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Behind Barbed Wire:

Midwest POWs in Nazi Germany

a TRACES exhibit

directed by

Michael Luick-Thrams


The prisoner of war experience is one few undergo directly. Being taken prisoner is, in itself, neither dishonorable nor heroic. Capture is largely an accident. It usually comes as a complete surprise and is often accompanied by injury. The results of confinement may be painful and sometimes fatal. This exhibit explores the experiences of prisoners of war (POWs) from the American Midwest who were imprisoned in Nazi Germany, and the human context in which those experiences took place. Implicitly, it poses five primary questions:

—why did some Midwest POWs survive certain conditions or experiences, while others did not,

—what roles did art, freetime and religion play in helping those men who did survive imprisonment by the Nazi regime,

—why did some Germans or Austrians assist U.S. POWs, while others did not,

—how did the liberated POWs later come to terms with their own experiences, and

—how do countries once in armed conflict reconcile with each other: how do nations and the individuals from those nations get beyond war?

The Midwestern United States has unique connections to the World War II European-theater POW experience. The first U.S. troops sent to Europe came in largest part from Iowa, both Dakotas and Minnesota; the Iowa-based 34th “Red Bull” Division served the longest uninterrupted duty of any U.S. unit—more than 600 days. As about two thousand soldiers from the 34th Division were captured by German Afrikakorps Field Marshall Rommel’s troops in North Africa in February 1943, until the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 a disproportionate share of the U.S. POWs in the Third Reich came, per capita, from the Upper Midwest. Because of the high rate of German ancestry across the entire Midwest and the then-recent immigration, numerous POWs from the American Heartland spoke German or had kin behind “enemy lines”; for such men, World War II represented a kind of fratricide.

There were three main waves of Midwest POWs: those captured in North Africa in 1943, those Midwest pilots shot out of the sky during the air war over Europe, and those Midwest soldiers captured at the Battle of the Bulge (a mere six months before the Second World War ended). Each wave of U.S. POWs in Nazi Germany had its own experiences. All of the men who survived them, however, left a provocative legacy for those alive today—one involving the very nature of war itself: how does armed conflict between groups of people play out, face-to-face, when the guns are lowered; how “should” humans treat each other and, ultimately, live together?


1. Pre-captivity Military Life

As the Great Depression ended, Thearl Mesecher clerked in a department store. Charlie Lloyd Jones manned a county road crew. Keith Haight worked as a migrant farmhand, while Dan Bied was a soda jerk in his father’s drugstore. These Midwest men truly were “citizen soldiers”—individuals who never aspired to military adventures but during World War II found themselves drawn into armed conflict in faraway lands by forces larger than their own lives.

          Once they either had enlisted or been drafted, each of them underwent radical changes: assignment to unfamiliar surroundings, followed by rigorous training either as soldiers or pilots, and then deployment to foreign countries, where they would be confronted by strange cultures. In addition, the men had to obey the hierarchical commands and myriad regulations of everyday life in the military—even if, as would be true as POWs, too, the experiences of an officer were markedly different from those of an enlistee or draftee. Most daunting of all, as they left the relative safety of the American Heartland and ventured out in the world as U.S. soldiers or pilots, each of the men had to be prepared to die in combat—to surrender life itself on behalf of an ideal. Theirs was a world of drama and danger.


2. Airmen

Flying over enemy territory posed a dangerous assignment. The fatality rate was high, and being captured constituted a prolonged endurance test that not everyone subjected to it could withstand. Some Midwest airmen flew on dozens of bombing raids on targets in Germany or Nazi-occupied countries before being downed by Luftwaffe (air force) or Wehrmacht (army) fire, while other bomber crewmembers were shot down on their maiden run. Usually, civilians or German officials apprehended those who survived—although a small number of downed U.S. airmen managed to escape and go underground, either temporarily or for the duration of the war.

German civilians typically loathed the bombers and called them “Luftgangsters” (“air gangsters”). Certainly, the bombing of military and later civilian targets in Europe by both sides far outmatched the airborne damage inflicted in any war, previous to World War II or since. Germans felt the bombing of their cities incommensurate and indefensible—and the psychological strain of repetitive bombing raids pushed many into a state of protracted hysteria, a frenzy that compromised their ability to treat captured enemy airmen decently and according to the established conventions of war.


3. Capture

Some Midwest POWs later complained that the U.S. Army under-prepared them for imprisonment. Other than being told to give only name, rank and serial number if interrogated, until the last year of the war U.S. soldiers and pilots were not trained in what to do in the event of being taken alive by the enemy. This usually meant an initial period of disorientation and a gradual, painful adjustment.

Some POWs were captured during battles, while others were shot down during bombing runs. Of the former, soldiers taken alive just as easily could have been killed in the process—as many comrades were. Of the latter, pilots who escaped their damaged planes soon learned it was more desirable to surrender to German authorities than to be apprehended by civilians, who often beat or killed downed pilots as “Luftterroristen” (“air terrorists”)—especially after severe raids.

Usually, by the time of their capture, U.S. servicemen had lost most of their equipment and supplies. Many of them had only the clothes on their back and some—like those captured in North Africa—had to wear summer-weight clothing during two of Northern Europe’s damp, frigid winters. The few items Midwest POWs were able to retain became precious possessions.


4. Interrogation

          German interrogators often spoke fluent English: many had visited or even lived in the U.S. before war broke out; some had returned to Germany to see relatives, had their passports confiscated and had been forced into the German army. Sometimes interrogators offered individual Midwest POWs cigarettes or other favors, trying to help them feel at ease and thus win their cooperation. Most POWs, however, later reported having given only their name, rank and serial number. Such minimal information at times led German interrogators to scream and threaten abuse, or resulted in the POWs being forced to stand for long hours in the cold or rain to “soften them up”; some were beaten, while others were told they’d be shot if information was not shared. Some POWs endured stints of solitary confinement.

