Journey Out of Darkness

This is month is Veterans month, a very special time during which we recognize the extraordinary men and women who have fought bravely for our country. In honor of the occasion, we wanted to share this amazing and compelling book project from photographer Jorg Meyer and author Hal LaCrox. Jorg photographed the group of incredible veterans--all prisoners of war--sharing their stories and showcasing their lives after their time served. Each man is adorned in his military attire and photographed in his home. We are given a quite personal look into the lives of these valiant men through the powerful imagery and text.

© Jorg Meyer  

"Crazy Things

The craziest things, says John Lupone, can change your whole life.

For instance, D-Night. They kicked the supply bags out first, but the damn things stuck in the doorframe and it was a devil of a time getting them free. So the jump was late and that's why John missed his drop zone and came down in a field dagger with stakes for smashing gliders. That's why his lines got tangled, why his chute billowed up like a surrender flag, and why a German solder on bicycle patrol captured him before he could pull in his gear. Why he never used his medic's training, not once.

If not for the supply bags, a different future might have met John. He might be dead and gone, for that matter.

John and hundreds of Allied POWs-Brits, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders-were marched down the Cherbourg Peninsula to a monastery dubbed Starvation Hill. They ate snails stuck to a wall in the monks' garden and watched American P-38s strafe and bomb a bridge over the river below the monastery, but somehow it wouldn't go down. Wouldn't budge for nothing. Turns out, that was the bridge the POWs crossed in trucks, east toward Germany, and John believes they might not have been moved, might even have been liberated, if not for that ridiculous bridge.

Paris, he couldn't have seen that coming. The POWs were marched through the city and along the way French civilians kicked them, punched them, yelled hatefully. John was stunned. What the heck, they're doing this to us? Maybe they think we jumped into this mess for our health? He remembers a radio reporter yakking into a microphone, transmitting news of the filthy, captured Allied soldiers back to the Fatherland.

Then they were stuffed in railcars and sent to Stalag 12A. John has a raft of stories from that miserable 'grin and bear it' place, and this one, well, judge for yourself. Two Russian prisoners escaped, but were tracked down by dogs and killed. The Germans paraded their bodies down the main drag of the camp in wheelbarrows, for all to see. And that night, in the POWs' soup, there was more meat than ever before.

John Lupone 2004, Wuborn, Massachusetts"

  © Jorg Meyer  

"Tables Turnes

At kommando 64B, in the spring of 1945, the Germans put them to work building roadblocks. The cement recipe called for three parts sand, one part concrete, but the POWs mixed a 6:1 ratio. Bernard Travers imagined U.S. Army tank shells exploding the roadblocks as if they were sandcastles. Now and then, the men broke a shovel or lost a crowbar. 'Our way of being saboteurs,' says Bernard, an infantryman captured five months earlier.

One evening a bunch of them escaped through a hole they cut in a barbed-wire fence. Walking through the fields, exhausted from hunger and punishing work, they watched bomb-flashes break the darkness. Berlin burned to the south. The men wore filthy clothes and packed no guns or ID papers. But it was the Big Escape. They were out, on their own, free.

'Now where do we go?' one POW asked. No one knew how to read the stars. Where are the Germans, the Russians? Will the Americans liberate the kommando while we stumble around asking to be shot? The sky flashed to the south. Soon the men turned around and went back to their cages. The guards didn't even know they had left.

Weeks later, the POWs were moved out of 64B and put in a thick column of German solders and refugees-the world in flight, to the west and away from the merciless Russian army that spent its own soldiers like bullets. They marched for over 100 miles as artillery pounded and British planes strafed the roads, no questions asked. Bernard saw German MPs pull deserters from the column and shoot them. Without proper papers, you were shot. 'Everyone had to have papers, ' he says.

