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.
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.
Loretta received letter after letter returned to her. She didn’t care; she made it a point to write to Harold almost everyday so he would have something nice to read and look forward to. She couldn’t bear the thought of not writing to him, and it helped her just to believe he was out there somewhere, thinking of her. She thought keeping him in the loop of even mundane activities would give a semblance of normalcy in the current awful times. If he was found she would just resend the letters again and everything would be alright. Would she ever hear from him again? Would she ever see her love?
It took five weeks before any news of Harold reached their home in Jamaica. She didn’t know how or when he was found, or the extent of his injuries. What she did know, though, was that Harold was alive. He was a prisoner, but he was breathing and he could still read her letters, and maybe he could write her one or two. Information was given to Loretta and Harold’s mother about where they could send parcels and she beamed at the sight of a usable address. Never in her life did Loretta think she’d be so pleased to learn that her husband was a prisoner. She collapsed into tears of joy knowing that – at the very least – her husband was alive. No one knew how much longer the war would carry on for, but at least he was safe.
Harold did not feel safe. He, along with hundreds of others were cramped and crowded into stinking cattle trains. He had been standing for hours. The destination wasn’t known; maybe it was said back when the men were loaded into the train but Harold couldn’t hear much over the sound of barking dogs. Certain death seemed like the right answer, though, he figured. The smell of where cows once stood mixed with the stench of prisoners. They were all American, he knew that much. He assumed that a handful of them surely belonged to the Eighth Air Force. He searched for eyes to meet his own – someone he could start up a conversation with. All eyes were either turned up to God or down in defeat. Some of these men were already dead. He longed for the train to Mississippi and the kind porter who helped make the ride go by faster. How badly he wanted a sleepless night on the click-clack of the passenger car. Between the coughs and groans, Harold searched for the click-clack of the train, except it wasn’t there. It was a low, thunderous rumble, like an oncoming storm.
Without a window to look out of, Harold turned his attention to counting heads. He speculated a hundred to a car based on the notion that he was unable to turn around. Ahead of him in a corner was a small space that all of the men fervently tried to avoid. A metal bucket sloshed about full of excrement. They stood in varying levels of slumping fatigue and tattered uniforms. Harold held his arms across the front of his chest, missing his bomber jacket. He looked down at the wound on his arm and bent forward a little to test how bad the injury was to his back. Not bad enough, he thought.
September 27, 1943
I miss you lots doll, and still love you. I’m getting along fine. Regards to the family and our friends.
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.
I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.
I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with.
Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was may 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.
I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you.
Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is.
I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it.
I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for 2; or 3, or 4 or more.
My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.
It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.
Your Honey and Husband
All my love,
P.S. I love you
Regards to all.
The Shack Up – or Kelley’s crew, as they were known – already completed a handful of bombing missions over Germany throughout the month of July. Harold, a technical sergeant, gunner, and sometimes radio operator, began to live for the rush of a mission. The men would hustle into position and impatiently wait as they were cleared for take-off. He loved the power of the B-17, the Flying Fortress – the Ship – as she effortlessly maneuvered down the airstrip and glided up into the sky, swimming into the clouds in a graceful climb before dropping bombs on Axis forces. It was a beautiful dance; when he was training and flying over Kansas and Oklahoma, Harold often felt bored seeing the same flat, monotone land. He hoped for ground crew assignment because at least he’d have things to work with. Then, up in the sky on his first mission, he saw the unfortunate beauty of a war-torn Europe. He saw mountains, rivers, and bodies of water that all moved their own way, that all had their own shade of blue. He saw rolling plains – and he saw destruction. He bore witness to villages that were decimated, and cathedrals and synagogues reduced to nothing more than smoking rubble. He saw people running for their lives in unknown directions – trains taking innocent men, women, and children and transporting them away to far, unknown places from where they would surely not return. It was absolute chaos – beauty and chaos.
On July 28, the Shack Up went out for its sixth mission. They followed close with other Fortresses manned by men such as Jack and Ned. After they completed the mission, high on victory, the group of Airmen encountered fire from three German 187’s, armed, carrying the intent to damage and destroy whatever B-17s they could. The men quickly went to battle stations as they already began to feel the piercing of metal by the fighter plane’s guns.
Harold went to his position at the turret when he noticed one of the 187’s wasn’t firing at them. Instead, he was climbing and descending, matching the altitude of the Shack Up and then pulling away to circle back. He watched the plane disappear to the aft of the aircraft and looked down, knowing what his eyes would already be met with – flak. These 88mm anti-aircraft cannons were waiting for the Fortresses, and the pilot of the 187 was radioing the altitude of the B-17 so they could get a more accurate shot on Kelley’s boys. This momentary distraction was interrupted when Harold heard the pang pang pang pang of bullets getting louder and closer to his turret. He heard a bullet whiz past his ear and hit the inside of the plane close behind him. Then, he felt a white-hot pain in his right hand. Harold looked down and was met only with blood. He gnashed his teeth at the pain. Harold picked his hand up to see his pinky had been shot off.
A loud explosion rocked the Fortress and his attention went to Kelley’s shouts from the cockpit.
“They hit the goddamn wing again! Engine out!” Kelley struggled with Topin to keep the plane aloft as it violently shook in the sky. Ping ping ping ping ping came back around and Harold quickly realized he could no longer move the turret gun automatically. When the 88mm ripped through the wing it must have blown out part of the electrical, he thought. There was fire and smoke as the flak ripped the wing like paper. He knew his right hand was no good for firing, so he swallowed the pain and began to manually crank the turret as he followed a 187 through the air, squeezing the trigger with his non-dominant hand, and returning fire with a 50 caliber.
