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.   

Traveling Man

April 30, 1943
Army Air Base

Wendover Field, Utah

My Darling Loretta,

Your letter today truly was swell and was enjoyed a lot. You know honey I love you too, only I love you more. I love you all I possibly can.

Today was payday, and I got my regular pay but not my flying pay. I’ll get that some time next month (I hope). I intend to send $50 to my mother so I’ll have some dough for my furlough. Honey when I get home we’ll do the town. Maybe you think I’m silly, but every day and every night I dream of going home. I’m still wondering what I’m going to say when I first see you. Even if I say nothing, I know what I’m going to do. Loretta, you are going to be kissed; and I do mean kissed with a capital (hug too). Gee I love you. I’m still hoping for that happy day in June. I love you more honey.

Your brother Joe is a good man and he’ll make a darn good sailor. An indication is how well he took it when he left. He is a man, for I could see that when I was home a year ago. I hope he manages to get home when I do. I love to see him in his uniform.

Honey, it’s nice of you to go and see Ed. If you bring him just 1% of the happiness you brought me, he’s very happy. You’re just swell (my swell girl). I love you sweet heart, I love you lots. 

I’m glad you liked the box of candy. I hope to fatten you up so I can have more to hug when I see you. Loretta, you are going to be hugged. I love you. 

Honey, when you go over to my house again and they have some good cake, ask mom for my piece. Say, “Mrs. Schwerdt, I want Ha’s piece.”

I know how much much Abie wanted to get in the service. I feel sorry for him, please give him my regards. My regards to everybody, OK? Mom, Pop, the family, Johnna, Bena, the girls.

Honey, remember the pictures I said I had taken? Well, I’m sending them home. I only have one set, so I wish you would show them to my mother. I hope to get some more, but that’s going to take a couple more weeks. 

I think the pictures are pretty good, I hope you like them. The one picture that is faded is Jack in a summer flying suit, and me in a winter flying jacket and helmet and goggles. I’ve mentioned the name of “Ned” in my previous letters; he’s Jack’s radio man. He’s in one of these pictures, and you can recognize him cause he’s wearing a summer flying suit. The guy on the other side of me, is the 1st sergeant and a very nice guy. He’s a dummer, and really can beat it out. Yes sir, a nice guy. The close up picture of me was taken by Jack. He had the camera so I went up to him and said heil Hitler; he took the picture too. I think it came out well, don’t you?

In one of the pictures I look like a tough guy; I had that taken specifically for you. Are you afraid of me? Better do like I say or else I’ll get tough with you (I may even lop you!).

Honey, I wish you could feel my eyes on you and hear me  saying, Sweetheart. I love you, more love to you, sweets. I was supposed to leave Wendover Field Sunday May 2, but orders have been changed, so I’m good here for at least another week. Darn it. 

So my doll, your letter made me very happy. I hope these pictures make you happy. 

Bye my sweets, all my love, your honey.

Love,

Ha

I love you darling. I love you.

Bittersweet Relief

Oh, to receive a note to signal the heart of your love still beats half a world away. Loretta spent weeks not knowing whether or not Harold was alive, only MIA in the summer of 1943. She held onto hope and still wrote, even though the letters were returned. She still put her love out on paper and sent it away and prayed an envelope would reach his eyes. What bittersweet relief to know your husband is alive, but captive. Shaken. Injured, probably. Trapped behind an electric fence.

Love at First Sight

Hi you Kid,

May 17,1942

What’s cookin? Tell your boyfriend in the dirty brown uniform I was asking for him. (huh huh!)

Love, Artie

The Mississippi heat slapped Harold clear across the face. He and the rest of the men squinted as they hopped off the bus and out into the open air. It was surprisingly refreshing to exit the bus and feel whatever excuse of a fresh breeze came in off the water. Harold quite enjoyed being near water again, even if he was all the way in Biloxi. The salt smelled different than back home, but the sounds of the bay were welcome. Harold grabbed his pack along with the rest of the group and headed for the barracks. 

As he walked, Harold gazed in wonder at the planes scattered around the airfield. He saw a couple of P-51 Mustangs – with their sleek, thin bodies and almost centrally located cockpits. The guys who flew those must have had a lot of fun tearing up the skies, he thought. Mustangs had incredible fire power and speed – it was no wonder the Royal Air Force purchased so many of them from the United States the year before. He saw a Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk make its way down the tarmac into holding for maintenance. They looked mean, meaner than the Mustang, despite their name. Harold had an appreciation for the artistic craft that went into painting the noses of these planes to look like angry mouths with giant, sharp teeth; he was glad he was fighting for their side. 

