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Forty-Five Years After Being Freed from a Ww Ii Stalag, Some Old Roomies Find the Laughter Outweighs the Tears

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The last time, it was 1945. They were young American airmen whose B-17s, B-24s and P-47s had been shot down over Germany, France and Belgium, and for nine to 18 months they had shared a 12-foot by 16-foot room, dubbed Hungry Hollow, in Stalag Luft 1 prison, near the Baltic Sea. With about 9,000 others, they had just been liberated by Soviet soldiers, who had fought their way there from Stalingrad; the Soviet, British and American flags had been raised; BBC radio was being piped over the loudspeakers; and the POWs for the first time were hearing the No. 1 song on Your Hit Parade: It was “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Now it is a warm Saturday in Oklahoma City, and the ex-airmen are together again for the first time. Mostly retired engineers, businessmen and Air Force officers from all over the U.S., they sit down to a lighthearted breakfast and memories, wearing caps decorated with a symbolic strand of barbed wire. “We dug four tunnels trying to escape,” recalls Gene Flint, 71, a former Air Force pilot living in South Dakota and Florida, who led four failed digs. “But it was mainly just a way to pass time.”

“The results often left something to be desired,” adds Marion Saffell, 67, a retired engineer in Atlanta. “One afternoon, during a softball game, a guy’s head popped up out of the ground right in front of third base. The third baseman told him he needed to dig toward right field. So the guy just disappeared back into the ground.”

Of the 18 men, three have died; two arc ailing and unable to attend; but 12 are here, and they have picked Oklahoma City for their three-day reunion so they can visit the 13th, Donald “Pop” Shea, 73, the group’s room leader, who is recovering from two heart attacks and lives in nearby Duncan. “I spent a year and a half on this,” says their organizer, ex-fighter pilot Lew Wickens, 66, who is retired from the frozen food business and lives in Craig, Mo. “It became a quest. No one lived in the town he called home before the war, and I knew most of them by nicknames—Dusty, Bucko, Dinty—they hadn’t used for years. But I tracked them all down.” And the old fliers have brought mementos with them. Ex-navigator Dan McCarthy, a Northrup Aircraft consultant in Hawthorne, Calif., has his diary covered with wool from German long Johns; ex-co-pilot Flint has the 250-watt light bulb he stole while fellow POWs faked two fights to distract the guards (he made a socket for it out of wire and nails); and Wickens has baked bread to commemorate the bread they were given daily, along with potato-and-rotting-turnip soup. “I assure you,” he tells them, “you will be able to taste the same sawdust you tasted 45 years ago.”

Back then they endured the hunger, cold and boredom through humor and ingenuity: Each man, to avoid feeling sorry for himself, was allowed to relate just one time, on arrival, how he was shot down; and after they persuaded a guard to smuggle them a radio in return for cigarettes and chocolate bars, other guards would drop in to find out how the war was going. “It was nothing like the hardships of POWs held by the Japanese or, later, by the Vietnamese,” says Claud White, a retired school administrator in Edmond, Okla. Still, there were casualties. Hungry Hollow inmates heard stories of camp suicides and isolated instances of escaping prisoners being shot. Yet for many the camp was a strange relief. Stace Burckes, now a charter fishing boat operator in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, remembers his first glimpse of the stalag. “There was a sign over the entrance, in French: ‘For you the war is over.’ There was a great relief in knowing I was going to get out of it alive.”

The favorite memory is of the ice skates. Several dozen were sent from America by the YMCA, and nobody knew what to do with them until, recalls McCarthy, “we devised a plan.” They used some blades to make crude wire cutters, with which they snipped barbed wire to make bedsprings, drills and wires to hide under the snow and trip up guards for fun. Then they got permission to dig a skating trench. “Everything went fine,” McCarthy recalls, “until they found the wire cutters. The commander told mc the skates would be taken away, then he grinned and said, ‘Every time I let you Americans have something, it comes back to bite me in the ass. One day I expect to see you all fly out of here in an airplane you’ve made from tin cans.’ ”

The punishment for such violations was solitary confinement, but, says Bob Thompson, 74, a retired engineer living in Florida, “the room was warm and the guards, feeling sorry for you, slipped you extra food. There was a two-month waiting list to get into solitary.”

At the end of the reunion on Sunday, the men join hands and murmur a prayer. “We would have gone through hell for each other,” says White. “I’m not ashamed of the tears I’ve shed or seen shed this weekend. I’ll never forget it.”

“This time, let’s stay in touch,” someone adds. “We’ll never last another 45 years.”