Our Captured Airmen

By Joan David
How are our airmen treated? How do they live in Nazi prison camps? What happens if they escape?

The typical AAF combatant who parachutes safely to German-held territory is usually received by a committee of at least one Nazi, heavily armed. Thus abruptly and without formalities does he become a prisoner of war.

His captor or captors first take him to the nearest headquarters, where he is briefly questioned and stripped of money and valuables — anything which might be used as a bribe. His heavy flying suit and boots, not considered part of a military uniform, are also confiscated. For these, he gets a receipt. Then, if uninjured, he is put on a train under guard for Dulag Luft (abbreviation for Durchgangsluftwaffelager) — transit camp for aviation prisoners. Other prisoners board the train from time to time — RAF fighter and bomber pilots and crewmen, other AAF captives, a couple of Poles.

Men with serious injuries, such as burns and surgical cases, have already been taken to the hospital, or lazaret. Men who have been blinded, lost an arm or leg, or are otherwise obviously unfit for further military service, may request an examination before a medical commission composed of both neutral and German doctors. If they approve, those men are eligible for repatriation as soon as the next exchange of prisoners is arranged. So far there have been three exchanges involving small groups of American prisoners, among them fewer than 30 flyers.

Injured prisoners usually are cared for by American and British doctors who, although they are "protected personnel," have elected to stay and help their countrymen rather than apply for the repatriation to which they are entitled. Prisoners must prepare their own food in most of the hospitals, and the food usually is the weekly-issued US Invalid Package. Those who can't move are helped by the men who can get around. For many of them, cooking is confined to heating water to which they add their bouillon cubes or powdered coffee concentrate. When they have recovered sufficiently, they too are processed through Dulag Luft. About 50 per cent of the men captured are wounded.

Upon arrival at Dulag Luft, a pilot is taken to a small, isolated camp where he is quarantined for questioning. All he need do is tell his name, rank and serial number, although additional questions are always asked. He is kept at the questioning center a week or more, at times in solitary confinement. For men who have been injured badly enough to have required hospitalization first, the stay at the questioning center is much shorter; sometimes less than a full day.

When a pilot gets back to the main camp at Dulag Luft, he is issued an American-supplied capture parcel — a lightweight metal suitcase containing underwear, socks, pajamas, soap, shaving equipment, a toothbrush and tobacco. At that point he probably hasn't been able to change his clothes for almost two weeks. His uniform may still be wearable but if it is winter he badly needs an overcoat because his flying suit will have been confiscated. British and American air officers, who do most of the administrative work in the camp, supply this from their stock of GI and RAF clothing. Men with torn uniforms get new ones. At times, Americans have to take RAF uniforms and vice versa. Allied raids often leave the camp without supplies by disrupting transport.

The same day that his clothes are stamped with a large "K" on the back (for Kriegsgefangenen — captured in battle), the prisoner is given a capture card. He has to fill it out in duplicate with his name, serial number and various vital statistics. One copy goes to the International Red Cross at Geneva, which in turn notifies the War Department. Occasionally it takes but a few weeks from the time his folks were told he was missing in action, till they get another telegram saying he is a prisoner of war. Since the invasion, however, the War Department estimates three months will elapse before notices are received through Geneva.

Men are assigned to permanent camps and shipped out every day. Dulag Luft processes about 1,800 a month. Population varies from a low of 30 to a high of 350. Some men stay there more than a month. Most are transferred in about three weeks. Another unusual fact: 70 per cent of the prisoners have been forced down in daylight, 10 per cent in night raids.

While no detailed figures can be made public at this time on the ratio of escapes and deaths to captures, the statistics released after the big Allied raid on Schweinfurt last October give a clue. On that mission the US lost 69 Fortresses and over 500 airmen. The War Department declared that "on the basis of past experience" at least half of the men reported missing would turn up in German prison camps. Further figures were given out in December. At that time 346 of the 541 missing airmen had been reported prisoners.

Typical permanent air prison camp is Stalag Luft III. Before going, men are lectured by the ranking American officer at the transition camp on the various rights of a prisoner of war and the rules he must obey. Most interesting subject is escape.

Excerpt from a lecture reported by a prisoner at Dulag Luft:

"All of you will think of escaping. Many of you will probably try it. Probably none of you will succeed. If you do try, remember this. The arresting guard can fire on a resisting escapee just as he would on a criminal. If you are challenged, stop immediately. The usual punishment for attempted escape is 15 to 30 days solitary with an hour a day for outdoor exercise."

