POW's secret diary brings war to life

WAY BACK WHEN

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November 11, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

On this Veterans Day, it is fitting to recall the words of Reamer E. "Buzz" Sewell, a World War II Army Air Forces veteran and prisoner of war, who kept a detailed diary of what daily life was like during his nearly seven months' confinement in Stalag VIIA in Moosburg, Germany.

Sewell, a retired Eastern Airlines ticket agent who worked for 24 years at what is now Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, died last month. He was 85.

While researching his obituary, Sewell's family graciously offered to lend me the diary he had kept at great peril during his imprisonment. Those who were found writing or possessing diaries by guards often faced dire consequences.

Sewell took his chances and made carefully written diary entries using a pencil he kept hidden in his socks.

It is a remarkably personal story of how one prisoner dealt with the hours of loneliness, homesickness and boredom, and how he passed them by writing songs, drawing detailed maps of France and Germany from memory, and recording the hijinks of his fellow POWs.

The events that brought Sewell to Stalag VIIA unfolded in the early-morning darkness of Oct. 12, 1944.

Sewell was the lead navigator and bombardier aboard the Angel Puss, a B-26 Martin Marauder. The plane was one of 20 bombers that departed on a bombing run to Saarbrucken, Germany, where the day's target was a tank assembly and repair plant.

Only four bombers, including the Angel Puss, made it to the target, and after making three passes, turned for home. Hit by German 88 mm flak, which knocked out its engines, the Angel Puss went into a steep dive. While its pilot attempted to control the crippled bomber, the crew bailed out.

"With an eerie moaning sound I saw our plane spin past me, and land with a flash of flame in an open field a short distance away," Sewell wrote.

The crew, including the pilot, got out before the crash, and Sewell, who landed in a tree with a broken ankle, was taken prisoner by the 119th Panzer "Ghost" Division. After interrogation, he was moved to Stalag Luft III, and beginning in January 1945, as Russian forces neared, the camp was evacuated, and the POWs were forced to march through the snow.

"The goon guards look about as beat as we are for this hike. Can hear the sound of Russian guns to the East! So near, and yet so far!" he wrote.

Their journey by foot and heavily guarded prison trains, which always traveled at night, ended at Stalag VIIA in early February.

Now an official "kriegie" -- slang for the German word Kriegsgefangen, meaning war prisoner -- Sewell began his life at the new camp.

Prisoners often lived on as little as 400 calories a day or on the contents of Red Cross parcels, which seldom were handed over without having been looted of their food packages.

"Goons gave us a bit of bread, marge, and a cup of barley soup today," Sewell wrote.

He rejoiced when he received half a Red Cross parcel and was able to swap 10 cigarettes in the camp's flourishing black market for a five-pound bag of potatoes, two onions and a bag of beans.

After rigging up a fireplace in the camp yard, Sewell was able to prepare a stew with his ingredients for the fellow kriegies in his barracks.

"Really a treat! Plenty of coal and crocks so we're having plenty of cooking," he wrote.

Food became a preoccupation, and Sewell compiled elaborate lists of foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and wrote how nice it would be to have a cocktail -- a martini, manhattan, sloe gin fizz or orange blossom -- before a steak or lobster dinner.

When Sewell wasn't writing about food, he was making detailed drawings of the stalag's buildings and support facilities, as well as maps of the western front, which he drew from memory.

He recorded "Kriegie Quotes," such as, "When I get home," "There I was at 28,000 feet," "If we just had full parcels" or "Don't cry to me, I didn't shot you down."

He recorded from his fellow POWs "Dates for the War to End," as well as pages of names and addresses.

Singing and staging shows to keep up spirits was a part of camp life, with Sewell writing parody lyrics to such popular songs as Bob Hope's trademark "Thanks for the Memories."

War news managed to filter into the camp: "13 April 1945 -- Heard the bad news this morning that President Roosevelt died yesterday. Nix gut!" he wrote.

As liberation day approached, Sewell's entries became more lighthearted: "We were told that the goons had reached an agreement with the Allies not to move any more prisoners. All we have to do now is sweat out Patton! Come on you Yanks!"

Deliverance finally came on April 29, 1945, when Gen. George S. Patton and forces of his 3rd Army liberated the camp and were greeted by hundreds of screaming, shouting and crying POWS, including Sewell.

Patton, who was standing in his jeep, was greeted by the camp's senior allied officer. He returned his salute and said: "It is we who salute you and all these brave men."

Catching a glimpse of the camp's flagpole, which was flying the Nazi flag, he ordered it removed.

"Sure is a happy day for the 40,000 POWs in the area," Sewell wrote in his diary that day.

On May 1, 1945, Sewell was witness to a meteorological oddity.

"It's been snowing all day, which to me is damn peculiar for May," he wrote.

Sewell left Southampton, England, on May 19, 1945, aboard the SS Kungsholm, a Swedish passenger liner, in a convoy of nine ships and four destroyers.

The last diary entry is dated May 29, 1945: "Finally arrived in New York U.S.A."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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