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.
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.
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,
October 17, 1944
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,
November 27, 1944
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.
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 man 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.
It had been a very long time since Harold was treated so kindly. The man 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 the man’s 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.
“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.
That night, Harold fell asleep quicker than usual. His hunger and the cold pushed his eyes closed almost as soon as he lay down on the mattress beside his bunk mate. What could have been minutes or hours – he didn’t know – Harold, along with the other men in the barracks, were woken up by that same loud alarm. At first, he thought it was morning, and thought the guards were implementing the same fake drills they had the week before. But then, he heard dogs barking. Violent, high pitched yelps and yaps pierced the night. Harold began to open his eyes. Suddenly, screaming in both German and English overshadowed the cries of the dogs. Two gunshots shattered the air and his eyes jolted open to notice it was the dead of night. Harold knew what just happened – someone was killed. He sat up, along with many other men, to the sound of a muffled yell outside beyond the fence. Then, another gunshot.
Suddenly, more gun shots – random and wild began to hit the barracks. Pop pop pop pop! A man in one of the bunks let out a yell and it was followed by a thud to the ground. He had been shot in his bed.
“Oh my god! Medic! Someone!” The man’s bunkmate rushed to his aid as he lay on the floor, gripping his abdomen.
Chaos broke out in the barracks as others scrambled in the dark to understand what was happening and avoid any other possible gunfire. Harold hope for a moment in all the distress that the camp was under attack from Allied forces. If that wasn’t true, then it was the worst case scenario – the men were under attack by their guards.
“His hands were up! Both of them had their hands up!” A witness to the shooting yelled through the darkness with no intended audience. “Is he dead? Are – they dead?”
Some men looked on while others tended to the wounded soldier in the barracks. The rest scoured around to make sure that no one else had been injured or killed in the random shooting. The prisoners were still unsure of what had just occurred, but they were certain people were dead; they just didn’t know why.
It was learned that in his silence that followed his rant, a fellow soldier plotted with his bunk mate to escape the prison and find his own way to Allied help behind enemy lines. Anything, he must have thought, would be better than what was happening at XVII-B. His bunk mate agreed to the plan, and they left in the middle of the night, clinging to the sides of what were supposed to be knock-down buildings that resided a little too close to the fences of the camp. The men were out and began running, but the bunkmate tripped over the uneven, frozen ground. It gained the attention of the guard on duty, and from his watchtower he shined a spotlight directly on the two men and sounded the alarm. The men stopped running once the dogs began to bark. They turned around and raised their hands to surrender; it was better to go back and take a beating rather than be ripped to shreds by guard dogs. With their hands up, the guards approached and drew their weapons. The men began to yell at the guards that they had given up and they were no longer running, to which the guards yelled back in German, and among one another. Ultimately, the guards fired at the prisoners and they both fell, arms up, into the snow.
One of the men died instantly, struck in the head. The other, though, was wounded in his leg. He began to crawl back towards the camp when the guard who shot him ran to him. The prisoner begged to be taken back to camp – to a medic – and the guard, instead, fired his weapon a second time. The prisoner was injured – not dead. When the witness began to holler and the guard realized he was not alone in his dealings, he began to fire his pistol angrily and at random in order to create confusion. The prisoner lay bleeding before him, begging to be taken into the camp again. He quietly wept into the frozen ground while the guard stood over him – triumphant – and holstered his weapon.
“He needs a proper burial.” The men protested to the Germans to bring the body of the fallen soldier back into the camp. The mastermind behind the escape – the angry prison – was, in some way, free. Harold stood and observed from a distance, the scene before him unwinding slow and tragic, the scene in the barrack bloody and unwarranted.
“No. He wanted to escape so badly. Let him spend his eternity to decay beyond the wires of this camp.”
“You’re a monster!” The wounded man remained beyond the fence as well, bleeding and alone – barely alive – while the soldiers argued with the guards within.
“You can’t just leave him to the elements!”
“He is already dead, what more does he need? He was no more than an animal and he will stay there. Denied.”
Dawn was coming up on the camp. The men had already been awake for several hours. Many of them remained in the barrack. The wounded soldier was transported to the infirmary where a medic worked to remove the bullet that lodged itself in his stomach. He would survive, but he would be unable to move around much for quite some time. The man who was shot twice out of bounds from the camp was transported – after several hours, and much blood loss – to the infirmary. This was only accomplished once the prisoners relented to the guard’s denial of the other body’s transfer back into the camp. A compromise that pleased the guard, and sickened the soldiers. The fallen man would have to remain outside of the fence, and there was nothing that could be done to change it.
