|Stalag VII A: Oral history
Kriegie StoriesBy Flight Officer John H. Chaffin
The Hand Laundry
All kinds of people are found in the Center Compound of Stalag Luft III. (Stalag Luft III was divided into five compounds - Center, North, East, South and West. The North Compound was occupied by British Airmen and is the site of "The Great Escape." Almost one hundred men went out through a tunnel. All but three were captured and fifty, selected at random, were shot)
American Prisoners of War consisted of Pilots, Navigators, Bombardiers (Bomber crews) Fighter pilots, Non-rated Officers who had gone on a mission "for a ride," a few Chaplains (we had one Catholic Chaplain in the Center compound) and gunners (Staff Sergeants and higher who volunteered to come to an Officers Camp and work at various types of chores). There are all levels of rank from Flight Officer and Lieutenant up to and including Colonel. We have one General who is the C.O.over the whole camp but he chose to live in the Center Compound.
We have the talkers, the shy ones, lazy ones, selfish and generous; friendly and surly. Some are quiet and unassuming and others love to be the center of attention. The most likable rascal in Center Compound lives in my block (block number 43). He is Lieutenant Michael Mahoney. (The same Michael Mahoney who wrote the prize winning essay "What America Means To Me."
Now Mike is a talker. He will stop at anytime or place and talk with anyone for as long as they will listen. If they try to say more than "yeah" or "is that so" or perhaps "I don't know" (An expression you seldom hear a Kriegie use) or any other such distinguishing expressions "good" conversationalists use; Mike suddenly remembers that he was supposed to be someplace else.
Mike is a red-haired Irishman from the Bronx in New York City. Along with his gift of gab, Mike has an irrepressible, and infectious grin that will put you at ease the first time you meet him. Outwardly, he never seemed to be serious; inwardly he must be thoughtful, romantic and sensitive. (Kriegies never seem to reveal their true nature)
There is one thing for sure - Mike is a con artist! He was smart enough to establish an enterprise that should have earned him a profit and yet require nothing more than mental effort from himself to organize and manage the project. It was just little things that kept him from becoming a wealthy Kriegie. I am speaking of his famous "HAND LAUNDRY."
You must understand that Stalag Luft III had no clothes washing facilities. When our things require washing we do it in a pan with cold water and, usually, bath soap. In the winter we do this as seldom as possible because it means standing on the cold concrete floor in the latrine and wash house (only place with water) and it is not heated. In fact the windows, for the most part, have no glass and all things considered, it is just not a nice place.
Mike studied the various aspects of the clothes washing problem; did a little market research and determined that a "LAUNDRY" could be profitable. There really seemed to be only three problems to resolve: - First was advertising - Letting all or most of the two thousand POWs know that the service existed. He had to develop interest as well as awareness. This was resolved by making up a couple of "sandwich" type advertising boards and hiring a couple of Kriegies to walk around camp with the signs draped from their shoulders. The text of the signs started out with "WATCH FOR OPENING DATE" and each day a little more information was added until the signs finally revealed that the subject was a "HAND LAUNDRY."
Secondly, there was the problem of "LABOR." All of us who knew Mike knew that he was not about to wash socks and shirts belonging to someone else. No, not Mike. Ah! but Mike epitomizes the qualities that make great managers of enterprise - he hires other Kriegies to do the work. There are always some who need a few more cigarettes or chocolate. Out of two thousand he easily found eight or ten to do the work. (All of this happened in the summer time, which, of course, made the work less distasteful)
Thirdly, the matter of financing. After all the workers worked only to get paid and Mike has no great amount of capital to get the business started. - No problem! Use promissory notes based on anticipated future profits. For the worker the risk was minimal - after all Mike was not going anywhere an collectively their bargaining power was awesome. (Mike was more of a "lover" type than a "fighter").
Now with these problem solutions worked out, the next step was to publish a full list of services and costs for each one. So many cigarettes (or pieces of chocolate - and whether British or American) for washing a shirt and so much more for washing and ironing; socks had their price and so did all the items that a Kriegie might possess. Distinction was made in the cigarettes as to whether they were British (very low in value) to top of the line Chesterfield, Luckies, Camels or lower quality Wings and Old Golds.
At first everything went according to plan. The advertising program was a tremendous success - POWs all over the compound were talking about it. Workers were employed and finally the business was a going concern. For a few days it looked as if Mike was on his way to great wealth!
Mike paid fair wages (he was never a greedy employer) and his employees were happy because the work was really not difficult and they did like the extra cigarettes and chocolate that they were earning. And, actually, they had plenty of time for the work because it beat doing nothing and none of them was going anywhere soon anyway!
