U.S. Ex-POW Kurt Vonnegut writes home

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.

Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany during World War II, April-May, 1945.

Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany during World War II, April-May, 1945.

In May 1945 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut was just one of millions of U.S. servicemen who had one thing uppermost in their minds – getting home. All of them had stories to tell, although few would write about them in the same way as Vonnegut later did. His experiences during and after the bombing of Dresden, when he and fellow prisoners was detained in a meat store – Schlachthof 5 -were to form the basis of one of the great U.S. novels of the 20th century – Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut while in the army, early 1940s

Vonnegut while in the army, early 1940s

Trying to make sense of the experiences they had gone through would be a challenge for many men now returning home. For the moment Kurt Vonnegut kept things factual

I’ve been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler’s last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight – so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden — possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to (‘the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border’?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39′s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I’m being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and — get this — sixty (60) days furlough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

See Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, lies in an ambulance after his arrest by British officers at Flensburg, Germany, on 29 May 1945. He was shot during the arrest.

Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, lies in an ambulance after his arrest by British officers at Flensburg, Germany, on 29 May 1945. He was shot during the arrest.

A sign erected by British Forces at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945. The remains of the camp itself were about to be burnt to the ground by the British occupation forces. A similar sign in German was also erected.

A sign erected by British Forces at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945. The remains of the camp itself were about to be burnt to the ground by the British occupation forces. A similar sign in German was also erected.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian Peacock June 1, 2015 at 7:02 pm

“Atrocity” is devoid of meaning within the context of WWII. This powerful website attests to that.

Stuart Levine May 31, 2015 at 5:57 am

Frederick Taylor’s views are far more nuanced than Mr. Peacock indicates. While Taylor does not believe that the Dresden bombings were war crimes, he acknowledges that they could be considered an atrocity. (“My impression is that there are a considerable number of people in Dresden who take a balanced view — survivors included. Others, of course, don’t. But whether they think it was an atrocity is neither here nor there. It is perfectly possible to argue that the Allied attack on Dresden was rational but at the same time an atrocity. One view doesn’t exclude the other at all. And for those survivors who still focus solely on the violence of the attack, that is their Dresden and it must be respected. “) http://bit.ly/1KvBuwk

While I don’t have the exact quote at hand, my recollection is that the late John Keegan had a far more critical view.

To call those who condemn the bombings as having “communist sympathies” is simply missing the problematic nature of the bombings.

Ian Peacock May 29, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Frederick Taylor’s 2004 book “Dresden” has severe words for Vonnegut and others who used the Dresden bombing as a propaganda tool for the cold war. Taylor uses multiple corroborating sources to refute claims that Dresden lacked both military logistical and industrial importance. Although I’ve enjoyed Vonnegut’s books his writings did little to disguise his communist sympathies; a trait shared by Hemingway.

Andrew Shakespeare May 29, 2015 at 7:29 pm

Here is Lord Haw-Haw’s final broadcast. What a first-class jerk! Almost certainly drunk out of his mind, the malign resentment, the willing of calamity upon the British people, the attitude of “the English deserve everything that’s coming to them”, the romantic fantasies of the poor, put-upon, peace-loving Germans.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/hawhaw/8911.shtml

You do have to wonder who ever listened to this malevolent bull. But the determination to try him for treason, and hang him as Hitler’s apologist, for all the years of taunting and lying, is entirely understandable.

Sid May 29, 2015 at 4:07 pm

Thanks for continuing this blog. The things that went on after the war “ended” are not so well known but it surely was an amazing time.

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