From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Stalag Las Vegas

My buddy Milt Moore and I were part of the 101st Airborne Division, “A” Battery, 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion and participated in Operation Market Garden, on September 19, 1944. Our glider was shot down, and we were captured. Eventually, we were sent to Stalag 7–A near Munich, where living quarters were less than adequate and the food was poor and limited. Though each man was supposed to receive one Red Cross package a week, this rarely happened. Six of us would split one package, containing among other things, cigarettes.

Milt was a smoker, but I was not. So I did what many other servicemen did—bartered the smokes for candy and other goodies.

During the day, we were sent out of the camp to work. Most of our forced labor was done in Munich or nearby Landshut, usually building or repairing the railroad lines. We would often work for weeks to repair a particular stretch of tracks, only to discover the next day it had been bombed by our planes overnight.

Despite the efforts we put into our repairs, we didn’t mind the destruction one bit, because we knew the Germans couldn’t make use of the tracks and roadways we were repairing under duress. Besides, the renewed damage provided more opportunities for us to go into the city to work. We considered our daily work trips into Munich an economic benefit.

Among other things, we used the city as a means to trade our cigarettes for bread and meat. While at our work detail location, we were often approached by black-marketers and ordinary citizens who would ask the guard if anyone had cigarettes to trade for bread. “Cigareten fur Brot? Cigareten fur Brot?” they would call out.

Before the barter could begin, we would have to bribe the guard with one or two cigarettes so we could make the trade. Then the bread itself would cost anywhere from five to ten cigarettes. Once in a while, we’d get a guard that wouldn’t allow trading with civilians, but that was rare.

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 grimy letter, obviously handled many times. He said it was from his son, who was at a POW camp in America, in a place called Georgia. 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 if his son was just telling him that to make him feel better. I told him it was 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, he explained, that was all his country had at present.

Seeing the sincerity in his eyes, I knew he was looking at me not as a captured enemy soldier, but as a man. It was a feeling I hadn’t had before in Germany.

Then he asked if there was anything he could do for me to show his appreciation for how my country was treating his son.

For some reason, his simple offer, a gesture of respect and gratitude amid the brutality of war, affected me. For a moment, I did not know what to say. I looked down at the ground and then back at this man’s face. What could he possibly do for me? I wondered. Then, suddenly, I remembered a makeshift lamp I had 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 quickly returned with three soda bottles of fuel. After bribing the guard (I don’t remember how many cigarettes I lost on that one), I was able to keep the bottles, which I put under my belt and covered with my thin coat.

Unfortunately, on the 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— I would have gone up like a torch!

Safely back in camp, I now had all the ingredients for a lamp, which we could use after our carbide lights burned out each night. Equipped with the lamp and a deck of cards that I had received back at the German captivity distribution camp, Milt and I had a new source of revenue.

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, I always had cigarettes to trade, and Milt 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 that this clandestine game was going on. About once a week, a guard 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 the only guys complaining were the ones whose cigarettes were in the confiscated pot!

Our nightly parties boosted morale for everyone, but what helped me most were not the games but the German worker in the greasy apron. He had shown me, a stranger and an enemy, that even war cannot wipe out the simple courtesies of the human heart.

Robert D. Reeves

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