It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the best of times as all the occupants of Stalag 13 (including the Germans) spent their days anxiously awaiting the imminent arrival of the U.S. 14th Armored Division, which would mean, at least for them, the end of the war.
It was the worst of times as all in the camp (including the Germans) spent their days incessantly worrying about the condition of RAF Corporal Peter Newkirk, who had been repatriated to England via emergency airlift due to a life threatening case of pneumonia.
Making matters still worse, London had not been as forthcoming as the men would have liked with any encouraging news from that quarter. As liberation approached ever closer, Papa Bear and his cubs had been ordered to strict radio silence, with London authorizing only one outgoing transmission, namely, confirmation of liberation. The only other officially authorized transmissions were to be incoming at London's sole discretion; unfortunately, those proved frustratingly few and far between. The last report they had received on Newkirk's condition had been three weeks previous and the news was not good. He was still listed as critical and had not shown any improvement whatsoever.
Colonel Hogan made it his personal mission to boost the men's morale as high as he could, despite their understandably troubling anxiety for their ill comrade. He himself, in his most private moments, even had difficulty keeping his thoughts from wondering if the plucky Brit would survive this ordeal.
He certainly couldn't deny that the atmosphere in Barracks Two suffered greatly due to the Englishman's absence. The vacant top bunk was impossible to ignore as it sat right beside the only door to the building. All who entered or exited inevitably found their eyes straying over to that depressingly empty space, half-expecting to see what they were so used to seeing, namely, a blue clad figure sprawled lazily upon it. Card games were begun, half-heartedly played and then prematurely ended when the memories became too overwhelming.
The Colonel issued orders for the men to busy themselves by packing up all the equipment, uniforms and paraphernalia in the tunnels in preparation for liberation. Thus the men spent most of their time underground, carrying out their orders whilst doing their level best to stay within earshot of the radio, hoping against desperate hope to receive some positive news of their friend.
Even Kommandant Klink asked Colonel Hogan to be notified of any news of the British Corporal's condition, though he didn't bother to ask the American officer how he would get such news and didn't really want to know. Sergeant Schultz and Corporal Langenscheidt both regularly dropped by Barracks Two, anxiously awaiting any word of the Engländer.
The only tangible positive at this point was the great pride the prisoners took in the fact that they at least held the perpetrators of Newkirk's tribulation firmly in custody. Major Hochstetter and his SS guards continued to dwell in the cooler, unwillingly awaiting justice at the hands of the swiftly approaching Allied army.
Yet as the succeeding days passed with no word at all from London, the men's despondence grew exponentially despite the prospect of liberation. It all came down to the fact that none of the men would feel right celebrating their freedom without knowing the fate of their comrade. None of them wanted to be freed from their imprisonment only to later learn that Newkirk had died.
Two weeks passed, possibly the slowest two weeks ever endured in the history of the camp. With operations shut down and orders to remain in place, the men were all now prisoners in the truest sense of the word.
Schultz entered the barracks to find Carter and LeBeau together at the common table, simply sitting quietly and drinking what passed for coffee nowadays. The German guard nodded at them and asked, "Has there been any news?"
Carter shook his head sadly. "No Schultz. Like you always say, we've heard nothing."
Schultz looked at Carter oddly. Although it was obvious that the man was dead serious, Schultz grunted a half-hearted "Jolly joker!" anyway.
LeBeau got up, poured a cup of coffee and gestured for Schultz to sit down. "Here Schultzie, have some coffee."
"Danke LeBeau." Schultz sat down at the head of the table and idly asked, "Where is Colonel Hogan?"
Carter looked at LeBeau who looked back at Carter, then both of them looked back at Schultz. Schultz knew that look and he immediately retracted his question. "Never mind. Do not tell me."
LeBeau nodded. "Trust me Schultzie, it's still better that way."
"Ja," Schultz agreed as he finished his coffee. He had just begun to get up when Langenscheidt burst through the door, shouting excitedly.
"Feldwebel! Feldwebel! The tower guards report approach of heavy armor and infantry from the north!" Langenscheidt grabbed Schultz' arm. "They are...they are American!"
