Choosing the Road Less Traveled
A/N: I've recently rediscovered Hogan's Heroes and although I know it was written as a comedy, I got to wondering…how could something like their operation really have come about? In a real scenario, why would Col Hogan decide to stay and run an operation in a POW camp rather than escaping and returning to flying? Even if he got to Stalag 13 and saw the potential for such an operation, as a pilot and a senior leader it would have made more sense for him to do everything he could to get back in the air. So what happened? And how did he get buy-in from London and orders to stay? Kicking around some scenarios, I came up with an idea and this story is a result. And since my favorite character has always been Newkirk, naturally I had to make him play a major part in it all. In writing the first couple chapters, I hope folks don't think I made Col Hogan too out of character. Yes, he is a strong, confident, supremely capable man, but please forgive me for allowing him a bit of human weakness as he struggled to adjust to circumstances. Hope you enjoy.
If you had to rate prisoner of war camps, Stalag 13 was far from being the worst. Even without having had the 'pleasure' of being a guest at other camps, Colonel Robert Hogan knew he was lucky to sent here after he'd been shot down. The food wasn't great, but there was usually enough of it. The barracks were roughly built and had countless gaps where icy wind blew in, but the prisoners were given a ration of wood that prevented them from freezing. And while the guards were strict and unfriendly, they weren't overly trigger happy or prone to beating prisoners at the least provocation. No, Hogan had heard enough horror stories to know that things could be much, much worse. But that knowledge didn't matter—all Hogan could think of was how very much he hated it and how very much he wanted to escape.
Hogan had only been a prisoner for six weeks, but in that time his mood had turned dark and morose. During the few rare moments when he was able to step back and look at himself objectively, he was disgusted with himself for allowing the current state of affairs to affect him so negatively—he was typically an optimistic, roll-with-the-punches sort who could turn any situation to his advantage. This feeling of being out of control and angry was foreign to him, but he simply hadn't been able to get his feet back under him. Before he could process the shock of being shot down, he'd been hit with the sorrow and guilt of knowing most of his crew had died in the crash. Then followed the alarming experience of being captured, terrifying and painful weeks of interrogation, and finally he was thrown into a prisoner of war camp where he'd been told he would sit out the remainder of the war. No, there was nothing redeeming about this situation. Nothing.
It was in that frame of mind that Hogan began day 22 of his stay at Stalag 13. It started out just like the day before, the day before that, and the day before that. Ever since he'd been brought to the camp three weeks ago, Hogan's life had taken on a spiritless, never ending sameness. The day would start with the camp's senior non-commissioned officer and primary guard assigned to Barracks 2, Oberfeldwebel Zimmerman, flinging open the door to the barracks and repeatedly striking the butt of his rifle against the wooden bunks, all the while shouting at the men. It was time for roll call. The men would tumble out of their bunks and pull on their coats while racing outside to stand in formation and be counted. It was the end of November and a bitter cold had already set in, making it a special misery to endure. Next, the men made their way to the mess hall where they were served a bland, tasteless, and usually cold breakfast, before they went back to their barracks where they would while away the time waiting for their next meal. Some men read books they'd received in Red Cross packages, some played cards, and some would use precious scraps of paper to write letters home to loved ones. But no matter how they chose to spend their time, the men's attitudes remained listless, joyless—nothing seemed to penetrate the dispirited atmosphere that shrouded the camp.
Hogan knew it was that atmosphere that got to him the most. Of course, he'd hardly assumed being a prisoner would be fun and games, but when he'd previously imagined life in a POW camp, he'd always expected the prisoners to pull together, to form the bonds of brotherhood that only adversity can inspire. But so far he had seen only limited acts of friendship and none of the dauntless, laugh-in-the-face-of-danger spirit he'd grown used to in the members of his flying group. The loss of their companionship, especially that of his crew, filled him with a deep, inner ache. He knew it was selfish to want any of his crew to share this miserable existence with him, but how he wished that at least one of them had been assigned here. But no, the remaining crew had all been scattered and he was alone, so it was a very unhappy colonel who sat in his office after breakfast on that twenty-second day, desperately trying to think of a way to escape and rejoin a world where he felt whole.
