CP Note: Kurt Vonnegut was born November 11, 1922. In a November years later, he was preparing for battle—and then captured, prisoner of war. Vonnegut’s fall of 1944 is shared here, leading into the winter and Slaughterhouse-Five.
Waiting for the division when it reached New York was the RMS Queen Elizabeth, then the largest passenger ship ever built, painted in war time colors of battleship gray. Its steel hull was a thousand feet long with a “great big wide entrance door, as big as a wall,” said one of the men, awed, “and we went in there.”
Vonnegut discovered that he had been assigned, ironically, to the bridal suite on the top deck, airier and more spacious than the decks down below. On the morning of October 17 the Queen shoved off into the Hudson. Thousands of men on deck crowded against the railing and even climbed the rigging, cheering the Statue of Liberty. As protection against German submarines patrolling the eastern coast, a blimp followed them out to sea for two days, and then they were alone. The Grey Ghost, as it was called, moved the troops at an impressive thirty knots (thirty- five miles per hour).
In Cheltenham, England, where the 106th reassembled two weeks later, camp life was routinized and unexciting. Then orders in late November to attend information sessions about the enemy— their uniform insignias, light weaponry, and language—made things more interesting. Like travelers who were about to meet the locals, Vonnegut and the others sat in rows repeating German phrases, most of which Kurt remembered from two years of German at Shortridge High School. The only other man in his squad who understood as many words was Robert Kelton, drafted during his sophomore year at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Finally, everyone received bundles of warmer clothes: long underwear, long wool socks, four- buckle overshoes, wool sweaters, and knit caps. Rumor had it the division was being sent to the Ardennes Forest, where it would be snowy and cold. The good news was that the Ardennes sector had been quiet for months.
When Vonnegut and the rest of the 423rd Regiment crossed the English Channel on December 6 and waded ashore at Le Havre at dawn, it began to rain. Some of the men laughed and made cracks about “Sunny France.” Surrounding him in the town was the first evidence of combat he had seen: bomb craters, burned-out buildings, and German antiaircraft guns pointed skyward. In a field nearby lay the remains of a crashed Allied bomber. Vonnegut hiked himself over the tailgate of a transport truck and found a spot on a bench inside. Studying the faces of the men as they climbed aboard, his rifle clutched upright between his knees, he felt proud. He had made a choice, one that showed commitment and responsibility. Bernard had once called him “an accident,” which unfortunately his recent failures seemed to bear out. But what he was doing now was honorable. It testified to his value, and he felt “utterly beyond reproach.” The muddy trucks, loaded up at last with human cargo, growled into gear and joined the swaying convoy headed toward Dieppe.
At first the landscape resembled Indiana—flat and rural. The trees had lost their leaves and smoke curled from the chimneys of farm houses. But over the course of a week, as the trucks rode higher and higher, through the mountains of eastern Belgium and Luxembourg, the road penetrated forests of snow- covered evergreens and the men could see their breath. Lining the ditches, like a traffic jam bulldozed out of the way, were hundreds of German tanks and trucks, strafed and burned-out.
The truck ride ended in the Belgium village of St. Vith, the final bivouac before moving up to the front. The 106th Division was there to replace the Second Division, man for man, gun for gun—every position on twenty- seven miles of the Siegfried Line that had been seized from the Germans the previous August. Jumping down off the tailgate, Vonnegut heard shouts of “You’ll be sorry!” and “Good luck, assholes!” as old hands observed with glee the clean uniforms and shaven faces of their fresh, untried replacements. Then after two days of organizing, the 106th began a twelve-mile eastern march into a hilly portion of western Germany known as the Eifel, part of the Ardennes Forest lying across the continuous borders of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Vonnegut’s regiment, the 423rd, together with the 422nd, took up positions atop fir-covered Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountain), the most exposed salient of the entire American front. Below was a valley, rimmed by mountains on the other side.
One night a bright moon came out, and beyond the eastern slope where the Germans were waiting, the snow-covered valley shone. From somewhere out there, the newly arrived Americans could hear the clink of mess kits and the squeaking of mechanized vehicles.
At 5:30 am on December 16, 1944, the sky flashed red, green, amber, and white as flights of German “Screaming Meemies” with ear-splitting shrieks tore over the treetops on their way to destroy St. Vith. Wire communications failed and radio frequencies were jammed. The ferocious impact of shells from fourteen- inch German railroad guns shook the earth as a coordinated artillery barrage fell on the line companies, unit command posts, road intersections, and artillery batteries—all the division’s strong points.