Carter came to life. "American? American armor?" He jumped up and ran to the bunk which concealed the entrance to the tunnel, stopping himself from raising his hand to bang on the frame just in time.
Langenscheidt saw Carter glance desperately at LeBeau and knew that the prisoners wanted them to leave. He pulled on Schultz' arm, urging him to rise. "Come Hans! We must go inform the Kommandant and then go to the front gate!"
Schultz finally responded. "Ja, ja. Come Karl, we must go to the Kommandatur!" He arose, picked up his rifle and trundled out the door, followed by Langenscheidt, who winked at Carter before he too ran out the door.
Carter stared at LeBeau and allowed himself to laugh for the first time in weeks. "Well, what do you know?" he said to no one in particular. He banged on the bunk frame and it opened up. He leaned down and yelled, "Colonel! Colonel Hogan! Come quick sir!"
Both the Colonel and Baker scrambled up the ladder in answer to Carter's shout. The Colonel took an obviously excited Carter by the shoulders. "What is it Andrew?"
Carter grinned toothily as he replied, "They're nearly here Colonel! They're nearly here!"
Carter suddenly found himself too emotional to be able to answer and he looked over at LeBeau pleadingly.
"Mon Colonel, Langenscheidt just reported that the tower guards have sighted American armor heading this way."
The Colonel released Carter and sagged against the table. Carter helped his CO settle down on the bench. "Thank God! I can't believe we lived to see this day!"
Baker sank down beside the Colonel. "So that means...that we're...we're going home?"
Carter and LeBeau sat down as well as the significance of the news suddenly struck them. Carter murmured, "I wish Peter would've been here for this."
"Don't we all Andrew, don't we all," answered the Colonel.
The door suddenly opened and Schultz stuck his head in. "Colonel Hogan, the Kommandant requests you gather the barracks chiefs and come to the Recreation Hall immediately!"
The Colonel looked up and smiled at the German guard as he nodded. "I'm coming Schultz. Tell Kommandant Klink we'll be right there!" He got up and headed for the door. "Hang on fellas! It won't be long now!"
As he made his way to each of the barracks, he noticed that the now-unmanned guard towers all flew white flags, their machine guns broken down and dismounted. It looked positively strange to see the gates swung wide open, flanked by unarmed guards also holding white flags.
He finally gathered all of the barracks chiefs and they headed for the rec hall. A murmur arose amongst the men as they passed the Kommandatur. The Colonel looked up at the roof to see that the Nazi flag had been removed and the flagpole was bare. He chuckled and shook his head, idly wondering if he should tell Klink how well it had served them as their radio antenna.
The Colonel led the barracks chiefs inside the rec hall to find the Kommandant already there, along with Schultz, Langenscheidt and all of the barracks guards. None of them carried any weapons.
Klink stepped forward, came to attention and saluted Hogan, who also came to attention as he returned the salute. The Kommandant then bowed slightly and swallowed hard before he spoke.
"Colonel Hogan, I have been informed that the Allied forces are on their way to the camp and they should be arriving shortly. I have called you here as the Senior Ranking Allied Officer to surrender Stalag Luft 13 and its' garrison into your hands." He handed over the belt and holster containing his sidearm as he finished speaking.
Hogan received the Kommandant's sidearm and set it onto the table beside him. He once again came to attention and saluted Klink. "Sir, I hereby accept your surrender. You and your men may stand down."
Klink returned the salute and nodded wearily. "Thank you Colonel." Hogan extended his hand and the now ex-Kommandant took it in his.
"No, Colonel Klink. Thank you." And he sincerely meant it. The little group of saboteurs could have been so much unluckier in the character of their jailer and the Colonel knew it. It all came down to the fact that Klink was basically a decent man and for that he was thankful.
They all quickly exited the rec hall as they heard the unmistakably deafening roar of massed armor. Baker ran up to his CO and pointed towards the fence. "Colonel! Look!"