Harold looked beyond the barbed fence (as close as he could get without suffering the same fate) at the human-shaped mound that lay in the clearing.
“Food for the scavengers,” one of the guards said.
Birds sat out of reach in the snow-dusted trees and sang crisp morning songs that fell over the prisoners. Like church songs, he thought. Then, quieter, truer – The birds are laughing at us.
The next morning – to the prisoners’ surprise – started the same. Dawn was interrupted with the deafening sounds of alarms, and the men funneled out of their barracks once again to the parade grounds. The dirt was solid and uneven from all the tracks of the previous day, and Harold stumbled over himself – as did many of the others – while they formed in line. Guards presented themselves through the haze of daybreak with the exact same orders as the day before. Many men hesitated, for fear of deceit again, while many others turned around and gathered as much as they could for whatever impending journey lay ahead. Harold still had Loretta’s note in his breast pocket from the day before. He grabbed canned food from the Red Cross, his cover, his jacket, and packed it all haphazardly before returning out into the morning chill. The rest of the men did almost the same, gathering what they wanted and needed, then turning to face the biting winter once again.
The sun rose high, but today there was a breeze. The men fidgeted around, not for lack of patience, but from cold and exhaustion. Their packs grew heavy; many men rested their belongings on the dirt while they waited, once again, for the guards to herd them out of XVII-B. After what felt like an eternity, the prisoners were met by the same guard as the day before.
“Alright! Back to your barracks!”
More confusion and anger rose among the crowds of men who realized the German guards were playing games with them, as if they were fat house cats and the prisoners were their prey. They didn’t put up a fight – most eager to escape the wind. Harold turned and followed his bunkmates back to the barracks, where he returned his pack. This time, though, he left it ready.
“What in the hell do you think they’re tryin’ to do to us?” The men were gathered around their stove in a small group.
“They’re tryna’ control us, that’s what,” one suggested.
“I think they’re trying to remind us who’s in control, you know? First, they cut our rations. Now, they have us standing outside in the freezing cold with the fear we may be marching on into the elements? They want us scared, I’d say.” The prisoner rubbed his hands together and politely pushed his way forward towards the stove; it was burning straw taken from some of the mattresses and wood from a knock-down barrack that the Germans decided was too close to the fences.
“Whatever it is, I don’t like it.” None of the men liked it. Harold shook his head. He had nothing to say this evening. He was just as beat up as the rest of his bunkmates with the threat of leaving. He tried to suppress the fear of never seeing Loretta.
On the third morning, the men almost expected an alarm – and that’s exactly what they received.
“Aw man well isn’t this just horse shit,” one man shouted from his bunk; it was below freezing, and they were all exhausted from the half rations and exposure to the elements. Slow and lamenting, the prisoners got up out of bed and – before they were told to – packed up small miscellaneous items to bring with them outside.
“Might as well beat ‘em to the punch, huh, Red?” Harold nodded and picked up his pack, left full from the day before.
Once outside the men were told to stay in formation on the parade grounds, as expected. The sun was almost completely up over the horizon and they were grateful for no wind. Then, to their surprise, guards walked past them and towards the barracks.
“Bunk checks!” The guard from the previous two days had a diabolical smile on his face. As the prisoners helplessly looked on, a swarm of Germans entered their barracks. They turned in place as they heard items overturn behind them and things scatter across the plank floors.
After about an hour of dreaded anticipation, the men were instructed to, for the final time, return to their barracks. They scrambled in a mad dash back to their bunks only to find the guards ransacked their living quarters. Harold, having most of his belongings in his pack from the night before looked on as many of the men shouted in anger at missing food, clothing, and blankets. He, too, was missing canned goods left behind and other small Red Cross items.
“Those sons-a-bitches!” The men desperately threw their bedding around while others yelled out in anger.
“They stole from us! They stole our Red Cross supplies! They took it all!” A man, a few feet from Harold, fell to his knees and wailed.
“They’re going to try to starve us to death. Those bastards.” He put his head in his hands and Harold watched as his bony shoulders jutted up and down under his thin, dirty shirt. Harold sat down on his bed, his rucksack still around his shoulders. He stared into the chaos before him. Some men were like him and kept their bags packed from the night before, but most weren’t so lucky. So many items missing, all in an hour or so – and there was nothing they could do about it. He was in disbelief. They had to get the Man of Confidence to file a formal complaint. They had to do something – get their rations back – anything. He touched his breast pocket again. Loretta was still with him and that was a good thing in all this, he thought. The day was looking grim; he wasn’t sure how much more he could take.
