Colonel Robert Hogan put down the book he was reading. He had no clue what was on the page he had just finished. Disgusted, he hopped down from the top bunk and switched to the lower, just for a change of scenery, only to hop up again to reposition the socks he had pressed against the window in hopes of warding off the frigid winds that had heralded the true start to the German winter.
Connecticut was cold, but nothing like this. And they still had months to go before spring. He walked over to his desk, blew on his hands and jotted down a reminder to speak to Klink about plans for handling the first full winter many of the American prisoners would now face.
Despite the operation and drops from London, the vast majority of prisoners, were just that, prisoners. Young men trapped in a jail, although they weren't criminals, far away from home, scared and bored. He jotted down another note to check with the barracks' chiefs on morale. The last few weeks had been rough. Even he had trouble hiding his own malaise at facing his first Thanksgiving as a POW, and now with Christmas coming… To make matters worse, air raids, escapes, and sabotage had slowed to a crawl. All the uniforms had been mended, weapons were cleaned and supplies, inventoried. He wondered how much longer his men could handle the boredom before someone lost it.
Corporal Peter Newkirk was thinking the same thing. Just a few days of no action, plus the weather, and the men in the barracks were beginning to get on each other's nerves, All but Kinch, the radioman. For some reason, nothing seemed to faze the sergeant. He would sit and read quietly, or occasionally disappear into the tunnels for hours on end, fiddling with equipment, Newkirk supposed.
"Carter, what are you babbling about?" The kid never seemed to shut up.
"Sorry, Peter. Just talking about the holidays back home."
"All you Americans know how to do is overeat." LeBeau berated the American.
"The man's got a point," Kinch commented. He then turned a page.
"Oh, come on. That's not entirely true." Olsen piped up. "We all went through the depression. My parents still keep an eye on things. Nothing gets thrown out."
"I bet what you eat for one meal at Christmas; you can feed four French families." LeBeau countered. The conversation then turned into an argument, which suddenly shut off as soon as Hogan's door opened.
"What's going on?" Hogan walked over to the stove and tried again to warm up his hands.
"Friendly conversation, sir. About food. Coffee?" Newkirk offered the colonel a cup. Hogan shook his head.
"It didn't sound friendly to me," Hogan quipped. "Look, it's cold, and we're all bored and homesick. Take it easy with each other." Hogan gave the entire barracks a stern look and then acknowledged the mumbles. "I'm going out," he then announced. If his men were jumpy, the rest of the men in camp, who had more free time on their hands, could be at their wit's end.
"In this cold, sir?" Kinch asked.
"Need to check on the rest of the men." Hogan sighed. "That's my real job now," he said under his breath.
"He sounds as down as we are." Olsen, who had been trying to keep warm by hiding under his blanket, poked his head out.
"Officers have families too," Carter piped up. "I need something to blow up," he grumbled as he wrapped his blanket around his shoulders.
"Colonel Hogan. Where are you going?" Schultz, who was on guard duty outside the barracks, was warming his hands over a fire he had started in a barrel.
"Checking on the other men, Schultz." Hogan glanced at the compound. He quickly noticed that the normal amount of guards were not on duty. Pity, he thought. Good time to take advantage of the situation. "Where is everyone, Schultz?" The guard trailed behind the colonel as he headed for the higher numbered barracks located at the back of the camp.
"Light duty. It's too cold."
"Is that smart?" Hogan replied. "We could get ideas about escaping, you know."
Schultz laughed. "Jolly joker. It's too cold to escape."
"Go warm up, Schultz," Hogan suggested as they reached Barracks 20. He waited a moment for the guard on duty to check in with his sergeant at arms, then knocked and walked in.
The men were, as he suspected, huddled around the stove. The residents were a mixture of nationalities, the newest, the Americans, had only been prisoners for few months. The chief, a sergeant, was a member of the RAF and had come in with Newkirk. All the men scrambled to attention, some, in their haste, tripping over the blankets covering them.
"At ease," Hogan quickly said, as he moved in closer to the middle of the room. "Just checking in. Everything okay? Aside from the weather? Anyone sick?"
"No, sir. I mean we're fine." Saunders, the barracks' chief answered. "Just bored," he added.
"I know." Hogan said as he moved closer to the stove. "Hopefully, things will pick up soon and we'll need help in the tunnels. I'll be bargaining with Klink. See if I can get some extra blankets, maybe long underwear."
"Sir? Would you like some hot chocolate?" A private offered. "We made it from the Red Cross bars. Shaved them down. It's not great, but…"
"No, thanks. I've got eighteen other buildings to visit." Hogan stopped as he was about to open the door. "I know this time of year is really difficult, and it will probably get worse. Just remember, you're not alone."
"I think he's doing this more for himself then for us," Saunders, the chief, noted. "He needs a diversion. You know what? I'm going out."
Hogan visited several other barracks, surprising the residents and creating concern among more than a few barracks' chiefs. One by one, they all found themselves heading over to Barracks two.
"What is this? A parade?" Schultz and his ample frame was blocking the door.
"Come on sergeant. Let us in. It's not after lights out."
"You should all be in your huts, by the stove," Schultz admonished the men. He stood his ground.
"Schultz, we're not restricted to the barracks and it's only 10:00 AM." Saunders pointed to his watch.
