Paul's Sentimental Journey

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Stalag 17B

The Telegram Paul's parents received on November 18, 1943 about him becoming a Prisoner of War.  It States:

Report received through The International Red Cross states that your son Staff Sergeant Paul Spodar is a Prisoner of War Of the German Government letter of Information follows from Provost Marshal General =

ULIO Adjutant General

.

 

From January 1, 1944 

GNEIXENDORF                                                                                      

TEILLAGER DER LUFTWAFFE

LAGERFUHRUNG

 

Camp Regulations

 

  1. Every German officer MUST be Saluted. When saluting, hands out of pockets, cigarettes and pipes out of mouth.
  2. All German soldiers in charge of administrative or guard functions (including auxiliary guards either in uniform or in civil clothes with armbands) and all armed force officials, if on duty, are superiors to the prisoners of war. Their orders have to be executed unconditionally and immediately.
  3. Roll call is MILITARY DUTY! So blouse and overcoat buttoned, military (not civil) cap and shoes! 
  4. Everyone who at signal for roll call, does not fall out immediately and directly shows disregard towards his comrades already standing roll call.
  5. Only those having a special written permit for a specified time from the doctor are allowed in the barracks during roll call.
  6. While on parade keep quiet, and observe military discipline ( No shouting, smoking, nor playing)!
  7. After roll call leave in full order ( No running from Parade ground)!
  8. All Prisoners of war, except unable, have to carry out works concerning their own benefit. Those refusing to work will be forced to.
  9. Chow detail, when whistled out, have to fall out immediately.
  10. Everybody to be delivered into infirmary, isolation, or Hospital, as well as such detached to special works or services have to give their names, second names and numbers to their barrack chief who has to inform the respective German company chief.
  11. Prisoners of War in isolation are not allowed to pay visits outside of isolation nor to receive visitors not isolated.
  12. Those touching warning wire or entering area warned not to will be fired on without warning.
  13. Hanging up laundry, blankets etc. On any barbed wire is strictly prohibited. Hang then on the stakes destined for this purpose.
  14. Misplacing Dog-tags has to be reported at once.
  15. Prisoners of war who have to leave camp for any reason (E.G. for hospital, delousing, works outside of camp such as unloading red cross parcels) are not allowed more than one package of cigarettes or tobacco. Excessive quantities will be confiscated.
  16. Address requirements, wishes ETC. only to your barrack chief who will pass them on to the German company chief.

CONSULTING HOURS For German “Company Chiefs” only for 9 to 10 and 15 to 16 o’clock by barrack chiefs only.

              

 (Gez.) Kuhn

 Oberst  N Kommandant

 

Paul’s first letter as a POW to his parents.

Nov. 7,1943

Dear Mom,

Just want to let you know that I’m a Prisoner of War and safe.

My crew and I are OK. I just want you to know so that you won’t worry. Tell all my friends to write as much as possible, but don’t expect too much mail from me.

We’re thankful that none of us were killed.

lso  to the Red Cross at home and they’ll give you all the particulars. We’re sorry that it had to happen, but I guess that its for the best. I went to church twice – once last Sunday and today. Give my love and blessings to all and if you get this by Christmas – your son Paul 

 

Stories From The Stalag

After a long and arduous journey, the POW’s pulled into a small train station in Krems Austria. It was dark and cold. The men were lead out of the train cars and placed into marching columns. The Germans marched the weary prisoners a few miles into the night. At the end of their march in the night the POW’s were met with harsh floodlights and a foreboding landscape of Stalag 17B. The prisoners were quickly processed and assigned to a barrack. When Paul got inside his new “home” there was no place to sleep. The floor was full of mud. With no mattress, no blanket, again no nothing, Paul spent his first night at Stalag 17 sleeping on top of a door that was laying on the barrack floor.

