Un-Liberating

Following on the coattails of what was one of the coldest winters in Europe, the devastation of the second World War was drawing to an inevitable close unbeknownst to the prisoners of XVII-B. The warming afternoons led Harold to think maybe he would finally be able to go home and see his wife. He’d have a decent meal, he thought. He’d get his teeth fixed, and put on some much needed weight. And he’d never have to deal with a goddamn bed bug again in his life. But, Harold wondered who would come save the men from this prison? 

Food seemed to be running out, or at least unbelievably sparse. Almost a thousand men were too ill to participate in mustering on the parade fields – no less leave – their barracks; Some prisoners voluntarily gave up their beds to accommodate the sick, and bunked up more bodies to the remaining beds, like Harold experienced the previous summer. He missed the summer months. He thought of the lake houses, of water skiing and fishing in Seaford with Artie. When Harold got back home – whenever that would be – they’d have to go straight to the summer house. 

The men were roused early one morning in April. The SS were yelling at them to put on whatever shoes or gear they had available – they were leaving the barbed wire walls. The men were, at first, skeptical, especially after Commandant Kuhn stole their gear and food only a year earlier. Some hesitated. It was cold and dark, and they were frightened. However, the Germans had a plan to follow the death marches of the northern prison camps. What started in January and February, Allied prisoners were evacuated to avoid liberation and forced to march to their deaths in the bitter German winter. Even in early April, some nights found themselves at freezing temperatures; these soldiers before Harold and those imprisoned at XVII-B were already walking through temperatures that reached 13 below. 

After learning of Russian forces steadily making their way west, the only leverage these SS had – the prisoners – were at a risk. The guards used the dogs to put the soldiers in line, left those who were too weak or ill to carry themselves, and they filed out of Stalag XVII-B for the last time. Harold grabbed what he could and found some familiar faces to walk with. This was the beginning of the end – end of what? He didn’t know. He simply walked – marched – out of XVII-B, and it was uncertain if he or any of the men were in fact marching to their deaths. They were all malnourished, improperly dressed, tired. They were tired of hurting, of war, and of prison. Harold knew, though, that he wasn’t tired of living. 

“Leave them.” A guard motioned to sick men in the infirmary barrack. The medic was ordered to leave. “We don’t need them coming with us; they’ll die soon anyway.” 

The medic protested at the inhumane treatment of the ill. That winter left about 1,000 men too sick to function and now they were ordered to be abandoned in the camp without medical attention. The guard could not be swayed. He ordered the medic to abandon his post and march on with the rest of the soldiers. 

“They’re grown men, they can look after each other. Your attention will be required on the journey, anyway.” 

The men lined up and Harold stood among a crowd of cold and frightened souls as he prepared to walk forward out of the open gates of Stalag XVII-B. It all felt like a trap. He spent so many months dreaming of the day where he’d never return to that horrendous place and as it was happening before him, he couldn’t help but feel it was still a dream. He held close whatever he could carry and kept craning his neck to make sure there were other men following in the same direction. They all looked unsure, but they knew they had no other choice. The cold lingered while the fog began to lift over XVII-B, and the prisoners breathed through in heavy huffs as the hell they endured grew smaller; the faces of the sick hung in between the barbed wire fencing like old portraits until Harold could no longer discern them. 

Setting up for the Long Winter

A prisoner died in his sleep that night. Whether he was taken due to starvation, cold, or if he just gave up – Harold didn’t care to know – it didn’t matter. Another life was gone. Another solemn ceremony was held and a man was given a memorial. A stone was placed on an ever-growing pile to symbolize his presence in the camp, to show where the world cracked open and seemingly swallowed up these thousands of men and obscured them from the rest of the world like some kind of alternate universe. Harold shed a tear of remembrance, a pledge that he – along with other prisoners – wouldn’t let the truths of XVII-B die. A chaplain said words in the name of God, and for the first time, those words felt powerless and small; Broken glass against the wall of winter that presided over the camp.  

The men piled in for dinner to find potatoes in hot water with cabbage again.

“Ah, spud soup. How generous.”

“Is there any Jerry butter around for these chunks of bread? This is bread right? Or are these rocks?” One of the prisoners held a piece of what looked like bread. His elbow on the table, he delicately balanced the morsel in his palm. Then, he turned his hand over and knocked the bread three times against the table. It was rock hard. 

