Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wendell Parrish interviewed for Library of Congress Veterans Project

Wendell Parrish was an American armorer and waist gunner shot down over Germany in 1944. He spent time in Stalag Luft IV as a prisoner of war and participated in the long, forced march of American POWs near the end of WWII I used his experiences in Guests Behind the Barbed Wire to compare and contrast American and German POW treatment during the war.

Wendell is a native of Selma, Alabama, but now makes his home in Aliceville. (See the April 21, 2009 blog entry for additional information.) The two photos above, which were shared with me by Selma resident Bill Porter, through reader John Coon, show Wendell in the job he is best remembered for in Selma. He was the much loved and admired Director of the YMCA, and Bill Porter worked with him there for many years. I should add that my husband, Barney Cook, who is also from Selma, has many great memories of experiences at Camp Grist and at the YMCA under Wendell's guidance. In both photos above, which were taken at Camp Grist in the 1960s, Wendell Parrish is on the far right in the top row. In the photo on the right, Wendell's son, Wendell, Jr. is the first boy from the left in the first row. Bill Porter is third from the left.

During the Veterans Day observance at the Aliceville Museum this past November, Libby Shaw conducted an interview with Wendell that has been submitted to the Library of Congress Veterans Project Libby Shaw, sister of Aliceville Museum Director Mary Bess Paluzzi's, said all those in attendance had tears in their eyes when Wendell told how he learned of the birth of his first child while exchanging information over a fence with other POWs on Christmas Day in Stalag Luft IV. (For one version of that Christmas story, see Guests Behind the Barbed Wire, p. 439.)

With the people of Selma and of Aliceville, we continue to honor the accomplishments of "this great American patriot," as John Coon called him in a recent e-mail.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Walter Buettner, Puppeteer of Camp Aliceville

When I wrote Guests Behind the Barbed Wire in 2007, I knew that the German POWs in Camp Aliceville had had a puppet theater and wooden marionettes. I knew that they had staged puppet plays, but I had no names or personal stories to put with the few black and white photos.

Recently, through information shared by Mary Bess Paluzzi from the Aliceville Museum, I have been able to translate additional materials and put together a fuller picture of Camp Aliceville's puppeteers and puppet plays.

Walter Buettner (1907 to 1990) was a career puppeteer like his father August. By 1929, he had taken some of the old puppet plays his father had presented at carnivals and fairs, refined them a little, and was presenting them at schools as well as fairs.

In 1933, as the Third Reich was gaining power in Germany, puppet plays were banned, and Walter went to work first as a construction laborer at an airport building site between Celle and Lueneberg, then later at the Nobel glycerine works near Geesthacht. In 1940, he was drafted into the marine artillery of the Wehrmacht (the Germany army). There, he found a superior officer who gave him an opportunity to give puppet play performances for his fellow soldiers as a kind of morale booster at the front. Walter worked with his puppets as part of the framework of German army welfare in occupied France until he was captured in 1944.

He was captured by the British and sent to the United States, where he and many other prisoners of war ended up at Camp Aliceville. As Astrid Fuelbier describes his experience in her book, Handpuppen-und Marionetten Theater in Schleswig-Holstein 1920-1960 (Kiel: Ludwig 2002), Walter Buettner did not enjoy working in the compound kitchen, so he set out to search for others in the camp who might work with him to set up a puppet theater.

He was successful in his search. The painter Ernst Hummel was a POW from Karlsruhe. Hummel had once cared for the props and costumes of a marionette theater kept by a Frankfurt dentist (W. J. Caesar) in the attic of his home, and he laid out a plan for a similar theater in the POW camp.

Franz Vernahmer, a POW from Dortmund, was a puppet maker and used his creativity to fashion tools for puppet making from things on hand like rusty files. Herbert Wille had been a sheet metal worker and an electrician, so he became the general handyman for the puppet theater. Others who helped were Karl Heinrich, a teacher and musician from Ebenrode in East Prussia, and a POW from Magdeburg who became the stage manager.

The first puppet production at Camp Aliceville was Indienfahrt (Indian Journey), which Walter had performed earlier in Germany. Later, the group entertained with Schloss Elmenor, based on Oscar Wilde's short story, "The Canterville Ghost." Once the group had acquired actual wooden marionettes (like those of Mephisto and Faust in the photo at top left), they presented other plays, including "The Goose" by Hans Steguweit.

When Camp Aliceville closed, Walter spent additional POW time picking cotton in Mississippi before returning to Germany. His puppets, which had been left behind, were packed up in a large packing case and eventually shipped to him in Germany through the International Red Cross.

After the war, Walter returned to puppet theater as a career. He settled not far from Hamburg in 1951 and built his Kasperhaus (Punch and Judy-type puppet theater) and became known worldwide as Der Heidekasper (The Pagan Punch).

NOTE: The photo of puppets (Faust and Mephisto) used by Walter Buettner and some information in this article are from the Wikipedia article about Walter Buettner. Translation by Ruth B. Cook

Friday, January 15, 2010

Former Camp Aliceville POW Sends New Year's Greetings

Wilhelm Schlegel was born in Asslar, Germany in March 1918. He studied in Wetzlar and returned to his hometown to be hired as a bank clerk in 1937. Two years later, as Hitler plunged Germany into war, he was called up to six months of mandatory service in RAD, the German National Work Service. Then, as required, he joined the German army, received training in wireless communications and participated in military campaigns in Russia and France.

By May 1942, Wilhelm was in North Africa with the 4th Panzer Division wireless unit, and it was in North Africa, on the fertile Tunisian peninsula of Cape Bon, that he was captured by the British in May 1943.

