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When the Prisoner Sang the St. Louis Blues

The movies were right about those trick questions in the POW camps, but they weren't always right about the answers

You know that old movie shibboleth of the World War II POW camps? The Krauts throw a phony into camp and he says he's from Brooklyn or Cincinnati or somewhere, and then the guys from back home all start asking subtle questions about the baseball season and it turns out he doesn't even know which team the headline writers call "the Flock," so they let him have it.

Well, they tried it in real life at least once, all right. I can vouch for that. But it's a punk idea, and I shudder to think how often it may have miscarried. I suppose way back in Biblical times when they asked that spy to say "shibboleth" and he goofed it by saying "sibboleth" things used to stay pretty much the same for longer periods of time. But baseball just doesn't work that way, particularly in wartime when the draft and enlistments are getting the averages all fouled up.

Take last year, for heaven's sake. Not that it was really wartime in the sense of 1941-1945. But wartime or no wartime, supposing that last September a guy had been thrown into a POW camp in North Vietnam where nobody had heard anything about baseball for nine months. "Who's playing in the Series?" they might ask him.

"The Cards," he'd say.

"O.K. Who else?"

"The Red Sox."

End of questioning. End of guy.

Well, that's just about the way it was with me back in 1944. I was a bombardier in a B-17 some 27,500 feet over Rumania when the fighters pranged us. Seven of the 11 aboard managed to bail out, but I landed miles from the others in a dry riverbed. Within moments after burying my parachute under the lip of a parched bank, I was captured in a pincers that consisted of a remarkably inaccurate farmer firing an ancient 30-30 field piece and a band of peasants armed with scythes, flails, rakes, hoes and other agricultural weapons. In my best high school German mixed with a seasoning of pidgin English, I asked them about getting to neighboring Yugoslavia. Tito's partisans, we all knew, were operating an underground railway for downed Allied fliers, and it seemed possible that some Rumanian peasants might be sympathetic. My questions seemed to allay their hostility, and the fact that I was an American flier filled them with glee. I soon found out why. After feeding me and getting me happily drunk on the local potable, svicka, the fun-loving Rumanians turned me over to the police and collected the bounty offered on all enemy fliers.

After a night in the local jail, I was driven to an army installation at the edge of Bucharest that served as both a prison camp and a barracks for Nazi and Rumanian troops. I was taken to a basement room, stripped, searched and interrogated by a Rumanian captain, who had spent his formative years in Pittsburgh. He passed most of the time telling me how he played hookey so he could watch the Pirates. I was a St. Louis boy and a Browns fan, which was something like being a Mets fan today, so we didn't have much in common.

After this chatty session I was taken to a large, dark room lined on each side with crude wooden double bunks covered with mattresses made of equal parts of straw and vermin. In the room there were about 30 American fliers of various ranks.

I was just in time for supper, a collage of swill with decayed shredded cabbage leaves in a broth of boiled water. Since none of the crew of my B-17 had been brought in and I knew no one in the room where I was imprisoned, I was treated warily by the Allied assemblage.

This, of course, was quite proper. At each briefing before a mission every flight crew was warned about its behavior if captured and specifically alerted to the possibilities of spies in prisoner-of-war camps. "Beware of strangers" was the word. And I was a stranger.

Feeling weary and unwanted, I fell into one of the filthy bunks and, after a night spent battling bed bugs, lice and assorted other beasties, I rose crippled with backache and badly needing a shave. Off in a corner, a sergeant was using a razor while a group stood around him waiting turns to borrow it. I dragged myself over.

Since everyone in the room had avoided me since my arrival, I was not unprepared for what happened when I asked the sergeant if I could borrow the razor.

He sat honing the blade on the side of a drinking glass silently for a few moments, then looked up and asked: "Lieutenant, you're the latest arrival, so what's new? Who's leading the National League?"

"I'm not sure," I answered. "I'm an American League fan myself but I know the Cards, the Reds and the Pirates are all up there."

"And where's Notre Dame?" asked the sergeant.

"Notre Dame?" I repeated in surprise.

"Yeah, Notre Dame."

"What are you, a wise guy, sergeant? Notre Dame's in South Bend, Indiana."

"Naw, Lieutenant, that's not what I mean. Where's Notre Dame in the American League?"

"Look, sergeant, don't play book soldier with me. I know all the crap about not talking to strangers in a prison camp. I've heard it hundreds of times just like everyone else in this room. O.K., I know I'm here all alone but I'm not a plant, and when the rest of the guys from my crew arrive, if they ever do, they'll prove it. I was a bombardier in a B-17, and I got it over Ploesti. And you know as well as I do that Notre Dame is a college famed for football and doesn't play baseball against the pros. Now can I use the razor or can't I?"

The sergeant sat silently, continuing to hone the blade on the side of the tumbler, then he asked: "O.K., then. Who's ahead in the American League?"

With considerable irritation and some firmness I told him, not much caring whether he believed me or not. There was another loud silence. Finally, without looking up, the sergeant said: "I'm sorry, lieutenant, but there are only so many shaves in this blade, and it's the only one I've got."

