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Wendling, England, November 1943-February 1944
Stalag Luft One, Barth, Germany, February 1944-May 1945
As told to Marcy Kaplan by Jack Kaplan
The following are my Kriegie encounters with:
- The Luftwaffe Pilot
- Radio City
- Escape to Solitary
- Nat Bliss
- In Transit
- The Bombardier
Cooper was a friend of my pilot's; we were in flying school together. One weekend, we were on a pass going to London on a train. There were eight officers in the compartment, and Cooper was passing out chewing gum. I took a piece.
Cooper grabbed the piece of gum back from me: "I ain't givin' no gum to no goddamned Jew!"
We got into a nasty fist-fight; the other guys had to separate us. I was seething, and we kept our distance from each other from then on.
Some months later, I was shot down during the Gotha raid and captured. I wound up in Stalag Luft 1, a POW camp for Allied airmen in Barth, Germany. Injured and still on crutches, I spent some time at first in the lazaret-or dispensary-that had been started by a British officer. Though he was actually a dentist, he served as our doctor.
At the lazaret, we examined the new prisoners coming into the camp. One of the unadvertised benefits of this process was that it gave us a way to get information and news from the outside. It also allowed us to screen any guys who aroused our suspicion. If they claimed to be American, we'd quiz them on the names of baseball players, or Dick Tracy comic strip characters.
One day, I was standing at the window of the lazaret, watching a new batch of prisoners coming in. Suddenly, I recognized Cooper standing on line.
"Coop!" I shouted.
"Kappy!" he cried.
We threw our arms around each other.
Coop always used to sing a song that went:
"I'm gonna ride that train,
That southbound passenger train "
I still remember all the words to that song.
The Luftwaffe Pilot
When my partners and I had the restaurants at the Barbizon Hotel for Women in Manhattan, the city was beginning work on a subway extension to go from Roosevelt Island through Central Park. There was to be a stop at 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue, the corner where the Barbizon is located. So the surveyors on the project would come into our place in the morning for coffee or breakfast.
One day, I was introduced to one of the surveyors, who had been a fighter pilot with the Luftwaffe during the war. We started swapping memories of what it was like to run out to the planes in the morning and form up.
He talked about how they gassed up their planes in the morning, about the warnings to prepare for the "terrorfliegers" (Allied bombers), about how the guys would be freezing waiting for the planes to be ready. I talked about what it was like waiting for our turn to take off.
We had so much in common. The chaplains who came out to talk to us while we were waiting in the cold. The fear. The reason we were there: your government told you to go out and do it and you did. We were like long-lost buddies.
All of a sudden, we both stopped talking. The realization hit us simultaneously: we could have been shooting at each other.
We never had the conversation again.
As told to Marcy Kaplan by Lee Kaplan
Dad and I were on a date one evening in 1946 or '47 at Radio City Music Hall. As you know, Radio City seats over 3,000 people. There was a comedian on stage, and after one of his jokes, Dad laughed out loud. Well, you know your father's laugh is very distinctive and booming.
There's a pause and the next thing I hear, somewhere way up in the theater, a man pops up out of his seat and shouts "Kriegie!" And your father pops up and shouts "Kriegie!" In a sea of 3,000 people, this POW camp-mate recognized Dad from his laugh alone.
Escape to Solitary
Recently I had an MRI test, and I was flooded with memories of being in the tunnel. Even when I was trying to escape the POW camp, I was always fearful of being in the tunnel.
We kept our eyes closed. We moved along and kept contact by touching each other. We passed the dirt back behind us.
Some tunnels were more elaborate-they had electrical wiring, and wood shoring up the walls. Not this tunnel. For light, we had small "kriegie lamps" that we made using margarine for fuel and small pieces of cloth for wicks. The lamps burned the scarce oxygen out of the air, burned your eyes.
I was picked up immediately upon my emergence from the tunnel and thrown into "the cooler"-solitary confinement-for a month. So many men were being punished that the camp didn't have enough solitary cells, so I actually had a buddy in with me for about a third of my month in the cooler.
