A Wartime Log
by Art and Lee Beltrone; Howell Press, 208 pages .
By the time they were liberated, German prison camps had held some thirty thousand downed American fliers. While there, the prisoners received parcels from the Red Cross and logbooks from the YMCA. Some traded their journals for chocolate or cigarettes; others filled them with poetry or painted scenes, using brushes they made from their own hair and colors they bled from coffee grounds and soup labels. Art Beltrone, a former newspaper reporter and lifelong military collector, gathered a dozen surviving POW journals for this remarkable group portrait of the camps. After lingering half a century in their owners’ attics, the logbooks put us instantly into the POW experience in Germany. Amid lonely poems about home and some rough drawings of beckoning women, much of the material powerfully transcends the day-to-day. Sylvan Cohen’s spare paintings of his B-17 gunner’s post give you a cold shiver of vertigo. Bombardier Jack Friend’s brooding Christmas scene shows night sky, snowy ground, and barbed wire, as seen from his barracks.
Fliers often rendered the crash or parachute drop that had brought them into captivity. Lt. Roy Wendell, who lost forty pounds at Stalag Luft I, kept sane by touring his favorite New York restaurants: “Diana’s Coffee Shop—Very small—Diana an Old Lady Running business to Kill Time—Best Flank Steak— 33rd E. of Lexington . . . Ham ‘n Eggery—Times Square —Eggs Cooked to Style and eaten Out of Pan . . . Breakfast $ .50.” The best-known artwork by a POW actually wasn’t from a logbook, but it is reproduced in this volume too: From wooden bed slats and a table leg, a prisoner named Claire Cline made a violin that several classical artists later took on tour.
These journals are inspiring works, full of the dark humor and toughness that got their authors through their longest days.