On the fifth day of the march, the American 8th Infantry Division came down the road. Now all tables were turned. Guards transformed into prisoners. The judged rose up into judges. The garden of an opera house, where the POWs slept, Bernard watched a 'striped gang' of six Holocaust survivors beat a German man in shiny black boots to death. It took that many, they were so near death themselves, and Bernard can still hear them crying, 'What happened to my mother? Where is my father?'

Bernard Travers 2004, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts"

  © Jorg Meyer  

"Goodbye, Charlie

Cosmo Fabrizio and 60 American POWs slept on racks in a cramped hut. The latrine, a bucket at one end, stunk up the place. As the winter of 1944 descended at Stalag IIIC, they ripped wood from the ceiling to stoke their Sibley potbelly stove. The Germans treated Cosmo's foot wound with sulfur and wrapped it with crepe paper as a bandage. But his right boot was gone and he had to tie burlap around the foot to protect it.

The radio made a big difference. An ingenious kid rigged it from a sewing needle, a double-edged razor, and wire plugged into a light socket. At night, after roll call and grass soup and sawdust bread, they listed to the faint signal of the BBC in shifts, 15 men at a time huddled over the delicate gizmo. 'It kept us going, ' says Cosmo. Their spirits sagged, though, as they listened to the Allies getting creamed in the Battle of the Bulge. So much for the war ending by Christmas.

'That's it, ' Cosmo remembers saying. 'Goodbye, Charlie.'

Those damn roll calls, they never ended. Morning, noon, and night. Stand and wait, stand and wait. The POWs grew weak, light as birds, and Cosmo's weight dropped from 140 to 95 pounds over several months. During his captivity he saw one lousy Red Cross package, ripped open by six men.

Time dripped, life was dull. Sometimes they were allowed to toss a baseball or walk the camp grounds. Stripped to the waist, the men picked lice off each other's bodies, and they made elaborate, tunneling escape plans that went nowhere. The floors of the huts were raised above the ground to frustrate that kind of business.

The German sergeant in charge of their hut spoke pretty good English. He said he was from Brooklyn, New York, said he rooted for the Dodgers. The way he told it, he came to Germany to visit relatives in the late 1930s and the army nabbed him. Maybe he was telling the truth, maybe he was a spy. Cosmo's not sure. Either way, Russian troops who liberated the camp on February 5, 1945, shoved Sergeant Brooklyn and the other guards into the camp bakery and machine-gunned them down.

Cosmo Fabrizio 2003, Plymouth, Massachusetts"

  © Jorg Meyer  

"The Pear

You were allowed one letter and one postcard per month. For the letter, you received one sheet of paper that ripped if you pressed too hard. And when nothing came back, you wondered if your words were getting through-if they even knew you were alive back home.

Some guys let it get to them. Some were convinced they'd been thrown over by girlfriends and wives, given the old bum's rush. Just one more thing taken from you. First your gun, then your freedom, and then your girl beyond the seas.

Don Simpson got no mail. But it didn't matter, he knew that Mary cradled him in her thoughts. Penned in Stalag IIIC since September 1944, he understood the pain she had to be feeling, as well as the grief of his mother who had lost three of six children as infants.

'I was  very concerned, ' says Don, 'that they were worrying themselves crazy.' In his correspondence home, he didn't complain and he certainly didn't let on about the shrapnel in his right hand and buttocks. Or that the Germans had taken Mary's class ring from him.

Even as other POWs received letters, inhaling words through fingers and eyes, even as one-third of his body weight disappeared, and even as Don ached to eat the birds that flew over the camp, he did not doubt. He knew that Mary was true. They had met in a pear tree. He was the tree, actually, a 15-year-old kid picking pears for an elderly neighbor, and then she appeared on the sidewalk below. She wore a pretty dress. Her brunette hair hung to her shoulders, the way it did most of her life. He called out to her, 'Do you want a pear?' She stopped and replied, 'Yes.' So Don tossed Mary a pear and she caught it, and he came down with his own pear and they stood on the sidewalk and ate the fruit together.

It wasn't like him to be that bold, and maybe he wouldn't have said anything if they had passed each other walking, but he had a pear in his hand and the world seemed ripe with fabulous possibilities up in that tree.