They were awakened early the next morning to roll call. It was a bleak day in more ways than one. The men had to stand in formation for a long time before they were allowed to return to their barracks. The men were issued a pallet to sleep on and a blanket. Paul and the other POW’s returned to their barracks cold and hungry.

When a person is always hungry their life becomes centered around food, so to for the men of Stalag 17B. The POW’s received Red-Cross parcels that went directly to the kitchen. The Germans would make mashed potatoes and add a can of processed beef to the potatoes. At night the guards would come to the barracks with a wooden tub filled with this mixture. The barrack chief would spoon it out to the men. The men were lucky if once in a while they saw a red speck of the phony beef in that tasteless mush. Along with the mashed potatoes a two kilo loaf of bread was allotted for every 16 men. The bread was old and hard as a brick. It was so hard you could knock a man out cold with it!

After a while the men complained to the commandant and said they wanted ALL the meat from the Red Cross parcels. So every Friday if the parcels were not “lost” the POW’s would go to a warehouse where the Germans had the parcels. The guards would put the packages on a table and open them up. All the tin cans were removed and lined up on the table, the guard would take out his bayonet and went boom, boom, boom putting a hole in each can.  Their reasoning was if a POW were going to escape he would want to carry tins of tuna and Spam. However, in reality if a prisoner were going to try to escape he would want to travel light. The best thing for him to take would be the chocolate D bar made especially for the military. The D bar was a great source of energy. In fact everything centered on the D bar and cigarettes as money of exchange for the prisoners.

As the days wore on in their incarceration the men settled down into a routine. In the morning two men would take a wooden tub with a stick through it to carry the tub to the kitchen. At the kitchen they were given warm water. The men used this water to make coffee or to shave. If it was not their turn to carry the tub, Paul and Ed Sexton would walk the compound.   Paul, Beck, Jake and Dannaman would pool their food together. They would save their potatoes, raisins, prunes and sugar cubes and on Saturday they would have their “big meal. Usually Paul was the cook for their little group. Paul would go to great lengths to try to make the meal more palatable. He would trade cigarettes with this one RAF POW who was sent out to work. While he was on a work detail he had a chance to “trade” with the locals for things like onions and other foodstuff the prisoners could not get. Paul would try to doctor up the Spam any way he could. If he had sugar and fruit he would make a glaze for the Spam and the men said that it tasted pretty good.

One day the four guys decided to do something different. They said that who ever got the first parcel and whatever was in their parcel would make the meal. Jake was the first one to get his parcel. As decided he had to make the meal from the contents of his package. He presented the meal to the guys and they dug in. The taste brought tears to the men’s eyes… and smoke out of their ears!  In his parcel Jake got what he loved most, those hot little jalapeno peppers. Jake loved those peppers and he felt that the other guys would love them too. So when he made their meal Jake put those hot firecracker peppers on everything. As Paul Beck and Dannaman were trying to put out the fire in their mouths Jake was in seventh heaven licking and eating those peppers. That was the first and last time they let Jake cook.

 Bang Goes The….

One evening Paul walked over to another barracks to visit a friend. Paul was sitting on the top bunk with his legs dangling over the side talking to his friend.  They were having a nice conversation when all of a sudden there was an explosion! Paul dove to the floor for cover trying to crawl under a bunk but there was another guy crawling under him going for the same cover. Sirens were wailing and there was smoke everywhere. The RAF was making frequent bombing raids near Stalag 17 at that time. Paul thought to himself, God they dropped bombs on us!

The smoke started to clear and one by one the men came out from their cover. Men were calling out, what happened? What happened? Paul gingerly got out from under the bunk. He looked up and saw a real young guy named Brownie sitting on the floor with his legs straight out with a dazed expression looking at his toes. All you could see was two big eyes staring out of a soot blackened face. He was covered in the stuff.