A knock on the door drew him temporarily out of his depressed musings.
The door opened and RAF Group Captain John Hughes entered. It was a strange courtesy, since Hogan and Hughes both shared the room and, before Hogan had arrived, Hughes had been senior POW and this had been his room alone. But now Hogan was in command and Hughes was positively punctilious about military courtesies.
"Sorry to disturb you," Hughes said politely as he grabbed his coat from a hook on the wall. "I thought I'd take Sergeants Wells and Mitchell and visit some of the other barracks. Keeps the lads on their toes, you know."
Hogan acknowledged the man's comments with a nod, but said nothing. A part of him recognized that he should be visiting the men and was annoyed that he couldn't make himself care. But any guilt was easily squashed by his need for solitude to work on his escape plan. He could, he decided, do more for these men by returning to flying, perhaps helping to shorten the war with a few well-placed bombs. There was nothing useful he could do here.
He leaned back in his chair and sighed, unable to completely lie to himself. That wasn't strictly true. Several months ago, a small group of officers had been briefed on a top secret mission—a mission that would only be possible when and if they were shot down. Headquarters wanted to establish several special units within Germany to work with the underground on sabotage and helping allies caught behind enemy lines return home. The men were told that, if shot down and captured, they were to assess their situation and, if possible, try to set up one of these special units from within a POW camp. It was an audacious plan, known only to a handful of high-ranking officials and the carefully-selected group of men being briefed. The risk was great, but a POW camp would be the perfect cover if the right leader could establish such an operation.
Sixteen men had been briefed and provided with training on sabotage operations, escape procedures, and working with the underground. There were four men before Hogan to be shot down. One had died when his plane crashed. The three others had been captured and placed in POW camps. Each, though, had chosen to escape and make their way back to England, using the techniques and contacts they'd been taught. They had given various explanations of why their camps wouldn't have worked, but in truth there had been talk amongst the others that maybe those men had exaggerated unfavorable conditions so they could return. Although he hadn't participated in the rumors, Hogan himself had wondered about them as well, feeling the men hadn't given it their best shot.
Now, however, he saw everything in a different light. Hogan was determined to follow their example and to hell with what anyone else thought. Stalag 13 was not the right location and it wasn't worth even trying to set up an operation. True, Hogan was confident he could easily manipulate Kommandant Klink, the German officer who'd assumed command of the camp only a few months before he'd arrived. But to make the plan work, Hogan would need a team of brave and dedicated men, and those were in short supply. The men were not an unruly rabble—far from it. Group Captain Hughes, who Hogan outranked by only a few months, had been the senior officer before Hogan arrived and had established good, tight discipline. But Hogan had never seen a more lackluster group of individuals anywhere. They seemed wary and tense. They had no spirit. No fire. Men like this would never be able to do the kind of work necessary for a sabotage unit. No, Stalag 13 wouldn't do. Hogan would go back to flying, Hughes could take over again as senior POW, and all would be right again with the world.
Telling himself that the prisoners in this camp had never been his men, Hogan pushed aside annoying twinges of conscious for essentially abandoning them and went outside to see if he could scope out a possible escape route. He was surprised to see several groups of men standing in small clusters, visiting with each other despite the cold. The men in his barracks typically stayed indoors...he hadn't realized those in other barracks didn't all do the same.
He was glad to see them, though. Not because it changed his mind about the kinds of men they were, but because he could use them. Simply wandering around camp alone might raise some flags, but going from group to group, talking to the men, was something a good commander should do, so it wouldn't arouse any suspicions. He stopped and chatted with a couple of groups as part of his cover, curiously pleased to find himself enjoying the social interaction. He hadn't realized just how isolated he'd felt and it put him in a better mood than he'd been in since arriving. After speaking with them, he went on again, still not forgetting why he was out there in the first place. But then Hogan came across a third group, this time tucked in a shadowy corner between two barracks. And if that wasn't suspicious enough, there was a German guard with them.
