POW camps were nothing to laugh at.



Like many other young American kids, I grew up watching Hogan’s Heroes. It was about WWII, featured a charismatic protagonist in a great costume (Hogan made the A-4 jacket cool long before Indiana Jones made his debut) and was pretty funny. We used to play POW when I was a kid. The game mostly consisted of us sitting around a tool shed drinking pretend coffee from tin cups and lathering up to pretend shave every hour or so (taking the blades out of our dads’ old safety razors). We’d escape by crawling on our backs under fences, dodge bullets and kill Nazis whenever we happened upon any of them–they may have looked like neighborhood kids, but to us they were Nazis.

The story of the show is on Wikipedia, but in summary it was a longshot that surprised producers by becoming wildly popular (the other series that did that was another favorite, Gilligan’s Island). Hogan and company beat all the odds, and for a few years American households laughed at those hilarious Nazi cutups while eating TV dinners.

I never saw the show on prime time. I got to know Hogan and Klink the same way I got to know Gilligan and Captain Kirk–syndicated afternoon TV from our non-network affiliate KZAZ (later to become a Fox station). Nonetheless, I felt I knew what POW life was like. It was a bit like summer camp without the hiking. The Hogan crew thumbed their nose at authority, escaped when they liked, had hot girls around all the time and even blew shit up once in a while.

But all that was so wrong. I read Paul Brickhill’s brilliant The Great Escape when I was about twelve. It really opened my eyes. These guys were in mortal danger all the time. When, against colossal odds, the British organized and executed a mass escape through a tunnel, the Germans executed fifty of downloadthem in reprisal. Only three made it back to England.  At the war’s end, Hitler ordered that they all be executed in a final act of evil, but his generals refused.  It was serious, awful business. It was war.

In Hawser, I did my best to capture the boredom and monotony of POW camp as well as the danger. I used a lot of sources for research, including a great book A Wartime Log. This is a replica of the high-quality notebooks provided to POWS by the YMCA. The idea was to provide the prisoners an opportunity to document their experience behind the wire. This book is packed full of pages from these logs and includes numerous sketches and  stories about the camps. The officers were segregated from the enlisted men, and eventually by nationality as well. As bad as the officers had it, the enlisted guys fared far, far worse. The main feature was incessant hunger. I describe the daily intake of a POW:

The Geneva Convention for fair treatment of prisoners of war stipulated that POWs were to be fed the same as your own combat troops, but the German idea of rations is a joke. Just enough to starve us in a painful, prolonged way.

Let me illustrate: breakfast is two slices of coarse black bread that tastes like
sawdust, a thin smear of sour margarine and a cup of ersatz coffee made from burned
black bread and scorched acorns. A few hours later, it’s lunchtime. Two potatoes with
some gassy cabbage. Once in a while there’s some stringy meat we don’t look at too
closely. It could be horsemeat, but it might be dog. Dinner is the same as lunch except
with watery cabbage soup and sometimes only one slice of bread. Once in a while there
give us blutwurst, awful little sausages made of gut stuffed with gristle, grease and rancid
blood. Even starving, it’s hard to choke these down.

That’s it. If this was how the Germans fed their own troops, I could understand
why they’d be ornery.

Another great source was a website put up by and for the POWs themselves. Many great stories here, some of them inspiration for a few key scenes in my book.

The pains we take to keep to the historical record! I am deeply inspired by Patick O’Brian and Tolstoy on this score. Those guys could write.

Don't just stand there.