“Come in,” he said. Those within earshot chuckled. 

“You got spud soup? I got beetle soup,” another said. He lifted his bowl to the others and tilted it downward. They could all see, floating around on top, a beetle. 

“Boiled down, at least,” another said. 

Harold chuckled along with the men and forgot for a moment that he was also eating the same spud and beetle soup, and that his bread was also like a rock, and that the Jerry butter had the same awful taste it did when he arrived in July of 1943. He forgot for a moment there was no parchment to write home to Loretta, and that the Red Cross hadn’t delivered in weeks. He was not yet broken, and he was amazed at how many of the men around him were also holding on to something – whether it was hope, comradery, vengeance – it didn’t matter. They took their licks together,and they ate their awful soup together. They kept each other warm; they died, they suffered, but they shared it all the same. If he were able to write to Queens, that is what he would talk about. 

The night drew on and the prisoners settled into their familiar bunks. The scratchy straw beds felt a little harder in the winter – but, in exchange for the cold, they at least experienced less insects. Harold drew in a deep breath and exhaled mist that illuminated the darkness above him as he stared up at the bottom of another bunk. An occasional crack was heard where a fire burned, but not for much longer. Bundled and ready for another evening encased in the chill of Austria, the prisoners dozed slowly at first, then all of a sudden, taken by the night.   

Making the Most of it

The cold stirred around the barracks and it forced the men to stay close, bundle more, and pray harder. It truly was the winters where they were grateful for overcrowding. Harold lay awake and wondered how he managed to pass over a second winter behind the wires of XVII-B – how the war seemed endless. 

Harold had not sent a note home to Loretta in weeks – nor had he received one back. He was unable to find parchment to write on; he didn’t know if the camps ran out of paper to send, or if the war was preparing to come to an unforeseeable halt. Or, in the far reaches of Harold’s mind, he feared he might not live much longer. The barracks, although filled, felt skeletal. The men were the bones, rattling and somewhat hollow, left behind after the decay of their imprisonment. After the sun set each day, hollow coughs and mist from mouths cracked through the bunks like the gunshots that no longer fazed Harold. When the sun did shine, it felt medical – prodding, invading the forsaken places of thousands of prisoners who wanted nothing more than to be home. 

Along with missing parchment, Harold noticed his own food rations dwindling. The Red Cross had not made a delivery in a suspicious amount of time. As he observed the rest of the men, Harold noticed everyone’s rations were scant. They were trading – not just more frequently – but frantically, almost. 

“You got some canned hash?” One man dug through his bunk for something to offer just in case he found himself lucky. He would have given up a pair of socks, maybe some smokes. But he was unlucky. They all seemed unlucky. 

“I sure miss my gal. I wonder what she’s doing right now.”

 Harold lay in his bunk, talking to whoever was sprawled out near him. It was much too cold to venture outside unless completely necessary. He had finished the two books Loretta sent, and eyed them next to his bed, debating whether or not to pick one up and give it a second chance. Anything to take him away from the barracks once more, even if he was visiting a familiar scene.

“I miss my mama’s cooking,” another chimed in and interrupted his daydream. “Some pork and beans. Maybe a nice fried egg. I’d love a fried egg.” 

Harold felt his stomach growl and agreed. “It’s certainly been too long for an egg.” He thought back to Sunday breakfasts at home with all his siblings. Pop would make breakfast on Sunday so Mama could have a day off. More important than the food, he tried his best to remember the warmth of twelve people all around a table – Harold and Arthur always next to one another. Arms overlapping for eggs or bacon or bread – everyone in a hurry to eat but no one in a rush to finish. Harold held onto the warm thoughts and wiggled his toes, just to make sure he could still feel them in their socks. His big toe poked out of a hole. Mama could fix that, he thought. 

The afternoon bled into the evening and the sun went down without so much as a notice from Harold. The men ate their rations – ever-smaller – and returned to the almost warmth of their barracks. It was apparent the guards knew something the prisoners did not, and whatever that was might mean either the end of the war or the end of the men. The Red Cross seemed to disappear almost completely, the guards seemed more on edge, and the suspicions of the enlisted men became palpable. There was an increase in manpower focused to the east, and Harold dared to think that maybe Allied troops were somewhere beyond his line of vision, coming closer. 

