Again I will make an attempt to write a letter that is more than a jumble of words, yet I fell I will fail for my thoughts are confused and I’m afraid to arrange them in an ordinary fashion lest I wake and find my looking glass made of steel. My darling, I’m happy – happy beyond words of expression yet the slightest glance at my face would prove to you that which I am incapable to express otherwise. Believe me then doll when I [say] an old Army saying, “I never had so good.”
My health is good and the only medical treatment i’ll need is to have my teeth fixed. All other ailments are well taken care of by my diet. In approximately two weeks I’ll be home with you…the thought of home doll gives me the shivers of joy and I feel my patience is at last giving out. I love you doll, I want you doll, and I need you doll to make my happiness complete. I’m hoping that our 2nd anniversary will see us on our 2nd honeymoon.
Today I cleaned up and once again feel like an American soldier ; my friends say I look like one too which makes me proud and happy. The food I’m getting is excellent, and in many cases the best I’ve eaten since July 30, 1943 (Damned if that makes sense but you know what I mean). I believe I’d better wind this up, I can no more write now than I can cry.
Please inform me of the condition at home. I would like Eleanor to phone, telegraph, cablephone, or send by pigeon all details of Arthur as soon as I hit the States.
That’s all for tonight doll, I’ll see you in our dreams.
I have so much to say that it’s difficult to organize the facts and compose a letter, bear with me while I make a feeble attempt.
At present I’m staying in a RAMP ____ in Epinal, France where I soon expect to be de-loused and issued a completely new uniform for the filthy ____ clothes I am now wearing. I’ve already had my fill of chow and think Uncle Sam [ranks] the highest along that line. In fact, the food is too rich, for everyone of us men has been or is now sick. That Jerry diet of insipid cattle feed mush played hell with our insides, our teeth, our gums both coming and going. That is, of course, when Jerry decided to feed us.
As I mentioned before, I had my long awaited fill, and it was supplied by our first line troops, whom I esteem greatly both for valor and cooking. The meal I devoured was fried chicken, potatoes, peas, gravy, pears, bread, butter, and coffee. For seconds, I had more bread, butter, and coffee. Then, I managed to get into the kitchen for thirds and had more bread, butter, a steak sandwich, and a bowl of pear juice. That snack filled the cavity that grew out of my prisoner days in the woods and for supper I ravenously downed 2 courses but held up on the third.
…my sugar dumpling, my sweet, my honey…I am anxiously waiting to eat you up.
The Allied Powers won. World War 2 was over. Harold didn’t know how relieved he would be to hear nothing but French spoken around him. The village he stayed in was converted into a Red Cross checkpoint, where many (former) prisoners of war were processed. For his first order of business, Harold – along with the other men – was instructed to strip down and receive a bath.
“Alright, son, I’m going to need you to remove all your clothes.”
After spending the last two years relieving himself in front of thousands, Harold had no problem discarding the awful, dirty, ragged prison clothes for the last time. He could see the scrutiny on the medic’s face as he removed each article of clothing. The process was slow, for Harold was weak and exhausted from almost three weeks of trudging through the German countryside. The medic was patient as Harold held onto a table and slowly removed the last of his clothing. He stood there, bare and cold, while he waited to be looked over.
Each turn showed a new mark of his previous struggles. His back and arm healed from the plane crash two years earlier, but the lack of medical supplies in the camp left him with a deep scar diagonally across his back just under the shoulder blades. When touched, Harold flinched – parts of it were still tender. His arm healed much better, as did the sores Harold developed from sharing his bunk. The rest of his body was covered in small scars from typical life in a prison camp. There were marks from the bed bugs around his neck where the collar of his shirt rested; white lines ran across the tops of his hands and the fronts of his legs.
The examiner looked at Harold’s eyes, weighed him, and checked his teeth. Years of improper nutrition left Harold with cavities, some missing teeth, and swollen gums.
“We’ll get this all fixed up for you once you’re back in the states, no worries.” The medic smiled at Harold. He knew it was genuine and thanked him. “Now if you’ll just get on the scale for me, son.”
Harold stepped on the scale. In two years he lost almost 50 pounds. He felt his heart sink a little; the number before him was serious concrete evidence of what he endured. He felt himself get emotional and tucked his head down. The medic noticed and put a hand on his shoulder,
“Don’t you worry now, son. We’ll fatten you up no problem. Plenty of cooks outside waiting to feed you. Let’s get you showered and into some new clothes and then fed.”
