Thursday, April 10, 2014

Springtime Interlude


There may be a few days without a post to my blog, but by all means come see me in Cincinnati this weekend if you are nearby! Registrations are still being taken for an all-day seminar this Saturday,   12 April 2014. So instead of laboriously sifting through my notes and scanning photos to bring you the stories of my family, I will be in a car driving southward. Maybe I will see signs of spring along the way! If you would like to visit the Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical Society's website for more information about this weekend, you can do so here: Events. The society has a tremendous web presence brimming with Cincinnati information. Feel free to peruse it for a while.

After my presentation, I will be heading further south to visit a friend in Lexington, Kentucky, in an attempt to find more signs of greenery. And then I will be back in Cincinnati to work with the Nippert Collection of German Methodism at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives at the Cincinnati Museum Center (Library | Cincinnati Museum Center). The finding aid for the collection alone is unpublished and almost 1,000 pages long! I am eager to see what kind of gems I can retrieve from this almost unused and unheard of collection of German church records and religious ephemera.

I will be back next week to tell you more about Helen... and if I think I have the information necessary to put together a post, you may just get a surprise from me on the road!

Take this time to catch up on the previous posts, or go outside and enjoy the snippets of springtime peeking through. Come see me in Cincinnati. Or go to my house and do a bunch of yard work, and surprise me upon my return!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Helen, Part I: Beginnings

Helen Marie Timmons
New Paris, Indiana, 1935

Helen Marie Timmons arrived at about ten o'clock at night during a late winter blizzard on 12 February 1917 in rural Milford, Indiana. The sight of his new pink, wiggly, screaming little sister made seven-year-old Harold Timmons cry. How mad he was at his parents for bringing her out naked in a snowstorm!

Helen's parents were both forty years old at her birth and had just celebrated twenty years of married life together the previous November. William Armond Timmons and Addie May Nowels were products of farm families through and through, both of them having great-grandparents who settled in Jasper County, Indiana, in the 1830s and 1840s. Growing up in rural Rensselaer, Indiana, they were both surrounded by a plethora of aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins. 

Addie and William's courtship was unremarkable in the sense that it followed the norms of any young rural couple living in turn-of-the-century Indiana. On 27 August 1895, eighteen-year-old Addie was brazen enough to send William a letter:
"Mr. William Timmons, Sunday evening I told you I was not going to the Fair but I guess I will for all of the folks are going Thursday and I will not stay at home by myself for I would be [unreadable], so I thought I would tell you, as I promised you I would not go, but if you wanted to go Thursday afternoon come along, and I will go with you, that is if you want me to." 
"If you want to write me a note and send it by Charlie to-night, and let me know whether you will come or not, and if you do not come I will go with our folks, for I will not stay at home alone. Now Will, I will close hoping you will not think anything about me writing this to you for I thought it would be all right. I remain your dearest Friend. Addie." 
"P.S. Will, don't let your folks see this, and be sure and answer this to-night, and if we go let us not go till in the afternoon Thursday start about eleven o'clock."
By February of 1896, Addie's letters to Will were a bit more direct and intimate. "Mr. William Timmons" had been replaced by "Dear Willie." Although still signed "your dearest friend," these letters were "sealed with a k---." They would marry in Rensselaer, Indiana, on 15 November 1896. Addie had just turned twenty. William, three-and-a-half months her junior, was still nineteen.

Addie May Nowels
Likely taken in Rensselaer, Indiana, around the time
of her marriage in 1896

Like any newlywed farm couple, they immediately did what came naturally. They had children. Baby Ross Randolph Timmons made his appearance ten months after his parents' marriage while William worked on the Timmons family farm in Jordan Township, Jasper County, Indiana. This same land had been worked by his family for three previous generations. But after generations of farming the same fields and tilling the same dirt, these Timmons were becoming restless.

Little is known of William and Addie's movement after the turn of the century. They left the farm in Jasper County and had their second son, Merle Leon, in Chicago Heights in Cook County, Illinois, in 1901. Addie's older brother, Jesse Nowels, had moved there with his wife Grace a couple years previously and was working as a day laborer. Perhaps the allure of city life beckoned to the young couple, and they joined the young Nowels couple on East End Avenue. Grace had just had a baby boy, and Addie was pregnant. They could help each other while their husband's worked in the city. But the fit just wasn't right. Will and Addie returned to Jasper County long enough to bury an infant son in the cemetery near the Timmons family farm next to his great-grandfather who had died in 1888, and his great-great-grandfather who brought the name to Jasper County, Indiana, and had died in 1871.