The men spilling out of the rec hall stared as if mesmerized as a seemingly endless line of M4 Shermans approached the perimeter of the camp along the main road. Then suddenly, as if someone had thrown an unseen switch, throngs of shouting, cheering men surged forward to completely engulf the main compound in front of the Kommandatur.
The Colonel motioned for Klink to accompany him and the raucous crowd quieted somewhat as it parted to enable the two men to pass through as they slowly made their way to the front gate.
Several days later, there was yet one last formal duty to perform and the Colonel went below to send the confirmation message himself. "Papa Bear calling Mama Bear, come in Mama Bear. Papa Bear calling Mama Bear. Come in Mama Bear."
The radio responded with clutter and static before it cleared to reveal a clipped British voice that responded, "Mama Bear here, Papa Bear, we read you, over."
"Papa Bear confirming liberation of Stalag 13 by the 47th Tank battalion and the 94th Armored Reconnaissance battalion of the 14th Armored Division. Repeat, confirming liberation of Stalag 13."
"Confirmation received Papa Bear. Please hold for cross check and verification."
"Papa Bear holding." The radio went silent for a moment as London cross verified his information.
"Confirmation cross verified with liberating battalions Papa Bear. Our heartiest congratulations on your liberation and on a job well done!"
"Thank you Mama Bear. I can't say it hasn't been fun but we are all ready to go home."
"Please hold Papa Bear." There was a noise off mike that sounded like paper rustling.
"Papa Bear holding." The words he next heard sent his heart racing.
"Papa Bear we have an urgent communication from Millbank for you."
He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry. "Go...go ahead Mama Bear."
"Quote. 'Please inform Papa Bear that his cub has finally responded to treatment and is on way to recovery. Condition upgraded from critical to stable.' End Quote."
The usually glib Hogan found that he couldn't form an answer to save his life. Thank God! Peter's going to live! What a day this was turning out to be! His vision suddenly blurred and he was glad that he was down in the tunnel alone.
After a long silence, the British voice ventured to ask, "I say, Papa Bear, are you still there?"
He cleared his throat. "Yes…, yes I am. We've been waiting a long time to hear some good news of our cub. Looks like today's our daily double!"
The voice at the other end sounded amused. "Jolly good! Is there anything else we may do for you Papa Bear?"
"Yes, I want to dictate an eyes-only, personal message to be sent to my cub as soon as possible."
"Very well, go ahead Papa Bear."
"Text of message as follows: CAMP LIBERATED, STOP. ALL SAFE AND WELL, STOP. EXPECT VISITORS SOON, STOP. PAPA BEAR AND CUBS MINUS ONE, END. Please repeat back."
The voice at the other end repeated the message back word for word then finished with, "Confirmed, Papa Bear. We will deliver no later than tomorrow."
"Thank you Mama Bear. Thank you for everything. Papa Bear over and out." He shut the transmitter down and sat back in his chair, suddenly overwhelmed by a pleasant weariness. So it was finally over. God, how they had so looked forward to this day and now here it was upon them. Despite the good news about his condition, Newkirk's absence took a large bite out of the joy of the liberation. Recalling the promise he had made to his English friend when he left for England, he sighed quietly as the memories swept him back to that most difficult of nights.
LeBeau had ensured that Newkirk downed a full mug of warm broth before they swaddled him within multiple layers of blankets and belted him securely onto a stretcher. Schultz backed a truck directly in front of the infirmary to try to limit unnecessary exposure to the sub-freezing cold.
The men bundled themselves up against the dangerous cold and then gently lifted the stretcher. A tortured whisper arose as they moved slowly towards the door.
Carter leaned down, "Peter, stop talking. You're gonna start coughing again. Try to get some sleep buddy. You'll…you'll be back home in England…before you…know…it…." Carter's voice broke and he trailed off as they made their way outside.
They hoisted the stretcher into the back of the truck and piled in behind it. Schultz started the engine and the truck slowly pulled away from the infirmary.
"No…all…of us…," Newkirk's breath hitched and he swallowed hard to forestall a coughing fit. "All…of…us…walk…out…gate…," he wheezed.
Wilson looked over at his CO and shook his head sadly.
