From the 390th Memorial Museum Archives: Prison Camp Experiences

by Mariel Watt, Library and Collections Specialist.

S/Sgt. John H. McCracken was in serious trouble. He was on his 18th combat mission when his plane was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire. After losing three engines and sustaining damage to the flight controls the crew was ordered to bail out. McCracken spent the remaining eight months of World War II in prison camps (McCracken, 1994).

Shown above: Straw mattresses are being filled in a German Prisoner of War Camp.


Life in German Prisoner of War Camp

Some 95,000 American servicemen were detained in German POW camps during World War II. Prisoners were held in several types of camps, including the “Stalag” for noncommissioned officers, “Stalag Luft” camps for Air Force personnel and “Oflag”, a permanent camp for officers (Shavit, 1999).

War Pamphlet, courtesy of the Joseph A. Moller Library.

A War Department pamphlet from WWII found in the 390th Memorial Archives offered minimal hope to captured airmen. Titled “If you should be Captured these are your rights” it opens with the statement “Being a prisoner of war is a grim business.” It continues in this cheerless vein for several paragraphs before stating, “The monotony is deadly.” (War Department, 1944).

The tedium faced by captured airmen resulted in numerous creative endeavors such as plays, musicals and artifact creation, such as the chess set displayed in the Museum’s POW exhibit. The 1946 publication, Stalag Luft II, Sagan…Nuernberg…Moosburg, by Bob Neary, describes life in POW camps. In addition to the frustration of inaction, POW trials endured included lice, bed bugs, fleas, malnutrition, over-crowding, hypothermia and various gastrointestinal ailments (Neary, 1946).

In addition to the creation of artifacts for entertainment, POWs produced many inventive solutions to solve camp-life problems. Documented examples include a crude washing machine known as a “pogo stick”, pans constructed from tin cans, and shorts constructed from overcoat linings (Neary, 1946).

The primitive washing machine utilized a short length of wood with a “Klim can” nailed to its end. A secondary inner can generated suction as the stick was worked up and down agitating the contents of the wash bucket (Neary, 1946).

The 390th Memorial Museum is full of fascinating artifacts relating to the POW experiences of 390th Bomb Group Members.



According to museum accession records, the canteen pictured was gifted to Sidney
Lieberman by a French POW named Andre Peudecerf. Peudecerf’s name is etched into the
canteen, along with the dates 1939 and 1940.

The etched scenes on opposing sides of the canteen are of hunting and fishing activities. The etching appears hand-done, obscuring the serial numbers of the original manufacturer. Although it cannot be stated with absolute certainty, one cannot help but wonder if the etchings were created during imprisonment.



Another POW item housed in the 390th Memorial Museum is a handmade pin made of lead, depicting navigator wings. According to the donor they were manufactured in Stalag Luft I on the North Sea. Although the name of the craftsman is lost, he made a mold using a GI issue wing set and poured lead from German bullets.


Time as a POW for S/Sgt. John H. McCracken was marked by interrogations, the relief of Red Cross parcels and long forced marches ahead of the advancing Russian Army. After enduring eight months as a POW, S/Sgt. John H. McCracken was liberated by the Russian Army April 30th, 1945. You can read about his journey in the Joseph A. Moller Library in his book, For You Der Var Ist Oufer.

McCracken’s entire crew became POWs. (Six) of those crew members are shown in the photo above. Members of McCracken’s crew (54) who became POWs were Curtis T Anderson, Radio Operator; Claude A Carnahan, Ball Turret; Howard C Ford, Co-Pilot; Virgil L Gordon, Waist Gunner; Donald J Harris, Pilot; Leonard J Jarzynka, Tail Gunner; Marvin A Jest, Navigator; Saul P Zieff, Bombardier/Togglier.


(1944, May 5). Perfonal Befchreibung. 390th Memorial Museum.
McCracken, J. (1994). For You Der Varr Ist Oufer. Belleville, IL: Bruce Meyer Printing.
Miller, D. L. (2006). The Wire. In D. L. Miller, Masters of the Air (pp. 382-383). New York: Simon & Schuster.
Neary, B. (1946). Stalag Luft II Sagan…Nuernberg…Moosburg. North Wales, PA: Thomason Press, Inc.
Shavit, D. (1999). The Greatest Morale Factor Next to the Red Army: Books and Libraries in American and British Prisoners of War Camps in Germany during World War II. Libraries & Culture, 113-134.
War Department. (1944, May 16). If you should be Captured these are your rights. War Department Pamphlet No. 21-7. United States: War Department.

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