But if the outskirts of Chicago didn't feel right to the young couple, neither did staying in rural Rensselaer. William's father, Enos Timmons, sold the long-held family farm in 1902 and moved eighty miles northeast to Plymouth, Indiana. Together with his son-in-law, George Brown, Enos opened Timmons Feed Barn on East LaPorte Street. This thriving community of nearly 3,600 people and the county seat of Marshall County, was perfect for Enos and his wife, Sarah Jane (Keister) Timmons. At fifty-seven and his grown children married and out of the house, Enos could retire from farming while still being healthy and capable enough to run the feed barn. His son, William Timmons and his young family followed.

LaPorte Street, Plymouth, Indiana, looking west from Michigan Street, c1908.
Timmons Feed barn would have been two blocks behind the viewer on the left.

But William and Addie (Nowels) Timmons still could not find the right place to plant their feet. The feed barn was his father's venture, and although he certainly spent days working there, living within the city was not his calling. He moved his family north of Plymouth to LaPaz, Indiana, and rented a farm there for a while. When Will's father became ill in 1910, they moved closer to his parental home just northwest of Plymouth, renting part of widow Mary Dreibelbis's farm. It was at this time that baby Harold Milton Timmons joined twelve-year-old Ross and nine-year-old Merle as the third boy in the family.

And so as time passed William and Addie realized that they were no longer a restless young couple in their twenties exploring new options, but now parents of three boys and well into their thirties. It became more and more apparent that Will's lot in life was farming like all the Timmons men before him. But unlike his ancestors, he would seldom stay rooted for long. Perhaps he liked tenant farming, and this allowed his restless nature to express itself outside the rigidity of farm life. New houses. New fields. New crops. New neighbors. New adventures. Or perhaps he just wasn't good at budgeting his funds and owning a farm was a goal forever just out of his reach. But not long after receiving a small amount of money from his father's estate in 1914 he rented a farm on the Elkhart County side of the Elkhart-Kosciusko County line in Jackson Township thirty-five miles east of Plymouth. Called "the old Zbinden farm" for the Swiss immigrant, John Christian Zbinden, who had improved the land and built the home on the property, this 160 acres of land was sandwiched between present-day County Roads 19 and 21.

Will and Addie settled into the routine and the daily demands of farm life, made easier by sons Ross and Merle who had quit school to work on the farm. Although Ross had progressed through three years of high school, Merle had enough of it by eighth grade. Their father needed them on the farm, so they worked by his side. Ross, nineteen, had his eye on a local Milford girl he had planned to marry. During the summer of 1916 when the Timmons men were hard at work assuring for a successful year's crop, and just before Addie's fortieth birthday, she received a surprise.

She was pregnant.

There is no way of knowing what emotions were generated by this revelation. Certainly pregnancies at Addie's age were not uncommon. But with nine years separating Merle and Harold, and now another six years since his birth, Addie had come to realize that she just did not get pregnant as easily as her peers. Perhaps it was her health or just bad timing. Perhaps there were unknown miscarriages in the long gaps between children. But with Margaret Sanger advocating for women to have the right to determine when to bear children and popularizing the new phrase "birth control" by 1914, perhaps Addie had made a conscious decision to limit the size of her family. Nonetheless, with two sons reaching manhood and ready to leave the nest and becoming settled that her child-bearing years were coming to a close, welcoming a newborn into the family was likely met with a flurry of emotions.

A Victorian postcard satirizes a woman's desire to abstain from childbirth.

But all these worries and concerns were put to rest as Addie held her very first baby girl on that cold, snowy February night in 1917. But if Addie had thoughts of ribbons and bows and frills and dresses, she would soon realize little baby Helen Marie Timmons was far too feisty for such things.