The last time Paul had seen Brownie he was sitting on a three-legged stool by the stove. The men tried to come up with ways to improve the stale hard bread they were given. Brownie was trying to make toast. He had a piece of barbed wire holding a slice of bread over a meager fire in the stove.  The POW’s had so little fuel (coal) but plenty of soap. The men found out that soap burned so they would use that whenever possible and save their ration of fuel for heat or to cook that Saturday meal. The soap didn’t make a big fire but just enough to make toast. Because of incomplete combustion the soap barely burned, however it created a lot of soot. This soot built up in the chimney and finally blocked it. With nowhere to go the stove decided to blow up in poor Brownie’s face. The blast knocked Brownie head over heels about 6 feet from where he was sitting.

The Compass

Paul lost a lot of things on Black Thursday his one boot, bomber jacket, gun, and his freedom but he didn’t loose his little compass. The compass was just one of those dime store compasses that kids play with, to Paul it was his secret ticket to freedom. When he was first captured Paul agonized over where he could hide his precious compass. He came up with all sorts of plans like putting it in his mouth with the idea if they asked him to open his mouth he would swallow it and retrieve it later once he  “passed” it. Then he thought that maybe he could hide it between his butt cheeks. He vacillated between the two ideas not knowing what to do while he waited in his cell to be interrogated.

Finally the time came and a German soldier took Paul to a room where at first they patted him down and asked him a few questions. They never felt the compass. He thought great no problem now. However as Paul was congratulating himself, one of the German privates told him to get undressed. It was now or never, he had to choose one of his plans fast. So he popped the little compass into his mouth and got undressed. The first thing they made him do was bend over and spread his cheeks, he was so glad he didn’t choose his second option. However as with anything you place in your mouth, be it food or a little compass the glands in the mouth don’t know the difference and started producing saliva. So Paul bent over and his mouth was filling up with saliva. He pursed his lips even harder trying to stem the flow to no avail. As he started to drool he did a last ditch attempt to stop the flow. He slurped! The noise caught everyone’s attention. Paul thought to himself this is it they are going to take it (the compass) away from me. Paul looked at the soldier and the soldier looked at him and neither one said anything. Long moments passed when finally the soldier told him to put his clothes back on.

As in all Stalags the POW’s had an escape committee. This intelligence service helped the men escape. They would use camp money and connections to buy civilian clothes, maps and make ID’s. In the course of everything that Paul went through he still managed to hang onto his little compass. Paul had been a POW for about eight or nine months when the escape committee approached him. Somehow they found out about his little compass. They asked him to give it to them. Paul told them that he wanted to escape too. They told him that he had to take his turn, that some of the men that were waiting to escape were there in camp 2 years. The committee told him that when his time came that they would give him a magnetized needle! Paul said “ A magnetized needle! He had enough of a hard time finding his way around his hometown of Cleveland Ohio and he was suppose to run around a strange hostile country with a magnetized needle trying to figure out which way was north or south… NO WAY!

It was wintertime. The compound was bleak, freezing with even the snow looking gray. As was a regular ritual of the Germans, the soldiers would call for a hand search of the prisoners. As the POW’s lined up outside the barracks in the snow, Paul put on his Serbian military cap someone had given him. He took his little compass out of his pocket and placed it inside the rim of the cap. They stood in the cold snow for a long time as one by one they were hand searched. Finally the Germans were done with the men and they could go back inside their barracks. In defiance to the Germans someone threw a snowball and a snowball fight began. In the ensuing ruckus Paul reached up for his compass… it was gone. He went on his hands and knees searching for his little compass in the snow. He never found it.

Paul's POW ID  

 

 

Its All Relative…

As the days and weeks turned into months Paul and his crew mates resigned themselves to the daily routine of being a POW. Every once in a while the monotony was broken with the addition of a new POW to their barracks.

One day Paul was just hanging out on his bunk when in came a new POW. As he was being shown around and instructed on the rules of the camp someone called out ‘Hey Spodar”, the new POW stopped in his tracks and turned when Paul responded. Paul saw this bedraggled airman in a torn up jumpsuit start to walk towards him. As the airman got to Paul’s bunk he said “My bombardier was Mike Spodar any relation?” Paul said “Yea, that’s my cousin.” The airman told Paul that they lost several from his crew but Lt. Spodar made it and was captured when he was, being an officer he was sent to another Stalag.