Normally, the German military already knew much about the men and their units: the history and positions of their companies, lists of unit members, bombers’ destinations, etc. The Nazi regime hoped for useful information, but interrogation generally brought little of value. The interrogation process itself was the POWs’ first significant contact with Germans inside the Third Reich—and it served to harden them against their captors and strengthen their resolve.


5. Transport

The transportation of POWs inside Nazi Germany was brutal and claimed many lives. After first marching, the men were loaded into “40 and 8” boxcars designed for transporting 40 soldiers or 8 horses—often without changing bedding: many more than 40 POWs would be crammed into the windowless wagons. Space was tight: some men stood, while others squatted between their legs. They were supposed to change positions periodically, but sometimes those crouching would be too sick—or in the meantime had died of battle wounds, dysentery or freezing. The Germans provided no heat or food. Any water was served in pails that, once emptied, doubled as toilets: if refilled at the infrequent stops, they were not cleaned first. A particularly cruel fate was strafing by U.S. planes, whose pilots assumed the trains were moving German soldiers. During such attacks the guards would take shelter in nearby ditches and leave the POWs to survive the strafing by sheer luck, if at all. Such transports across the Third Reich could last for days or even a week. The dead were thrown out alongside the tracks. The trains’ destinations changed repeatedly, as the trains moved in spurts and zigzag patterns.


6. Camp

Each POW camp in the Third Reich housed either officers or enlisted men, and was organized according to service branch. Barracks were hastily built, under-heated, dark and—as the global war dragged on—deathly over-crowded. While the Nazi regime generally honored Geneva-Convention stipulations that officers not work and thus mostly left such prisoners in regular barracks, lower-ranked POWs were sent on Arbeitskommandos (“work units”), where they might be housed in barns, mines, power plants, slaughterhouses, brick factories or the like. Although such makeshift accommodations proved taxing, at least such “lucky” POWs might encounter civilians—and thereby receive food or favors, which often meant the difference between life and death.

During the forced marches conducted at the war’s end, more than 500 POWs might be housed in a barn overnight—or simply forced to rest by the side of the road, in all weather. The inadequate shelter that the German government provided Allied POWs claimed tens of thousands of lives—especially of Soviet soldiers. While national groupings did not often mix, Nazi POW camps held Brits, French, Dutch, Poles, Serbs, Canadians, Indians, Malaysians, Africans, etc.


7. Food

Immediately after capture, Midwest POWs went days before receiving a piece of dried bread or a cup of thin soup. Once they had been interrogated and processed, they hardly fared better: POWs received food irregularly, in meager quantities and of poor quality. If Red Cross packages finally arrived, they did so unexpectedly and irregularly. While each package was intended for a single man, more likely than not they were divided among two to 12 men. Under such conditions, men took to dreaming about food, talking about it incessantly, fighting over it and even paying other POWs with cigarettes or other rations to draw pictures of food. They recorded recipes in their journals, even if they could not cook and they had no food on hand.

Such conditions claimed many victims. Those who survived lost a large portion of their body weight. Malnutrition retarded the men’s abilities to heal, or grow hair and nails; their teeth fell out. As they starved on an unsteady diet of rotten vegetables, German Brot stretched 20% with sawdust, or diluted grass soup, POWs turned to eating bugs, cats, birds or mice they trapped, edibles stolen or bartered from civilians, or horses lying alongside the road, killed by strafing. POWs even murdered for or over food.


8. Work

The Geneva Convention proscribes officers being forced to labor for the captors, and non-officer POWs working in war-related industries, but it does not bar the latter from other work. While the hierarchy-minded Nazi regime honored the clause that officers not work outside their camps, it set the other ranks of POWs to heavy labor—literally working Soviet POWs to death. Allied POWs often worked seven days a week—or, conversely, not at all, for days at a time. The irregularity of work assignments proved an additional source of stress for already taxed prisoners.

Work assignments varied from exhausting physical labor to repetitive “busy work”. POWs were leased to individual farmers, in both small and large numbers, and to factories or power plants, by the score. A major source of labor replacement for German men fighting on either front, POWs harvested crops, mined coal, cleaned floors, built roads and rail beds, cleaned debris or removed corpses after bombing raids, felled timber and shoed horses. Sometimes POWs sabotaged German equipment, both to hinder the war effort and to impede their own ability to work. They were, after all, short of food and physically weak. Work beyond the fence did provide some outside contact—or an escape.


9. Art

Midwest POW officers in Nazi Germany mostly did not have to work outside the camps. To pass time, POWs in one of the Third Reich’s various Oflags (“officer camps”) turned to art. They acted in plays and performed cabarets, sang in choruses and played in orchestras, wrote poetry and short stories. They painted, sketched, whittled, sculpted, wove Spam-can coils into metal art, knitted, embroidered, sewed and so on. Officers and enlistees traded cigarettes or other items of value with POWs of Allied nations for woodcarvings, drawings or other works of art. Journal drawings provided an outlet for pent-up ruminations and vivid, post-war documentation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the War Prisoners Aid of the World Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) provided supplies for art or theatrical projects, and instruments for music making—but the creative talent came from the POWs themselves. Some of the men spent countless hours writing plays or composing scores, preparing elaborate stages and costumes, practicing lines or notes until the performances—which sometimes were attended by German staff, even though some theatrical works included implied political commentary or satire. Germans also attended sports events.


10. Freetime

The existence of officers—and to a lesser extent of non-officers—among POWs inside the Third Reich alternated between physical exhaustion and spiritual emptiness. In between those two extremes, POWs created freetime activities that lightened the crushing weight of their plight.