Monday, April 7, 2014

Frank, Part XIII: Aftermath of War


Upon his return into American hands, Frank Strukel was likely accompanied by a medic and driven eighty-five miles west, away from active fighting, to Erfurt, Germany. There he was processed two days later as a "recovered Allied Prisoner of War." His general physical condition was listed as "poor." Starved, emaciated, and weakened, he still had the presence of mind and the wit to write lightly in blue on his registration form: "B.S." To him, "poor" was grossly overstating his condition, since "near death" was not a category opted for use by the United States military. He was then prepared for air lifting to Calais, France, for hospital attention.

While Frank was being attended to, and his prisoner experience was coming to an end, his parents still had no official word of his whereabouts. Although they had received a postcard from him while in Stalag IV-B in January, no further information had been supplied to them as winter turned to spring. On 20 April 1945, while Frank was flying to Calais to begin his eventual return home, Frank's mother knew nothing of this. Instead she received official word that he was a prisoner of war of the German government. With so many men missing, wounded, and killed, the American government was woefully behind. And so the Strukel family was left with a confusing telegram informing them of something they had already worriedly known for the last three months.


On 4 May 1945, Frank boarded a ship for home. We do not know the name of the ship or where it departed. Interestingly, in 1951 the Department of the Army destroyed all passenger lists, manifests, logs of vessels, and troop movement files of the United States Army Transports for World War II. No explanation for such an action has ever been given. It is quite likely that he was returned home on the S.S. John Ericsson, known to have carried soldiers home that left Le Havre, France, around this time destined for New York.

It is possible that before boarding this ship home that he had phone contact with his family. Nonetheless, the Director of the American Prisoner of War Information Bureau drafted a letter to Mrs. Rose Strukel on 9 May 1945 indicating that "Germany having been defeated, it is assumed [Frank] has been returned to United States military control." Eight days later the Western Union telegram arrived that every mother of a son overseas had yearned for: "The Chief of Staff of the Army directs me to inform you your son Pvt. Strukel Frank L. is being returned to the United States in the near future and will be given an opportunity to communicate with you on arrival." 

Frank was going home.

His ship docked on 20 May 1945, likely in New York. Did he receive a hero's welcome? Were there people at the docks waiting to greet the troops coming home from war? Or did he silently make his way off the ship with hordes of other men who were carrying with them the horrors of combat and imprisonment? The joy of stepping foot on his native soil was certainly tempered with the all-too-recent events of the past. The primary thought in his mind now was to give the Army whatever it needed from him so that he could go home.

On 30 May 1945, Frank slipped into Elkhart, Indiana, with no fanfare from anyone other than his family. When his name finally appeared on the War Department's list of liberated prisoners, a news reporter for the Elkhart Truth contacted the Strukel household on 31 May 1945 to see what news they might have of his arrival home. The reporter was asked, "Do you want to speak to him?"

After the horrors of war, Frank was allowed a 70-day furlough at home, after which he was to report to the Army Redistribution Station No. 2 in Miami Beach, Florida. Between 1942 and 1945 the United States government took over more than 300 hotels and apartment buildings in Miami Beach to serve as housing and training headquarters for American troops, but a bank of ten swanky hotels at the beachfront on Collins Avenue were used exclusively for infantrymen returning from battle. They were debriefed and given rest and relaxation before being released or reassigned. Frank was assigned to a room at the Bancroft Hotel.

The Bancroft Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida, 1945

Although the returned soldiers were put through three weeks of mental and physical evaluations, they were essentially treated as if they were on vacation. Beyond reporting for his orientation lectures, interviews, and examinations, Frank was free to do whatever he wanted.

An airman, Jack Butler, had been sent to Miami Beach after his return from service two months previously and reported back to his parents:
"I've been doing nothing but having a swell time. It's really wonderful down here. The hotel I'm staying at is right on the beach and all I do is put on my trunks up in my room, take the elevator to the basement, walk out the back door and I'm on the beach. So far, I've got no sign of a tan but I'm redder than hell. Maybe I'll get one yet. It would cost a civilian at least $25.00 per day to stay at this hotel. It's really classy. The meals are good too. Yesterday, we had sirloin steak for supper and after we finished, the waitress asked us if we'd like another. Need I say more?"
But would a couple sirloin steaks in Frank's skinny body erase the memories of the last five months? Could a frolic on the beach in the warm sun be all that he needed to forget the frigid cold night hiding from the enemy while his buddy lie dead at his side?

