Life In A POW Camp
The Battle of the Bulge removed thousands of Allied soldiers from a war of bullets and thrust them into a war of attrition. German POW camps were suddenly inundated with more prisoners than could be adequately accommodated. Contrary to previous procedure, they combined officers and enlisted men, as well as POWs from different military branches.
"The prisoners were of conflicting mental and physical states at this point," explains Gregory
Hoblit. "The war was dragging on and America had just suffered a huge setback. There were some willing to continue the fight by harassing the guards. Others were exhausted and relieved to be free from combat. They just wanted to survive."
The overcrowding and subsequent forced retreats deeper into Germany resulted in prisoners not receiving much-needed Red Cross parcels. Necessary to supplement meager diets of bread and soup, they contained items such as canned meat, candy, coffee and scarce toiletries like soap and razor blades.
Hart 's War set decorator Patrick Cassidy, whose father was an Air Force general, acquired sample Red Cross kits from the organization's museum in Switzerland, where he researched life in the camps. "The Red Cross parcels were vital to the POWs' physical and psychological well-being," says Cassidy. "Towards the end of the war they arrived irregularly or were intercepted by guards, which made the final months especially hard."
The Russians never received Red Cross parcels, states British Warrant Officer Andy Anderson, a POW from the Royal Air Force. "We shared our German rations with them, but their starvation was so great they retrieved the tins we disposed of and licked them clean. How can one fathom that kind of hunger?"
Upon his arrival in Stalag 4B, Anderson had to exchange his boots for a pair of wooden Dutch clogs. He received a Red Cross kit containing soap, a shaving stick, toothpaste, hairbrush and socks. Most weeks he received a parcel of 50 cigarettes, which were used as camp currency. Clothing was worn a full week before they were allowed to be laundered.
The guards themselves were also not immune from hardship. Since all German men of suitable age and health were called to arms, camp personnel were either too old, too young, or wounded and physically unable to fight — children as young as 13 and men in their 60s.
For captors and captives alike, the focus was to somehow endure, day after day, the deprivation and boredom. Standing head counts, appels, were conducted at least once a day to make sure no one was missing and to reinforce authority.
Anderson, who consulted with filmmakers during pre-production, says the appels were an irresistible chance to harass the guards.
"We deliberately made it difficult for them by moving around and getting out of line," he recalls. "Sometimes the count of 200 men would take an hour. Who cared, we had nowhere to go, nothing else to do."
He believes his camp was probably better than most. A daily loaf of bread was shared among five men, and there were adequate huts available for classroom instruction and stage productions. "One of the prisoners was escorted to Berlin with an armed guard, and allowed to negotiate a deal to exchange cigarettes for theater costumes," he says.
Disparity among the various camps was one of the things that most intrigued set decorator Patrick Cassidy. "Sometimes you might find Ping-Pong tables or phonographs," he says. "Some had mail service. There were some with virtually no amenities at all. Generally the Luft camps, for air force prisoners, were the most favorable."
Survival rates of American POWs in Europe — 1,121 deaths among 93,941 captives, according to Charles Stenger of American Ex-Prisoners of War — were much higher than in the Pacific Theater. Nevertheless
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