Numbers To Live By

The black, shiny numbers – 270605, my dad’s German-issued Prisoner of War ID – are pasted onto a plain, white index card that hangs unceremoniously on his bedroom wall next to a five inch piece of barbed wire. I was just a kid when I first saw the numbers scribbled on a piece of paper tucked in Dad’s wallet.

Dad was captured by the Germans in January, 1944 at the foot of Mount Cassini in Italy. Just 23 years old at the time, he had a wife and one-year old baby waiting for him to get done with the war and come home. That icy January night, standing with his back to the Rapido River as the German soldiers moved down the line collecting weapons from their American captives, Dad knew he wouldn’t be going home anytime soon, if ever.

The prisoners were crammed into boxcars so tightly they had standing room only. Two barrels filled with hay served as latrines, and the last man to use the barrel remained “in place” until another soldier had the need. Once a day the doors slid open and guards tossed in just enough bread for each man to have a piece. For three weeks, never once stepping outside those boxcar walls, the men traveled north to Stalag IIB at Hammerstein, Germany. Despite the cramped, miserable conditions, the resourceful prisoners devised a way to get much-needed exercise – on cue, every able soldier walked in unison, single file around the interior of the boxcar, stepping over soldiers too sick to participate.

From Stalag IIB Dad was detailed to work on a Polish farm along with 17 other American POWs. The men were housed in a concrete, two-room converted pigpen with the surrounding grounds enclosed by a barbed wire fence. Inside, triple-bedded bunks lined the walls of one room, while an old work table filled the other.

The soldiers did “little things” to boost their morale while isolated in the hostile environment, thousands of miles from family, friends and country. Such as planting an occasional sapling upside down so that its roots pointed skyward; or training the young horses to respond directly opposite of the spoken command. The POWs also discovered a means to covertly jam the thrashing machine, causing the belt to slip, forcing the loss of valuable time while it was repaired. These things weren’t going to win the war, my dad says, but they went a long way in winning the battle of spirit.

In late 1944 American and Russian troops began closing in on Hitler’s army, and on December 26, the guards roused the POWs early to begin a forced march back to Germany. The journey lasted four months as they headed north across Poland to the Baltic Sea and ferried over to Germany. They walked 20-25 miles a day without adequate food or clothing, sometimes going four or five days without eating, and then eating only what they might find to steal. At night they bedded-down in a nearby barn, or on occasions their stops included stays at German concentration camps.

Life was fragile and threatened at every turn. From above, Allied bombers unaware the POWs were mixed among the German soldiers strafed the road, sending all diving for safety. Physical hardships of cold, wet, hunger, and sickness dogged every step. Among the greatest dangers were young German teens drafted by a desperate Hitler. Armed with weapons, but lacking maturity and training, the young boys often killed without provocation. For 108 days the men endured, staying one step ahead of death. Then on April, 12 1945, U.S. troops moved in, liberating the captive soldiers and escorting them to safety and freedom.

Growing up, Dad shared many stories with my brother, sister and I. He told us funny stories about himself, his fellow POWs and their crazy antics, and how they watched out for each other. He told us about some of the Germans who befriended them like the old guard, Rocco, a WWI veteran, who when eventually called back to service vowed not to shoot at American soldiers but to fire his weapon above their heads.

Dad didn’t dwell on the horrors – the hunger, the deprivation, the brutality. Instead he recalled the humor and the virtues. He wanted to go back to see the farm and retrace his steps, and did so in 1991. While on that trip he discovered the old piece of barbed wire, which today hangs next to the numbers tacked to his bedroom wall.

To Dad those six numbers, 270605, represent a bleak period in his life, but one that embodies the lessons of faith, determination, willpower and courage. Rather than forget, he chooses to remember, keeping the numbers close at hand, and to use the lessons learned everyday of his life.

To my siblings and I, 270605 represents a triumph of spirit, proof that despite the worse of conditions, the human will perseveres. From our dad we learned a deep understanding and appreciation that attitude is everything.

Author’s Note: This appeared in The Almanac of Arlington Heights.