The noon day sun that melts the snow brings thoughts of you, and how easily my heart would melt if your rays could reach me. To date, I’ve received no word from home. I miss you lots, and love you more. Proof of my love lies in the fact that I haven’t looked at a woman since that unfortunate day some months ago. Whether I could or not, is immaterial, the fact still remains.
The men were freezing and already burned through their week’s ration of coal by the morning of the fourth. January was unforgiving, with some nights dropping below 10 degrees fahrenheit. They relied heavily on keeping bundled and surrounding the stoves that resided in the middle of each barrack. Many men fell ill and died that month, and those who survived were grateful to whatever life they still held onto.
In December, the Red Cross delivered parcels that seemed promising – canned meats, medical supplies, blankets, and some fresh clothes. They were guaranteed one parcel per man that month and it felt like Christmas when the trucks came through the camp. Along with more men being permitted to keep their flight jackets, they were now given some warmer garments to get through the winter. Harold boiled at the thought of not having his flight jacket anymore; Every time he saw a man walk past in a bomber jacket, he thought back to the police officer in Kehrenbach who took his off at gunpoint.
Harold found some sewing needles in his package; the Red Cross included them for some reason. He found it humorous that something such as sewing needles were given out; Loretta could use these to hem my pants, he thought. Still, nothing should be wasted, so he put the needles in his kit of other miscellaneous items. This was their Christmas – the Red Cross packages. They had to be grateful.
Within their own personal rations, the prisoners rationed even further in an attempt to make every bite count. They felt blessed to have things to be accountable for, for once. The Germans weren’t reliable with food regardless of the season, and the men collectively agreed they could use a little more protein in their diets, especially with disease running rampant across the camps.
“These men are being treated as if they are not in prison,” Commandant Kuhn hissed through his teeth at the news of rich food supplies sent into the camp. He saw men walking around not only in their bomber jackets, but also fresh pants, and fresh socks. They looked comfortable and that infuriated him.
“Sir, what would you like us to do about the increased morale?” One of the guards stood before Kuhn in his office. Increased morale would equal increased energy and spirits, and that would pose a threat to the armed guards running XVII-B.
“Cut their meals.” The answer came so easily to Kuhn. “Cut their meals and see how far they get on their canned meats, and canned vegetables, and canned fruits.” He didn’t care that it was the dead of winter, or that so many of the prisoners had fallen ill already – he cared about control, and what better control than the starvation of thousands of men?
The next morning, Harold received hot water for breakfast, which was no surprise. He actually enjoyed it with the freezing January temperatures. When lunch was served several hours later, Harold found himself before another serving of hot water and a small piece of bread – smaller than what he was accustomed to. By dinner his stomach cramped with hunger; he didn’t want to dive into his Red Cross rations so soon. The men were served a measly half-ration of cabbage soup, with no bread, and black coffee. What was happening around the camp? Surely the other men noticed something was wrong when the already miniscule amounts of food they anticipated were shrinking in size.
“Why do you think they’re doing this? Are they trying to starve us to death? It’s the middle of winter, for God’s sake!” The men rumbled with agitation at the scant helpings they were served. Each day, it seemed to be less and less food. Harold found himself dipping into his canned rations, and some men were even splitting their rations amongst two or three men in order to keep everyone in some semblance of health.
“It’s half of what we normally get,” Harold replied without looking up. He stood around the stove in the middle of the barrack with a group of prisoners and swirled a tin can of now-cold black coffee around in his hand.
“It’s less than that, I’d bet,” another said.
“Maybe we’re getting out of here soon. Maybe they’re just using up the rest of the rations because we’re going to leave.”
“But we shouldn’t want to leave,” a prisoner interrupted, “not right now at least. You hear what’s going on up north in the camps? We don’t want that. Hell, I know I don’t want that. I hate this place through and through – I think we can all agree – but Lord, I’d rather be inside than mustered for no reason. Let’s just be thankful we got some new clothes from the Red Cross. They can try and cut our rations but we just have to stick together in this, boys.”
