Infestation

Harold lay hopelessly awake next to his bunkie. The security lights passed over the barracks like a lighthouse. It was a cruel trick, he thought to himself, to have a beacon that would only lead him to the barbed wire walls and the cold outside. No one could try to escape this place. The barbed wire was also electrically charged, just in case any of the men decided to risk the pain of jumping on the sharp fence.  

He stared ahead at a rotted out piece of the bunk, hunger keeping him awake, exhaustion keeping him from complaining. Deep inside a rotted knot of wood on the bunk he noticed movement. It surely was the hunger, he thought. He must have been hallucinating. 

But he wasn’t. The swirl grew and turned into skittering, and from the wood came hundreds – thousands – too many to count, bed bugs and mites. They swarmed en mass and began their nightly hunt for a meal. All of the men around him were sleeping; how could they be asleep? With thousands of prisoners to choose from, these mites would eat better than the men in the barracks. The airmen were at the mercy of everyone. Once free to the skies, they were now locked up, stuffed into beds like sardines – even the bugs had it better. 

He awoke to itching on his face. Harold sat up and began to scratch as his hands caught what were certainly bedbugs crawling all over him. He began to panic and wipe and swat at his face more frantically, disturbing the bunkmate who lay next to him. In the low light of the moon, and with the aid of the passing watchtower lamp, Harold caught a glimpse of the man. He stirred, and rolled over almost too comfortably to meet Harold face to face with the horror he bore. The man, still asleep, lay covered in bedbugs and Harold watched in fear as he saw little black specks crawl around the corners of the sleeping man’s mouth and eyes. He was barely recognizable. Harold noticed the bugs took shelter under the collar of the man’s shirt, and immediately resolved to remove the collar from his own in the morning. 

He rose the next day, having not slept well at all the night before, to the sounds of the other prisoners walking around the barracks. Breakfast was hot water, served in whatever tin can or aluminum cup Harold could get a hold of. His face and neck itched, although his bunkmate certainly received the brunt of the bedbug attacks. Harold looked down and noticed a sore on the outside of his right forearm. He put down his cup and rolled up his sleeve to count another, and another – four total that he could see without the help of a mirror. 

“That happens sometimes,” a prisoner remarked. He noticed Harold examining himself. “They aren’t wounds, really – almost like bed sores but from the dirt and bugs and no hot water.” Harold didn’t say anything back, just nodded. He had to relieve himself but decided to wait for whatever remaining covered latrine was made available. It wasn’t out of bashfulness, but privacy. Harold hadn’t had any silent time – alone to himself – since England. For months he was caged up with other men, forced to shower, sleep, eat – and shit – in front of them. He just wanted some space to think for a little, even for a minute, about home. He wanted to imagine Loretta in her pretty dress on their wedding day and didn’t want other people peering in on his thoughts. 

That afternoon, he saw a man hit in the face with the butt of a rifle. It seemed entirely unprovoked; his first reaction was to run to the aid of the fallen man, but he was stopped by the prisoner who stood beside him. 

“You’re just gonna get yourself hit too,” he whispered. “Wait for the guard to walk away, and then we’ll get his bandage looked at.” 

Harold looked at the man, confused. He didn’t understand how the guards were able to hit prisoners unprovoked; they were certainly breaking the laws of the Geneva Convention. He followed the suggestion of the soldier beside him, though, and waited until the guard walked away.

October 18, 1943

Monday

TELEGRAM

DEAREST HA,

HELLO, HOW ARE YOU. HOPE MY LETTER FINDS YOU WELL. WAS OVER TO SEE YOUR MOTHER SATURDAY AND SHE IS ENJOYING GOOD HEALTH. ELEANOR WAS HOME AND SHE IS ALL RIGHT TOO. GOING HOME I MET JEANNE SO WE STOOD ON THE CORNER TALKING ABOUT OUR HUSBANDS. SHE IS VERY CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND WANTS TO BE REMEMBERED TO YOU. EDDIE AND RONNIE ARE DEFINITELY GETTING MARRIED NEXT MONTH. SATURDAY I RECEIVED SOME MORE LETTERS WHICH YOU NEVER RECEIVED. ONE LETTER WAS THE ONE IN WHICH I TOLD YOU THAT JACK FENTON, JACK HOUSTON, VINNIE FINNEGAN, AND WALTER HICKEY HAD SENT US A WEDDING GIFT. IT IS A GLASSWARE SET WHICH CONSISTS OF FOUR DIFFERENT TYPE GLASSES AND CANDY DISHES. IT REALLY IS A VERY BEAUTIFUL SET AND THE GLASSES ACTUALLY RING WHEN YOU CLICK THEM TOGETHER. THAT IS A SIGN OF VERY GOOD GLASS, ROCK CRYSTAL. YOU WILL BE VERY PLEASED WHEN YOU SEE THEM.

WELL DEAR, IT IS GOODBYE. WHERE YOU ARE DARLING, ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART.

YOUR VERY LOVING WIFE,

LORETTA

Desperation

Desperation

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

Kriegsgefangenenlager

Dear Loretta,

I miss you lots doll, and still love you. I’m getting along fine. Regards to the family and our friends.

All my love,

T/SGT H.P. Schwerdt

Fish in a Barrel

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? 

An Hour with my Grandpa

“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.

Bull

Bullshit

Not true

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.”