Making the Most of it

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. 

Passing the Time

Passing the Time

September 5, 1944

My Doll;

It’s another one of those nights that I just can’t stop thinking of you. I love you so much doll, that I eat my heart out with every thought. Those detailed memories of you hurt until my heart is numb with pain, and yet, they are my only salvation. 

All my love,

Ha 

October 17, 1944

Dear Doll;

I received a tobacco parcel and am enjoying it immensely. Thank you Sweets. Your letters are coming through, but irregularly. My birthday letter was accompanied with one dated July. It beats me. I love you Doll, with all my heart. See you in my dreams.

All my Love,

Ha

November 27, 1944

Dear Doll;

Received the 2 books you sent and wish to thank you. Reading helps matters considerably; your letters too are a great consolation. My doll, I love you very much and hope someday to fulfill all your sweet dreams.

All my Love,

Ha

A Touch of Scurvy

From the combined lack of food and the summer heat, Harold began to notice the sores on his arms getting worse. One of his teeth fell out a week earlier. When he woke up that morning, he felt a sharp pain in the side of his mouth. Harold put his fingers back and felt around, and found one of his molars very loose and tender. He didn’t know what to do, but figured it was probably infected. Using his thumb and forefinger, Harold wriggled the tooth around for a few moments until it came out in his hand. The pain immediately subsided, and he discarded the tooth. He then made his way over towards the infirmary to see if there was anything further they could do to help him.

“My boy, you are positively yellow!” The medic on duty seemed to take a step back at Harold’s appearance. It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a clear view of his own reflection in over a year. 

“What do you mean I’m yellow?” Harold looked down and outstretched his hands. In the light of the infirmary he realized he was, in fact, yellow. He gasped, “What in the hell does this mean?” 

“It means you have jaundice, son.” The medic took a few steps over to Harold’s side and lifted his arms, giving him a once-over.

“I just came here on account of my tooth falling out. What made me jaundiced?” 

“Hmm, well I don’t know. Maybe the lack of nutrition in this dump?” The medic was sarcastic, but Harold knew it was directed more at the Germans than him. “Tell me, what else are you feeling?” 

“Well,” Harold began, “my teeth hurt; one just came out this morning. I feel weak but that hasn’t come to me as a surprise or shock; they don’t feed us. Am I going to be alright?” 

“I have to look in the Red Cross kits and send out a couple of requests. I think the British Red Cross gives oranges in their kits; maybe we can trade some things to get you some vitamin C. Just keep hanging in there, son. Let me look at your tooth.” 

Harold had the space where his infected tooth once resided cleaned out, and the medic was kind enough to wrap a couple of the worse sores on his arms. He knew he would have to make them last for at least two to three weeks, but it was better than nothing. He returned to his bunk feeling a little cleaner than normal, but after listening to what the medic said about his skin and scurvy, Harold realized he wasn’t feeling good at all. Sure, he was playing softball with the other men when the weather permitted, but that didn’t take away the fact that he was still very much deep in prison camp. The medic told him to rest and wait to see what he could get from the British.

By the following morning, Harold developed a low fever and felt he couldn’t possibly get out of bed. He blamed the Jerry manipulation, of course – minimizing their rations to the point that Red Cross rations were exhausted only a few weeks earlier in May. He shakily sat up in his bed and grabbed for his tin can in hopes of either finding water in it, or finding water available somewhere else. 

“You should sit out in the sun, ya know. It’ll be good for ya, Red.” One of Harold’s bunkmates helped him up and outside of the barracks. He was grateful for the arm and sat down on some steps near one of the buildings. Harold opened his shirt and saw just how yellow his skin had become. There were some smaller sores on his chest but they weren’t open like the ones on his arms. He gave himself a once over and thought to himself that he looked like ketchup and mustard. Harold chuckled, and then frowned – he hadn’t had ketchup and mustard in almost two years. He thought to himself how awful prison camp really was, for him to miss condiments. The closest thing to a topping for Harold was if any gelatinous fat was left on top of the poor excuse for meat they were served. The thought of it would have made him gag if he wasn’t grateful for the extra calories that came with fat. He closed his eyes and listened to the men play softball – a lucky day for them, the guards didn’t interrupt today.

“You Schwerdt? ‘Course you are. Look atcha!” Harold opened his eyes to a large Englishman standing over him. He was very tall and his body blocked out the sunlight that Harold was so very much enjoying. Harold surmised that, from the meat on the man’s bones, he hadn’t been in the prison camp for more than a few months.