The rest of the men nodded and some replied with an “mhm” of agreement. No one really knew what was going on in the other camps but the prisoners at XVII-B wanted to stay in place, at least, that was until the weather warmed up. The rumors of the German forces weakening were promising to the soldiers, but that still left their fates in the dark. Would they be killed at the end of the war? Would they fight back? What lengths would the Germans go to in order to force control over these men? The group remained huddled around the stove for as long as it would remain hot. Eventually, they trailed off one by one to their bunks, Harold following in the crowd. It had been over a week since the men received full rations from the Germans. Everyone felt the pangs of hunger and exhaustion this night.
Morning mist hovered above the thousands of footprints left by soldiers in the parading area outside. Each impression overlapped and suffocated one another – the same suffocation the men felt. There was no wind as the sun continued to rise over XVII-B. It was painfully, beautifully silent. There were no men yelling out or hollering; no dogs barked and no German echoed from the watchtowers. Harold lay awake, catching glimpses of other prisoners who were also absorbed in the rare pre-dawn quiet.
All at once the prisoners roused in panic and confusion. An alarm sounded from outside in one of the towers and it pierced the morning air. An explosion of noise and the rumble of footprints shook the already shaky floorboards of the barracks as thousands of men rushed to the exits to muster on the poor excuse for parade grounds. The guards were already awake and waiting for them, silver and bronze glimmering in the morning sun. The Man of Confidence approached.
“What is going on here this morning? Why are all these men mustered?” One guard stood in front with his thumbs tucked into the side of his gun belt, his pinky fingered the holster of his pistol.
“Instruct your men to grab what they can carry and form again out here within the next ten minutes.”
Although he was the same height as the Man of Confidence, the guard – with his gun and his pressed clothes – seemed to tower over him from the viewpoint of the other prisoners. He looked down on the man with power in his eyes. He knew there was no fight, and so did the prisoner.
“And then what?” The Man of Confidence was talking to the guard’s back; he didn’t have time to stand out in the cold and entertain the questions of these men.
“And then you wait,” the guard chirped over his shoulder.
Quickly, the prisoners rushed back into their barracks to pack up whatever they could carry. Harold was frantic in grabbing his letters from Loretta, some canned food – an extra jacket. Others just grabbed blankets off beds.
“Where are my damned socks,” another hollered over the rumbling of desperate men. It was chaos as they all threw on pants and coats and covers. Harold looked for a familiar bunkmate in the crowd, because that would be the man he wanted to march with, wherever they might go. He caught the gaze of a friend and hurried on over to him.
“We were just talking about this yesterday, were we not?” He thought back to the group huddled around the stove with their mismatched cups of coffee. “We don’t want to be out in this garbage.”
“I hear ya, Red,” his bunkmate replied.
They headed back out to the parade ground along with the other thousands of soldiers and mentally prepared for whatever march they had to take on. Harold was afraid but it was overpowered by the thought of seeing Loretta again. He placed a hand over his breast pocket where one of her letters rested.
I am mailing this note for your husband. He is here now at our flying field, and I work in one of the tool cribs in the big hanger. I waited on him and I offered to help him and he asked me to write you.
I have three boys of my own and I would want some other mother to help them. I wish I could do for all the boys and I do try as I see so many of them as they take off for some distant land.
He told me something of himself and I liked him. I hope you can get a message to his mother –
He takes off early in the morning for the far place – I guess you can guess.
I shall always think of you both, and God Bless you.
(Mrs.) Laura P. Bell
Odlin Rd. R.7.D.2.
P.S. He would like to have written more, but just ended it.
Just as soon as he arrived in Maine, Harold got the call. On an early June morning, he was mustered from his sleep and ordered to pack his things and prepare to head out to the far lands. He, along with his buddies Jack and Ned, his pilot Frank Kelley, and the rest of his crew, was set to take up camp in England where the 8th Air Force impatiently waited. With the help of a woman working in the hanger, Harold dictated a note home to Loretta and boarded a plane. He was going to war.
The plane that transported the soldiers was loud and hollow. Harold sat along one side and looked around him at the other men, all dressed alike – all with the same grievous look on their faces. A couple of soldiers bantered and laughed, but it was so loud on the plane that Harold didn’t bother to try and make conversation with anyone around him; Jack wasn’t seated next to him and he didn’t feel like raising his voice. He couldn’t see, but wondered what the Atlantic Ocean looked like from their altitude. When he was a boy, Harold dreamed of flying. And when he was in training, he longed for better scenery than the plains of Oklahoma. Now that it was finally happening, he regretted not having a window to look out of.