The delousing process proved itself to be incredibly rough and unpleasant, but the warm water Harold used afterwards felt like he washed away decades instead of a couple of years. He got a decent shave, put on new clothing, and headed out to the makeshift mess hall for food. The allure of smells that came from the open door were enough to make him drool, and he was greeted by uproarious banter coming from long tables as men talked among themselves and swapped stories of the last few years.
Harold woke up in the chilly April haze to shouting, followed by two rapid gunshots. A man from a different prisoner group made an escape attempt in the pre-dawn hours. He was found out and shot without question, without a chance to surrender to the armed guards. It was an unfortunate case, Harold knew, but at the same time he felt unphased by the sounds, by the death. He felt hollow, and that scared him. The gunshots themselves didn’t even frighten him, no more than the barking dogs, the biting cold, the hunger; hunger was more of a companion than any other single person he encountered in camp over the course of two years. His emptiness was only satiated by the thought of returning home to Loretta and his family. As he imagined her, waiting for him at Jamaica Station, he touched his hand to the letters he kept in his breast pocket. It was a miracle that they survived as long as they did especially with the infrequency that they were received by him. Harold sat up in the dark, surrounded by the other piles of men carefully separated in groups of three, then groups of several dozen, then groups of several hundred. All gathered up and divided once again like a deck of cards – he just wanted to be home.
The prisoners were rounded and ordered to continue on their journey. Harold grabbed the food that was left from the night before, and the other men took packs and kindling wood to start another fire later on in the evening. It began to rain several hours into the march and the men were ordered to take shelter under a tree line or in a nearby barn. They dispersed without order to escape the downpour. One man, trampled and injured, lay face-down in the mud; his other two companions hurried over to him to help him up.
“What? Suddenly the lot of ya are savages? All it took was a little rain?” The man hollered at the passing soldiers as he lifted the injured soldier from the ground.
Harold walked on with caution after witnessing the scene. There was limited space for so many men to find shelter. The men scattered without rhyme or reason, and to avoid any more chaos Harold walked to the far side of a barn where he found an overturned carriage used to transport hay bales. He threw the food underneath it and crawled on his hands and knees through the mud to escape the rain. His two companions found shelter under a large tree about twenty feet away. The slow drumming of rain fell at once on the wooden carriage and Harold felt himself slowly drift off to sleep. He woke up to more yelling. It was nothing unusual – guards attacking out of bounds prisoners. Especially out in the open, he knew there were no rules. Something was different, though, Harold soon realized. The yelling was in English. He heard men yelling in English and he heard the sounds of engines. Harold peered out from under his carriage and saw the prisoners standing around in no particular order, and just beyond them he saw American soldiers – clean cut and free. This is it, he thought to himself. Harold felt his blood pressure rise in excitement and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. He crawled out from under the carriage as fast as he could – as if he might have been forgotten by the soldiers. It took 18 days, but the 13th armored division closed in on the men in the death march. They overtook and captured the SS who ordered the 4,000 prisoners to walk to their deaths. On May 3rd, Harold was liberated from German control. Transportation was arranged and Harold – along with the countless other American captives – was transported to France where he planned to gorge himself on food, receive medical attention, and finally wrote his girl to tell her he was coming home.
There were whispers that the prisoners were destined for Braunau, to get as far away from Russian forces as possible. They followed the Danube River, unable to stop unless it was to sleep for an hour or two. 4,000 or so men split off into groups of up to 300 men, and within those groups they delegated themselves to parties of three or four – one to gather wood, one to gather food, one to guard the food, and so on. As they passed through fields and private farm lands, food gatherers such as Harold would pull root vegetables straight from the ground, wipe the dirt off, and eat them raw. Turnips, potatoes, carrots – whatever they could find was more of a delicacy than the slop that was served by the Jerry’s back in Stalag XVII-B. Harold bit hard into a carrot, his teeth aching from two years of no toothbrush, and thought how grateful he was to never have just hot water for breakfast – or boiled cabbage for dinner, or muddied black coffee – again. He continued onward, marching through mud and fields; he imagined he was marching home to Loretta. He envisioned the cottage on the water, the smell of salt carried on a warm breeze. The thoughts took him back to his early days at Keesler Air Force Base and the muddy Mississippi. It seemed like forever ago to him. He wouldn’t have to write her letters telling her everything was fine before going to bed with hunger pains. He wouldn’t have to tell her that he was in good spirits after seeing innocent men shot dead before him. He’d never have to kill – or watch someone be killed – again. Even with the freezing nights in German territory beating down on his head and face each night, Harold continued to think of her. He would pull into Jamaica Station and this time she’d be there, waiting for him. Her hair would be curled and her lipstick would be a bright shade of pink. She’d have her tea length dress on that he liked, and she’d be so excited to see him that she would consider running onto the train herself, because she just couldn’t wait any longer. Then, that night, he’d lay next to her in bed, and he would do that every night for the rest of his life. He never wanted to be away from her again.
