When Rev. Murry Hanson sent in the TAPS notice for his father Palmer Hanson, He included this POW story. I thought it fitting that this be the first in the series Behind the Wire. Any and all POW experiences are welcome for this new series.
The time is Christmas 1944; the setting is Stalag Luft IV.
Christmas meant as much to the Germans as it did to us. They agreed to let us do a show and have a late lock-up if we agreed not to try to escape.
The hall was jammed with men standing everywhere. The show was good, as prison camp shows go, but in a way it was kind of flat. There were no carols, no Santa Claus, nothing to really bring home Christmas.
The curtain came down. The German guards who spoke English got up from their seats, signifying we were to return to our quarters.
Suddenly an authoritative voice thundered, "We will now sing God Bless America!" The men, who had been slowly filing out, turned. There on the stage, as big and proud as a man can be, was an American prisoner. "Everybody sing," he shouted.
And we did…every one of us. The singing wasn’t especially musical, but it was real loud, clear, compelling, and fervent. Never have I heard a song with greater enthusiasm or deeper understanding, especially the chorus, where we pleaded with God to "…bless the land we love, to stand beside her, to guide her, to bless our home sweet home."
It was more than a song. It was a prayer from the hearts of men. It was an unveiling of men’s souls, a cry for one’s country and loved ones. It was a cry of caged men who were trying to overcome the barriers of captivity. It was beautiful, more so because it was impromptu. War-hardened men opened their hearts unashamedly, while tears streamed down their cheeks. Not one was ashamed of his display of emotion.
The effect on the German guards was strange. They stood practically spellbound. They didn’t know what to make of it. They had no idea how to cope. They knew the singing should be stopped, but they didn’t know how to do it. So they waited until the singing stopped, almost as abruptly as it started.
It was a quiet group that filed out into the softly falling snow. No one hurried, no one shoved, no one spoke, not even the guards. Every one of us was in our own private world – a place that shut out the realism of Hitler’s prison camp.
The spirit of Christmas had finally penetrated our dismal surroundings, bringing a spark of brightness and contentment to our hearts. For a moment we forgot our weariness, our hatred, our fears, and we were comforted.
God Bless America
Splasher Six Volume 32, Spring 2001, No. 1
Cindy Goodman, Editor
When Frank Murphy, Charlie Cruikshank, and Gus Gaspar arrived at Sagan, in late October 1943, they were put into the South Compound at Stalag Luft III, which had only been in use about three months. The Germans had collected a lot of POWs very quickly at that time as a result of the big raids on Bremen, Marienburg, Munster, and Schweinfurt. Not long after the trio arrived at Sagan, the Germans - at the prisoner’s urging – agreed to the transfer to the Center Compound of a limited number of South Compound prisoners who wished to go to be with friends. A similar number of prisoners then in the Center Compound would be permitted to move over to the South Compound for the same reason. All three men signed up to go to the Center Compound because many of their friends were there.
Before all move details could be worked out, however, Murphy responded to a general query as to whether there were any musicians in the newly arrived prisoner group. The South Compound also had a 14-piece big band with a full set of instruments supplied by the Red Cross.
The band was directed by a Major Hal Diamond who was a bit older than most of the men. He was a G2 officer who had somehow managed to be captured. Before the war, he was a very successful, professional musician who had played reeds with Paul Whiteman, Richard Himber and in various Hollywood studio orchestras. He was playing lead alto saxophone with the camp band. "I auditioned," Murphy remembers, "and was invited to play tenor sax and clarinet in the band."
When Murphy joined the band, they had a show coming up just before Christmas, 1943, in the new compound theatre then being build by prisoners. Suddenly, and in typical military fashion, the Germans scheduled the move of those prisoners, including Murphy, who had asked to be transferred to the Center Compound. The move was to take place before the Christmas Show!
"Because I had rehearsed with the band and no replacement was really available, there was some consternation about my move and I was asked to deter the move until after the band show and move next time. I agreed and did not move with Crankshaft and Gus." The Germans never again permitted any compound switching; there was no "next time".
Shortly thereafter Murphy was moved into one of the three-man rooms in Block 139 of the South Compound. "I had two great roommates, both very fine 100th BG pilots: Hal "Pinky" Helstrom, and Dick Carey, who miraculously survived a terrifying forced ditching in the North Sea following our attack on Hamburg on 25 July 43."
Early in 1944, Major Diamond decided to give up playing with the band to concentrate on conducting, so Murphy moved to the lead alto chair. "Most of the players were like me, but we had a few who had touched the big time." The band’s lead trumpet player, Lt. Dick Jones, was from Chicago and had played with Isham Jones. The band also boasted of one excellent trombone player and a good piano man, both of whom had time with lesser-known name bands.
The had a number of stock arrangements sent in by the Red Cross, but most of the charts played were written for the band by a B-17 pilot from Los Angeles who was a good accordionist, but also very adequate on tenor sax. He spent most of his time in the sax section. Dick Jones was also considered a very good writer.
About the same time Murphy arrived at Sagan, a bombardier from the First Air Division also landed in the South Compound. He was Lt. Bill Runner from New Jersey who played the trumpet and had done a stint with the Woody Herman band in New York. "He was a gifted musician and a natural showman," Murphy declared, "The band quickly grabbed him." Originally, Woody would come out of the trumpet section, go down in front of the band and sing and play his horn in sort of a Louis Armstrong style. Inevitably, he was put in front of the band full time. When the band was not playing, he spent many nights in Murphy’s room with his trumpet. "I would then take my clarinet and our band guitarist would go along to the various blocks where the guitarist and I would back up Bill while he did his thing."
After the war, Bill Runner stayed in the Army Air Force and went in for pilots training. Less than a year later he was killed in a flying training accident. "I will always remember Bill as a really talented entertainer and marvelous friend who did so much to bring a little happiness to an otherwise pretty dreary prison camp. I once commented to Pinky that I didn’t know how we sounded out front, but when I was on the bandstand, I was a million miles from Sagan."