50 years later, POWs' scraps win a place in history


February 20, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

"TC We'll start with Chuck Sewell's contemplation of a matchbook, because it is the kind of thing to be relished in history lessons: the incidental anecdote that tells all.


That's the word on a matchbook glued into the scrapbook Chuck Sewell, a Baltimore boy, kept as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany nearly 50 years ago. The matchbook measures about 1 1/2 by 2 inches. Sewell, or a fellow prisoner in Stalag Luft IV, in Stettin, near the Baltic Sea, must have passed time examining the long German words on the matchbook. Somewhere in those endlessly boring hours filled with cigarette smoke, they made a discovery.


"Look," says Chuck Sewell's widow, Mae. "My husband pointed this out to me. If you take the 'HA' off the beginning, and the 'E' off the end, you get. . . ."


Hey, Mac, can you beat that?

In those long days at Stalag Luft IV, that's how prisoners amused themselves. They talked, they talked, they talked. They lay across straw-filled mattresses and daydreamed. They had little to read, so they drifted into long and careful examinations of the labels on canned food, packs of cigarettes, candy from the Red Cross. "The POWs made use of every scrap of anything they could find," says Mae Sewell. "They even made decks of cards from Chiclets boxes."

Mrs. Sewell's husband was a sergeant in the 8th Air Force, 100th Bomber Group, a turret gunner in a B-17 shot down during a May 1944 bombing mission over Germany. He was a POW until the end of the war.

Chuck Sewell died two years ago this month. He never blustered about his time in war.

But he left behind this marvelous clothbound scrapbook.

Sewell got it from another POW shortly after arriving at Stettin in 1944. He and his buddies filled it with corny poems, drawings, cigarette labels and matchbook covers, anything they considered memorabilia.

Sewell carried it to a second prison camp, at Nuremberg, and a third, at Moosburg. He had it with him when Gen. George S. Patton's tank battalion liberated the camp in April 1945. He had it with him when he came home to Baltimore.

Altogether, it is a wonderful memoir.

And, according to the Smithsonian Institution archivist who wore white cotton gloves to take receipt of it at Mae Sewell's Stoneleigh house last week, it is a rare book. It will be deposited in the Smithsonian, the original available only to researchers and historians, and it might one day end up as part of an exhibit on World War II.

The scrapbook shows that POWs went through a lot of cigarettes: Gold Flake Honey Dew, Winchester, Black Cat, Camel, Raleigh, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike.

They ate a lot of chocolate: Duncan plain, Nelson's ("Made expressly for Canadian Red Cross Society"), Cote Royale, Rowntree's.

An American Red Cross parcel included: Dairymaid Powdered Milk, Borden's Soluble Coffee, Kingan Chopped Ham & Eggs, Armour Beef & Pork Loaf, Junket Folks Bouillon Powder, Horlick's Malted Milk Tablets, Sunmaid Raisins and Schimmel Blackberry Jam.

A package that arrived for Christmas 1944 included: Chef Paulin's Boned Turkey, Libby's Vienna Sausage, Richardson & Robbins Plum Pudding, Queen Anne Cherries, Underwood Deviled Ham, Tetley Tea and Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum.

Mae Sewell is understandably thrilled about the Smithsonian's acceptance of the book.

After her husband's death, she found herself wanting to know more about his wartime experience. She wanted to find other men -- guys nicknamed Stinky, Shorty, Pappy, Fat Stuff and Fancy Pants -- who had been imprisoned with her Chuck.

She had considerable success, contacting 20 veterans who had been there, including five other members of Chuck Sewell's B-17 crew. They all told stories.

"One of the POWs told me about making snow pies by adding whatever flavoring they could find to the snow," Mae Sewell says. "During the winter they poured water outside and made ice slides. They would run, belly-flop and slide like crazy. They still clung to their youth in spite of conditions.

"The Germans sometimes punctured the Red Cross canned food so that it had to be eaten right away and could not be saved for an escape. The [POWs] made a mousetrap out of [a milk can], captured a mouse and traded it to an English POW, who made a collar and leash for it and walked it around the camp."

Mae Sewell spoke to a veteran named Elmer Loving. He remembered the night when there was a ruckus in the Russian barracks. "The Germans sent in a police dog," Loving recalled. "The Russians killed it, ate it raw and threw the bones at the Germans."

She spoke to a veteran named Bill Chamberlain. "He remembered that, when they were liberated, the Army kitchens rolled in and started to bake white bread for them. He said he still remembers the aroma of that bread baking."

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