|Lt Richard D Stark
The Bet at Barth - A Christmas Story
by: Earl Wasson - 466th Bomb Group - ex-POW - Barth, Germany
In war-time, a place called Barth was Hell. It was a prisoner of war camp located
only a few miles south of the Baltic Sea in Northern Germany. Downed aircrews
were interned there after having been shot down and captured by the enemy. Ten
thousand were held there as prisoners.
The camp was divided into four administrative compounds with 2,500 airmen in
each unit. These “guests of the Germans” were elite quality men – leaders and
brave American youths. They had been effective in their aerial combat activity
against Nazi Germany.
But now, their role had dramatically changed. Internment brought suffering beyond
belief; the unending frigid weather, the unpredictable behavior of the guards.
Inadequate food, lice, sickness, boredom, death by starvation or by exposure, was
their unchanging agenda. Yet there were times when the spirits of the Prisoners of
War were lifted. It was always through their own methods of creativity and
ingenious that this happened.
One on-going “high” occurred when each new contingent of “guests” arrived in the
camp. Up-to-date uncensored information became immediately available. The
reports brought in by these new POW’s gave fresh, unbiased running accounts of
how the war was progressing on both the Eastern Front with the Russians and on
the Western Front.
The increasing numbers of bombers and fighters appearing in the air overhead
brought silent but exuberant joy and hope to Barth’s imprisoned. As optimism
flourished small group conversation centered on the war’s end and their freedom.
Liberation was on everyone’s lips. The war was indeed winding down! Talk of
being home for Christmas became a Utopian Dream.
Although all embraced the Dream, not all were optimistic. This difference in opinion
brought about the “Bet at Barth”. A wager was on. New life came to the camp.
But what was there to wager!? There was no money, no freedom of 3-day passes
to London, no material possessions for the loser to forfeit, no points or promotions
to be gained or lost.
In a heated conversation two men got carried away in their claims. An optimistic
airman bet a pessimistic one on the following terms. “If we aren’t home by
Christmas, I will kiss your a** before the whole group formation right after head-
count on Christmas morning.” They shook hands. The bet was on!
Well, the optimist hadn’t counted on the Battle of the Bulge in early December.
Consequently, the war was prolonged and they were still in Barth on Christmas
Day, 1944. Christmas morning was cold, there was snow on the ground and frigid
air was blowing in off the Baltic Sea. The body count for the compound began,
each man was counted off. ein…, zwei…,drei…, vier…,funf…,sechs…, sieben…,
Under ordinary circumstances, when the counting was completed and the German
guards were satisfied that everyone was accounted for, the group split up and
everyone went to their barracks. But this time, everybody stayed in formation.
The two betting “Kriegies” walked out of the formation and went into the barracks.
No one else moved! The guards were puzzled They didn’t know what was going
Soon, the two men came back out of the barracks. One was carrying a bucket of
water with a towel over the other arm. The second one marched to the front of the
formation, turned his back toward the assembled troops and guards, pulled down
his pants and stooped over. The other took the towel, dipped it in the soapy water
and washed his posterior. The whole formation was standing there looking and
laughing. The German guards and dignitaries of Barth stood gazing in amazement,
they didn’t know what was going on. Then the optimist bent over and kissed his
opponent on the rear! A mighty cheer went up from over 2,000 men. Then the
puzzled guards joined in the fun.
Nothing changed on Christmas day – the same black bread and thin soup, sparse
and flavorless. As evening fell, the weather worsened, the barracks were cold, the
last of the daily allotted coal briquettes were reduced to nothing but white ash.
Boredom was setting in and the prisoners anticipated another long miserable night.
Suddenly, the door opened…a voice shouted, “The curfew has been lifted for
tonight! We’re going to have a Christmas service over in the next compound.” The
weather was bitterly cold, the new fallen snow crunched under the feet of the men
as they quickly shuffled towards their congregating comrades in the distance.
The nightly curfew always kept men inside – this Christmas night’s reprieve allowed
them to be outside after dark for the first time. Above, the stars were shining
brightly and were high in the northern skies; the dim flicker of Aurora Borealis
added a magical touch as the troops assembled. Gratitude was felt in their
hearts… a lone singer led out with one of the world’s most familiar and loved
carols. Others joined in and soon there was joyful worship ringing throughout the
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright…
The German guards marching their assigned beats stopped in their tracks... they
turned their heads toward the music. The words were unfamiliar but they
recognized the tune…after all, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht was composed by a
German. They loosened up, smiled, and joined in the celebration; the praise
Round yon virgin mother and Child
Cinsam wacht nurdas traute hoch heilige Paar
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Holder Knabe im lockigen Hoiar
Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
Schlaf in himmlischer ruh! Schlaf in himmlischer ruh.
The Bet at Barth had paid off. Everyone had won! As the words of the carol rang
in their hearts, there was a literal fulfillment. Tonight they would sleep in peace.
War and internment did not have the power to destroy the meaning and beauty of
this special day.
It was Christmas. They were not at home. But they declared, “Next year we will
be! All of us!” And they were!
Winner - 2nd Lt. Stanley M. Johnson of Port Allegany, PA
Loser - 2nd Lt. Richard D. Stark of Tampa, FL.
Location: North 2 Compound of Stalag Luft I