Passing the Time

Passing the Time

September 5, 1944

My Doll;

It’s another one of those nights that I just can’t stop thinking of you. I love you so much doll, that I eat my heart out with every thought. Those detailed memories of you hurt until my heart is numb with pain, and yet, they are my only salvation. 

All my love,

Ha 

October 17, 1944

Dear Doll;

I received a tobacco parcel and am enjoying it immensely. Thank you Sweets. Your letters are coming through, but irregularly. My birthday letter was accompanied with one dated July. It beats me. I love you Doll, with all my heart. See you in my dreams.

All my Love,

Ha

November 27, 1944

Dear Doll;

Received the 2 books you sent and wish to thank you. Reading helps matters considerably; your letters too are a great consolation. My doll, I love you very much and hope someday to fulfill all your sweet dreams.

All my Love,

Ha

A Touch of Scurvy

From the combined lack of food and the summer heat, Harold began to notice the sores on his arms getting worse. One of his teeth fell out a week earlier. When he woke up that morning, he felt a sharp pain in the side of his mouth. Harold put his fingers back and felt around, and found one of his molars very loose and tender. He didn’t know what to do, but figured it was probably infected. Using his thumb and forefinger, Harold wriggled the tooth around for a few moments until it came out in his hand. The pain immediately subsided, and he discarded the tooth. He then made his way over towards the infirmary to see if there was anything further they could do to help him.

“My boy, you are positively yellow!” The medic on duty seemed to take a step back at Harold’s appearance. It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a clear view of his own reflection in over a year. 

“What do you mean I’m yellow?” Harold looked down and outstretched his hands. In the light of the infirmary he realized he was, in fact, yellow. He gasped, “What in the hell does this mean?” 

“It means you have jaundice, son.” The medic took a few steps over to Harold’s side and lifted his arms, giving him a once-over.

“I just came here on account of my tooth falling out. What made me jaundiced?” 

“Hmm, well I don’t know. Maybe the lack of nutrition in this dump?” The medic was sarcastic, but Harold knew it was directed more at the Germans than him. “Tell me, what else are you feeling?” 

“Well,” Harold began, “my teeth hurt; one just came out this morning. I feel weak but that hasn’t come to me as a surprise or shock; they don’t feed us. Am I going to be alright?” 

“I have to look in the Red Cross kits and send out a couple of requests. I think the British Red Cross gives oranges in their kits; maybe we can trade some things to get you some vitamin C. Just keep hanging in there, son. Let me look at your tooth.” 

Harold had the space where his infected tooth once resided cleaned out, and the medic was kind enough to wrap a couple of the worse sores on his arms. He knew he would have to make them last for at least two to three weeks, but it was better than nothing. He returned to his bunk feeling a little cleaner than normal, but after listening to what the medic said about his skin and scurvy, Harold realized he wasn’t feeling good at all. Sure, he was playing softball with the other men when the weather permitted, but that didn’t take away the fact that he was still very much deep in prison camp. The medic told him to rest and wait to see what he could get from the British.

By the following morning, Harold developed a low fever and felt he couldn’t possibly get out of bed. He blamed the Jerry manipulation, of course – minimizing their rations to the point that Red Cross rations were exhausted only a few weeks earlier in May. He shakily sat up in his bed and grabbed for his tin can in hopes of either finding water in it, or finding water available somewhere else. 

“You should sit out in the sun, ya know. It’ll be good for ya, Red.” One of Harold’s bunkmates helped him up and outside of the barracks. He was grateful for the arm and sat down on some steps near one of the buildings. Harold opened his shirt and saw just how yellow his skin had become. There were some smaller sores on his chest but they weren’t open like the ones on his arms. He gave himself a once over and thought to himself that he looked like ketchup and mustard. Harold chuckled, and then frowned – he hadn’t had ketchup and mustard in almost two years. He thought to himself how awful prison camp really was, for him to miss condiments. The closest thing to a topping for Harold was if any gelatinous fat was left on top of the poor excuse for meat they were served. The thought of it would have made him gag if he wasn’t grateful for the extra calories that came with fat. He closed his eyes and listened to the men play softball – a lucky day for them, the guards didn’t interrupt today.

