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Tales from the POW camps

By ELIZABETH CIEPIELA

Staff writer

A decades-old sketch book tells the story of American ex-POWs’ experiences during World War II. And it tells the story of the price of freedom.

On Monday, the Woodmark at Steel Lake hosted a Veterans Day celebration. Fourteen of the retirement center’s residents are veterans, and several had a story to tell.

McChord Air Force Base’s Honor Guard presented the colors and the American flag at the beginning of the event, and Federal Way City Councilwoman Mary Gates and U.S. Rep. Adam Smith commented about the importance to honor older veterans, as well as today’s armed forces members.

In December 1942, Lt. Leonard Hammaker was shot down by German soldiers over France. He was taken to Paris briefly, and the former Disney artist began to chronicle his imprisonment in a small sketchbook.

For his fellow American prisoners, the early days of war were not as dismal as the closing years, according to Hammaker’s sketches. He drew cigarettes and pretty nurses. Spirits were high, and the faces of prisoners showed some apprehension — but they were not hopeless.

Soon after, the prisoners were transported to a POW camp called Oflag 11-B in Poland. They faced the bitter bite of winter armed with long underwear and wooden shoes. They bathed once a week, and food was limited.

Within a year, Hammaker no longer drew the faces of fellow prisoners; he drew them from the back or showed them hiding their faces.

He also sketched the death zone, and he copied a German poster addressed to the prisoners. It warned that escape attempts were “no longer a sport,” and that anyone caught trying to escape would be shot immediately.

While a prisoner, Hammaker met Morry Bauer, an Air Force pilot who had been shot down in June 1944. Bauer jumped out of the burning aircraft and pulled his rip cord at about 1,000 feet. He landed in a German farmer’s garden, and his freedom lasted two minutes before he was imprisoned by Nazis.

wreckage, but two others survived.

He and fellow American prisoners lived off sugar, flour, margarine and canned meat rations from the Red Cross. They cooked their own food.

“Cooking was quite a pleasure,” Bauer said. “Sometimes it was damn funny and sometimes it was pathetic. But we ate.”

In late January, his captors, fearing the approaching Russians, marched the prisoners west for 60 miles. They walked through a blizzard.

Hammaker asked Bauer to carry his sketchbook for him, and Bauer agreed.

At one point, Bauer saw another group — a caravan of German civilians fleeing Russian soldiers. He spotted a little girl and offered her his M&Ms. The girl never saw the candy before, but she took it and ate it after her mother explained to her that it was chocolate.

“If you ever saw a child in ecstasy, that was it,” Bauer said.

Finally they stopped at a small town, which Bauer described as “a pigpen, absolutely uninhabitable.” No water, no sanitation.

“I saw men eat stuff that you would not feed to your hog. The name of the game was to survive,” Bauer recalled.

By April, the prisoners heard artillery. “We knew that our boys were coming,” Bauer said.

The troops were led by Gen. George Patton. “He got us out of that hellhole,” Bauer said.

Bauer and other ex POWS kept silent for years about their experiences as prisoners. But several years ago, some veterans joined the Christmastown chapter of American ex-POWS to talk about what they saw and experienced.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565, eciepiela@fedwaymirror.com

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