A Double War
Tufts alumni who fought for their country during World War
II recall their experiences as prisoners of war.
Chesley Russell, E31, and Marcel Boisvert, D56, fought
a double war. Like thousands of other men, these Tufts alumni
battled the Nazis. But while others returned home from World
War II—safe, wounded, or dead—they were fated to
enter a second fight, a grueling struggle as two of more than
90,000 American prisoners of war.
The double war fought by POWs of Hitler’s Germany proved
jarring. These soldiers waged an unrelenting war against abuse,
malnutrition, dysentery, and a sense of abandonment. It was
a war fought without decent medical care, without their knowing
if they’d be lined up and shot the next day.
The difficulties didn’t end with liberation. At home,
former POWs like Russell and Boisvert received little admiration
for enduring the camps, but rather ambivalence or outright
disdain for “giving up.” Many were called cowards
to their faces. The military was complicit, often ordering
former POWs not to talk about their captivity. Enforced silence
intensified their feelings of shame for being captured, for
simply surviving. So they buried their anguish and got on with
At the same time, Hollywood fueled popular misconceptions.
Movies served up tales of relatively easy POW life in Nazi
Germany, featuring high-spirited escape adventures. POWs appeared
hale and hearty and endlessly wisecracking, and TV shows like
Hogan’s Heroes even depicted the Germans as hapless dupes.
In reality, most POWs were left with chronic or debilitating
physical and psychological problems.
Chesley Russell, an officer with a wife and children, went
ashore on D-day with his company of combat engineers. Marcel
Boisvert, an 18-year-old tail gunner, flew on bombing missions
over Germany. Russell was a career military man who rose to
the rank of colonel in the Army. Boisvert became a successful
But the two have much in common. Russell earned an engineering
degree from Tufts in 1931, and Boisvert graduated from Tufts
Dental School after the war. Later in life, they joined support
groups for former POWs, run by the Veterans Administration
in Boston and Brockton, Massachusetts.
Sixty years ago, Germany surrendered to the Allies. Today,
less than 20 percent of the American POWs are still living.
The stories of Russell and Boisvert are but two of the many
that deserve to be told.
Hal LaCroix and Jörg Meyer are completing a book about
American POWs in Nazi Germany.
Chesley Russell maneuvers with two canes to his kitchen table,
rests his sore knees there, and rubs his arthritic neck.
He no longer remembers his wartime experiences. From the
cool remove of 95 years, he cannot revise the chronology
of events one more time, add a stray detail or subtract something
that didn’t quite happen that way.
Nonetheless, he still likes to be called Lt. Colonel—this
according to his son, Richard Russell, a lawyer in New York
City and a Vietnam veteran. After World War II, Russell served
for more than 25 years at Army postings in Japan, Germany,
and the United States. Now when Richard writes to his father,
he makes sure to inscribe “Lt. Colonel Chesley Russell” in
big letters on the envelope.
Decades ago, Russell did write a short account of his war.
It is 14 pages long, double-spaced, and begins, “I
was captured off the coast of Normandy, France, not far from
Omaha Beach where I had landed with elements of my Combat
Engr., Bn., the 121st Combat Engineers of the 29th Infantry
Division. We were part of the initial land force on ‘D’ Day,
June 6, 1944.”
By the second day ashore, within a maze of hedgerows, Russell
found himself the senior officer in a ditch full of men raked
by machine-gun fire. He was 35 years old, with three children
back home; the soldiers around him were just kids, and they
were getting slaughtered. Russell took the responsibility
of surrendering 60 men. “I have never regretted what
I did,” he writes.
His wartime document is a mixture of sympathy and unadorned
detail. An injured boy was taken away in a wagon. “We
never saw him again,” he writes. “I hope he got
home OK eventually.” Infested with ticks at a prison
in Chalon-sur-Marne, Russell incurred “so many bites
from head to foot that I could not recognize myself in the
mirror.” At Oflag 64, an officer’s camp in Schubin,
Poland, he calculated that POWs existed on fewer than 1,200
calories per day.
Like some mixed-up convention, the camp was filled with “engineers,
doctors, dentists, chaplains, actors, cobblers, tailors,
businessmen.” Always the engineer, Russell made a primitive
pantograph to copy maps from a German newspaper to larger
scale. Desperate to contribute to the war effort, he and
other POWs tried to gauge the distance and direction of missiles
fired from a nearby V-2 buzz bomb site, and then encoded
the information in letters home.
There are many gaps in the story. Russell devotes very little
to the winter of 1945, when POWs from his camp were brutally
marched away from the Russian onslaught. “To survive
I learned to trade cigarettes for food, steal potatoes and
vegetables and even bread, and to keep walking some days
on my nerve alone,” he writes. “For the first
48 days I didn’t take my clothes off once, then I took
a bath in a pigpen.
“Many incidents occurred during this trip which I don’t
have time to mention here,” he adds, “but, if
you’re interested, I’ll tell you about them sometime.”
Absent his voice, another way to understand Chesley Russell
is to draw a timeline from his small craft braving the English
Channel in 1944 to a low-riding skiff on a river during the
American Revolution. One of his direct ancestors, Private
John Roads Russell, helped steer George Washington’s
boat across the icy Delaware River on the night of December
26, 1776. Once safely across, Washington and his troops defeated
Hessian mercenaries at Trenton and restored the young nation’s
morale— much as the Normandy landings buoyed the Allies.