Ah! The best laid plans often have a hidden flaw. At the end of the week, Mike paid off the promissory notes; and the workers all decided they had made enough. (Very low attention span or unwillingness to stick to a single purpose for long was typical of all Kriegies older than six months) Such a grand scheme, but, like so many others, a tiny flaw in the planning can result in total failure. But Mike was undaunted.
It did not take Mike long to deal with this unexpected turn of events. True that he had overlooked the basic nature of Kriegies and or he forgot that none of them had ambitions of becoming wealthy. All they wanted was a few extra cigarettes or pieces of chocolate - especially the British variety because it was like a Hershey bar. American chocolate was bitter sweet and good only for cooking. Mike had not seen the need for long term contracts (or did not know how to enforce one if he did) so he had no binding labor agreements. When his supply of workers dwindled to nothing he had to do something in a hurry.
No problem! All of his workers were soldiers, and, if there is one thing soldiers love, it is to gamble. Mike set up a roulette wheel in the barracks to operate at night. Wow! What a stroke of genius. He paid the workers daily and won back their earnings each night so that they had to return for work the next day. Sheer genius! But it was not to be!
Again it is the little things that are overlooked that spell disaster. Mike had not reckoned with Colonel Spivey - even in a German prison camp, Lieutenants do not approach full Colonels to discuss over coffee their little personnel business concerns. Just wasn't done!
News travels quite rapidly here in the Center Compound and it was only a matter of a couple of days before Colonel Spivey heard about the roulette wheel. "Das ist verbotten!" he said.
You must understand that a POW camp for American Officers and Gentlemen is not a democratic institution even if you disregard the Gemans. We are all still Army and we still obey orders of superior officers. Colonel Spivey was our commanding officer (and a very fine one, he is) and his word was law. When he decreed that an activity was not allowed, it was not allowed!
This ended Mike's hand laundry. Without the wheel, Mike could not obtain a steady flow of workers and without their labor he could not render service. Oh well, Mike. It was a nice try.
Here's one of the common facts of life;
Some folks are grim and rough outside;
The things inside are the things that count;
Let's look for good in folks we meet,
Here's one of the common facts of life;
Some folks are grim and rough outside;
The things inside are the things that count;
Let's look for good in folks we meet,
A part of every U.S. Military man's responsibility is, if taken as a Prisoner of War, to discomfort the captors as much as possible without taking unreasonable risks for ones safety. In Stalag Luft III this responsibility was assumed by a group of specialists. We called them the "X" group.
Members of the "X" group were under the control and direction of Colonel Spivey, our Commanding Officer, but their operating leader was a Captain Johnson.
(Note: This Captain Johnson was Colonel Johnson by 1958 in command of a B-58 group at Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas. It was Colonel Johnson's misfortune to have one of his crews crash a B-58 during the Paris Air show that year - right in from of the reviewing stand. A French fighter pilot had just performed a rolling maneuver as he passed before the stands at low altitude. The B-58 pilot - not to be outdone even though he was flying a bomber and not a fighter - also tried to do a slow roll as he made his pass. His instruments were not designed for vertical flight and as he entered a cloud bank at the end of the field he became disoriented and, since his instruments showed him to be descended, he pulled back on the stick to climb. He was upside down at the time at about five hundred feet! Mercifully the crew had perhaps only a couple of seconds of staring death in the face before it was over. - In the parlance of my day - "they bought the farm." Since they were under the command of Colonel Johnson and since what they attempted to do was a gross violation of air crew discipline the blame was transferred to the commander. Colonel Johnson was relieved of his duties as Commanding Officer of the only B-58 group in existence.)
By an edict of Colonel Spivey, no POWs were to make contact with any German guard except the "X" guys. A typical operation of theirs was to get one of the guards under their control. They worked in this manner: -
A "goon" (guard who wore a uniform and carried a weapon) or a ferret (guard who wore coveralls and did not carry a weapon) who seemed to be susceptible to being "bought" was assigned to an "X" guy who could speak German. The "X" guy started bumping into the guard at various places around the camp (his schedule for being in the compound was well known since we monitored the entrance and regularly recorded the entrance and exit of every German guard and Officer). In a little while our "X" man began to speak to the guard until finally they became acquainted.
The next stage was to make friends of the target guard. - Cigarettes, a little chocolate and finally, as they became better acquainted, a cup of coffee and a cookie once in awhile. After a week or two of this the guard was persuaded to bring in something like an onion or some carrots to help his "friend" flavor up a stew. Then it was not long before the requests were for writing materials - pens and ink--which we were not allowed.
