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Letters to Loretta: The German guards are hazing the Americans

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German WWII winter uniforms
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 listen to Kaitlin’s radio interview about the series here or visit her website here.

To the prisoners’ surprise, the next morning started with the deafening sounds of alarms, and the men funneled out of their barracks once again to the POW camp’s parade grounds. The dirt was solid and uneven from all the tracks of the previous days, and Harold stumbled over himself – as did many of the others – while they formed in line.

Guards presented themselves through the haze of daybreak and told the American POWs to gather their stuff as they’d be relocated. Many men hesitated, for fear of deceit again, while many others turned around and gathered as much as they could for whatever potential journey lay ahead. Harold still had Loretta’s note in his breast pocket from the day before. He grabbed canned food that the Red Cross had given to the American prisoners, his cover, and his jacket, and packed it all haphazardly before returning out into the morning chill. The rest of the men did the same then turned 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 Stalag 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. But they didn’t put up a fight as most were eager to escape the cold wind. Harold turned and followed his bunkmates back to the barracks, where he returned his pack. This time, though, he left it ready.

WWII POWs Stalag 8 A
Prisoners of War at POW camp Stalag VIII A during WWII. (Wikimedia Commons via Meetingpointmusicmessiaen)

“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 trynna 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 man rubbed his hands together and politely pushed his way forward towards the stove which was burning straw taken from some of the mattresses and wood from a knock-down barrack that the Germans had decided was too close to the fences.

“Whatever it is, I don’t like it,” he added. 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.

Related: Letters to Loretta: Playing bloody baseball in the WWII POW camp

Stealing supplies

On the following morning, the men almost expected an alarm – and that is 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 that there was no wind. Then, to their surprise, guards walked past them and towards the barracks.

liberated American POWs during WWII
On the porch of an emergency hospital these released American prisoners of war, liberated by U.S. Rangers from Cabanatuan prison camp on Luzon, Philippine Islands, wait for transfer to a base hospital. (U.S. National Archives)

“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. The prisoners turned in place as they heard items being overturned behind them and things scattered 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 that the guards had 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 had kept their bags packed from the night before, but most weren’t so lucky. So many items were missing 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.

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Kaitlin Oster