The Bet at Barth - A Christmas Story
by: Earl Wasson - 466th Bomb Group - ex-POW - Barth, Germany
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 prisoners.
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.
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.
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.
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 Utopian Dream.
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!
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…,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright…
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
Round yon virgin mother and Child
Cinsam wacht nurdas traute hoch heilige Paar
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Holder Knabe im lockigen Hoiar
Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Schlaf in himmlischer ruh! Schlaf in himmlischer ruh.
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.
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 Allegany, PA
Loser - 2nd Lt. Richard D. Stark of
Location: North 2 Compound of Stalag
Illustration from Mozart Kaufman's book
"Fighter Pilot - Aleutians to Normandy to Stalag Luft I"
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.
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