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 cold stirred around the barracks and it forced the men to stay close, bundle more, and pray harder. It truly was the winters where they were grateful for overcrowding. Harold lay awake and wondered how he managed to pass over a second winter behind the wires of XVII-B – how the war seemed endless.
Harold had not sent a note home to Loretta in weeks – nor had he received one back. He was unable to find parchment to write on; he didn’t know if the camps ran out of paper to send, or if the war was preparing to come to an unforeseeable halt. Or, in the far reaches of Harold’s mind, he feared he might not live much longer. The barracks, although filled, felt skeletal. The men were the bones, rattling and somewhat hollow, left behind after the decay of their imprisonment. After the sun set each day, hollow coughs and mist from mouths cracked through the bunks like the gunshots that no longer fazed Harold. When the sun did shine, it felt medical – prodding, invading the forsaken places of thousands of prisoners who wanted nothing more than to be home.
Along with missing parchment, Harold noticed his own food rations dwindling. The Red Cross had not made a delivery in a suspicious amount of time. As he observed the rest of the men, Harold noticed everyone’s rations were scant. They were trading – not just more frequently – but frantically, almost.
“You got some canned hash?” One man dug through his bunk for something to offer just in case he found himself lucky. He would have given up a pair of socks, maybe some smokes. But he was unlucky. They all seemed unlucky.
“I sure miss my gal. I wonder what she’s doing right now.”
Harold lay in his bunk, talking to whoever was sprawled out near him. It was much too cold to venture outside unless completely necessary. He had finished the two books Loretta sent, and eyed them next to his bed, debating whether or not to pick one up and give it a second chance. Anything to take him away from the barracks once more, even if he was visiting a familiar scene.
“I miss my mama’s cooking,” another chimed in and interrupted his daydream. “Some pork and beans. Maybe a nice fried egg. I’d love a fried egg.”
Harold felt his stomach growl and agreed. “It’s certainly been too long for an egg.” He thought back to Sunday breakfasts at home with all his siblings. Pop would make breakfast on Sunday so Mama could have a day off. More important than the food, he tried his best to remember the warmth of twelve people all around a table – Harold and Arthur always next to one another. Arms overlapping for eggs or bacon or bread – everyone in a hurry to eat but no one in a rush to finish. Harold held onto the warm thoughts and wiggled his toes, just to make sure he could still feel them in their socks. His big toe poked out of a hole. Mama could fix that, he thought.
The afternoon bled into the evening and the sun went down without so much as a notice from Harold. The men ate their rations – ever-smaller – and returned to the almost warmth of their barracks. It was apparent the guards knew something the prisoners did not, and whatever that was might mean either the end of the war or the end of the men. The Red Cross seemed to disappear almost completely, the guards seemed more on edge, and the suspicions of the enlisted men became palpable. There was an increase in manpower focused to the east, and Harold dared to think that maybe Allied troops were somewhere beyond his line of vision, coming closer.
I received your nice letter and it was swell of you to try and cheer me up when you were probably eating your own heart out. I was sort of waiting for a letter from you and I was certainly glad that I did receive one. During the time that Ha was missing I sat down and wrote a letter to you telling you just what I was thinking and feeling. Well after the letter was finished I felt a bit better but when I read it over I decided that it was a pretty depressing letter to send to a person that needed cheering up himself. I was anxious to hear how you took the news about Ha. Gosh, you were all alone when you got the knews whereas your mother and I at least had others around to console us. Gosh, Art, I hope and pray that I never have a shock like that again. Why my hair isn’t snow white today I don’t know. Gosh! If anything ever happened to Ha I would have absolutely nothing. I never thought I would be so thankful to learn that Ha was a prisoner of war but I certainly am. After waiting for five weeks and two days of uncertainty, what a relief. You probably received El’s letter telling you of the card that Ha sent. What a good feeling to look at that old familiar handwriting again.
I met Jeanne a week ago Saturday so we sat in Goosers gabbing over a Banana Royal. We really enjoy talking to each other. Jeanne is really one swell girl, as if you didn’t know.
Eddie Wilson and Ronnie are getting married next month. Pretty soon everyone on the corner will be married.
