buy your life through a cigarette. I wouldn't even recognize the guy. I couldn't see. But that stuck with me."
Getting in to Dresden, the third largest city in Germany, the mood was bleak, and the city sat in ruins. Between 100,000 and 150,000 civilians had been killed, and buildings were demolished, bombed by the British.
Berberian was crammed in to the room with the other 59 men. There were no showers, or hot water, but there were toilets, and running water. Here, they were given a pound of potatoes per man per day. Steal another man's potatoes, and the other 59 could each take a swing, by their own rules. It happened, once, when Berberian was there, and he said, "you couldn't recognize the guy when they got done."
Up at 5 a.m., Berberian walked with the others four miles to a furniture factory to work by 7 a.m. In the dead of winter, it was below—far below—freezing, so no one dreamed of dashing off from the one old guard with the rifle.
"You never got any news," said Berberian, "and there are always rumors, but they're never true. We worked about four and a half months that way."
Word that the Russians were coming sent the commando and lots of others to be moved to another town, up a mountain that was about 1,000 feet above sea level. Around April, when the "Russians are coming" was more imminent, everyone was thrown to the streets. Not knowing where they were going, they were marched by guards through roads loaded with other POWs, civilians and military.
"About a half a day went by and guys are falling down weak, including myself," said Berberian. "We were having a hard time just going to the bathroom. That's how weak a lot of guys got. They were marching us and we had very few guards doing this. We came along this truck that had been bombed and it was loaded with vodka, and everybody got crazy grabbing bottles."
With two bottles of vodka cradled under his armpits, Berberian was confronted by a German soldier, who demanded the booze. The soldier was drunk, and Berberian wouldn't let go.
"I said to him, 'flesh! flesh! flesh!" said Berberian. "Now flesh is meat in German. And he lets go of the tug of war and off he goes. And 20 minutes goes by and the next thing you know he comes out with a live cow. I give him the booze, he gives me the cow. I thought, the 60 of us are going to be able to eat meat for the first time.
"Now I've got this cow, and it's about three in the afternoon and I've had it. I don't have the energy to hang on to this cow anymore. It's in the gutter, it's here, it's there, it's everywhere. So I said to these two other guys, 'Look, you grab his tail and the other his ear and we'll walk off with this cow as a group. We're going to drop dead anyway, so let's take our chances.' We walked and walked and no one said nothing to us. They must have thought we were a couple of farmers that were just going."
With the cow between them, the three ran into a German farmer, who gave them something to eat. He and his wife were packing to flee, too. Walking toward freedom was becoming easier, and hanging on to the cow was not; he handed the cow over to the farmer.
The three kept going, to Czechoslovakia. Berberian lost 50 pounds during the journey.
Germany in turmoil, they got food where they could. Once, a German captain demanded that one of his soldiers hand over some bread and cheese. Sometimes, the three would split up and search for food. Other times, they'd enter abandoned homes, or knock on a door and ask for a bed and a meal. A woman carrying a one-year-old child talked her way into being part of the traveling crew for a while.
"She took that kid and throws it on her shoulder," said Berberian. "We walked until 2 in the morning. I just couldn't walk no more. I had cramps in my crotch and couldn't do it. She saw a house and walked to it, but they gave her a bad time. But they allowed us in. I woke up the next morning and I couldn't walk. We stayed there for three days, and there were six Russian prisoners that were with us that were really bold. They insisted we have dinner with them, and let me tell you, they were wild. They wanted women and everything else. We just wanted to get out, stay alive and be liberated."
Ultimately, the trio ditched the woman (as well as another who was in their company for a while), and ran into some Russians with a broken truck. Berberian told 'em how to fix it, so they gave him a ride—a ride to Prague, where they were finally free.
"We were free, really, from the day we got that cow," said Berberian. "But we stayed in Prague for three weeks, and slept in a vacant building in the hallway. After three weeks, we were awoken in the morning by an American captain and I said, 'How the hell did you find us?' The Russians has told him."
An ambulance transported them to a hospital camp in Czechoslovakia, where Berberian was too "healthy" to get a cot, and had to make room for the sickest. When the names came out every morning, Berberian looked. He was to be at a certain point on the field at 9 a.m. He was and a DC3 plane was there, transporting him to Reims, France, where he regained his strength, and was transported to the U.S. to fully recover.
The first thing he asked for when he got back? Not a steak. A whopping ice cream cone.
Berberian, upon return to the United States, was promoted to Sergeant and trained other officers until his ex-POW status discharge from the Army in November of 1945. His two escapee mates? He said Eddie Burke worked on Berberian's Farm the summer of his return, but he has not seen him since. He called Dominic "Mickey" Boccino three years ago, and "his life wasn't doing too well."