Ahead of him, in a large open hangar, there she was – the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. She was a massive ship, with four engines, turret guns, a bomb bay, and a beautiful, ten-panel plexiglass nose. Other than Loretta, Harold felt love at first sight when he walked past this machine. As a member of the Air Force, he hoped the B-17 would be his assignment. Harold could think of nothing better than working on these machines. His feet kept him forward towards his barracks, while his eyes stayed fixed on the Fortress. 

“Red!” Harold was pulled from his daydream by the call of an old nickname. He turned his gaze ahead and was met with the sight of a familiar face coming towards him.

“Red! I knew it was you! I’ll be damned, come here!” Jack Thompson, Harold’s long-time friend from Jamaica, was stationed at Keesler. Of course he was, Harold thought – he couldn’t believe he didn’t connect the dots on the train ride down. 

The two shook hands and gave a brotherly embrace. Harold placed his pack down at his feet for a moment while Jack took a step back, his arms extended in front of him, holding Harold’s arms. 

“Boy is it just swell to see a familiar face! Couldn’t miss that mop of hair though! I didn’t think I’d find you so soon on day one. How was the ride down?” Jack was giddy at the sight of his long lost brother from Jamaica. The Thompson boys – Jack and Ned – were both enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Harold figured eventually he’d cross paths with one of them and was glad that it happened sooner than later. 

“Ride could’ve been better, but it wasn’t bad. Plenty of cards, plenty of windows to stare out of.” Jack laughed and clapped Harold on the shoulder.

“How’s your old lady?” 

“Loretta is doing well. In fact, I have a letter to send off to her. Would you show me to the mailroom?” Harold patted his shirt pocket where the letter sat, and smiled at the thought of his love back home. Jack obliged. 

May 29,1942

Friday

My Dearest Doll,

I’m at the USO in New Orleans now wishing you were with me. I love you lots dear, and miss you very much. There’s a dance going on now, but I’m not dancing and I won’t, I’d rather write to you. I’d like to tell you “I love you” the remaining lines of this letter but maybe you’d think I was silly; so I’m going to tell you about my trip here.

I typed out mine and my buddy’s passes and got the Sarg’s signature. It felt good to use the typewriter, and it brought back memories of me typing over your house. We took a bus to Gulfport and from there got on route 90 where we waited for a lift. I could have taken a train, but I thought I’d save the 2.50 bucks. We were at the corner at 3 o’clock PM. Our first ride was gotten at 3:20 by a colored chauffeur in a 1941 Pontiac. We had the radio going and I listened to some music for 1 hour. The stations were from New York, and the songs were swell. One tune was “I want my Mommer,” and there was a song I don’t believe I’ve heard before; it was “I love you” or something. Naturally I was thinking of you.

After an hour of riding, he turned off route 90, so we got out. About 10 minutes later we were picked up by a salesman who brought us all the way into New Orleans. All toll, we covered 92 miles. We arrived home about 5:30.

I took a walk to the dock, and looked at the muddy Mississippi River. (I spit in it) ain’t I awful? Can I tell that to our children? It was swell first sitting there and watching the water run and the ferries coming and going. After that I came here to the USO and met some of my friends from camp. It is sort of a meeting place; like Nachlin’s used to be. 

After that, we all went down to the block and ate. I enjoyed my supper. Now I’m back again at the USO.

The folks down here are nice to us boys in the service. There are a lot of sailors here too.

Well Doll, now can I tell you? I love you. I will. My sweetheart I love you with all my life.

As would the sky miss the stars, so I miss you. You’re the star in my blue heaven. You’re my heaven. You’re everything to me. I love you sweetheart.

Well sweets, good nite.  Your loving honey.  Love,  Ha   xxxxxx           P.S. I love you   

 

My Honey

August 31, 1938

Dear Honey, My Honey,

I would have wrote you sooner, but I didn’t get your letter until yesterday; although it has been down  the post office since Saturday. I was glad to get your letter and still happier after I read it. It was very interesting to know that I am tied down; if you will consider yourself tied down, so will I. You know, we better be careful or soon, if you’ll let me know in your next letter, we will be going steady.

To change the subject, Monday we went out in a motor boat and went fishing. When I got home, Eddie was here to greet us. He came out with Harry at about four o’clock. We’ve been having a lot of fun with Eddie. Tuesday we went out in the same boat and went dragging for killies (bait fish). Eddie came along; he’s staying for the week. He’s a bum though, he stole my bed; now he bunks in with Otz [Arthur].

So, with nothing else to write about I’ll close as:

Steady Ha and your Honey, Love,

Harold

xxxxx    P.S. I miss you a whole lot.

My regards to all. So long.