It was the start of Operation Autumn Mist, Hitler’s last gamble to dash to the sea 120 miles away. Two hundred thousand German troops—crack, battle-tested infantry—protected by six hundred carefully hoarded Panther and Tiger tanks, were attempting to punch a hole in the American line of eighty thousand troops. And as Hitler’s generals knew, the weakest point in the Americans’ defense was the salient of the 423rd and 422nd regiments, because the 106th had replaced the Second without making a single strategic change. (Later, as the German offensive progressed east to west, it created a bulge: hence, the Battle of the Bulge.) At 9:00 am, a second German artillery barrage, which a GI reported to be “unbelievable in its magnitude,” began pounding the two regiments, trying to erase them from the forest floor.
For the next three days, the German high command hammered at the 423rd and the 422nd, slowly encircling the two regiments by coming around the Schnee Eifel from the south through the Prüm Corridor, and linking up with units coming into Schönberg from the north along the Andler–Schönberg road, intending to snip the Americans off at the base and open a giant gap in the Allies’ offensive.
On the nineteenth, Vonnegut’s regimental commander, Colonel C. C. Cavender, ordered Sergeant Boyle’s reconnaissance squad to report on the right flank. Boyle, Vonnegut, Bob Kelton, Richard Davis, Bernie O’Hare, and Bill Sieber set out and quickly encountered a few enemy columns closing in. Continuing on, they entered a thicket of firs that ended abruptly at the edge of a farmer’s field. On all sides the snap and sputter of small arms fire sounded like rice falling on a tin pan. Sieber signaled that he would leave the safety of the tree line first. Venturing out a few yards, he glanced left , right, then a rifle cracked on a ridge and he fell over. He raised himself on one elbow, dazed. “I need a medic, I’m hit.”
The squad weighed the idea of one of them running out, grabbing Sieber by the heels, and dragging him back while the others laid down fire. But suddenly a mortar round exploded within a dozen yards. Before the enemy could readjust, the men hightailed it back the way they’d come through the woods, kicking up the snow like surf.
When they reached headquarters, Kelton requested a medic. Colonel Cavender denied permission because the regiment was about to surrender, he said, and he didn’t want the men spread out. Vonnegut, hearing Sieber was going to be left behind, realized he was not a hero-scout doing something fine but a kind of flotsam floating on the surface of events. Years later, he remembered his rage at feeling powerless: “We’re so smart, we can go out where the real soldiers haven’t been yet, and find out what’s out there! And our whole purpose was to either step on mines or to draw fire. Nobody knows what’s out there and we’re so fucking smart we’re going to find out!”
He found a swale to lie down in and wait. A dozen or so other men collapsed in exhaustion beside him. They had only a few rounds each; someone suggested they fix bayonets to prepare for the worst. An odd feeling came over him, as if the pandemonium would be resolved now. What ever happened, it was just about over. “It was nice there for a few minutes.”
From the forest surrounding them, a German-accented voice, amplified by a loudspeaker, echoed through the late afternoon gloom. “We can see you. Give up.” When no one got to his feet, hands up, German half- tracks lowered their antiaircraft guns and fired into the branches above Vonnegut and the others, sending bursts of shrapnel in all directions. Wounded men screamed.
“Come out!” ordered the voice.
Vonnegut got to his feet and rapidly began breaking down his weapon, fumbling with his frozen fingers to remove the piston, the trigger mechanism, and the bolt, the pieces falling into the snow. Last, he grabbed the barrel and slung the rifle, end over end, as far as he could. It landed in a creek. O’Hare, paging haphazardly through his phrasebook, shouted, “Nein Scheissen!” to the advancing German troops, thinking he was pleading “Don’t shoot!” They laughed, including one who looked to be about fifteen carrying a machine gun. What O’Hare had said was “Don’t shit!”
Vonnegut put his hands on top of his helmet and waited.
Tens of thousands of American prisoners marched east, two and three abreast, in a dark green river flowing for miles over the snow, its course shaped by German guards. The sun had set almost precisely at the time of Vonnegut’s capture, and as he trudged beside the members of his squad it grew dark. After a couple of hours, the guards indicated that everyone was to lie down in the open field they were crossing. Vonnegut slept belly-to-butt with the other scouts, turning over every half hour or so. At dawn, the march continued. For the next two days, he stumbled along as “the supermen marched us,” he wrote later, until Thursday morning, December 21, when the column arrived at a railroad siding of freight cars at Geroldstein, Germany, east of Prüm and west of Koblenz. The guards threw open the doors of boxcars and ordered them to get in.