The base was busy and filled with men who were ready for what seemed to be anything. Harold whirled around with his crew of nine others to prepare for what would be their first assignment. There was no room to rest, no room to write home immediately, just preparation for flight over Germany. He knew this was his time to prove himself to his country – and of course – his new wife back home; he hoped she got the letter from the secretary in Maine.
The air base itself was massive, with one large runway that ran from East to West, with two smaller runways – one Southwest to Northeast, the other Northwest to Southeast. To the north of the airfield was the bomb dump, and Harold was set to do technical work on the southern point.
Their first B-17 was named “The Shack Up.” Led by the pilot Frank Kelley, Harold – along with Topin, Carl Alexander, DB Adams, Carlton Jones, Marchinski, Ryals, Joe Maschke, and Alex Milligan – prepared themselves for what would be the first of hopefully many successful bombing missions on the Jerry’s. They were a family; Harold was very close with Jack and Ned, two other Flying Fortress crewmen. At night, they’d sing songs and tell stories about their girls back home, just waiting for the order to go up in the sky.
“Write Loretta home a kiss for me!” Jack winked at Harold and he laughed.
“Hey, Schwerdt! Heard you’re pretty decent at engine repair.” Harold looked up and saw someone approaching him with a tool kit. He’d been at the camp for about a week, tinkering and training along with the rest of the new arrivals.
“Sure, what can I help you with?” The fellow technical sergeant led Harold over to a plane he hadn’t worked on before and explained some issues that, although familiar-sounding, he was lost on.
“So d’ya think you can help me out?”
He hesitated. Then, grabbing the tool kit, Harold nodded and walked over to where the trouble was. After tinkering about for a while and going on a little faith, Harold closed everything up. “Should be good,” he said as he wiped some summer sweat off his brow. England was supposed to be cold and cloudy, he thought.
The other tech sergeant looked pleased. “Great! Let’s put her in the air!” He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit, threw up his arms and signaled the pilot. Harold panicked inside. What if he was wrong? He hadn’t seen an engine like that before – but most plane engines were similar, right? What if he did something improperly? He couldn’t tell them now.
The engine, to his pleasant surprise, kicked on almost immediately and turned, nose towards the end of the runway. The pilot gave a thumbs up and Harold nervously watched as the plane picked up speed and grew smaller and smaller before his eyes. He felt his insides dancing while he hoped for the wheels to just lift off the ground – even a little bit. Then, effortlessly, the plane took off! The pilot kept low and did some circles over the base. The technical sergeant clapped Harold on the back, “Hey would ya look at that! Swell job, Red. I think you’ll get on just fine here.” A tension lifted off Harold’s shoulders that he hadn’t noticed before that moment; he truly felt a part of a family in the 388th.
That night, the men gathered to play cards before it was time to turn in and go to bed. They were going to start running missions in a couple of days. Tensions were high but they all seemed to do a good job of keeping it under wraps with songs and games. Ned, Jack, and Harold reminisced about the ice cream shops on their block, the busy sounds of New York, and their gals. It was unfortunate for them to be so far from loved ones, but at least they had each other.
The men were called in for a briefing at one of the Nissen Huts to discuss their next missions.
“Daytime raids, boys,” the commanding officer began, “are going to be frightening for some of you. I know a lot of you fellas are still getting settled into the 388th station here – I get that. But, we have no time to waste. Everyday we spend on the ground is another day those Jerry’s advance around Europe.”
He went on to explain the importance of the daytime raids. Before them on a table lay an aviation map, complete with a key and writing. The navigators all huddled around in one group and looked over the terrain. The pilots, in their own circle, went over the flying formation and what steps to take in order to look after each other. Harold, along with other technical sergeants and gunners, left the Nissen Hut to finish up some last minute maintenance on their fortresses.
Received your letter of the 17th and must answer it immediately. I can’t call you up cause I don’t have any time – I’ve too much to say, so I won’t send you a telegram. Here’s the set-up – I’ll write and tell my mom about it today – I know she won’t want me to get married, but she’ll approve and we’ll get her blessings. How about your mom? I believe she’ll approve and hope to get her blessings.
The ring can be purchased when I get home, or, if you care to get it let me know and I’ll send you some dough I don’t know about an engagement ring; if you want one, we’ll get it when I get home. If not, we’ll get a very good wedding ring.
