Victory Day. May 9th marked the official surrender of the Germans. The Allies had won. World War II was over. Harold didn’t know how relieved he would be to hear nothing but French spoken around him. The village he stayed in was converted into a Red Cross checkpoint, where many former prisoners of war were being processed. For his first order of business, Harold — along with the other men — was instructed to strip down and receive a bath.
“Alright, son, I’m going to need you to remove all your clothes.”
After spending the last two years relieving himself in front of thousands, Harold had no problem discarding the awful, dirty, ragged prison clothes for the last time. He could see the scrutiny on the medic’s face as he removed each article of clothing. The process was slow, for Harold was weak and exhausted from almost three weeks of trudging through the German countryside. The medic was patient as Harold held onto a table and slowly removed the last of his clothing. He stood there, bare and cold, while he waited to be looked over.
Each turn showed a new mark of his previous struggles. His back and arm had healed from the plane crash two years earlier, but the lack of medical supplies in the camp had left him with a deep scar diagonally across his back just under the shoulder blades. When touched, Harold flinched — parts of it were still tender. His arm had healed much better, as did the sores Harold developed from sharing his bunk. The rest of his body was covered in small scars from typical life in a POW camp. There were marks from the bed bugs around his neck where the collar of his shirt rested, white lines ran across the tops of his hands and the fronts of his legs.
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The examiner looked at Harold’s eyes, weighed him, and checked his teeth. Years of improper nutrition had left Harold with cavities, some missing teeth, and swollen gums.
“We’ll get this all fixed up for you once you’re back in the States, no worries.” The medic smiled at Harold. He knew it was genuine and thanked him. “Now if you’ll just get on the scale for me, son.”
Harold stepped on the scale. In two years he had lost almost 50 pounds. He felt his heart sink a little; the number before him was serious concrete evidence of what he had endured. He felt himself get emotional and tucked his head down. The medic noticed and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t you worry now, son. We’ll fatten you up no problem. Plenty of cooks are outside waiting to feed you. Let’s get you showered and into some new clothes and then fed.”
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Eating real food after two years
The delousing process proved itself to be incredibly rough and unpleasant, but the warm water Harold used afterward felt like it washed away decades instead of a couple of years. He got a decent shave, put on new clothing, and headed out to the makeshift mess hall for food. The allure of smells that came from the open door was enough to make him drool, and he was greeted by uproarious banter coming from long tables as men talked among themselves and swapped stories of the last few years.
He was served fried chicken, potatoes — real butter — it was all so overwhelming. Harold felt an almost carnal need to protect his spoils. He looked over the sea of soldiers and decided to take his food outside. There, behind a tree, Harold hid away from the rest of the world and ate alone for the first time in two years. Part of him felt like a wild animal protecting its kill. For far too long he had to hide his canned Red Cross food, pick maggots out of potatoes, and more recently steal from farmers. He wanted to enjoy his meal in silence. He devoured the chicken, the buttered bread, the fruit, the decent potatoes, and then of course — real coffee, black. It was amazing. It was delicious.
It was too much.
Harold felt his stomach wretch and quickly vomited up everything he had eaten in several heaves. Before him was his first meal of freedom, regurgitated and still more appetizing than what he ate for the previous two years. His stomach twisted a little, so he decided to wait before heading back towards the mess hall for seconds. He tried some less filling foods — no fried chicken, no potatoes — and kept it down this time. Harold felt uncomfortably full from just bread, fruit, and coffee, but he reveled in it. He was free again.
May 9, 1945
My Darling Wife;
I have so much to say that it’s difficult to organize the facts and compose a letter, bear with me while I make a feeble attempt.
At present I’m staying in a RAMP ____ in Epinal, France where I soon expect to be de-loused and issued a completely new uniform for the filthy ____ clothes I am now wearing. I’ve already had my fill of chow and think Uncle Sam [ranks] the highest along that line. In fact, the food is too rich, for everyone of us men has been or is now sick. That Jerry diet of insipid cattle feed mush played hell with our insides, our teeth, our gums both coming and going. That is, of course, when Jerry decided to feed us.
As I mentioned before, I had my long-awaited fill, and it was supplied by our first-line troops, whom I esteem greatly both for valor and cooking. The meal I devoured was fried chicken, potatoes, peas, gravy, pears, bread, butter, and coffee. For seconds, I had more bread, butter, and coffee. Then, I managed to get into the kitchen for thirds and had more bread, butter, a steak sandwich, and a bowl of pear juice. That snack filled the cavity that grew out of my prisoner days in the woods and for supper I ravenously downed 2 courses but held up on the third.
…my sugar dumpling, my sweet, my honey.
Feature Image: American personnel inscribe news of the end of World War II in Europe on a blackboard. (U.S. Department of Defense)
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Tj Pandolfino says
PRussian officers took Russian officers!