The War Department thought so. After his recuperation in Florida, and a few more pounds put on him to fill out his uniform, he was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was honorably discharged on 20 November 1945. 

Private Frank L. Strukel, now a civilian, was free to go back to Elkhart, Indiana. He had just turned twenty-three years old. He would move back into his parental home, and he would resume his job at the Northern Indiana Brass Company (NIBCO). By all outward appearances, he was right back where he was when he left home for basic training three years before. Inwardly, he had gone through far too much to be the same man. He quietly spent the holidays of 1945 at home with his family.

And as the beginning months of 1946 dawned, he would meet Helen (Timmons) Miller. And his life would change dramatically again.




Saturday, April 5, 2014

Frank, Part XII: Liberation

Soldiers of the 87th Infantry move through Plauen

Frank Strukel's final days as a prisoner of war were spent in Plauen, working for whomever signed him out from his German guards for the day and extracted as much physical labor from him as his body would muster. Plauen had entered the twentieth century with a boom in population and economic growth, mostly in the textile industry. A growing urban community with a population of  nearly 120,000, the city embraced the National Socialist German Workers' Party under Adolf Hitler, and boasted the first local chapter outside Bavaria in 1921. Kurt Gruber, a law student from Plauen, reorganized the Hitler Youth program in 1929 and made Plauen its district headquarters until 1931. By 1930, the Hitler Youth organization had enlisted over 25,000 boys fourteen years old and upward. Plauen was definitely a city dedicated to Hitler's success in the war.

At the onset of war, the textile plants of Plauen had been converted to factories and warehouses that manufactured a wide variety of war-related materials, including Panzer tanks; as well as stored large amounts of ammunition, food rations, and weapons. The Allied forces were well aware of this, and as the war neared its end, the Americans targeted Plauen unmercifully with air attacks to destroy these facilities. On 16 January 1945, thirty-six United States Air Force B-17s dropped over 98 tons of explosives on Plauen resulting in 132 fatalities. A month later, 110 planes dropped a devastating 325 tons of explosives on the city killing nearly 400. It is not known if Frank was housed in Plauen or was moved by railroad back and forth to Stalag IV-F in Hartmannsdorf, but it is likely he feared for his life as much from his fellow countrymen in the air as he did from his captors on land.

Bombing of Plauen began in earnest on 3 March 1945. The city was hit eleven times in thirty-eight days by both the United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force. Over 5,000 tons of explosives dropped on Plauen resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 people, and the destruction of almost 75% of the city. Sustained attacks throughout 8-10 April 1945 reduced the city to rubble.

Seeing imminent defeat in March 1945, German soldiers ordered the evacuation of many small labor camps and forced prisoners to hurriedly march to a number of other distant camp destinations, hoping to outrun the advancing Soviet army on land and the British and American army in the air. A good number of these starved and weakened prisoners died during this final forced death march. Some were executed by their captors in a final display of German superiority and control. The war was coming to an end, and the Nazi military hold in and around Plauen was in disarray.

Maurice Rainville of Company B, 275th Infantry, who was a part of "Task Force Herren" with Frank at the time of his arrival in France, remembers this time when he too was imprisoned in Plauen.
"About the first week of April they marched us out into the countryside. The guards were completely panicked. A couple of us slipped away from the guards and hid in a farm barn. Within days we were spotted by elements of the division with an acorn patch, I think the 82nd. After they picked us up they took us to a field aid station, then flew us to Rheims and then to Nancy to the 240th General Hospital where I was about 1½ months before they sent me to LeHavre and then home."
Whether Frank was also able to slip away amidst the confusion surrounding the intense bombing on 10 April 1945, is unknown. But as the 87th Infantry Division's 334th Field Artillery Battalion moved into Plauen on 16 April 1945 with an overland assault, Frank was still in the vicinity. Tom Stafford of Company L, 347th Infantry Regiment participated in the capture of Plauen on that day.
"Most of the buildings we observed as we moved deeper into Plauen had been severely damaged, many with only a few walls remaining; others were totally destroyed. The majority of the city's streets, many with gaping bomb craters, were nearly impassable; although the infantry and accompanying tanks were able to move through them after encountering light resistance from the German troops defending the city."
Whether Frank welcomed his liberators with open arms or whether they found him bedraggled and weakened amongst the ruins of Plauen the following day, we will never know, but on 17 April 1945, Private Frank L. Strukel, Army Serial Number 35539330, POW Number 319198, was at last returned to military control of the United States of America.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Frank, Part XI: Stalag IV-F