“You Schwerdt? ‘Course you are. Look atcha!” Harold opened his eyes to a large Englishman standing over him. He was very tall and his body blocked out the sunlight that Harold was so very much enjoying. Harold surmised that, from the meat on the man’s bones, he hadn’t been in the prison camp for more than a few months.

“How are you?” Harold extended a hand, but did not get up. 

“Better than you!” The man was joking, Harold knew this. He appreciated the banter. He continued on, “Name is Davies of the beautiful R-A-F.” His accent pleased Harold – almost musical. 

“You know,” Harold began, “in the Navy, my brother calls you ‘Limey’s’.” He saw the Englishman’s eyes light up.

The man let out a bold laugh, “Ha! Takin’ the piss, I see? At least you have your sense of humor still. Look, the reason I’m here is because I met with your medic, and we do have some supplies you Yanks don’t that’ll help with your little complexion issue you have going on there.” He pointed to Harold’s open shirt. “We’ll get you fixed up, just go on over to the infirmary.”

It had been a very long time since Harold was treated so kindly. Davies spoke with a boom in his voice that Harold felt was lost to him from his time in XVII-B, he just couldn’t remember when. With Davies’ help, Harold walked over to his infirmary and was met with the man from the day before who took care of his tooth and diagnosed him. 

“Ah, Red, good to see you walking about. Get some sun?” He smiled and put his hand in his pocket. “I have something for you. It isn’t much, but it will get the ball rolling. Courtesy of the British Red Cross.” From his pocket, the medic pulled out the most beautiful thing Harold had seen in months – an orange.

He was speechless. He looked at the medic and hesitated. The medic smiled and nodded his head, extending his arm a little further for Harold to take. Davies stood on and watched as Harold graciously took the piece of fruit from the medic’s hand. 

“I – thank you.” He began to feverishly peel the orange.

“More where that came from. Waiting on some antibiotics for you. Just keep those wounds wrapped up on your arms. Rest up; we’ll have you ready to play softball again with the guys in no time.” Harold nodded as he ate the orange. It was so sweet – he couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted anything so sweet.

It took several weeks for Harold to feel like his normal self – whatever normal was. He spent most days in bed, only venturing out to visit the Man of Confidence or the medic tent for a check up. His bunkmates were kind enough to shove over and make room, giving him the bed to himself as he mended; Harold surprisingly found it difficult to fall asleep in such an empty space. Among the scratchy straw he lay, seemingly more aware of the miniscule pitter patter of bugs around him – more conscious of the labored breaths of hungry, tired prisoners. There was no warmth next to him, no reassurance that life existed close by as he stirred and woke in the middle of the night. There was no one to suffer beside. He was so accustomed to the overcrowding of Seventeen-B – of having to quietly push past men sometimes to get to where he needed, or waiting impatiently for a water ration or to use the latrines outside. Of course the latrines were completely dismantled, and the men were relieving themselves in holes before each other, but they kept their dignity by maintaining the bathroom pits, and everyone waited their turn.

He thought often of Loretta over those few weeks, of penning a note home to tell her everything was alright, and that he was feeling much better. Every time Harold reached for a pencil, though, he stopped, finding himself unable to put on the same mask he had worn for the past year. He didn’t know if he could trust his own hand to tell her things were swell, that he played some softball, or that he learned something new. What he wanted to say was the truth – that he almost died – more than once – that he saw men beaten and killed, that she probably wouldn’t recognize him when she saw him.

When she saw him.

Win it for Red’s Gal

Win it for Red’s Gal

The weather was warm and the sun shined brightly down on the prison camp. It was Sunday, and the men were fed prunes that morning and Harold attended the small mass with the prison chaplain. He received communion and was on his way back to the barracks when some of the men stopped him.

“Hey, Red! We’re going to try for some softball today. Wanna join? We could always use an extra man.” His bunkmate waved him down and Harold decided it was a nice enough day to spend some hours out in the sun before writing a letter to Loretta. 

“Well, alright,” he said. “I gotta tell you boys, though. We better win. It’s my girl’s birthday back home.” His teammate smiled.

“That’s just swell! We’ll be sure to win it for her.” 

The men had a good game going, very evenly matched. They were back and forth, unable to score on each other but still having a great time nonetheless. Harold felt in himself a release of the prison – the fences and barbed wire a blur as he swung and struck out. He had energy. He didn’t know if it was the prunes he received for breakfast instead of hot water, or that it was Loretta’s birthday, but there was an infectiously happy energy among the two teams. 

