War behind the wire: life and escape from Stalag 17B.

Author:Kurtenbach, Joseph R.


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.


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. Kurtenbach, a B-17 tail gunner. (13) The Geneva Convention authorized prisoners to "appoint representatives to represent them before the military authorities and the protecting powers." (14) Camps for officers were simply led by the most senior prisoner, whereas enlisted airmen (most of whom were either staff sergeants or technical sergeants, as privates did not fly combat missions) elected their representative. (15)

Kurtenbach was referred to as the "Man of Confidence," continuing in this position after his fellow flyers elected him leader of Stalag 7A. He wrote the following description of Stalag 17B in 1943: "There were initially 18 barracks, capable of holding 300 men to a complete barracks, with 150 men in each end and the wash facilities located in the center. The American compounds, four barracks to each compound, were at the far eastern end of the camp, completely isolated by guard towers from the balance of the camp. Gone were the days of nationalities intermingling." (16)

For the American POWs, imprisonment only meant that their location happened to be behind German sentries and guard towers, as their state of mind was still very much in fighting the "war behind the wire." Confinement at Stalag 17B was just another way to contribute to the war effort behind enemy fines. This required organization and a commitment to the central military value of discipline. In addition to Kurtenbach's position of "Man of Confidence," the American flyers established a Kill military command structure. This included positions such as Camp Adjutant, Secretary, and Chief of Security. (17) All of the camp leaders lived in Barracks 15A, which the other kriegies referred to as "The White House." (18) The camp leaders separated the camp into four battalions of roughly 1,000 men, along with a barracks chief for each of the twenty-eight buildings once the camp had grown to its full size. (19)

Daily Life in the Stalag

The airmen of Stalag 17B lived from meal to meal, almost always hungry. William E. Rasmussen was a prisoner who arrived in Stalag 17B, after the Germans cut POW rations in half. He wrote of the typical kriegie diet in his wartime journal. His son, Randall L. Rasmussen, converted the journal into the book Hell's Belle: From a B-17 to Stalag 17B:

A typical day's diet started with a cup of hot water in the morning. A lot of men didn't bother to stand in line to get theirs ... At noon and at night we got small portions of thin soup. Occasionally at night, we got something solid to eat. If the guards got a horse for their rations, then we got the head ... Sometimes the Germans threw in two potatoes to boil with our main meal; broth that the spuds were boiled in made the soup. On Saturdays and Sundays our guards didn't issue the hot water and didn't bother providing us with an evening meal unless the Red Cross or the Swiss observers were in camp. They were there about every three months. Most of us never saw them. (20)


Sometimes the POWs also received spoiled vegetables that they used to make soup. Rasmussen reports that there was a time they had turnip soup every day for a month, and notes, "Worms and bugs on the vegetables were included, free of charge." (21) If not for the food parcels that the Red Cross sent, many prisoners would have died of starvation. The Germans delivered the parcels to the prisoners on Friday, although they often kept many of the parcels for themselves. A parcel was meant to provide enough food for a prisoner to survive for a week. At times, parcels had to be divided among four prisoners. (22) Another prisoner, Gerald E. McDowell, documented the typical contents of a Red Cross parcel in his book, A Tail Gunner's Tale (the right column...

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