Wehrkreis IV POW Camps
From Stalag IV C blog (http://stalag4c.blogspot.com/2008/12/les-stalags-iv.html)
Unfortunately, no key for the map exists, but it seems to indicate the sub-camps
that existed for each individual POW camp.

Although Frank Strukel's initial stay at Stalag IV-B seems to have been short-lived, it is the only Prisoner-of-War internment camp listed in his official military record. This is not surprising. Movement from camp to camp was common amongst prisoners, and the only one of official record was usually the one in which initial registration was conducted. This became a sort of black comedy amongst the prisoners. The "shoe leather express" could take soldiers hundreds of miles in the opposite direction along the same roads they had walked just weeks before. Depending on levels of overcrowding, need of prisoner-based labor, and movement of the Allied forces, prisoners were shifted randomly and unexpectedly. The better part of Frank's experiences as a prisoner-of-war are largely unknown and undocumented. The only clue we have regarding his experiences after his registration at Stalag IV-B was a single line of text featured in an article in his home newspaper upon his release: "After several weeks of walking from one camp to another...he was transferred to Stalag 4-F at Plauen..."

But Stalag IV-F was not in Plauen. Stalag IV-F was in Hartmannsdorf bei Chemnitz in Saxony, about sixty miles southeast of Frank's initial imprisonment in Stalag IV-B. Plauen was yet another fifty miles further southeast. But the nature of Stalag IV-F was very different than the previous camp in which Frank had been living. Stalag IV-F was much smaller and less crowded, but it served as a hub for many work camps surrounding it. Some prisoners from Stalag IV-B were given the option of leaving for a work camp if they were deemed strong enough to serve a purpose for Nazi Germany, so perhaps Frank volunteered to leave the dismal surroundings near Mühlberg. Once at Stalag IV-F prisoners were given work detail in the cities surrounding Hartmannsdorf or at local factories or reservoirs. Some were shipped out daily to work on railroads or dig trenches for pipe, and were returned nightly to the same cold, unheated wooden huts that Frank had become accustomed to already. The winter was still dragging on, bitterly cold, and the condensation from the body heat in each hut would freeze on the ceiling at night, only to rain down on the prisoners as the sun warmed the roof in the morning. After walking hundreds of miles with frostbitten, diseased feet, many soldiers' boots had long since fallen apart. Either the lack of foot ware or because they were too painful to wear, often boots had been substituted with a cloth wrap for a sock and a wooden plank tied to the foot with a leather strap. Although less confining to pain-wracked feet, it did nothing to shield them from the continuous cold or protect them for extended walking.

Rations were no better at this camp than in any other. Breakfast was black coffee. Lunch was a piece of black bread. Dinner was a slightly clouded water that substituted as soup. Red Cross packages that made it to the soldiers filled them with delight and misery. Those who attempted to eat the rich chocolate or reconstituted powdered milk or the tinned meat were often greeted with severe stomach cramps, vomiting, and explosive diarrhea from foods their emaciated bodies were no longer able to accommodate. But even those who experienced some discomfort from the occasional splurge knew that if they kept it down, their bodies would welcome the additional calories. Those whose bodies could not, used what they could to barter for bread and potatoes. These were not frequent deliveries. One prisoner remembers only four deliveries in which he had to share with four of five of his buddies during his entire four-and-a-half months as a prisoner.

A British POW sent to Stalag IV-F recalls being used as labor at a nearby electronics factory in Mittweida. His fellow bunk mates were shipped off daily, one to dig trenches for water pipes, the other to work in a joiners' shop to help machine operators, stack timber and deliver finished furniture and coffins to customers. The treatment of British, French, and American prisoners was dictated by the rules of the Geneva Convention, and as a consequence a soldier could invoke certain rights inherent under these guidelines. Russians and Poles could not. Additionally, the German civilians seemed to harbor a particular hatred to the Russians that they did not inflict upon their Allied counterparts. As a consequence, prisoners of the Soviet army were often treated with far more cruelty by both the military and civilian population. A 2004 statistical tabulation showed that nearly 60% of Russian POWs held by Germans died in camps, compared to only 4% of British POWs. According to one American POW interviewed by historian Stephen Ambrose, "The German plan was to keep us alive, yet weakened enough that we wouldn't attempt escape."

