As the war was coming to an end, we asked the German guards if we could hold a ceremony in Roosevelt’s honor
The heavy cannonading in the east told the American POWs in Kommando 64/VI that the war was almost over. We had survived the brutally cold Baltic winter in this satellite labor camp of a German stalag and were now enjoying the first tenuous rays of the spring sun. Meanwhile the Russians were drawing up their forces along the Oder River, just fifty miles away, for their final drive into the heartland of Germany. Prison life would soon be over, at least for the Americans.
As prisoners we had tried to look like lousy soldiers. Early every morning, before we were taken out to labor, we were lined up to be counted. Appell the Germans called it. On returning at night, we were lined up for another Appell . The second count made certain that the same number that had gone out in the morning had come back at night.
We were lined up in files of five, and the guards marched by, counting by fives: fünf, zehn, fünfzehn, zwanzig . But we never lined up exactly, and we kept shifting positions, making it difficult for the guards to get accurate counts, particularly in the semidarkness of the Baltic winter.
The Germans thought we were sloppy soldiers. But if we could confuse the count, someone who had slipped off from his work station to get out of the cold for an hour or two would have more time to sneak back into the formation before the Germans could get an accurate count. More important, if someone had actually escaped, it would take the Germans valuable time to figure it out. Sloppy was embarrassing—but useful.
On the morning of April 13,1945, as we were whacking away at the slowly thawing earth with our picks and shovels, our Vertrauensmann dashed up. “President Roosevelt died yesterday,” he told us breathlessly.
The Vertrauensmann was an American POW chosen by the guards, largely because of his command of the German language, to act as an intermediary between them and the prisoners. He stayed with the guards in their hut and had access to their radio. He was therefore an excellent and reliable source of information.
At his news we leaned on our picks and shovels, as we were wont to do at any excuse. “He did?” someone asked rather flatly. “So, where are the Russians now?” inquired another, pursuing a more pressing issue. We were not terribly excited about American politics. Most of us had been too young to vote in the 1944 election.
Someone asked, “Who is the new President?” No one knew. Finally one of those leaning on a shovel said he thought that the new President had been, before becoming Vice President, a relatively insignificant senator from the Midwest.
At this point the Vertrauensmann said, “Let’s hold a retreat ceremony in Roosevelt’s honor!”
Despite our lack of strong political convictions, we all agreed that this was a fine idea. Winter was gone, and with it the urgent need to seek shelter away from one’s work station. Also, the end of the war was clearly just weeks away, and escape seemed far less urgent. Sloppy soldiering was no longer appealing. So we agreed to do the retreat ceremony. And to do it right. The Vertrauensmann saw to it that every prisoner got the message.
After the evening Appell that day, with all of its shuffling and shifting, fünf -ing and zehn -ing, the Kommandant , finally satisfied with the count, ordered us to return to our cells. But we remained in the general area instead, milling about. The Vertrauensmann came out, faced us, and ordered, “ Kommando , fall in!”
We assumed a roughly rectangular formation.
“Ten-shut!” he shouted.
We snapped to attention.
“Dress right, dress!”
We dressed right perfectly. Each man on the extreme right file faced forward. Everyone else looked to his right and extended his right arm to adjust the space between him and his neighbor. The ranks and files were perfectly aligned.
Our Vertrauensmann shouted,“Front!” We dropped our right arms and snapped our heads forward, not a man out of line front or side.
The guards were amazed. They had never seen such a rectilinear performance from our apparently disorganized ranks. They had no idea that we could be as spit and polish as Germans when it suited us.
The Vertrauensmann commanded, “Present arms!” We had no arms to present, so we simply stayed at attention. But the Vertrauensmann did a snappy about-face and gave a right-hand salute.
At that exact moment taps wafted over the compound. The Vertrauensmann had borrowed a cornet from a French prisoner in a nearby lockup and found one of our members who could play it. The poignant sound caused furrows on some of our unwashed faces.
As the last note died away, our Vertrauensmann did another about-face. “Order arms!” he commanded. With no arms to order, we continued to stare straight ahead.
“ Kommando , dismissed!” he shouted. We turned on our heels and walked slowly back toward our cells.
Our retreat ceremony was a great success. Not only had it honored our departed President, but it had also gained us a newfound respect in the eyes of our captors. Meanwhile the continuing drumfire in the east told us that this ordeal would soon be over. And that we would soon march out of Kommando 64/Vl with our heads held high.