Tied down, not unlike the boat at the end of the dock, bobbing up and down in the shiny black water. The boat wasn’t captive, it wasn’t a prisoner of the dock. Rather, it was exactly where it was supposed to be. The boat was safe against the wood pilings, buffered with a couple of buoys so as to not scratch the surface. 

When Harold was a boy he learned that in order to properly tie a boat to a dock, it was important to leave enough slack for the tides. Just enough rope to let the boat drift along the water, move with the changing sea levels, and still remain close to home. If the rope was too tight, and the water came too high, the bow would be pulled under, and the boat would sink. Harold was the boat at the end of the dock, and Loretta knew exactly the right way to keep him feeling close and safe.

“No gal’s gonna tie me down,” Arthur said to Harold, matter of factly. 

“What about Jeanne?” Harold nodded his head towards Arthur and raised his eyebrows.

“She hasn’t tied me down, I just don’t want to leave. That’s my choice.” Arthur played a defensive tone back at his brother, although Harold knew he wasn’t being serious. He laughed at how matter of fact Arthur tried to be sometimes. 

“Alright, alright,” he said. “Do you think I should marry her before I enlist?” Harold turned his attention more seriously towards Arthur. He valued his other half’s opinions more than anything. 

“What if you croak in training?” As he said this, Arthur slid himself down in his lawn chair enough to reach Harold’s with the tip of his foot and gave a light shove. Arthur chuckled then said, earnestly, “Why rush love, Ha?” 

“Profound for once, Otz,” Harold replied. He did want to marry Loretta sooner than later, but Arthur was right – something Harold didn’t often admit. 

The sun was beginning to set on the brothers’ last night at the summer home. September showed itself with a breeze that took the humidity with it as it crossed the yard, over the water and past beyond where they could see. The fire Harold started crackled low and deliberate, not ready to extinguish; Harold didn’t want it to end either, if he was being honest with himself. He wanted to linger a while longer with the fresh feeling of being tied down and what felt like the final summer of his youth. He didn’t fear change, but Harold was no stranger to uncertainty of what was beyond the summer house, and Queens, and seeing Loretta whenever he wanted. 

“So when we get home, are we heading straight down to our respective enlisting offices? I’ve been thinking of saving a little nest egg before shipping off anywhere.” Harold prodded at the fire a little, trying to push some life back into it.  

“That’s a good question,” Arthur began, “and a good idea too, I suppose. Who knows when the next war will be.” 

They finished the rest of their evening in mostly silence until the fire in front of them all but went out. Harold doused it and followed Arthur back into the house. The bags they brought sat neat along the wall next to the door, ready to leave. Arthur finished cleaning whatever was left in the sink and Harold began to rummage around the fridge for a late night sandwich. He pulled out leftover lunch meat, potato bread, mayonnaise, and cheese. Arthur turned around and watched him take out a plate and a butter knife from the drawer.

“Are you pulling my leg? I just finished the last of the dishes.”

“I’ll make you a sandwich too if you want.”

“Well alright then,” he said. He twisted his mouth around as if he was trying to decide if he really wanted a sandwich. Of course he did. “But don’t bother with a plate. I’ll just eat it over the sink.” 

Harold laughed and nodded, and got out some more potato bread. They ate in silence in the kitchen, Harold at the table and Arthur hovering over the sink. The yellow light above them hummed like the bugs did outside, and the brothers were at peace. It was these simple, quiet moments, Harold thought, that were the most important. When he and his brother could just get away from the loud, crowded bustling of Queens – of working in the city – and enjoy the hum of the bugs.

Arthur finished his sandwich and said, “Do you think we’ll look the same when we’re old men?” 

“No, you’ll be uglier,” Harold said. He let go of one, deep belly laugh before getting up to return his plate to the sink. 

“How do you figure?” Arthur began, “we look the same now.”

“Yeah but you’re older so you’ll probably have more wrinkles than me by that point, Otz.”  

“I’m not older by much!” 

“Yeah, well, you liked to tell everyone you were the older brother when we were kids, so you’re older and you’ll have more wrinkles than me.”  

“Oh yeah? Well you can clean your own plate then.” Arthur’s cheeks matched the color of his hair and Harold stood at the sink laughing at his brother while he cleaned the plate and butter knife. 

“At least we’re both good-looking now,” he said.

Arthur’s demeanor quickly changed and he stuck out his chest, flexing his arms. “That’s right,” he said with a grunt, “two of the toughest-looking fellas in Jamaica.” 

“Alright, now, put them away,” Harold said as he placed the dishes in the drainboard. He carefully hung the dishrag back over the top of the faucet and dried his hands before folding the towel and placing it next to the sink. 

“Tomorrow’s back to reality,” he sighed. “Back to finding a job and figuring out when we’re going to training.” 

“It’ll work out, baby brother,” Arthur said with a wink.