My furlough will begin in June, and I think about the middle of the month. I can’t give you an exact date now, but maybe later on I will. You can get ready in the meantime. You will have to get a blood test and I want you to do it soon. I’ll get my blood test here in camp. That way, we won’t have to waste time but I can get married right away. Where will we get married? I know in your church, so if you can pay the priest a visit and tell him about it, it would be appreciated. We can’t set a definite date yet. So everything will have to be taken care of at the last minute. Announcements will have to be sent (I think) and that will have to wait for the last minute. Sweetheart, as I’m writing, I’m getting more involved and things are getting complicated. I wish I could talk this over with you. I’m going to let you take care of everything. Not that I don’t have an interest or anything, but I think you will take care of everything perfectly. It would please me fine, and whatever you choose to do is approved by me.
Darling, I’m sorry, cause I wrote 2 pages and didn’t tell you I love you yet – I love you Loretta, I love you with all my heart and soul; and will love forever and a day. I’m crazy about you and the thought of marrying you next month is giving me chills and thrills, and already, it seems I’m living in a new world. Concerning Rock Hill, I’d love to go, but whether or not we will, it’s still to be seen. My dreams are going to come true next month. Honey I love you. I love you. Love you. Love you.
Harold told Loretta he’d marry her on a Tuesday if he had to, and he managed to take leave before heading to a base in Maine to wed her on a Tuesday – as promised. On June 1, 1943, Loretta officially gained the title of Mrs. Harold P. Schwerdt, and she couldn’t be happier about it. The ceremony was rather short notice, but beautiful, with Loretta picking a dress right off the rack and Harold donning his Army dress uniform. What a handsome couple, people would say about them.
Since Harold and Arthur enlisted in the military, and after they were called to war in April of 1942, tensions were growing more and more dire in Europe, and he knew that at any moment he would be sent off to fight the Axis powers. Artie was already in the Pacific, fulfilling his own dreams. Harold hoped to use his engineering and tinkering skills to remain on the ground while in the Air Force, but it was looking like he would be in the clouds in no time. He completed many of the required courses already, always eager to learn and improve in any field he found himself working – but a knot lingered in his stomach. If he was going to be in an airplane, he’d most certainly have to use a gun. And if he had to use his gun, he’d have to kill. B-17s were equipped with five, .30 caliber machine guns; He knew he’d be in the thick of things up in a Flying Fortress. Harold had an unwavering love of country and a great amount of pride in being in the Army, and he resolved with himself – without worrying Loretta – that he was prepared to do whatever he had to in order to come home to his girl when all this was over.
Loretta, with very little time to prepare, ran to the boutique three blocks over from her house with Eleanor and one of her sisters.
“It just has to be white, I really don’t care otherwise.” Loretta quickly thumbed through hanger after hanger of dresses, looking for her size.
“Oh, hush! You want something that’ll at least look good on ya, Loretta! I won’t allow you to marry my brother dressed in rags.” Eleanor had two dresses – one in each hand – and held them out in front of her for her future sister to inspect.
“I like that one,” Loretta said. She grabbed the gown and took another one of her own.
“I’m just here to judge,” Loretta’s sister said with a smirk. Loretta gave a huff and went into the fitting room. The clerk followed her in and after about ten minutes both ladies returned, Loretta in front with her choice.
“Wow,” Eleanor gasped. “You look beautiful!”
Loretta gave a twirl, “Not bad for a gal grabbing a dress off the rack, huh?”
“I have to admit,” Loretta’s sister said reluctantly, “you look elegant, Rette. Harold’s a lucky guy.” She smiled. She was proud of her sister.
On the other side of town, Harold was rushing into the court offices.
“Yes, hello sir how may I help you today?” A secretary looked up at the man in uniform and flashed a pleasant smile.
“I need to marry my gal! Tomorrow!” Harold was breathless and eager. His leave was only slotted for a few days and he was desperate to exchange vows.
The secretary looked in her ledger and frowned. “I’m sorry, sir. It doesn’t seem like we have any availability in the next couple of days.”
“You don’t understand, ma’am. I have to marry my girl.” Harold pleaded with her to check again, but she was correct. There were so many soldiers and civilians coming through that court office to marry that they were positively booked.
“Excuse me, soldier. If I heard you correctly, you’re looking to get hitched?” An older gentleman in a tailored suit was walking out of the offices when he noticed the exchange between Harold and the secretary. He was a lawyer in the courts.