By the ninth inning the men were exhausted. The teams broke for a moment to recollect themselves and come up with a strategy. 

“We gotta win this for Red’s gal,” one of the men was panting excitedly. It was nice for them to have a goal to work towards. 

“Yeah, we have to give him something happy to write home about.”

“I always write home happy things to her. She doesn’t need to worry,” Harold reassured. 

When the teams assumed their positions to finish the ninth inning up, a guard approached.

“Wrap it up and go back to your barracks.” He was holding a rifle across his chest. The men looked around, confused. It was only midday – not to mention Sunday – and they were entitled to their ninth inning of softball. One of the men approached the guard with his hands out.

“We’re allowed to finish our game here. We only have one inning left.” The guard, without speaking, raised his rifle and struck the prisoner in the side of the head with the butt of the gun. A couple of men in the crowd of softball players cried out in disbelief, while the others stood breathless in the dirt. The man fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. The guard returned his rifle to the front of his body and took a step back, facing the men, giving room for them to come in and collect their friend. Some of the prisoners were afraid to move, thinking it was another challenge for them to also be struck with the rifle – or worse – shot. 

Harold hesitated for a moment with two other men, but decided to approach the player. His face was covered in dirt and his hands limp. His right arm lay loose across his stomach. They reached his side, and Harold crouched beside him.

“Can you move?” Harold now knelt in the dirt next to the prisoner. He lay on his side, breathing, thankfully; there had been enough death earlier in the year. There was a small pool of blood under his head where the guard connected with the butt of his gun. Dirt and sticky red caked the man’s forehead. Harold placed a gentle hand on the fallen prisoner, who winced under his palm.

“We have to get him over to the infirmary,” another prisoner suggested. Harold nodded and stepped aside while the prisoner who spoke up, along with the help of one of the medics, lifted the injured man to take him away and dress his wounds. 

“We’re already prisoners! What gives you the right?” A disembodied voice protested from the small crowd that gathered.

“Stay in line, and it won’t happen,” the guard replied. He was sickeningly overconfident with his gun in his hand. He gave a cool, dismissive glance over the malnourished faces, turned on his heels, and returned to his post.

As soon as it began, the situation diffused. With no one left to confront, the men dispersed. Harold brushed the dirt off his knees and looked down at his palm, then further past it to the blood on the ground. How much longer, he thought. The blood lay stagnant in the August heat, flecks of dust fallen from his pants swirled around on top of it. He returned to his bunk to write Loretta. 

August 13, 1944

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My Dearest Wife;

I want you to know, doll, that today my thoughts and heart went home to you. I hope you had a happy birthday, and I wish the future brings happier ones, with your truly to share in the honor of bringing pleasant times to you.

An exciting game of softball was played today that went into extra innings. Before game time, I informed the boys that it was your birthday and immediately they shouted, “We’ll win it for Reilly.” We did honey, we won it in the ninth inning by a score of 1 to 0. It seems now, that I’ve taken on a new name; the fellows call me Reilly. I like it doll, for every time I hear your name I think of you. That’s all for now sweets. Regards to all.

Your Ever-loving Husband,

Ha

A Couple of Notes

A Couple of Notes

July 5, 1944

My Doll,

It’s in my heart, on the tip of my tongue, and at night, it forms on my lips, I love you. I miss you doll, more than I can say.

Time is going fast, for when the weather permits, I’m outdoors playing ball, and on “rainie” days I read. I would like a few best sellers. Yesterday’s sport events were excellent; the main even being a softball game between the North and South. After a 10-inning struggle, the North won with a score of 3 to 2. I’m looking, these days, for mail containing a picture of you. Although, I see you in my dreams, it’s not enough. I’d enjoy seeing you during the day. That’s about all for the time being, my love to the family and regards to all.

Your ever-loving Husband,

Love Ha

July 22, 1944

Dear Doll,

Another note to tell you I love you and miss you more than words can say. Each minute is packed with thoughts of you, which makes the time seem to go much faster.

I received another cigarette parcel – March to May – yesterday, and am looking forward to getting my food parcel. Many thanks.

