POWs, Horror and Hope

Vietnam POW bracelet

Like many, I grew up on sanitized versions of prisoner of war (POW) camps made famous by movies such as Stalag 17 or The Great Escape, not to mention the TV program Hogan’s Heroes.

But some of the heroes of my childhood included the Vietnam POWs. I wore a metal bracelet with Lt. Thomas Sima’s name on it for several years as many worked hard to bring the American POWs home.

(Thomas Sima came home alive.)

I didn’t give much thought to  POWs in other wars until I began research on my Civil War novel and information from it turned up in An Inconvenient Gamble, recently published in A Texas Brides Collection.

The only Civil War POW camp I knew was Andersonville in Georgia. The National Geographic described it well:

Andersonville, by far the most notorious Civil War prison, housed nearly 33,000 men at its peak—one of the largest “cities” of the Confederacy. Inmates crowded into 26.5 acres (11 hectares) of muddy land, constructing “shebangs,” or primitive shelters, from whatever material they could find. Lacking sewer or sanitation facilities, camp inmates turned “Stockade Creek” into a massive, disease-ridden latrine. Summer rainstorms would flood the open sewer, spreading filth. Visitors approaching the camp for the first time often retched from the stench. The prison’s oppressive conditions claimed 13,000 lives by the war’s end.

I originally had my hero Charles Moss a prisoner in this camp–until I remembered Moss was a Confederate soldier and Andersonville was run by the Confederates. I needed to find another, Federal, POW camp–particularly one where men from Brigadier General John Morgan’s men ended up after his Great Raid and also where soldiers from Anderson County, Texas spent time.

As it turns out, my great-great-great uncle was an Anderson County, Texas POW and he spent time in several different camps, including Fort Delaware.

Many of Morgan’s men ended up at the same camp and so, therefore, did Charles Moss. I’ll write more about Fort Delaware in my next blog.

According to the above National Geographic article, some 56,000 soldiers perished in prisoner of war camps, a number far higher than even the most bloody of battles. Most died of disease, as can be imagined from the Andersonville description. The camps were so large, no one really knew how to manage them. And if the supply chain was stretched thin to get food and ammunition to fighting men, would supply clerks be worried about feeding prisoners?Andersonville POWs

Chances are those who survived the war in a camp left with their health compromised. My genealogical research turned up a variety of family members who suffered from bowel problems for the rest of their lives–who knew hemorrhoids could be a disabling condition?

My great-great-great uncle Thomas Duval spent the final years of the War of the Northern Aggression traveling between several Union POW camps. At war’s end, he signed an oath of allegiance swearing he would never take up arms against the United States of America again and was returned to Anderson County.

Thomas Duval’s paperwork was interesting in that it provided a physical description: “sallow complexioned, light haired, blue eyed man, five feet, seven inches tall.”

The prisoners at most camps were starved–for food, comfort, news and entertainment. Some got mail from home, but as in Thomas Duval’s case, they could be transferred between facilities without a forwarding address. They were warehoused often in primitive conditions (there were few shelters at Andersonville in Georgia’s baking summer heat and freezing winter storms). The desire to escape was high and hours were spent gambling just to kill time.

In An Inconvenient Gamble, Charles Moss’s life changes after his bad bet results in a death. He spent the rest of his time in camp studying the Bible to atone for the tragedy prompted by his choice. Like many, his life was changed forever–in his case for the better. Prison gave him time to think.  Christianity gave him the forgiveness he needed.

I’ve read numerous memoirs by Vietnam POWs, most notable James Stockdale’s In Love and War, and many POWs like Howard Rutledge sustained themselves by relying on Bible verses and stories they had learned as children in Sunday School. Years of time, often in solitary confinement in Vietnam, provided them with opportunities to reflect on their lives. For some, remembering God and the Bible helped them through the darkest hours.

(This was also true of journalists like Terry Anderson, according to his book Den of Lions,  who was held as a hostage in Lebanon for seven years, as was Anglican clergyman Terry Waite).

I’ve never spent time in prison and hope I never do. But I’d like to think the Bible I’ve studied for so many years would provide the comfort I would need in any challenging situation.

What other good things can come from bad situations?

Have childhood-memorized Bible stories or verses ever helped you in unexpected places? Click to Tweet

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  1. Great post, Michelle! Thanks for writing it.

    Bad situations can bring wonderful things, and horrible things, sometimes in the same person. I know it’;s worked that way for me. Exposure to sudden violent death as a part of everyday life has made me resolve never to stand cruelty, and to preserve life whenever I can (to the point of carrying spiders outside).

    On the other hand, I have what’s been described as an arrogant flippancy toward tragedy, It never occurred to me that making jokes about my own dismal prospects was downright cruel to those who love me. I figured that if I could laugh about it – why couldn’t they?

    The Bible story that carries me through is that of Jesus’ final 24 hours as a mortal. This will sound arrogant, and I apologize in advance – but when I see a person, or one of my dogs in pain, I ask God to diminish their suffering, and add it to my own. I figure I can take a little extra. And I figure that it qualifies under the WWJD banner.

    (And I am living proof that hemorrhoids can be disabling. I dealt with them for years, until they were corrected by surgery…which almost ended badly, as I was sent home with a bleeder. Things were put right after a week in the hospital, another operation, and two visits from a priest for Last Rites. The height of irony is that I had lately received a PhD, which thesis title was “The Inelastic Seismic Response of Reinforced Concrete Piles and Pile Shafts”. Live by piles, die by piles?)

  2. PS – Michele, I hope you won’t mind – I linked to your blog from mine, for my post today.

    I’d planned a POW post after finishing William Ash’s “Under the Wire” a few days ago, and moved it up in the schedule.

    Again, thanks for a moving piece!


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