That night, Harold fell asleep quicker than usual. His hunger and the cold pushed his eyes closed almost as soon as he lay down on the mattress beside his bunk mate. What could have been minutes or hours – he didn’t know – Harold, along with the other men in the barracks, were woken up by that same loud alarm. At first, he thought it was morning, and thought the guards were implementing the same fake drills they had the week before. But then, he heard dogs barking. Violent, high pitched yelps and yaps pierced the night. Harold began to open his eyes. Suddenly, screaming in both German and English overshadowed the cries of the dogs. Two gunshots shattered the air and his eyes jolted open to notice it was the dead of night. Harold knew what just happened – someone was killed. He sat up, along with many other men, to the sound of a muffled yell outside beyond the fence. Then, another gunshot.
Suddenly, more gun shots – random and wild began to hit the barracks. Pop pop pop pop! A man in one of the bunks let out a yell and it was followed by a thud to the ground. He had been shot in his bed.
“Oh my god! Medic! Someone!” The man’s bunkmate rushed to his aid as he lay on the floor, gripping his abdomen.
Chaos broke out in the barracks as others scrambled in the dark to understand what was happening and avoid any other possible gunfire. Harold hope for a moment in all the distress that the camp was under attack from Allied forces. If that wasn’t true, then it was the worst case scenario – the men were under attack by their guards.
“His hands were up! Both of them had their hands up!” A witness to the shooting yelled through the darkness with no intended audience.
“Is he dead? Are – they dead?”
Some men looked on while others tended to the wounded soldier in the barracks. The rest scoured around to make sure that no one else had been injured or killed in the random shooting. The prisoners were still unsure of what had just occurred, but they were certain people were dead; they just didn’t know why.
It was learned that in his silence that followed his rant, a fellow soldier plotted with his bunk mate to escape the prison and find his own way to Allied help behind enemy lines. Anything, he must have thought, would be better than what was happening at XVII-B. His bunk mate agreed to the plan, and they left in the middle of the night, clinging to the sides of what were supposed to be knock-down buildings that resided a little too close to the fences of the camp. The men were out and began running, but the bunkmate tripped over the uneven, frozen ground. It gained the attention of the guard on duty, and from his watchtower he shined a spotlight directly on the two men and sounded the alarm. The men stopped running once the dogs began to bark. They turned around and raised their hands to surrender; it was better to go back and take a beating rather than be ripped to shreds by guard dogs. With their hands up, the guards approached and drew their weapons. The men began to yell at the guards that they had given up and they were no longer running, to which the guards yelled back in German, and among one another. Ultimately, the guards fired at the prisoners and they both fell, arms up, into the snow.
One of the men died instantly, struck in the head. The other, though, was wounded in his leg. He began to crawl back towards the camp when the guard who shot him ran to him. The prisoner begged to be taken back to camp – to a medic – and the guard, instead, fired his weapon a second time. The prisoner was injured – not dead. When the witness began to holler and the guard realized he was not alone in his dealings, he began to fire his pistol angrily and at random in order to create confusion. The prisoner lay bleeding before him, begging to be taken into the camp again. He quietly wept into the frozen ground while the guard stood over him – triumphant – and holstered his weapon.
“He needs a proper burial.” The men protested to the Germans to bring the body of the fallen soldier back into the camp. The mastermind behind the escape – the angry prison – was, in some way, free. Harold stood and observed from a distance, the scene before him unwinding slow and tragic, the scene in the barrack bloody and unwarranted.
“No. He wanted to escape so badly. Let him spend his eternity to decay beyond the wires of this camp.”
“You’re a monster!” The wounded man remained beyond the fence as well, bleeding and alone – barely alive – while the soldiers argued with the guards within.
“You can’t just leave him to the elements!”
“He is already dead, what more does he need? He was no more than an animal and he will stay there. Denied.”
Dawn was coming up on the camp. The men had already been awake for several hours. Many of them remained in the barrack. The wounded soldier was transported to the infirmary where a medic worked to remove the bullet that lodged itself in his stomach. He would survive, but he would be unable to move around much for quite some time. The man who was shot twice out of bounds from the camp was transported – after several hours, and much blood loss – to the infirmary. This was only accomplished once the prisoners relented to the guard’s denial of the other body’s transfer back into the camp. A compromise that pleased the guard, and sickened the soldiers. The fallen man would have to remain outside of the fence, and there was nothing that could be done to change it.
Harold looked beyond the barbed fence (as close as he could get without suffering the same fate) at the human-shaped mound that lay in the clearing.
“Food for the scavengers,” one of the guards said.
Birds sat out of reach in the snow-dusted trees and sang crisp morning songs that fell over the prisoners. Like church songs, he thought. Then, quieter, truer – The birds are laughing at us.