World War II prisoner-of-war diary recorded daily life, quest for food in Stalag Luft 13

April 02, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

When pilot George W. Holdefer was sitting aboard a ship "off some port in England" at the end of World War II, he recalled what life had been like in Stalag Luft 13, a POW camp at Langwasser, a district of Nuremberg.

"As I sit here with my belly full, I can clearly remember the days at Nuremberg when we got up in the morning to a cup of coffee, usually without sugar or milk, and two slices of bread with something spread on them as thin as possible," he wrote in a fuller detailed account of his days as a prisoner of war.

Holdefer, a retired civil engineer, was 87 when he died last month at the Edenwald retirement community in Towson.

Holdefer, whose B-17 Flying Fortress, The Fertile Turtle, was damaged during a Jan. 21, 1945, bombing run to Mannheim, landed the crippled plane in a farmer's field near Darmstadt, Germany.

Holdefer and his crew were sent to Stalag Luft 13 where they spent the next four months until, with the German collapse inevitable, they were marched in early April 1945 to Stalag 7A near Mossburg. They remained there until being liberated by Allied forces.

The keeping of diaries was strictly forbidden, and had camp guards discovered Holdefer's, he could have faced death. He began jotting down brief observations in "Jesus of Nazareth," which had been given to him by the Ecumenical Commission for the Chaplaincy Service to Prisoners of War when he reached Stalag Luft 13.

Waiting in England aboard the Liberty ship SS Charles Brantley Aycock, which would take him across the North Atlantic and home, Holdefer undertook the writing of a more detailed account during the two-week voyage.

The first thing he wrote in his POW memoir was a reader's guide to common prison camp terms. "Kreigie" was a prisoner of war, "goon" was a German soldier and "postun" were guards. "Gash" was the term to describe any leftover food, while "brodt" meant bread.

"Speaking of thin," he wrote, "I would challenge anyone to slice German brodt thinner than a Kreigie can do it. We'd often get as many as 40 slices to a loaf."

Red Cross parcels, whose contents were pooled, yielded not only valuable food but items that could be swapped in the camp's flourishing black market of sorts. He said common trade currency would be cigarettes, soap and tea for bread and eggs. Meat, a rarity if it appeared at all as a trading item, was often of dubious quality.

"After a little time as a Kreigie, you become quite adept at getting the best end of a trade," he wrote.

Holdefer said that for a cigarette, German guards walking between the fences would retrieve any goods meant for trade that fell to the ground. All goods meant for a trade had to be thrown by the POWs across fence lines.

"Those were the days, too, when we made up everything we had into spread for bread. The cheese we thinned out with water and added margarine. We made prune spreads and spreads of Klim [powdered milk]," he wrote.

The goods from the Red Cross parcels along with the weekly goon rations of bread, potatoes and soup "will keep a man pretty well fed," Holdefer observed.

"Jerry started out giving us 1/6 loaf of bread (per day), 2 small cups of vile soup, and 3 or 4 small spuds. The bread was later cut to 1/7, the soup became slightly less vile but the spuds took a 1/3 cut. The usual spud ration became about 1 medium sized potato a day," he wrote.

Holdefer wrote that the "scourge of all scourges" was the camp soup that the POWs dubbed the "Green Death."

"It was green in color and the 'Death' referred to the taste. It was a soup, made of dehydrated vegetables sans seasoning, sans everything but that horrible taste," he wrote, adding, "Everyone ate it."

Holdefer wrote that the German bread was made with "a certain amount of sawdust" but "I eventually learned to stuff it down."

He explained that he and three other POWs designed a system whereby during the day they existed on five slices of bread and the "goon soup."

They ate only one substantial meal a day — generally in the evening — which consisted of their potato ration combined with any meat or cheese ration from a Red Cross parcel.

The inventive POW cooks made meals of fried spam on bread, toast with prune spread and hot chocolate made from chocolate that arrived in the parcels for Sunday breakfast.

Sunday lunch would be toast smeared with pate, goon soup and coffee. Dinner consisted of "fried spuds with pate gravy, goon soup, broiled salmon, raisin pie, and coffee."

Holdefer said they made the pate gravy — which he described as "delicious" — from 2 ounces of the pork liver from a 4-ounce tin they mixed with powdered whole milk and margarine. The salmon and pie were cooked in an oven constructed by the POWs.

"It was an extremely good oven and required very little time to heat up our concoctions. We never really baked anything. Just heated it up, but the main thing the oven provided was variety in preparation, for there was certainly no variety in food," Holdefer wrote.

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