When the American “Kriegies”—short for Kriegsgefangener, German for POW—in Stalag Luft IV celebrated Thanksgiving 75 years ago, in 1944, they used the traditional date of the 30th of November. The reason that this is significant is because, in the years 1939-1941, at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt upon urging from retailers, Thanksgiving was celebrated a week earlier, on the third Thursday in November rather than the fourth. This shift in the celebration date caused the holiday to be referred to by some as “Franksgiving.” The week change was intended as an economic stimulus measure that would create a longer Christmas shopping season and increase retail in the time of the Great Depression. Some states refused the change and celebrated at the usual time, while a few states celebrated both dates. For the first Thanksgiving during WWII, in 1942, Roosevelt returned the holiday to its traditional week.
For all of those far from home during the war, the holidays were particularly tender times. Moments with family were missed as well as holiday feasts. These feasts were missed even more keenly by POWs. Food, and the lack of it, was the number one subject of conversation in prisoner of war camps. American POW, B-17 radio operator Glen Jostad described his time in Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow, Pomerania (Tychow, Poland):
“One of the first things we had to get used to was the food or, maybe I should say, the food we didn’t get…You woke up hungry, you went to bed hungry, you were hungry all day long.”
Glen Jostad, American POW
In addition to meager German rations, Kriegies often received life-saving Red Cross parcels. During the war, the Red Cross shipped over 27 million parcels, assembled in a mass effort by more than 13,000 volunteers in distribution centers around the United States, to US and Allied prisoners of war. These care packages and the supplemental nourishment that they provided were a crucial part of POW survival. The packages, containing nonperishable foods like biscuits, raisins, coffee, powdered milk, and canned beef and fish, along with amenities like cigarettes and soap, were usually received by American POW representatives in the camps and collected for fair and orderly disbursement. Receipt of these packages depended on many factors, including particular camp Commandants, bombing of German supply lines, and the overall situation of the war.
Naturally, the November 30, 1944 issue of Kriegie Kronikles, the Thanksgiving issue, spotlighted the work of the “Chow Chuckers,” the men who “perform the tasks which are inevitable and necessary in unpacking, sorting, repacking, and loading of the chow we all idolize (the word is a masterpiece of understatement!).” The illustration shows two men eating from bowls with a Red Cross aid package open before them, a Thanksgiving turkey hovers in thoughts and dreams above them. Most would have to wait another long, very difficult year before celebrating holidays in the United States.
In order to keep up with and to circulate the news, POWs in many German camps printed newspapers. Some were hand-lettered and others typed, but most featured typical newspaper column headings—there were entertainment features with reviews of plays and shows, sports columns, as well as spotlights on specific prisoners. The prisoners of Oflag 64 printed a monthly called “The Oflag 64 Item.” Stalag Luft I printed “The Camp,” “OK,” and the satirical “Barth Hard Times” and also had the largest underground daily, “The POW WOW: Prisoners of War, Waiting On Winning,” which had a daily circulation of 2,000. The Museum holds several examples of these POW camp newspapers in the collection. Some of the most unique are the hand-drawn and hand-lettered issues of the Kriegie Kronikles from Stalag Luft IV.
These issues of Kriegie Kronikles and other material from Stalag Luft IV is from the service of Sgt. Willard C. “Boo” Miller. Miller served with the 8th Army Air Force, 96th Bomb Group as a waist gunner on a B-17. He was captured and became a POW after his plane was lost in a mid-air collision during a flight to bomb oil refineries in Brüx, Czechoslovakia. In Stalag Luft IV, he was elected and served in the camp’s Compound B as the prisoner representative or “Man of Confidence,” an important figure in prisoner’s rights as outlined in the Geneva Convention.
As demonstrated by the Kriegie Kronikles, the men in Stalag Luft IV managed to maintain a very well-exercised sense of humor. The POW authors and editors were able to report on elements of American life back home and progress in the war. In addition to the very topical Thanksgiving food-related reportage, the writers chronicled current football score. The issue even contains a preview of and predictions for the December 2, 1944 Army-Navy game, which some would later call the “Game of the Century.” Although Army was heavily favored, the outcome of that game (Army won 23-7) was uncertain.
The future, in general, was still uncertain for the Kriegies. D-Day was long past and the Allies were on the continent, getting ever closer. But the Battle of the Bulge was just about to erupt and a record-setting cold winter was just settling in. Before liberation most of the Americans in Stalag Luft IV would suffer extreme temperatures, starvation and exposure as they were marched by the captors around Germany ahead of advancing Allied Armies.
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.