The purported "murder" by the Gestapo of some 50 RAF boys who escaped from Stalag Luft III last March has yet to be explained. Since the men apparently did not resist arrest, they should have been returned to their camp and their Luftwaffe guards for punishment. Aviators are noted for attempting escapes and the report of a Red Cross delegate who visited the camp last November seemed to indicate that the prison commander at least was not at fault.

"Morale," said the Red Cross investigator, "is very good. Discipline is rather strict. The camp commander says it is right that prisoners should try to escape but that it is his job to prevent them. It is rather like a game."

Dulag Luft, the transitional camp, like the permanent camps to which captured airmen are eventually assigned, is under the control of the Luftwaffe. Even when groups of aviators are assigned to regular camps they are separated from other prisoners by barbed wire barriers and have Luftwaffe guards. There is a widespread feeling that they are treated better by the Luftwaffe than other prisoners are by the German military. The difference, however, seems confined to intangibles, to attitudes, courtesies extended, and to the human element. Aviators are handled with respect.

During June, Dulag Luft was moved from Frankfurt to Wetzlar in the Klosterwald. Reasons, of course, were not given but there had been numerous protests objecting to the Frankfurt location as too exposed and in a region which was filled with military objectives. However, the small questioning center at Oberwesel, just outside Frankfurt, is apparently still being used.

There appear to be at least five permanent camps for airmen. They are called Stalag Luft (or air camp) and are given a number. In addition, there are groups of airmen (some as large as 500) in other camps. Stalag Luft I is believed to be near Rostock, across the North Sea from Denmark; Stalags Luft III and IV are near Sagan, not far from the old Polish border; Stalag Luft VI was reported far to the north at Heydekrug in East Prussia, close to the Lithuanian border. Presumably it will have been moved by now because of the Russian advances. Stalag Luft VII is at Bankau, near Kreuzeberg, in Upper Silesia.

Stalag Luft III is best known of all the air camps. It is one of the oldest and it is believed to be the largest. Some Americans have been there more than two and one-half years. On May 31, just before the big Allied offensive, there were 2,837 Americans there. Most of the other prisoners were British but they lived in separate compounds and could not communicate with the Americans. By July, airmen in German camps outnumbered British aviators for the first time.

Like most German prison camps, Stalag Luft III is enclosed with a high barbed wire fence. Guards are posted in towers at strategic intervals and there are the usual searchlights for night watch.

As one pilot explained, "We run our own little socialistic world. Everything is shared. We have our own commanding officers, block commanders and so on and everything is run along much the same lines as an American army camp — except that you can never get leave. Complaints, questions and requests are made first to your own senior officers (the camp spokesmen) who in turn communicate them to the German commanding officer."

The camp spokesman — at an officers' camp he is the ranking officer, at an enlisted men's camp he is elected — is the liaison man who talks with a Red Cross delegate, who comes on periodic visits. The camp spokesman may correspond freely with the Red Cross and may discuss matters in private with the delegate when he arrives. Discussion may range from complaints about the drainage system to requests for emergency equipment. He sees to it that relief supplies are fairly distributed, he checks to see that shipments are received intact. He usually runs a lost-and-found office as a sideline to his administrative job.

Officers are not required to do any work. Non-coms act as orderlies for the officers. Non-coms can also volunteer to go on work detachments but few do. Enlisted men are required to work. If they work inside the camp on its maintenance or on construction they get no pay. If they go out on work parties they get 70 pfennigs a day (about 28 cents). Most of Stalag Luft III has been built by prisoners.

Mail from home is the most important episode in any day at a prisoner camp. There is no limit to the number of letters a prisoner may receive and no restriction as to the persons who may write him. All mail to and from prisoners is sent postage-free. A prisoner may write three letters and four postcards a month if he is an officer; enlisted men are permitted only two letters and four cards. Paper and cards are supplied by the Germans— an effective way of limiting the length of letters. Once in a while there is a paper shortage — then each man's quota is cut. Mail both ways is censored by both Germans and Americans. Men must be careful never to write anything the Germans want to know or that might make them angry. Letters to prisoners must not mention war news, sailings or transfers of service personnel, names of casualties, criticism of any government, any form of enemy propaganda, quotations from books or other writings — in other words, only home and neighborhood news is permissible. Four months or more from the time a man is captured he gets his first letter from home. Letters to the States are delivered in about two months. Airmail letters from home usually take two months to arrive.

