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Peace on earth

Bernie Grauer

Peace can be uncovered in the strangest places. My friend Capt. Don Hillman discovered peace as a prisoner of war in December 1944.He was shot down and captured, then managed to escape, only to be captured again and sent to the infamous Stalag Luft III, which was located on the Polish border. As a POW, Capt. Hillman befriended one of the officers in charge of his building.Later, when the Russians were overrunning the Germans on the eastern border and the Americans were overrunning the Germans on the western front, Capt.Hillman and his friend the German officer hatched an escape plan. The German officer would march Don ahead of him with a pistol at his back so they could get through the German lines. Then, as they approached the American lines, they would switch roles and Captain Hillman would hold the pistol at the back of the German officer. It worked.When the war was over, Capt. Hillman returned to Seattle and guaranteed the German officer a job so that he could come to America. That officer lived and worked in Seattle for two years before earning enough money to bring his family over. He became a very successful American citizen/businessman.But, I am getting ahead of myself. What I really want to share is Capt. Hillman’s story of his POW Christmas in 1944. Here it is in his own words:”In December 1944, I was one of 1,500 U.S. Army Air Force officers imprisoned in Stalag Luft III near Sagan, Germany. Many of these officers had been prisoners for two years. I had been there for three months. My wife had received notice of my situation and also received letters from me as a prisoner. I had received none from her. The Luftwaffe ran our camp and we were treated properly, according to the Geneva Convention. However, as prisoners of a nation that was losing the war, our rations were meager and decreasing as the Russians and Americans closed in on the Germans.”We lived in a long, narrow, one-story building with about 50 men to a building. There were eight or 10 men to a room, double and triple bunked. Each room had one coal stove that was used for both heat and cooking. The temperature was about 10 degrees below zero.”Christmas is always a special time of the year, even as a POW (or a Kreigie). The Kreigies had saved their meager rations for a special bash that day. Ever resourceful, several rooms were preparing ‘roast turkey.’ They painstakingly carved a bare carcass from wood scraps, complete with neck, back, legs and ribs. Then they layered the carcass with long-hoarded Spam and heated it on the coal stove.”Other prisoners in the camp prepared a Christmas program for the evening. At 1900 hours, we gathered in our ‘theater,’ which was a partially empty warehouse that the Kreigies had rehabbed for the performance. Our camp orchestra (equipped with YMCA-provided instruments) gave an appropriate, but sometimes out of tune concert. The camp choral sang a medley of Christmas songs.”Then, Col. Goodrich, our senior officer, gave a short talk about our situation and his forecast for our future. This was based on the fact that Russian forces had launched their winter offensive on the eastern front and had been making good progress. He summarized by saying, ‘Things will get a lot worse for us before they get any better.'”Finally, we all joined and sang Silent Night. As we sang, we thought of our loved ones at home and wondered if and when we would ever see them again. As we began the second stanza, the 20 armed guards around the room gradually began to join in singing in their native tongue Stille Nacht. As a group, we sang together for the rest of the song.”The Germans heard our song. They, too, were separatedfrom their families. I’m sure they felt as I did that there had to be a better solution to the world’s problems than armed conflict. For the duration of the song and for a few minutes after, there was peace in that room.”Happy holidays to all. Hug your family and friends andcherish peace and freedom.” (Col. Don Hillman, U.S.Air Force, Retired)Wishing all of our readers a very Merry Christmas anda Happy New Year. From Laurie and Warren MillerWarren Miller has been a ski filmmaker for more than half a century. He lived in the Vail Valley for 10 years, and is now director of skiing for the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont.


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