Russell Spicer was the Commander of the 357th Fighter Group based
in England and he flew the P-51 Mustang on 14 missions. He had destroyed 3
German aircraft before flak damage on March 3, 1944 forced him to parachute
into the near freezing waters of the English Channel. Rescue boats and
aircraft failed to locate him.
drifted for 2 days in a one-man boat before reaching Cherbourg, France and
because of exposure and frostbite he was unable to walk. This was a
condition that would plague him all his life. He was found by German
soldiers and taken to Oberursel, Germany for medical treatment and
interrogation. Hans Scharff, a master Luftwaffe interrogator who spoke
excellent English said Spicer was an expert at avoiding or circumventing his
questions. After the war Scharff went to the United States and became a
arrival at Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany sometime in the spring of 1944,
Colonel Spicer became the senior officer of North Compound 2. He was a
hearty man with a long handlebar moustache. On a very cold and bitter
morning in late October or early November, during a roll call that usually
took no more than 15 minutes, the prisoner count was determined to be
incorrect. After some two hours of re-counts, Colonel Spicer told all the
POWs to go to their barracks. The prisoners ignored the German guards who
made loud and threatening protests as they returned to quarters.
Colonel Spicer summoned all the men of compound 2 to his barracks and he
then stood on the top step and talked very loudly so the German guards could
hear him say, “Remember, we are still at war with the Germans. They are
still our enemies and are doing everything they can to win this war.
Recently an officer was put in the cooler on two counts for failure to
salute a German officer of lower rank which violates Geneva convention
articles.” (Stalag Luft I had ordered the saluting of all officers by
continued by saying he observed many POWs becoming too friendly with the
Germans and loudly said, “Don’t let them fool you around because they are
dirty lying sneaks and can’t be trusted.” He further stated that “as an
example of the type of enemy we are dealing with, the British were forced to
retreat in the Arnheim area (Aachen) and had to leave their wounded in a
hospital. The Germans machine-gunned all British wounded in their beds.”
Col. Spicer also
related that in Belgium, behind enemy lines, a woman with her baby in her
arms was evacuating the battle zone when some captured British prisoners
were passing by her. She displayed a “V” for victory sign with her fingers
and a German soldier saw her and shot her on the spot. Spicer concluded by
saying, “They are a bunch of murderous, no-good liars and if we have to stay
here for 15 years to see all the Germans killed, then it will be worth it.”
applause following Spicer’s remark and cheers arouse from all the POWs that
hear him speak. The German major in charge of the guards was furious.
According to a document of protest to the Swiss legation acting as
protecting power dated November 4, 1944, Colonel Byerly the senior American
Officer, wrote and sent word that approximately one hour after Spicer’s
speech to the POWs he was taken before the German commandant and put in
solitary confinement. He was then taken to a small cell measuring six by
eight fee pending a court-martial.
charges against Colonel Spicer included “Defaming of German character: and
“inciting prisoners to riot”. The German commandant, Oberst Scherer, stated
that Colonel Spicer was held in custody for court-martial. We in Stalag
Luft I later learned that he had been convicted to serve six months in
solitary confinement and then be executed by a firing squad.
Spicer, prior to his conviction, interviewed new prisoners for current war
news and documented German atrocities and then went to great lengths to
harass the German guards. This caused very hard feelings between the POWs
and their captors, which resulted in frequent roll calls during which guards
often, searched the barracks for “illegal possessions”. There were reports
of German guards drawing moustaches and more on paintings and sketches POWs
had made of a family member or fellow POWs.
incident in November of 1944 occurred when German Major Steinhower, who was
the lager (camp) officer, demanded that all POWs assemble for an evening
roll call in a heavy rain. Colonel Spicer concluded that the order was
quite ridiculous and directed that we POWs not comply. Steinhower became
irate and threatened force. Spicer responded by saying he had “A couple of
machine guns to eliminate the guards.” In the end, the POWs submitted to
the roll call.
Mozart Kaufman, who was a POW in North Compound 2 and present when Colonel
Spicer made his speech, determined that the speech should be documented and
he solicited assistance from other POWs to accurately write down what Spicer
had said. He then buried the notes in a coffee can under his barracks.
Kaufman later wrote a book on his stay in Stalag Luft I and said, “Colonel
Spicer was an excellent example of a good commander – one who kept morale
high by challenging the Germans on every occasion.”
Colonel Spicer was serving the six-month solitary confinement order and
awaiting the execution order to be carried out by a firing squad,
occasionally some POWs were marched by guards near the cooler where Spicer
was held. The often shouted words of encouragement to Spicer and he would
call back and say, “Don’t give in to them and keep fighting.” When asked if
he needed anything, he always said. “Send me machine guns.”
Ironically, in the end Spicer did evade the firing squad by a single day.
As the Soviet troops prepared to overtake Stalag Luft I in late April, all
the German guards evacuated during the night leaving the camp unattended.
When Spicer was told of this, he would not leave his cell saying, “ I have
one more night to make it an even six months, and I am staying here
tonight.” When he finally appeared, every POW greeted him
enthusiastically. Spicer said, “Seeing and hearing you (POWs) made solitary
confinement, worth it.”
worth mentioning at this time that the Geneva Convention observed the terms
of the Hague Convention of 1907, which did not fully cover prisoners of
war. The 1941 change basically stated that no POW could be forced to
disclose to captor anything other than his name, rank and serial number. In
World War 2, Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting posers and the
International Red Cross at Geneva was the clearinghouse for all POW
information. It has been stated that American and British POWs received the
best treatment from their German captors and the Polish prisoners, the
worst. The USSR however, was not a signor of the 1941 convention.
conclusion, Henry Russell Spicer retired from the United States Air Force on
June 1, 1964 as a Major General with 30 years of service. He died on
December 5, 1968 at the relatively young age of 60. In the October 1995
issue of “The Air Force Magazine” C.V. Glines, who was a flying cadet in
1941 with Lt. Spicer as his flight commander, wrote a story entitled, “A
Speech Worth Dying For.” General Spicer will always be remembered for his
speech that not only brought him a death sentence, but also brought strength
and fortitude to his fellow prisoners.