Vonnegut got a whiff of fresh cow dung inside. With their rifle butts, the Germans packed in about sixty captives before sliding the doors shut and locking them. There was room enough to stand or squat, but “we literally could not all find space to lie flat at one time,” said one of the prisoners. Except for cracks between the slats, the only air and daylight came from louvered openings in each of the four corners. It took almost two days to load several thousand men onto dozens of cars; the train didn’t get under way until nightfall.
Eighteen hours later, on the morning of the twenty- third, the POWs could see the Rhine River through the boxcar slats at Koblenz. In late afternoon, they felt the train slow as it rumbled into a railway yard marked Limburg. Sounds of the locomotive being disconnected made them wonder if they’d reached a camp. Then the engine chugged away, leaving them behind.
A few hours passed, then red flares began falling from the sky, accompanied by air raid sirens and the rumble of planes growing louder. Low- flying British de Havilland Mosquito bombers, assuming the train was carrying German supplies, swooped down for an easy kill. There were shouts of “Stay in the car! It’s safer in the car!” but hundreds of men, freed by the guards, leaped off and tried to run away. Those who headed straight out from the train entered a curtain of explosions and disappeared. Others took cover, or wobbled in the direction of a barbed- wire fence where there was a concrete shelter. Only one boxcar received a direct hit, killing sixty- three men inside. The bombers peeled off . Lying between the craters in the yard were dozens of dead GIs, some still clutching a piece of bread doled out earlier in the day. In Vonnegut’s boxcar, the men could hear pleas from someone out there begging to be shot.
The train didn’t move on Christmas Eve day as rails were repaired and another locomotive was found. The men sang Christmas carols that night, and the interior of a few boxcars glowed with pale light from stubby candles, retrieved from the pockets of dirty field jackets. Sometime the day after Christmas the train started up again.
They traveled to a second destination, the POW camp at Bad Orb, but, like a plague ship, were refused because the camp was over capacity. The prisoners spent another day swaying in the boxcars until they arrived at Stalag IV- B in Mülhberg, where the guards ordered them off . Instead of leading them through the main gate, however, they herded everyone to a grove of pine trees and instructed them to lie down in the snow. During the night, some men froze to death.
The next day, Vonnegut stood near the western wire of the camp, stamping his feet to ward off frostbite, waiting in line for hours to be processed. At the main gate, an Australian attached to the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, Geoff Taylor, watched a “large part of an American infantry division— the 106th—stumble into captivity.”
Never before have you seen men so near the end of their tether. Plagued with dysentery, twisted with frostbite, starving, dirty, unshaven, staggering on their feet from exhaustion, a long line of men stumbles endlessly into the camp.
Captured before they knew what hit them, marched hundreds of miles into Germany, stepping over the bodies of comrades who slumped to die in the snow, jolted for days in cattle-trucks and boxcars that were strafed and bombed by the Allied air-fighters, the Americans are macabre burlesques of men.
Sometimes a man staggers and bumps the man next to him and they snarl weakly at each other. They are too shocked and dazed to do otherwise. The frosted air is alive with the bark of men coughing. A lot of them won’t live to walk again. This is the end of the road. Outside the wire, by the Kommandantur office, a mountain of GI battle helmets and liners grows visibly bigger, dwarfing the Germans who stand by it. Inside our barracks, confusion reaches fantastic heights.
It’s just as well we organized the bunks and tin-bashed mugs and plates for the new arrivals. The shambles would have been unimaginable had we not. As it is, our carefully- balanced world of unwritten taboos, tribal laws and customs reels under the impact of thousands of men so shocked by their experiences that many are little more than animals stumbling erect.
As the men came in through the main gate, tossing their helmets in a pile and receiving cast- off , frozen clothing with a distinctive red triangle to signify POW, a wagon passed, heaped with the bodies of Russians, dead from starvation and malnutrition. Hatred between the Russians and the Nazis ran deep, and the Russians were being allowed to starve, forced to feed themselves with the garbage and leftovers the British and Western Europe an prisoners would not eat.
