For Proud Prisoners, a Storied Ordeal

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

More than six decades ago, they were prisoners of war. They were cold and hungry and determined to escape. Some did. Others didn't survive the war. But their time in captivity created a bond that has lasted since 1945, when they were liberated.

Oflag 64, or Offizierslager 64, German for "officers camp," was established in Szubin, Poland, to hold captured American infantry officers during World War II. The first Americans arrived on June 6, 1943, and more than 1,400 would call it home before it was evacuated in January 1945.

The veterans of Oflag 64 had their annual reunion in Crystal City last weekend as more than 80 people assembled: 18 former prisoners of war along with their families. "It's a renewal every year of a bonding that started back in the prison camp," said Sidney Thal of Bryn Mawr, Pa. Thal, 95, was his battalion's communications chief.

"I rarely think of my war experiences in prison camp during the year," he said. "But when I come to these, it reminds me of what happened. We have hundreds and hundreds of stories."

Like the various escape attempts: the time they tried to cut through the wire fencing, or the unfinished escape tunnel.

"Some of these stories are repeated often, but sometimes memories are sparked by hearing other prisoners talk about it," Thal said.

Thal was one of the first to arrive at the camp. He once escaped with three others, on the loose for three days before being recaptured and given two weeks of solitary confinement.

"We were never abused," he said. "We were never mistreated. We operated, acted and reacted solely by the Geneva Convention, as much as we could, and so did the Germans."

And he saw a silver lining: "I would say we were lucky to be captured, because the death rate was so high."

The prisoners made their own fun and were helped greatly by the YMCA, some said. They had a 10,000-volume library in the camp, organized sporting events and theatrical performances and had, according to Thal, "enough musical instruments to form a band and an orchestra." They even published a monthly newsletter, called the Item, which the veterans still publish to keep up with one another.

But they were prisoners nonetheless. Their barracks had very little heat and practically no hot water for bathing. "We were allowed hot showers -- one hot shower every two weeks," Thal said. Robert O'Neill, 85, of Prescott, Ariz., said, "You never turned one down."

They were given one minute to soap and two minutes to wash, Thal said. "And I still do it to this day, to conserve water," he added. "I've done it my whole life." Not O'Neill. "When I left that place, I said I'd never be dirty again," he said.

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