Pop pop pop pop pop!
Black smoke began to billow out of the 187 and Harold felt relief once he saw flames engulf the wing of the aircraft. It sputtered and screamed as it jolted around in the sky – victory for Harold. The plane began to nosedive for the ground.
“We gotta get the hell out of here!”
They continued on the best they could, pursued by the last remaining 187. Three of the four engines were out. Kelley managed to stabilize the plane long enough to land in Allied territory. All ten of the men bailed out, unaware of the extent of the damage or whether or not the Fortress would explode. As they ran, they heard the scream of the fighter above them as it doubled back over their heads. Harold looked up to the sun, ready to fight – or face his death. Shot out of the sky and then killed on the ground; he thought to himself this would be such an ironic way to die. The 187 dipped low. Then, reflecting in the summer sky, the pilot waved the wings of his plane – portside down, then starboard, righting himself once more to fly off back to his own base.
“I’ll be damned,” Kelley breathlessly said, “did he just wave goodbye?”
Harold stood a moment in shock, “Gee whiz!” Kelley brought attention to Harold’s bloodied hand. The other men took notice to check themselves over for any serious injuries. Luckily they were all intact; all the other men had ten fingers each. Harold remembered then the pain in his hand and grasped the missing finger. “It’s lost somewhere in Germany now.” He winced for a moment. The crew took off on foot to be intercepted by an emergency response crew that would take them back to their base in Knettishall. They walked with a purpose, breathless and coming down off the adrenaline of an air fight.
“Close call boys.”
The men later went and assessed the damage of the Shack Up. There were at least 60 flack holes that ran along the side of their pride and joy. Both wings would have to be replaced, and the back of the plane was almost completely blown off. The tail gunner sighed in his own disbelief, “I can’t believe I didn’t get blown right out of the sky!” Harold and the other waist gunner shook their heads, “She’s going to be out of commission for a while, huh.” The wings were relatively simple to replace, but they had other missions that needed to be carried out and the Shack Up wouldn’t be done in time for their next run on the 30th.
“No, no. That was bullshit. See? I wrote there, bullshit.” And there it was, in all its glory, the shaky handwriting of my 97-year old grandpa populating the margins of a World War II story he was given.
He handed me a stack of paper in a plastic folio, color printed and donning the emblem of his old bombardier group he was with for the duration of the War up to, and following, his capture in Germany. The initial bullshit in question was a paragraph referring to the prisoners of Stalag 17B – a notorious prisoner of war camp located in Austria (watch the show) – and how they were rationed roughly 54 pounds of coal per day in order to warm their barracks. He and I sat side by side on the couch, while i frantically scribbled in pen his story of the barracks; Anyone who is close to a veteran of the war – any war at that – knows the value and importance of these stories. And not just, “I was in the war (insert place and time)” but rather the experience stories, the ones that merit a thousand-yard stare and suddenly you as the listener are beside them in their own personal hell. Living with my grandpa for three years helped me to understand his night terrors, and how the war affected him almost 70 years later. It made me more motivated to listen to him, and value his stories and document them.
I saw his eyes drift into another plane, like an out of body experience, grabbed my pen, and prepared. He would systematically look down and acknowledge and make sure I was writing, smile at me, and keep going.
“54 pounds of coal. I can’t believe it. Where did he come up with that number? Hell, I was lucky to get two – a couple of lumps to warm me in the damn winter. And that part about the Red Cross….” He pointed to the next line marked bull and paused while I watched him relive cold Austrian nights in prison camp.
“We had an outhouse….we’d call it the shitter. 150 of our guys – English, American – all crammed in this barrack, and the shitter was in the middle. It was overcrowded, and it smelled, and I didn’t shower for two years. I didn’t brush my teeth for two years. I lost teeth.” He looked at me, flashed his dentures, and stuck his pointer finger in his mouth, mimicking a tooth brush.
“Anyway, the shitter was covered in wood like an outhouse would be, but you know, we’d get cold. We didn’t have anything to keep us warm; they took so much from us. A guy here, a guy there, one by one would take a piece of wood off the shitter. Next thing you know, we’re all shittin’ in front of each other. Who cared? We had to survive…we had to survive.”
I put myself there. I placed myself in this overcrowded camp, full of filth and disease and downtrodden men, and goosebumps covered my neck. Two years. Two years of hell and back for this man.
“The Red Cross would give the English their care packages, and the Americans theirs. It was never much, and it would only usually go to one guy at a time, last you a week maybe. We all shared our care packages….cigarettes, vitamins, whatever they could give us. When I was in there, I got the jaundice real bad. I didn’t know, because I never really looked in a mirror – but all the guys were asking me, ‘Harry, why’s your eyes so yellow? What’s wrong with your skin?’ The English men gave me an English care package, full of vitamins and vitamin C. I got better, I was real grateful.”
Through the squalor these men took care of each other, and this was the first time ever that my grandpa opened up about the prison camp. He remembered the layout of the barracks, the rations, the food, and the liberation. He remembered the Long March, and the pain in his eyes said so much more than his words.
“I wish I wrote down more of those days, it would be important for people to know about the march. It was so cold, we walked and walked for…I think…maybe 28 days. We didn’t have barracks anymore, we barely had shoes. I slept under a horse carriage some nights, and we stole vegetables from people’s gardens to survive until we got to where we needed. I really thought that was the end for me – out there marching – I didn’t think I was going to make it home to my girl.”