What Frank was doing in Plauen is not known. A British POW from Stalag IV-F was marched every morning to the train station and sent with other prisoners to Reichenbach or Plauen to work on the railroad. They would clear sections of track of snow and ice, dig out old ballast and then ram new stones and support under the track to level it and fill it back in. He and his fellow prisoners benefitted from the food stores and sacks of sugar they occasionally stumbled upon in train cars as well as coal blocks they could stash into the camp at night to build a fire for warmth.

But the vast majority of prisoners, including Maurice Rainville of Company B, 275th Regiment who had arrived in France with Frank Strukel just a few short months before, were sent to Stalag IV-F from IV-B and "assigned to slave labor at Plauen, a city near the Czech border. We worked for civilians who came in every day and signed up for as many of us as they needed that day. Sometimes these guys were very rough." And so it was likely that Frank was used in whatever capacity was deemed fit for him by whomever owned him for that day.

As January faded into February, and the snows began melting into March, the tidbits of news that filtered into the camps and were whispered amongst the prisoners made it apparent that the Germans were failing. The American army finally succeeded in crossing the Rhine River on 7 March 1945, and Patton's troops captured Mainz on 20 March 1945. The Soviet army successfully ended the German offensive in Hungary on 16 March 1945, and they captured Danzig on 30 March 1945. It was apparent by now that Germany was under attack on all fronts. How much Frank and his fellow prisoners knew is unknown, but it was impossible not to hear the murmurings and gossip amongst the German civilians while being worked to exhaustion in Plauen. Perhaps it was this flicker of hope that kept Frank going in his final days of captivity. Entering his third month as a prisoner, there was little left of him to physically endure much more. His 5'6" frame was carrying only 85 pounds, and what was left of his army-issued clothing was all but tatters and fragments. But there was still hope.

And at home, his family heard nothing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Frank, Part X: News Back Home

Western Union telegram, 29 January 1945, informing Frank's mother
that he was missing in action.

On 11 January 1945, John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel received a letter from their youngest son, Private Frank L. Strukel, that was written at Christmastime. That letter no longer exists. Perhaps Frank had just gotten off the freight car in Brumath, France, and was readying for his march to his first camp. Or maybe Christmas Day had passed, and he was watching the Germans across the Rhine River and had time to send a few words home to his worrying mother. Interestingly, when entering the service, Frank had listed his mother as his next of kin - not his father. Frank was the baby boy in the family, and he was likely the apple of his mother's eye. The father-daughter/mother-son bond has been discussed before in this blog under different circumstances, but in this case, Frank was clearly more partial to his mother's welfare and interests. As can be seen in examples of the many, many letters written to mothers by soldiers on the front lines, the horrors of war are grossly underplayed, and the main thrust of every letter was generally, "I'm okay. I'm alive. Don't worry."

But clutching the nearly three-week-old Christmas letter from their son did nothing to ease their worries and apprehension. The daily news was filled with headlines regarding the fierce battles on the Western Front. Names of the dead, the missing, and the captured were finally trickling in from the beginnings of the Battle of the Bulge on 16 December 1944. No community was immune from the awful news coming back from the war in Europe. Everybody was comforting a family member or a friend or a neighbor whose son was killed, wounded, or missing. But the worst thing was the silence. Sometimes not knowing was worse. Three-week-old letters did nothing to allay that that feeling.

Today it is difficult to remember a time before the computer age when everything was done via pencil and paper and human diligence and manpower. The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle in all of World War II. The United State Department of the Army's final figures for that forty days of horror include 19,246 men killed; 62,489 wounded; and 26,612 captured and missing. Every one of these numbers represented a man with a family worrying about him back home. And every one of these men had to be carefully accounted for with solid documentation before the government would act with disseminating information to the families. The process was painstakingly slow.