Wilhelm arrived in Camp Aliceville near the end of the summer in 1943. He was assigned to Company 19 in Compound E. Although he left the United States after the war in March 1946, Wilhelm was transferred to French custody, and it was not until January 1948 that he was able to return home, resume his banking career, marry and raise a family. (See my book, Guests Behind the Barbed Wire (Crane Hill, 2007), for the rest of his story.)

Many years later, Wilhelm returned to Aliceville, Alabama with his family for reunions of the POW camp staff, prisoners, and townspeople. During visits, he often gave a speech about world peace and the value of freedom. He and his family became houseguests and fast friends of Chuck and Jane Gwin. Chuck is a banker in Aliceville, and the two men had much in common. The photo at left above shows a kindergarten class helping Wilhelm celebrate his 85th birthday at the Aliceville Museum. His grandson Philip enjoyed the company of the other children. In the background of this photo, you can see former Aliceville POW Hermann Blumhardt playing German and American folk songs on his accordion for the children.

This week, across the miles and the memories, and in among the legacies of war and peace, I received a wonderful New Year's e-mail from Wilhelm Schlegel. In addition to personal wishes for health and joy of life in the coming year, Wilhelm wrote the following (translation follows):

Wir leben in einer Zeit der Ungewissheit und bangen um den Frieden in der Welt , die nicht zur Ruhe kommt. Gerne denke ich an die Zeit in Aliceville und die lieben Freunde, die ich gerne wiedersehen moechte, zurueck--aber in meinem Alter sind die Strapazen zu gross. So lebe ich gerne mit guter Erinnerung an Alabama.

TRANSLATION: We live in a time of uncertainty and are concerned about peace in the world, which does not come. I think with pleasure about the times in Aliceville and the dear friends that I would like to see again. However, at my age, the strain would be too great. So, I live with my good memories of Alabama.

I, too, have good memories of Aliceville and of the many friends, both German and American, that I have met there and with whom I have shared good times and hopes for world peace.

With Wilhelm, I wish all of my readers herzlichen Gruessen und den besten Wuenschen for the year 2010.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Four Positives Scheme to Remain Positive

On December 4, 1943, German POW Hermann Blumhardt wrote in the small diary he kept that his friend Walter Felholter was being moved to the Camp Aliceville hospital because he had diphtheria.
Walter remembers that his sore throat had become worse and worse. "I couldn't swallow, and it was swollen," he has said. At first, he was very sick, but his condition gradually improved and he found, as time went on, that he liked the camp hospital. The food prepared by Elma Henders was excellent, no work details were required, and there was plenty of time and solitude for reading and learning English.
In February 1944, Walter and a number of other prisoners who had been diagnosed with diphtheria were moved from the camp hospital to a quarantined area in Compound B. They were moved because influenza had hit the camp, and the hospital beds were needed for new patients. Because these men were still considered contagious for diphtheria, they could not have close contact with other POWs. They ate their meals together in the Compound B. mess hall after all the other POWs were finished.
Every Wednesday and Saturday morning, camp nurses came into the compound to collect throat cultures so they could determine the status of the POWs. If a prisoner tested negative for diphtheria three cultures in a row, he was considered cured and returned to his regular barracks and his regular duties.
Because Walter Felholter and others had heard stories about POW transfers to labor camps, they came up with a plan to continue their quiet and pleasant status in Compound B for as long as they could. Whenever they had their throats swabbed, the four men would switch their glass slides before the nurse came in to label them. This allowed them to make sure that no one who had already received two negative evaluations would receive a third (confirming that he no longer had the disease). In this way, the last "four positives" (pictured above) were able to remain in Compound B until late May.
"We liked to stay in the hospital," Walter has said, "because we didn't have to work then. Otherwise, we had to truck somewhere to pick cotton or something else."
A SIDE NOTE: If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the neat wooden shingles and the base of a window box behind the bench where the men are sitting. There is also some shrubbery to the left of the bench. During their first few months in Camp Aliceville, the German POWs transformed their bare tarpaper-covered barracks into somewhat pleasant surroundings with shingles, awnings, flower boxes, and landscaping. They used their canteen money to purchase the materials needed.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

New Information About Camp Aliceville Diphtheria Epidemic

The photo at left shows "the last four positives" who were treated for diphtheria at Camp Aliceville in the fall of 1943. Although I have not identified all four German POWs in the photo, the man on the far right is Walter Felholter, who is quoted frequently in Guests Behind the Barbed Wire.

I have just finished reading an article by Captain Stephen Fleck, Captain John W. Kellam, and Major Arthur J. Klippen who were the American medical officers at Camp Aliceville when the diphtheria outbreak occurred. The article, "Diphtheria Among German Prisoners of War" was published in The Bulletin of the U. S. Army Medical Department in March 1944 (pp. 80 to 89).

Apparently, the diphtheria was brought to Camp Aliceville by the first wave of German POWs who were captured in North Africa in the spring of 1943 and arrived in Aliceville that summer. In all, 51 diphtheria patients were admitted to the camp hospital during September and October. Later prisoners arriving from North Africa had been immunized for the disease, and no new cases were reported after October. The medical officers concluded that the POWs brought the diphtheria with them because camp inspections indicated sanitary conditions and because, although both POWs and guards obtained their food and water from the same sources, no American personnel became ill.

The POWs received excellent care, including antitoxin and other treatments. The article notes the assistance of the hospital registrar, Lieutenant George L. Runyon, and the laboratory staff, which included Norma Klippen, Helen Klippen, Laura Downer, and Sergeant C. W. Terry.
In the next blog entry, I will share Walter Felholter's amusing story about the period of time that he was quarantined in Compound B while being tested for diphtheria.