Academic journal article Air Power History

War Behind the Wire: Life and Escape from Stalag 17B

Academic journal article Air Power History

War Behind the Wire: Life and Escape from Stalag 17B

Article excerpt

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The air war over Europe saw an unprecedented number of casualties, primarily attributed to the emergence of new technology in both aviation and anti-air capabilities. Many attacks by the U.S. Army Air Corps used the massive B-17 and B-24 bombers, which each carried up to ten crewmembers. A single raid on a fortified position sometimes resulted in the loss of dozens of aircraft and hundreds of airmen: by the end of the war, the Axis powers had shot down 32,730 U.S. airmen over Europe. (1)

A downed airman, who either bailed out or survived the crash, typically was captured and ultimately found his way to a German Luftwaffe-run prison camp, or "stalag" (the common abbreviation of stammlager, literally translated to mean 'prison for "common stock"). (2) Although the German Army differentiated between camps for officers and enlisted by referring to them as "oflags", similarly abbreviated from offizier lager, and stalags, respectively, the Luftwaffe referred to all of their prisons for Allied flyers as stalag lufts (luft meaning "flight"). (3)

The separation of enlisted and officers was due, in part, to the decision of both Germany and the United States to sign the 1929 Geneva Convention "relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War." This treaty mandated slightly different treatment for officers who flew the downed Allied planes and their enlisted aircrews. (4) In the end, however, there was little difference in the conditions that American officers and enlisted personnel endured during the course of the war. Both pilots and aircrew could be the victims of summary executions and other ruthless acts at the hands of their Nazi captors.

There were hundreds of stalags in existence during World War II. After 1945, many former kriegsgefangenen--or "kriegies," as they called themselves--told their stories in a variety of ways. (5) Quite a few converted their wartime journals to books (some of which are cited in this paper) while others wrote novels or plays. Perhaps the most famous theatrical adaptation of any work by kriegies was "Stalag 17," a play written by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski. Both of the playwrights were prisoners of the actual Stalag 17B and collaborated on the project after the war. "Stalag 17" made it to both Broadway and the silver screen--William Holden received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 1953 film. (6) The film is, at times, comedic in nature, but it also reveals many of the hardships that POWs suffered throughout the war. (7) The real Stalag 17B was a dangerous place, where any attempt at escape could mean death.

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The Opening of Stalag 17B

Stalag 17B was built in 1939 near Krems, Austria, initially as a transition camp for Polish and French civilians who were captured early in the war before they had trained to become soldiers. (8) The camp was designated "17B" because it was the second prison camp (B) located in Germany's 17th military district. (9) As the war progressed, Stalag 17B was converted to a camp for Allied POWs.

The first American airmen arrived at Stalag 17B in October 1943, from Stalag 7A, a military transition camp for prisoners of all branches, in Moosburg, Germany. At its peak size, Stalag 17B held over 50,000 men. William Chapin writes in Milk Run, "Of those 50,000 men, 4,500 were American airmen; the others were Russian, French, Italian, Serb, and a scattering of other nationalities." (10) Since the American airmen were only a fraction of the prisoners at the camp, it was always formally referred to as a stalag, rather than a stalag luft. (11) Typically, the camp held only 10,000 prisoners, as the junior enlisted of other nationalities, as well as all prisoners from non-signatory states-whom the Nazis did not allow rights under the Geneva Convention--were sent to nearby satellite work camps. (12)

Numbering about 1,500, the first contingent of American prisoners consisted of non-commissioned officers of the Army Air Corps, led by Technical Sergeant Kenneth J. …

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