Instantly on the alert, Hogan ducked into some shadows to watch. There were four men in all, the little Frenchman...what was his name again?...Chapman, a rough-edged RAF corporal from Hogan's barracks; another young Brit whose name he also couldn't remember; and the big guard, Shultz, from Barracks 4. What were prisoners doing sneaking around and talking with the enemy? He was determined to find out. Regardless of how disconnected he felt, he was still an officer and had a duty to ensure these men weren't fraternizing with an enemy or selling secrets.
Hogan kept out of sight as he continued to watch. He wasn't close enough to hear what was being said, but from the motions, it looked like the three prisoners were trying to give Shultz something. They were smiling, gesturing, clearly cajoling. His anger grew as he watched them treat the enemy like an old buddy. Finally, Shultz nodded and appeared to agree to whatever they had asked of him. It was time to put a stop to this.
Stepping out into the sun, he masked his anger and approached the group.
"Hello men, what's going on?" he asked casually.
If Hogan hadn't been so disgusted with the prisoners for fraternizing with one of the very men keeping them prisoner, he would have been amused at the guilty expression of...not the men...but the guard.
Sergeant Shultz's eyes popped wide as the American colonel came over, clearly alarmed.
Overriding Shultz's stuttering, the Frenchman, piped up. "Nothing, colonel. Just talking to Shultzie, here," he said with an innocent smile.
Hogan couldn't prevent a small scowl at that. Pet names for the guards? Considering the guard's anxious expression, he decided he could safely ignore him for now, so instead he looked at the Frenchman, asking pointedly, "Who?"
"Sorry, colonel. I meant Sergeant Shultz here. We were just talking to him," the Frenchman said, still with that pleasant smile. The fact that he could look so innocent irritated Hogan even more.
"I see," he said dryly. "You were just talking to Sergeant Shultz. And what was your name again?"
Maintaining his nonchalant air, the Frenchman answered, "LeBeau...Corporal Louis LeBeau, sir."
"Well Corporal LeBeau, that's very…friendly of you."
None of the men could mistake Hogan's sharp tone for anything but disapproval, but the prisoners were playing it cool, all three continuing to look at him innocently. The guard, Shultz, however, was not so calm.
"I have to go finish my rounds," he said nervously and began to walk away. Then he stopped and turned back, adding in an apologetic tone, "Maybe some other time, LeBeau."
More certain than ever that these men were up to no good, when Shultz was out of sight Hogan allowed his irritation to show.
"All right. Would one of you care to explain just what that was about? 'Maybe some other time?'"
"It was nothing," protested LeBeau.
"Nothing? Making deals with the enemy? You call that nothing?"
The looks of innocence disappeared, but they all shrugged and nodded when LeBeau reiterated that nothing was going on. Hogan narrowed his eyes and turned to one of the Brits, a young RAF man who looked like he should still be in school. He was trying, rather unsuccessfully, to hide something behind his back.
"What do you have?"
Hogan's earlier good mood was long forgotten by this point and once again he felt anger and disgust at being stuck here with these…these worthless excuses for soldiers who now were lying to their commanding officer.
"Try again," he said coldly. "Hand it over and don't even think about telling me it's 'nothing' again."
The kid swallowed, his eyes large, but even then he looked to his older companions for guidance rather than immediately obeying.
"NOW," snarled Hogan, prompting the kid to jump and bring his hand around.
Hogan looked at what he'd hidden. It was an old cap filled with cigarettes, matches, biscuits, cheese, and several candy bars. They were bribing the guard?
"You were giving these to the enemy? For what?"
His own expression cool now, LeBeau sniffed. "Enemy? Shultz? Maybe he is German, but he is less of an enemy than others I could name."
"Careful," Hogan warned sharply. "You're a step away from insubordination."
LeBeau shrugged and something rapidly in his native tongue. After pausing just long enough, he translated with the hint of a smirk, "Sorry, I didn't realize you didn't understand French. I was saying we weren't really giving it to him, he was just delivering it for us, so we didn't think there was anything to explain."