All mail for air camps is censored at Stalag Luft III. The staff of 60 censors there is often several weeks behind in checking letters. The family that innocently sends its boy a letter every day inadvertently holds up mail for him as well as for his prison mates. Letters never have any American postmarks — German censors would not pass envelopes bearing patriotic slogans such as "V For Victory." To avoid this, letters written to prisoners may either be mailed direct to the post office or sent in an extra unsealed envelope addressed to the Chief Censor at New York, who will forward it without a postmark. No V-mail can be sent to prisoners of war.

Stalag Luft III has five compounds. There are about 15 barracks in each. There is a large parade area where men assemble for roll call twice a day, a ball field and a volley ball court. The water reserved in case of fire is a makeshift swimming pool. Food, furnished mostly by the AAF and delivered by the Red Cross, is adequate. Groups of six or eight men form combines and pool all the food rations. Each has his turn at being cook and dishwasher.

Barracks for officers at Stalag Luft III are divided into rooms with six to eight men sharing a room. The barracks has a central living room. Eighty enlisted men are assigned to a building. They sleep in double-decker bunks. Mattresses are filled with wood fiber and each prisoner is given two blankets. The 12 to 16 wash basins and the lockers for the men are in the middle of the building. Prisoners are usually able to get one hot shower a week. There is no dining room and food is usually eaten in the dormitories.

A typical dinner consists of corned beef, fried potatoes and pudding, plus German army bread; for lunch, "Reich soup," made from dehydrated turnips, beans or peas; breakfast is bread and coffee.

At some camps permission has been granted to keep on hand as much as a three months' supply of AAF food packages so that delays in transit or an unexpected influx of new prisoners won't mean that the men go hungry. The German rations they get are supposed to be equivalent to those allowed for German soldiers not on active duty. But Americans in the camps agree that they'd be pretty hungry without relief food.

The AAF packages contain sufficient food value for a week and they are distributed every seven days. The German authorities, together with the camp spokesmen, keep strict control over these supplies. The food parcels are locked in a storeroom which is opened by them jointly. The men may take from their parcels whatever food, soap or cigarettes they need for that day, after which the storeroom is again locked. Each tin of food taken out is promptly punctured so that it won't keep long enough for any prisoner to accumulate a hoard of food sufficient for an escape.

Most of the men complain of the shortage of cooking equipment but the Germans declare they have exactly what German soldiers get. Tins in which some AAF food is packed become metamorphosed into pots and even stoves. One man writes:

"Made a cooking stove out of tin cans. It cooks our meals and boils water for coffee at the same time. It has an oven in which we bake cakes. We cook our supper outdoors every night and the parade ground looks like a cross between a hobo jungle and a sanitarium. We have planted a vegetable garden (seeds from the US) and expect to be able to vary our menus considerably throughout the summer."

Perhaps more important than the vegetables, gardening gives the men something to do. Cooking, laundry, and barracks details leave far too much spare time. Dramatics at Stalag Luft III are well organized. The men have built themselves a theater and hold regular performances. Seats are made of Red Cross boxes. Sets had been created from the omnipresent boxes, cardboard, newspapers, magazine covers, book jackets, etc. Stage lights are made of old tin cans. Costumes are improvised and, rather than let themselves be stopped by the lack of wigs, some of the actors have let their hair grow long! Movies are shown, but two in four months is apparently a lot. Sports equipment, musical instruments and indoor games are sent by the YMCA.

Libraries have been set up by the prisoners, stocked in some cases by the five-pound book parcel each prisoner may receive each month. The books must be new, mailed direct from the booksellers. They must not be by an emigre from German-held territory, nor deal with the war, criticize the Axis, or even extol democracy; they must not be travel books, have maps or charts and they cannot be spy stories. Inexpensive reprints of prewar books get by usually without question. Expensively bound editions don't pay. They use up weight and are often damaged by the censor's search for illicit material possibly hidden in the elaborate bindings. A close check is kept on the parcels sent each prisoner and if more than one book package arrives during the month only one is delivered to the prisoner. The rest must wait till the following month.