The Red Cross, YMCA and German Quakers provided Allied POWs with blank books for journals, and used books to read; a few camps had well-appointed libraries. POWs in some camps offered fellow prisoners instruction, in various subjects. In a few camps, POWs learned to trade cigarettes with the German guards as a bloc (as individual trading proved “inflationary”). Despite great risk, guards sneaked radio parts, typewriters and even cameras into the camps. In turn, the POWs listened to the BBC and, using scrap paper, produced “camp papers” with war news; new “editions” were passed between barracks at roll call. More overtly, sports competitions between POWs attracted enthusiastic audiences consisting of both prisoners and their keepers. In good weather, the men savored a few moments of rare sunshine, or washed their dirty clothes in cloudy water. The occasional film or visit by official delegations or celebrities provided welcome distraction.


11. Loss

Midwest POWs experienced loss from the moment of their capture—upon which they lost their freedom, to the point of becoming a number and being treated inhumanely. A loss that lasted longer than that of freedom, however, was the loss of the Midwest POWs’ innocence. They witnessed the brutal, bestial treatment of Soviet POWs and of “Ostarbeiter” (slave laborers imported from occupied Eastern Europe). Some marched through concentration camps, and more looked on as political prisoners or Jews were abused or murdered by their captors. The trauma that POWs experienced in Nazi Germany marked their personalities for as long as they would live. What they saw lingered in them.

The men lost tangible things, too. German and Austrian soldiers pilfered POWs’ watches or other valuables upon capture or in the course of the men’s imprisonment. POWs captured in North Africa literally lost the shirts off their backs. The men fled by night after the American front had collapsed; during the day Arab peasants traded food or water for their clothing—piece by piece, until some men traversed the desert wearing only socks and underwear! The greatest loss of all, however, was the loss of fellow POWs—through hunger, disease or murder.


12. Religion

Some Midwest POWs were agnostics, others atheists. Some were Protestants or Catholics and others Jews. Some were pious upon being captured; others became so during imprisonment—whether or not they remained devout after liberation. Generally, their religious faith helped those POWs to endure Nazi imprisonment; it was not, though, a precondition for survival.

Some Christian POWs had access to Protestant or Catholic chaplains; in the absence of clergy, one man or a core band of men served as religious counselors to other POWs. Groups of POWs formed to read the Bible or discuss current topics. The Red Cross and YMCA distributed Bibles as well as other inspirational materials to POWs. Religious altars or adorned nooks were established in the permanent camps, and volunteer choruses sang at religious services. Burials of POWs who died or who were killed by German guards usually included a religious component.

Jewish POWs sometimes were separated from the rest of their nationals—in gross violation of the Geneva Convention—but it is not documented that such segregation necessarily resulted in murder at the hands of the Germans.


13. Homesickness

With family and friends far away, and contact with them rare, Midwest POWs felt far from home. Letters from POWs might take months to reach home—if ever. Often, POWs’ letters arrived after they already had been liberated or even had returned to the U.S. Letters to POWs first had to catch up with the men; countless letters, having reached the Third Reich, spent the rest of the war bundled in piles, sitting in boxcars or on warehouse floors, never to be delivered.

In an age when personal travel—inside one’s own country, let alone abroad—was quite difficult and costly, few Midwest POWs had been far from home before joining the military. To be wholly stranded in a foreign country—moreover imprisoned by a hostile regime—made being in wartime Germany or Austria more taxing and lonely than might have been the case otherwise. While some POWs spoke basic German, most spoke none. And, Germans or Austrians the POWs came into contact with either were under command not to fraternize or too afraid for their own safety to be approachable by enemy soldiers. In the camps, the mental strain of imprisonment, coupled with tense interpersonal dynamics, made the POW experience ultimately an exceptionally lonely one.


14. Health

The physical health of the POWs suffered severely. Many had been wounded when captured; soon thereafter most contracted dysentery. Various other opportunistic diseases joined the list of maladies afflicting the men from the onset of imprisonment. The POWs also lost considerable weight—some of them to the point of collapsing. In the process, they lost hair, teeth, musculature and even patches of skin. Most suffered from infected feet; some lost toes or even heels. Many would suffer from bone or other bodily degeneration for the rest of their lives—lives which often were prematurely shortened by the harsh living conditions the men had experienced as POWs.

The men’s mental health also took a deadly beating. Some men couldn’t bear the strain of imprisonment: at least one POW stormed a guard so he’d be shot; more ran into the barbed wire —suicide by electrocution. Some became despondent; one man would only sit and rock, with his face buried in his hands. At night a chorus of murmuring, screaming and crying filled the narrow boxcars, barracks, barns or other places POWs found uneasy sleep. Nightmares in which POWs relived their horrific experiences would plague them for the rest of their lives.


15. Humor

Midwest POWs trapped in Nazi Germany coped with their miserable situation, in part, by somehow sustaining a sense of humor, even if at times it was coarse or a base sign of resistance. Making light of their serious plight helped many of the men move beyond feeling totally helpless or alone. Also, humor provided an uplifting vent for deeply troubling ruminations. Jokes, for example, involved “someone’s” girlfriend or wife back home, with cynical story lines describing her seeing another man—often another soldier! Or, they focused on the “Goons” who guarded them; “Jerry” was another common nickname for the Germans. Anecdotes often foretold of post-liberation life, or of “typical” scenes and struggles awaiting the men after returning to the civilian world. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt featured in comic POW-camp tales, as did army heads and unit leaders. Some camps even printed their own cartoons in self-published booklets. Humorous or risqué sketches adorned many a POW bunk area or journal. The showing of comedy films, the reading of farcical literature and absurd burlesque shows provided the POWs welcome distraction from the anguish that filled their everyday world.


16. Relationships between POWs

Midwest POWs in Nazi Germany had no safety, few tangible resources and no freedom. The only thing they consistently had—besides their personal abilities and convictions—was each other. Relationships between POWs were of utmost importance, even if a source of conflict.