Don Simpson 2005, Hopkinton, Massachusetts."

© Jorg Meyer  

"Slow, Slow

If you could take an apple or a small potato, or a quick spoonful of sugar, you took it. Even if a rifle butt to the tailbone or base of the skull was your reward. Wire or cloth or wood was good for scavenging, too. 'Anything you could get your hands on, ' says Bob Cournoyer.

At first Bob and his fellow POWs-Americans, Russians, French, and Poles-dug potatoes in the fields of Erdebom. The German guards always made the POWs walk in the gutter, where filth belonged. Sometimes passing civilians threw stones or yelled angry questions. Bob remembers and old man hitting him with a cane-he didn't fault the man, his grief was so raw.

On one particular day, he saw a little girl pulling a broken wagon along the road. Bob said, to hell with it, and he left the gutter, hunched down, and used a scrap of wire to repair her wagon's faltering wheel. As she started away, he called out, 'Slow, slow,' afraid that she would pull it along too quickly, with too much joy, and it would fall apart again.

He survived captivity by luck, Bob says, plus those spoonfuls of sugar he swiped while laboring in a sugar beet processing plant after the harvest of '44. Luck was a scarce thing though. May prisoners starved or were beaten to death. Sick men who stayed in their bunks in the morning were gone for good when Bob returned in the evening, and no one knew what happened to them. So you got yourself up, got yourself going, no matter what.

Later on, Bob was taken to the bombed-out town of Zietz, where for months he chipped mortar off bricks in the freezing cold. His hands were exposed and his feet covered only in paper sandals. Again and again, the hammer slipped off the head of the chisel and pounded his gnarled left fist. As the ground rumbled and colossal armies ripped the Third Reich to the bone, the POWs removed mortar from bricks.

Bob's hands dropped blood into the snow and still he couldn't stop, for there were always the guards and their rifle butts.

Bob Cournoyer 2003, North Easton, Massachusetts"

  © Jorg Meyer © Jorg Meyer


Suddenly they were overrun and a German stood over Sam Palter with a rifle. Right then, he says, 'I thought of my mother.'

It was August 7, 1944, Mortain, France. Sam was 22 years old and two weeks on the line, a replacement GI for the men broken and swept away in the months after D-Day. While he had fired at German positions, he'd never seen the enemy until now. That was the worst day of his life, he says, the day he finally saw the enemy.

Sam and seven other captured Americans were trucked east. They stopped in a wooded area and one of the solders guarding them asked if anyone spoke German. Sam stepped forward. The soldier pointed at a short guy named Joe, slumped down exhausted against a tree.

'Jude? Jude?' asked the soldier. For a second, Sam wondered who he meant. Again the soldier pointed at Joe, who had dark hair and a prominent nose.

Same shoot his head, 'Nein, nein,' and he explained that Joe was a Catholic, not a Jew. At least he thought he was Catholic, but certainly not Jewish. Or was he? Sam didn't know his last name, actually. Something Italian. The soldier raised his weapon and leveled it at Joe. 'Er ist ein Jude,' the German yelled, as if personally insulted.

Sam strained for German words, plucking them out of the chalky air of his high-school classroom in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Not a Jew, he explained, absolutely not. Trust me, this man believes in Jesus who died for our sins. Nein, Jude, nein. Joe sat there, absolutely frozen. Moments passed...and the soldier lowered his rifle and turned away.

Sam, now 83 years old, a retired postal worker and father of four, tells this next part with razor-sharp precision. He spied a tree with a knothole. He moved over there slowly, casually, and leaned against the trunk. He made sure no one was watching. Then he grabbed the chain around his neck and pulled free his dog tags-two metal rectangles stamped with his name, rank, serial number, and a capital H for his religious designation, H for Hebrews-and stashed them in the knothole. Sam moved away from the tree, two ounces lighter.

