Stalag XVII B

Prison Life

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Typical barracks interior

Each American compound measured 175 x 75 yards (slightly less than two football fields in area). Each compound contained 4 double-barracks 40 feet wide by 120 feet long. In the middle of each double-barracks, separating each barrack half (named "A" and "B"), was a washroom with only 6 basins. Bunk beds were crude wooden structures stacked three high, and most men slept two to a bed to share the thin blankets issued to each prisoner and for added warmth. A rough, uncomfortable mattress filled with straw and cardboard was provided for each bed; prisoners rolled their clothing into pillows. Each half of the double-barrack had a stove for heat and cooking, but fuel was heavily rationed and the stove was insufficient to properly heat the barracks. Often, the prisoners would tear down parts of the walls and bunk beds to burn in the stoves. Each barrack was designed to hold about 240 men, but usually 400 men were crowded into each building starting in early 1944. Barracks quickly became so overcrowded that many prisoners had to sleep in the washroom or on the floor. Overcrowding became even more of a problem after the Germans closed two of the double-barracks closest to the outer fence because American POWs were continually digging escape tunnels from those barracks.

Sanitary conditions at the camp were poor to awful. Cold water for washing was only available for a short period of time each day. Only one outdoor latrine provided toilet facilities for each entire compound of 4 double-barracks, or 1,600 prisoners. At night, no one was allowed to use the outdoor latrine; instead, prsoners had to use a bucket in each barrack. In 1941 many hundreds of Russian prisoners died during a typhus outbreak. Because of awful sanitary conditions and poor diet, dysentery was a common problem among all prisoners in Stalag XVII B.

Upon arrival to the camp, prisoners were forced to hand over all personal items like watches and jewelry (most of which were confiscated by the German guards), and were made to take off all American clothing and were given military clothing of other nationalities to wear. They had their heads shaved, got a cold shower and were crowded into a building and treated for body lice. After that, prisoners were photographed, issued identification cards with personal data and issued metal identification tags with unique serial numbers (see top of page). Prisoners were required to memorize their German POW serial numbers and could be severely punished or beaten if they forgot their numbers or did not wear their tags.

The Germans tried to make daily life for the American prisoners difficult, boring and demeaning. Guards usually made all prisoners line up outside several times each day to be counted, to make sure no prisoners had escaped. Sometimes to be cruel, the Germans would perform a very detailed roll call during which they would inspect every POW ID tag and compare each prisoner with the photo that was taken of him when he was brought to the camp. These detailed inspections could take many hours to complete and during that time all prisoners had to stand outside regardless of the weather.

American prisoners quickly developed a well-organized, self-governing structure and elected a leader, called the MOC ("Man Of Confidence", or camp spokesman) and "barracks chiefs", one for each barracks. Since all of the American prisoners were sergeants (except a handful of medical officers), they quickly organized themselves and developed a system of government, elected leaders and established many things a typical town would have - a school, a library, a theater, sports teams and more. The leaders were:

Kenneth "Kurt" Kurtenbach, Camp Leader (MOC, or "Man of Confidence")
Charles Belmer, Camp Adjutant
James Tyler, Camp Secretary
Paul Giddens, Joseph Dillard, Thomas Randolph, Donald Elder, Batallion Chiefs
Charles Belmas, Adjunct
Alexander Haddon, School Director
David Woo and Gerald Tucker, Mail Directors
Samuel Underwood, Theater Director
Edward Weisenberger, Sports Director
Sidney Hall, "Gourmet" Cook
One Barracks Chief for each barracks (28 total)

Several captured American doctors were also sent to Stalag XVII B. They cared for the prisoners:
Major Frederick Beaumont
Captain Gerald Nungester
Captain Paul Jacobs
Captain Stephen Kane (who also served as Chaplain)

Barracks 13A and B was the infirmary and medical staff quarters. Barracks 14A was used as a meeting room and school, and 14B was for food distribution. Kenneth Kurtenbach was in Barracks 15A, which was nicknamed "The White House" (after the White House in Washington, D.C). All of the other American leaders except the doctors and barracks chiefs lived there, too. Barracks 15B was the library, 16A was the theater and 16B was used for repairing shoes and clothing. The chapel was in a separate building in the same compound as barracks 33, 34, 35 and 36.

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Drawing of the American section of the camp, by Ben Phelper.