The cell was bare, maybe 6 foot by 9 foot, with a sawdust mattress and a small high window. We got some ersatz coffee to drink, some bread to eat. They were supposed to take us out for a half hour to an hour a day. The suffering was mostly mental-we weren't beaten.
It was cold. You tried to move around to stay warm. You counted your steps back and forth. You communicated with the next cell by tapping on the wall. You slept.
One thing prisoners of all kinds learn is how to sleep-it's the only escape.
When I was in high school, in the mid 1930's, I worked in a souvenir shop on Broadway. We sold those "print your name in headlines" souvenir newspapers. Things like, "Train Stops with a Jerk. Jack Kaplan Gets Off;" or "Jack Kaplan Leaves Town. 453 Women Commit Suicide." Stuff like that. My job was typesetting those headlines.
We also sold sheet music in the store, and the owner's son happened to be a songwriter. He and a fellow music school student named Nat Bliss wrote songs together. I remember one of their songs was called "Little White Sailboat."
Flash forward to the spring of 1944. I am a POW in Germany. Some of the guys in the camp had formed an orchestra, thanks to musical instruments we got from the YMCA. They were performing an Easter concert in an open field, and I scrounged around for a piece of wood to sit on.
A guy comes along and asks me to move over so he can share my seat. I look up-
and it's Nat Bliss! He didn't recognize me at first because I had a full beard and was really skinny-in fact, I was playing Jesus Christ in the resurrection scene of the Easter pageant!
Anyway, we reminisced all that day, but then we never talked again. It was just a moment.
On one of our trips to Israel, in the '60s or '70s, Lee and I were traveling on Olympic Airways. When we were over the Alps, some problems developed with the plane. They landed in Athens, deplaned the passengers, and put us up in a small motel near the airport while the plane was being repaired.
The next morning, we were having breakfast at the motel, and a man at a nearby table kept staring at me. Finally, he came over to our table and told me he was sure he recognized me from Stalag Luft 1.
This guy was a Cypriot who had flown with the RAF during the war. After being captured, he had been imprisoned in one of the Eastern POW camps, and was part of a group the Jerries marched in from the Eastern camps in 1945. They were trying to empty out those camps because they saw the way things were going, and they preferred to surrender to the Americans or the British rather than to the Russians.
The Cypriot now ran a restaurant in Reading, England, and was on his way home to Cyprus for a visit-his first trip home since the war. He was waiting for a connecting flight. He swore I gave him his first bowl of soup at the camp.
Later I thought that maybe we had both gotten into the restaurant business because we'd been hungry.
My bombardier, Ray Argast, was from North Dakota, and he had never had any contact with Jews before. One day he asked me, in all innocence, "Jake, what's the story with the Jews? How are they different?" He knew he wasn't supposed to like Jews, but he didn't know why.
I had met Ray in Pocatello, Idaho. That was where the crews met and started working together. We flew practice missions, flew out over the Pacific for our first over-water mission. Ray, whose nickname was "Husky," had his wife and infant son with him in Pocatello. I remember one time she was diapering the baby, and Ray beamed,"Jake, look at that piece of business on my son!"
After we were shot down and captured, when the Jerries interrogated Ray, they wanted to know if he was related to a German soccer star whose last name was Argast. They wanted to know why he had come to Germany to bomb them.
One day, Ray came to me in the camp and said, "Jake, thanks for getting me out of the turret." I told him, "I don't remember doing it." The thing is, if the ship went down, it was the responsibility of the navigator to get the bombardier out of the turret. It was automatic. I truly didn't remember doing it.
After the war, I didn't get involved with any veteran's groups or POW groups, and I lost contact with my surviving crew members and buddies from the camp. It wasn't until relatively recently that I started attending reunions and tried to track down some of my old buddies.
Through the 392nd Historical Society, I learned that Ray had continued his career in the military, had retired as a Colonel, and had a retirement home in Pocatello, Idaho. In December of 1997, through Directory Assistance, I got the phone number and reached Ray's wife. She not only remembered me, she told me how Ray had been trying to find me for the past 50 years. She said he always credited me with saving his life, and he never stopped saying so.
Ray had died just the previous June; I missed him by six months.