“We grew up hearing stories about John Roads Russell,” says
Russell’s sister, Barbara Davies, who points any doubters
to a statue of the man in front of the Trenton Battle Monument
in New Jersey. Russell was well aware of the family history,
she says. He took serving his country very seriously. Echoes
Richard Russell: “That was his life, being a military
In April 1945, Russell was finally liberated from a stalag
at Moosburg, Germany. “We were all very happy,” he
writes, “when we saw an American flag go up at camp
That might seem a good image to cap a soldier’s war
story. The Stars and Stripes flying above, victorious. But
for reasons of his own, forever irretrievable, Chesley Russell
did not end his account there. He doubled back to the forced
march. He left us, finally, with this:
“One evening on our trip the guards had picked up a Russian
who had escaped. He was dying of starvation and exposure. Germans
wouldn’t let our doctors care for him. The next morning
I saw his body thrown on a manure pile.”
He understands, actually, the feelings of the German civilians
who wanted to rip apart the American and English terrorfliegers
who floated to earth from their blasted machines, the men
who had bombed their homes and brewed flesh-consuming firestorms
in their cities. He probably would have felt the same way,
he admits, if the roles had been reversed.
“You never let anyone know you were a flier or they’d
string you up,” states Marcel Boisvert, forced to bail
out of a burning plane on his fourth mission over Germany,
compelled to parachute down a corridor of “unbelievable
silence” and knowing, as he dropped, the stories of
airmen killed by mobs below. “Keep your head down,” he
says. “Keep your mouth shut.”
He’s 79. Back then, he was an 18-year-old tail gunner
packed backward into a glassed-in cage at the rear of a B-17
bomber, watching shells explode all around into black-and-white
Their fourth mission targeted Dresden, called Elbeflorenz
or “Florence on the Elbe River.” The city was
well known for its opera, art, and delicate china. On February
14, 1945, Allied planes dropped 3,907 pounds of bombs and
incendiary devices on Dresden, killing by most accounts between
50,000 and 100,000 people. For days after, bonfires of bodies
lit the night sky. “It was a mission,” says Boisvert,
flatly. Airmen flew missions.
Captured immediately, Bosivert was shipped to an interrogation
center outside Frankfurt and thrown into a dank 8 x 10 foot
cell. A board for a bed, a bucket toilet. A tiny window leaking
light, far beyond his reach. Lines counting time scraped
into the wall. Boisvert sat in isolation for two days, and
then they came for him.
In the interrogation room, a German officer told him in excellent,
polite English: “We’ve got you listed as a spy,
we’ll shoot you.” After several hours of questioning,
they brought him back to his cell. Two, three days passed
exactly as before. The guards came again.
This time, the polite officer asked Boisvert in a worried
tone: “Did you go to Dresden? I had family in Dresden.”
Did he go to Dresden? Boisvert thought so, but sometimes
planes were diverted or lost their way. A tail gunner didn’t
always know what happened in the cockpit. But, yes, that
was the mission objective, Dresden.
“I don’t know,” Boisvert replied.
They took him outside and showed him three tall posts in
the ground. “This,” said the polite officer, “is
where you’re going to be shot tomorrow.” Back
in his cell, six or seven days trailed like smoke out the
tiny window beyond his reach. Then the guards arrived—and
put Boisvert in a truck and sent him to Stalag XIII-D in
Nuremberg. He stayed there for two months, subsisting on
cabbage soup and sawdust bread. Bombers roared overhead to
their targets. At war’s end he survived a forced march
on infected, bloated feet.
Boisvert sits now in a large sunroom, overlooking his swimming
pool. He lives in a beautiful house in the suburbs with an
American flag out front, and he’s surrounded by toys
for grandchildren, including an old-fashioned rocking horse
on springs. As a child during the Depression, he built a
bicycle from parts he found at the dump. Only it didn’t
have brakes, so he got off by riding into trees or just bailing
out. Then he’d pick himself up.
After the war, Boisvert’s mother sat by his bed at
night as he thrashed with nightmares, as he jumped from the
spiraling plane on its Dresden run, but this time his chute
wouldn’t open, and he fell and fell through the column
of unbelievable silence. In time, though, the memories burrowed
beneath life’s joys and struggles. Boisvert graduated
from college, married, and had three children, and rarely
talked about being a POW. There was just no advantage in
But the officer’s question did not disappear. “Did
you go to Dresden?” the man asked. He had family in
Dresden. The officer asked the question for 40 years, until
at a convention of his bomber group Boisvert learned that
his plane, in fact, did not go to Dresden. They had been
diverted to Brux, Czechoslovakia, to destroy a synthetic
oil plant, a military target.
“I was glad to hear it,” says Boisvert. “I
am not a killer.”
He knows, of course, that he could have gone to Dresden.
That he didn’t, in the end, had nothing to do with
him. He was just one more tail gunner among thousands of
tail gunners, flying backward in a world of deadly fireworks,
of sky slipping away. He was just another airman: hero to
the gang back home, terrorflieger to the people below.
“War is like cancer,” says Marcel Boisvert, survivor. “War
doesn’t distinguish between man, woman, and child.”