22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Vonnegut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

If you read Open Cul­ture, smart mon­ey says you’ll also enjoy Let­ters of Note, a site we occa­sion­al­ly ref­er­ence. They col­lect, post, and pro­vide con­text for “fas­ci­nat­ing let­ters, post­cards, telegrams, fax­es, and mem­os” to and from all man­ners of lumi­nar­ies through­out the his­to­ry of art, pol­i­tics, music, sci­ence, media, and, er, let­ters. Dig into the archives and you’ll find a mis­sive home from Kurt Von­negut, a notable let­ter-writer if ever there was one. Ded­i­cat­ed Von­negut read­ers will rec­og­nize the tone of the nov­el­ist, although here, at the age of 22, he had yet to become one. A Pri­vate in the Sec­ond World War, he was tak­en pris­on­er on Decem­ber 19, 1944, dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Bulge. Hav­ing then done time in an under­ground sec­tion of a Dres­den work camp known, yes, as “Slaugh­ter­house Five,” he sur­vived the sub­se­quent bomb­ing of the city and wound up in a repa­tri­a­tion camp by May 1945. There, he wrote what fol­lows:

Dear peo­ple:

I’m told that you were prob­a­bly nev­er informed that I was any­thing oth­er than “miss­ing in action.” Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the let­ters I wrote from Ger­many. That leaves me a lot of explain­ing to do — in pre­cis:

I’ve been a pris­on­er of war since Decem­ber 19th, 1944, when our divi­sion was cut to rib­bons by Hitler’s last des­per­ate thrust through Lux­em­burg and Bel­gium. Sev­en Fanat­i­cal Panz­er Divi­sions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges’ First Army. The oth­er Amer­i­can Divi­sions on our flanks man­aged to pull out: We were oblig­ed to stay and fight. Bay­o­nets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammu­ni­tion, food and med­ical sup­plies gave out and our casu­al­ties out-num­bered those who could still fight — so we gave up. The 106th got a Pres­i­den­tial Cita­tion and some British Dec­o­ra­tion from Mont­gomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren’t wound­ed. For that much thank God.

Well, the super­men marched us, with­out food, water or sleep to Lim­berg, a dis­tance of about six­ty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, six­ty men to each small, unven­ti­lat­ed, unheat­ed box car. There were no san­i­tary accom­mo­da­tions — the floors were cov­ered with fresh cow dung. There was­n’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the oth­er half stood. We spent sev­er­al days, includ­ing Christ­mas, on that Lim­berg sid­ing. On Christ­mas eve the Roy­al Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hun­dred-and-fifty of us. We got a lit­tle water Christ­mas Day and moved slow­ly across Ger­many to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Ger­mans herd­ed us through scald­ing delous­ing show­ers. Many men died from shock in the show­ers after ten days of star­va­tion, thirst and expo­sure. But I did­n’t.

Under the Gene­va Con­ven­tion, Offi­cers and Non-com­mis­sioned Offi­cers are not oblig­ed to work when tak­en pris­on­er. I am, as you know, a Pri­vate. One-hun­dred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dres­den work camp on Jan­u­ary 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the lit­tle Ger­man I spoke. It was our mis­for­tune to have sadis­tic and fanat­i­cal guards. We were refused med­ical atten­tion and cloth­ing: We were giv­en long hours at extreme­ly hard labor. Our food ration was two-hun­dred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unsea­soned pota­to soup each day. After des­per­ate­ly try­ing to improve our sit­u­a­tion for two months and hav­ing been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Rus­sians came. They beat me up a lit­tle. I was fired as group leader. Beat­ings were very small time: — one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for steal­ing food.

On about Feb­ru­ary 14th the Amer­i­cans came over, fol­lowed by the R.A.F. their com­bined labors killed 250,000 peo­ple in twen­ty-four hours and destroyed all of Dres­den — pos­si­bly the world’s most beau­ti­ful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work car­ry­ing corpses from Air-Raid shel­ters; women, chil­dren, old men; dead from con­cus­sion, fire or suf­fo­ca­tion. Civil­ians cursed us and threw rocks as we car­ried bod­ies to huge funer­al pyres in the city.

When Gen­er­al Pat­ton took Leipzig we were evac­u­at­ed on foot to (‘the Sax­ony-Czecho­slo­va­kian bor­der’?). There we remained until the war end­ed. Our guards desert­ed us. On that hap­py day the Rus­sians were intent on mop­ping up iso­lat­ed out­law resis­tance in our sec­tor. Their planes (P‑39’s) strafed and bombed us, killing four­teen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wag­on. We trav­eled and loot­ed our way through Sude­ten­land and Sax­ony for eight days, liv­ing like kings. The Rus­sians are crazy about Amer­i­cans. The Rus­sians picked us up in Dres­den. We rode from there to the Amer­i­can lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We’ve since been flown to Le Havre.

I’m writ­ing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repa­tri­a­tion Camp. I’m being won­der­ful­ly well feed and enter­tained. The state-bound ships are jammed, nat­u­ral­ly, so I’ll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I’ll be giv­en twen­ty-one days recu­per­a­tion at Atter­bury, about $600 back pay and — get this — six­ty (60) days fur­lough.

I’ve too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can’t receive mail here so don’t write.

May 29, 1945


Kurt — Jr.

 As always, Let­ters of Note offers scans of the orig­i­nal let­ter for your direct inspec­tion.

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