Prisoner's Story: Long Captivity Framed His War

By MANDY LOCKE

Six months after Lieut. Curtis Jones watched a one-hour Army training film on how to handle imprisonment by the enemy, he fell into German hands.

That March day in 1943 was a blur. Mr. Jones is still not quite sure what went wrong, but he is not one to second-guess the events of his life.

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"Hindsight's 20/20. Sometimes I think about how I got captured. Other times, I wonder if I'd still be alive it I hadn't been," says Mr. Jones, who moved to the Vineyard last summer to be closer to his daughter.

In Tunisia, West Africa, Mr. Jones's 34th Infantry Division pushed Germans from the west, while the British army tried to squeeze them from the east. Somehow the Germans gained an edge, and Mr. Jones, five fellow army officers and more than three dozen privates became prisoners of war.

"We saw the Germans walking toward us. We had no ammunition. There was no use fighting," says Mr. Jones, explaining he became a "guest of the Germans" that day.

Mr. Jones was 23 years old, a college graduate and a chinaware salesman back in the States. Like 16 million American men and women his age, he would spend the next few years of his life on foreign soil, fighting for a cause gripping nations an ocean away. But for Mr. Jones and thousands of others like him, the war years would be spent behind barbed wire fences, inside railroad cars, confined in the stalls of abandoned horse stables dotting the countrysides of Western Africa, Italy, Poland and Germany.

Mr. Jones, now a reedy but towering 87, talks almost casually about his life as a prisoner of war. Captivity was his lot, he says.

"Things happened. What were you going to do?" he says. He feels the same way about being drafted to war, about being sent to Officer Candidates School, about being hauled to Scotland aboard the Queen Mary with more than 15,000 fellow Americans. This was war, and America had signed on to the cause.

He entered World War II as a private, and then signed on to an army officer training program - the one decision he actually got to make over the next three years of his life.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that being an enlisted man is not the best place to be, especially when you enter as a private. A second lieutenant isn't much higher, but you are extended a few privileges," he says.

Some of those same privileges were extended to him in prison camps, a result of the Germans following the Geneva Convention - an international understanding which governs the care and treatment of prisoners of war. Military officers, according to the Geneva Convention, are to be excused from manual labor. As he recalls it, the Germans actually treated Mr. Jones and his fellow officers rather civilly.

"They respected the fact that you were an officer, but they expected you to act like it. There was no complaining allowed," Mr. Jones says. "To the Germans, you were a problem, a hassle. They'd rather not deal with you."

Life was not pleasant but bearable, Mr. Jones says. Food was scarce. Some 53 pounds fell from his six-foot, three-inch frame in the first month of his captivity. Although Red Cross parcels - filled with staple rations like milk powder and canned meat - were prepared for prisoners of war, months sometimes passed without delivery of these packages. That's how American POWs knew, he says, that the Germans were losing ground in the war. A contraband radio, on which they listened to nightly British Broadcasting Corporation reports during imprisonment in Poland, confirmed their suspicions.

After being hauled out of Tunisia that spring of 1943, Mr. Jones and his fellow POWs joined British captives at a prison camp near Rome. The Italians, he says, extended more kindnesses to the American soldiers than the Germans had. But when the Italians capitulated later that year, abandoning the prison camp where Mr. Jones was kept, he and fellow captives were too weak to flee.

"The Germans moved in too close for us to get away. We were just not in good enough shape to get away. We would have had to go over the mountains to the south," Mr. Jones says. Soon thereafter, the Germans hauled the American military officers to Offlag, a ground force prison camp for American military officers in Szceczin, Poland.

New arrivals at Offlag were shunned until a fellow prisoner could vouch for his authenticity. Occasionally, German officers planted a German spy among the American prisoners to eavesdrop.

"We'd drop references like the ‘Boston Yankees' to see if they'd react. The Germans looked just like Americans," Mr. Jones says.

American military officers made the best of life in Offlag. A Swedish YMCA provided sports equipment, books and instruments to the prisoners. American POWs held weekly orchestra performances, planted a garden and taught classes to one another.

In Offlag, intelligence from Americans made its way into the camp in rolled-up cigarettes. Prisoners used maps to dig a 150-foot tunnel to the exterior of the prison wall. They completed the tunnel by January 1945, but by then had received word that the Germans would soon collapse.

The Germans held tight to these POWs until the bitter end of the war. When the Russians drew close enough to this Polish camp for the prisoners to hear their gunfire, the Germans retreated to their homeland, prisoners in tow. Twelve feet of snow blanketed the ground, and the temperature fell to 22 degrees below zero. Mr. Jones and hundreds of other POWs marched for 48 days, traveling more than 350 miles from Poland to Germany. They ate no more than one meal a day.

The final destination was a camp near Munich. General George S. Patton Jr. stormed the camp and freed the Americans in late April 1945. Mr. Jones remembers "Red Cross girls coming into the camp and throwing doughnuts to the soldiers."

The war on the European front ended June 6, 1945, and Mr. Jones flew to Belgium to be prepared for his return home. Being a POW earned him 60 days' rest and relaxation before a return to active duty. After several more months of service, military leaders then "guilted" him into joining the military reserves - a duty he fulfilled for nearly two more decades.

His prisoner of war status meant little to his fellow Americans, Mr. Jones says.

"There were no parades, no big honors. Occasionally, a guy at the end of the bar would buy me a drink," he recalls with a laugh.

Fewer and fewer people like Mr. Jones are still around to share their World War II memories in first-person. Only a quarter of the 16 million men and women who served America during World War II are alive today. Currently, these veterans, the youngest of whom are at least 75 years old, are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day.

This Memorial Day, Americans across the nation are paying special homage to the veterans of World War II. This weekend, a memorial to the war - 17 years in the making - will be dedicated on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

World War II veterans on the Island will also join together for a ceremony this Saturday at an American Legion Hall in Tisbury. The selectmen have designated May 29 as World War II Veterans Recognition Day. Beginning at 11 a.m., World War II veterans will be presented certificates by the Dukes County Veterans Services. Jo Ann Murphy, county veterans' agent, said she expects at least 60 veterans to attend, including several women who served in the Women's Army Corps. A special ceremony for veterans living in Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Home will be held June 3.

Other Memorial Day festivities will be held as usual this year. At 7:30 a.m. Monday, volunteers will begin staking 400 flags along the Avenue of Flags at Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven in memory or in honor of military veterans. At 10 o'clock, veterans, firefighters, the sheriff's department honor guard, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts will march from the American Legion Hall to the Avenue of Flags. Wreaths will be placed on war memorial boulders within the cemetery. A Blackhawk helicopter from Otis Air Force Base in Bourne will fly over the cemetery in tribute.