Hogan bit back his first inclination, which was to tear a strip of hide off this annoying Frenchman, but decided he'd rather get straight answers right now. Instead, he abruptly turned to the kid.
"You. What's your name?"
Unable to follow LeBeau's example of nonchalance, the young RAF man's eyes widened and answered in almost a squeak, "Aircraftsmen Collins, sir. RAF.
Hogan nodded. "Okay Collins," he said, his tone no nonsense, "Why were you using an enemy to deliver goods that I assume came from our Red Cross packages? Who was he taking them to?"
Collins looked once more to his older companions before licking his lips and answering, "Sir…"
When he hesitated yet again, Hogan was through.
There was no mistaking his anger or authority as he snapped, "Enough of this. You tell me what you were doing right now, or I'm sure Group Captain Hughes can tell me how discipline works in this camp. Don't push it."
The men's reaction to his threat was not at all what he'd expected. Far from tripping over themselves in order to give him answers, as one their expressions became closed off and grim, even the youngster Collins.
Hogan blinked, but kept otherwise himself from showing his surprise. Yet again, these men didn't react like any of the ones he'd led before. What was going on in this stupid camp!
Then Corporal Chapman, who hadn't said anything until now, spoke up, a thick cockney accent coloring his words, "Well, no surprise 'ere, is it lads? Looks like they're cut from the same cloth after all. You want to throw us to ol' 'ughes, colonel, you go right ahead." The contempt he put on Hogan's rank was almost a physical slap, but the man kept talking before Hogan could react. "Not like it'd be the first time 'e's had 'is 'ooks in us. 'Sides, might be doin' us a favor if 'e threw us in the cooler. Maybe we'd get a chance to see 'ow Newkirk's 'oldin' up. That were the whole point, anyway."
Despite his anger, Hogan was nothing if not quick. Something more was going on here than improper fraternizing and grossly disrespectful attitudes. Something he hoped might finally give him a glimpse into the undercurrents he'd been feeling ever since he arrived.
Focusing on the last thing Chapman had said, he asked, "Newkirk?"
Once again LeBeau answered. "Oui. Corporal Newkirk. Maybe a couple of the candy bars were for Shultz, but everything else was for him. He's been stuck in the cooler for months and Shultz was going to bring him something for us since he's going to be guarding it this afternoon. That is all. It was nothing for you to worry about. But now it's ruined. We've been working on Shultz for weeks, but who knows how long it will be before he goes back again or if he'll still be willing to help us. Poor Newkirk."
Hogan frowned. Newkirk? Why didn't he know about this man? He'd met all the prisoners when Hughes had formally brought him around and introduced them. He didn't pretend to know them all by name and while it was possible he'd met a 'Newkirk,' he was certain there had been no mention of anyone in the cooler, let alone anyone locked up for months.
Young Collins broke into his thoughts, "Sir, we weren't doing wrong, honest. We were just looking out for a mate."
Hogan looked at the three. Chapman looked angry, LeBeau more upset than anything else, and Collins worried.
After an unmistakable warning look for Chapman to curb his attitude, Hogan clarified, "You were trying to get the guard to take something to a prisoner, who's been in the cooler for months?"
All three nodded, LeBeau adding, "Oui, it's been over ten weeks already, and we wanted to make sure he's alright—the cooler is a nasty place even for a day."
"And no one's seen him in all that time?" Hogan questioned, not happy to think of any of the men locked away for that long without someone verifying he was okay.
Chapman answered this time, jaws tight as he hissed in an ugly tone, "Not any of 'is mates. E's in solitary. I expect only a few guards have seen 'im since they took 'im away. 'o knows what shape 'e's in by now." Then he did something that surprised Hogan. Chapman closed his eyes for a moment, visibly struggling to control himself, then opened them and said much more calmly, "No one deserves to be locked up like that. It ain't fit for animals, let alone a 'uman. Newkirk's a good bloke and we only wanted to give 'im a bit o' cheer and let 'im know 'e still had friends thinkin' about 'im." Shocking Hogan even further, Chapman swallowed his pride and added pleadingly, "Please, sir. Can't you do somethin'?"