The Colonel bent down and gently snugged the blankets closer around his Corporal's face. "Shhh Peter, don't worry. It'll be all right." The truck came to a halt and they heard Schultz ordering the guards to open the gate. The Colonel cocked his head as the truck began moving again. "We just passed through the gate. Congratulations Peter, you are now officially released from Stalag 13! We'll all be right behind you eventually!"
"I'm sorry Peter. We're all together right now, even though we have to return to camp. When our time to leave comes, we'll all be together in spirit. I promise you, we will!" He grasped his Corporal's shoulder. "Try to get some rest, Peter. You've got a long journey ahead."
Newkirk tried to continue speaking but simply couldn't. He lay gasping and struggling for each rasping, shallow breath as his friends gathered nearer, trying to comfort him as they wrapped their minds around the fact that he was actually leaving them for good.
Newkirk had fallen into what appeared to be a deep sleep by the time they arrived at the landing coordinates. The plane, a Ventura CV transport, had already landed and awaited with engines idling. The men didn't want to awaken their sick comrade but neither did they want him to leave without being able to say their farewells.
The Colonel gently shook Newkirk's shoulder. "Peter, wake up. We're here. C'mon Peter, wake up." Newkirk didn't respond and Hogan looked over at Wilson. "Joe?"
Wilson made a quick check, then shook his head sadly as he spoke in a voice thickened by emotion. "We're getting him out of here just in the nick of time. He's nearly comatose Colonel."
"What does this mean Joe?" asked a stunned LeBeau.
"It means he's sliding closer to death." Wilson's voice echoed flatly within the silence of the truck.
A loud gasp sounded from the cab of the truck; Schultz had been listening from the driver's seat. The Colonel reached to gently grasp the German guard's shoulder. "Come round to the back, Schultz. You can say good-bye when we take him out."
The Colonel turned to Wilson and grimly asked, "Can Peter still hear us?"
Wilson nodded, "I believe that he can. If not, he at least still knows we're all here."
The Colonel knelt beside the stretcher and spoke softly. "It's time to put you on the plane for home, Peter. You get better, Corporal! That's a direct order." The Colonel smiled sadly as he reached to grasp Newkirk's shoulder. "It's been an honor having you under my command. You concentrate on getting yourself well and we'll come visit you as soon as we can, I promise."
He arose to allow the others say their good-byes.
LeBeau kissed Newkirk on the forehead and murmured, "Bonne chance mon ami. Dieu soit avec vous."
Carter, tears spilling down his face, grasped Newkirk's shoulder. He leaned in to whisper, "Peter, please don't die. You fight it buddy. You'll get better, I know you will. We'll come see you as soon as we can. That's a promise."
Baker found he couldn't speak for fear of breaking down. He gently patted Newkirk's shoulder and managed to murmur, "Take care of yourself Peter."
Wilson finally leaned in and gently laid his hand on Newkirk's forehead. "You come back to us, you hear me? Don't make me pull rank on you and make that a medical order, Corporal." He made sure his patient was securely belted onto the stretcher and nodded to the waiting men. "All right fellas. Let's go."
They eased the stretcher out of the back of the truck and paused so that Schultz could say good-bye. The German guard bent down and placed his hand atop Newkirk's head as if in benediction. "Newkirk, this may be the last time I will ever see you. We have all gone through too much for you to die now, mein guter Freund. You live, Newkirk, ja? You live…" he trailed off and gently patted the Englishman's shoulder before he stepped back to allow the men to take Newkirk to the waiting plane.
Their final and most important mission accomplished, the men stepped back to watch as the plane revved up and turned around for take-off. No one said a word as it lifted off and gradually receded into the dark sky. They stood watching for as long as they could see the plane's silhouette, hoping against hope that their friend, their brother would survive.
The Colonel shook himself out of his reverie and pondered how he could honor his promise to Newkirk, as well as assuage the men's guilt. He wrapped his arms around his torso as he usually did when brainstorming and after some time he finally arrived at a solution. Satisfied with his idea, he got up and headed topsides to let the men know that their mate Newkirk would live to enjoy his freedom as well.