“How are you?” Harold extended a hand, but did not get up. 

“Better than you!” The man was joking, Harold knew this. He appreciated the banter. He continued on, “Name is Davies of the beautiful R-A-F.” His accent pleased Harold – almost musical. 

“You know,” Harold began, “in the Navy, my brother calls you ‘Limey’s’.” He saw the Englishman’s eyes light up.

The man let out a bold laugh, “Ha! Takin’ the piss, I see? At least you have your sense of humor still. Look, the reason I’m here is because I met with your medic, and we do have some supplies you Yanks don’t that’ll help with your little complexion issue you have going on there.” He pointed to Harold’s open shirt. “We’ll get you fixed up, just go on over to the infirmary.”

It had been a very long time since Harold was treated so kindly. Davies spoke with a boom in his voice that Harold felt was lost to him from his time in XVII-B, he just couldn’t remember when. With Davies’ help, Harold walked over to his infirmary and was met with the man from the day before who took care of his tooth and diagnosed him. 

“Ah, Red, good to see you walking about. Get some sun?” He smiled and put his hand in his pocket. “I have something for you. It isn’t much, but it will get the ball rolling. Courtesy of the British Red Cross.” From his pocket, the medic pulled out the most beautiful thing Harold had seen in months – an orange.

He was speechless. He looked at the medic and hesitated. The medic smiled and nodded his head, extending his arm a little further for Harold to take. Davies stood on and watched as Harold graciously took the piece of fruit from the medic’s hand. 

“I – thank you.” He began to feverishly peel the orange.

“More where that came from. Waiting on some antibiotics for you. Just keep those wounds wrapped up on your arms. Rest up; we’ll have you ready to play softball again with the guys in no time.” Harold nodded as he ate the orange. It was so sweet – he couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted anything so sweet.

It took several weeks for Harold to feel like his normal self – whatever normal was. He spent most days in bed, only venturing out to visit the Man of Confidence or the medic tent for a check up. His bunkmates were kind enough to shove over and make room, giving him the bed to himself as he mended; Harold surprisingly found it difficult to fall asleep in such an empty space. Among the scratchy straw he lay, seemingly more aware of the miniscule pitter patter of bugs around him – more conscious of the labored breaths of hungry, tired prisoners. There was no warmth next to him, no reassurance that life existed close by as he stirred and woke in the middle of the night. There was no one to suffer beside. He was so accustomed to the overcrowding of Seventeen-B – of having to quietly push past men sometimes to get to where he needed, or waiting impatiently for a water ration or to use the latrines outside. Of course the latrines were completely dismantled, and the men were relieving themselves in holes before each other, but they kept their dignity by maintaining the bathroom pits, and everyone waited their turn.

He thought often of Loretta over those few weeks, of penning a note home to tell her everything was alright, and that he was feeling much better. Every time Harold reached for a pencil, though, he stopped, finding himself unable to put on the same mask he had worn for the past year. He didn’t know if he could trust his own hand to tell her things were swell, that he played some softball, or that he learned something new. What he wanted to say was the truth – that he almost died – more than once – that he saw men beaten and killed, that she probably wouldn’t recognize him when she saw him.

When she saw him.

Return to Sender

October 26, 1943

Tuesday

RETURN TO SENDER

Dear Artie,

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.

Sincerely,

Love,

Loretta

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. 

Direct hit.

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.

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

Through the Grapevine

Through the Grapevine

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. 

“Hot water?” 

“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

Dear Loretta,

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.

Sincerely Yours,

Ned

September 28,1943

Tuesday

Dear Doll;

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,

Jack

P.S. Tell Red that DB Adams, Karl Alexander, and CC Jones are OK. They went down with Ha.

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? 

Unfamiliar Territory

Unfamiliar Territory

Well, fellas, here she is.”

Harold, Kelley, and crew all stood before their new B-17, Classy Chassis. It was originally operated by a pilot, Alexander, who was to replace Topin as copilot while Kelley took over his seat as the captain. Jack and Ned gandered at the damaged Shack Up. “Good job, boys. You broke the plane.” Jack stood with his hands on his hips and cocked his head dramatically and comically to the side. It reminded Harold of his mother when he and Arthur would get in trouble as young boys; she would reprimand Harold for something his brother did, and vice versa. Harold would defend himself and then ask his mother to dress them differently. The group laughed at Jack’s comment because it was funny, but also because they were still in shock that they managed to land the plane. 

“Where’s your digit?” Jack pointed to Harold’s bandaged hand. 

