Author Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) left an incredible body of work for readers. In his writing career, which spanned more than 50 years, he published 14 novels, three short story collections, and five books of essays, with additional material published after his death. Vonnegut’s service during World War II imprinted his life, like it did for many of those who served and who witnessed the trauma of war, destruction, and death.
Several of Vonnegut’s works touch on themes of war, but Slaughterhouse-Five is the novel that most closely skirts the line of personal narrative, flirting with memoir, addressing the reader with, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” The author makes cameos in his work, just as Hitchcock would, letting you know that he is still there, reminding the reader of his service, almost daring you to call it fiction.
Kurt Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis and then began studying at Cornell University, before entering Army service in January 1943. Through the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), Vonnegut was sent to Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering. With a great reduction in the strength of the ASTP due to the rising need for infantry troops, Vonnegut was sent to Camp Atterbury, Indiana (close to home) to train with the 106th Infantry Division.
PFC Kurt Vonnegut, intelligence scout with the 423rd Infantry Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division, arrived with his unit in Le Havre, France in December 1944. They received orders to proceed to St. Vith, just weeks before German artillery turned the Ardennes Forest into a living, deadly fireworks display. In the last two weeks of December 1944, American losses mounted as desperate Germans launched their counteroffensive. As many as 23,000 American were captured as under-supplied and encircled units, many of them uninitiated in combat, were forced to surrender. The 106th Infantry Division reported 6,697 prisoners overall. Vonnegut was captured on December 19, 1944. He wrote of the situation his unit faced in the moments of surrender, “Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks.”
Although the war was in its final months, Allied victory was still uncertain and Vonnegut and others taken prisoner in this period did not have an easy transition into captivity. According to the principles outlined in the Geneva Convention, POW officers were not required to perform labor for their captors. Vonnegut later wrote to his father, “I am, as you know, a Private.” Enlisted troops were often transferred to work detachments in small groups instead of being transferred to larger, organized camps. That winter was one of the coldest on record and conditions worsened for the Germans and for their prisoners as shipping was disrupting and the supply chain broke down, making it more difficult for the life-sustaining Red Cross aid to filter through to Allied POWs.
Another significant danger of POW life, especially for those outside of camps, was posed by Allied air raids. POWs were often transported through German territory via railway car, sometimes marked with red crosses to alert Allied fliers, but railyards and boxcars were often strafed. The train carrying Vonnegut and others to Stalag IV-B was unmarked and was strafed and bombed by the RAF on Christmas Eve. At Stalag IV-B, Vonnegut was one of the unfortunates selected for a 150-man labor detachment destined for Dresden. From January 10th and into February, the American POWs were forced to work extremely long hours in a malt-syrup factory supplied with meager rations and overseen by cruel guards. They were sheltered in a slaughterhouse with the address Schlachthof 5 [Slaughterhouse-Five.] Vonnegut described the seminal event in the history of Dresden in a letter to his family, “On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.” Vonnegut and the other POWs escaped the firestorm in an underground meat locker. In the aftermath, the POWs were forced to recover bodies and collect corpses for burial or funeral pyres; surviving residents threw rocks and cursed them.
Prior to the Allies reaching Dresden, the POWs were evacuated ahead of liberation, as was often the case with prisoners of war both civilian and military in eastern parts of the German Reich. Vonnegut and the other survivors were eventually liberated by the Red Army in May 1945. RAMP [Recovered American Military Personnel] Vonnegut penned a letter to his father from Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre. Just six months prior, but in a different world, in December 1944, Vonnegut had arrived in Le Havre with his unit ready to engage in combat with the Germans. In May 1945, thousands of former POWs were assembled there for processing and repatriation. Vonnegut wrote, “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…” Two pages of explaining later he closes,
“I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.”
Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano in 1952. Slaughterhouse-Five appeared in 1969, and was a breakthrough success, Vonnegut’s first bestseller. The novel was adapted to a film in 1972 and over time has been subjected to many challenges and bans throughout the country, even as recently as 2011. The novel supports so many different types of readings, but squarely within it lies the attempt of an American soldier (and then an American POW) to will himself into another place and time, a place far removed from the moonscape of Dresden, a place where “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.”
Kimberly Guise holds a BA in German and Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also studied at the Universität Freiburg in Germany and holds a masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Louisiana State University. Kim is fluent in German, reads Yiddish, and specializes in the American prisoner-of-war experience in World War II.