“Yes, sir. I really need to. She’s even buying her dress right now.”
“Hmm,” the lawyer began, “could you get married today?”
“Well gee, I think so. I have to go get her. You’re able to do that? Yes. Yes I’ll marry her today.” Harold was resolved. Loretta wouldn’t mind the expedited arrangement; she wanted to marry him just as much.
“Alright then! Come with me.” The lawyer gestured for Harold to follow him back into the courts. “You! Don’t leave for the day yet. This soldier needs to get married!” He turned to Harold, “Now, son, you got all your papers? Got your blood work and tests done? You’re clean?”
Harold nodded. He got all his medical exams done the week prior on base.
“Perfect! Go get your gal!”
When he looked at Loretta on their wedding day – the woman he was in love with since he was 17 years old – all he could think about was being home with her, starting a family, living in a cottage and enjoying life. There wouldn’t be a life to enjoy, though, he understood, if Hitler and his followers turned out to be victorious in this global War. This sacrifice to be away from his love would be worth it in the end, he thought, to have a guaranteed peace and to serve his country at the same time. He just had to make it home again.
“I got the telegram to go to Bangor, Maine.” Harold sat at the kitchen table, his wife before him. He swirled a cup of coffee around in small, nervous circles.
“When?” Loretta knew this was an inevitable call. She just didn’t think it would be two days after she married Harold.
“Tomorrow, Doll.” Harold looked down, almost ashamed. He wanted nothing more than a few extra days with Loretta. He sat still and waited for her to react, or be mad.
“Well,” she began, “you better come home to me, Harold Schwerdt.” She smiled when he looked up at her.
“I love you. Do you love me?” Harold stopped swirling his coffee.
Your letter today truly was swell and was enjoyed a lot. You know honey I love you too, only I love you more. I love you all I possibly can.
Today was payday, and I got my regular pay but not my flying pay. I’ll get that some time next month (I hope). I intend to send $50 to my mother so I’ll have some dough for my furlough. Honey when I get home we’ll do the town. Maybe you think I’m silly, but every day and every night I dream of going home. I’m still wondering what I’m going to say when I first see you. Even if I say nothing, I know what I’m going to do. Loretta, you are going to be kissed; and I do mean kissed with a capital (hug too). Gee I love you. I’m still hoping for that happy day in June. I love you more honey.
Your brother Joe is a good man and he’ll make a darn good sailor. An indication is how well he took it when he left. He is a man, for I could see that when I was home a year ago. I hope he manages to get home when I do. I love to see him in his uniform.
Honey, it’s nice of you to go and see Ed. If you bring him just 1% of the happiness you brought me, he’s very happy. You’re just swell (my swell girl). I love you sweet heart, I love you lots.
I’m glad you liked the box of candy. I hope to fatten you up so I can have more to hug when I see you. Loretta, you are going to be hugged. I love you.
Honey, when you go over to my house again and they have some good cake, ask mom for my piece. Say, “Mrs. Schwerdt, I want Ha’s piece.”
I know how much much Abie wanted to get in the service. I feel sorry for him, please give him my regards. My regards to everybody, OK? Mom, Pop, the family, Johnna, Bena, the girls.
Honey, remember the pictures I said I had taken? Well, I’m sending them home. I only have one set, so I wish you would show them to my mother. I hope to get some more, but that’s going to take a couple more weeks.
I think the pictures are pretty good, I hope you like them. The one picture that is faded is Jack in a summer flying suit, and me in a winter flying jacket and helmet and goggles. I’ve mentioned the name of “Ned” in my previous letters; he’s Jack’s radio man. He’s in one of these pictures, and you can recognize him cause he’s wearing a summer flying suit. The guy on the other side of me, is the 1st sergeant and a very nice guy. He’s a dummer, and really can beat it out. Yes sir, a nice guy. The close up picture of me was taken by Jack. He had the camera so I went up to him and said heil Hitler; he took the picture too. I think it came out well, don’t you?
In one of the pictures I look like a tough guy; I had that taken specifically for you. Are you afraid of me? Better do like I say or else I’ll get tough with you (I may even lop you!).
Honey, I wish you could feel my eyes on you and hear me saying, Sweetheart. I love you, more love to you, sweets. I was supposed to leave Wendover Field Sunday May 2, but orders have been changed, so I’m good here for at least another week. Darn it.
So my doll, your letter made me very happy. I hope these pictures make you happy.