I think that everyone has an important story to tell. Some may be better told than others, but all would be intriguing from an outside perspective. Ned Handy’s story is part of probably one of the most defining moments of world history: World War II. A flight engineer in the Air Force, Handy takes readers on a fantastic journey through his five seasons as an American POW at Stalag 17, a notorious prison camp in Germany.
Though it’s told through his voice, this is not just Handy’s story. Using his words as a camera that makes the mind feel like it’s watching the action, readers get to know the fellow “kriegies” (POWs) that were close to him at Stalag 17. He captured their personalities and gave details about their lives through stories they told while passing time. Some had more of an impact than others, but I felt like I knew all 10 who he writes of at length. Even some of the German guards seem familiar, sometimes sympathetic characters that are hard to hate (especially reading this 71 years after the fact and knowing the outcome of the war). Except for a few, Handy paints the German guards as young kids who were in the same boat as them; fighting for their country while not going out of their way to cause trouble. Everybody wanted the same thing: To survive and go home to their families.
Not wasting any time with introductions or lead-ins, Handy starts out with a bang, writing about his plane getting shot down over Germany. He goes through the struggle he and the other men went through trying to do everything they could in order to keep the plane flying long enough to make it to the safe, friendly borders of Holland. They all had to bail beforehand, landing in a German field being greeted by soldiers waiting to take them captive, eventually making their way to Stalag 17, where a German officer addressed them:
“Gentlemen. I welcome you to your new home. By now you all understand, I’m sure, that for all of you, the war is over. I look forward to your spending the rest of the war here with us at Stalag 17.”
The stories from Stalag 17 are near awe inspiring — learning how the soldiers passed the time, made most of what they had (a storyteller talking about food was something they salivated over) and ultimately survived, balancing between being prisoners who wanted to stay alive and soldiers willing to die for their country. Handy, after running into a former classmate, was asked to get a team together to build a tunnel, which they did. This tunnel makes for some of the best stories, showcasing the bravery that these men possessed, as well as their ability to utilize every piece of scrap they could find. And then there’s Frank Grey.
The epilogue, while short, ties everything together perfectly, with Handy speaking of what happened immediately after they were freed to his post-war life to the first Stalag 17 reunion he attended in 1999 (which explained what happened to his fellow soldiers) and then back to him speaking of returning to the airfield he left from on the flight that was shot down as he waited to return to the States.
Aside from being an exceptional read full of great storytelling and descriptions, I can’t help but be humbled by what these men went through. While reading this, I was picturing them as adults who have been through this before instead of kids in their early 20s using their courage, brains and resourcefulness to do some amazing things. I can’t picture myself being able to think of doing anything Handy and his crew did (ever, let alone at 20). The greatest generation indeed.