Generally, the men helped each other. Still, there were quarrels—over personal behavior or group actions—and betrayals, such as when men stole food from each other or when a hapless individual was caught collaborating with the Germans. And, as a society in microcosm, each given circle of POWs—the men in a certain barrack, a group assigned to an individual work Kommando, a line of POWs being marched together—reflected the usual interpersonal dynamics: natural leaders and followers; some men interested in power for power’s sake and some willing to serve others selflessly; the popular guys and social outcasts; “brains” and “dopes” and heroes and fiends.

Lacking adequate clothing, the POWs literally slept together—often in groups of up to a half dozen; when one turned, they all turned. They ate (and starved), worked, bled, played, joked, fought, tried to escape, were liberated (or died) together. Often, the men sustained each other emotionally, not to mention in practical ways: relationships proved as vital as life itself.


17. Minorities

Although most Upper Midwesterners in 1940 had Northern-European, Christian ancestry, determined minorities lived among them: Native Americans, African Americans and Jews also served their country. Ironically, while fighting the racist Nazi regime across the Atlantic, on the homefront and in the armed services themselves, minorities in the pre-Civil Rights United States typically lived under marginalized, disadvantaged conditions. Even “white” Jews endured exclusion from many residential areas or civic organizations, “Jew quotas” and the disdain of their non-Jewish compatriots.

As prisoners of war, Midwest POWs came into contact with Asian Americans from either coast, and rural “WASP” POWs lived closely with fellow American citizens from urban Slavic, Mediterranean, Hispanic or other ethnic backgrounds largely absent in the rural Midwest. Also, the German government usually quartered U.S. POWs in common barracks—a mixture of “races” unthinkable in the still-segregated U.S. Army. For their part, the Germans taunted their U.S. captives about discrepancies between “democracy” and the blatant segregation institutionalized in the American South.


Meskwaki Code Talkers

In January 1941, eleven months before Pearl Harbor, 27 Meskwaki men enlisted together in the 34th Division of the 168th Infantry of the United States Army. Twenty-two-year-old Frank Sanache was one of them. As the eldest of the group, per tribal tradition the other men looked to him for leadership. At the time, the men made up sixteen percent of Tama, Iowa’s Meskwaki population—an unusual community of Native Americans in that they lived not on a reservation, but on a “settlement” of self-owned land. Of the 27 Meskwaki enlistees, Sanache, his brother Willard and six others were sent to Scotland and England for code-talking training after general training in Marshalltown, Iowa and jungle-warfare training in Louisiana. Meskwaki Native Americans, along with eighteen other tribes around the United States, were trained in talking in codes that were based on their native language—codes that were never broken by the Germans.

Sanache and the other seven code talkers served as scouts in Northern Africa, using walkie-talkies to radio the coordinates of artillery batteries. “Frank used to tell me about how he would be sent out as a scout,” Alex Walker, a Meskwaki tribal council chair, later reported. “They used to send him about two miles ahead of the troops in dangerous conditions. There were only eight of them so they worked 24-hour shifts.” Sanache called such work “the worst place this side of hell.”

In mid-February 1943 Sanache was performing his duties at Faid Pass in Tunisia when German soldiers captured him, then flew him with about two thousand other Midwest POWs to Naples, Italy, where they were shipped by train to Nazi Germany. For 29 months, Sanache unloaded bags of lime, and other materials, from rail cars in a POW camp in Hammerstein—dusty work that would leave him with scarred lungs and a variety of chronic illnesses for the rest of his life. He survived on a daily ration of a cup of soup, two boiled potatoes, a glass of water and a slice of bread. He was finally liberated at the end of the war when Allied Troops liberated the POW camp where he had been imprisoned.


The Tuskegee Airmen

Luther Smith grew up in the streets of Des Moines dreaming of flying through the clouds. At age 13 he flew his first airplane, perched on the lap of a Ford Trimotor pilot. Smith later said that experience instilled in him “a lifelong love of flying.” As a kid, he hitched rides from his home on School Street to the Des Moines airport, where he worked on airplanes. The white military pilots there became his role models. In 1938 Smith graduated from Roosevelt High School and in 1942 joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, becoming one of twelve African-American Iowans who completed Negro Pilot Training. In May 1943 Smith was commissioned at Tuskegee Airfield in Alabama.

          The Tuskegee Airfield and the Selective Service Act of 1940 were created in response to the shortage of white pilots and soldiers. Numerous members of congress and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged President Roosevelt to ask congress to pass the Act, which allowed all armed services to enlist African-Americans. On October 1st 1941 the 99th Pursuit Squadron was created, followed by the opening of the 66th Army Air Force Training detachment on December 1st 1941. The task of designing the Tuskegee Airfield was given to a nationally known architect, Archie A. Alexander of Des Moines. 276 African-American pilots trained in a 30-week program while stationed in Tuskegee, leading to one of the most decorated and successful Army Air Force divisions during WWII. The first death in military combat of a Tuskegee Airman was Maurice “Smokey” Easters of Webster City, Iowa.

          Lieutenant Luther Smith escorted B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses in 133 combat missions over Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and southwest Germany. On October 13th 1944, after escorting a group of bombers over Hungary, Smith and his flight team were ordered on a search and destroy mission. Smith’s element leader spotted loaded railway oil tankers, which exploded in a massive fireball after being hit with machine gun fire. Smith’s airplane was close to the ground and he was forced to fly his Mustang through the ball of fire. Smith’s airplane immediately caught on fire, making the airplane doomed to crash. He evacuated his airplane and soon became tangled in his parachute, making a hard landing in a nearby forest. Smith was captured and spent seven months in a German POW camp. He was segregated from white POWs and for two years was hospitalized for injuries he sustained in that crash landing.