Once a month in their Red Cross parcel they got 2 postcards and 2 pieces of paper. Paul used one of his precious pieces of paper and wrote a letter to Mike to let him know that he also was captured. Paul worried that he never got a response from Mike. It wasn’t until he was liberated and was at Camp Lucky Strike that Paul ran into his cousin Mike and indeed the Germans did send the letter on to Mike. Paul found out that Mike was sent to Stalag 1 in Barth Germany and that during his incarceration, Mike put his skills as a professional musician to good use. To help boost the POW’s moral Mike lead a band called “Round the Benders”. Round the bend was a term they used to say a person was crazy. 

This is Paul's cousin Mike Spodar

 

 

The Mystery Man

It’s surprising how over 4000 men from all walks of life and different ethnicities could become such a close knit community. But they did, it was a matter of survival. The POW’s knew the comings and goings of the camp. What new arrivals had come and who had left either by escaping or death. Good or bad they knew.

Paul had a friend in barrack 34. Every once in a while he would go visit his buddy in the other barrack. One day the two of them were shooting the breeze at his buddy’s barrack when this strange guy came in. Paul asked his friend who’s he? His buddy just shrugged his shoulders. Paul didn’t pursue it any further sometimes you just don’t ask.

It bothered Paul for many years that he didn’t find out who that man in barracks 34 was, finally he got his answer. The man was known to the Americans and Germans as Staff Sergeant Harry Vozic a B17 crewman. Many POWs speculated that Vozic was a German plant and in fact in the movie Stalag 17 they portrayed him as such.  However that was not his real name. His real identity was Dr. Rueben Rabinovitch. He was a Canadian Jewish doctor who came to study neuro-surgery in France . When the war broke out he hid his family and he went to work with the French underground. While he was trying to get flyers out of the country he and the small group were captured. The other men gave him clothes and he assumed the identity of Harry Vozic. Only one person in Stalag 17B knew his true identity the camp leader Kurtenbach.

Webmaster note: If you would like to read more about Dr. Rabinovitch go to:   http://www.wepledgeallegiance.com/MysteryMan.htm  

 

The Hairs Have it!

The Germans didn’t offer much in the way for personal hygiene for the POWs. However, someone  (in the German army) got the bright idea that to combat the flea and bed bug infestations of the barracks and POWs by cutting their hair. The Germans chose the worst time of year to start the project… winter.

The men came out from the barbers with bald heads. It was winter, it was cold. Many men didn’t have hats. To combat the loss of body heat through their heads, the men resorted to wearing rags like babushkas (scarves as hats). They would be out standing in the compound looking like a bunch of women.

One day the guys of barracks 7 decided to revolt against the haircuts. They took the margarine that they had and rubbed it into their hair. Next they went outside their barracks and grabbed a handful of sand and mixed that into their hair. They slicked back the gummy  mess and went to the barber.

The Germans had about 3 barbers cutting all of them men’s hair. The barbers had big heavy industrial hair clippers. One by one the POWs got their hair cut. You could hear the zip, zip of the clippers as they went along. Finally the guys from barracks 7 were up. The barbers started cutting their hair and instead of the nice zip zip sound it was a brrrrrr—snap! The barbers looked at their clippers Vas is dat?!! Mine machine nix poot!! The grease and sand from the POW’s heads gummed up broke the teeth on the clippers. The Germans started to grab the guys by the greased hair and put them to one side. They were going to put them in solitary confinement for breaking the clippers. However the Germans only had 3 pens for solitary so only a few from the large group of guys were sent to the pen. The Germans go the message and stopped cutting their hair.

