‘A Xmas Message, from the camp’
Those Christmas bells ring once again
Their chimes, they cross the sea
And reach the hearts of many men
Who bear captivity
Their echoes bring this message from
Your loved ones o’er the foam
May soon God turn your footsteps to
Your life, and love and home
-- by POW A.J. White, copied into the POW diary of Donald. E. Muston
Donald E. Muston woke up on his back, looking up at the clouds in the sky. It took a moment to realize he was falling.
He spotted his chute pack on his chest and pulled the little red handle, just like he’d been taught. Then he fell vertically as pieces of his B-17 dropped past, a parachute with no one in it.
His hands hurt. He looked and saw his left had no skin. “I decided then and there that the parachute was really quite an invention and there was nothing to jumping,” Muston said, reading from a book 66 years old: “A Wartime Log for British Prisoners.” It was given to him empty. In more than 300 days as a German prisoner of war, Muston filled it cover to cover, writing across the margins in meticulous block letters.
Inside are lists, quotes, illustrations. He recorded events important in the life of a Kriegie, an Allied prisoner of war in Germany: air raids, mail call, weather, marches. When he got to eat, what and how much.
Muston arrived at Stalag Luft III near Sagan, Poland, in August 1944, about five months after the Great Escape. The plan called for three tunnels -- Tom, Dick and Harry -- so that if one or two were discovered, another was in the works. Seventy-nine men crawled through the tunnel on March 25, 1944; 73 were eventually caught, 41 of those killed. Muston has a diagram of the tunnels in his diary, copied from prisoners who were there at the time. He also drew a picture of the memorial erected for those killed.
In the last 10 pages of the diary, Muston wrote, “The Story of the Last Flight: This is the story that I hoped I would never have to tell. The story of my fatal flight!!”
He landed 50 yards from a road and went flat on his back again. A Frenchman helped him out of his harness and into a car. Muston wanted to hide the chute, but the Frenchman just dragged it a short way and drove Muston to a country home.
When two women took off his helmet, he noticed half of it was gone, blown away in the explosion. They cut away his clothes because he could not stand the pain of them being peeled over his hands and head.
He saw himself in a mirror: “I could hardly believe what I saw as my face was black from the explosion, the side of my neck and head was covered with blood. There were burns around my eyes and my eyebrows and eyelids were burned away.”
The French gave Muston and another of his surviving crew members to the Germans.
For the next two months, Muston was interrogated, transferred, marched and penned. Only four of his crew had survived the explosion and landing. The rest he saw on lists of dead the Germans wanted him to identify.
Prisoners were held by the hundreds in bug-infested rooms, some lying by the latrine cans. An airman named Joe helped keep the flies away from Muston’s infected hand, and the two became pals.
On July 19, the prisoners were given 1 ½ loaves of bread and half a can of meat each and were told it would need to last three days. Then they had to last another two days with no food at all. They arrived in Stalag XII A in Limburg, Germany, on July 24.
But he got to wash his clothes, and the men got one Red Cross parcel each.
The soup here was usually rotten consisting mostly of grated sugar beets with plenty of sand. One day, we found a jaw bone filled with rotten teeth at the bottom of the soup kettle. All who ate the soup became sick …
Muston made a cribbage board and taught Joe and another pal, Pat, how to play. They bet cigarettes and food in poker games, and when Joe sat in, they could eat for a week.
Finally, on the 15th of August, we got our orders to pack. (HA! HA!) …
… On Aug. 17, late in the afternoon, we pulled into Sagan and went to the camp … The next day we received clothing, Red Cross parcels, toilet articles and were assigned to a compound of Stalag Luft III which looked like a haven in Kriegiland to me.
Muston wrote the story “after liberation for obvious reason,” according the diary.
When he got back home, he put it away, for reasons just as obvious. His daughter, Diane Bellah, didn’t know it existed until she was a grown woman.
The pages are yellow now, the corners bent and fraying.
But printed on those delicate pages is a history rich in detail, stories of longing and hunger, boredom and camaraderie. Muston traced dog tags of fellow prisoners and wrote in their addresses. He drew planes and contraptions the Kriegies used to “cook” their meager rations. He recorded jokes and funny sayings, meant to keep their minds off what they faced each day.
And he copied many, many poems, written by fellow prisoners. They include “I Wanted Wings,” printed on the very first page:
I wanted wings ‘till I got the dadburn things. Now I don’t want them anymore/ They taught me how to fly and sent me out to die -- I’ve had my belly full of war …
Unit: 457th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force
War fronts: As a lead wing navigator flying missions over Germany, shot down on his 19th mission on June 14, 1944, near Melon, France. Spent time in POW camps Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Poland; Stamlager XIII-D, Nuremberg, Germany; and Stamlager VII -A, Moosburg, Germany.
Family: Three children, five grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and six great-great grandchildren
Excerpts from Muston's POW diary:
* “Quaint sayings heard in camp”
Kriegie cooking: “When it’s brown it’s cooking. When it’s black, it’s done!”
"The French changed hands so often, they thought they’d never come."
Question asked by incoming Kriegie at XIII-D - “What do I do with my garbage: Ans. By several - “We don’t know. We haven’t had any yet.”
* Kriegie glossary
Agorsh -- Anything knocked together, defying all laws of nature
Abort -- A gentleman’s communal retreat
Circuit bashing -- Daily constitutional ramble around the extremities of the compound
Combine -- A number of guys (U.S.) or blokes (Brits) who join up together to rook each other's food supplies
Ferret (or mole) -- Germans clad in black and blue overalls whose sole ambition in life is to catch a Kriegie on the job
Glop -- Concoction similar to Kriegie menus composed of barley and prunes, followed by general retreat to aforementioned “Abort”
Around the Bend -- That wonderful state of dreamlike bliss reached by most Kriegies often sojourning in Germany for not less than four months
Rackets -- Indulged in by 90% of the camp, being their ability to live off the other 10%
* Extracts from POW letters (with kind permission)
2. Darling, you must stop writing to Tom. He has been dead two years.
5. Your letter reads like a glorious holiday.
6. When peace comes, it will bring great joy. Some will be reunited with their loved ones. Others with their husbands.
11. I’m so glad you were shot down before flying became dangerous.
12. It’s the same dull routine these days here. Work in the morning. Come home and go to a dance or show. It’s so monotonous but still I suppose there are some things you have to do without, too.
14. In any case, it would have been a pity, not to have seen Germany.
17. In everyone of your last six letters, you’ve asked for six pairs of sox. I presume you must be joking. So I sent pajamas instead.
23. When I think of you getting up a 0930 when I’ve already been up 3 hrs. I think it’s simply shocking.
28. Darling, in your May letter you asked for slippers. What color would you like?
42. First letter to POW from fiance: “You were missing a month; so I got married.”
46. A POW shot down a year previously received a letter congratulating him on joining the Armed forces.