The Freedom Bells

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. 

Ich Haben Nadel

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. 

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.