          Despite all of the racism, segregation and personal struggles that Smith faced while in the Army and POW camp, Smith still felt that his home was worth fighting for: “I felt the better I did my job, the better the possibility things would improve at home. It was also a labor of love,” he said. “ I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. You know, in 1941 nobody wanted the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1945 only the Nazis didn’t want us.”


18. Encounters with Germans or Austrians

Midwest POWs’ encounters with Germans or Austrians varied yet were a central part of their experience as prisoners. Some “hosts” were sadists, while others kept individual POWs alive by smuggling them food. Some beat or even shot POWs on pretexts, while others ignored actions that could have resulted in execution. Some provided POWs with equipment or supplies (usually, but not always, in exchange for cigarettes or other valuables). One doctor, who had studied at Johns Hopkins, used the last anesthesia on hand on the American POW in the field hospital, while wounded German soldiers went without. A German woman fed a POW a generous meal—despite the risk of being shot for doing so—because her husband was a POW in the U.S. and she wished he, too, be shown human kindness

While some of the POWs left ruined Germany hating Germans, others assigned much of their poor treatment to Nazis leaders and the war these had sought and fought. Of those POWs who left war-torn Europe filled with enormous hate, some were able to overcome that hatred with time’s passage. Others never were—and passed their hatred to the next generation. Some POWs returned to Germany decades later and confronted a haunting past head-on; others never could.


19. Dresden

Midwest POWs witnessed one of the most infamous subchapters of World War II—the firestorm bombing of Dresden. Part of the controversial Strategic Air Offensive, the attacks between the 13th and 15th of February 1945—less than three months before the war’s end—claimed up to 130,000 lives. As Dresden posed no military target, most of the dead were civilians; many were refugees fleeing the advancing Soviet army. (In comparison, the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 60,000 and 75,000 people, respectively.) An Allied press briefing explained that “Operation Thunderclap” deliberately targeted population centers to create chaos and disrupt relief. News of the unmatched destruction spurred widespread condemnation—including from Winston Churchill, who called it “a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing”. The raids’ rationale and effectiveness were questioned, as in spite of incinerating the city—in theory thereby causing dislocation—trains again ran through Dresden just two days after the first attack.

An estimated 500,000 people were killed in air raids on Germany between 1939 and 1945. Especially in Dresden, U.S. POWs were put to work, removing the remains of what once had been human beings.


20. Assistance

Assistance from international organizations kept the POWs alive during the worst of their imprisonment. The War Prisoners Aid of the World Young Men’s Christian Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross delivered vital aid to POWs on all sides in WWII. The Red Cross grew out of the vision of Henry Dunant, who while traveling across Italy after the Battle of Solferino in 1859 personally witnessed war’s carnage. Convinced that something could and should be done for those suffering war’s effects—especially those taken prisoner—he worked with others to establish in 1863 the Red Cross. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the ICRC and a parallel organization in Islamic countries, the Red Crescent, are still active today, around the world, providing vital aid.

During WWII, the Red Cross not only delivered packages to POWs, but also registered prisoners and informed the men’s families of their capture. It provided medical supplies as well, and sent delegations to observe camp conditions. As a neutral party, the Red Cross had access to the POWs that other non-governmental organizations did not have. Without the various efforts of the Red Cross, during WWII thousands more POWs would have perished in their captors’ hands.


21. Escape

Escape from Nazi-German POW camps proved almost impossible and was usually deadly. Aware that the Geneva Convention sanctions POWs’ attempts to evade their captors, the Germans still did all they could to hinder escape. They built barracks on brick stilts, so that guards could crawl underneath and listen to POWs’ conversations during lock up; the exposed space between the barracks’ floors and ground below also made passage to tunnels easily visible. Those escape efforts that succeeded usually did not succeed for very long: many of those later recaptured were quickly executed—typically in front of their peers, to discourage future escape attempts by others.

Once liberated by the Soviet Union’s Red Army or the U.S. Army, some POWs so feared falling back into German hands that they chose the uncertainty of “escape” over waiting for slow removal from the ruins of the Third Reich—but, they fled into the dangerous unknown. Some of those men later ended up back in American hands; some, though, perished or, perhaps worse, were apprehended by the Red Army, sent into the Russian hinterland and never heard from again. The compulsion to flee, while understandable, arose out of their post-imprisonment inner turmoil.


22. The Death Marches

Horrific “death marches” took place at the end of the war—a lasting legacy of senseless human cruelty and, conversely, suffering. POWs themselves and historians disagree: did the Germans send POWs on such marches—some of which lasted almost three months and covered hundreds of kilometers—to keep them from rejoining the U.S. war effort? Or, did they do so to keep them from falling into the hands of the Red Army, to retain them as bartering stock once the conflagration reached a climax or, perhaps, to “hide” proof of German war crimes? If the latter, the German authorities simply could have liquidated the men—a desperate act that did not take place.

During the marches, the POWs received almost no food and far too little water from their captors. What nourishment they did secure was coincidental—stolen vegetables, dead horses lying by the roadside, or handouts from German Hausfrauen who took pity on them. The POWs’ clothes and supplies were at an end; they literally had walked their shoes to shreds. At times they slept 500 or more men in a barn; often, they had no shelter at all. Sometimes the Germans put them in airport hangars—frequently the inadvertent targets of American bombing raids. Losses were heavy. The scars left were deep.


23. Liberation

Although Midwest POWs had waited seemingly an eternity to be rescued, once liberation did come, it often came suddenly and by surprise. Usually, the first clue that the war was ending was the abrupt disappearance of the German guards—who generally remained better informed than the POWs about the proximity and fortunes of the Red or U.S. Armies. The initial confusion that followed quickly turned to relief and joy once Soviet or American forces arrived in the camps (frequently literally by breaking through the fence). A common mistake in the POWs’ immediate treatment was their liberators’ eagerness to provide “help” in the form of generous supplies of food. Most POWs turned ill from eating too much after months of starvation diets; many died.