My activities of late consist of basketball, about 4 games a week, and baseball of which I average about 4 games a week. Tomorrow, Sunday, I’m playing 3rd base for our All Star Team. It should prove to be an interesting game. On rainy days, I catch up on reading. I’m still OK honey and I’m hoping you’re having some fun and enjoying good health. That’s all for now sweet stuff.

Regards to all, and Always Love Ha

Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary

Loretta woke up alone. It was the first of June, her first wedding anniversary. She stirred quietly as the morning sun peered in through her bedroom window and turned to face the day. As she sat up, she rubbed her eyes, feeling the ring around her finger touch her face. She stopped for a moment to examine the symbol of her nuptials – the physical representation of the unfathomable love she had for her soldier across the world. The sun caught the ring and it gleamed for a moment. The spark of light forced Loretta to put her face in her hands and cry. 

The silence was a reminder that there was no Harold hopping around the house that morning. There was never any preparation for what she was experiencing. She felt guilty for leading a semi-normal life at home while her husband lay in prison, probably fearing for his life. Harold always made it sound so peaceful and civil in prison, but she read the newspapers. She knew it was – most likely – far worse than he described. She often found herself questioning what he wrote, but not because she thought he was lying. She knew he couldn’t tell the whole truth or else his letters wouldn’t make it past the censoring bureau. She also knew that he couldn’t tell the whole truth because he didn’t want her worrying more than she already was, and that reminded her of how much he still cared. 

She made herself a pot of coffee and took in whatever silence she could manage before other members of her family woke up. It was a Thursday, and she didn’t have to go to work until three o’clock that afternoon, so Loretta planned to get a quick bite to eat with Eleanor if the timing was right. They could gab and people-watch before she had to go catch the train at Jamaica Station. Such a beautiful, sunny day may as well have been cloudy and raining, for Loretta could do nothing other than think about her man. The morning felt a little emptier than usual; her company was the ticking clock, almost eight. Loretta’s mother was already off policing, and she was thoughtful enough to leave her daughter a small slice of pound cake next to the coffee pot. Attached to it was a note with a simple heart. Loretta sat with a newspaper at the table. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle always carried news of the war – where the Allies were, how many were killed, who defeated whom, and so on. It was overwhelming to read and at the same time she was oddly comforted to know that Harold wasn’t in the mix-up of battle. His battle was happening within the fences, certainly, but to what extent she feared she would never know.

Eventually the photos of war and destruction turned the slice of cake in her stomach, so she decided it best to start her day. She wanted to go for a walk around the block, stop in and see Harold’s mother, and see if Eleanor was around for some more coffee. It was such a melancholy day for it being so warm, but she reasoned to make the most of it. She thought to herself that Harold would want her to celebrate, regardless of what he was doing. Before work too, she decided, she’d check in once more at home and see if he sent her a letter in the mail – that would brighten her day.

June 1, 1944

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Dear Doll;

What a husband I turned out to be; missing our first anniversary. I’m sorry doll, and I won’t let it happen again. I hope [you’re] well and happy. I love you. Regards to the family.

Love

Ha

Softball Season

Softball Season

April 13, 1944

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Dear Doll;

Softball season started this week and we’re going at it strong, too strong I should say, for we break a bat a game. At this rate, I’ll be playing volleyball next week. Sports keep me busy during the day and my nights are always reserved for thoughts of you. I love you doll.

Love

Ha

The men organized their teams and really did enjoy the sunlight they were receiving – when it pleased the guards. It wasn’t the bat-breaking group of men Harold portrayed to Loretta, but he was at the very least grateful for not feeling holed up in the barracks with the bugs and the cold any longer. Spring was proving itself more forgiving already, and with the weather only getting warmer, Harold felt optimistic. The chatter around the camps was that Hitler was losing control of his men and the war; Harold liked the idea of getting home before Christmas. 

