The Things They Carry
An ex-POW remembers and searches for home
by Suzi Steffen
A fork drops to the floor, and a man panics in fear and anger.
The commuter train gets crowded as it approaches the city. Though it’s not hot, a man on the train grows faint and unable to breathe.
A man can’t bear to drive from his house to the place where he could get the help he needs in order to leave his house.
These experiences, Norman Bussel says in his beautifully constructed, emotionally devastating account of being a prisoner of war in Germany during WWII, are but the tip of the massive, unbearable trauma that comes from incarceration with inhumane jailers. Bussel’s is a tale too rarely told, one whose import should have immediate and direct consequences on current U.S. policy.
On April 29, 1944, the 20-year-old Bussel was serving as a radio operator and gunner, part of a B-17 crew flying out of England. Like many other planes on this particular bombing run over Berlin, Bussel’s plane was hit hard. He barely escaped before the plane blew up with four of the crew members still inside. The wounded Bussel was almost lynched by angry German farmers but ended up, after a dramatic motorcycle “rescue” by Nazi soldiers, a POW in Stalag Luft IV.
Conditions in the POW camps were harsh, even for soldiers who didn’t have to hide the fact that they were Jewish, as Bussel did. Food was short in Germany, and German soldiers had no desire to feed American prisoners anything at all. Sawdust-stuffed bread, the occasional watery cabbage soup or a potato — that’s what Bussel and his fellow POWs subsisted on for months or sometimes years. And POWs were shot for seemingly random actions. The fear and trauma of captivity intensified each day. “For weeks,” he writes, “I played a mind game with myself. Each day I would think about what body part I would sacrifice to be released from prison camp. I started out by giving up a toe each day.”
A year to the day after his plane was shot down, the camp was liberated by American troops. U.S. soldiers discovered that Bussel had lost 40 percent of his pre-POW body weight, but when they tried to feed him, he could barely eat.
So, he was free — though as Bussel makes clear, no POW ever finds himself (or, now, herself) completely free. Bussel married and had two kids, the younger of whom is now the chair of the UO’s Labor Education and Research Center. But his life remained painfully constrained for years, especially when his wife refused to grant him a divorce after he fell for a woman at work. Because he and Melanie could be fired for their relationship, he writes, “My paranoia was unbounded.”
That changed, but Bussel paints a clear picture of the suffering he felt during ordinary life. Claustrophobia, frequent and vivid nightmares, flashbacks and what he calls “a mental morass” haunted him until, 40 years after his time as a POW, he finally begins to meet with other POWs to talk about his experience.
Most impressive is the generosity with which Bussel and his wife Melanie now conduct their lives, helping POWs from every war find access to the shamefully obfuscated and limited government services. And there’s this: Bussel was proud that the U.S. government treated German POWs better than even the Geneva Conventions required, and he’s now horrifed about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. “Every POW friend I spoke with about this felt as indignant and as ashamed as I did. What a shock to find out we are no better than our enemies.”
Read this book. We have to know what has been done to our grandparents and great-grandparents, our parents and siblings — and what we’ve done to others. We have to remember those who have been traumatized. We have to honor them. And we have to change.
Norman Bussel reads from My Private War at 7 pm Monday, Jan. 26, at Powell’s at Cedar Hill Crossing in Portland.
Adam Shepard reads from Scratch Beginnings, 7:30 pm 1/22, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Sharon Brandsma reads from Glory Rose and the Gloaming, 5 pm 1/24, Tsunami Books. Michele Ulriksen reads from Reform at Victory, 7:30 pm 1/27, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Hannah Holmes discusses The Well-Dressed Ape, 7:30 pm 1/29, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Poets Laynie Browne and Endi Hartigan read, 7:30 pm 1/31, DIVA.