Austrian women impatiently lingered in their yards and watched these poor, broken souls wander past their homes. Their faces were those of longing and concern as they witnessed the procession. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts – all waited and looked on at the prisoners as if they might have found their own sons in the lines. The men were thin and weak, but knew if they stopped they would be hit, or have a dog sicked on them, or maybe even be shot by an SS. The guards were extremely tense and constantly on the lookout for Allied forces. Harold and the others knew the war was ending, but they were all beaten down and cold and no one had weapons to fight back. A woman stood closer and closer to the men and, when the SS weren’t looking, reached into the bosom of her apron and threw what Harold immediately recognized as bread at his feet. Bread! Fresh bread for him to have! He quickly scooped up the piece and devoured it. As he looked back he saw the other women continue to do this for the rest of the men, breaking off bits of bread that they kept concealed in their garments and tossing them to the men like they were a line of ducks.
He felt tired. The group was broken off into only a couple hundred and they had to have walked for what Harold thought to be seven or eight days already. There were casualties among the prisoners and he figured that was the plan of the Germans all along – to walk the men to death. He thought to himself that must mean the Germans were going to lose the war, which at least for the Allies was something to look forward to. The wandering felt aimless, although they kept hearing a goal of Braunau as the endpoint of their alleged journey.
Harold walked up to a farm where he saw livestock wandering around within a small fenced area. Tempting, he wondered for a moment, but it would be far too much effort to acquire, kill, and eat an animal. A young girl – Polish he thought – broke his train of thought when she appeared out of a chicken coop. She was the first young woman he had seen in at least two years. She was beautiful and thin, her hair braided behind her head and her apron full of eggs. Her face was young and her eyes looked bright but frightened – what did Harold look like to her? He hadn’t seen his own face in months, he remembered. All the walking and wandering through mud and dirt must have made a mess of him. He quickly looked at his hands for an assessment and noticed his dirty, broken fingernails, bloodied knuckles, and realized that’s probably what the rest of him looked like as well. He cautiously took a step towards her and she took an invigorated one back. He extended his hands in a kind way to try and show he meant no harm. She tilted her head at him and looked at his open, dirty palms. She asked him a question in German, but he didn’t understand most of it. He heard “American,” and, “prisoner.” Harold just knew he wanted one of the eggs in her apron.
Just then, he remembered the sewing needle he pocketed from the British Red Cross when he had scurvy. He dug around in his trousers and produced it. Harold pointed at her apron and said, “Egg?” The girl, less fear in her eyes, tilted her head to the side. He extended the needle between his thumb and forefinger. Somewhere in his brain, Harold tried to recall his mother’s words when she made and fixed all the children’s clothing.
“Ich…” he tried. “Ich haben… nadel?” The girl lit up and smiled. He said it right! “Ich haben nadel!” Harold excitedly said it again and took another step towards her. He offered her the needle. The young girl took the needle in her hand. Her hands were so soft and clean, he noticed – and gentle. He pointed at her apron pocket full of eggs.
“Hühnerei?” The girl then reached into her apron and pulled out a hen’s egg. It was the most perfect thing he’d ever seen. It rested delicately in her palm, small enough for her to cover it completely if she were to close her hand. Polished from the fabric in her apron, Harold could have sworn it shined. She handed it to him and he carefully took it as if he was handling a newborn baby. “Danke, danke.” The girl smiled and Harold turned around to make his way back to his men.
The other two were anxiously waiting near a small fire, some root vegetables spread out near their feet.
