Remembering those who aren't home for holidays

  • Published
  • By William Medema
  • 341st Missile Wing historian
In December 1944, over 63,000 American GIs languished in prisoner of war camps in both theaters of war.

As the holidays approached, more than 7,000 prisoners waited out the war at Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany. The POWs continued to celebrate Christmas the best they could under the depressing conditions of their detention.

Col. Einar Malmstrom arrived at Stalag Luft I as a POW after his P-47 Thunderbolt was shot down over France in April, 1944. He was now the senior American officer at Stalag Luft I's south compound.

The POWs in German camps, for the most part, fared better than those held by the Japanese but as the war neared its end the conditions at most camps were deteriorating. The south compound at Stalag Luft I was considered substandard with poor cooking, washing and toilet facilities.

The Red Cross did their best to get parcels to the prisoners every week. Women volunteers at the Philadelphia Red Cross Center put together Christmas packages in the summer of 1944 and shipped them via Sweden to make sure they arrived for the POWs before Christmas.

The parcels included canned boned turkey, plum pudding, canned cherries and other items. The YMCA provided bound notebooks to the prisoners, along with what recreational supplies they could manage to get to the camps. Malmstrom maintained a log of his experiences at the camp in one of these notebooks.

As Christmas arrived on a cold and cloudy day, he wrote about the holiday in very short sentences:

"24 Dec. Sunday. Attended church service. Rec'd card from Anna dated 13 Aug. Rec'd 3 letters from Mother, 1 from Kay, 1 from Mally. Card from G/C Marwood Elton.  
"25 Dec. Monday Christmas Day. Attended Carol Service in church. Visited all wards & rooms in hospital. Had turkey dinner (Red Cross parcel marvelous). Attended big soccer game. Beautiful clear, cold day, but no snow - spirits high. Wrote card to Kay. Must compliment the Red Cross on the superb Christmas parcel."

In the north compound another POW, 2nd Lt. Robert R. Swartz, summed up Christmas at Stalag Luft I:

"Christmas was different from the yuletide at home. Here in the country where many of our Christmas customs originated seemed very little like Christmas. You soon discover that it is family and friends and the joy of giving that make Christmas worthwhile."

Russian troops liberated Stalag Luft I on May 1, 1945, after it was abandoned by the Germans. Col. Malmstrom left the camp on May 13.   
Remembering those who can't be home for the holidays has always been one of the traditions cherished by the U.S. military. Those away always seem to make the best of the holidays despite the circumstances they may have to endure.

Many from the Malmstom AFB family have spent more than one Christmas far from home because of deployments or unaccompanied tours overseas, and several dozen members are deployed this time of year. We remember those away from Big Sky Country who are missing the sights and sounds and brisk winds of the season.