Life of a Kriegie
By John Holmstrom
In so many ways, Carl
Henry Holmstrom’s life will forever be defined by the 28 months he spent in captivity during World War Two. However,
that wasn’t his whole life, and it certainly wasn’t his dream.
Carl was the son of Anna and Fred Holmstrom,
two Swedish immigrants who met on the ship that carried them to America. He grew up in Branford, a small seaside town on the
coast of central Connecticut in the 1920s-1930s. Then he moved to Brooklyn, New York where he finished a three-year course
at Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn, graduating in 1940.
The world war was already raging in Europe. England and
France had declared war on Germany, which had already invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia. Greece, Norway and other countries
were involved in the conflict. Italian troops and Germany’s Afrika Korps fought the English for control of the Suez
Canal and Mideast oil. It was just a matter of time before the United States got involved.
Carl Holmstrom enlisted
in the Army Air Corps on March 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor. (There was no Air Force as such, the air corps was a
part of the regular army.) He received his commission as a second lieutenant in 1942 after bombardier training in Midland,
Texas and was sent to Tunisia. Holmstrom had been trained as a bombardier on a Flying Fortress, a B-24 bomber.
commanding officers were impressed by his ability and tried to talk him into agreeing to a job training pilots and bombardiers,
but Holmstrom wanted action. He wanted to go to the front. He wanted to see some action and make a difference.
January 3, 1943 he became one of the first Americans taken as a POW in the European conflict when his plane crashed in the
deserts of Tunisia and German paratroopers, riding small motorcycles, surrounded his B-24 bomber. “My father grabbed
his pistol, ready to shoot it out,” his son John Holmstrom recalls. “His commanding officer barked at him, ‘What
are you, nuts? You want to get us all killed!?’ and ordered him to drop the gun. The point was, they were behind enemy
lines, in the middle of the desert, and had no chance of survival if they tried to shoot it out with the Nazis.”
The flight crew was taken to the Tunis airport, flown to Naples, Italy, where they spent the night in jail. The next
day they were removed to the Rome prison, and from there traveled by train to Frankfort. “There were some civilians
on the train, and it was incredible to them that we were Americans. We were the first to be taken,” Carl Holmstrom said
in an interview with the Waterbury Republican after the war. They were then shipped to Dulag Luft in Frankfort, Germany, for
interrogation. This meant solitary confinement, very little food and the “heat treatment.” It was very cold, and
the prisoners were allowed only one blanket. The heat in the jail was turned off,” Carl Holmstrom recalled.
He was then sent to Oflag 21-B, a reform school that had been converted into a prison camp. Located in Alburgund, Poland
(near Schubin, Germany), it was filled mostly with Englishmen--many were remnants of the Dunkirk forces. The first English
prisoner of war was in the camp—he had been captured in 1939.
Since the English troops were the majority, they
set the rules for how things ran. Oflag 21-B was such a minor camp that it’s not listed in many of the sources of German
POW camps. Although later in the war the Germans attempted to keep different nationalities apart, at this early stage of the
war they saw no need to do so.
It was at Oflag 21-B that Carl Holmstrom started sketching and drawing the details
of the prison camp and his everyday life. “The drawings were made during imprisonment” he told a newspaper reporter
after the war, “and represent a sincere effort to portray to the American people, and especially to the relatives of
the prisoners, intimate glimpses of Kriegie Life.”
At the end of six months Holmstrom was moved to Stalag
Luft III in Sagan, Poland. It was specifically designed for air officers, who were treated better than other American POWs
because Hermann Goering, an airman himself, still upheld the tradition of honor among airmen.
Out of the hundreds
of German prison camps that interned American soldiers, Stalag Luft 3 is definitely the best-known of all because of what
became known as the Great Escape. Carl Holmstrom, as an inmate of the prison camps, looked at it as just another escape. As
a professional artist, Holmstrom was assigned to sketching maps and forging papers. When his duties were completed, he found
time to illustrate camp life.
“For drawing paper I tore pages out of hymn books and sketched on the backs
of music sheets,” Holmstrom told a reporter after the war. “Later the Y.M.C.A. sent over paper and paint. In the
camps, it was really the Red Cross that saved us—so far as food and cigarettes went.” (Ink was unavailable, since
the Germans confiscated it to prevent the forging of papers for escape.)
Russian guns were heard at the end of
a year at the second camp. The prisoners were moved. They had 20 minutes notice to pack up their belongings and leave Stalag
Luft 3, whereupon they were forced to march through the coldest winter weather to hit Germany in 50 years. When the call for
the march was given out, he stuffed his clothes with his pictures and his bags too. He took the pictures instead of
food or other things that would help him survive.
His next stopping place was Nuremburg. “Why was I sent
there? The Russians came,” recalled Holmstrom after the war. “Two months later, I was sent to Moosburg 7A. Why?
The Americans came.”
The American Third Army, led by General George Patton, liberated the prisoners in Moosburg
on April 29, 1945. All around the camp during those last days bullets were flying. “We were out cooking breakfast on
our ‘creaky burners’ when the shots started,” Holmstrom said. “It didn’t bother us, we just
went inside to avoid the bullets and cooked breakfast there.”
According to eyewitness accounts, after Patton
liberated one of the infamous death camps, he returned to Moosburg and gave an emotional speech about what he had witnessed.
The American Army kept them in the camp for a long time. “They had guards to prevent our escape—this
time escape from the (US) Army,” Holmstrom told a reporter after the war.
“When Dad was freed,”
recalls his daughter, Susan, he was down to 100 pounds on his 6"3" frame. He had problems with his teeth. Before
he got married, he was told that he could never father children due to his time as a POW.”
a friend from Chicago decided the best thing to do was to risk a court martial and escape from Moosburg, so they went AWOL
and hitch-hiked back through Germany from Munich to Frankfort, passing through many of the camps where he had been imprisoned
before. From Frankfort, he flew to Paris, arriving the day before V-E Day, “That was quite a night,” he said smiling,
and reminiscing. “A lot of the fellows had just got back from the front and everyone was feeling pretty good.”
The two of them finally managed to get themselves on an early boat list, and arrived in New York. Lt. Holmstrom
still had his drawings under his arm.
After the war he had an urgent need to publish a book about his experiences,
but every publisher he visited in New York turned him down so he self-published it and moved to Connecticut where he married,
settled down and raised a family.
Carl Holmstrom was a first-hand eyewitness to the horrors of World War Two,
but spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of it all. “Hitler must have had lots of people behind him, not
just a few thousand, or he never could have gotten where he did,” he said after the war. “The civilians couldn’t
have helped but know what was going on in the prison camps. We saw Jews in the slave labor battalions being beaten outside
of our camp. The problem of Germany? I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s all pretty complex.”