“I dunno, somewhere near Dusseldorf, if I had to guess.” Jack laughed, “You boys ready for this one we got coming up? Dropping in on Kassel. Going to give those Jerry’s a nice wake-up.” Jack and Ned were set up to fly into Kassel and drop several tons of bombs in their wake; each B-17 was capable of carrying up to three tons. They hoped to be home that afternoon. Harold had a letter to write back home to Loretta. 

Several days prior the Allied forces began an operation against German ball-bearing and aircraft factories. Ball-bearings were vital to the aviation industry, and used in just about all machinery. This factory in particular was assembling FW-190’s. It was speculated that the Focke-Wulf was the best single engine fighter aircraft of the war. The FW-190 took its first flight in 1939, and since then its appearance over the skies always left a little extra tension in the already strung-out airmen. If they successfully destroyed these, they could begin the process of sweeping out Germany – at least in the sky. By 1943, Germany was already wavering on its pedestal, with more and more propaganda highlighting Hitler as unstable, his people starving – and as a result more and more Jews and minorities were unjustly punished. The killing of innocent people only increased as the end of World War II – hopefully – approached.

The ships took off out of Ipswich early July 30th. Kelley and his crew departed for Germany just after eight in the morning. The low roar of the plane shook Harold with a slight uneasiness – the same uneasiness he felt each time he went up in the sky. It had only been a couple of days since their previous plane went down – but this was war and a job had to be done. If they were successful in their mission, there wouldn’t be so many planes to worry about shooting them down, he reasoned. It would get done. 

Jack and Ned flew close by to Classy Chassis – two of over 100 bombers set to destroy the Junkers and Fieseler aircraft factories that sat just outside of a small village called Dorla. The B-17s did not have the protection of the Mustang fighter planes this time, and were resolved to defend themselves as well as each other. Daytime missions were always a risky run, sure, but they had luck on their side – especially following the July 28th mission. 

After flying into Germany, Classy Chassis began its mission. They turned north. These ships moved so smooth and elegant, Harold thought, as Kelley maneuvered Classy Chassis effortlessly to the drop location. The sinking feeling in Harold’s stomach came back, knowing the crew would have to fend for themselves, as well as being unreasonably deep in enemy territory. They were over the town of Bebra when suddenly an explosion rocked the left side of the Fortress. Harold was thrown to one side and the ball turret gunner ran to his station without saying a word. Through the ten-panel plexiglass the men saw fighter planes bob and weave about their formation. From below, German anti-aircraft weapons blew a hole straight through the wing of the plane. Engine number four was completely shredded and replaced only by smoke and flame. Flak pierced the metal and the crew screamed out in confusion and fear. The sound of metal ripping from the fuselage and wings was like if every train scheduled to pull into Jamaica Station back home came in at once without stopping. The men tried to steady themselves and Kelley fought to keep the nose even as thick, black smoke poured from the portside of their aircraft. Harold felt a deep, burning pain in his back but continued to look for something to shoot at. He jerked his wrists forward to choke up the sleeves of his bomber jacket and get a better grip on the turret gun when he noticed the gash on his arm. He gritted his teeth at the pain and yelled for direction, not knowing how many of the crew were still present. 

More smoke filled the ship. Sparks flashed and Harold began to find it difficult to see. Things looked grim; they still had a bomb shaft filled with artillery, and it was confirmed that two engines on the wing were torn clean off. Harold tried to desperately see if there were any other planes around them caught up in the mess. He wanted to see if Jack was out of harm’s way and on his route back to England.

Again, another explosion. A shell effortlessly ripped through the cockpit and the oxygen systems engaged. Electric was now completely lost and Kelley knew then that there was no hope for getting this ship back to England. They had been in the sky for just over an hour, trailing smoke like a bad omen across Germany. 

The controls were so damaged that they were flying a ticking time bomb if they stayed. Thinking quickly, Adams jumped into the bomb bay and used a large screw driver to wedge open the bomb shaft. All at once, the artillery dropped from the underside of the plane with no target in mind – the only goal to lighten the load and give the crew some more air time as they thought on what to do next. 

“Bail out! Bail out!” Kelley called from the cockpit as he made his way to the bomb bay. It seemed obvious at this point. He knew their situation was making them nothing more than an easier target for German fighter pilots. Jones ran over to radio an emergency message. By the time he returned to the front of the plane, the cockpit was empty – the rest of the crew had bailed out. Papers and wiring flew around and were sucked out into the sky as pieces of metal ripped from the fuselage. Jones found his way to the bomb bay and jumped.