I hobbled back to my bed, hanging on to the wooden bunks for support, and lay down. The sergeant continued to hone his blade and, when he finished, walked over to a captain, who, being the senior officer in the room, was in command. They were joined by half a dozen others and held a whispered conference. I couldn't hear a word they said, but I knew it was about me and I knew I was suspect.

A short time later the guard opened the door and in came four other guards. Two carried a steaming cauldron, one had several loaves of black bread and the fourth a tray of tin cups. The procedure was to take the food to the table in the center of the room or to your bunk.

Walking was extremely painful for me, and with my hands filled with a steaming hot tin cup and a slice of bread I could not grasp the ends of the bunks to help me maneuver. I started to shuffle toward the table, which was closer than my bunk, but I never made it. Someone jostled me and I dropped the cup; then someone stuck his foot out and tripped me. As I put my hands out to break my fall, the bread dropped onto the filthy floor and someone kicked it under a bunk. Not having eaten for a day, I held my anger, crawled to the cot and under it, and retrieved the bread. I put it in the pocket of my flying suit and crawled back to my bunk. I brushed off the dirt as best I could and ate. The bread was dry and stale, and there would be nothing to wash it down until midday when we were served water from the tumbler that served as our common drinking cup.

About an hour later there was a latrine call. In groups of about half a dozen we were escorted under guard to the latrine building, which was in the courtyard next to the kitchen where the food was prepared for the Nazi and Rumanian soldiers in the barracks.

I had noticed that most of the old-timers in the room had a cache of raw potatoes and carrots plus bread stashed in their clothing or under their pillows. I had wondered where those goodies had come from. Now I found out. It was a simple matter to divert the attention of the soldier guarding the latrine and quickly stick your hand through the unscreened kitchen window and grab whatever was within reach.

Next day, when latrine call came, I positioned myself so I could reach into the kitchen window. When the guard's attention was diverted I grabbed a slice of bread and a peeled raw potato, quickly hiding them in the pockets of my flying suit. While I was sitting on my bunk enjoying this feast, a corporal came over to me and said, "Hi." He was the first one to talk to me since my run-in the day before with the sergeant.

"Hi," I said.

"Say, lieutenant, do you know about the Geneva Convention?"

"Yeah, I know something about it. It protects guys like us, prisoners of war."

"Yeah, lieutenant, that's right. But it also says if you get caught stealing you can be tried and maybe even get 25 years in prison. And they don't mean prisoner-of-war camps."

"What's your point?"

"Simple. You know that potato and bread you are eating. You took them from the kitchen. That's stealing. Well, you seem to be a decent guy and some of us suspect not all of the guys in the room are Americans."

"Meaning what?"

"Meaning, simply, that some of the other guys in this room might be plants. You know, Rumanians, or even Nazis, who talk perfect English and were put into this room to spy. It could even be you. Or me."

"Yeah, I know, I know, but why are you telling me this?"

"Well, I just don't want you to get turned in for stealing food. You seem to be having enough trouble with your back and no one talking to you, so I feel a little sorry for you, that's all. Just trying to be friendly, lieutenant, is all."


Next morning, despite what the corporal had said, I again joined the scavengers reaching into the kitchen. This time I sneaked a carrot and two slices of bread. That afternoon, while I napped, someone stole the carrot and the bread, but no one reported me. I woke angry and stricken with dysentery, but this was good. It meant I had to make frequent trips to the latrine, and this gave me additional opportunities to lay in a food supply—unless somebody reported me.

On the fourth day of my ostracism there was no problem. Instead of latrine call, there was an air raid. We were locked in our room while the guards either went to the air-raid shelter or manned the lookout towers, aiming their rifles at the sky. Fortunately, the raid was on Ploesti, not on Bucharest.

Next morning, through the grapevine, we learned we soon would be getting visitors: crews that had been shot down during the raid the day before.

I could only hope that when the new prisoners of war were brought in there would be somebody who knew me. I got better than I had hoped.

After the evening meal the new prisoners were brought into the room in groups of four and five. In the last two batches were five members of my own crew. A sixth member was in the hospital with a broken leg, they told me.

While I was having an overly emotional reunion with the quintet I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the sergeant who owned the razor.

"Can I talk to you alone, lieutenant?" he said.


"Let's go over there," he said, pointing to a corner. When I got out of my bunk he gave me a hand until we reached the corner.

"I owe you an apology," he began. "I'm sorry for all the horrible things we have done to you since you got here. But you know how the G-2 always told us to be careful of strangers in prison camps. And you know why they tell you to talk slang to strangers, ask them questions about sports to prove they are Americans and not spies.... Well, I've had a chance to check out what you told me from the new guys."

"Told you about what?" I asked.

"About the American League," he said.

I stared incredulously. Then I asked, "Is that what made you and everyone else here decide apparently once and for all that I was an enemy plant, a spy?"

The sergeant lowered his eyes to the ground and cleared his throat. "Well, yeah," he said at last. "After all, lieutenant, who the hell could ever believe the St. Louis Browns were leading the American League?"