For news of the war the men must depend on what they learn from new arrivals at the camp, plus what they choose to believe from the German newspapers which they are given. But they do manage to keep informed and to pass the good word on. "I hear that Mrs Stalling Grad has recovered from her attack of German measles" one prisoner remarks in a letter home. Later he explained that since he was allowed to listen to the German radio, he had a very "clear" understanding of what was going on. Newspapers may not be sent to prisoners — not even old newspapers used to wrap breakables in packages from home.

The Germans issue a camp newspaper every two weeks. It circulates from one prison camp to the next and contains general information, news on repatriation negotiations and other matters of interest to prisoners, carefully selected world news and official notices. It usually runs about 10 pages.

At Stalag Luft III the men publish their own paper. It is a one-copy affair posted on the bulletin board, made up of home news, jokes, a health section, sports, music and book reviews, cartoons and a cooking section ("How to convert Red Cross sardines into fresh trout," for instance) .

Every 30 days a prisoner may receive a carton of cigarets, and every 60 days his folks receive from the War Department the official label which they need to send him a package. Packages must be 18 inches or less in length, which, added to the girth, must not total more than 42 inches. They may contain no tins or glass. They are examined by censors here, and when they arrive at the camp they are opened by a guard in the recipient's presence. Occasionally the guard confiscates something but always gives the owner a receipt. With the valuables taken from him at the time of capture, it will be returned to him when he is repatriated.

The Foreign Economic Administration periodically lists the things that may be sent. Clothing is allowed, although necessities are usually covered by the supplies of Army clothes forwarded to the camps through the Red Cross. But here again transportation difficulties and the increasing number of prisoners can cause trouble. Though this letter is exceptional, it shows how bad things can get: "It's been almost one year now that I've had only one pair of pants, one set of underwear, and a couple of pairs of socks. You can imagine my condition when I wash anything, and the state of my clothes."

Dried vegetables, soups and seasonings — especially onion flakes — are popular. Pepper is not allowed. Relatives are advised not to send cakes, since they must be sliced and examined by censor. Small musical instruments, fountain pens, watches, pencils, paper, and pipe cleaners are among the allowable items. Money and matches are forbidden.

At Stalag Luft III the prisoners have worked out an exchange system they call the "Foodacco." Barter is done on point values. Chocolate rates 37 points per quarter pound. Cigarets are worth 40 points per 100. Sometimes an unscrupulous character can make quite a haul. "Market confidence," wrote one officer, "and particularly in broken lots, has been seriously undermined by a shark who dealt in tins of 'love apples' (tomatoes) which were relabeled 'beef roll.' Pancake mixtures and coffee were very low on an overloaded market; while spreads (jam, etc) reflected the paucity of what one puts them on."

Camp canteens have practically nothing to offer. Prisoners are limited to three cigarets daily, and one razor blade and two boxes of matches monthly. Beer is not limited. Men can buy things at the canteen with the prisoner of war money or scrip which they get each month. Its paper value is the same as the salary of a Luftwaffe lieutenant would be. The men on work details are paid in the same prisoner of war money (currency would be an aid to escape). Some of the men are quartered near their jobs, others go out from the camp each day. They may be required to do any work not directly connected with military operations.

While a US airman is in prison, his full pay, including flying and overseas allowances, are accumulating here to his credit. The time spent in prison is considered active duty when it comes to computing retirement pay and the five per cent increase after three years of service, as well as service stripes.

The most popular time-killer for the men who must wait out the war has proved to be study. Organized classes sometimes cover 100 hours a week. At first the study groups centered on things the various prisoners knew. Discussion centers on various subjects chosen by the prisoners themselves. They might range from philosophy to colonial politics, from languages to the history of art.

It wasn't long before the discussions grew into full lectures. Courses, terminating with examinations sent from home schools, were drawn up. Textbooks are supplied through the YMCA and the European Student Relief Fund.

It is his study program, more than anything else, which lightens the prisoner's feeling of futility and waste. With it he can look toward the future, knowing that the day will come when he can go back into the free world — and that he can face it with better equipment than before.

This article was originally published in the November, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 35, no 5, pp 32-34, 130, 132, 134.
The PDF of this article includes the map above, two photos of POWs in camp, camp scrip, Red Cross "capture parcel."
Photos credited to American Red Cross; map by Hal Morris.