On his third day in camp, Vonnegut was given a postcard as required by the Geneva Convention. He assured his family that he had come “through the whole God-awful slaughter without a scratch. . . . We prisoners will be the first sent home when peace is won, and then for a 90-day leave. This life is not bad at all. Contact the Red Cross for advice on parcels and dispatch them immediately.” He asked for cigarettes “because they serve as money here and would make life considerably more lush.”
He wandered around the camp for a few days cadging smokes, attended a performance of Cinderella by the British in drag (“I should have left when midnight struck . . . lackaday, fucked my luck”), then a bit of news came his way. With the stalag so overcrowded, a work detail was forming for the city of Dresden. During roll call one morning, the Germans came down the line and said, “You . . . you . . . you.” Eventually 150 POWs from the 106th were selected, including Vonnegut, for Arbeitskommando 557, departing Stalag IV- B for Dresden on January 12, again by train.
Just days before, Kurt Sr. had received a telegram from the War Department saying his son was missing in action as of December 21, 1944. “That’s that,” Uncle Alex wrote sadly to Walt Vonnegut’s wife, Helen. Kurt’s family would not receive his postcard from Stalag IV-B for months and didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. Until then, except for a handful of men in the Arbeitskommando who knew him by name, he was just another prisoner living from moment to moment.
Dresden, royal residence of dukes and kings of Saxony since the Middle Ages, whose Baroque skyline had inspired painters such as Canaletto, where Friedrich Schiller had written “Ode to Joy,” and which Napoleon had seized for his imperial command, greeted the 150 POWs trudging into the city on January 12, 1945, with a billboard proclaiming Trink Coca-Cola.
Modernity had long since come to Germany’s seventh largest city, resting snug in a bend of the Elbe River. But the first half of the twentieth century was just the patina on seven centuries of culture that had elevated Dresden to the title of “Florence on the Elbe.” So deep and rich was Dresden’s past that, after more than half a millennium as a center of art and technology, its museums preserved a continuous record of Western achievements in science and the humanities since the thirteenth century. Everywhere the POWs looked, it seemed, war had not punctured the nimbus of this great city. The residents’ belief that Dresden was inviolable because of its treasures had given rise to a sense that they were on the sidelines of the war. Proof lay in the fact that there hadn’t been a serious air attack, only occasional strikes.53 The week before Christmas, the local defense commissioner, referring to the fighting in the Ardennes, declared, “This Christmas will be beautified for us by the fact that we can see our people back on the offensive.” To ring in the holidays, the renowned boys’ choir of Dresden’s oldest school had performed in concert under the towering dome of the mideighteenth-century Frauenkirche, where Johann Sebastian Bach had once given a recital. At the opera house, the city’s Hitler Youth, standing before a red curtain displaying a giant black swastika encircled in white, had sung patriotic and traditional songs of the season.
The prisoners walked through the cobblestone streets under guard, largely ignored by Dresdeners. Work details of captives had become part of the city’s traffic for several years now. Most mornings, small groups of them could be seen waiting at tram stops, accompanied by a guard who was either elderly, injured, or otherwise unfit for frontline duty. The city was under considerable stress, however, from the thousands of German refugees streaming into Dresden from the east, fleeing the advance of Marshal Ivan Konev’s Ukrainian army. The population had almost doubled, from six hundred thousand to a million.
Six thousand refugees were living in a cavernous air raid shelter beneath the railroad station designed to hold only two thousand. Some of the strain on the overcrowding situation had been relieved by the clockwork deportation of Dresden Jews. Of the approximately six thousand at the beginning of the war, there were only a few hundred Jewish residents left , and they were slated for removal to the death camps later that spring.
The men of Arbeitskommando 557 finally arrived at their assigned quarters located in the oldest neighborhood in Dresden, the Altstadt, on the Grosses Ostragehege, a large area of common land. They were housed in a large rectangular slaughter house converted into a POW camp with the addition of an encircling wall topped by barbed wire. Despite the building’s intended purpose— to prepare animals for slaughter— Vonnegut found nothing objectionable about this “nice new cement-block hog barn,” outfitted with double-decker bunks, and tables and chairs, but only two small stoves for warmth. The latrine was in the yards, and farther away was a tall ware house beneath which were two levels of basements so deep they provided natural cold storage for hanging sides of meat.
The men assembled in the yard for instructions from an SS captain, a short middle- aged man with a small mustache like Hitler’s. The name of their compound, he said loudly, was Schlachthof- Fünf—Slaughterhouse- Five.
Excerpted from And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Fields.
Copyright © 2011 by Charles J. Fields.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.