Sam Palter 2004, West Roxbury, Massachusetts"

  © Jorg Meyer  

"The Wedding Ring

Gabe Paiva disguised his mother's wedding ring at Cabuatuan 3 in the Philippines, the first of four POW camps that he survived, by wrapping thread around it. However one day a Japanese guard 'sneaked up on top of me,' says Gabe, 'and saw my open palm.' The thread had slipped, the gold shined through. It was too late. The guard demanded the ring. He pushed ten pesos, Japanese occupation money, at the frail American prisoner.

Knowing that he would be beaten if he did not surrender it-and then it would be taken nonetheless-Gabe handed over the ring. But he refused the payment. 'I didn't want to have the sense that I sold it,' he says.

Right then he made a second and drastic decision: 'I didn't let it bother me. I couldn't afford to let it. Emotions can kill and negative emotions can damage the body.' The loss of the ring deadened Gabe; it helped him to endure. Only after returning home did he allow for regret. 'I should have sewed it into my clothes,' he says now. 'I should have done it another way.'

From 1942-1945, the Japanese Empire exploited Gabe as a slave laborer at freight yards, docks, and factories. He was starved and beaten. He contracted dengue fever and scab-like lesions grew inside his lungs. His body bloated with fluid from malnutrition, causing him to wake from sleep with a swollen, puffed-up face. The guards found this hilarious-look, look how well our American friends are fed!

Civilians jeered at Gabe and fellow POWs as they walked past, straw bound to their feet, clothes ragged and filthy. Horios, the people called out, dishonorable ones.

Gabe has now forgiven captors. But he misses his mother's wedding ring. He remembers, at age four, standing by her deathbed with a pouch of camphor hung around his neck to protect him from the influenza epidemic ravaging Boston. He remembers too, his ma at the window calling for him to come inside. And the fava beans, roasted Portuguese style. He remembers Susanna putting a roasted fava bean in her mouth and gently chewing it, and then taking the bean from her mouth and feeding it, soft and infinitely sustaining to Gabriel her youngest son.

Gabe Paiva 2004, Bedford, Massachusetts"

© Jorg Meyer   "Thirty Minutes at Mauthausen As the column of POWs tromped uphill, they were directed to look at the house where Adolf Hitler was born. There was nothing special about it. A house like all the rest. That was the day that Vit Krushnas met a little Bavarian boy carrying a knife engraved with a swastika and the words 'Blut und Ehre.' Blood and Honor, the SS motto. Just hours later, an SS storm trooper held the muzzle of a submachine gun to Vit's face and accused him of stealing a can of food. One day, Vit noticed dead bodies along the road. Then more and more bodies, 'like rocks in the field,' he says, and the road turned from dirt to white powder. Yellow-green smoke fouled the air, a burnt smell. Then he saw the smokestacks and the high fence and the huge gates with the Nazi eagle over it. Through the fence, he saw windows on the barracks with the skeletal heads looking out, screaming. Maybe they imagined we would liberate them, Vit wonders. That we would storm the place and take them to another world. That we were soldiers again. The march halted. A German officer stood at the gates of Mauthausen, a concentration and extermination camp. Smiling, he pointed at the POWs and swept his arm inward. Come in, you're invited. What, nobody interested? Then Vit turned and watched as a work party of Jews moved double-time down the road, returning to camp. Heads shaved, in black and white pajamas, they were 'staring at the sky,' he recalls, 'skin pulled over their bones, reaching for God, for food, grabbing at birch twigs and trying to eat them.' Then 'the worst thing,' If you didn't let it change you, you weren't human. Vit saw two Jews helping a comrade along, holding him up between them. The man had no teeth, no kneecaps, and his dead legs dragged, making grooves in the road. Finally, his friends couldn't carry him any longer and he dropped away. And SS officer pulled out his gun and shot the man on the ground. They left him behind. Vit cried, right there. The POWs spent 30 minutes at Mauthausen, no more, and then continued on their way. Vit Krushas 2005, East Bridgewater, Massachusetts"