On 29 January 1945, Rose Strukel received the telegram she had been dreading. Three weeks before, and even before the reassuring Christmas letter had arrived, Frank was reported missing in action.

Missing.

Until further word came from any other source, to those back home "missing" meant "presumed dead." There would be a glimmer of hope that Frank would straggle back to his company and that it was all a big mistake, or that he was taken prisoner and was still alive. But for the Strukel family "missing in action" meant they were now relegated to the task of grief-stricken, silent waiting.

The Elkhart Truth, date unknown, reports Frank Strukel missing.
Written and published in response to 29 January 1945 telegram

For families of men like Frank Strukel who were captured and sent to Prisoner-Of-War camps, news of their capture often came to the families in the form of letters written by the soldier facilitated by the Red Cross long before any word was heard from governmental sources. Letters or postcards received back home emblazoned with Kriegsgefangenenlager were met with mixed emotions. Families were overjoyed with news that their son or brother or husband was still alive but filled with dread at what they were experiencing as prisoners.

It is not known how much time elapsed from notification of Frank's MIA status and the reception of a letter written by him from a German POW camp on 25 January 1945. By this time he had suffered the four-hundred-mile trip to Stalag IV-B on foot and by crowded rail car. He had suffered the indignities of registration into the German camp system. He had likely experienced his share of frequent, uncontrollable, bloody stools from dysentery, and suffered from blistered, abscessed, frost-bitten feet. Although deloused upon his entry into prison camp, it would not be long before he was re-infested, with soldiers stripping to the waist daily and picking the crawling, blood-sucking pests from each other like primates in the wild. Only a lean 112 pounds when he enlisted for service, and likely a bit more muscled up from his Army years before deployment, Frank was likely emaciated, weak, cold and hungry - much like the thousands of men encamped with him.

But setting pencil to paper on 25 January 1945, he told his mother what she wanted to hear: "I am allright. Don't worry."

Postcard home from German POW camp.

Frank had by this time most likely left Stalag-IVB for another camp, but having only been a reluctant guest of Nazi Germany now for barely under three weeks, he already knew the mechanics of prisoner life. Although the initial reading of the brief note home looks like it is from a man with a horrible sweet tooth, or who is craving sugar-laden calories, Frank knew that sweets and cigarettes were the best form of currency to a prisoner. A German guard might trade an egg or some milk for chocolate. A fellow prisoner might share the uncooked rat he managed to catch for a few cigarettes. A local German woman might offer a loaf of bread in exchange for some cookies or fudge. Whether any packages sent directly to Frank by the Red Cross from his family ever reached him is not known.

But before he was able to send this brief note back home, Frank had already had to set out by foot from Stalag IV-B to another camp to suffer brutalities of a different kind.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Frank: Part IX: Stalag IV-B

Entrance to Stalag-IVB, near Mühlberg, Brandenburg, Germany
Author: LutzBruno, Wikimedia Commons

After surviving the 400 mile journey on foot and by crowded unsanitary freight car, Frank Strukel arrived at the gates of Stammlager or "Main Camp" IV-B. The GIs were all too familiar with these camps, known exclusively by their shortened names: Stalag IV-B.

Stalag IV-B was located just east of the Elbe River about thirty miles north of Dresden. Covering 74 acres, it was one of the largest German POW camps, opened in September 1939 to house Polish soldiers captured at the beginning of the war in Europe. Following the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, the camp was built to house 10,000 prisoners. By the time Frank arrived, 22,000 men were imprisoned there.