As soon as transport could be arranged, the POWs were trucked to collection points behind the front or flown by plane to liberated France or Belgium. Often, standing in those trucks or sitting in those planes, the men could not believe they had survived imprisonment in the Nazi hell; the emotional intensity of the moment often overwhelmed many of them. As they left, they departed changed men. They had seen the worst of human behavior; recovery would take years.


24. Recovery

For many liberated Midwest POWs, recovery’s first step consisted of being freed from the fleas and lice that had accompanied their entire imprisonment. Then, most received medical care, with many undergoing hospital stays while doctors attended to immediate health problems.

The men typically experienced an unshakeable edginess even after being removed from Nazi Germany. Planes flying overhead or the dropping of hospital equipment would send liberated POWs into a near-hysterical panic. Those who could endure it were sometimes sent on outings to nearby sites—on walking tours of springtime Paris, for example, or along the English Channel. Hospital staff considered such outings as practical ways to reintroduce the men to civilian life.

Food played a central role in liberated POWs’ recovery—not just in terms of nutrition but psychologically. Many former POWs often abruptly would visit the refrigerator to check that it was full, and had a lingering fear of hunger. For most POWs, years passed before they could speak about their experiences; some never did. Many found relief, decades later, in seeking the company of fellow former POWs; finding specific men from their past proved very meaningful.


25. Return to the United States

For liberated POWs, passage back to the U.S. proved intensely emotional. Those returning by ship celebrated upon first glimpsing the Statue of Liberty. The completion of their trek home, however, often proved more challenging. Thearl Mesecher, for example, disembarked in Des Moines with only the station master and a sole taxi driver on the platform. He wrote in his journal that it was the loneliest day of his life. George Rosie looked forward to returning to his family in Chicago, but resisted honoring his promise to a fallen buddy—to visit the man’s parents and report how their son had died. A happy-go-lucky boy, upon returning to Burlington, Iowa Dan Bied fulfilled his POW dreams: he quickly downed a ten-scoop ice cream cone at his dad’s soda fountain.

For the most part, returning POWs spoke little of their imprisonment; their families stubbornly avoided the topic, too. The men threw themselves into postwar life—finding a job or going to college, getting married, having children, joining civic groups and becoming part of their chosen communities. For them, the war should have ended—and they strove to forget it…

Fully forgetting what had happened to them, though, ultimately would prove impossible.


26. Reconciliation

By confronting their experiences as prisoners in the Third Reich, former Midwest POWs could heal and move beyond them. For some, a first step in that long process began in the 1950s—some Iowa POWs, for example, met one summer for a picnic, accompanied by their young families. In the late 1960s, one group of former POWs invited their one-time captors to come to the U.S. to attend a POW reunion. Not all of their American peers were pleased by the Germans’ presence, but the gesture had lasting, reconciliatory effects: it showed, in tangible ways, that the war had ended and that both nations could move on. In the 1970s—on the heels of the failed Vietnam War—large numbers of WWII-era POWs joined veterans’ associations; in the 1980s former POWs among them formed groups focused on the POW experience. Often, simply comparing experiences with other former POWs facilitated much healing. Some of the men, as they entered retirement and confronted their past, took to public speaking. That, too, was a form of healing. And, it was a call to keep such tragedy from ever happening again. Will future generations learn from the past century’s lapse of humanity and do better? Only time will tell…


Supplementary Exhibit Texts:


1. Pre-captivity Military Life

First Christmas Away

On the day before Christmas [1943], I bid my family farewell and boarded a bus for Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa. My first stop was the first step of a journey that would affect me for the rest of my life. It was not a happy Christmas for me. Before I left, I put my Christmas gifts from my family on a shelf in my closet and there the packages remained unopened on Christmas Day. I tried to push the day out of my mind, but Christmas memories were with me. Little did I know-my next Christmas was to be even worse than the one I was experiencing.

          —from My Freedom by Delbert Berninghaus of West Bend, Iowa


3. Capture

Chicago’s George Rosie later related his capture to a biographer, who wrote 

Surrounded by Germans, they were quickly captured. George was able to get a look [his fellow soldier] Ronzoni: he had been hit in the chest [and] never knew what hit him. After they had been disarmed, George and three other men were lying in a shallow ditch with their hands over their heads, a guard with a rifle on either side. With bullets flying in all directions, [one of the men] remarked ‘God, these guys are lousy shots.’ George lost so much that morning--his freedom.


5. Transport

Tales from Transport

Many Midwest POWs captured during the Battle of the Bulge were marched over the Eifel region and along the Rhine into Germany, then loaded onto trains at Limburg. Dan Bied, a 17-year-old soda jerk from Muscatine, Iowa had lied about his age in order to join the Army, as he didn’t want to “miss all the action” as the war clearly was drawing to a conclusion: he was captured at his first battle, at the Bulge. Bied later wrote that he and the other U.S. POWs

          left Limburg, our bellies warmed [after their first meal since being captured several days earlier] but only half-full, in 30-foot wooden railcars that each carried 65 or 70 men—depending upon how many the guards wanted to stuff into each of the rail-borne “Wagens.” There was absolutely no illumination, natural or artificial, in the cars.  Our body heat, with so many of us crammed together like pigs in a sty, was all that kept us from freezing as the train lurched and rattled its way east across the beaten-up roadbed.  Each time the train screeched to a halt, I felt as though my lower intestines were being yanked from their moorings.  The train was strafed several times by Allied fighters but our car was never hit by any of the slugs, to my knowledge. There was no food.  Occasionally, a bucket of water was poked through the door by a guard or railroad worker, then left with us for use as a toilet… and to be filled with drinking water at the next station.  The stench, from vomit and excrement, was nearly unbearable from the outset of the trip… then got worse as dead bodies accumulated in our midst.  After odors of this sort multiply so long, they become indistinguishable… but no less nauseating.