I received two letters, one from Jack Thompson and one from Ned Transon. Ned and Jack are very close buddies of Harold’s. Both were so happy to hear that Ha was found. Jack and Ned are both on the same plane. They were on the mission over Kassel with Ha. Jack explained how one fellow in his crew said, “Hey Jack, Kelley’s in trouble.” Kelley is Ha’s pilot. It seemed like an eternity for Jack and Ned waiting for the crew of Ha’s plane to bail out. Jack counted five himself and when he and Ned got back to the Fortress base they just looked at each other. Another fellow in their crew must have read their minds and said, “What are you two guys looking so blue about, I counted ten chutes.” The two of them got so excited they started to cry. Then the two of them had to just wait for the better news.
Judging from Jack’s letter he is seeing but plenty of action. It seems that their squadron is the group leader now. His amount of missions will be over soon but that doesn’t mean that he will stop fighting. Jack has really proved a good friend to Ha.
Gosh! Art, I can’t think of much more to say except that I hope this war ceases soon. Then we can all start those nice little homes we dream about.
Keep well and God Bless you.
Loretta mailed the letter out from Jamaica on November 5th and was surprised to see the parcel sent back to her only a couple of weeks later. She could have sworn that the address was correct – sure, it was difficult to know for certain if Arthur had been moved around the Pacific, but she thought at least it would have made it to him at some point. The Patrol Torpedo boats were always around on the water, so he may have been missed somewhere. Maybe it didn’t pass the censoring department; she did retell much of Jack’s story from Germany. All she wanted to do was make sure that Arthur knew his twin was, at the very least, alive; everyone back home could only hope he was safe, but that was up to the Jerry’s. The last notice Artie got was of Harold’s disappearance when the Classy Chassis went down just outside of Kassel that fateful day three months earlier.
She went to see Eleanor and inquired about whether or not she received any news of letters to Arthur coming back to her as well. Especially since she had mail returned to her when Harold was missing, an all too familiar uneasiness crept back up again in her stomach. What an unfortunate happening, she thought to herself, if both of the Schwerdt boys were prisoners of war on opposite sides of the world. It was rumored at the time that prison camps in the Pacific were much more brutal than those in Europe, and she could only hope that Artie was only moved to a new location rather than missing.
The news came soon after Loretta received her letter back. It was much, much worse than anyone could have feared. Arthur was dead. She stood in disbelief in the doorway of the Schwerdt home, clutching the returned letter in her hand with its large red print and pointed finger across the front. RETURN TO SENDER. Her knees shook and she felt as if she would pass out right there in the hall. There must have been a mistake, it wasn’t possible, she thought. Not Arty, not Otz. But as she shakily entered the house and saw Jeanne sitting with Mary Schwerdt, eyes swollen and red and a handkerchief in her hand, Loretta wasn’t able to deny that Arthur wouldn’t receive another letter from home.
“This… this just can’t be,” Jeanne whimpered. She wiped under her nose and Arthur’s mother got up as the tea kettle began to scream in the kitchen, a welcome sound to drown out the sniffling and crying of whatever members of the Schwerdt family were present.
“Oh, I’m just so, so sorry, hon,” Loretta said. She couldn’t contain her own tears as she sat next to her sister in-law and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m just so sorry.”
Mary returned to the kitchen, stoic as ever. She had a hot kettle and extra tea cup for Loretta and poured hot water out for the girls. Loretta wanted to reach out and touch her – grab her hand, hug her – but only managed to say thank you for the tea and cupped it between her own trembling fingers. Part of her wondered how it happened. She refused to believe that anything could kill Arthur Schwerdt – he was too crafty, too sly, too good at making things work. She didn’t have to wonder for long, though, as Mary began retelling what she was told when two men knocked on her front door that morning.
On November 1, 1943, Allied forces turned their focus towards reducing the size of Japanese forces on the main bases of Bougainville camp on the Shortland Islands, as well as taking control of the island itself. The benefit of taking Bougainville was the need only for the flatlands that surrounded the island – optimal areas for airfields.
On the night of November 13th, Arthur was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. The water lapped up against the sides of their boats as they crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island. The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes coming from a mile north of the PT boats. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat that Arthur was a quartermaster on.
The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as the shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Arthur lay on the deck of the boat, mortally wounded. PT-155 helped reignite the engine of their partner and both boats limped back to their base, where Artie, along with others from that night, died.
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
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.
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.