To Talk or Not To Talk

pow_instruction_r72

Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He died in 2000, but had he lived, he would have been 100 years old. He was born on February 9, 1918, to Finnish immigrants in a lumber camp in Michigan’s heavily forested Upper Peninsula.

I’m dedicating this post to his memory.

The document pictured above, issued by the U.S. War Department, entitled “Amended Instructions Concerning Publicity in Connection with Escaped Prisoners of War, to Include Evaders of Capture in Enemy or Enemy-Occupied Territory and Internees in Neutral Countries,” is dated August 6, 1943.

The document stresses the need for secrecy about information relating to the POW experience, and it lays down guidelines.

It states, “Information about your escape or your evasion from capture would be useful to the enemy and a danger to your friends. It is therefore SECRET.”

Former prisoners, on their repatriation, were required to sign the form.

The poor condition of this copy suggests my dad carried it folded in his pocket or wallet for some time after his return to freedom.

The form instructs servicemen to not disclose, except to certain military personnel, the following information:

(1) The names of those who helped you.
(2) The method by which you escaped for evaded.
(3) The route you followed.
(4) Any other facts concerning your experience.

“You must be particularly on your guard with persons representing the press,” it says, and “give no account of your experiences in books, newspapers, periodicals, or in broadcasts or in lectures.”

Furthermore, the men were instructed to “give no information in anyone, irrespective of nationality, in letters or in conversation.”

The British Armed Forces issued a similar document that repatriated POWs were required to sign (see below).

Although some newspaper clippings from wartime that are posted to this site show that some men did talk to the press, others kept a tight lip about their experiences—even keeping their experiences from spouses and children.

In 2007, Ethel Stafford, wrote to me that her father “did not talk much about his war experience until his later years, except for Primo and his family. Primo and his family sheltered and hid my Dad in the Apennine Mountains. Dad kept everything all bottled inside. When he did talk, it was just the bare minimum of what happened to him, or better yet—an outline.”

Andrew Stockton shared the following reminiscence of his grandfather, Brayno Reome, with me:

“I was young when my grandfather passed away, it is my understanding that he was very troubled and bothered to talk about his time in the war and being a prisoner. However, as a curious child I was fascinated by the war and him having escaped, so I constantly asked him and he would answer all my questions—accounts of his time in war and as a prisoner, which I remember like yesterday but were dulled down for obvious reasons. I learned more of his time in the war and prisoner from his son, my mother and his other two daughters since the time he has passed away. One thing that will always stick in my mind was when he received his medals during a ceremony at the Cortland [New York], VFW. He was so happy and honored, but I also saw later on in a television interview, of which we have a taped copy, how sad and hurt he was that the military had forgotten about him and his fellow soldiers who had to live through an unpleasant experience….”

Wayne Houben wrote about his father, “He wouldn’t talk about the time he was in the war, but he did leave some records.” Many families, like Wayne’s, are left with only clues to what happened.

In 2010, Ed Cronin wrote to me of his father, Clarence T. Cronin, who went by the name of Tom Cronin, “My father, like many of the survivors of WWII and prisoners of war, never talked much about his experience. What I can tell you about him is that he had full blown PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], but in those days it just was not recognized. He was a man with a good heart underneath it all, but he had an explosive temper through most of his life. He was typical in that he would jump out of bed in the middle of the night and get under his bed to cover himself from ‘attack.'”

Paul Green learned of his father’s experiences in this way:

“My father was a POW in Camp 59, and another escapee. The youngest of his three sons, I knew very little of my father’s experiences during the war. He remained tight-lipped about it, until one day I discovered his Silver Star and other military papers while fetching some insurance information for him from his office desk. He found me, a half-hour later, staring at his medal. That was the first time he spoke of the war, but thankfully not the last.”

My friend Neil Torssell, who passed away in 2016, told me when I interviewed him over the phone:

“I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think of something in regards to the service. I don’t go around talking to people about it. It just goes through my mind, that’s all. It’s just one of those things. Once you’ve been through what I’ve been through you never forget it.

“A lot of men won’t talk at all—they just can’t. I may have mentioned to you, I never told my wife about service too much—just the good times. We were at a meeting in Rochester [New York] one time and the speaker didn’t show up.

“The commander of that group said, ‘We’ll do it different today. Will each of you tell us something of what you went through?’

“When it came to my turn, I gave a very brief resumé. I think it shocked the daylights out of my wife because I hadn’t told her that before.

“After that, I could talk freely to her.”

When I was a child, my dad said little about his POW experience.

But when I was in college, the year-long U.S. bicentennial celebration of 1976 was an inspiration for local and family history projects, and I asked my dad then if I could tape his full war story.

He agreed to do it.

The following year, at a reunion of the 19th Engineers Combat Regiment, Dad spoke with Edgar F. Pohlmann, formerly a captain who, like my dad, was at the disastrous Kasserine Pass encounter with the Germans in February 1943. My dad asked Ed if he felt it was OK for him to tell his story.

Later, Ed wrote to him, “I did some checking with the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., regarding any possible clearances, etc. which might be required connection with writing a personal book or account of war experiences. They advised me that none is required.”

Years later, in 1987, Dad and I had another recording session, in which he shared additional details of his POW story.

Shortly after my dad’s death, my mother said to me, “When you interviewed Dad about his war experiences years ago—that really allowed him to heal. It allowed him to get those nightmares out of his head and into the open. He was so much calmer after that.”

For links to my dad’s interviews, see “A Kid’s Perspective.”

British version of the “Warning Against Giving Information about Your Escaper or How You Evaded Capture.”
From the British National Archives, courtesy Brian Sims.

This British document warns of the proscription against publishing or communicating by means of:

“(a) publication or accounts of your experiences in Books, NEWSPAPERS or periodicals (including Regimental Journals), WIRELESS broadcasts or lectures

“and (b) giving information to friends and acquaintances either male or female, in private letters, in casual conversations or discussions, even if those friends or acquaintances are in H.M’s or Allied Forces and how ever ‘safe’ you may consider them to be.”

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