“Well, how was it? What did you find, Red?” Harold smiled and said nothing. He only reached into his shirt pocket and produced the egg – the egg. The men gasped in amazement. “We’ll eat like kings tonight!” They looked around nervously to make sure none of the other groups saw the bounty Harold brought back. All the prisoners ate since the opening of XVII-B were canned foods, boiled potatoes and cabbage – nothing close to an egg. They sat in the cold, huddled around their small fire and split a raw hen’s egg three ways. It was the best meal Harold had in two years. It was a meal of freedom.
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.
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.
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.
Days – weeks – had passed since Harold arrived at Stalag 7A in Bavaria. He was put in with 1300 or so other Air Force enlisted men. Harold learned that it was September and his wife had finally learned of his holdings. The small shred of joy barely made a dent on the dire situation he found himself in. This camp, 7A, was a transit camp, where he would be held until his inevitable transfer to Stalag XVII-B, a prison camp for enlisted men. It began in 1938 as a concentration camp for Poles, but was converted after 1940 when the war began to gain momentum and the Germans needed prisoner housing for their military counterparts. Stalag XVII-B was already overcrowded, something Harold learned from the chatter among the other prisoners, and he was scheduled to be dumped in the middle of it. Soon, Harold would be surrounded by barbed wire and thick, muddied ground. There were – among other Americans – French, Italians, Russians, and Yugoslavians. All captured somewhere, all stuck in this hell.
The Americans were given five separate compounds and quarters to sleep in, each capable of holding just over 200 men. He stepped lightly, though, as the barracks housed somewhere closer to 4,000. The bunks were hard, wooden slabs with beds – or what advertised themselves as beds – made of straw and dirty cloth. They were stacked three bunks high. There were many men, already tired and weak from months of imprisonment, all sharing bunks with two or three to a bed in order to keep each other warm in the frigid German evenings. It was nearing Autumn, and Harold was reassured that he’d appreciate the extra bodies surrounding him at night. In the middle of the camp were the latrines – at one point covered – now partially covered. Harold learned the men were slowly dismantling the outhouses in order to burn the wood for warmth.
He was scared. He was happy to be alive but Harold thought to himself that this camp very well may have been a punishment worse than death. The men were in varying stages of hunger and ill health; it was as if he was bearing witness to what his own future would hold. At that point – in the war and his imprisonment – the only thing keeping him going was the thought of Loretta back home, waiting for him and hopefully aware that he was, in fact, alright. He couldn’t wait to get a hand on some pencil and paper to write to her. He longed to see her beautiful cursive lines, telling him about how lovely things were back in New York.
The men in the barracks welcomed him. Barrack number 36B, serial number 32319141, or just Harold. Or Red. He told them the stories of what happened back near Kassel, inquired as to the whereabouts of the other nine men he was with that day, and hoped to find them among the sea of prisoners he was now a part of. He was still unaware if his crew was lucky enough to survive the bail-out.
It was morning and Harold noticed for the first time in a couple of days that he was truly hungry. For a prison camp there was a noticeable bustling amount of men, different languages heard across the barracks – hollers and shouts, a couple of laughs, a couple of cries. He looked about at the stark reminder that he was, in fact, imprisoned.
“What do they serve us for breakfast here?” His bunkmate looked sympathetically at Harold, his face already gaunt from malnourishment. Although melancholic in appearance, he put a comforting hand on Harold’s shoulder.
“Morning,” he started, “well, morning is hot water, Red.” Harold swallowed hard.
“Yep,” the man replied. “Monday through Sunday, friend. We get hot water in the morning. Sometimes they give us coffee. Jerry coffee is garbage but at least it’s got a bit of zing to it, you know? Sometimes we’ll get bread and butter in the afternoons. They served us corned beef once but I’m not entirely sure if it was actually corned beef. You eat it anyway because you don’t know when you’re going to get fed again.
“Don’t think about asking for sugar with your coffee, either. Shit always tastes like mud but it’s warm and sits longer than hot water. If the soup has maggots or beetles in it just eat them, or pick ‘em out. You won’t get points for complaining. You won’t get seconds either, and you’ll need the protein.” Harold followed the man around as he was introduced to other prisoners and laid out different parts of the camp.
