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.
“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.”