7. Food

Recipe for Black Bread in German POW Camps

50% Bruised Rye Grain

20% Sliced Sugar Beets

20% Tree Flour (saw dust)

10% Minced Leaves and Straw

Mix all ingredients, form into a 3” x 3” x 8” loaf and bake until black.


14. Loss

The POWs endured severe emotional strain—to the point that some of them lost their emotional control. Dan Bied wrote about one of his barrack mates:

            Jack O’Donnell was slumped at the table one afternoon, saying something inconsequential about our collective woes, when Ernie Krasuski, without any prolonged thought, repeated the remark, imitating Jack’s accent. “Don’t mock me!” Jack screamed, nearly up-ending the heavy table as he bolted from his stool. “Never mock me... don’t you ever mock me again!” After pushing Ernie with his palms, but not actually striking a blow, Jack fell back onto his stool and buried his head in his hands, his elbows on the table. He trembled with a mixture of anger and remorse, but not uttering a word. We were all silent a half-hour or more, hoping something would happen to change the mood of hostility and tension. Finally, a few remarks were made about such innocuous topics as the weather (abundant with wind-driven snow), food (the steak we assumed Herr Engel would be eating that night), music (what number Ginny Simms might be singing with Kay Kyser’s band on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade show) and wartime shortages (the lack of toilet paper in the outdoor crapper).


15. Religion

A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army... He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most solders found putrid.

           —from Kurt Vonnegut


17. Minorities

In Hell on Earth, Dan Bied wrote about the minorities he encountered while a POW

          Stalag IV-B was a bleak place. The barracks were jammed almost to the rafters with internees from all the nations fighting Germany. There were British, American, French, Dutch, Canadian, Russian and Serbian troops—among others—scattered throughout the camp. There were tall, silent Gurkhas from India who, one of the Englishmen told me, were treated as “privileged characters” by the Nazis. “They never know,” he said with a half-hearted chuckle, “when one of those sinister chaps might pull a stiletto out from his turban and slash someone’s throat.” The Gurkhas actually did look as though they knew something the rest of us didn’t . . . as though they could slice an adversary ear to ear if provoked to that degree of malevolence.


18. Encounters with Germans or Austrians

The Voss Family

          While imprisoned near Jaskow, a village on the Baltic coast near Danzig, POW Thearl Mesecher of Knoxville, Iowa was sent to work in the village blacksmith shop. The smithy, Rudolf Voss, originally was the pastor of the local church. When he refused to give the Hitler salute from the pulpit after the Nazis came to power (explaining “This is God’s house, not Adolf Hitler’s”), however, the regime sent him to a concentration camp for three months. When he returned to Jaskow, he worked as a blacksmith because he was barred from the ministry. As his and Frau Voss’ three sons were sent to the Eastern front (where they all were killed, fighting the Soviet Red Army), they turned to POW labor to assist in the smithy. Taking a liking to Thearl, the family “adopted” him and helped keep him alive by smuggling food to him and his “buddy” from Iowa, DuWayne Bulman. Billa, the oldest of the Voss’ two daughters, was caught one day by a guard and shot on the spot for trying to hand Thearl a fish from under her jacket. Meanwhile, Dora, the youngest Voss daughter, fell in love with Thearl and dreamt of emigrating to Iowa after the war. On Sundays the Vosses gave Dora bribery money for the guards and sent her to retrieve Thearl from the POW camp. Thearl spent Sunday afternoons in the family’s garden and in their parlor, snuggling with Dora or listening to forbidden BBC broadcasts with the family. After the war, both Dora and her desperate father sent him letters, implicitly begging for food or other help. Thearl sent the Vosses packages, but never brought Dora to be with him in the Midwest. Two of the Vosses’ letters are reprinted, below:


Dear Thearl:

            I have so often wished that I could hear from you. Mail service is not too good and you are silent. Did you get the letter that I wrote you Feb. 6? I sent it through the Polish Post Office.

            Thearl, is there any way on earth that you can help me? You well know that I would not ask you for any aid or assistance, if I could go through this horrible thing alone. Lately it has been even worse, as many are at the end of their strength. My parents are old, full of worry and hungry. They do not have any desire to live. Already there are 38 dead in Jaskow and there were only 90 in the beginning.

            My parents are so changed that you would never recognize them. They are fast becoming victims of these terrible times, and I cannot do anything to help them.

            As a prisoner of war, Thearl, you had it very bad, in spite of the little we were able to do for you. But, you could do it alone. You knew that your parents and loved ones were all right, in far-away America. In am watching my parents starve to death.

            You know how we all felt about Hitler and the war. We couldn’t help it. Could you?

            Billa [Dora’s older sister, shot by German guards for smuggling Thearl and DuWayne Bulman a fish under her coat] is dead. It was by a chance she took of her own free will. We are not asking you to help to the extent of endangering your life or violating the laws of your country or conscience.

            Many here have typhus. Malnutrition is a dreaded enemy. Did Bulman deliver the full we sent to Lauenburg [where the two Iowa POWs were sent after Jaskow]?

            My father’s apprentice [in the blacksmith shop, where Thearl had worked], Herbert, is still alive. He risked his life many times in caring for us as he promised you he would do. I send greetings from him and mom and dad.

            And now, farewell:



Mr. Mesecher, our good friend:

            I, my wife and youngest daughter, Dorchen, are still here in Jaskow, the place where you were a prisoner of war. A year after you left, when the Poles took over, most of the Germans were forced to leave and were moved westward over the Oder. The greater portion left willingly, under pressure of hunger. As a blacksmith, I did not have a permit to leave and will probably remain here the rest of my life and left them make a Pole out of me. We have no newspaper to read, no radios, are cut off from the whole world. Conditions are enough to drive us mad. Our Dorchen is very down-hearted and blue, says that if only you could come from America, you could do something to help us out here and, knowing you as I do, I believe it, too. It is not easy for a young girl to live here, see all this, and no future. Our beloved Billa’s life was sacrificed.