Schultz relented and moved aside. Saunders knocked, the door opened and the four men walked in.
"The colonel's not here," Kinch said as he threw the last piece of wood into the stove. "Man. We're in trouble now," he mumbled. "He's on an inspection tour of the camp."
"We know." McMahon, a meteorologist and the chief of Barracks 18, headed back towards the window and peered out, just to make sure Hogan wasn't on his way back. "We came over because he didn't seem like himself."
"We noticed." LeBeau began pouring cups of coffee and started handing them out. "He's definitely down. It's probably the holidays. And the lack of action."
"The question is what do we do about it?" Carter asked. The sergeant, who had not been in camp very long, was already forming an attachment to his new C. O.
Hogan, who was still feeling melancholy, was methodically making his way through the camp. He was in the vicinity of Barracks 12, when he caught something. The barracks had a lookout. Fortunately, none of the guards passing by noticed. They normally never did.
Okay, guys. What are you up to? he asked himself.
If any barracks would be up to something, it would be this barracks. These men were the first to volunteer for anything. A diversion, a fight or a fake escape. Any mission that would relieve the boredom. Their enthusiasm and gregariousness sometimes led to fighting, but the arguments were usually minor and the group would quickly forget their differences and go along with their lives.
The lookout spotted Hogan at the very last minute, and it was too late for the men to completely hide what they were doing as the colonel barged in.
Hogan went right up to the barracks' chief. "Rogers, what's going on?"
Rogers glanced around nervously, and then answered. "Nothing, sir."
"Nothing," Hogan repeated. "So, you were conducting lookout practice? You're pretty obvious. To me, not the guards, fortunately."
"Yes, sir," Rogers admitted. "We did have a lookout."
Hogan walked over to the table, which was covered with an assortment of items, including coins, cookies, buttons and trading cards. They were scattered in piles, one for each chair, Hogan noticed.
Now confused, Hogan faced the crowd of men that had gathered around.
"You had a lookout for poker?" It was obvious that the men were gambling, although the cards were missing. Despite the fact that gambling was officially forbidden, no one paid attention to the rule, as long as it didn't get out of hand.
"Um, not exactly," another soldier spoke up. "Poker. I mean."
"Gin?" Hogan asked. Silence. "What then, go fish?" One of the men snickered. Hogan didn't know whether to be amused or angry. "Okay, that's enough," he said. "Having a lookout for no good reason is dangerous. What's going on? That's an order." Hogan quickly judged the expressions on each man's face and spotted the one who looked the guiltiest. "Pasternak?"
The corporal stepped forward. "Technically, we're gambling. But not with cards." He reached into his pocket and handed an object to Hogan.
Now Hogan really didn't know if he should be amused or angry. "You were playing with a dreidel?"
"Yes, sir." Pasternak looked down at the floor.
"It wasn't his fault, Colonel."
"Hold it, Rogers. Do you realize what could happen if the Gestapo or the SS came into camp and found this?" Hogan was not concerned about Klink. The Kommandant did not seem to care about the prisoners' backgrounds, race and religion. Unlike other POW camps, Stalag 13 was not segregated. The men stayed silent. "Where did you get this?"
"Actually, sir. I have several. I made them out of clay. I had some extra clay when we took that pottery class last week."
"Some of us helped," Rogers admitted.
"I didn't even know what it was, Colonel," another soldier, who was trying to be helpful, added. "And then he explained it."
"We didn't want Pasternak to feel left out, sir. With Christmas coming, and all."
"When is Hanukkah this year, Pasternak?" Hogan asked.
"I'm kind of embarrassed, sir. I don't remember the day."
Hogan nodded. "I'm sorry, but I'll need to take the dreidels. I'll hide them for now."
The men in Barracks 12 reluctantly handed over the remainder of the tops. When Hogan left, they cleared up the mess and huddled around the stove in a futile effort to keep warm.
"Not your fault, Pasternak. I should have known better." Rogers sighed. "Crazy when you think about it, isn't it? We're better off than the guys in the other POW camps. At least there's that to be thankful for."
Hogan solemnly continued his inspection tour and then headed back to the barracks. The four barracks' chiefs had already left the building and had taken a different route back to their end of camp in order to avoid being seen.
Without realizing it, the colonel had been fondling the dreidels that were in his pocket. He stopped for a moment, and gazed at the bleak landscape that confronted him. The guard towers, the barbed wire, the spartan buildings, and yes, even the dogs; stark reminders of where they were. Despite their machinations, the manipulation of the guards and the dimwitted Kommandant, and the tunnels, they were likely trapped here until the end of the war.
Hogan realized his depression was deepening, and attempted to shake off the sadness threatening to overwhelm him. No, Hogan thought. I'll fight for control of this camp. He pulled out one of the crudely made tops and stared at the Hebrew letters carved into each side. I'm the one in charge, he said to himself, continuing his internal pep talk. I can't let these men down. The colonel had no idea what the letters represented, only that somehow each letter controlled the course of the game. But, he suddenly knew what the dreidels meant to Pasternak and the rest of the men in Barracks 12. No, hell, the entire camp population.
"I have an idea," he said out loud. Hogan put the dreidels back in his pocket, and as he came closer to Barracks two, his idea mushroomed into a plan. The officer, who had left his barracks earlier that morning for an inspection tour, was not the same man when he returned.