Processing prisoners had long become routine for the German guards working at the camps. CSM Thomas C. Ballowe of Company K, 423rd Infantry had arrived the week before Frank:
"That was the most desolate area that you've ever seen. There was a big field that [we] had to walk across to get to the entrance to the compound at Mühlberg, IV-B. It was a cold, cold night, but a clear night, just as cold and clear as can be. We were still freezing to death. As we processed in, if you had anything you wanted to declare, any valuables, any money, which I did, [you declared it.] As we processed in we went to this delousing station and that was an ordeal, too. First time I'd ever taken a shower and the shower was scalding hot. As we came out of the shower there was a guy standing there with a needle and he shot us in the chest, right in the breast. Being a kid and at a time like that in such a state of confusion, I was never really sure what that was for. It seemed to me they were shooting everyone with the same syringe, the same needle. When they hit me in my chest, and the damn blood just flew, I was still wet from the taking a shower. They then ran us out of this room and it's freezing in this room and it seemed to me like they had an exhaust fan or something on to blow you. We didn't have a towel or nothing to dry. We put our clothes on and from there they marched us on to our barracks."
PFC Stanley Lambert of Company I, 275th Infantry, was fighting with Frank in the same area of France when he was captured. He too was sent to Stalag IV-B.
"Very early in our stay we were processed through a shower and delousing unit common to German prisons These bare brick and stone structures had a waiting room where we completely disrobed, leaving our boots stashed in the room, but tying our garments all in one bundle to be sent through a steam delouser. Two things were luxurious about the whole procedure. One was the hot shower where we could observe our flattening bellies but still muscular limbs, and let the warm streams of water splatter over our blue, frost-bitten feet. The other was picking up our bundles of steaming clothes after shivering stark naked for a half hour in the waiting room. It was fortunate that one did not know until later how similar the procedure was to the gas chamber execution of the Jews."
All prisoners were then fingerprinted, photographed, and issued metal Kriegsgefangene dog tags with their new six-figure Stalag IV-B identification number. Their names and identification numbers were entered into a large ledger, from which report of their imprisonment would be made eventually to American authorities. Before your name entered that ledger you were presumed dead or missing in action. The prisoners were then marched to their new homes.

Most prisoners were amazed at the size of the camp, with row after row of long, narrow, drab barracks-like structures along many perpendicular "streets". Each of the barracks was fitted with wooden bunks crammed end to end and piled four high to the ceiling. The British soldiers, some imprisoned for as long as two to three years before Frank's arrival, had learned to make the Stalag their home and looked at the huge influx of Americans during the winter of 1944/1945 as unwanted refuse. As the starving, frozen, bedraggled soldiers made their way into the camps, many of the British would trade food scraps for any valuables they may have brought in with them, taking advantage of the hunger gnawing at the American GIs. Most of the upper bunks had long been taken by the British POWs, leaving the Americans to lower bunks that essentially no longer existed, the wooden slats having been burnt as firewood long before.

The regulation issuance of two blankets was reduced to one as the camp filled that winter, until there were none to issue. The only clothes the men wore were those they brought in with them. Showering was allowed once weekly: thirty second of hot water followed by thirty seconds of cold. Clothes could be rinsed at the same time if it were allowed by the guard on duty. By far, the biggest cruelty that beset the soldiers was the perpetual state of hunger. Meals were often just black bread and watered down soup the prisoners called "dishwater soup," and on a rare occasionally, a potato. American Red Cross parcels came infrequently and mostly had to be shared amongst several men. The food was heavenly, but soldiers also learned to improvise a great number of tools and cookware from the tins in which they arrived. The cigarettes, when not smoked to curb the appetite, were used as camp currency.

Contents of an American Red Cross parcel

PFC Stanley Lambert again:
"The most vivid memories of our barracks were the nights in them. There was just room for all the exhausted men to lie down in the unheated building. We lay in groups of three to preserve warmth, and arranged outer garments and old German shelter halves over and under us. We were only beginning to learn from the British the fine art of improvising in a prison hut. Very soon we learned to pull our tortured feet close to us because some dysentery victim was always staggering through the darkness toward the door, trampling over frostbitten and trench-foot-afflicted feet. I believe I have known no pain greater than that suffered for ten minutes following the mauling of one's frozen feet by a stampeding, dystenteried POW."
Many of the British soldiers imprisoned for years did help the Americans acclimate to their new surroundings. Said one British officer to a newly-arrived American, "Keep your body moving or you will die."

PFC Stanley Lambert was shipped out of Stalag IV-B just two weeks after his arrival for yet another German prisoner-of-war camp. Many other soldiers experienced the same fate. Although one of the largest prisoner camps in the German's possession, Stalag IV-B was grossly overcrowded, and it served more as a way-station for many thousands of POWs. Frank Strukel was one of these men whose stay here was short. He too would be one of the men plucked at random from the camp and sent to a much more dismal fate.