December 10, 1943
The noon day sun that melts the snow brings thoughts of you, and how easily my heart would melt if your rays could reach me. To date, I’ve received no word from home. I miss you lots, and love you more. Proof of my love lies in the fact that I haven’t looked at a woman since that unfortunate day some months ago. Whether I could or not, is immaterial, the fact still remains.
The men were freezing and already burned through their week’s ration of coal by the morning of the fourth. January was unforgiving, with some nights dropping below 10 degrees fahrenheit. They relied heavily on keeping bundled and surrounding the stoves that resided in the middle of each barrack. Many men fell ill and died that month, and those who survived were grateful to whatever life they still held onto.
In December, the Red Cross delivered parcels that seemed promising – canned meats, medical supplies, blankets, and some fresh clothes. They were guaranteed one parcel per man that month and it felt like Christmas when the trucks came through the camp. Along with more men being permitted to keep their flight jackets, they were now given some warmer garments to get through the winter. Harold boiled at the thought of not having his flight jacket anymore; Every time he saw a man walk past in a bomber jacket, he thought back to the police officer in Kehrenbach who took his off at gunpoint.
Harold found some sewing needles in his package; the Red Cross included them for some reason. He found it humorous that something such as sewing needles were given out; Loretta could use these to hem my pants, he thought. Still, nothing should be wasted, so he put the needles in his kit of other miscellaneous items. This was their Christmas – the Red Cross packages. They had to be grateful.
Within their own personal rations, the prisoners rationed even further in an attempt to make every bite count. They felt blessed to have things to be accountable for, for once. The Germans weren’t reliable with food regardless of the season, and the men collectively agreed they could use a little more protein in their diets, especially with disease running rampant across the camps.
“These men are being treated as if they are not in prison,” Commandant Kuhn hissed through his teeth at the news of rich food supplies sent into the camp. He saw men walking around not only in their bomber jackets, but also fresh pants, and fresh socks. They looked comfortable and that infuriated him.
“Sir, what would you like us to do about the increased morale?” One of the guards stood before Kuhn in his office. Increased morale would equal increased energy and spirits, and that would pose a threat to the armed guards running XVII-B.
“Cut their meals.” The answer came so easily to Kuhn. “Cut their meals and see how far they get on their canned meats, and canned vegetables, and canned fruits.” He didn’t care that it was the dead of winter, or that so many of the prisoners had fallen ill already – he cared about control, and what better control than the starvation of thousands of men?
The next morning, Harold received hot water for breakfast, which was no surprise. He actually enjoyed it with the freezing January temperatures. When lunch was served several hours later, Harold found himself before another serving of hot water and a small piece of bread – smaller than what he was accustomed to. By dinner his stomach cramped with hunger; he didn’t want to dive into his Red Cross rations so soon. The men were served a measly half-ration of cabbage soup, with no bread, and black coffee. What was happening around the camp? Surely the other men noticed something was wrong when the already miniscule amounts of food they anticipated were shrinking in size.
“Why do you think they’re doing this? Are they trying to starve us to death? It’s the middle of winter, for God’s sake!” The men rumbled with agitation at the scant helpings they were served. Each day, it seemed to be less and less food. Harold found himself dipping into his canned rations, and some men were even splitting their rations amongst two or three men in order to keep everyone in some semblance of health.
“It’s half of what we normally get,” Harold replied without looking up. He stood around the stove in the middle of the barrack with a group of prisoners and swirled a tin can of now-cold black coffee around in his hand.
“It’s less than that, I’d bet,” another said.
“Maybe we’re getting out of here soon. Maybe they’re just using up the rest of the rations because we’re going to leave.”
“But we shouldn’t want to leave,” a prisoner interrupted, “not right now at least. You hear what’s going on up north in the camps? We don’t want that. Hell, I know I don’t want that. I hate this place through and through – I think we can all agree – but Lord, I’d rather be inside than mustered for no reason. Let’s just be thankful we got some new clothes from the Red Cross. They can try and cut our rations but we just have to stick together in this, boys.”
The rest of the men nodded and some replied with an “mhm” of agreement. No one really knew what was going on in the other camps but the prisoners at XVII-B wanted to stay in place, at least, that was until the weather warmed up. The rumors of the German forces weakening were promising to the soldiers, but that still left their fates in the dark. Would they be killed at the end of the war? Would they fight back? What lengths would the Germans go to in order to force control over these men? The group remained huddled around the stove for as long as it would remain hot. Eventually, they trailed off one by one to their bunks, Harold following in the crowd. It had been over a week since the men received full rations from the Germans. Everyone felt the pangs of hunger and exhaustion this night.
Morning mist hovered above the thousands of footprints left by soldiers in the parading area outside. Each impression overlapped and suffocated one another – the same suffocation the men felt. There was no wind as the sun continued to rise over XVII-B. It was painfully, beautifully silent. There were no men yelling out or hollering; no dogs barked and no German echoed from the watchtowers. Harold lay awake, catching glimpses of other prisoners who were also absorbed in the rare pre-dawn quiet.
All at once the prisoners roused in panic and confusion. An alarm sounded from outside in one of the towers and it pierced the morning air. An explosion of noise and the rumble of footprints shook the already shaky floorboards of the barracks as thousands of men rushed to the exits to muster on the poor excuse for parade grounds. The guards were already awake and waiting for them, silver and bronze glimmering in the morning sun. The Man of Confidence approached.
“What is going on here this morning? Why are all these men mustered?” One guard stood in front with his thumbs tucked into the side of his gun belt, his pinky fingered the holster of his pistol.
“Instruct your men to grab what they can carry and form again out here within the next ten minutes.”
Although he was the same height as the Man of Confidence, the guard – with his gun and his pressed clothes – seemed to tower over him from the viewpoint of the other prisoners. He looked down on the man with power in his eyes. He knew there was no fight, and so did the prisoner.
“And then what?” The Man of Confidence was talking to the guard’s back; he didn’t have time to stand out in the cold and entertain the questions of these men.
“And then you wait,” the guard chirped over his shoulder.
Quickly, the prisoners rushed back into their barracks to pack up whatever they could carry. Harold was frantic in grabbing his letters from Loretta, some canned food – an extra jacket. Others just grabbed blankets off beds.
“Where are my damned socks,” another hollered over the rumbling of desperate men. It was chaos as they all threw on pants and coats and covers. Harold looked for a familiar bunkmate in the crowd, because that would be the man he wanted to march with, wherever they might go. He caught the gaze of a friend and hurried on over to him.
“We were just talking about this yesterday, were we not?” He thought back to the group huddled around the stove with their mismatched cups of coffee. “We don’t want to be out in this garbage.”
“I hear ya, Red,” his bunkmate replied.
They headed back out to the parade ground along with the other thousands of soldiers and mentally prepared for whatever march they had to take on. Harold was afraid but it was overpowered by the thought of seeing Loretta again. He placed a hand over his breast pocket where one of her letters rested.