An hour or so later, the Colonel surveyed the expectantly cheerful faces of the men packed inside his quarters. It was a bit crowded, for he had gathered all of the barracks chiefs in addition to his command crew and medic Joe Wilson.
"Well fellas, I suppose you're wondering why I've called you together," he began.
Carter couldn't hold back any longer and he burst out, "Did London have any news of Peter sir?"
The Colonel laughed, genuinely happy, before he wrapped his arms around himself. "Yes, Andrew. When I contacted London to inform them of our liberation, they gave me a very good report on Peter." He took a deep breath and continued, "Peter's finally responded to the treatment and he's been upgraded to stable condition."
The room exploded in a cacophony of cheers, shouts, hugs and back-slapping. After a few minutes the Colonel raised his arms to try to restore order. "Fellas! Fellas! Listen please." The men finally settled down and the Colonel issued his orders. "I want each barracks chief to inform their men about Peter's recovery. Okay men, dismissed!"
Every man in the room came to attention and saluted their CO. He returned the gesture with a heartfelt smile.
Wilson hung back in the Colonel's quarters along with LeBeau, Carter and Baker. He sighed. "God! That's good to hear! I was so afraid we were going to lose him for sure."
LeBeau put a hand on Wilson's shoulder. "It would not have been your fault Joe. Pierre has survived thanks to you!" The Frenchman looked around at the others. "Is that not true?"
Carter chimed in, "You bet! Peter would've died for sure if you hadn't worked so hard to save him Joe."
"Andrew's right, Joe. You deserve most of the credit for Peter's survival!" said Baker.
"Well….I don't know about that fellas. Each one of you helped immensely, and I'm sure the fact that Peter is one helluva stubborn cuss had something to do with it."
They all shared a laugh at that and then fell thoughtfully silent. The memories of the night they transported their dangerously ill comrade to the aircraft pickup site would be branded in their psyches forever.
Wilson sighed loudly, intruding into the silence and the men's memories. "Well fellas, we've got a busy day tomorrow. I prescribe a good night's sleep!"
"Can you believe it - our last night sleeping in these bunks," murmured Baker.
"Yeah," agreed Carter. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm gonna to miss…"
LeBeau cut him off. "Oh André, do not tell me you will miss this place!"
Carter was unapologetic, "Well I am gonna tell you that! I'm gonna miss roll call, I'm gonna miss Schultz, I'm gonna miss your cooking Louis, but most of all I'm gonna miss you guys. I already miss Peter something awful."
"Oui," agreed LeBeau. "We all miss Pierre."
The Colonel draped his arms about Carter and LeBeau's shoulders. "Fellas, first order of business after we get to England is to go see Peter!" He looked at each of his remaining team. "Now let's take Joe's advice and get some sleep! We're walking out that gate tomorrow with our heads held high!"
As Barracks Two was given the privilege to be the last group to leave the camp, Colonel Hogan addressed the entire complement of the camp's now former inmates before the first group left.
"Men, the day we hoped and prayed for has finally arrived. I want us all to take a minute to remember those who didn't make it to see this day, especially those we lost to sickness." He paused as his voice hitched a bit. "One man in particular deserves special mention. I sent a message to him, informing him that the camp has been liberated. As you walk out that gate, I want you to remember his sacrifice! We wouldn't be here if it weren't for Peter Newkirk!"
The men broke out into cheers and applause. The Colonel eventually raised his hands to quiet them down and he resumed speaking.
"I am very proud and honored to have had men of your caliber under my command. I want you to remember Stalag 13 as the place where we all came together to make a difference. Now go live good, decent, honorable lives in remembrance of those who won't be going home. Thank you men. That is all."
The Colonel walked to the gate and stood at attention as each of the barracks marched out in parade formation, the barracks chiefs saluting as they passed.
As the men of Barracks Two prepared to leave, the Colonel called out "Remember fellas, this one's for Peter! He's here with us in spirit! Let's go!"
They then marched out the gate, the Colonel exiting last.