Get Shorty

When you put together a group of men from all walks of life representing many nationalities under bleak and demanding conditions it is inevitable that tempers will flair and fists will start to fly…

For the most part Paul’s barrack mates got along pretty well considering the kind of living conditions they were thrust in. The men became an extended family to each other and in every family there has to be the instigator of trouble. Shorty was that man. Shorty was a balding blond man with a chip on his shoulder longer than he was tall. For some reason he decided that he did not like Jake Martinez and during the day would pick on him and call him derogatory names. Jake would return the “endearments” with his own choice of words. However during the first minutes after lights out the real fun would begin.

Shorty had a top bunk and Jake was underneath him in the middle bunk. Paul was in the next bunk over with Beck, no one used the bottom bunks.  Just after lights out the men could hear someone laughing followed by someone swearing every night. This was Shorty and Jake. When the lights went out Shorty would start by laughing heh, heh, heh all the while positioning his butt over the side of the bunk and letting loose with some noxious flatulence into Jake’s face. This bickering and nocturnal farting went on for several weeks.  

One day Jake decided to take matters into his own hands. He told Paul “This is it I’m going to fix that SOB Shorty once and for all.” Jake got a wooden slat from one of the bottom bunks. The slat was about 3 feet long 2 inches wide and an inch thick. Jake preceded to tell Paul his plan. That night when everyone was getting ready for bed Paul could hardly contain himself. Beck jumped in his bunk oblivious to the goings on that Jake planned. Paul got into his bunk and had to put his pillow over his face to stop laughing in anticipation of what was to come.

By now everyone in the barrack was used to the routine of Shorty laughing and Jake swearing before falling off to sleep. The lights go out and Shorty started his nightly routine of gassing out Jake. There was the heh, heh, heh this time followed by a whoosh, splat, and oh, oh, oh, groaning. At this point Paul busts out laughing followed by the others.  Jake smacked Shorty in the bare ass with the bed plank complete with splinters.  Shorty sported an 8 inch red welt on his butt. Shorty got the message and laid off Jake.  

Now that Shorty had a semi truce with Jake he turned his sights on a big 6 foot Swede named Rasmissen called Raz for short. Shorty started calling the Swede all kinds of names, at first the big Swede just ignored him but finally one day Shorty finally found the right button to push. As Shorty was giving him cat calls from his top bunk Rasmissen jumped off his bed and stood on the bottom plank of the grouping of Shorty’s bunk. The Swede reached up and grabbed Shorty by the shirt at the same time Shorty took a wild swing at the Swede. Raz pulled back to avoid the punch never letting go of Shorty’s shirt. Both came tumbling off the bunks and hit the floor with a loud ka-thunk! Paul had a ring side seat being in the next set of bunks next to Shorty.  All Paul saw was the two of them come flying off the bunks to land sprawled on the floor. Shorty was not moving and the Swede was getting ready to sucker punch Shorty in the face. Paul yelled to him “Raz you’re going to kill him,” as Raz was going  to finish his punch, Paul implored, “ Hey don’t you’ll  be put up for quarters. Raz thought better of it and let go of Shorty.  Shorty was now alert and Paul threatened him ‘Shorty if you don’t stop this shit I’ll hit you so hard your nose will meet the back of your head and if I don’t someone else will.” From then on Shorty stayed low keyed with the guys in the barracks.

War is Hell…The Dark Abyss

War is hell. We tend to romanticize WWII, yes it was a time of great patriotism and the world banded together for a common cause. We sent our young men far away to fight for us which they did gladly and willingly.  However the costs were high, not only in the loss of life and property but a loss of one’s self.  These boys were exposed to things that No one should see. Yet they did and they continued to fight for our freedom. For some the war threw them into a dark abyss that they could not get out of. Unfortunately war is a necessary evil. Using a quote that my nephew, a Captain in the Air Force always says, Freedom is NEVER free…

Nightly, after Jake and Shorty were done with their fight another kid 4-5 bunks down from Paul would start his nightly whimper. He’d wait 5-10 minutes maybe a little longer and in a plaintive voice “I want my mama, I want my mama, I hate this place, I want to go home, I want to go home, I want my mama. And he would say that over and over like a mantra. The guys in the barracks were trying to fall asleep knowing in the back of their minds they wanted to go home too. Finally someone couldn’t take in any more and would say, put a pillow on the SOB’s head, put soap in his mouth. Someone please shut him up.

