Editor’s Note: Sandboxx News presents a World War II series by Kaitlin Oster on the power of hope, letters, and love in seeing us through the terrors and agony of war. You can read the other installments here, listen to Kaitlin’s radio interview about the series here, or visit her website here.
Harold lay hopelessly awake next to his bunkie. The security lights passed over the barracks like a lighthouse. It was a cruel trick, he thought to himself, to have a beacon that would only lead him to the barbed wire walls and the bitter autumn outside. No one could try to escape this place. Harold was warned that the barbed wire was also electrically charged, just in case any of the men decided to risk the pain of jumping on the sharp fence.
He stared ahead at a rotted-out piece of the bunk, hunger keeping him awake, exhaustion keeping him from complaining. Deep inside a rotted knot of wood on the bunk, he noticed movement. It surely was the hunger, he thought. He must have been hallucinating.
But he wasn’t. The swirl grew and turned into a skittering, and from the wood came hundreds — thousands — too many to count, bugs and mites. They swarmed en masse and began their nightly hunt for a meal. All of the men around him were sleeping; how could they be asleep? With thousands of prisoners to choose from, these mites would eat better than the men in the barracks. The airmen were truly at the mercy of everyone.
Harold awoke to itching on his face. He sat up and began to scratch as his hands caught what were certainly bedbugs crawling all over him. He panicked and swiped and swatted at his face with urgency, disturbing the bunkmate who lay next to him. In the low light of the moon, and with the aid of the passing watchtower lamp, Harold caught a glimpse of the man in the bunk beside his. The sleeping prisoner stirred, and rolled over almost too comfortably bringing his face in view of Harold. The man, still asleep, lay covered in bedbugs.
Harold watched in fear as he saw little black specks crawl around the corners of the sleeping man’s mouth and eyes. Harold wanted to rouse the man and tell him, but what good would it do? Where would the man wash his face or de-louse? Even in that bed, de-loused upon arrival, and shaved off his signature red hair, Harold knew that escaping the bedbugs was an illusion. The prisoners were simply prepared for the hungry residents that dwelled in the bedposts. The longer Harold watched, the less recognizable his bunkmate became. All he could do was take notice of the bugs’ hiding places, in particular shirt collars. Harold returned to his back and resolved to remove the collar from his own shirt in the morning.
He rose the next day, having not slept well at all the night before, to the sounds of the other prisoners walking around the barracks with urgency. Breakfast was hot water, served in whatever tin can or aluminum cup Harold could get a hold of. His face and neck itched, although his bunkmate certainly received the brunt of the bedbug attacks. Harold looked down and noticed a sore on the outside of his right forearm. He put down his cup and rolled up his sleeve to count another, and another — four total that he could see without the help of a mirror.
“That happens sometimes,” a prisoner remarked. He noticed Harold examining himself. “They aren’t wounds, really — almost like bed sores but from the dirt and bugs and no hot water.” Harold didn’t say anything back, just nodded. He had to relieve himself but decided to wait for whatever remaining covered latrine was made available. It wasn’t out of bashfulness, but privacy. Harold hadn’t had any silent time — alone to himself — since England. For months he was caged up with other men, forced to shower, sleep, eat — and shit — in front of them. He just wanted some space to think for a little, even for a minute, about home. He wanted to imagine Loretta in her dress on their wedding day and didn’t want other people peering in on his thoughts.
That afternoon, he saw a man hit in the face with the butt of a pistol. The prisoner was the last to leave the barracks. That was his crime. A guard, much bigger and clearly well-fed grabbed the prisoner by his left arm as he exited for the day and swung his body against a wooden door. The clap of the hit sent a shock through Harold’s body. One prisoner shouted out but was quickly pacified by another. Quiet panic set in as the guard removed his pistol, and a sickening sense of relief followed when he didn’t shoot the man, but instead struck him over the head with its butt. The man, still alive but barely conscious, lay helpless in the dirt.
“You’re just gonna get yourself hit too,” a prisoner whispered to Harold. “Or shot.” He grabbed Harold’s elbow. “Wait for the guard to walk away, and then we’ll get him help.”
October 18, 1943
HELLO, HOW ARE YOU. HOPE MY LETTER FINDS YOU WELL. WAS OVER TO SEE YOUR MOTHER SATURDAY AND SHE IS ENJOYING GOOD HEALTH. ELEANOR WAS HOME AND SHE IS ALL RIGHT TOO. GOING HOME I MET JEANNE SO WE STOOD ON THE CORNER TALKING ABOUT OUR HUSBANDS. SHE IS VERY CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND WANTS TO BE REMEMBERED TO YOU. EDDIE AND RONNIE ARE DEFINITELY GETTING MARRIED NEXT MONTH. SATURDAY I RECEIVED SOME MORE LETTERS WHICH YOU NEVER RECEIVED. ONE LETTER WAS THE ONE IN WHICH I TOLD YOU THAT JACK FENTON, JACK HOUSTON, VINNIE FINNEGAN, AND WALTER HICKEY HAD SENT US A WEDDING GIFT. IT IS A GLASSWARE SET WHICH CONSISTS OF FOUR DIFFERENT TYPE GLASSES AND CANDY DISHES. IT REALLY IS A VERY BEAUTIFUL SET AND THE GLASSES ACTUALLY RING WHEN YOU CLICK THEM TOGETHER. THAT IS A SIGN OF VERY GOOD GLASS, ROCK CRYSTAL. YOU WILL BE VERY PLEASED WHEN YOU SEE THEM.
WELL DEAR, IT IS GOODBYE. WHERE YOU ARE DARLING, ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART.
YOUR VERY LOVING WIFE,
Feature Image: Russian prisoners of war on the Eastern Front. (Wikimedia Commons)
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