The break in the cold was pleasant enough to encourage Harold to socialize outdoors, walk around the camp, and read a little more. He came to learn, though, as the weather got warmer, the smells of the latrine and the smells of the ill and dying worsened. If the temperature exceeded 70 degrees fahrenheit – and God forbid if the heat was accompanied by a breeze – the smell of several thousand men’s communal toilet wafted across the camps, hanging in the air and sticking to their nostrils. There were certain parts of the camp the men were able to socialize without having to endure the smells too much, but eventually it became a part of their daily life, and they learned to ignore it. Harold was certain the stench was worse than the year before when he was captured. There were promises and grievances to clean the latrines out every week. Eventually once a week turned into once every two weeks. Once every two weeks turned into once whenever they felt like it. There was no toilet tissue available, and the men grew accustomed to saving food wrappers and sometimes old letters to wipe themselves. The Red Cross made notes of this, he was certain, but he couldn’t understand how such inaction continued. Poor latrine conditions were the least of their concern. The camp was in violation of so many Geneva Convention laws, including the killing and beating of unarmed prisoners. Harold couldn’t understand how nothing was done. He also couldn’t let on to Loretta, though, whom he wrote home with nothing but positive notes to keep her from worrying too much. 

That night Harold lay awake and unable to shake the very real fear that he might not get out of his hell before Christmas. He was feeling awfully low, although receiving packages from loved ones and letters from family. The brutality of the prison camp, of the guards – and the damned barking dogs – brought him down if he thought on it for too long. It was nearly impossible to avoid the negativity when kept in a pen like an animal all day, every day. He tried his best to embrace the changing seasons, the boys outside playing softball, and the sunshine. But with the impending warm weather Harold could only think about Loretta and Artie, the lake houses, and his first date with his gal back in 1937, or was it 1938? Strawberry ice cream, two scoops. Soon it would be their first wedding anniversary, and where was he? Stuck in prison.  

The days and months melted together like their summer desserts and Harold found himself having difficulty recalling certain dates and memories; he mistakenly dated a letter to Loretta 1943 just a couple of months prior. Soon it would be a year since he was shot down. He traced the marks on his arm from where his own plane betrayed him. And if he thought long enough about it, Harold swore he could feel the rigid scar tissue in his back pulse – a constant reminder of the day he could have died. He didn’t fault himself for wondering if death would have been the better option, as he lay there hungry and restless. His faith, though, and his love of Loretta made him trust that no, death wasn’t better. 

After heavy rain everything sat in stagnant rainwater, and began to fester with mosquitos and algae. Warm weather in prison camp didn’t mean memories and ice cream. It didn’t mean that the men would get a different meal than hot water, canned meat, or prunes. It just meant they didn’t have to burn as much of their resources to keep warm. 

While outside with a cup of water, he felt a bug crawl on the left side of his neck and swatted at it. Sometimes, he feared, if he was quiet enough he could hear the bed bugs crawling along the wooden bunks. The infestations only increased since his admission to XVII-B the year before, and it was apparent in the men. He thought to himself that, when he got home, he would have to convince Loretta to have all metal furniture in their bedroom when they were settled in the cottage. How badly he wanted to be next to her in bed than beside another soldier.  

Unfair Advantages

Unfair Advantages

February 20, 1944

Kriegsgefangenenpost

My Darling Wife;

Your packages were eagerly received and well worth their weight in gold. To date I’ve received 5 parcels, of which 3 were cigarettes. The contents of the other two were quickly devoured or put to urgent use. I’d like to add that vitamin pills will be appreciated. I’m getting your letters, but very irregular. I’m anxiously awaiting our wedding picture. I hope [you’re studying] earnestly to master the accordion. T’would be a great delight to be serenaded by the music your nimble fingers choose.

Half the letter gone, and I haven’t once mentioned that I love you. Believe me doll, I do love you. What else could it be that causes you to appear in my every undertaking? Your hair, eyes, lips are seen with animated enjoyment. The letter must close but the love I have here within for you shall never cease.

All my love,

Ha

The winter continued to be unforgiving. Harold was becoming almost entirely reliant on what Loretta and his other family members sent him from the United States. He knew then after receiving his care packages in February, the next shipment probably wouldn’t come around until April or May. Harold found himself feeling weaker and his weight dropped more than he ever noticed before, although he hadn’t seen his own reflection in months. He noticed the veins in his arms becoming more prominent, the hair on his head felt thinner, and his teeth hurt. With only a few hours of running water a day – and it never hot – the men were resolved to burning the remainder of the outdoor latrines down in order to keep warm. They were still sleeping regularly two – sometimes three – to a bed, which would mean anywhere between six and nine men per bunk, to prevent freezing. Commandant Kuhn promised ample blankets to the Americans as well as the other prisoners of war, but it was obvious they didn’t care what the soldiers received. Tensions were high as the men banded together to split blankets – more like tablecloths, Harold thought. There were maybe two blankets to every three or four men, and they hardly did a damn thing. They never saw the belongings that were stolen by the guards a month prior; the Red Cross rations seemed to be less and less as well. The soldiers were used to receiving one package per man, and they found themselves sharing more often now. It was vital to have shoes on at all times so that their toes didn’t freeze off. The close quarters increased the risk of illness and the sick bay was overwhelmed with disease – mostly skin and upper respiratory infections. 

