“Historical events of National importance are duly recorded by historians, but the personal and individual experiences that make up these events are too many times lost with the passing of time.” Gilbert Verney; Monadnock Paper Mills, Inc.; Bennington, N.H.; October 2, 1972
These words are found in the front of the published version of the diary that Hubert B. Gater wrote as a prisoner of war during the Second World War, but they apply to all personal narratives that remind us that great wars are not merely historical international events, but also made up of individual stories of trying to survive. The American Heritage Center has several diaries written by soldiers in POW camps during World War II.
“You are my enemy forever! Maybe I fight you again, sometime. In this inclosure the strong will live and the weak will die. If you attempt to escape you will be shot. Empty your pockets and place all you have on the ground in front of you.” – Jap major (commander) greeting the P.O.W.s at Camp O’Donnell, the first P.O.W. camp Hubert B. Gater was assigned to.
Hubert B. Gater (1912-1980) was stationed with the U.S. Army in the Philippines at the outbreak of World War II. Gater was caught in early April 1942 when the Japanese forces overpowered the remaining Allied forces on the islands of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines. In his diary, Gater tells of the last stand and how they were taken prisoners soon after. He tells his story of the infamous Bataan Death March in which thousands of prisoners died during a transfer from Saisaih Pt. and Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell. The deaths only increased after arrival at the camp. A diary entry from April 12th, 1942 states “For my group the march from Bataan was over. The march was over but close to four out of five of us would still die. War wounds, malaria, dysentery, beri beri, pellagra and especially malnutrition.”
The diary managed to survive the war because when Gater was transferred to Japan, he left the diary with some friends instructing them to bury it, knowing that the US forces would conduct a thorough search once they liberated the camp. Included in the Gater collection is a photocopy of the original diary, several printed copies of his Bataan diary, as well as correspondence related to the publishing of the diary. There are also news clipping related to the prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.
“In this hell-hole I hungered for food and “sweated out” the end of the war.” Last line of Robert Kenneth Cook’s description of a day at Stalag VII-A
Robert Kenneth Cook was a US flight navigator whose plane was shot down by the Germans in 1944. He spent his time as a POW in Stalag VII-A, Germany’s largest POW camp during World War II, and Stalag Luft III. Stalag Luft III is best known for the mass prisoner escape written about by Paul Brickhill in The Great Escape. Cook was a part of the escape effort, using his skills as a navigator and artist to draw maps for the escape. Cook’s diary is written in the form of a magazine with beautiful hand illustrations and unexpected entries such as recipes, lists of books he’s read in the camp and drawings of how soldiers dressed on a mission. He even allowed other prisoners to contribute to his “Kriegie Kronicle”, Kriegie being short for Kriegesgefangenen, the German for Prisoner of War. Several prisoners contributed poems about wishing to be free and for the war to end. One John J. Ellis provided an account of the mass evacuation of Stalag Luft III and the trip to Stalag VII-A in Bavaria describing the scarcity of food, cramped conditions on trains and the long marches in the freezing cold.
Cook’s diary differs from so many others in that it focuses less on the horrors of war and more on the attempts of creating some sense of normalcy in prison. It provides insight into how German POW camps were run from entries like “A Day at Stalag VII-A” and many drawings of the rooms, and things the prisoners used every day. The light tone can make one forget about the pain, discomfort and misery these soldiers were experiencing, but then one comes across an entry like this: “Nothing so lifts a soldier’s moral as getting a letter from home. And nothing so depresses him as reading it. BUT DEPRESS ME…SO HELP ME!!”
The Kriegie Kronicle ends with Cook writing about impatiently waiting to return homeafter the end of the War. Eventually, he returned to his home in Wyoming and was a student at the University of Wyoming for a time.
“I have been speculating on the great moment [of being freed] around here. I can’t imagine the reaction. Freedom simply means too much to us for our minds to comprehend it.” Page 4 of Wilbur Brice O’Brien’s POW diary
Wilbur Brice O’Brien was enlisted in 1941 and served in the U.S. Army Force as a pilot. His plane was shot down near Lyon, France in 1944. He was free for a short time, but was then captured in an underground camp in civilian clothing. He was initially told he would be executed, but was then transported to Stalag Luft I in Germany where he spent eleven months as a Prisoner of War.
The collection contains materials relating to O’Brien’s P.O.W. experience and legal career including a diary and letters sent by O’Brien to his wife as a P.O.W. His diary is written as directly addressing his wife. Entries show the frustration that P.O.W.s felt after the European armistice when they were waiting to be freed and also waiting to be returned home. O’Brien wrote many postcards to his wife and for the most part received no responses. The most heartbreaking entries are when he keeps asking his wife to send a picture of their three year old child because he is struggling to imagine what she would look like after so long. After World War II, O’Brien worked as an attorney and in the collection are documents about the coal industry adjusting to the threat of nuclear energy overtaking coal.
-Chido Muchemwa, Graduate Assistant