Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Christmas Present From Kurt Vonnegut

Back in 2007, biographer Charles Shields asked me for information concerning the friendship between my father and author Kurt Vonnegut.
He has since published  "And So it Goes," located on my left sidebar.

My brother, a pack rat, produced a letter that Vonnegut wrote to his own family, not long after he and my dad were released from a POW camp at the end of WWII. In many ways, this three-page letter is his first draft of Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut sent my family a copy of that letter, apparently as a Christmas present, in 1996.

Bewildered that he has somehow survived, the young Vonnegut tells his folks, "I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait." Fortunately for us, he got around to it.

This letter is too important to sit in a dusty attic, so I'm sharing it with you. If you'd like to see a pdf copy, just click this link.

Dear people:

I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was any­thing other than "missing in action." Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do - in precis: I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Mont­gomery for it, I'm told, but I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, un-heated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations - the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year's Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical atten­tion and clothing: We wore given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: - one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden - possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to [...] the Checkoslovakian border. There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39's) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way-through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We've since been flown to Le Havre.

I'm writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repat­riation Camp. I'm being wonderfully well fed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I'll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I'll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and - get this - sixty (60) days furlough!

I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait. I can't receive mail here so don't write. May 29, 1945


Blogger's Note: First published 12/10/07.

18 comments:

gruntled said...

A real treat. Thanks, Bernie.

Anonymous said...

My God Bernie i need to stop whining; such brave men.

Anonymous said...

I kept thinking of your Dads relationship with this American master as you careened toward the right wing fringe during the lead up to the election.

Anonymous said...

I kept thinking of your Dads relationship with this American master as you careened toward the right wing fringe during the lead up to the election.

Anonymous said...

I kept thinking of your Dads relationship with this American master as you careened toward the right wing fringe during the lead up to the election.

Bernie O'Hare said...

That's bc you make the mistake of assuming that my father and Vonnegut were liberals. My father, in particular was not. He supported Don Ritter. What they were was anti-authoritarian. Both would be amused by your goofy attempts to peg them in your little holes, and make ridiculous conclusions about me.

Vonnegut spoke to me once or twice after I started blogging. He didn't care very much how the hell I came down on anything, so long as I shook 'em up.

"Give 'em hell," was the only advice he gave me.

I've followed it.

Anonymous said...

You make the mistake of assuming im a liberal. I wont call you an asshole as you've called me.
Beleive me I get the mighty KV was not a liberal....and he sure as shit wasn't a right wing republican hack.

Anonymous said...

Going out to play with pals on the looney cranky right hardly qualifies one as anti-authoritarian. Filthy rich Wall Street apologists who never saw a war they didn't like although they never put on a uniform themselves, pillars of slash and burn capitalism at its worst....., support for the big-money players that's antiauthoritarian?
Vonnegut would be appalled.

Bernie O'Hare said...

You have no idea what would or would not appall Vonnegut.

Anonymous said...

I never had the pleasure of speaking or corresponding with him. How fortunate you are. Nor to the best of my knowledge did I have the pleasure of meeting you Pop, although we had at least one mutual friend.
I only knew the man by his novels essays and interviews.
Just as I only know you thru what you write, from the profound to the ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if your father regretted spawning you

Anonymous said...

Great men, who put it all on the line for us, no matter their f11:20 pm -

No one wonders whether your father did the same.

Unless he was an even bigger loser than you, he surely he did.

-Clem

Anonymous said...

Great men, who put it all on the line for us, no matter their personal politics or later transgressions.

The rest, as is.

This laptop is most unforgiving.

-Clem

Anonymous said...

Clem, more like young men, boys really, sent by ignorant old men to meet their fate. If they survive or when they die, we call them brave heroes, when they were mostly just scared kids.
But it's a useful fiction. The myth allows us to send another or the next generation off to meet their fate.
But you already know this in your thoughtfulness and wisdom.

Anonymous said...

What did you do in your generations war Clem?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Here we go with the personal attacks by anonymous cowards.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, stop calling Clem an anon coward.
Shame on you dude.

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