All of this became routine, though. The men couldn’t fight the guards – they had guns – and dogs. Harold loved dogs back home, but hated these dogs. These shepherds were extensions of the SS, trained to attack any man who got “too” out of line – or not out of line at all. But the guards didn’t seem to need any real excuse to beat, or even kill, Americans. When a soldier was killed by an SS, some men with their spirits beaten down would say, “They shouldn’t have ran,” or, “They shouldn’t have tried to escape.” But there was no need to use such forces on men who weren’t even granted three square meals a day – Harold knew that. With the camp population swelling further beyond capacity each week, and the German rations cut in half only a month earlier, tensions continued to escalate across the camp with tangible force. 

“This is due to the rich supply of the Red Cross food,” Commandant Kuhn said, pleased with himself. He looked for any excuse to make the men suffer wherever possible, wherever he could squeeze them a little tighter. 

The lack of food, the cold, and the three doctors available to the Americans made some of the men begin to lose their minds. One prisoner was admitted for being mentally ill. The other men  had noticed for a while, their fellow slowly and surely slipped into a state of delusions and paranoia. The doctors available to the camps weren’t trained in this type of condition. Harold felt sorry for the man, unable to discern real from fake. Then again, Harold often woke up wondering whether or not he was truly living in Stalag XVII-B, even after almost a year of imprisonment. When the man was finally admitted, they wished him well and hoped he would gain some healing in the medical ward; at least he was safe there in his hospital gown.

One bitter morning in March was broken with screams. A French doctor tried to calm the mentally disturbed prisoner, but it was obvious that the man was disillusioned. The prisoners – those feeling well enough to rouse from bed that early – made their ways through the freezing barracks to see what was happening in the twilight of morning. The shouting only got louder until Harold and the others saw the shadow of the patient run towards the boundary fence, his feet crunching and catching in the frozen, muddied ground. A guard, on alert, began to yell at the prisoner, only frightening him more as he picked up speed and ran faster in his hospital pajamas away from the medical barracks. His dressings flapped around in the bitter cold. Clearly he was ill to be running in such minimal clothes.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! He is ill!” The French doctor chased after the man, waving his arms to garner attention from the SS who at that point released his pistol from the holster. The patient huffed to a part of the fence – free of electrical charge – and began to climb. Frantic, the doctor began to yell louder and higher pitched, to get the patient to get down off the fence. He was pleading, screaming for the SS to hold fire for the man was clearly out of his mind. 

“No! No!” The men watched from the barracks, helpless to the situation. If they left their barracks they’d be beaten, maybe even shot themselves. They looked on at this twisted dance between SS, doctor, and sick man.

A loud crack rang out, piercing the morning air. Smoke trailed from the barrel of the guard’s pistol like a snake as the doctor slowed down and looked on, his hands limp at his sides. A dog, startled by the gunshot, began to bark and its shrill cries stung Harold’s ears. The patient, upon hearing the screams of the doctor, turned around on the fence to look behind him. The SS took the opportunity and shot the man through his heart. He exhaled hard. They were far away but Harold could see the victim’s hot, white breath curl from his mouth and up into the morning as if his soul was leaving his body. His hand released from the fencing, his body falling limp and bloody onto the frozen ground. The doctor, who hadn’t stopped running, arrived to his aid. 

“You killed him!” He knelt into the dirt and held the dead man’s head in his hands. He cursed the guard in French. The blood soaked through the hospital pajamas and for only a moment, Harold wondered if they would discard the clothing or recycle it for the next patient. The guard said nothing right away, only holstered his pistol before instructing the doctor and other guards to dispose of the body. The men in the barracks looked on, said nothing, and eventually peeled themselves from their witness stands and returned to their bunks – dead men walking. They could never win in here, it seemed.