NEW ORLEANS — A violin made from bed slats, a bomber jacket, and journals filled with humor, nostalgia, sorrow, and boredom help to tell the stories of the 92,820 Allied soldiers held in nearly 100 Nazi prisoner of war camps.
“Guests of the Third Reich,” an exhibit opening today at the National World War II Museum, is about those “Kriegies,” as they called themselves — short for “Kriegsgefangener,” German for “prisoner of war.”
Items on display through July 7 are among those to be shown in the Liberation Pavilion planned for completion in 2016. That pavilion will also have a section about POWs held in brutal Japanese POW camps where more than 40 percent of the 27,465 Americans captured in the Pacific died. But of 93,941 who surrendered to Germany, 92,820 survived.
Japan had not ratified the Geneva Conventions for humane treatment of POWs. Germany had, and generally followed its requirements.
Not always. One part of the exhibit is about POWs who were sent to concentration camps or executed. Those in the concentration camps included 350 Americans sent from Stalag IXB to the slave labor camp in Berga because they were or “looked” Jewish, and 168 Allied airmen sent to nearby Buchenwald. Another 362 American POWS and more than 100 Belgians were killed in groups, including 84 shot in the “Malmedy Massacre,” a mass killing first reported by Associated Press war correspondent Hal Boyle.
The exhibit is divided in five sections: Capture, Camp Life, Liberation, Global Conflict — which includes the “War Crimes” area — and After the Camps.
Camp Life includes seven “wartime logs” — diaries provided by the YMCA to be sent in Red Cross packages for POWs. Their contents have been scanned and put on iPads so visitors can page through them.
Early American POWs were airmen, who hit the ground at a rate of about 400 a month in 1943. Then came the Battle of the Bulge, when nearly 23,000 Americans, most of them infantry, were captured in December 1944.
Some described lighter moments.
“There are a number of ways we spend our spare time. As I sit here writing this, there are two across from me studying French, some are playing cards, others are reading books, the rest have the two guitars, anything to keep your mind occupied and not think of home,” wrote Bruce L. Worrell, captured in Italy in May 1994 during service with the 85th Infantry Division’s 359th Infantry Regiment and held at Stalag IIB.
There also are programs and even photographs of plays put on by POWs, collections of cigarettes and of military patches, and a lot of verse. There are song parodies and also verses clipped from magazines and newspapers. Some may have been written by the POW; others are written from memory. Some were copied and recopied from log to log.
The flight jacket was worn by Paul Hayslip, the only crewman on the B-26 bomber “Ramblin’ Wreck” who was able to parachute to safety before it crashed. A photograph shows him and his crew at Louisiana’s Barksdale Field, now Barksdale Air Force Base. The violin’s neck was whittled from a chair leg by Clair Cline, an Army Air Corps pilot captured in Holland and held in Stalag I after his B-24 was shot down in February 1944. He and others scraped glue from chairs to hold it together.
The exhibit runs through July 7, 2013 at the National WWII Museum, 945 Magazine St., New Orleans, www.nationalww2museum.org or 504-528-1944. Adults, $21, seniors, $18, children 5-12, $12. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
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