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Summer 2005

Chesley Russell (top);
Marcel Boisvert (bottom)

A Double War
Two 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 life.

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 orthodontist.

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 officer.”

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 headquarters.”

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 smudges.

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 it.

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.”