“That latrine over there is getting more and more baron, too, so I hope you’re comfortable shitting with an audience.” He pointed to the dilapidated toilets that Harold noticed earlier that morning. He let out a weak laugh, not because what his bunkmate said was funny, but because it seemed to be what would have been an appropriate time to break up the sad state these men were in.
“Over there is where we get our parcels and letters. Over there is the infirmary – the Red Cross will send packages and sometimes we can trade with the Red Crosses from other countries; the Brits always have some helpful things. Anyway,” he clapped Harold on the back, “welcome to hell.”
The two men stood in the middle of the barracks with the warm September sun on their backs. It was a welcome comfort, with the looming cold season approaching. Harold wasn’t entirely sure how long he was destined to stay in XVII-B, but he knew that when he left – when – he would do so on his own two feet and not in a body bag. After a few moments, the men continued their informal tour of the camp. Unfortunately, Harold wasn’t able to locate any of his other crewmen from Classy Chassis. He hoped that after he got a letter or two out, someone on the other side would be a more reliable informant of their whereabouts. He had to get in touch with Jack or Ned – or both – he thought. He had to reach out to his mother and Loretta; he had to get word to Artie.
September 17, 1943
Received your letter of Sept. 2, and I certainly was glad to hear from you. I have never seen you, but from the many months association with Ha, it seems as though I have known you all my life.
Ha and Jack, Joe and I were together from morning until night, therefore you can imagine how overjoyed we were to find out that they are safe, even if prisoners of war.
I am sure that they will be treated well, and there is nothing to worry about. We are all living for the day when we can all meet again in the good old U.S.A.
In a way, I guess Ha and Joe are better off than Jack and I, as we must continue going out every day, expecting anything to happen, and hoping for the best.
We all feel that we are coming back, though, and now that we know the boys are safe, we will just have to try that much harder, as the reunion will be complete.
Well, Loretta, I have several other letters to write, and as you know, our time to ourselves is pretty limited, I guess I will close for now.
If you do find time, drop me a line any time, and I will answer first opportunity.
I already knew Ha was a prisoner of war from his sister Eleanor. She has also given me his address.
Gee whiz – you’ll never know how much I worried as I waited for the news which I had hoped would come true. As you can figure out I wasn’t positive.
You know what Doll – I can now give you a picture of what I saw that day.
Well to begin with, we were in front of Ha when things got quite warm. Then suddenly I heard Fred call me and say Kelley’s in trouble. As usual – we always keep an eye on each other.
I watched whenever I could to see what was taking place, then I waited, and waited, for the chute to get out. Oh, if that gang only knew how I cursed and prayed for them to hurry they’d never forgive me. A thousand years came and passed before out they came, 5 of ‘em was all I could see. When we got back home Fred looked at me and I at him, neither of us caring to say what we thought. Higgins, my tail gunner and Marble my waist gunner, must have read our minds for the first thing both said was, “Don’t worry, we saw ten open.” Doll we were so happy knowing at least they had a chance that tears came into our eyes (must have been someone’s cigar).
Those two, Red and Little Joe along with Fred and I were always seen together. If one was around, you knew the others weren’t far away.
You haven’t any idea how much you can become attached to a guy. Here’s an incident about Fred that is exactly true even if he won’t admit it. Until he knew Joe was OK he wouldn’t listen to the song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Joe always sang that, among us it was quite a joke. He had short legs and Fred is 6’1”.
About Red all I did was pray, hope, and wait. My prayers were certainly answered as was yours and all the rest.
Remember the letter I wrote you in which I tried to answer your questions. I know it was vague. It was to me I know, but certain people were around and I did the best I could.
When you write Red, tell him we are OK and don’t worry about us even tho he won’t hear from us except through other sources. We aren’t allowed to write prisoners of war as it may give away military information. If you can tell him anything, tell him I’ve got only 9 more to go. For your information I’m gonna be here a long while now that we got to be the group leader and I’m sure things aren’t going to be easy for us.
My look how I’ve rambled on. You must think me an old man with a lot of gab so I better leave off now and bid you goodbye.
Take good care of things Loretta and if you can spare an extra prayer I know a fellow that can use it.
The old man,
P.S. Tell Red that DB Adams, Karl Alexander, and CC Jones are OK. They went down with Ha.