One by one, the men descended onto Germany in different locations. They were separated, wounded, and far into enemy territory. Jack and Ned watched helplessly from the B-17 in front of Classy Chassis, his own crew avoiding flack and bullets from the Germans, and returning fire when they could. The parachutes disappeared among the trees as Jack counted and recounted how many he saw leave the Chassis, telling himself over again that Harold made it.

August 1, 1943

Sunday Night

RETURN TO SENDER

My Ha,

My darling, I’m home now. I was over your house today and your mother is feeling very well and cheerful. Erwin and Frances too. Bob, Irene, and the children were there also. They are well too and Diane is a little devil. God! She’s so cute when she’s naughty. She makes you laugh. I left your house around 8:30, bought an ice cream and moped home. The sky is very beautiful tonight and its countless stars are shining away. Several planes flew overhead and I tried to visualize my honey in one. Honey, I love you very, very, very much. I really think about you all the time darling, you are so nice. 

Honey, take good care of yourself as you belong to me. If you don’t get good meals, step out and buy one that is good. Keep well and don’t ever change.

Enclosed is the card where my place was at Erwin’s reception. I love the way that looks, my Mr. Schwerdt, don’t you?

Annamae Hennesey had a 9lb, some-odd ounces – baby boy. I’m so glad everything turned out so well for her!

I’m sorry this letter is in pencil, Ha. Gosh! I’m always apologizing huh! But I love you.

My regards to Jack and Ned.

Be good honey, I love you lots and lots.

Your,

Loretta

Welcoming Committee

July 7, 1943

My Darling Wife,

I love you with my whole heart and soul. If, by shining its light, the sun could express my love for you, you’d never see darkness. And if the tide would come in every time I think of you, the ocean would be constantly overflowing. Honey, I’m madly in love with you.

I completed the gunnery course and received my diploma yesterday. If we don’t have anything else honey, we’ll at least have enough diplomas to wallpaper our house with. 

Today, I arrived at my base, and immediately dashed off to the mail room. The last time I received mail was may 28. That’s some time ago, so you can imagine how much I appreciated your letters. I got 11 from you, 2 from Erwin, and 1 from Arty dated May 20. Honey, [you’re] swell for writing me so much, and I love you for it. I enjoyed your mail and consider every letter a treasure in itself.

I knew about the shower the girls were going to give you that Saturday and am very glad to learn you had a swell time. The presents we got interest me a great deal, and is the start of a new cottage whose occupants shall be none other than Mr. and Mrs. H.P. Schwerdt. Then, after a while, I hope the stork pays us a visit and leaves a baby Loretta. Gee honey, I love you. 

Honey, [you’re] swell for taking care of the cards and etc; anniversaries and buying presents for Father’s Day. [You’re] just wonderful sweetheart, and I think [you’re] the best wife there is. 

I have $100 on me, and will get a money order and send it to you tomorrow. I’d like to [enlighten] you as to my financial status, and think it best if we keep it a secret. I thought you knew, so here it comes. First of all, my base pay is $114. Then, I get $57 for flying, then, $22.80 for overseas duty, and for being married, I get $37.50. It comes to a total of $231.30 a month. From that, you get $100, my mother gets $25, and the government keeps $7 for insurance, which leaves me a total of $99.30. I’ll be able to send you a money order for $50 (I hope) every month. You should get $100 from the government about the middle of every month beginning with July. I hope this money situation pleases you and that you’re satisfied with it. 

I’m sending you all I can cause I’m all out for a little cottage for 2; or 3, or 4 or more.

My Darling, I love you lots and lots. I think of you all day and dream of you all night.

It’s [goodnight] sweetheart.

Your Honey and Husband

All my love,

Ha

xxxxxxx

P.S. I love you

Regards to all.

Nite Wifey.

Love 

The Shack Up – or Kelley’s crew, as they were known – already completed a handful of bombing missions over Germany throughout the month of July. Harold, a technical sergeant, gunner, and sometimes radio operator, began to live for the rush of a mission. The men would hustle into position and impatiently wait as they were cleared for take-off. He loved the power of the B-17, the Flying Fortress – the Ship – as she effortlessly maneuvered down the airstrip and glided up into the sky, swimming into the clouds in a graceful climb before dropping bombs on Axis forces. It was a beautiful dance; when he was training and flying over Kansas and Oklahoma, Harold often felt bored seeing the same flat, monotone land. He hoped for ground crew assignment because at least he’d have things to work with. Then, up in the sky on his first mission, he saw the unfortunate beauty of a war-torn Europe. He saw mountains, rivers, and bodies of water that all moved their own way, that all had their own shade of blue. He saw rolling plains – and he saw destruction. He bore witness to villages that were decimated, and cathedrals and synagogues reduced to nothing more than smoking rubble. He saw people running for their lives in unknown directions – trains taking innocent men, women, and children and transporting them away to far, unknown places from where they would surely not return. It was absolute chaos – beauty and chaos.