            Times have changed. Now we are the Gefangenen (prisoners). We have no rights; the Russians and Poles do with us as they please. Our greatest need, a package came, and the sender’s name was Mesecher. It was a wonderful help and a treat, something we are not able to get here now. We send our hearty thanks. All the comfort and aid we received here come from our earnest prayers to God. Such true friendship and trust as we have in you, means much to us.

            The Russians made short process of everything and as far was we can see there is no Germany (in the future). As far as our future is concerned, you folks in America know more about that than we do. We are cut off entirely from the whole world and I would be very grateful if you would give me the American slant on things. What about the Russian and Polish Rule? Please let me know what you think?

            Wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May God grant you good health and hearty greetings from our grateful family.

           Rudolf Voss


19. The Bombing of Dresden

          Indiana-born POW Kurt Vonnegut was

            in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families... A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the others. There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

The guards told the Americans to form in ranks of four [and] march back to the hog barn which had been their home. Its walls still stood, but its windows and roof were gone, and there was nothing inside but ashes and dollops of melted glass. It was realized then that there was no food or water, and that the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon, which they did. Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design.

—from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.


23. Liberation

           About being liberated, Dan Bied of Iowa wrote that

           Some of the more demonstrative types among us whooped and waved their arms when they realized we were actually in the midst of armed U.S. troops again. Others got down on their knees and prayed. I pinched Ed Brewer, and he returned the favor, to make certain we weren’t just dreaming about our liberation, as we had so many times. “God, we’re glad to see you” Reed Hart erupted as he grabbed [a soldier], hugged him and kissed one of his grimy cheeks.


           Thearl Mesecher and DuWayne Bulman of Iowa were liberated in a German village on Friday the 13th, April 1945:

          The village is about half a mile away [from heavy fighting] and in the center of the main street sits a tank the size of a battle ship with a white star on the side. We run as fast as our weakened condition will permit. If it is only a reconnaissance tank it will go back after looking around. And no more fire than it has drawn, the main front will move on up fast. Two Yanks walk up the road to meet us and to grasp the hand of our comrades, whom we had waited for over two years—something I shall never forget.


24. Recovery

           Iowan Thearl Mesecher wrote in his journal about his recovery at a U.S. Army hospital:

          April-26-45 Am in the largest hospital in Paris. Have had X-rays taken. Am taking infra-red heat treatments, getting along OK. Receiving a good diet. I can walk and have drawn a partial payment and a few articles of clothing. The war surgeon insists that I take a pass and see Paris a bit. Actually, I don’t care to see Paris but perhaps it’s best if I get out a little. Maybe hanging around here I have a little too much time to think. My mind is running wild. My nervous system is as an overworked or overloaded electric system. Our planes overhead make me very nervous. Their sounds are quite different from those of German planes and for the past two years we learned to regard Allied planes as enemy and never even looked up as German fighter planes or bombers flew over us.

            Everything is noisy. A dropped tin tray, a sharp whistle, a rumble of food carts in the hall, the flip of a window blind, the click of a cigarette lighter and millions of other sounds unnoticeable by nearly everyone paralyze me at times as they are sharp reminders of various things on the front or in prison life which spelled death or its equivalent.

            We weren’t afraid then because our nerves were never given a chance to relax. At no time were we ever completely free of nervous tension. And now it is reproduced in harmless noises. Thank God, I am here, I did survive it all. Now, if I could only relax and quit living the entire panorama over and over again. If I could quit comparing the sound of a cigarette lighter with that of an angry guard’s rifle safety release. The rumble in the halls with that of distant artillery or bombing. Instead of being always on the alert to jump and move fast at the first harsh command. If only I could just relax. There will be no command and if there is it will be gentle, allowing ample time for it to be put into execution. It isn’t fear of death: God knows that no man with two years of POW life behind him is afraid of death. “Many have chosen it in preference to existence in prison.” It is the dread of the nauseating, weak feeling that always follows high nervous tension, excitement. In the very best conditions of prison life we were never at ease.


           POW Dan Bied wrote of

           mixed emotions about the entire string of jumbled events. “I hate the Germans one minute” I remarked, “every one of them, then I can’t help feeling sorry for some of them. They’ll never be able to rebuild those cities. They brought it all on themselves, but they’re all hurting now, even the little kids, and all of them couldn’t have caused what happened in those gas chambers.”

           “I’d like to forget as much as I can” Bendle said as we peered down on the mosaic of villages, forests, crops, rivers, web-like roads and occasional U.S. convoys [as the recently liberated POWs were being flown out of ruined Germany]. “But I never will” he sighed. “We’ll all have mental scars the rest of our lives. This was too much shock treatment to ever be forgotten; too much happened to us all at once.”


26. Reconciliation

           Upon being liberated in May 1945, Dan Bied was flown from defeated Germany to Belgium:

           The most memorable sight on the way from Merseburg to Liege seen by me through moist eyes came when “The Roger Dodger” dipped its left wing to make a broad, lazy circle over Cologne. Cologne, a city of 750,000 on the Rhine, had been flattened by Allied bombers, except for the city’s massive, twin-spired Gothic cathedral.

           All of us on “The Roger Dodger” agreed that, most likely, Cologne would not be reconstructed—at least not at this location, where dozens of raids had reduced the metropolis to rubble. We were wrong on this count: in just a few years, Cologne became a thriving, handsome city smacking of Western Germany’s post-war prosperity.

            All of us on “The Roger Dodger” agreed that, very definitely, Germany—and the other civilized nations of the world—had learned a lesson... an unforgettable lesson about the horror and futility of war that future generations would cherish as sacred enlightenment.