A Man to Man Connection

One day in Munich we were working on the railroad tracks outside a machine shop. During our lunch break, a German worker wearing a greasy, leather apron came out of the shop and asked me, in broken English, if we were Americans. When I told him we were, he said he had something to show me. Out of his apron, he pulled a dirty, many- times-handled letter. He said it was from his son who was in a POW camp in Georgia in the States. His son wrote that he always had fresh fruit to eat and slept in a bed with sheets on it. The machinist wanted to know if this was the truth, or was the son just telling him this to make dad feel better. I told him that it wasChicken Soup For The Veteran's Soul all true, and that the United States treated all POWs that well, or better. The German citizen said he felt badly that we had to work so hard and were given such poor food - but that was all his country had at present. He wanted to know if there was anything he could personally do for me to show his appreciation for how my country was treating his son. Thinking quickly about a make-shift lamp I had already fabricated from a tin can and a wick-controlled element (stolen from a railroad signal lantern), I told the man I could surely use some fuel oil to burn in my little lamp. He left, and returned with three soda pop bottles of fuel. After bribing the guard (I don't remember how many cigarettes I lost in that one), I got to keep the bottles, which I put under my belt and covered with my thin coat. Unfortunately, on the train ride back to camp, one of the bottles broke, filling my pants with glass shards and fuel oil. I warned everyone around me not to light any cigarettes, or I might go up like a torch. Safely back at camp, I now had all the ingredients for a lamp to be used after our carbide lights burned out each night.

Life is a Little Brighter

Milt Moore and I then parlayed my lamp and the deck of cards that I had received back at the distribution camp in Limburg, into a source of revenue for us. After our official barracks-lights went out, we threw a blanket on a table and ran a poker game. Naturally, cigarettes were used for money in this gambling venture. Neither Milt nor I played in the game, but we dragged one "house" cigarette from every pot. And from that day on, Milt and I always had cigarettes to trade, and he always had as many as he wanted to smoke. This arrangement lasted for many months, providing a great deal of recreation for our buddies, and kept Milt and me "in the chips".

Incidentally, our patrolling guards knew this clandestine game was going on. About once a week, a guard and his dog would come into the barracks, lay his hat beside the table, and scoop that pot of cigarettes into the hat. That was his cut for allowing the game. The guard was happy, Milt and I were happy, and it was only the players who complained when it was their cigarettes in the confiscated pot! Milt, by the way, contributed to our little casino one day when he managed to steal a bottle of wine while working in the basement of a Munich hospital. He rationed that alcohol out to us at the rate of a bottle-cap-full every night until it was gone.

The American "Blower"

As we began adapting to our living conditions, we became more creative with not only our food-gathering but, our preparation methods, too. Limited to the one small stove in the barracks, most of us improvised outdoors with what we called a "blower". It was a hand- driven, pulley-operated fan that created an updraft in a bucket-type fire pot. It was fueled with small kindling, and could be started and extinguished very quickly. We used it outside in our staging area where a pot of potatoes could be brought to a boil in a matter of minutes. Incidentally, I made a crude copy of a blower when I got back to the States, and still have it on display in my basement. Perhaps one of the least illustrious uses of a blower came when one of the GIs on work detail caught a cat, killed it, cleaned it, and fried it on his blower. I wasn't offered any of his meal, but, as I told my mother when she asked, I was certainly hungry enough to join in if I had been invited.

Once, while working in a railroad yard, we found a coal car filled with turnips. Since the temperature was below freezing, the turnips were well preserved and just slightly frozen. We ate them like kids enjoying a turnip popsicle. Unfortunately, many of us got sick from eating too many of them.