In war-time, a place called Barth was Hell. It was a
prisoner of war camp located only a few miles south of the Baltic Sea in
Northern Germany. Downed aircrews were interned there after having been
shot down and captured by the enemy. Ten thousand were held there as
The camp was divided into four administrative compounds with
2,500 airmen in each unit. These “guests of the Germans” were elite
quality men – leaders and brave American youths. They had been effective in
their aerial combat activity against Nazi Germany.
But now, their role had
dramatically changed. Internment brought suffering beyond belief; the
unending frigid weather, the unpredictable behavior of the guards.
Inadequate food, lice, sickness, boredom, death by starvation or by
exposure, was their unchanging agenda. Yet there were times when the
spirits of the Prisoners of War were lifted. It was always through their own
methods of creativity and ingenious that this happened.
One on-going “high”
occurred when each new contingent of “guests” arrived in the camp.
Up-to-date uncensored information became immediately available. The reports
brought in by these new POW’s gave fresh, unbiased running accounts of how
the war was progressing on both the Eastern Front with the Russians and on
the Western Front.
The increasing numbers of bombers and fighters appearing
in the air overhead brought silent but exuberant joy and hope to Barth’s
imprisoned. As optimism flourished small group conversation centered on
the war’s end and their freedom. Liberation was on everyone’s lips. The
war was indeed winding down! Talk of being home for Christmas became a
Although all embraced the Dream, not all were optimistic.
This difference in opinion brought about the “Bet at Barth”. A wager was
on. New life came to the camp. But what was there to wager!? There was no
money, no freedom of 3-day passes to London, no material possessions for the
loser to forfeit, no points or promotions to be gained or lost.
heated conversation two men got carried away in their claims. An optimistic
airman bet a pessimistic one on the following terms. “If we aren’t home by
Christmas, I will kiss your a** before the whole group formation right after
head-count on Christmas morning.” They shook hands. The bet was on!
the optimist hadn’t counted on the Battle of the Bulge in early December.
Consequently, the war was prolonged and they were still in Barth on
Christmas Day, 1944. Christmas morning was cold, there was snow on the
ground and frigid air was blowing in off the Baltic Sea. The body count for
the compound began, each man was counted off. ein…, zwei…,drei…, vier…,funf…,sechs…,
Under ordinary circumstances, when the counting was completed
and the German guards were satisfied that everyone was accounted for, the
group split up and everyone went to their barracks. But this time,
everybody stayed in formation. The two betting “Kriegies” walked out of the
formation and went into the barracks. No one else moved! The guards were
puzzled They didn’t know what was going on.
Soon, the two men came back
out of the barracks. One was carrying a bucket of water with a towel over
the other arm. The second one marched to the front of the formation, turned
his back toward the assembled troops and guards, pulled down his pants and
stooped over. The other took the towel, dipped it in the soapy water and
washed his posterior. The whole formation was standing there looking and
laughing. The German guards and dignitaries of Barth stood gazing in
amazement, they didn’t know what was going on. Then the optimist bent over
and kissed his opponent on the rear! A mighty cheer went up from over 2,000
men. Then the puzzled guards joined in the fun.
Nothing changed on
Christmas day – the same black bread and thin soup, sparse and flavorless.
As evening fell, the weather worsened, the barracks were cold, the last of
the daily allotted coal briquettes were reduced to nothing but white ash.
Boredom was setting in and the prisoners anticipated another long miserable
night. Suddenly, the door opened…a voice shouted, “The curfew has been
lifted for tonight! We’re going to have a Christmas service over in the
next compound.” The weather was bitterly cold, the new fallen snow crunched
under the feet of the men as they quickly shuffled towards their
congregating comrades in the distance.
The nightly curfew
always kept men inside – this Christmas night’s reprieve allowed them to be
outside after dark for the first time. Above, the stars were shining
brightly and were high in the northern skies; the dim flicker of Aurora
Borealis added a magical touch as the troops assembled. Gratitude was felt
in their hearts… a lone singer led out with one of the world’s most familiar
and loved carols. Others joined in and soon there was joyful worship
ringing throughout the camp.
All is calm,
all is bright…
The German guards
marching their assigned beats stopped in their tracks... they turned their
heads toward the music. The words were unfamiliar but they recognized the
tune…after all, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht was composed by a German. They
loosened up, smiled, and joined in the celebration; the praise became
virgin mother and Child
nurdas traute hoch heilige Paar
so tender and mild
im lockigen Hoiar
heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
himmlischer ruh! Schlaf in
The Bet at Barth had
paid off. Everyone had won! As the words of the carol rang in their
hearts, there was a literal fulfillment. Tonight they would sleep in
peace. War and internment did not have the power to destroy the meaning and
beauty of this special day.
It was Christmas.
They were not at home. But they declared, “Next year we will be! All of
us!” And they were!
Winner - 2nd Lt. Stanley M. Johnson of Port
Loser - 2nd Lt. Richard D. Stark of Tampa, FL.
Location: North 2 Compound of Stalag Luft I
Illustration from Mozart Kaufman's book
"Fighter Pilot - Aleutians to Normandy to Stalag Luft I"
(Note the men standing in formation have written on their shirts
letters which spell out "Merry Christmas Blk 3". I wonder if this
really happened or if it is by the artist. )
Excerpt from Mr. Kaufman's book:
We awoke on Christmas morning for "appell" (roll call) on a bitter
cold day. After counting the "Kriegies," Major Steinhauer turned
us over for dismissal. It was then we witnessed the payment of the debt
by the man who had wagered the war would be over by Christmas. In
September 1944, Stark had said to Johnson, "I'll kiss your a** if the
war isn't over by Christmas." Stepping out before 1,500
"Kriegies", Second Lt. Stanley M. Johnson of Port Allegany, Penn.,
lowered his pants and leaned over. Second Lt. Richard D. Stark of
Tampa, Fla., came forward with a bucket of hot water and a towel.
After washing Johnson's rear end, he folded the towel, placed it over
the crack and gave the "cheek" a good kiss,
Fifteen hundred men let out with a cheering and clapping that could be
heard in all the other compounds. The German Major Steinhauer
stood there with his guards, shaking his head in amazement, not
believing what he had witnessed. We were then dismissed.