WWII POW: ‘Red Cross Saved My Life’

WWII POW: ‘Red Cross Saved My Life’
If it weren’t for the food packages from the Red Cross, a lot of people wouldn’t have made it.

“Dear Pop and Dorothy, I have written this before, but I will write it again. I’m a prisoner of war and well and O.K. I have enough to eat due to the Red Cross. I want you to get $100 of my money and donate it to the American Red Cross. You cannot imagine how much they do for us….”

On Aug. 17, 1943, Technical Sergeant Maynard Unger was serving as the radio operator aboard a B-17F plane that was shot down during a flight mission over Germany. He became a prisoner of war (POW) for 22 months. During his confinement, he relied on amenities in parcels provided by the American Red Cross containing food, hygiene products, and even entertainment items to help pass the time. The above quote is from a letter he sent to his family, dated Aug. 27, 1943, which appeared in an Oberlin, Ohio, newspaper.

Unger joined the U.S. Army in September 1941. He was sworn in at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio, and scored high enough on his placement testing to qualify for the Air Corps. He spent six weeks at gunnery school in Las Vegas and was then stationed in Bangor, Maine. After receiving his wings he was sent to Salt Lake City for radio school, where he graduated with honors. His new orders were for Blythe, Calif., where he was assigned to the 534th Squadron, 381st Bomb Group.

The final phase of training in Salina, Kan., prepared the group to fly overseas. They ended up in Ridgewell, England, deemed ready to be part of the First Air Division. The bomb group flew its first mission on June 22, 1943.

Unger and his crew of 10 flew 12 missions on a B-17 (to France and Germany) prior to being shot down in August 1943 while headed to Schweinfurt, Germany. After being captured in the town of Bad Scwalbach, Germany, Unger was transported in a Volkswagen to Dulag Luft, the Air Force interrogation camp in Frankfurt.

After seven days of interrogation and solitary confinement, he was placed in a large enclosed compound where other POWs were being held. He never doubted that he would one day return home. “Uncle Sam knew where we were and the Red Cross along with the Geneva Convention*; they were sure to look out for our humane treatment,” he said.

He said that many of the prisoners needed clothes and shoes and were issued these items, transported by the Red Cross. Eventually Unger and approximately 1,500 Air Force prisoners were transported by train to Stalag XVII-B in Krems, Austria. Here the prisoners were fed the same food almost every day: black bread, tea, buggy soup, potatoes and rutabagas. Fortunately the diet was supplemented with food items from the Red Cross parcels.

“If it weren’t for the food packages from the Red Cross, a lot of people wouldn’t have made it,” he said. “I remember one particular time we went to pick up our Red Cross parcels. Believe me when I say these were very special occasions. They were important!”

The former POW said the Red Cross parcels would typically contain margarine, coffee, powdered milk, a chocolate bar, a small can of jam, cigarettes, a bar of soap and toothpaste. The items in the Red Cross packages were also a measurement of exchange between the prisoners and the Germans.

Stalag XVII-B was the second largest camp in all of the German territory. The Red Cross furnished the camp with items such as books, records, textbooks, a few musical instruments and softball equipment.

“Most of the men took advantage of these things,” said Unger. “I made use of the library books and records furnished by the Red Cross.”

The Red Cross also furnished camp logbooks—hardcover books with blank pages. Unfortunately, Unger’s book was lost and never made it back to the U.S., but many did and are priceless memorabilia reflecting this historical period.

“Every now and then a Red Cross representative would come to the camp and be visible to the prisoners; it was nice to know they were nearby supporting us, said Unger. “You talk to any POW in Germany at that time and they will tell you how important the Red Cross was for our existence.”

As the war dragged on, the prisoners were given less and less of everything, according to Unger. In early April 1945, approximately 4,000 men in groups of about 500 were told to pack up their belongings to begin a march out of the area. They walked 15 to 20 miles a day. Unger learned later that they walked for 18 days, covering 281 miles. It was a brutal time for the prisoners who lacked sleep, food and shelter. Finally on May 2, 1945, a U.S. Army jeep pulled up into a clearing with an Army captain who stood up announcing, “You men are no longer prisoners of war, but soldiers of the United States Army.”

Unger boarded the USS Marine Dragon, which arrived in Boston on June 10, 1945. He was delighted to see the many Red Cross ladies providing support and delivering handouts.

On June 21, 1945, Unger gave his father the greatest Father’s Day present ever, returning to his home in Oberlin, Ohio, after 22 months in a German POW camp. “One of the first things I wanted to do was to see if I could still drive a car,” he said.

After returning home, Unger made the decision to remain in the Army Air Corps Reserves. In between serving in Korea, living throughout the U.S., returning and living in Germany, Unger married his wife Helen and had three children. He received his master’s degree in education in 1968 and retired from the Air Force in 1969. In the fall of 1969, he began teaching elementary school and eventually retired in 1982 from the Lakewood, Ohio, School District.

Unger continues to live in Lakewood with his wife and is proud to have served his country. He still continues to boast about the great works of the Red Cross and recently attached this message to his donation: “Former POW, Red Cross saved our lives.”

*Due to the policies of the Geneva Convention (treaties and protocols that established standards of the international law for the humanitarian treatment of war and POWs), German soldiers were required to provide food, clothes, and hygiene products transported from the American Red Cross. A prisoner of war is naturally at the mercy of his captors, but they do have some rights under the power of the Geneva Convention of 1929 Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The International Red Cross organized the Geneva Convention and it was signed by 47 nations. It did a lot of good in improving conditions behind the barbed wire, especially for Americans in Europe. To the prisoners’ family at home during World War II, one of the most important rights was being able to let them know as promptly as possible that he had been captured, what his condition was and where he was being held. The protecting powers and the Central Agency of the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, performed this service for prisoners of war. The prisoner had the right to receive letters as well as send them.

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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