On July 28, the Shack Up went out for its sixth mission. They followed close with other Fortresses manned by men such as Jack and Ned. After they completed the mission, high on victory, the group of Airmen encountered fire from three German 187’s, armed, carrying the intent to damage and destroy whatever B-17s they could. The men quickly went to battle stations as they already began to feel the piercing of metal by the fighter plane’s guns. 

Harold went to his position at the turret when he noticed one of the 187’s wasn’t firing at them. Instead, he was climbing and descending, matching the altitude of the Shack Up and then pulling away to circle back. He watched the plane disappear to the aft of the aircraft and looked down, knowing what his eyes would already be met with – flak. These 88mm anti-aircraft cannons were waiting for the Fortresses, and the pilot of the 187 was radioing the altitude of the B-17 so they could get a more accurate shot on Kelley’s boys. This momentary distraction was interrupted when Harold heard the pang pang pang pang of bullets getting louder and closer to his turret. He heard a bullet whiz past his ear and hit the inside of the plane close behind him. Then, he felt a white-hot pain in his right hand. Harold looked down and was met only with blood. He gnashed his teeth at the pain. Harold picked his hand up to see his pinky had been shot off. 

A loud explosion rocked the Fortress and his attention went to Kelley’s shouts from the cockpit. 

“They hit the goddamn wing again! Engine out!” Kelley struggled with Topin to keep the plane aloft as it violently shook in the sky. Ping ping ping ping ping came back around and Harold quickly realized he could no longer move the turret gun automatically. When the 88mm ripped through the wing it must have blown out part of the electrical, he thought. There was fire and smoke as the flak ripped the wing like paper. He knew his right hand was no good for firing, so he swallowed the pain and began to manually crank the turret as he followed a 187 through the air, squeezing the trigger with his non-dominant hand, and returning fire with a 50 caliber. 

Pop pop pop pop pop! 

Black smoke began to billow out of the 187 and Harold felt relief once he saw flames engulf the wing of the aircraft. It sputtered and screamed as it jolted around in the sky – victory for Harold. The plane began to nosedive for the ground.

“We gotta get the hell out of here!” 

They continued on the best they could, pursued by the last remaining 187. Three of the four engines were out. Kelley managed to stabilize the plane long enough to land in Allied territory. All ten of the men bailed out, unaware of the extent of the damage or whether or not the Fortress would explode. As they ran, they heard the scream of the fighter above them as it doubled back over their heads. Harold looked up to the sun, ready to fight – or face his death. Shot out of the sky and then killed on the ground; he thought to himself this would be such an ironic way to die. The 187 dipped low. Then, reflecting in the summer sky, the pilot waved the wings of his plane – portside down, then starboard, righting himself once more to fly off back to his own base.

“I’ll be damned,” Kelley breathlessly said, “did he just wave goodbye?”

Harold stood a moment in shock, “Gee whiz!” Kelley brought attention to Harold’s bloodied hand. The other men took notice to check themselves over for any serious injuries. Luckily they were all intact; all the other men had ten fingers each. Harold remembered then the pain in his hand and grasped the missing finger. “It’s lost somewhere in Germany now.” He winced for a moment. The crew took off on foot to be intercepted by an emergency response crew that would take them back to their base in Knettishall. They walked with a purpose, breathless and coming down off the adrenaline of an air fight. 

“Close call boys.” 

The men later went and assessed the damage of the Shack Up. There were at least 60 flack holes that ran along the side of their pride and joy. Both wings would have to be replaced, and the back of the plane was almost completely blown off. The tail gunner sighed in his own disbelief, “I can’t believe I didn’t get blown right out of the sky!” Harold and the other waist gunner shook their heads, “She’s going to be out of commission for a while, huh.” The wings were relatively simple to replace, but they had other missions that needed to be carried out and the Shack Up wouldn’t be done in time for their next run on the 30th. 

Kelley shook his head.

“Looks like we need a new set of wings.”