Harold drifted down faster and faster until he hit land in the village of Kehrenbach, about 15 miles southeast of Kassel. The plane was long gone, as was the remainder of his crew. He landed in a field, cut his chute and began to look for cover in the trees of this small town. As he ran, he felt a sting in his arm and back. Harold looked down at his ripped sleeve of his bomber jacket and saw blood – definitely his. It was amazing he made it out of that plane, he thought. The last thing he remembered was smoke and heat, and jumping out of that damn bomb bay into nothingness. He was in pain, but alive – at least he had that to look forward to.
Two little boys in the village saw the plane spiraling to its demise and noticed the red headed man with the parachute making his descent onto their town. As Harold reached this tiny village, the boys ran to him and followed him on his search for help. They spoke German at the man with the name “Schwerdt” on his jacket, but he couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. They pointed at his bloodied arm; he imagined he looked worse for wear and hoped they would be kind to him. He stopped before the two small boys and smiled. They looked up in wonderment at this dirty, injured American man who happened to land in their home. One of the boys approached Harold and tugged on the hem of his jacket and spoke at him in a pleading way. Harold didn’t understand much German, but he understood children.
His bomber jacket, although torn, still had intact pockets – one of which held chocolate. He reached into his jacket, broke up a bar, and handed pieces of the candy to the boys, who happily received them and continued to follow Harold as he searched for medical attention. Others in the town already gathered, drawn by the trail of smoke and crash. He smiled sheepishly and pointed to his arm and tried to draw some attention to his back. Sympathetic eyes of an old woman looked him over. The village’s Burgermeister and his wife arrived and approached the injured tech sergeant and offered assistance. The sound of barking dogs drew Harold’s attention to an official-looking group of armed men. A German police officer led them. He approached with reports that an American plane went down and there may have been survivors.
“What are you doing with this American?” He un-holstered his firearm and aggressively waved it at the Burgermeister. The man was speaking German, but Harold knew he was the topic of conversation.
The Burgermeister stepped forward and stood his ground between the policeman and Harold. “He is injured. He needs help. We can provide him help.” Harold stood, in pain, barely catching what words were said. “Hilfe, hilfe, hilfe,” he heard. “Help, help, help.” He remembered his mother asking for help with chores, or his father asking for help with handy-work. He thought to himself in that moment how he could have used his parents’ help by speaking more German in the house back in Jamaica.
The policeman didn’t care that the soldier was injured. He was American. “He must come with me,” the policeman insisted. He edged closer to the Burgermeister and lifted his weapon. “If you refuse, I will not hesitate to shoot all of you.” The Burgermeister, without lowering his head, stepped aside. He knew there was nothing more he could do for this injured American. Harold twinged in pain as the policeman bound his hands behind his back.
“Schwerdt?” He gestured to Harold’s badge. “Do you speak German?” Harold shook his head no. The policeman mocked him. Surrounded by the villagers, and the Burgermeister and his wife, Harold never felt so alone. He was hauled off back through the town, the Burgermeister pleased with himself and his dog snarling at Harold’s feet. He was thrown into a vehicle and shut into darkness. Where would he be taken? Will he ever get to write Loretta again?
Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane.
“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand.
“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta.
Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.
The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done.
Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission.
After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present.
More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.
Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany.
The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next.
“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.
One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. The parachutes disappeared among the trees as Jack counted and recounted how many he saw leave the Chassis, telling himself over again that Harold made it.
August 1, 1943
RETURN TO SENDER
My darling, I’m home now. I was over your house today and your mother is feeling very well and cheerful. Erwin and Frances too. Bob, Irene, and the children were there also. They are well too and Diane is a little devil. God! She’s so cute when she’s naughty. She makes you laugh. I left your house around 8:30, bought an ice cream and moped home. The sky is very beautiful tonight and its countless stars are shining away. Several planes flew overhead and I tried to visualize my honey in one. Honey, I love you very, very, very much. I really think about you all the time darling, you are so nice.
Honey, take good care of yourself as you belong to me. If you don’t get good meals, step out and buy one that is good. Keep well and don’t ever change.
Enclosed is the card where my place was at Erwin’s reception. I love the way that looks, my Mr. Schwerdt, don’t you?
Annamae Hennesey had a 9lb, some-odd ounces – baby boy. I’m so glad everything turned out so well for her!
I’m sorry this letter is in pencil, Ha. Gosh! I’m always apologizing huh! But I love you.