When this stage of the relationship was reached the POW became a nightmare for the poor guard. All of the guards were men who were unfit for normal combat duty - too old or had some physical disability. Once a guard had become too much of a friend of the POW he was hooked. The "X" guy could demand that he bring in all kinds of verbotten materials and the poor guard had to do it under threat of being exposed to the Kommandant. Should that have happened, he would be on his way to the Eastern Front. It is truly difficult to know whom one can trust!
All escape plans had to be reviewed and approved by the "X" committee (and Colonel Spivey). But they did other things. Every once in awhile a member would go through the barracks and "requisition" photographs (sent from home) if they were of a size and quality suitable for transforming into an identification photo. Among the "X" group were artists who could, with pen and ink, transform a part of a box camera photograph into a realistic looking I.D. photo.
There were other skillful artists who could print (by hand of course) a set of identification papers which would look like they had been done on a typewriter. - Time! It took a lot of time but we all had plenty of that and they were not going anywhere.
The "X" group was in charge of tunnel digging. This activity was restricted to my barracks - Block 43 - because it was the only one located close enough to the outside fence and located to where on the other side of that fence was the outside world. Our "neighbors" on the other side of the fence were the German guard barracks and the offices for the administration of the camp. Directly outside the wire fence was a building which was used for storing coal. This building was the target destination for all the excavating activities. Alas! No tunnel ever quite made it that far.
The tunnels were engineering marvels and were truly great testimonies to the inventiveness of ordinary American boys - and to their determination. The barrack heating stove in my end of the barrack was the beginning point for the excavation.
The stove sat on a foundation of brick. This foundation was about four feet wide and six feet long. A few bricks removed from the center gave access to the ground below and was not visible to "ferrets" crawling around under to building nor detectable by the "ferrets" big dogs. Once the ground was reached, a shaft straight down for about ten feet was dug. At the bottom of the shaft the hole was enlarged horizontally to create a "work room." and from there the tunnel was started toward the outside world.
The distance to the coal bin on the outside of the wire was about one hundred fifty feet which meant that ten feet below the surface the workers had to have lighting of some kind, and they required a supply of fresh air. At first lighting was provided by little oil lamps which used margarine for fuel but the fumes could not be tolerated. Some of the clever fellows discovered that they could get into the attic of the building and do a little rearranging of the wiring and salvage enough to make up a fine extension cable.
An air supply was perhaps more ingenious. Using tin cans (primarily Klim cans which were about the size of a one pound coffee can) knowledgeable craftsmen created an air pump. An air line was constructed by fitting together smaller diameter cans. As the tunnel progressed the line was, of course extended. Someone always had to be working pumping air to the diggers who were moving further and further away every day.
Moving the dirt out was a staggering task. First a small trolley line was constructed and extended as the tunnel grew longer and longer. A system of ropes made possible the movement of a little car on the track to and from the diggers. This made it possible to move the dirt from the diggers to the entrance shaft. In the work room, the dirt was loaded into long sausage like bags which could be secreted down the pants leg of a Kriegie. The bottom of the bag could be opened by pulling a draw string which ended in the pants pocket.
Fresh dirt is moist and therefore could not simply be dumped anywhere outside. The bearer would mix, for a few moments, into a volley ball or touch football game where the sand was being churned up and, here, he pulled the draw string and let his load of sand trickle out. Literally tons of dirt were moved out in this manner.
The soil of Stalag Luft III was almost pure sand which extended down to a great depth. This facilitated the digging and dispersion of excavated soil but it also created a hazard. The tunnels were subject to cave-ins. To guard against this, the top of the tunnel was shored up. The size of the tunnel was such that our bunk bedboards were just the right length of shoring. Every so often a board collecting committee went through the barracks requesting "donations" (who could say no) from the POWs. So much of this has occurred that my straw tick rests on only four four-inch wide boards - One under my feet, one under my hips, one under my shoulders and one under my head. One can learn to be very careful, even in ones sleep, in turning over in such a bunk.
All of this activity is exciting, creative and keeps some of the guys busy but it availeth nothing. Every time it looks like success is in sight - one more day and they can break through to freedom - the Germans come in and poke around with long steel rods until they find the tunnel; and then they fill it with water. Ce La Guerre!
No one ever escaped through a tunnel from Center Compound. In fact, the only successful tunnel was the British venture from the North Compound and one wonders about it. Three men escaped but their escape had zero effect on the war and fifty fine young men died.
The "X" group is an official part of Army life in this Prisoner of War camp and who am I to question whether it is a justifiable activity in the grand scheme of things. Most of us have no part in IT except to be a look-out occasionally and we sometimes joke about the participants willingness to take on such a hopeless task. We pass the time in other activities, but everyone must do his own thing.
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