Webmaster note ~ This next paragraph is taken directly from my audio tape of my Dad telling his stories of life in Stalag 17B no editing  was done. Dad said it all. It took a lot for Dad to talk about this and we had to stop the tape. For the rest of the evening Dad didn’t talk. He was caught up in his own ghosts and memories. ~~~ Sharon   

We had a couple of guys go nuts. And its bad.--- They had bad bad cases you know. They were like psychos already. And one was so bad that the American doctor, they had another small hospital outside the barracks somewhere and the American doctor talked with the German doctor to ah… let him be up there but with his friend and his friend had to watch him like 24 hours a day. So they went up there on the hill or where ever the hell it was. They were there only a couple of days seemed like the kid was getting better ya know… and getting out of it. One day he told his buddy to go get him a glass of water or something. I didn’t get the full story. While his buddy went for the water he takes off gets down to the in the yard and up on the fence. Those krauts didn’t yell halt! Bang they shot him… killed him. And some time you lay a couple of hours before especially with them Italians or the others they (Germans) didn’t give a shit about those. They’d lay there maybe they weren’t fatally wounded but you bled to death. So I don’t know…

The Radio

Even being in a prisoner of war camp the POW’s knew what was going on in the war more so than the German’s watching over them. These were a resourceful bunch of men and they utilized anybody’s training or gifts, be it building something to entertaining the men with music.

Like all good POWs they had a radio. The men traded pieces and parts with the privates on the other side of the double fence. Unlike the non-commissioned officers the privates from all the captured armies were sent out to work. Because they got out of the prison camp to work they were able to procure pieces and parts of things. Paul’s group would throw a sock over the double fence with a couple of packs of cigarettes and a note. The next day you would get what you asked for. The Australians were really resourceful and managed to get the parts needed to build the radio.

In their barracks they had a cracker jack radioman Denardi. In civilian life Denardi did electronic stuff and the army air corps utilized his expertise and made him a radioman. Denardi built a radio from the traded pieces and parts. The radio represented a precious link to the outside world and was protected at all costs. This radio was constantly moved around and drove the German’s crazy trying to find it. They knew the POW’s had one because the prisoners sometimes knew more than they did. The guys kept track of troop movements and used red and blue string that represented the Allied troops and the German troops. The German officers would come in and see the red and blue string placed on a make shift map. One German officer finally said this must be real that these men can’t be fooling around. To the bane of the Germans they never did find that radio. However when the men had to leave Stalag 17 to start the march, the POW’s left the Germans a gift… When the last man closed the door to the barrack for the final time there sitting on the little table in plain sight was the radio!  

 

As I was listening to my father on the audiotape, he was talking about camp life I heard a click then nothing… I fast-forward still nothing. So I eagerly flipped the tape over…silence! Dad and I never knew that the tape accidentally clicked off. All those stories, nothing! So this Easter when I go visit my parents I will be armed with my tape recorder and have him finish the story. When I do I will post the final chapter, Life at Stalag 17 B and the march.  

February 2007

I did get to hear the final chapter of my father's time as a POW. I have added several new stories. As I transcribe the tape I will be adding more. Also I am learning other stories from cousins i.e. about Mike Spodar then asked my Dad what happened so now you know the story.

Sharon

If you would like more stories about Stalag 17 PBS's show History Detectives did an episode about a Stalag 17 portrait. You can watch the episode on the web or download a PDF hardcopy. go to: http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/investigations/710_stalag.html

Sharon 2010